I need hardly say that Carnacki’s tale had captured all our attentions. Even Holmes, a man not disposed towards the pleasures of an eerie tale told by firelight, had listened intently after his initial, aggressively rebutted, interruption. Of course, in Holmes’ case, I had little doubt that his analytical mind had been attempting to explain away every apparently supernatural element to Carnacki’s story, beating each and every moment of terror with a stick of logic. Perhaps he was right to do so. Certainly, before tonight, I would have done the same.
Now, however, my faith in the logical and rational had been almost entirely stripped away. I no longer knew what I could believe in, and I can honestly say that that, in itself, was one of the most terrible experiences of my life. We are quite unaware how much we rely on our fragile prisons of belief, whether those prisons are forged of Gods, science, or elements of both, they are what protect us and they are also the filter through which we experience life. We read a tragic story in the newspaper, we see a child die, we hear the sabre-rattling of war... all these things are factored and related to via our beliefs. And without that simple structure, that rigidity, that arrogant assumption that we understand the world and our place in it... well, without that, we are utterly exposed.
“Of course,” said Carnacki, “once I was back beneath the hazy sun of a London afternoon I began to wonder just what it had all meant. It seemed to me that a great deal of effort had gone into unnerving me. In itself this was not unusual in matters where the supernatural plays a hand. In fact, as you are no doubt aware, Dr Silence, many manifestations of a supernatural nature rely on the fear they create in others in order to survive. It is that mental energy that makes them strong. Still, I wondered what the purpose of it all had been, and whether my mysterious informant was victim or perpetrator.
“Settling my nerves with a brandy in the Fitzroy Tavern just off Great Russell Street, I came to the conclusion that, whatever the ultimate intent behind that afternoon’s horror show, I had little choice but to make an investigation into the small amount that I had been told. I made an anonymous phone call to the police to inform them of Newman’s demise (having no wish to find myself sat in front of an interview desk all afternoon) and returned to the British Museum in order to make some more notes on the so-called Breath of God. I didn’t learn a great deal more than I had already known, it seemed to me to be a general catch-all for those more imaginative religious authors wanting to put the shivers into their readers.
“We are all only too familiar, I am sure, of the distinct shift in holy attitude throughout the books of the Bible. God grows from being a vengeful, almost sadistic creature, to one of beneficence with an almost infinite capacity for forgiveness. The Breath of God seemed to me to be a creation distinctly intended to bring to mind the terrifying patriarch of the former attitude. An invisible force unleashed upon God’s enemies and capable of the most terrible destruction imaginable. These theologians do so like to keep their audience scared.”
“Fear keeps the churches full,” agreed Silence.
“And, with respect, keeps you employed,” added Holmes. “If people weren’t scared of the darker potential of the spirit, they would hardly be in need of your services, would they?”
Neither Silence nor Carnacki deigned to reply.
Carnacki continued his story as if Holmes had not spoken: “But then if the Breath of God is was what killed De Montfort then clearly it was not something to be taken lightly. And from examining the medical report it would seem that the police are at a loss for a more conventional explanation.”
“How on earth did you get to read that?” I asked.
“Oh,” Carnacki replied, “the surgeon, Cuthbert Wells, is a friend of mine.”
I glanced at Holmes who merely smiled.
“In fact it was Wells that put me in touch with a young Inspector Mann who I believe you met recently?”
“Indeed we did,” I said. “Holmes was good enough to help him with the investigation into Lord Ruthvney’s death.”
Carnacki nodded. “As was I. Though I’ll warrant that the inspector has precious little his superiors will tolerate his putting in a report.”
“Then perhaps you were not as much help as he might have hoped?” I replied, realising even as I said it that I sounded childishly defensive.
Carnacki shrugged. “I cannot change the facts, that Ruthvney was killed by forces outside the normal purview of the police force should have been self-evident to anyone with a modicum of intelligence.”
“That would rather depend on your point of view,” said Holmes. “If you were of a decidedly rational bent then you would of course discount the application of supernatural forces as impossible and therefore still strive to find another solution.”
“You can’t still be sceptical?” Silence asked. “After everything we’ve experienced!”
“Thus far I have experienced nothing,” Holmes replied, “but I’ve heard a great deal. Gentlemen, if you will excuse me I really must see about dinner, this realist mind of mine will insist on sustenance. Perhaps you would be happy to keep me company?” he asked me. Of course I agreed and we left, a somewhat uncomfortable silence following us out into the train corridor.
“I think I feel a Baskerville manoeuvre coming, Watson,” said Holmes once we had sat down in the dining carriage. “Which is why I forced you to accompany me, we must have a words in private.”
I felt deeply uncomfortable sat there, staring in a daze towards the ceiling where that terrifying web had hung. The unfortunate gentleman who had not survived the experience had of course been moved now, no doubt laid down in an empty carriage to await the police at the next station. They would not be happy to see the body moved but with an official assurance from Silence that the man had died of natural causes – something I had no doubt he would give, the alternative being impossible to prove – no doubt the law would be content. I only wished it was so easy for me. Looking back now I realise I was in a state of shock, my mind slipping from minutiae to daydream, fixating on anything it could lay its hands on rather than face what it was unable to process. At the time I just felt dreadfully tired, confused and barely able to keep up with Holmes’ conversation.
“A Baskerville manoeuvre?” I asked.
“I cannot stay here, my friend,” he said, selecting an escalope of veal from the menu and a bottle of claret which he no doubt assumed we would share.
I began to protest but he held up his hand.
“Forgive me,” he said, “but I cannot. The position is untenable. I cannot work with them any more than they could work with me. We are too opposed in our beliefs.”
“If you had only seen what we saw...”
“But I did not, and therefore I cannot believe it.”
“You could take me at my word.”
“My dear fellow,” he insisted, “there’s nobody’s word I value more. But even taking that into account, all I can say for sure is that you believe it happened. That is not the same thing as my believing it happened.”
“Short of a demon leaping out of your soup and grabbing you by the necktie, I doubt anything could convince you.”
“Precisely my point. But until that happens, can we agree that I respect you enormously but that I am a cold fish that insists on empirical evidence before he’ll so much as listen to another ghost story?”
I smiled. However much I may have wished for my friend to be the one who could share and explain these things to me, he would hardly have been Sherlock Holmes had he done so. “Agreed,” I said. “In truth I don’t know what to think myself, but what I saw...”
“Is what you saw,” he said, “and was either real or not. My only advice – and it is meant kindly – is that you question everything but, for the sake of your sanity, be willing to believe. I know you may think that I am utterly rigid in my outlook but in truth I could be convinced. The science of today is the magic of yesterday, who’s to say what impossibilities may become commonplace in the future? But big claims require big evidence and thus far I have yet to see enough to change my view of the world.”
“Very well,” I agreed. “I shall continue to observe objectively and, so far as I can, rationally. What are you going to do?”
“Oh, you know me,” he said with a smile, “I shall follow my own lines of enquiry. Ah! The veal...”
Sometimes I could almost swear that Holmes had the entire serving community in his employ, the amount of times an explanation has been diverted by a dinner plate beggars belief. He sniffed the dish and smiled a smile of pure, innocent pleasure.
Many considered Holmes a cold and humourless man, for which I suppose I must take the blame. If my writing has made him seem so then I have done him a disservice. He could be obsessive, insensitive and unfeeling but I would never say these were his default emotions. He simply wasn’t very good with people – over the years I like to think I became an exception – and he often tended to repel them with harsh words rather than go through the troublesome business of having to interact with them. Yet even that is misleading, however, now I read it back, for Holmes could also be exceptionally charming, particularly with women – which would surprise a number of his commentators I’m sure. Perhaps the key to Holmes’ character lies in his contradictions rather than his consistencies. When in a cheerful mood he could be electric, his humour and charm second to none. When at a lower ebb he could be quite intolerable, even cruel. Holmes was, quite simply, a fractured man. But then what genius can claim to be stable?
“I take it you wish me to keep in touch?” I said, helping myself to a glass of the wine as he began to eat.
“Most definitely,” he agreed. “As usual, simply send all correspondence to Baker Street and I shall have it rerouted from there.”
“To little more than a stone’s throw away, I imagine.”
“I will certainly keep a close eye, but this case has its feelers spread wide, I will need to travel here and there in the hope of bringing it to some semblance of order.”
“And what shall I tell the others?”
Holmes thought about that for a moment. “That is certainly important,” he said, “I would not want them to think I have abandoned matters. Tell them...” He continued to think, a piece of veal hovering on his fork, then he gave a contented smile. “Tell them that the De Montfort family have been applying pressure and that my brother has demanded an audience. Tell them that I shall placate him as swiftly as possible, reassure him that all is in hand, and then return.”
I agreed that I would say just that.
Finishing his meal, Holmes checked his watch. “I dare say our ghostly sleuths will be getting impatient. You should return to the fold and make my excuses.”
“And where will you go? They can’t help but notice that we’re on a moving train, you can hardly have vanished.”
“Can’t I? I would have thought that would have been well within their widened realms of possibility.” He stood up, reached for the emergency stop chain and yanked it.
“Oh Holmes...” I said as the carriage filled with the sound of brakes and passengers erupted in a panic.
“See you soon,” said Holmes, running from the carriage with a childlike chuckle.
I made my way back to the carriage we had been sharing with Dr Silence and Carnacki.
As I came in sight of it along the train corridor, Carnacki stuck his head out of the door. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Holmes,” I replied, not for the first time using my friend’s name as an explanation for chaos. “He’s received an urgent wire from his brother, Mycroft.”
I entered the carriage and sat back down, glancing at my friend’s overnight case in the rack and realising that I would now be forced to carry it along with my own. “It seems the De Montfort family are dissatisfied with the progress of the investigation thus far,” I said, “and have put pressure on him through their connections in government. Holmes’ brother has been tasked with consoling them.”
“A thankless undertaking one imagines,” said Silence. “Given the facts of the case.”
“Nonetheless, Mycroft has insisted that Holmes returns to London immediately in order to show that everything possible is being done. He is adamant that he will rejoin us as soon as he can.”
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” said Carnacki. “I appreciate from your stories that he is a talented detective, Dr Watson, but, given my involvement, that is not a skill that we are currently lacking. His scepticism was an unnecessary hurdle that we now have no need to jump.”
“I can assure you that his presence could only have been an asset,” I said, defensively, “and I have no doubt he will return shortly.”
“Well,” said Silence, “I certainly hope so, given that the spirits asked for him directly, I can’t say I relish he fact that he’s no longer with us.”
“Relax,” said Carnacki, “the spirits will just have to be content with me!”