“It can scarcely surprise you,” said our guest, “that scepticism is a common response to my work. Indeed, when discussing my practice, the only thing more potent and freely offered than derision is the gratitude of those few I am fortunate to be able to help. That the balance is thus maintained explains why I find it easy to rise above my detractors. Besides, far from being – as most of my critics believe – intangible, irrational theories and practices, the tenets of my work are deeply researched and honed. I dedicated five years of my life to expanding what I had been taught about the body to include what I could also learn of the spirit. I studied all over the world, from the ashrams alongside the Sabarmati River to the temples that lie in the most inhospitable regions of Tibet.”
“My friend also has some knowledge of Tibet,” I interjected, hoping that this might be the foundation for some mutual respect between client and detective.
“Knowledge is not valued by its geographical location,” Holmes said, “rather by intellectual worth.” He dismissed my interruption with a wave of his hand. “Please, Dr Silence, if we could progress beyond justification into the realm of information. Tell me what it is that you wish me to investigate.”
“Very well, though I am less a potential client than a messenger, as you shall soon see.
“My medical practice has dwindled over the last year or two. I find that my esoteric services are in more demand and I must dedicate an increasing amount of my time to them. However, yesterday I was visited by an old medical patient, a sailor I had treated after an accident amongst the rigging had threatened to rob him of his left leg.”
Silence then launched into his tale:
“Simcox,” I greeted him, noting a slight limp to his stride but no more than might be expected given the cold this winter. “I trust your old infirmity has not returned?”
“Indeed not, Doctor,” he replied, “these old bones are stronger than ever, it is for the sake of another that I call. You remember my Elsa?”
Elsa was his daughter, a bonny-faced thing that had hung at my elbow throughout my earlier visits to the Simcox household, equally full of concern and fascination at my work. “Indeed,” I assured him, “what ails the poor girl?”
“I only wish I knew, sir,” he replied and with that he dropped into a chair and began to sob. It was clear that this stolid man had spent a considerable time strung as tight as one of his own sails. Now he was here, and hopeful of my relieving him of his strain, that strength was gone. I poured him a brandy from the decanter on the sideboard – we doctors know that sometimes the most beneficial medicines are the simplest – and forced him to drink it before he attempted any further explanation.
“Forgive me, Doctor,” he said finally, “the last few days have been more than I could stand. For a moment there, the weight of them quite overtook me.”
“No need for apologies,” I assured him. “I only hope I might help. Pray tell me all.”
“It began a week or so ago,” he explained, “in the early hours of the morning when my wife and I were asleep. I had been ashore for a couple of days, and had been enjoying the feel of solid ground beneath me. I am often away from home, of course, such is the lot of my profession, but I try and make the most of the time I do have and we had spent the day at the park, a few games, a packed hamper.” He gave a full, warm smile at the memory. “We had leisured like gentry. But that night, with the sound of my Elsa’s happy laughter still fresh in my ears, I awoke to find her screaming from her cot, as if the very devil himself had his nails in her. And perhaps, after all, he did...
“I was straight from my bed with my beloved Sally a mere hair behind me as we both ran to where our daughter lay. She was sat upright, the bed linen clutched in her fists as if she wished to tear it apart. Her eyes were fixed to a point on the ceiling where, look as I might, I could see nothing. Visible to me or not, it was clear that Elsa believed something to be there. ‘Can you not see it squirm?’ she asked before her eyes rolled back in their sockets and she passed out.
“I don’t mind telling you, Doctor, I thought she was done for. I have seen my fair share of death on the waves, oceans claim their number year on year and there’s not a man who has worked them that hasn’t seen death. In that moment, when my daughter fell slack in my arms, I was quite sure that all life had vanished from her, so light, so insubstantial was she as I held her face towards the candlelight, desperate for sign of breathing. No sooner had I convinced myself she was gone but she stiffened in my arms and opened her eyes.
“‘Daddy?’ she asked, as if unsure for a moment who it was that held her.
“‘That it is, my love,’ I assured her, ‘your mam and I are right here and there’s nothing to be afeared of.’ She smiled at that and, God help me, I’ve wondered since if that were the first sign of trouble.
“We laid her back in her bed and returned to sleep, putting it down as nothing more than a dream on her part. It wasn’t until the following night that we were disillusioned of that fact.
“Again, it was long after my wife and I had fallen asleep that Elsa’s attack came – yes, ‘attack’, I can think of no other word for it... We were woken by the sound of her cries and drew to her bedside in time to see her dash from the mattress and leap towards the ceiling of her room. I ran forward, eager to catch her before she fell, but imagine my surprise, Doctor, when she did no such thing. Her fingers adhered to the dry plaster above us as she pulled herself along towards the shadows in the corner of her small room. ‘It runs!’ she cried. ‘It tries to escape! I will have it! I will!’ She smacked at the ceiling as if trying to grind imaginary spiders beneath her palms.
“‘Elsa!’ Sally cried, unable to bear the sight of our daughter in such impossible circumstances. ‘Elsa!’
“She stopped pounding at the ceiling and slowly turned her head towards us. Doctor, I know the face of my own child, so I trust you will believe me when I say that the face that looked down at me from the shadows of the eaves was most certainly not hers. It was a shining, waxy thing, a grinning mask of teeth and sweat, an evil face, Doctor, the face of whatever it was that had – in that moment – possessed my girl as its own.
“My wife screamed and I may well have joined her, in truth I cannot remember. I will admit that the memory of that night is more than enough to make such a noise swell within my breast even now.
“At the sound of my wife’s cry, Elsa returned to her own body. Her face softened in the light of the candles and her fingers lost whatever infernal magic they had possessed as she fell from the ceiling, dropping into my arms as I stepped beneath her.
“Oh but how she burned, Doctor! Her whole body gave off the heat of hot coals. Indeed, for a moment my instinct was to drop her lest my own skin be singed. I took her back to her bed, making a face at my wife to stop her cries. I didn’t blame her for the reaction, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than for my daughter to return to sleep. I needed her to be normal again, to draw a veil over what we had seen.
“I tucked her in and pulled my wife back to the doorway. Little Elsa made no fuss at all, she looked for all the world like a girl who had just roused from an unusual dream, perhaps in her head that’s all it was. Within a few minutes she was sleeping soundly and my wife and I withdrew to talk.
“We’d heard of your more recent work, Doctor, having always held you in esteem after you saved me my livelihood. I’ll confess that some of the stories we heard sounded unbelievable. Even then, sir, believe me when I say we never doubted your reputation, just wondered whether exaggeration had crept into the telling. I mean, some of those stories...”
“I have lived an interesting life of late,” I assured him, “whether the particular stories you heard were true or not I couldn’t say but rest assured I have seen enough not to dismiss your account.” At this reassurance he showed a considerable relief.
“Even with all I’ve heard,” he admitted, “I half expected you to laugh in my face.”
“Not a bit of it,” I insisted. “In fact, if you will give me a moment to grab my hat and coat I will return with you to see your daughter myself right away.”
The gratitude in his eyes was considerable. It will not surprise you when I say that I have seen that look many times in my profession, the first step in helping these unfortunates is often simply believing their stories.
I took the liberty of flagging down a hansom, time was of the essence and while my companion may not be accustomed to such decadent travel I am lucky enough to have the means.
“I rarely travel by anything else,” interrupted Holmes.
Silence gave a small smile. “I forgot, you do charge for your services don’t you? As you know I give my skills freely.”
“You get what you pay for,” muttered my friend, lighting another cigarette, “and my time is deemed precious.”
“Then let us waste no more of it,” Silence replied. “I shall continue...?”
Holmes nodded impatiently.
We made our way to Simcox’s rooms, the lower portion of a house near King’s Cross.
The child was in her bed, despite the hour, and barely moved to acknowledge me as I entered with her father.
“Here he is,” said Simcox to his wife. “Didn’t I say he’d help?”
“You did,” she smiled at me, “and I never doubted it. Thank you for coming, Doctor.”
“A pleasure,” I assured her, stooping down at the girl’s bedside. Even when the supernatural is suspected, I commence my investigation from a medical standpoint. Partially this is habit, but neither am I so blind a believer as to ignore the possibility of a rational explanation. A number of times I have been called to such cases of possession – for that was certainly what Simcox’s tale inferred – only to find clear medical reasons for such behaviour. Fever brings delirium and all manner of terrifying things may be uttered in the height of such a condition.
“But such things could hardly account for her climbing across the ceiling,” I said.
“Indeed not,” Silence agreed. “But then nothing natural could.”
“No,” agreed Holmes. “If it happened exactly as Simcox described, it is indeed inexplicable. But please, continue... Unless you have another engagement?” Holmes had noticed the doctor glance briefly towards the clock on our mantel.
“You may feel we both have,” the doctor replied, “though there is more than enough time as yet.”
There was no fever in Elsa. Other than a faint sheen of dust on her palms – which I took to be from her, as you say, quite inexplicable journey across the ceiling – she gave no outward sign of the experiences her father had described.
The medical examination thus satisfied, I progressed towards my more specialised area of expertise. I have, over the years, gathered a number of tools to facilitate my work. While much of what is commonly termed “the supernatural” takes place on a mental level, there are certain physical objects which I have found can help. Aids to concentration, herbs to engender a receptive state, crystals that may be used to focus certain energies... It was the latter that I retrieved from my bag, a small, opal-coloured gem given to me by a Dutch medium that I spent some months training with.
The stone is intended to draw out spirits, to attract them from wherever they may have become entrenched so that the perceptive psychic may pin them down.
At this explanation I noticed Holmes roll his eyes. Whether Silence caught the gesture or not he continued regardless.
I placed the stone on the child’s forehead, stroking her cheek gently and reassuring her that all would soon be well – a somewhat overconfident statement I’ll admit, but I wished to put the poor girl at ease.
I began an incantation which I often use in such circumstances. It’s a simple little rhyme, nothing inherently spiritual, but as an aid to clearing the mind, I have found it most effective.
After only a few moments a change in the girl was obvious: her eyelids fluttering and her lips moving slowly as if trying to shape words but too tired to manage.
I placed my fingers on the crystal and immediately she fixed me with a stare that was so intense and so malevolent that I froze, utterly unsure of myself.
“Hello, Doctor,” she said, her voice recognisably Elsa’s and yet deeper, distorted. It was as if she were an old lady, the soft childish tones destroyed by years of abuse. “How good of you to visit.”
I don’t mind admitting that, while I have been in a number of situations where I consider my soul to have been in peril, there was something in that voice, a tinge of amusement perhaps, that made me more afraid than I can ever remember. From the soft, innocent face of this child I was observed by eyes immeasurably older than my own. I had attended that girl’s bedside with a view to helping her, at that moment it felt as if it were I that was in need of assistance. I was a man considerably out of his depth and it took no more than those few words and the eyes of the being that said them to alert me to the fact.
“To whom am I speaking?” I asked, not expecting an answer – names are power in this alternative science, gentlemen – but wishing to clarify the fact that I was aware that the creature I was addressing was no young child.
The girl smiled and, again, it was an old smile, the sort of smile an adult would give to a young child who has just committed an amusing, precocious act.
“You know better than that, Doctor,” she said, “though I have names to give you, none of them shall be my own.”
“Names?” I asked.
She nodded, then tilted her head back, teeth clenching as if in some state of ecstasy. The young girl’s skin rippled, as if fingers moved beneath it, caressing her bones. I feared for the girl terribly then, quite sure that this thing had no intention of leaving her alive once its game was done. Its attention snapped back to me.
“Yes,” she – no, it – continued, “three names: the first is Hilary De Montfort, the second is the Laird of Boleskine, the third is Sherlock Holmes.”
“Ha!” My friend leapt to his feet, pulling a thin trail of smoke across the room as he returned to the bookcase. “It asked for me by name did it? My reputation has spread far indeed if it’s known even in the depths of Hell.”
“Given the number of souls you have sent there in your time,” Silence replied, “it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Holmes was riffling through his collection of gazetteers and reference books. “Don’t mind me,” he muttered, running his fingers down indexes and flipping through pages, “pray continue.”
“There is not much left to tell,” Silence admitted.
Against all my expectations, having delivered the names, the girl convulsed and the creature’s influence lifted. The crystal, which had glowed faintly with the charge of energy, extinguished, and the girl relaxed back in her bed.
“Elsa?” her mother asked. Both parents had held back while I had examined their daughter but I waved them forward now. There was no doubt in my mind that Elsa was once more herself. What I did not know – and still do not – was what was so important about those three names that a creature of such power would possess this child simply to pass them on. There was to be one more clue offered, but that came after I had taken my leave of Simcox and his family, reassuring him that his daughter was now free of whatever force had held her.
I stepped back onto those bustling streets around the railways. An area of constant movement filled with infernal noise: the rattle of rolling stock, the screech of steam whistles, the carnival jollity of the street organ and ribald song that pours as inevitably from the many public houses as the singers once their pockets are emptied. It is an alien place that quarter, a world in which the laws and opinions of gentlemen are rarely sought. I confess therefore that I was somewhat on edge as I made my way towards the station. There seemed to me to be an awareness in the eyes of those around me that one moved amongst them who did not belong. There was a feeling of hostility, of intense observation, marking my every step towards the platforms of St Pancras. I confess I nearly changed my plans and hailed a hansom. Certainly I would have done so were it not for the mocking voice in my head that pointed out – quite truthfully – that I had faced demons from Hell itself and yet was now nervous upon the side streets of my own home city.
I should not have doubted my own senses, they are sharper than many a man’s and particularly attuned to the unearthly. I walked those streets with more than just my fellow men, a fact that soon became obvious when I noticed that everyone I passed was staring at me. I raised my hand to my face, assuming there was something about my appearance that had drawn curiosity. Glancing in the reflection of a shop window, it became clear there was nothing about me that veered from the norm. Nonetheless their attention clung, the heads of every single man, woman and child turning to watch me as I passed.
“There is something that interests you?” I asked of a gentlemen close to me. He was an elderly fellow with rheumy eyes and a reek of alcohol. He simply smiled and those dull eyes of his took on a sharper glint. I recognised in them the amused and utterly alien personality that had gazed out from young Elsa’s eyes. “I see you!” I whispered. “I see you and call you out!”
All around me the invading personality began to laugh, from hoarse cackles in ageing breasts to the high-pitched giggles of infants, it borrowed every pair of lungs on that street for its own expression of amusement. It was an act of the most infernal puppetry I have ever seen and I felt certain my time had come.
“Beware the Breath of God, Doctor!” it shouted, a chorus of every soul around me, both on the street and inside the buildings. Looking around I saw faces at windows and doors and wondered with terror how far this demonic infection had spread. “For when it blows on you,” the voices continued, “it will steal away your soul...”
My nerve snapped. I ran through the crowds, pushing them aside as they laughed at my fear. I ran into the road, hoping that fortune would provide me with an empty cab and a way out of there. I spied a possible saviour and ran directly into his path.
“Watch it!” the young fellow shouted, pulling his horse under control. “You’ll end up beneath the wheels.”
“Thank you!” I replied, rather nonsensically in hindsight. I was simply joyful to hear an autonomous voice after that devilish chorus. I pulled myself into the cab and begged him to take me home.
“A harrowing encounter indeed,” Holmes said, sitting up and swinging his legs off the chaise. “And yet, I am still forced to wonder why it is that you have come here?”
“I had thought that, given your name was included amongst the three, you would wish to be warned of the fact,” Silence responded.
“Warned?” Holmes shrugged. “Of what? You offer no particular threat beyond attracting the attention of the masses, something I’m afraid I’m already only too familiar with thanks to my friend Watson and his rather prolific pen.”
“You have drawn the attention of more than your reading public,” Silence said, “if your name is on the lips of demons.”
“But you see, Doctor, I do not believe in demons.”
“Sadly, Holmes,” Silence replied, “they believe in you.”
He got to his feet. “I mean to look into this matter further, with or without your assistance. You have my card should you wish to talk further.”
“Or indeed have the housekeeper exorcised.”
For the first time, Dr Silence lost his calm, slamming the ferrule of his cane against the floorboards. “You joke, Holmes, it does not suit you! I respect the skill you possess in your chosen subject, it would be a courtesy for you to do the same of mine. This is a dark business and, whether you like it or not, it concerns you.”
“Time will tell, Doctor,” Holmes replied. “In the meanwhile, I thank you for your concern.” He walked over to his chemical table and set to work mixing a solution. Clearly Dr Silence’s audience was at an end.
I got to my feet and, somewhat awkwardly, shook our guest’s hand and escorted him to the front door.
On my return, Holmes was busying himself with the bubble of chemicals and the hiss of the Bunsen burner.
“That was ill-mannered, Holmes,” I said, “even for you.”
Holmes shrugged. “What do I care for manners? They are simply an affectation that hides the truth. Manners are no friend to the detective.”
I picked up the morning paper and left him to his investigations; when he was in such a surly mood there was nothing to be gained from talking to him.
However, a few minutes later I was forced to break the silence. “Holmes?” I asked. “What were the three names mentioned by Silence?”
Holmes did not look up from his work as he replied: “Hilary De Montfort, the Laird of Boleskine and my good self. Why, have you had a premonition of your own, my friend?”
“Rather more than that,” I replied, turning the paper towards him and quoting one of the articles. “‘Young socialite found dead in baffling circumstances’.” I tossed the paper to him and he glanced at it while stirring a light-pink mixture that was frothing within the grip of the retort stand.
“Hilary De Montfort, son of the esteemed Lord Gabriel De Montfort, was found dead this morning in Grosvenor Square. The police remain tight-lipped about the circumstances but eyewitness reports suggest the body was found in...” Holmes raised a single eyebrow, “an extremely alarming state.” He flung the newspaper back to me. “Save me from the language of the press, it pretends to say so much and yet offers nothing in the way of facts.”
“Perhaps we may find those in the notebook of Inspector Gregson?” I suggested. “Had you read the article further you would see that he is in charge of the case.”
“Gregson?” Holmes gave an appreciative smile. His feelings towards the inspector were as favourable as towards any man of that profession, in fact he had once gone as far as to refer to him as “the smartest of the Scotland Yarders”. “Then maybe it is worth the cab fare after all.” He gave a dry chuckle.
“What do you think it means?” I asked. “That this young man’s name should have been mentioned by Silence...?”
“It means that the esteemed doctor wishes to secure my curiosity.” Holmes turned off his Bunsen burner, peering at the simmering mixture he had created before getting to his feet and retrieving his jacket. “In which,” he continued, “he has very much succeeded.”