Actions

Work Header

The Mechanical Heart

Work Text:

There had not been what Holmes would allow to be an 'interesting' case at 221B Baker Street for a number of weeks, and Holmes was becoming restless.

I felt it wise to find a way to occupy Holmes's time for him, lest he decide to take up again some of his less healthful habits, such as morphine or cocaine, or slide into that black mood that beset him when he felt unfulfilled and underused.

It was, I believed, in deference to my opinions and prejudices that Holmes left these pharmaceutical pursuits as a last resort these days; energetically exercising his violin arm, scouring the pages of the papers for cases and reading up on poisons and toxins before finding the lack of true mental stimulation too much to bear.

My resolve to find something to entertain Holmes – beyond our frequent dining out – coincided with a lecture I was exceedingly interested in attending, on some very provoking theories in relation to missing limbs and failing organs. I could, certainly, have invited some medical colleagues to attend with me, but the evening would be much more enjoyable with Holmes's keen intelligence as company.

I was not, however, entirely hopeful about my ability to entice Holmes to come. Lectures, he often postulated, unless they were specifically related to his work, were to be avoided in case he accidentally retained some useless knowledge in place of something relevant for a consulting detective. I was uncertain as to whether or not Holmes actually believed in that little theory of the brain attic, or whether he used it as an excuse to avoid unpalatable excursions. Probably I shall never know.

The theatre as a distraction was usually out of the question as well, for the same stated reason, although I knew for a fact that Holmes was well versed certainly in the Classics and Shakespeare. An unavoidable product of an extensive education, Holmes often said, shaking his head in amused regret. Some things were bound to adhere upon an impressionable mind.

It was an ironic exercise for me to try and persuade someone to go to the theatre by assuring them the play had little likelihood of being in any way memorable.

My best chance for tempting Holmes out from our rooms for any entertainment beyond the gastronomic was usually a recital, as Holmes was fond of music. Unfortunately, however, he preferred to play than to listen - his standards often too exacting for less than the most talented of performers - so my success at that was varied. The same held true for sporting events.

A medical lecture, alas, seemed doomed to failure from the start, as Holmes, despite his extensive knowledge of anatomy, was far more interested in the ways in which a body may be made to shuffle off this mortal coil, rather than how one might prolong or improve its functionality.

"My dear Watson," Holmes said in the exact tone I had expected, when I showed him the notice for the lecture in The Times. "This is hardly a sensible way to spend an evening." He perused the details of the lecture. "It's not practical at all – the majority appears wholly experimental; certainly technically unfeasible."

It would be entirely fruitless to engage in a discussion about how all great, practical inventions began in the mire of gross impracticality and developed their way out of the darkness.

Holmes knew that perfectly well, of course, and a spark of interest was apparent in his eye. Holmes enjoyed breaking his boredom with debate, but I was well aware I was no match for him in that arena, even if he took a stand on very tenuous ground, so I ignored him.

"I would like you to join me, Holmes," I said instead. "I should enjoy your company."

Holmes look surprised, and then pleased. I smiled. Holmes would have vigorously resisted any suggestion that he needed to get out for his health – but would be more agreeable to a trip for my sake.

"Very well," Holmes said, smiling. "I suppose I can always sleep through it."

I smiled again. Holmes had trouble sleeping when he was lying peacefully in his dark bedroom – I often awoke to the muted sound of his violin at night, or the gentle creak of floorboards as he paced.

"As you wish," I said.

***

Of course, Holmes did not sleep at the lecture, his keen intelligence alive in his eyes as he listened to the presentations.

The topic was mostly on improving artificial limbs. The advances in warcraft in recent years were both terrifying and impressive, and it had become common from the Napoleonic wars through the Crimean and Boer conflicts, to see numerous men in the City with peg legs or hooks or simply voids where their limbs should be. The medical profession was endeavouring, fruitlessly perhaps, to keep pace.

I found the lecture fascinating, and Holmes was equally as interested, but not quite so impressed.

I watched in fascination as the lecturer, Dr. Anderson, reached the practical part of the lecture, demonstrating a fully artificial hand. He and an assistant played – quite competently – Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1, the assistant with her own hand, and Anderson with the mechanical hand using an apparently complicated series of pulleys.

Holmes seemed less than convinced, but even he leaned forward for the final exhibit.

"In this age of steam, where we are learning to harness the energy of the world for man's purpose, to fuel man's endeavours," Dr Anderson said, with a touch of the theatre that made me smile and Holmes roll his eyes. "Now, we are taking steps to harness that energy to fuel man's life itself."

The device was heart-shaped the way a medical man knows the heart is shaped, rather then the icon in common usage. It was noticeably larger than a man's heart. Four thin metal tubes protruded from the chambers obviously meant to represent the atria and the ventricles as they would in a heart, linking to two external glass chambers that clearly showed the water was being pumped from the 'heart' to and from the glass chambers, which were clearly meant to symbolise the body.

Unlike in the natural heart there were two other tubes, these ones wider and just linking into the 'ventricles' and they were linked to a small steam engine on wheels. The furnace was glowing and clearly generating the heat to boil the water held above and produce the steam being funnelled into the heart and pumping the water around the system.

"The heart," Anderson said, gesturing to the machine, "is, after all, merely a pump, and mankind has had the technology to produce this for some time."

Anderson smiled over his rapt audience.

"There are a number of challenges still to be overcome, of course," he said, modestly. "It is mobile, but only to a certain extent – you cannot carry it in your pocketbook," he smiled to small chuckles. "The connection between the tubes of the 'heart' and the veins of cadavers is not yet seamless, and the protrusion of the tubes from the body unavoidable. And it must be tended, not constantly but frequently – the fire stoked and the water topped up, and therefore is only a solution for the very rich man with numerous servants." Anderson smiled again, "And, of course, as you see, it is gold – in order to ensure no internal corrosion."

The 'heart', pumping steadily, glinted golden in the lamplight.

***

"Utter nonsense, of course," Holmes pronounced over his soup at Marcini's after the lecture. "It was far more art than science. The hand was merely a puppet and a child could model a heart out of clay, but that doesn't mean it would work in a man's chest!"

"True," I allowed, "but interesting theories. The dexterity of the hand, Holmes, was quite remarkable."

"My dear Watson," Holmes said, "surely you noticed Anderson used two hands to operate the strings? Two hands to get one is no fair trade!"

"I noticed," I replied, tasting my own soup. Delicious as always at Marcini's. "But that was to play the piano. So much would not be needed for daily tasks."

"Not two, no, but always at least one to pull the strings, so you may as well use that good one to complete the task instead. The hand would never be connected to the brain – never at the person's full command."

"A man could perhaps learn to move the muscles he can control in such a fine way to move the hand with some skill?" I mused.

"Perhaps," Holmes allowed. "Men are capable of many things."

"Good and bad," I finished for him, knowing that Holmes would be thinking of the bad with which his work brought him into constant contact.

We ate some more in appreciative silence as the fish course arrived and then Holmes continued.

"The heart, though, Watson," he laughed. "Pure showmanship! A ruse to attract gullible patrons and sponsors, no more."

"He allowed there was some way to go," I reminded Holmes with a smile as he snorted indelicately. "And the underlying theory is sound – the heart really is nothing but a pump."

"Even if you allowed for him to find solutions to the issues he stated – the portability may be improved, and a sick man can accept a sedentary life over none at all, the prohibitive cost and the difficulties with the connections – there are others he has not considered," Holmes declared.

I gestured for him to go on.

"Gold will not corrode, but it's a soft metal – a fair blow to the chest would do untold damage to the systems. Of course that's not too different from the real thing." I nodded. The heart was protected by breastbone, rather than durable itself. "But," he continued, "the man did not even mention the most significant issue."

"You've seen with me, Watson," he asked, "the distance blood can travel when the arteries and even the veins are sliced?"

I nodded, having seen numerous blood-splattered crime scenes with him.

"The size of a mechanical pump required to produce the pressure and strength of pumping action to move the blood all through the body, through the maze of tiny veins and arteries, would have to be a hundred times the size of the toy he showed us today."

I sighed and nodded, eating more.

"It is fine idea though," I said. "Perhaps he, or another, can develop something that works."

***

As it transpired it appeared next morning that no one would get a chance to develop the mechanical heart any further.

Lestrade called early the next day, while Holmes and I were breakfasting over The Times to announce the kidnapping of one Dr Anderson, and the theft of his mechanical heart.

Holmes seemed uninterested at first.

"A simple theft?" Holmes suggested. "If you will make your toys out of gold and then flaunt them around the city, what can you expect?"

"Then why take the doctor?" Lestrade asked.

"Panic?" Holmes said, offhand. "He caught the thieves at it, and they didn't know what else to with him?"

"I hardly think there were many burglars at the lecture last night, Holmes," I offered, "and much better pickings for them elsewhere, I imagine. A golden heart must be far more difficult to sell than some jewellery or coins."

Holmes cocked an eyebrow, telegraphing you traitor at me; the case had no intrigue, no mysteriously locked doors or strange messages written in blood, and had not piqued Holmes's interest.

"The doctor's patron, Sir William Wytely, is very anxious we recover the doctor and his prototype," Lestrade continued.

"Ah," Holmes said, casting an amused eye at Lestrade. "I see."

No doubt the rich and influential Sir William was exerting pressure on the Commissioner, who in turn was doing the same to Lestrade. I felt sorry for him.

"Holmes, a man's life is at stake," I said, somewhat reprovingly.

"A charlatan's life," he corrected, but he was folding up his paper, and finishing his cup of tea. "But very well."

***

Holmes looked with disinterest at the doctor's rooms at the moderately priced hotel, noting briefly the bloodstain on the carpet and on the corner of the overturned table.

He was more interested at first in Dr. Anderson's male assistant, who had reported the incident and who stood silently by until Holmes sent him to pack up Anderson's papers to be taken away, and then in Sir William, who arrived at the crime scene soon after us.

Sir William was old and his skin had the parchment-like look of the very ill. An aide accompanied him, pushing the wheeled chair the old man sat in.

"You must recover him, Mr Holmes," Sir William said. "Dr Anderson is a genius, and he is on the very brink of a breakthrough that will significantly prolong mankind's life expectancy. He cannot be lost to us. Not now."

As I had known it would be from the look of him, his voice was wheezy and soft, the voice of a man whose body was failing him, but his eyes were sharp and intent and his voice full of purpose.

"Certainly, Sir William," Holmes said, with a cheer that was perhaps out of place at a crime scene. "I'm confident I shall have located him by this evening."

Sir William's eyebrows rose. "Really?" he asked, doubtfully.

"Of a certainty," Holmes said, in that supremely confident way of his which could, I admit, be surprising when you hadn't experienced it before, and annoying, even when you had… many, many times.

"May I ask, Sir William, how well you know Dr. Anderson?"

"I've known him for about three years. I've been frequently to his laboratory and he to my house during that time."

"And you've sponsored his work all that time?" At Sir William's nod Holmes continued. "Is his laboratory in town?"

"No, it's in Wiltshire, quite near my country seat."

Holmes nodded at that, "And has he mentioned any relatives since you've known him?"

"Uh, yes," Sir William said, surprised. "A sister I believe. Here in town."

"In Camden?" Holmes asked.

"Yes!" If Sir William had looked surprised before it was nothing to now.

"I see." Holmes turned to the assistant, who had returned with Dr. Anderson's papers in a case and took then from him. "How long have you been with Dr. Anderson?"

"About six years, sir," the man replied.

"I see," Holmes said, again. "That will be all. I will be in touch with you shortly, Sir William. Lestrade?"

Holmes took my arm, and motioned to Lestrade to follow us out.

"Just one thing to do, Lestrade," Holmes said, hailing a cab. "I need you to investigate Sir William's finances."

"Good God, Holmes!" Lestrade said. "You don't suspect him?"

Holmes smiled enigmatically, "It's as well to have all the information," he said, getting into the cab. I followed him, with a shrug to Lestrade. "Send it to Baker Street as soon as you can, will you? We only have until two o'clock."

"What's at two?" Lestrade asked, annoyed. "An important lunch date?"

"The two o'clock to Birmingham from Euston Station, of course." Holmes said, breezily, and he tapped the cab to ride off.

"Are you going to Birmingham, Holmes?" I asked as we rode.

"No," Holmes said, looking surprised. "Why on earth would I do that?"

***

"How long do you give him, Watson?" Holmes asked, when we returned home to Baker Street. Holmes had made the cab stop at a local street to charge Wiggins, of the group of street urchins he referred to as the 'Baker Street Irregulars', with some errand he did not share with me, and then we had come straight home.

"Sir William?" I said, rhetorically, because Holmes had certainly interpreted the same signs I had to his sickness. "Hard to say. His colour suggests no organ failure, but his breathing is not easy. He is most probably simply dying of age, and while there is certainly no cure, a strong mind can stave off the inevitable for many years."

"Hmm," Holmes nodded thoughtfully. "How long do you think he has been failing?"

I frowned. That was even harder for a doctor to say; some men fell quickly, some slowly.

"A goodly time," Holmes said for me. "You noticed the chair was expensive, but the handles were well-worn? It would take a fair number of years for wood of that quality to wear. And his legs, under the blanket, were very thin. He has not walked for some time. Yes, a fair number of years – perhaps as many as five. Certainly more than three."

I nodded in acceptance of, and admiration for, Holmes's logic.

"Is it important?" I asked. "You think he's becoming desperate? Desperate for Anderson's mechanical heart to save his life?"

The bell rang, and Mrs. Hudson admitted a telegraph from Lestrade.

"Lestrade reports Sir William's estate is doing extremely well," Holmes read. "And his bankers describe his income and holdings as most admirable. Well," Holmes said, "he is most certainly not desperate for money."

"So he still has the money to support and encourage Anderson," I said. "No need to kidnap him, then?"

"No," Holmes said, with an air of satisfaction. "As I thought."

"Perhaps it was his heir, if he is so wealthy?" I speculated. "Sir William persuaded someone with an interest in his estate that his life was going to be significantly prolonged by the doctor, and the person felt he had to intervene?"

"Excellent, Watson!" Holmes said, approvingly. "But unlikely in only one respect. Why would such a person kidnap the doctor? Taking the heart or killing him would achieve the same far more easily."

I gave up.

"You know who did it?" I asked directly.

"Certainly," he said.

The doorbell rang again, and this time it was Wiggins. Holmes received some information from him – an address in Camden – and gave him some coins in return.

"Shall we go and apprehend the criminal now?" Holmes asked, standing up.

I stood up. "You are not going to call Lestrade?"

"Now where's the fun in that?" he asked.

I rolled my eyes at him this time – his long period of boredom had clearly left him with excess energy - but I accompanied him to a cab.

"It is the sister, then?" I asked, surmising as much from the address.

"There was but one set of carriage wheels outside Anderson's rooms that looked to have been made in the night, and they were headed towards Camden – a likely place for a doctor's sister to reside. Probably the doctor chose his hotel for its proximity to his relative."

"Difficult for a lady to kidnap a man," I hazarded.

"Not with a pistol," he said. "But there was only one set of footprints outside from the appropriate timeframe, and they were not a lady's."

"She hired someone to carry him off?"

"No," Holmes said. "The depth and distribution of the footprints do not suggest someone carrying another."

We alighted at the Camden address.

"What then?" I asked, exasperated.

"Why, there was no kidnapping at all," he said. "For a man in medical science, he was remarkably squeamish. The blood on the edge of the table was presumably to suggest a head wound as he fell, but, as you know, head wounds bleed profusely. Much more than he was prepared to bleed. And the blood was clearly smeared.

"It may have been it was smeared as a felled man tried to rise, and so I felt it was worth checking Sir William's finances in case he was desperate enough to need to impel Anderson in some other way, but no."

"But why would Anderson do it?"

"Elementary," Holmes said. "He always intended to take money from Sir William. He set up his laboratory close to Sir William's country home, and he arranged an introduction to a sick, rich man to elicit money. He did a good job, making a model, sounding plausible, lecturing even, but, of course, it would never work. And Sir William just… wouldn't die, not with the carrot of a potential cure to keep him strong. Three years later Sir William was demanding more and Anderson could do no more beyond a model. So, he told Sir William he was on the edge of a breakthrough to fix those problems he'd talked about, no doubt elicited some final, large sum and then faked his own kidnapping."

I shook my head in amazement. Holmes glanced at his watch.

"We'd better hurry, Watson," Holmes said. "I detected a trace of the Birmingham accent in his voice, and I'm sure he'll want to be out of the city as soon as possible and the next train leaves in an hour."

***

Holmes did not worry about such niceties as knocking and picked the lock to the rooms. We crept up the stairs and into the drawing room, where, as expected, Anderson was sitting with a woman – the woman who had accompanied on the piano at the lecture – presumably his sister.

"Doctor Anderson!" Holmes announced, sweeping into the room. The lady gave a little scream, and Anderson stood up, whirling around.

"Who are you?" Anderson gasped.

"We're here to arrest you," Holmes said, stepping in further. "For extortion and for interfering with an official investigation."

Suddenly, I felt a hand clasp around my neck.

"Holmes!" I cried out.

Holmes whirled around, and his distraction was enough for Anderson to leap over and tackle him to the ground. I caught a glance of his sister also joining the fray as my legs were taken out from under me and a hard body fell on top of me.

It was Anderson's male assistant.

"Kill them!" I heard Anderson shout. "Kill them!"

The hand around my neck was unfeasibly strong, squeezing the life from me.

I reached down into my pocket and pulled out my pocket-knife, but the man's other hand was there, prising my fingers open and causing me to gasp in pain as one surely broke.

I dimly heard a click as the knife was opened and a dark, terrible pain in my side before the weight was gone.

I lay there, blinking dazedly up for a long moment before Holmes's face swam into view.

His face was white and pinched, his eyes full of horror.

"Watson!" he cried, and he sounded anguished. His face was contorted with fear.

I reached a hand up to smooth his brow - while I was always grateful for evidence of Holmes's regard, Holmes should never be any less than cool and controlled under any circumstances, not Holmes - but the movement caused the pain in my side to sharpen and everything went black.

***

When I woke up again, I was considerably more comfortable.

The pain was considerably dulled. Everything was dulled, quite frankly, and I recognised the hazy languor of morphine.

I was back at Baker Street in my own bed, and when I opened my eyes it was to my familiar room and Holmes's anxious face.

"Holmes," I said, or rather croaked.

"Don't talk," Holmes said, and his voice was cool as ever, again, although his face was still white, and now with dark bangs beneath his eyes. "Your throat is very well-bruised."

"Very strong," I said, defending my wounds, referring to the assistant's fingers.

"Yes," Holmes said. "That was not surprising. I'd already noticed at Anderson's rooms that he had mechanical hands."

I frowned. Hands? Both hands? That explained the strength of his grip, but the dexterity to clench at will around my throat? To prise my fingers off the knife and then open it?

"I looked at how they worked, for you," Holmes said. "I thought you might be interested. Strings and pulleys linked to a belt from his waist to his neck, moved by moving his head, neck and arms in a particular way."

"Anderson made them?" I croaked.

"I assume so," Holmes said. "I wondered why Anderson did not use the man for the exhibit, so I checked. Probably because of his criminal record – the man was wanted in connection with a number of crimes. They both were."

Holmes face was hard. "They won't commit any more, though. Anderson's past crimes, along with this doomed enterprise, are enough to see him incarcerated for many years, and his associate..." Holmes paused. "His associate fell on your pocket-knife. He didn't recover."

I met Holmes's eyes, and he just shrugged, coolly.

"You ought to rest more, Watson," he continued. "You bled quite profusely."

I nodded, but thought about Anderson, and those incredible - if potentially fatal for me - mechanical hands he had made.

"Anderson was not just a charlatan, then," I whispered.

"No," Holmes said, and his face was dark. His hand rested gently on my side, on the clean, white bandages over where the knife had entered. "He was much, much worse."

***