Emma blinked at Steed. “So this old man that you met on the cliff: that was Sherlock Holmes?”
“Yep,” said Steed.
“But you didn’t know that’s who it was.”
“No,” said Steed. “We didn’t exchange names. Also, I had always assumed that Holmes was a fictional character, something made up out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination. It never crossed my mind that Doyle’s stories might have been based on real people and real events, nor that the real Sherlock Holmes had actually retired to Sussex as Doyle had said he did, nor that he was in the habit of walking cliff paths where he might manhandle and chastise young I-Corps trainees.”
A bustle in the doorway made Steed and Mrs Peel sit up straight in their seats, as the landlady came into the snug to collect their dinner things. After Steed and Emma praised her cooking highly, and asked that their pint glasses be refilled, she bustled back out again, beaming with pleasure, and promising to return immediately with fresh drinks.
Once the landlady had gone, Steed and Emma slouched back down, he staring into the empty grate and she looking out the window where night was rapidly falling.
“So how did you find out … ” said Emma.
“That it was Holmes who pulled me back from the edge?” said Steed.
“As it turned out, that wasn’t the only encounter I had with him during that leave.”
“Ah,” said Emma, silently reveling that there was more of this story yet to be told.
“Indeed,” said Steed.
Steed paused in his story as the landlady brought in two freshly pulled pints. She hurried out, turning on soft, mellow lights in the snug as she did so. A rising hum of cheerful conversation began to float in from the bar and from the terrace outside, where the regulars apparently preferred to take their drinks on this warm summer evening. This was fine by Mrs Peel: it meant she and Steed continued to have the snug for themselves, which made it more likely that he would keep talking.
Steed took a long draught of his beer, then held the glass up to the light and admired the rich amber color of the liquid.
“This really is excellent,” he said. “We shall have to come back some time, I think. What say you?”
“Yes, definitely,” said Emma. “So. Holmes.”
Steed flashed a crooked grin at her. Mrs Peel definitely could be single-minded sometimes, and apparently she was not to be deterred from hearing the rest of his tale.
“So. My leave had started on the evening of the Thursday. I arrived in Sussex and had the encounter on the cliff the following morning, after which I rambled along the coast to Cuckmere Haven, then turned north to join the South Downs Way. I followed that path for the rest of the day, stopping to admire the Wilmington Giant and to climb Firle Beacon. I camped in a farmer’s field that night, and the next morning continued to follow the Way towards Winchester. It was a lovely walk, with green rolling hills and the occasional tumulus. But by late afternoon heavy clouds were rolling in, suggesting that the night was going to be a rather wet and nasty one, not at all nice for camping in, so I went into the next village I happened upon and found a room, hot bath, and a hot meal at the pub….”
Steed awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the roof tiles, and went to look out the window. Evidently putting up in the pub had been a good decision: it was raining hard, and had been for some hours by the looks of the puddles in the road. He got up, dressed, and went down to breakfast, where the landlord told him he was welcome to stay in until the rain passed, showing Steed the small library of books and newspapers he kept for just such occasions. Supplied with reading material and access to a wireless, Steed settled down by the hearth in the parlor for guests, and prepared to wait out the storm.
By lunch time, it had become clear that the wet weather intended to continue for the remainder of the day, and the forecast suggested that there might be more to come later that night. Steed became restless. He knew that he was more than tough enough to survive a soaking tramp across the next part of the Downs and a stormy night in a tent, but this was a holiday, and he didn’t fancy trudging first through the rain and then through the mud that would surely be along his path once the rain finally stopped. As cozy as the pub was, and as hospitable the landlord, Steed didn’t fancy sitting here until things dried out, either.
Steed consulted about trains with the landlord and a few of the regulars who had come in for their lunchtime pint. He found that there was a convenient train that afternoon that would get him to the station near his parents’ country house by early evening. It was unlikely that his sister Helen would be there, since she was off doing war service of her own, but it would be fun to surprise his mother with an unannounced visit. Steed arranged to hitch a ride to the station with one of the regulars who was headed that way, paid his bill, then went up to pack his things.
The rain had stopped by the time Steed exited the train and set out on foot towards his family’s home, but a piercing, cold wind straight off the Channel had taken its place, driving every last shred of cloud from the skies, moaning through the tree branches and making them sway wildly. Steed had planned for this kind of early autumn weather: he was wearing a windbreaker, a good wool jumper, and heavy corduroy trousers, but even they weren’t really sufficient to keep the heavier gusts of wind from knifing through to his skin, assisted by the damp that remained from the rain. Steed shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets as he walked along the country road in the rapidly deepening dusk, doubly glad that he had decided to cut his walking holiday short. He could spend a pleasant few days with his family instead, warm and dry, then return to training refreshed and ready to tackle whatever new challenges awaited him.
Steed arrived at the gate to his family’s property just as the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the horizon. It was a good thing that it was still twilight and that he knew the drive so well: between the moonless night that was coming and the blackout regulations, it would be pitch dark very soon. There would be no lights visible from the windows of the house to guide him, and he hadn’t even bothered to pack a hand torch, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to use one after sunset anyway.
Soon the silhouette of a large Tudor house loomed in front of him. Steed marched up to the front door and pulled the bell. When there was no answer after a few minutes, he became concerned. Had his parents gone elsewhere for the weekend? Maybe he should have telephoned first, to see whether anyone would be home. He was beginning to consider finding a way to break in, or maybe doss down in the stables if those were open, when the door opened noiselessly and a formally dressed, elderly man with white thinning hair appeared against the sable backdrop of the blackout curtain that had been hung across the inside of the doorway.
“Yes?” said the man, with an air of severe propriety.
“Hughes?” said Steed. “It’s me, John. I know I ought to have phoned first, but I’m on leave and had a sudden change of plans, so I thought I’d stop in for a day or two.”
The man’s face broke into a broad smile.
“Young Master John?” said the man, squinting at Steed through the gloom.
“The very same,” said Steed, grinning.
“Dear me! It is good to see you, sir, if I may be so bold as to say so. Come in, come in!”
Steed allowed himself to be ushered into the front hall by the butler, who closed the door and studiously pulled the blackout curtain back into place before taking a matchbox out of his pocket and lighting the three candles on a candelabrum that stood on a nearby table while Steed took off his rucksack and set it on the floor.
“You will forgive me for not switching on the electric lights, sir,” said Hughes, taking Steed’s windbreaker and draping it over his forearm, then bending to pick up Steed’s rucksack, “but your father has ordered we use them as little as possible for the moment. Wartime conservation, you know.”
“Is Father at home?” said Steed.
“Not at the moment. Mr Steed was called away on business and is not expected to return for some days. Miss Helen is still on active duty in Kent,” said Hughes, anticipating Steed’s next question. And before Steed could ask, the butler said, “Your mother is here, however.”
As if on cue, the sound of a rich contralto voice floated down the stairs.
“Hughes? Who is at the door?”
This was followed by the glow of a single candle on the landing above the entry hall, a glow that accompanied the arrival of an elegant woman with dark, wavy hair that was gently pulled back at the nape of her neck, and who was wearing a heavy dressing-gown made of green silk.
Steed looked up at her, smiling.
“John? Is that you?”
“It is indeed.”
Steed’s mother quickly descended the stairs. Steed moved to meet her at their foot, where she stopped on the last step to give him a kiss on his forehead and brush back into place the curls that had fallen loose.
“Whatever are you doing here?” she said.
“Why, can’t I come and visit my own mother when I please?” he said, grinning.
“Well, yes, but—”
“Not to fear, Mother. I have a bit of leave and thought I’d stop in for a day or two, if that’s convenient.”
“Yes, quite convenient. Oh, let me look at you,” she said, holding up her candle and smiling tenderly at her son.
Hughes politely cleared his throat.
“Madam,” he said, “shall I take Master John’s things up to his room?”
Mrs Steed descended the last stair to face the butler.
“Yes, please, Hughes. Forgive me for keeping you waiting. And then you can retire for the night. Thank you.”
“Good night, Hughes,” said Steed. “Thank you.”
“Good night, sir; madam,” said Hughes, as the other two stepped aside to let him pass.
Mother and son watched the glow of Hughes’ candles fade as he headed down the corridor towards Steed’s room. Then Mrs Steed took her son’s arm and began to steer him towards the kitchen.
“You must be hungry and ready for a cup of tea,” she said.
Emma gave Steed a hard stare. “Don’t you dare tell me that you got into the kitchen to find Sherlock Holmes sitting there munching on Cook’s biscuits.”
Steed snorted into his beer glass, then took another draught.
“Not quite,” he said. “Not quite.”
He put the glass back on the table and seemed to be studiously avoiding Mrs Peel’s pert gaze.
“All right then,” she said. “Don’t tell me that the famous Sherlock Holmes and your dear Mama were childhood friends who had somehow managed to keep in touch over all those years.”
“All right, I won’t tell you that, either.”
Mrs Peel put her hands on her hips and glared at Steed. The man could be truly infuriating sometimes.
“I won’t tell you that because it’s not true. They weren’t childhood friends.”
“So was he in the kitchen eating biscuits?”
Steed cocked an eyebrow at Mrs Peel.
“Nothing of the sort,” he said. “But there was the end of a jar of his honey—which was extremely good, by the way—and Mother did say over that pot of tea that he might be persuaded to part with another.”
“Did she, now?” said Emma. “She told you that you were privileged to be eating honey produced by none other than the great Sherlock Holmes himself?”
Steed took another swig of his beer.
“Not in so many words.”
Ah, thought Mrs Peel. So now the truth comes out.
“Mother only mentioned that she had gotten the honey from a kindly beekeeper friend of hers who lived on the Downs near Eastbourne. She didn’t mention that the beekeeper was Holmes, nor did she say how she knew him. At least she hadn’t done at that point.”
Emma sat back, crossed her arms, and stretched out her legs, crossing them at the ankle. She was beginning to wonder whether Steed was making all this up to tease her; it would be just like him. But whether this was all a figment of Steed’s fertile imagination or not, Mrs Peel wanted to see where the rest of the story went, so she reached out for her glass, took a sip of ale, and waited for more.