My friend and colleague Sherlock Holmes was stunning in his element: a veritable whirlwind of intellect and perception, tearing through the fog of intrigue and criminal activity with tremendous force. When Holmes was on the trail of truth, almost nothing stood in his way, including the limits of his own humanity. Holmes was engaged upon the case of the Southwark Strangler for nearly three weeks, and over the course of those twenty days I knew him to take only about four hours of sleep a night, if he took any sleep at all.
It was six in the morning when Holmes put the last piece of the puzzle in place, and we were in a cab to the Yard by a quarter-past the hour. By seven, Inspector Lestrade had a wagon full of men en route to capture the man in his hideaway. By eight a.m., the strangler was in chains and Holmes was swaying on his feet, grasping at my wrist to keep himself upright. He was deathly pale, his eyes sunken in his skull, and his lips chapped from his nearly incessant smoking. Lestrade came up to congratulate him on a job well done, and even he could see that Holmes was far from well.
"Best get him home, Doctor," he said to me in a stage whisper. "He's run himself ragged, he has."
"Yes," I said, "a shame that the burden of effort couldn't be shared."
It was a cruel thing to say, but Holmes was at that point so ashen that I was afraid he might faint. I bundled him into a cab without a backwards look, and we were off on our way to Baker Street.
Holmes smirked at me across the cab, his pale eyes glittering in the dimness.
"Oh, do shut up," I said.
He snorted softly and his eyes slid shut again, but his hand found my knee and he patted it twice.
It was nearly nine by the time we reached home, and Mrs Hudson was waiting for us with breakfast. I half-carried Holmes up the stairs and deposited him on the settee before stripping him of his overcoat and jacket, and wrestling him into his dressing gown. Our venerable landlady watched this proceeding skeptically, but said nothing as I filled a plate with her legendary ham and eggs and put it into Holmes's hands.
"Watson, I can't possibly—" he groaned.
"You absolutely can," I said, digging into my own portion. "Eat it before it gets cold."
He picked at the meal, too exhausted to lift his fork, and soon I knew it was futile. He might wake up ravenous, but it seemed the alternative was him falling asleep in his plate. I took it away and pulled a blanket over him instead as he sagged gratefully onto the cushions.
Holmes slept for six hours there on the settee. In the middle of the afternoon he got up to make his eliminations and wave away my concern, and disappeared into his bedroom. I heard nothing more from him until the next morning.
The morning in question was the third of April, and the city was beginning its hesitant approach toward spring. It was still cold at night, but by the time the noonday sun shone down upon us, it was warm enough for shirtsleeves inside Baker Street. These environmental developments, as well as the conviction born of long association with my friend and his neglect for his own health, convinced me that I had no better alternative than to take Holmes— forcibly if necessary— on a holiday.
So it was that when he emerged from his bedroom at half-past eight, I had my valise packed and sitting by the door, and it only took a few minutes and a great deal of physical defence to pack a bag for him as well.
"I tell you, Watson," he cried, having retreated to the safety of his lintel where I could not pinch him on the ribs, "I am not going!"
"You certainly are," I said, stuffing clean shirt cuffs into the bag and wrestling the clasps shut. "You are not taking another case for at least a week. You are going to get enough sleep—" he snorted in derision, but his face was still drawn with exhaustion— "and you are going to benefit from the country air whether you like it or not."
He could have fought me. He could have thrown me out of his room. He could have even thrown me out of the house. But he did none of those things. Instead, he scoffed and rolled his eyes and commenced with a sulk that was designed to last. He might go to the country at my say-so, but he was damned if he was going to enjoy it.
That was just as well. While I went downstairs to hail a cab, Holmes deigned to eat the breakfast we had been brought, and soon we were on our way to the station. Holmes ignored me for the ride there, refused to carry his bag, and did not protest that I paid for our tickets with his money, since he was busy looking pointedly the other way. He followed me at a distance to the platform, but was quick to choose a compartment and settle himself into the forward-facing seat, glaring intensely out the
I stowed our bags and sat down as we began to move. "Holmes?" I said, hoping that the inevitability of the holiday might soften him a little. It did no good, and he said nothing.
Well, I'd brought a book.
Half an hour later, Holmes was fast asleep with his head tipped back on the seat and his mouth hanging open. He was snoring softly.
We had embarked on our holiday with precisely no planning, although I scolded myself for not anticipating the need. Nevertheless, we were lucky enough that the little inn at the center of Henley-on-Thames had two adjacent rooms available with a sitting room between them. Holmes went at once to the room with the view that faced the town square and closed the door. I was unpacking my bag in the other room, which looked out on the inn's little back garden, when he reappeared.
"Watson," he snapped, inexplicably impatient. "Do hurry up. If I'm going to have to endure this nonsense for as long as you say, then I'd better start immediately."
"Are you suggesting we go for a walk?" I asked, taking stock of the broad-brimmed straw hat he was wearing that I certainly had not packed. I wasn't even sure it was his.
"I'm not suggesting anything," Holmes said. "Now come along."
We strolled out of the center of town and along the banks of the Thames. The sky was a perfect, porcelain blue, and the trees were flowering, their blossoms and tender green leaves waving earnestly in the breeze. There was a bit of chill to the air that hadn't been present in London, but the sun shone brightly and countered the touch of cool on my face and hands with the warmth of its rays. I did my best not to exclaim upon every becoming bit of scenery I spotted, and Holmes ignored me with his chin sunk upon his chest and the ridiculous hat concealing his expression.
As we rounded a bend in the road, I noticed something unusual on the trunk of a tree a hundred yards from us. I nudged Holmes, who grunted.
"Look," I said, nudging him again, "what do you suppose that is?"
What it looked like was the tree wearing a rippling, faintly menacing coat. Holmes glanced up at the wonder in my voice and stopped walking.
"Apis mellifera," he said.
"Bees?" I asked, and then, looking more closely, "bees! So it is! You can tell at this distance what variety of bee they are?"
Holmes rolled his eyes. "They're swarming," he said. "Honey bees are one of the only variety of bees that do swarm, and they're certainly the only variety doing it in this part of the world."
His mouth quirked. "Yes, I suppose they are." He began to edge closer to the swarm.
"Is that safe?" I asked, grasping for his sleeve. He shook me off with a look of amusement and continued slowly to approach. The grass between the road and the tree was wide and soft, and when Holmes reached about the center of that space he stopped.
He glanced back at me. "It's quite safe," he said, "provided we keep a respectable distance. Oh, come here, will you?"
I obliged, creeping up to him, filled with apprehension. I couldn't remember if honey bees were the stinging type, and if they were, whether they were inclined to do it unprovoked.
Holmes sat down. He patted the ground beside him, so I tugged the knees of my trousers up a half inch and sat down as well, without taking my eyes off the swarm. Now that we were closer, I became aware of a low, pulsing hum, just on the edge of hearing. Holmes's attention was fixed upon the swarm, his grey eyes shining and his face relaxed but unsmiling. It was not the same expression of intense concentration that he adopted when he considered a problem of human provenance, the one where his eyes were almost closed and his brow pinched in thought, but I knew all the same that my presence would go essentially unnoticed.
To this effect, I said nothing, and after ten or fifteen minutes of complete stillness on Holmes's part, I pulled my paperback novel out of my jacket pocket. I took off the jacket as well and folded it up for a pillow, and proceeded to lay back on the grass, cross my ankles, and become absorbed in the book.
The sun was low in the sky when Holmes shook me awake, whispering my name. He smiled at me as I sat up, groggy and disoriented by what had been a lengthy nap, and said, "Are you hungry?"
I was. We had missed lunch, and had a ways to walk to be back for tea. By some miracle, however, Holmes produced a flattened roast beef sandwich from his pocket and gave me half. He ate the other half, and as we walked he told me between bites how the bees had got on while I'd been asleep. They'd done mostly what they'd appeared to be doing when I'd first spotted them, which was milling about, but evidently Holmes had gleaned considerably more from watching them.
"I think I'll go back tomorrow and see how they are," he said. "If it gets too cold overnight they will surely suffer for it, but I don't expect it to freeze."
I manfully resisted the urge to make some remark about how interesting the country could be after all, and only said, "I hope it doesn't."
Supper was being served when we reached the inn, and Holmes sat down to it without complaint. He even ate most of his portion, with gratified me immensely. Afterwards, we retired to our little sitting room and Holmes, with a grateful and slightly sheepish glance, dug a notebook I'd packed for him out of his valise. He spent the evening scribbling notes from memory, pausing every so often to screw up his face in an effort to recall a particular nuance of the swarm's movements. His unlit pipe was clenched between his teeth and the colour had returned to his face. He hadn't even complained about the quantity of country air he had inevitably inhaled in the time spent watching the bees. I went to bed feeling inordinately pleased with myself.
Predictably, Holmes was gone when I arose the following morning, and after a bite of toast and a cup of coffee I learned that he had left at dawn with his notebook and his ridiculous hat and set off down the road. I picked up a local newspaper and stopped in at a bakery to compile an approximation of lunch, and went after him.
I found him exactly where I expected to, although he had approached the swarm more daringly and was sitting almost at the base of the tree.
"It isn't the same as a well-calculated cold-blooded murder," he said, not turning to look when I walked up, "but I daresay it will do."
"I'm glad you've found something to amuse you," I said, settling down a safe distance from both bees and tree. "Honestly, I'd expected a rather more dramatic show of ennui from you."
"Well," said he, shooting me a grin, "I do have something of a track record on the subject, don't I?"
"You do. When did you become interested in bees?"
"You knew the classification almost without looking," I protested.
"I believe insects are relevant to the study of crime," Holmes said, chewing on the end of his pencil. "There's a great deal to be studied in the gestation and life cycle of arthropods."
"I can see how that would be true for flies," said I, "but I cannot remember ever coming in contact with a honey bee who was also a detective."
He snorted. "No," he said, "you are quite right about that." He was silent long enough that I began to think that was the end of the thought, but then he said, "I have always liked bees."
"Hm," I said, inviting him to go on. I hardly believed I was about to be treated to a snippet of information about his childhood.
"We had an enormous rose garden," Holmes said, laying the pencil in the notebook and covering it with his long hands. His eyes had taken on a far-away quality, and he gazed at the bees without really seeing them. "Collins, our gardener, was very fond of the roses, and he took great pride in them. I used to go in the summer and sit in the garden and watch the bees moving from flower to flower."
I stared at him in astonishment. "Did you study them, then?"
Holmes laughed. "Oh, of course. I read every book I could get my hands on. I don't remember all of it; it's been a very long time." He shrugged and picked up the pencil again. "I've made room for other, more relevant information since then."
The next day was much the same: Holmes went out early, and I joined him mid-morning with a picnic for us to share and a new paperback which I found in a bookshelf in our sitting room. At one point Holmes suggested that it wasn't actually necessary for me to keep him company every minute of every day, but when I got up to go, somewhat put out and embarrassed, he apologised and admitted he was enjoying the company very much but that he feared I'd be bored.
"Surely this can't be entertaining for you," he said, indicating the bees and the notebook open upon his knee.
"I don't require entertainment," I protested.
We stared at one another, at something of an impasse, before Holmes sighed and said, "Suit yourself."
"Thank you," said I, and sat down again.
The following morning, which was the third day of our holiday, I was awoken at dawn by Holmes standing over my bed with a candle, before the sun had even touched our my windowsill.
"Is something the matter?" I asked, shaking off the fog of sleep and sitting up.
"Something incredible is going to happen today," Holmes said. "I observed a change in behaviour yesterday evening, and I am convinced it is going to happen as soon as the bees are warm enough. Come, quickly!"
I hurried into my clothes and followed Holmes out into the chilly morning. The world was still devoid of colour, a monochromatic wash of greys and blues. The grass was wet and sparkling as we set off down the country road.
As we reached the tree where the swarm had taken up residence, the sun was beginning to burn off the clouds and the buzzing emanating from the mass had intensified. It was now loud enough to be heard from the road, and Holmes let out a soft cry of delight.
"We have not missed it! Watson, I hope you are up to a bit of sport."
I was not dressed for the kind of wild, cross-country athleticism I was about to participate in, but that hardly ever mattered with Holmes. Even as he said it, the swarm shifted and the whole mass of bees came away from the tree.
"Quickly, man!" Holmes shouted, and the swarm took off with Holmes and myself in hot pursuit.
For a while the swam moved obligingly along much the same path as the road, which made running alongside it none too difficult. But soon it turned west and we were running across the fields with the sun at our backs, hopping over low stone fences and dashing past horses in pastures. We were spotted by one or two farm wives who were too shocked by the sight of the humming, growling swarm to scold us for trespassing. We even waded valiantly across a small stream, splashing through the water up to our calves instead of risking our necks on the dry, treacherous rocks, before running through a patch of woods and over a grassy hill.
All at once Holmes drew up short ahead of me, and I huffed and puffed my way to his side. The swarm had vanished, I thought, but Holmes pointed. "They are moving in!" he said. Ahead of us, a tree with a gaping hole in its trunk was buzzing with enthusiasm. "Last night they decided on their new abode, and they discussed it at length in their singular bee fashion, and today we see the wholly satisfying result."
"Incredible," I said, marvelling that my heart had not yet exploded out of my chest. "Absolutely splendid. Will you stay and watch them here?"
"Certainly not," Holmes declared, taking one last look at the bees and turning away. "Once they are settled they won't be stirring for a day or more, and there'll be nothing at all to see. But how delightful to have witnessed that!"
I looked around. "Why here?" I asked. The grass was dotted with white and yellow wild flowers, but these were neither large nor plentiful. Perhaps it would be sufficient nonetheless.
"A great many other factors are involved in the selection of a hive location," said Holmes. "But I do not know what they are. Shall we go back?"
The rest of the week passed remarkably uneventfully, in comparison. Holmes tidied his notes on the bees, copying them out from his tiny, cramped shorthand to his more fluid script, but then he put the notebook away and seemed to forget it. We sat in the sun on the terrace behind the inn, he reading the local paper and I my novel, and we went for walks that were not quite as vigorously athletic as our bee-hunt, and we took indulgent naps after being fed hearty country fare. Holmes's mood stayed elevated throughout, and his face lost the gauntness that had so worried me. His waistcoat, too, no longer hung so loosely on his frame. It was amazing what a week of rest and food could do for the man's health. He would refuse to see any difference, of course, but that was what he had me for.
It was a warm, sunny morning that finally saw us climbing aboard a train back to London, and I watched the village disappear behind us around a bend in the track with some measure of nostalgia in my breast. Across from me, Holmes was looking eagerly in the direction of home and the excitement of the city once more.
As we pulled into the station, Holmes took both of our bags in hand and hopped down from the compartment before I could protest. He paid for the cab back to Baker Street, and went so far as to carry my valise to the first floor landing. The broad-brimmed hat was nowhere in evidence.
"What will you do with your notes?" I asked, when we were settled in our familiar surroundings with the fire lit against the evening chill and our feet upon the grate. "On the bees, I mean."
Holmes sucked on his pipe and sighed out a cloud of smoke before answering. "I expect I'll put them away for a while and forget all about them," said he, "but how gratifying to find an unexpected miracle of nature just waiting for us to happen across it. Bees are fascinating creatures, Watson. They've so much wisdom to impart. Perhaps I'll take up the study of them again, someday."
I admit I laughed. "You think someday you're going to be bored of solving crimes and will take up beekeeping as an alternative?"
He smiled and shrugged. "One never knows."