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Wednesday, 6 January 2016
Sherlock Holmes in Venice
A few years ago I wrote a very odd piece where Holmes and Watson meet Laurel and Hardy (re-posted here recently). In it, Watson is described as trying to write up his notes for The Gondolier and the Russian Countess. Several years later here it is:
‘No dawdling again please, Watson,’ Holmes called.
With a grimace, I set off in pursuit. There were to be a few more twists and turns on our route before we entered the Campo dei Mori. Pinpointing Angelo’s address, even though we turned out to be virtually on top of it, proved to be very tricky indeed, but eventually we climbed a set of stairs that took us to his apartment. The hollow sound that greeted Holmes’s knock on the door told us of an empty apartment.
‘Evidently Angelo is not home. I don’t see what more we can do.’
‘I hardly expected that he would be home, but now we are here we can best be employed by interviewing his neighbours. Any information they can supply however trivial it may seem could aid us.’
Four of the other five apartments were apparently empty for no one answered our earnest knocking. The door of the solitary apartment on the ground floor was opened an inch or two and all we could see of the occupant was a left eye which was protected by the bushiest of eyebrows and a left cheek adorned with flamboyant whiskers. The voice was muffled owing to the heavy door jammed in front of its owner’s mouth.
‘Good morning, gentlemen. Is there something I can help you with?’
Our surprise at being greeted in English became greater when the door swung fully open to reveal man who belonged to an earlier age. His style of dress was as dated as were his whiskers, which appeared to have a life of their own, being too large and bushy for the thin face they framed. I was forcibly reminded of a professor of English who taught me at Winchester, following his fall from grace at one of our smaller universities.
‘You must forgive our intrusion,’ said Holmes as we were invited in by an elaborate sweep of the arm. ‘My name is Sherlock Holmes and this is my friend and colleague, Doctor Watson. We wish to ask you a few questions regarding Angelo who rents an apartment on the top floor here.’
‘I see. Well, do come in. You are most cordially welcomed into my humble abode.’
This humble abode had the appearance of an ancient library, dust covered books filled every available space. Piles rose vertically defying gravity by refusing to topple. The large book cases pressed back against the walls were not just adorned with volumes of every size, but cobwebs hung down from the uppermost corners of each one. This chaos was negated slightly by the order I could see on a large desk situated under the window where pens paper and dictionaries were sitting quite neatly and most surprisingly, dust free.
‘Please sit down,’ he offered, then looked around, surprised by the fact there was precious little to sit on. He swept a few periodicals and journals onto the floor from the chairs they had been occupying and took his place on a well-upholstered chair behind the desk, evidently his usual habitat.
‘Now we have a degree of comfort, we can proceed. Your names are known to me. Indeed, I have some of your work here, Doctor Watson. Tell me, do you realise how often you confuse your tenses? I would also recommend working on your subjunctives, they can be a little clumsy. Aside from those small criticisms, to which I might add your very singular approach to punctuation, I have enjoyed your accounts very much.’
‘Bravo, Watson. You have an admirer who is not so blinded by your prose to spare you constructive criticism. Professor Collins, how came you to pitch up in Venice?’
‘You know me then?’
‘I can assure you I know nothing whatsoever about you other than the obvious facts that you graduated from Cambridge University, you suffered a painful divorce late in life, you have a son you love dearly, but are estranged from, you are a teacher of English at ridiculously low rates and you have lost your faith although that may be temporary.’
The recipient of these insights, smiled at Holmes and looked around the room.
‘I have it, Mr Holmes. The diploma on the wall gave you both my name and university. The painful divorce...’ He looked at his left hand. ‘The mark of my wedding band is still obvious, hence it has been removed fairly recently. If it were anything other than a painful divorce, for instance a bereavement, than you might reasonably expect to me to wear it still. The photographs on the wall feature my son, the familial likeness is clear. There are no photographs of us together of a recent nature, so yes the deduction of an estrangement is sound enough. Now, the loss of faith? Let me see now. No, I confess I cannot see how you came by it.’
‘The explanation is simple, Professor. There is a neck-chain with a cross on it in the corner of the room. Evidently thrown there by you. It is a chain that you were previously accustomed to wearing, even at this distance I can see grey hairs from your neck caught in the chain. I deduce your loss of faith to be temporary from the fact that the chain is still here and not been consigned to oblivion, although I admit I am on somewhat shaky ground there.’
‘And the teaching at low rates?’
‘That fact you teach is plain to see by the paraphernalia on your desk. You hardly live in the lap of luxury if I may be so bold, my dear sir, hence my deduction of low rates. Perhaps you see it as a vocation more than a living.’
‘I do, Mr Holmes. I feel privileged to impart my knowledge to others. All I ask for is enough to cover my humble needs. I gravitated to Venice after my wife left me some five years ago. I intended to stay here just for a short while, but as there was nothing left for me in England, my son already being estranged from me, I elected to stay.’
‘Are you familiar with Angelo, Professor?’
‘I am. I have tutored him a little, in his chosen profession a few words of a foreign language can reap dividends when it comes to gratuities.’
‘Is it just the English language your tutor your pupils in?’ I asked.
‘I have a smattering of knowledge of other tongues, certainly enough to help with common phrases, but English is my main language, followed by French, Spanish, German and Russian. Angelo learned a little of those languages, but his main goal was to become fluent in English. He is a very good student, attentive and punctually completes any work I give him. With the other languages I mention he was keen to learn not only the usual greetings and basic everyday polite exchanges, but also phrases more concerned with, how shall I put it gentlemen, the language of love.’
‘We have heard him described as a ladies’ man,’ I interjected.
‘A more than fitting description, Doctor Watson. He loves their company, they love his. It’s an arrangement that entirely suits him and there is some financial gain, always a bonus for an often impoverished gondolier. You appear shocked, Doctor.’
‘I am not shocked, Professor, I have seen too much of life to be shaken by a matter like this. Rather, I am surprised that Angelo would let slip something like this.’
Professor Collins gave a wheezy chuckle which turned into a prolonged coughing fit. When he had regained his composure he continued.
‘You must excuse me, Doctor, my solitary life affords me very few opportunities for laughter. The fact of the matter is that Angelo did not let it slip, he likes to boast of it; his conquests and their generosity towards him. You may reason that he should be ashamed of what he does, but I say live and let live. He provides a service much like he does as a gondolier. Good luck to the fellow. But, tell me, has our romantic gondolier strayed into criminal activities? I cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes making a social call on a humble gondolier.’
‘As far as we are aware he is an upright citizen notwithstanding his amorous adventures. We are here at his sister’s request. She is worried because she has had no word from him for three days and her intuition leads her to believe there is something gravely wrong.’
‘It is not unknown for Angelo to sequester himself away for a period of time with a new acquaintance, something his sister must be well aware of. Three days absence is by no means unusual for Angelo.’
‘Do you know any of these acquaintances by name,’ Holmes asked.
‘Although Angelo is boastful, he does exercise a degree of discretion and has never revealed names to me. Of course I can deduce their nationalities by which language he needs to brush up on.’
‘Has there been such a request recently?’
‘There has indeed, Mr Holmes. Angelo was desirous of a little Russian to help smooth his way. Mostly phrases as I intimated before, redolent of the language of lovers.’
‘When did he make this request?’ Holmes asked.
‘It was three weeks ago today, Mr Holmes. I especially remember the date for that morning I had decided to embark on a thorough cleaning of my apartment. But, as you can see, gentlemen, the spirit is willing, but the flesh rather less so.’
Holmes got to his feet, picked up a stack of periodicals from the floor and placed them back on the chair he had vacated.
‘Thank you for your time, Professor Collins. You have been of great help.
‘It was a great pleasure to meet you both and if I can be of any further assistance please feel free to call again.’
‘Thank you. It’s entirely possible that we will need to use a little Russian ourselves. If so, we will be in touch. Arrivederci.’
‘Well, Holmes,’ I said, as we entered the campo once more, ‘there is nothing more we can do.’
‘I think there are several courses of action open to us. There can’t be that many Russians in Venice that one of their number cannot be tracked down. Angelo may have been the very soul of discretion with the professor, but he may be less inclined to be so with his fellow gondoliers; interviewing them may bear fruit.’
‘We do not know who his closest colleagues are and we have no clues as to who this Russian is.’
‘I think, Watson, that we can at least assign a gender to the Russian in question.’
‘A Russian needle in an Italian haystack.’
‘Oh, we can do better than that I am sure. Come, we will report back to Maria Grimaldi who can probably supply us with names of some of her brother’s fellow gondoliers. Along the way, Watson, we will begin our sight-seeing. I have in mind a small church that you will find most interesting.’