Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra

O
f all of the unwritten tales that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alluded to during the course of many of his wonderful stories, the one that seems to have fired the public’s imagination more than any other are his references to the
Matilda Briggs
and the giant rat of Sumatra. This was a story for which he deemed the world to be as yet, unprepared!

I have already interpreted seven unwritten stories in my collection
The Chronicles of Sherlock
Holmes
and I now humbly submit my own explanation of this dramatic-sounding reference, which Holmes mentioned to Watson during
The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire.

I hope that my efforts are worthy of the kind of story that Sir Arthur might have written himself, had he decided to, and that you get as much pleasure from reading my interpretation as I have from writing it.

Once again I cannot emphasize enough the support and dedication that I have received from my wife Jackie, for which I will always be grateful.

Paul D. Gilbert

 

 

‘Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,’ said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. ‘It was the name of a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’

 

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

D
uring the course of those long weeks subsequent to Sherlock Holmes’s traumatic encounter with Diego at St Jude’s, which resulted in Holmes successfully saving the life of Isadora Persano,
1
I decided to remain in close attendance upon my friend.

As you may recall, Persano had been declared insane following his encounter with Diego’s venomous worm and Holmes spent a long and harrowing night lying in wait for Persano’s would be assailant. The awful sights and sounds that Holmes had been exposed to during his time spent within that dreadful asylum had had a profound effect upon his constitution, and I could only imagine the images that still plagued his mind. I shall forever be haunted by the look in his eyes as he sat by the window in Hanwell, staring vacantly up at the full grey moon.

Quite often, throughout these recent weeks, I had noticed that same look come upon him, and despite my best efforts at erasing his chronic despondency, I realized that his obsession with the subject would not be allayed. He would endlessly speculate as to how many of Persano’s fellow inmates were, in actual fact, certifiably insane. Had the environment in which they had been incarcerated been one of the causes of their condition? Or, indeed, as in the case of Persano, had other inhuman forms of treatment
been administered to the patients, serving only to compound their sorry state? In any event the sounds of their wailing, which had echoed throughout those stark unforgiving halls, conveyed to Holmes their great suffering rather than any mental illness.

I became convinced that Holmes’s inability to release himself from the horrors of St Jude’s was born of a very real fear for his own sanity. His mental faculties were as finely tuned as the rarest Stradivarius and he was more aware than I of the dangers of over-tuning any instrument, the result – a broken string!

During my long association with Sherlock Holmes I had been witness on many occasions to the great lengths he was willing to go to in his endless search for justice. A dozen times or more I had to reproach him for over-extending himself, both physically and mentally in his unremitting pursuit. Several times I had sadly been proved correct in my diagnosis and this had led to extended sabbaticals and convalescence. Even though he was supposed to rest when these holidays took place, many a time he stumbled across other problems, which required his amazing skills. One such case was that of the ‘Devil’s Foot’
2
which was the name of a deadly African root, and its effects almost succeeded in sending Holmes to an asylum permanently.

Thankfully, on each occasion a new mystery or fresh adventure would soon present itself and a miraculous transformation would take place that seemed to revitalize his every sinew. For so long as his mind was employed in solving a new problem, his body and soul would be energized. All thoughts of rest and inactivity would be immediately dispelled.

The situation in which he now found himself, however, was different from any other to which I had, so far, been witness. It was almost as if the ‘string’ had finally snapped. Each time that I tried to divert him, either with news of a possible crime or even just an item of curiosity from
The Times,
he would show an interest for a moment or two before relapsing into his intense
reverie. That forlorn look would return to his eyes once more, and I felt as if I had lost him again. But I would not be defeated. My mission both as a man of medicine and, more important, as a friend was to convince him that his fear was unfounded and that the law-abiding public at large was in need of a Sherlock Holmes at the peak of his powers. I was shocked to realize on this occasion that even his self-belief would not motivate him.

Then my mind turned to still darker thoughts. Had his
long-dormant
habit of injecting himself with a seven per cent solution of cocaine surfaced once again? Was his downward spiral to continue, out of control? With a sense of both guilt and betrayal, tempered by a touch of self-righteousness, I allowed myself a surreptitious glance into the top drawer of his desk. To my intense relief I found that the lid of his thin leather syringe box lay undisturbed. I was certain of this for the fine veil of dust that had been evident on the last such occasion was still present. I had barely the time to close the drawer once more, before Holmes returned from his toilet. I noticed his arched right eyebrow with a feeling of dread.

‘So!’ Holmes began in a stronger and more familiar voice than he had been employing of late. ‘It would seem that the
ever-watchful
doctor has added distrust to his crime of constant meddling!’ His tone became bitter.

‘Whatever do you mean?’ I turned away from his glare in an effort to conceal my guilt, but this was surely in vain.

‘Oh Watson.’ Holmes slowly shook his head and his tone was more one of sympathy than reprimand. ‘Just as you always ascertain that there is a thin layer of dust across the lid of my leather box, so do I ensure that the key to that drawer is always left at an unusual angle, impossible to replicate at random. As my box is the only object within this drawer, I would have to be the world’s poorest amateur consulting detective were I not to be aware of your prying!’

‘Even in your present state of malaise it seems impossible for me to deceive you.’ I turned back towards him, my face visibly reddening as I did so. Then, to my great surprise and I might add, my intense relief, for the first time in many weeks I heard the sound of my old friend’s laughter.

‘My dear fellow, do not be so embarrassed for I know full well that your actions were well intentioned. Besides which your suspicions were unfounded. I am slowly dispelling the fears that grew within me from my night in St Judes, by a more natural and effective means.’ At this moment Holmes filled his long cherry-wood pipe from the Persian slipper on our mantelpiece and I knew, from this, that he was in a more contemplative mood than he had been of late.

‘By what means would that be?’ I asked whilst pulling a chair up to the fire and filling a pipe of my own.

It was several minutes before Holmes eventually replied, for he was visibly enjoying every long, relaxed draw that he took from his pipe.

‘Why, by the most ancient and effective means possible.’ Holmes smiled at my puzzled look. ‘I speak of meditation, of course!’

It might be as well to mention here that meditation was just one of the many processes and methods that Holmes had employed throughout his career as the world’s foremost and most renowned consulting, amateur detective. As his associate and chronicler I had been privileged to witness many of the problems presented to him and their resolution. Observation and deduction were the key words that he used to describe his method, yet quite often he used his instinct and imagination. He often berated the regular forces for being somewhat sadly lacking in these attributes, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard in particular. However, on more than one occasion I had been witness to Holmes’s ability to trace the thought processes of his quarry by following the chain
of events in his own mind, based upon the subject’s mental abilities and state of mind at the time of the crime’s execution.

Alternatively, when such data were not available to him he would sit motionless for hours on end and, to the eyes of an uninitiated witness, go into a state of deep trance. However, this was not simply a matter of emptying his mind of all thoughts: only of those that he deemed to be irrelevant. A prime example of this would be the culmination of the strange affair of
The Man with the Twisted Lip.
On this occasion, whilst staying over night at the villa of Neville St Clair at Lee, in Kent, Holmes had perched himself upon an Eastern-style divan that he had constructed from as many cushions and pillows as he was able to collect. As he had sat there with his legs crossed, he selected a point upon the ceiling at which to concentrate his gaze. For as many hours as I had slept in the bed opposite, so Holmes smoked an entire ounce of shag tobacco through his old brier pipe, and sat motionless and awake throughout the entire night! By the time that the day’s first light had appeared, Holmes was in possession of the solution.

‘Besides, what is insanity?’ Holmes broke in upon my thoughts with this most startling of questions. ‘Is a blind man insane because he cannot see? Is a crippled man insane because he cannot walk? Of course not! An insane man is not one who cannot think, he suffers from the inability to think clearly. By meditating it is possible to recognize all of our thoughts but only to focus on those that are relevant and allow the others gently to float harmlessly away. However, it is also desirable to remain in a state of full awareness whilst doing so. A prime example, of course, was that night we spent at Lee, in Kent.’ Holmes stopped abruptly so that he could observe the look of amazement on my face.

He was not to be disappointed. It was almost as if he had broken in upon my innermost thoughts and I told him so. ‘Is this devilry also the result of your meditation?’ I asked breathlessly.

A brief smile played about his thin lips before he replied.

‘No, not at all, old fellow. I just know my Watson. When I first mentioned the word meditation I observed you glance away as you fell into a chain of deep thought. You tried to remember an occasion when I had employed meditation as a means for solving a past case. Your furrowed brow indicated that you were having difficulty in doing this. Your eyes then turned to the shelf on which you keep your copies of those lamentably dramatic chronicles of our previous adventures. Of course!
The Man with the Twisted Lip.
Your look of confusion transformed into one of triumph and, as a way of confirming this, your eyes moved around the room, from cushion to cushion as you recalled how I had constructed my divan at Lee, in Kent. In conclusion, you suddenly became irritated as you glanced at the clock and remembered at what unearthly time I had awakened you.’

‘Holmes, it was four-thirty in the morning!’ I protested.

Holmes slapped his thigh in triumphant glee when my outburst had confirmed the truth of his reconstruction.

‘Now admit it, I was correct on every point.’ Holmes laughed.

‘Well, the effects of your night at St Jude’s have certainly done nothing to dampen your faculties,’ I grudgingly confirmed. ‘I would also say that there is much to commend the art of meditation, for surely you are transformed!’

‘High praise, indeed, for the oldest spiritual method in the world,’ Holmes sarcastically retorted. ‘I may have informed you of the extended time that I spent in Tibet, during the course of the three-year sabbatical that I imposed, immediately after my confrontation with Colonel Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.’

‘I recall that you spent some months in the company of the Dalai Lama,’ I confirmed.

Holmes nodded solemnly as he lit his cherry-wood again.

‘It was during my stay there that I became fully aware of the limitless capabilities and potentials of the human mind. I experienced
the innermost peace that can be obtained by merely concentrating and meditating upon the breath. I observed the heights of spiritual enlightenment that the Dalai Lama and his monks were capable of reaching as the result of years of such practice. I was not able to reach even a fraction of those heights and yet I became convinced of their belief that the average man uses barely one tenth of his mental potential; some, of course, not even that!’ Holmes added mischievously.

‘How did you become so convinced of the validity of this startling assertion?’ I then asked.

Holmes glanced briefly towards me, no doubt to ascertain whether mine had been a genuine enquiry, or merely an expression of my cynicism.

‘Watson,’ Holmes began in reply, evidently convinced of my sincerity, ‘I actually witnessed these monks perform the arts of levitation and astral travel!’

‘Levitation is a phenomenon that I have heard of, although I would have to witness this myself to become wholly convinced of its validity, but what in heaven’s name is astral travel?’

‘By unlocking a further proportion of his mental capabilities, it is possible for the practitioner to transport himself to any location of his choosing, regardless of distance, without his body moving a single inch! Before you question me further,’ Holmes rapidly continued, to forestall my interrupting him, ‘I will tell you that the monks’ descriptions of the places they had visited during the course of this travelling were extraordinary in their accuracy, and beyond the reach of their physical circumstances. It is an area upon which I have barely scratched the surface, but yet my limited experiences will allow me to embark on my latest monograph and you to proceed with your long-planned fishing trip, safe in the knowledge that I am to be gainfully employed throughout your absence.’

‘How will you entitle your latest work?’ I asked.

‘It shall be known as:
The Art of Meditation and its Employment in the Detection of Crime,
’ Holmes proudly announced.

Then the meaning of his previous statement suddenly dawned on me. ‘I was not aware that I had indicated in any way my intention to go fishing!’ I ventured.

‘You have not directly, but I observed you receive a letter some weeks back from your old school friend, Cresswell, who owns a small plot in Shropshire that contains a short section of a famous trout stream. I have seen you successively crumple then carefully fold this letter many times whilst you have battled with your conscience over the nature of your long-overdue reply. Despite the wet and inclement weather that we have been subjected to of late, when I see you re-oil your waders I naturally deduce that you intend to reply to Cresswell in the affirmative.’

I slowly shook my head in disbelief. ‘My goodness, Holmes, I am continually amazed by the things that you remember and observe. I cannot believe that I thought you to be unwell.’

‘Do not admonish yourself, Watson, for your diagnosis has been a correct one. However I merely wish to assure you that you can let me out of your sight now without my getting up to any mischief. My monograph will surely occupy any of my surplus mental energy and I am certain that Mrs Hudson will keep me adequately sustained.’ Holmes smiled at my continued reticence. ‘You must send your reply without delay!’

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