A Case of Insanity

Chapter One

"Watson," remarked Sherlock Holmes one stifling afternoon in mid June of 1897, "you should go, you really should."

I had other things on my mind that day, so I answered without thinking or registering that once again he had performed that eloquent, if presumptuous, trick of reading my thoughts without my having voiced them.

"I would," I replied. "Only, it is impossible at the present time."

Holmes regarded me over his steepled fingers. "For a man of letters, you have a remarkable distain for the correct and proper usage of the English language that at times borders on Philistinism. The definition of 'impossible', if my memory does not deceive me, is something that has little likelihood of happening or of being accomplished. In this instance, its application as an adequate description of your situation is inappropriate. It is not 'impossible' that you go; rather, you choose not to, and hide behind meaningless adjectives as a means of procrastination."

"Is that what I'm doing?" I countered warily.

"Indeed, and you are a poor exponent of the art. Your vacillation in this matter is both unpardonable and, may I add, unwarranted."

"Holmes," said I, glad for once to find him in disputatious mood, "have you ever thought that you might be a sesquipedalian?" [1]

He managed a mirthless grunt. "A man is judged by the company he keeps, and if I claim mine to be those somewhat florid, though expressive, words that appear so rarely in our everyday speech, then I trust I shall not be judged too harshly. I would rather bear the title of pedant than stand accused of the debasement of the language."

"No one would ever accuse you of that," I said with a smile.

"So, to return to my original question, why aren't you going?"

"How do you know that I am due to go anywhere?"

"Dear me," said Holmes, "first procrastination, now prevarication – Watson, your sins are too numerous to mention. Let us hope that the recording angel overlooks these, the most minor and forgivable of your failings. As to your question, that is not so great a mystery. Your actions are always most revealing. The Daily Telegraph follows that predicable pattern of many a newspaper in always displaying the announcement of births, deaths and marriages on the same page, the very one you were reading before you laid it aside. Your hand then strayed to your watch-chain, as it does now."

It was true that unconsciously I had repeated the gesture, my fingers closing around the small band of gold that had once adorned my wife's hand.

"From there," Holmes continued, "your gaze was directed to the mantle. That cream envelope has been there since Monday evening."

"How can you tell?"

"Dust, my dear fellow. Mrs Hudson is another hide-bound by routine. She always dusts on a Monday. Today is Thursday."

He spoke with his usual authority, in the manner of a pedagogue lecturing to a room of awed and impressionable students. It was a voice that defied challenge, and one that I had not heard for many weeks. Therefore was my pain all the greater at having to correct him on the most elementary of mistakes.

"In matter of fact, Holmes, today is Friday."

His expression had become mildly strained and with the wannest of smiles did he attempt to make light of his mistake.

"No matter, whether Thursday or Friday, the same principle applies. If you look closely, you will observe that a fine layer of dust has settled on and around the envelope, but not beneath it, as one might expect had it been placed there more recently. As for the contents, the return address is that of a Dr Joseph Tarrant of Richmond. I recall you mentioning the fellow's name in connection with your bereavement. From there, it was no great feat to deduce that he has written to you in the expectation of enlisting your aid for some venture he has in mind. You, my dear fellow, have yet to reply, for I see your stock of envelopes has yet to be depleted."

I could not deny his assessment of the situation, for as ever Holmes had by his own methods divined my deepest secrets. I had my reasons for doing so, since the truth of the matter was that I was on the horns of a dilemma: whether a greater care of duty lay with a friend who steadfastly refused my help and another who clearly needed my assistance in his own hour of need.

To Holmes, the matter seemed simple enough; to me, however, it was not so easily squared with my conscience.

Under ordinary circumstances, I should have agreed to Dr Tarrant's request without hesitation. He asked little enough – that I look after his Surrey practice for a few weeks while he took his wife to the south coast in the hope that the sun and sea air might improve her delicate constitution. A refusal on my part would appear churlish, given that he had done as much for me and more during my own wife's final illness.

What preyed upon my mind was the prospect of leaving Holmes to his own devices for so long a period. This virtuoso display of his prowess regarding my correspondence, even with his lapse in concentration, normally would have been remarkable enough; that it came after nearly a week of his refusing to set foot outside our rooms, eking out a meagre existence on weak tea, dry toast and too much time with his own thoughts, was something to be lauded to the heavens.

As glad as I was to see his near return to the form of happier days, I was not altogether deceived. Despite what he would have me believe, I had my doubts about this apparent recovery. I have noted elsewhere that Holmes possessed considerable acting skills, and I could not be certain that I was not witness to a performance laid on for my benefit.

"You are correct," I answered in reply to his analysis of my present dilemma. "All the same, I cannot go."

"Ah," said he, "we are making progress. First, 'impossible', now 'cannot', suggesting that the ability exists, but one which you deny. You are wavering, Watson."

"Not enough, I fear."

"Yet go you should," said he decisively, rising to his feet and inspecting the litter on the mantle. Finding a vesta, he struck it and applied the flame to a cigarette. "The change would do you the world of good. If I may say so, my dear fellow, you appear to be somewhat drawn."

"I cannot think why."

The briefest of smiles passed across his face. "Your concern does you credit. However, you cannot wall yourself up in this mausoleum forever. I have been most grateful for your assistance these past weeks, but it would be unforgiveable of me to monopolise your time when other good causes await your attention. My choices should not dictate yours."

I held his gaze, wondering if he knew quite how erratic his behaviour had been since our return from Poldhu Bay. To my mind, his actions had been less from choice and more from compulsion.

"And you worry needlessly," he continued. "I am quite recovered."

"Are you?"

"Yes," he said, far too quickly for my liking. "The rejection of my thesis was a blow, I will grant you, but these things must be accepted for what they are. The truth of the matter is that I have challenged the universal theory – I have upset the apple cart, to use one of those colourful phrases that Lestrade employs to good effect – and those who have the most to lose have been the most vociferous in their condemnation."

To this, I said nothing. If believing that brought him any measure of peace and calmness of mind, then it was a theory I was ready to back to the hilt. To my own way of thinking, however, the reason was simple: he had been wrong.

I had never quite understood why he had conceived of the notion that Chaldean roots lay at the heart of the Cornish language, due, as he claimed, to interaction with Phoenician tin traders. At the time, I had been glad he had found what I thought was a harmless diversion to occupy his mind. I had not expected it, in the aftermath of the Tregennis case, to become an all-consuming passion with him, one which he pursued with the fervour of the obsessed. Finally, seeing his condition on the verge of deterioration, I was forced to agree to his insistence that we return to London so that he could continue his studies at the British Museum. Thus was our sojourn brought to a premature end.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes spent long days and even longer nights absorbed in study of the subject, leaving a paper trail of chaos in his wake that left both Mrs Hudson and myself at a loss. When he spoke of my assistance, it was strictly in my role as organiser of his affairs and sounding board for his ideas. It was certainly not for my opinion – any suggestion I dared to venture was summarily dismissed.

Had he listened to me, I might have been able to tell him that he had set himself up in opposition to the accepted thinking on the subject. While informed questioning of supposed established facts is to be welcomed, my own reading had revealed that scholars had long since identified the roots of Cornish as being Celtic, itself related to a common ancestor from which were descended most of the languages of Europe. [2]

Against my better judgement and ignored advice, the manuscript was sent to a notable Camford expert in the field. His reply was much as I had expected. Holmes's initial outrage at so curt a rejection of what he had believed was his magnum opus festered into sullen disaffection and the onset of the blackest of moods, the like of which I had not seen since I had hurried to his side at the Hotel Dulong in the April of 1887. [3]

On that occasion, it had taken rest and a case to restore him to a state nearing his usual self – which is why I had my doubts when Holmes now told me he had thrown off his depression quite so easily. In many things, he commanded my complete trust, but not in matters of his health.

I was thus in a worse quandary than ever.

"If I go," I began, watching his uneasy wanderings about the room, "would you come with me? I'm sure Tarrant wouldn't mind and—"

"No, no," he said. "It is quite out of the question. The whole basis of my thesis must be reworked. I must start again, and that requires my presence here, not in the wilds of Surrey."

"You could bring your work with you."

A sheaf of papers slid from the desk at the impatient sweep of his hand. "Where the devil did I put my notes on diphthongs? Professor Bennett made several salient points on the nature of the long 'e' that I must address."

As several books joined the growing pile of notebooks and papers on the floor, I rose, found the journal for which he was searching and held it out to him. A gleam lit in his eyes, their colour intensified by the blue-black bruising of sleeplessness that surrounded them. Eagerly he reached for it; just as quickly, I drew back.

"Why is this so important to you?" I asked, seeing a frown settle on his brow.

"It matters," said he with emphasis. He held out his hand, and I could not help but notice the slight tremor that shook a once steady limb. "Give me that book, Watson."

I ignored him. "This is more important than your cases?" I gestured to the mantle and the stack of unopened letters from potential clients that grew with every passing day. "What of them?"

"Cases," he said bitterly. "Is that your answer for everything? Have you read any of these 'appeals' in which you place so much faith, Doctor?"

"Have you?"

"I do not need to do so to know that they will contain the usual bleat concerning the petty inconveniences of daily life. The stolen jewel, the unfaithful lover, the missing dog. What glory is there in delving into this unspeakable mire of human misery?"

"It mattered to you, once."

"So it did." His shoulders sagged and a little of his ire left him. "'Fond man'," he murmured, his gaze drifting from mine, "'that thus dost spend in an ungrateful art thy dearest days, tiring thy wits and toiling to no end, but to attain that idle smoke of praise'. How very apt." [4]

"Do you believe that?" I asked.

"Have I not toiled? Yet I have precious little to show for it."

"You told me once that you had it in you to make your name famous, Holmes. Well, surely you have that. Now half the world knows of you."

"Only half?" He snorted mirthlessly. "And if I have, it is only through your efforts. I take no pride in that. I have prostituted my talents in a manner that would put any third-rate music hall performer to shame. Now indeed are my wits so very tired."

"Yes, I am aware of that."

"Are you?" He gave me a challenging look. "No doubt you have some opinion on my condition."

His tone had become brittle again and I considered my response with care. "Under such circumstances, something to help you sleep might be in order."

"A soporific, Doctor?" he returned fiercely. "Thank you, but no. I do not think I can stomach another dose of your pious reprobation for my succumbing to the temptations of the past."

He hesitated, took a deep breath and with great effort that manifested itself in his tightly-clenched fists and jaw did he seek to regain his control.

"Forgive me, Watson," said he quietly. "I did not mean to speak so harshly."

"I did not take offence. You're not well, Holmes. Surely you must see that you aren't yourself."

"It will pass," said he, forcing a smile. "Work is the panacea for a thousand ills."

"Some would disagree with you. Everyone needs sleep, even you."

With a deep sigh that seemed to be dredged from the depths of his soul, he sank into the nearest chair and nodded dolefully.

"There is truth in what you say, Watson. What did Shakespeare call it? 'The death of each day's life'? By extension, if a man cannot sleep, then he cannot die. Have you ever thought what a tedious thing it must be to live forever? No? Well, that eventuality is unlikely to trouble me. In any case, it is not sleep that is the problem."

"Then what?"

A curt shake of the head was the only answer he would permit. I was allowed so far, and no further. Whatever ailed him would remain his secret, glimpsed only in the outward symptoms produced by a turbulence of a troubled mind.

"It is enough," said he, "that I am aware of the cause. The solution too lies within my own hands. I need…" He paused and glanced up at me. "Earlier, Watson, you asked me why. My answer is simply this I have to do. I do not ask you to understand, but I would have your support."

"Always, Holmes. Was that ever in doubt?"

A faint smile warmed his pallid cheeks. "Then go to Surrey and leave me to my research. While I am thus absorbed, I am quite content. As for you, my dear friend, there is, as the saying goes, a certain relief in change, even though by shifting we may be bruised anew."

Moved by this pronouncement, I found I could not deny him that which he so dearly craved. I placed the book in his hands and he accepted it in grateful silence. I had one final condition, however, before I acceded to his direction.

"I will go," said I, "if you will dine out with me tonight."

He gave this a moment's consideration. "Those are your terms?"

I nodded.

"This would convince you that I am well enough to be left to my own devices?"

"Not entirely, but it would certainly help."

A flicker of interest showed in his tired face. "Simpson's?"

"If you wish."

"Your treat?"


He tossed the book aside and roused himself from his chair. "Then write to your fellow medico and tell him of your imminent arrival," he called over his shoulder as he took himself into his bedroom, "for dine we shall!"

Continued in Chapter Two

[1] Sesquipedalian – one given to using long words.

[2] Which is true. Cornish, along with Breton, shares descent from Southwestern Brythonic, itself derived from Celtic, the origins of which lie in the common ancestor of many European languages, Indo-European. So, yes, Holmes is barking up the wrong tree.

[3] See the opening chapters of 'The Reigate Puzzle'.

[4] Samuel Daniel, poet and playwright, 1563-1619