Had anyone asked my opinion of falling stars before I met Holmes and saw his incredible scientific methods at work, I should have characterised them as beautiful to look at and not given them any more thought. However, it was during the events which I have already partly described in the case I have called “The Golden Pince-Nez” that a strange occurrence managed to give me a completely new view of them. In retrospect, I probably should have started to suspect something earlier. Therefore, as I want to tell you everything right from the very beginning, dear reader, I shall start on a clear starlit night in August 1889.
It was already past supper time and Holmes and I were resting comfortably in our chairs in front of the fire. Holmes was smoking and staring absent-mindedly into the flames, without a doubt lost in some theories of his, so I busied myself studying the most recent medical journals. Suddenly, however, he jumped to his feet and exclaimed: “Watson, do you not fancy a little night stroll? It must almost be time for the Perseids meteor shower. Let us go out and catch a falling star.”
The night was clear and mild, so I did not have any objections to going out for a short walk. In fact, the recent days had been very quiet and eventless both regarding my practice and Holmes’ affairs and I was rather glad he had put his mind to something as simple and safe as star gazing. Since an amateur astronomer had discovered “Comet Holmes” two years earlier which – to Sherlock Holmes’ greatest displeasure - had been named after the former and not after my friend, Holmes had taken quite an interest in astronomy in order to prevent such events from happening ever again. Of course, I regarded his last comment merely as a jest, not paying it much attention. Little did I know of falling stars then.
We walked quietly for some time and the fresh night air in combination with moderate exercise was pleasant indeed. Holmes led us to an empty park which was well maintained with various kinds of rhododendrons and would have been full of joyous people strolling across neatly trimmed lawns in the hours of daylight, but lay deserted now. We headed straight towards a small hill with a bench on top of it. On that bench Holmes flung himself, arranging his coat most comfortably, obviously intending to stay for a while. So I sat down beside him, waiting patiently for what was to come.
Not long after we had arrived, Holmes pointed up to the sky and drew my attention to the meteor shower that had just begun. Once my eyes had adjusted and I could distinguish them from the other stars, it was a remarkable sight, watching all these massive meteors burning up as falling stars. Some seemed surprisingly close to us, so I remarked jokingly: “It almost seems possible for you to catch your falling stars tonight, indeed.”
Holmes smiled, half-hidden in the darkness. “Patience, my dear friend. If my calculations prove right – and I have no reason to doubt them – there should be a falling star coming our way in a short time. But you have a point, I had better begin to prepare.”
With that he rose and produced a transparent container from the inside of his coat. It almost looked like an ordinary (if a little oversized) glass bottle, yet with a broader neck and it generally seemed to be made from a much more robust material. I was about to ask him what he was planning now, when his eyes fixated on the sky or some object in it and he laughed out loud for a split-second. Then he started to run across the lawn, holding the jar above his head and never lowering his gaze. I was too startled to follow him immediately, so I lost sight of him in the dark. Eventually, though, I managed to overcome my initial confusion and searching among the trees lining the lawns, I found Holmes, who had come to a halt. I gave a cry of surprise when I saw that the jar in his hands had started to glow. “How have you done that? No doubt it has something to do with one of the chemical reactions you are so fond of studying?”
“You are only half-right. Yes, the glowing is due to a chemical reaction, as you have so keenly observed, but it was not I who induced it. This, dear Watson, is a real treasure which is like nothing either you or I have ever seen before and which it will be my uttermost pleasure to study further. This is part of a star which has just now fallen from the sky into my hands. I hold a true falling star.”
Holmes had caught a falling star? I could not believe his words. Yet had I not heard him say that he had calculated when this star would be falling near us and had I not seen him chase it? Must it not be true, then? Stunned into silence, I observed the glowing object more closely. It did not look like one would imagine a star at all. Instead of the burning rock I had expected, all I could see was a luminous gas filling the container. It twirled and twisted in the most unexpected ways and when sometimes it looked like a tiny figure writhing in pain, it surely was the result of reflections and other optical illusions.
“Enough, now, Watson”, Holmes interrupted my thoughts. “We have to get back home quickly. This fragile creature has fallen a long way and is in danger of fading altogether if I cannot put it into a proper environment and perform several important operations fast enough.”
Thus we hurried home, Holmes carrying the jar carefully with both his hands. When we had reached Baker Street, he went straight to the table hosting most of his experimental equipment and started arranging the most peculiar instruments without even taking off his coat. I stood and watched him for a while, but it was already late at night and I was feeling tired by our little adventure, so I soon retired to bed and left Holmes to his experiments.
During the following days, Holmes devoted all his time to the experiments regarding the study of the fallen star. Regardless of the hour I chose to see him, I always found him bent over his workbench, mixing strange liquors or watching things through his optical microscope. These experiments took all his attention and at no time was he inclined to explain any of them to me. Judging by this last fact that this was a matter of greatest importance, I decided to leave him to his studies until he might call for me again and returned to my practice. For about a week, moreover, I was busy, for autumn had come now and with it a new season of colds. Although I could not forget about Holmes’ strange new acquisition, the details of the nightly chase through the park soon escaped my memory.
It was only the following Sunday that Holmes sent me a carriage and accompanying it an invitation to tea. I was only too glad to finally talk to him again, so I hastily donned a good suit and left for Baker Street in a hurry. When I entered the apartment, I found Holmes standing in the middle of the room, gazing at a faintly glowing test tube admiringly with shining eyes. Upon seeing me, his face brightened even more and he exclaimed: “I have finally done it! I have extracted – as you can see here with your own eyes – the essence of a falling star!”
My face must have given away my lack of comprehension and my disbelief, for he laughed and continued in a calmer voice: “You remember, Watson, that I told you this star was in danger of fading away? Well, thanks to my most modern equipment and my laboratory skills it has survived. And not only has it merely survived, I even managed to clear away the dust and other foreign substances that had accumulated during its fall through the atmosphere. So this test tube now holds the very essence of the star, pure ether. Clean like this, it will survive in this environment for several months if not years!”
I smiled at his excitement and bent closer to examine the test tube in more detail. The gaseous substance shone with a much brighter and clearer colour then when I last had seen it, yet its luminosity seemed weakened. It was swirling around, forming different shapes and figures. Once it almost resembled a - albeit slightly distorted - face and when I squinted my eyes at the tube, I could have sworn it had winked at me. In a blink, however, it had turned back to whirling gas. I rubbed my eyes in confusion, but the face did not appear again. Looking up at Holmes for an explanation of that unlikely event, I saw he smiled in turn at my behaviour. Slightly embarrassed, I decided not to mention my little flight of fancy. Since the rest of the year I was busy with other cases, the most memorable being the mystery concerning the “Hound of the Baskervilles”, I soon forgot about this incident and did not think of it for some time.
It was only in November 1894 that I was reminded of it again in an event which seems so highly unlikely that you, dear reader, have to take my word that it has indeed happened like I shall describe in the following lines.
Holmes had just solved the mysterious murder of Professor Coram’s secretary Mr. Willoughby Smith and all his accusations had been confirmed by the very person who had committed said murder: Anna Coram, who at the same time was the professor’s wife, a former Russian revolutionary and a remarkably strong-minded and justice-loving woman. Watching Holmes during her confession, I could see that my friend was no little impressed by the firm and fearless way in which she had risked her own life to save her best friend Alexis from the injustice of being convicted to work in Siberia despite being completely innocent. Thus, great was his shock as at the end of her explanation she proclaimed to have taken a poison before leaving her hiding place and with that she sank back onto the bed, deadly pale and motionless.
Immediately, Holmes dropped the phial which had contained the poison and which he had ripped from her dying hand, and started to rummage about in his own pockets furiously. Only seconds later, he produced a small phial himself which contained a clear and slightly luminous substance. Before I could gather my thoughts as to where I had seen this before, Holmes had already forced the woman’s lifeless mouth open and poured the curious substance into it. As soon as the glowing drops hit her lips, an enormous shudder went through her whole body and with a cry she sat up again.
I could not believe what I had just seen and neither could the professor who gave a startled cry and exclaimed, his eyes open wide with shock and disbelief: “What have you done? And how? Did I not hear Anna say she had taken a poison and did I not see her die from it? Oh, how could you have brought her back to life?”
After convincing himself that the woman was in good spirits again, Holmes turned to Professor Coram and gave him a very sharp look. “I have my methods and ways which surely you would not understand even if I explained them to you in the most clear and precise manner I am capable of. I can only hope that you will value your wife more after she has almost died if not for you then at the very least because of your deeds. You have done her and her friend great injustice and I shall secure the papers that are needed to free the innocent man immediately. You, Madam, need not worry about his safety any more than about your own. I am fairly certain Detective Hopkins here will swear an oath that you have died by your own hand upon confessing the murder. Thus you can return to Russia untroubled and without your integrity being compromised by a charge for murder.”
Hence we escorted Mrs. Coram to the Russian Embassy where she would be provided with all means of freeing her friend Alexis and then returning home. Later, we sat in silence in front of the fire at Baker Street once again, no doubt each of us pondering on the strange incident which had happened today. Finally, I broke the silence to inquire: “How did you save that woman, Holmes? If I had not seen her drop dead with my own medically trained eyes, I should have said that this was but a strange priorly arranged set-up between you and her. But I am quite certain she was dead for a moment.”
He smiled. “You have seen everything correctly, my dear fellow, and can trust your instincts as a medical man. Mrs. Coram was indeed dead for several seconds and would have been forever, had I not been so far-sighted as to have brought the one elixir that could bring her back to life.”
“So you truly did save her from death!” I exclaimed, overwhelmed with wonder at Holmes’ many competencies. “But how is this possible? I have never heard of or read anything on such a miraculously potent cure!”
“And yet I have already shown you this elixir, on the occasion of its creation, and you were even with me on the very day I gathered the most important ingredient. I am certain you remember that night five years ago when I asked you to accompany me to watch the meteor shower and when I caught one of those falling stars. This elixir of life is made using the very essence of the star, which I subsequently extracted. You doubtlessly recognised the characteristic glowing which reveals its stellar origin.”
I was too astonished to answer. Certainly, I had heard rumours of such an elixir of life. Every now and then some charlatan even published a dubious article about it in one of the minor and less respectable medical journals I followed, but until now I had always disregarded such talk as a myth or fairy-tale. Yet after careful consideration, I could not think of a single person more deserving of a discovery of such importance than my dearest friend, who had modestly kept his secret until the gravest need had arisen. In the end it was this thought which reassured me most. If there was one person with whom I could trust my life (or other peoples’ lives for that matter), it had to be Holmes.