THE ADVENTURE OF THE DEATH-FETCH by Darrell Schweitzer

Darrell Schweitzer is the author of the novels The Shattered Goddess and The Mask of the Sorcerer, as well as numerous short stories, which have been collected in Transients, Nightscapes, Refugees from an Imaginary Country, and Necromancies and Netherworlds. Recent books include The Fantastic Horizon, Ghosts of Past and Future, and Living with the Dead. Well-known as an editor and critic, he co-edited the magazine Weird Tales for several years, and is currently editing anthologies for DAW, such as The Secret History of Vampires and Cthulhu’s Reign, and an urban fantasy werewolf anthology for Pocket Books.

We all have days when the world seems too much to bear, and all we want to do is lock ourselves in our room and not come out. It’s an illusion, this idea that a foot of wood and plaster can seal us off from the troubles that beset us, but it’s a comforting illusion, and it resonates. Authors have spun some wonderful dramatic scenarios out of this notion of a safe room within a hostile universe. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” is about a violinist who plays unearthly tunes to keep hostile entities from invading his apartment. China Miéville’s “Details” is about a woman who has plastered over all the visible lines and angles in her apartment, because those angles are traversed by the other-dimensional terrors that assail her. The movie Pulse features characters who must seal up their room with red duct tape to protect themselves from malevolent spirits. There’s something instantly intriguing about a person who refuses to come out, and also about the idea that evil could be kept at bay by something simple, such as music or duct tape. Our next tale brings us a chilling new variation on this theme.

 

THE ADVENTURE OF THE DEATH-FETCH
by Darrell Schweitzer

In retrospect, the most amazing thing is that Watson confided the story to me at all. I was nobody, a nineteen-year-old college student from America visiting English relatives during Christmas break. I just happened to be in the house when the old doctor came to call. He had been a friend of my grandfather long before I was born, and was still on the closest terms with my several aunts; and of course he was the Doctor John Watson, who could have commanded the immediate and rapt attention of any audience he chose.

So, why did he tell me and only me? Why not, at least, my aunts? I think it was precisely because I was no one of any consequence or particular credibility and would soon be returning to school far away. He was like the servant of King Midas in the fairy tale, who can no longer bear the secret that the king has ass’s ears. He has to “get it off his chest,” as we Americans say. The point is not being believed, or recording the truth, but release from the sheer act of telling. The luckless courtier, fearing for his life, finally has to dig a hole in the swamp, stick his head in it, and whisper the secret. Not that it did him much good, for the wind in the rattling reeds endlessly repeated what he had said.

There being no swamp conveniently at hand for Dr. Watson, I would have to do.

The old gentleman must have been nearly eighty at the time. I remember him as stout, but not quite obese, nearly bald, with a generous white moustache. He often sat smoking by the remains of our fire long after the rest of the household had gone to bed. I imagined that he was reminiscing over a lifetime of wonderful adventures. Well, maybe.

I was up late too, that particular night, on my way into the kitchen for some tea after struggling with a wretched attempt at a novel. I chanced through the parlor. Doctor Watson stirred slightly where he sat.

“Oh, Doctor. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were still there.”

He waved me to the empty chair opposite him. I sat without a further word, completely in awe of the great man.

I swallowed hard and stared at the floor for perhaps five minutes, jerking my head up once, startled, when the burnt log in the fireplace settled, throwing off sparks. I could hear occasional automobiles passing by in the street outside.

Dr. Watson’s pipe had gone out and he set it aside. He folded his age-spotted hands in his lap, cleared his throat, and leaned forward.

He had my absolute attention. I knew that he was about to tell a story. My heart almost stopped.

“I am sure you know there were some cases of Sherlock Holmes which never worked out, and thus went unrecorded.”

I lost what little composure I had and blurted, “Yes, yes, Doctor. You mention them from time to time. Like the one about the man and the umbrella —”

He raised a hand to silence me. “Not like that, boy. Some I never found the time to write up, and I inserted those allusions as reminders to myself; but others were deliberately suppressed, and never committed to paper at all, because Holmes expressly forbade it. One in particular —”

At least I didn’t say anything as stupid as, “Then why are you telling me?” No, I had the good sense to sit absolutely motionless and silent, and just listen.

It was about this same season [Watson began] in the year 1900, a few days after Christmas if I recall correctly—I cannot be certain of such facts without my notebooks, and in any case the incident of which I speak was never entered into them—but I am certain it was a bright and brisk winter day, with new-fallen snow on the sidewalks, but no sense of festivity in the air. Instead, the city seemed to have reached a profound calm, a time to rest and tidy up and go on with one’s regular business.

Holmes remarked how somehow, in defiance of all logic, it appeared that the calendar revealed patterns of criminality.

“Possibly the superstitions are true,” I mused, “and lunatics really are driven by the moon.”

“There may be scattered facts buried in the morass of superstition, Watson,” said he, “if only science has the patience to ferret them out —”

We had now come, conversing as we walked, to the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, having been abroad on some business or other—damn that I don’t have my notes with me—when this train of thought was suddenly interrupted by an attractive, well-dressed young woman who rushed up and grasped Holmes by the arm.

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes? You are Mr. Sherlock Holmes, are you not?”

Holmes gently eased her hand off him. “I am indeed, Miss —”

“Oh! Thank God! My father said that no one else could possibly save him!”

To my amazement and considerable irritation, Holmes began walking briskly, leaving the poor girl to trail after us like a common beggar. I’d often had words with him in private about these lapses of the expected courtesy, but now I could only follow along, somewhat flustered. Meanwhile the young lady—whose age I would have guessed at a few years short of twenty—breathlessly related a completely disjointed tale about a mysterious curse, approaching danger, and quite a bit else I couldn’t make head or tail out of.

At the doorstep of 221B, Holmes turned on her sharply.

“And now Miss—I’m afraid I did not catch your name.”

“Thurston. My name is Abigail Thurston.”

“Any relation to Sir Humphrey Thurston, the noted explorer of Southeast Asia?”

“He is my father, as I’ve already told you —”

“I am not sure you’ve told me much of anything—yet!” Holmes turned to go inside. Miss Thurston’s features revealed a completely understandable admixture of disappointment, grief, and quite possibly—and I couldn’t have blamed her—rage.

“Holmes!” I said. “Please!”

“And now Miss Abigail Thurston, as I have no other business this morning, I shall be glad to admit you.” As she, then I, followed him up the stairs, he continued, “You must pardon my abrupt manner, but it has its uses.”

When I had shown her to a chair and rung Mrs. Hudson for some tea, Holmes explained further, “My primary purpose has been to startle you into sense, Miss Thurston. A story told all in a jumble is like a brook plunging over a precipice—very pretty, but, alas, babbling. Now that the initial rush of excitement is past, perhaps now you can tell me, calmly and succinctly, why you have come to see me. I enjoin you to leave out none of the facts, however trivial they may seem to you. Describe the events exactly, in the order that they occurred, filling in such background as may be necessary to illuminate the entire tale.”

She breathed deeply, then began in measured tones. “I am indeed the daughter of the explorer, Sir Humphrey Thurston. You are perhaps familiar with his discoveries of lost cities in the jungles of Indo-China. His books are intended for a limited, scholarly audience, but there have been numerous articles about him in the popular magazines —”

“Suffice it to say that I am familiar with your father and his admirable contributions to science. Do go on.”

“My mother died when I was quite small, Mr. Holmes, and my father spent so much time abroad that he was almost a stranger to me. I was raised by relatives, under the supervision of a series of governesses. All this while Father seemed more a guardian angel than a parent, someone always looking out for my welfare, concerned and benevolent, but invisible. Oh, there were letters and gifts in the post, but he remained outside my actual life. Each time he came, we had to become acquainted all over again. Such is the difference in a child’s life between six and eight and twelve. I had changed profoundly, while he was always the same, brave, mysterious, inevitably sunburnt from long years in the jungles and deserts; home for a short time to rest, write his reports, and perhaps give a few lectures before setting forth again in the quest of knowledge. So things have continued. This past month he has returned again, after an absence of three years, to discover his little girl become a woman, and again a stranger. He has promised to remain this time until I am married and secure in a home of my own —”

“Then it should be a happy occasion for you,” said Holmes, smiling to reassure her, the corners of his mouth twitching to betray impatience. The smile vanished. “But I perceive it is not. Please get to the point then. Why have you come rushing to Baker Street on a winter’s day when you would surely be much more comfortable in a warm house in the company of your much-travelled sire?”

She paused, looking alarmed once more, glancing to me first as if for reassurance. I could only smile and nod, wordlessly bidding her to continue.

“The first few days of his visit were indeed happy, Mr. Holmes, but very suddenly, a shadow came over him. For a week and more, he seemed distracted and brooding. Then five days ago he withdrew into his study, refusing to venture out for any reason. He is afraid, deathly afraid!”

“Of what, pray tell?”

“I cannot discern the central fear, exactly, only its broader effects. Certainly he has become morbidly afraid of his own reflection. He will not allow a mirror to be brought anywhere near him. He even shaves with his eyes closed, by touch alone, rather than risk seeing himself.”

“This is extraordinary,” I said.

“But surely,” said Holmes, “this sort of mania is more in Doctor Watson’s line than mine, work for a medical man of a specialized sort, not a detective.”

“Oh no, Sir! My father is completely sane. I am certain of that. But I am equally certain that he is not telling me everything, perhaps in an attempt to spare me some horror—for it must be a horror that makes so bold an adventurer cringe behind a locked door with a loaded elephant gun across his knees!”

I leaned forward and spoke to her in my most soothing medical manner. “I am sure, Miss Thurston, that your father has a very good reason for acting as he does, and that, indeed, his chief object is to protect you.”

“Yes,” said Holmes. “I am certain it is.”

“His very words were, ‘Summon Sherlock Holmes, girl, or I shall not live out the week!’ So here I am. Please come and see him, Mr. Holmes, at once!”

Holmes shot to his feet. “Watson! How foolish of us to have even removed our hats and coats. Come!” He took our guest by the hand and helped her up. “As I said, Miss Thurston, I have no other business this morning.”

It was but a short cab ride to the Thurston residence, in the most fashionable part of west London. We rode in silence, crowded together, the girl in the middle, Holmes deep in thought. Unconsciously almost, Miss Thurston took my hand for reassurance. I held her firmly, but gently.

It was admittedly an intriguing problem: what, if not a sudden mania, could cause so brave a man as Sir Humphrey Thurston to be paralyzed with fear at the sight of his own reflection?

As we neared the house, the girl suddenly struggled to stand up in the still moving cab.

“Father!”

She pointed. I had only a glimpse of a tall, muscular man on the further streetcorner, and noted the tan coat and top hat, white gloves, and silver-tipped stick. He turned at the sound of Miss Thurston’s cry, revealing a grey-bearded face, dark eyes, and a broad, high forehead, then moved speedily away in long strides, not quite running. Abruptly, he vanished down a side street.

Holmes pounded on the ceiling of the cab for the driver to stop and we three scrambled out, I attending to Miss Thurston and the driver while Holmes set off at a furious run, only to return moments later, breathing hard, having lost all trace of Sir Humphrey.

“I don’t know what explanation I can offer,” said Miss Thurston. “Perhaps my father’s difficulty, mania or whatever it is, has passed, and I have wasted your time.”

Holmes nodded to me.

“Mental disease is not my specialty.” I said, “but from what medical papers I’ve read, and from the talk of my colleagues, I do not think it likely that so powerful a delusion would go away so quickly. It makes no sense.”

“Indeed, it does not,” said Holmes. “One moment, the man behaves as if he is faced with mortal danger. The next, he is out for a stroll as if nothing had happened, but he flees the approach of his beloved daughter and vanishes with, I must confess, remarkable speed and agility.”

“What do we do now, Mr. Holmes?”

“If you would admit us to his chamber. Perhaps he left some clue.”

“Yes, yes. I should have thought of that. Pray forgive me —”

“Do not trouble yourself, Miss Thurston. Only lead the way.”

She unlocked the door herself. Although it was a fine, large house, there were no servants in evidence. I helped her off with her coat and hung it for her in a closet off to one side. As we ascended the front stairs, she hastily explained that another of her father’s inexplicable behaviors was to give leave to the entire staff until—she supposed—the crisis had passed.

“Oh, I do fear that it is a mania, Mr. Holmes.”

I was beginning to fear as much myself, but scarcely a moment to consider the possibility when a voice thundered from above, “Abigail! Is that you?”

Miss Thurston looked to Holmes, then to me with an expression of utmost bewilderment and fright. I think she all but fainted at that moment. I made ready to catch her lest she tumble back down the stairs.

Again came the voice, from somewhere off to the left of the top of the stairs. “Abigail! If that’s you, speak up girl! If it’s Hawkins, you damned blackguard, I have my gun ready and am fully prepared to shoot!”

Holmes shouted in reply, “Sir Humphrey, it is Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr. Watson. We have been admitted by your daughter, who is here with us.”

“Abigail?”

“Yes, Father, it is I. I’ve brought them as you asked.”

Heavy footsteps crossed the floor upstairs. A door opened with a click of the lock being undone.

“Thank God, then…”

Holmes, Miss Thurston, and I were admitted into Sir Humphrey’s study. I was astounded to confront the same man we had seen on the street. The broad shoulders, bearded face, high forehead, dark eyes, and athletic gait were unmistakable. But now he wasn’t dressed for the outdoors. He wore a dressing gown and slippers. An elephant gun lay across the chair where he had obviously been sitting moments before. On the table by his right hand were a bottle and glass of brandy, a notebook, a pen and an uncapped ink jar.

“Thank God you are here, Mr. Holmes,” he said. “Doubtless my daughter has told you of my distress and seeming madness. If anyone on Earth may convince me that I am not mad, it is you, Mr. Holmes. I can trust no one else to uncover the fiendish devices by which I have been made to see the impossible.”

We all sat. Thurston offered Holmes and me glasses of brandy. Holmes waved his aside. I accepted out of politeness, but after a single sip placed it on the table beside me.

Sir Humphrey seemed about ready to speak, when Holmes interrupted.

“First, a question. Have you been, for any reason, outside of the house this morning?”

Thurston looked startled. “Certainly not. I have not been out of this room for five days —” He paused, as if uncertain of how to proceed.

It was Holmes’s turn to be astonished, but only I, who knew him well, could detect the subtle change in his manner and expression. To the others he must have seemed, as before, calm and attentive, purely analytical.

The silence went on for a minute or two. Now that I had a chance to examine our surroundings, the room proved to be exactly what I expected, a cluttered assembly of mementoes and books, a large bronze Buddha seated on a teakwood stand, strangely demonic Asian masks hanging on the walls amid framed citations and photographs. In a place of honor behind his writing desk hung a portrait of a beautiful woman whose features resembled those of Abigail Thurston but were somewhat older. This I took to be her mother.

“Do go on, Sir Humphrey,” said Holmes, “and tell us what has taken place during these five days in which you have never once left this room.”

“You’ll probably think I am out of my mind, Mr. Holmes. Indeed, I think so myself, whenever I am unable to convince myself that I am beguiled by some devilish trickery. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how it is done.

“How what is done, Sir Humphrey?”

“Mr. Holmes, do you know what I mean when I say I have seen my death fetch?”

Abigail Thurston let out a cry, then covered her mouth with her hand.

Holmes seemed unperturbed. “In the superstitions of many races, a man who is about to die may encounter his spirit-likeness. The German term is doppelganger, meaning double-walker. Certainly such an apparition is held to be a portent of the direst sort, and to be touched by this figure means instantaneous death. You haven’t been touched by it then, have you, Sir Humphrey?”

Thurston’s face reddened. “If you mean to mock me, Mr. Holmes, then my faith in you is misplaced.”

“I do not mock. Nor do I deal in phantoms. My practice stands firmly flat-footed upon the ground. No ghosts need apply. Therefore I must agree with your conclusion, even before I have examined the evidence, that you are the victim of trickery of some kind. But first, describe to me what you think you have seen.”

“Myself, Mr. Holmes. My daughter has surely mentioned my sudden aversion to mirrors.”

“Don’t we all see ourselves in mirrors?”

“I saw myself twice.”

“Twice?”

“Five mornings ago, I stood before the mirror shaving, when a second image appeared in the glass, as if an exact duplicate of myself were looking over my shoulder. I whirled about, razor in hand, and confronted myself as surely as if I gazed into a second mirror, only the face of this other was contorted with the most venomous hatred, Mr. Holmes, the most absolute malevolence I have ever beheld. The lips were about to form an utterance which I somehow know would mean my immediate death.

“So I slashed frantically with my razor. I felt the blade pass through only the air, but the figure vanished, like a burst soap bubble.”

“And it did not harm you in any way,” said Holmes, “any more than a soap bubble—or some projected illusion of light and shadow.”

“Oh no, Mr. Holmes, this was no magic-lantern show. It was a fully three-dimensional image. Each time I saw it, it was as real to my eyes as you and Dr. Watson appear now.”

“You saw it, then, more than once?”

“Three times, Mr. Holmes, until I had the sense to remove all mirrors and reflective surfaces from the room. That is how it gets in. I am certain of that.”

“And I am certain, Sir Humphrey, that you are certain of far more than you have told me. Unless you give me all of the facts, I cannot help you, however much your daughter may entreat me. Who, for instance, is the ‘blackguard Hawkins’ you took us for on the stairs?”

Thurston refilled his glass and took a long draught of brandy, then settled back. “Yes, you are right, of course, Mr. Holmes. I shall have to tell you and Dr. Watson everything.” He turned to his daughter. “But you, my dear, perhaps should not hear what we have to say.”

“Father, I think I am old enough.”

“It is not a pretty story.”

“My early years were wild,” Sir Humphrey began. “I was no paragon of scientific respectability at twenty-one, but little more than a common criminal. I have never before admitted that I was dismissed from the Indian Army under extremely disreputable circumstances and only escaped court martial because a sympathetic officer allowed me time to flee, change my name, and disappear. The offense involved the pillage of a native temple, and the officer’s sympathy had been purchased with some of the loot.

“And so, under another name, I wandered the East. I had no means by which to return to England, nor had I any desire to present myself to friends and family as a failure and a disgrace. Once in a very great while I dispatched a letter filled with fanciful, if artfully vague, tales of confidential adventures in government service.

“In the course of my travels I picked up several languages and a profound education in the ways of the world’s wickedness. I fell in with the roughest possible company, and was myself more often than not on the wrong side of the law. In the gold fields of Australia there was a certain dispute and a man died of it, and once more I had to vanish. In Shanghai I worked as an agent for a wealthy mandarin, whose true activities, when they became known to the Chinese authorities, caused his head to be pickled in brine.

“But the blackest depths were in Rangoon, for there I met Wendall Hawkins. He was a vile rogue, Mr. Holmes, even among such company as I found him. Murderer, thief, pirate, and more—I am sure. He was a huge, powerful man with an enormous, dark beard, who used to jokingly boast—though I think he half believed it—that he was the reincarnation of Edward Teach, the notorious buccaneer commonly known as Blackbeard.

“Reckless as I was, my normal instinct would have been to avoid such a man as I would a live cobra, but he had something which fascinated me: an idol six inches in height, of a hideous, bat-winged dog, carven of the finest milky green jade, stylized in a manner which resembled the Chinese but wasn’t. Its eyes were purest sapphires.

“Mr. Holmes, I was more than just a thieving lout in those days. Already the direction of my life’s work was clear to me—though I had yet to learn its manner—for if ever I suffered from a true mania, it was the craving to penetrate the deepest secrets of the mysterious Orient. Oh, I wanted riches, yes, but more than that I hoped to come back to England famous, like some Burton or Livingstone or Speke, having brought the light of European science to the darkest and most forbidden corners of the globe.

“I knew what this idol was, even before Wendall Hawkins told me. It was an artifact of the Chan-Tzo people who inhabit the Plateau of Leng in central Asia, in that unmapped and unexplored region northwest of Tibet, where theoretically the Chinese and Russian empires adjoin, but in fact no civilized person has ever set foot—for all the ravings of Madame Blavatsky contain much nonsense about the place. The very name, Chan-Tzo, is often mistranslated as ‘Corpse-Eaters,’ and so occultists whisper fearfully of the hideous rites of the ‘Corpse Eating Cult of Leng.’ In truth necrophagia is the least of Leng’s horrors. The Chan-Tzo are ‘Vomiters of Souls’… but I am far ahead of myself.

“Hawkins had the idol and he had a map—which had been acquired, he darkly hinted, at the cost of several lives—written in an obscure Burmese dialect. He needed me to translate. That was why he had come to me. Otherwise he would share his treasure-hunt with as few as possible—for that was what it was to be. We would journey to Leng armed to the teeth, slaughter any natives who stood in our way, and return to civilization rich men. I tried to console my conscience with the belief that I, at least, would be travelling as much for knowledge as for wealth, and that through my efforts this find could be of scientific value.

“Hawkins and ten others had pooled funds to buy a steam launch, which we christened, to suit our leader’s fancy, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Once we had secured sufficient ammunition and supplies, we slipped up the Irrawaddy by night and journeyed deep into the interior, beyond the reach of any colonial authorities, ultimately anchoring at Putao near the Chinese border and continuing overland.

“I don’t have to tell you that the trip was a disaster. Supplies went bad or disappeared. We all had fevers. What native guides we could hire or seize at gunpoint misled us, then got away. I alone could read the damned map, but it was cryptic, even if you could make out the script. Much of the time I merely guessed and tried to find our way by the stars.

“Many times I was certain that none of us would get back alive. The first to die was the crazy American, something-or-other Jones, a lunatic who carried a bullwhip and fancied himself an archaeologist. We found Jones in his tent, bloated to half again normal size, his face eaten away by foot-long jungle leeches.

“One by one the others perished, from accidents, from disease that might have been poisoning. Gutzman, the South African, caught a dart in the neck one night. Van Eysen, the Dutchman, tried to make off with most of our remaining food and clean water. Hawkins shot him in the back, then killed the Malay when he protested, and the Lascar on general principles. Another Englishman, Gunn, got his throat cut merely so that there would be one mouth less to feed.

“Since I alone could read the map—or pretended to—I was certain Hawkins needed me alive. In the end, there were only the two of us, ragged and emaciated wretches staggering on in a timeless delirium of pain and dread. It was nothing less than a living death.

“At last we emerged from the jungle and climbed onto the windswept tableland of central Asia. Still the journey seemed endless. I had no idea of where we were going anymore, for all I made a show of consulting the map over and over so that Hawkins would not kill me. Each night I dreamed of the black and forbidding Plateau of Leng, which was revealed to me in a series of visions, its ruins and artificial caverns of shocking antiquity, perhaps older even than mankind itself, as were the immemorial blasphemies of the Chan-Tzo.

“What Hawkins dreamed, I cannot say. His speech had ceased to be coherent, except on the point of threatening me should I waver from our purpose. I knew he was insane then, and that I would die with him, likewise insane, unless I could somehow escape his company.

“I was past thinking clearly. How fortunate, then, that my plan was simplicity itself—almost the bare truth rather than some contrived stratagem.

“I fell to the ground and refused to rise, no matter how much Hawkins screamed that he would blow my brains out with his pistol. I said I was dying, that his pistol would be a mercy. He would offer me no mercy. I was counting on that. Instead, he forced me to translate the map for him and make notes as best I could. There was nothing to write with by a thorn and my own blood, but I wrote, and when he was satisfied, he laughed, folded the map into his pocket, took all our remaining supplies, and left me to my fate on the trackless, endless plain.

“And so we parted. I hoped I had sent him to Hell, deliberately mixing up the directions so he’d end up only the Devil knew where. He, of course, assumed I would be vulture’s meat before another day or two.

“But I did not die. Mad with fever and privation, my mind filled with fantastic and horrible hallucinations, I wandered for what might have been days or even weeks, until, by the kindness of providence alone, I stumbled into the camp of some nomads, who, seeing that I was a white man, bore me on camel-back into the Chinese province of Sinkiang and there turned me over to a trader, who brought me to a missionary.

“This proved to be my salvation, both physical and otherwise. I married the missionary’s daughter, Abigail’s mother, and largely through the influence of her family I later found a place on a much more respectable Anglo-French expedition to Angkor. That was the true beginning of my scientific career. Still the mysteries of the East haunted me, but my cravings were directed into proper channels until I achieved the renown I have today.”

At this point Sir Humphrey paused. The only sound was the slow ticking of a great clock in some other room. Abigail Thurston’s face was white from the shock of what she had heard. She scarcely seemed to breathe. Holmes sat very still, his chin held in his hand, staring into space.

I was the one who broke the silence.

“Surely, Sir Humphrey, there is more to the story than that. I don’t see how your luckless expedition or whatever fate the rascal Hawkins must have met has anything to do with the here and now.”

Thurston’s reaction was explosive.

“Damn it, man! It has everything to do with my predicament and what may well be my inevitable fate. But… you are right. There is more to tell. After many years of roving the world, giving lectures, publishing books, after I was knighted by the Queen—after my past life seemed a bad dream from which I had finally awakened—I thought I was safe. But it was not to be. This past fortnight I began to receive communications from the fiend Hawkins!”

“Communications?” said Holmes. “How so?”

“There. On the desk.”

Holmes reached over and opened an ornately carven, lacquered box, removing a sheaf of papers. He glanced at them briefly and gave them to me.

“What do you make of them, Watson?”

“I cannot read the writing. The paper is an Oriental rice-paper. The penmanship shows the author to be under considerable mental strain, perhaps intoxicated. Notice the frequent scratchings and blottings. Beyond that, I can make out nothing.”

Sir Humphrey spoke. “The language is an archaic—some would say degenerate—form of Burmese, the script a kind of code used by criminals in the Far East. Between these two elements, I am perhaps the only living man who can read what is written here, for Wendall Hawkins is not alive, if his words are to be believed.”

“Surely if he is dead,” said Holmes, “your troubles are at an end.”

“No, Mr. Holmes, they are not, for all of these letters were written after Hawkins’s death—long after it. It seems that he reached the Plateau of Leng, which I saw only in visions. There the almost sub-human priests of the Chan-Tzo murdered him after what might have been years of indescribable tortures, then brought him back into a kind of half-life as an animate corpse at their command, hideously disfigured, the skin flayed from his face, his heart ripped out, the cavity in his chest filled with inextinguishable fire. He is implacable now, driven both by the will of his masters and his own rage for revenge against me, whom he blames for his unending agony. He knows all the secrets of the Chan-Tzo priests, and the conjuring of death-fetches is easily within his power.”

“He says all that in these letters?” I asked.

“That and more, Dr. Watson, and if it is true, I am defenseless. My only hope is that Mr. Holmes and yourself can prove me to be deluded, the victim of a hoax perpetrated by the vile Hawkins who has no doubt returned, but returned, I still dare to hope, as no more than a mortal villain. If you can do this, I certainly have the means to reward you handsomely for your services.”

“My services are charged on a fixed scale,” said Holmes, “but let us not concern ourselves with the monetary details now. I shall indeed collar this Hawkins for you and unmask his devices—which I am sure would make the tricks of our English spirit mediums child’s play in comparison—but they are devices none the less. For what else can they be?”

“Mr. Holmes, I will be forever in your debt.”

“We shall watch and wait until Hawkins is forced to show his hand. But first, I think Dr. Watson should escort Miss Abigail to a safer place, my own rooms, which I shall not be needing until this affair is concluded.” When Thurston’s daughter made to protest, Holmes turned to her and said, “You have been a heroine, but now that the battle is actually joined, I think it best that you remove yourself from the field. Will you go with Dr. Watson?”

“Whatever you say, Mr. Holmes.”

“Splendid. Now I must busy myself examining the house inside and out, to discover any way our enemy might use to gain entrance.”

Thurston picked up the elephant gun and lay it across his lap, then began idly polishing the barrel with a cloth.

“I’ve survived five days like this. I think I shall be safe here behind the locked door for a little while longer yet. Your plan makes excellent sense, Mr. Holmes.”

We left Sir Humphrey alone in the room. As Holmes and I escorted Miss Thurston down the stairs, the detective asked me, “Well, Watson, what do you think?”

“A unique case, Holmes. One worthy of your talents.”

“About Sir Humphrey. What about him?”

“I judge him to be of fundamentally sound mind, but what superstitious fears he may harbor are being played upon by the murderous Hawkins, who sounds himself to be completely mad.”

“Mad or not, he shall have to manifest himself in a decidedly material form before long, at which point he will be susceptible to capture by mundane means.”

“One thing doesn’t fit, Holmes. Who, or what, did we see upon our arrival here? Sir Humphrey hadn’t been out of the room.”

“An impostor, possibly a trained actor in league with Hawkins. I agree that all the pieces of the puzzle are not yet in place. But have patience. You know my methods.”

“I am so glad that you and Dr. Watson will help Father,” Miss Thurston said softly as we reached the base of the stairs. “You are sent from Heaven, both of you.”

Holmes smiled indulgently. “Not from nearly so far, but we shall do what we can.”

Alas, we could do but little. As we stood there at the base of the stairs and I helped Miss Thurston on with her coat, she turned and chanced to look back up the stairs. Suddenly she screamed.

“Good God!” I exclaimed.

Near the top of the stairs was a figure who appeared to be Sir Humphrey, but dressed for the outside, in coat and top hat, as we had seen him before. He could not have gotten past us.

“You! Stop!” Holmes was already in pursuit, bounding up the steps three at a time.

The figure moved so swiftly the eye could hardly follow, and soft-footedly. I heard only Holmes’s boots pounding on the wooden stairs. Then there came a cry from within the study. Sir Humphrey shouted something in a foreign language, his tone that of abject terror, his words broken off in a gurgling scream. The elephant gun went off with a thunderous roar.

I left Miss Thurston and hurried up after Holmes. By the time I reached the study door, which was blown apart from the inside as if a cannonball had gone through it, Holmes was inside.

He rushed out again, his eyes wild, his face bloodless, and he saw Miss Abigail Thurston coming up behind me.

“For the love of God, Watson! Don’t let her in!”

“Father!” she screamed. “Oh, you must let me pass!”

For all she struggled, I held her fast.

“Watson! Do not let her through no matter what happens! It is just… too horrible!”

I think that was the only time I ever saw Sherlock Holmes truly shocked, at a loss for words.

I forced Miss Thurston back down the stairs despite her vehement protests, holding onto her until the police arrived, which they did shortly, summoned by the neighbors who had heard the screams and the shot. Only after she had been conveyed away in a police wagon, accompanied by a patrolman, was I able to examine the body of Sir Humphrey Thurston, who was indeed murdered, as I had feared.

Though still seated in his chair, he had been mutilated hideously, almost beyond recognition.

His throat was cut from ear to ear. That was enough to have killed him. But the flesh had been almost entirely torn away from his face, and a strange series of symbols, like the ones I had seen in the letters, had been carved in the bare bone of his forehead. The crown of his skull had been smashed in by some blunt instrument, and—it revolted me to discover—most of his brain was gone.

The final detail was the worst, for it had been deliberately designed to mock us. The still smoking elephant gun lay across his lap, and, carefully placed so that it would be reflected in the mirrored surface of the polished gun barrel, was a small jade idol with emerald eyes, a stylized figure of a bat-winged dog.

“Yes, Holmes,” I said, “it is entirely too horrible.”

Dr Watson stopped telling the story, and I, the nineteen-year-old American college student, could only gape at him open-mouthed, like some imbecile, trying not to reach the attractively obvious conclusion that the good doctor’s mind had gone soft after so many years. It was a terrible thing, just to entertain such a notion. I almost wept.

I would have remained there forever, frozen where I sat, wordless, had not Dr. Watson gone on.

“It was a case which I could not record, which Holmes ordered me to suppress on pain of the dissolution of our friendship. It just didn’t work out.”

“Wh-what do you mean, didn’t work out?”

“I mean exactly that. The affair concluded too quickly and ended in abject failure. We accomplished nothing. He would have no more of the matter, the specifics, as he acidly phrased it, being left to the ‘official imagination,’ which, sure enough, concluded the murder to be the work of a madman or madmen, perhaps directed by a sinister Oriental cult, a new Thuggee. But even the police could not account for the powerful stench of decay which lingered in the explorer’s study even long after the body had been removed, as if something long dead had invaded, done its worst, and departed as inexplicably as it had come.

“Enormous pressure was brought to bear to prevent any accurate reportage in the newspapers, to prevent panic. I think those instructions came from the very highest level. Sir Humphrey’s obituary, ironically, listed the cause of his demise as an Asiatic fever. I signed the death certificate to that effect.

“My own conclusions were profoundly disturbing. The mystery could not be resolved. What we—even Miss Thurston—had witnessed were not merely unlikely, but impossible.

“‘I reject the impossible,’ said Holmes vehemently, ‘as a matter of policy. Such things cannot be —’

“‘You and I and the girl saw, Holmes. They are.’

“‘No, Watson! No! The irrational has no place in detective work. We must confine ourselves to the tangible and physical, carefully building upon meticulous reason, or else the whole edifice of my life’s work crumbles into dust. Against the supernatural, I am helpless, my methods of no use. My methods have been useful in the past, don’t you think? And so they shall be in the future, but we must remain within certain bounds, and so preserve them.’”

Again I, the college boy, was left speechless.

“Holmes made me swear an oath—and I swore it—never to write up this case—and I never wrote it —”

Had he, in a sense at least, broken his oath by telling me? I dared not ask. Was there some urgency now, of which had lately become aware?

“I wanted to tell someone,” was all he said. “I thought I should.”

King Midas. Ass’s ears. Who will believe the wind in the reeds?

I merely know that a week after I returned to school in America I received a telegram saying that Dr. Watson had died peacefully of heart failure, sitting in that very chair by the fire. A week later a parcel arrived with a note from one of my aunts, expressing some bewilderment that he had wanted me to have the contents.

It was the idol of the bat-winged dog.

[End]