Author's Note: This fic contains elements from the 1975 Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars. The characterisations of Holmes and Watson are based on the performances of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series. This story takes place ostensibly between The Sign of Four and The Devil's Foot in the Granada run.
Disclaimer: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson do not belong to me. Doctor Who elements are copyright to the BBC and the late Robert Holmes.
THE HAND OF SETH
Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H Watson MD
"What do you know of Egyptology, Watson?"
The question had come out of the blue – I glanced up from the newspaper that my head had been nodding over for the past half an hour to see Sherlock Holmes standing before me on the hearthrug with a large and important-looking envelope in his hand. It took a moment for my sleep-fuddled brain to register the fact that the post must have arrived while I had been dozing.
"Very little, beyond the incredible number of gods they seemed to worship," I said, rubbing at my eyes and smothering a yawn. "Why do you ask?"
In reply he threw the envelope into my lap. "What do you make of that?"
"Heavy," I said, picking up the missive and holding it up to the light. There was a crest on the back – two crossed swords circled by a garland and surmounted by a bird that appeared to be a raven. "Evidently from someone with an impressive pedigree."
"The earls of Harcourt, no less. It was posted this morning, by a man who had lately been a kitchen where a great deal of baking had been taking place. The envelope is addressed in a rather hurried style, by someone who is naturally left-handed but has been using the pen of a person who favours the right. London postmark, single sheet enclosure," Holmes rattled off, in a manner that at the start of our friendship would have astonished me but which I now almost took for granted. "In it the earl's eldest son, Viscount Amsworth, states his intention to consult me on 'a perplexing family matter', at eleven o'clock on Thursday."
"It all sounds perfectly normal," I remarked, "but what is the connection with Egypt? And how do you know that the man is left-handed but using a right-hander's pen?"
Holmes smiled slightly, and returned to his chair on the opposite side of the fireplace. "The pen is simple: the writing leans in the manner typical to many left-handed people, yet it leans against the flow of the pen. Pen nibs become accustomed to the quirks of their user's writing. It is quite clear in this case that Lord Amsworth is left-handed, but for reasons known to himself used a pen belonging to someone who favours the right."
As always, the explanation made perfect sense. "And Egypt?"
He reached a long arm behind him to take down a copy of Who's Who from the shelf above my desk, swiftly flicking through the pages to find the entry he wanted. "The Harcourts have long had an association with Egypt. The late earl was Her Majesty's ambassador in Cairo for many years. I recalled that the family had been in the news recently – the British Museum have been attempting to raise enough capital to buy a very rare and important Egyptian statue from the Harcourts."
"Buy it?" I blinked in surprise. "Would it not have been better form for the Harcourts to donate the thing to the museum?"
"So one would imagine, but it appears that the earl is not of a particularly altruistic bent," said Holmes, leaning forwards to hand me the red-bound volume so that I could study the earl's career for myself. He settled back into his chair and dug around in the Persian slipper for some tobacco, packing it tightly into the bowl of his pipe. "There is something of a dispute, I believe, as the Egyptian government would very much like to have the piece returned."
"Is that likely?"
Holmes shrugged. "If the government can afford the price that Harcourt is asking…who can say?" He lit the pipe, taking a long draw upon it. Almost immediately, he broke into a fit of coughing that sent me hurrying to the sideboard for a glass of water. By the time I returned to his side the fit had subsided, but he was chalk white, one hand pressed against his chest. I put the glass into the other, urging him to drink.
"Holmes, are you quite all right?" I asked when he had taken a couple of tentative sips. He had not been entirely himself since returning from a complex case that had taken him away from Baker Street at all hours of the day and night. I knew that he had not been eating properly, and had heard him pacing the sitting room until dawn on more than one occasion.
"I am perfectly well, Watson," he said, somewhat breathlessly, putting the glass aside, "Pray do not disturb yourself on my account."
"I beg to differ. You're running yourself into the ground, old man. Even someone with your constitution can only push his body so far before it cracks under the strain."
"Nonsense. A full night's sleep is all I need."
I decided to leave the matter for the moment, knowing that he would never allow me near him with my medical bag to determine the true state of his health. "Just make sure that you have one," I told him, "I've heard you marching about down here every night for more than a week. You must be exhausted by now."
"Now that I no longer have to devote all my energy to solving such a tangle of a problem, I can spare a little for less than important functions," he replied, and I almost laughed aloud. Only Sherlock Holmes would regard sleep and sustenance as unimportant!
I did not see much of him for the next two days, busy as I was at the surgery and he on some work of his own which he declined to share with me. It was Thursday morning before our paths eventually crossed for more than a few moments, when I came down to breakfast to find him sitting at the table amid a fug of smoke from that foul pipe he usually smoked at that time and surrounded by a drift of discarded newspapers.
I could see immediately that although Mrs Hudson had already been in with the dishes, he had not eaten anything. His plate sat untouched before him, a cup of coffee cooling at his elbow. "You'll do yourself no good if you go on like this," I remarked as I took my seat.
"My apologies, Watson, I do not feel particularly hungry this morning," came the response from behind The Morning Post.
I made a grunt of disapproval, knowing that I could hardly force him to eat if he chose not to. "Have you had that sleep you needed?"
"A little." He coughed, whether because of the atmosphere in the room or something else I could not tell. The smoke was making me feel light-headed, so I got up to open the window. Holmes had a particularly unpleasant habit of creating a before-breakfast pipe from the plugs and dottles of every other he had smoked the day before, and which he lined up on the mantelpiece to dry. The result was truly remarkable and not at all conducive to a clear head first thing.
Silence reigned in the sitting room as I attacked my breakfast and Holmes continued his daily dissection of the agony columns. Sheets of newspaper littered the floor and hung over the back of the settee, which itself appeared to be piled high with books on Ancient Egypt. I could see that Holmes had already been clipping interesting articles from the papers for his scrapbooks, as many of the pages had large holes in them.
"Mrs Hudson will have a fit when she sees this," I told my friend, who barked a laugh from behind his paper.
"She has already read me a lecture upon the subject. I did remind her that I had not asked her to tidy the room, but that seemed not to placate her."
"I'm not surprised! The poor woman knows that whether you ask or not she will be the one clearing up behind you. She knows you of old, Holmes."
"Nonsense. Mrs Hudson is out of temper because the delivery boy brought the wrong groceries, her sister's cat is missing again and the fire in the downstairs parlour refuses to draw. It has very little to do with me," Holmes said airily, at last lowering the newspaper and laying it aside. He reached for his coffee and took a sip, pulling a face at its temperature. It was only then that he became aware of my scrutiny, and raised a querying eyebrow.
"You do not look well, Holmes," I said, and in truth he did not. He was always pale, as his deplorable habits would never give him a healthy complexion, but this morning his face seemed drained of anything approaching colour. There were dark circles under his heavy-lidded eyes, and I could see even through the fabric of his dressing gown that his spare frame was looking almost emaciated.
He shook his head, holding up a hand in denial, but it appeared that his body had at last had enough of such cavalier treatment as he fell to coughing almost upon cue. His thin hand clutched convulsively at his chest, as though the fit caused him some considerable pain. I passed him a handkerchief and a glass of water, resting a reassuring hand on his shoulder as the fit subsided.
"You can't go on like this," I told him, pulling out the chair next to his and sitting down so that I could regard him properly. His eyes as he turned them on me were watering from the exertion of the coughing fit.
"Then what do you suggest?" he asked hoarsely.
"The very things you have been denying yourself: rest, warmth, food. And you will allow me to make a proper examination - "
He groaned theatrically.
" – so that we may determine how serious your condition really is. Holmes," I added as he shook his head once more and flapped a hand weakly at me, "if we do not, there is a strong possibility that you will drive yourself to a complete nervous collapse. If that occurs, you may never work again. Are you listening to me?"
He stared at me, eyes wide and brows raised at the severity of my pronouncement. "Never - ?"
I nodded. "Now do you see the reason for my concern?"
Holmes opened his mouth to reply, but before he could speak a hammering started up on the front door, making us both jump. He glanced at the clock. "Ah, that will be our client, considerably ahead of his time."
"Holmes - " I began as he rose from the table with an effort and hurriedly began stuffing newspapers onto the shelves and behind chairs.
"Later, Watson, later," came the reply, and with a sigh I fell to helping him, inwardly cursing our visitor's timing.
Thankfully, by the time Mrs Hudson showed James Ravensley, Viscount Amsworth, into the sitting room it looked more or less tidy, though I caught our landlady's gimlet gaze on the stack of newspapers hidden on a chair. I pushed the offending piece of furniture under the table just as Holmes emerged from his bedroom, shaking out the folds of his hastily-donned coat.
"Lord Amsworth to see you, sir," Mrs Hudson announced, giving Holmes a pointed look which he ignored.
"Thank you, Mrs Hudson. You are early, my lord," Holmes remarked once she had departed and shut the door.
"I do apologise, Mr Holmes, for bursting in upon you in this manner, and at such an hour, but the truth is that I am at my wits' end," said the young man earnestly.
Holmes indicated the sofa and waved a hand in my direction. "My friend and colleague, Doctor Watson. Do sit down and tell me how I may assist you."
Lord James perched on the edge of the settee, his hands clenching and unclenching repeatedly, his eyes darting about the room. He must be no more than three- or four-and-twenty I guessed, small and slight of stature and fashionably dressed, his dark hair glossy and neatly brushed. He had, however, the aspect of a hunted man.
"I have come to you, Mr Holmes," he said, his voice tight with what I realised with surprise was fear, "because I am convinced that by the week's end I will be dead."