When one reaches a certain age, there are particular subjects that are perhaps safer to avoid as topics of conversation or literary fascination. A firm belief in fantastical beasts, for example, especially that alleged denizen of Loch Ness, is something I believe best left to the young. In the old, it is seen as mere insanity and evidence of a wandering of the mind that inevitably terminates in confinement to an institution.
Therefore, it is with a certain trepidation that I take up my pen to write in my closing years of my last contact with my celebrated friend and the mystery that brought us back together. I use the latter term in its loosest possible meaning, for although I have no reservation in asserting that contact did take place, it was not in the conventional sense.
No doubt the reader will consider this tale somewhat fanciful, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. If I were to read it myself, I would decry the author as delusional and cast doubts as to the state of his wits. However, I can relate only the truth of what happened, as improbable as it might seem, and hope for a kindly judgement.
Thus it was that on a glorious spring morning in 1931 I found myself delving into my journals and reading over notes of cases past and clients long forgotten. My old friend was very much on my mind of late, a keenness that had been sharpened by the approach of the anniversary of his death.
That day, nearly a year ago, had been a Saturday full of floating cherry blossom and the burgeoning colours of life renewed. We had been in the garden, with the grandchildren gambolling happily with their new puppy, when a telegram had been delivered for me. The message was short and succinct, a few choice words to describe the saddest of events, that Mr Sherlock Holmes was dead.
So great a passing should have been accompanied by the tolling of bells or the firing of cannons. Instead, it was to the sound of bird song and the laughter of the young that I learnt the news of my friend's demise.
The sense of déjà vu was palpable. I had attended a memorial service for him many years before when the machinations of Moriarty and his accomplices had forced him into hiding. The difference was that now the coffin was not empty. Nor were there the crowds that had attended the earlier events. According to his wishes, few were to know his passing and even fewer of the location of his grave. If, as he was wont to claim, his absence from London was to be avoided lest it over-excite the criminal classes, then the news of his death, even retired as he was, would surely send them into a frenzy. So did my dear friend depart this world with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of grief to that select few whom he had counted amongst his acquaintances.
My initial sense of loss was blunted to some extent, either by age or weary experience. I had mourned Holmes once before, and that knowledge and the extraordinary nature of his reappearance had allowed me to convince myself that this was yet another of his elaborate charades, and that any moment he would appear and reassure me that all was well. My foolish certainty persisted until that moment when I found myself in the cool interior of a quiet country church, listening to the words intoned by the vicar and realising that this time our separation was final.
Since then my pen had lain idle, for I did not care to revisit the ghosts of happier times. Any pleasure I derived from my accounts of our adventures seemed trite now I knew I would receive no more terse little messages, telling me which case I should recount next for the public's delectation or criticising my florid treatment of some minor matter upon which had turned the crux of the affair.
Then, one day, nearly a year later, I had awoken and found that I bore the mantle of sadness no longer. I wanted to remember with fondness and joy, not to mourn that our time together was over, but to celebrate all that we had shared. The change in me was welcomed by my family, and I saw happiness in their eyes when I announced at breakfast that I intended to spend the day writing.
So it was that I sat with my journal for the year 1897 upon my knee and a smile on my face. As interesting as the account was that I was reading, I found my attention pulled to the large tin box that sat forlorn and forgotten in the corner. There it had lain since I had put it there the morning after Holmes's funeral and had not been touched again. He had bequeathed it to me with a note saying that I should do whatever I liked with the contents, since if I was reading his missive it meant that he was past caring.
For a long time, I had chosen to ignore it, although I was always aware of its presence, a Pandora's box of temptation. It brooded there, a squat ugly affair, its contents tormenting me with promises of treasures unknown. The last time I had seen it open, I remembered it being fairly full with bundles of papers tied up with red tape into separate packages. I recalled mention of Holmes's early cases, of references to the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife. From this unprepossessing crate had sprung too the extraordinary tale of the Musgrave Ritual and the chain of events at the Manor House of Hurlstone that had led to Holmes's discovery of the ancient crown of the kings of England.
As bequests go, this was gift without equal. I cannot recall how many times I had urged Holmes to admit me to its secrets and ever with that small, annoying smile of his had he resisted. Now that box was in my power, I found that I paused at the thought of wrenching its mysteries from its heart. Once that lid was opened, all would be revealed and the last great unknown lost forever.
I bade it do its worst and managed to resist its allure all morning. Every time I glanced up from my papers, my eye immediately fell on it. I looked away but it drew me back time and again until finally I gave up the battle and succumbed. The straps fell away, the lid opened and out wafted the stale odour of tobacco.
Nothing could have evoked Baker Street more keenly in my mind. In an instant, I was whirled back through time and space and I sat once more in my chair by the fire with Holmes opposite me, clad in his mouse-grey dressing gown and a curl of blue smoke spiralling up from his old clay pipe.
The memory was welcome rather than disturbing, and I breathed in the musty smell of days past. Before me lay reams of neat bundles, each labelled with notes in Holmes's handwriting with tantalising suggestions of what lay within. I was as a child in a sweet shop, spoilt for choice, and knowing not which to take first.
I closed my eyes and delved my hand within. What came out was a yellowing sheaf of papers with an enigmatic little note about the Swinson affair. I had never heard Holmes refer to it and my curiosity was inflamed. As I struggled to get to my feet, I was sure that the smell of tobacco was getting stronger, torturing my senses with a pleasure that had for some years been denied to me. In fact, the box seemed to be leeching a miasmic vapour, so that I was sure I could see a blue-grey haze starting to fill the air before me.
I dismissed it as the workings of an over-active imagination and returned, laden down papers, to my desk. Down they went with a thud onto the blotter, levitating minute particles of dust that danced and simmered in the slanting rays of the morning sun. More annoyingly, the uppermost letter slithered from the pile and continued on its merry way down to the floor. I sighed with some impatience and steeled myself for protests from my knees at the prospect of having to bend down to get it.
I stooped, reached out for it, and as I did the letter twitched and darted away from me as though it had taken on a life of its own. I watched in astonishment and a growing sense of horror as slowly it rose from the floor before me, a few tentative inches at first. Then, with its confidence growing, it moved higher and higher and drifted back to my desk, where it floated down to rejoin its companions. I had scarce recovered from this momentous event when another occurred of equal magnitude. That it was preceded by the sound of a well-remembered voice and those familiar tones of rebuke was scarce warning of what was to come.
"My dear Watson," it said, "do you really think you should be doing that at your age?"
I turned in the direction from whence the voice had come, and there, seated in the armchair by the window, was Sherlock Holmes.
Had I been on my feet, I should surely have fallen. As it was, I had to clutch at my desk for support. I stared at him, this unmistakeable figure in his neat black frock coat and immaculate pinstripe trousers calmly sitting in my study and whiling his time away with a quiet smoke. I was bewildered by a thousand questions and gripped by a sense of disbelief, certain that I must surely be in the midst of some terrible dream and that this thing before me was nothing more than a figment of my imagination, conjured up from the depths of my unconsciousness for what purpose I did not know. Either that or I had joined the ranks of the insane.
I shut my eyes, told myself that I was seeing things and reopened them. He was still there, as seemingly tangible and real as he had ever been. It was not Holmes, could not be him. My friend was dead. This was nothing more than a cruel trick, it had to be, and I was determined to put an end to it.
"Who are you?" I demanded, rising with difficulty. "What is the meaning of this… this intrusion?"
He appeared unperturbed by my challenge and met my gaze coolly. "Really, my dear fellow, if this is the attitude you take with your guests, it is a wonder that you have any visitors at all."
"I do not know you, sir, and would be obliged if you stated your purpose for being here."
A fleeting smile touched his mouth in a manner that was positively wolfish. "I would have thought that was self-evident," said he decisively, rising from his chair and approaching where I stood. "I must say, Watson, I had anticipated a reaction of sorts, although not this hostility. You are, as you have ever been, a constant source of fascination in that respect. I fear I shall never get your limits—"
"That is enough. I do not know who you are or what you want, but I would ask you to leave now, or else I shall ring the bell and have you removed."
"I believe that you would. If I may be so bold as to mount one substantial objection to that."
"You cannot lay hands upon me, any more than I cannot lay hands upon you. Although," he added, "you are welcome to try."
He held out his hand to me. Perhaps it was the sudden chill that spread across my skin or the sheer arrogance of the man, but I did not take it. I cannot explain the reason for my hesitancy, except that I was struck with an overwhelming sense that once I did as he suggested there would be no going back, but from what I could not say. It was only my curiosity that carried the day and caused me to reach out to shake the proffered hand. My fingers passed through his and I was left grasping nothing but air that was as cold as the grave. A nagging thought I had tried to deny thrust itself to the forefront of my mind and to my shame I recoiled from him.
"It's impossible," I insisted despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
"Improbable, perhaps," said the apparition, smiling sadly. "Watson, it's me."
"Holmes? It can't be you."
"You aren't going to faint again, are you?" said he with concern. "You've gone quite pale. Take a seat before you fall down, my dear fellow. You look like you've seen a ghost."
A nervous laugh escaped me as I slid into my chair. "Yes, I believe I have. Holmes, is that really you?"
He gave this question serious consideration. "In essence, I must answer in the affirmative. In a very real sense, however, I exist in so much as your interpretation of my material form permits. Your eyes tell you one thing, Watson, while your brain attempts to mount a myriad of objections to that perception, which may or may not be accurate." He sighed somewhat wearily. "Do you have any objections to my sitting down? As an amateur in the field of paranormal manifestation, I find the effort of materialisation rather taxing."
So saying, he perched himself on the edge of my desk. There he sat, his presence defying all logical explanation.
"Are you… are you a ghost?" I asked hesitantly.
"Your question puts me in a most awkward situation, for, as I have told you on numerous occasions that I do not believe in such a phenomenon, I am now in the absurd position of disbelieving in myself. In such a case, I must adhere to my old maxim that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Come, my dear friend, we can reason this out together and make what sense we will of this situation."
I had heard patients tell of hallucinations so vivid and real that they were utterly caught up in the pretence, but never of being ordered by a mere illusion to join it in proving its existence. As unreal as the situation was, a strange sense of obligation compelled me to obey. Holmes had asked me to help him, like so often in the past, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to comply.
"I was told you were dead," I said lamely. "We had a funeral."
"Was it well attended?" he inquired.
"No, just a few people from the village and myself, as you instructed."
"Quite so. Did you tell my bees?"
"Yes, although I felt singularly absurd doing so."
"Your endeavours were not in vain. One should always inform bees of the passing of their keeper. In their own way, they are sensitive creatures, easily disturbed."
"As disturbed as I am to see you now?" I said. "You did really die, didn't you? You haven't done it to me again and faked your own death?"
He looked mildly affronted by my remark. "You make it sound as though I made a habit of it. Once, my dear fellow, and then only out of necessity."
"Once was enough," I muttered. "What about the time you pretended you were dying?"
"The end justified the means."
"Now pretence has become reality. I am as you see me. 'I am thy friend's spirit', if the Bard will forgive the liberty I take with his prose."
" 'Doomed for a certain term to walk the night'?"
"Doomed, no, and as you can see, it is day. 'For a certain term', however, may have some validity, in which case we cannot delay. Now, you will agree that it is impossible for me to be sitting here in any physical sense. You would not deny, however, that you are conversing with me."
"What does that leave us?"
"That either I have taken leave of my senses or you are a phantom."
Holmes gave a dry chuckle. "They do say that all men are possessed of some small spice of madness in their composition, so I do not entirely discount that possibility. However, I have always regarded you as one of the most rational men of my acquaintance and, since I am seldom mistaken, I dismiss any consideration of your softening of the brain. Therefore, by a process of deduction and elimination, we are left with the inescapable, if improbable truth, that I am indeed a ghost. Are you happier in your mind now?"
"To see you, yes, but I am greatly disconcerted that it should be in this manner. Despite your impeccable reasoning, I have my doubts that you are nothing but a fevered delusion and that I should return to bed this instant."
"No, you must not do that," said he, rising abruptly.
I was aware of a slight chill in the air as he drew nearer. This close, I could believe that he was real, so solid did he appear. Instinctively, I reached out to touch him and, as before, my hand passed through his body without a hint of resistance. He watched in silence as I let my arm drop and offered me a tight smile tinged with more than a little sadness.
"Are you willing to believe me now?" said he.
"I had hoped otherwise."
"I am gone the way of all flesh, Watson. 'Under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie'."
"Holmes, that is not in the slightest bit amusing."
He gave a small shrug. "As long as it serves to convince you that you are not deluded."
"That you are sat here, quoting John Webster and Robert Louis Stevenson at me proves nothing. It is just the sort of thing I would expect you say, and therefore my mind has put those words in your mouth, for what purpose I do not care to think."
"The purpose is simple enough. I need your invaluable aid and assistance, my dear fellow. If not for the urgency of the matter, I would never consider disturbing your comfortable domestic routine in such an unnecessarily dramatic manner."
"It never bothered you in the past. But what is this business that makes you rise from your grave like Hamlet's father to haunt me in such a fashion?"
Clouds rolled in to tarnish the silver of his eyes and his mood darkened. "I need a champion to fight my corner. Naturally I could think of no better person than your good self."
I eyed him closely. "Is that the only reason?"
A sly glance was shot in my direction. "I'll not deny the prospect of seeing you again had a certain appeal. However, I fear come bearing not glad tidings, but as a bird of ill omen. What I have to say will not please you."
"If it is so important that it has driven to rise from your grave to seek me out, then tell me you must. I am not so easily shocked."
"Good old Watson! You are as constant as the North Star and thrice as worthy. All the same, I hesitate to burden you with my troubles."
"Holmes, if I can help, even if you are nothing more than a figment of my imagination, you know I will."
"Even figments have their problems, my dear fellow. Well, then," said he, weighing his words as he spoke, "the matter is not so very difficult to explain. Stated simply, I suspect that my demise was not due to natural causes. In short, I have good reason for believing that I may have been murdered."