5 Aug

The last thing we want,” said Sherlock Holmes to me as we climbed into a hansom cab in order to make on our way to the theatre for a night of observing Patricia Hewson in her role as Lady Macbeth after she received a clandestine death threat that we were investigating, “the last thing we want is one of those motor cars that misguided optimists claim will soon be all the rage.”

The last thing, Holmes?” I asked.

They’re monstrous, they’re noisy, they smell and above all they’re unreliable,” he muttered grumpily, “and mark my words, Watson, they’ll soon be forgotten! Who wants to travel along lumpy pot-holed roads at fifteen miles an hour anyway when a rested horse can pull you at ten?”

Maybe the roads could be smoothed out, Holmes?” I suggested as our driver cracked his whip and the horse pulled us reluctantly forwards. It was evening and the poor creature had probably been in harness for hours already.

And maybe pigs might grow wings and fly!” he retorted. “Now concentrate, Watson. We are on a mission of mercy! The note received by Miss Hewson suggested that an unknown assailant planned to skewer her heart during the hand-washing scene in tonight’s production. But we will be there to thwart the blighter, and just in case he tries something truly unexpected Miss Hewson will be wearing a special stab-proof vest under her Lady Macbeth outfit. Thus are all possibilities covered!”

You are a miracle, Holmes,” I said dutifully, knowing how much he craves admiration.

That’s as it may be,” he smiled, “Whoa! But what’s ahead?”

He had every reason to ask the question, for our cab together with every other vehicle on the road had come to a standstill, and we were barely a mile into our journey to the theatre, which, not being in the West End, but in the suburbs, was still some distance off.

What’s ahead, driver?” called Holmes, his voice charged with irritation.

It’s one of them French vehicles,” muttered the driver, cursing. “You know, one of them motor things, and everyone’s stopped to stare at it. It’s not as if we haven’t seen one before!”

Damned nuisance!” cursed Holmes, “is there no way you can get in front? I am on urgent business and a woman’s life may be at risk if I don’t attend to the scene of the intended crime on time!”

I’ll try, Mr Holmes, if it’s as desperate as you say it is,” he replied, and he geed the horse and steered it to the narrow gap between our traffic and that oncoming. “Nah come on, my beauty!” he hollered, and cracked his whip next to the horse’s ear.

There was barely room for us, but we made better progress than we would have had we remained stationary as our driver together with an intelligent horse wove our cab forwards. There were cries of objection from other carriages, curses and whistles that made Holmes frown as we slowly pulled past them, and eventually we came to the cause of the hold-up.

It was a horseless carriage all right, and by the look of it one manufactured in France by a company with the outlandish name Renault. But it wasn’t it’s presence on the road that was causing the delay for everyone else but the fact that it seemed incapable of movement. It’s driver, if that’s what an operator of a horseless carriage is called, was scratching his head and fiddling with metal parts under a cover that apparently concealed its engine.

I told you, Watson,” said Holmes mirthlessly, “they’re useless, all of them! There will never be a place on London roads for any kind of horseless carriage, you mark my words!”

If you say so, Holmes,” I muttered, unconvinced. After all, I reason in the silence of my head, a place Holmes with all his wisdom is never privy to, after all, everything needs to have a starting point from which it may well blossom into something both efficient and useful given time and space for improvement.

The theatre where Macbeth was to be performed was illuminated so that it stood out as the most illustrious building in its neighbourhood, and Holmes and I rushed from our cab and made our way to the stage door.

Patricia Hewson, in her guise as Lady Macbeth, was waiting just inside the door, in the shadows where hopefully she was invisibly to any dark forces in the neighbourhood, for us.

Oh, I’m ever so glad to see you, Mr Holmes,” she said, “Curtain goes up in a few minutes and I don’t mind telling you that I’m scared stiff!”

You’re wearing the special vest I gave you?” asked Holmes.

She nodded. “But I hope I won’t be needing it,” she whispered.

Whilst the brief conversation had been taking place I had taken the opportunity to have a good look around. The stage door opened onto the back street by the side of the theatre, but so well lit was the building that there was hardly a square foot where a scoundrel intent on murder could lurk unseen. Inside the door the situation was more difficult, with a dark passage leading behind the stage, with doors opening onto dressing rooms and other intimate theatre spaces. There were plenty of shadows all right, and I felt instinctively that a felon could lurk in any one of them.

Holmes was led slowly towards the backstage area by the divine Patricia, an actress of some renown and great beauty. She showed him behind the scenery and to where she would perform the scene in near darkness with but a single light upon her as she tried to wash invisible blood from her hands, and failed.

We will wait here,” decided Holmes, sitting himself in one corner that commanded a view of all of the stage but was invisible to the audience.

The play began, the scene with the three witches filled with great unnerving atmosphere.

Miss Hewson’s own scenes were all played with consummate skill despite the fact that I was aware that her nerves must be jumping at every cough and splutter from the audience. Then came the hand-washing scene, and as she took her place under the light I became aware of a movement behind one of the flats.

There!” I motioned to Holmes, and he nodded back at me. But then, so consummate was his skill that I would have been surprised had he not seen it.

The movement became bigger, and I watched as a figure detached itself from deep shadows and started moving furtively towards the scene being enacted under the light.

Holmes was quick, though. Whilst the threat was still in virtual darkness he leapt out and, still unseen by the audience that was rapt with full attention on the theatrical scene being enacted, tackled the figure and silenced any sound it might make by placing a leather-gloved hand over its mouth.

Then it was over. Patricia Hewson finished her scene, there was huge applause from the audience, and she turned to see who Holmes was grappling with.

Todmartin!” she exclaimed|! Then: “Take him away, Mr Holmes, and get a policeman to talk to him! He has been pursuing me on and off for five years until I’m fed up with the sight of him!”

But I love you,” he blurted through the fingers of Holmes’ gloved hand.

It transpired that the villain had taken a liking to Miss Hewson several years earlier and she had been aware of him following her wherever she went. She had done her utmost to discourage the fellow, but to no avail and he had finally decided that if he couldn’t have her then nobody could, and had evolved his plan to strike her dead in the one scene when he might succeed in front of an audience, and still not be identified because of the darkness of the set.

We’ll take him to the constabulary,” said Holmes determinedly, then, in an uncharacteristically human voice, “but I can see why the wretch should be so captivated by you, for you are in possession of a rare beauty.”

Our cab had gone and was nowhere in sight when we arrived with our prisoner on the street, but to our amazement the French horseless carriage was parked where the cab should have been.

You Mr Holmes?” asked the driver.

He nodded, more confused than I can recall having seen him in all the years that I have known him.

Then your horseman engaged me to take you, sir,” said the driver of the motor vehicle. “His horse passed out, sir, very sadly, and he had to be carted off to the knacker’s yard, and I’m here in its stead. Climb aboard, gentlemen.”

It was a four-seater, and we did just that. We climbed aboard, Holmes keeping a firm grip on our prisoner.

I fixed it,” grunted the driver, “had a bit of carburettor trouble earlier, but I fixed it…”

The vehicle started easily as if to prove his work well done and, being French, ran sweetly along the roads towards Scotland Yard and a cell for Todmartin.

Not so bad after all,” murmured Holmes when we were back at Baker Street, “Not so bad after all…”

© Peter Rogerson 25.07.17


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