Having occasion to visit London, I was flattered to receive an invitation from the eminent John Watson, MD, to visit him at his practice.
The good doctor shook my paw. “I have never seen such a marvel as yourself-a talking dog! And, like my friend Sherlock Holmes, something of a detective.”
“Ruh-ruh,” I replied, shaking my head in the negative, and I explained how I had given up on investigating crimes and strange occurrences. My nerves no longer allowed it, and having parted ways with my young human friends, who had traditionally drawn me into such misadventures, I no longer felt inclined to pursue such investigations myself. But I noted my admiration for the famous Mr. Holmes and his solutions to perplexities much more complicated than anything with which I had been accustomed to encounter.
“I am glad to hear that you have left the consulting-detective business,” said Dr. Watson, “and this brings me to the reason I invited you to see me. You see, I am in something of a dilemma when it comes to my friend Mr. Holmes. On the one hand, the exertion of his constant adventures strains him beyond what he is willing to admit, and I believe he ought to rest. Yet on the other hand, when my friend isn’t solving cases, he reaches for other forms of mental stimulation, and he indulges his cocaine habit. As a physician, I am familiar with the ravages cocaine causes, and I do not wish my good friend to inflict these on himself, but neither do I want him to wear himself out with constant work, which for him is the only alternative to taking cocaine. So you see that I am caught, as it were, between Scylla and Charybdis.
“But of the two of us, Holmes is not the only one who finds resourceful ways to solve problems. I believe I have hit upon an excellent method of letting my friend get the rest he needs, without experiencing the cocaine craving he develops during periods of idleness.”
“I am sending him on a vacation to the United States, to divert his mind with the sights and sounds of that trans-Atlantic republic. I would very much like you to accompany him, to provide him with the challenge of dealing with a talking dog, and otherwise to help him find healthy outlets for his energy and curiosity. But if that does not work-”
Here Watson retrieved from a cabinet a pouch from which emanated a familiar smell which I had sensed in the anteroom. The pouch was in form like a standard tobacco pouch, but the smell was not of tobacco.
“This is a preparation of my own devising,” explained Watson, “prepared largely from certain plants provided to me by a botanist on the staff of the Governor of Jamaica. This medicinal mixture, when burnt and inhaled, produces in the patient a considerable slowing of the faculties. It also relaxes the patient to the point where he can enjoy idleness, without constantly craving mental labor and intellectual stimulation. And if there is anything my friend needs right now, it is some temporary relief from the constant intellectual restlessness which is driving him to overwork and, I fear, potentially to an early grave.”
I accepted the good doctor’s assignment, happy to do my part to help Holmes, flattered that I would be the companion of such a great man during his holiday, and relieved that although accompanying the world’s greatest detective on his travels, I would not be asked to undertake any dangerous adventures, of which I had had my fill.
Or so I thought.
When we first arrived in New York, I thought that my mission had failed before it had begun. Holmes purchased a newspaper and, upon turning a couple of pages while we were at a restaurant, exclaimed:
“Look at this! A wealthy American eccentric who has been living on Park Avenue has mysteriously disappeared without a trace…leaving no forwarding address, no instructions, and no news about his situation. Many fear the worst. This is a problem which presents many interesting features…”
Holmes puffed excitedly on his pipe as he looked at the article, but fortunately the pipe was filled with Dr. Watson’s excellent calming medicine. After a few minutes of smoking, Holmes put down the newspaper, sighed, and said, “Well, there is no point in allowing this to interrupt our holiday. The local constabulary should be perfectly able to solve this case without us. I doubt the gentleman is in any danger. I shall proceed with our trip as planned. Could you ask our waiter for another serving of his excellent corn chips?”
And thus the crisis passed as soon as it had arisen, and Holmes and I embarked on a railway journey to the western states. As Holmes had predicted, the missing rich man had apparently not been in any danger – it turned out that his wealth was built on borrowed money and he had absconded in order to escape his creditors, to whom he sent taunting letters. So Holmes and I thought no more of the matter.
So it came about that we were relaxing in a saloon in a small town in one of the Western states. I was contentedly digesting some sausage links I had purchased with Watson’s extensive travel budget, while Holmes, pipe in mouth, was sitting at the bar.
“A lemonade please, if you have one,” Holmes said to the saloonkeeper behind the bar.
“Coming up,” said the saloonkeeper. “I do quite a business in temperance beverages with all the Baptists in town. And speak of the devil…” this in reference to a man with a pinched face and gray suit who had just entered the saloon.
“Hello, reverend,” the saloonkeeper said to the man as he took a seat next to Holmes.
“I’m not really a minister,” said the man, turning to Holmes. “I’m Donald Gravely, undertaker, also president of the Baptist Sobriety League. Sometimes I come by this saloon to persuade the proprietor to sell something besides liquor. And he accommodates me-” as the saloonkeeper passed Gravely a tall glass of lemonade – “though I wish to see the day when he sells only lemonade.”
Meanwhile, a gentleman sat on Holmes’ other side. Puffing on his pipe, Holmes regarded the new arrival languidly.
“Gimme a bourbon,” said the man, who promptly introduced himself as Bob Touter.
“New in town?” Touter asked Holmes. “So am I – I’m trying to set up a circus in these parts. I have exhibits Barnum would die to have – marvels and wonders that…”
Holmes stifled a yawn. “That’s all very interesting, gentlemen,” he said, “but I think I shall retire to my room.” And he left, trailing a cloud of smoke from his pipe, with me following close behind.
I thought that the two of us would soon retire for the night, but after a couple of hours of smoky contemplation, Holmes suggested we go out for a stroll. This didn’t seem like the best idea, since a light snowfall had just commenced and was probably going to increase as the night advanced, but Holmes was all for a relaxing walk.
As he lit his oil lantern, he said, “Please accompany me if you wish, or not, it is all cool. I simply want to take in the sights of the local countryside.”
I went downstairs with my friend, and the saloonkeeper said, “Ah, Mr. Holmes, it’s a nice night to visit the haunted house, isn’t it?”
“The what?” asked Holmes.
“Why,” said Touter, “everyone in these parts knows about it – folks have been seeing and hearing strange things at the old Jones mansion.”
“That’s right,” added Graves. “Moans, clanking, strange lights, the whole bit.”
“Gentlemen,” said Holmes, “I care nothing for such things. I won’t be going in that direction. I am simply here as a tourist, and I will thank you not to present me with any riddles, puzzles, cases of strange goings-on, or reports of anything out of the ordinary. I have simply lost my interest in such matters. Be so kind as to tell me the direction of this so-called haunted house, so I can go in another direction entirely.”
When the denizens of the saloon pointed to the north, Holmes announced his desire to direct his steps southward instead.
Words cannot express the relief I felt as Holmes and I began our walk out of town in the direction opposite that of the haunted house. Hauntings, ghosts, apparitions, goblins, long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night had lost whatever slight appeal they had once contained for me. That we were going where such things most assuredly were *not* was a consolation.
And there might have been nothing left to tell of this story, except for an unfortunate thing – as we began exploring the increasingly-snowy countryside, Holmes took his pipe out of his mouth and began gesturing with the stem to various geographical features which struck his interest. As we kept walking in the fresh air, and as Holmes reduced his puffing on the pipe, his mind must have begun to clear, and his interest in mystery-solving must have begun to revive, because, to my great alarm, I observed him begin to turn his steps westward, then northward, so that we were taking a circuit around the town and approaching the location where, we have been informed, the haunted house lay.
I intimated by whimpers, by tugging at Holmes’ cloak, and other signs, that I was dissatisfied with the direction in which he was turning, but far from paying attention to my warnings, Holmes quickened his stride, and all too soon were came in sight of an abandoned house. The front door was off its hinges, the broken, darkened windows stared out into the gathering gloom like empty eyes, and in short I concluded that our search for the haunted house was over.
I didn’t like the odors I could detect, even at this distance, emanating from the building. From the smell of old foeces, it did not take Holmesian deduction to infer that human and animal visitors had come to the house over the past few years, hopefully simply to visit, shelter from the cold, and relieve themselves.
But then Holmes stooped over and pointed to several sets of footprints, faint and growing fainter as the snow began covering them.
“From the imprint of these boots,” said Holmes, “I must conclude that they belong to…to…devil take it, I neglected, while back at the saloon, to take notice of the boots of the saloonkeeper and the guests. Ah, Watson, your cursed Jamaican preparation has worked its magic – I was truly heedless of my surroundings. That will not do at all.”
And Holmes tapped his pipe so that the precious calming mixture he had been smoking fell onto the snowy ground. Holmes then reached into his cloak, drew out the pouch in which the mixture was stored, and threw it far from him.
“So much for Watson’s attempt to lure me into the Land of the Lotus Eaters!” Holmes exclaimed. “From now on I shall keep my wits about me, and…”
He paused, noticing, as I had just noticed as well, the sound of horse-hooves and carriage-wheels behind us.
The approaching carriage was light-green in color, and as the driver came to a halt and dismounted in order to greet us, Holmes said to me sotto voce, “I perceive that he is wearing the clerical garb of the Roman Church, and I am confident that behind that orange scarf which he wears to keep out the winter cold, he has his clerical collar on. Give me a few seconds, and I believe I will be able to identify him…”
The priest came forward, hand extended, and said, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes, what a pleasant surprise! I am…”
“Father Frederick, special assistant to the Archbishop of Baltimore for confidential spiritual investigations,” said Holmes as he vigorously clasped the man’s extended hand.
“Why Holmes,” said the Father Frederick, “how ever did you guess? I have been at some pains not to have my identity or my work known to the general public.”
“It was quite elementary,” said Holmes, happy to provide a specimen of his swiftly-recovering powers of observation. “It is my habit to collect stories in newspapers and periodicals which may turn out to be of use to me. From my reading of certain specialized publications, I learned of your identity and your role in examining claims of supernatural manifestations, in order to discover whether these manifestations are genuine, or the product of fraud or superstition. And I am pleased to note that in the vast majority of your inquiries you found the latter causes at work, rather than spiritual influences.
“And since my research had already shown that such a person as Father Frederick existed, it was an obvious inference that you and he were one and the same. What reason would any priest except Father Frederick have to visit an abandoned house, reputed to be haunted, and without as far as I know any residents in need of confession or last rites?”
“You are right on all counts,” said Father Frederick. “The haunted-house rumors are what brought me here. As you say, generally these phenomena have nothing of the supernatural in them, but in cases like this it is useful to examine the possibility, however slight, of something beyond the merely human being involved, so that we can verify whether that superhuman influence be of a benevolent or a malevolent nature.”
“Before we go into the house,” said Holmes, “for if you will excuse me I wish to join your investigation, I hope you will introduce me to your assistants. From the exertions of the horses, I recognized that they were pulling the weight of more than one person.”
“I would be happy to introduce my associates,” said Father Frederick, “just as I would be happy to have the assistance of the world’s greatest detective in our investigation.”
Father Frederick opened the carriage door and assisted a nun in clambering out onto the ground. Even a nonhuman animal such as myself can appreciate human female beauty, and on examining this nun I reflected that the Church’s gain was some unfortunate young man’s loss. The woman’s hair glowed a fiery red in the lamplight as Father Frederick introduced her.
“This is Sister Agnes,” said the priest, “an invaluable assistant to my enterprise. And here – ” as a shorter, stockier nun emerged from the carriage – “is Sister Catherine, named after…”
Holmes interrupted. “Named after Saint Catherine of Siena, the famous scholar-nun. I can see the resemblance – observe her spectacles, unusually thick for a women of her young age, indicating that she has sadly been harming her eyesight from constant reading.”
Sister Catherine sniffed. “That wasn’t hard to figure out,” she said, “since I’m carrying a book,” pointing to a small volume which was tucked under her left arm.
“Indeed,” said Holmes, and I could see that he was adapting himself, reluctantly, to the presence of another learned person – a woman – who was unimpressed by his manner. “And now, Father Frederick, I hope you will introduce me to the fourth member of your party.”
Although nobody had mentioned a fourth person, I realized that I could hear from within the carriage the sound of teeth chattering, as of someone shivering, but surely not from the cold, since carriage seemed very warm inside.
“Come out, Father Rogers,” said Father Frederick, in a stern but affectionate tone, “we have arrived at the haunted house.”
“Th-that’s what I was afraid of,” said another priest as he emerged, slowly, from the carriage. This new priest, unlike the impeccably-dressed Father Frederick, was dressed in rumpled and ill-fitting garments, a fact of which Fr. Rogers seemed somewhat self-conscious.
“I got these clothes cheap at a surplice sale,” said Fr. Rogers.
There was apparently nothing for it but to go into the house, which Fr. Rogers and myself did somewhat more reluctantly than the others, hanging back until the rebukes of Holmes and Fr. Frederick shamed us into climbing on the rotting porch and entering through the doorway after the rest of the party.
“My suggestion, Holmes” said Father Frederick, “is that you and the sisters explore the upper story-” pointing to a ruined stairway leading to what was left of the second floor- “while Fr. Rogers and I go down into the basement to locate the source of that strange sepulchural smell.”
I was relieved that Holmes would not be in the party descending into the basement, since of two unpalatable choices, ascending a staircase to an upper floor seemed less frightening to me than descending into what Fr. Rogers quite rightly called a “creepy basement.”
It was with a chill of horror that I hear Fr. Frederick conclude his remarks by saying, “and Holmes, I should like to borrow your dog, the better to detect the source of these strange scents.”
And so it was that I found myself not following, but leading the two priests into the basement, one slippery, stony step after another, sniffing the stairway in order to trace a powerful graveyard stench whose origin I would have preferred to leave a mystery.
The illumination of Fr. Frederick’s lantern, as it shone into the basement from our position at the foot of the stairs, revealed a coffin lying on the ground. I immediately turned and tried to go back up the stairs, with Fr. Rogers right beside me, but Fr. Frederick grabbed us both by our collars and insisted that we remain and investigate.
Exploring the basement, we found that the strange scents came from within the coffin, but the coffin was tightly sealed and locked. So we proceeded to the other end of the basement to see what could be found there when a creaking sound behind us caused us to turn and look.
Like a vision out of a nightmare, a figure clad in black metal armor climbed out of what had until just now been a securely locked coffin.
Fr. Frederick had spoken of benevolent spiritual forces and malevolent ones, and I suspected that we were confronting an example of the latter. This impression was reinforced by the gigantic battle-axe which the armored figure wielded, and which he brandished as he began striding towards us..
I have difficulty recollecting the details of the next few minutes, since time itself seemed to speed up as the three of us ran for dear life, pursued by the ghastly apparition. All I can be sure of is that we managed to race past the ghostly knight and start ascending the stairs, while the clank of metal footsteps showed that our adversary was following close behind.
By some mercy of Providence, the door at the top of the basement stairs was still in place, with a functioning lock. Fr. Frederick closed and bolted the door mere moments before we could hear the armored figure reach the top of the steps we had just ascended with such rapidity. Then commenced the sound of repeated blows of an axe on the other side of the door, indicating that we would only have a respite of a few minutes before the enemy was upon us again.
Then we heard footsteps which proved to be Holmes descending, with great haste, the stairway from the second floor. He came up to Fr. Frederick and, pointing upstairs, said:
“Don’t just stand there, man! Come back upstairs with me, where something of a very curious nature is transpiring. The sisters are in difficulty.”
“Where are Sister Agatha and Sister Catherine?” asked Fr. Frederick with some asperity as Holmes led us up the creaking wooden staircase to the upper floor.
“They are safe for the moment behind a locked closet door,” said Holmes. “It is not for them that we should be concerned, but for ourselves. Look!”
From the head of the stairs, we could see to the end of a long hallway, at the end of which was a man in the garb of the far West, who was rapidly running towards us. The fur on my back bristled as I saw the glow emanating from the figure, illuminating the passageway without the need of any lantern.
“I am the ghost of Jesse James!” said the figure. “I’m gonna get all of you!”
And then I heard behind us the sound of metal shoes climbing the stairs behind us. We were hemmed in on both sides.
A closet door opened nearby. Sister Catherine emerged from the closet and said, “Father Frederick! Your scarf!”
“Yes,” said Holmes, “I was about to suggest that you use your scarf to confound our foes. And you,” turning to me, “I have an idea for dealing with this knight.”
“I think I see what your plan is,” said Fr. Frederick, removing his orange scarf. “Quick, hold the scarf across the passageway in front of ‘Jesse James.’”
As was related to me later, Fr. Frederick – assisted by Sister Agatha, who rushed up to provide her aid – held his scarf across the passage along which the ghostly gunfighter was approaching. Failing to notice the trap in front of him, the glowing figure stumbled in a most un-ghostly way and fell on his face. Fr. Frederick sat upon his back to hold him.
Meanwhile, following Holmes’ hasty instructions, I ran in a direction which was not customary for me – toward the axe-wielding knight and not away from him. The latter was my strong preference, but a sense of duty toward Holmes and my new friends prevailed over my timidity.
Jumping onto the figure’s armor, I climbed to the head and barked repeatedly into the visor. The echo of my barking resounded throughout the armor’s helmet, apparently causing a ringing in the ears of the person or entity inside. Discomfited, the knight staggered, and it took only a push from Holmes to send him banging and slamming down the stairs until he landed on his back the main floor, the weight of the armor preventing him from getting to his feet again.
“Now,” said Fr. Frederick, “we shall learn the identities of these putative phantoms.” Perceiving that “Jesse James’” face was merely a rubber mask, Fr. Frederick reached to pull it off.
“It is the saloon-keeper,” said Holmes, and upon the removal of the mask, I perceived that indeed it was.
“Now for our knight,” said Fr. Frederick, annoyed that Holmes’ identification had preceded the unmasking.
As Father Frederick strove to take off the knight’s helmet, Holmes and Sister Catherine said in unison, “it is Silas Newcombe.” When the helmet was off, I recognized from his newspaper photograph the former Park Avenue denizen who had fled New York to avoid his creditors. Silas Newcombe was, in fact, his name.
“OK, I’ll confess,” said the saloonkeeper. “You see, I -”
“Do not trouble yourself,” said Holmes. “I can explain your actions, and you only need interrupt if I am mistaken in any of my facts.
“Now, when I reflected on the Baptist influx into the town, prompting you to start selling lemonade, I thought that the temperance influence may have caused you to seek out new, nonalcoholic beverages to sell. Your friendliness with the Baptist showed that you were reconciled to the new way of things. And once I became clear of the influence of Dr. Watson’s well-intentioned herbal mixture, I recalled glancing over the counter of the saloon and seeing mud on your boots – the same sort of mud which is found near this house.
“The rest was elementary. This house is often visited by inebriate vagrants, so clearly your objective was to, as you Americans put it, ‘scare them sober’ by posing as a ghost, thus creating increased demand for the lemonade you sell.”
“And as for you,” said Holmes, turning to Newcombe, but Sister Catherine interrupted.
“I know what Silas Newcombe was up to,” she said.
“Then pray inform us,” said Holmes, and crammed his pipe into his mouth in what I had come to recognize as a gesture of irritation.
“It’s all in this book,” said Sister Catherine, showing us the book she had been carrying under her arm – and which she had had the presence of mind not to drop even during her flight from the disguised saloonkeeper.
“The book is by Newcombe himself, and it’s all about an invention which he was trying to promote – a coffin which can be opened from the inside. Newcombe got his idea from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Premature Burial,” which expresses the author’s fear of being buried alive. Newcombe thought he could sell this special coffin to people like Poe, to reassure them that they would be able to escape from their coffins in case they were wrongly put into them while still alive.”
“It’s a genius idea,” said Newcombe, “but the public wasn’t interested, and refused to buy any of my coffins. So I couldn’t repay the loans I’d taken out to make my coffins. I thought that if I could just hide out for a while in this abandoned house, sleeping in the coffin and emerging from it from time to time, I could demonstrate the effectiveness of my invention. And come to think of it, I have.”
“Wait a minute,” said Fr. Frederick, “you can’t just walk away, you tried to kill us, and that’s a crime.”
“Now, Father Frederick,” said Father Rogers, “King David did worse, yet he obtained forgiveness.”
“Yes,” said Holmes, “I suggest we overlook this slight legal lapse by a beleaguered businessman, and for that matter that we also let the offenses of the saloonkeeper fade into oblivion.”
“Solving these cases is somehow less fulfilling when we can’t arrest the people we unmask and listen to them cursing their ill luck to have encountered us,” said Fr. Frederick, “but I suppose we would be ill-advised to copy someone else’s schtick.”
Which remark was greeted by peals of laughter from one and all.