A Case of Insanity


Three days later, flaming June was living up her name, even in her dotage, and the pretty riverside town of Richmond was fairly baking in the heat.

Stifled into inactivity, I had forsaken the clustered houses and their airless interiors for the company of the sluggish Thames. Here too the breeze was stilled and the light that winked like so many diamonds on the black waters was painful to the eye. On days like this, the populace sags, for want of a better word; the men take to lounging wherever they can find a surface on which to rest their elbows while the ladies wilt gracefully beneath parasols of delicate lace and lament how summer seems to start earlier every year.

For myself, I had no thought other than to find myself a suitable seat in some shady nook and while away the afternoon with a book. Had I had my fishing tackle to hand, I would have tried my luck with the roach. But that would have meant my first returning to Baker Street and the inevitable reunion with Holmes, a prospect which held little immediate appeal. I had no wish to retread old ground, and disagreeable encounters are best reserved for stormy days when the belligerence of the weather may act as mirror of one's mood.

Besides, I seriously doubted whether we had anything left to say to each other.

That the feeling was mutual was evident from his prolonged silence. I had not heard from him nor, if I was honest, did I expect to do so. He could see no wrong and I could see no right. At least, I did understand why he had acted as he had. That it was not how I or any other right-thinking man would have approached the business seemed not to have occurred to him. Contriving a means to get oneself committed smacks of recklessness – or perhaps something else.

I had had time to mull over the events and had come to the conclusion that either Holmes was lying again – a fact I did not discount lightly – or I had misjudged him, another factor I could not entirely rule out. The one thing in his favour was that Holmes could never be accused of being anything but precise in his use of language, so that I had to wonder about his claim to have 'exaggerated' his symptoms.

In the light of calm reflection, his choice of verb was interesting. It implied the existence of an earlier condition, one that had been a pale reflection of the display he had put on for my benefit.

If I were to accept that our conversation on Sunday evening had been by and large the truth, I had to take him at his word that this grand scheme of his had only been put into action on the Thursday after my departure for Richmond. I recalled my concern when I had returned after my first week away to learn from Mrs Hudson had Holmes's condition had deteriorated rapidly in my absence. If one set aside the midnight singing, his bitter recriminations about my unjustified interference, manuscripts filled with blank pages and nonsense about a war waged against him by the world of academia, it left the unreasonable obsession that had driven us from our Cornish retreat and Holmes into a near frenzy of study. That at least had been real, but I was no closer to an explanation for it than before.

At some point in the afternoon, I was joined on my riverside bench by a portly gentlemen, red of face and panting heavily, who fairly fell onto the seat and began to mop his glistening brow with a generous red silk handkerchief. After a few banal observations about the weather, he produced a newspaper, rattled the sheets in a manner calculated either to draw my attention or annoy me into departing, and began to make passing comments about the day's news.

Inevitably he lit upon the only item that held any interest for me.

"Nasty business, this doctor fellow stealing from his patients," he remarked authoritatively. "Heard about it, have you?"

"Vaguely," I replied.

Encouraged by having engaged my attention, he warmed to his subject. "Made a full confession, the blackguard. He'll get more than a rap on the knuckles for this, I'll wager. Not only that, there's talk he's to be struck off. Quite right too. If you can't trust the medical profession, who can you trust?"

One's friends, I thought ruefully, although even that was up for debate.

"Mind you," my garrulous acquaintance went on, "I knew a doctor once, odd sort of chap, could never look you in the eye. Bally fellow kept telling everyone they weren't right in the head, and it turned out he was as mad as a hatter himself! A case there of physician heal thyself if ever there was one."

Given my own lapses of late, this naturally roused my curiosity. "What happened to him?" I asked.

"Oh, ended up in a home for distressed medicos, I expect," said he jovially. "Certainly they carted him off to somewhere or other. Barking mad, he was. Always losing things, that was the worst of it. Kept turning up at his neighbour's house in the middle of the night asking if they had seen his umbrella, that sort of thing."

He chortled, but I failed to find any humour in the situation. If it is true that doctors make the worst patients, then it is because we are too close to the source of the problem to be objective. As reassured as I had been following Holmes's 'recovery' that whatever was ailing me was unlikely to be due to the lingering effects of Devil's-foot root, the question remained. I could think of any number of complaints that might be causing my current confusion, chief among them the strain of the last few weeks.

Doubt, however, is the cancer of the rational mind. Once the seeds are sown, no amount of reasoning will dislodge it. I told myself I was imagining things and half believed it too. But then that voice began to whisper and I had to wonder if I too, like my companion's troubled doctor, had taken my first steps down the road of insanity.

The crunch of approaching footsteps drew my attention from the dabbling ducks at the water's edge to glance up at this newcomer. To my considerable surprise, strolling unhurriedly towards where I sat, was Holmes, wearing a light tweed suit, a straw boater and looking for all the world as though he had just stepped off a rowing skiff. He was the last person I had expected to see – and consequently the very person who had therefore appeared, making the phrase quite redundant. However, cliché though it is, it was never more applicable than in my present case.

Holmes made no attempt to acknowledge me, despite my bald stare, and paused as if by chance before our bench. "Is this seat taken?" asked he, gesturing to the gap between us.

"Not at all," said my companion, shifting himself to one side to give him more room. The prospect of another person to engage in conversation clearly appealed to him. "Please, be my guest."

Holmes sank down with a sigh. "You are most gracious, sir," said he. "The day is warm, and I fear one takes one's life into one's own hands by indulging in undue exercise in such weather."

"Very likely, sir."

"I have always been of the opinion that exercise of the mind is a far more profitable activity. Learning is never wasted, and I have often found that those trifles which, at the time of acquisition may bear the mark of worthless triviality, inevitability prove to be the most useful. For example, when I asked you if this seat was taken, did you realise that I was employing but one of the 134 meanings of the verb 'to take' that Dr Johnson was able to identify in his seminal Dictionary? From that entry alone, one can understand why he defined his work as lexicographer as drudgery, harmless or otherwise."

The man quailed before this formidable display of intellectualism. "Is that so?"

"Of course, while that word may claim – or indeed take – the title, and I dare say the honour, of being the longest of Johnson's entries, it stands amongst an exalted company of verbs whose every semantic nuance may change the shade of meaning depending on the user's preference. You offered me this seat, sir, accepting that I meant to sit, although quite equally my inclination could have been to remove this bench altogether. Is it not the case that from such subtleties of distinction that misunderstanding may arise?"

"No doubt."

"To those who claim that the English language is the easiest to learn, one must set stumbling blocks such as these. And again, we encounter yet another of those words whose meaning may change from sentence to sentence. The verb 'to set', I believe, is the nearest that 'take' may claim as a rival, although at a mere 88 entries, it falls somewhat short, as does 'to put' at 80, 'to stand' at 69 and 'to run' at— oh, must you go already?"

"I fear so," said the fellow, folding his paper and rising to his feet with as much haste as his unwieldy frame would allow. "As pleasant as the afternoon is, I have already delayed for long enough. Good day to you both."

Holmes began to chuckle to himself as soon as the man was at a respectable distance. "Dear me," said he, "I appear to have scared him off. Whatever could have caused such a reaction, I wonder?" He shot me a sideways glance. "I dare say you think that was rather rude of me."

"Yes, it was."

"But necessary. One can hardly speak freely in the company of strangers."

I contrived, following his own excellent example, to remove from my voice any trace of the emotion that might betray my feelings on the matter and thus be used against me. "You have something you wish to say?" I said, and winced at the tone of indignation that would not be bridled despite my best efforts.

He gazed at me, his expression thoughtful. "In conversation with my brother, it appears that my behaviour of late may have given cause for offence. On reflection, I fear that there is some truth in what he says. I have deduced that my intent may have been lamentably misinterpreted as nothing more than the cold-hearted actions of an out-and-out cad."

"And how have you come to this conclusion?"

"An intimate friend of mine disappeared on Sunday evening and I have not seen him since."

"Perhaps he is busy."

"I dare say that you are correct in that assumption. He is possessed of a most loyal nature, and he has of late stepped into the breach when a former acquaintance was in need of assistance."

"Then perhaps you should search for him there."

"My thoughts exactly," said he. "After some investigation on my part, I was able to trace him to a pleasant spot to the banks of the Thames, where I was firstly obliged to rescue him from the overbearing attentions of the local bore, for which he repaid my efforts by studiously trying to ignore me ever since."

"A problem," I observed.

"But not, I trust, insurmountable?"


A faint smile took shape on his face. "Are you very angry, Watson?"

I considered. "Better to say that I am aggrieved."

"Ah, that is quite a different prospect. Anger suggests extreme displeasure or exasperation towards someone or something. Such excessive emotions are always difficult to placate. Aggrievedness, however, is a much more reasonable state, being, as it is, open to reconciliation. Would you agree that is fair definition of your situation?"

I have ever known Holmes to be indefatigable. He did not disappoint on this occasion for his pursuit of my attention was relentless and wearisome.

"Holmes," I said with a sigh of defeat, "it isn't what you did, it's how you went about it."

"You mean in my role of agent provocateur?"

"I mean in pretending that you had been driven to the brink of insanity by—" I hesitated and shook my head. "Well, it doesn't matter now."

"No, do go on. Your line of thought was most enlightening. Driven to the brink of insanity by my own foolish actions, do you mean? If so, then I am forced to concur. Unless you meant your own inability to reign in my more reckless tendencies, in which case I cannot agree and must ask instead that you not reserve the lion's share of the blame for yourself. I am quite aware that I cultivate a certain eccentricity of habit. Indeed, I revel in it."

"I would not ask you to change," said I. "I would, however, ask you to consider whether the risks you insist on taking are commensurate with what you stand to lose."

"Isn't that the nature of the game? Without that spice of danger, life would be an endless procession of boredom with little to look forward to but the next meal. One must have stimulus, Watson. There would be little point in struggling out of bed in the morning if one lacked purpose."

"And if you destroy yourself in the process?"

"If you are referring to my sanity, I should not worry too much on that account. Some would argue that it is already fatally compromised, Mycroft amongst them. He said that I have raised serious questions about my soundness of judgement in ever pursuing such a course of action in the first place."

"Do you agree?"

Holmes smiled to himself. "I would say that there was madness in my method, yes. As it happened, the case was fortuitous. It came at a moment of crisis, precipitated, if you recall, by Professor Bennett's letter. Until that moment, I had been convinced, utterly, of the certainty of my reasoning on the origins of Cornish. That one missive was enough to shake me to the core." He brushed a stray piece of blossom from his knee and gazed out across the river. "It goes without saying that it did not sit well with me that I had been mistaken. I convinced myself that I stood alone and that everyone was wrong. I could not allow otherwise."

"I had noticed."

"Yes, you did, although, loyal friend that you are, you did not attempt to disillusion me on that point. Even if you had tried, I would not have believed you, not because you lack sufficient force to do so," he added quickly, "but because I could not permit it. The other day, you accused me of lying to you, a charge which is wholly justified. In my defence, however, I will say that it was not until Lady Bosham persuaded me to take up the case that any attempt at deception on my part took place."

I stared at him hard. "Then you were affected by the lingering effects of the poison."

He nodded slowly. "Certainly it started off as such. There were nights when I did not dare to close my eyes. That naturally exacerbated the problem. I sleep poorly at the best of times and thus did not believe that I would be adversely affected by a further reduction in my hours of rest. In that, I was mistaken. I attributed my worsening symptoms to radix pedis diaboli. You may recall that I mentioned I knew about the fate of the Tregennis brothers? I inquired not to perfect my performance as you claimed, but rather to see what fate had in store for me." He released an uneasy breath. "It was not a pleasant prospect. I concluded that if I were to spend my last days in the grip of delusional ravings, then at least I could do some good before my reason entirely deserted me. That is partly why I accepted Lady Bosham's case and took such drastic measures. I believed most earnestly that I had nothing left to lose. Either I would prevail, or I remain incarcerated for whatever remained of my natural life."

"But at some point, the effects of the poison did wear off."

"Not that I would have noticed it. By that time, I was already consumed by an irrational dread of sleep. Thus the cycle continued. I do not need to tell you that sleep deprivation may produce the strangest of symptoms, chief among them being hallucinations, delirium, poor concentration and memory lapses. All I had to keep myself sane was my work. It was a distraction that became an obsession. I could not countenance my existence without it."

"And now?"

"Strangely enough, I am quite recovered. Whatever Dr Gordon's criminal tendencies, I would say that his medical skills are first-rate. I slept as I have never slept before and woke clear of mind for the first time in weeks. I should let you drug me more often," he added, regarding me slyly from the corner of his eye. "That was the least objectionable of the treatments to which I was subjected. Many more of those prolonged periods sat in tepid baths and I should surely have lost what grip on reality I had. As for his insistence that I eat…" He shuddered. "Let us say it was not an agreeable experience. I am sure they almost broke my nose with that accursed tube of theirs."

"You have no one to blame for that but yourself."

"One learns quickly," said he. "I have eaten more in one week than I would normally do in a month. If I never see a strawberry syllabub again, I would not be too disappointed. As food for the convalescent, it is most ill-advised."

I laughed despite myself. When I looked back at him, I noticed he was watching me with an expression of satisfaction, as though confident of having regained my favour. I was not so easily won over, although I must confess that my resolve was beginning to wane.

"How did you find me today?" I asked.

"I asked myself where a man of your thoughtful disposition might take himself when trying to ascertain whether the charms of Richmond were greater than those of Baker Street. Given your predilection for long walks and your natural gravitation towards large bodies of water, I posited that I might find you here, a supposition, which, I am pleased to say, was correct. Well, Watson," said he, turning slightly to me, "do you intend to buy Dr Tarrant's practice?"

I stared at him open-mouthed. "How on earth did you know that?"

"Naturally I called at the house first. Dr Tarrant was kind enough to explain the situation, how he and his wife were very much taken with the south coast, so much so that they plan to move there permanently. He also mentioned that he had offered his practice to you before placing it in the hands of an agent. I believe he is awaiting your answer."

I gathered that Dr Tarrant was not alone in that. Holmes feigned indifference, as though the matter was of little consequence to him, an act which was too perfect for his interest to be anything other than piqued.

"No, I don't believe I shall," I replied.

"Very wise," said Holmes. "Patients are the bane of a doctor's life, and patients in Richmond especially so. I blame it entirely on this damp river air."

Again, I found my ill-humour evaporating under this onslaught, and fought not to reveal the weakening of my defences, failing in my attempt miserably by smiling.

"Has anyone ever told you," said I, "that you are thoroughly incorrigible?"

"Mycroft mentions it from time to time."

"I'm surprised he is still speaking to you."

"He isn't, except for those times when he wishes to indicate my shortcomings, which are considerable, and my debt to certain of my acquaintances, which is equally so. For these things and more, I can only apologise and state with all sincerity that it was never my intention to cause harm. Nor did I realise that my behaviour might give others cause to question their own well-being." His expression became guarded. "I neglected to consider the implications of my conduct on you, my dear fellow, my partner-in-folly when we experimented with that wretched Devil's-foot root. Mycroft tells me you have been under a strain of late."

"How does he know that?"

"Watson, really, you should know by now that Mycroft misses nothing. Omniscience has its uses, after all, and apparently its limitations, which is why he holds a grudge against me for having so artfully deceived him. In your case, he mentioned that the last time he saw you at the club that you seemed preoccupied, worried almost."

"I have had a few things on my mind."

"Then there was your remark the other night. You said you were forgetting things. Would you care to elaborate on that statement?"

I shrugged. "I have had a several lapses of memory and misplaced a few things."

"And naturally you wondered if you were succumbing to the same condition as your afflicted friend. Well, I hope your mind is set at rest on that issue. As to a cure for your current malady, I believe a change of scene is indicated. I have had a missive from the Odoni family of Florence concerning some minor incident which has baffled the local police and will not occupy too much of my time. I wondered if you would consider joining me on this Continental sojourn."

"By all means. It would be my pleasure."

"And mine." With that, he rose to his feet. "Are you coming? If you are to disappoint Dr Tarrant, it is better done sooner rather than later."

I joined him and together we fell into a leisurely pace as we strolled along the towpath. "Before we leave this disagreeable affair," I said, "I do have one question. Why Cornish? I never understood that."

He threw back his head and laughed out loud, an unexpected and quite glorious sound that I had not heard for so long a time. "Ah, Watson, there you have me. How does one explain the unexplainable? It could have been anything; Cornish happened to be convenient at the time. I thought it would make my name."

"Your name is already made, Holmes."

"In certain fields less meritorious than others." He came to a halt. "Has it ever occurred to you, Watson, that I might envy you?"

I began to chuckle at the very thought, only to smother it when I saw from his expression that he was in deadly earnest.

"Surely you jest. What could I possibly have that you don't?"

"I would have thought that was obvious, Doctor."

I caught his emphasis. "You wanted to study medicine?" I queried.

Holmes shook his head. "Not at all. But these days, I find my thoughts turning to the path not taken. You completed your degree; I did not. I ask myself lately where would I have been today had I stayed on for that final year. Would I have been at the head of my profession by now? The undisputed authority on… well, whatever my chosen field was to have been."

"I have no doubt you would. However, I can't help but feel the world would have been much the poorer if you had."

"And you a few less grey hairs, my friend." He smiled ruefully. "I suppose it matters little now. Call it sheer vanity, but I feel that I would like letters after my name. Dr Johnson, it is said, would not allow his dictionary to be published until he had his 'A.M.' on the title page."

"I'm sure there would be no question of granting your wish given all you have done."

"No, no," said he tersely. "Where is the triumph in an easy victory? It must come from me, it must be torn from my very breast in the study of some worthwhile cause. I thought my thesis on Cornish would do it. I was mistaken."

"What of your researches into early English charters and your monograph upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus? The latter, surely, would earn you the acclaim you seek. Many experts said that it was the last word upon the subject."

"And yet it has already been surpassed. Have you read Fulkes's notes upon the Polytextural influences in the work of Dufay?"

I had to confess that I had not.

"It means I would have to rework my theories to account for the current debate on the origins of the 'renaissance' in music of the 15th century. And all because of an obscure reference in Les Champions des Dames by Martin Le Franc of 1442 which speaks of 'a new practice'." He sighed fretfully. "I fear it is beyond even me. I shall have to hang up my pen and content myself with the fame of the printed word."

"You would settle for the 'idle smoke of praise'?"

"Even that."

"Despite your restrictions? And yes," I said, holding up my hand, "I know about that too. Your brother was kind enough to educate me as to the etiquette of diplomacy."

"Then we are both stifled." Holmes struck a loose pebble with his cane and began walking again. "I suppose there must come a day when we are free of all strictures," said he. "Until then, we must bide our time."

"So what now for your thesis?"

Holmes bowed his head in thought. "I have burned it. In the circumstances, it was the only decent thing to do. Another topic will present itself, one which may provide more fruitful lines of investigation."

"Burned it?" I echoed. "Then am I never to know the meaning of 'ud rocashaas'? What did those words mean?"

"That, my friend, was the earliest written record of the Cornish language, dating from the 9th century no less. As to its meaning, it is a reference to the mind, of how it 'hated the gloomy places'. It had a certain appeal. The parallel with my own situation was exact. I have dwelt for too long these past months in places that were not so much gloomy as positively black. But all things pass. The sun shines and Italy beckons. Now, what say you, Watson, to our taking our time over this case? Florence is a city steeped in history and the collection at the Uffizi is unsurpassed. I dare say Scotland Yard could manage without us for a little while."

The End

A big thank you to everyone who took the time to review. To quote the incorrigible Mr Holmes, all's well that ends well... but only because Watson's such a forgiving soul!

Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, et al are the creations are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Characters and incidents mentioned in this work are entirely fictitious. This work of fan fiction has not been created for profit nor authorised by any official body.