Prologue: The Fool
IT IS with the greatest reluctance that I consign these papers to the travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M. D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid, and then said box to the vaults of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross.
I have, in earlier narratives, made references to multiple cases which have never been published, which are also contained in that very same box. The reasons for these stories to never see a printing press are many: some are sealed away because of their involving personages of significant rank of distinction upon whose honor they would inevitably impugn. Some are sealed away because their solution was so simple as to be narratively unsatisfying; I have, after all, some pretensions to literary credentials, and therefore shall not attempt to wring a story of decent length out of events which would span a mere three pages. Some final stories are then those which have never been brought to a satisfying solution, and which Holmes has asked me not to bring to light; even one such as him still has his reputation to consider.
No, the narrative which is to follow - which has, as per usual, been reconstructed based on my extensive notes during the year they span, as well as some minor exaggerations of facts which Holmes so disdains but which are essential to the quality of the prose and the story itself - has been suppressed because in it, events occur of such a singular and bizarre nature that even I, having been present from the very beginning, cannot bring myself to believe they occurred.
It was the night of January 1st, 1899. Ms. Hudson had outdone herself in preparing a most excellent feast; the roast was, more than any year, delicious. The stroke of midnight had passed, and I had long past retired to my bedroom.
I make no habit of remembering my dreams; more often than I would like to admit I am plagued by nightmares of that chaotic scene which I witnessed, for a short time, at the Battle of Maiwand, where I was wounded by that Jezail bullet - a wound that, when the weather is particularly bad, plagues me still. This time, however, my dreams were not a replaying of that most horrible chaos, where men screamed, bullets tore all around, and the air was thick with the stench of cordite and blood.
Instead, my dreams were those of a thick fog - so thick as to impede sight of the surroundings after more than a meter, at most. In my dream, a soft light diffused the mist, though which time of day it was I cannot rightly say. I was not wholly awake, yet not fully dreaming.
Lost in this fog, my attention moved indelibly to the vehicle riding through it, in fact the only object which could be seen at all. It was a hansom cab, of the type which are often seen barreling through London; no horse was pulling it, yet its momentum was undeniable. It is now, years later, that I hear of motorized cars, which move under their own power. However, the telltale roar of such a motor was immense in its absence.
Later, when I mentioned this to Holmes, he offered that perhaps the carriage was still and it was its surroundings that were moving. Discombobulated as I was by the experience, I did not reject this little joke of his out of hand, as I otherwise would have.
My consciousness entered this hansom, in any case, drawn there by some magnetic force. I was, in this dream, no more than a consciousness - less than a soul, more than a mind.
Inside the carriage sat a man of an extraordinarily bizarre appearance. It was, somehow, difficult to place him as being of any particular race, except that he was extremely pale - almost an albino, in fact. He was dressed like a wealthy gentleman; his suit, though not in a style I recognized, was wholly black and of a very fine cut. His hands were clad in fine, silver gloves, each of his long fingers intertwined as he sat back into his chair.
The most extraordinary thing, however, was his face. He was almost completely bald, except for a shock of white hair at the back of his head. In all the time I would come to know him, I had never seen him without a wide grin, which did nothing to make him seem more human. These two features, combined with his extremely long nose, made me assume at first that he was wearing a mask, one reminiscent of those wildly excessive Venetian festivals of which one hears only rumours.
Yet as he looked straight at me, I saw at once that he was not masked at all; these features, exaggerated though they seemed, were his own. Would that they were the oddest things about him!
"Welcome, Doctor Watson," he said, chuckling in what I come to know as that odd way of his. He unfurled his long, graceful fingers and swept his hand across the table which was placed in the middle of the hansom, as if to gesture to the entirety of the cab. "You have found yourself on the edge between mind and matter, I see. My name is Igor, and this peculiar vehicle is called the Velvet Room."
Igor regarded me with those masterful eyes of his, still wearing that grotesque grin. "It is the first night of the year, Doctor. An old year has passed, and a new year has begun. Will you allow me to give you a belated gift?" From a valise at his feet, he drew a folder such as a clerk might use, but dyed deep blue and decorated with fine silver filigree. If there was anything else in the valise, I did not know. He laid it open on the table with another flourish of his thin hands, displaying a contract printed upon paper so thin it was nearly transparent.
I was about to protest; though I never considered myself superstitious, I was not such a creature of logic that I would sign a deal with anyone who appeared in dreams and spoke in riddles. It had all the elements of a deal with the devil, bizarre as the thought was.
But as the remonstrations were about to fall from my lips, he held up a hand, and some instinct held me back from refusing.
Igor gestured once more at the contract, and my attention was drawn to its wording. It merely said that during the next year - that is to say, 1899 - I would be honor-bound to do my very best to solve a particular case, the details of which would become apparent during that very same time period.
At its bottom, however, was printed elegant lettering, which spelled out my own name to the left, underneath which was left enough space to sign the document. But that was not what caused me consternation.
In its right corner was another name - that of Sherlock Holmes. A paradoxical feeling rose within me at once. Relief, that whatever this was I should not face it alone; anger, that my greatest friend should be involved in some sort of diabolical scheme; worry, trust, and more were all warring within me, so that I could neither pick up the pen nor refuse out of hand.
Igor regarded me with amusement and no small amount of curiosity.
"Perhaps you are not quite ready yet to sign, doctor Watson. It is no problem, luckily," he said. With another gesture of his hand, the folder within which the contract lay slid closed, hiding it from my eyes.
Yet even then he did not look away from me. "However, doctor Watson, I will eventually require an answer from you," Igor said in that drawling voice of his, and then added, "Whether that answer is in the positive or negative sense is up to you, of course. Allow me to offer you a compromise, then.
In a scant few moments, you shall awaken in your bed at the usual time, well-rested. The compromise is as follows: should you, the next time you see Sherlock Holmes, discuss with him this very contract, then that shall be taken as your assent. Should you not mention it at all, then you shall have refused, and therefore you will have forgotten all about it the very next instant."
This, at least, was agreeable to me, though I had not the slightest inclination to ever mention the matter again.
Though I vocalized nothing, Igor nodded. "It is agreed, then," he said, and knocked on the trapdoor at the top. I realized, suddenly, that I had not seen a driver for the hansom as of yet. Looking through the trapdoor I saw a quick flash of pale, blonde hair, a blue uniform, and a face which seemed achingly familiar, but I could make no more sense of the scene before all went white before my eyes and I finally, blessedly woke up.
It was as Igor had said; I was, indeed, feeling well rested, and I remembered every single detail of the dream from which I had just awoken, though I did not feel any urge to do so whatsoever. My morning ablutions were perhaps slightly more hurried than normal, as I attempted to put the queer man out of my mind entirely, as well as the odd hansom which seemed to be in motion without anything to move it forward and with no real destination.
I had just come down for breakfast - a full English, served by Ms. Hudson in her usual manner, although - perhaps for the sake of the festivities - she had replaced the usual kippers with kedgeree. I wished her a Happy New Year and thanked for her service; I had already tucked into the hearty meal when Holmes came down the stairs in a state which it was extremely rare to see him in, that being generally bemused.
"Happy New Year, Watson," he said, and seated himself at his usual seat at the table. But, interrupting himself in the motion of filling his plate, he turned to me with a queer look upon his face and remarked, in a light and pleasant tone: "Do you know, I just had the oddest dream. Does the Velvet Room mean anything to you, Watson?"
It was the quiet clink of my cutlery falling from my hands in sheer astonishment, the befuddled look I cast at Holmes, my sharp intake of breath, that was the signal with which the Adventure of the Velvet Room officially began.
"You've seen it too?" I exclaimed. I had been sure that it had been nothing more than an odd dream, perhaps caused by the stress of the impending sale of my practice or by eating too much of Ms. Hudson's cooking that night.
Astonished as I was by the fact that somehow, Holmes and I seen the same dream - though it was questionable, at that point, whether it could be called a dream at all - it was a while before I suitably calmed down, recovered the composure of the gentleman society felt me to be, and sat down to my breakfast once more.
"But how is this possible, Holmes?" I asked, the kedgeree laying sadly forgotten on my plate, despite Ms. Hudson's culinary prowess. "I admit, dreams are not something my medical education covered. But still, to think that we would see the same dream! It boggles the mind."
"Not quite, Watson," said Holmes. "Among the papers I have read, there are those that suggest dreams are influenced by what we see during the day. Yet for that to make sense, there should be some inciting incident. Something that imprints itself on both of our minds indelibly. And yet we have not taken a hansom for the better part of the week. Furthermore, I cannot recall anything about ever hearing of this Velvet Room. Judging by your reaction at breakfast, neither have you."
Holmes sat back in his chair and adopted a thinking pose, resting his chin on his hands. "And then there is Igor," he said. "He seems to be a man of some wealth. He is ambidextrous - naturally so, I would venture; he lacks the stiffness of those who have trained themselves to be such. He wore a suit of a fine cut but no topcoat was to be found anywhere in the hansom, even though the inclement weather outside should merit it. And yet he was perfectly dry. Moreover, the weather last night was exceptionally clear for this time of year. If we should have been taken somewhere, then that would be quite far indeed, and without disturbing our rooms in the slightest!"
He threw himself back further into his chair and sighed. "I cannot make sense of this Igor," he confessed. "How old is he? By his hair I would say no less than 60 years of age, but his gloves handily hide the skin of his hands. What is his profession? His valise suggests him to be a clerk, but dresses like a wealthy gentleman of leisure. From where does he originate? He speaks without any accent I have ever heard. His name is Slavic, but phrenologically speaking he does not seem it in the slightest. I have never before met a more baffling man!"
He stood up, picked up his Stradivarius, and began to play. A soft, wailing serenade rang out through the apartment, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere.
I, too, attempted to make sense of the happenings. As was my habit I made notes of what occurred so far, though they lacked any sort of coherence; I cannot say that, in attempting to make sense of them a year later, I find the notes from those confused first days altogether too useful.
A sudden burst of inspiration tore through my thoughts, and I walked to the shelf on the side where Holmes kept his reference books. I pulled one out - the volume which was marked with a V - and began to look through it, scanning through its alphabetical lists and not sure whether or not I hoped to find some information about the Room.
"Capital idea, Watson!" said Holmes, and abandoning his violin, he moved next to me to pick up another volume. I glanced at it; he was leafing through the entries with an I, presumably to find some mention of this Igor fellow.
Yet neither of us had any success. If this Velvet Room was indeed something which existed beyond the world of dreams and which, furthermore, was mingling in our affairs, then it seemed this was the first either of us had ever heard of it.
I glanced sideways at Holmes, who was at the moment caught in an odd state - completely puzzled, yet delighted over this fresh new mystery. At the very least, it seemed an end had come to the drought of cases that was oddly common around these times. I prefer to think this was because the holidays inspired warm feelings in even the most piteous wretch, although I have never put this theory to Holmes: he would no doubt make some disparaging remark about it, and about my faith in our species.
In any case, our immediate venues of research exhausted, we retired once more to our sitting chairs by the fire. The weather outside, by this point, had degenerated to the point where snowflakes piling up against the glass obscured our vision of the street below. Not that there was much to see; the snow had effectively brought most of London's cabs to a halt, and it was too cold yet for anyone without some important goal to go for a walk.
"Well, Watson," Holmes eventually said to me as we warmed ourselves with a glass of good brandy and settled ourselves to wait for nightfall, "I confess that it has been a long time indeed that I have so looked forward to sleep!"
Some hours later, night had once more come to 221B Baker Street. I had, not without misgivings, gone to bed; I had almost wanted to stay up all night and thereby evade the Velvet Room and its queer inhabitant, but Holmes eventually managed to dissuade me. It was a mere childish impulse, in any case, and yet as I awoke once more to find myself in the wide cab rolling its way through endless fog under its own power, I wished for a moment that I had done so anyway.
"Welcome back to the Velvet Room," Igor offered, his ever-present grin still disturbingly wide. On the table lay that folder which he had presented me with the night before; with a flick of his hand, it opened and once more displayed that contract, this time with my signature penned neatly beneath the dotted line. I noticed, too, that Holmes' signature had been added.
I felt beside me, in some undefinable manner, Holmes' calming presence, though the hansom would not be wide enough to allow both of us to sit side by side normally, and I could not, in any case, see him; the mind-sight of this strange place focused only on Igor.
"It is rare to see more than a single guest, you know," Igor said. "But then, it is rare to see a guest at all. I suppose that somehow, your destinies are inextricably linked..." He peered at Holmes intently, then shook his head as if responding to some question Holmes had asked, but that only he could hear.
"I am merely the attendant of the Velvet Room, Mr. Holmes. That is all I am, and nothing more. I have been asked by a higher power to invite you here and to offer some elucidation."
A higher power? Was this odd man perhaps - bizarre though the thought was - an angel? I am, and was never, a zealous believer; the scenes which I had seen at Maiwand had caused me such consternation that I wondered what the purposes of the Almighty were to allow them to occur at all.
Igor chuckled. "In one sense of the word, I am, doctor. I am a messenger, after all. But perhaps it is easier to think of me in a different capacity. You often get visitors, yes? I, too, have a problem which requires your aid. I might even call it a case, as I have mentioned before."
He peered at Holmes once more. If Igor was to be one of many who had come to consult with Holmes for some case or another, then he was most certainly the oddest.
"Yes, I suppose I have taken enough of your time, mister Holmes. Very well. I shall introduce the details of the case I wish you to investigate over the coming year. Allow me to put this in terms you are familiar with, gentlemen." Igor twined his fingers together. "Suppose that the mind was a physical location. It contains memories, knowledge, feelings..."
This was indeed a concept I had encountered before. Holmes had been the one to suggest the comparison, even - he had, upon being pressed about his general lack of knowledge, once referred to most having minds like cluttered attics, while his was exactingly organized to hasten the retrieval of all necessary information. Facts which he considered non-essential, which to my consternation counted among their number the fact that the Earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around, he discarded, believing they would merely encumber him.
"Let us call such a mind-place a Locus. If there exist two places, naturally, there must be streets to connect them, to extend the metaphor. From streets come blocks, from which come blocks, from which come towns and which then evolve into cities, once enough people are brought together," Igor said, then gestured around him: "London is one such place, as it more than qualifies to have such a city of Loci. We call these cities Polis, for convenience. But as of late there has been someone travelling through the London Polis with ill intentions."
This part of the explanation, I met with suspicion and incredulity. It was not my natural tendency nor my ingrained habit to question petitioners at our doorstep, but from Holmes, too, I felt a quite bemused sort of reaction.
But Holmes, for all his deductions and lectures which claimed both to be founded on pure logic and not to involve any emotion whatsoever, also had a real love for dramatics. He had often withheld the important facts of a case from me until such time as to have the maximum impact, as well as the greatest audience to have for it. It was at times a humanizing trait, but just as frequently it was a supremely annoying one. It was this trait, I believe, which led him to indulge Igor in speaking in so mystifying a manner.
"This mystery is what I should wish you to solve, gentlemen: find this interloper and, over the following year, avert his plans to cause catastrophe." Igor shook his head. "That is all I am able to tell you, however. I cannot interfere in the affairs of men more than I already have."
I felt some reaction from Holmes - his usual excitement at having a fascinating case laid before him. Perhaps he had no interest in this interloper, whosoever he might be, but his interest in Igor had, by this point, been definitively aroused. I could imagine him, as if sitting in his chair in our rooms, firing off question after question at a witness, the reasoning behind which I could only appreciate after the fact.
While at the time, I could only perceive the answers Igor gave, I have attempted to reconstruct the conversation to some degree from speaking with Holmes himself.
"When did this interloper first intrude upon the Polis?" Holmes asked.
"We first noticed his presence some time ago - some months ago, by your reckoning. However, information is not quick to travel. Perhaps a door has been open for a while, yet escaped our attention." Igor responded.
"How did he get access to these Loci? Is he supported by another like yourself?"
"That is something you must discover, mister Holmes. The answer to the second question, however, is no. Not one like myself, nor do I myself have contact with the interloper."
"You cannot tell us where this interloper has been?"
Igor peered at Holmes. "Distance and locations are of little import in this place, mister Holmes. It matters more that you feel yourself to be traveling."
I was discombobulated by this, yet Holmes barreled through: "Yet criminals, as I have often said, are creatures of habit - more so, even, than their fellow man. It has been crucial to my finding proof of crime more than once. You will recall, Watson, the case of the Abernatty family, where the only reason we figured out the crime was by the curious fact a watch had been left unwound."
(This particular aside was a later addition of Holmes' - he could not, of course, ask a question of me while in the Velvet Room, where we were not capable of talking as such.)
Then he addressed Igor again and resumed his rapid-fire questioning. "In short, you cannot tell if the interloper has visited any Locus more than once?"
"I cannot, mister Holmes."
"Then is there some way to identify this man, that we might spot him during the day?" I pressed.
"He does not differ from any other man in daylight, doctor Watson. I can, however, tell you that if you were to find him in the Polis there should be no difficulty in recognizing him for what he is."
Igor's grin grew just a little more dim - the only sign of discomfort I have known him to show. "It is a terrible thing, what has occurred. I should wish for you not to suffer in that manner, gentlemen."
Holmes, in response, came finally to that point which I had been wondering all this time: "And how are we meant to intrude upon the Polis? We need some sort of recognition, surely, that we are not seen to be interlopers, just as our adversary! We must visit Loci for ourselves; certainly we cannot rely merely upon this information you have supplied to find them."
"Of course, mister Holmes. It is not my intention that you too should be a disturbing force on those many minds around you. To that end, I will fulfill my end of the contract."
A flick of his wrist caused a deck of cards to appear in his hands, like he had performed a magic trick of the kind seen in the lesser sort of music halls. With slow, deliberate motions, he shuffled the deck of cards, and then laid one carefully at my end of the table, then another nearby Holmes.
Igor's cards, I saw, were of markedly high quality, but in most ways quite similar to the tarot cards favored by gypsies and fortune tellers alike.
It was, come to think of it, not the first time Holmes and I had dealt with fortune tellers, psychics, mediums, or other charlatans who claimed to have occultic powers. Holmes had taken a particular pleasure in displaying how they wrought their tricks - one memorable example had deceived a bereaved mother into believing that he could speak to her son in heaven by means of hiring a remarkable ventriloquist and installing an ingenious system of pipes underneath the table.
At his wordless prompting, the cards he had laid down before us were turned over.
The card I had received depicted a woman, who was holding back a lion without difficulty. That there was symbolism in this depiction was obvious, but try though I might I could not, at the time, interpret it. Above her head floated a sideways number 8, the symbol I dimly recalled as representing infinity. In fine lettering, it announced itself to be called "Strength".
Holmes, meanwhile, had received a card depicting a man hanging upside down from his ankle, a punishment I had never before heard of. As Holmes later explained to me, however, it was an Italian punishment for traitors - the torture of traitors being a subject on which he had once written an extensive monograph, in the idea that it might help in identifying politically-motivated murders. More importantly, the card itself suggested that the man depicted willingly underwent this torment, in order to somehow gain wisdom from the heavens.
"Merely concentrate on this card while you are awake, and you shall find yourselves in the Polis," Igor explained. "However, you must take care, for anyone nearby who is aware of the card may also find themselves transported."
He clapped his hands. "The stroke of midnight is now long past, gentlemen. My message has been given, and I shall now return you once more to your beds. I bid you good luck. We shall meet again when the time is right."
Igor knocked at the door of the hansom, and once more I saw a flash of something familiar about the driver - whose existence I had somehow forgotten completely. Holmes, too, had not expected we would be made to exit suddenly, and I felt his presence stir in its seat.
But a white light spread from the table, taking us with it in its flood outwards...
I awoke in my bed, sputtering at the abruptness of our departure from that strange hansom, and hastened from my bedroom. I made for Holmes' door, intent on asking which questions he had asked and seeing if he had somehow derived more meaning from them than I had managed to, and damn the early hour.
However, as I crossed our living room, I saw lying neatly on the table those two cards Igor had mentioned. As I bent over them to inspect them, Holmes left his room. We looked at each other, still in bed clothes, neither us having attended our morning ablutions, my mustache disheveled. Almost shamefaced, I handed him that odd card which Igor had given him; moments later, we both burst out laughing.