AN EXPERT IN TITTLE-TATTLE
Holmes and I left Gregson and headed towards Berkeley Square.
“I fear you’ve put our poor colleague in a bad mood,” I said with a smile.
“Colleague?” replied Holmes. “You flatter him.”
We continued our stroll through London’s more affluent areas, retracing the last journey of Hilary De Montfort as we worked our way to St James’s Street and its illustrious rows of private clubs.
“This expert you wish to consult, Holmes,” I said. “Would I be correct in assuming it to be Langdale Pike?”
“Indeed, Watson,” my friend replied, “there is no better man in London for shining a light on the movements of its social circle. If we wish to achieve an insight into Mr De Montfort, Pike is the man to help us.”
I couldn’t disagree with Holmes, though he knows only too well that I have no great love for Langdale Pike.
Pike had been a college friend of Holmes and had also risen to the top of an unusual profession. That profession, however, was one I found it hard to approve of. Pike was a gossipmonger, a trader in secrets and scandals. A number of the less respectable newspapers carried his columns, and London’s glittering socialites – vain moths who believed themselves to be butterflies – fluttered around him, despite the frequent harshness of his tongue. In the world of the socialite, there was only one thing worse than being talked about and that, as Oscar Wilde so astutely said, was not being talked about. In the rarefied atmosphere of the theatre openings and galas, the house parties and regattas, gossips like Pike were the fuel that kept your star burning brightly.
His “office” was the bowed window of his club on St James’s Street where he would sit, a small notebook close to hand which he would consult or add to as the day went on. He was a receiving house, a bottomless pit of flimsy news and allegation, topped up by every servant’s whisper or jilted lover’s accusation. From his pocket he would pull sharp, clean banknotes, paying out for every nugget of worth. And he paid well, he could afford to. Rumour had it that he earned a four-figure sum per annum from his newspaper articles. Which, as someone who has some experience in publishing, is no mean task I can assure you.
Holmes was tolerant of Pike’s occupation – indeed he often traded information with him – but personally I considered him to represent everything I found reprehensible about modern society.
Upon spotting us through the window Pike smiled and gave a delicate, regal wave.
We were led through to his private lounge by an elderly waiter who gazed upon the perpetually flamboyant Pike as if caught in the glare of the silk lining of his jacket.
“My dear Sherlock!” Pike rose and clasped Holmes’ hand. There was a sweet puff of cologne as Pike opened his arms and gestured for us to sit. “You will of course join me for lunch? There is some quite exquisite game pie.” For once, my natural inclination towards dining was tempered. I had no great desire to eat in this man’s company. Perversely, Holmes, a man whose main subsistence was tobacco, informed Pike that we would do so with pleasure.
“To what do I owe this visit, Sherlock?” Pike asked. “Or can I guess?”
“I would be disappointed if you couldn’t,” Holmes admitted.
Pike chuckled. “You have come to find out what I know of the late Hilary De Montfort,” he said, “in the hope that I can shed some light on what is unquestionably one of the most bizarre deaths to have reached my ears in the last twenty-four hours.”
“Not longer?” I asked, somewhat sarcastically.
“My dear Doctor,” Pike replied, “this is London, where the bizarre is a daily occurrence, thank God. If it were not so then I imagine both Sherlock and I would be forced to relocate.”
“I fear you give the city too much credit,” said Holmes, “it has been many weeks since something has threatened to grasp my attention.”
“Ah, but then you always were hard to please, I find the streets positively bristling with intrigue.”
“It takes more than affaires and new frocks to stimulate me,” Holmes agreed. “I am also fiercely impatient.”
Pike sighed and reached for his little notebook. “Indeed you are.” He shuffled through the pages, apparently refreshing his memory. I doubt Holmes was fooled. Given De Montfort’s very recent demise there was little doubt in my mind that Pike had already reminded himself of all he knew in preparation for writing about it.
“Of course,” he said finally, “young Hilary was always the black sheep of the De Montfort family. But then with such a boring clan that’s not difficult. Old money, old land. The sort of family that place more stock on knowing family history than they do current affairs. Heads in the past.”
“A family of noble heritage in other words,” I countered.
Pike shrugged. “If you say so. I see nothing worthwhile in looking in any other direction but towards the future.”
“Whereas, presumably,” Holmes said, “young Hilary struggled to look beyond the here and now?”
“One would imagine so,” Pike said, “though Hilary’s interests were considerably broader than you might imagine. In fact he was a member of the Golden Dawn.”
“The Golden Dawn?” I asked, “What’s that? One of the new gentlemen’s clubs?”
“Not quite,” Pike said. “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is an occult society, Doctor, which counts a number of celebrities amongst its ranks. The actress Florence Farr among them.”
“Well,” I said, “there’s no telling what she gets up to.”
“Indeed,” Pike agreed. “I’m afraid there’s no telling what any of them get up to. I know relatively little about what goes on there.”
Holmes raised a surprised eyebrow.
“They wouldn’t let me join,” Pike explained, causing Holmes to bark a laugh and clap his hands.
“By what standards were you unsuitable?” he asked.
“I think they could tell that my intent was not as honourable as it might be. In truth I have no great knowledge or belief in magic beyond what I see on the London stage.”
“It is a serious group then?” I asked.
“Deadly so,” Pike replied. “It sprang from the membership of the Freemasons as a society to promote the practice of occult rituals and what they termed ‘spiritual development’. I imagine it has a great deal to do with slitting the throats of livestock and wearing appalling robes.”
“So what draws a man like Hilary De Montfort to join their ranks?” Holmes asked.
“Aside from the loose morals of the members?” Pike responded with a raised eyebrow.
“I imagine,” I suggested, “that, like the Freemasons, there’s a good deal of mutual backscratching. Perhaps he sought to improve his social standing?”
“His social standing was hardly lacking,” Pike scoffed. “He was a pretty young fellow with money to burn, such people are unassailable in society.”
“Perhaps it was the excitement?” Holmes said. “The lure of the illicit.”
“Now that’s more likely,” Pike agreed. “Hilary was a man who bored easily.”
“Then he has my sympathies,” Holmes said, as the old man entered with our food.
Pike’s epicurean tastes were as well honed as one might imagine. The game pie was indeed excellent, even if the lunch conversation challenged my digestion.
“What’s your opinion as to the manner of his death?” Holmes asked Pike.
“Surely he was set upon by a gang,” Pike replied. “From what I hear of the state of his body, there can be little other explanation.”
“But it’s simply not possible,” I said. Despite having said something similar to Gregson myself, I found, the more that I considered the dead body, the less I could believe it. “The wounds just don’t conform with such a hypothesis. I’d stake my profession on it.”
“You are lucky that you don’t have to,” replied Holmes. “Given the inexplicable nature of the crime and the importance of the victim’s family, considerable pressure will no doubt be put on Wells, the police surgeon, to endorse such a palatable opinion.”
“They will want the matter dealt with swiftly, certainly,” Pike agreed. “For families of that pedigree, truth is not as important as appearance. It is an embarrassment that must be made to go away.”
“No matter the cost?” I asked.
“The cost is ours to spare, noble Watson,” Holmes said with a smile, “as long as we can explain the inexplicable. Again.”
He turned to Pike. “Tell me Langdale, what is your opinion of Dr John Silence?”
“Ah!” Pike’s face lit up even brighter. “The medical scourge of the netherworld? I think he’s probably a gentle, well-meaning lunatic.”
“Then you and Holmes are in agreement,” I said.
“No, Watson,” Holmes said, “I have by no means decided whether he means well. One final question,” he said to Pike, brushing the crumbs of the game pie from his lips with his napkin, “before I am so indebted to you that it takes me years to balance the books by providing you with tittle-tattle.”
“My dear Sherlock,” Pike said, “I’ve told you nothing, you cleared your debt simply by consenting to be my lunch companions. What is this final question of yours?”
“The Laird of Boleskine,” Holmes said. “Is the title familiar to you?”
Pike laughed. “Indeed it is, though you’ve come to the right man for certainly you won’t find mention of it in any gazetteer. The Laird of Boleskine is self-proclaimed and far from an official position. It is the name young Aleister Crowley has given himself since buying his new house in Scotland.”
“Aleister Crowley?” I asked, entirely unfamiliar with the name.
“A writer and mountaineer,” Pike replied, “and a man fast earning himself the title of the ‘wickedest man in the world’.”