A new Sherlock Holmes story – set in Crowhurst in 1909, featuring local names and landmarks that are very familiar.
Fr Michael Brydon and Paul Johnson are both massive Holmes fans, but always felt it remiss that Conan Doyle failed to send Holmes to Crowhurst in any of his stories. So they decided they should rectify this…
‘What do you think, my dear doctor, of this?’ enquired my friend Sherlock Holmes.
Out onto the blotter he dropped a surprisingly colourful, but sadly mangled set of butterfly wings.
‘Good heavens!’ I exclaimed, ‘It is nothing to do with that butterfly-net wielding maniac Stapleton, who nearly killed poor Sir Henry Baskerville with that accursed hound?’
‘Watson you are being illogical,’ retorted Holmes. ‘Stapleton drowned in the Grimpen Mire before our eyes. Besides, these wings belonged to some unfortunate specimens of Apatura iris, commonly known as the Purple Emperor. These Lepidopterous remains are from the Sussex village of Crowhurst, where they have been appearing with singular regularity. Crowhurst, you will recall, is the railway junction at which we have changed en route to Newhaven and the Continent.
‘Here,’ he continued, handing over a folded missive, ‘This letter will explain it to you.’
Crowhurst, Battle, Sussex
20th December 1909
Dear Mr Holmes,
I am the rector of the parish of Crowhurst.
My local squire is Lt Col Papillon, whom as you may guess from his name, descends from a French family. Although the name has been anglicised to be pronounced Per-pill-on, it will not surprise you that butterflies still feature upon the family shield. The Colonel has served in India and, more recently, in South Africa. He is much concerned with the well-being of the estate, is a conscientious magistrate and a talented archaeologist. You may have read of his discovery of the small statue of the Roman Gladiator at the old imperial town of Colchester.
The Colonel is a somewhat reserved man who believes in shouldering his problems privately. However on a recent visit to Crowhurst Park, I discovered that all was not well. I am a naturalist myself, so was interested when he showed me a preserved butterfly, although disappointed that the specimen had been damaged. I knew at once that it was a Purple Emperor and would not be found locally. For months now the Colonel has been receiving anonymous unposted letters containing the damaged remain of the Purple Emperor.
He is a no-nonsense soldier, so is dismissive of it, but I am concerned that more malice than he will contemplate lies behind it.
‘Bacon-Philips?’ I cried. ‘Isn’t he that parson who is always writing into the Daily Telegraph? He has a real bee in his bonnet about bicycles undermining civilisation as nobody will have time to stop and talk to each other anymore!’
‘Watson, you are indeed correct. If a British record existed for voluminous published correspondence, then this Reverend gentlemen would be the holder.’
‘I can impress you still further,’ I continued.
‘If you are to tell me,’ Holmes interjected, ‘That you know the esteemed Col Papillon, then this is already known to me. He features on that group photograph of a military cricket match from your time in India. It is true he is not named, but his slightly older face has featured regularly in the illustrated papers. It must be some time since you last met, so I am sure you will wish to renew your acquaintance. Indeed, I have already sent a telegram to tell him to expect us a little before luncheon. Ah, I think Mrs Hudson is now answering the door to the cabbie who will take us to Charing Cross.’
Holmes’ assumption that I had nothing else planned was imperious in the extreme, but factually true this day, so I found myself en route to Sussex.
From the size of the railway station one might think Crowhurst to be a small town, where in point of fact it is a small village. Its primary claim to fame, as I learnt from my guide book, is its ancient Yew, which is said to date from before the time of the Norman Conquest. Col Papillon was clearly proud of it, since as I commented to Holmes, he had only just had it fenced in with spiked iron railings to protect its ancient trunk.
Crowhurst Park, the Colonel’s home, was a pleasant seventeenth century house, which looked as if it might have been built to serve as a shooting lodge. After a brief pause on the threshold, Holmes strode through the hall after the butler, who showed us into the library. A quick glance around this room showed good evidence of both the colonel’s military and antiquarian interests.
As I paused over a cabinet of Roman coins, I sensed that the door had opened.
‘My dear doctor! It has been a long time,’ remarked Col Papillon. ‘But, like many others, I follow your exploits.’
‘Watson,’ interrupted Holmes, ‘has a tendency towards the picturesque narrative and is incapable of giving a clear, rational and scientific account. My methods are based upon reason, evidence and deduction.’
Such an outburst was all too common and had long ceased to bother me. Col Papillon also recognised that it was of no consequence and swiftly turned to the matter in hand.
‘You are here, I presume, at the behest of Bacon-Philips? A good man in many ways, but a touch peremptory also. If I had known that he intended to write to you, I should have asked him to desist.’
‘But you did not,’ Holmes answered, ‘And we are here, so pray lay the facts before us.’
The Colonel had not much to add to what we knew, but he did show us several envelopes, addressed to him in a printed script, containing further examples of the mutilated Purple Emperor. Holmes briefly fingered the envelopes and then seemed to lose interest in them. Instead, he walked to the window and then turned abruptly.
‘Tell me Colonel. Has a member of your household travelled to Dieppe recently?’
‘Why yes, but what relevance does it have to this?’ Papillon asked quizzically.
‘Possibly nothing, possibly everything, but who has been?’
‘My under butler, a man called Rother, but he has worked for me for years without a problem. The Rothers are an old Sussex family; indeed you might say there are rivers of them around here. They are entirely law abiding. With the exception of the younger brother, who came up before me for poaching, which is sadly, even here, a too frequent occurrence.’
‘Yes, yes,’ retorted Holmes, ‘I am sure your under butler is excellent. May we see the esteemed Rother? Perhaps you could ring for him?’
‘As we wait,’ Holmes continued, ‘Dr Watson and I should very much like to see your celebrated statue of the Roman Gladiator from Colchester.’
‘Rother, I repeat,’ answered the Colonel, ‘Is an excellent man and you must promise me not to distress him. In return, I am happy to show you the Gladiator. He lives here in my desk drawer, awaiting construction of a more fitting display case.’
Having pulled the bell rope, the Colonel opened the middle drawer and lifted out a small, linen-wrapped bundle. As he unwound his precious package, he momentarily blanched at the site of a bottle filled with sand.
Only Holmes did not seem surprised.
‘As I suspected; there is some jealousy afoot at your recent discovery. Colchester was an imperial city, was it not? Claimed by the Emperor Claudius, the fourth of the emperors to be raised to the Purple. Having read of your discovery of the Gladiator, I immediately suspected that the Purple Emperor was something to do with this.’
All fell silent as the door opened and Rother entered. ‘You rang for me, Sir?’
‘The Gladiator! It has gone!’ exploded the Colonel.
‘Look man! The wrappings contain this worthless rubbish!’
‘Should I send for the police?’
‘An excellent idea!’ interrupted Holmes, ‘It is quite obviously some local thief who heard of your success, and exactly the sort of matter that even the rural constabulary should be able to solve on their own. Dr Watson and I can return to London forthwith.’
‘But the Purple Emperors! Despite my family name having some prominence in this county, no ordinary thief would goad me like that!’ commented Papillon.
‘Well, perhaps the local force should be looking for a felon with a small grudge against you and a passion for butterflies too. It certainly should not detain me any longer. We shall take the next train back to London.’
Despite the Colonel’s protestations, Holmes would not be persuaded to remain and insisted on leaving immediately, in the hope of catching the next train.
We were early and sheltered at the Station Inn, a newly built brick edifice, which seemed strangely at odds with the old buildings of this small Sussex village. But the past is resilient in Sussex, as was evidenced by the arrival of the next group of visitors to the inn. We became aware of a disturbance outside the inn’s doors, closely followed by a troupe of curiously dressed individuals, their faces blackened, entering the premises and acting out a particularly boisterous play.
‘The local Tipteerers,’ ventured the landlord, ‘They are performing the Crowhurst version of St George and the Turkish Knight. Let us hope they don’t make a boffle of it, like that last lot!’
We watched in grim fascination as the bucolic play proceeded. It concluded with the saint slaying the Turk, who was then, miraculously, restored to life.
‘What a curious and barbaric survival!’ commented Holmes of the performance, ‘But in its unscientific way, it does show that those who are willing to use their deductive powers may still reverse the apparent jaws of defeat. Come, Watson! It is time for us to proceed to the churchyard and conceal ourselves.’
‘But Holmes,’ I protested ‘We will miss our train! And why should we need to walk back down the hill into the village?’
‘There isn’t time to explain,’ he retorted. ‘Follow me and all will become clear; we await our prey in the churchyard.’
On arriving at the churchyard, Holmes indicated that we should hide in the shadow of a young Oak tree, the gravestones looming eerily in the light of a full moon. The strains of music floated through the air as carollers rehearsed in the distance.
It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet it brought with it something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies behind the water-pool and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of prey. What tiger of crime might steal upon us out of the darkness?
At last, the gentle, almost imperceptible tread of a light foot sounded upon the carpet of fallen leaves. Even among the dark shadows, a figure could be seen proceeding towards the ancient Yew. Some sort of bolster was thrown onto the railings and the phantom levered himself over the top.
‘Now!’ yelled Holmes, as we extracted ourselves from our hiding place and dashed for the Yew.
‘What animal have we caught tonight? Like the Purple Emperors, you are caught in our net and pinned forever if we wish.’
The figure gave a cry of alarm and then one of despair as he realised that the spiked railings trapped him. I held up a newly lit lamp and found myself staring at the Colonel’s butler. ‘Rother! It’s you!’
I was doubly astounded to hear Holmes announce, ‘If you hand me the Gladiator now, you may yet keep your position. If you do not, then I think we may use this railed area as a useful holding pen, before the arrival of the local constabulary.’
‘All right Sir. Here it is.’ muttered Rother, as he leaned inside the ancient Yew, dislodged some chippings and produced a sack. He pulled back the sacking and the exquisite form of the gladiator briefly caught the moonlight.
‘Now,’ said Holmes, ‘I think Dr Watson may appreciate an account of your doings, but be assured this is one story that will not appear in the Strand Magazine. Tell it honestly and you may go free.’
‘Well Sir, I am very loyal to the Colonel, who has always been good to me. My family live on the Crowhurst estate and the Colonel is a good landlord. Strict, but fair to us. My brother, he was foolish and went poaching. He lost his place and was soon in debt. I couldn’t see him on the street, but I had no money to help.’
‘Yes, yes,’ interrupted Holmes, ‘And then you made the acquaintance of another archaeologist; one who felt that your master’s discovery of the Colchester Gladiator should have been his. The name is immaterial, but he offered you, shall we say, certain encouragements to secure the item for him?’
‘Why! Yes Sir! But I would never have done so, if it were not for my brother. And now am I to be ruined also?’
‘I think not,’ answered Holmes, ‘Since I may dispense justice as I wish. I shall return the sculpture to the Colonel and, through my own ways, send a message to the man who bought you that the price of my silence is what he has paid to you. Be assured that the sword of Damocles is lifted from you and that you will be left in peace.’
‘But Holmes,’ I finally interrupted, ‘How did you know any of this?’
‘Watson; you see, but you do not observe. During our visits to the continent we have invariably gone via Dieppe where, Watson, you may recall, there is a very fine shop by the parish church. They specialise in the more exotic kinds of butterfly. Indeed, they are the primary importers. The unhappy Rother was no doubt commissioned to buy them on his visit there. It seemed obvious to me that a local man must be involved, if the mangled butterflies were finding their way to Crowhurst Park by means other than the postal service.’
‘But the Yew? How did you know to look there?’ I responded.
‘Ah! There I must confess: that was chance!’ answered my friend. ‘En route, we learnt that the Yew had recently been railed to keep people off it, thus making it an admirable place to hide something small. You may have read my monograph on the poisonous flora of the British Isles? I pride myself on being able to recognise all of them, including Taxus baccata, our English Yew. I noticed some squashed berries and conifer needles on the doorstep at Crowhurst Park. This fact was not significant, however, until I saw powdery smudges on Rother’s sleeve indicating that he had been in recent, close contact with a tree of venerable age. I could not be certain that he would attempt to remove it tonight, but I felt my questioning of him and notice of our intention to return to London would prompt him to action.’
‘And now we must deliver the Colonel’s Christmas present of the Colchester Gladiator, before we do indeed return to Baker Street.’
‘And yet, my dear friend, there is something strangely soothing about this Sussex countryside. Perhaps one day even I could retire to such a place and devote myself to some simple pursuit such as the keeping of bees.’
Holmes did not reveal the name of the Colonel’s rival in the field of archaeology to me. However, the following week he undertook a trip to the Continent by himself and three weeks later I received a telegram with the short, but informative, message:
Purple Emperors, concluded. S.H.
Lt-Col Papillon was indeed a professional soldier and an amateur archaeologist; the Colchester Gladiator may be seen in the British Museum.
There is a Crowhurst mummers’ play (tipteerer being the local Sussex name for mummers) and the Yew was railed at the start of the twentieth century. Holmes does retire to Sussex to keep bees and a journey, via Crowhurst, would not have been illogical on his continental trips. The Rev’d James Bacon-Philips was rector of Crowhurst and had a reputation for a high number of published letters. Everything else is complete fiction!
– Fr Michael Brydon and Paul Johnson