Sherlock Holmes and The Juju Men of Richmond
A hitherto unpublished memoir
of Dr. John Watson, M.D.
I feel that enough time has passed that I may share with you one of the un-heralded adventures that involved my friend and colleague Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself in the year of our Lord 1882. As most of the protagonists and many of those with peripheral involvement have passed away or retired, as Holmes and myself, perhaps those survivors of this extraordinary episode will forgive me for what I feel the public has every right to know. We live in an age of wonder, it seems, where every new month brings news of some great invention or development; passengers flying by airboats in America, the launch of the Britannic and Aquitania here. Yet as recently as a few years ago, Great Britain and Her Empire were imperilled by one of the most insidious plots ever conceived. This then, at last, is the story of what transpired...
That last weekend of November in the year 1882 will be remembered by many as a wet, frozen one. The pavements were particularly treacherous with ice and the juvenile gangs were out to ‘assist’ hapless pedestrians who had gone over, robbing them of their valuables and fleeing, their progress all the easier for the spikes they had worn instead of nails. I had just returned from attending a breech birth in Marylebone and was alighting from the cab when just such a group of rapscallions fairly flew past me clutching their spoils and hooting with laughter.
I looked to the pavement to see an elderly gentleman sprawled across the flags, red-faced with anger at the indignity he had been subjected to. Seeing his plight, I offered my hand and he was pulled to his feet with the aid of a passing drayman who had been on his way home. Stronger arms than mine hefted the portly frame as if it were a child’s doll and, refusing thanks, the man handed the unfortunate gentleman his stick and was on his way while I was still brushing the snow and ice from the old man’s Ulster.
A brisk southerly wind was blowing a cold rain down Baker Street and it was unbearably cold. I suggested a medicinal brandy, but the old fellow seemed keen to get on, thanking me for my assistance with a distracted air that spoke of purposefulness and a resolution to progress to his journey’s end. It was only when we both went up to the door of 221b that I realised his destination was co-incident with my own.
There was no point in letting the poor fellow ring up, so I let us in with my key and hats and overcoats were hung in the hall before I trudged those seventeen well-trodden stairs behind him to find a hearty fire in the grate and no Holmes. Finding our rooms empty, I rang down for the landlady and she provided us with sustenance in the form of the shortbread she had brought down from a recent familial visit to the land of her ancestors. She informed me Holmes had not been seen since the morning and showed herself out.
Taking my customary seat I waved my guest to that customarily reserved for Holmes’ clients and offered him a brandy, to which he acceded. Our visitor did not take tobacco, so only one cigar was lit and I felt myself ready to act in Holmes’ stead until the detective himself were here.
‘There, you see?; even beset by barbarians at the gate, we remain civilised. Pray tell me your name, Sir and your business with Sherlock Holmes.’ The gentleman leaned forward on his stick, which was somewhat unique, having a fringing of beads of some kind around it and an altogether African appearance, being carved of some tropical hardwood with a chased and carved shaft and a knob in the form of what looked to be a monkey’s skull.
‘My name is easily given, Mr. Holmes, I am Silas Pym and I came to see your colleague Doctor Watson.’
This was certainly unexpected and I was quite unprepared for it.
‘Well, I am John Watson – Doctor that is, but why should you wish to see me?. You do not appear ill.’
‘Indeed I am the model of fortitudinous health, Doctor. However, it is not me who is the patient, so to speak.’ Pym’s face was quite red from the brandy as he leaned forward in his chair.
‘Are you, by any chance familiar with the Webb Anthropological Institute?, I see you are not; the museum is a comparatively modest affair compared with the British, but it is held in high regard in academic circles.’ The name Webb seemed familiar, almost a commonplace, but I could not recall it, much to my chagrin. My client – for indeed he had sought me out, rather than Holmes continued, explaining that the notable explorer and hunter Sir. Tristram Webb had bequeathed his singular collection of finds and treasures to the Institute that now bore his name and to which he himself was Curator. At the mention of that valiant name I felt ashamed not to have known it at once!.
The exploits of Sir. Tristram across three continents were known to every schoolboy in the Empire; from his triumphant conquest of the dark, untameable reaches of the Rio Negro to his expeditions to the Bambutoo pygmies of the Congo, there was hardly a corner of the Earth unknown to this remarkable man. Indeed it was said that to hold your nerve in the face of a particularly vicious spin-bowler was to ‘Stand like Webb’ after his cool-headed action in the Natal where he stood his ground against a murderous five-ton Rhinoceros that had already killed five of his native bearers. With only two cartridges remaining, he brought the beast down just yards from the encampment where his wife was at that very moment giving birth to their son. With typical stoicism and humour, he gave the boy the middle name of Hornsworthy in honour of the creature.
Honoured though I was with such a visit, I had yet to discern any purpose for it.
‘In what way may I be of assistance, Mr. Pym?.’ My question produced a most unusual reaction, as if the room itself were suddenly blanketed in fear. Indeed it cannot have been entirely my fancy that the fire itself seemed to shudder and shrink back from the grate, the air between myself and my petitioner rarefied and chill?. When he spoke to answer, I could only stare in disbelief.
‘Doctor, as improbable as this may sound, Sir. Tristram Webb came back to the Institute in the small hours of this very morning.’
‘Improbable you say?, how so?.’
‘Because I myself helped to bury him not three days since.’
This was too much; surely the man was either demented or this was a ghastly joke, doubtless one of Holmes’ own whimsies. It will be remembered that this was the man capable of such japery as placing a message in The Times simply stating ‘To L. Flee at Once. All is discovered. Only Southampton safe.’ The chaos at Southampton Docks when some two hundred people with the correspondent initial clamoured to be allowed to board an already full ferry was widely reported at the time. However, I felt it my duty to enquire further and asked after Sir. Tristram’s current health. It was not, after all unknown for people to be buried alive – only the last year a famous case had emerged at St. Swithins. Fortunately, the woman in question had been rescued before the grave had been filled, though many others were, horrifically not so fortunate.
‘He is alive, then?.’
‘He is not.’ This plain answer roused my passion, by now I was determined this was a poor idea of humour.
‘Then he must be dead, surely!.’ I rose to my feet preparatory to ejecting this specimen from my lodgings, but he merely shook his head.
‘He is neither dead, nor is he alive, Doctor. That is why I sought you out.’ Rising to his own feet, he reached for his stick.
‘I have the acquaint of a Lady to whom you and Mr. Holmes rendered invaluable service – I shall keep her name to myself as the matter was and remains delicate. I feel you alone of the Medical profession would be sympathetic to such an impossible patient. If you would just come with me now to Richmond, you can examine Sir. Tristram for yourself.’
The ride was made eerie by the quiet. The hansom’s wheels fell on snow hard with frost and even the horses’ hooves were largely silent as we progressed on our south-westerly course passing by Kensington and below Shepherd’s Bush headed for the bridge at Hammersmith. My companion had relapsed into silence for most of the journey so I had plenty of time to consider the strangeness of the case I was being asked to diagnose. Ordinarily, I would have smoked, but for some reason felt it inappropriate. I cannot say why to this day. The bridge passed below our wheels and I looked down on the Thames, not yet quite frozen, to see the usual traffic passing along the great artery that was London’s heart.
At length, we found ourselves skirting above the Great park at Richmond, the pagoda at Kew visible for a time to the North of us. Finally, we entered the Mortlake road and eventually drew into a massive villa to the South. I was determined, you will understand, to remember precisely the details of our drive; perhaps even then I had suspected that Holmes’ involvement might be foreseen in some way unknown to my conscious, rational mind. Perhaps I had already contracted the willies!.
The building itself was built in what I believe is known as the ‘Italianate’ style, a signorial tower above a corniced roof. The gates were wide open and I caught a glimpse of large bronze discs on each bearing the name of the Institute. The lamplighter was at work as we pulled up outside an impressive bronze door. I caught my breath at the sight of intertwined dragons in relief and as if he had expected such a reaction, Mr. Pym leaned closer and imparted the information that the doors had previously graced the Hidden Palace of Tibet. I had thought it a myth and said as much, but Pym merely smiled at my ignorance, ushering me inside.
The Webb Anthropological Institute was like no other building I have seen before or since. From the galleried marble hall with its hanging tapestries and unrivalled collection of Italian weapons and armour we walked through vast corridors literally lined with artefacts and curios from every corner of the globe. As it was near to closing time, there were few visitors other than myself. Warming to his role, Pym took delight in introducing me to Zulu spears and shields, Amazonian tribal masks and Egyptian head-dress. I must confess I found it all rather enchanting and had almost forgotten the grim purpose of my visit when, at length we stopped at a locked door, above which a sign declared the rooms beyond to be the Halls of Primitive Belief.
Producing an over-sized key ring, Pym paused and turned to me, his expression sombre.
‘Doctor, I would ask that you prepare yourself. Sir. Tristram… well, he...’ Seeing the man lost for words, I laid a hand upon his shoulder.
‘I have seen unusual cases before now – I have been in Afghanistan and saw something of the Zoroastrians there. Now, pray open this door and show me to my patient.’ How often have I regretted those foolish words since!.
The chamber was large, but largely in darkness, the sole illumination coming from a lofty and distant skylight. As Pym went to light a lamp, I wondered why the gas lights were not in use. No doubt anticipating my curiosity, he answered it in a stage whisper that seemed rather melodramatic at the time.
‘The light disturbs his eyes greatly; a few lamps is all that can be permitted.’ So saying, he handed me a lamp.
As my eyes adjusted to the sepulchral gloom, I was able to discern that the space we stood in was arrayed with glass cases of varying proportion. Each contained an exhibit related to native superstitions from the inhabited continents; I could make out an aboriginal figure dressed in animal skins and carrying a pouch, a mannequin of a Mayan priest engaged in a blood sacrifice and several more examples besides.
Clearly steeling himself as if expecting an ordeal of some type, Pym stepped forward into the void between the rows of cases, towards the ominous emptiness at the centre of the hall. I saw we were approaching what appeared to be a wall made of reed matting, surmounted by various human skulls and what appeared to be a crude altar, the backdrop for the most ghastly sight of my life.
‘Good God!.’ I ejaculated. For there, seated on a rough wooden throne surmounted by garishly-coloured feathers which I took to be ostrich, was a man who was quite clearly dead… and yet he was breathing!.
I went closer, raising my lamp to examine the hideous specimen. The eyes that stared at me were dull and quite opaque, yet they reacted to light. The skin was of a pallor associated with death, livor mortis clearly displayed. The hands that were as claws clutching the arms of the throne were rigid, immobile, yet I saw to my horror a faint, yet unmistakable pulse. With the aforementioned condition present, this was, medically speaking quite impossible. Forgetting for the moment the repulsive condition of the man, I set my lamp down and reached out to take the pulse – for pulse there indeed was. The wrist that I chose was clammy and quite cold. Nothing in my medical career had prepared me for such as this abomination, yet my calling drove me to complete a basic examination.
A quick application of stethoscope showed there was no regular heartbeat, yet respiration was clearly audible, the chest rising and falling slightly with a sickening crepitation. Mystified, I attempted to examine the ocular nerve, yet was unable to do so to my satisfaction due to the corneal clouding present. I did think to draw off some blood, though by the time I reached the microscope I shared with Holmes any attempt at examination would be rendered useless. In any case, my attempt to extract the vital fluid worked rather better than I had intended, a spray of dark, venous blood meeting the intrusion of the needle. I was able to fill a bottle with ease, though stemming the subsequent flow proved somewhat harder. In the end, a dressing applied under pressure seemed to do the trick and I noted this as yet another example of the queerness of the whole thing.
Finally, I pronounced myself utterly at a loss to explain either the symptoms or the ailment that produced such startling and pronounced effects and turned to Silas Pym in failure.
‘I am afraid this man is quite beyond my aid. He must be conveyed immediately to a hospital.’ The weathered old face creased into an expression of rueful regret.
‘I am sorry, Doctor, but he cannot leave this room.’
‘And why is that, I should like to know?.’ I can still hear his strident answer.
‘Because if he is removed from the immediate bounds of the altar, he will die!.’
We sat in the Curator’s office, a little cubby-hole of a place tucked away beneath the grand staircase that led to the gallery. The small cubicle was replete with bric-a-bracs and oddities and seemed in itself a microcosm of the building that surrounded it. Pym’s curious remark could not be left unremarked and I beseeched him to explain it. Curiously, he seemed unwilling to discuss his odd claim any further and I was left with the distinct impression the man was frightened – though of what it was hard to say.
‘Well, Doctor, I must thank you for your prompt attention. Please submit your bill and it will be settled promptly.’
I had the feeling my presence had become extraneous, even tiresome and stood to leave. I attempted to impose a sense of importance upon the man before my departure.
‘I must insist Sir. Tristram is either removed to a hospital at once or I shall be forced to report this to the proper authority.’
‘I assure you he is in good hands, Doctor. The family physician is in attendance and we are consulting with experts in tropical disease.’ Offering his hand, Pym got up to show me to the door where the hansom was waiting to return me. Clambering in, on a whim I directed the jarvey to take me to Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield.
My return to Baker Street came as somewhat of a relief, especially when my weary step was met by the door to our lodgings being thrown open and I was hailed by Sherlock Holmes.
‘Watson!, the very man. Come in at once and warm yourself by the fire – Mrs. Hudson has made us some of her admirable cocoanut pastries and there are fish cakes on the warmer.’ Gratefully, I laid my bag on the chair by my desk and went to fill a plate. I had no sooner sat down when Holmes took up a twist and lit his disreputable and oily clay pipe, regarding the air between us with a forced aimlessness while I ate. My hunger proved resilient to the shock upon my system imposed by the atrocious condition of Sir. Tristram, but even so I was taken aback when Holmes abruptly enquired as to my visit to Barts.
I had known Holmes for a year then, and should have anticipated the question. I had not and was unprepared for it.
‘But Holmes, how can you place me at Barts?. I did not see you there – have you talked with Stamford today?.’
‘I have not. Really, Watson, it is not too great a leap. If I explain, you are sure to think it commonplace.’
‘Please do so.’ I confess to being somewhat irked by Holmes’ easy manner and determined to deflate him by finding some flaw in his reasoning.
Taking a languid pull at his clay, he stretched his arms out and settled himself back in his seat, one leg carelessly cocked over the other. ‘You returned from your Midwifery at somewhat after twelve in the mid-day. The landlady was clear on the hour as she herself brought up a supply of shortbread. She observed you in the company of a stout elder. This man sought you out after suffering some mishap – a fall perhaps. He is somewhat lacking in height, though not in girth and walks with an exotic stick of tropical origin.’
To admit that I was crestfallen would be an understatement; I was fairly aghast, dismayed even. Still, my natural obstinacy would not let me give in so easily.
‘And how can you know this, Holmes?.’
‘The same way I know ‘B’ and ‘C’ follow ‘A’, my good fellow. The marks on our carpet both here and downstairs show where his shoes and stick are in relation to each other. Such a short stride with so deep a tread!. The frequency of the indentations from the stick merely confirm my observation and so, incidentally, did Mrs. Hudson.’ Again I persisted.
‘And the mishap?.’
‘The glass on the table beside the chair I reserve for my clients; glass in the singular. You did not drink, therefore a medicinal drink, given to steady the nerve. The glass fairly reeks of cognac – the somewhat mediocre variety you insist on keeping. As for the stick, I found this -’ He held aloft a small bead ‘- On the rug. It is of native origin, though whether African or South American I have been unable to determine. As the man was unlikely to be wearing a necklace, it follows it adorned his stick.’
The man really was uncanny in his method, but he had yet to explain his knowledge of my trip to my old Hospital. Further, I felt his mania for observation of even the smallest object such as the incriminating bead bordered on obsession. I resolved one day to write a paper on the condition. Eschewing the pastries I went to pour myself a glass of John Haig’s fine whisky and went to the gasogene before selecting a cigar. With a look of expectancy, I resumed my chair.
‘You asked how I placed you at Barts. It is simple; on returning, you placed your bag on the chair at your desk. Had your excursion been a satisfactory one, you would have put it to the side of the desk as is your habit. Therefore, you plan to continue with some sort of examination concerning the contents before you pronounce the case to be settled. If I were a physician faced with a problematic diagnosis, I would seek out the assistance of my alma mater.’ Holmes’ aquiline features creased into a thin smile and I realised I was gaping.
‘Yes, I can make out the platelets clearly. Hmm, interesting.’ Holmes was bent over the microscope examining a plate I had prepared at Barts earlier in the day, the blood from Sir. Tristram upon the slide. I watched as he turned the wheel to better focus the instrument.
‘I conducted a blood count using the Hayem method and found it irregular.’ Holmes looked up from his study.
‘The distribution of red and white cells was unusually biased towards the red – but that is not all I found. As you are aware, the microscopy at Barts is far superior to our own resource here.’
‘Precisely – the nature of it is yet to be determined. I sent young Matthews off to Greenwich with a sample. Their knowledge on the subject is unsurpassed.’ Setting aside the microscope with a muttered remark to himself, Holmes strode to his bookshelf and perused the contents, selected a volume on Tropical Diseases and went to his desk.
I watched as my friend intently inspected the work, turning the pages furiously, making the oddest noises and comments until, with an exclamation he stabbed at a page with a finger and turned expectantly. Looking at the page I could see colour plates of microscopic samples showing parasites present in the blood. Indeed I had no great difficulty in identifying one as almost identical to the sample of Sir. Tristram’s blood under the more powerful lens of the microscope at Barts. The text below the plate set my own blood running cold. Trypanosoma!
Not much was known about the parasite in those days; Major-General Bruce had yet to enter the Army Medical School at Netley where I received my training prior to my service in Afghanistan. His discovery that the parasite caused sleeping sickness was some decades off, but I had heard rumours and exchanged stories with Army Surgeons who had travelled to Africa and knew of the chilling reputation the disease carried. First the fever, then the debilitating headache and then the posterior cervical lymphatic swelling, the so-called Winterbottom’s sign. These symptoms would be distressing enough, but they were only the start; the herald of far, far worse things to come. The terrified sufferer would be plunged into a sleep filled with terror, confusion and tremors only to awake in a state of mort-vivant – the living death. Eyes wide open, the victim would be literally petrified, unable to call for or summon aid. Following this, the brain deteriorates and the result is coma followed by a slow, agonizing death as, one by one, the bodily organs shut down, the vital ones last.
Shaken, I repaired to my chair for a pipe to steady myself; I confess my imagination was running rather wild after the events of the day. Noticing this, Holmes resumed his own customary perch and sat, eyes closed and fingers steepled in a position that resembled nothing so much as an Indian buddha. After some minutes had passed in silence, he gave voice to his thoughts, eyes still firmly shut.
‘I would not think the less of you, my dear Watson, if you enlisted my aid in this most bizarre and unlikely of cases.’ This kindness was touching, yet I could not find it in myself to accept.
‘You cannot surely have anything to do with it?; it is lunacy, the whole of it.’ At last those knowing eyes opened, fixing me with an intensity that spoke of the mind behind them.
‘Ah, but Watson, life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. Besides, the cases that come my way have been lacking in those interesting problems of logic and reasoning that this promises. Pray tell me more of this singular African patient of yours that uses hooves rather than feet.’
It was my turn now to stare.
‘Hooves?, Holmes, you said hooves...’ A thin smile crept across his features at my shock.
‘Really, Watson, you have wasted your talents – with all your training you did not see the obvious. That is animal blood – cow or pig I cannot say. It is infected with a parasite only found in certain parts of the dark continent and clearly you have been duped in the most outrageous fashion by your nervous visitor.’ I bridled at my companion’s nerve, but held my tongue. I was, after all in need of his assistance on the matter. Reaching for the persian slipper in which he kept his tobacco, he thumbed a generous pinch into his cherry-wood. I sat and watched as he lit a twist of paper from the fire. This was the pipe he was wont to select in disputatious mood and I was well aware of his capacity for obstinacy during such sessions.
Satisfied with the noisome cloud he was producing, Holmes warmed to his subject, pointing the stem abruptly in my direction.
‘You travelled by cab with this man to examine a patient. I have already established the African connexion. You took blood, which we know to be a substitution of the most fraudulent kind. The question is, therefore, why such an elaborate charade?. Does your client seek to persuade another he is suffering from a dreadful malaise?. Now, if you would favour me with the details, we shall see what can be made of it.’
Once more, Holmes assumed his sphinx-like immobility while I regaled him with the minutiae of my extraordinary expedition to Richmond. From Silas Pym’s visit to the dreadful sight of Sir. Tristram Webb’s cadaverous figure and Pym’s inexplicable behaviour towards myself at the end of the visit. My report finished, I awaited a reply, but was disappointed when it came.
‘Hmph. A fool’s errand, indeed.’
‘Well?, what do you make of it Holmes? - do you have any theories?.’
‘Several, but only three that fit the facts as you present them. Are you game for a burglary tonight?.’ This was most unexpected and I took a moment to reply in the affirmative.
The weather could not have been more perfect had Holmes chosen it himself. There was no moon and the low clouds that roiled over London as we clattered through the streets that night seemed to conspire with us in our illicit and clandestine venture. Holmes sat, quietly with not even the glow of a pipe to illuminate his profile or thoughts. I had watched as he accoutred himself with the tools of the professional cracksman; dark-lantern, putty, hand-drill and his much-used roll of lock-picking tools. Finally, he wound a length of fine rope around his waist until he appeared to have gained a good fifteen pounds. He had about him a small wooden box, but when I ventured to inquire as to its contents, all he would say was it was a gift from an old friend. A rather odd smell emanated from his direction, but I refrained from commenting, my own thoughts on what lay ahead.
For my part I had restrained myself to my service revolver and a rather contemptible Irish walking-stick known as a shillelagh. Made of smoke-seasoned blackthorn, this had been drilled for fifteen ounces of lead and was a present from Holmes who himself had received it in part payment of a debt incurred in the ring from none other than ‘Gypsy’ Joe Kelly. Hefting the stick and feeling the exquisite balance of the weapon in the hansom gave me a feeling of much-needed grit and determination. I confess that my nerve had been somewhat tested of late and I resolved not to show this to Holmes so that I might aid him better in our endeavours.
Arriving at the Webb Institute, Holmes had alighted and paid the cabman before I had collected myself. The horse turned around and the cab was pulled away into the damp night, leaving us suddenly alone. I fought down a rising surge of dread and addressed my companion in crime.
‘What do you make of it, Holmes?.’ Evidently I had spoken too loudly, for he raised a finger in admonition, before drawing closer to reply.
‘Watson, these are very deep waters. If my suspicions are founded, London itself may be on the brink.’ I said nothing, unable to formulate adequate response to such a statement. After a moment’s examination of the padlock, Holmes beckoned me closer, indicating I follow him as he began striding along the high stone wall bounding the property.
It took some minutes before we found ourselves standing on a bare patch of earth to the rear aspect of the Institute. The only signs of life were some lights from the nearest houses, but they were comfortably distant for our purposes and, unravelling his novel waist-band Holmes produced an ingenious device. It was a bar of steel some ten inches long, which unfolded to twice that, a pair of hooks springing into place as it opened. Affixing it to the rope, he took a piece of hessian from a pocket and quickly slipped it over the grapnel, which muffled the sound as he threw it over the wall. Pulling at the rope showed him there was no purchase to be had, so he ‘walked’ it along the wall and tried again. At the third or fourth such attempt, the hooks evidently held, because he immediately pulled it taut and hissed at me to hold it so. No sooner had I applied tension to rope than Holmes was up and over the wall as if it were five rather than fifteen feet.
My own journey was not so smooth, I regret to say. Scrambling up, I heaved with all my strength and was over the top, my old shoulder wound causing me to gasp with the jolt of pain that surged through me. I was halfway down when boot slipped on damp stone and I fell, landing with a thump that fair winded me. I lay for a long moment, gasping for breath, the dulling pain from my shoulder beginning to recede when Holmes knelt over me.
‘Can you continue?.’ I looked up to see those fine features creased with concern and vowed then and there not to fail this remarkable man. Nodding, I allowed him to help me up to the kneeling position in the wet grass.
Pointing, Holmes indicated the top windows, where a glimmer of light had passed. Soon enough, it appeared again, passing behind another casement. It seemed the place was not as abandoned as we were supposed to believe. Waiting for the light to pass, Holmes tapped me on the shoulder and we were away across the lawn, keeping to the edge so as not to expose ourselves more than needed. Looking across the lawn my attention seized briefly upon two dark rectangles where some sort of excavation showed. Intending to mention it to Holmes, I realised he himself had not paused and hurried after his receding form.
After a nervous minute, we found ourselves in the comparative safety afforded by a large glasshouse. We had barely made the tenuous sanctuary when a lantern came around the farthest aspect of the building, accompanied by the barking and snarling of a large dog. Flattening himself against the glass, Holmes slipped back into the shadows and I followed suit. All at once the dog began snarling and, looking through the glass I was horrified to see it was a monstrous example of the mastiff breed. A shout from the dog’s master alerted me to the fact that it had broken free and was charging over the grass towards the very structure behind which I was at that moment steeling myself to action, the stick clenched tightly in my fist. I had not reckoned with Sherlock Holmes, however!.
Suddenly, I was aware of a long tail flashing fast my feet, a rag of some sort dragging behind. A small furry streak flashed across the lawn and in an instant, the mastiff had changed course and was loping along in pursuit of the smaller creature. I gave a start as Holmes placed a hand on my shoulder.
‘It is a simple thing to attach a scented lure to the tail of a ferret – though I fear the cats of the district will have an evil time of it for a while. Now, we must move swiftly.’
It was apparent from the racket coming from the darkness at the far end of the garden that the dog had failed to catch Holmes’ ferret and the animal’s keeper was berating the dog loudly for sending him on a fool’s errand. A loud yelp was followed by a cry of pain as dog retaliated against man. We would have barely a minute before they resumed their nocturnal patrol and Holmes had not wasted it, escalating up the recesses in the stonework as if they had been a ladder placed there for that very purpose. I saw the lantern again and was about to call up when the rope dropped down to me.
Stick between teeth, I grasped the rope and hauled myself up, ignoring the pain from my old wound. After the most outrageous exertion, I found myself adjacent to a stonework balustrade and grabbed at it in vain. I could ascend no higher and was left dangling precariously, some height above the ground. From below, I could hear the panting of the dog and the glow from the lantern was evident from a quick glance downwards. I was sure to be discovered and resolved myself to such a fate as would be reserved for any common sneak thief. Just then, a strong hand reached down to grasp my wrist and I was aware of Holmes’ enormous strength as his steel-like grip held me to prevent the inevitable fall.
Holding my breath, I waited for the dog to detect my unwelcome presence, a sudden snarl from what seemed uncomfortably close below confirming my worst fears. To my relief, however, the dog’s keeper responded by yanking at its chain and roundly cursing the beast for it’s unreliability. The lantern glow passed and after an agony of suspension, I was hauled up by Holmes, glad to get that stick out of my mouth at last.
The application of putty and a glass cutting tool saw us inside the door to the balcony in next to no time and we stood silently for a while to allow our eyes to adjust to the dim light inside what seemed to be an unused bedroom. There were sheets covering the furniture and I peeked under one to find an old dresser made of what appeared to be mahogany. Holmes, meanwhile had produced his dark-lantern and lit it, making sure the shutters were tightly shut first. A search of the room was deemed unnecessary and we shuffled forward silently towards the door. This proved to be locked, which gave Holmes an opportunity to exercise his legerdemain as he manipulated his lock-picks. With an un-nerving click, the lock succumbed after no more than thirty seconds and we found ourselves in a hallway leading to a gallery.
From deep within the building there came a muffled sound, which rose and fell in intonation as if it were beyond a door that had been rapidly opened and then closed again. I exchanged a glance with Holmes – we had both heard it; drums!. Moving forward to a pillar adjoining the gallery, Holmes bent down, then got on all fours and crawled to the edge like a Lascar hicarra spying on a Sikh encampment. From his vantage point he could see down into the heart of the building and he spent some minutes immobile as a tiger waiting to pounce on it’s prey, before gesturing for me to join him. Cursing my creaking bones, I prostrated myself and crept forward on my hands and knees as the drumming grew louder again.
Looking down, I could see the marble floor below and where a wide arch led to the doorway through which I had gone earlier to make my piteous examination. Now the door itself stood open, but what was remarkable was the uncanny procession that was underway beneath our rather tenuous concealment. For there can be no other description than that of an African juju ceremony, with two rows of natives to either side of what was plainly a ‘witch doctor’. This last was an extraordinary sight, his face hidden beneath an enormous mask fringed with long grass of some description. He carried in one hand a glass bottle from which he gave his acolytes a drink, the nature of which could only be guessed at. He spent the time in between offerings liberally haranguing the assemblage with the most extraordinary shrieking and altogether disported himself like a madman. The torches burning around the gallery only added to the effect of a war party.
I watched in a state of astonished stupefaction as the bizarre proceedings moved through to the chamber where the man who had been Sir. Tristram was presumably still seated. I turned to Holmes to comment on the fact when I saw we had been discovered; more natives, two for each of us, stood as silent as statues. The warning cry I gave froze in my throat as I glimpsed their eyes – they were milky and clouded as with Sir. Tristram’s own and at once a thrill of terror coursed through me. They were zombies!. I had read of such in the accounts of the Haitian medical fraternity, but had rashly dismissed such things as childish fantasy. As one, they began breathing heavily, with laboured sighs that became a rhythmic chanting. I thought to draw my pistol, but these men were unarmed, so raised my Irish stick instead as warning. Holmes stepped forward, opening the shutters on his lantern. There was no response to the brightness of the light, no ocular reflex whatsoever.
All at once there were more of the hellish creatures and we found ourselves surrounded. I lashed out once! twice! with the shillelagh , but to my dismay the blows had no effect other than to open a vicious wound upon the jaw of the tribesman. We were trapped. The fingers that gripped my arms were as strong a bond as any chain, the force behind them quite inhuman. I was divested of stick and gun and I saw Holmes being relieved of his lantern and roll of tools.
Holmes and myself were herded – no other word will suffice, down the stairs and were pushed and shoved rudely before the sinister figure of the witch doctor, who stood at the doorway to the chamber. Our arrival was greeted in the most remarkable fashion, the whole tribal gathering hooting and hollering the same repetitive chant, punctuating these with the spears several held. I demanded in no uncertain terms that we be freed, but Holmes seemed to content himself with a careful examination of the scene, as if committing it all to that extraordinary memory of his.
The masked fellow advanced and held out his bottle for Holmes to take a drink. Despite my shout of caution, he did so, before the bottle was proffered to me. I could smell the foulness of the contents from where I stood. Reluctant to imbibe such an uncertain potation, I pushed the offensive offering away at which the headman gave a shout and strong arms seized me. Struggle as I might, I had not the strength to refuse and the awful taste that burned through me spoke of its potency. I tasted a rude attempt at brandy, something gritty like sand or crushed shells perhaps and a bitter aftertaste. Almost at once my mouth and lips were numbed and I feared we had been poisoned.
The next few hours were a procession of images and sounds the like of which I had not experienced before and have not since. I had once looked through a child’s kaleidoscope and the experience was not entirely dis-similar as I felt myself borne aloft by strong hands. I had a vague vision of Holmes being transported in like manner and then only terror as, my body rigid and immobile I was laid into a crude coffin made of unfinished wood. I could hear sounds that could have been made only by animals, outlandish and unearthly moans and wails punctuated by the shrieks of what might have been exotic birds. Try as I might, I could not move a muscle, could not escape the unchallenging confines of the open coffin. Instead, I lay helpless, rivulets of sweat flowing freely from my forehead and body. So complete was my stupor that even a cry for help was beyond my capacity; indeed I was unable even to blink.
It was with a feeling of utmost dread that I realised the lid was being placed on my coffin, the banging of nails shockingly loud the last thing I should hear. After a long pause, the coffin was heaved upwards in a jerking lurch and I was conscious of being borne aloft, of movement. Suddenly an image came through the madness to haunt me – and I was hard-put to retain any semblance of reason with the horror it evoked. The excavations in the lawn!. They were graves!.
Of all the horrors that assail the imagination of Man, there can be few as pronounced as the fear of being buried alive. Indeed, graveyards across the realm are fitted with bells for the unfortunate victims to ring to summon aid for that very purpose. The fate that awaited myself and, presumably, Holmes was too hideous, too frightful to contemplate. I could do nothing else, bound as I was by chemical paralysis. My mind, however was relatively clear, despite the whirling shapes I could still see even in my total darkness. I knew what was coming, even as I knew what the abrupt lowering of the coffin was a fore-token of the inevitable, the muffled thumps and scrapings that came from the sound of the earth being filled in over me. I can assure you, Dear reader, that no man ever felt more lost than I that terrible night. Then came the silence.
There can be few phrases more apt than ‘the silence of the tomb.’ My grave was filled in – all I had to do was lie in it, as we all must one day. I pray that you will not be alive to experience it, because I do not recommend it. How long I lay there I cannot tell, certainly my watch was ticking in my pocket, but my limbs refused to aid me. How I yearned to strike a match!. The thing that I did countless times every day without a second thought was beyond my power as the moon is beyond my reach. Of course, the sceptical among you might well say that clearly I survived my ordeal to be able to recount it and they would be correct; but they are not present to see the trepidation that affects my hand as I write these words.
After some time had passed – it must have been minutes for me not to have suffocated – I became dimly aware of a distant scratching, faint noises that indicated someone or something was digging. All at once there came a tremendous thump and a loud splintering as the lid of the coffin was forced from the nails holding it firm. I found myself looking up at a swirling mist in the form of a man, the actions of the drug rendering my eyes next to useless. The hands that reached down for me seemed unnaturally long and claw-like, but the voice that accompanied them was thankfully familiar. It was Holmes!.
‘My dear friend, I am so sorry that you have suffered this terrible thing. Please, forgive me when I explain – but for now, try and drink this.’ A vial of liquid was placed between my lips and a noxious solution poured into my throat, causing me to splutter and retch violently. Holmes forced me upright and, leaning close, asked if I felt able to stand. I could not even formulate a reply, let alone comply with his request and I stared at my saviour in helpless fury. At last, however, I felt the numbness in my face lessen and found myself able to blink away the fog from my vision. With every ounce of my strength, I nodded and croaked what was meant to be a reply, but came out as an indistinct croak.
Some minutes passed before I was able to move my upper body and at once I was overcome with a paroxysm of nausea, retching forcibly and heaving the liquid I had ingested out onto the freshly-dug earth.
‘What – what the devil was that appalling muck, Holmes?.’
‘A solution of my own design, something that I have been working on at odd times for some time now. It is a mixture of atropine and a reagent composed of an anti-emetic and a sedative to counter the effects of the drug we were given.’
‘Yes, it seems the anti-emetic did not work so well in you as my own dose.’ I was furious at Holmes’ casual mention of taking such a dangerous cocktail and said so.
‘You’ve ingested this concoction already? - don’t you realise the danger?.’
‘Perfectly. However, this is neither the time nor the place for a discussion on medical ethics. We must get away from here before our resurrection has been discovered.’
With Holmes bearing my weight, we made our way unsteadily towards the wall where we had originally entered the grounds. I was fervently hoping the mastiff and his keeper did not make themselves known, but need not have worried. There was, however, no way over. Even Holmes could not scale such a wall unaided and I was in no position to make an attempt. Propping me against the wall, he promised to return before dawn. I assured him I was fine and he clapped a hand on my shoulder before disappearing into the night. It was freezing and I was cheered to discover my flask still in my hip pocket. A pull of brandy revived me somewhat and I settled in for a bitter vigil.
Dawn broke across London with a brief, yet fierce flurry of snow, though I was not there to see it. My dreams that night were haunted by juju men and burning torches, weird chants and terrible things. I awoke slowly to to find myself in my own bed and the fire burning fiercely. I attempted to rise, but my head rebelled at the strain and I was compelled to regain the comfort of the pillow by a splitting headache. I had hardly issued a sound, yet I heard the sound of feet charging stair and Holmes burst into my quarters with a cry of triumph. The sound went through my brain like a needle and, seeing this, his noble features assumed an expression of concern.
‘Watson, I have much to apologise for. I shall leave you to rest.’ I would have none of it, however and forced myself to rise. My watch showed the hour to be just shy of ten.
I found by holding the hand rail on the stairs I could just about negotiate passage down to the sitting room where I found Holmes in a state of agitated ebullience. At once he sprang up and rang down for the landlady.
‘Watson!, my dear, dear fellow. Please sit down at once. Mrs. Hudson has been quite inconsolable at your predicament; the scones are warming by the fire and a fresh pot will be with us in a jiffy.’ I found myself irritated by this show of concern and thumped over to the fire for my pipe. I took a glass of brandy from the carafe – Holmes refused to imbibe and I settled myself with a heavy sigh into the embrace of my chair, in no mood for any of it, yet furious at the way we had been treated the previous night.
Holmes proved to be quite the fusspot as he set about ensuring my comfort that day, shooing the landlady away with a loud whisper about not disturbing the patient and making himself a nuisance with the tea until I was close to erupting. Indeed, the seed of suspicion was planted when Holmes insisted on buttering my scones and I had had enough.
‘Holmes, really!; I wish you’d come out with it instead of this nannying and fannying about!.’ No sooner than the words had left my mouth than I was seized with mortification for uttering them. I had insulted the man who had saved me. My attempt at apology, though, was barely launched when Holmes made a terrible confession.
Pacing the room before me, Holmes fairly wore a hole in the carpet in his agitation as he explained the events of last night. From the very moment I had mentioned my examination of Sir. Tristram, he had suspected foul play. A keen student of both botany and chemistry, he had quickly gone to consult his text-books on African poisons whilst I had been dressing for our adventure. At once he saw that the whole thing was a lure, a trap set with the specific purpose of drawing him in and killing him. Before I reappeared armed for the purpose, he had taken a vial of his putrid antidote and secreted a second where it would not be found.
My own death was necessary only in order to seal my lips as to the little I knew of the affair. As he spoke, I knew Holmes had shielded me from the worst of it, leaving out the obvious fact that my own abilities as a physician were not sufficient to warrant such a visit as I had received from Pym. I was a mere general practitioner, not an expert in tropical disease. Why should anyone from Richmond travel across the river to seek such sparsely-qualified advice?. I had failed to see this and my own inflated view of myself as a doctor had clouded my better judgement. I was a fool.
My anger at myself quickly subsided as I remained ignorant of several points.
‘But why did you not give me this second dose if you suspected danger?.’ Holmes ceased his pacing and looked me directly in the eye, his own expression grim.
‘Because it was untested. I could not risk your life on such unknown variables without good reason. At that stage I was unsure that we were to become zombies.’ Zombies! The word itself was enough to induce a reaction of horror and revulsion.
I had read of the tribes of the Congo, who worshipped the dead and whose juju men had been said to bring them back to life of course, not to mention the Haitan voodou cult with their similar practices. The thought that Holmes and myself were to become such creatures was beyond the pale, to say the least. Taking a large sip of my brandy, I set the glass aside and filled a pipe as Holmes continued his bizarre elucidation.
‘Have you ever heard of the iboga plant of central Africa?.’ My silence told him I had not.
‘It is a member of the genus Tabernanthe, a powerful hallucinatory and used in rituals among the tribes of the river Congo. Used with a paralytic, it renders the subject helpless to experience visions and the like.’ I nodded in a rather sardonic fashion; I had experienced the effects of this devilish weed only too recently for comfort.
‘I have not thanked you for saving my life.’
‘And you have no need to do so. I merely secreted the grappling iron in my sleeve and used it as a tool to extricate myself and then, of course, you.’
‘Then what took place afterwards?. I vaguely recall you hoisting me over your shoulder and what seemed a long walk, but apart from that I know nothing.’
‘I went back in the same way as before. Pym’s colourful friends were engrossed in a stupefying dance that they performed until they were in a state of trance. I was able to slip unobserved past them and examine Sir. Tristram for myself.’
I set down my pipe at this news.
‘He is quite dead.’
‘So my own examination showed, but he had a pulse – and respiration.’
‘Both were artifice. The blood came from a pump through tubes attached to the poor man’s corpse from behind that screen. As soon as I saw it I suspected as much. The same for the breathing you observed; a mechanical bellows operated from behind the same same inflated the lungs via tubes. A ghastly way to treat a gallant man’s moral remains.’
Holmes told me how he had then found himself trapped in the room when the witch doctor returned, followed by his acolytes. Using the remains of poor Sir. Tristram to persuade the throng of his powers, the juju man performed an elaborate ritual in which several of the unholy congregation were anointed in blood and daubed with a white paint that would, he assured them, render them both invisible and bulletproof. To Holmes’ horror, as the masked wizard uttered his incantations and hullabaloo, the men indeed seemed to fade into invisibility!.
‘But surely, Holmes, you cannot believe in such nonsense?, these native superstitions are hardly fitting here in the beating heart of the Empire.’
‘Quite the contrary I’m afraid. Unless I am mistaken, there goes the bell. Doubtless Lestrade has bungled it and has sent a carriage to fetch us. That is, if you are up to a ride out to Richmond.’
No sooner had Holmes spoken than the landlady bustled in in front of a red-faced young constable who stood at the threshold of our chambers in patent embarrassment. Mrs. Hudson upbraided the poor chap terribly about his helmet, which he removed, flushing even more in the process. Holmes intercepted her before she could set about mothering me and invited the lad to speak.
‘Sir… sir...’ He began. With a knowing look towards myself, Holmes threw out a hand impatiently.
‘Out with it, constable. Our attention is yours.’
‘Well, Sir, it’s the Inspector. Lestrade that is. He wants you, you see he said you were of some help in the Jefferson Hope case. He’s at Richmond, Sir, at the Webb place.’
‘You have not told all of it Holmes.’ My remark was made as we climbed up into the leather and walnut comfort of a rather plush ‘growler’. Settling in opposite me, Holmes waited until the constable closed the door and clambered up to site with the driver before answering.
‘Oh, it is all fairly humdrum, I suppose. After I saw the natives vanish I waited for my chance to slip away unobserved. I knew you would not last the hour in such bitter conditions and time was of the very essence.’ He reached into a pocket as he spoke. ‘As I waited, I spotted our possessions on a table, including this.’ Handing me my revolver, Holmes paused to produce a cigar case.
Accepting a cohiba, I cut and lit it. We both smoked in peace for a while before Holmes resumed his extraordinary narrative.
‘Returning for you, I managed you as far as the shrubbery adjacent to the main gate where I am ashamed to say I left you to the elements. I knew that the nearest Police station was a wearying trudge, a cab could not be found at that hour so I made for the Royal Park Keeper’s lodge. I found a keeper at the desk and, after no small difficulty, managed to persuade him to send a runner to telegraph the Police headquarters at Whitehall.’
‘You mean Scotland Yard?.’
‘Really, Watson, you really are prone to vulgarity at times. It may well be called that among the hoi polloi, but there really is no reason to join their ranks. At any rate, a jarvey was roused from his slumbers to take us back here. I curse myself for not remaining to nursemaid Lestrade!. Ah, but here we are and there is no more time at our disposal to be wasted.’
The scene at the Webb Institute could hardly have been more different. Where there had been open gates there were chains and padlock, where only yesterday a bronze disc had declared this to be the same institution there was a rusted section of ironwork and I could see the windows had been boarded up. Indeed I had to assure myself this was the same place, so marked were the changes wrought upon the scene. A pair of constables were guarding the gates and these waves us through to meet Lestrade coming down the steps.
‘Ahh, Mister Holmes, thank you for coming – and Doctor Watson into the bargain!. I think we have solved it, but it is sometimes useful to have another opinion on matters like this.’
‘I venture to remark there are no other matters like this, Inspector. I take it Pym slipped through your fingers?.’ The only answer was an embarrassed silence, to which Holmes merely sighed and went inside. I had expected him to go straight to the large chamber, but instead followed in his wake as he strode to Pym’s office, Lestrade’s sallow expression one of concern as he struggled to keep pace. Clearly the place had been vacated in a hurry, the room was in a state of total disarray. Holmes began a vigorous inspection of the room, tearing at desk drawers and snatching papers down from the wall to which they had been carelessly affixed. He picked at the waste paper basket, which had been subjected to fire, doubtless in an attempt to conceal some clue or other. I watched from the doorway, unwilling to intrude upon the scene. The inspector, it seemed, had no such inhibition.
‘Mister Holmes, might I ask what you expect to find?.’ Holmes did not favour the official with so much as a sidelong glance.
‘You might. Ah!, what have we here!.’ Opening a drawer in a cabinet, Holmes had found a bottle of linseed oil.
Rummaging further, the detective retrieved a small unmarked bottle of liquid. Taking a cautious sniff at the contents, he reeled back to my considerable alarm.
‘Holmes! Be careful man!.’ In lieu of answer, he held it out for my inspection. The pungent fumes of what was unmistakably ammonia assaulted my olfactory sense and my eyes began to water uncontrollably. Holmes then went back to the desk and produced a sheaf of paper, which he smelled as if hoping to discover something. He than rushed from the room pushing past me rudely and made for the public convenience, pausing at the Ladies’ briefly before entering the Gentlemen’s. Such modesty made me snort with laughter as there were of course, no women present.
Following Holmes I discovered him in the process of running all the taps and proceeding to dangle pieces of paper under them. I was about to inquire as to his state of mind when, with a gasp of triumph, he raised one sheet to the skylight and, without comment, dashed off again, leaving me to deal with the still-running taps and the sodden mess accumulated in the sinks beneath. I finally caught up with him in the great hall, where he was holding the sheet over a sconce, drying both sides with great delicacy as if afraid of burning or scorching the fragile object. At length, he seemed satisfied, rolling the sheet into a tube and secreting it in an inside pocket before deigning to notice me.
‘We may be too late. I suggest we return to Baker Street at once. Lestrade!.’
The inspector hurried up, anxious to learn something from Holmes’ singular endeavours.
‘I shall require you tonight, with at least ten of your best men, rugger players if you can find them – the murderers we are after believe themselves both invincible and invisible; they will not come quietly. Sir. Tristram’s remains can at least now be removed for proper burial.’ An expression of confusion marked Lestrade’s face, but he nodded and went off to find a subordinate. I spotted a pair of constables at work piling up spears and suchlike, perhaps to use in evidence. Among this collection of weapons I espied my shillelagh and went to collect it, explaining that it was my property.
‘Where do you think you might be going with that then, chummy?.’ Turning slowly, I realised I had not seen the burly Sergeant of police who stood behind me, arms behind his back in regimental fashion and a sardonic gleam to his eye. Raising myself to my fullest height, I favoured the obstinate fellow with an icy glare.
‘I am not your ‘chummy’, Sergeant, I am Doctor John Watson and this is my shillelagh, thank you very much.’
‘Not a fitting instrument for a medical man, Doctor. What purpose have you for carrying such a weapon then?’ Slapping the weighted end into my palm, I answered; ‘Anaesthetic.’ before taking my leave of the odious functionary. Leaving the Institute, we took the growler back to Baker Street as a cold wind began to blow icy flakes down across London.
The lamplighters were busy early that evening, the lights of the Edgware road twinkling and sparkling invitingly. It would be easy to forget the events of the preceding day, to dismiss them as whimsy or fancy. To find such goings on in deepest Africa was one thing, but here, in London!. I had to shake my head to assure myself it was happening and not some ludicrous dream. The familiar sight of Baker Street acted as a salve, however and an anchor to the unreality of it all and I was glad to regain our rooms. Whilst I contented myself with a quick wash and a change of clothes, Holmes launched himself into one of his examinations and, declaring it to be a three-pipe problem, banished me to my chamber to await results.
I had some medical volumes that had been delivered and as yet had not had sufficient time to devote to them. Now seemed ideal, but I had barely started on a palimpsest on bone regeneration in the elderly when there was the most appalling racket from the sitting room. I ignored it as best I could, but after perhaps a half hour I could stand it no longer and found Holmes seated indian fashion on the carpet surrounded by all manner of books and papers.
‘Really, Holmes, it will not do!; whatever are you up to?.’ Barely aware of my intrusion, he took a puff on his briar and waved distractedly at the paperwork strewn about. His manner was one of agitation, of despondency.
‘I cannot crack it, Watson. I have failed!.’
I poured a stiff brandy for us both as Holmes told me what he knew of the affair. The business with the paper at the Pimm Institute was necessary to reveal the contents of a hidden message.
‘Have you heard of steganography?.’ I had not.
‘It is a remarkable science, the art of covered writing. A message may be concealed – tattooed on the scalp of an agent, for instance, the hair is allowed to grow and obscure the message. There have been examples throughout antiquity – but surely none as fiendish in their intractability as the example on that paper.’ As he spoke, he jabbed the stem of his pipe towards the mantle-piece, where his jackknife now held the paper he had wetted. Where it had been blank, it now was covered with text, a poem of some kind. It seemed oddly familiar, yet I could not place it. I have reproduced the paper here;
‘Good lord!, that’s extraordinary. You uncovered it with the water, I suppose?.’
‘That is entirely ordinary, Watson, do please try to focus on the problem, not the effects associated with unveiling it.’ Springing up, he went to the paper and removed the knife to hand me the` paper for closer inspection.
‘The method is German, the motive unclear. A mixture of linseed oil, ammonia and purified water in the proper ratio will produce the ink, which dries to total invisibility. Often it is used in the margins of apparently innocent books carried by couriers for the Prussian secret service. We now may infer the nationality behind this outrageous scheme, but until we have the grasp of those words London, the entire Empire perhaps remains at stake. It is too much!.’ Holmes seemed to physically reel from the challenge at hand and I feared for him when his hand rested on the mantle near the hated morocco leather case, but thankfully he turned away from the fireplace to sit again amidst his clutter.
‘It does seem remarkable that such devilry can flourish right under the noses of a civilised society.’ The words had hardly left my lips when Holmes sat bolt upright. Clutching at my arm, his eyes took on an intensity that would, in another man be suggestive of madness.
‘Watson, you have it!. Devilry!.’ Holmes rose to throw himself upon his library.
‘Devilry indeed!, really my dear fellow you have that rare ability to focus intellect without the slightest inkling of having done so. Aha!.’ Holding a weighty tome out for my benefit, Holmes seemed positively rejuvenated. Gone was the forlorn, weary figure of a moment ago. The book was a heavy one, leather bound with no title save that on the spine; Goethe-Faust-1790.
‘Then this passage is from the book?.’
‘I’m certain of it. I’ve not read Faust in years – and I only have the original of course. This paper contains a passage from the work translated into English. It only remains to decipher the message that is doubtless hidden within.’
Holmes spent the next hour in solitary silence, but then the bell rang downstairs and, after a moment, the street Arab Wiggins came bounding in, pursued hotly by the landlady. Holmes shooed her away and closed the door, turning to find the boy making faces at her behind his back.
‘If I were your father, my boy...’
‘You’d be dead drunk in a ditch somewhere, wouldn’t yer?.’ I rose to berate the boy for this unmitigated cheek, but Holmes merely burst out laughing and ruffled the upstart’s tousled hair.
‘Right, let’s have it.’ To me, he added that he had enlisted the services of the scruffy lout whilst I was in my room.
‘The Baker Street division of the detective force has been invaluable in the past, as you will recall from the Jefferson Hope business.’
Wiggins indeed proved the truth of my friend’s statement. The ‘Irregulars’ had been dispatched across London with the aim of watching all the places livestock was to be found, kept or sold. Instead of a report, however, the boy stood in mute defiance until Holmes produced a half-sovereign as if from thin air.
‘I sent a yob to Smithfield to ‘ave a Butcher’s, I ‘ad a cool round the yards myself, but I ‘ad ter cut lucky when a blue-bottle seed me...’ Seeing my absolute mystification, Holmes politely translated that Wiggins had sent one of his lads to the Smithfield meat market in the square mile, to have a look around. Wiggins himself checked the stock-yards, but was chased off by a constable.
‘And what about the Metropolitan Market at Islington?.’
‘That’s where it gets rum, Mister ‘Olmes; I sends Balmy Benny and Legless Bill to the Sling, told ‘em to step proper short-like, but they was kyboshed by a clockey, had to ‘ave it away on their daisies - ‘ee gives ‘em this proper bonneting after they bulled in to see these tea-pots with old Harry in them; all queer patter and bedlam. There was a queer gill with them too, afternoonified ‘e was. Anyway, they was touted halfway back to our drum, they ‘ad to do a proper scoot an’ all.’
‘His associates were told to move quickly, but were foiled and forced to make a run for it by a watchman who attacked them. They pretended to blunder in by mistake and saw some natives with the very devil in them. These men spoke in a foreign language and seemed mad. There was a strange man with them, well-dressed. They were followed when they left for home and had to run for it. Please describe this odd fellow to us, Wiggins.’ When the impudent little scruff fell silent again, a cheeky grin plastered on his lopsided features, Holmes produced another coin, this time a full sovereign, which he tossed into the air. Snatching the coin, Wiggins continued with a near-perfect description of Silas Pym.
Wiggins had left and Holmes called down for a cab, advising me to wear some warm, workmanlike clothing. I selected an Ulster and a cap to find Holmes had been replaced by the roughest market porter I had ever seen, his features partially obscured by luxuriant mutton chops and fierce eyebrows. He wore a leather jerkin and the most objectionable old bowler. Rough corderoy trousers and unpolished boots with a crude walking stick completed the disguise. All in all not someone I would normally associate with!. We both carried revolvers that night – the stakes were, Holmes assured me, too high to leave anything to chance. The landlady called up that the cab was waiting and we set off for Islington.
Although most people will have heard of the famous market at Smithfield, the Metropolitan Cattle Market, or, to most simply ‘The Caledonian’ covered some thirty acres of North London. Bounded by a public house on each corner with an impressive central clock tower, the long rows of sheds seemed to stretch forever. Friday was horse trading day and the din was appalling; we alighted in the midst of chaotic scenes, the noise from hundreds of donkeys and goats adding to the terrified whinnying of the horses. Not for the first time I began to question mankind’s attitude to the animals we share our planet with. We had not even reached the market square proper and there was still perhaps five hundred yards of public slaughter-houses ahead of us. Holmes had insisted we go this way, rather than take the cab to the building the Irregulars had scouted.
After some time, we finally reached the private slaughter-houses, having passed the bullock pens, which were silent as no beef was sold on a Friday here. At Holmes’ suggestion, we ducked into the White Horse public house, so to be able to observe the building of interest from a discreet distance. I sought a seat with a view across the road whilst Holmes went to the bar. I had no luck, for the place was packed out, but Holmes it seemed had fared better. We stood at the end of the bar facing the slaughter-house and he told me that the landlord, one Tom Hedges of Buckinghamshire had been the tavern keeper for some time. Living with his family, there was nothing they didn’t know of the area and, as if to prove it, Richard, the eldest Hedges boy came over at his father’s request. Richard was in his early twenties, with more than a hint of the rural about him both in manner and speech.
‘My father says you were askin’ questions. Police, is it?.’
‘Get away with yer.’ Holmes’ accent and speech had changed to that of a South London tough and not for the first time I thought he would make a rare actor.
‘My pal and me fancy the livestock business; he likes cattle, but me-self I likes pigs.’ I realised at once that this was one of Holmes’ impostures and at once attempted to appear the very model of a cattle fanatic, though I had not the slightest idea of what that might entail.
‘Well you’ve come to the right place, I’ll say that Sirs; you could do worse than talk to Mr. Howard; he’s a cattle dealer by trade and lodges here.’ Holmes assumed an attentive air, but waved his stick in the general direction of the slaughter-houses across the road.
‘I reckon we might try our luck in the market, have a go like - but we’re leery, see?, don’t want to be taken for mugs.’ Is this Mister Howard around?.’
‘Here he is now, Sir.’ The Hedges boy pointed at a red-faced and burly man who had just arrived at the bar. Thanking the boy with a coin, Holmes tipped his moth-eaten old bowler and winked at me, as if confiding his good fortune with a colleague.
‘Half o’best mild please, Cathy.’
‘Make that a pint, darlin’ - and bring it two more for company, will you?.’ Holmes dropped some pennies down onto the bar and clapped a hand on the cattle trader’s shoulder.
‘I heard you’re the chap to see about cattle and such.’ Howard’s eyebrows went up at this but the arrival of his pint got the better of him.
‘Perhaps I am… Mister?.’
‘Wells is the name, John Wells, me and my partner Bob here -’ I raised my cap dutifully ‘We was thinkin’ of setting up in business over there (He pointed with his stick again) and young Mister Richard ‘ere give us your name, very kindly too, I might add.’
‘Well, you’ve really come to the wrong pub, Mister, um, Wells was it?.’ Holmes nodded good-naturedly as he took a sip of his mild. ‘Only those slaughter-houses is private, see? - you’d need to have your own stock to take there first; they slaughter it for you, like. I’d recommend you saw Abe Rodgett over at the Bull; he works the public side, see?.’
This seemed to be an impenetrable barrier to Holmes’ enquiry, but he was not to be dissuaded so easily.
‘But surely there’s some new folks just set up across the way?; why I heard they were blackamoors workin’ there an’ all sorts.’
A puzzled look came over the man’s face at this, but then he looked directly at Holmes, recognition clearly showing on his features.
‘Now that’s odd, you saying that.’ The cattle dealer finished his pint and Holmes was quick to catch the eye of the pretty young barmaid, anxious to keep Howard pliant.
‘How’s that?, odd, you say?.’
‘Well, odd’s the word for it when a gentleman decides he wants his plantation workers to come all this way to learn our ways in slaughterin’. I was saying the same only the other day, to my pal Albie – Albie, says I, there’s sommat funny here, anyone knows they have cattle in Africa… well, I suppose they do. Must have, see?.’
It seemed that Pym, with a group of his natives, had descended on the slaughter-house of one J. Poulsett and hired the place as if it were a holiday chalet and not a place of business. Paying the regular slaughtermen off for a week, Pym – for it was certainly he, had taken over the premises for whatever purpose, paying over the odds for a whole week. Thanking Mr. Howard, Holmes tipped his bowler in farewell and hinted he would indeed seek out Abraham Rodgett at the Black Bull, the pub he had mentioned. Outside, however, he made straight for the private slaughter-houses. Modesty forbids me to describe what we saw, suffice to say even Holmes seemed moved by the plight of those poor animals. Even at this hour, there were what seemed to be whole herds of horses corralled into the market and the place had the air of a county fair in places, but a charnel house in others.
We arrived at the slaughter-house of Jack Poulsett at around six p.m. and in darkness, to find the place quite deserted. Far from being guarded, there was no sign of any watchman and no lights showed from within. There was a separate entrance to the side where the animals entered and a doorway for the workers, which Holmes deftly unlocked whilst I kept watch. Inside, a tiled corridor led to the killing and cutting rooms, with a small office to the left. This, too was locked and once again Holmes picked the lock. Inside, he lit the oil lamp on the table and began his search.
For myself, I had little to do except listen for any sign of our having been discovered, but perhaps due to Holmes’ previous interest in the waste paper basket at the Pimm Institute, I picked up its equivalent here to find a curious little collection of tiny squares of cardboard at the bottom. These gave the appearance of having been punched out with some uniform object and I remarked upon them to Holmes, who at once abandoned his search in favour of my discovery.
‘Cardano!; it has to be!. Twenty – that figure may prove significant.’ Leaving me to wonder at this, the detective set about his search anew, going through the drawers of a cabinet file one by one.
The sound of a hammer being pulled back was the first warning we had. Looking to the doorway, I saw a muffled figure holding a large revolver in his hand. My first thought was that it was a watchman, but when he spoke it was with a distinct Continental accent that I could not place.
‘You will put your hands up I think.’ We did as ordered, Holmes doing so reluctantly.
‘You are looking, perhaps for something?.’ Holmes answered instantly;
‘Yes. A piece of stiff paper or card, the size of a large sheet of paper. The card is perforated in an apparently meaningless fashion.’ At once I thought of the oddity of the cardboard pieces I had discovered – this must have had some importance after all.
The gunman stayed perfectly still as he considered his reply.
‘You shall not find it here, English spy.’
‘I am English, though not a spy; your gun affords you no more than mere courtesy in my country – doubtless it is otherwise in Bavaria. I shall continue my search and when I find it, I have no doubt this card will hang you and your paymaster. How is Herr Heinbrunn by the way?.’ At the mention of this distinctly Germanic name, the gunman flinched noticeably, but held his pistol steady.
‘I will give him your compliments, Herr Holmes, but you will not live to receive a reply.’ If only I could have reached my revolver without arousing suspicion!.
I saw the finger on the trigger tighten and knew I had to act – I was standing directly behind the lamp – I flung my hand out – the lamp shattered on the floor – there was a terrible BANG – Holmes fell to the floor!. Enraged, I surged forward, desperate to reach this fiend before he could shoot again. A sheet of flame roared up from the shattered lamp, some of the oil from which had spattered the German’s trouser leg. Cursing and beating at the flame, he did not see my fist. Though never a boxer, my overhand right had rarely failed me and I had the satisfaction of seeing him crumple back into the hallway. My first thought was for Holmes – my friend lay on his side and I only prayed I had not killed him by my precipitate action. My heart soared though, to find him laughing – the bullet had gone through his bowler, missing his fine head by a fraction of an inch.
‘My word, Watson, you nearly parted my hair for good!.’
‘Holmes!, thank God!.’
My joy at my friend’s narrow escape turned to passion then as the sounds of the gunman escaping reached our ears. Helping Holmes to his feet, I took out my service revolver, grateful for the heft of the thing in my hands. Resolutely, I charged after the murderous Teuton, determined to bring him to book. Holmes was on my heels as we dashed down the tiled hallway and into the cutting room, the stairs of which afforded us a view of the retreating boche. I took aim, but he was too swift for my bullet, which whined off the tiling uselessly. Taking the stairs in a leap, I was hot on his heels, when I realised Holmes had paused by one of the long butcher’s tables. He was examining some rubber tubing and glass ware he had found, only my shout rousing him from what seemed to me to be his untimely study.
Bursting out into the empty pens behind the slaughter-house, I looked in vain for sign of our quarry, finally spotting him amongst the horses in the corral across the lane. We gave chase, finding ourselves amidst a herd of the beasts and I had time to wonder if we might have been injudicious in our decision to follow the German agent – for surely he could be nothing but, into that heaving maelstrom of horseflesh and hooves. Twice I found myself jostled by the animals and once a brute of a mare reared at my approach and I should have been trampled beneath its weight had not Holmes restrained me with a timely hand. Suddenly, a volley of shots sounded from ahead and at once the entire pack was surging away from the unexpected noise. Towards us, I might add.
To this day I have no idea how I gained the gate, nor what inner strength of force propelled me over, but it is certain that a moment after, several tons of horse crashed against the very gate and splintered it in an instant. I barely made the doubtful sanctuary of a public convenience before being crushed by what had become a surging torrent of stampeding horses. I was afraid for Holmes – had he been trampled?. I need not have worried; to my utter astonishment and disbelief I saw him astride a prince of Clydesdales as he vaulted the rail with a jump that would have done Aintree proud, galloping off after his prey like a Hussar at Balaclava. My wound was, by now, causing me no small discomfiture, so, with a heavy heart and a bitter sense of failure I returned to the slaughter-house to see if anything might be discovered from further examination.
It was only later, in our rooms at Baker Street, that Holmes told me of his equine adventure. He had, he said, chased down the German to an alleyway, bringing him down with a flying leap from horseback to send the continental foe sprawling across the flags. Unconscious, Holmes was able to rifle the man’s pockets to ascertain his identity. His papers gave him as one Carl Heinz Becker of Lindau, a traveller in wines and spirits. Doubtless, Holmes remarked this was likely a fraud designed to draw suspicion away from his real purpose.
‘À l'œuvre, on connaît l'artisan’ as Fontaine put it.’ Holmes went to the window to look down on the street as a fresh fall came floating down.
‘So he is a spy then?.’ Without turning from his vigil, Holmes replied.
‘Without doubt. Wine merchants invariably have about them the tools of the trade; tasting spoon, lifter – an item resembling a pipette used for sampling and, of course corkscrew. Herr Becker was lacking entirely in such accoutrements, nor did he have the characteristics of his trade; the man positively reeked of tobacco – any wine taster worth his salt would abstain, neither were there the slightest trace of stains on his cuff – this man was no dandy, yet did not use his cuff to dab his lips after sampling?; no rural wine merchant this!. Indeed, the man was no more a vintner than I a sailor.’
‘Then what became of him?.’
‘Lestrade has him now, though I fear not for long. Ah! Talk of the devil; the very man.’
It was indeed Lestrade who joined us by the fire. He seemed unusually anxious and refused a brandy as he stood clutching his bowler.
‘Well Lestrade, what news?.’
‘I have the men you asked for, Mr Holmes, all ready at headquarters. However… however, the Director of Criminal Intelligence happened in to the room we were using and...’
‘And you have to justify the expense involved?.’
‘Yes, Mr. Holmes. Quite.’
‘Then we must make sure’ said Holmes ‘That we justify every penny.’
Going into his room Holmes returned with a small blackboard, setting it on its easel and flourishing a piece of chalk, rather dramatically in my view. The Faustian extract was reproduced on the board exactly as on the paper. He then produced the paper from the Webb Institute and a piece of perforated card.
‘Now, the message; John, you found twenty pieces of peculiar cardboard. This brought to mind a rather ingenious cipher devised by the Italian Mathematician Cardano in the sixteenth century. The idea was to write a hidden message within some seemingly trivial piece of text, such as our Goethian Faust here. You then make a grille from paper and punch a number of holes through it, correspondent with the letters from the secret message. By placing the grille over the innocent text...’ Matching action to word, Holmes set the card carefully over the text, then began furiously circling letters, seemingly at random on the board. Gradually a message appeared, but what Lestrade and I had already seen was this;
‘The Royal Courts of Justice?’ I had, of course heard much of the new Courts buildings which were to said to be a wonder of architecture, built to resemble a cathedral.
‘The very same.’
‘But Mister Holmes – what does all this mean?.’ Lestrade seemed thoroughly at a loss.
Holmes’ face was grim and rather pale as he answered the Inspector.
‘It means, my dear Lestrade, that the life of no less a personage than Her Majesty The Queen is imperilled.’
The Queen!; this was outrageous, beyond contemplation even.
‘Surely Holmes you cannot mean...’
‘I do. We must move with caution tonight, gentlemen. I fear a great evil is being wrought at this very moment.’
‘Then surely we must move to prevent it?.’
‘All in good time, Watson. If we move rashly all may be lost. I have made certain arrangements with someone with certain – connexions within the Government. We will leave at...’ He consulted his watch. ‘Midnight precisely.’
It was twenty-five minutes later that we exited the carriage Lestrade had engaged and found ourselves in a coach-yard to the rear of the vast edifice. Even from this vantage point, the great spire was visible rising into the darkness and, despite myself a shudder ran through me. Lestrade’s men were already there, some in uniform, but others dressed in finery. The smallest must have weighed sixteen stone and many sported cauliflower ears and boxer’s noses. Even to my eye there was no hiding their trade and Holmes merely rolled his eyes in silent comment.
‘Very well. Allow me, Lestrade to address these men.’ The Inspector seemed doubtful, but acquiesced.
‘Gentlemen. My name is Sherlock Holmes. The building behind you is, as you are no doubt well aware, the new Royal Courts of Justice building and this very morning Her Majesty will be officially opening the new courts. She is to be assassinated as she does so.’
At this, a murmur of astonishment went through the ranks, until Lestrade coughed meaningfully and order was restored. Holmes went on;
‘I must now swear all of you to the most binding oath of secrecy on this matter – and I will then call for volunteers. Inspector, if you please.’ Holmes held out a hand to summon Lestrade, who produced a piece of paper and cleared his throat before reading from it. The exact details of his speech I cannot reproduce here, suffice to say it was an oath binding the men taking it to their graves.
Thanking Lestrade, my friend continued with his own instruction.
‘There is a terrible danger involved, for the assassins are using a particularly murderous weapon, one that can neither be seen nor heard – they are using a malevolent poison of the blood known to science as a pathogen. It is known to cause a disease known and feared throughout central Africa as ‘sleeping sickness.’ It is invariably fatal and there is no known cure. For this reason, I must ask for volunteers only. There will be, I assure you, no repercussion of any kind on those who are unwilling to take the risk.’ At this, Inspector Lestrade stepped forward and called for volunteers to take a step forward. To a man, the men all took such a step and it was with evident pride in his men that Lestrade reported all had done so. Holmes then gave his instructions, outlining a plan to foil the assassins.
I have taken the liberty of quoting from a contemporary account of the events of Monday, the fourth of December, so as to remind readers of the official, public verdict given on that day. Of course, the actual events were never officially chronicled and with good reason. However, with the passage of time and the recession of the German threat, events have led me to conclude that I may safely reveal what really transpired that fateful, far-off day...
It was a grand sight. Every house in the Strand was gaily decorated; and as the Queen and her retinue passed along, the bells of the churches rang merrily, and the crowd of spectators cheered long and lustily. When Her Majesty arrived at the Central Hall, a procession was formed; and first went the builders, Messrs. Edward and Henry Bull, and the architect, Mr. Street; next came the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, in their best wigs and gowns; then the Judges, the Lord Chancellor being the hindmost; next various officials and Mr. Gladstone; and then the Queen, followed by her sons and daughters; the royal attendants bringing up the rear. Her Majesty proceeded to the throne which had been placed on a dais, or raised floor; and, after the key of the building had been presented to her, and then transferred to the keeping of the Lord Chancellor, she read a short address, in which she expressed her trust that the uniting together of the various branches of judicature in this the supreme court would conduce to the more efficient and speedy discharge of justice to her subjects; and that the learning and independence of her judges would prove in the future, as in time past, the chief security of the rights of her crown and the liberties of her people. The Lord Chancellor replied ; the Archbishop of York offered up a special prayer; and then Sir William Harcourt, by the Queen's direction, declared the building opened, and the state trumpeters gave a flourish of trumpets to mark the event.
And here is what I recall; Lestrade watched with some bemusement as Holmes detailed men to various posts, some were to mingle with the throngs of well-wishers and spectacle-gawkers later on, whilst the uniformed constables would, of course join the ranks serried outside. Each man had a job to do, whether it be to guard a particular passage or exit or, in the case of four particularly hefty constables, protect the Queen’s personage from harm. These last were outfitted in the dress of Royal Footmen. Holmes himself had arranged for the two of us to have access to the ceremony from the rather unusual vantage point of the gallery overlooking the hall from the North aspect. The beginnings of the new day began to show through the immensely tall vaulted windows. With a few hours still to the ceremony, we took the opportunity to get what sleep we could in an ante-room, though the plush chairs were hardly suited for beds.
The clock tower at Westminster began chiming the hour for nine and a shout went up below. The last hurried preparations were hastily concluded and various and sundry folk downstairs scurried away, the vast chamber empty for the moment. The last echoes had barely died when a roar went up from the crowd outside. The Yeomen of the Guard hefted their partizans and went to their duties and we were alone for a moment in the great hall. I had the distinct impression of unreality, as if the scene before my eyes was a vast stage of some kind, but then Holmes tapped me on the shoulder.
‘It would be better, I think, if we made ourselves less conspicuous.’ Following his example, I shrank back against the stone, making myself as small as possible behind the balustrade.
As described so eloquently above, the procession entered, but was immediately diverted by an apologetic official and, with no small amount of grumbling the worthies went into a chamber off from the main hall. Next, with a fanfare, Her Majesty was ushered in and was met by a small delegation apparently led by a distinguished, if somewhat corpulent figure whose significance was to evade me for some years. This last bowed formally and after some words, The Queen allowed herself to be shown into a chamber opposite that in which the dignitaries had been led. I began to see Holmes’ plan was being enacted, though had not the beginnings of any comprehension as to its nature. I was about to remark on this when, tapping my arm, Holmes favoured me with a stern look and a finger to his lips. Indicating I was to follow, he went lightly down the stairs and across to the chamber adjoining that currently occupied by the great and good of the nation.
Holmes tapped softly on the door and after a moment it opened to reveal an odd scene, a short, stocky fellow was being physically restrained by two of Lestrade’s rugger players – a tableau d'incongruité if there ever was such a thing. Something about the small man seemed oddly familiar, but it was still something of a shock when Holmes addressed him directly.
‘Mr. Pym, I believe – you seem to have lost both weight and age with quite remarkable dispatch. I dare to say that there are ladies who would pay a King’s ransom for the secret.’ I looked closer – it was, indeed Silas Pym!.
At that moment Lestrade entered the room and he seemed uncommonly pleased with himself.
‘Ah, Holmes, I see my men have him. We must hurry, I’m afraid The Queen will not be kept waiting.’ Holmes sent an ironic look my way before asking if Pym had been searched. He had not. Holmes’ expression assumed an air of urgency.
‘Search him from head to toe.’ Despite Pym’s voluble protests, he could do nothing to retain his modesty as the burly constables ripped at his clothes and searched every item carefully. There was, to my friend’s visible dismay, nothing to be found. Somewhat crestfallen, he turned to the Inspector.
‘It is possible his instructions have been memorised. In such an instance nothing may be done. It is as well’ Holmes said to Pym ‘That we do not favour the torture method in this country.’
Lestrade was anxious now, rubbing his hands nervously.
‘You have done your best, Holmes, but I see it has not been enough. We have to let Her Majesty proceed.’
‘Indeed.’ Just then, Holmes’ keen eye alighted on something and I could see he had noticed a nasty abrasion on the face of one of the constables.
‘Constable, if you would, how did you come by that rather unpleasant and so obviously recent wound?.’
‘Well, Sir – it was him there. Hit me, he did, with this.’ With that, he produced a walking stick from his belt – I saw at once it was Pym’s African stick and remarked upon the fact.
Holmes held out his hand and Pym’s eyes betrayed him, darting fearfully to the object of the detective’s interest.
Inspecting the stick closely, Holmes twisted the monkey’s head this way and that, but to no avail. Lestrade’s patience was clearly at an end, but then, with a cry of triumph, Holmes pressed both fingers into the eye sockets. With a barely audible click, the stick came away from the head and at once a steel cylinder was visible. From the tube Holmes produced a piece of perforated card which had been tightly rolled to fit. He went to a nearby table, pulling from his pocket the sheet of Faust which he had revealed earlier. Unfurling the card, he laid it over the prose to reveal an entirely different message from the one he had shown us earlier;
‘But Holmes, what is this gibberish?.’
‘Hardly gibberish, Inspector, please inform Her Majesty that all will be ready in a very few minutes – but tell the bloated gentleman with her that he owes me a dinner – and not at that atrocious club of his.’ Without explaining, Holmes rolled up the paper inside the card, handed me Pym’s stick and strode back into the main hall, where I found him vacillating between the lofty stained glass windows above.
‘It must be here… it must!.’ Abruptly, he came to a halt below a shield with a yellow bend, which featured triple fleur de lis flanked by two charger’s heads. No sooner had he done this than he was over by the floor and examining minutely a piece of mozaic that resembled the sun’s rays, with, at its very centre a curious design similar to a fylfot, or swastika, though this was reversed.
I held my breath then as Holmes raised a finger to his lips for silence, while waving Lestrade’s men over. Reaching into his coat, he drew out his revolver and, with the butt, struck the centre of the mozaic thrice. After a pause, to my surprise the entire panel began to shift, swinging up to reveal the mouth of what seemed to be a tunnel. At once, Holmes took aim and called down.
‘Come out at once with your hands above you or I shall be compelled to shoot.’ In an instant, swarthy figures began to emerge from the chasm and, true to his word, Holmes opened fire.
To my horror, a zombie rose from the ground with a shudder as the bullets went into him, but with inhuman strength and fortitude he grabbed Holmes’ leg and attempted to bite into it. Knocking the native away with Pym’s stick, I followed this up with a kick to the chest, sending the demented character back into the ranks that were surging up in his stead.
‘Lestrade! Watson!; we must not let them reach Her Majesty!. Do not, for God’s sake let them bite you; they are infected with sleeping sickness!.’ With that, Holmes had done the unthinkable, diving feet-first into the maelstrom. There was nothing for it, but to follow. I found myself in a long, low tunnel lit by oil lamps stretching away into the distance. There must have been thirty of Pym’s tribal warriors, all in the fevered grip of the zombie fixation, but there was no time to inspect them. Instead I was thrust into a vicious and desperate hand to hand struggle, fighting for my very life against the delirious and ranting natives. I was aware of Lestrade’s men behind me and saw one stumble beneath the assault of a cudgel blow from a knobkerry. I wished I had brought my shillelagh, but made do with Pym’s stick, which proved its usage as the tribesman reeled from a blow to the face.
We fought then for some minutes, perhaps only few in number, yet they were the longest minutes of my life. I heard a piercing shout as one of the constables was bitten by two of the zombies and drew my revolver, shooting one through the heart. Horrifically, he stood and turned his head slowly to face me, eyes red as burning coals. I levelled my revolver, but, as the man seemed unarmed, I hesitated to shoot again. By some terrible force of will, the man was actually walking towards me – I shrank back against the tunnel wall, but mercifully, he succumbed to the fatality of his wound and fell then, dead. A sudden pain transfixed me and I looked down to find a spear had pierced my side, wielded by one of the spellbound warriors. In agony, I snapped the haft and, with an effort, wrenched the spear-head from my flank, gritting my teeth as the shock began to set in to see him raising a dagger to strike the fatal blow.
I should have died in that cursed tunnel had not Holmes appeared to shoot the man down. It took all of his remaining cartridges, the zombie finally sinking to the floor after two shots to the skull. Behind Holmes I saw the familiar figure of the witch doctor and shouted a warning, but too late to save Holmes from what came next. The man was wearing his mask, but also he had the claws of a leopard or some such creature affixed to his hands like an evil glove. I saw the blood dripping from the talons - Holmes had been wounded!. Despite the shudder of pain that ran through me with every motion, I threw myself forward at the uncanny sorcerer and plunged the head of the spear into his shoulder with the last of my strength.
Shrieking and bellowing with rage, the juju doctor spun around and went staggering back down the tunnel, dashing a lantern from its perch as he went. If I thought he was retreating, however, I was sorely mistaken as he returned from the darkness holding aloft a small decorated skull in one hand and a bottle in the other. This evidently contained some sort of spirit, as he took a swig and spat it at the lamp which lay shattered and burning. In an instant, a wall of fire shot up between us and I had the distinct image of Holmes wrestling with the frenzied creature, a rictus of a grin upon those savage, primordial features. To see such savagery in a place of justice!.
I stumbled forward, keen to help my colleague, but a howl of pain adverted me to the plight of one of the constables, who was being set upon by a zombie, the dull-eyed fiend sinking its teeth into the flesh of his throat with a hollow sound that was neither laugh nor moan. My revolver had been lost in the confusion, but Pym’s stick came to good use once more, though it took several blows and I was starting to feel weaker from loss of blood and shock. Holmes was struggling desperately with the witch doctor now and I watched, helpless to prevent the claws rake his back and shoulder. Lestrade then came forth, his face distorted with pain, one arm hanging limp. Another mouthful of spirit renewed the fiery barrier, but without regard to the danger, the Inspector raised his good arm and there was a loud report, amplified and distorted by the nature of the passage we were in. The bottle exploded into fragments and with a harrowing scream, the juju man was afire, dashing down the tunnel with flame streaming from his body, only to fall some thirty yards distant in a twitching, convulsive heap of thrashing limbs before, mercifully lying still.
I was tending Holmes’ wound – a nasty laceration of the shoulder – when a shout went up. Pym had escaped!. Brushing my ministrations aside, Holmes dragged himself to his feet and wearily set off after the fleeing villain. I was in no state to continue, so reluctantly accepted the aid of one of Lestrade’s men, finally passing out on the way to Bart’s.
Dawn broke as dawns must and a cold light settled itself on Baker Street that long-ago tuesday. I awoke to find myself confined to bed, the landlady insisting I receive no visitor nor excitement. Despite this, Holmes contrived to find himself in my room on some pretext or other with a bottle of fine Napoleon brandy and, after enquiring as to my health, regaled me with the final chapter of our singular encounter with the juju men of Richmond.
I listened in grim fascination at the tale Sherlock Holmes had to tell. Pym – in reality a German agent known as Schumann – had sought no less than the downfall of the British Empire by demonstrating beyond doubt to various factions malcontent with Victoria’s sovereignty in Africa and Asia that she was mortal and fallible as are we all. Using his cover as the curator of the Webb Institute, he had devised his dastard scheme when Sir. Tristram had fallen prey to sleeping sickness, finally succumbing some days before our involvement. Using the tricks Holmes had already described, Pym, alias Schumann had convinced a party of native bearers from Sir. Tristram’s beloved Nkutu tribe that their European friend had been bewitched. Using a cocktail of drugs and some form of hypnosis, it was possible to turn the innocent tribesmen into soemthign akin to the dreaded Zombie of African lore. The juju doctor – whom Pym had found on a trip into the darkest reaches of the East End of London – was no such thing, merely an itinerant dock worker whom Pym plied with money and drink.
‘So, the invisibility potion was just a sham?.’
‘That, Watson, my dear, staunch Watson, we may never know. I saw those men disappear with my own eyes. There is much still to be learned from the dark continent.’ Holmes went on then to tell me how Pym had taken infected blood from Sir. Tristram to contaminate pigs with the trypanosoma parasite, placing some of their blood in the ghastly contraption knowing I would likely examine it and so discover the presence of the disease. That explained the tubing we had seen at the slaughter house. The unfortunate bearers were then fed the meat from the pigs to infect them, turning them into lethal carriers of that most frightening of contagion. Set loose, they were to have infected not only Her Majesty the Queen, but many of her ministers and advisers. Pausing in his resume, Holmes poured for both of us.
Taking my glass I let the import of Holmes’ words sink in before uttering; ‘The man is a monster!.’
‘Quite, although it would be proper to say ‘was.’ I chased him as far as the Thames, but he made the fatal error of assuming the ice was thick enough to convey him across. It was not.’
‘How, then, were you able to untangle Schumann’s cypher?.’
‘Rudimentary. I used a process of elimination. I knew the plot was timely, perhaps imminent. By carefully perusing the London dailies I ascertained the events and activities of several prominent people and organisations; the Prime Minister was one, the Home Secretary another. When I saw Her Majesty was due to open the new courts, I simply checked the letters included in the building’s full title against the Faustian text and saw it a possibility. From small acorns, as the saying goes...’
Once more I was flabbergasted by Holmes’ faculty for reasoning.
‘But… how could you be sure?.’
‘I wasn’t, but the sand was clearly running and the hour was close. I had to take a dreadful chance.’ There were still points that eluded comprehension, though, such as the business of the tunnel and the second cypher. Matter of fact, Holmes reeled these off in that careless manner that, I knew, concealed his substantial pride in having solved a mystery insoluble to other, lesser minds. By making enquiries, he had ascertained that during construction, the Royal Courts had seen a mason’s strike, which led to the employ of German masons. To avoid confrontation with their British counterparts, these continentals had dug a tunnel leading from New Square, behind the courts. Armed with this knowledge and much encouraged, Holmes began to see how Pym might plan his outrage. When he found the Cardano grille concealed in the agent’s stick, he prayed that it would produce an intelligible message and was rewarded with the directions to the tunnel entrance, now covered by marble.
‘Under Pepys’ twisted cross...’
‘A past Lord Chancellor of some distinction. His coat of arms was, as you saw, above the twisted cross – or should I say hakenkreuz?.’
I took a healthy sip of my brandy, letting its fire warm my throat. It had been a terrible ordeal, but one which saw the force of Justice triumph beneath a building thrown up to see just such. It had, after all a refreshing inevitability about it.
‘So, what of Lestrade’s men and the natives?.’
‘There were five casualties among the former. They are, at this moment in the best of hands at Barts and, it is hoped, may make a good recovery with careful observation. I am told the bites were treated promptly and there is every hope for them. As for the Nkutu, there are grave fears for their outcome.’
My mind was fairly spinning with the whole affair, yet my thirst for knowledge was unabated.
‘And what will come of this?; it seems the Germans have a lot to answer for.’ Holmes assumed a rueful expression.
‘Pym - Schumann, will be reported as having accidentally drowned. Becker – the other Bavarian we had the doubtful pleasure of encountering at the slaughter house – is under arrest, but I rather think his Embassy will claim him under the international laws concerning diplomatic immunity.’
I felt certain Holmes would be fêted for his daring and initiative and voiced this opinion.
‘The newspapers will have quite a story to relay to the public – I dare say you will be a household name, Holmes.’
‘Thankfully not. My work requires a certain... incognito. Arrangements have been made by an - acquaintance of mine to keep the whole affair from the press. The German question is on the lips of every diplomat and general alike and revelation of such a sensational business would, inevitably lead to recriminations, perhaps even hostility. And now, my friend, you must rest.’ We were rudely interrupted by the landlady, Mrs. Hudson flying into a spirited Caledonian rage at the sight of the intruder to the sick bay, as it were.
‘Indeed he shall, Mister Holmes!. The cheek of you!, out!, out this very instant or I shall swing for you!.’
It was thus, with a final excitement, that I was able to fall into a blissful sleep in which I dreamed not of ferocious natives, but the Christmases past, sledges and snowmen replacing the terrors that had plagued my waking hours that long ago December.
Authors Note; This story is, of course, dramatised. Several events, such as Queen Victoria’s opening of the Royal Courts of Justice and the secret tunnel beneath the building are factual, but it should be pointed out that African trypanosomiasis was only discovered in humans in the early Twentieth Century and not identified as the cause of sleeping sickness until then.