The Adventure of the Anonymous Caller
-dedicated to Julie, who absorbs new fandoms like a sponge and proved a brilliant Holmes beta after reading only two canonical stories, and to Martina, the voice on the other end of the phone.
"I had only one confidante-my brother Mycroft."
-Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Empty House"
Civilization had come to an end. Solitude and sanity were no more. At least, such were my fears when my beloved Diogenes Club was invaded by that miracle of the modern age, the electric telephone. "In case of emergency," the club's board had argued as they voted me down. I was aghast. Why had I bothered to found this establishment in the first place, if not as a refuge from unnecessary and inane conversation? I dreaded the inevitable first call from a panicking minister or permanent secretary, and the deluge that would follow.
Little did I realize that the infernal device, as I called it, would allow me to be of use and hope in another's darkest hour.
It was on an evening in June of 1902 when Withers, the club's ancient footman, came tottering up to my wingchair in the club's library. To my surprise he offered me no missive, nor was there even a salver in his hands. I took note of that at once, and was even more surprised when he dared to speak aloud in flagrant violation of the club's rule of silence. He was growing more and more forgetful by the day.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Holmes, sir," he murmured, drawing scowls and mutters of outrage from my fellow clubmen. "Telephone for you, sir."
I rolled my eyes to Heaven and groaned. "Very well, Withers," I said, sparing him any further need to speak. With a sigh I heaved myself out of my chair as my companions shook their newspapers in disapproval and settled into solitary silence once more.
My size does not allow for a particularly speedy stride, which was fortunate as Withers is about as fleet of foot as an excited tortoise. "What name did the caller give?" I whispered as we padded through the opulent corridors.
"Oh..." The old retainer blinked slightly. "Oh, dear me, sir. I am afraid I failed to take down the gentleman's name."
"Oh, for pity's sake!" In my ire I forgot to lower my voice. I stopped so abruptly that despite Withers' leaden pace, he nearly collided with me as I glared down at him. "Really, Withers! Bad enough to be evicted from my favourite chair after a particularly fine dinner, but by an anonymous summons!"
"I'm sure I'm very sorry, Mr. Holmes, sir," said Withers. "My mind is not what it used to be, sir."
I remembered his mind when I had founded the club a quarter of a century ago; he had been no intellectual giant then, either. "Oh...well, never mind." After all, it was hardly his fault that the cabinet was helpless without me. Contemplating an early retirement, I sighed again and trudged on towards the Stranger's Room.
But by now, of course, I was curious as well as irate. "Well, since we have no name for him, what could you deduce about this anonymous caller?"
I slowed a little to allow his old frame to catch up to me, though I well knew his mind could never do likewise. Nevertheless, I hoped he might still provide me with some clue. "From his voice and manner of speaking. Was he a gentleman? Could you place his accent at all?"
"His accent, sir?" The old fellow's brows puckered for a moment. "Much like yours, sir."
Perhaps I had hoped too much. "What about the timbre of his voice? Deep? High?"
"Uh...somewhat high, sir. The gentleman sounded rather unsettled, sir, if you take my meaning. Apart from that, the voice was..." he screwed up his face in thought again. "...much like yours, sir."
Now that I look back, I realize that Withers had given me all the clues I needed. To coin a phrase, "You see, but you do not observe!"
At last we entered the heavily panelled privacy of the Stranger's Room. The last orange light of the dying sun glowed behind the high windows and illuminated a large oaken desk upon which stood a black candlestick telephone, the handset resting atop the blotter. I settled myself into a nearby chair and nodded as Withers handed me the instrument. Dismissing him, I held its components to my ear and mouth, feeling I must surely look every bit the fool that I felt. "Mycroft Holmes here," I said curtly.
"Mycroft, thank God! What took you so long?"
I blinked. "Sherlock?" It was he, surely, but the unfamiliar note of desperation in his voice caught me doubly off guard. For a moment I glanced stupidly about the room, as though I might spot him beneath the furniture. "What is all this? Why on Earth are you calling me at my club – or calling me at all? You never even write when you can send a telegram!"
"I know. Forgive me." His voice was as taut as the strings of his violin. "I know you loathe the telephone as much as I...but..."
"But what, Sherlock?" Sherlock never faltered in mid-sentence. It was a small slip, but to me who knew him so well, it was like a sudden crack riving the wall of a great dam.
"But I simply wished to hear your voice."
"Yes," he rasped. "I find I am somewhat pressed at the moment, and this waiting is intolerable!"
"Waiting for what?"
"Inspector Lestrade." He hesitated again. "And the ambulance. I telephoned them some time ago." I heard his breath hiss in frustration. "Blast it! What can be keeping them?"
"Did you say ambulance?" I certainly hoped I was mistaken. "Good Lord, Sherlock, what has happened? Are you hurt?"
"No." Sherlock's voice was so low that I had to strain to hear him. "I wish I were!"
"Confound it, Sherlock! Will you kindly endeavour to make some sense? Who has been hurt?"
The answer struck like a thunderbolt before he could even speak. There was another voice I should have heard: a voice that was as significantly silent as Sherlock's vaunted dog in the night-time. I almost feared to ask. "Sherlock...oh, no. Is it Watson?"
I heard a short, terrible bark of a laugh. "Oh, very well deduced, dear brother! Yes, yes, it is Watson!" I could hear Sherlock fighting the flood that surged against his iron control. "He has been shot!"
"Shot!" Now that monstrous grief just beneath his voice lashed in rage. "By a filthy blackguard whose life is not worth one tenth of his!"
"Sherlock, get hold of yourself!" I urged. "Where is this blackguard now? Are you still in danger?"
"No. I struck him down with my pistol-butt, and he has not moved since." Again that fury surged, like a terrible wave. "And by the Lord, he shall never move again if-"
"That will be quite enough, Sherlock!" I snapped. "I know better than anyone what you are capable of when you forget yourself, and if you do you will be no use to anyone, least of all to Watson!"
As in a nightmare, I recalled the night when Mama had vanished. Sherlock was still a youth, and devoted to her. It was he who found her note, saying she was leaving us to be with her lover. When the news came two days later that she had been killed in a carriage accident, Sherlock virtually destroyed her room, and then with cocaine, himself. I shuddered to think of what he would do now, if the worst came to the worst.
But my words seemed to sober him, at least for the moment. I could hear him breathing heavily after his outburst. "Of course. Yes. Yes, you are right."
"Good man." I had tugged my handkerchief out by now, and was mopping my brow. My knowledge of medicine was limited to bromide tablets and brandy, but I would have to do my best. "Now, Sherlock, tell me about Watson's injury. I take it that he is not conscious. How badly is he hurt?"
"He was struck in the thigh. I have bandaged the wound, but I cannot tell how serious it is. If the bullet has struck the artery—"
If it had, then Watson was lost. I swallowed heavily and tugged at my increasingly tight collar, feeling rivulets of perspiration dribbling down the back of my neck. Somehow I managed to keep my voice calm. "Now then. Remember what I taught you, Sherlock. It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have data. You are not a doctor. Do not attempt to make a prognosis yourself, or you will begin to twist facts to suit theories."
There came that short, mirthless laugh again. Then his voice grew gentler. "You have taught me so many things over the years, Mycroft. If I had been more apt pupil, I might not be in this predicament now."
I gave a soft snort. "What do you mean? That you might have taken up the Civil Service as I urged you, and avoided these penny-dreadful antics? You would have been bored to tears, Sherlock. I very often am – except when you come a-calling."
"You have the patience of a saint, Mycroft."
I chuckled. "St. Mycroft of Pall Mall! Patron saint of adventurers, intriguers and amateur detectives. My motto would be, 'There is method in his madness!'"
This time, wonder of wonders, my brother laughed along with me, though very softly, and only for a moment. Then I heard a heartfelt sigh. "You have been very patient with my...madness in the past, Mycroft. Few other men would be. The only other I have ever known is..." His voice caught. "Oh, Mycroft, why do they not come?"
"Gently, my dear boy. They will. The time only seems long to you." I glanced at my watch, mentally cursing the tardy Inspector and his ambulance. They were almost as slow as Withers. I thought of my brother, alone in that room as the shadows lengthened, his dearest friend dying in his arms. The thought cracked my own dam, and the telephone wire become an unlikely spillway.
"Sherlock, Dr. Watson is one of the strongest men I have ever known. He survived Maiwand. He survived the Cornish Horror. He is not easily beaten."
"I know, Mycroft."
"And no matter what happens," I persisted as I let the stream grow stronger, "you will never be alone. Do you hear me, Sherlock? I will never allow that to happen." As I heard a soft gasp, like a cry, I blundered on. "But I will not need to, Sherlock. Because he will fight to stay by your side, and I am more grateful for that than I can say."
The clock upon my wall ticked like a bomb. I could hear nothing else. Then I thought I heard a whispered, "thank you," but it was so soft that I could not be certain.
"Any change?" I asked gently. Thank goodness Sherlock could not see my whitened knuckles as they gripped the black wood, for it did not take a detective to see how agitated I was.
It was a moment before he answered; when he did, I prayed it was the instrument that caused the tremor in his voice "You were right, Mycroft. I am not much of a doctor. I –I find I am having trouble finding a pulse."
And then suddenly I heard a gasp and a clunk, as of something hitting the floor, and his voice echoed terribly. "Watson, for God's sake!"
"Sherlock!" My heart lurched; the perspiration cascaded down my forehead. "Sherlock, are you still there? Answer me!" I kept repeating myself in awful ignorance, now cursing the infernal device that had made me blind but not deaf.
And then came the sweetest sound in all the world.
"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."
I sagged in my chair, deflating like a punctured dirigible. For a few moments I could only listen, barely daring to breathe, at the muted dialogue so many miles away.
Watson's voice was gentle and very moved. "Steady, Holmes. I promise you, it isn't serious. You see? The bleeding has already stopped."
There was a ripping of cloth. Then came my brother's voice, vibrant with hope. "You are right! It is quite superficial!"
I think my second sigh of relief may have drowned out Sherlock's. After some more reassurances on Watson's part, and unsteady responses on Sherlock's, I heard Watson ask, "Holmes, why is the telephone on the floor? Did you call someone? Are they still there?" I heard the crackle of static as the phone on the other end was lifted. "Hello?"
"Dr. Watson, thank goodness!" The chair hinges shrieked under my weight as I shot bolt upright. "Are you all right?"
"Mycroft!" His voice became distant again as he had obviously turned aside. "You called your brother, Holmes? Poor man, what was he to do? You probably frightened him half to death!"
"An excellent deduction, Doctor!" I called. "I cannot tell you how relieved I am to hear your voice. How are you?"
His voice resumed its volume. "I am quite well, I assure you. And so is your brother." Then the Doctor's voice softened. "That is, I'm sure he will be well. He was not hurt – just badly shaken."
"So I gathered." I heard the far-off neighing and clopping of horses, and a jumble of voices with someone barking orders. "I think that would be Scotland Yard and the ambulance. Not before time, I must say. Remind me to complain to the Home Secretary, and the Minister of Health!" I cleared my throat. "When they come in, tell me which hospital they mean to take you to. I shall meet you there."
"Oh, no, there's no need."
"I insist, Doctor!" My handkerchief was positively flapping as I mopped my brow once more. "I wish to see for myself that the two of you are all right!"
"Very well." I could almost see Watson's smile. "Would you like to speak to your brother again?"
Watson's voice ceased, and the phone at the other end crackled. Then came Sherlock, quiet and subdued.
"Mycroft...what would I have done without you?"
I cleared my throat again and found another use for my handkerchief. "Nonsense, Sherlock. All I did was babble into this ridiculous contraption!"
"Then you must add Patron Saint of the telephone to your canonical titles!" He quieted again. "How can I ever thank you?"
I shook my head and sighed, intending to see about some medicinal brandy for myself before I left. Then I broke into a wry smile. "The next time you need to contact me, my dear boy, send a telegram!"
I could hear Watson chuckling in the background, and Sherlock softly joined in. "I will, dear brother. I will."