The Rabbit Hole. The end of Part 1 of the story and the turning point for John. It’s all or nothing now.

One quick note, although the story is complete, in the editing I’ve added scenes to the last two chapters. Chapter 12 has gotten too big and too fraught for one chapter to hold and I didn’t want to add a Chapter 13 (being weird that way) so what I’ve done is rework Chapters 6 and 7.

All that is simply to say I’ve moved up the Big Scene to Chapter 7. So, only one more Chapter to go. I’ve tried my best to make it worth the trip when we finally get there. Will you stick with me that far?



Chapter Five: Mute Evidence


Some minutes later Inspector Villard and I sat at the little table, two cups of coffee cold and forgotten at our elbows and a largely intact baguette between them. The mistress of the pension has just looked in from the kitchen for the second time and disappeared again with a long-suffering shake of her head.

After a deal more of his rather scattershot approach to conversation, I had placed Inspector Villard’s name at last. I clearly recalled the occasion when Holmes had mentioned the Inspector to me for I had written of the conversation in my record of the case of the Sign of Four.

“My practice has extended recently to the Continent,” said Holmes after a while, filling up his old brier-root pipe. “I was consulted last week by Francois le Villard, who, as you probably know, has come rather to the front lately in the French detective service. He has all the Celtic power of quick intuition but he is deficient in the wide range of exact knowledge which is essential to the higher developments of his art. The case was concerned with a will and possessed some features of interest. I was able to refer him to two parallel cases, the one at Riga in 1857, and the other at St. Louis in 1871, which have suggested to him the true solution. Here is the letter which I had this morning acknowledging my assistance.”

He tossed over, as he spoke, a crumpled sheet of foreign notepaper. I glanced my eyes down it, catching a profusion of notes of admiration, with stray magnifiques, coup-de-maitres and tours-de-force, all testifying to the ardent admiration of the Frenchman.

“He speaks as a pupil to his master,” said I.

“Oh, he rates my assistance too highly,” said Sherlock Holmes lightly. “He has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time. He is now translating my small works into French.”

It seemed Inspector Villard had indeed made quite a study of Holmes’s works and methods. He was particularly proud of having recently sent to press a slim volume entitled, On the Identification of Various Poisons by Their Effect on Common House Plants.

“In my humble way,” Villard said with a dip of his head, “I keep the great man’s name alive in France. We were pleased to have the grace of his presence, ah, but too little time. But how could it be enough, when he left us so much too soon.”

I found that it was strangely easy to talk of Holmes with this little man I had known only as a name. I listened to him speak of my friend and saw the light in his eyes as he told me of applying Holmes’s methods (“In my ever so clumsy way, as you must understand.”) and it was a pleasure to realize for the first time how much my friend’s gifts were still a source of good in the world beyond England. In London his was an empty space that could never be filled. To Inspector Villard, Holmes was a mentor still.

So lost was I in the Inspector’s talk that I started when I heard the train’s warning whistle sound. I was rising to my feet and in the midst of voicing my regret at having to leave his company when the little Frenchman stood and, beaming, dropped a quantity of coins noisily on the table, called a lively “merci!” to the proprietress and ushered me out the door.

“No, Docteur, no,” he exclaimed as he paced briskly at my side on the trek back up the hill to the station. “We are truly well met travelers we two,” he went on, “I also am on my way to Grenoble!”

“Oh, I’m not–“ I began, but by that time he was already striding ahead and up the stairs of the platform, advancing on the conductor with a cheerful cry of greeting.

Grenoble being the next stop past Marseilles, I decided that I would have time to correct the Inspector’s misapprehension at our next destination and, not wishing to cause delay, I moved toward my car. The tawny young man with the white rose boutonnière was lounging by the door finishing his cigarette.

He exhaled a stream of strong tobacco (I recognized it as a Punjabi blend from my long-ago days in the tea lands of India) and flicked away the tail of the cigarette as I drew near. On coming closer I realized the man was older than I had at first guessed. It may have been his insouciant manner that gave the impression of a man of university-age, but on closer view I could see his face had lost the soft edges of youth and was already set in the more fixed lines of a man approaching the end of his third decade.

“We were getting worried we’d lost you, old man,” he said with a lazy smile. “Thought you might be staying to sample the local vintage. Roman Saint-James,” he said, extending his hand and catching mine in a surprisingly strong grip.

“John Watson,” I said, “Very pleased to meet you.”

As I spoke the second whistle sounded.

Saint-James released my hand and gave a small chuckle. “Can’t keep the Frenchies waiting, can we? My crib is up this way,” he said giving a toss of his head in the direction of the engine. “I’ll see you in Marseilles. Let’s have a drink.” I said some words of agreement and with that Saint-James tipped his hat and turned toward his compartment.

I mounted toward my own cabin and turned onto the passageway. On the instant I heard a hissing burst of steam and the train gave a lurch and started forward.

“Ah, bon!” said a cheerful voice behind me and I looked over my shoulder to find Inspector Villard, his cupid’s bow mouth curled in a grin. “I have found you in time,” he said. “May I impose so far as to continue our so pleasant conversation? It would please me nothing more.”

And with a spark of surprise I realized that it would please me as well.



“You do not go to Grenoble?” the Inspector said, his round hazel eyes growing even wider. “But you fill me with surprise, Docteur,” he said.

“I’m afraid Grenoble is not on my itinerary,” I said with a shrug of apology. “I’m leaving on a ferry for Marrakech in two days time.”

“Marrakech,” the little man said wonderingly as he stared at a point in the distance apparently lost in thought. “But nothing have I heard of-“ his eyes focused on me, “Docteur, we must discuss this frankly.” He leant toward me across the compartment and lowered his voice. “Can it be you are not here for the purpose that I am here?”

I blinked. “Inspector, I think that’s certainly true. I’m bound for a holiday in Africa and you are on your way to Grenoble.”

“Mais non, no,” he said giving a little wave of his hand. “C’est un autre– Docteur perhaps you have the curiosity, ehn?” He cocked a delicately arched eyebrow. “How it is that I know you in Montpelier?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “Now that you mention it I had thought to ask but it slipped my mind in the flow of conversation. I assumed you’d seen my picture…” I trailed off.

The explanation that had crossed my mind at the time now seemed highly implausible. I had succumbed to the fad for photographic wedding portraits before my marriage. Holmes, to my lasting regret, had never sat for a photographer. I had suggested it to him. (“For the sake of posterity, Holmes.” – “Bah. Posterity doesn’t need my face. My work says everything posterity need bother with.”)

The illustrations of us that decorated my few inadequate records of Holmes’s cases were beautifully rendered, but the illustrators, including the talented Mr. Paget, were not entirely successful. Friends had informed me that my portraits had always made me look rather vapid while I was of the view that none of the renderings of Holmes had come near to capturing the classical cut of his features and the powerful grace of his form.

My new acquaintance was shaking his head. “Ne pas– not a picture. No, it is rather more…” He pursed his lips then went on in a voice just above a whisper, “Mysterious. Ah, oui, the notorious telegram of anonymity,” he said, flashing a wry smile. “ Ah, I see you have the same surprise. How I came to Montpelier is this,” he paused for the space of a breath and went on, “I am on holiday. I visit the local gendarmerie, simply to, ehn, pass time. They say to me, ‘Ah, Inspecteur le Villard, you have come to collect your telegram which just arrived.’ I am bemused for I expect no telegram. I read and become more bemused still. Please–“ He thrust his hand into the pocket of his neat heather green jacket and withdrew a tightly folded telegraph form.

I took it from his outstretched hand, unfolded it and read:


“This is remarkable, certainly,” I said, studying the words as if they would rearrange themselves like a cipher. “You have no idea who sent it?”

“None at all,” Villard replied, sitting back on the opposite banquette. “But I receive it and I think I must see if it is true. The hour is already a quarter past so I hurry to ask at the station. They point down the hill. I look in doors and soon I find you. C’est tout. Very mysterious, non?”

“Yes,” I said handing back the paper. “But I don’t understand the reference to Grenoble. I assure you,” I said, sitting forward with my elbows on my knees. “It was never on my itinerary.”

Villard sighed and glanced out the compartment window as a field of olive trees decked in pearly white buds fanned past in rows that faded into the distance. He puffed out a sigh.

“Our new acquaintance, I have started badly,” he said and turned to meet my gaze. “I have told you a half-truth. I am in Montpelier for my holiday, but not for Montpelier. Docteur, I hear strange stories from this town.”

Villard expelled a long sigh, looked down and clasped his hands in his lap. “I know,” he said, “I know that I presume too much to say this to you.” he looked up at me and his hazel eyes were very serious. “You, his confrére. His confidante. His intimate friend. But…”

He looked out the window at the green fields cascading past and shook his head. “After the tragedy of the loss of Monsieur Holmes, I read the reports from the Swiss gendarmerie. They are competent, yes. Complete, possibly. But there is something…”

He rhythmically tapped his fist against his knee. “I study the methods of Monsieur Holmes,” he said tightly. “I think maybe there is something overlooked. If I could have but… but I could not. “

He paused then leant forward, regarding me steadily as he went on. “After a long time, I begin to hear stories. A word here. A word there. It is the merest notion, but my curiosity – it is very strong. So I listen more. There is an interesting stranger in this place. A traveler comes and goes from that place. I collect these stories about unknown travelers. One day I hear a story from Montpelier. A man, a William Verner, came to the town. A most brilliant chemist, but no one has known of him before. He stays a time, he comes and goes… But the name. Verner. Can it be a coincidence that this is the name of relations of Monsieur Holmes? It is too much not to think of it. It is just a tiny inkling, but–” he puffed out a low sigh. “I think, Villard, you have a holiday, why not take it in Montpelier? So I come and find this strangeness of the telegram. And then I find you. I find Docteur Watson arriving on the train. How can it be coincidence? It cannot be. It cannot be.”

He gazed at me for a long moment then sat back. “But I see I have exhausted your credulity at last, my dear Docteur,” he said, flashing the ghost of a wry smile. “I apologize once more for taking your time and for deceiving you at first. Somehow I thought, when the telegram came, this might be the answer. The end of my questions.” He sighed. “But you know no more than I and doubtless I go on a fool’s errand to Grenoble. But for me there is no choice.” He paused and studied my face for reaction. “Will you, Docteur, go to Grenoble?” he asked.

Through this recitation I sat very still. In the silence that followed Villard waited with attention in every line of his frame. I took a deep breath.

“Inspector Villard,” I said with remarkable calm. “Sherlock Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. And I thank you, but,” I paused and took a long breath. “But I really have no desire to… visit Grenoble.”

I turned toward the window. The sun was climbing higher now and the low fields shone with the bright green of new growth. Here and there the last of the night’s dew glinted in the light. The sight dazzled my eyes and I blinked to clear my vision.

Villard sat silent. After I moment I sensed as much as heard him sit forward in his seat. The wheels below us continued their low and thrumming beat along the tracks.

“Docteur,” he said at last. “I am not a philosopher. I am a humble detective, but this I know. I have questions that have no answers. In my head, I know that the answers are clear. But in my heart… The heart does not listen. I have told you these things. For good, or bad I cannot say. But they are said. C’est la. Now you must go to Marrakech. And I will say, thank you for so kindly listening to the ramblings of a fool such as I.” He puffed out a breath and said, “And here we are, so soon in Marseilles. I go on to Grenoble and we must part.”

As he spoke these last words the train’s whistle sounded. The beat of the wheels slowed and there was long, high cry from the brakes. The platform slid into view outside our window.

I bent to retrieve my bag. “I thank you for your company on the journey, Inspector Villard,” I said quietly. “I am pleased to have met you at last. I wish you luck in Grenoble.”

The little man nodded, stood and held out his hand. “Docteur, it is I who has had the pleasure. I wish you bon voyage. Be well in your journey.”

I shook his hand, turned and made my way off the train, stepping from the cool of the passageway into the sun. It shone high and hot now. I set down my bag, removed my hat and ran a hand over my hair. My hand was steady.

On the sloping hillside, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, strong and unchanging down through centuries, gazed out over the town and its rows of bright houses, arrayed like colors in a paint box. Out on the sea white sails looked no bigger than bobbing sea birds on the waves.

“Doctor!” Roman Saint-James called from the front of the platform. He strode toward me with a strong, easy gait swinging a silver travel case in his hand. Reflected sunlight glared from it.

“How about that drink,” he said with a wide smile. “My hotel’s just down that way.” He cocked his head at one of the narrow stone streets.

“Thank you,” I said meeting his dark eyes. “Perhaps when I return from Grenoble.”

I turned and stepped back onto the train.



“May I ask,” I said, as the rocking of the train grew more pronounced on the long upward grade. “What you expect to find in Grenoble, Inspector?”

“Please,” Villard said, holding his hand to his heart and inclining his head in a small bow. “Docteur, I wish that you may call me Francois. I am on holiday.” His eyes wrinkled in a smile at this last assertion.

I nodded. “And I would be glad, Francois,” I said evenly, “If you would call me John. I too am on holiday,” I added, although I was growing ever more aware that my holiday destination was receding to the south.

We were traveling away from the sea toward the foot of the French Alps. A quick consultation of my map had showed that the ancient town of Grenoble, no more than a fraction the size of sprawling Marseilles, sat nestled in the valley formed by a horseshoe of mountains.

Villard shrugged and gave an apologetic smile. “What will I find, you wonder,” he said equably. “This I wonder also. Something. Nothing. I have heard only that this chemist of whom I told you, he made the trip to Grenoble more than one time. Does he know people there? Is the man there now? These are all questions to me.”

“So your plan then is to walk the city, looking for this Mullerrebe from the telegram?” I said incredulously.

“Plan?” said Villard and gave a small chuckle. “John, my friend, if I had a plan I would make it known to you immédiatement. But Grenoble is a very small town. It will take but a little time to walk. The sky is nice, is it not?”

I abruptly refolded the map in my hands adding new creases to the paper. “I still have many things to do in Marseilles,” I said, my voice tight with the effort of keeping it even. “I had planned to find the new Baedeker’s guide to North Africa.”

“A German book?” Villard said, his eyebrows rising. “But Marrakech is French. Why the German guide, ehn? French is better, I think.”

“Well, I have neither,” I said grimly. “I only have this.” I rummaged in my bag until I at last located the rust-colored book thrust upon me by the old bookseller in Runnymede Mews. I opened it at the break in the spine. “Heaven only knows how useful it will be. It may date back to the Moorish–”

Villard leant forward to peer upside down at the pages. “This is indeed a very strange guidebook.”

“Yes…” I murmured as I glanced through the pages. “In that it appears to be a book of French poetry.”

“May I?” said Villard.

He took the slim volume from my open hand and turned a few pages. He pursed his cupid’s bow lips. “This was given to you on the accident, you say,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Hem. Paul Verlaine. Curious.”

“Do you know of him?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Inspector said, handing the book back to me. “Paul Verlaine. A very famous French poet. Very… notorious you may say.”

“Notorious?” I said, opening the book again and scanning a few pages at random. “From the words I recognize it appears to be about romance.”

Villard nodded. “Indeed, yes, it is full of romance, without doubt. Also sadness,” he sat back in his chair and gazed up into the distance beyond the roof of our compartment. “A tragic man is Verlaine.”

“Is?” I asked. “He is still living.”

“Oh, yes.” Villard made a waggling gesture with his hand. “Still. Though many are surprised by this. He is held tight by the Green Fairy and she will not let him go.”

I considered this for a moment. “The Green Fairy,” I said, “Absinthe?”

“Oui, absinthe,” Villard said and pursed his lips in a moue of distaste. “When they mix the drink with opium, it is as a snare for rabbits with those artistes. Visions. Saints. Demons. It is no use to struggle. It holds them tight until–” He turned his hand palm up. “No more struggling.”

“Does Verlaine still write?” I asked.

“Phuff,” Villard said. “He is now just an amusement to those who were his compatriots. He no longer writes beautiful verses. These poems,” he nodded at the book on my knee. “They are from before. When love was his demon.”

Villard glanced to the window.

The mountains that had been a wavering line above the horizon had grown much larger. The nearer foothills had disengaged from the larger mass of peaks and I could make out fields of grass tipped in yellow flowers slipping down the hillsides.

We will be in Grenoble very soon,” Villard said. He gestured at the book in my hand. “I could read you one of Monsieur Verlaine’s most known poems while we sit, eh? The meaning is obscure, as is most poetry to the eyes of a humble policeman,” He flashed a small smile. “Still, the words are pleasing in the arrangement.”

I gave a little shrug and handed the book back across the compartment. “I certainly have no use for it as a guidebook,” I said wryly. “I may as well attempt to enjoy it as verse.”

“Ah, bon,” he said, flashing a little smile. He flipped through the pages, “Here. You would care to read with me?” he asked. He turned the book to hold it across the compartment between us. “You read the French. I translate the English,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “We will have a tutorial, eh?”

I smiled in return. Despite the trials of the day and the clear madness of his quest, it was difficult not to enjoy Villard’s good humor. I followed his gaze to the words.

Villard cleared his throat with a delicate cough and read:

Mystical singing-birds,
romances without words,
dear, because your eyes
the shade of skies,

Because your voice, strange
vision that will derange,
troubling the horizon
of my reason,

Because the rare perfume
of your swanlike paleness,
because the innocence
of your fragrance,

Ah, because all your being,
music so piercing,
clouds of lost angels,
tones and scents,

Has by soft cadences
with its correspondences,
lured my subtle heart, oh
let it be so!

“It is called ‘To Clymene,” he said, turning the book so I could read more closely. “But most call it by the line there.” He pointed. “’Romances sans Paroles,’ the ‘Romances without Words.”

I sat, running my eye over the line. In my youth I had never had much use for poetry beyond the martial kind that appeals to boys. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” had been a particular favorite.

After my experience of the Afghan campaign, it held rather less innocent pleasure. I could hear the sorrow in the stirring words that sang praise for brave, foolish young men. It was borne home to me that had I heard the poem before me several years before I would have found it just a rather nonsensical arrangement of phrases. Now I felt an echo in the hollows of my chest

“It is somehow sad, is it not?” Villard said sitting back in his seat. “But poets adore to be sad. It is bread and wine to them.” He gave a little chuckle. “Where would they be without their broken hearts?”

We sat in silence for some few minutes more then Villard pointed to the window. “Ah, Grenoble,” he said. “It is very pretty for a country town.”

I followed his gesture and saw Grenoble with its several streets climbing doggedly up the looming hillsides. It gave the illusion that the town had once been high on the hills but had gradually slid down to rest in the cupped valley.

I realized, suddenly, that I had only the shoes I had worn when leaving my home the day before, having left my luggage waiting at Marseilles. I had been ill prepared to be swept off my course by a French detective on an irrational mission.

The idea that Sherlock Holmes was hiding somewhere in this quaint alpine town was patently ludicrous, yet here I was, seemingly expecting to find some trace of a man who had died nearly three years before and many miles away over the mountains.

One day, I knew, the gaping emptiness the loss of him had left in me must be lessened to no more than a passing throb of melancholy for a time that might have been. But not today. As much as my mind cried, “He is dead. You know he is. Turn back before you have to face it again,” it was just as Villard had said. My heart would not listen.



We trudged up and down the streets of Grenoble under the looming gaze of the Fort de la Bastille for hours before I called a halt.

“Francois, my shoes are inadequate for this terrain,” I said, leaning heavily against a nymph-bedecked fountain in the central square. “We have consulted every guild in the town and no one has heard of this Monsieur Mullerrebe. The last train bound for Marseilles departs the station in thirty minutes. I’m afraid I must admit defeat.” I dabbed at the sheen of perspiration that had formed on my brow despite the freshening breeze off the mountains. “You may do as you like, of course.”

The town was one of artisans and dealers in art. After deciding the best approach was to visit the guild of painters, then the guild of metal workers, and so on down the line of craftsmen, we had exhausted the possibilities in that direction. Day was drawing down to a close and soon shops would begin putting up their shutters. It seemed futile to continue the hunt.

Villard stood a few yards away, surveying the town with narrowed eyes and his arms crossed on his chest as though it were a suspect refusing to assist his investigation.

“Mais, oui, Docteur,” he said, having apparently decided that he must apply his energy to the search rather than to translating his thoughts for me. I picked out recognizable words as best I could. “… confondu. But c’est impossible… The telegram… spécifiquement… But where is this Monsieur Mullerrebe?”

It was difficult to give up in the face of such evident determination and I could not but feel for his blighted hopes, doomed though they were from the outset. I sighed and peered down another winding street that arced away from the plaza. There was a small inn on the corner and the faint sound of merry voices raised in song drifted across the stones.

“Did Holmes ever share with you,” I mused aloud. “His conviction that the best way to gain information in a small village is to ask at the local public house? Discretely, of course. Although I recall once he nearly suffered a concussion for his trouble. It was in–”

“Docteur,” Villard interrupted, a slow smile curling his lips. “You have hit on it. You have found the answer!” He struck his forehead with the back of his hand. “My head is made of wood!”

At my expression of bewilderment he turned and grasped me by the sleeve.

“Our correspondent of the telegram,” he said, his eyes shining, “Would he so baldly say, ‘Go here, talk to this man.’ No! He says, ‘Observe all due caution,’ eh? He speaks in code!”

I continued to stare. “You mean Mullerrebe is a code word?” I ventured.

“Mais, oui,” he said, “And so simple even such a dullard as I should have realized it.” His grip on my sleeve tightened as he said, “Mullerrebe is a German name and also the German name for a French wine. Wine from a grape not so well known of the Pinot kind. It is the Meunier.” He gave a short laugh of excitement. “We must seek out Monsieur Meunier of Grenoble!”



It was Sherlock Holmes. It was a perfect likeness, save for the color of the wax skin. The skin was darker than the picture in my memory. It was the burnished bronze of skin that had been bared to wind and sun. My own skin had had something of that color when I returned from Afghanistan with no place to call my home.

I believe it was the color of the skin that told me. More than the words Francois murmured as he translated for the bent old sculptor with the croaking voice, though I tried my best to comprehend them as Francois rested his hand on my shoulder and bent to my ear.

My legs were still numb, I noticed distantly. When we had first walked into this workshop, this room that smelled of beeswax and wood shavings, and I had seen the face of Sherlock Holmes gazing back at me, I went cold and I stumbled. I would have fallen had not the quick action of the Inspector ensured I landed in a chair and not on the floor.

I sat staring vacantly at this wax image of my lost friend. Empty eyes looked back, focused unwaveringly on a point somewhere over my left shoulder. Eyes that were still the color of morning fog on a still mountain lake. Eyes that looked back at me from a memory full of broken stones and the cold, drifting spray of a waterfall.

Francois was saying something about a clay model, a mold. Saying it was fortunate the mold wasn’t destroyed… I lost the sense of the words again.

I stared into my friend’s face. And I knew from the bronze of his skin that he was not dead.



Francois le Villard was sitting beside me talking in a low, measured voice as one might speak to a child. I tried to look at him as he spoke but my gaze kept drifting back to the wax bust among the brushes and paint pots on Monsieur Meunier’s workbench.

“Your friend,” he said. “Meunier says he came here several times. He sits for the sculpting, then he goes, saying he will send for the work when it is done.”

Villard’s voice sounded tight. He was unnerved, I realized. It had been a shock for him as well to find the visage of Sherlock Holmes staring unblinkingly at the wall in an artisan’s shop in a small mountainside town in southern France. I turned to regard Villard as he spoke. His elegantly curved lips were pale.

He took a long breath and exhaled slowly before he went on. “A messenger came,” he said. “Meunier gave the first casting to this courier no more than a week before today. Meunier did not recognize the livery of the courier so we cannot trace the man. But then there was a telegram asking for a second casting, a duplicate. Meunier is to hold it here in his shop.”

Villard bent forward and touched my knee as he said, “Docteur, Meunier was told to hold it here in his shop to await Inspecteur le Villard and Docteur John Watson. We are to take it to the address here.” He offered me a small card.

My eyes focused on his. “What is the address?” I breathed.

“It is in Paris,” he said quietly.

I licked my dry lips then sat back. Villard did the same as I planted my hands on my knees and stood.

“Inspector Villard,” I said in a voice that seemed to come from very far away. “I believe we will need to hurry if we are to make the next train for Paris.”




~ Coming Soon ~

Part Two: Aquarelles

Chapter Six: Golden Courtesan