Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sherlock Holmes's Christmas adventure


IT WAS LATE in the afternoon of Wednesday, 24th December in the year 1890. The sky had been steely grey since dawn and, as the hansom cab carrying myself and Sherlock Holmes turned off Piccadilly into Albemarle Street, a fine cold drizzle began to fall.

‘Ah, Watson,’ my friend remarked as the cab drew to a halt, ‘this is most suitable weather for the occasion, is it not?’

I fear that I gave a somewhat bad‑tempered grunt in reply. At that moment I would rather have been sitting beside the fire in Holmes’ lodgings in Baker Street than shivering outside the portals of the Royal Institution. I clambered down and clapped my hands together for warmth while Holmes paid the driver.

‘In all honesty, Holmes,’ I ventured as we made our way into that august building, ‘l cannot see why you agreed to this farrago. As I understand, we are here to witness the evocation of a departed spirit. The whole business seems fanciful beyond the bounds of belief-- and, I must add, in rather poor taste.’

‘My dear Watson, you are bounding ahead of the facts, as usual. We have been invited here by the Members of this venerable society to witness a demonstration by a man named Huygens, who claims to have developed a scientific device capable of summoning a ghost. The task ahead is to establish whether Huygens is a charlatan, or whether his invention is truly capable of doing what he claims. If it is, then his wish to gain the recognition of the Royal Institution can hardly be denied.’

The doors swung to behind us, shutting out the solstitial wind. We handed our coats to the porter and crossed the marble hallway. For some reason I felt an urge to whisper; the place had the feel of a cathedral. ‘Be that as it may,’ I persisted, ‘why have they asked you? You have had no dealings with the supernatural.’

Holmes raised his eyebrows. ‘The supernatural? It is my belief, Watson, that any phenomenon that it is possible to observe must of necessity be allowed by natural law. However, you need not look very far for the reason I have been asked to look into this matter. It is simply that my brother Mycroft has been mentioning the case of the Baskerville Hound in his clubland cir­cles, and no doubt the Members of the Institution, having come to hear of it, believe I have some experience with the so-called supernatural.’

At that moment a group of elderly gentlemen emerged from a door at the back of the hall and approached us. The man at their head shook our hands firmly and introduced himself as Sir Albert Dud­ley, whose letter had brought us there. ‘We are very pleased to have the renowned intellect of Sherlock Holmes assisting us,’ he said in a jovial booming voice.

It was not in Holmes’s nature to be self-deprecating. He shook hands with the other Members and we were con­ducted upstairs, through a well-stocked library and into a lobby. Holmes looked around. ‘And where is Mr Huygens with his miraculous machine?’

Sir Albert gestured towards a set of oak doors. ‘The man’s been setting things up in our lecture theatre all after­noon.’ He consulted his pocket watch. ‘He should just be making the finishing touches about now, I expect.’

As the others dispersed into groups to discuss their own theories about   the impending demonstration, Holmes drew Sir Albert and myself to one side. ‘Do your respected members not suspect a hoax, Sir Albert?’ inquired my friend.

Sir Albert stroked his luxuriant mous­tache pensively. ‘You and I may smell a rat in such mumbo-jumbo claims, Holmes; but others among the Members give more credence to Huygens. Many of the great minds of Europe are now starting to take a keen interest in such "para-psychical" research.’

Holmes nodded. ‘Very well, then. For the time being we must keep an open mind – Ah! Here, if I am not mistaken is the gentleman in question.’

The double doors to the lecture theatre had opened and a thin ginger-haired man in a grey suit stepped out. He stood in the doorway for a moment, blinking at the assembled gathering through thick glasses, then hurried over to us.

‘Mr Sherlock Holmes, Dr John Wat­son,’ said Sir Albert. ‘may I present Dr Dirk Huygens.’

‘Dr Huygens,’ said Holmes after a momentary pause, ‘I perceive your field to be chemistry.’

‘I hope you will not give Holmes the opportunity of talking shop, Doctor,’ I put in. ‘Chemistry is one of his favourite pas­times also.’

‘But you are mistaken, sir,’ said Huy­gens, squinting like an owl behind his bottle-glass lenses. ‘My interest lies only in the sphere of occult manifestations.’

Holmes gave a slight cough, raising his right hand apologetically to his lips. ‘My error, Herr Doctor I must be thinking of the work of a countryman of yours.’

‘It is a common name in Holland,’ said Huygens, somewhat impatiently to my mind. ‘One of my ancestors worked in optics, as you may know.’ He turned to Sir Albert. ‘I am now ready to demon­strate my invention. The psychic forces are at their peak. Would you please be so kind as to have your Members go in?’

We filed through into a large, high semicircular auditorium lit by gas lamps. The upper regions of the room were all but lost in gloom, but strong lights directed at the demonstration table at the front illuminated a bizarre piece of apparatus. The rear of the table was covered in black material, while various tubes and cables surrounded it and connected it to a large cabinet at the back of the auditorium. The whole arrangement gave the impression – to my untutored eye, at least – more of a theatrical production than of a serious scientific experiment.

Holmes and I were shown to seats at the front beside Sir Albert. Once the few Members permitted to observe had come in, an attendant closed the doors and turned down the lights.

‘I am nonplussed, Holmes,’ I admitted in a discreet whisper. ‘What was that business about the chap being a chemist? I have never known you to be wrong before.’

Holmes nodded. `When I observed Huygens’ fingers, I noticed some staining and evidence of acid burns. This could be ascribed to several professions, but I discounted the more common ones – silver polisher, watchmaker or pharmacist – as being incompatible with Huygens’ supposed academic background.’

I surveyed the array of paraphernalia on the stage before us. ‘Possibly he uses some chemicals in the course of his work...’ I ventured.

‘I am sure he must. He seemed at pains to deny it, however, particu­larly after you mentioned that I am something of an amateur chemist myself My initial theory is that he want­ed to avoid any further discussion on the matter that might reveal his ignorance. Also, I was surprised to hear him refer to Christiaan Huygens as having done "some" work in optics. In that branch of physics, few names are as revered.’

‘An affectation of modesty, surely, Holmes,’ I replied.

‘One further point aroused my suspi­cions. I deliberately raised my hand so that he could see my ring with the Dutch crest. You will recall, Watson, that I received this after the help I gave the royal family of the Netherlands. Either Huygens is a remarkably cold fish, or he does not recognize his own country’s insignia.’

I shrugged and, seeing that Huygens was ready to begin, finished with: ‘So far the evidence against him is solely circumstantial, however.’

‘Indeed it is,’ agreed Holmes. ‘Let us keep our eyes peeled for something more conclusive.’

Huygens watched us, lips pursed as he impatiently waited for our whispering to die down. ‘Gentlemen,’ he announced in a surprisingly strong voice, ‘for cen­turies man has speculated about the greatest of all mysteries: what happens to the soul after death. The recorded sightings of, and encounters with, the shades of the dead are literally numberless, and yet the study of the occult has been shunned by conventional scientists. Until today, that is to say. I propose to demonstrate to this select audi­ence my astounding new invention which proves the existence of the afterlife.’

‘Harrumph!’ said Sir Albert, leaning over to Holmes. ‘This fellow lays it on a bit thick, wouldn’t you say?’

Unfortunately Sir Albert’s basso pro­fundo tones were not best suited to a whisper; Huygens may well have heard him. At least, he favoured the old gentle­man with a gimlet stare of his bespectacled eyes before continuing. ‘I call the device an Umbric Resonator. It captures the essence of aura from a departed shade and returns the individu­al to this world for a short time. I shall demonstrate this in a few moments, and you will be able to question the shade.’

A wizened old fellow with a bald head raised his hand. Our necks craned round so we could hear his question: ‘Whose ghost do you purport to be summoning, Dr Huygens?’

‘None other than Michael Faraday, sir, the distinguished scientist and former Professor of the Royal Institution. Once you have witnessed the Umbric Res­onator in action, I daresay there will not be one dissenting voice among you to oppose my election to this establish­ment.’

Huygens pointedly fixed Holmes with a glare at this point. The very fact that he saw my friend as an opponent argued against him in my book. I am certainly no match for Holmes in the arts of ratiocina­tion (indeed, I fancy that no living man is) but I have learned to trust my instincts, and I have often observed that crooks and charlatans immediately sense that Holmes is their adversary.

We sat quietly as Huygens connected a few more wires to his device and made some last-minute adjustments. Then, standing between the table and the cabi­net, he called for the lamps to be turned down still further until the auditorium was in near darkness. As he moved a lever beside him, a hum filled the air.

Then, quite suddenly, a flicker of light came from high up in the room. I heard a gasp from Sir Albert and turned to look, and it was all I could do to credit the evi­dence of my senses - for there, hovering above us, was a glowing disembodied head It was all of one colour, a kind of pallid greenish glow; and, though it shone clearly, it cast no illumination on the ceiling that must have been adjacent to where it hung suspended in the air. Then a feeling of recognition came over me, tingling the hairs of my scalp like the ghost ride at a fun-fair, as I saw that the serene features were identical to those of a statue I had seen outside in the entrance hall. With a chill, I at last began to believe that I was gazing on the shade of the late Michael Faraday.

‘Gentlemen,’ Huygens’ voice broke through the tense darkness, ‘you may pose questions if you wish.’

Sir Albert was the first to recover his composure sufficiently as to be able to speak. ‘Er...whoever you may be...’ he began, ‘...that is, if you are indeed Faraday, where were you born?’

The apparition’s voice was soft and lilting, like one speaking under the effects of mesmerism. I noticed also that its lips did not move, its waxy face remaining set in the same impassive expression. ‘In Newington Butts,’ it intoned, ‘on the 22nd of September in the Year of Our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Ninety-One.’

‘And how did you come to join the Royal Institution?’ called out another of the Members.

‘I began as Mr Humphry Davy’s laboratory assistant,’ replied the spectre, ‘although he later opposed my election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. I trust you will not be so short-sighted in considering the application of the enterprising Dutch gentleman who has summoned me here tonight.’

More questions followed, all answered in the same eerie tone. Becoming surprised that Holmes had nothing to offer, I turned and, my eyes now somewhat adjusted to the dark, perceived that he was cupping first one ear and then the other, turning his head to and fro each time the apparition spoke.

The apparition having apparently answered their questions satisfactorily, the Members now commenced a hushed but excited confabulation. Suddenly Holmes’ strong voice rang out. ‘And could you, Mr Faraday, explain your theories of electric and magnetic fields? In particular, ray propagation.’

There was a long pause. ‘It is not easy… there is so little time,’ the voice replied at last. I noticed that the image that we could see had by now faded and was becoming oddly indistinct.

Holmes was undeterred. ‘Just the rudimentary basis will do, I fancy. Would you say that radiation consists of a flow of particles, for example, or a vibration in empty space?’

I was quite astounded by all this, since it had never occurred to me that Holmes had even the most basic grounding in theoretical physics. The apparition, too, seemed nonplussed. ‘I have passed beyond such concepts now,’ it maintained. ‘Here in the afterlife, the sum total of scientific knowledge is no more than a bubble in the ectoplasmic ether.’

There was another pause, then Huygens spoke up: ‘The Resonator is losing power now. Soon contact will be broken. Farewell, great sage of the past.’

‘Farewell, all of you,’ said the eerie voice. ‘Consider this man’s request to continue his work in my laboratory; I consider him most eminently suitable…’

As we watched, the face hovering above us began to shimmer and literally melt away, dissolving into nothingness. A moment later, Huygens called for the lamps to be turned up and we were left – a rather pale and shaken company, I must say – to reflect on what we had witnessed.

I say that we were shaken, but I must exclude Holmes from that. The moment that the gas lamps were up, he leapt energetically from his seat and began to pace up and down in front of the table. To the disgust of many present, he also took out his pipe and stuffed it with quantities of his abominable tobacco. Within minutes, the front of the auditorium was overhung by a vile-smelling blue haze of smoke.

We all soon gathered around Huygens’ apparatus, and a couple of the Members went so far as to shake the man’s hand. The bald old gentleman who had been so sceptical earlier now changed his tune: ‘A capital demonstration, Dr Huygens! You must let me know all about your remarkable device.’

I sidled over to Holmes, who had followed a few cursory glances at the main apparatus with a close examination of the black-covered table itself, lifting the material and peering beneath. ‘Look at this, Watson,’ he said, indicating a number of large wooden boxes wired together. ‘Those are electric accumulator cells, used for storing electric energy. That may explain the burns on Huygens’ fingers, at least.’

‘Holmes, really, I feel that you have been holding out on me, my dear fellow. Where did you pick up such knowledge of Faraday’s work?’

He fixed me with an amused gaze. ‘Bluff, Watson, all bluff. I know almost nothing of such matters, but I thought that somebody should ask the apparition a question that involved more than the mundane knowledge that anyone could answer given a good memory and a biography of Faraday. I was not especially impressed by his reply, were you?’

As he spoke, he was tracing the wires back beneath the table, He stooped and pulled into view a pincer-like device which I recognized as a small arc‑lamp, of the type used for theatrical lighting, The only other item by the table was a tray of whitish looking material on a small platform.

Seeing what he was doing, Huygens broke away from the group of Members talking to him and started to hurry over. ‘Mr Holmes! Mr Holmes!’ he objected. ‘Please stand away from there. The equipment is most delicate.’

Holmes contrived to ignore this in his customary patrician way, ‘What is this tray?’ he enquired, pointing behind the table. ‘It appears to be filled with hot melted wax.’

‘That is ectoplasmic residue,’ declared Huygens. ‘It is a side effect of the apparatus.’

I saw Holmes dip his finger into the wax, then cup his hands around it and bend down so as to inspect it in the darkness beneath the cloth-covered table. Sucking thoughtful­ly on his pipe, he rose to his feet.

‘Well?’ demanded Huygens, muster­ing a show of bravado. ‘Admit it, you can detect no fraud.’

‘On the contrary,’ said Holmes, ‘it is really a very simple matter, I am sorry to say. No more than a one-pipe problem.’

He pointed to the upper reaches of the auditorium, where the light of the gas lamps hardly penetrated. Everyone looked up. Rather surprisingly, we could discern that the smoke of his pipe was not rising vertically. Instead, it seemed to be sliding laterally along an invisible bar­rier set at forty-five degrees to the wall.

‘A case of laminar flow,’ explained Holmes. ‘Sir Albert, if you have one of your attendants fetch a ladder, then I think you will discover a thin sheet of glass which Mr Huygens mounted up there earlier. The gloom makes it all but invisible from down here on the floor.’

While Huygens spluttered in an attempt at explanation, I stepped forward. ‘Confound it, Holmes, will you explain what has been going on here?’

‘It is very simple,’ declared Holmes. ‘I think that Mr Huygens - or whatever his name is – must have hoped that the recognition of the Royal Institution would have done wonders for his con­juring act. He is a conjurer, of course, as his stage manner alone would reveal. Since I made sure to ascertain where the voice we heard was coming from, I can also state that he is an accomplished ventriloquist.’

He turned to Huygens. ‘The acoustics of this large hall helped you in that, sir, but while all others had their eyes on the apparition, I chose to use my ears to investigate the voice.’

Huygens drew breath, as if preparing for an argument. Then, resignedly, he shrugged and pulled off his glasses. ‘I suppose the game is up,’ he said with a sigh. ‘You are right, sir, I am a conjuror – Riemann is my name. I am due to start a series of performances here in London in the New Year, and the sort of free publicity I might have gained from my little trick here would have helped very well.’

‘The trick in question was of course Pepper’s Ghost,’ Holmes explained. ‘A very old trick indeed, certainly used by conjurors at least forty years ago but in fact based on the work done by Baptista Porta in the sixteenth century. A wax image of Faraday’s head was mounted upside-down beneath the table. This wax was dusted with phosphorescent material, as I discovered a few moments ago. It is well known that this fascinating material will glow for a while after being illuminated by a strong light. I have seen such a demonstration in this very room. You will find such a lamp beneath the table. Prior to our admittance, the lamp had been shining on the phosphorescent material. After the lamps were turned down, our eyes could pick up its glow. We could not see this directly, since the table concealed it. We did see its translu­cent reflection on the pane of glass mounted above, however. I suspected it was a reflected image and no true manifes­tation when I saw that its glow did not in fact illuminate the ceiling.’

‘But surely, Holmes,’ I interjected, ‘there is no sign of any face. And what is the reason for this elaborate apparatus which we have been examining?’

My friend smiled. ‘The illusion would have been obvious even to you if the face were still to be seen after the demonstration. I fancy that you will find this is a heated plate, which eventually melted the wax, as we saw when the image shimmered and lost its form. As for the rest of the apparatus, you should know that a good conjuror always makes sure that his audience are led astray. It is there merely to distract you from the trickery.’

‘This is an outrage!’ thundered Sir Albert at Riemann. ‘Have you any conception of what you have attempted, sir? Why, you tried to perpetrate a heinous hoax on the Members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain! I have a good mind to have you arrested!’

Holmes touched my sleeve and indicated we should be going. ‘Try to look on the bright side, Sir Albert,’ he remarked. ‘You surely don’t want to involve the gentlemen of the press, and if Mr Riemann had charged you the usual fee for his conjuring act, it would have cost you half a crown at least. Therefore God rest ye merry, gentlemen, for it is the season of good will to all men. Goodnight.’

1 comment:

  1. Very good story should write another sherlock Holmes story but make it longer