By one who does it often
To Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
I was spending a vacation in Sussex, England, where my late husband had grown up. It was nice, and rather sobering, to see where he had been a child, all his old friends, and a few of the odd old England survivors that he had told me so much about. One in particular caught my fancy. Every one called him Old Sherl the Beekeeper, and it seemed even the oldest of the Sussex residents could not remember when he had come. He had become there a kind of legend – near immortal, and like a god to some of the older women, a nuisance and an annoyance to the men, and to the young and inquisitive, he was a sad, yet interesting study, if he still held on a bit to the immortal part. By the second week of my visit I had fallen squarely into this last category. I itched all over to learn all I could about him, and to meet him. I found my opportunity to pick the brains of my late husband’s best friend one day when we were walking together across the downs, and past Old Sherl the Beekeeper’s little cottage.
“Why do they call him Sherl?” I asked.
“No one really knows his real name. It started one day, about 30 years ago, when a boy was spying on him through his window, and he saw him begin to sign a letter. But the man only wrote the first five letters, which spelled Sherl, and then looked up to the window at which the boy was standing, and gave such a stare that the boy never came back to the house again. Ever since then we’ve called him Sherl. It just sort of stuck.”
“Tell me everything you can about Sherl, Nigel,” said I as I seated myself upon a large rock which jetted out from the rock wall to our right nearly to the path. “I want to know everything about him.”
“Alright,” he laughed, sitting next to me. “You always were inquisitive! No one living knows when he came. That’s why he’s kind of got the idea of being immortal. We just can’t pinpoint how old he is. He’s got to be near 100. He has no housekeeper or anyone else at the house, and no one ever comes to visit him. Though it’s said that once, long time ago, a young man came to the house, and when he left, Sherl went out onto the moor for three weeks without ever coming back to the house. Everyone thought he was dead for sure, for even then he seemed old. On the last day of the third week some of the more conscientious of the townsmen thought it might be an idea to go look for him. If he was dead, they thought they should probably try and contact the next of kin. They found him, well, not too far from here actually, right over there by Devil’s Peek, shaking and wet and near dead but he still had life in him. So they brought him back to his house and went to call a doctor, but he was so emphatic that he would have no doctor save the doctor, that they didn’t see how they could, if the old man didn’t want one. So they left him in his house, raving mad they thought, mumbling under his breath about the death of, first, the woman, and now the doctor, thinking he would be dead by morning. But he didn’t die, and has been kicking pretty lively ever since. All he does is keep his bees and walk the moors, which is quite a feat at his age, whatever it is. He never speaks to anybody. They say he’s a pretty avid reader, ordering books all the time. And they also say he reads the Bible, even though he never goes to church save on Easter Sunday and Christmas. Nobody likes him, and he’s all around a pretty sad character. But he seems happy enough. I guess that’s all that matters. So there you are, Sherl in a nutshell.”
“He sounds kind of sad.”
“Yes, yes I suppose he is sad. Though whenever you do see him, he always seems happy, or almost happy. He whistles tunes most of us have never heard before. Probably tunes from his childhood.”
“Do you know anything about that?”
“Not a thing.”
“Let’s keep walking,” said I, standing from the rock. “How much longer ‘till we get to his house?”
“It’s just around that next rock jet-out. We should be there in a second. Sarah,” he said looking at me with a wary eye. “You’re not thinking of stopping in on him are you?”
The corners of my mouth turned up and I looked down. “No, no I suppose not.”
“Good. I think that would be very foolish.” We walked in silence around the next large rock. Just as we rounded it, we nearly walked over a man who was crouched by a flowering bush, intently studying the bees that were busying themselves around it. He did not look up, and when we tried to apologize he picked up the book that lay by his feet, turned on his heel, and walked off into the surrounding moor, never showing us his face.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, I didn’t see his face. But it would be my guess, by his occupation, that it was Sherl.” My heart leaped inside me. The mysterious Old Sherl the Beekeeper! And I had seen him! Nigel and I talked little about Sherl for the rest of our walk. Later that week, I went on a walk by myself, now knowing and trusting the people enough that if I carried something to protect myself if needed, I had no qualms about walking alone. Without even meaning to I took the path to Old Sherl the Beekeeper’s cottage. I spent most of the walk daydreaming and when I came to Sherl’s house, I was broken from a very vivid one by a labored cough and then a whistled tune. I had never heard the tune before. I looked over into the garden of the old beekeeper. He was bent double over something. I could not tell what it was until he kicked at it with a groan and a cat came tearing out of the
garden and past me, shrieking like a devil. I looked up in blank horror at the man who now sat in a wicker chair with a blanket over his knees, and a book directly in front of his face. I noticed the name of the book he read; it was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was red with gold lettering.
He slowly dropped the book from his face and stared at me, a clay pipe clenched tightly between his thin lips. Such a stare as I think he gave to that little boy who came up with the name Sherl for him.
“That was my tom cat, Charles Augustace; it was stung by a bee. What do you want,” he said in a surprisingly strong voice as he stood from the wicker chair to a full height of six feet, which looked much taller because of his extreme leanness, and took the pipe from his mouth. “You may come in if you must, unless you have come to gawk, as most do–” then as his eyes rested directly on my face, his voice suddenly sank into a dry whisper. “The woman!” he murmured. “What is your name?”
“No, no! Before you were married!”
“How did you know I had been married?” I cried. Since my husband had died, I could not bring myself to wear my wedding ring, and I could think of no way that a complete stranger should know this.
“I deduced it from the ring of skin that is lighter than the rest on your left ring finger. What else would be the cause of that save having once been married?”
“Oh, well, my name was Sarah Adler.” Never have I seen a change in expression as in that man’s face. His face lit, and his whole mannerism changed from rather dull and harsh, to very pleasant, and eager, and there was some hidden emotion that I could not pinpoint.
“It’s enough to make one believe in reincarnation,” he whispered. “Come in, come in and I will get us some tea, or would you rather have coffee? I used to be a devoted coffee drinker in my youth, and I know you Americans enjoy it.”
“Some tea would be nice, thanks,” I smiled as I walked through the open gate of his fence and seated myself in the wicker chair he had indicated with his old, sinewy hand. “How long have you lived here?” I asked as he brought out two mugs of hot tea.
“Since my late fifties,” he said. “I came here after I retired and have lived here, save for an interval of a few years when I was around sixty, ever since.”
“Where did you live before you moved here?”
“What did you do?”
“I helped out Scotland Yard.”
“Oh.” I was quiet for a moment, and he asked the next question.
“What brings you here?”
“I’m visiting some of my husband’s old friends. He was born here. He told me about you.”
“Did he?” he smiled. “What did he tell you about me?”
“Not much. He said you were a beekeeper, and that no one knew when you had come, or who you were. And that you had become a sort of legend.”
Again he smiled. “What was your husband’s name?”
“Ah! I remember him. He and another boy, Nigel, I think was his name, were always spying on me. But I did not, and do not, mind. I am used to people staring, and thinking I’m odd. I’ve lived with it all my life.”
“I’m sorry,” said I.
“Don’t be, I don’t mind it. I am happy, and was, mostly, then as well. It was the doctor that made me happy then.”
“I’m glad you’re happy. Nigel told me a lot about you, and it seemed like maybe you might not be, but I’m glad you are.” I paused a moment. “What is it you enjoy about beekeeping? I’m afraid of bees, I could never do it.”
“I like the bees themselves. They are so mechanical, and they are always doing the same thing. They are a very interesting study. I mark different bees, and see which flowers they go to the most, and things like that. It is nice, after such an unpredictable life as I’ve had, to live surrounded by such consistent creatures.”
“It sounds nice. But don’t you ever get lonely?”
“Yes. At first I was not; I was glad to be out of the city, and the life I lived before. It was quiet and calm here. Then my friend died, and I became very lonely. It is not that he often came to see me, he was married and had business of his own, but just the thought that he could never come to see me again made me lonely.”
We spoke a little longer, mostly in inquisition. Then, since it was beginning to get dark, and I really did not know this man, whoever he was, even though he must be so old if he tried anything I could have knocked him down by sneezing, I said, “I’ve got to go now.”
“I’m glad you came. I don’t ever have anyone to talk to aside from my bees, and occasional curious visitors such as you. But often they are not as kind as you have been.”
“Well, thanks,” I smiled. “I’ll come and visit tomorrow, and every day after that until I leave!”
“Thank you, I look forward to your visits. And,” he added as I stood and he led me to the gate, “may I ask you one more question.”
“As long as I can as well when you’re done.”
“It is a deal,” he said with a smile. “What is your grandmother’s name on your father’s side?”
“Was she named after anyone else in her family?”
“Yes, all of them are named that on my dad’s side, why?”
“I recognized you when you came in, and since I knew I had never seen you before, I thought perhaps I knew your family. Do you have British relations?”
“Yes, a little ways back. Is that it?”
“Now for my question. You know everyone calls you Sherl?”
“What is your real name?” He looked at me for some time, blinking in the fading light and slowly opening and closing his mouth, letting thick, sweet smelling smoke drift from his clay pipe. Then he smiled.
“You may call me Sherlock,” he said. “But don’t say it to others; let them think of me as Sherl.”
I thanked him for the lovely evening and the tea and turned to go. He reached out his old, worn, sinewy hand and laid it on my sleeve.
“Thank you,” said he, and he squeezed my arm with more strength than I would have given him credit for. “You do not know what this visit has meant to me. Now I have a reason.”
I didn’t understand those last words, so I smiled and left. A little ways away I looked back. He was in his wicker chair with a blanket over his knees, a red book with gold lettering in his one hand, and a clay pipe clenched between his teeth, its smoke encircling his face and floating gently upward. His eyes were closed as if he slept, and his head was resting back on the chair. I never saw him alive again. The next morning I went to his house and found him sitting dead in his wicker chair. He looked so peaceful and happy in that secluded and lonely spot, just the same as I had left him the night before, and by the chilled feeling of his wiry hand, it seemed as if he had died not long after. I must admit I shed tears at the sight of the old man, and kissed his cold, hollow cheek. He had been lonely, he said so himself, and I had come to stop that, but I hadn’t had long to do it. I wished I had been able to know him longer. He seemed like he would have had so many stories to tell. I knew I would miss him even though I had never known him. But at least now he would no longer be lonely, I was sure of that. We searched his house but found nothing to indicate his name, so we buried him under the name of Sherl Beekeeper. We put on his gravestone, Sherl Beekeeper, Friend of two, Reader of books, Keeper of Bees. We did not know what date to put for his birth, so we put a question mark with a dash to the date that I had visited him. We found little in his house that was not a necessity or something he needed for beekeeping. The bulk of his possessions were books, old, novels mostly, and collections of short stories, a few books of poetry, and a Bible, but no educational books or books of facts, unless they had something to do with beekeeping. He had five different pipes, a collection of 14 different kinds of cigars, and a silver cigarette case, a few writing utensils and boxes of paper, five changes of clothes, and a photograph of a woman. It seemed to me that that photo looked very familiar, and Nigel said that she looked like me. There was no will to be found, and we were at odds to know what to do with his possessions. I was looking through his books some two weeks after his death when I found a red one, with gold lettering, it was the one he had been reading the night I had talked with him. I opened it and on the first page there was a note written. It read:
To Miss Adler,
This book will answer more of your questions than my faulty memory ever could have. It is I. You will never know what your visit meant to me tonight. I had promised myself I would not die until I saw the woman’s face again. You have let me die. Thank you.
I gaped for a moment, and “no way” were the only words that came to my mind. I closed the book and read the title, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I smiled, and concluded, that it had been quite a daydream.