Looking back over my notes and records of Sherlock Holmes cases, I keep returning to the one case which, I believe, I can never send to the editors of the Strand Magazine; for it is so strange and even fantastical as to be virtually beyond belief.
It was a rare occasion when my friend Sherlock Holmes would ask me to meet him and bring along my service revolver. Even more so when the telegraphic summons would demand both urgency and punctuality. So it was on this fateful day in July when I arrived at 221B Baker Street and climbed the stairs to his consulting room.
"On time I see Watson" said Holmes when I knocked. "I could tell it was your distinctive tread. Come in and close the door behind you. Did you notice anything strange in the street when you arrived?"
"No" I answered "nothing".
"Good. And you have your revolver?"
I patted the pocket of my coat.
"Excellent. Now may I introduce you to Monsieur Verne."
He gestured over to my right and, turning, I could see an impressive looking figure sitting in the corner smoking a cigar. He had a broad generous face with a shock of grey hair and a full white beard.
"Jules Verne?" I ventured. "The writer of scientific fiction and adventures?"
"You are well read my friend". The voice had only a slight accent but was mellow and seemed well-suited to the figure from which it emanated. "In English or the original French?"
"Only in translation I'm afraid, but I enjoyed the wild eccentricities of the The Baltimore Gun Club and their ... what is its called ... space-ship?"
"Not by me. I believe the Pall Mall Gazette in London invented that appellation: but I like it nonetheless."
At this point Holmes, who had been watching our discourse with a look of mild amusement, interrupted. "I didn't realise such romances are part of your literature Watson, though I accept that the Strand does venture in that direction on occasion. But be that as it may, we must prepare ourselves for another visitor and I suggest you remove your coat and move away from the door. "Monsieur Verne, would you like to quickly apprise Watson of the background to our impending visitor?"
Holmes and I turned to face Verne and listened intently.
"Bien sûr Monsieur Holmes. Monsieur Watson, what I am about to tell you will seem encroyable ... but it is the absolute truth and not something from one of my scientific romances. We start about a week ago ..."
The tale that unfolded was indeed extraordinary
The tale that Verne unfolded for us was indeed extraordinary. It seems that late one night he was approached in the street. Despite being shot in the leg by his nephew a few years previously, he was not averse to walking by himself, although his gait was a little erratic as a result. His interlocutor was a tall man wearing a long cloak and even though the evening was balmy he was well muffled with a scarf covering the lower part of his face and wearing a large-brimmed hat. He spoke with a strong accent that Verne was unable to place and would regularly pause to cough lightly into his hand.
He was a traveller who had, due to circumstances unknown, lost access to his transport, which he referred to as his ship. He knew that Monsieur Verne had demonstrated an interest in journeying beyond the earth because he had seen his books telling of a capsule, fired from a gigantic gun, travelling to the moon and back. The lost transport, the traveller explained, was such a capsule, though it did not require a gun to initiate its flight.
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed "He sounds quite mad."
"Indeed" replied Verne "But as he spoke I could tell he was educated, because he went on to talk about the journey he had made. He was adamant that the luminiferous æther that many believe permeates the heavens, and that provides the medium for light to traverse, simply does not exist. My gun club explorers would have asphyxiated immediatement it would seem."
"So you believe that this person is not of this world?" interjected Holmes, who had otherwise remained silent.
"I believe that is the case, strange as it may appear. He is a shipwrecked sailor of sorts and we can help him find his ship".
I asked why, if the traveller had accosted Monsieur Verne in Paris, we were gathering in London.
"I am sorry Monsieur Watson ... pardon me Doctor Watson ... I should have made it clear but I was in London visiting a publisher. How this person tracked me down I do not know, although perchance he thought I am the real life Phileas Fogg n'est pas?"
At this point there was the sound of a bell ringing to announce a visitor at the street entrance, followed by Mrs Hudson answering the door, some subdued conversation, and then slow heavy treads climbing the stairs and moving along the passage.
"Holmes ... he's here ... this is him?"
"Stay calm Watson. Based on what our friend here has said I think we have nothing to fear."
The figure who entered the room was imposing. Over six feet tall and draped in what seemed to be a woollen cape that covered almost entirely from just under a wide-brimmed hat down to the floor. The face was completely in shadow. When the figure spoke, the voice sounded male, with an accent difficult to place but somewhere between Arabia and eastern Europe and with a strange light hissing sound on occasions.
"Good day Mister Holmesss ... gentlemen" he said, with a slight nod in our directions. "I am told you can help me find my missing shhhip."
"We will try" said Holmes. "Would you like to sit down? And can I offer you any refreshment?"
"Thank you but no ... to both. I trust you will understand that I wish to keep on my hat and coat: I hope that this does not cause you concern."
"Not at all. Then let us get to business. Doctor Watson here" Holmes indicated "is my regular associate. Monsieur Verne you know. Perhaps you can explain how you came to need our help."
I wish I could say that I understood completely the explanation, but what I can remember is that our visitor was an explorer from, shall we say, a distant land. He had a flying machine with which he travelled. This was not a balloon, such as we are used to seeing over London, but a device which while heavier than air could nonetheless rise up and propel itself while aloft.
We are given to understand that this was not the first time our visitor had come to fly over London. Those earlier visits may well explain why there have been occasional rumours of strange apparitions over the city; explained away as hallucinations ... until now it would seem.
"You would seem to have devices far more sophisticated that ours" interposed Holmes "and I can infer that you yourself are of great intelligence and ability."
There was a noise that might have been a chuckle. "I merely operate the ship: I could not build one. But it is a rare ssskill to have that enables me to explore far from home. As such I am enabled to understand and even communicate in many languagesss, which is how I came to learn about Monsieur Verne's work and to discover where I might find him."
"There was a loud crack and a flash of light and my ship was struck by a flash of electrisssity from the sssky. I became unconscious briefly and when I awoke I found that the ship was in the river and partially covered by the mud of the river bank. For a while I was confused and wandered on the river bank. So I do not know exactly where my ship rests. It will have stopped working when I left, as it is clever that way. So it should be sssafe for a while from inquiring minds."
He continued "This happened about four days ago. I am able to blend in enough with your fellows to be able to wander the city. If you look purposeful, no one will accost you."
"What about food and drink and sleep?" I asked.
"These are things that I have had no need of ... so far. My problem is that my memories of the city and where the ship might be are those from the air. There is this." And so saying he produced a small piece of paper, on which was sketched what looked to be a flower with six petals. But these were no ordinary petals, as instead of being smoothly delineated they looked more like geometric shapes.
"Pentagons" exclaimed Holmes. "I think I know where this is. Is this the shape of a building you saw from above just before you came down?"
"I believe it is, but the memory is a little hazy. You know this?"
"Yes" said Holmes "and I believe I can show you the view of it from above."
So saying Holmes walked over to the bookcase and withdrew a bound volume of the Strand Magazine. "You see Watson, your remembrances in the Strand have proved useful after all. This volume, from 1891, is where my first cases appeared. But there is another article in here to which I must draw our attention."
Seen from above the district known as Millbank
He spread the book open on the desk table and the three of us gathered round.
"You see Watson, following directly on from the Adventure of the Five Orange Pips, as you called it, there is a account of an expedition above London in a wonder of our age: Mister Percival Spencer's balloon. Here, see: 'London from Aloft' it says ... and you will see that it is illustrated with photographs."
He continued to turn the pages until page 495 was reached and there at the bottom was a murky view of the Thames with some of its bridges evidently seen from above the district known as Millbank.
"Of course Holmes ... the prison" I remarked.
"Indeed Watson. In this photograph you can clearly see that strange clover-leaf shape of Millbank Prison with the great gasometers next to it and Lambeth Bridge almost adjacent." Turning to the visitor "If your craft is at the edge of the river here, we can obtain its whereabouts."
He turned to me. "Watson, would you be so kind as to go down to the street and you should find Wiggins of the Irregulars loitering nearby ... I sent a message earlier for him to wait there. Tell him to get word out to the mudlarks that the banks near Lambeth and Millbank are hiding a large object and that we'd like to know exactly where it is."
I did as asked and made my way down to ground floor and out into the street. All was quiet and apart from a distant hansom cab I could see no movement. Then, suddenly, a small figure appeared to my left seemingly from out of nowhere. It was Wiggins, the leader of that rag-tag group of street urchins that my friend called the Baker Street Irregulars, and who on occasions carried out discrete tasks for him. I passed on my message, gave him the requisite shilling as down payment, and made my way back upstairs. There I found that Monsieur Verne, who had been remarkably silent during our earlier discourse, was now engaged in animated conversation with the traveller and Holmes.
"You say that your ship is able to fly? Does it have wings, and do they need to flap? Or is there a type of vertical screw?"
"There is nothing that I can sssee or explain", replied the traveller. "As I said before, I do not know how to build such a craft, only how to fly it; which I do by operating a few controls. There is an intelligence of sorts in the machine, and that assissssts me."
"And the heavens" continued Verne "you can fly high up there?"
"Yesss. But it is not as you have imagined it in your writings Monsieur Verne. There is no medium through which you move. It is entirely empty ... what you call a vacuum."
"As you have explained to me before. Encroyable! But how can light travel through this? It must have something in which to move."
"All I know is that light moves through the very fabric of the universe itself, while that fabric does not actually seem to exist. A puzzle that our scientists could explain but I can not."
The evening drew on as my companions continued their session of questions and, sometimes, answers. Verne did most of the questioning and Holmes contributed very little. I contributed even less. Eventually we heard a sound from downstairs and a few moments later Wiggins appeared at the door.
"Ah Wiggins. Do you have news for me?" asked Holmes.
"Yes Mister 'olmes. There is tell of a big black squashed ball, a dozen or so feet long, lying half buried in the mud between Lambeth Bridge and Millbank. I am told it is cold to the touch but 'ums quietly to isself. It fair gives my friends the willies Mister 'olmes."
"Excellent. The usual three bob and a tanner for you and your friends? Then you must lead us to the place."
The settlement was evidently satisfactory and the financial transfer was undertaken with a clinking of coinage. Then Holmes turned to the room and said "So gentlemen ... the game is afoot and we must go."
We hailed hansoms for our party. Holmes and I and Wiggins in one and Monsieur Verne and the traveller in the other. "The north bank by Lambeth Bridge cabby" shouted Holmes and away we sped. By this time the evening had drawn in and there was an element of the notorious London fog in the air, which became thicker as we drew closer to the river. At this time the traffic along the Thames had subsided although this far upstream and beyond most of the docks the barges would be mainly carrying coal to the power station or themselves travelling to or from much further away.
We decamped from the cabs and looked around. We could see the Houses of Parliament with their clock tower ahead of us, then Westminster Bridge and the great shot tower in the distance. I was surprised by a piercing whistle from my immediate left which turned out to be Wiggins, presumably calling for his associates. Out of the gathering murk we could see the small figure of what would appear to be another street urchin.
"This is 'erbert" said Wiggins. "'erbert ... show the gentlemen where it is willya."
"Over 'ere sir" shouted Herbert, and he led us a little to the north, for here the north bank of the Thames was in fact on the western side, and we drew closer to Lambeth Bridge. At this point the river bank was bordered by bushes, and we made our way through them to the edge.
"I fink it's down 'ere sir." Herbert pointed down to the water's edge, where we could just make out a dark shape lying partially submerged and partially covered by the river ooze.
"Yesss" said the traveller "That is my ssship".
"Can you get down to it?" asked Verne "there should be a ladder here somewhere".
By way of response the traveller jumped straight down from the embankment onto the top of the object. He then, as much as we could tell, looked up at us.
"You will forgive me if I get on my way quickly."
"Very advisable I would say" responded Holmes "Before long this would attract attention. It has been covered mostly by the river but there is a spring tide coming and we will have a combination of circumstances that I believe will increase your visibility."
"Goodbye then. I must thank you all for your assssissstance, Monsieur Verne essspecially. Give freedom to your imagination my friend".
Verne smiled. "Merci mon ami. There are so many questions I must ask you. If you ever return ..."
With that the traveller turned and bent down to face the object beneath him. There was a slight hissing sound and some kind of hatch became apparent. It opened silently revealing a dark abyss into which the traveller climbed and then it closed in the same manner. A humming became apparent, which grew louder.
Our little party moved back away from the bank. The two urchins clearly decided that discretion was advised and backed further away. Holmes, Verne and I stood mesmerised as the ship, now becoming visible over the bank as just an indistinct black shape, like a moving shadow, rose up.
"It flies ... but with no visible propeller or even wings. This is truly strange." Verne spoke for all of us as the shape lifted higher and then accelerated out into the night sky, with hardly a sound save for the fading hum. "I do not think I could ever convincingly describe a flying machine like this."
Neither of us spoke on the journey back
The traveller having departed, and Wiggins and Herbert having slunk off into the night, Monsieur Verne returned to his hotel and myself and Holmes made our way back to Baker Street. Neither of us spoke on the journey back, save to give our destination to the cab driver. Once there, Holmes immediately turned to me.
"Watson, this incident is potentially so disturbing that we must only refer to it using a code name."
So saying, he opened the bureau and withdrew a portmanteau containing a small sheaf of papers.
"This is a list of random code names for cases. Often, for secrecy, I will just take the next name from the list contained in here. That way, there can be no link between the code name and the case itself."
So saying he took his pen and wrote a cross next to the first available name on the list.
"Henceforth Watson, if we must ever refer to this case ... and I trust we never shall ... it must be simply known as the Giant Rat of Sumatra."
February 28th 2021