“Never had Holmes and Watson found themselves up against a human-being as clever, devious and frightening as the Empress Dowager of China.”
About the Book:
It’s the year 1907
Rumours abound that a deadly plot is hatching – not in the fog-ridden back-alleys of London’s Limehouse district or the sinister Devon moors of the Hound of the Baskervilles but in faraway Peking. Holmes’s task – discover whether such a plot exists and if so, foil it. But are the assassins targeting the young and progressive Ch’ing Emperor or his imperious aunt, the fearsome Empress Dowager Cixi? The murder of either could spark a civil war. The fate of China and the interests of Britain’s vast Empire in the Orient could be at stake.
Holmes and Watson take up the mission with their customary confidence – until they find they are no longer in the familiar landscapes of Edwardian England. Instead, they tumble into the Alice In Wonderland world of the Forbidden City.
A most amusing sight presents itself to Watson in the depths of the Chinese countryside.
October 23 1906. At sun-up I joined a train crossing rough territory for about 50 miles in the right direction. A short way into the journey it pulled into a small station to replenish water and coal. Word got out among the two or three Europeans aboard that we would be there long enough to stretch our legs. I stepped on to the platform and before long a most amusing sight presented itself. Coming at a lick down the dusty road towards the station entrance was a wheelbarrow covered with yellow silk, pushed by a panting porter and preceded at a trot by several coolies waving yellow banners. Leaning out of the wheelbarrow at a dangerous angle was an old man adorned with the longest white beard imaginable, so long it was in danger of catching the legs of the bannerbearers and upending them.
The soothsayer’s flamboyant clothing was a curious mix of Manchu and Han attire, the flowing sleeves displaying the depredations of moths and their caterpillars which had eaten out some considerable patches. His head was shaved except for the long pigtail known as a queue. The eyeglasses clamped on the Chinaman’s pock-marked face were the thickest I have ever seen, slices of smoky quartz crystal polished until translucent. They completely enclosed his eyes, like Victorian railway glasses worn in open carriages to protect the eye from funnel smoke and sparks. Two further coolies at the unusual transport’s sides held up a red woollen cloth umbrella in a cylindrical shape, like the half of a drum. A retainer brought up the rear, carrying his master’s water-tobacco pouch, a small hat and a clothes bag.
The porter brought the wheelbarrow and its cargo on to the platform at a run and dropped it thankfully, sweating heavily. Out stepped the theatrical fortune-teller. The banners were held up in a semi-circle behind him by the attendants. Around his waist was a silken belt with dragon and tiger hooks of a white stone from which were suspended a watch, a fan, an ornamental purse and a small knife. I was astonished to see he was afflicted with the hereditary condition known as thumb polydactyly, both hands having full duplication of the thumb including the first metacarpal. Many inhabitants, whether Manchu or native Chinese, have a deformation of some sort, a goitre, a strange squint, an unsightly dinge in the forehead, even one side of the face completely different from the other.
His smile displayed another hereditary affliction: four or five of his teeth ran together in one piece, like a bone. The spectacles made it difficult to place from which part of China his ancestry originated. The predominant Han have flat faces and noses. People originating in the north are often heavier and taller with broader shoulders, lighter skin, smaller eyes and more pointed noses than the people south of the Huai River–Qin Mountains line. At my side, delighted with this display, was a fellow European, the same German archaeologist. He had good knowledge of Mandarin, and more to the point, Chinese logograms. To my horror the fortune-teller singled me out. His voice was unexpectedly shrill. ‘I am your humble servant from Chin-Hwa,’ my new companion translated, adopting the same sing-song voice. The German pointed at the fortune-teller and asked, ‘Surely, Doctor Watson, you aren’t going to lose the chance to know your future – and for so little expense!’ He translated the logograms – Foretelling any single event . . . . . . . . 8 cash Foretelling any single event with joss-stick. . . . . . .16 cash Telling a fortune . . . . . . . . . 28 cash Telling a fortune in detail . . . . . . .. 50 cash Telling a fortune by reading the stars . . . 50 cash
Fixing the marriage day . . . . . . . fee according to agreement To the general satisfaction of other passengers on the platform I succumbed. I opted for ‘fate calculating’. The fortune-teller asked for the hour of my birth, the day, the month and the year (to which for some reason he added a further year). The archaeologist acted as language interpreter.
He also explained the seer was writing my answers down in particular characters to express times and seasons. From the combinations of these and a careful estimate of the proportions in which the elements gold, wood, water, fire, and earth made their appearance he would make his predictions. In return for a ‘shoe’ (a string of 50 cash) I received the following: ‘Your present lustrum is not a fortunate one; but it has nearly expired, and better days are at hand. Beware the odd months of this year: you will meet with some dangers and slight losses. Danger can be ameliorated by offerings at the Temple of Boundless Mercy. Two male phoenixes will be accorded to you. Fruit cannot thrive in the winter (he had arbitrarily decided to place my birthday in the 12th moon). Conflicting elements oppose: towards life’s close prepare for trials. Wealth is beyond your grasp; but nature has marked you out to fill a lofty place.’ Certainly the ‘Wealth is beyond your grasp’ had the ring of truth.
At the last prediction, ‘nature has marked you out to fill a lofty place’, the considerable number of locals and the station-master gaping at the proceedings broke into raucous laughter and hoorays. The fortune-teller’s retainer ran around handing out visiting cards. The train’s whistle gave a warning blast. With a wide smile exposing the fused front teeth the soothsayer took the 50 cash and waved me into my compartment, repeatedly bowing, chattering in Chinese (Mandarin with a northern rhotic accent, with a few archaic, out-of-context English words thrown in, according to my knowledgeable German fellow traveller).
As the Chinaman leaned forward to close the carriage door I caught a split-second sight of a banner through the very edge of one of his glass lenses. Curiously, there was no magnification, reduction or compensating distortion. The appearance of the logograms puzzled me. They were quite unchanged.’
About the Author:
Tim Symonds was born in London, England, and grew up in Somerset, Dorset and the Channel Island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy. After spending his late teens farming in the Kenya Highlands and driving bulldozers along the Zambezi River, he moved to California and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA with an honours degree in Politics. He lives in the ancient woodland known as the High Weald of Sussex, where the events recounted in Sherlock Holmes and The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle took place. His second novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Bulgarian Codex (MX Publishing 2012), took Holmes and Watson into the very depths of the Balkans in 1900. Holmes and Watson were back in the region – Serbia – in Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter (MX Publishing 2014), and not long afterwards in ‘Stamboul’ investigating a plot against the despotic Sultan, in Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman (MX Publishing 2015).