Any reasonable man may reach a point in his life where self-destruction becomes a door worthy of consideration. A point at which it seems that the least a walking anachronism can do for the world is to remove himself from cluttering the landscape.
It was a cool, sunny day in April, 1915. I had set out at dawn from the silent villa to which I had retreated out of the London fogs some years before, carrying with me both the impedimenta of my avocation and the means to end my life.
Do not imagine that I was unaware of the multiple ironies: My beekeeping task required a clear, warm day, while the other was more suited to a bleak and inhospitable sky; my acts were concerned with the populous community of a hive, while my thoughts were at their most solitary; my rucksack carried both restoration, and death.
My mind was not entirely made up. However, a lifetime dedicated to the science of thought has taught me that focusing the mind’s eye on one matter encourages greater clarity of vision along the periphery of the mental gaze. I should proceed with my surface task, while permitting the deeper machinery of my mind to turn.
In any event, off I walked onto the Downs that morning with a trio of bottles. Two contained paint, red and blue: With these I might track a wild—or rather, feral—colony for one of my empty Langstroth hives, to restore the apiary to full strength. (In a curious parallel, the designer of those hives had himself felt the grim attraction of a voluntary end.) The third vial held a small amount of nearly clear liquid: It would transform me into a mere problem of disposal and a pang of sorrow for those few individuals who held me in affection.
That it might also bring a sense of rejoicing to those who wished the world ill was one of the main reasons I had not made use of the bottle before that day.
I was in my fifty-fifth year on this earth. For nearly forty of those years, my life had been my work. Even during the dozen years of my ostensible retirement to Sussex, I had remained active—indeed, eight months previous, a lengthy case had led to the destruction of a major spy-ring, my contribution to the nation’s security. Then during the autumn, while the guns of France drew into place and plans were made for what the deluded imagined would be a brief war, I managed to keep myself in a position of usefulness.
But in January, one of my little victories, and its accompanying minor injury, had come to the attention of the powers-that-be. Rather than gratitude, their response had been one of alarm, that a person of my eminence might have been snuffed out by a stray bullet—or worse, taken captive and used as a hostage. One might have thought I was the young Prince of Wales.
My head had been patted, my protests ignored, I had been sent home to Sussex. To my bees, my studies, and the services of my long-time housekeeper, Mrs Hudson. To a soul-grinding boredom and a pervading sense of uselessness.
All my life I have battled grey tedium. The challenges of mental work and physical exertion, the escape of music and the occasional dose of drugs have aided me, but always I could reassure myself that the ennui was temporary, that it would not be long before some criminal laid his scent before me, and I would be off.
Now my so-called friends had conspired against me, coddling me for my own good.
Fifty-four is not old.
I found tedium mentally trying, but physically agonising. As winter turned to spring, it became apparent that the world had finished with me; the only thing required of me was a decision to agree.
So: that absurdly sunshiny April day, with the throb of distant guns an ominous basso beneath the rhythm of waves against chalk cliffs, and a small, clear bottle in the old rucksack at my feet as my hands used the fine camel-hair brush to daub paint on individual honeybees, and my colour-assisted eyes tracked their subsequent flight, and my mind circled ever closer to a decision.
To be interrupted by slow footsteps, approaching across open ground.
After twelve years in Sussex, I was well accustomed to busybodies. Everyone in the county knew who I was, and although they took care to protect me from the intrusion of outsiders, they felt no compunction to offer the same protection from their own attentions. Stepping into the village shop for Mrs Hudson would bring a knowing wink and a heavy-handed jest about investigating the choices of soap powder. If I paused to examine an unfamiliar variety of shoe-print on the ground, a short time later I would look back to find a knot of villagers gazing down to see what had drawn my attention. One time, a casual remark to a passing farmer about the sky—that a storm would arrive by midnight—led to a near-panic throughout the Downland community, until the farmer’s wife had the sense to ring Mrs Hudson and ask if I’d actually intended to warn him that the Kaiser’s troops were lying offshore, waiting for dark.
Only the pub had proved safe ground: When an Englishman orders a pint, his privacy is sacrosanct.
Every so often, perhaps once a year, I would become aware of what is known as a “fan.” These were generally village lads with too much time on their hands and too many penny-dreadful novels on their shelves. Trial and error had shown that a terse lecture on personal rights coupled with a threat to speak to their fathers would send them on their way.
Now, it seemed, I had another one.
I turned to watch the owner of the slow footsteps approach. The lad was wearing an old and too-large suit, a jersey in place of shirt and waistcoat (it had been cold that morning when I—and, it appeared, he—had set out) and a badly knit scarf, with a cloth cap pulled down to his ears and shoes that, despite being new, pinched his toes. His nose was buried in a book, as if to demonstrate his noble oblivion to any world-famous detectives who might be hunkered on the ground.
But he had misjudged either his path or his speed, because he was aimed right at me. I waited, but when he neither shifted course nor launched into a performance of astonishment, I cleared my throat.
The astonishment that resulted was, I had to admit, no act. The child was furious—embarrassment has that effect on the young, I have noticed—both at my throat-clearing and at the involuntary epithet it had startled out of him.
He snatched up his dropped Virgil—the Georgics, as one might expect—and demanded, “What on earth are you doing? Lying in wait for someone?”
It being, I presumed, the eternal task of a detective, to be lying in wait at all times and in all places.
“I should think that I can hardly be accused of ‘lying’ anywhere, as I am seated openly, on an uncluttered hillside, minding my own business. When, that is, I am not required to fend off those who propose to crush me underfoot.” And I turned back to my task of bee-watching, unaware that my mild (if condescending) remark had triggered off an inexplicable response of fury in the young person.
He planted those ill-fitting shoes into the turf and snarled, “You have not answered my question, sir.”
I sighed to myself. Be gone, child, I thought; I’m trying to commit a nice dignified suicide. “What am I doing here, do you mean?”
“I am watching bees. Now, go away.”
To my relief, I heard him move off—then ten feet away he dropped to his heels to perform the gaggle-of-villagers-solemnly-examining-the-ground routine. Demonstrating that he, too, could be a detective.
I tipped back my head, closed my eyes, clenched my jaws, and stifled the urge to leap to my feet and physically drive away this boorish child with my rucksack. Patience, Holmes; you’ve out-waited better men than this displaced London adolescent in ill-fitting garments.
And so it proved: Within three or four minutes, the subtle clues and demands of surveillance proved too much for my “fan,” and he got to his feet and walked away.
The footsteps retreated. In a moment, I heard the patter of startled sheep moving across the spring turf. The rumours of the sea a mile away and the cannon 200 miles farther off crept back into consciousness, counterpoint to the soothing hum of working bees. I looked down at the rucksack. Should I wait, until dark perhaps, lest some busybody rescue me? Or would it be better—
But the sound of returning footsteps intruded. My hand tightened on the canvas straps: I could just imagine the newspaper article:
Last known act of Sherlock Holmes
In a vicious attack on a visiting lad, whom he beat
about the head and shoulders with a rucksack, the