The Adventure of the Distracted Thane

It was in the year - that my friend Sherlock Holmes and I had cause to take an extended holiday in Scotland, little knowing when we set out that it would bring him one of the most macabre cases of his remarkable career. He had lately been connected with an unpleasant affair involving one of the highest families in the kingdom, the details of which I shall not be able to relate for some years yet, and it had left him in a melancholy humour such that he suddenly expressed himself one morning determined to escape the south for a period and to see something of the more desolate expanses at the extremity of this remarkable island of ours. Though fond of the fireside, I am myself prone to outbreaks of restlessness, and I have grown accustomed to such sporadic fits of discontent in my friend, so I was neither much surprised to hear the suggestion nor slow to fall in with it. In less than a day all of our arrangements were made, and a few spartan bags packed.

Of our journey north I shall say little. Military service has left me a placid traveller, used to the tedious plodding rhythms of the march. Sherlock Holmes, for all his fierce attachment to the comforts of his little study and his delight in the cultural advantages of the capital, had a robust appetite for the outdoors that I ascribed to his rural north country upbringing, and was when so inclined capable of feats of impressive energy. Only an unexpected two-day delay at York gave him the chance of activity for the mind, however, in a curious little incident that I hope some day to write about, as it may prove instructive. This welcome relief aside he veered from companionability, full of remarkable interjections on flora or history or society drawn from his prodigious store of miscellaneous information, to a sullenness that saw whole days pass in silence. On such occasions I would keep to myself, wrap up the more closely, and concentrate on the wonders of the increasingly bleak landscape through which we travelled.

There was little to show that we had passed into Scotland. But my friend grew slightly more animated, and began picking out the small differences of dress or behaviour that distinguished the lowland Scots from their immediate neighbours in the north of England, differences that were invisible to me. I concentrated instead on the ever-changing drama of the landscape, scenes dramatic even to one who has seen something of the world.

“I fancy,” I said at one point, “that such a landscape must breed a more rugged, simpler man.”

Sherlock Holmes gave a short laugh. “I fear some impending burst of sentiment, Watson! Rugged, certainly. Simpler, if by that you mean cruder, even more brutal than a man of one of our great towns.”

“Surely, Holmes, you would expect a greater innocence, a greater honesty, from a plain-living people such as these, so much closer to the trials and perils of nature.”

He shook his head, and some of the light went from his eyes. “The cunning, Watson, the villainy, is not assumed with the fashionable cloak and the mighty building. It is in the man. I’ve said as much before: I shudder at the base horrors that must every day be perpetrated in such wild, isolated territories. I have seen more than most the atrocities that lurk in the alleys of our towns. But I would depend ten times more on the man who is forced everyday to live alongside his fellows.” He gestured to a stone hovel away to our left. “Think of it, Watson. Think of the loneliness. Think of the superstition. Imagine what comes to play in the minds of the poor creatures who inhabit that, seeing no more than two or three other souls from one month to the next.” He hunched his shoulders theatrically, and then smiled. “As I say: I shudder. But somewhere ahead our fire and our supper await. Let us see if we cannot muster up a little more cheer.”

By the end of October we were perhaps halfway up the length of Scotland, and had come again to the coast. The times were wild: rogue barons were jostling for the throne, backed by foreign adventurers, and the incumbent King, Duncan, had in recent days gained two battles against the rebels by the narrowest of margins. But thanks to an introduction from a previous host, we had found comfortable hospitality at the house of a local nobleman, Lord Banquo, himself only just returned from the fighting. It was during our third evening there that we had our visitor.

It was a foul night. The house of Banquo seemed to perch on the cliff’s very edge, and through the unalloyed darkness the wind rushed at us as from the cold top of the world, battering the crude stones of the mighty old dwelling. It whipped up as it came a bitter rain, and as we huddled gratefully around a roaring fire I thought in dismay of any human unlucky enough to be caught outside in this maelstrom. It was, then, the more surprising that at this very moment a servant announced a visitor.

“Is the master of the house not around?” I asked, finding it curious that we should be troubled.

The servant, a rough fellow ill-matching the rich pattern of his livery, growled in his thick tones that the visitor was asking for Holmes.

“But who would know of you in these parts, or know that you’re here?” I said in surprise. We could not have seemed further from civilisation on the moon.

Our hairy herald undertook to answer. “Word travels passing fast”, he muttered with, it seemed, the same tone that I had heard one of the cooks use when describing the activities of the awful sea spirits that featured large in local suspersition. Then he withdrew.

Holmes had sat up. I recognised the new keenness in his eyes. Where a moment before he had been slumped and inert, lost and drowsy in the hearth’s fug, now he was alert and taut. More than mere curiosity, his expression I knew reflected the hope that here might be something to quicken his mind.

We were nevertheless not prepared for our visitor. A slight figure stalked softly into the chamber completely enveloped in a thick cloak. So full was the hood, and so gloomy our sanctum, that only the faintest suggestion of a face emerged from the shadows. The cloak’s heavy material, its vivid pattern, and the glistening from surface drops of the water that had soaked it on one side, made something eerie and unnatural of the unknown human in front of us. For some moments this apparition stood silent, seeming to regard and appraise us from the darkness.

Then with sudden resolution the hood was flung back, a heavy metal neck clasp undone and the cloak left to fall to the stone floor. Its heavy wrapping thus evaporated, our other-worldly visitor was revealed as slender, pale, and richly-dressed, with long jet-black hair, delicate features and the  most remarkable eyes that I think I have ever seen. Our unexpected guest was no sea-spirit, but an extremely beautiful young woman, and she continued to stare at us.

Then some inner strength gave way, the fine face fell, and she spoke: “Mr Holmes,” she said softly, correctly identifying my friend, “I am the unhappy wife of Cawdor”.