30 Jul

There is,” murmured Holmes into his tea-cup, “a hole in my argument and I don’t like it.”

I stared at him, perplexed. As far as I was concerned there had been no argument, not between us nor between Holmes and himself, which was not an uncommon occurrence when he was pondering over the imponderable.

What argument might that be, and what hole?” I asked mildly.

Cats,” he said, almost explosively, “there’s a hole in the argument that cats are really in charge of we humans, and not the other way round!”

I was about to agree in the most positive of positive terms when the door opened and Mrs Hudson, looking anxious, walked in.

You have a visitor, Sherlock,” she said, almost tentatively.

Holmes looked surprised. “I wasn’t aware that we had any appointments this morning, were you Watson?”

I shook my head. We’d had no appointments that week. Our services, or rather Holmes’ services, I am merely his biographer, were in what we hoped was a short-term decline since the incidence over the mannequin which maybe I should never have recorded for public scrutiny.

Who is it, Mrs Hudson?” asked Holmes, still frowning into his teacup.

It’s a gentleman,” she murmured, “but I don’t think he’s all there.”

Holmes raised both eyebrows. “You don’t?” he asked, “then pray tell me, Mrs Holmes, what portion of him do you believe to be missing?”

Something inside his head!” she retorted, “here he comes. Be warned.” And she withdrew, allowing a man of some apparent means to enter the room.

The gentleman looked respectable enough. I took him as maybe an undertaker or similar. He was dressed in a summer coat woven from comfortable-looking material, and his bowler was well brushed and showed few signs of wear. The only oddity, if oddity it was, was the leash that he held in one hand.

You will forgive me, Mr Holmes,” he said.

Of course,” nodded Holmes. “I see that you are a smoker who hails from the West End of this city and that you have recently been bereaved,” he added, his eyes sparkling with the concentration. “I also infer,” he added, “that you have lost a little dog!”

You are wrong on every count,” replied our visitor.

Are you sure?” asked a suddenly querulous Holmes whose opinion of his own powers of deduction brooked no criticism.

I should know, sir!” retorted the almost outraged man. “I have never smoked in my life, I live in the North of the City and although I was bereaved a decade or so ago it falls far short of being recent. And I have never owned a dog.”

Then I must be mistaken,” sighed Holmes. “It is merely that I judged from the ash of what was certainly a French cigarette that is smeared on your sleeve that you must have been the smoker and that gentlemen of high standing who prefer that type of cigarette invariably live west of here if I am to believe my own monogram on the subject of tobacco ash. Also it would appear that you have given so much attention to the appearance of your excellent bowler that I divined you must have worn it to church and as it’s not a Sunday the implication is that you’ve attended the tabernacle for some other reason, hence the assumption that you’ve been bereaved very recently. Oh, and the leash in your hand, with no dog attached. Clearly there must have been a dog attached to it when you left home or why would you be holding it as you are, so ergo you have mislaid a small dog … the leash isn’t large enough to contain the neck of a large one!”

The man shook his head again. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, somewhat brusquely, “I am Sidney Rowlands and I am employed by Bigsmith, the undertakers of our parish, so in a way my bowler was some kind of clue, though you misinterpreted it…”

Ah,” nodded Holmes, “I was right with the substance.”

I have come from the funeral of a Frenchman, a certain Monsieur Leclerc, who passed away last Friday and was to be buried in London rather than in his home city of Paris, and no doubt some of the tobacco ash that he ordered to be interred with him became smeared on my sleeve during the burial. There was a somewhat gentle breeze… It is unforgivable of me! I should have noticed, but the request that a pile of tobacco ash be prepared from his favourite cigarettes and scattered on top of his casket was rather unusual.”

Most certainly,” approved Holmes.

But it was no dog that was attached on the end of this leash,” murmured Sidney Rowlands, “but a cat.”

A cat?” I couldn’t help myself repeating, “a cat?”

It belonged to the deceased Frenchman,” nodded our guest, “and it was his instruction that after the funeral and when the earth was piled on top of his box the cat should be taken to the church and provided with a clerical collar to wear, and be used as a familiar in religious services.”

A familiar?” I spluttered.

I am acquainted with the practice,” nodded Holmes, “you will recall, Watson, that in previous times, shall we call them times of ignorance and primitive thought, it was thought that witches had the assistance of black cats when they performed their dreadful magic.”

But there’s no such thing…” I began.

You and I know that as does doubtless Mr Rowlands,” said Holmes gently. “But there are still odd sects around the globe where strange beliefs persist, and one of them had its origin on the near continent and involved the accompaniment of white cats in otherwise quite ordinary religious services…”

I’ve never heard of such a thing!” I spluttered.

But he tells the truth,” nodded Sidney Rowlands. “The deceased, Mr Leclerc, was most insistence in his documents. His own white cat must be taken to a particular church in Essex where it was to be invested with a clerical collar and robes of a suitable nature, and trained in the services of the Church of England. The local vicar agreed to what must have seen an unusual request. Apparently there isn’t a Parisian church that would give it a second thought…”

I should think not!” I exploded.

Quiet, Watson,” smiled Holmes, and then he faced our guest. “And the cat has gone missing?” he asked, “it has sprung from its lead? It found one collar too much without requiring a second albeit clerical one?”

Sidney Rowlands was close to tears. “It most certainly has gone, and I am to blame,” he moaned, “and Monsieur Leclerc made it quite plain in his will that if anything happened to his cat, Puss he called it, though with a Gallic accent,, then both he and the feline creature would haunt me and mine for all of eternity…”

Then we had better find the cat,” announced Holmes, “and I believe there is only one place where it might be…”

There is?” asked Mr Rowlands, a look of relief almost wiping the embryonic tears from his eyes.

Yes,” said Holmes, reaching for his own coat, “we must go to the graveyard where the cat’s French owner was so recently interred, for that is where the creature will certainly be!”

You think so, Holmes?” I asked.

Of course! Were we not discussing, before the timely arrival of Mr Rowlands, the possibility that cats are the real masters on this world of ours, and we humans merely their slaves?” asked Holmes. “Well, this plugs the hole in the argument! What master would return to mourn a slave when all he has to do is acquire another one? No, the cat is the servant and that’s why we will find it weeping where Monsieur Leclerc lies buried!”

I do hope so, Holmes,” I murmured as we guided Mr Rowlands out of 221b and onto Baker Street.

Holmes, of course, was quite wrong. He was going through a bad patch, no mistake.

But there was a very dead white cat in the gutter as we approached the last resting place of his late master. It had clearly trapped its leg in the grating of a waste water drain and consequently slipped the lead that Rowlands was holding, and been unable to pull free from the drain as one of those newfangled motorised omnibuses drove past and, sadly, ran heavily over it.

When he saw it, Mr Rowlands was almost as distraught as the late lamented Monsieur Leclerc might have been. Almost, but not quite.

© Peter Rogerson 23.07.17


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