THE ADVENTURE OF THE SHADOW ON THE HEATH
A particularly wild and dramatic late October evening had found Sherlock Holmes and I trapped within the confines of our rooms at 221b Baker Street, without there being neither sign nor indication of an early release.
My rather humdrum solution to this enforced incarceration had been nothing more stimulating than a laborious hour in front of the fire, searching rather fruitlessly for a single item of interest within the turgid pages of that day’s Daily Telegraph. Holmes, on the other hand, had reacted like a caged lion and he was ceaselessly prowling, rather ominously, back and forth behind the shelter of our rain-splattered windows, while emitting the occasional growl of frustration as he did so.
“One would have to be a most desperate or reckless criminal to venture out of doors on a night such as this, eh Watson?” Holmes complained, while pointing somewhat dramatically towards the equinoctial storm that was threatening the very fabric of the street outside.
I was grateful for this timely interruption, and I tossed my paper down to the floor with a violent demonstration of my own frustration.
“Indeed, he would, old fellow, but such a diversion would be most welcome nonetheless,” I confirmed and I joined my friend by the window with my pipe in hand.
In truth, the last month or so had seen the practise of my friend endure one of the most inactive periods in all of our long association and save for the affair of the Collaborative Courtesan, we had not been presented with a single case worthy of note since the summer. Therefore, it had been with a sense of surprise and not a little relief, to note that Holmes had not descended into one of his notorious brown moods, throughout his enforced state of unemployment and that the key to his desk drawer, wherein was contained his toxic leather case, had not been requested even once.
“Our species certainly has a mighty high opinion of itself.” Holmes remarked thoughtfully while drawing upon his cherry wood pipe. “We see ourselves as the lord and master over all that we survey and even deign to imagine that we can improve upon the creations of nature and providence. Yet, on a night such as this, we should be mindful of the fact that these temples, which we have erected in honour of our genius and creative abilities, could be snuffed out in a heartbeat by the power of the elements. Our ancestors understood this, as their myths and deities so abundantly attest to, but we are too arrogant even to acknowledge the existence of our frailties.”
I was not quite sure how to respond to my friend’s attempt at philosophical debate, but as I turned to him in surprise, a lonely figure on the street below suddenly caught my eye.
Even under less dramatic conditions than those currently prevailing, this individual would have stood out from the throng by virtue of his exceptional height and build. He stood at six feet three inches, at the least, and his sodden Ulster struggled to fully contain his enormous shoulders. However, on a street as deserted as Baker Street had been on such an evening, there had been no escaping his towering presence.
“We should stoke up our fire and prepare a towel or two for our new client, Watson,” Holmes suggested, for he too had noticed the man in the Ulster.
“You are so convinced of his intention to visit 221b? I can see no obvious signs of urgency or anxiety in his actions or movements.”
“Apart from the very obvious fact that he has chosen to venture out on such a night, you are quite correct Watson. However, he has clearly come out directly from his place of work and he is paying a very close attention to the numbers on the upper floors. You have noticed his medical bag, no doubt?”
A moment later there had been no further need for speculation, for the man suddenly recognised our address and he strode determinedly towards our door. Holmes leapt across the room with great enthusiasm and called down to Mrs. Hudson, that she should show the gentleman up without delay and then bring up a tray of coffee in short order.
The gentleman had been undoubtedly surprised by his expeditious welcome, but he had also been most grateful for the opportunity to remove his soaking garments by a welcoming fire. Holmes allowed the man a few moments of silent comfort, but once the coffee had arrived and the man’s shivering had abated somewhat, my friend rubbed his hands together enthusiastically at the prospect of hearing his story. He showed our visitor to a chair and once the man had sipped appreciatively from his coffee cup, Holmes took to his own chair with a lighted cigarette in hand.
“Please tell us something about yourself and the reason for your visit here today. Remember, you are amongst friends here and you should withhold nothing from your story, for even the merest trivia might prove to be of the greatest importance. My friend, who like yourself has taken the Hippocratic Oath, can be relied upon for the utmost discretion,” Holmes invited with a smile.
Our guest responded with a smile of his own.
“Oh Mr. Holmes, were that my profession as worthy as that of Dr. Watson. I shall explain,” he added hastily, for he had seen the look of confusion on our faces, upon hearing his self-deprecating statement. He spoke with a modulated Scottish accent that told of many years spent south of the border.
“My name is Brewster Macleod and I hail originally from a small village, located just a few miles outside Edinburgh. As you might tell, I have spent the past twenty years in the more verified atmospheres of Hampstead. I am a confirmed bachelor by design and a dog doctor by profession.” Macleod paused briefly to drink further from his coffee, and this allowed Holmes and I a moment or two in which to stifle a natural inclination to smile at Macleod’s chosen vocation. Evidently, we had been less than successful in disguising our amusement.
The man’s corpulent and ruddy features visibly reddened, and I could tell by this reaction that this had not been the only occasion when he had felt compelled to explain his work.
“I can assure you gentlemen that I am a fully qualified veterinary surgeon, although, in financial terms, I have been somewhat less than successful in that field. Therefore, when the keeping and training of pure pedigrees became an integral part of fashionable society, I realised that the time for specialisation had arrived. My recently accrued reputation has proven to be surprisingly lucrative, as my address in Hampstead will attest to, and I now have the time to devote to the care of all animals, which has always been my passionate motivation.”
“Mr. Macleod, as commendable as your devotion undoubtedly is, I believe it is now time for you to explain to me exactly why you have decided to defy the elements and seek out my address,” Holmes suggested with increasing impatience.
“Of course, Mr. Holmes, although I should emphasise that it is on the behalf of my neighbour, Mrs. Lily Starling, that I have decided to seek your advice.”
Holmes placed the bowl of his pipe upon the nearest ashtray and while Macleod lit an old briar of his own, my friend pressed his palms together, as if at prayer and closed his eyes while he sank into a realm of intense concentration. At this juncture I readied my notebook and pencil.
“Mrs. Starling has been a widow for many a year. Her husband, Hubert Starling, had been a very successful financier and when he died, as the result of a riding accident, he had ensured that his wife had been left in a very comfortable situation indeed. Consequently, she has been able to maintain a full household of staff and her every need is more than adequately catered to.
Believe me, it is just as well that she has done so, for in recent months her health has deteriorated somewhat, and the level of staff has become more of a necessity than a luxury. She now spends most of her time lamenting the loss of her husband, either sitting alone in her garden, during the summer months, or within her intolerably warm drawing room the rest of the time. Her worsening health has changed her lifestyle beyond all recognition, save in one respect.” Macleod paused to take a final sip from his coffee.
“No longer the gay socialite that once she had been, I do not think that I am being presumptuous in saying that I am now her only friend and companion. Nevertheless, she still insists on taking her daily walks upon the heath and despite the best advice of both myself and her ever-faithful staff, she continues to do so alone!”
“She does so in spite of her failing health?” I asked.
“Indeed, she does Dr. Watson; in fact, it is because of her health that she refuses to desist. You see, she believes that her daily constitutionals are the only thing keeping her alive. Perhaps she is right, after all there have been no obvious signs of her walks doing her harm and she always seems rather invigorated at their conclusion. However, there has been another aspect to her outings recently that I have come to regard as being more than a little disturbing.”
“Ah, so we have finally arrived at the crux of the matter.” Holmes smiled while suddenly reopening his eyes.
“We have indeed, Mr. Holmes, although I make no excuse for having detailed to you Mrs. Starling’s current lifestyle before arriving at the heart of the matter. Its relevance will soon become abundantly clear to you, but first I must tell you of her recently acquired appetite for novels which can best be described as lurid, Gothic romance.
Frankenstein and Dracula are but two examples of her current taste in literature, while some are decidedly racier in content and totally out of character. She has consumed one after another in voracious fashion and, one might say, the acquisition of such things has become her obsession. Hampstead is blessed with a number of excellent book vendors, each of which is encouraged to visit Mrs. Starling with the latest additions to this genre as and when they become available.
Now, I fear that her continuous consumption of these stories might be having a detrimental effect upon her mind, to such an extent, in fact, that she is now even able to romanticise the awful crimes of Jack the Ripper in her mind!”
“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “I cannot imagine how this might even be possible.”
“Somehow, she has been able to eradicate the true nature of the Ripper’s atrocities and the sordid surroundings that he inhabited and replaced them with a vision of a romantic hero dressed in cape and hat, capable of sweeping any woman off her feet. An encounter with her version of the Ripper is something to be desired rather than feared, and I am beginning to think that she actually expects to be confronted by him whenever she walks upon the heath.”
“Yet I fancy that even that awful realisation would not have been sufficient reason for your consultation,” Holmes suggested while jumping to his feet.
“You are quite correct, of course, for Mrs. Starling’s disturbing fixation has recently moved in an altogether different direction. She has now convinced herself that she is in fact being stalked by a tall, dark, shadowy figure each time she takes her walk upon the heath.”
“Mr. Macleod, your turn of phrase seems to indicate that there is some doubt in your mind as to the validity of her claim,” Holmes suggested.
“There most certainly is, Mr. Holmes. After all, if someone fixates upon a subject for any length of time, a fine line might be drawn quite easily between the realms of fantasy and reality, and I fear that my dear friend has finally crossed that line. Besides, those fears of hers have done nothing to inhibit her from continuing with her daily habit.”
“Do you mean to say that she still takes her evening walks, despite the threat that she believes is constantly hanging over her?” I asked in wonder.
“Indeed Doctor, in fact I suspect that the thrill of an encounter with this supposed phantom stalker only adds to the enticement of a walk upon those darkened moorlands. However, I must point out that I have not totally abandoned my friend and for my peace of mind, I have taken to my own routine of following her each time she takes to the heath, albeit from a very discreet distance.”
By now my friend had certainly had his interest aroused and as he hurriedly lit a cigarette, I could detect a familiar flame of excitement in his eyes, even though the shroud of tobacco smoke now enveloped him.
“Does Mrs. Starling follow precisely the same route on each occasion?” Holmes asked.
“It never varies, Mr. Holmes. I sit by my drawing room window until I am convinced that she has gained an advantage of several yards over me and then I follow in her wake. As you might know, Well Walk comes out upon East Heath Road at a point where it is at its narrowest and most convoluted. The heath consumes you almost as soon as you cross the road, and the tree canopy obscures even the brightest of full moons.
After a short while the density of the trees gradually opens up into a well-trodden clearing, the centre of which occasionally fills up with rainwater. Mrs. Starling’s route skirts around this bog and she then climbs up a gradual incline that slowly rises above the tree line and affords a spectacular view of the immediate surroundings. She rarely lingers there for more than a minute or two before she begins her slow descent. It is at this point that she fancies seeing her shadowy stalker, lurking ominously at the crest of the rise. It is there, of course, that any visible moonlight will shed its unobstructed light upon the scene and the heath yields up its starkest shadows.”
“So, it is no surprise that she might confuse her phantom with any number of other objects,” Holmes interrupted our guest with an air of increasing impatience. “I suppose that it is at this point that she begins her journey home?”
“She does indeed, albeit in a more hurried fashion. She constantly looks over her shoulder and seems to become more agitated each time that she does so, as if she imagines her phantom to be in pursuit.”
“I take it that you have yet to confirm any of her sightings.”
Macleod slowly and sadly shook his head by way of a reply and he looked pleadingly at my friend for any advice that he might offer. Instead, Holmes asked a question of our guest that took him by surprise.
“By any chance have you observed the type of footwear that she uses for these walks?”
“As a matter of fact, I have, Mr. Holmes, she sports a pair of stout, flat heeled walking shoes, of a very nondescript design,” Macleod declared.
“Excellent! The weather should have left us two very fine sets of footprints, so we shall meet you at the end of Well Walk, well away from the house of Mrs. Starling, at precisely one o’clock tomorrow afternoon!” Holmes ushered our guest towards the door, before he had a chance to comment on these arrangements and then indicated that I should see him on his way.
“Well Holmes, I am much surprised that you have decided to look still further into this report of an old lady’s fantasies.” I commented, upon returning from showing our guest out. “While I appreciate that we have been a little quiet of late, surely you must be able to find something more diverting to do with your spare time.”
“Watson, although I share your sentiments, surely a walk upon the heath would appeal to you more than yet another fruitless afternoon spent in our rooms? Besides, in my experience there is very often a tangible truth behind even the most outlandish of fantasies. Who knows, perhaps a brisk walk might yet throw up a case of some interest?”
I could not offer a word of argument against my friend’s prognosis and as late evening turned to night, I retired to my room determined to adopt a less disparaging attitude towards the fears of Mrs. Starling. My scepticism soon turned to pangs of guilt when Mrs. Hudson delivered a wire to out breakfast table the following morning. Holmes tore it open feverishly and then tossed it over to me while he drained his coffee cup and extinguished his first cigarette of the day.
The wire was as brief as it had been tragic:
Mr. Holmes, please come to no. 14 Well Walk urgently! Mrs. Starling is finally being removed.
“Removed? Good heavens, Holmes, some tragedy must have occurred!” I exclaimed.
“So, it would seem Watson, although we should never jump to conclusions before establishing the facts. Therefore, please finish your breakfast and I shall arrange a cab to take us to Hampstead.”
“You expect me to finish my breakfast in the face of so urgent a wire?” I asked incredulously.
“I would actually advise it on such a morning. See how the torrents of last evening have been disbursed by those harsh and frosty winds? The conditions outside must be most treacherous. Besides, if the poor woman is ‘about to be removed,’ I doubt very much that our urgent arrival is essential now. Indeed, should we arrive later on in the morning, the improved daylight might actually be of benefit to our investigations.”
I found it impossible to object to my friend’s undoubted logic, and I dutifully completed my meal of devilled eggs. Not surprisingly, my friend proved to be correct in his prediction and by the time we arrived at the given address, the skies had brightened enough to fill him with optimism for his forthcoming examination.
In answer to our summons, an ashen-faced Brewster Macleod opened the door himself, so anxious had he been for our arrival.
“Oh, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, it is so good of you to come!” Macleod exclaimed breathlessly while he led us towards the drawing room.
“You must calm yourself and explain to us the exact circumstances that led to your urgently toned wire,” Holmes suggested while we took to our chairs.
“In truth, I cannot really be sure, for events have unfolded so quickly, and it was not until this morning that I was even made aware of the tragedy.”
“So Mrs. Starling is dead then?” I asked quietly.
“Sadly yes, Dr. Watson and I wish that I could have been with my friend through her final hours.”
Macleod’s emotions were clearly getting the better of him, so he suggested that he fetch Mrs. Cummings, who had served as Mrs. Starling’s trusted housekeeper for the best part of thirty years. Holmes agreed to this proposal enthusiastically and requested that she bring with her a pair of her late employer’s walking shoes.
As soon as Macleod had departed upon his errand, Holmes went straight to the front hallway and quickly examined a pair of well-worn boots that had been sitting by the street door. By the time that Macleod had returned, Holmes was back in his seat and casually lighting a cigarette.
“Ah, Mrs. Cummings, I thank you for attending at such short notice and under such testing circumstances. Please take a seat.” Holmes gallantly guided the poor woman towards a chair close to his own, so that he did not have to raise his voice when questioning her. Once again I had been left astonished by my friend’s capacity for compassion as the moment required.
Mrs. Cummings smiled appreciatively, although she had clearly been quite tearful but a few moments before.
“Do you know who I am?” Holmes asked.
“Oh yes sir, although I do not understand why you have been summoned as there has been no crime committed.”
“Not as far as I am aware, although I am sure that we would all like to fully understand the events that led to your late employer’s tragic demise. Perhaps you could enlighten me,” Holmes proposed.
“Oh Mr. Holmes, it was truly awful to see. My poor lady came home from her evening walk in a terrible state last night. She was red-faced and breathless, although there was also a gleam of excitement in her eyes that took me right aback. She was convinced that her shadowy stalker had been following her once again, although this time, she said, he had been coming a good deal closer to her than ever before. She quickened her pace and cut her walk short in order to get home as quickly as she could. She told me that her pursuer had been gaining ground on her all the time and that she had barely made it indoors before he would be upon her. We helped her up the stairs and managed to get some tea down her before she collapsed upon her bed.
“Oh Mr. Holmes, we suggested more than once that a doctor be called to her, but she insisted that she would be fine after a good night’s sleep, and we left her resting comfortably and greatly calmed from the state she had been in when she arrived home.”
By now, Mrs. Cummings was sobbing uncontrollably, and Macleod passed a small glass of brandy to her while he summarised the conclusion to this tragic business.
“As far as I understand it, the alarm was first raised at seven o’clock this morning when Mrs. Starling could not be roused for her customary cup of tea in bed. Her doctor had been summoned at once and he concluded, after a thorough examination, that she had died as a result of a coronary seizure. Obviously, the coroner’s office will have the final say, as they always do, but her doctor had been convinced that her condition had been brought on by stark terror! I was informed of this just before the coroner’s staff had her removed and I, in turn contacted you. Sadly, I must inform you that despite my friend’s insistence to the contrary, I saw absolutely nothing untoward as I followed her upon her customary route last night,” Macleod despondently concluded.
“You are absolutely certain that there had been no deviation in her path at all?” Holmes asked.
Macleod shook his head emphatically.
“No Mr. Holmes, none at all and believe me, after so many repetitions, I should have known had there been any. By the way, we did remember to bring along a pair of Mrs. Starling’s walking shoes.”
Had my friend been presented with an object made from solid gold and encrusted with lustrous jewels, he would not have been more excited than when he laid his eyes upon those worn and commonplace objects. He suggested that Mrs. Cummings be escorted back to the house next door, before he rushed over to the shoes with his tape and magnifying glass in hand. He was satisfied in an instant.
“So Watson, shall we attempt to attach some credence to that idée fixe of Mrs. Starling?”
I stood up at once in response to Holmes’ suggestion and it was agreed that Macleod should remain behind, in case he should be called upon for any further assistance.
“Come Watson!” Holmes called before dashing off down Well Walk at a pace which I found difficult to match.
However, once we had crossed East Heath Road and arrived at the edge of the actual heath, my friend slowed to a virtual halt as he began to examine the surrounding terrain with the greatest of care. He insisted that I stand back until he had concluded his inspection and then he raced off towards the lower ground that Macleod had so accurately described.
I observed that a light early morning mist, that had risen and swelled within the hollow before us, had slowly been dissipated by a weak but rising sun. Not surprisingly, my friend’s prophetic assessment of the prevailing conditions had been an accurate one. The frost of the previous night had frozen any marks that had been left behind in the mud and the bright mid-morning sunlight illuminated even the darkest recesses of the trees, enhancing my friend’s ability to read the terrain through the shadows.
He repeated his previous modus operandi down in the hollow before climbing rapidly up the rise whereupon Mrs. Starling claimed to have seen her shadowy pursuer. I remained on the lower ground, and I saw my friend disappear momentarily behind a small clump of beech trees. Much of the landscape was covered in a carpet of holly and rowan, but this was broken intermittently by clear areas of frozen mud, the areas on which my friend had spent much of his concentration.
When Holmes finally reappeared, he descended towards me slowly and despondently.
“You seem to be left rather dejected by your findings Holmes,” I suggested.
His grave countenance told me all that I needed to know.
“Would you care to join me over a glass of ale at the Wells Hotel? I would much rather discuss things with you before we return to the home of Mr. Brewster Macleod.”
I agreed wholeheartedly and a few moments later we were seated by a crackling fire in a small, intimate saloon bar. We lit our pipes, and I grew increasingly concerned by my friend’s attitude and his grave and ashen face.
“It goes without saying that I understand the great interest that you have shown in the walking shoes of both Mrs. Starling and Brewster Macleod. Nevertheless, I can tell from your demeanour that you were less than successful in uncovering some satisfactory evidence,” I mentioned quietly.
“My success, or otherwise, is surely a matter of perspective Watson. The perfectly preserved prints in the soil confirmed each and every aspect of Macleod’s statement. I could see the exact point at which Mrs. Starling entered the heath and the moment whereupon Macleod halted in his tracks in order to maintain a discreet distance behind her.
Mrs. Starling maintained a steady progress as she descended into the hollow and she climbed steadily up the rise where she paused for a moment or two, no doubt in order to catch her breath. All the while Macleod had been able to keep her in his sights, while avoiding being observed or detected by his quarry.
Suddenly, Mrs. Starling quickened her pace, as if something or someone had provoked a sense of urgency in her! Macleod mirrored her every movement and variation in speed, as can be seen from the traces of heath land clay that were evident on both sets of shoes. By the time that they had reached the paving of Well Walk again, they had both broken into a run of a sort, and the woman had scratched her shoes in several places as she struggled up the road and along her front path in desperation.”
“My goodness Holmes, do you mean to say that you could tell all that from two pairs of shoes and a few footprints?” I asked incredulously. “What does it all mean?”
“It means, my dear Watson that inadvertently, although with the very best of intentions, Brewster Macleod has been responsible for the death of his dearest friend!” Holmes declared, although I could tell that he had been greatly moved by the calamitous and tragic nature of his discoveries.
“So there never has been a mysterious stranger upon the heath?”
“No Watson, there never has been.”
I let out a long sigh of disbelief and asked my friend what his intentions would now be. I was surprised by his response.
“I intend to do precisely nothing Watson. In spite of my endless and well documented search for the truth, even I realise that sometimes its pursuit can do more real harm than ignorance of the same. Why should I compound Macleod’s tragic loss when there is no real benefit in my making known my discoveries?”
Holmes now turned his attention to his drink and his pipe, and we maintained our silent reflections until long after we had bid Mr. Macleod a brief farewell and finally returned to Baker Street.
Throughout the remainder of our long association, my friend would not be drawn upon the subject ever again.