Back to SherlockPeoria front page

The Sherlock Peoria Pastiche Library

Back to the library catalogue

 

A Tale Best Left Untold

by Brad Keefauver
(Originally published in 221B Baker Street, volume 4, May 1996.)

Sam Hellston had been saving all summer for luncheon at the Grand Cafe Royal. Some coq au vin, a bottle of something choice, and the company of sweet little Sarah Tumbley, who had been so faithful in staying with his mother during the final months of the illness. Some pennies here, a shilling there. It added up quickly.

He had not only saved for the meal. He had made the reservations far in advance, far enough that they could have a table next to one of the window was that overlooked Regent Street. That way they could watch the world go by and the world could see them dining elegantly. Sarah would be flattered by that, he thought.

The day came, and Sarah's smile made her prettier than Sam had ever seen before. They were escorted to their window table at the restaurant with all the dignity of a royal procession. The waiter came to greet them like Sam was his favorite regular customer. And as soon as he left, Sam directed Sarah's attention to the view of Regent Street. At midday in the center of the city, you could see so much. You could see . . .

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes!" Sam gasped and nearly rose from his seat. And then, no sooner than he had recognized the detective, his stunned eyes watched as two men separated from the flow of foot-traffic and struck at Holmes from behind with their walking sticks. Holmes went down immediately and was hit cleanly several times before he could summon the presence of mind to block their attacks with his own stick. Sam was away from the table even as Holmes got his guard up, however, and headed for the street.

By the time he got outside, police whistles were shrieking and pedestrians were now making room for the man who lay crumpled on the sidewalk. His head was bleeding, and he tried to rise, but somehow ust couldn't do it.

Sam bent down to help, just as a constable arrived.

"He needs a doctor," the patrolman observed. Holmes's unfocused expression pulled itself together just long enough to register a flicker of disdain at the typical statement of the obvious by a representative of the official force, then slipped back into near-unconsciousness.

Sam reacted to the words a little more dramatically.

"Charing Cross isn't that far," he said, and scooped up the detective the way one would a sleeping child. Holmes was tall, but Sam was just plain big, and well used to hauling heavy carcasses in Allardyce's back shop where he earned his living. Nodding for the constable to lead the way, Sam started for Charing Cross Hospital, carrying London's great detective. The cop, being not all that thick-headed, took Sam's gesture in stride and began running interference for the two-legged ambulance service.

Mr. Sherlock Holmes was first and only Great Man the apprentice butcher had ever met, and he was not about to let him die this day.

Years in the future, Sam Hellston would finally find out why Mr. Sherlock Holmes had been attacked that day. He and Sarah's oldest son, then an adult, would bring them a copy of The Strand Magazine, which would fill them in on the story of Baron Gruner and his hired thugs, as well as immortalizing Sam's actions with the line: "He was carried to Charing Cross Hospital and afterwards insisted upon being taken to his rooms in Baker Street." It was enough for Sam, for it gave him an excuse to continue to tell the story to his children, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors for the rest of his days. It was a good story, even up to that part that didn't made any sense at first.

As Sam Hellston carried Mr. Sherlock Holmes through the waiting room at Charing Cross Hospital, the detective seemed to gain awareness for a moment, observe his surroundings, and say the most peculiar thing:

"I don't remember asking of their service, but at least it took two of them this time."

Which led to the story that the detective eventually told Sam. The one Watson had never written up, and served as more of a reward than any amount of coins Holmes could have offered his rescuer. The tale went something like this:

-----------------------------------------

Not everyone is as friendless as they like to think they are, Holmes was reflecting with an almost unnoticeable smile. It was good his smile went unnoticed, for the occasion was nothing to be grinning about and the young man had already had his share of lessons on inappropriate emotional displays this week from “Mr. No-Fun” a.k.a. brother Mycroft. But the display of friendship and concern Holmes now witnessed truly did merit a smile.

He had spent the last ten minutes observing hookworms crawling out of the woodwork with an urgency casual acquaintances would not have thought possible. Heads that had been buried in books all morning popped up attentively, bodies that were unaccustomed to physical exercise tottered out from between the stacks, and hands that usually focussed on their current object of study came ready to help.

Chiselwright had fallen. A sharp cry, followed by the awful "whump" of flesh hitting floor and the clatter of a ladder hitting shelves on its way down as well had echoed throughout the large reading area of the British Museum library. Voices, at levels not usually heard in the museum came next, followed by sounds of motion. Holmes, being one of the youngest of the museum regulars at age twenty-two, was one of the first to get to the fallen cleric.

Chiselwright was breathing, though unconscious. Holmes examined his head for blood or other signs of trauma and found none, then began to go over the rest of the poor fellow’s body for clues to the damage done by the fall. The arm was definitely broken, so his eyes passed over it searching for other, subtler considerations. Kinner arrived about then, and Holmes made room for the doctor. By the time a minute more had passed, two other retired medical men, a surgeon and a general practitioner, had also arrived, so the young amateur felt safe in standing back. More than a dozen others had gathered around, wanting to help or just needing to know if poor Chiselwright would be all right.

The regulars of the British Museum were not a social bunch. Each intent on his specific areas on inquiry, their interaction involved little more than certain respectful courtesies and the occasional assistance when subject matters crossed paths. Yet they knew each other, these men, and Chiselwright's fall sparked young Holmes's first real awareness of how close these islands of humanity truly were.

"He'll be fine," Kinner was assuring his fellows. "We just need to get him down to Charing Cross for some proper care."

As if on cue, old Tomlinson arrived with a stretcher that looked so antiquated Holmes suspected he had pulled it from one of the museum's glass cases.

"Give me a hand with this, Holmes," he told the much younger man. Old Tomlinson was rumored to be nearly seventy, but he had the energy of a man several decades younger. Holmes was certain he had to be an ill-used fifty, rather than his rumored age, especially if he intended to carry half of Chiselwright's weight all the way to Charing Cross Hospital.

With the doctors’ help, the two men slid the stretcher under the cleric and lifted him off the floor. Chiselwright's eyes came open a bit, and Greene, the surgeon, encouraged him not to speak. With Holmes and Tomlinson carrying the load, the doctors attending on either side, and half of the assembled throng in tow, they headed for the exit. Hedley and Causley were carrying books and papers, Lesh had that long, brown paper-wrapped parcel he had brought with him this morning. Johnson, DeTriolle, and Metz were trotting ahead to clear a path.

If Chiselwright weren't laying there with a broken arm and who knows what else, he'd be proud, Holmes thought.

The procession made its way hurriedly through the busy London streets, yet somehow managed to meander through the theatre district and at one point even pass directly through Covent Garden's open air market. Causely disappeared for a moment at one point, reappearing with a roasted turkey leg in one hand and a single word comment: "Lunch."

Coming down the Strand in the final stretch of the joumey, Tomlinson finally admitted enough weariness that he accepted help from Metz, who took the right-hand pole of the front half of the stretcher. Holmes himself wasn't in the best of shape, but he knew he could make it the short distance that remained on will power alone, if need be. Charing Cross Hospital came along very quickly, and there was no need to test his reserves.

Kinner was a familiar face to the staff of Charing Cross Hospital, and through his ministrations, Chiselwright was quickly swallowed up by the inner workings of the place. His friends, left behind in the waiting room, did not take long in reverting to type. With their part of the emergency over with, the comradely encouragements and shouted instructions no longer needed, the museum regulars set up camp in the waiting room almost as if it was the British Museum itself.

Hedley immersed himself in his books. Metz seemed to be settling in for a nap. Johnson began scribbling notes in a pocket notebook. And, taking great care not to touch his papers with the grease from the turkey leg his teeth were tearing at, Causely began leafing through the manuscripts he'd brought with him. Once the men had seated themselves, all socializing abruptly ended.

Everyone had a purpose, even for a bit of time spent waiting for news on their injured comrade. These men were used to scavenging free time for their avocations and studies, and this was not so different a situation that they could not readily adapt to it. Even Holmes, the youngest of the group, had his work to do. While it was true, he could not continue the work on historical crime that he doing at the museum, Holmes had other studies.

The one he resumed for the present moment was something he intended to write an article about one day soon, a piece he intended to title "The Book That Is Man." Inspired by an old family friend, Dr. Bell, and perfected by his brother Mycroft, his studies consisted of close observation of the superficial details of his fellow man, drawing what inferences he could from what he saw there, and then asking about any points that still mystified him. Most people were happy to tell you about themselves if you asked them just so. And every answer he got added one more bit of data to his ever-increasing resource from which to make future inferences. It was a handy tool for the career he had planned for himself, but it was also something he intended to best his brother at one day, just to teach Mycroft a needed lesson.

The first few residents of the waiting room that Holmes turned his gaze upon revealed nothing new to his studies. Unlike he and his comrades from the museum, most were waiting for medical treatment. A cobbler, by the look of his trousers, with a stomach ailment. A bookkeeper who had plainly fractured his wrist falling off his stool. A streetwalker who . . . well, she had what streetwalkers get and was having a very hard time sitting comfortably.

Among the assorted ranks of the suffering and damaged, Holmes found one subject who was particularly fascinating, sitting a few seats over. He had the bearing of a man not long out of the military and the garb of some sort of monk . . . possibly Jesuit? Whatever the denomination, the robes were wom with age. He was touching his breastbone unconsciously, like it had rash that he couldn't quite leave alone. Or maybe it was something more . . . Holmes had heard of overseas regiments that still practiced the branding of deserters. An disgraced military man who sought solace in the service of the Lord? Holmes.'s eyes searched further.

The fellow was plump enough, his army service must not have been too strenuous. His skin did not bear the burn of tropic suns, in fact, it was quite pasty. Clean-shaven, except for a shadow of peach-fuzz on his upper lip. He kept his hands inside his robes, so there were no callous panems to be observed. In fact, the bulky robe deprived Holmes of most of his usual cues. After fifteen minutes study, he finally decided he could do no more and leaned over to make a genial inquiry.

"Excuse me, sir," he said in his most cordial tone, "but could I inquire what branch of the military you served in?"

The man started to rise, revealing how truly huge he was, and as he did, his hands came free of the robe. One of them was clutching a purse, which slammed into Holmes's mouth even as he was identifying it. The force of the blow knocked him to the floor, and one of his teeth came falling out as he landed on his hip. Left canine, to be exact. He actually noted that fact, and started to double check it with his tongue when a hard kick to his legs brought his attention to the fact that the attack was far from over. He rolled sideways, avoiding a second kick, and scrambled to his feet.

The mad monk was coming at him, fists clenched, purse swinging.

"Mathews, I am! Mathews, I be! And that is all! You need know of me!"

It came out as a strange little song, and the monk kept singing it again and again, punctuating each fine with a kick or a swing of the purse. "Mathews, I am! Mathews, I be! And that is all! You need know of me!."

Holmes was avoiding each attack, but backing up each time as he did. He was running out of room. He heard a squeal as his feet backed into a solid object, and the young man realized he had backed into a bench full of people even as he tumbled backwards. And Mathews kept coming.

The monk had his left biceps in a grip of iron before Holmes could move out of the way. Mathews used it to pull the lanky young man up on massive shoulders. The room be-an to spin as Holmes was whirled about and then thrown across the room like a rag doll. Fortunately, not everyone had cleared the bench that ran along the far wall, and Holmes found himself in the arms of a longshoreman and a laundress, his head resting on a bundle of dirty clothes.

Other benches in the waiting room had cleared, however, and Mathews was picking up one of those empty pieces of furniture as the monk crossed the room, seemingly intent on using it as a club to bash Holmes's brain in.

"MATHEWS, I AM!! MATHEWS, I BE!! " the juggernaut screamed. "AND THAT IS ALL!! ALL!!! ALL!!!! YOU NEED KNOW OF ME!!!"

Down came the bench like a giant's whipping cane, and it was all Holmes could do to block the impact with the bundle of dirty laundry as the man and woman he had landed on took off running. There was a fierce insanity about his attacker that gave even the strongest man pause to throw himself in to help the young man. The room had cleared with the exception of a few of the hospital staff peeking around one comer, and Hedley and Lesh from the Museum keeping a concerned eye on him from the doorway to the street.

As Mathews raised the bench to strike again, Holmes threw his shoulder into the monk's massive girth and they both fell to the floor, Holmes rolling aside before the big hands could grab him. Choosing the better part of valor, Holmes made a dash for the street.

Lesh was standing beside the exit furiously unwrapping one end of the long brown parcel he had been carrying with him all day.

"Holmes!." he shouted as the young man ran by, extending the unwrapped portion in Holmes's direction.

Sherlock Holmes reached out toward Lesh's offering, and his fingers closed on the fine leather-wrapped grip of a rare Arabella rapier. He pulled it free of the brown paper and very nearly stopped to marvel at the thing when he realized what it was.

"Thank you!" he breathed in Lesh.'s direction and dashed into the traffic on Charing Cross road. Mathews was not far behind.

-----------------------------------------

And there the story would end.

Every grandchild Sam Hellston would ever tell the tale to, every new acquaintance, every poor soul who got Sam onto the subject of detectives . . . all of them quickly learned of frustration the way Sam enthusiastically dealt it. He couldn't help telling the story. It was the best part of his brush with greatness, and a tale Watson hadn't told in The Strand Magazine, as well. Most people even asked to hear it. But they always got that look of disappointment in their eyes when he finished, and it just brought echoes of Sam's own frustration.

Sam Hellston was, of course, the first person ever to hear the tale that way.

Sherlock Holmes had come down to Allardyce's one fine fall day to properly thank Sam for getting him to the hospital following the deadly attack. Sam had remembered the curious statement Holmes had made in his delirium and asked the detective about it. Holmes being something of a celebrity in those days, the other fellows at the shop encouraged -- fairly demanded -- that the famous man tell the full tale.

So Holmes started telling the tale. Only midway through, Mrs. Hoberty, from the slop shop two doors down, came running in shouting, "Mr. Holmes, Mr. Holmes, little Ikey has pushed the peacock and Balmoral stands to fail!" She sounded like the Queen Herself was in danger of assassination, and Holmes reacted without a moment's hesitation, jumping to his feet and racing after her. Sam wanted to followed, but Allardyce yelled that he would dock him if he did.

Later that year, Sherlock Holmes left London and retired to Sussex. Dr. Watson was wrapped up in newly wedded bliss for the fourth time, and was not quick to be affected by his friend's absence. Mrs. Hudson was rich from the heaping rent payments she had been collecting over the years, and did not lack for the absence of any further such payments. Even G. Lestrade seemed to have finally gotten the hang of criminal investigation. The only person that really suffered from Holmes's departure was Sam Hellston.

Sam and his unfinished story.