The Singular Habits of Wasps
Written by Geoffrey A. Landis - Narrated by Simon Vance
Of the many adventures in which I have participated with my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, none has been more singularly horrifying than the case of the Whitechapel killings, nor ever had I previously had cause to doubt the sanity of my friend. I need but close my eyes to see again the horror of that night; the awful sight of my friend, his arms red to the elbow, his knife still dripping gore, and to recall in every detail the gruesome horrors that followed.
The tale of this adventure is far too awful to allow any hint of the true course of the affair to be known. Although I dare never let this account be read by others, I have often noticed, in chronicling the adventures of my friend, that in the process of putting pen to paper a great relief occurs. A catharsis, as we call it in the medical profession. And so I hope that by putting upon paper the events of those weeks, I may ease my soul from its dread fascination with the horrid events of that night. I will write this and then secret the account away with orders that it be burned upon my death.
Genius is, as I have often remarked, closely akin to madness, so closely that at times it is hard to distinguish the one from the other, and the greatest geniuses are also often quite insane. I had for a long time known that my friend was subject to sporadic fits of blackest depression, from which he could become aroused in an instant into bursts of manic energy, in a manner not unlike the cyclic mood-swings of a madman. But the limits to his sanity I never probed.
The case began in the late springtime of 1888. All who were in London at that time will recall the perplexing afternoon of the double cannonade. Holmes and I were enjoying a cigar after lunch in our sitting room at 221B Baker Street when the hollow report of a double firing of cannon rang out from the cloudless sky, rattling the windows and causing Mrs. Hudson's china to dance upon its shelves. I rushed to the window. Holmes was in the midst of one of those profound fits of melancholia to which he is so prone, and did not rise from his chair, but did bestir himself so much as to ask what I saw. Aside from other, equally perplexed folk opening their windows to look in all directions up and down the street, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and such I reported to him.
"Most unusual," Holmes remarked. He was still slumped almost bonelessly in his chair, but I believed I detected a bit of interest in his eye. "We shall hear more about this, I would venture to guess."
And indeed, all of London seemed to have heard the strange reports, without any source to be found, and the subject could not be avoided all that day or the next. Each newspaper ventured an opinion, and even strangers on the street talked of little else. As to conclusion, there was none, nor was the strange sound repeated. In another day the usual gossip, scandals and crimes of the city had crowded the marvel out of the papers, and the case was forgotten.
But it had, at least, the effect of breaking my friend out of his melancholia, even so far as to cause him to pay a rare visit to his brother at the Diogenes Club. Mycroft was high in the Queen's service, and there were few secrets of the Empire to which Mycroft was not privy. Holmes did not confide in me as to what result came of his inquiries of Mycroft, but he spent the remainder of the evening pacing and smoking, contemplating some mystery.
In the morning we had callers, and the mystery of the cannonade was temporarily set aside. They were two men in simple but neat clothes, both very diffident and hesitant of speech.
"I see that you have come from the south of Surrey," Holmes said calmly. "A farm near Godalming, perhaps?"
"Indeed we have, sir, from Covingham, which is a bit south of Godalming," said the elder of the visitors, "though how you could know, I'll never guess in all my born days, seeing as how I've never had the pleasure of meeting you before in my life, nor Baxter here neither."
I knew that Holmes, with his encyclopaedic knowledge, would have placed them precisely from their accents and clothing, although this elementary feat of deduction seemed to quite astound our visitors.
"And this is the first visit to London for either of you," said Holmes. "Why have you come this distance from your farm to see me?"
The two men looked at each other in astonishment. "Why, right you are again, sir! Never been to London town, nor Baxter."
"Come, come; to the point. You have traveled this distance to see me upon some matter of urgency."
"Yes, sir. It's the matter of young Gregory. A farm hand he was, sir, a strapping lad, over six feet and still lacking 'is full height. A-haying he was. A tragic accident t'was, sir, tragic."
Holmes of course noticed the use of the past tense, and his eyes brightened. "An accident, you say? Not murder?"
Holmes was puzzled. "Then, pray, why have you come to me?"
" 'Is body, sir. We've come about 'is body."
"What about it?"
"Why, it's gone, sir. Right vanished away."
"Ah." Holmes leaned forward in his chair, his eyes gleaming with sudden interest. "Pray, tell me all about it, and spare none of the details."
The story they told was long and involved many diversions into details of life as a hired hand at Sherringford Farm, the narration so roundabout that even Holmes's patience was tried, but the essence of the story was simple. Baxter and young Gregory had been working in the fields when Gregory had been impaled by the blade of the mechanical haying engine. "And cursed be the day that the master ever decided to buy such an infernal device," added the older man, who was the uncle and only relation of the poor Gregory. Disentangled from the machine, the young farmhand had been still alive, but very clearly dying. His abdomen had been ripped open and his viscera exposed. Baxter had laid the dying man in the shade of a hayrick, and gone to fetch help. Help had taken two hours to arrive, and when they had come, they had found the puddle of congealing blood, but no sign of Gregory. They had searched all about, but the corpse was nowhere to be found, nor was there any sign of how he had been carried away. There was no chance, Baxter insisted, that Gregory could have walked even a small distance on his own. "Not unless he dragged 'is guts after him. I've seen dying men, guv, and men what 'ave been mere wounded, and young Gregory was for it."
"This case may have some elements of interest in it," said Holmes. "Pray, leave me to cogitate upon the matter tonight. Watson, hand me the train schedule, would you? Thank you. Ah, it is as I thought. There is a 9 AM train from Waterloo." He turned to the two men. "If you would be so good as to meet me on the morrow at the platform?"
"Aye, sir, that we could."
"Then it is settled. Watson, I do believe you have a prior engagement?"
That I did, as I was making plans for my upcoming marriage, and had already made firm commitment in the morning to inspect a practice in the Paddington district with a view toward purchasing it. Much as I have enjoyed accompanying my friend upon his adventures, this was one which I should have to forego.
Holmes returned late from Surrey, and I did not see him until breakfast the next morning. As often he was when on a case, he was rather uncommunicative, and my attempts to probe the matter were met with monosyllables, except at the very last. "Most unusual," he said, as if to himself. "Most singular indeed."
"What?" I asked, eager to listen now that it appeared that Holmes was ready to break his silence.
"The tracks, Watson," he said. "The tracks. Not man, nor beast, but definitely tracks." He looked at his pocket-watch. "Well, I must be off. Time enough for cogitation when I have more facts."
"But where are you going?"
Holmes laughed. "My dear Watson, I have in my time amassed a bit of knowledge of various matters which would be considered most recherché to laymen. But I fear that, upon occasion, even I must consult with an expert."
"Why, I go to see Professor Huxley," he answered, and was out the door before I could ask what query he might have for the eminent biologist.
He was absent from Baker Street all afternoon. When he returned after suppertime I was anxious to ask how his interview with the esteemed professor had gone.
"Ah, Watson, even I make my occasional mistake. I should have telegraphed first. As it was, Professor Huxley had just left London, and is not to return for a week." He took out his pipe, inspected it for a moment, then set it aside and rang for Mrs. Hudson to bring in some supper. "But in this case, my journey was not in vain. I had a most delightful discussion with the professor's protégé, a Mr. Wells by name. A Cockney lad, son of a shop-keeper and no more than twenty-two, unless I miss my guess, but a most remarkable man nonetheless. Interested in a wide variety of fields, and I venture to say that in whatever field he chooses, he will outshine even his esteemed teacher. Quite an interesting conversation we had, and a most useful one."
"But what was it that you discussed?" I asked.
Holmes set aside the cold beef that Mrs. Hudson had brought, leaned back in his chair, and shut his eyes. For a while I thought that he had gone to sleep without hearing my question. At last he spoke. "Why, we discussed the planet Mars," he said, without opening his eyes. "And the singular habits of wasps."
It seemed that his researches, whatever they were, led to no distinct conclusion, for when I asked him about the case the next day, he gave no response. That day he stayed in his chambers, and through the closed door I heard only the intermittent voice of his violin speaking in its melancholy, unfathomable tongue.
I have perhaps mentioned before that my friend would habitually have more than one case on which he worked at any one time. It appeared that over the next few evenings he was about on another one, for I found him dressing to go out at a late hour.
"Another case, Holmes?" I asked.
"As you can see, Watson," he replied. He indicated his less-than-respectable outfit and the threadbare workman's jacket he was pulling on over it. "Duty calls at all hours. I shan't be more than a few hours, I expect."
"I am ready to assist."
"Not in this one, my dear friend. You may stay home tonight."
"Is there danger?"
"Danger?" He seemed surprised, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him. "Danger? Oh, perhaps a slight bit."
"You know that I would not hesitate . . . "
"My dear doctor," he said, and smiled. "Let me assure you that I am not worried on that score. No, it is that I go to the East End . . . "
The East End of London was no place for gentlemen, with slaughterhouses and tenements of the lowest order; a place for drunkards, sailors, Chinese and Indian laborers, and ruffians of all sorts. Nevertheless I was quite willing to brave much worse, if necessary, for the sake of Holmes. "Is that all?" I said. "Holmes, I do believe you underestimate me!"
"Ah, Watson . . . " He seemed to reflect for a moment. "No, it would not do. You are soon to be married, and have your wife-to-be to think of." He raised a hand to forestall my imminent objection. "No, not the danger, my friend. Don't worry for me on that score. I have my resources. It is . . . how to put it delicately? I expect that I shall meet people in places where a gentleman soon to be married would best not be seen."
"Business, my dear Watson. Business." And with that, he left.
His business there did not seem to be concluded that evening or the next. By the end of August he was visiting the East End once or twice a week. I had already become used to his odd hours and strange habits, and soon thought nothing of it. But he was so habitual about it, and so secretive, that it soon caused me to wonder whether perhaps he might be calling upon a woman. I could think of nothing that seemed less like Holmes, for in all my time with him he had never expressed a trace of romantic interest in the fairer sex. And yet, from my own medical experience, I knew that even the most steadfast of men must experience those urges common to our gender, however much he might profess to disdain romance.
Romance? Though I myself never frequented such places, as an Army man I knew quite as well as Holmes what sort of women dwelt in Whitechapel, and what profession they practiced. Indeed, he had admitted as much when he had warned me away "because I was to be married." But then, a woman of such type could well appeal to Holmes. There would be nothing of romance involved. It would be merely a business proposition for her, and a release of pressure for him. A dozen times I resolved to warn him of the dangers—the danger of disease, if nothing else—in patronizing women of that sort, and so many times my nerve failed and I said nothing.
And, if it were not what I feared, what case could it be that would take him into Whitechapel with such frequency?
One evening shortly after Holmes had left, a message boy delivered a small package addressed to him. The address proclaimed it to be from a John B. Coores and Sons, but gave no clue to its contents. This name seemed to me familiar, but, struggle as I might, I could not recall where I might have seen it before. I left it in the sitting room for Holmes, and the next morning saw that he had taken it. He made no mention of the package or of what it contained, however, and my curiosity over it remained unslaked.
But another event soon removed that curiosity from my mind. The newspaper that morning carried a report of a brutal murder on Buck's Row in Whitechapel. The body of an unidentified woman had been found on the street, and, what was even more grotesque, after her death her body had been brutally sliced open. I read the paper to Holmes as he sat drinking coffee in the morning. As far as I could tell, he had not slept the previous night, although he seemed little the worse for it. He made no comment on the article. It occurred to me that for all its gruesome features, this was the sort of commonplace murder he would have no interest in, since it seemed quite lacking in the singular points that so interested him. I made a comment to him to that effect.
"Not so, Watson," he said, without looking up. "I am quite interested to hear what the press has to say about the Nichols tragedy."
This comment startled me considerably, since the paper had given no name to the victim. I suddenly remembered that East London was exactly where Holmes was going for all these evenings, perhaps to the very place the murder had occurred.
"My God, Holmes! Did you know her?"
At this he looked up, and gave me a long, piercing stare. After a long while he looked away and gave a short laugh. "I do have my secrets, Watson. Pray, inquire no further."
But to me his laughter sounded forced.
It was a week before I saw Holmes prepare for another of his nocturnal sojourns. After napping all afternoon, Holmes was again dressing in faded and tattered clothing. This time I did not ask, but silently dressed to follow.
When he put on his ear-flapped travelling-cap, I was ready as well. I quietly walked to his side, clutching my old service revolver in the pocket of my coat. He looked at me with an expression of utmost horror and put up a hand. "My God, Watson! If you value your life and your honour, don't follow me!"
"Just tell me this, then," I said. "Are you doing something . . . dishonourable?"
"I am doing what I must." And he was out the door and gone in the time it took me to realize that he had in no way answered my question.
As I prepared for bed that night, wondering where Holmes had gone and what he was doing there, it suddenly occurred to me where I had seen the name John B. Coores and Sons before. I crossed the room, thrust open the cabinet where I kept medical supplies, and drew out a small wooden box. There it was. I had looked at the name a thousand times without really seeing it, neatly lettered on the side of the box: John B. Coores and Sons, Fine Surgical Instruments. But what could Holmes want with surgical tools?
And in the next evening's paper, I saw with horror that there had been another murder. The Whitechapel killer had struck again, and once more he had not contented himself with merely killing the woman. Using a surgical knife and a knowledge of anatomy, he had dissected the body and removed several organs.
That Sunday I took my beloved Mary to the theatre. My thoughts were dark, but I endeavoured to allow none of my turmoil to be communicated to her, hoping instead that her sweet presence might distract me from my dire speculations. Events plotted against me, however, for playing at the Lyceum was a most disturbing play, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I watched the play with my mind awhirl, scarcely noticing the presence of my beloved at my side.
After the play I pleaded sudden ill health and fled home. Seeing my ashen face, Mary heartily agreed that I should go home to rest, and it was all I could do to dissuade her from accompanying me back to serve as nurse.
The play had been presented as fiction, but it had hit a note of purest truth. That a single man could have two personalities! Stevenson had been circumspect about naming the drug that would so polarize a man's psyche as to split his being into two parts, but with my medical knowledge I could easily fill in the name, and it was a drug I had intimate knowledge of. Yes. A man could suppress his animal instincts, could make himself into a pure reasoning machine, but the low urges would not wither away, oh no. They would still be there, lurking inside, awaiting a chance to break loose.
I had thought that either Holmes was stalking the Whitechapel killer, or else that Holmes was the killer. Now I suddenly realized that there was yet another alternative: Holmes the detective could be stalking the Whitechapel killer, completely unaware that he himself was the very criminal he sought.
It was a week before he went out again. The following day I scanned the newspapers in an agony of suspense, but there was no murder reported. Perhaps I was overwrought and imagining things? But Holmes seemed haunted by something, or perhaps hunted. There was something on his mind. When I invited him to confide in me, he looked at me for a long time and then slowly shook his head. "I dare not, Watson." He was silent for a while, and then said, "Watson, if I should suddenly die—"
At this I could take no more. "My God, Holmes, what is it? Surely you can tell me something!"
"This is important, Watson. If I should die . . . burn my corpse. Promise me that."
He gripped my shoulder and looked intently into my eye. "Promise me, on your honour."
"On your honour, Watson!"
"On my honour, I promise."
He suddenly relaxed, almost collapsing into his chair. "Thank you."
That night again he went out, and again the next. His face was drawn, as if he were desperately seeking something he had been unable to find on the previous night. Both evenings he seemed upon the brink of saying something to me, only to think better of it at the last moment, and vanish without a word into the London night.
The next evening's papers told of not one, but two murders in the East end. The Whitechapel killer—now dubbed "Jack the Ripper" by all the papers—had worked double duty. And this time a witness had given a description of the suspected killer: a tall man in a dark cutaway overcoat, wearing a felt deerstalker hat.