The controversy sparked by the discovery and publication of early drafts of Dr. John H. Watson’s immortal Sherlock Holmes stories continues to roil the world of Sherlockian scholarship. In protest, several prominent Sherlockians have moved on to other fields of study, such as the Shroud of Turin and certain films of William Shatner. Others have embraced the new material and the insights it provides into both Holmes the sleuthhound and Watson the storyteller. It is to satisfy the demands of these inquiring minds that we here publish the earliest known draft of “The Engineer’s Thumb.” (In keeping with our prior practice, the doctor’s editing notes and suggestions to himself appear in the text in parentheses. As before, spelling has been changed to modern American usage.)
If all the amazing cases which came to the attention of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, only two did so through my agency, that of Vidor Hatcher’s thumb and the strange insanity of General Waxbutton, who imagined himself to be a giant cockroach. The latter case has no conceivable literary potential, but Mr. Hatcher’s adventure was so dramatic and coincided so closely with Holmes’s personal areas of expertise that an official record of it is more than justified. This is especially true in light of the very incomplete and pedestrian treatment the affair received in the newspapers of the day.
It was in the summer of ’89, while I was still recovering from the shock of (change to “not long after”) my marriage, that these events took place. I had returned to private practice, leaving Holmes to his bachelor ways, though I was occasionally able to persuade him to visit my wife and me by offering him a bottomless tankard of his favorite stout, one purveyed exclusively by a pub in our neighborhood. That neighborhood was very near Paddington Station, and I obtained a steady stream of patients through the good offices of a minor station official, whom I had once cured of a mild dermatitis (too specific?).
One morning I was awakened before seven by the arrival of this station guard and a second man, a traveler, I concluded from his heavy tweed suit, a deduction of which Holmes would have been proud. The guard, scratching himself a little from old habit, introduced his companion as a recent arrival from the Berkshire region and then hurried off.
“Sorry to rouse you so early, Doctor,” the stranger said. “I’ve little enough excuse, in truth.” He raised a roughly bandaged hand in explanation. He was a stout, well-built man of around twenty-five summers, whose strong features were marred by an expression of deep perplexity. A second off-note was an odor of rotten eggs that clung to his person. “My name is Vidor Hatcher and I’m actually a resident of London. I was out of town on business last night. Monkey business,” he added with an odd, bubbling chuckle.
He checked his laughter by an apparent effort of will. “Perhaps you’d be so good as to examine my thumb.”
Sitting down, the sufferer unwound his bandage, which I now saw to be a handkerchief, exposing four ordinary fingers and the most thoroughly black-and-blue thumb I had ever seen. I shuddered to look at it, though in my service days I had treated men kicked by army mules. That experience colored my reaction.
“Were you trod upon by a horse?”
“No,” said Hatcher. “Struck by a most peculiar mallet. Tell me the worst, Doctor.”
“You will certainly lose the nail.”
He nearly fainted at that—what man would not?—and I stimulated him with a brandy and water. I then washed the offended digit and cushioned it with some cotton and antiseptic gauze.
“Thank you,” he said when I’d finished. “Now I must go to the police, though I doubt they’ll understand the affair any better than I do.”
“Hold on,” I said, for I had stimulated myself with a second brandy and water and I saw the chance for a second referral and a second fee. “If it’s a mystery you want solved, I suggest you try my friend Sherlock Holmes.”
“Would you give me a note of introduction?”
“I’ll do better than that.”
I ushered him out quietly so as not to alert my wife (disturb the household?), and we were shortly in a hansom bound for Baker Street.
Holmes was lounging in his dressing gown, studying the latest cricket scores, as I’d anticipated. At Hatcher’s appearance, the detective discreetly refolded his newspaper so that the agony columns were outermost. When he learned that neither his prospective client nor I had breakfasted, he ordered up some Scotch porridge. What arrived was so thick it could easily have been sliced and fried in the country manner. After poor Hatcher had forced down as much of it as he could, Holmes settled him upon the sofa.
“That’s right,” he said. “Take a load off and tell us all about your remarkable evening. Something to do with very old eggs, was it?”
Hatcher sniffed at his lapel. “No,” he said, “but I will get to that in due course. To begin with, you should know that I am a hydraulic engineer by training and experience. I recently set up my own office here in the city, perhaps prematurely. I had high hopes for it, though I must admit that business has been slow so far.
“Yesterday was especially quiet. In fact, I was thinking of leaving early when my clerk announced a visitor, one Colonel Lester Strake. He turned out to be a man built along the lines of a breadstick, his extreme thinness extending even to his face, which was all angles and protruding bones.
“As soon as my man had left us, Strake began questioning me in a way that made me feel I was back at my university undergoing an oral examination.
“‘Mr. Hatcher,’ he said in a German accent, ‘I have been told that you are a young man of considerable competence and discretion. Is that so?’
“I replied that my diplomas and certificates were on display all about him.
“‘Just so. But are you discreet? Let me speak more plainly. Can you keep a secret?’
“‘If I promise to keep a secret,’ I replied, ‘you can consider it locked in the vault.’
“‘Are you making such a promise now?’
“‘No, I’m simply describing it.’
“The colonel pulled on his face, somewhat inexplicably. ‘Will you make such a promise now?’
“‘If you like.’
“‘Now have you made it?’
“‘No, I’ve merely stated my readiness to do so.’
“He began to finger a heavy glass paperweight on my desk in a marked manner. ‘Please promise me that you will keep secret what I am about to divulge.’
“‘Righto,’ I said, smiling to myself at the long way this foreigner had taken around the barn.
“The colonel relaxed visibly. ‘Good. Then I require you to travel by train this evening from Paddington to Eyford in Berkshire. It is a small place near Reading. The train will drop you there at eleven-fifteen. I will take you the final six miles to my establishment by carriage.’
“‘It will be midnight by the time we arrive. Can’t I drop in tomorrow noonish?’
“‘No. It must be tonight. To compensate you for the inconvenience, I am willing to pay fifty guineas.’
“‘What exactly do you require of me?’
“‘Is your office safe from eavesdroppers?’
“‘Entirely, if I say so myself.’
“‘But are you saying so? Never mind! The situation is this. My partner and I have developed a new pickling process that we are endeavoring to keep secret until it is perfected. We have been successful with gherkins and are currently experimenting with boiled eggs and onions. However, our apparatus for recirculating the fermenting brine has developed a fault. We need you to correct it.’
“‘Count on me.’
“‘And remember: Mum the word is.’
“After he’d gone, I began to think the business queer, but then I remembered the fifty guineas. I caught my train at Paddington, changed at Reading, and arrived at Eyford a little after eleven. The residents could rename the place Eyesore and never be accused of false modesty. Colonel Strake was waiting with a one-horse carriage, completely enclosed, its windows covered by black shades.
“We did our six miles in thirty minutes. All that time, the colonel was watching me like he wanted to start up that secrecy routine again but didn’t quite have the heart. Finally, we stopped so close to the porch of a house that we were practically in the front hall. Two steps from the carriage and I actually was in the hall. It was lit by a single lamp held aloft by a striking woman.”
Holmes, who had been following the meanderings of a fly with apparent fascination, sat up. “Describe her.”
“It would take a poet, Tennyson, say, to really do her justice. She was tall, with dark hair worn in corkscrew curls like you see on a Roman statue. She had the figure of a statue too, what I could see of it under her rich gown, and skin as pale as marble. It seemed to me she paled a little more when the colonel introduced me and mentioned my business.
“My employer asked me to wait in a side room for a few minutes. It was a dingy hole, and I began whistling airs from H.M.S. Pinafore to keep up my spirits. I had gotten as far as ‘Little Buttercup’ when the lady of the lamp entered my chamber, alone.
“‘I would go,’ she said in an accent identical to the colonel’s.
“‘Would you?’ I said.
“‘Yes. I would go now.’
“‘Well, if you must go, have a pleasant night.’
“‘No, you,’ I returned with a slight bow, for I can be as continental as the next hydraulic engineer.
“‘Oh!’ she said and, with a stamp of her tiny foot, she left me.
“Shortly afterward my host returned and led me deeper into his odd establishment. It was a house of some size, but the interior had been modified to accommodate the pickling plant, which took up two full stories. The lower level consisted of a series of large wooden barrels whose covered tops were pierced by copper pipes that disappeared upward into the ceiling. One of these casks was open for my inspection and was completely empty. Colonel Strake explained that the system had been drained and cleaned in anticipation of my coming.
“When I told him that he had made my job more difficult by removing the liquid, his expression suggested that he would have fingered my paperweight again, had it been handy. He then led me upstairs to the upper deck, as it were, of his contraption. I made my inspection there with the aid of a lantern my host provided. I found a metal trough, fed by the aforementioned copper pipes, each of which came up through the floor before bending sharply like a shepherd’s crook. The pipes’ open ends were directly over the trough but well below the level of its sides.
“At once I saw the difficulty, which I confirmed by inspecting the complete run of the pipes through a trapdoor in the floor, which the colonel opened for me using a lever mounted on the wall.
“‘Air lock,’ I said with the utmost confidence when the inspection door had been safely closed. ‘Simple air lock. The excess brine rises through the pipes, empties into the trough, and is sent back down to the barrels, correct?’
“‘Correct,’ said the German, though this demonstration of my expertise made him strangely uneasy.
“‘The problem is that any excess air will get caught in this swan’s-neck curve at the top of each pipe as soon as the level of liquid in the trough rises high enough to seal the pipe’s end. The air lock then blocks all movement. Just shorten the pipes by an inch or two to get them well above the trough and your worries are over.’
“‘Absolutely so,’ I said. I then began ruminating aloud. ‘The thing I don’t understand is where the air came from. Nothing in pickling brine should produce that quantity of gas.’
“I instantly regretted my words . . .”
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