In recording from time to time the curious experiences and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes there are tales whose publication, for reasons of a personal or diplomatic nature, would cause consternation in many exalted quarters if they should appear in print. Others I have withheld out of concern of giving the public a surfeit which might react upon the reputation of the man whom above all others I revere. Yet there remains a residue, certain unfathomable tales for which the world is not yet prepared. One of these, as no other, revealed the true genius and intuitive powers of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
“This phone call, it’s a…my note. What people do, don’t they…leave a note?”
Standing the edge of the parapet where the aluminium flashing had broken away, exposing lighter stone. Granite is an igneous rock with at least 20% quartz by volume. The absurdity of the thought…impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully…grey and silver clouds boiling up out of nowhere…tiny people screaming and running like ants scuttling before the storm. If I step on them, they’ll be crushed.
“Goodbye, John.” He flung the phone behind him, spread his arms and took a step. Catch me!
There was the sound of wind rushing in his ears and then...
He rolled over and wished he hadn't; his stomach revolted.
All he could do was lie there panting. Concussion. Brain ping-ponging inside skull.
It was cold. The smells reaching him were sharp and boggy.
Wet grass. Dirt…organic matter…mineral particles…vomit. Can’t stay here. Get up…slowly. Where am I? Everything was muffled in fog, but there were lights scattered in the haze, some distance... In the direction of…of left foot…Move. Toward the lights…the sound of the water…no traffic…you’d think…but, in this fog…smells like a horse’s been…don’t think…one foot after another…
One foot after another…there’s a tree…progress pilgrim…the way is hard…paw over paw, the dog goes to Dover…if he doesn’t stumble over the edge of the path…
The footpath was bound with old-fashioned ironwork. He recognized the place…the bridge…Regent’s Park…the streetlights had been recently restored to pre-war. That meant he knew the way home…John would be waiting. And, speaking of horses, there was the clip-clop-clipping of hooves and the flicker of dim lamps approaching.
“Here you!” someone bawled out. “Out of it! You tryin’ to kill yourself!”
We have had some dramatic entrances into our lives, Holmes and I, but I can recall few more startling than that which occurred on a gloomy late November evening some four or five years ago. I have a precise memory of that night. It was the opening performance of Utopia, Limited; or, The Flowers of Progress, which as you will recall was the first new opera by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan to open at the Savoy in nearly four years. I had gone to some effort to secure tickets, intending it as a treat for myself but primarily as a diversion for Holmes who was in one of those black moods that dogged him when the criminal class was behaving itself. Boredom and Holmes are a poor mixture. I had hoped an evening out would produce a lightening of spirit, and a distraction from the cocaine bottle.
I was correct; the opera is simply among the best comic operas ever achieved, even at The Savoy. The moment that Sir Arthur went into the orchestra pit, the audience erupted into an ovation that lasted well over a minute and throughout the performance his melodies flowed as brightly as ever. I can’t believe the wit and humor of Mr. Gilbert’s libretto are surpassed by any of his previous efforts, not even The Mikado, and the central notion of the piece is hilariously absurd. The convergence of natural persons (or sovereign nations) with legal commercial entities and that such a concern, going bankrupt, could leave its creditors unpaid without any liability whatsoever on the part of its owners? Outrageous! Both Holmes and I both found it thoroughly diverting and on the way back to Baker Street, he wistfully opined that the concept could open a whole new field of endeavour to the criminal mind.
“I hope you won’t mention it to my banker,” I said.
“I’m sure he’ll come to it on his own hook,” Holmes said. He was frowning through the isinglass panel in the side curtain. One of our London Particulars had settled in for a lengthy stay and for fear of losing his way the coachman was proceeding slowly. “You’d think that if the Board of Works, corrupt as it was, could put an end to the Great Stink this new Council could make a start on the air.”
“There are too many members walking the captain’s dog,” I said.
“Still, a night like this is made for a snatch and run. I expect the lesser criminal element to show more initiative.”
“Gregson and Lestrade are probably grateful that they don’t.” I couldn’t help singing, “’Ah, taking one consideration with another, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one…’”
Mine is not an operatic voice and, as I intended, Holmes shushed me most pleasantly, and by time we were coming around Regents Park Crescent his hands were making pleasurable promises of further intimacies to come. On the whole, I felt able to congratulate myself on the success of the evening when the cab jerked sharply, and only Holmes’ arm saved me from a tumble.
It was fortunate we had been going slowly; otherwise it would have been impossible to avoid the wild and hatless figure that emerged from the fog. As it was, the driver had brought his horse up short, and was justifiably irritated. “Here you!” he shouted. “Out of it! You tryin’ to kill yourself!”
Instead of moving, the man came straight at us. He had one hand up, as if to shield his eyes from the glare of the carriage lamps, as he groped with the other for the shaft. Needless to say, the horse found this objectionable behavior and shied. The man stumbled and fell. I heard a pitiful cry for help as he went down. In a flash Holmes had the doors open and was over the wing. I had a button to do up but I was not far behind.
Holmes had seized the horse’s bridle and was soothing the frightened animal to prevent it from treading blindly and doing further hurt on the stricken man.
When I knelt down to examine him, I saw that he was bleeding from his head and I discovered a lump the size of a goose egg on the crown. His breath came in shallow gasps and his skin was cold to the touch. In a case of shock the first thing is to reassure the victim. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m a doctor. My name is Watson.”
“John,” he said, taking desperate hold of my hand.
“Yes,” I said, pressing his in return. “Do I know you?”
I knew for certain that I never seen him before in my life, but he had mistaken me for a friend and I wanted to keep him talking. When he’d first appeared in the mist, I’d thought he was a tramp, some kind of gypsy, but even in the poor yellowish gleam the coach lights provided I could see the whiteness of his skin and, when I checked for a pulse, that in spite of the dirt and grass staining his hands his fingernails were clean and neatly groomed.
“John. Please. I’m so sorry.” he said. His accent was odd. He struck me as one of our foreign visitors who had become lost in an unsavory part of town and been set on by thugs. It happens. Then he said, “I had to do it. It was your life or mine. Take me home.”
“We will,” I promised.
The driver had come down from the box to take charge of his animal by then. Holmes came and knelt on the other side of the stricken man and began to go through his coat pockets. As the poor man’s eyes flicked back and forth between us, I noticed how unusually pale the irises were. “It’s all right,” I reassured him. “We’re only trying to find out where you’re staying.”
“Baker Street.” His voice was barely a whisper.
“There’s a wonderful coincidence. That’s where we’re headed.” I patted the hand clinging to mine again. “What is your address? We’ll see you get there.” But the poor man was beyond the ability to answer. In any event Holmes found a card case in one of his coat pockets.
He took out one of the cards and read it. “Oh!” he whistled. “Here’s a howdy-do! What do you make of this Watson?”
He held the card for me to see, and I will never forget the frisson that passed through me as I read the name printed on that bit of pasteboard. It was Sherlock Holmes! And the line beneath it bore the title: Consulting Detective.
There was a signature below and it, too, said Sherlock Holmes, although in a barely legible in red scrawl, far removed from Holmes’s neat copperplate. It was a minor detail that the address in the upper corner was 221B Baker Street London Nw 1.
“Did you, by chance, have new business cards engraved without telling me?”
“If I had, it certainly would not been in such a bohemian style,” said Holmes. “We have a mystery.”
“Not unless we get him somewhere warm, and quickly. He is in shock, probably concussed, and liable to pop off on us.”
To the driver’s disgust, we loaded him in the cab—it was a tight squeeze-in—but we were only a short distance from Baker Street.
As we—Holmes, the driver, and I—carried him up the stairs, Mrs. Hudson appeared at the top of the second floor landing. Being used to the variety in Holmes’ clientele, she looked down on us, and our burden, and said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting a pot of coffee,”
“Some brandy, if you will,” said Holmes.
“It looks like he’s had enough of that already.”
“It’s for me,” said Holmes.
“Good idea about the brandy,” the cabby said. “Warms a man a treat on a night like this.”
“You’re not staying,” I said. “Mrs. Hudson, we could use a can of hot water, powdered mustard, a flannel, and some tea.”
“Oh…” She vanished with a whoosh heavy cloth. We’d hear about it if there was no hot water left in the boiler.
“Let’s put him on the sofa in the sitting room.”
While Holmes paid off the cabby and saw him out the front door, I turned up the gas, fiddled a small fire and found a pillow for the patient’s head. Seeing him in the light confirmed my initial impression of great pallor beneath the grime on his face. I felt his skull; it did not seem to be cracked, but his pulse was thready and I misliked the leaden colour around his mouth.
Holmes caught me frowning when he returned. “Will he live?”
“A near fatality in the storm of life. Give me a hand; we need to get him out of these wet things.”
His coat and trousers were soaked through in the front, which attested to the fact that he had probably been lying for some time on wet ground. With Holmes’ assistance, I got him undressed and the impression I’d formed of him being foreign was underscored by peculiarities of his dress. For example, he had no belt, no braces and no garters. The one cotton undergarment was light enough to imply he came from a country that enjoyed a gentler climate than that of Great Britain. Also he wore his watch on a wristlet, like a woman.
It was a mystery but making sense of it was Holmes’ department, mine was the man, although I could tell Holmes was anxious to be at it.
At least my patient’s colour was better and he was breathing easier by the time Mrs. Hudson arrived with the hot water.
I prepared a mustard plaster, Holmes settled at the dining table with his booty, all of my patient’s property, and began to pore over it with such concentration that I knew I’d lost his attention for the evening.
“Oh, the poor young man.” Mrs. Hudson perched on the edge of the sofa and tucked the blanket around my patient. “Will he be all right?”
“There’s no reason to think he’s poor,” Holmes said. “Far from it.” He was looking through a magnifying glass at the label inside the coat. “This is quite fine wool.”
“I was thinking of his mother’s feelings!” Mrs. Hudson said.
“Why?” Holmes looked up. “Do you know her?”
“No, but he looks like such a sweet boy. It wouldn’t hurt you to show some natural compassion!”
“There is no such thing as natural compassion,” Holmes said.
“Please, you two,” I said, slapping my poultice on the man’s chest and covering him up with another blanket. “I think a glass of brandy would do us all a world of good.”
“Make mine a double,” Holmes said.
Mrs. Hudson sniffed. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to it.” She did spare a last glance for the features of the ‘poor young man’ before she left. “If you need any help, Doctor, just ring the bell.”
“Just ring the bell,” Holmes mouthed at her back. “What is it with women and baby birds with broken wings?”
It was rhetorical question and I ignored it, pouring myself a large brandy and sitting down on the other side of the table.
“Where’s mine?” Holmes said, without looking up. I sipped my drink and studied my patient’s face. Finally, Holmes sighed. “You’re sulking, darling. Will it do if I let you sleep in my bed tonight?”
“What are the odds of my finding you in it?”
“Nil,” he admitted. “This is much too fascinating.”
“What do you mean?” I looked over the strange collection of objects he had pulled from various pockets.
“I don’t know,” Holmes said. “It is always fatal to theorize in advance of facts. Facts are in short supply, and what we have don’t add up. For instance, we have a small multi-purpose folding knife…” He slapped it down on the table. “Notice that it is similar to, but a considerable improvement over, the sort of knife the Swiss army issues to its soldiers. Feel it.”
I picked it up and bounced it in my hand. It was surprisingly light. The metal was white with a satiny finish and there with a red cross enameled on it. “Is it aluminium?”
“Yes. That makes it a very expensive knife. Also we have a ring of keys, a set of lock picks, a pair of tweezers and a small but powerful magnifying glass.”
I examined the things as Holmes laid them out, recalling the card with Holmes’ name on it. “These are things that you carry on a regular basis,” I said. “What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know. I found this in the breast pocket of his coat.” Holmes picked up a folded leather wallet. “What do you make of these?” He removed a set of brightly coloured celluloid plaques from the wallet and fanned them out on the table.
I picked one of them up and held it under the light. It was oddly reflective and surprisingly warm to the touch. The numbers and letters on it were punched into the surface, like braille. That wasn’t what was disturbing about it though. “This one has Mycroft’s name on it.” As I said it, a sensation past through me akin to the fisson I had felt in the park.
“I noticed.” Holmes picked up another plaque. “This one has mine on it. Any idea what a Barclaycard is?”
“Me neither.” Holmes held a scrap of paper to the light and handed it to me. “Ever seen any banknotes like these before?”
I call what he handed me a banknote because it said that it had been issued by the Bank of England and the denomination was £5. It was small, brightly coloured, felt greasy to the touch, and there was a portrait of a woman on it—the Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry! Holmes handed me another. This one was orange and the woman in the portrait wore a crown and a prim little smile. I have no idea who she was supposed to be, but she was not the Queen of England.
“Play money?” I’m sure my eyebrows touched my hairline and I was aware of a strong feeling of revulsion in the pit of my stomach. “Elaborate toys?”
“Metallic inks and watermarked paper. Very elaborate toys. Look at this.” Holmes pushed a small and surprisingly heavy coin across to me. “Notice the date.” I noticed the date, 2011.
“Someone is having a game at our expense.”
“Then the game’s gone wrong. There’s this.” He picked up the wristlet-watch that I’d removed from the patient’s arm. “The maker is Rotary.”
“Swiss again. Could be a clue.”
“I know men who would sooner wear a bustle than a wristlet-watch but perhaps the Swiss don’t harbor that particular prejudice. However, the really interesting thing about it is…” Holmes shook it, held it close to his ear, and then handed it to me.
I looked and listened. It was perfectly silent! I squinted at the face again to be certain the second hand really was going round in a smooth unbroken arc. “It doesn’t tick and yet it goes."
“Exactly. And then, there’s the evidence of his clothing.”
“Machine made. Every scrap of it. Look at the coat. Excellent Irish tweed with not a dab of hand stitching to the facings or to the lining. Smell!” I leaned over and smelled. “Exactly! The only odor detectable is the faint scent of limes. Now, consider the shirt. Self-collar with winged points. Polished cotton. Flimsy. Lilac pin-stripes? A bit over-refined, a la Bouguereau; wouldn’t you agree? No belt and no braces, as you’ve observed. The less said about the trousers the better, but I will point out that the use of the automatic continuous clothing closure, so recently introduced at the World’s Fair in Chicago. It’s quite advanced. One might say unbelievably so! And the buttons…”
“The buttons…?” It was late and, as ever, with Holmes off on a deductive tear, it took every bit of running I could do to stay up with him.
“Watson, do you believe in aliens?”
“Pale little men who live in the moon?”
“Of course not?”
“Then why have you got a copy of The Germ Growers hidden under your mattress?”
“So you wouldn’t find it, of course! What about the buttons!?”
“The buttons, the aiglets on his shoe laces, all these little plaques…” Holmes picked up the ‘Barclaycard’ with Mycroft’s name on it and tapped it against a tooth. “They’re made of some material not presently known to man.”
“Are you…” I looked over at the still figure on our sofa. He did look strange. Was it the odd cheekbones that were now flying bright red spots? Unnatural angles…? Or was it the squinched eyes that were unnaturally small? “Are you implying this is some kind of moon creature?”
“When did I say that? I’m implying nothing of the kind. I am stating that, as far as I can tell, all of those things are made of a substance—obviously pliable—which is not presently known to man. That does not mean that we cannot discover its nature, however.” Holmes scooped up the Barclaycard and carried it to the deal-topped table which supports his chemical experiments. Swiftly lighting the spirit lamp, he clipped the card with the points of a pair of long tweezers and held a corner to the flame. His eyes were flashing with excitement. “Stand back, Watson,” he said. “There’s a chance this could explode!”
It did not explode but, as the edge turned black and began to run, I will never forget the unearthly shriek that started from the throat of the man on the sofa as. I whipped around. My patient was sitting up, supporting himself with a white-knuckled grip on the back of the sofa. “What are you doing to Mycroft’s Visa card?” he said.
I spun around. Holmes took the time to extinguish the spirit lamp before turning.
“Thank you for joining us,” he said. “Sherlock Holmes, I believe? Would you care to explain what this hoax is in aid of?”
Sherlock clutched a wad of the blanket tightly. Wherever he was, at least it was warm, but his nose was being assaulted by a complicated niff made up of furniture polish, coal oil, rose potpourri, pipe tobacco, lanolin and mustard. And horse. Someone had been around a horse. There were voices. Two men. A woman. Babble. Babble. It was all too much. Too much sensation. Too much information to sort and organize. He wanted to yell Shut up! Go away! I can’t think!
The woman went away.
He waited, secure in knowing that his mind left to idle long enough it would re-boot; things would come together.
Understanding began with the chink of glass on glass, and the gurgle of pouring liquid. A clean familiar scent reached his nose. Could do with a brandy myself. The thought it inspired a cascade. Rude sot! There’s a sick man here. Least you could do is offer. No. Someone had said that he’d been hurt. God, his head ached! He must have been in an accident. Where was John? Come to think of it, Where was he? That was the first thing to work out. Go from the known to the unknown.
He was naked. Someone had undressed him. Hospital? No! There was no pinging of machines and the air hardly smelled of antiseptic. Directly under his nose, in fact, the mustard smell was coming from him—or rather some flannely thing stuck on his chest. Someone had to be playing silly bug…. Oh, bugger… Moriarty! Adrenalin surged. The analytical facility kicked into high gear. The material he could feel against his ankle? Hard. Smooth. Tufted. Horsehair. Blanket? Wool. Source of lanolin. Course grade. Army? He peeked under his lashes. Carpet. Axminster. Red and blue and gold. Needs vacuuming. Table leg. Walnut. Lion’s paw foot. Brass caster with ceramic wheel. Edge of tablecloth. Linen. Machine lace. Tassels. Tea stains. The lower part of a man’s leg eased into view. Front laced half-boot. Black leather. Hand sewn. Side of heel worn down sharply. Trousers. No cuff. Hand tailored. Brown checked Harris tweed…
One of the random blurts of meaningless noise that had been rumbling in the background suddenly bloomed into meaning. “What do you make of these?” someone said. He took a chance and lifted his eyelashes slightly.
Two men—one of them in the Harris tweed trousers, and another—from what he could catch beyond the glare of a green Art Nouveau lamp shade—in a striped shirt with a standing collar and dark waistcoat—pawing through his things—sorting his credit cards, counting his money, trying to work out what they could get for the watch that had been a gift from Mycroft. Vultures taking advantage of an injured man…
It was when they started on about the zip in his trousers that it registered with him that something about that was off.
Automatic continuous clothing closure…? Really? No one was that obtuse. Oh, God! I’m trapped in an antique shop with a pair of Victorian re-enactors.
It was times like this that he needed John, someone with his finger firmly on the pulse of popular culture. Waistcoat was carrying on about buttons and men from the moon. Harris tweed was becoming exasperated. Who could blame him? Rattling on like…has to be some kind of attention deficit disorder. Wait…! What…? He’d missed something.
Sherlock opened his eyes a further fraction. Tweed and Waistcoat were standing by a bench against the wall. A spirit lamp was burning with a blue flame. What do you think you’re doing? Since they had their backs to him, he could open his eyes all he liked at the old-fashioned chemistry set-up.
“Stand back,” Waistcoat said, “There’s a chance this could explode!” Waistcoat had a pair of tongs and was holding Mycroft’s Visa card to the flame.
“No!” Sherlock yelled. “What are you doing?”
Harris tweed whipped around. Waistcoat took his time and extinguished the spirit lamp.
“Thank you for joining us,” he finally said, turning. “Sherlock Holmes, I believe? Would you care to explain what this hoax is in aid of?”
I spun around to glare at our guest. Of course it was some kind of hoax and I was ready to stand with Holmes in demanding an explanation. But it was obvious that the man’s physical condition was no hoax. The pale eyes rolled up in their sockets as he slumped on the sofa. His flash of outrage had been more than his body could sustain.
“Blast! It will have to wait, Holmes,” I said, and hurried for the brandy bottle.
While I attempted to revive our guest, Holmes brought a chair, sat down adjacent to the sofa, crossed his arms and waited.
When our guest was able to open his eyes, Holmes said, “My apologies. I had no idea of shocking you so badly, but I thought it was more than time to end your little charade. You must admit it is bad manners to eavesdrop.”
This was plain speaking indeed and crimson spots reappeared on our guest’s cheeks. Embarrassment and anger on such features as his could easily have been mistaken for childish petulance. I would have assumed that was the dominant note had I not observed the catch in his breathing, the increased pallor, and the tears that were standing in his eyes. I noticed, as well, how his eyes flicked back and forth between us, as he tried to comprehend our purpose. Given the trauma he had sustained, how must it feel to wake in a strange place at the mercy of strangers, with who knew what intentions? For all he knew we could have been crimps. My heart softened.
“Let me assure you we mean you no harm,” I said. “You’ve had a serious blow to the head. Our only concern is to find out who you are and to restore you to your friends and family.”
“A blow…” Gingerly our guest touched his head and winched. “I was in an accident.”
Holmes and I exchanged glances.
“We will agree to call it an accident,” said Holmes.
“If you’ll let me use your phone, I’ll call someone to come and get me. Apparently, I threw mine away prematurely.” Our guest spoke as if he were used to getting away with such demands. As Holmes and I exchanged glances, our guest seemed to recollect himself. He said, “Please.”
The truth was that he had touched a sore spot. For some time I had wanted to have the telephone installed, thinking of the advantage of instantaneous communication with Scotland Yard. When I proposed the plan Mrs. Hudson had a conniption—which I’d expected, she had a terrible fear of electrical fluid—but I had been certain that Holmes would support the idea enthusiastically. He was always the first to embrace any innovation that could give him an advantage over a criminal. I expected he could reassure her that a telephone in the house did not mean a light bulb would inevitably follow.
I thought we would carry the thing off easily and had already contracted with the local company. To my surprised disappointment, Holmes sided with Mrs. Hudson. I couldn’t understand it and we wrangled until he confessed, finally, that having experimented with the set Mycroft had installed in his office, he’d found the thing impossible.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t have a wire. Unbelievable as it sounds, some people break into a cold sweat when they are confronted by a wooden box and a handset.”
“An unresponsive wooden box,” Holmes said, apropos of nothing.
“You have to listen to it, Holmes,” I said.
“But I can’t see who’s talking through it,” he said.
“Your mobile,” our guest said. The corners of his mouth turned acutely downward, accentuating the petulant look that seemed to be habitual with him.
“I’m sure Dr. Watson would be happy to take a message around to the telegraph office tomorrow,” Holmes said. “If you are up to accompanying him, you will find upholstered telephone booths there for the use of the public with the most up to date equipment.”
Our guest turned perfectly white. “Stop playing silly buggers and let me use a phone!” he snapped.
Far more gently than I could have imagined, given such an outburst, Holmes said, “It would help if you told us who you are.”
Our guest’s reaction was dramatic. His breathing grew ragged enough to make me concerned and his eyes flew wildly around the room as he twisted the blanket in his hands. “Moriarty’s done this, hasn’t he?” he said. “It’s his final joke!”
“Professor James Moriarty?” I said, feeling a shiver.
“He hired you!” Those pale eyes with their pin-point pupils locked on to mine. The pain in them was terrible.
“Professor Moriarty has been dead for three years,” I said.
Our guest recoiled, gasping as if I had punched him, and closed his eyes.
“Perhaps another brandy, Watson? A strong one,” Holmes said, making a gesture to indicate exactly how strong.
“Right,” I said. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving opiates to a man I suspected of having a concussion; these were not normal circumstance.
As I prepared the dose, Holmes, the least emotionally demonstrative of men, particularly where clients are concerned, hitched his chair closer to the sofa. He disengaged our guest’s hand from the blanket and secured it between his own.
“Listen to me,” he said. “We are very different men but, trust me, I will do everything in my power to help you. This is a profound shock—for both of us. Sherlock—do you mind if I call you Sherlock?”
“No.” Our guest opened his eyes the merest slit. “But what am I supposed to call you?” I saw his finger was resting on the pulse point of Holmes’ wrist and and knew he was trying to measure the truth of Holmes’ words. I’ve seen Holmes do the same on occasion.
“Call me Holmes, of course!” Holmes braced him on the shoulder. “Good man! Now, Dr. Watson has something to help you sleep. He will also loan you a nightshirt and tomorrow we will sort this thing out.”
I handed the brandy, which I had laced with a few drops of laudanum to our…to Sherlock. As he drank it down, I said, “Do I loan him my bed, as well?”
“Certainly,” Holmes said, putting his hand on the back of my leg, where Sherlock couldn’t have seen it. “You won’t be needing it.”
I felt like saying or yours either.
What I said was, “Come on then,” and gave him my arm and the use of my shoulder. I knew it would not take long for the drug to have effect. In fact, the pale eyes were already beginning to glaze over as stood up.
Half-way up the stairs he stopped, and looked down at me, and slurred, “This is so nineteenth century.”
“It’s 1894,” I said. “What century would it be?”
“Oh, you’re good,” he said. “I get it. It’s the Victorian House.”
“Can we move along?” If I was a bit curt, it was because he was leaning hard and my leg hurt.
When we got to the landing, I wheeled him into my bedroom and guided him to the bed, where he sat staring woozily around the room while I found a fresh nightshirt in my drawer.
When I handed it to him, he took it as if he’d never held such a garment. “Big shirt,” he said. “Where’s the loo?”
“Haven’t a pot of glue,” I said. He transferred his owlish look to me. “What’s a loo called when it’s at home?”
“The bathroom. Need to rinse off this mustard mess.”
“Leave it until morning. Can’t have you getting an inflammation of the lungs on top of that bump.” I was concerned that he might fall if he tried to stand up, so I took the nightshirt and guided his head through the opening. “Hands please,” I said.
“But it stinks, and what if I have to…?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You know.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Where do Victorians go when they have to piss?”
“Reach under the bed, you’ll find a pot.”
“Don’t you think that’s carrying a reality programme too far?”
“I am not the chambermaid.”
“Oh, God!” he groaned, suddenly looking stricken. “Me and my mouth. There I go. I’ve offended. Sorry. Sorry. This is why I need John.” Holmes had been correct; the man was used up. Whatever he had done, whatever crime he had committed, it was better to wait until tomorrow.
“Under the covers,” I said, pushing him back and lifting his legs.
The whole time he kept babbling and moaning. “Oh, God, I’m so, so sorry. It’s 1894. No! This isn’t happening. Where’s John? You have to call him and tell him to come and get me. Tell him that this isn’t happening…”
He went on like a chidden child or an Edison cylinder, over and over, until eventually sleep, the balm of hurt minds, had its way and he wound down, actually stopping in mid-yawn, on the very verge of falling asleep. I gave his shoulder a pat and got up to leave.
He smiled at me. The last thing he said was, “Guys… jus’ ‘dorable. Gonna screw ‘im t’night…weren’t cha?”
I thought my head would explode.
As soon as I was sure he was asleep, I ran back downstairs and found Holmes engaged in putting the coloured plaques back in their wallet. He looked up as I entered and forestalled what was on the tip of my tongue by saying, “Tomorrow, remind me to ask Sherlock what these things are supposed to be.”
“Do what you like!” I snapped. I went to pour myself another brandy; I was shaking with rage and in need of a stiffener. “Do you know what he said to me!?”
“No. Was it crude?”
“You have no idea.”
“For a man who was in the army…” Holmes’ eyes glinted with such unholy amusement that I flushed. “Would you like to know why I’m humouring him, or not?”
“Not! That-that intolerable twaddle about Moriarty has to be some kind of practical joke! It’s not funny.”
“No. I’m afraid it isn’t. But it’s not a joke.”
“Oh, Holmes, never tell me that you believe him. Moriarty…”
“Is dead!” Holmes interrupted. “I know. But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Please, bring me one of those, if you would be so kind.” When he said please, I started guiltily, realizing that I had not taken into account the effect that hearing that name would have had on Holmes. I poured another glass. “Do you want a couple of drops of laudanum, as well? I would be willing to prescribe in this case.”
“No. Our friend upstairs is what your American readers would call a pistol. We are going to need all of our wits about us tomorrow.”
I found nothing to argue with in that. Instead of handing Holmes the glass, though, I set it on the table and embraced him. I did it as much for my comfort as for his, but he melted against me and I could feel the tension in his body. “Tomorrow,” I said, experiencing a resurgence of my anger towards Sherlock. “I’m going to check with Bedlam. They have to have misplaced one of their lunatics.” It was unkind perhaps, but if he hadn’t staggered out of the fog, I would have had Holmes in bed and boneless by now.
Holmes sighed against my neck. “I wish I thought that was the case.”
“I know I’m going to hate this, but…” I sighed. “Tell me what you’ve been thinking.”
“Not so much thinking as reflecting, particularly on the case of one Gaspard Semmelrogge, a boy of 14 who appeared on the streets of Nuremburg in 1829, speaking a dialect that had not been heard in Bavaria in four hundred years and wearing clothing of similar antiquity. The case aroused so much interest in antiquarian circles that it attracted the attention of Lord Cottingham who planned to adopt the boy and take him to England.”
“He was proved a fake, of course. Initially, it was his familiarity with potatoes that gave the game away, but subsequently it was demonstrated that the blue dye which coloured his liripipe could not have existed previous to the late 18th century.”
“You’re saying you think our friend upstairs is a fraud.”
“I am not. I’m using Semmelrogge as the type specimen, an exemplar if you will for a certain kind of fraud. In almost all the documented cases of people who claim to have appeared suddenly lost out of time and place, it is always a time previous to the one in which they appear. Or else it’s a time so far in the future that society has become so sophisticated that the population goes around entirely naked. In either case they inevitably trip over their…ah…anachronisms.” That made me snort. I couldn’t help it. “But the complexity and nature of our guest’s effects...”
“Would not have been beyond Moriarty.”
“I disagree. In any event, Moriarty is dead.
“Is in prison. Hard put to manufacture a toothpick much less such detailed props.”
“He would use an agent, of course.”
“Too many of these things are simply beyond present technology.”
“Expensive, yes, but what…?”
“Would have gone up like touch-paper.”
“You said almost all cases.” I wasn’t prepared to concede Holmes’ point, but he had pricked my curiosity. “What about the others?”
“Look to our own back pages, Watson. Recall the case of Mr. James Phillimore who was said to have stepped back into his own house for an umbrella and was never more seen in this world. At least not until twenty-five years later when he walked in the door, seeming not one day aged and wearing exactly the same slightly damp clothing in which he had last been seen…and found himself an unexpected guest at his granddaughter’s wedding. As much as the family paid me to investigate, nothing shook his story.
“Another case worth noting is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, who was found stark staring mad with a match-box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science. What is less well known is that the match-box bore an advertisement for The Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and was dated… Watson, you’re not paying attention.”
“Mmm…no, I’m not.” I had been working on the tension in the muscles of his lower back.
“Watson!” Holmes squirmed in response as I moved my hands lower. “That feels delightful but I suspect you have ulterior motives.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“I notice that you’re piloting us towards the bedroom.”
“That’s because we are going to bed.”
“But I intend…”
“No, you do not,” I said, and kicked the door shut behind me.
“But no less remarkable a case,” he said, “is that of the cutter Alicia which sailed into a small patch of mist one spring morning. She never again emerged nor was anything further ever heard of herself or her crew, until….”
“Shut up.” I picked him up and dropped him on the bed, keeping hold of one foot in case I needed it for leverage. I didn’t. I had him down to his wooly coms in short order, and God bless the man who invented the D hatch.
It was still black when I woke. I could tell from the muffled street noises that we were still submerged in fog but the scent of fresh baked bread easily eclipsed the faint sulphurous taint that tends to creep under the window rails and lured me out of bed.
I’d been so upset last night that I’d forgotten to collect a own nightshirt of my own. I helped myself to a pair of Holmes’ pyjamas, as well as one of the several dressing gowns that had failed to tempt him out his ratty old paisley.
There were three plates on the dining table and the fact that only one of them had bread crumbs and egg stains on it, made it easy to deduce that—Sherlock—I can never be used to calling a stranger by his Christian name—was not yet up.
There was no sign of Holmes, but there was a blue cloud of sweet smelling pipe tobacco drifting from the alcove. I swept the velvet curtain aside and found Holmes lounging on a pile of cushions in front of the bow window. He had the morning papers scattered round and all of his smoking paraphernalia within reach.
“You look perfectly debauched,” I said.
“I have been debauched,” he said, stretching to let me see he had nothing on but his coms under that unspeakable gown “Three times last night, alone. Look outside.” There was a faint lightening, but with the gaslights were still burning and the fog was too thick to see the buildings across the street. The world seemed to exist in a murky green glow. “I feel as though I were inside Aladdin’s lamp. Do you believe in incubi?”
“I haven’t given it much thought. Would you like more tea?”
“Please.” He handed his cup and saucer to me. “And you had better ring for a fresh pot. Our friend is awake, and lurking.”
“What on earth is he waiting for?”
“Maybe he’s shy.”
“He didn’t strike me as a shrinking violet.”
“True; he’s already gone through your chest and your night stand.”
“Holmes, why are we doing this? I’ll wager £5 he proves to be either a criminal or a lunatic before it’s over.”
I looked around. “What did you do with his clothes?”
“I pictured how he’d look in one of your suits. And then I went over them carefully once more, in case I’d missed something, and gave them to Mrs. Hudson to wash. Don’t glare at me like that; it would have been all ankles and wrists.”
“And shins and elbows in yours,” I said. “I’m going to roust him down. Put some clothes on.”
After alerting Rosie that another pot of tea was wanted, I went up and knocked on my door. I meant to walk straight in, and if I caught him in the act… my hand hesitated on the knob. “It’s Dr. Watson,” I said.
Sherlock had opened his eyes once that night, wondering how he’d become tangled in all that fabric. He’d rolled over on his back and there was a delay before the room righted itself. Definitely a concussion.
Now it was morning—horses in the street—deliverymen bawling about milk and ice—footsteps clattering on the pavement. Who gets ice delivered? That wasn’t the worst. The worst was when he looked up at headboard looming over him, nearly touching the ceiling—all those carved curlicues, arabesques, and roundels, writhing like snakes in the dim light—the deep purple wallpaper with its printed chains of orange daffodils. It was a room that could only have been conceived on LSD. If the devil had popped in offering to swap his soul for an aspirin, he would have spat in his hand and sealed the deal without even bargaining for a glass of water—if he could have done it without opening his eyes again.
A rap on the door made him flinch. A high female voice said, “The maid, sir.” He had to look because, without waiting for a reply, in she came.
The girl, at least she looked about 16, was dressed for the part with a white ruffled apron around her waist and a ruched doily pinned to her head. She was carrying a tin tray which she set on the bed table. On it was a cup and saucer, a small silver pot, sugar and creamer. He could smell the perfume of fresh coffee. She giggled when he asked, “Are you are an angel?”
“Mrs. Hudson said you might need it.” She went around the room, turning the gaslight in the sconces off and pulling the curtains back. Then she knelt in front of the grate and kindled a coal fire. “That will have the chill off in a twinkling, sir,” she said. “Would you like me bring your hot water now?”
“I’d like a paracetamol,” he croaked. The dire wallpaper was strobing away in his peripheral vision. “I’d like a dozen.”
“I don’t know what para…para…what that is, sir,” she said.
“I’ll settle for an aspirin.”
“Oh, no! This carrying things too far! We’re not still running The Victorian House. Who owns this place? What’s the address? Where the hell am I?”
The girl looked shocked. “This is Mrs. Hudson’s house in Baker Street!”
“Baker Street…?” Visions of last night…he hands suddenly felt cold. “Those men downstairs? Who are they?”
“Mr. Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson?”
“They live here?”
“This isn’t an antique store?”
“Oh no, sir!”
Visions of last night…John!
“All right, I’ll play. You said hot water?”
Sherlock was standing, looking out of the window as if he were trying to follow the progress of the milkman going up the street. He still had my old army blanket over his shoulders and looked around, as I entered as if he were about to say something. If he was, it was curtailed as he took in the glory of the particular quilted dressing gown I had on. I could hardly blame him; it was supposed to have replaced the paisley.
“It’s a popular colour,” was all I could say.
“Of course. ‘What else would it be’.” He parroted my words as if they were an aide-mémoir. “It’s the Mauve Decade.”
“That’s what the fashion writers are calling it,” I said. “How do you feel this morning?” There were hollows under his eyes. He had made use of my hot water and washbasin, but overall, his colour was better, less pasty, considering that he was probably naturally quite pale. “Up for breakfast?”
“You slipped me a mickey.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You drugged me!”
“Not exactly. I gave you a couple of drops of laudanum because you were overly excited.”
“So now, on top of the headache I already had, I have a blistering migraine. What do you prescribe for that?”
“More laudanum. Or I can prepare a salicylic powder for you. I recommend breakfast first, however. I don’t know about you, but I could murder a lamb chop.”
“Oh, God! Don’t mention food!” he said. “I couldn’t commit GBH on a Weetabix, but if there’s more coffee…” He waved at the door. “Lay on MacDuff.”
“Kedgeree, eggs, streaky bacon, and lamb’s kidneys on toast…” Holmes caroled, as we entered the sitting room. He’d started on seconds. “There’s nothing like breakfast to make it worth getting up on a gloomy day, and Mrs. Hudson has outdone herself this time. I think she’s sweet on you.” I was glad to see that he had trousers on under the ratty paisley. “By the way, did you find what you were looking for going through Watson’s things?”
“No,” Sherlock said, without the least hint of embarrassment. “I was looking for an aspirin, or any evidence that this isn’t a lunatic asylum. Why are we playing it’s1894.”
“What year do you imagine it is?” I said.
“My dear Sherlock.” Holmes helped himself to another kidney. “Life is infinitely stranger than anything you or I can invent. You may think it that cannot possibly be 1894, but I urge you to carry on, for the moment, as if you did. Try to believe, with all your heart, as if everything you see, touch, taste and hear is real.” Then he leaned over and whispered in Sherlock’s ear. “And, if you happen to discover any shred of evidence to the contrary, please mention it only to me.”
“Why only to you?” Sherlock whispered back to him, looking sideways at me.
“Because, I am prepared to deal as if you do come from another place in time, but Watson is dying to see you clapped in Bedlam.” Holmes sat up straight and smiled at me. “Aren’t you, old cock?”
“Pass the marmalade,” I said.
“Bedlam…? Oh.” Sherlock put his hand to the place on his head where I’d felt the hard lump the night before. He looked around the room. “I’ll go this far; if we invent our own hell, this is not even for one second mine.”
“You’re not in the diplomatic service, are you?” Holmes said.
“No. Where are my trousers?”
“I had Mrs. Hudson take them away to be sponged off. She’ll have them back in a few hours.”
“In the meantime?
“What should I do in Illyria?” Sherlock looked annoyed.
“Work,” Sherlock said. “It is the only true panacea. Your business card confirms that you are a detective. Detect. I find that nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person, so you will tell me everything you can recall that led up to your finding yourself in Regent’s park. Leave nothing out. For example, it may be an accident of coincidence, but last night you mentioned a certain name…”
Sherlock had been reaching for the toast rack. He drew back. “Moriarty? He’s dead.”
“How did that come about?” Holmes’ brow was furled with interest.
“He built a perfect mousetrap. For me, or so he thought, but then he discovered that he’d trapped himself as well. The bugger blew his bloody brains out in front of me.”
“Tsk! Language,” said Holmes. “But I can see how that would be disconcerting. What happened then?”
“I fell four stories off of the top of a building.” Sherlock touched his head again. “And seem to have only got a bump on the head.”
“Please don’t equivocate.”
“Are you telling me I didn’t fall?”
“No. I’m suggesting that it’s more likely that you jumped.”
Sherlock stared at Holmes. “How do you know that?”
“Call it an educated guess and take it on trust that it’s easier to know than it is to explain. You said you were trapped; you keep looking at Watson as if you expected to see someone in his place; I conclude that you thought you were sacrificing your life to save a friend’s. I’d bet it was the most irrational thing you’ve ever done in your life.”
Sherlock clapped both hands over his mouth, and leaned against the table with his eyes closed.
“And the least selfish,” said Holmes, taking the last slice of toast.
“Unlike you,” I said.
Sherlock was breathing heavily and I was watching him for signs of hyperventilation. He looked over his hands at me. “He did the same for you. I saw the note he wrote to you!”
“You went through someone’s private papers…?” I went cold with fury. “You don’t care how you offend, or whom,” I said. “That is the most despicable behavior I’ve…” I don’t know what else my feelings would have betrayed me into saying if Rosie hadn’t chosen that moment to knock on the door.
“Come in,” said Holmes. “Quickly!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Holmes.” She poked her around the door. “But Mrs. Hudson said to say the poor lad’s shirt didn’t survive the mangle.” The evidence was a sodden mess of purple rags in her hands.
“Tell Mrs. Hudson that it’s quite all right. Dr. Watson will loan him one of his.”
“I will not!”
“Don’t be petty. Of course you will. You can have one of mine. As for you,” Holmes turned to Sherlock, “I don’t know what you did to offend Rosie but for the sake of my wardrobe, try to pretend you know what civilized manners are. At least in theory.”
“Every time you open your mouth. You present an interesting problem and I’ve promised to help you. But it doesn’t take much to infer that you’ve been allowed to get away with being an intolerable brat your whole life and if you try Watson’s patience too far, I will kick you down the front steps. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” Sherlock, although he was white to the lip. Finally, as if he had to struggle to recall how the words went, said, “Dr. Watson, I apologize for reading your private papers.”
“Apology accepted,” I said. “And may I say—”
“No.” Holmes interrupted before I could add that it was almost worth it to hear him deliver a lecture on conduct, to anyone. “Now, where were you when you jumped?”
“Roof of the Pathology building in Giltspur Street.”
“There’s no Pathology building in Giltspur Street,” I said, looking at Holmes.
“Interesting,” he said. “Very interesting. Go on.”
“John had just arrived in the street…I…I don’t know what he thought he could do, but I had to keep him standing exactly where he was, or…it doesn’t matter…but he was going to move, whatever I said. Once I accepted that it was inevitable, everything became calm, almost surreal.”
“What do you mean surreal?”
“You know…” Sherlock sighed. “No; I suppose you don’t. Dreamlike…unreal…as if I was looking through both ends of a telescope. I was standing on the parapet. Part of the aluminium flashing under my feet was broken. If I’d had a pencil I could have drawn the outlines of the every flake of feldspar and quartz crystal in the granite block under my feet and, at same time, my feet looked a mile away. I felt like the wind pick up. The clouds started boiling, as if there was an electrical storm coming, and I could feel my skin crawl. That was the moment that I realized that, in spite of everything I was saying, John was going to move.” He sighed. “I gave up, tossed my phone behind me and jumped. The whole way down, I couldn’t believe I had done it. Then everything went white.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. “By the way, what did the air smell like?”
“Fresh laundry.” Sherlock looked sideways at the floor. “Since I woke up here, everything’s smelled like horseshit and sulfur.”
“There are very hard flint setts in the street at the bottom of the stairs,” Holmes said.
“Point taken,” said Sherlock.
“That’s enough for now,” Holmes said. “I need to think. Finish your breakfast, both of you. Don’t mind me.” Whereupon he disappeared into the alcove and shortly a cloud of fragrant blue smoke was wafting over the curtain rail. Impossible to ignore.
Sherlock stared at it hungrily. “Honestly,” he said. “I’d kill for a cigarette.”
“Help yourself,” I said. “The pear-wood box on the mantle.”
“Thank you, but I’m trying to quit.”
“Why?” I said.
That was a weary morning for me. I prepared the headache powder for Sherlock when he said he still needed it and, after showing him where the water closet existed under the stairs, made him free of the bookshelves.
Then I retreated to my office and spent the next few hours at my desk making notes. I find it helps to set down my impressions as early as possible in a case and I was quite convinced Sherlock was a criminal, or a lunatic, whom Holmes was humouring for reasons of his own. It was unfair of me, perhaps. I trusted Holmes, but what the object of his maneuvers was I could not conceive. Further, nothing could have set my hand against Sherlock more thoroughly than the knowledge that he had read the note that at the time I found it in a silver cigarette-case on that three-foot path in Switzerland…let me say, I thought it was the last word of affection I would ever have from my dearest friend and comrade.
Sherlock, after examining the contents of the bookshelves, picked out Kipling’s Phantom ‘Ricksha and Other Eerie Tales and settled in an armchair. He confined himself there, even when some noisy equipage in the street or a newsboy’s yell prompted him lift his head and look to the windows. In anyone else I would have suspected the lack of drawers made him timid; in Sherlock’s case, I believe he’d taken Holmes’s threat seriously and was considering what his next move should be.
I left my office door open in case Holmes needed something, but he called out for Maxwell’s Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, and Sherlock was sitting by. It made sense for him to carry it and from then on he became Holmes’ mule when The Chronic Argonauts or some other esoteric volume was wanted. Shortly, they were going through the pile of newspapers together, circling articles. I could hear Holmes questioning Sherlock about the material of his buttons and Sherlock questioning Holmes about the cost of domestic gas lighting. Shortly they were twin Buddha sitting cross-legged. Each with a pipe and I had to close my doors; the doubled cloud of smoke making the sitting-room uninhabitable. Once through the paneling I heard Nellie Melba singing “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”
At one o’clock Mrs. Hudson brought a tray with a cold lunch to my office. She informed me that Sherlock was upstairs getting dressed and I took advantage of his absence to see what he and Holmes had gotten up to. “Watson,” he said, as I crouched down beside him. “I’ve learned the most remarkable things. ‘Plastics’ for instance. And, if you have the opportunity, buy stock in Cable and Wireless, and hold on to it. Oh, and never commit your forces to a ground war in Asia.”
“I could have told you that,” I said, extending my leg to ease the ache, “but what other kind is there?”
“So serious!” Holmes took the pipe out of his mouth, stuck the stem of his pipe in his ear and blew a smoke-ring. It was a foolish trick, but I could never help laughing when he did it. “That’s better,” he said. “Brush off your black frock, my dear. We are going out again tonight.”
“21 Albemarle Street.”
“The Royal Institution! What will we be doing?”
“Meeting a great man, I hope.” Holmes showed me a circled advertisement. “Nikola Tesla will be speaking on the wireless transmission of energy. I have sent Billy round with a note and with luck we will shortly have an invitation.” Holmes then pulled me close and rubbed his cheek against mine. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m disturbed,” I confessed.
“I know, it’s brought back memories, but try to bear up. That is not a man at ease with his emotions at the best of times, and I believe that right now he feels entirely lost.”
“I will do my best,” I said.
“Of course you will.” Holmes brushed my lip with his thumb. “Now, as much as I appreciate it, you need to remove that scruff,” He rubbed the back of his knuckles over his own cheek. “And so do I.”
“Perhaps a bath,” I said, rising to my feet. “I know I could use one.”
“An excellent suggestion. Take our friend off to Broad Street and I will meet you there.” Holmes settled back on the cushions and closed his eyes. Just before I closed the door, he said, “Watson.”
“Am I as exhausting as that?”
“Worse,” I said.
“Don’t stint the Bay Rum,” he called after me. As I left, I could hear him singing:
“Gin a body meet a body
Flyin' through the air.
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? And where?”*
The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns…
Except on those occasions when they do.
“You’d think someone would have mentioned it if hats were required.”
“Nothing,” Sherlock said, adjusting the tilt of the dove-grey bowler to shield his face from Watson’s prying eyes. Pointing out the obvious, to Watson, that here—in what appeared to be this time and this place—everyone, men, women and children, wore hats. It would have sounded unbelievably naïve, and Sherlock was already up Watson’s nose after reading that letter.
The hat covered the hard hot bump on his head, and he rather fancied the way it looked, even if it did belong to Watson (as did the shirt, collar and waistcoat he had on under his own jacket and coat—those could pass muster if they weren’t examined too closely).
He had been behaving himself, playing along; Holmes’ threat to toss him out in the street had been serious and he needed a place to stand if he was going to navigate the insanity in which he found himself, and expose what could only be an extreme folie imposée. At least, that was the intention with which he’d started.
Even after Sherlock had admitted going through his things, Watson had gone up and checked the collar box in the bureau drawer. Obviously it was one of his most cherished possessions and, to tell the truth, Sherlock wished he hadn’t read it. Seeing such naked feelings written down made him wonder—if he had had the luxury of time and of pen and paper—and of not having to disguise what he was doing—what he would have written for John to carry through all the empty years?
His eyes began to sting.
Of course he’d questioned Holmes, challenging every detail he could think of. Holmes had finally informed him that he was being a bore and asked him where on earth he’d been educated if he thought there was no popular recorded music before 1905. Holmes had wound up the phonograph and set the cactus needle to a cylinder. Fortunately, that very sweet and very proper Mrs. Hudson had brought Sherlock his freshly pressed trousers before he had to listen to The Lost Chord.
Now he was stuck with the doctor in a horse-drawn taxi, feeling colder and, if he admitted it, more frightened the closer they were coming to New Broad Street.
The fog had dissipated, leaving pale yellow wisps in the afternoon sun. They rattled past street sweepers, bawling draymen, liveried omnibuses, long skirted ladies with muffs, and bewhiskered men. Bells. Without the endless background drone of automobiles and aircraft, he could hear church bells, and the different sounds that a horse’s shoes make striking brick, tarmacadam or flint. They clopped past a venerable park with cast iron railings. He knew the park. As a five-year-old he had kicked the stumps of the long-vanished rails with his trainers. That was the Freemason’s Hall. And there should have been a memorial to the Boer War on that triangle. They crossed Smithfields. Down the street he could see the bustling General Market and from the reek it was not a building that had been abandoned in 2005. There was Saint Bartholomew-the-Great and there was…Barts! He knew the place in his bones.
“What is it?” The doctor said.
“Where I met my best friend.”
John deserved more than a few ephemeral words over the phone.
“Introduced by a man named Stamford?”
“How did you…?” He saw the suspicion in the doctor’s blue eyes. “No. I did not read it in your letters, Doctor.”
“Why would you have to? Anyone with sixpence to his name can discover where John Watson met Sherlock Holmes.”
“You don’t believe I’m a-a…a displaced Chronic Argonaut, do you.”
“No.” Watson shook his head. “I’ve a bet with Holmes—next month’s rent, in fact—that you’re on the swindle.”
“And yet you’re going along, because he asked you to, because you imagine that the problem of me will keep him distracted enough and then he won’t slip and start back using whatever drug he’s prone to abusing, which he manipulates you into providing.”
“What gave that away?”
“The old track marks on his arms. The hypodermic needle in the green morocco case on the mantle. I admire his fidelity to realism, because a jab with that has got to hurt. But, given the amount of dust on the case, he only uses it when he’s thoroughly bored. Morphine, I assume?”
“Cocaine,” Watson said. “Why should he need to manipulate me to obtain it?”
“How else does he get it?”
“From the Chemist on the corner.”
“Oh…” said Sherlock. “I forgot it’s legal. O tempora! O mores! Maybe I could learn to like it here.”
“No. The sooner you’re gone the better.”
“Sergeant Donovan down at the Yard would agree with you.”
“I’d like to meet Sergeant Donovan. He sounds like an intelligent officer.”
“Her. She’s thick as a short plank but there’ve been women police officers since 1919. They’ve had the vote since 1928.”
“And any man with all of his wits can see that women will get the vote sooner than later. I look forward to it.”
“First Female PM 1979. Don’t see that coming do you?”
“Now you’re going too far. Interesting, that neither of us is going to be alive to call you a liar.” The cab jerked to a halt. “We’ve arrived,” Watson said, pushing the door open and stepping out into a busy street. Sherlock followed him, staring about.
He had no recollection of the great red brick railway station that dominated the street, but the small Moorish kiosk cattycorner to it was so thoroughly familiar he stopped and stared. The little building with its onion shaped cupola had survived time, the blitz, and urban renewal, to become a restaurant shadowed by the steel and blue glass Broadgate Tower. He and Mycroft had eaten lunch there two weeks ago. He looked up, turning round and round; there was no building, anywhere, taller than St. Paul’s or Tower Bridge or…
“If you’re going to make a habit of getting knocked down in the street.” Watson took him by the arm and drew him out of the path of a private coach. “Do it when I’m not by. What’s the matter? Are you feeling dizzy?”
“What’s the opposite of déjà vu?”
They entered the kiosk and descended a winding staircase, issuing into an ornate vestibule lined with tin-glazed blue and ivory tiles.
Watson paid for their tickets and two hours later he was lying on a lounge in the cooling room, listening to the gentle splashing of a fountain, and recovering from the most intimate bath he’d ever experienced.
Both Holmes and I have a weakness for Turkish baths. Although we incline toward Neville’s Northumberland location, at two-shillings-three the range of services at Broad Street is second to none; I hadn’t missed Holmes’ hint that we were to emerge shampooed, shaved, bathed and pomaded.
The first two were quickly accomplished. As for the bath, out of concern for Sherlock’s head wound, I prescribed a mild course of hydrotherapy for him, while I took a vapor bath to relieve the pain in my leg.
Afterward, we lay bundled like mummies under the stained-glass dome in the cooling room. In an environment of oriental opulence, the full treatment of hot rooms and massage leaves one feeling limp and slightly exalted.
Holmes joined us there, as freshly barbered as we were but reeking of violets after a soap wash and plunge. I shoved him away when he attempted to sit beside me—I prefer Bay Rum, if I must—and he settled next to Sherlock.
“Hello in there,” Holmes said, whipping off the towel covering Sherlock’s face. “Still with us?”
“Noooo…” Sherlock fended him off and rolled over on his side, re-tucking his towel.
“Good Lord! What did you do to him Watson?”
“He’s had a double Scottish douche,” I said.
“Nothing in my life...” Sherlock’s voice came muffled through the towel, “ever done…so completely gay.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Holmes said.
“Enjoyed it?” Sherlock popped up, scowling. “Oh, God! All right…yes…I enjoyed it. They reamed my prepuce, I smell like a pineapple, but this…” He whipped the towel off of his head. “I look like a ponce!”
Military experience left me with a taste for unfashionably short hair, but the barber had only parted Sherlock’s in the center, very gently, laid it flat and swept it back over his ears. “I think it suits you,” I said.
“I don’t fancy the Macassar oil myself,” Holmes said. “It’s too fruity.”
Sherlock turned livid.
“Did I miss something?” Holmes looked back and forth between us. “You know those handy little books of foreign phrases one purchases at railway book stalls? I feel as if we could all use one. But,” he held up his hands, “if we can focus for a moment, I have secured an invitation for us to meet with Tesla after his talk this evening. We will present our problem to him.”
“Then what?” I said. “We announce we’ve found a lost anachronic traveler and ask him to build us a time machine?”
“Unless he already has one lying about,” Holmes said.
“What’s with the aroma therapy?” Sherlock said.
“We—and I emphasize we—are going out of our way not to offend. Tesla has a horror of dirt, he is highly sensitive to sounds and smells and he is reclusive and disinclined to associate with strangers. But, on the other hand, he is as susceptible to flattery as any genius is—present company excepted. I hope through a subtle combination of charm and obsequious fawning to inveigle him into inviting us to his laboratory. Now, who’s for supper?”
After collecting freshly cleaned boots from the boy—how many jobs vanished when automobiles replaced horses?—they had repaired to Simpson's in the Strand. It was almost the place Sherlock remembered. At least the green and white tiled foyer was the same—without the display cases—and it was certainly as popular. But there were chess games actually being played in the Grand Divan, and the atmosphere of respectful hush was on that account, despite the trolley carts that were being wheeled through the room.
Holmes vanished upstairs before they could be seated. When he returned, and slid into their divan, there was a smug look on his face. “I’ve got him,” he announced.
“Mycroft,” Watson said. "You'll never trap him."
“Mate. In three moves,” Holmes said. “You’ll see.”
“Mycroft…?” Sherlock looked around. “Where?”
“Oh, he’s not here. We reserve a chess board upstairs and he sends his moves round by messenger. I’ve got him this time, despite what Watson thinks.”
“You actually play chess with Mycroft?”
“I take it you don’t.”
“No. If there were a chance he’d lose, he’d rig my queen to explode, taking my hand off with it.”
“So you stole his Barclaycard in revenge,” Holmes said.
“No, of course not. That's merely a piece of plastic.”
“I doubt that. Barclay, Bevan and Bening, bankers since 1776,” Holmes said. “I believe somehow that card gives you access to his account.”
“All right, it’s a fair cop,” Sherlock admitted. Both Holmes and Watson were looking at him. “But he earns a bomb more than I do.”
Just then a waiter pushing a trolley stopped by their divan, and lifted the silver dome to display the joint. None of them resisted. It was wonderful…the rich aroma of gravy, Yorkshire pudding and the tang of horseradish…
No delusion, however extreme, can enthrall an entire city.
“You’ve gone very quiet,” Holmes said.
“I see only two choices,” Sherlock said “This is real. It is the past. It is 1894. Or else my body is lying comatose in a hospital somewhere, and I’m dream—ouch!” Holmes had reached over and pricked him with the point of his knife. “That hurt!”
“Then it would seem to put paid to your dream theory,” Holmes said. “Anyone for pudding? No?”
Holmes pulled the large linen serviette out of his collar. People did that, Sherlock remembered, tucked them in their collars, even though Watson’s was lying neatly across his lap. Then he noticed his own. It was a crumpled in a ball next to his plate. With a sense of guilt he picked it up and tried to flatten it. Too many years of living alone, and then he and John together…
“I’m trapped in the past,” he said.
“Possibly not,” said Holmes. “I can’t help observe that how highly unlikely it is that there are two men named Sherlock Holmes, each of them with a brother named Mycroft and a friend named Watson, who happens to be a doctor, living at the same address in Baker Street, 117 years apart. Please note that 117 is a number divisible by 3.”
“What has that got to do with it?”
“I don’t know yet. But please take note of it.”
From Simpson’s we proceeded to the Royal Institution. The RI sponsors a series of Christmas lectures, and the year before I had heard John Ambrose Fleming speak on The Work of the Electric Current. Fleming is a consultant for the Marconi Company so it was natural for him to confine his topic to the use of radio transmission. Tesla’s vision, more theoretical at this point, is inconceivably deeper. He foresees a future when power is free to all, and the possibilities of long distance power transmission will be put to such uses as the broadcast, not only of sound but of moving pictures, geophysical exploration, and space travel. If anyone can build a time machine, it’s Tesla.
He is persuaded that the space around us is filled with a layer of energized particles and that the earth is a conductor which responds to predetermined frequencies of electrical vibrations. Current propagated by associated electric field energy can be transmitted any distance through the space between the Earth's surface and these particle layers to operate all sorts of devices.
One thing in particular that he said stood out: “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
I look forward to the day; Mrs. Hudson couldn’t object to a wireless telephone.
While Holmes and Sherlock, on either side of me, gave Tesla the attention that genius commands, I settled for studying the man. He is over six feet tall, has deep-set dark eyes under straight brows and speaks perfect English, albeit with a slight accent. I had the impression of great mental energy and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. That night he moved around the stage, causing bells to ring and glass tubes to glow, all without the aid of wires. I admit the theory is beyond me, but I was dazzled by the effects.
Toward the end, when he was demonstrating the prototype for a new generator which he said could be used to provide electrical power to a whole building, the thing began to whirr, and then it squealed and then it let off a bang and a brief shower of brilliant blue sparks. A woman gave a small scream but, as these lectures are always crowded, and the hall was stuffy, this signaled a general stampede out the back while Holmes, Sherlock and I made our way down to the stage.
Tesla, bending over his crippled motor, looked up as we approached. “Gentleman,” he sounded surprised, “You’re very brave.”
“How so brave?” said Holmes.
“Haven’t you heard how dangerous my inventions are?” Tesla nodded towards the only other remaining members of the audience, a group of reporters, scratching away assiduously in the front row. “If not, you can read about it in the newspapers tomorrow.”
Holmes raised his voice loud enough to attract the attention of the scribbling fraternity. “Mr. Tesla,” he said, “you have been the target of a whispering campaign by the supporters of Edison’s direct current system, ever since you arrived in London.”
“I believe that to be case. The police will not take me seriously, though.”
“Tomorrow, people will read that Sherlock Holmes has been called in to determine if you’ve been a victim of sabotage.” In a more normal tone, Holmes said, “You may find things go a little easier for you.”
“You—?!” Tesla’s brows went up. “You’re Sherlock Holmes!” He became animated and left his engine. “This is an honor. Are you saying you would…?”
“I am.” Holmes took the cordially proffered hand. “And I will.”
“I can’t tell you how great an admirer of yours I am, Mr. Holmes!”
“Allow me to return the compliment. May I introduce my friend and associate, Dr. John Watson?”
“Dr. Watson, of course.” Tesla offered his hand to me and I noticed how incredibly long his thumbs were. “I read all your accounts of Mr. Holmes’ cases. I would never have dreamed…”
“And this,” Holmes said, bringing Sherlock forward, “is also Sherlock Holmes.”
“Your nephew?” Tesla said, taking Sherlock’s hand, in turn. “How wonderful that there are three of you.”
“My brother will have some lively explaining to do, if that turns out to be the case,” said Holmes. “You said that you would be able to give us a few minutes of your time. Is there some place we can talk in private?”
“I have the use of a laboratory here in the building where we can be private.”
“Excellent,” said Holmes. “Please conduct us there, immediately.”
The laboratory to which Tesla conducted us was under the building’s great mansard roof, where the ceiling height could accommodate the needs of his experiments. The windows looked over the rooftops of London. I could see the chimney pots of Barts in the distance. While we three wandered around gaping at strange assemblies of steel ribs and cables and wires, Tesla sent a porter running for tea.
I recall engines, including one set up to be driven by steam, that was attached to a small mechanical oscillator. There were conical towers with toroid frames at the top of them. With their thick cables drooping down, they looked like prehistoric marine creatures.
“Are these the famous lightning generators?” Holmes said, looking up at them
“They are,” said Tesla.
“Were you operating them last night, by any chance?”
“I was and, by all possible measurements, succeeded in creating electrical movements that surpass those of natural lightning discharges.” Tesla sounded justifiably pleased himself.
“I would like to see that,” said Holmes.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I said.
“Not at all. I’d be more than happy to demonstrate it for you. The only reason you didn’t see it tonight was the Institution’s concern that there were saboteurs planted in the audience to disrupt my talk.”
“What’s this?” said Sherlock. He had been stepping back and forth through a large toroid frame that had been set on its side. It stood between two of the conical towers and had an opening large enough for a man to walk through.
“I’m working on a new form of energy transmission.”
The porter arrived with a tea cart and refreshments, and we adjourned to a part of the laboratory where there were chairs and a blackboard. I noticed there were 18 teaspoons on the cart and a pile of 18 napkins that had been crossed over each other in groups of threes. Tesla took tea but he polished his spoon 18 times with three napkins before stirring it.
It was Holmes who said, “Mr. Tesla, you said how wonderful it is that there are three of us.”
“Yes. It is a significant number. I believe if we only knew the magnificence of the numbers 3, 6 and 9, we would have the key to the universe.”
I trust he didn’t notice the glances Holmes, Sherlock and I passed among us.
“Now what can I do for you, Mr. Holmes?” he said, after dropping three lumps of sugar into his cup and stirring it nine times. “Your note said that you had a question that was of of great concern to you and that I was the only man from whom you would trust an answer.”
“The question,” Holmes said, “and please believe me that I mean this in all seriousness, is could you build a machine that would enable a man to travel back and forth in time?”
“Because time travel is impossible.”
“You know this for a fact?”
“Look at it this way, gentlemen, time is a river. It flows in one direction only. I am an engineer, not a mathematical logician; I cannot lay out a proof for you, but I will point out that if time travel were possible we would have evidence of it.”
“Such as…?” Holmes said.
“Time travelers. Time tourists, if you will. Empirical evidence of exact and verifiable facts of future events and technologies.”
I spared a glance sideways at the watch that was strapped around Sherlock’s wrist.
“But I have read,” Holmes said, “that time fills the universe like a rotating fluid. Anyone walking in the direction of flow would find himself at the starting point, but backwards in time.”
“Pardon me, but does anyone have that much time?” Tesla’s curious gaze travelled among the three of us, pausing on Sherlock. “And is backwards really the direction in which one wishes to go?”
Sherlock, his eyes brilliant with the intensity of concentration, entered the conversation. “You didn’t answer Holmes’ question,” he said.
“Which question was that?”
“That you know for a fact that time travel is impossible.”
“I would never make such a statement. I would expect to be disapproved in short order.” Tesla looked uncomfortable admitting it. “I am absolutely sure, however, that, if it were possible, it would take the energy of a small star to accomplish.”
“Oh, God,” Sherlock groaned. “Where is cold fusion when you need it?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “as it flows around planets and stars, the river of time becomes trapped in eddies and whirlpools or separates into streams.” It was a fanciful thought. I expected gentle mockery from Holmes, and more than that from Tesla.
Instead, he said, “Not streams of time but streams of reality.”
“What?!” both Holmes and Sherlock ejaculated at once.
“The doctor’s metaphor touches on a theory,” said Tesla, “that at its most fundament level our planet—our universe—our reality, if you will—responds to certain pre-described frequencies of electrical vibrations which exist and relate to each other in bundles of 3, 6 or 9 simultaneously. It is possible that if one of these bundles splits, like a stream going around a rock, that instead of flowing back together on the other side, separate realities flow onward from that point.”
“Are you saying,” said I, appalled, “That the world is nothing but a radio signal.”
“Not at all, I’m saying that it is a mass of charged electrons in a pre-determined relationship with each other. As we all are at our most fundamental level.”
“You’re saying reality is a musical chord.” From the frown on Tesla’s face that was too limited a metaphor, but Holmes looked delighted with it.
“What could split the chord?” Sherlock said.
“Potentially, something as minor as spark of static electricity as long as it was aimed in such a way that it ruptured the frequencies,” said Tesla.
“And from the point of rupture, do these…these new realities carry on at exactly the same rate?”
“No. There would be minor variations that would become magnified over time. At the extreme edges of the complex, there would be extreme differences.”
“I don’t like thinking of myself as a minor variation.” Sherlock narrowed his eyes at Holmes and shook his head. “I am not a minor variation.”
“No, you’re more like a flatted fifth.” Holmes took his pipe out of his mouth and returned Sherlock a full wide smile. “The question is how do we bring you back into harmony with the Lord?”
“Are you listening to yourselves?” I said.
“Actually, I’ve been experimenting with transferring bodies.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence after Tesla spoke.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I finally said.
“One rat more or less can’t make any difference.” Tesla shrugged in a way to chill a physician’s soul “It’s annoying having to handle the creatures, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.”
“Are you saying you can send a rat to another plane of this existence and bring it back alive?” I said.
“Yes, of course.”
“How do you do it?”
“By means of a small harness with a telephone receiver attached. I’ve sent them out for as much as an hour. When they reappear, they’re often none the worse for the experience.”
Sherlock gave a short, sharp whistle. “Are you looking for a human volunteer?”
“Would you?” said Tesla, jumping up. “I was thinking of using a cat next, but it should be perfectly safe.”
“My God!” I said. “Do you hear yourselves?”
No one paid the least attention to me. Tesla and Sherlock were on their feet. They were serious about this insanity. I was on the verge of jumping up in protest, when Holmes put his hand on my knee.
“Holmes, it could be suicide! I can’t…” But, despite my convictions about Sherlock, I felt pity. There was now no doubt in my mind that he had thrown his life away to save a friend’s, and was now throwing himself into the unknown to find him again.
“Do you really want to stop him?”
“No,” I said. “I know too well the pain of losing the one person dearest to you in the world. Let him go.”
I felt the pressure of Holmes’ hand withdraw.
Sherlock had been afraid that Watson would try to stop them. He saw Holmes lean over and place his hand on the doctor’s knee. If I could have only touched John at the last minute... A few whispered words passed between the two men and Holmes’ hand was withdrawn. Watson looked up, caught Sherlock's eye, and touched two fingers to his forehead in salute.
“Fifteen minutes,” Tesla was saying as he threw the harness that had obviously been ready and waiting for this moment over Sherlock’s head. “I will give you fifteen minutes only, and then bring you back.”
“You said a rat could stay for an hour without harm.”
“If no harm comes to you, we will extend the time. Perhaps the other direction.”
“Three frequencies. Remember?”
“What do I do?”
“Stand here on this plate, and I will charge the field.” Tesla was running around plugging in the last three cables. “It’s going to get very bright and very loud,” he said, closing the last circuit.
There was a snap and then a crack of thunder. “It is perfectly safe!” Tesla shouted as fingers of blue lightning reached into the space within the toroid frame, which had lit up and turned white. There was a peculiar smell Sherlock realized, like fresh laundry. A perceptible tug was drawing him forward, as well as the feeling of being pushed from behind, and… Sherlock took one step, and then another. Then he was moving too quickly, tripping over a kerbstone, stumbling a few more feet and falling flat on his face. Blast and dammit! He spit out a mouthful of grass, rolled over to catch his breath. Overhead a 747 in British Air livery was climbing out of Heathrow. He watched it arc across his line of sight, screaming thunder, tracking it until it vanished in the distance, leaving nothing but a fading white white contrail behind. Only then did he remember and begin to tug frantically on the harness buckles. “Fifteen minutes,” Tesla had said. But if there was a spatial variance, there could be a time discrepancy, as well...
“Do you want it?” I asked Holmes later that night. I picked Sherlock’s wristlet-watch up from the nightstand. As the stem didn’t seem to wind any sort of spring, I was wondering how long it would continute to run.
“No,” Holmes said. “You keep it. After all, he did keep your best bowler.”
That was true. The harness had come back empty except for the watch with its band threaded in the buckle. Holmes and I took it as sign that Sherlock had survived and arrived at his destination. But Tesla had become distressed, and had asked us to leave (more I think because our threesome had become a duo than because he’d lost a willing subject for his experiment). Personally, I was more than happy to go, before it occurred to Holmes that it might be interesting to see what was on the other side of that glowing portal.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” We were lying in a satisfied tangle of legs and sheets. It does make one reflect.
“Steady on, Watson. Next you’ll be saying you liked him.”
“Not in the slightest, but I am man enough to admit he is at least as brave as you are. I think he deserves to find his John. Although, if he does, he’ll probably pop up behind him and give him a heart attack.”
“Let it go,” Holmes said, his eyelids were drooping, “And put that thing away.” I put the watch in the drawer of the nightstand. He pulled me over to rest my head his shoulder and began to sing:
“‘Gin a body meet a body
How they travel afterwards
We do not always see’.”*
I knew. I also knew that although I am free to think and act alone, the two of us are bound together like stars in the firmament with ties inseparable.
Sherlock lay in the grass, arms outstretched, grinning up the blue sky and candy floss clouds. The wind was bringing him river smells, children’s screams, and the tinkling music of a round-a-bout in the park nearby. He was thinking of ice-cream.
“What’s wrong with that man, Mummy?” A child’s treble voice.
“Don’t look at him!”
He got up on his elbows and watched the mother dragging her child away from the strange man with the funny hat. She hustled the boy out the gate past a newsstand with the day’s headline hanging on stands: Fake Detective Jumps to Death. That was going to be a problem, you can’t get far on £38 and a bit of change these days, but Mycroft’s Visa was safely tucked in his wallet, and with that he could perform miracles.
29 May 2012