The Fantastic Horror of the Disembodied Gun
"It was evident to me from the first that a fraud had been perpetrated," Holmes explained as we sat together in the quiet aftermath of a languid Christmas afternoon. "That Croxley had actually devised a means of making a man invisible was improbable. You will note that I do not say impossible: the man who would make sweeping statements finds himself one day liable to fall foul of the march of science. In my youth, people doubted that man would fly, and today we find that certainty tested. In the case of the Professor, we find that even his colleagues questioned his findings. However, the witnesses to his 'experiment' had seen something, so I was mindful of the wisdom of Immanuel Kant: 'While one can be sceptical about any individual instance, the sum total presents a body of evidence that is difficult to ignore'."
We were enjoying our port and ruminating over lunch, which had been adequate, through no fault of Mrs Hudson's I hasten to add. The turkey had failed to live up to expectations and had required liberal helpings of gravy to make the meat edible. Holmes had been gracious in his defeat and had made no criticism of the meal, although I fancied I saw a trace of displeasure pass across his features when Mrs Hudson had said that there was plenty left over and she hated to see good food go to waste. Foreseeing weeks of turkey sandwiches, turkey stews and turkey soup ahead, I resolved dine at my club as often as good manners would permit until supplies came to an end.
Until that moment, I had met with difficulty in trying to prise further details of the Croxley case out of Holmes. The combination of a heavy meal and a fine port had made him mellow and loquacious, however, and now I found him more than ready to answer all my questions.
"Where £50,000 is concerned, the first question one should always ask is 'qui bono'? Professor Croxley, naturally, since he instigated the request. Or so Mycroft would have us believe. We have already been told that Croxley was a difficult man, more at home in the laboratory than government funding committees. Step forward the gallant Major Marchmont, who shared a most uncommon interest with the Professor. I have spoken to the Prime Minister and he was good enough to confirm my theory, that it was Marchmont who raised the question of additional funds on the Professor's behalf."
"But wait," said I. "The Professor must have been complicit in this deception. He arranged the demonstration of his invisibility device."
Holmes smiled. "Capital, Watson. We must prevail upon Mrs Hudson to prepare turkey more often if it produces this effect upon you. Of course the Professor knew. In his defence I should say that he was not the most willing of confederates. Most likely Marchmont cajoled him into agreeing by saying that it was the only way to guarantee the continuance of his research. How many times Marchmont had him do this for other interested parties, only he can now confirm. The strain of the deception told upon Croxley, however, and a few days after the 'demonstration' for the Prime Minister, he was dead."
"Are you quite sure that Marchmont had no hand in it? It seems to me that he had every reason to want Croxley out of the way."
"On the contrary, my dear fellow, he had every reason to keep Croxley alive. In due course, bills would have been produced, receipts fabricated, and the outlay would have been written off as legitimate government expenditure. The problem with investing in an individual is that once that person is no longer able to deliver a return, the investors are eager to recoup whatever money they can. From the moment, Marchmont found Croxley's corpse, he knew what danger he was in. His only chance was to play one party against the other."
"If it was believed Croxley had been kidnapped, all sides would have been suspicious of the other?"
"Quite so. No one would have ever believed that the opposition did not have him, nor could they afford to do so, considering the potential of the device at stake. Nothing could be left behind – the device, his paperwork – lest someone think to test his findings for themselves. There was always the chance that the question might arise as to whether Croxley had made off with the money and the device himself, which may have cast doubts on the man who was supposed to be his adviser and friend. Marchmont forestalled that possibility by arranging the sort of kidnapping one does not easily forget in the presence of a credible witness. That is where you came in, my dear Watson. It was not by chance that you were chosen. Marchmont was well placed to know Mycroft's position in Whitehall. As to our kinship and my association with you, so much he could have learnt from The Strand Magazine."
"And I did exactly what was expected of me. I came straight home and told you!" I sighed. "He must have been watching this place like a hawk, waiting for me to set foot outside."
"In a case like this, one leaves nothing to chance. That is the mark of the military mind, Watson, careful planning against all contingencies. It was no mere stroke of luck that you were called out that night; it may interest you to know that your malingering patient was visited by a purveyor of patent medicines, who convinced him that his end was nigh. You know the result of such meddling. Marchmont had only to wait for you to emerge from the house to begin his deception with the fog as his ally. He knew he was observed and no doubt led his shadow a merry dance through the streets until he was informed that his quarry was loose. I have no doubt that the driver of the cab into which Croxley was bundled was keeping your patient's house under observation. A word to Marchmont and the drama was set in motion."
"Croxley, you say," I queried. "But surely he was dead by then? I know it was not a ghost I saw that night."
Holmes laughed and reached for his commonplace book. "I took the liberty of finding a decent likeness of the Professor. You have never seen him of course. Tell me then, is this the man you saw that night?"
He held out a picture of an elderly, white-haired man with a thin hawk-like nose and bushy eyebrows.
"Well, it looks very much like the man I saw. I couldn't swear to it now of course."
"But why should the need arise? The man helpfully identified himself as Professor Croxley. Why should you have cause to doubt it?"
I began to understand what Holmes was saying. "Then you mean to say that the man I saw was—"
"An imposter. Indeed, it was the Major in disguise. No, do not look so surprised. Marchmont has quite a reputation in the field of amateur dramatics. You will recall the telegram I received. His King Lear is still remembered fondly by his fellow graduates. The part of course was that of…"
He looked to me for the answer.
"An old man."
"Quite so. A gifted fellow, our Major. He is not the first nor, I daresay, shall he be the last to use such talents for the purpose of criminal activities. It has long been my intention of writing a monograph on the connections between crime and the theatre. I never fail to think of Hamlet than I am reminded of Clarence Otterbland and the Staffordshire Bottom-Knockers. A remarkable case, noted for the inventive use of the Sagger-Makers' art."
"But, Holmes," I protested, "how does this explain the invisible assailant? From what you say, there was trickery involved, but I do not see how it was achieved."
Holmes gave me a look somewhere between pity and indulgence. "My dear fellow, is it possible that you still do not see how the thing was done? Well, then, let us consider the facts. What exactly did you see that night?"
"I saw nothing. The man was apparently invisible."
"That in itself is indicative. But come, Watson, you saw more than that."
"Ah, you mean the gun. Then that was real. If so, it must have been held by someone. I saw it move."
In answer, Holmes rose abruptly from his chair and disappeared into his room. A moment later he had returned, carrying in his arms a threadbare carpet bag that had seen better days. I expected some explain for his behaviour, but instead he nodded to the fire and suggested I stir the coals. No sooner had I taken up the poker than Holmes let out a startled cry. I turned back to him and saw to my horror that a pistol had appeared and was levelled a few inches from his chest over the top of the bag, apparently held by an invisible hand, exactly as on the night of the abduction.
I started forward only to be forestalled by Holmes' sudden laughter.
"A thousand apologies, my dear fellow," said he. "That was unconscionable. You know I can never resist a touch of the dramatic."
He had let the bag slip down his arm, revealing the hand he had thrust through the torn underside. I saw he held a thin sliver of bent wire painted black to prevent the gleam of light betraying the metal device. To this was attached the pistol, which Holmes obligingly swivelled back and forth in my direction.
"Now do you see, Watson?" said he. "All was in Marchmont's favour: the fog, the dark night, his audacity. To his legerdemain I should add a talent for ventriloquism. I am not adept at the art myself, but for £50,000 I could be persuaded to learn."
He was still grinning, but I found no humour in the situation. When he saw my expression, he tempered his tone. "Come now, take heart. You yourself initially expressed disbelief in what you had seen."
"And you said you believed me," I accused.
"On the contrary, I said I believed that you believed what you had seen. That is founded upon my utter faith in your veracity. If you told me that Mrs Hudson had been carried off by a herd of rampaging elephants, I would trust that you were telling me what you believed to be the honest truth as to what you had seen." Something of the smile returned to his lips. "Were that the case, however, I should be obliged to question that good sense for which you are renowned."
If there was a compliment buried within that statement, I was in no mood to delve for it. "You might have told me sooner, Holmes. I have been made to look most foolish, and before your brother too. Well," I said, sighing, "that at least is one consolation, that your brother was deceived also."
Holmes looked away and stared into the fire. A worse realisation slowly dawned upon me.
"He did know?" I questioned.
"Of course he did, Watson. What he needed was proof, and one does not acquire that from the chair of a Whitehall office. For all his airs and graces, Mycroft is still a servant of the state. One does not simply approach the Prime Minister and tell him that he has been the victim of a grand deception, perpetrated by his close associate. Someone in Mycroft's position leaves that unpleasant task to younger brothers."
He retrieved his pipe and set a match to the wadded tobacco. "However, if it is consolation you require, consider the fact that you are amongst exulted company. Your encounter lasted a few minutes. Others sat in a darkened room and watched candlesticks and bottles dance on strings like a penny puppet show."
He drew reflectively and the blue vapours began to rise to the ceiling.
"I never feel more vindicated in my contempt for the political mind than when I learn it can be deceived by so poor a show. The Prime Minister, you understand, was at pains to assure me it was most convincing. That I may excuse by the same virtue that I have already expressed in regards to your good self, for he considered Marchmont a trusted friend and was ready to believe him. Once he learned the truth, however, his anger was implacable. There is nothing quite like betrayal to sharpen one's sense of indignation."
I could have answered with the accusation that Holmes would have done well to practice what he preached. If length of the offence came into the equation, then to lie for three years about one's survival should have earned greater censure than Marchmont's play-acting. I had been deceived then too, and it was only later when the joy of reconciliation had faded that I had seen the truth. He had not lied – the initial assumption of his death was mine – but he had not sought to correct my error either. Had it been an isolated incident, my indignation, like the Prime Minister's, would have been justified. But Holmes had lied by omission long enough for me to know that it was his way. Whatever the cause, there was always a reason, a greater goal in sight. He would have said that the ends justified the means, and perhaps he was right.
What I had never known, however, was whether he knew how great a toll those means extracted on those involved.
"It seems to me that the Prime Minister had a legitimate grievance," I said, testing the waters.
"On the contrary, it reveals a singular failing of character," Holmes returned. "Who is at greater fault? The one who deceives or the one who allows himself to be deceived? If I read the man correctly, that is the source of his complaint. Nor do I absolve Marchmont. If one is to abuse a friendship, then it should be for the best of motives. Nothing so base as mere money. Which reminds me," he added before I had had time to fully digest his words, "a bottle of the finest malt was delivered for you this morning, a token gift from Mr Matthew with his apologies for the liberties taken with your time and person."
"A token indeed," I said with some bitterness. "It is galling that the man is to get away scot-free."
Holmes smiled. "Scotland Yard has a quaint expression for such occasions, namely that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Mr Matthew may have slipped our clutches, but I fancy another kind of justice may soon find him. You may be interested to learn that a letter detailing his failings will be delivered to the government he represents on the morrow." His eyes twinkled with mischief. "I may have given my word not to press charges, but I reserve the right to pursue my own course."
"From what they said of his predecessor," I noted soberly, "his punishment is likely to be severe."
Holmes gave a dismissive snort. "Do not waste your sympathy on the man. You can be sure that they would have made good on their threats of violence had I not brought this charade to an end. That you survived your night in Southwark is due to the timely intervention of the local constabulary."
"Survived perhaps," said I, "but not with my dignity or possessions intact."
"The restoration of your dignity is beyond my powers, but in the matter of your possessions…"
He took from his pocket an object familiar to my eyes and dangled it before me in the manner of those stage performers who seek to hypnotise a volunteer from the audience with a shiny bauble.
"Good heavens," I ejaculated, rising from my chair. "My watch! Wherever did you find it?"
Holmes chuckled. "Your account of my deductions based upon this time-piece has made this watch possibly the most famous of all in London. In this instance, its discovery was elementary. Criminals do not stray far from their territory. It was pawned as soon as the shop opened, and there it was seen by the sharp eyes of one of the Irregulars."
"I am immensely grateful," I said.
Holmes waved this aside. "My dear fellow, it was my failure to anticipate the eventuality that precipitated the crisis. Yes, it is rare that you hear me admit to such a fault, but in this case, I erred in underestimating Marchmont's avarice. By all accounts, he was a good man but flawed, as are we all. This is not the first time speculation has cost him dear. Mycroft has unearthed a report that he invested heavily in what amounted to a hunt for lost treasure during his time in India. Needless to say, the treasure-hunters took his money and were never seen again. This latest enterprise proves that he did not learn his lesson."
The mood had sobered and the evening, like the glowing sea-coals, was waning to its end. Holmes would no doubt call me a sentimentalist, but to end the day – and the case – on such a grim note did not seem in the spirit of the thing. With this in mind, I stirred the fire back to life, recharged our glasses and faced him with a challenge with which even he would struggle.
"There is one question you have not answered," I said. "What do we tell Lestrade?"
Behind his glass, Holmes smile. "That I leave to minds greater at invention than mine," said he. "I am but a humble detective. In that respect, I am rather limited. I can only uncover facts; I cannot create them. That is where the artist has the advantage over the scientist. Art can be created by one man alone. It is unique and unequivocal. Science is the refuge of the explorer, who has merely to make sense of the world before another discovers it before him. Watson, we are in your hands."
He raised his glass in salute, a gesture I returned.
"The only advice I can offer," said he, "for what it is worth, is that you should decide upon your story with some haste. We are about to be invaded, and by the Inspector himself no less. That step of his is most distinctive, especially today when the festivities have stilled our busy street into silence. Be kind with your tale, Watson, for his presence suggests that his day has not been a success. He seeks answers and solace. One day, perhaps you will be able to tell the truth of the disembodied gun, but for now fiction must suffice in the presence of good company and a good port." He sighed contentedly. "Well, I dare say there are worse ways to spend Christmas Day."
My thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and review. Much appreciated!
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.