A new story released as a condition of Mr. Holmes’s will, stipulating that not until 157 years after the date of his birth should this account finally be made public.
The Haunting of Sherlock Holmes
I have been so often and earnestly implored of late to set down yet more accounts of my friend Sherlock Holmes’s exploits that I find it impossible to ignore an interest that, after so many years since my friend’s departure, I presumed had become exclusive to myself.
As the reader no doubt recalls, I have striven to be rather selective in my presentation of the mysteries to which Sherlock Holmes bent his remarkable energies. However, upon reviewing my copious notes in the overlooked or passed-over files of our adventures, I see that I was too scrupled or spoiled by the wealth of dramatically rich stories to fulfill my honest intention to select only those episodes that demonstrated Holmes’s method of deduction over those that had purely sensational appeal. Having had time to examine the many disqualified baubles for years, I see gems that I had taken for glass with my mind’s eye—the only eye that may grow clearer with age, it seems.
In some cases, I overlooked anecdotes for their raw excitement, discovering only on a second or third look the loom of Holmes’s reason as it gathered the skeins of causality too quickly for the human eye, at times so intimate with action as to be indistinguishable from reflex, a dazzling display of logic that had the misleading appearance of blind luck. In other instances, I passed over a case for its academic varnish—too dull, I concluded, for public consumption—only to discover the high drama concealed in Holmes’s cerebral swordplay these many years later as an old man looking back on faded notes and still-vivid memories. The case I shall here recount was decidedly of the former variety, though its roots reached farther into the other variety than I believe I shall ever be able to penetrate.
What further stayed my hand from rendering an account of this extraordinary case was that not until recently has the tide of medical knowledge risen to validate certain events, thus rendering them less incredible than they would have been had they been published at the time of their occurrence. So unprecedented was their nature that I feared for the reputation of my friend, let alone my own, should I publish any account of them. In hindsight, Holmes must have realized this, too. What had seemed a strange and deeply disturbing journey into the supernatural, a world in which Sherlock Holmes was as impossible as the supernatural was in Holmes’s world, would only later be explained, causally, by the advance of science. Holmes would have been gratified. I can see him bringing his hands together in that one congratulatory clap he gave to Mankind whenever it caught up with some frontier of insight his mind had already mapped.
So unsettling is the thought even to this day, however, that nature could contain within its sunlit sphere such unnatural nightmares as I witnessed that night that I have found myself wishing there were a mystical origin that explained them, instead. Alas, as an old man not wishing to take them to my grave, I now happily bequeath these memories to this world so that I may leave them peacefully behind.
It was one of those intensely cold and clear London evenings of spring in the year 1898. A somewhat industrial sunset layered the sky in volcanic hues over Baker Street in the window.
Holmes and I were in the idle between cases. The period of gloating over our last case had passed and a mutual lull had set in as we anticipated the next invitation to practice our singular trade. To break the tedium, we had played ten games of Chinese checkers, and I had won four straight off, but it was hardly worth it considering the embittered dissertation of self-approbation and the promise of imminent annihilation that my good fortune had provoked from Holmes. My deliberately random approach had worked for the first and only time any system of mine worked against him, but somehow he devised a strategy to predict my very randomness and brutally swept my army of crimson marbles in six straight games. I had not taken his uncharitable triumph well, and indeed vowed never to play the diabolical game with him again, having never liked it anyway, whereupon we lapsed into a sulking armistice as we read a dissected day-old Times.
A long and brooding silence the likes of which friends won't let go on too long ensued and to break the lull, I recall, Holmes made an especially obtuse remark that left me rather ambivalent.
"The need to reformulate something endlessly is an odious one, Watson! The skeptic who always points out another angle is committing the ultimate intellectual treason. It puts one in mind of Craetylus, the ancient philosopher who, concluding nothing could be ascertained, sealed his lips for the rest of his days, stood in the town square, and pointed in circles at the world around him, as if to say that everything around us demonstrates why reason is utterly fruitless. How utterly refreshing! The skeptic's pointing and pointless finger is usually accompanied by an energetic tongue."
"You thrashed me at Chinese Checkers, Holmes," I said. "Must you rub it in?"
Holmes cocked his head at me and laughed as he folded his section of the Times and set it in his lap. "I wasn’t referring to you, Watson." He nodded at the front page to explain his commentary. "Rogers is breathlessly recounting the latest Seven Faceless Men theories of Simon and Fitch."
"Do you think Fitch and Simon are onto something?" I grunted.
"Pshaw!" Holmes nestled in his chair like a golden bird of prey in his silk smoking jacket. He turned his avian face toward the vermillion window. "Simon and Fitch are the opposite of the skeptic, Watson: apologists! The one moves his lips as though they can destroy, the other as if they can create. The Seven Faceless Men puzzle seems dyed permanently in mystery, so Simon and Fitch, naturally, see an opportunity to stamp their seal in the black wax." Holmes bristled with mirth.
The year prior, seven faceless, handless, nude cadavers had been discovered deposited between the lions of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, a shocking and most gruesome crime that had left all England to play Sherlock Holmes’s game, and, thus far, all had lost. I had thought I was on the verge of a possible solution myself, a theory involving escaped prisoners from the Colonies tracked and murdered by colonial natives and placed in Trafalgar Square as a political warning (for the baffling part of the case was that even after a year no one had reported seven missing faces from the English population). I had been itching to offer my hypothesis, but was discouraged by the scorn Holmes had shown for the theories of poor Simon and Fitch, which he routinely shot down like so many ducks.
As Holmes always maintained, it was the extraordinary mystery that lent itself to solution and yet, though he had striven like Michelangelo to release the figure of the murderer hidden in this unusual block, he had not offered a word about the case, which inspired me all the more to formulate a theory of my own to fill the aggravating void.
I was weighing the risks of putting forth my solution when a visitor appeared quite unexpectedly.
The door was opened by Mrs. Hudson without so much as a ‘hallo’ by Holmes. We were expecting her, and indeed one could set a clock by the dear woman��s routine.
When Holmes noted that Mrs. Hudson bore a caller, however, who glided into the room clad in smoke-gray, he quite forgot the topic upon which I was still fixed and his every attention and attitude converged magnetically on the odd fellow.
Three singular things happened in rapid succession.
The man said, "Farewell, Mister Holmes!"
Holmes snatched up the cast iron lid from the roast beef Mrs. Hudson had come to collect.
And the stranger’s hand emerged from his coat with a pistol, aimed the barrel at Holmes, and fired a shot.
The explosion of the window shattering was the exclamation point of this alarming sequence.
Holmes cried out and Mrs. Hudson pushed the hesitating man with a burst of maternal rage. It was enough to spring me into action, albeit clumsily, for I instinctively hurled the tea kettle at the stumbling assassin and, by the luckiest chance, struck his forehead. The lid flew off of the teapot and scalding water splashed over the man’s face.
Taking advantage of this stroke of luck, I rushed him where he crouched on the floor. He raised his scarlet face, his eyes clenched shut in anguish, and equaled my luck by pointing his revolver directly between my eyes. I vividly remember the sudden whiteness of his fingertip pressing on the trigger as my mind apprehended its last moment.
Holmes cracked his loaded riding crop against the man’s temple and he collapsed, the pistol tumbling from his hand.
For a moment I couldn’t gather my nerves and stared at the limp hand and fallen gun on the flickering Moorish pattern of the carpet. Then I looked up at Holmes. "Are you shot?" I cried, shaking off my cold brush with eternity.
"No, Watson. Only a flesh wound. Though it might have done me in if it wasn’t for Mrs. Hudson’s splendid Easter roast." Holmes grinned sardonically, but I could see he was mastering a considerable distress. "How are you, and Mrs. Hudson?" Holmes said, turning to our indomitable landlady, who stood speechless, her eyes transfixed on the blood staining the shoulder of Holmes’s claret silk jacket.
Before either of us could answer, Holmes moved to his desk, pulled out a drawer and produced his strange Oriental manacles. He promptly bound our prisoner’s wrists and ankles with them and examined the man’s clothing. "Perhaps you could bring us some hot water, Mrs. Hudson, as Doctor Watson appears to have spilled all of ours! A dead eye, Watson. I commend you on keeping your head."
"Yes, Mister Holmes," Mrs. Hudson cried, and she bustled off in a terrible fluster.
"Watson, can you help the poor fellow’s face?" Holmes said.
I looked down at the killer and for a moment thought of the unguents in my bag. "We’ll attend to you first, by thunder!" He had put my mind to business and cured my shock. "No time for modesty for Mrs. Hudson’s sake, off with that jacket and shirt!" I could see by the size of the crimson stain on his jacket that his wound could be grave if not quickly attended.
"I was rather thinking it might be easier to identify our guest if the colour on his face could be put down. However, in these circumstances I am at your disposal, Doctor." Holmes’s smile turned thin and ironic as he carefully draped his bloodied garments over the back of his chair and I saw the blood streaking down his sinewy white arm. I still could not believe he was alive after the pointblank assault of the assassin. I detected the slightest tremor in his hand, and counted him reassuringly human in that small detail.
Mrs. Hudson rushed in with water, and, after I had cleaned and dressed what thankfully turned out to be merely a grazewound, Holmes donned a fresh smoking jacket of emerald silk and sat down in his chair with a warm brandy. Circumstances being so extraordinary, he invited a reluctant Mrs. Hudson to join us for an interview.
Holmes leaned back in his chair and lit his pipe, studying our unconscious trophy sprawled on his back before the fire. At his request, I had rolled the man over and locked the elaborate handcuffs on his belly, and had noticed that the man had rather scarred and disfigured wrists. At Holmes’s strange insistence, I swabbed the man’s scalded face with white vinegar and a yellow oil I had acquired during my days in India to quell the burns on his face.
A crisp draft curled through the room from the shattered windowpane as Holmes sat perfectly still, scrutinizing our mysterious assailant. After an eternity passed, and another on top of it, I couldn’t bear it any longer. "What’s it about, Holmes?" I blurted. "I mean, what do you make of it, eh?"
The blue smoke of his pipe reached lazily up, curling over the body like a languorous ghost. "What do you make of it, Watson?"
"Oh, you tell us, Mister Holmes!" Mrs. Hudson said.
Holmes put down his crystal snifter. "I know only what you know, but I will summarise it if it is necessary to review the events we have all just witnessed. However, Mrs. Hudson, it is to our immediate concern to know how it was that the messenger of such evil tidings managed to pass so stealthily into our presence?" He cocked his head at her, his eyes brittle with curiosity. "How on Earth did he approach you?"
"Well, Mister Holmes, as you know, I always let our page out and light the front lamp at this time, so that I can take the evening paper up when I collect your supper dishes. Saves my legs on those stairs! I must admit that this gentleman startled me by the softest tap on my shoulder as I turned back up the steps, and before I could utter a word this perfectly meek man presented this card." Mrs. Hudson offered the card into Holmes’s beckoning hand.
MY NAME IS RANDOLPH PITNEY. I AM A DEAF-MUTE. DO NOT SPEAK FOR ANY SOUND CAUSES ME UNBEARABLE PAIN. I COME FOR MISTER HOLMES’S ASSISTANCE. WOULD YOU PLEASE SHOW ME TO HIS ROOM? THE MATTER IS OF DESPERATE IMPORTANCE TO ME.
"Ingenious, Watson," Holmes murmured, handing me the card.
I was shocked that he could find admirable the work of a man who had so nearly taken his life.
"And so he was able to slip into the house without the slightest disturbance." Holmes stroked his jaw. "His slight stature and remarkable deftness of foot enabled him to perfectly shadow the footfalls of Mrs. Hudson’s ginger and yet stout, well, distinctive gait, with which we are so intimately familiar, Watson, as our visitor walked abreast with her up the stairs."
"Great Caesar’s Ghost!" Mrs. Hudson cried. "We did walk abreast. How could you know that, Mister Holmes?"
"The third step from the top has a creak. I remarked to myself you had gained weight and decrepitude of late from the oddly pronounced creak of that tread, and I was half-puzzling the improbable thing when you entered," said Holmes. "It is your iron consistency, Mrs. Hudson, that gave our visitor his chance, and foiled it too."
"Dear Lord!" Mrs. Hudson said, and she glanced at me in horror.
Holmes took the man's card back from me and turned it to catch the light. "Halloa! And here is something remarkable! Judging from the yellowing of this card and the fading of the ink, our Mister Pitney has been planning this deed for at least a year!"
"But how could you have anticipated his intentions?" I blurted, confounded by his cool demeanor. "He was on us in an instant, Holmes! Surely it was by the most fortunate chance that you reacted to the worst scenario?" That Holmes expected me to believe he had performed such a spontaneous analysis of these events exceeded my credulity.
"I assure you, Watson, it was by no ignorant nor errant chance that I reacted," Holmes said, his eyes fixed on the assassin. "I was quite aware of the threat he presented even as he entered, and had doubts, indeed, the moment before the door had opened. I cannot reproduce the mental process by which I acted, but I think I can list its ingredients. Firstly, Watson, we were in no way prepared for his appearance."
"Yes, Holmes, my very point!"
"This, in itself, spoke volumes."
"Oh, Holmes," I sighed.
"My dear friend, it is not so dramatic a conclusion as you might imagine. As you know, our clients are as eager to announce their arrival, as if it might pre-assure them of my attentions, as any alley cat approaching a stray. Our caller was, therefore, alarmingly unique."
"All this you surmised upon his arrival, Holmes?" I chided.
He leaned back in his chair, interlacing his spidery white fingers. "All this, and more, Watson." He glanced at me in mild disappointment. "The fact that he appeared without the slightest expectation with Mrs. Hudson proclaimed two things: he approached in stealth and knew the habits of our landlady. Both were violent omens. That his bearing was overwrought while he simultaneously spoke and reached his trembling left hand inside his coat told me that his intent was fatal, and also that he was unable to carry out the marksmanship necessary to strike me in the head with his bullet. I confirmed the obvious bulge of a gun in his remarkably thin over-garment by anticipating the destination of his furtive hand. Add to this that Mrs. Hudson’s reaction to his speaking was an icon of surprise—and I know no truer barometer than Mrs. Hudson’s guileless countenance. And so, before he had even finished his sentence, I had deduced its content and lifted the iron lid of the pot to my chest, angling it to my left to deflect the direction of a bullet from a left-handed marksman. I cried out, though I was grazed in the shoulder, not because I was struck so much as to arouse the necessary action, I am now delicate to say, of you and Mrs. Hudson against our intruder. I must say, with my deepest admiration, that both of you surpassed my expectations and relaxed his attention from myself long enough for me to secure our safety. It was not an intellectual process, I admit, Doctor. It was more of an intellectual reflex. Less chess, or even Chinese checkers, than tennis, I'd say. There is more logic in a great tennis game than a hundred chess matches. We were all faced with an unknown situation and did what came naturally. But the crack shot with the tea kettle—I knew I could count on something, Doctor, but never such resourcefulness!"
I shrugged, rebuffed and puffed up at the same time, a frustrating state of affairs in which Holmes excelled at placing one.
Our prisoner groaned and convulsed on the Persian carpet.
"Mrs. Hudson, I think your presence is now quite unnecessary," said Holmes, coldly.
"Yes, sir, thank you! I feel ever so stupid for letting him in. Is there anything I can —"
"No, not at all, Mrs. Hudson. Good night!" I escorted the poor woman to the door. "We shall take over from here, and thank you ever so much for your imperturbable loyalty tonight. We shall inform you of the outcome to this tomorrow, I’m sure."
"Thank you, Doctor Watson," she sighed.
Meanwhile, Holmes went to the window and, with his thumbs in his mouth and his hands cupped in a complex gesture, whistled a trilling hoot-owl noise over Baker Street through the shattered pane. "There is something you can do, Mrs. Hudson," he cried. "In a moment, you can let in one of our Irregulars, allow him up and certainly then retire. I, too, thank you for your indomitable dependability."
"Oh, Mister Holmes!" she sighed and her cheeks were florid as she hurried to welcome in the street urchin at the foot of the stairs and so take her impossible sleep.
In a moment, five sharp raps followed by one light rap sounded on our door.
Holmes waited, staring at the oaken portal.
I had seen this ritual many times in the past months.
A second knock, of four sharp raps followed by a soft one, sounded.
Holmes immediately went to the door and let in a dirty rascal of a boy.
Due to the heavying of his enemies of late, Holmes had added this extra precaution. The year earlier, the six members of the Edelston Gang, who had been condemned by Holmes’s armchair investigation, had escaped from prison, owing to a chain of errors made by an arrogant young Warden. The Warden had been discharged, but the peril to Holmes’s life remained.
The ruthless gang was headed by Old Man Edelston and included the serpentine safecracker Erasmus Limberus, the redheaded Scotsman Angus Murray, and the so-called "Dispatcher," Jim Tierney. After they were condemned they had sworn a blood oath to avenge their nemesis, Sherlock Holmes, and yet, to date, no clue of their activities had surfaced.
I never knew Holmes to be a man oppressed by caution, and yet I could sense that the complete mystery of the Edelston Gang’s whereabouts had weighed on his faculties over the last year. Such a threat must have multiplied the burdens on his mind, increasing his awareness of the dangers presented by the most benign of events and occurrences to the point of what seemed absurdity to me at the time, though this evening’s encounter had proven his abundance of care fortunate, indeed.
Holmes’s scruffy Irregular stood at attention before us.
"Well?" he asked the boy.
"Well." The lad nodded, but his dirty, handsome face lost its confidence upon seeing our captive. "Who’s the fowl? ’E wasn’t a ringer!"
"You haven’t seen him before, Clark?" Holmes said.
The boy scratched his head. "Nah! Some of us thought we’ve seen a ringer in the last few days, though, Mister Holmes, and passed it on. But none of us saw the same one the other did."
"The ringer I saw on my watch was his size maybe, Cap’n—but older and dressed like a real dandy and gimpy, too. Asked me a question about Mrs. Hudson, which got me on him. Besides that, he looked ’round too much. But none of the others saw him, so’s I dropped it. Same for Cooper, Smythe, Poole, Jagger, and Lawlor. I saw two of the fowl the others marked as ringers, but didn’t see what they did so’s I didn’t think they were ringers the same as the blokes on duty. We all scratched our heads but it didn’t seem none of them were ringers since none of them came ’round twice, like you told us to watch for, Mister Holmes."
Holmes frowned, looking out the window. "You saw two others, you say? Were they together?"
"Nah! At the end of Lawlor’s watch I saw his ringer—an odd duck in a brown suit. And the next day I saw the old man Watson spotted on his watch."
Holmes grunted. "There, you see, Doctor, you have a namesake among my rabble."
"No relation, I’m sure," I scoffed.
I must confess it was strange to me, and somewhat absurd, that the greatest investigative mind of Europe sometimes counted utterly on the childish and illiterate minds of street urchins.
"We call him ‘Doc.’" The little devil laughed, to my astonishment.
"A nephew, perhaps?" Holmes laughed and winked at me. "Since all is well now, as you say, Clark, it seems our culprit was alone."
"But if he was alone, we would have spotted him! He would have had to have come by more than once, like you said," the lad protested.
"He wore disguises and made your collaboration impossible," said Holmes. "You must at once tell the company to consider size and stature as possible proof of a ringer in addition to the other factors. Disguises may always be employed by our enemies. However, the Irregulars have no fault in this. And you, in particular, have been most observant. I give you my personal commendation, Clark. I have a mission for you. You must fetch two constables." Holmes tossed a thin green leather pouch full of coppers for distribution among his dubious troops.
The boy caught it with a cat-like snag and grinned from ear to ear—for it was the green leather pouch, the lurid trademark of Mister Holmes, above the shiny new coppers inside it, which the Irregulars prized as a medal of honor and bestowed only upon distinguished members of the company, presently led by Clark and the above five mentioned.
"Decorated" Irregulars wore the green pouch, with its long purse-strings looped over their necks, and might be spotted by this telltale in the most unlikely nooks of London, of which my eyes alone could be aware. Though to me that green talisman seemed all too conspicuous, and I wished I hadn’t known its meaning, such a start did it give me whenever I spotted it under some grimy urchin’s coat and saw by his insolent wink that he had spotted me first.
In the Green Purse, Holmes’s dubious foot soldiers ceremoniously hoarded the shiny new tuppences they earned from Holmes, resisting for honour’s sake and pride the urge to spend them frivolously—an explanation for Holmes’s indulgence which he had offered to me on a previous occasion. "To look at money as an honour is to spend it honourably," he had said, and I marvelled at this man who could afford such consideration for a group of street mongrels and yet blithely refuse to help a duchess or a Bishop if he judged their problems too pedestrian.
"But Mister Holmes," the boy squalled as he tucked away the Green Purse. "The blokes we saw these last few days were the same I saw a year ago, when the night was chill and the stars were bright, just like tonight. And that night they were all three standing there together, no question about it, Cap’n. They can't be the same man, sir! I saw them together with my own eyes a year ago!"
"What's this?" I do believe my friend was taken aback by Clark’s assertion. "Indeed, a great observation, lad. Truly? But surely they were different men who wore similar clothes?"
"They were wearing similar clothes, all right, with similar stains and similar rips and similar buttons missing, as well! It was them, and you couldn’t forget them. I said if any one of those rapscallions shows up again, they’re all three ringers, I did. 'Cause of the way they looked up at your window palavering and motioning and such. But how could I know they’d show up a year later, Mister Holmes?”
Our captive screamed and writhed in anguish, pulling at his bonds. His burning nerves were summoning him to wakefulness.
"Off, now, for the nearest two constables! But take your time, lad, if you please," Holmes winked. "Twenty minutes?"
"Yes sir, Cap’n!" Clark grinned and softly closed the door behind him.
Holmes paused after locking it. He turned to me, his faced etched with deep doubt. "We are dealing with a very strange affair, it seems, Watson."
...continued in the full version of The Haunting of Sherlock Holmes...
The Haunting of Sherlock
Holmes Copyright ©2011 Warren Fahy. All Rights Reserved.