The Missing Preface

Now these sorts of stories often start with a preface explaining just how the writer got hold of a heretofore unknown manuscript by blah-blah. One thinks of The Seven Per Cent Solution or The Name of the Rose. There’s no such folderol in any of my books. There’s just a little clearing of the throat and then it’s on with the show. But there IS a story behind how I, a Louisiana boy born and bred, only been to England once. came upon these stories, and I’m going to share it with just you for now.You see, I’m English. Well, really Cornish. That is to say my people were from Cornwall. They were stained-glass workers and stone masons – church-builders. You used to be able to make a living at that. I’m told there are still churches in Cornwall and around St. Louis built by them, for they continued with their old trade when they moved to the New World. 

 One morning in about 1881, near as I can figure, my great-grandfather George Stephens’s life was turned upside down. He had only been married a year. He had just been made a master mason after a seven year apprenticeship. (Whether he was a member of that other Masonry the record does not show, but he was a good Catholic, and the Church frowns on such associations.) He was working in the mason’s yard, shaping Mabe granite (for he was a banker mason, shaping stone for exteriors) for a splendid new cathedral being built for Truro Diocese.  It would be the making of him. They had moved to St. Clement near Truro from St, Dennis earlier in the year. A mason goes where his work takes him.

It must have been a fine day, for out of nowhere burst a group of rowdy boys, chasing and shouting, unheeding of the stacks of stones all around them, and so, inevitably, a stack of bricks was upset and came tumbling down. Also inevitably the young master mason saw red, and as they whirled past, he snatched the tallest of them and gave him a sound boxing on the ears. The other boys all halted, watching in horror. Then the boy struggled free and ran, and the other boys followed before he could mete out more dire punishment. George turned and looked at the ruin. Some of the bricks were surely chipped. They would be ruined. Well-but now a grown fellow ran up to him panting. 
“I saw the whole thing!” he said. 
 “Good, you can explain this mess to the—” 
 “I’m the tutor! You boxed the ears of the king of England!” 
 Well, at that, George had to laugh. “Deserved it, too.”

The tutor sputtered for half a moment, then launched himself after his charges. Of course, what the tutor said was nonsense. There was no king of England. Victoria had been queen of England forever, and would be forever, George explained to his wife Marryanne, as he was telling her how his day had gone. 
“Wait—was he a genteel looking man in a dark suit?” 
“Aye. You’ve seen him about?” 
“He’s John Dalton. The young prince’s tutor. He’s here with Prince Albert Victor* and Prince George. You didn’t strike the king—but the future king.”

“Well, the future king learned a lesson from a new tutor today.” 
“Can't you be serious? What if you’ve made him angry? He could do anything to you. To us.” She instinctively touched her belly. Did I mention she was with child? My great-uncle Frederick. Who would be born in America.

For when he went to work the next day he was turned away. The foreman had discovered the ruined bricks and laid the blame squarely on George, in spite of his protestations. He offered to pay for the damage himself, a debt he could ill afford. The foreman was adamant. He couldn’t understand it. He went to see Mr. Pearson, the great John Loughborough Pearson, who had hired him and admired his skill, but Pearson was stony-faced. 
“We can’t keep on a careless workman,” he said. 
George started to tell him about the boys. 
“The boys, yes,” he broke in. “That’s where you were careless.” 
He couldn’t understand it. 

But Marryanne understood all too well. “It’s all over town today, how you beat the prince. People are saying it’s poison to employ you, it’s even poison to know you. Why risk the wrath of the Crown?” He tried to calm her. He didn’t take it seriously. St. Clement was a very small town, after all. But no one would take him on. And his friends shied away, averting their eyes. It would all blow over soon, a tempest in a teacup, he assured himself. But how soon was soon? And a life was quickening in his wife’s belly. He put out the word all over. No word came back. He trudged the roads from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Was it true? Had one moment of anger with the wrong young fellow ruined his life? 

Then a lifeline came. A letter from his brother Sidney, in St. Louis, America. There was an
opening for a mason on a new church in St. Louis. But he was needed right away. There were even tickets in the envelope. He hated to rely on his younger brother. He hated to turn and run. (He would have been furious if he had known that Marryanne had written Sidney begging for help, but it was years till he even suspected that) But by now Maryanne was six months pregnant and the larder was bare. They set sail for America. And so Frederick was born in St. Louis. George swore he’d return to Cornwall someday. But then Sarah was born, and Lucy, and Sidney, and my grandmother Theresa. He became a pinched old man, always muttering about the wrongs done to him.

That was when he first heard of Sherlock Holmes.

Then all at once he was 65. His children were all grown. Marryanne had died in 1900. And the woman he’d wedded three years later had never been to England, nor wanted to go. And for the first time, he heard the name Sherlock Holmes. His brother Sidney was a great reader. One day he’d heard enough complaints, and over a pint of beer, he said that if he really wanted to fight the Crown, if he really wanted to prove the prince was wrong after all this time, he’d need the greatest, most fearless detective in all the world: Sherlock Holmes. And he lived at 221B Baker St., London. Well, his brother-in-law was full of cock-eyed ideas, George knew, but he couldn’t help brooding over the idea, He borrowed all his brother’s Sherlock Holmes books and read them—at first grudgingly and then avidly. Finally, as you may have guessed, he got up the nerve to travel back across the Pond to the Old Sod, to London,(where he’d never been in his life), to 221B Baker St., to the home of Sherlock Holmes. This was in 1930.

Times had changed. For one thing, Sherlock Holmes had been dead since 1927. He was buried in Sussex, a fact that Sidney had evidently overlooked. George Stephens found himself looking up at a sign that read “Sherlock Holmes Memorial Museum. Hrs. 8a.m.—6p.m.”
It was now getting on for five minutes after six. As he stood there crestfallen, an old man came out the door, locking it behind him. He took in George’s forlorn expression. 

“Open at 9 tomorrow. Come back then.” 

“Yes, but… where can I find Sherlock Holmes?”

 “You can find... his remains down in Sussex. He passed on three years ago.” 

The news hit George like a hammer-blow. “Then I’ve come all this way for nothing.” 

The old man saw the desperation his eyes. “Come all the way from Cornwall, did you?” The old man had an ear for accents. He’d been trained in it. 

“All the way from America.”

“Oh, that is quite a … look here, I’m going down the pub for a bit of dinner. Would you like to join me? And p’raps you could tell me what was so urgent that you came all this way to see Sherlock.” 
Over their meal, George laid out his history to the old man. 
“Which prince was it?”
 That was the puzzle; George didn’t really know. The elder brother, Albert Victor, had succumbed to influenza back in 1892. The younger had gone on to be crowned George V. Which one had he mauled? It had never been clear. 
“Well, the only thing for it is to go to Buckingham Palace, plead an audience with the king, and apologize to him. Profusely. ” 

We might say today that the old man was privileged if he found it was that simple stuff to get an audience with the king; he was. But George was not used to kings, except when he was boxing their ears; it sounded a reasonable plan to him. Although the idea of apologizing rankled. “Where are you staying?” asked the old man. 

“I’m fresh off the boat. Haven’t even had a chance to turn around,” said George. “Is there a spot close at hand you could vouch for?” 
“Yes, you’ll lodge with me. In Sherlock’s old room.” 
George was overcome by the generosity shown him, “You don’t even know my name.” 
“Jolly good point. What is your name?” 
“Eh...George Stephens.” 
“And I am John Watson.” 
They shook hands, though George was awestruck at the name. John Watson led back to the museum, for that was where he lived. 
“Early to bed, early to rise. For the first group will be early in the morning. Just don’t touch anything, but the bed. These tour groups know better than I do where everything’s supposed to be. And you’ll want to tackle the palace early.” 

Early, yes but he couldn’t sleep. Perhaps a little reading would make him sleepy. There were plenty of books, but he read the spines; they were all about bees. Finally he found an old dispatch box. He wasn’t supposed to touch anything, but he knew he could always put things back the way they had been. So he opened it.
   It was full of hand-written notes. Watson's hand-writing, he guessed. Stories? He pulled one out eagerly and started to read. It was a story, a Sherlock Holmes tale. One he hadn't read before. He was sure of that, for he'd read every story at least twice.

By the time he finished, dawn was leaking in the window. He left early in the morning, thanking Watson for his hospitality. And was back still early. He hadn’t seen the king. The king, he was told, was not at home. He’d walked around for several hours, paying no attention to the sights. feeling defeated. Then he made his way back to the museum. 

“Wait a bit,” said Watson, “which flag flew above the palace, the royal standard or the Union Jack?”
“The royal standard,” George answered, after thinking a bit. 
 “The royal standard can only be flown when the king is in residence.” 
“Then he won’t see me. He was just putting me off.” 
“P’raps we can bait the bear.” 

 He had come back to find Watson giving a lecture on Holmes to a small but attentive tour group. He had joined in, his curiosity about Sherlock Holmes whetted by his reading last night. 
“By the way you left this out this morning. Did you read it?” 
Watson produced the manuscript.
George blushed to his toes. “I’m sorry. I know you said not to touch anything.” 
“Tut tut. No harm done. One of the visitors noticed your imprint on the bed and declared that Holmes still slept there. Did you enjoy it?” 
“Oh, yes! Although I’m not quite finished–" 
“Well, you’d better finish it tonight. Tomorrow you’ll take it as a gift to the king. Tell him it’s a new Sherlock Holmes story from John Watson to his majesty. he's always had a weakness for my chronicles.”

He was floored. He could barely find words to thank Watson for his unstinting generosity.

" Think nothing of it, my dear boy," said Watson. "But I do have a favor to ask of you."
"Anything in my power--"
"Oh, it's in your power, indeed. Would you take charge of the afternoon tour? I'm a bit tired and I could do with a nap."
George wasn't sure that was in his power, and said so.
"Never fear. You've heard the speech and anything you get wrong. they adore correcting mistakes. The more mistakes the better."

Well, he got through the tour with a bit of fumbling and a dollop of humiliation. but he found himself worrying about Watson. He was an old man in his eighties, easily tired. He had a housekeeper, but no one to help with the work of keeping Sherlock Holmes alive. He didn't come out to the pub with George that night. Not peckish, he said.

He finished reading the story that night, only wishing he could copy it for Sidney to read when he returned home. For he was thinking about his wife and home in St. Louis. No sleep again that night, so he started another story, only falling asleep just before he was waked by the housekeeper with his tea. He had lost his taste for tea; he wanted coffee.
Today was certainly a different reception than yesterday. As soon as the attendant heard what George had brought for the king, he took the story, showed him to a well-appointed anteroom, and told him to wait. So he waited.
And waited.

And waited.


And at the end of the day, the attendant returned, and told him the king was detained, but he had been most pleased with his gift.
George stared at him open-mouthed. He wanted to rage. But he only said meekly, "May I return?"
"Of course," said the attendant. "Unique gifts are always welcome."
He could think of nothing to do but return to 221B, and lay his woes once more in front of John Watson. If the old man were not too ill to hear them.

Dr. Watson seemed to have rallied. "The old fox!" he said, "He's hungry for more. We'll feed him another one. The one you read last night. You did read another one last night?'

George started guiltily. He had been sure this time to replace everything as he found it. But Watson was not so easily fooled.
So he read another story that night, this time with a clear conscience. And rose the next morning, armed with his story, and was admitted to the palace, and everything happened as the day before.


And he went, not home, which was all he was thinking of, mortally tired of this foolishness and thoroughly disgusted with royalty in all its forms, and he was glad he had boxed the ears of the king of England and wished he could do so again.He dragged himself back to the museum to see the doctor again.
But this time there were two doctors. And the housekeeper in fits.
"An apoplectic fit," said the doctor.
"Will he wake?"
The doctor shrugged in a wholly unhelpful manner.
The next day, George did not go to the palace. He stayed "home" and conducted the tours.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, thought he was mad, but he insisted, feeling it was what Dr. Watson would want.  She spent the day hovering over the inert form of Dr. Watson. He let his mind wander between tours, thinking perhaps it might be his destiny to take Watson's place if the worst befell. Of course, there was still the wrath of the king to be reckoned with.

Toward evening, Watson came to. He was perilously weak, but he insisted on hearing about George's progress. (At least George thought so: his words were badly slurred.) And he gave one more set of instructions. He would not hear of George staying to run tours, and the idea of his taking up Watson's mantle forced a laugh from the old man. The museum was provided for in his will, he assured George. Sherlock Holmes would live on. George was a little hurt that Watson seemed not to take his offer seriously, but more than a little relieved.
So the next morning, George Stephens took his leave of John Watson. Tears were shed on either side. He packed his bag, making sure to take the despatch box, as Watson had directed him to. The tea was salty with Mrs. Pearce's tears.
This time when he appeared at the palace, he would not let the attendant take the story away from him, saying he must place it in the king's hands himself--and that it was the last story from the pen of John Watson.
That opened the doors. He walked into the throne room, fearing for his life.  But the king greeted him warmly, or warmly as an English monarch could. He asked after Dr. Watson, and seemed genuinely grieved to hear of his failing health. And then he listened to George's boon.

And broke into peals of laughter.
"I was there that day! Eddy's ears were red for hours afterward. Ah, he did not love you. Swore vengeance up and down, but it was sheer flummery."
"Then you do forgive me, sire?"
"What is there to forgive? I thank you for the laughter, then and now, though I should not laugh at the expense of the dead. Go back to Cornwall, and be my gentle subject."

A great weight was lifted from George's shoulders. So you might be surprised to learn that George did not go back to Cornwall, not even to visit. He went to Liverpool. and boarded the first ship to America he could find. He was excited to show Sidney his treasure trove of Sherlock Holmes stories. How many were left? Three, four, five? Yet even as the ship was boarding, he could hear the boys crying the news: the famous Dr. John Watson was dead.
What he did not know and would not learn till he arrived in St. Louis was that his brother Sidney had died the very same day. He put away the despatch box. Whether he ever even read those stories I cannot say. He died himself two years later, whether of a broken heart or one that was too full.
George Stephens left nine children, with little to divide between them. But he left the despatch box to his youngest, Theresa, for she was the great reader in the family.
And she in turn had only one daughter, Lucy Anna, always called Sanna, so she in turn acquired it. Whether either one of them even opened the despatch box, I cannot say. 
But the box came down to me, the youngest child of the only child of the youngest child. I opened it and read the stories therein, and fell in love with them, and determined to share them with the world.
And now that I've begun sharing them, I can't help thinking about those three stories that went to the king, and must now be in possession of Elizabeth, or her son Charles, or his son William, for they're great sticklers for primogeniture over there. So I have a boon to beg of the royals: publish the damn things!

*By the by: Prince Albert Victor is considered by many a leading candidate for the true identity of the terrible slasher Jack the Ripper. This is conjecture, but one fact is certain: he was partially deaf.

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