Title: The Peculiar Incident of the Rhinoceros on the Downs
Author: Rusty Armour
Fandom: Sherlock Holmes - ACD
Characters: Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Mrs. Hudson (sort of)
Category: Comedy, parody
Word Count: 2942
Summary: On a visit to the Sussex Downs, Watson begins to question his friend’s sanity when, instead of eliminating the impossible, Sherlock Holmes seems to be embracing it.
Spoilers: Fairly big spoilers for “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and passing references to A Study in Scarlet and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”.
Notes: Apologies in advance for this story. I was re-reading “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” when the parody muse decided to strike. It was Fitzroy McPherson’s dying words that did it and the idea just wouldn’t leave me alone after that. I don’t know if anyone will enjoy this silly little fic, but I couldn’t not write it and I certainly had fun in the process. I won’t apologize for that. *g*
I not only consulted the Canon for fact-checking purposes, but relied on William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective as well.
Disclaimer: With the exception of the rhinoceros and the two corpses on Holmes’s carpet, none of these characters are mine and I would never, ever, ever even consider claiming them as such. They belong entirely to a vastly superior writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was a warm, balmy day in early June of 1908 when I decided to pay a visit to Sherlock Holmes at his villa in the Sussex Downs. I had seen my friend all too infrequently of late due to distractions of a domestic nature and a cold, prevailing wind that had been hitting the southern coast – or, so, my wife had informed me. Indeed, this bitter wind did not clear until just before my wife’s intended journey to Brighton to visit friends, so, while my dear wife was away, I also availed myself of the opportunity to leave London.
After such a prolonged absence, I was half-expecting a chilly reception from Sherlock Holmes, but his greeting was warm and effusive and he wasted no time in inviting me into his sitting room and regaling me with tales of his apian exploits. I must confess that I was fighting to maintain consciousness as Holmes described the numerous applications for royal jelly and had nearly succumbed to sleep, when I heard a shot fired and sprang from my chair.
“Do not be alarmed, old fellow,” said Holmes. “The shot most likely came from one of the locals hunting rabbit.”
“But the shot was so loud, Holmes. It almost sounded as if it could have been on your property.”
Holmes turned his head toward the window thoughtfully and puffed on his pipe.
“They do venture quite close to my property at times,” said he, “but I usually forgive them if they present the spoils of their victory to my housekeeper. I am quite fond of rabbit and willing to overlook such trespasses so long as they do not disturb the harmony of my bees. Now, Watson, where did we leave off in our discourse?”
I found myself being lured into the welcoming arms of Morpheus once more when I heard a terrific bang that sounded very much like the front door being flung open by the wind or a very persistent visitor. Had there been a knock that I had failed to perceive? I had just risen from the armchair when a young man, who could not have been more than four and twenty, stumbled into the room. He was tall and thin with sandy hair and what might have been a ruddy complexion if his skin had not turned so pale and grey, and blood had not been flowing freely through the fingers clutching at his shoulder. I ran to the man at once, catching him before he fell. As I laid him gently on the ground, he gasped out these words on his dying breath: “The bullet. The deadly bullet.”
Holmes stood over us both, shaking his head. “This is a bad business, Watson. Very bad.”
“But what can it mean, Holmes?”
“It is death, Watson,” said Holmes. “This poor, unfortunate fellow has shuffled off this mortal coil and ventured to that undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
“Well, yes, Holmes. I am a doctor. I could observe as much. What I meant to say was-”
I was interrupted by yet another commotion in this seemingly tranquil abode. This time, there was a frantic knocking at the door and a scream from the housekeeper, before our second visitor made his presence known. This was also a young man. He possessed a shorter stature than the first, but he was much more robust with his broad, muscular shoulders and athletic physique. His thatch of dark hair stood out against the pallor of his cheeks and he staggered toward Holmes with a dagger in his chest.
“Deep, penetrating stab wound,” said he before collapsing at Holmes’s feet. I crouched down beside the poor man, but it was as I feared. He too was dead.
“Oh, it’s murder, Mr. Holmes!” cried the housekeeper. “Two murders! Two horrible, grisly murders!”
Holmes had set down his pipe and was fishing around in his pockets for a cigarette.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before being in full possession of the facts, dear lady,” said he. “If you would be kind enough to summon the police once you have finished making our tea, I would be most obliged.”
I managed to hold my tongue until the housekeeper had left the room, but it was a terrible struggle.
“Holmes, how could you possibly believe that what we are facing here isn’t murder?”
Holmes had finally succeeded in procuring a cigarette and was just in the process of lighting it. He paused, considered my question, and then lit the cigarette all the same.
“Last summer, I had a case that quite literally fell into my lap. It involved an unfortunate fellow named Fitzroy McPherson. McPherson had been bathing in the lagoon at the base of the cliffs when he was attacked. He appeared to have been flogged by the most frightful wire scourge, but that wasn’t what happened at all, Watson. He was, in fact, killed by a Cyanea capillata.”
I waited patiently for further clarification from Holmes, but none was forthcoming.
“You shall have to forgive me, old man, but what the deuce is a Cyanea capillata?”
“Ah, Watson, you really should brush up on your Latin. The Cyanea capillata is also known as the giant jellyfish.”
“Are you suggesting that, like McPherson, these men were dispatched by a jellyfish?” I exclaimed.
“No, no, of course not, Watson, but I suspect that their deaths did come about after an ill-fated encounter with an animal. It fits the established pattern after all.”
“Pattern?” I asked. “What pattern?”
“As you may recall from the Stoner case, Julia Stoner’s dying words were ‘The band. The speckled band’. She only managed to catch but the briefest glimpse of the lethal Swamp Adder which attacked her and, in her confused state, she described the snake as such. A similar incident occurred as Fitzroy McPherson lay dying. He had neither the time nor strength to provide a full description of that which had killed him, hence his words ‘the lion’s mane’. In both these instances, seemingly innocent phrases were nothing less sinister than death.”
“But, Holmes,” said I, “These men on your carpet were killed by weapons, not animals. Not only do we see the proof plainly, but both men said as much as they stumbled into your sitting room!”
Holmes regarded me with a fond, rather patronizing expression.
“Ah, Watson. As always, you see but you do not observe. Why would these men waste their last precious words on explanations, which, on the surface, would appear all too patently obvious. No, my friend, their words must hold a deeper meaning.”
“And you think this meaning leads back to an animal that killed them?” I asked.
“Yes, Watson, but not just any animal. I think we can safely eliminate reptiles and cnidarians from our inquiries. I would surmise that our culprit is mammalian – and a large species of mammal at that. While an elephant and hippopotamus would possess the necessary strength required, I believe a rhinoceros is the more likely suspect.”
I laughed heartily, assuming that Holmes was having one of his little jokes at my expense, but the grey eyes that looked back at me reflected little in the way of merriment. On the contrary, Holmes appeared irritated by my outburst.
“Forgive me, my dear fellow,” said I. “It was a long train journey from London. If you would be so good as to excuse me for a few minutes, I shall endeavour to collect myself.”
Holmes nodded, waving me brusquely from the room. I dashed toward the kitchen. If there were anyone who might possess some insight into Holmes’s unusual behaviour, it would be his housekeeper.
I blushed, realizing that I had forgotten the housekeeper’s name. In fact, I could not recall Holmes ever addressing her by her name before. The housekeeper seemed quite prepared to forgive this mental lapse as she smiled, patted my hand and conducted me to a chair.
“It’s all right, Dr. Watson. Mr. Holmes can never remember my name either. Most of the time, he hollers ‘Mrs. Hudson!’ if he needs to get my attention.”
I stared back at the housekeeper, my concern for Holmes rising several notches.
“But he does not believe that you are Mrs. Hudson, does he?”
“Oh, heavens, no! He knows that well enough. He told me it would be more convenient if he didn’t have to clutter his brain attic with a new name and asked me if I would be very much offended if he simply referred to me as Mrs. Hudson. As long as I get paid, I don’t care what he calls me.”
“Ah, yes, I see…” That did sound like Sherlock Holmes. I cleared my throat and attempted to fortify myself for the delicate topic that I was about to broach. “Mrs. Hudson, have you observed Mr. Holmes behaving more strangely of late?”
“Well, sir, forgive me if I seem to be speaking out of turn, but Mr. Holmes has always been a queer one. You must have noticed this yourself seeing as you’re his friend.”
“Oh, yes. I know he’s a queer one. I have known this for years. There have been times when the man has made me question my sanity, but now, Mrs. Hudson, I fear I have started to question his.”
“Oh? How so? Is it all that talk about his bees? I shouldn’t worry about that, sir. It seems harmless enough.”
I was about to reply in the negative when it occurred to me that the bees might indeed be contributing to Holmes’s erratic behaviour.
“Mr. Holmes has spoken at great length about the wondrous properties of royal jelly,” said I. “Does he consume much of the stuff?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Ever so much! He can’t get enough of it!”
I decided there and then that I would ask Holmes for a jar of the monstrous substance. I could take it to Sir Jasper Meek, or see if I could have the contents of the jar analyzed myself. Perhaps Stamford could gain me access to the labs at Barts. Unfortunately, this line of thought came to an abrupt end when Holmes began to call to me from the sitting room.
“Watson, come at once! I think I have formed a likely hypothesis that might explain how these men ended up as corpses on my carpet.”
I rushed back to Holmes, curious despite my better judgment.
“I am most eager to hear any theories you may have formulated in my absence,” said I.
Holmes leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled under his chin. “I think I may have a theory that fits the facts. These young men were members of the local amateur dramatic society and they were looking for a place to rehearse. The play they were rehearsing was most likely a melodrama given the presence of the revolver and the dagger.”
“But why not rehearse in a theatre and why use real weapons, Holmes?”
“I would imagine that their theatre is a small one that was already bustling with the activity of actors trying to learn their parts. These poor devils, who now lie on my carpet, probably wished for a more quiet spot to rehearse their highly emotional and badly written scenes. As for their use of real weapons for a theatrical purpose, I can see only one reason for it.”
“And what is that?”
“It is an affliction many young people seem to be suffering from these days: idiocy.”
As I had recently encountered a young magician complaining of stomach pains after swallowing a canary, I had to concede his point.
“All right,” said I, “you have explained the presence of the two young men on the Downs and why they were wielding weapons, but you have yet to explain the rhinoceros and how it could have possibly played a role in their deaths.”
I crossed my arms and regarded Holmes smugly, believing my friend had deduced himself into a corner with that theory.
“There is a circus in Lewes,” said Holmes. “I called and made inquiries while you were in the kitchen with Mrs. Hudson. I strongly suspect that the rhinoceros has escaped from this circus and has made its way to the Downs.”
“But surely the public would have been informed if a murderous, rampaging rhinoceros had escaped from the circus!” I cried.
“Watson, if you ran a circus from which a rhinoceros had escaped, would you truly wish to advertise its loss?”
“But the animal would be expensive, Holmes. I should wish to see it returned.”
“Which is why you would send out the rhinoceros keeper, and any available circus hands, to find it and bring it back.”
I frowned, knowing that Holmes was mostly likely correct but believing, deep down in the furthest reaches of my soul, that there was still something terribly wrong.
“Ah, I can see the tiny cogs spinning in your head, Watson,” said Holmes. “You are not entirely satisfied with my explanation, I fear. Perhaps you still have questions.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “If, as you propose, the rhinoceros is responsible for the deaths of these two men then why is there a bullet in the one and a deep, penetrating stab wound in the other?”
“Excellent, Watson! You come straight to the point in your usual heavy-handed way.”
Holmes sat straighter in his chair, rubbing his hands together.
“As we have yet to ascertain the identities of these poor wretches on my carpet, I will call the man with the bullet wound ‘Player A’ and the man with the deep, penetrating stab wound ‘Player B’.
“As I earlier surmised, Player A and Player B were rehearsing on the Downs, very close to my humble abode. Player B, who was holding the revolver, spotted a rhinoceros hurtling toward them. In his panic, Player B fired a shot, intending to hit the rhinoceros but fatally wounding his friend instead. Player A’s back was to the rhinoceros and, as he was too preoccupied with the bullet lodged in his body, he neither heard nor sensed the rhinoceros’ approach until it was too late.
“The rhinoceros rammed into Player A from behind and sent him flying toward Player B. Unfortunately, Player A was clutching the dagger in his hand and unintentionally stabbed his friend to death when they both collided. Does that adequately answer your question? What have you to say to that, Watson?”
I rose slowly from my chair and began pacing the room, no longer able to contain the great agitation and violent emotion that stirred within me.
“My dear Holmes,” said I, “that is, without a doubt, the most preposterous thing I have ever heard.”
Holmes frowned and his eyes narrowed. “You believe that my theories are erroneous?”
“I believe that your theories are complete poppycock.”
I saw Holmes’s pale cheeks flush with indignation, but I knew that I owed it to my friend to speak the truth.
“Holmes, I am deeply concerned for your well-being. I fear that all of this time you have spent in peaceful solitude in the country, in combination with an alarming consumption of royal jelly, has had a detrimental effect on your health. I feel that it is my duty as your friend to-” My words trailed off into oblivion and I froze, my mouth falling open in awe and stupefaction as I beheld a truly incredible and inconceivable sight. There was a rhinoceros walking past Holmes’s window.
I still stood there, stunned and stammering, when the housekeeper entered the sitting room with our tea.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson,” said Holmes. “This looks excellent. Poor old Watson has had quite a shock and could benefit from the extra sustenance.”
The housekeeper set down the tea and then took me by the arm, guiding me back to my chair.
“Oh, sir, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost, Mrs. Hudson, but an odd-toed ungulate,” said Holmes. “Speaking of which, would you be so good as to call the police now and inform them of the two unfortunate gentlemen lying dead on the carpet? Oh, and please advise them to approach the house with caution as there is a rather aggressive rhinoceros on the loose.”
“Very good, sir.”
Holmes poured a cup of tea, in which he placed three cubes of sugar, and walked over to the armchair to hand it to me.
“Come on, drink up. There’s a good fellow.”
I gazed up at Holmes, weighed down by crushing guilt and remorse over my appalling behaviour toward him.
“I owe you the most profound apology, Holmes. I have behaved disgracefully. I should not blame you if you chose to cast me from your home.”
Holmes leaned down and patted me on the shoulder. “You are being much too hard on yourself, Watson. I realize now how far-fetched my theories must have seemed in the absence of actual proof.”
“All the same, I should have trusted you. Even if you had informed me that these two men had been murdered by hummingbirds, I should have believed it was true.”
Holmes was staring down at me, his brow deeply furrowed.
“No, no, Watson. That will not do. It is not only unlikely for hummingbirds to have committed such an act but nigh on impossible.” Holmes crouched down beside my chair, laying his hand on my arm. “You have been working too hard, old boy. You must extend your visit for at least a few more days. I am certain that fresh country air and a diligent diet of royal jelly will soon restore you to your old self again.”
Crossposted at http://rusty-armour.dreamwidth.org/14240