Despite the fact that the relationship between the two writers was often strained, they were not at all averse to heading out together of an evening for a few jars and, on such occasions, as we can well imagine, the situation could have developed into one not unlike that of Holmes to Watson or even Raffles to Bunny, with the rather pompous and self-opinionated Doyle as the brilliant protagonist and Hornung left with the role of understudy, which can’t have pleased poor Willie in the least. As it goes, on the very night in question, when the events leading up to the Arthur Conan Doyle After-Dinner Anecdote were about to unfold, it was precisely this that Hornung was complaining about, most vociferously, as they wended their way homeward from the Rat and Raven.
‘Now, look here, Doyle,’ Hornung was protesting. ‘Why is it that I always end up as the underling whilst you invariably assume the mantle of intellectual colossus?’
‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ came Doyle’s response. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, by the bye, if you please. The reason for it is a most natural and obvious one. That being, that I am seldom wrong.’
the Case of the Cottingley Fairies, then? You went round telling everybody how that photograph proved the existence of fairies and in the end it turned out to be an elaborate hoax. You were wrong about that one, weren’t you, Doyle?’
‘Mere froth and bubble, old chap,’ retorted the undaunted knight. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, if you don’t mind.’
‘In that case, what about that Houdini fellow? The one who said that Spiritualist mediums were all a bunch of tricksters and charlatans, and who then exposed them all as frauds? You were convinced he had supernatural powers and then refused to believe him when he told you his feats of so-called magic were nothing but illusions. You were most certainly wrong about that, weren’t you, Doyle? Then there was the spirit photographer chap, William Hope, who you defended so vehemently when the psychical researcher fellow, Harry Price, showed him up as yet another fraudster. You not only threatened to have him evicted from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research but claimed that, if he persisted in writing “sewage” about spiritualists, he’d end up meeting the same fate as Houdini, didn’t you? And, when Price did prove that Hope was nothing but a con-man – weren’t you originally going to call your consulting detective chappie Hope? – you led a mass walk-out of eighty four members, if I’m not mistaken. Which you clearly were. Pity you weren’t more skilled in the old mindreading department, eh, Doyle? Which, coincidentally enough, could also be said about Julius and Agnes Zancig, if you recall, who you lauded to the heavens for their astonishing – and genuine, you claimed, let’s not forget – psychic powers and telepathic communication. That turned out to be nothing but them using a secret code and another big fat raspberry for Sir Arthur, did it not? And, just while we’re on the subject, how’s that book of yours doing? You know the one: The History of Spiritualism, in which you state repeatedly that Eusapia Palladino and Mina Crandon were capable of producing the most stupendous psychic phenomena and spirit materializations. Right up until the moment they were exposed as swindling scammers of the first water, into whose murky depths they dragged your reputation with them. And, just while we’re on the subject, you’re not above a bit of huckstering yourself, are you, my dear fellow? Not content with the whole Marie Celeste business, you then follow that up by perpetrating your Piltdown Man hoax, complete with counterfeit hominid fossil to fool the whole scientific world, just to get your own back on them for debunking your psychic spiritualist mumbo-jumbo that you never seem to tire of championing. Well, Doyle, old man, what have you got to say about all that then?’
‘Beethoven’s Fifth?’ seethed the exasperated Hornung. ‘What on earth can Beethoven’s Fifth possibly have to do with fruit?’
‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ replied Doyle. ‘Ba-na-na-NA!’
Fortunately, Hornung’s expletive-ridden response has been lost to posterity as, at that precise moment, they happened to be passing a pizza place and, finding themselves in need of something to soak up all the alcohol sloshing around inside them, they decided to turn in, where Willie promptly ordered a Hawaiian with extra mozzarella, while the rather smug-looking Doyle requested that they prepare him a Buddhist Pizza. Naturally enough, the spotty-faced youth behind the counter had not the faintest idea of what such a thing could be or what toppings might be involved and so, rather ironically, requested enlightenment.
‘It’s perfectly simple,’ explained Doyle. ‘A Buddhist Pizza – it’s One with Everything.’
It was some two hours later, with Doyle parked comfortably in an armchair with a copy of the Strand magazine on his knee, that Hornung finally staggered in, white-faced, quivering and visibly shaken. Doyle sprang to his feet and assisted his companion to the sofa.
‘My dear fellow!’ he cried, with genuine concern (they weren’t always at each other’s throats). ‘Whatever can have happened?’
‘I could scarce believe my own ears,’ he gasped. ‘Eerie, horrible sounds they were, almost like music but not. Ghastly, it was, and yet, afraid as I was, I found myself being drawn towards them, irresistibly, as if summoned by Sirens. They were getting louder all the time, ringing out haunting and uncanny, like nothing you’ve ever heard before in your life. And then I saw it! Great heavens, Doyle, it was a glow! Right there in all that blackness, luminous and inchoate, hanging like a mist over one small patch of ground, vaguely lighting up the stone that stood to the back of it. I don’t mind admitting, old man, the hairs on my neck fairly stood up like the hackles on a terrified dog and I very nearly turned on my heels and ran for it. But, even then, I couldn’t. All I could do was go on, step by step, getting ever nearer to this hideous apparition, all the while knowing its horror and evil, yet wholly unable to prevent myself from approaching it. There were some words written on that stone and, a moment later, I was able to read them, as plain as I see you now. You won’t believe it, Doyle, but what those words said was simply, ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827’. By now, those dreadful sounds seemed to playing right inside my head until I felt my skull would burst, crashing and ringing like piano chords, yet diabolically distorted somehow, almost as if it was music being played backwards. That’s what they were, Doyle: music being played backwards. In a churchyard. In the dead of night. Coming out of what seemed to be Beethoven’s grave. What on earth can it all signify? I mean, all this music playing backwards. And, hang it all, what was Beethoven doing there in the first place?’
‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ said Doyle calmly. ‘Music playing backwards from a grave and you ask what Beethoven was doing? It’s perfectly obvious, old man – he was decomposing!’
Arthur Conan Doyle: By Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
W.G. Grace: By Credit: "From photo by E. Hawkins & Co., Brighton" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes: By Employee(s) of Universal Studios (Photograph in possession of SchroCat) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
E.W. Hornung: By Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fairy: Luis Ricardo Falero [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven: Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gravestones in Haworth Churchyard: Author