"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…" read the detective from his velvet lined armchair by the fire.
"Holmes, do not dare continue with this," said I in a fit of exasperation, for he had been chiding me with similarly inventive methods throughout the evening, ever since the confounded fellow deduced the nature of what it was that sent me practically tumbling down the stairs and into the spirit case.
In reply, I was the recipient of a wry smile.
"Over many a quaint a curious volume of forgotten lore."
There was nothing for it. Slamming shut my sea-novel, the very one I was, over the course of the past quarter hour, making a valiant attempt at reading (though in truth failed to do much more than peruse the same sentence between cursory glances towards the sitting room door), I rose to do the only sensible thing. That is to say, poured myself another stiff brandy.
In vain, I had attempted to convince myself the ideas dancing about in my brain were pure stuff and nonsense, yet there was naught that seemed to ease my nervous agitation or steer my thoughts from that apparition I so clearly saw writhing in the pool of moonlight pouring in through my window. If it came down to spending the night on the settee, well, the stiff neck I should wake with on the morrow was preferable to setting foot in that room again to-night!
"While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping. Rapping at my chamber door…"
"Holmes, simply because you find yourself in the throes of ennui does not give you rights to make life unbearable for your fellow lodger," I cried, striding over to his chair, fully intent on doing bodily damage.
For my efforts, I was met with chuckling from behind the leather bound text.
"You insufferable -"
Through the howling wind came a distinct, rhythmic knocking upon our front door.
"Oh, good heavens!" cried I, blanching two shades paler, white knuckled hands instinctively gripping Holmes' shoulder as though the action was all that kept me upright. It most certainly was not, I do feel inclined to mention.
Heading over to the window, I peeled back the curtains, straining to see who could be out on so tempestuous a night as this, with the winds moaning at the panes, the air heavy with fog and the imminent threat of rain. All the while Sherlock Holmes continued on with his unnecessarily dramatic rendition of the poem.
" ' 'Tis some visitor' I muttered, 'Tapping at my chamber door': Only this and nothing more'," said he, twinkling eyes betraying his amusement.
"Mrs Hudson! Mrs Hudson, do see who is at the door!" My nerves fairly wracked, I was more than a bit horrified to note the hoarse croak masquerading as my voice. If only Holmes would cease that infernal telling of what I had since boyhood found to be the most eerily vivid piece of literary rhyme, I might be capable of steadying my nerves.
Though our landlady was decidedly absent, there came a creaking on the stairs, a faint shadow slipping under the crack of our sitting room door, stretching into the warm light within. So audible now was the crackling of the fire it was almost as though some unseen hand had stoked it to purposely incite the reaction. My heart stuttered.
But as Holmes himself reminded me this very night, to the logical mind, there was nothing productive in the fanciful belief in fairy tales, that nothing was to be feared which claimed residence in the realm of the supernatural – and surely the Baskerville case proved as much... surely. Nevertheless, I cannot impress how much I did wish for the bright sun pouring in through our airy front windows now shrouded in heavy claret drapes, for the escape from the innate otherworldly proclivities brought on by a stormy October night, and which burrow deep into one's soul.
"From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore." At this, the detective, in a display of mock misery, draped the back of his hand over his brow.
"Really, my dear fellow."
From the other side of the door, the clear, bell-like intonation of a young woman rang out, her voice melodious as a song, though her accent sounded to my ears a foreign one. There – I reassured myself – a natural explanation for my unfounded trepidations. Here was simply a client, come to seek counsel with the famous detective of Baker Street... who had somehow gained entry through a locked door.
Confound it all.
My attempts to prod Holmes away from his new found interest in poetry having been an abject failure, as he feigned deafness rather too well, I resigned myself to let the lady in myself, not caring a whit I should be allowing her to see the foremost mind of our century behaving like a petulant child. Yet on my way to granting her entry, I observed out of the corner of my eye the drapes billowing as through being blown by the wind. An impossibility, surely, as the window had been shut against the draught. I had looked to my friend for any sign he saw the same, but he gave none, and when I again warily cast my eyes in that direction, our window treatments were again still.
The ensuing knock grounded me in reality once more. This was utter foolishness! My own vivid imagination, fueled by the earlier sight that played tricks upon my mind and the perfectly haunting rendition of Poe's masterful work that Holmes continued to recite, almost mechanically now, drained all trace of humour from the situation.
"Are you here to see Mr Sherlock Holmes?"
Believing our late night caller had simply not heard my invitation to enter over my friend's irritating recital, I warned him in a low but dangerous tone to give it a rest already, before apprehensively creaking open the door.
"Here I opened wide the door; darkness there and nothing more."
To my unbelieving eyes, the landing was devoid of all but shadows cast by the flickering glow of the gas lamps. No client seeking our services for some abstruse problem, and all was dark downstairs, indicating Mrs Hudson had indeed long since retired to her bed.
"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."
"Madam? Anyone there?"
Against my better judgment, I warily stepped out onto the landing, straining my ears to catch any minute sound. All that came was the muffled click-clack of the cab's horses as they trod upon the cobbles, the growling of a four wheeler, the shrill cry of a constable's whistle off in the distance. Baker Street was silent as the grave, I thought, then remonstrated myself for thinking so morbid a thing. Yet I was not to be deterred in my explorations, having faced far worse daemons then ever my imagination could conjure both on the battlefield and with my dealings in the criminal underworld, where the threats were at least tangible.
Then, seemingly issued from the murk veiling the flight of stairs leading up to my bedroom, was a humming voice calling out my name, beckoning for me to join it.
But this was unmitigated madness! Reason and logic were the founding principles this agency stood firm upon, and to jumble it up with irrational flights of fancy, especially on All hallows Eve, was to allow foolishness, superstition, to prevail. Thus, I took the only rational option, which consisted of backing into our rooms and firmly locking the door. I refrained from further barricading the entryway with the hat stand, though I was of a mind to do it.
Holmes, who had sunken further into his armchair, legs drawn up, that baneful volume spread out upon his knees, was staring off into the fire in the manner of one who is under the influence of some powerful trance.
There was not a single instant to spare for my friend's curious state, for a grating sound upon the door, not unlike the talons of some sinister creature, froze the very blood in my veins.
"Did you hear that, old fellow?" said I, abandoning all thoughts of hat stands in favour of fetching the fireplace poker. Once armed, I knelt in front of my friend, entreating him to lay down the book. At this, Holmes sardonically raised a single eyebrow, a not unfamiliar gesture, though in this instance, the effect seemed to me tinged with a certain malevolence. Then a crooked grin creased his lips, wholly different from the one he spared me at the onset, before he set back to reading.
Irrational and nonsensical as it sounded even in my own ears, this was not my Holmes.
Further reinforcing this conclusion was his reaction to a renewed and unavoidably audible rapping upon our door. Vacantly, he sat there, not with heavy lidded eyes as he so often did when considering a particularly trying matter. Rather he appeared quite oblivious, for the single occasion in his life, to the circumstances taking place under his very substantial nose.
Well, one thing was for certain. Dallying was of no use to anyone, and this hesitancy to confront what was seeming more to be the natural creaks and groans of so old a building, was no less than an admittance of a marked debility of nerve. In no prior situation had I ever known such cowardice, so why should I start now? Expecting to meet with the same emptiness as before, I flung wide the door, though what I saw on our threshold evoked a gasp, the poker fell to the carpet with a dull clatter, if for nothing but the unexpectedness of it all.
"Open then I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, in there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore."
Sauntering into the room with the presence of royalty was a lithe, raven haired beauty, her thin lips painted scarlet, green eyes impossibly bright, penetrating, alluring. Her skin too porcelain white. She was adorned in a violet hooded cloak, its ornate fastenings crafted of the finest gold and emeralds. A most seductive and rare beauty, her features were so finely chiseled they were almost unreal. And at her heels, weaving around its mistresses' legs, was a black cat roughly the size of a terrier.
Holmes, as was his wont, paid no mind to this epitome of feminine seduction incarnate as, with a grace not oft seen in even the most refined of women, she seated herself on chair opposite the detective. I, however, once over the initial shock, succumbed to another variation of awe, and was helpless but to do aught but stand there, mouth agape.
As though taking some silent cue, the feline leapt atop Holmes' shoulder, whereupon, my friend reached up with his spidery fingers to scratch the beast underneath its chin.
"Madam," said I, unable to disentangle my eyes from this vision of a woman who saw fit to grace our humble chambers with her presence, "you must be terribly uneasy in your mind to have braved venturing out unaccompanied on so chill a night. Pray, lay your troubles before my friend, who has often shed some little light in the darkest of corners."
But Holmes was transfixed by the volume, reading flatly, turning the pages mechanically. He made no motion that even I who knew him so well could discern any telltale feature that might betray even the slightest interest in this unannounced client. Which was more of an unnerving sight than the apparition which had earlier chased me from my own quarters.
"My dear fellow," I implored, "why do you not set down your book and give this lady your fullest attention?"
I made to snatch away the accursed volume, my fingers gently sliding between the open pages, when the savage feline lashed out at me, hissing and clawing its displeasure until I was forced to pull back my hand.
More alarming still was Holmes reaction, or more accurately, lack thereof, to this outburst. He remained seated, eyes unfocused, dulled. The impish mood which preceded this had dissipated entirely, and in its wake was left something entirely more sinister. Was it - could it be? Preposterous to even entertain such thoughts, which did not befit a man of science. Instead of giving sway to the culminations of my momentary fears, I resolved to focus on the matter at hand, the earthly, albeit strange, affair playing out in our humble lodgings. If I did such, and kept a level head for my friend's sake, then all of this could be resolved with natural explanations.
"We would be honored to assist you in any way we can, but you must send this ghastly feline away first."
Silence from the ethereal woman, and from the cat, a low, taunting growl.
I consider myself a man of immense patience, but it was growing thin. "You must tell us your name and why you've come. We can do not a thing for you otherwise."
Sherlock Holmes abruptly stood, his long, thin fingers clinging to the book as he paced a trail from the fireplace to the front window, his eyes never so much as flickering downward to cast a glance at the written words. Our visitor's foul tempered feline sat on its haunches atop the detective's shoulders, its claws digging so deeply into his flesh that droplets of blood seeped through his dressing gown.
"Ghastly, grim and ancient raven, wandering from the nightly shore, tell me what thy lordly name is, on the night's Plutonian shore?"
"Holmes, please! This has gone too far." Then, turning to the woman, "Madame, I implore you, state your business or I must ask you to leave!"
"Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'."
"Holmes, have you been… ?" My gaze having wandered to the mantel, a sudden surge of hope lifted my spirits. Feline or no to contend with, I caught my friend by his left arm, and, rolling up the sleeve, was for the first and only time disappointed beyond the scope of words when no fresh puncture marks marred his flesh.
This was real, then.
"John." A word spoken in my mind, for neither the woman, whose intent expression stared not in a dissimilar manner to that of Holmes, nor my friend had uttered a single syllable. Yet no entreaties on my part could persuade her to speak, no amount of pleading with Holmes broke through his strange, almost mesmerized condition.
"Are you doing this to him?" I demanded, pointing an accusatory finger at the woman. "If I find out you are responsible for this, by the Lord Harry, it will not fare well for you!" A distinct bluff, but my temper was surging to the level of my fear. "I beg you, leave us be if you wish to remain silent. Leave us, for we cannot help a client who makes herself the mystery!"
Sherlock Holmes stood with his back to the windows, book spread out on his palm, warm firelight glowing on his gaunt features, reflecting scarlet light in his eyes. Or were the irises truly red? By Jove, he was a man possessed!
I rushed to my companion's side, happy to brave any daemon – even that beastly feline – if doing so would lift this spell from my poor friend.
"What the deuce has come over you?" I cried, batting away claws intent on preventing me from stepping any nearer. All the while enduring the assailings of the monstrous cat, I had grasped Holmes by the wrists, and though his grip on the book did not slacken, I nonetheless shook him violently, imploring the stubborn fellow to look me in the eye. The sleeves of my dressing gown were shredded, droplets of blood trickled down my arms, and still I persisted, until the claws plucked the sensitive nerves of my wrist the way Holmes might tune the strings of his violin.
With a violent start, I pulled away, biting down on my lip to stifle a cry.
Our visitor rose, came to Holmes and took his arm as the mantle clock struck the midnight hour. A deafening crack of thunder, the pelting of a hard, driving rain beating against the window panes. One might almost believe the forces of good and evil were, on this very night, locked in combat. Whatever was amiss, I did not believe any mere mortal could be privy to, though I understood perfectly that setting things to rights was entirely left to me.
How, then, would Holmes approach this, were his faculties not so muddled at the moment?
The answer, I realised, may only be made apparent were the right questions proposed. Foremost on my mind was what had prompted these strange events.
Since the mysterious goings on coincided with the opening of the book, I wondered if the volume itself, or perhaps the reading from its pages was not somehow responsible for summoning this enigmatical woman and her feline counterpart – and had I not repaired to my bedroom for the sake of fetching my newly acquired leatherbound text? The notion, I shall be first to admit, was rather a far fetched one, yet what was playing out before my eyes was the epitome of inconceivable.
"Come with me. Do not resist, my dear…" she whispered in Holmes' ear while she led my friend to the door which had of its own volition swung asunder.
"Then, methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer, swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor." It was no longer my companion's voice. This was something hollow and contrived, the words uttered as though another were speaking through him.
A thick grey fog billowed into the room, the rank stench of sulphur carried in along with it. Though it was the sight of the woman leading Holmes through it that chilled me to the core. Whatever evil designs were in her heart, I should be damned if I allowed her to lure him into this brume and see her deeds to fruition. Surging forward, choking out the dense fog strangling my lungs and battling the wrathful feline, I managed to wrench free the book.
"'Wretch!' I cried! 'thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he hath sent thee.'" Commencing the recitation from where Holmes had left off, I elicited a shriek from the woman, more assaults from the cat, whose teeth sinking into the sensitive flesh of my ankle was making it deucedly hard to concentrate. "'Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore; Let me quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!' Quoth the Raven 'Nevermore'."
In a fit of the most uncharacteristic lack of chivalry, I rushed at the woman, pinioned her to the wall by the wrists with my good arm, finally breaking the hold she had on my friend. Her stormy eyes reflected a seething rage within, yet this was the only indication that she was indeed real enough, and not merely some phantasm of the mind, for her countenance bore naught but stoicism.
"John. Forget him, follow me." The words were carried on the fog, blowing enticingly in my ear. Crying out for me follow. I almost desired to, and made no protest as the lady shook off my grasp.
Yes, I longed to say. The word danced on the tip of my tongue, and it was all I could do to force myself to call for Holmes instead.
There came no response. "Holmes?" Again I called out with more fervour as my name blew in my ear like the sweetest whisper. To follow the sound of it would be so easy. Much easier than facing this unspeakable horror surrounding me.
Undaunted, I tore myself away, headed for the fireplace, where a modicum of light shone through the haze, and continued shouting the final stanzas of the poem at this unnatural thing. " 'Prophet,' said I 'thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! - Whether Tempter sent or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore -' "
There came a crashing of the shutters against the brickwork outside. The gaslight flickered, threatening to plunge the room into absolute darkness.
"John..." How sweet was her voice, how enticing her offer. Just follow, follow and let her lead you wherever she should like…
"Holmes, where are you?" Groping my way through the fog, reciting the poem from memory, as the darkness encompassed the light with every passing second, the woman's seductive appeals to join her rang out in my head. Were it not for the apprehension as to Holmes' whereabouts gripping me so tightly, I likely may have lost myself to her entreaties, though the fear for my friend was far too sobering an influence for anything beside it to hold sway.
Another crash of thunder, and the rain was such that I could not recall more ferocious precipitation even with the terrible monsoons of India!
Stepping around the writing desk I'd nearly collided with, I stumbled over something solid, yet pliant under my weight. Holmes! Before I could gather my wits, however, the feline was upon me once more, gnashing its teeth in my thigh, doing an admirable job for so small a creature at tearing flesh from bone in an attempt to have me drop the very book I utilized to ineffectually swat it with.
My friend was insensible, the voice was twisting its tendrils round my brain, and with every tick of the clock, more of my own coherence flitted away, until the woman's icy hands trailed down my biceps, inching further down, until at last her hands reached the book, which was slipping from my loosened grasp. Hoping my memory served well, in desperation, I shouted out the final stanzas.
" 'Be that word our sign of parting, bird of fiend!' I shrieked - up starting - 'Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!'"
Though it defied what should rightly be possible, the wall in our chambers shook violently, the tobacco pipes and other mantle place litter striking the floor, the mountains of papers collapsing, walls creaking and cracking under the strain. Our windows shattered, letting in a sudden gust of frigid wind and rain. In the commotion, I had pulled Holmes underneath the desk, razor edged shards of glass hailing through our sitting room like so many stray bullets as I did so.
Holmes was stirring, and to my utter horror, began reciting the poem anew.
"Don't do this! Shut out her voice and listen to me!" I struck my poor friend across the face, futilely attempting to wake him from this dream like trance. Yet he remained oblivious to the chaos ensuing around us, keen eyes dulled and staring like the dead. Seeing him thus sent so violent a shock of pain through my breast that a plea rose to my lips, and with my free hand, turned my friend's cheek to face me. "Sherlock Holmes, look at me."
Had he blinked? I could not be certain, for I had desired so sorely to see such a sign, there was no dismissing the possibility it was merely a cruel trick of the mind. But if there was some trace of him coming back to reality, now was the moment to take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest.
"Holmes," I breathed, willing my voice into a beacon of calm through the surrounding bedlam. "You must help me banish these daemons, but it can only be done if you break this spell. I know you can do it, old fellow. If anyone can will away a curse, the it is surely you." With that, I took his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
Holmes turned his head, the glint of recognition sparking in his eyes. "Watson?"
My small victory was fated to be short lived. In an instant, the woman swooped down upon us, reminiscent of some grotesque bird of prey closing in for the kill as she overturned the desk, her great squawking cry competing in pitch with the gales pummeling our chambers.
Still holding Holmes' hand in one of mine, I bounded up, practically dragging my friend into an upright position, though it was too late – the cold grip of her fingers clasped round my throat, stars bursting through my vision from the abrupt severing off of oxygen. In the struggle to break free of her grasp, my gaze met with that of Holmes'. Now more so than ever, I needed my friend to extricate me from this hash, though all I could do to communicate was to lower my own gaze onto the book I clung to, and hope this gesture would be enough. We never did have much trouble conveying our thoughts with silent signals, but would it break through the spell binding his will?
The tattered leather volume was pulled from my grip just as my resolve to let if fall from my fingers so I may be better able to unclasp the strangling hand at my throat.
" 'Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!' " To my immense relief, Holmes spoke the words with all the authority of a command. " 'Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door! Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!' "
Those cold hands at last loosened their death grasp as a piercing shriek reverberated off the walls. The text read aloud from this handwritten book of dark poetry carried with it the same gravity as would have a dagger through the heart of the daemonic forces invading Baker Street.
Intending to put an end to this torment, I seized the book, and flung the accursed thing into the fireplace, whereupon, the dying embers burst back into roaring flames, consigning the hateful pages to hell.
The dense fog retracted, the furiously blowing curtains stilled, the lamps became luminescent once more.
And all was as it had been.
No longer were the windowpanes shattered, nor was the writing desk overturned. The wounds inflicted on my person from that vicious feline were healed, the bloodstains on my trouser legs and cuffs vanished as if they had never existed. Only the usual clutter was strewn about haphazardly, and to my utter astonishment, not even the mirror over the mantle was a hair out of place.
I found myself seated with one of Clark Russell's fine sea stories in hand, and the thin form of Sherlock Holmes was draped languidly in his armchair, dozing soundly. The hour on the clock read precisely one minute past twelve. It did occur to me that this had all been some dream, but this explanation seemed even more incredible than the actual events which had transpired. How a dream could be so vivid, so engaging – no, it was not possible to have imagined anything so palpably real as this.
But surely, I pondered, turning the facts over in my mind, surely this was all so fantastical that real as it was, the innumerable natural laws that were broken as it played out proved indefinitely that the time of year (in combination with the copious amounts of cheese I had partaken of at supper) was the reasonable conclusion. It had all been a frightening dream.
Why then, was there a lingering dread in the atmosphere?
"Hmmm?" came a muttering from my companion, who did not so much as creak open an eyelid.
"By any chance, were you… were you reading a book of poetry to-night?"
"Knowledge of literature – nil, my boy."
I could not help but smile at having my own words thrown back at me so. In fact, I never had been more relieved to hear his sardonic retorts.
"Any nightmares, then?" I queried, cautiously.
"I should say not." Holmes sat up, reached out for his pipe, and fixed me with a most scrutinizing gaze. "Watson," said he, lighting the pipe and tossing the match into the fire, "whatever is the matter? I dare say you are looking quite pale."
There was no use in concealing anything from Holmes; I had long since ceased trying.
"My dear fellow, I believe our rooms are haunted."
The detective's pipe nearly slid out of his lips. "Upon my word, Watson. Not still going on about seeing ghosts in your room again? Where the devil do you come up with such notions?"
I did not set out to do so, but the thing was weighing so heavily on my mind, it was desperate to be recounted. Thus, I spilled out the entire tale, taking pains not to omit even the slightest detail which might give some clue to my friend's deductive powers and thereby begin to untangle the knotty problem presented to him. Holmes listened intently, the tobacco smoke wafting out of his pipe the only sign he was indeed awake. When at last I came to the end of this fantastical tale, Holmes stood by the mantle, laid down his pipe, and thrust his hands into the pocket of his dressing gown.
For a long moment there was an intolerable silence, wherein I felt his all knowing eyes boring into me.
"Tomorrow night we dine at Simpson's," said he, finally, "as it seems Mrs Hudson's cuisine is no longer agreeing with you."
The shadow atop the bay window had come to my attention whilst Holmes had still been thinking through the issue, and for an instant, I wondered if I'd not dozed off while waiting for his response, but the more I looked upon it, the more wide awake I felt.
"If that is indeed the case, my dear fellow, then how," I gestured to the bay window "do you explain that feline perched atop our window sill?"
"And the Raven never flitting, still is sitting still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; and his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming, and the lamp light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor - shall be lifted - nevermore!"