I’ve thought about my mom a lot this week. Most of that is because what would have been her 71st birthday is just over a week away. Some of it is the fact March 2nd marked seven months since we lost her. It’s funny, really; you can get to a point where you stop instinctively noting every single monthly anniversary that passes. Can feel like you have something close to a normal relationship with time again. Then, all of a sudden, you look at the calendar to add a completely innocuous appointment and get a punch to the gut for your trouble. You find yourself sitting in your car, waiting at the light at 10th and Topeka, bawling your eyes out to Michael Jackson. Then, if you’re me and have spent way too much time reading and thinking and writing about 19th Century England, you start thinking about the Victorians, who set time limits on grief and mourning dependent on the person’s relation to you, not what they meant to you. And then maybe you think about poor Queen Victoria, who spent her entire life publicly mourning Prince Albert (while potentially carrying on with/secretly marrying her Scottish groom, depending on who you ask).
And then you almost drive into a garbage truck, because you’re too busy crying/thinking about Victorians/singing along to “Man in the Mirror” badly to notice the existence of traffic. It wasn’t a good morning commute. Obviously.
I can blame just a little bit of it on Doyle, though. The mystery at the center of “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” is more about family dynamics than the priceless item mentioned in the title. The coronet itself is just a set piece the drama plays out around, really. Specifically, those aforementioned dynamics involve children who feel like they’ve disappointed or failed their parents in some way. We’ll avoid digging into my own issues on that specificity – you’re welcome – and focus instead on the self-created dysfunction of the Holder family instead.
Alexander Holder is a partner in one of the largest banks in the City of London (which is different than the city of London, lowercase c, but the explanation of that will take us more off track than Michael Jackson did). He’s also a widower, and also recently found himself in possession of an artifact of immense value. It seems a very important and unnamed client – who is hinted at being a member of the Royal Family – has left this item in Mr. Holder’s possession as collateral for a substantial loan. Fearing the security of bank vaults and of letting the item out of his sight, Mr. Holder takes the coronet, bejeweled with thirty-nine impressive beryls, home with him. The plan is to carry it back and forth on his person every day until the loan is repaid and the item reclaimed, and he really hopes it’s not a long wait. Keeping the coronet around makes him very, very twitchy. As it would.
All would have been fantastic, except for the fact he caught his son standing in his dressing room, with the coronet in hand, and a chunk of it missing.
Here’s where the family dynamics come to play. Mr. Holder explains that he has two children: a son, Arthur, who tends to get involved with dubious people and rake up impressive gambling debts; and a niece, Mary, who he adopted and considers his right hand. Arthur is constant and unmitigated trouble. Mary is a solid and steadying presence that makes sure the house keeps running. Arthur is described, by his father, as a disappointment – a “grievous disappointment”, in fact. Mr. Holder describes Mary as “a sunbeam in my house – sweet, loving, beautiful, a wonderful manager and housekeeper, yet as tender and quiet and gentle as a woman could be.” Arthur’s the one who points out the precarious security of the drawer his father decides to keep the coronet in while it’s at the house. It’s also Arthur who knocks on his father’s door after dinner to ask to borrow £200 to pay off a gambling debt. Mary, meanwhile, is seen locking up and assuring that the household is settled for the night and makes sure to point out that one of the maids snuck out to canoodle with her boyfriend by the gate. Very clear distinctions are drawn between the two; who they are, how their father feels about them, their inferred trustworthiness. Could even say, their implied worth as humans as well.
So of course Mr. Holder believes his son has stolen the hunk of coronet. He even goes so far as to call the police and have his son arrested to save the family honor. When Holmes suggests, during their conversation about the case, that Arthur might be innocent, Mr. Holder isn’t at all willing to believe it. This, despite the fact both of the children were present when Mr. Holder announced what would be lingering in their home for a few days; despite the fact that the staff, whom he quickly describes and in far more complimentary means than he did his son, potentially also overheard the news.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Mr. Holder. He did see his son with the broken coronet, after all. It’s hard to ignore catching the criminal red handed. But even when people offer explanations and potential other suspects, Mr. Holder isn’t willing to see them as reason to hope. He’s made up his mind, mostly because of how he perceives his son before any of the events take place.
Mr. Holder is, of course, wrong. Wouldn’t be much of a mystery, or a story, if he was right. In the end, he gets to hand over a nice chunk of his own fortune for his trouble, then have the fun of trying to earn his son’s forgiveness and rebuild that relationship. He also has to come to terms with the unfairness of how he’s viewed his family for the last few years and whether or not he could have avoided some of what happened if he’d only looked at it through a lens not tainted by his expectations.
True confession – I immediately thought, when I started reading the story, that the whole setup with the very important and unnamed person requesting a loan and leaving behind an expensive and impressive artifact as collateral was going to turn out to be some kind of scam. Too many mysteries and too much police procedural TV shows have made me cynical. And let’s not forget, Holmes has solved those kinds of cases himself. I doubt, when Doyle originally wrote this, that many readers had a whole lot of difficulty believing the initial conceit. All sounded insanely convenient and improbable to me, though. Anyway.
The actual criminals get away at the end, but not because Holmes wants them to (like last week) or necessarily allows it. I wonder what did happen to them and have a few theories based on the kinds of people they are. I wonder about that less than I do about whether or not Arthur Holder gets his life together and tries to salvage his relationship with his father, though.
So, what are the takeaways from this story? Maybe Mr. Holder shouldn’t have taken priceless artifacts home and kept them in a drawer with a flimsy lock. Maybe he should have spent less time condemning his son for his faults. Maybe he shouldn’t have discussed priceless artifacts being kept in flimsily secured drawers at the dinner table. He definitely should have spent less time comparing his two children and holding one up as the perfect example the other fails to ever meet. Trust me – that way lies many, many hours of therapy for both of the children.
Unpopular and random opinion time: I think Holmes would have been an interesting parent. As the younger child who felt at least a little compared to his older brother (I think we hear Mycroft described as “the smarter one” once or twice), I think he would have known the landmines inherent in the practice. He doesn’t have unreasonable or unrealistic expectations of people; he thinks everyone, short of himself, is flawed and accepts the knowledge as universal truth. He’s not as emotionally vapid, in canon, as he comes across sometimes in the adaptations. He’s capable of emotion – he just doesn’t let it overrun logic. Watson would make a great father, too. I’d wish half a dozen daughters on him, then sit back and watch them prove his (yes, era-appropriate) sexist ideals wrong on a daily basis. But I’m mean that way.
The fact we know nearly nothing about Holmes’ childhood is one of the things that both frustrates and intrigues me, but maybe this story gives us a small peek at what it was like for young Sherlock back in the day. It can’t just be pure logic that makes him believe in the innocence of – and almost sympathize with – Arthur Holder. Was he that son that didn’t live up to a parent’s expectations? Spent his childhood in big brother’s ill-fitting shadow? It’s a theory. Since Doyle never told us one way or another, theories are all we have. But I bet the dynamics in that house were interesting to say the very least.
On the theme of household dynamics, family or otherwise, I leave you with this.
The face is so dark that it is impossible to pick out details; the slope of a nose, the pucker of lips, the curve of a chin. Without sufficient light to cast shadows over the raised surface, the minutely carved profile blends into its glossy black mounting. It’s the kind of face someone has to be blind really to “see”: artwork that can only be enjoyed in braille. To my eye, in the curtained, ember-lit sitting room, the cameo in my hand is as blank as the face that watched my childhood home burn. To my fingers, though, it is a familiar profile. I have traced the swirls of the woman’s hair, the long line of her neck, the pert dip of her nose so many times that the onyx has worn down at the edges. My fingertips have walked their imprint into the stone. I know that face better than I know my own.
“Charlotte?” The voice behind me is thick with barely shed sleep, a yawn stretching out the “ar” in the middle. The footsteps that approach my chair are shuffling and heavy. Bare. They scoot across the carpet as if still asleep and their owner has to push them from place to place to move them. All the same, I know it’s Watson, despite the name employed. Anne’s voice is nowhere near as deep and she lacks the slight hitch in her stride characteristic of the doctor and his injured leg.
“Yes. Just me.” I tuck the black bag on my thigh into the crease between my leg and the chair. Certain habits aren’t within the doctor’s purview, even ones I haven’t had time yet to indulge this evening. “Don’t worry, you’re not being burgled, Watson. Not that you’re prepared to meet a thief if one was lurking about.”
“I heard you thrashing about. Didn’t sound like a burglar.” He flops into his own chair, a robe tied shut over striped pajamas. I’m shocked to see his pocket watch in his hand. He thumbs the button on the top and it pops open with a short, dull click. “Two a.m.. What the devil has you out of bed? No reason to be awake now, short of fire or flood. Nothing good ever comes at such an hour.”
My thumb skims the cameo’s chin on the way to its throat. You can certainly blame fire, I think, but I don’t provide the answer aloud. “A case of a fitful night’s rest, that’s all. I’m as prone to them as anyone else.”
“Moreso than some, I think.” He yawns again, stretching his bare feet toward the half-dead fire. He wiggles his toes as if it will somehow allow them to grasp more of the warmth he’s seeking. They are, I think, adorably long and bony toes.
I scoff, a quiet, quick expulsion of air that flutters the hair hanging across my face. “Have you been paying that close of attention, Doctor?”
“Your room, I think, is beneath mine. I don’t always sleep so well myself, so it’s not difficult to hear my neighbor when she’s having a bad night.” He pats down his pockets, then mutters a tired “Blast it all!” to himself. “You wouldn’t happen to have a…”
I stretch forward, the sterling men’s cigarette case extended in my hand. He takes it with a similarly muttered “thanks” and plucks a single stick from it. I toss the matches. He tries to catch them, but they land instead on his lap. He tosses the case. I catch it one-handed.
“Eavesdropping is a bit rude,” I say, watching his profile in the flare of the lit match as it burns at the cigarette’s end.
“Then I must be a rude man.” Smoke floats up from his long exhale and swirls above his head like a living shadow. “Likely the Scottish influence.” I smile. I doubt he sees it in the dark. I see enough to spy a tendril of smoke expelled from a nostril that weaves briefly through the coarse hair of his mustache. “Nightmare?”
“The thing that wakes you so often. Is it a nightmare?”
“What do you think goes on out there this time of night?” I ask the question as I stand, passing his chair close enough to pluck the cigarette from his fingers. I drag in a breath deep enough that my lungs ache at the end, wondering if the smoke that night tasted different, felt different as my parents breathed it in. I stop at the window and pull the curtain open just enough to peer at the world outside. “Maybe all of London is awake tonight, staring out their windows and wondering after their neighbors, too.”
I hear Watson sigh. The chair creaks as he stands; his feet shuffle less this time than before. It sounds closer to the stuttering gait I’ve come to recognize as his. “You pride yourself on prizing out other people’s secrets, but bury your own. Everything of you, to you, is a secret.” He stops behind me. His breath disturbs my hair. Warmth radiates outward from him like a tangible wall at my back. “Is there something wrong with letting people know you?”
“People know enough.” Father’s cigarette case is a heavy weight in the pocket of my robe. My left hand closes tighter around the cameo, my mother’s cameo, dangling at my side. Watson’s hand wraps around mine, lifting it. With a gentle twist, he turns it so my palm faces upwards and urges my fingers open.
“What about those that might wish to be considered more than just ‘people’?
His thumb caresses the edge of my palm. His head cants; I know it because his breath fans the side of my neck, now, not my hair. My heart pounds against my ribcage like the hooves of a runaway horse. I imagine his fingers following the same curves and arches as mine had on the cameo, but over my jaw, my throat, my lips. I can’t speak, because I’m afraid the only words that will come out of my mouth are “Kiss me,” the two words screaming so loudly in my head that he has to, somehow, be able to hear them. For a second, I’m sure he does. For just that second, he sways, tenses, the precursors to movement that will bring his hand to my jaw to guide it into the right tilt so his lips can answer my repeated prayer.
But then his hand falls away, almost reluctant, I think; his fingers linger a moment too long at my wrist to be entirely happy to leave it. He steps back. Deliberate. No sign of a shuffle there at all. “Go back to bed, Charlotte. Doctor’s orders.”
I wait until the sitting room door closes and his footsteps recede completely before I sink into the nearest chair. My knees feel like poorly set aspic. My heart is still running races even after that particular finish line has passed. I tuck the cameo in the pocket of my robe and drag in another deep lungful of tobacco-laced smoke.
I have something else entirely keeping me awake now.