Lady Esher absently poured tea for her guests. A shaft of morning sunlight caught her hand,
modelled its plains and dimples and came to rest flatly on the white
cloth. The fine china rang as she handed
a cup to Max with a smile. So typical of
Guy, she thought, to turn up on her morning ‘At Home’ instead of the
Tuesday hour she reserved for him; but at least it varied the company.

Lady Lillingford and her daughter Alicia were quite
animated for once. The conversation had
achieved new heights. Alicia had twice
opened her mouth to speak, and on the second occasion some actual words had
been emitted. What the import of these
might have been, had not her mother at that moment fired a descriptive
broadside of Mrs Carnforth’s weekend party, Lady Esher pondered with mild
interest.

Max, the dear boy, was being attentive; he was
charming Lady Lillingford simply by watching her face with his deep brown eyes
as she spoke. Whatever one said, if Max
listened, one felt that he was giving it a flattering degree of attention.

Guy, on the other hand, was picking cherries out the
madeira cake and feeding them to Candace, her pug. Candace would shortly be
sick, probably in the hall by the hat stand. Really, that boy was impossible…

Lady Esher smiled dutifully at Guy, at Candace, at the
teapot and then at Max and Lady Lillingford.
Alicia, she decided, needed an extra squeeze of a smile, for she looked
equally fascinated and dismayed by the presence of so many young men – her eyes
signified that they might number several hundred in their mild grey alarm.

‘Come over here, my dear,’ she said kindly. Max looked up surprised, but immediately
perceived his mistake and returned his gaze to Lady Lillingford’s doughy face
with a hint of resignation. Alicia rose,
dropped her parasol, blushed scarlet, and dutifully navigated her way around
the tea table to sit beside her hostess.

‘Now tell me,’ Max heard Lady Esher say with an
air of delicious confidentiality, ‘Tell me about all your conquests at the
party!’ Alicia’s response was
inaudible. Max felt very sorry for her.

‘And then, my dear, who do you think was
announced?’ breathed Lady Lillingford, and he patiently returned to his
contemplations. Composed and serious as
his face was, his mind was quite elsewhere; not one word of her long account
had registered in his understanding. As
he watched the loose, pale lips forming and ejecting their words, his mind
moved in realms of gold and pearl, reviewing and re-inspecting the austere,
possessed figure emerging from the dim hallway of 221B Baker Street. In his heart was ineffable bliss, exquisite
pain. He sighed unconsciously as Lady
Lillingford concluded her description of the Duchess of Devonshire’s ball
gown.

This young man has taste, she noted with approval;
taste, good manners, and obvious breeding. But does he have prospects? If so, Alicia could do worse … she changed the subject abruptly, barely pausing
for breath as she set about the task of exploring Max’s background with the all
subtlety of an Amazonian explorer wielding a machete.

Guy had discovered that there was a limit to the
number of cherries a small, fat dog could consume. This limit had just been reached, and Candace
did the decent thing and exited the room.
Guy watched her go. What should
he do next? His eye lighted upon Max,
bravely holding his station whilst buffeted by the sou’wester of La
Lillingford’s interrogation. I shall rescue him, thought Guy lovingly.

‘Oh, Mother!’ he cried, suddenly and loudly, causing
all heads to turn towards him – not because more than one person in the room
was under the impression that she was his mother, but because he had hitherto
spoken only four words: ‘Hello,’
Charmed,’ and ‘How tedious‘.

Guy simpered, pleased with himself. ‘We met the most fascinating
gentleman yesterday. Actually we met two
fascinating gentlemen. The first one
– he is so sweet – I’d already made his acquaintance at the races over
champagne, and we were sitting yesterday in the bar at -‘

‘Guy, dear, please pick up that cherry before you
grind it beneath your boot heel!’

Lady Esher’s voice carried a warning note. Alicia’s eyes had become very round; mention
of ‘champagne’ and ‘races’ had quickened her breath. Lady Esher was all too aware that her son’s
friends – always excepting Max – were inclined to be somewhat disreputable.

‘… smoking and chatting,’ continued Guy, tossing the
cherry onto the table, ‘When there he was.
And do you know what? He turned
out to be a close friend – indeed, the close and intimate friend, of -‘

‘I do hope, Guy, that you have not issued these
gentlemen with one of your invitations to dine here,’ interrupted Lady Esher
again, hoping to stave off the name of the intimate friend. Could it be that Beardy, or Beardsley, or
whatever he called himself? Surely not
that awful Wilde man …

Lady Lillingford, on the other hand, was listening
attentively. Beardies and Wildies were
beyond her ken; a more illustrious Beard was in her mind, a Beard
definitely associated with horseflesh and champagne …

‘Of course not, mother! He never dines out, you know. He is so fascinating! So different. And we had tea in his rooms afterwards, but
he couldn’t join us himself as he’d just been summoned to Scotland Yard.’

There was a small flurry as Lady Esher pressed several
different kind of cake upon Alicia.

‘Scotland Yard?’ repeated Lady Lillingford, with a
dawning realisation that the P of W was not, after all, the protagonist of this
adventure.

‘Yes, Lady Lillingford!’ emphasised Guy gaily, aware
that he was making an impression. ‘He is
professionally associated with Scotland Yard – you must know that.’

Who is, dear?’
Lady Esher felt she could begin to relax. Sir Edward Carson, could it be?

‘Mr Sherlock Holmes, of course! I told you!’

‘No dear, you never mentioned the name.’

‘Only because you kept interrupting me, going on about
cherries and dinners and suchlike.’

‘Mr Sherlock Holmes?’
repeated Lady Lillingford slowly; ‘Ah, yes! My dear, it’s that wonderful detective man –
you know, he cleared up the matter of Lord St Simon’s little problem so
discreetly. You remember,
dear. Mrs Tattershall told us about it a
while ago. Shocking business.’

Lady Esher metaphorically unstopped Alicia’s ears by
withdrawing the tray of cakes, and seemed remarkably to have unstopped her
mouth in the process.

‘But I have read all about him, Mr Clements! He is
remarkable, as you say. It must have been wonderful to meet him in the
flesh.’

Her small, clear voice turned all heads in her
direction, and Max nodded vigorously, his heart swelling with affection for
Alicia. Guy had more than appropriated
his hero in the last few minutes, and he was determined to retrieve the honour.

‘We didn’t really have time to introduce ourselves,
Miss Lillingford; he passed us on the doorstep.’ Max blushed deeply. ‘But we had tea with Dr Watson in his rooms.’

‘And what rooms!’ crowed Guy; ‘Utterly Bohemian,
Miss Lillingford! So thrillingly
unconventional!’

‘Bohemian?’
Alicia leaned forward, fascinated; Lady Esher thought she detected an
unhealthy gleam in her eye.

‘Yes, yes! Oh,
how can one describe them? Filled with
chaos, but such artistic chaos!
Chemistry, tobacco, Persian slippers.
Revolver practice. You see, he
eschews all the petty concerns of daily life and lives in splendid isolation,
either driven by the white heat of his genius, or – or -‘

Max chose not to leap into the breach and save his
friend; really, this was too much. Guy
knew nothing whatever about Mr Holmes.

‘Well, well,’ said Lady Esher mildly into the the
pause that followed, ‘Obviously a remarkable man. Perhaps we could invite him to dine
one evening – with Mr Percy, Sir Edward’s solicitor, and other people of that
sort.’ She smiled wearily at Lady
Lillingford. ‘One does well to entertain
one’s professional men from time to time, don’t you find? They do give of their best when favoured with
good wine and conversation.’

Lady Lillingford nodded. ‘Oh, quite – Sir Charles’ physician is a
charming man, quite convivial company in the right circumstances.’

Max could not bear it.
‘He would not come, Lady Esher, I think,’ he said in stilted tones,
straining the boundaries of politeness.
‘As Guy has already mentioned, he does not dine in company.’

Both ladies looked taken aback, and his hostess raised
a well-bred eyebrow. There was an
awkward hiatus before the conversation picked up harmlessly again, and Guy
sulkily began to pick walnuts out of the walnut cake. The shaft of sunlight pressed itself into the
nap of the carpet, and slept at its twisted roots.

The breakfast table at 221B Baker Street was also bathed in warm
yellow. The blind was up, the windows
were open and the noise of mid-morning traffic chattered behind the ticking of
a clock and the occasional crackle as Sherlock Holmes turned the pages of his
newspaper. Dr Watson was relaxing in the
warm sun, smoke curling from his cigarette.

‘Watson.’

‘H’mmm?’

‘Who were those two young men you entertained for tea
in my rooms yesterday?’ Holmes spoke
from behind his newspaper.

‘Oh – just an acquaintance, and the friend of an
acquaintance. I met them when I went out
for a walk.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Admirers of yours, as it happens.’ Watson pushed a
crust of toast around his plate and smiled at the shimmer of sun on the silver
coffee pot.

‘I would have thought admirers of yours would
be a more apt description. Your little
stories are gaining you a reputation you know, however inaccurate they may be,
and however inappropriate a form in which to embody my professional
achievements.’

‘You never read them, Holmes, so I don’t see how you
can judge.’ Watson smiled again, and
poured the remains of the coffee into his friend’s cup.

‘I’ve glanced at one or two,’ sighed Holmes, laying
aside the paper and taking up his pipe.
‘It seems to me that you take some quite unjustifiable liberties, not
only with the material but also with my character.’

‘So you keep saying, my dear. You haven’t finished your coffee.’

Holmes picked up the cup absently, and sipped.

‘You look better today,’ ventured his friend; ‘Might I enquire about investigation on which
you’re currently engaged?’

‘You might, my dear fellow, but I’m not yet able to
give you much information. It’s a
Government matter.’ Holmes passed a thin
hand over his hair. ‘Brother Mycroft is
responsible for involving me. Some War Offices documents have gone missing; of
no great moment in themselves I understand, but related to the nation’s
security nonetheless.’

‘You were away all night?’ asked Watson carefully.

‘Indeed. But so
far I have little to go on. Perhaps
you’d care to join me today in a number of enquiries I’m planning? That is, if you’ve nothing planned yourself
– meeting your young drinking companions again, for instance?’

Watson ignored the sarcasm and met the grey eyes
innocently. He was delighted to see a
return there of the usual sparkle.

‘I was not planning anything of the kind today; I may
stroll over tomorrow and return their call,’ he said lightly.

Holmes rose from the table and wandered towards the
mantelpiece. His silk dressing gown was
knotted carelessly at the waist, but his appearance was otherwise as fastidious
as ever. Watson marvelled anew that one
so untidy, indeed so wilfully destructive, in his personal habits should be so
neat, so correct in his dress.

‘You’re invited too, by the way,’ he added.

‘Oh?’ Holmes
was inspecting his violin, plucking gently at the strings and listening
minutely to their resonance. After a
moment, he murmured, ‘I never call on
anyone. You know that, Watson.’

‘Only if it’s after midnight,’ said Watson sotto
voce
. ‘You should, you know,’ he
added in a louder voice. ‘It would do
you good.’

‘If I call on you after midnight, Watson, it is
because I am in need of your help. And I
do not require good to be done to me.
Thank you.’

He drew the bow across the instrument, paused to make
an adjustment, and began to play; an eerie, wandering improvisation,
ill-adapted to the sunny day outside.