I had the pleasure of choosing the story and writing the quiz for Sunday’s meeting of the Agra Treasurers of Dayton. I picked my sentimental favorite, “His Last Bow.”
This isn’t the best story. It’s not even the story that gives us the most of what we love about Sherlock Holmes in one tale. (My choice for that is “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” which has Mycroft, Lestrade, a murder mystery, a spy story, Holmes and Watson committing burglary, and some wonderful dialogue.)
For years I thought that what I loved out “His Last Bow” was the beginning and the ending. Both are fantastic. The opening:
“It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August–the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining brightly, and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay. The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great chalk cliff on which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.”
And the famous ending:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”
Great writing, indeed! But I now realize that what makes the story special for me is something else: This is the story that makes Holmes and Watson real because they have aged along with the world around him, unlike Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. They were young men in A Study in Scarlet and, well, not-young men in “His Last Bow.”
And the last couple of sentences assures us that they will keep soldiering on.
Always 1895? Not really. Sometimes it’s 1914. And that’s a good thing.