If I had a shilling for every occasion upon which I have heard my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes chide some hapless fellow from Scotland Yard standing supplicant upon our sitting room hearthrug, with the words, “You see, but you do not observe!” I should instantly be a much richer man. Not infrequently, he aims the dictum at me, as well. And yet I would be remiss if I did not, at least in this most private account, confess that I seldom hear him expound upon his theories of the importance of minutiae without suppressing a smile, for I know what he does not see, even if I do not yet know why I see what he does not.
It began in Afghanistan, during the siege of Candahar. I was laying on my pallet one hot evening, still feverish and miserable from the wound in my shoulder, when I witnessed a curious confrontation between several rodents near the cabinet which held our medical supplies. Two rats were trying to get in, but the cabinet was defended by a half dozen mice, and they were forced to retreat. What held my attention, in that strange place between consciousness and sleep were the tiny khaki uniforms the mice wore, and the miniscule rifles slung over the backs of the rats.
I saw them again in Peshawar, when my fever was at its height. Mice of every shade and size, dressed in the garb of every nation in the Empire as they passed through the wards at night to reach a small backlit mousehole near my corner bed. Sometimes they were bearing litters, with other small creatures lying ill upon them -- oh, yes, they walked upright -- but mostly it was mice.
Afterwards, when my recovery was assured if not complete, and my fever had abated, I continued to see the “civilized” mice out of the corner of my eye. I had the sense not to mention it to anyone, and practiced ignoring the world at my toetips. Confessing to hallucinations would, I was certain, ruin any slender chance I might still have of ever returning to my duties.
But as I was boarding the Orontes, under orders to return to England and attempt to recover my health, I noticed a ragged young mouse being chased by two wharf rats. It dived into a empty tin near the gangplank, and would have been quickly found by its pursuers except that I, in a burst of fellow feeling, caught up the tin and slipped both tin and mouse into my pocket.
By the time I had made my way down the ladders to the narrow triangular cabin near the bow which I'd been assigned, the poor mouse was half dead of fright, but I made him up a bed in the apex of the triangle from a matchbox and my spare handkerchief and then left him with a small cupful of water and some biscuit crumbs and he soon revived. I saw him peeping out at me from under the handkerchief as I settled my few belongings and stretched out on the bunk to read.
It was a most curious morning. If I watched the mouse directly, it seemed like any ordinary mouse. Small and bare and shy, rearranging the handkerchief into a nest as a bird twists straw into the crook of a tree. But if I kept most of my attention on my book, and only observed the mouse by glances to the side, I could see it sitting tailor-fashion on the matchbox, clad in a tiny turban and a dusty dhoti, working free a strip of the cloth from the edge of its bedding.
The ship set sail that afternoon, into the arms of a storm, and I was so wretched with seasickness for the next three days that I paid little attention to anything but my own misery. I roused in the middle of the third night to find my small guest had recruited the aid of some mice in British sailors' dress to fetch a half-empty bottle of Angostura bitters into my quarters. They rolled it across the floor, to my bedside, and then scattered when I startled them by reaching down to pick it up. I took a draught of the bitters to settle my stomach, thanked the room for the dose, and fell back to sleep.
The bottle was still beside me in the morning, and my mouse, too, sitting on the edge of the bunk and watching as I opened my eyes. It was wearing new clothes, fashioned from bits of my handkerchief, and it squeaked at me expectantly as I watched it. I couldn't understand it, unfortunately, and said so as softly as I could, but it seemed to understand me. It bowed over its hands, a gesture of thanks, and accepted my nod in return before sliding down the sheets and departing the room.
From that time on I have always been able to see the mouse-kind and their world, whether I look directly or askance, and the bottle of bitters and my no-longer-square handkerchief, with its one mouse-wrought hem, are not the only physical evidence I have acquired as proof that I am not as mad as I once feared. In Portsmouth I interrupted a brawl in a barrel, scattering mice and newts and other small creatures all dressed as sailors for the sake of acquiring a handful of the tiny glasses they'd been drinking from. In London I've found miniscule newspapers, and once I found a lantern hanging on a blade of grass, burning with a flame so small I should have thought it impossible were it not for the evidence within my hand. Such lights shine all over London, down in kitchen areas, at cracks in walls, or gaps in pavements, where the second life of the City proceeds unremarked by the denizens of the larger world.
I can say as much only here, where I am myself my sole audience, for I have never been able to allude to the matter with anyone over the age of seven who is not ill or intoxicated. It is as if some fairy curse impedes the discussion. My newspapers and lantern and all are dismissed as toys, though no toy has ever been so delicately constructed; and it is only on the pages of the children's picture books that mice wear clothes, and frogs and toads exchange felicitations over the bright colors of their waistcoats. I dared hope, when Holmes insisted on his ability to construe much from a small detail, that he would also recognize the evidence before him, but his eyes slide right over shoeprints too tiny to belong to any creature smaller than a human child, and when I am watching some diminutive drama to pass the long wait for a human criminal to appear he accuses me of woolgathering.
I did think he might have to expand his definition of the possible when we were investigating the disappearance of the Darling children, but he convinced himself that it was the children who had foisted the hat upon the dog rather than the dog insisting upon the hat, and devised the most elaborate and unlikely of theories to explain the handprints on the ceiling.
But if Holmes ignores the impossible, the impossible no longer ignores him. There is a small slender mouse in residence below Mrs. Hudson's kitchen who positively worships my friend, sneaking out from behind the skirting boards to listen to Holmes expound upon the science of deduction at every opportunity. He wears a plum dressing gown on most occasions, but I've seen him dressed to go out in an Inverness and cap like the ones Holmes keeps for country excursions, and I very nearly disgraced myself on the occasion when I observed the mouse draw a tiny magnifying glass from its pocket to examine the ash which had fallen from Holmes's cigarette.
Of late, to my delight, he's been accompanied by another mouse, a rotund little fellow with a moustache and a bit of a limp, who trails after him when he goes chasing after some clue, and provides a steadying paw when it is needed. We have shared a shrug, this new mouse and I, when Holmes and his shadow are bent over some chemical question at the deal table, and I have seen him walking along the lines of one of my manuscripts, parsing out the words and growing absorbed in the story. He has a notebook too, I've seen it, and I wait for the day when he leaves out a manuscript for me in his turn.
I want to read about their adventures, those two. Even if I need to borrow Holmes's microscope. I shan't tell him why I want it, but perhaps, someday soon, I may not need to. You see, I've often lain in my bed, listening to the music of a violin no larger than a candle flame come resonating up the pipes in the wall, playing a soaring descant to the more prosaic notes of Holmes's Stradivarius.
Last night it was Holmes playing descant.