by Basil Rathbone

I had always loved the county of Sussex. It held for me some of the happiest memories of my life--my early childhood. Early in June I had slipped down, for a few days' much-needed rest, to the little village of Heathfield, to dream again of the past and to try to shut out, for a brief period at least, both the present and the future.

The last afternoon of my holiday I was walking across the gentle countryside when I was rudely stung by a bee. Startled, I grabbed a handful of soft earth and applied it to the sting; it's an old-fashioned remedy I had learned as a child. Suddenly I became aware that the air about me was swarming with bees. It was then I noticed the small house with a thatched roof and a well-kept garden, with beehives at one end, that Mrs. Messenger, my landlady, had so often mentioned. She had told me that "he" had come to live in the thatched cottage many years ago. As he bothered no one, no one bothered him, which is an old English custom. Now, in 1946, he had become almost a legend.

I saw him now, on this late summer afternoon, seated in his garden, a rug over his knees, reading a book. In spite of his great age he wore no reading glasses; and though he made no movement there was a curious sense of animation in his apparently inanimate body. He had the majestic beauty of a very old tree: his features were sharp, emphasizing a particularly prominent nose. He was smoking a meerschaum pipe with obvious relish. Suddenly he looked up and our eyes met.

"Won't you come in?" he called in a surprisingly firm voice.
"Thank you, sir," I replied, "but I have no right to impose on your privacy."
"If it were an imposition I should not have invited you," he replied. "Pull up a chair and sit down."
He gave me a quick glance of penetrating comprehension. As I sat down I had an odd feeling that I was dreaming.
"I'm sorry to see that you have been stung by one of my bees."
I smiled; the smile was intended to say that it didn't matter.
"You must forgive the little fellow," he continued. "He's paid for it with his life."
"It seems unfair that he should have had to," I said.
"No," mused the old man, "it's a law of nature. 'God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.' May I order you some tea?"
"Thank you, no," I said.
"I used to be a prolific coffee drinker myself. I have always found tea an insipid substitute by comparison." He smiled. "Do you live here?"
"No, sir, I'm on a short holiday. But I was born near here."
"Really!" The smile touched his eyes. "It's a comforting little corner of the earth, isn't it, especially in times like these?"
"Have you lived here all through the war, sir?" I asked.
"Yes." The smile disappeared. Slowly he pulled an old Webley revolver from under the rug which covered his knees. "If they had come, six of them would not have lived to tell the story . . . . I learned to use this thing many years ago. I have never missed my man."
He cradled the gun in his hand and left me momentarily for that world which to each of us is his own.

There was quite a pause before I had the courage to ask, "Were you in the First World War, sir?"
"Indirectly--and you?" He replaced the gun on his knees.
"I'm an Inspector at Scotland Yard."
"I thought so!" As he spoke the book in his lap fell to the group. I reached down, picked it up, and handed it back to him.
"Thank you. And how are things at the Yard these days?"
"Modern science and equipment have done much to help us," I said.
"Yessss." His hand went to a pocket and brought forth an old magnifying glass. "When I was a young man they used things like this. Modern inventions have proved to be great timesavers, but they have dulled our natural instincts and made us lazy--most of us at least."
"You may be right, sir. But we either go forward or back."

Rathbone's drawing of Sherlock HolmesHe put the magnifying glass and revolver back into two voluminous pockets of an old sports jacket which had leather patches at the elbows. Then he took a deep breath and released it in a long-drawn-out sigh.
"I've followed your career very closely, Inspector. The Yard is fortunate in your services."
"That's kind of you, sir."
"Not at all. I knew your father quite well at one time."
"You knew my father!" The words stumbled out.
"Yesss. He was a brilliant man, your father. He interested me deeply. His mind was balanced precariously on that thin line between sanity and insanity. Is he still living?"
"No, sir; he died in 1936."
The old man nodded his head reflectively. "These fellows with their newfangled ideas would have found him intensely interesting subject matter. What do you call them" Psycho . . . psychoanalysts!"
"Psychoanalysis can be very helpful, don't you think, sir?"
"No, I don't. It's a lot of rubbish--psychoanalysis! It's nothing more than a simple process of deduction by elimination."

We talked of crime and its different ways of detection, until a cool breeze crossed the garden with its warning of the day's departure.
He rose slowly to a full six feet and held out his hand. "I must go in now. It's been pleasant talking with you."
"I'm deeply indebted to you, sir." I wanted to say so much more, but felt oddly constrained.
He held out the book in his hand, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. "Do you know these stories? They are often overdramatized; but they make good reading." Once again the smile danced in his eyes.
I acknowledged an intimate acquaintance with all the works to which re referred and he seemed greatly pleased by my references to "The Master." He accompanied me slowly to the road and we spoke briefly of S.C. Roberts, and Christopher Morley and Vincent  Starrett.
"The adventures as written by our dear friend Doctor Watson mean a great deal to me at my time of life," he reflected. "As someone once said, 'Remembrance is the only sure immortality we can know.' "

On my return, Mrs. Messenger gave me an urgent telegram from Scotland Yard, requesting my immediate return. I didn't speak to her of my visit to "him." I was afraid she might consider me as childish as the youngsters in Heathfield who still believe "he" was the great Sherlock Holmes.

Which they did, until they reached an age when he was dismissed together with Santa Claus and those other worth-while people who, for a brief, beautiful period, are more real than reality itself.





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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2011