The Adventure of the Bearded Man
A Sherlock Holmes Story
The weather of the seaside town in summer was lovely and the scent of the ocean on the breeze was a delight. These two things almost made me forget the unpleasant grubbiness of the chalet Holmes had found for us. Usually his taste in rooms was impeccable so that I could only be left to assume Homes had been forced into this this sort of lodging as a last minute option.
Not that Holmes was about the chalet all that often anyway in the two days we had been there. He tended to be out roaming in search of local gossip. For the most part I joined him, but I had been well informed this afternoon that I lacked a certain subtly of acting to join him in gossip mongering and knowledge gathering at a certain local pub. At this point in my association with Holmes, such bluntness as to my own abilities was hardly as insulting as it once was.
In our short stay we had had very little luck in learning anything. It was not that the locals were not forthcoming, but that they had very little to tell. The naysayers tended to speak ill of neighbors and visitors alike and the rest thought nothing of visitors as long as they payed they're bills. I suspected Holmes had gleaned a few things from these conversations that I had not, for once or twice his eyes had alighted with intense interest concerning what the town thought of outsiders. This culminated in Holmes retiring to the pub without me.
I decided to indulge myself in a late lunch of my own accord. I had to brush aside more than one outsized slug that shared our accommodations with us. They were plentiful and slimy but not terribly hard to ignore. What was something more of a bother was the rat the size of a small dog which had made its home under the front steps of the hut. It was as determined a rat as I had ever run across in getting into food supplies, and I had known more than my fair share of the creatures in my time with the army. If its obsession with our food store was not quite annoying in itself, the little beast's insistent running across the roof and squeaking through the late night hours was enough to have disturbed my sleep both nights we had been there.
Needless to say, despite the lovely summer day in Cornwall, I was not in the best of moods.
All the same with an afternoon to myself, filthy vermin aside, I was determined to enjoy the out-of-doors. As such I grabbed my hat and cane and took a leisurely stroll toward some of the bluff edge trails that were no more than a mile walk from our chalet. The area was gorgeous and I found myself stopping frequently along the bluffs to admire the view of the ocean beyond and deserted beaches below.
I was quite surprised to find I was not alone on the bluffs when a voice called out to me from along the trail. "Hey you! Yeah, you! Your that bloke wot hangs around that detective that been nosin' around here."
That sort of introduction rarely heralded a pleasant conversation. I turned toward the fellow who stood no more than ten feet away from me, my back to the ocean. "I am indeed a friend of Mr. Holmes. Is there something I might do for you?"
I took a firmer grip pf my cane, prepared to use it as the weapon it had proven quite capable of being in the past. I sorely regretted my neglecting to bring the revolver on this outing right then. The fellow sneered, closing the distance between us with deliberate menace. It was no wonder he hadn't stirred much conversation in town even if he'd been there, he dressed quite discretely. Were he not sneering, I imagined he might even look passably friendly. As it was, he did not. "I think you can at that, mister. I think you can send a message to Mr. Holmes from us."
"Ah, then you would be part of the silk smuggling ring?"
Sometimes my tongue began working before my brain engaged. What Holmes deemed my pawky sense of humor often ensued. My companion of the moment had no appreciation for it. "What the bloody hell do you know about that, mister? Maybe you wont be sending a message, maybe I'll just get you out of the way here and now!"
I could only briefly take time to assume that this man could not possibly be the brains of the organization before the fellow flashed a small pen knife from his pocket and lunged for me. A knife may be sharp but a walking stick has greater range. As such we danced a few circles around each other. I would tell you we exchanged blows, but truth be told I dealt blows and neatly avoided his attempts. For his part, my silk smuggling aggressor was a thick skinned man who took damage well and moved just fast enough to avoid those blows I meant to debilitate or drop him.
As I found myself backed near the edge of the bluff and parrying another attempted blow, my attacker managed something I did not consider him likely foolhardy enough to do. With a growl of frustration he abruptly threw himself at my person. I lost my footing under our combined weights and felt the sharp sensation of the rocks of the bluff edge slamming into my lower back before the both of us went tumbling over the edge.
Logically I know that the thirty foot drop from the bluffs above to the rock and sand beach below took but seconds. In the heat of those moments it seemed much longer as I continued to struggle mid air with my aggressor. My walking stick dropped above, I fended him off and flipped us both over with naught but my hands.
Perhaps it was as well that I did.
Those long seconds in the air came to a very sudden stop as the silk smuggler landed hard on his back beneath me and I was shunted forward to land with the painful force of my entire collapsing body weight on my long ago injured left shoulder. I fear I must have blacked out nearly on impact.
I would be hard pressed to tell you even now exactly when it was I awoke and how long I had lain on the beach quite senseless. I know I had set out for my walk in the mid-afternoon and when my senses returned to me I could see it was well approaching evening. The sun was not setting yet, but it was certainly on its way down the western horizon.
My first concern was not really the time. It was the burning agony that had amassed itself in my shoulder and a lesser, yet no less urgent pain high in my right thigh. My second concern was for the location of the man who had landed me on this deserted little lonely beach. With an effort of my right arm I hauled myself over from lying uncomfortably on the lumpy mass beneath my stomach and answered one question immediately. I hand landed in an ungainly fashion atop my aggressor. What was worse by the obviously cool temperature of his body and the lack of heartbeat beneath my groping fingers was that the man was very dead.
He had broken my fall. I turned with some muted guilt from the man and sat up carefully to explore my own hurts. It seemed the smuggler had dealt me one final blow in all of this, as when we hand landed I had fallen upon his penknife which was now lodged to the hilt just to the outside of my right thigh. It was most painful, but only sluggishly bleeding. I realized immediately that I dare not remove the knife or risk bleeding beginning in earnest.
My shoulder was something else. Thankfully not dislocated, but I could feel the pain of bruising down through tendons and muscles alike. Lying in the uncomfortable position I had been in for the hour or two I had been unconscious had already set a stiffness to that shoulder that I had not known since my early days returning home from the war.
Added to these two more important problems was an ache in my lower back where I could feel a deep bruising beginning from my initial contact with the bluff edge. I was not in good condition. However, considering the number of rock outcroppings on this secluded stretch of sandy beach, it was something of a wonder that I was not as dead as the man beside me. In fact, it looked to be a rock to his skull which had extinguished his life.
On reaching these conclusions, I turned my eye to my surroundings. The beach was obviously unused and as such unkempt. There was an ocean breeze blowing along the stretch and taking away the worst of the stench of dead fish and rotting seaweed. The reason for the disuse was immediately obvious. There was no easy path down from the bluffs to the sandy stretch as far as the eye could see.
I was not entirely certain as to how I was planning on managing the climb, for climb it I must to seek out Holmes, medical aid, and likely some sort of local authority to deal with the recent corpse I was leaving behind me. I was struggling my way to my feet, despite the lancing agony this caused to my stuck thigh and the echoing quiver this brought to my ankle. I had made it some feet from where I had woken to a point that looked easiest to ascend when I was again hailed by a voice. This time it was one I knew and welcomed. From above me on the bluff Holmes was looking down and calling, "Watson!"
Left arm held close to my chest for stability as I attempted walking, I gingerly waved back at him with my right. This upset my balance just enough to make me stagger slightly. I could hear the scowl in Holmes' voice as he called, "Stay there, Watson, I shall come to you!"
Knowing that Holmes was here and that he at least was safe sent a wave of relief through my system. This in turn caused my much abused leg to decide it had put up enough effort for the day and fairly gave out beneath me. I sank ungracefully to the sand while Homes scrambled down the most feasible looking trail down from the bluff. My friend ran to my side as soon as his feet touched sand. "Watson you are injured," he declared.
He wasn't usually one for stating the obvious, but I allow some leeway when it comes to shock of finding one's companion in such a pitiable and sand covered state as I must have been in. I responded instead by gesturing vaguely toward the dead man some twenty yards behind me. "I met one of our silk smuggling friends."
"So I see. You seem to have come through slightly better than he."
"I did," I agreed, "he was most intent that I not share my knowledge about their devious antics. I was intent on not being removed as he desired."
Holmes gave a halfhearted snort to this before eying me rather critically. "My dear chap, do you think you can climb the rough trail up this rock with assistance?"
I smiled crookedly back at my friend. "As I have no desire to spend the night here, I think that I must."
A movement behind Holmes further down the beach from the rough trail we intended to follow up and half hidden behind a large set of boulders caught my attention. "If you and I can not do on our own, perhaps we can ask the man over there for a hand."
Holmes turned his head to look to where I was watching. He stayed that way for several moments before turning back quizzically to me. "What man?"
I looked in equal confusion back at my friend. It didn't seem right that he should miss so obvious a thing as a person. And the man, for his thick and curly dark beard and heavy eyebrows clearly named him such, was no more than half hidden behind the boulders. It looked as though he was carrying something.
"Why, the man over there, by the boulders. The one carrying the trunk off a boat."
Holmes again turned toward the indicated boulders and again he stayed that way for several moments. This time when he turned back toward me, he raised a hand to the back of my head and began running his long fingers along my scalp. "Holmes," I growled, pushing his hand away, "what are you doing?"
Holmes was looking at me with such an air of concern that I was thrown by the visual. "I could see form the tracks above that you and our smuggler fell from the bluff. It is obvious to me now that in your sojourn with the beach you have been concussed. I was looking for the contusion."
Irritated now from continued pain and mounting confusion, my response was less than polite. "My shoulder is wrenched, there is a knife in my leg and my lower back is going to be a joy in the morning, but I can assure you that I did not hit my head and I am not concussed. "
The concerned look did not fade from Holmes' face. "You are either concussed or in enough pain to have it skew your good judgment, old chap."
I gave an exasperated huff. "Because I suggest that we might ask for aid in climbing the bluff?"
"Because there is no man or boat upon this beach. There are only the two of us and the corpse behind you."
At this I could only blink slowly in response. Holmes was known to play a cruel joke from time to time, but never when I was less than my usual self. Certainly he would not do such a thing to me now. Holmes did not see the man or the boat. The bearded man turned in our direction from his work even as I turned to verify what I saw. Menacing green eyes glared back at me before he turned back to his work. If I were seeing a mere hallucination, he did not seem a friendly one. Perhaps I would not want his help either way.
"Oh," I eventually managed at a loss as to what else to do. "Perhaps its time we leave this place behind us then."
All though Holmes did turn a final time toward the boulders, I could see by the movements of his eyes that he was not witnessing the movements of the bearded man as I was. My friend nodded slowly, though he still watched me warily as he pulled my right arm across his shoulders and aided me cautiously to my feet. "Indeed. Let us quit this beach and return to the chalet to tend to yourself, unless you would prefer we find the local doctor?"
I did not prefer, and through considerable sweating, pain, and effort between us Holmes and I made our way back to our lodgings. I find it funny even in reminiscing now how Holmes is as cold and stoic as could ever be asked of a human in the face of a mutilated corpse or a bleeding wound. However, on those few occasions in our storied career in which he had to watch me sew myself, he always squirmed and looked away. Given my medical bag full of cleansers, stitching materials, bandaging, and drugs it was no difficult feat fro me to tend the knife wound myself. While it had been buried to the hilt, the knife itself was no more than two inches in length and I had been fortunate that it had not struck any major arteries. As for my other pains, the most I could do was dose myself with a pain reliever and head to bed.
We agreed to talk further on the subject and contact the authorities in the morning. I was pleased to note that between exhaustion and pain medication, I had finally managed to sleep through the infernal nighttime ramblings of our live-in house rat. Holmes greeted me early that morning as I stiffly made my way from the bedroom with a hot cup of black coffee and a sorry excuse for breakfast. The man was not geared for kitchens. "The incident of yesterday brings the number of smugglers down to three, Watson."
This was his opening gambit into further explaining our situation. I sat unnaturally straight in my chair in an effort to appease my back and had bound my left arm up in a brace to my chest. Both of those and my thigh throbbed in some morbid unison. "What I don't understand is quite what you must have said to these fellows to make him come out looking for me."
"Ah," Holmes nodded, "while they are quite aware of my presence now and he was indeed out looking, it was not for you. Rather the leader of this ring has gone missing, taking the store of loot with him. The rest of the group is understandably upset. Apparently this man, a 'Mad' Hugh Morris by name, has not been seen in the past ten days. The smuggling group, for I had opportunity to speak with the other two yesterday before turning them over to the local constable, believe that Mad Morris is still in the area. They have thus begun searching, extending the search ever further into more back water terrain as their desperation grows. Your friend yesterday was searching beaches for his boss when he found you instead."
I raised an eyebrow at his words. "You spoke with the other two, did you? I trust you went easy on them?"
Holmes waved me off. "They got off with little more than light bruises. All though considering what happened to you yesterday, had I known I may have inflicted worse."
I frowned slightly at this. "I believe that man quite got his due, Holmes. How did you find me, by the way?"
"A simple matter, old friend, when one knows your likes and habits. You enjoy walking and are attracted to ocean sides when the opportunity arises. It was a matter of following your tracks from there. You were rather late in returning, Watson, I had to wonder where I had lost you."
I smiled at this dry quip from my companion. "My apologies for the inconvenience. And speaking of inconveniences, we should fetch the local authority and bring him to the body on the beach."
Holmes shook his head at this. "I will fetch the locals, Watson. You will stay here and rest."
I had no intention of allowing Holmes down on that beach with the dark figure of my invisible bearded man with no form of trustworthy back-up. Not that I would explain my desire to Homes as such, for I could see by his sharp watching of my person this morning that he was looking for signs of further hallucinations on my part. "I must disagree, Holmes. I shall join you. I would find no rest here with our friendly rat running a marathon on the roof at any rate."
With surprisingly little fight, Holmes acquiesced to my request. I dosed myself again with pain relievers and we set out to take care of the body of the third smuggler and see if it could fill us in on more details about the missing leader. I had to lean heavily on my walking stick through out the explanation and though we took a dog cart back to the bluff, I had to lean heavily on Holmes to climb back down that steep pseudo trail along the bluff.
We directed the two locals toward the body and I explained the situation of the day before again. We requested a second man along for the challenge of removing the dead smuggler from that hard-to-reach stretch of sand. Though I found my glances drawn repeatedly to the boulders near the ocean of the day before, there was no movement to be found. Certainly, there was also no low-riding boat pulled up onto the shore. And yet, as I spied a seagull hopping up from the far side and onto one of the larger boulders with something dangling and shiny in its beak, I found myself limping in that direction.
Holmes matched my stride, such as it was with my throbbing thigh, and looped an arm through mine to offer more stable support on the gravel and sand than my walking stick was doing. He gave me another of those cautious glances from the corner of his eye. "My dear chap, you do not see this... man again. Do you?"
In response to this I straightened my shoulders, repressing the wince of pain this action brought about from the left, and offered my friend a flat look. "I see nothing but the seagull and boulders, Holmes. However I should think even you might find what is in the seagull's maw to be rather curious in the circumstances."
Were my friend any other man, imagine he might have sagged in relief at this announcement on my part. As it was, he released a small puff of air into the morning breeze and focused the entire might of his attention on our winged friend. "It is a very pretty necklace, pearl I would say from this distance. Ah," He exclaimed turning eyes full of amusement and, I dare say, pride upon my person, "you believe this feathered scavenger may have found our missing smuggler's stash, do you?"
I smiled at the detective, feeling a hint of pride myself at this observation. "I think it would be worth investigating, at the very least."
My friend agreed, with that fleeting hint of a smile I have always been so delighted to rouse in him. Just because the bird had flown up from behind the boulders did not mean that was where it had found its bobble. However, given the size of the rocks and how they sheltered the view behind them from both beach level and from the bluffs above, it seemed a surprisingly likely spot to look. We rounded the largest of the rocks close to the ocean side, our boots getting damp from the high tide, and laid eyes on what sends shivers down my spine to this day.
Before us was a broken boat with three large chests aboard. One of the chests was shattered at one corner, allowing some stolen jewelry and long ribbons of silk to slide and be seen through it. The boat was no larger than a rowboat one might use on a small lake, one of the oars cracked on the boulders and the other long since gone. Beside the boat was the bloated and rotting corpse of a man with a dark curly beard and what had once been heavy dark eyebrows.
I staggered to a halt, stopping Holmes beside me. With a convulsive swallow I exclaimed, "That's him!"
"Indeed it is," the detective agreed with apparent glee as he released my arm and fairly pounced toward the boat and corpse. "This is our missing smuggler leader beyond a doubt! He matches all descriptions, though I fear the scavenging of birds has left him in such a state that we can no longer confirm the color of his eyes."
I did my level best to un-stick my tongue, my mind racing to the realization that the hallucination I had seen the evening before may well have been a ghost at this juncture. "They were green. I... Smuggler? This is the smuggler leader? Your Mad Morris?"
Holmes nodded in agreement, his hungry eyes still roaming both corpse and boat and seeing details the rest of us would never quite understand. "Yes, the description of Morris had him as a green eyed monster of a man. I must wonder here you heard of his looks though, Watson? For I was just filled in fully at the pub yesterday. Watson?"
I had stayed silent just long enough to rouse Holmes interest from his inspection. He turned suddenly curious eyes on me. I stared back at him, wondering briefly if I looked as horrified as I felt. My friends eyebrows dipped low in quick but heavy thought as he contemplated my person. "You did not know Morris's description. Of whom were you referring when you announced 'That's him' moments ago?"
I felt the heat of a blush rising to my cheeks and dropped my eyes to focus on the sand beneath my feet. How could I possibly tell Sherlock Holmes of all people that my apparent hallucination in a pain induced haze during the late evening hours on a beach was an exact match to the very dead man we had just found in the same location?
Holmes, however, inevitably must have figured it out for himself. All though even he did not voice the thought. "Ah, never mind that. Come over here, Doctor, and give me a rough determination on how long he has been dead, if you please?"
I did as asked, kneeling gingerly beside what was left of Mad Morris. It was gory, as bodies left in open places with scavenging animals about tend to become. The skin was gray, the belly quite bloated though likely not as much as it had been before the birds had dug into the soft tissue of his abdomen and begun digging out his intestines in some macabre form of art. The eyes were entirely gone, plucked from his head by the same birds, no doubt. The stench was quite overwhelming, but I could see how it had been masked to us before by both breeze and rotting masses of seaweed and fish along the shore. The best I could give Holmes was an estimate on time of death, which was certainly at least eight days before.
"I find I am disappointed that this case did not come out to be more interesting. I had hoped for something more intellectual and less involving of simple bad luck."
This Holmes announced as he puffed away on his pipe some two days after our excitement in Cornwall. I had begged Holmes to my house to fill me in on the finishing details of the case. I was not entirely ready to face the stairs at Baker Street with my yet very sore right thigh and was of a mind to enjoy my own well kept ground floor sitting room. That and I think my dearest Mary was not quite ready to let me leave her line of sight just yet.
All though not overly surprised to see me come home in a pained and injured state after a long sort of adventure with Holmes, Mary was not best pleased by it either. I must admit I indulged in her sympathies on the matter though, as much as I indulged in quiet sleeping arrangements sans rats.
"I think the case certainly had its merits. And I imagine Mr. Scaffold was pleased to have had his mother's undergarments retrieved."
Holmes scoffed. "In such condition as they were after several days on the ocean shore. No, Watson, it was the fascinating complete disappearance of Mad Morris that brought real interest to this case. It was not hard to see what clean silk and jewelry had in common to a thief, but to have said thief completely vanish was marvelous. Alas, to have him simply turn up dead from a bad storm was not what I was hoping for."
"For my part Holmes, I find that was rather enough."
My friend nodded and continued smoking his pipe. "I suppose for you it was indeed. You've had no more invisible friends since then, have you?"
"None at all, Holmes."
I would later quote my friend as saying that ghosts need not apply when it comes to our cases. It was something he quite believed for in ghosts there were no facts and with no facts my friend had no interest. Whether I saw a ghost or a well timed hallucination that night on the beach I may never know. I also know that Sherlock Holmes has never brought the topic up again.