With a small holdall packed (my old service revolver wrapped snugly in a clean shirt), I made my way to St Pancras and the rendez vous with Holmes and Silence. My experience on the Underground still fresh, I decided to forgo the saving to my purse and hire a cab.
The station was as busy as always. I dislike train stations, they are full of lost people, running here and there, fearful of missing their connections. It is a contagious atmosphere of confusion and dread and I’m always relieved when my train pulls away from the platform.
I stood in the queue to purchase my ticket. I had adequate time to reach the platform but the impatience bred of waiting soon affected me and I was tapping my foot as an elderly lady craned her neck so as to face her least defective ear towards the guard, all the better to hear him with.
“Inverness,” she shouted, so that none of us were in any doubt as to her destination. “I can’t manage all these bags though.”
“I’ll gladly help with your bags,” I insisted, if only to get things moving. The old lady looked at me and there was a distinct twinkle to her eye as she gently pressed her hands together as if in prayer.
“Such a kind gentleman,” she said and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered the time when, running for our lives, Holmes and I had arranged to meet on the continental train from Victoria. I had believed my friend to be absent until an ageing cleric sat across from me revealed himself to be Holmes in disguise. I was certainly not to be fooled twice.
“When you’ve quite finished,” said a young man behind me. I turned to look at the fellow, immaculately dressed with hair so perfectly oiled he could have been sculpted. He checked his pocket watch, a gleaming half-hunter with an arcane-looking symbol etched onto the back. “She’s not the only one who would like to make the next train to Inverness.”
“Indeed not,” I replied, “I’m travelling there myself.”
“Such an optimist,” the young man replied holding out his watch for me to see, “it leaves in ten minutes. Do you think you and your lady friend may have concluded your business by then?”
“What’s he saying?” the old lady asked – if indeed she was an old lady.
“No matter,” I replied, eager to have the whole affair done with. “Could you please supply me with two tickets for Inverness?” I asked the guard. “One for this lady and one for myself.”
“Thank you,” said the old lady. “If you could bring my bags too, young man.”
With that she wandered off across the concourse leaving me stood face to face with the guard and in charge of one leather suitcase and three hatboxes. It must be Holmes, I thought, no-one else would have the damned gall to abandon me in such a manner.
“I say...” I called after the retreating old lady, but she was either too deaf or too content with her own good fortune to hear me.
It must be Holmes.
“Now nine minutes,” said the young man behind me.
“For goodness’ sake.” I paid for the tickets and gathered up the bags. If that wasn’t my friend then I was now sorely out of pocket and fast losing patience.
I shuffled after the elderly figure, managing to reach our platform after only dropping the hatboxes once.
Silence was hanging out of the window of one of the carriages, clearly convinced that neither Holmes nor I intended to keep the appointment.
“Dr Watson!” he called, opening the door and stepping down to help me with my burden. “I fear I may have packed too lightly,” he said, casting his eyes over the baggage.
“It’s not mine,” I insisted, calling to the elderly figure who was shuffling along to the far end of the train.
“We should sit near the front,” it called, “my grandson says that’s safest.”
“You know this lady?” Silence asked.
“I have a terrible suspicion I do,” I replied. “Come on, we’ll move up.”
Silence grabbed his overnight case and the hatboxes and we walked along the platform, breaking into a slight jog as the conductor whipped his flag in preparation for the train departing.
“Get on!” I shouted at the figure. “This is far enough, surely?”
“No need to shout, dear,” she replied, pulling at the door handle and struggling to clamber aboard. Just as it looked as though she was going to fall back onto the platform a pair of arms shot out of the open doorway and grasped her firmly.
“Holmes?” I asked, staring at the familiar figure helping the elderly lady aboard.
“Watson!” he replied, “I was beginning to fear you would miss the train, now I see that chivalry delayed you both.”
We all climbed aboard and I set to wedging the old lady’s belongings on the baggage rack.
“How on earth did you end up travelling en masse?” asked Holmes, taking a hatbox from me and putting it away.
“I...” I considered lying but decided against it, knowing Holmes would catch me out. “I thought she was you in disguise.”
Holmes erupted into laughter, clapping his hands and ushering Silence and I from the carriage. “If you need anything else, madam,” he told the lady, “don’t hesitate to call on my friend, we’ll be in the next carriage along.”
“Wait a moment,” I said, thinking of the rail fare.
“Don’t mind me,” the old lady said. “It’s most kind I’m sure, but I can’t have you pestering me all the way to Scotland, you get on with your business and leave me in peace.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded, before following a still-laughing Holmes out into the corridor and towards the next carriage.
“I’m flattered,” said Holmes, “that you think I could pull off such a convincing impersonation.”
“It has been a trying day.”
“The last few minutes seem to have been hard enough, poor chap. Let’s hope this interminable journey gives you adequate time to recover.”
“As long as there’s comfortable seats and a restaurant carriage, I assure you I will arrive north of the border in fine fettle.”
We sat down and Holmes filled his pipe.
“So,” he said, once relaxed and beginning to fill the carriage with the clouds of Turkish tobacco smoke, “perhaps we might best spend the time between now and dinner by catching up on what we’ve been up to since this morning.”
For Dr Silence’s benefit he then began to inform him of what we had learned at Ruthvney Hall, up to and including my “turn” in the forest.
“I’m sure there’s a perfectly simple – and quite benign – medical explanation for it,” I said, aware even as I spoke of how pompous and silly I sounded. In truth I felt even more foolish now it was being discussed in front of Silence. I felt like the weak heroine of a pulp tale fainting at suitably dramatic points within the narrative.
“Well then perhaps we could avail ourselves of an expert opinion?” asked Holmes. “In fact a qualified second opinion.” He looked to Silence.
The man, no doubt sensing my discomfort, attempted to back away from the challenge. “I’m quite sure that if Dr Watson, as a medical man himself, is at ease with what happened...”
“Oh come now!” said Holmes. “You’re a doctor, you must have met countless intelligent patients who attempt to dismiss important symptoms through a misguided sense of embarrassment?”
“I am sat here you know, Holmes,” I muttered, irritated as ever by my friend’s inability to consider the feelings of others.
“Indeed you are,” he replied, utterly unabashed, “and not denying a word. Has something similar happened since?”
“It was nothing, Holmes, I...” But that had done it hadn’t it? And indeed it was stupid to remain silent, as foolish as I might have felt, the truth was that I had now twice suffered from a delusional blackout. Both times preyed upon by the most insidious and terrifying visions. That was just the sort of thing, speaking as a medical man, that was not to be lightly dismissed. “It happened again while travelling on the Underground,” I admitted, proceeding to tell them, in as much detail as I could remember, what I had seen and heard.
Holmes, for all his bluster and insensitivity, had the grace to look ashamed when I recounted how I had heard my dead wife’s voice. Though his sense of shame was swiftly eradicated by interest when I had passed on the message I had been given.
“Fascinating!” he said. “A story which bears no small similarity to the one you told us only a couple of days ago,” he said to Silence.
“Indeed,” agreed Silence, “it would be my opinion that the Doctor was prey to a visitation of spirits.”
“Oh, rubbish,” I insisted. “It was no such thing, it was simply a delusion brought about by... by...” But in my defence, I could come up with no solution. Which made me angrier still. I felt I was being backed into a corner.
“Well,” said Holmes, “whatever it was remains to be seen, but we would be foolish to ignore the information passed on. After all,” he glanced at Silence, “what the voices chose to impart to you was of great relevance.”
“But surely there was nothing of the remotest use,” I said, still wishing we could drop the subject.
“Very little,” Holmes agreed, “which strikes me as exceedingly interesting...”
As the afternoon faded to evening outside the window of our compartment, my thoughts turned once more to the dining carriage. In truth it was as much to get some fresh air as it was to eat – Holmes kept the windows closed while he smoked, insisting the dense atmosphere helped him to concentrate. Medically speaking it helped me do nothing but cough, so it was with some relief that, when I suggested we take a stroll, Silence agreed to accompany me while Holmes remained.
“I have my thoughts to sustain me,” he said, gazing out of the window at the silhouettes of trees as they flashed by. “I’m sure they will be more nourishing than whatever the hard-pressed chefs of the North-Eastern Railway can provide.”
When Silence and I entered the dining carriage I was momentarily worried by the sight of the troublesome old lady from earlier. However, she appeared to have latched on to some other unfortunate, a rather pale-faced man who had the waistcoat and creased brow of a clerk.
“He would insist on following me,” she was telling him while noisily consuming her consomm'e by inhalation. “In the end I had to tell the fellow to leave me be.”
I resisted a brief, ungentlemanly urge to tip her soup into her wool-enshrouded lap, but instead led Silence to the other end of the carriage where we might just be able to eat without hearing her do so.
I sat with my back to her, briefly catching the eye of the immaculate young man who had been stood behind me in the ticket queue. He gave me a desultory glance before returning to his lamb. I had always considered myself a convivial man but it would seem I had managed to make a pair of enemies without any effort whatsoever. Perhaps it was that thought that made me decide to relax in Silence’s company.
It wasn’t difficult, while not a man overly blessed with a sense of humour, he was nonetheless pleasant and capable of charm. He could hardly have been a successful physician otherwise, any successful doctor will tell you a practice is built on charm as much as medical knowledge.
As doctors cannot fail to do when placed in each other’s company, we shared stories of our training days. We had not been at St Bartholomew’s at the same time, but nonetheless knew a good number of the same people and conversation was easy and pleasant.
However much shared history we possessed, it wasn’t long before discussion of Silence’s more recent work was broached.
“How did you end up specialising in such an...”
I smiled. “I was going to say unconventional.”
Silence shrugged. “Once you are convinced of the existence of – for the sake of a term – ‘the supernatural’ it is difficult to ignore it. It feels as if you have peeled away an entirely new layer of existence, everything you took for granted, every physical law or spiritual belief, is turned on its head. Once you believe, and I mean truly believe, it’s impossible to dedicate your life to anything else. I’m hardly the first.”
“Not at all, Dr Martin Hesselius pursued a dual career in both medicine and the occult long before me. You’re familiar with his work?”
I had to admit that I was not.
“Very few have heard of him, which speaks volumes for how little he was respected by conventional science.” He sighed. “Though perhaps that is hardly surprising – pioneers are always thought of as mad. A great deal of his work was research only; he studied myths and legends, trying to sift truth from fiction. He also fought the unearthly face to face, as of course did his successor Lawrence Van Helsing.”
“Now that is a name I am familiar with,” I said, “though some of the details elude me. Wasn’t he involved in some trouble in Eastern Europe?”
“Lawrence has been involved in trouble the world over,” Silence admitted. “For such a mild-mannered fellow, he is the most tenacious man I think I have ever met. Of course he has specialised rather, whereas I prefer to keep my scope of interests wide. A good man though, I spent a number of months in Chungking recently working alongside Van Helsing and his proteg'e Charles Kent.”
“You have travelled extensively then?”
“Oh yes, the world has much to teach us, but to learn you have to walk its roads.”
“An enlightened philosophy.”
“And one I am lucky that I can afford to subscribe to. Life has treated me well.”
As someone who often struggled to pay the rent on his practice – indeed had been forced to return to sharing rooms in order to meet the bills – I was forced to agree. I didn’t allow such thoughts of penury to dissuade my attentions from the dessert trolley, however – a man has to live you know.
“There is something...” Dr Silence’s words petered out mid-sentence and I gazed up from my slice of gateau to look at him. His face had become peculiarly inanimate. His lower lip sagged and a wisp of what I first took to be smoke but then, discerning its slick, glutinous texture as it dripped on the table linen, realised was something else entirely.
“Dr Silence?” I asked. “John?”
There was no answer, what sat before me was an empty vessel.
For a moment I feared that I had, once again, fallen prey to a delusional state. Though if I had then it was one that the rest of the carriage shared. Silence wasn’t alone in having lost all semblance of life, I glanced from table to table seeing the same blank expressions dotted among the diners, their companions as confused as I. All exuded that same, thin mucous-like substance, strings of it reaching up from their mouths and nostrils and forming a web between their heads and the walls of the carriage.
Taking hold of my dessert knife I extended the blade towards the closest string, meaning to test its strength.
“Don’t touch it,” said the immaculate young man I had first met in the ticket queue. He turned to the carriage as a whole. “None of you touch it,” he shouted. “Do as I say and stay calm and we might yet get out of this.”
“And you are?” I asked, not a little set back by his arrogance.
“An expert,” he replied. “The name’s Thomas Carnacki.”