When Althea Battlefield first referred to the Sacred Writings, I naturally assumed that she meant the American Kennel Club Obedience Regulations.
She didn't. What Althea had in mind--what Althea held perpetually in the forefront of her considerable intellect--was The Complete Sherlock Holmes.
is quite right, however, except perhaps in the nuptial sense of to have and to hold.
Althea loved and cherished Holmes's adventures with a passion that admitted only the richer and the better, and entirely discounted the possibility of the poorer or the worse. As to the bit about from this day forward,
if you count Althea's six preliterate years of dependence on parental voices, she'd been reading Sherlock Holmes for ninety years.
This is to say that soon after Rowdy and I first entered Althea's room at the Gateway Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, she and I recognized each other as kindred spirits, women with passions: in her case, Sherlock Holmes; in mine, dogs. Not that I disliked Holmes. On the contrary, the ill-used hound of the Baskervilles was one of my favorite literary characters, as I was quick to tell Althea, who pretended to bristle at the suggestion that the beast had been other than real. And not that Althea disliked dogs. Indeed, Althea's mild fondness for dogs was the reason Rowdy and I began to visit her in the first place. When she referred to my gorgeous Alaskan malamute as a "big husky," however, I pretended to take umbrage. In other words, Althea knew about as much about dogs as I did about Sherlock Holmes.
Before I say anything else about Althea or about the subsequent murder of her grandnephew, Jonathan Hubbell, I want to state outright that in taking Rowdy on pet therapy visits to the Gateway, I wasn't engaged in a mission of noble altruism. I'm ordinarily thrilled to have my self-serving motives mistaken for saintly wishes to help others, but this is a story about trickery--fakery, fraud, artifice, subterfuge, call it what you will--and I feel impelled to dissociate myself from the deliberate effort to deceive. In fact, Rowdy became a therapy dog only because I'd taken him to an obedience fun match that also offered therapy dog testing, and I'd had him tested because I knew he'd breeze through and because I thought I'd found an effortless way to get him a new title. Hah! Well, Rowdy aced the test, but as I discovered only when I registered him with Therapy Dogs International, that organization takes ferocious objection to having its initials, T.D.I., used as a title. Why? Because of an utterly irrational suspicion that certain despicably title-hungry dog owners might see T.D.I. only as an easy new title and, once having obtained it, might selfishly refuse to take their dogs on therapy visits. So there I was with a certified therapy dog and no new title when I heard about a local Boston-area group called Paws for Love, which did a thorough job of screening dogs and training handlers for therapy work, and--not that I cared, of course--would bestow on Rowdy the title Rx.D. when he had visited his assigned facility fifteen times.
The plastic plaque on the wall outside Althea's room on the fifth and top floor of the Gateway displayed two names: A. BATTLEFIELD
and H. MUSGRAVE.
Althea's roommate, Helen, was a sprightly little woman who took frequent advantage of the numerous events listed in the Gateway's monthly calendar and posted on the little kiosk in the first-floor lobby. I never found Helen napping on her bed. Rather, when she wasn't having her hair done or attending a sing-along, a coffee hour, or an arts and crafts class, she bustled around rearranging the greeting cards, snapshots, and photocopied notices pinned to her cork bulletin board. I have never understood how Helen managed to keep track of the Gateway's elaborate schedule of events. Her delight in the family photographs and cards on her bulletin board sprang in part from the perpetual novelty they held for her. The identities of the pleasant-looking people in the pictures were a mystery to her; she puzzled over the handwritten messages and signatures on the cards. The first time Rowdy and I entered Helen and Althea's room, Helen, whose bed was the one near the door, sprang from her armchair, gave an enthusiastic cry, and darted around exclaiming, "A beauty! Isn't he big! Isn't he big!"
Rowdy preened. I smiled. "You like dogs?" Although the inquiry was clearly unnecessary, I'd been trained to ask.
Helen abruptly stopped dashing and chattering to concentrate on mulling over my question. She acted more or less the way I would if someone asked me whether I liked caducei. First, I'd have to remember what they were. Then I'd have to decide whether I had any feelings about them one way or the other.
From a wheelchair positioned to give a good view out the big plate-glass window, a high-pitched, authoritative voice decreed, "Yes, but she prefers cats."
"I prefer..." Helen began unhappily.
"You like dogs, but you prefer cats," the voice informed her.
Although the woman by the window was seated, it was immediately clear that she was the tallest person I'd seen at the Gateway, taller than any of the men, indeed one of the longest women I'd ever encountered anywhere. Her hands were so large that in the days when she'd needed outdoor clothing, before she'd entered the Gateway, she must have had to buy men's gloves. I wondered what she'd done about hats. Her arms were tremendously long, and instead of resting her feet on the wheelchair, she stretched her legs way out in front to plant the soles of her orthopedic shoes flat on the floor. Her hair was short, white, curly, and so thin that her entire scalp was visible, as was the bone structure of her face. The skin on her forehead and cheeks had passed beyond what must have been a phase of lines and crinkles to a state of smooth translucency. Fine creases, however, surrounded blue eyes so pale that they were almost white, and folds of loose skin drooped from her elongated neck.
"I'm Holly," I said. "And this is Rowdy. Do you like dogs?"
Althea Battlefield thumped the padded arm of her wheelchair with an immense, bony hand. "Bring him right up here next to me, or I won't be able to see him. Closer!" Her hand groped. I used a puppy-size dog cookie to lure Rowdy into position.
a big dog, isn't he?" Althea said. "The other one that visits here is pint size. It's what's called a bichon frise." She didn't anglicize the pronunciation, but produced a somewhat self-conscious nasal and a French r
that would have left me with a sore throat.
I was tempted to ask Althea whether she'd ever owned a dog, but felt uneasy about raising the topic. Although I'd rapidly abandoned my resolution to shun first names, I was determined never to ask a question I'd heard from a new and well-meaning volunteer on my orientation visit: Did you have a dog?
she'd inquired of someone. I'd cringed at the unspoken preface to the question. Indeed, Back when you had a life, did you have a dog?
Then, turning her attention from Rowdy to me, Althea referred to the Sacred Writings. As I've mentioned, I misunderstood her. She corrected me by pointing to a long row of hardcover books that sat on the windowsill. Arrayed in front of the volumes was a collection of objects that reminded me of the knickknacks sold at dog shows. Instead of depicting terriers, pointers, or spaniels, however, Althea's figurines showed a pipe-smoking man who wore an Inverness cape and a deerstalker hat.
"Oh," I said stupidly, "do you like Sherlock Holmes?"
Every once in a while, of course, some dope asks me
whether I like dogs.
During January and early February, as Rowdy and I continued to make our weekly visits to the Gateway, I began to read the Sherlock Holmes stories, some for the first time, others, like The Hound of the Baskervilles
and "The Red-headed League," for the second, third, or fourth. Let me make this plain, however: Just as a vast, woofy gulf separates the real dog person from the person who really and merely enjoys dogs, so, too, a great gaslit chasm stretches between the true Sherlockian and the person like me who truly and merely enjoys Sherlock Holmes. I, for example, not only own two Alaskan malamutes, Rowdy and Kimi, but am a card-carrying member of the Dog Writers Association of America. Literally! I have a card. I carry it. It identifies me as a member of the press, a bit of an exaggeration, I always think--Dog's Life
magazine isn't exactly The New York Times
--but then again I own a D.W.A.A. baseball cap that I'm supposed to wear when I cover dog shows, and how many Times
correspondents can boast the equivalent? More to the point, when other dog people talk about fiddle fronts, woollies, sunken croups, good crowns, three-point majors, and the leathers of P.B.G.V.'s, I know exactly what's being said because everyone's speaking my language.
Feeling left out? If so, you know just how I felt on the Friday morning in mid-February when I led Rowdy into Althea's room at the Gateway and overheard the animated conversation she was holding with Robert MacPherson and Hugh Searles. I caught English words and phrases, sometimes whole sentences, yet entirely failed to grasp either the gist or the particulars. I teeter-tottered on the non-Sherlockian side of the gaslit chasm. For the sake of anyone who might actually be able to understand what Althea, Hugh, and Robert were chuckling and exclaiming about, I wish I'd had a tape recorder along, but I didn't. What I do remember made no sense to me. The word callosities
stands out in my mind, as does a reference to a Crown Derby tea set, a mention of the supply of game for London, an evidently witty allusion to coals of fire, what sounded like an arch question from Althea about coins of Charles the First, and, from Robert, a riposte, I think, concerning, I swear, the extirpation of fish. At that point, everyone but me burst out laughing, and Hugh remarked that I must think they were discussing the fertility of oysters.
Althea couldn't see Rowdy unless he was right next to her, but she knew my voice. In a manner I now recognize as Watsonian, instead of telling Rowdy to go say hi, I said, "Althea, you have visitors. If we're intruding--"
"Intelligent company is never an intrusion," Althea scolded.
Naturally, I thought she meant my idea of intelligent company, namely, the unrivaled companionship of an Alaskan malamute. Rowdy knew better. He sank to the floor and peacefully rested his head on his big snowshoe paws. With the lobby ladies, he was a performer. Gus needed a living link to the dogs he'd once loved; Rowdy was his animate time machine. Nancy's need was raw and primitive: She suffered from the depletion of life itself. Rowdy was her donor, like a blood donor, really, but a transfuser of vitality that you could almost see and touch as it shot from him to her and restored, however briefly, her powers of speech and reason. Althea liked dogs. But what she really loved was intelligent human companionship, by which she meant, of course, a conversation with someone who would talk about Sherlock Holmes.
"This is Rowdy," I told Althea's two guests. "I'm Holly. But meet Rowdy, and you've met me. A case of identity, so to speak." That's a title from the Canon: "A Case of Identity." I can be a worse show-off than Rowdy.
"Now," said Hugh, tentatively fingering the white hair on Rowdy's tummy, "would this be an Alaskan malamute?"
"He would be," I said. "In fact, he is."
Robert lightly cleared his throat. Rising, he reached over the Sherlock Holmes figurines and removed one of the volumes that rested on the windowsill beside Althea. In making my way through the Gateway, I had noticed that almost no one was ever reading and that books were almost completely absent from windowsills, shelves, and other places where people displayed their belongings. Here in Cambridge! Book City, U.S.A.! Althea, in contrast, kept a miniature library that included several editions of the Sacred Writings. Her most prized possessions, which she stored in her nightstand, were what looked to me like nothing to brag about, just a pair of undersize paperbacks, although I'll concede that the little books were bound in leather and bore Althea's name stamped in gold. She also had a small collection of books about Holmes, Watson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, she'd honored me by letting me borrow one; she'd wanted me to read a charming tongue-in-cheek essay by Rex Stout called "Watson Was a Woman." Anyway, when Robert selected the same one-volume Doubleday edition of the complete works that I owned myself, I felt terrible. I had no excuse. Althea had tried to introduce me to the science of deduction. But only now, as Robert picked up the book, removed a bookmark, and resettled himself in his chair, did I realize that Althea, the one person at the Gateway who lived amid books, had such poor eyesight that she was completely unable to read. I should have read to her. I should have scurried around finding books on tape, books, of course, about Sherlock Holmes. When I later offered to do just that, Althea refused. Robert and Hugh read to her, she explained. She had no desire to hear the Canon from the lips of others.
I got Rowdy to his feet and excused myself.
As we left, Robert began to read. "Holmes laid his hand upon my arm,"
Hugh interrupted in a cheerful effort to continue from memory. "If my companion would undertake it, there is no man--"
"No!" Robert bellowed. "No, no, no! My friend, my friend, my friend!"
"My apologies," said Hugh.
Althea's eyes were closed. She wore a gentle smile of contentment. The exchange between Hugh and Robert, I realized, must be as familiar to her as the Canon itself.
Mollified, Robert resumed where he had left off. "If my friend would undertake it, there is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place. No one can say so more confidently than I."
Robert must simply have picked up where he'd left off. Even so, it now seems to me that the passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles
was a fitting portion of scripture for my introduction to Robert and Hugh. Among Sherlockians, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is known as "The Friendship."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Barker Street Regulars by Susan Conant. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.