𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗦𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲 𝗖𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗚𝗿𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗜𝗻𝗲𝘅𝗼𝗿𝗮𝗯𝗹𝗲 𝗘𝘃𝗲𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝗳 𝗧𝗵𝗿𝗲𝗲 𝗟𝗼𝗻𝗱𝗼𝗻 𝗚𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗹𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗮 𝗟𝗮𝗿𝗴𝗲 𝗗𝗼𝗴
𝘣𝘺 𝘞𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘪𝘢𝘮 𝘒𝘪𝘵𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳
’Twas a grave and inexorable evening in December 1894, the crescent moon filtering its wan light through the deathly fog and approaching snowfall... (Uh, wait a minute, I can’t keep on like this. Let me start again.)
Doyle’s carriage left the crest of the road, and rolled into the valley below, the drenched fog dispersing in whispers of... (Oh, hell, I’m doing it again. I’m writing about Victorian times, and apparently my brain thinks I should still write in a Victorian style. Why would I want to do that? What would be the point? I will just tell the story.)
So far, what we know is that Doyle’s carriage came down a hill. Let’s go from there. I’m already way ahead of your average Victorian story, which usually takes three chapters before you have any idea of what the plot’s about. But I digress.
Doyle’s carriage came down the hill onto Ravensbourne Road and stopped in front of a cottage set back from the road, surrounded by a small forest of English flora. (“Flora” means “vegetation” in this case, not the former housekeeper of the cottage whose name was “Flora”.)
Doyle alighted from the carriage (yes, I know I’m doing it again by using a word like “alighted” but I’m not that concerned about a word that was used for many years, and is still understood by at least eight people), opened the garden gate, and walked down the path to the cottage that was surprisingly bereft of light. (“Bereft”? What? What I mean is the cottage didn’t have light coming from it.)
Doyle took the great knocker on the door in his hand and slammed it heavily. Gradually, he heard soft footsteps coming toward him that sounded ominous.
The door creaked open, as Victorian doors are wont to do. A large dog, a St. Bernard-Bernese cross, poked his nose out the door. Doyle assumed the dog hadn’t opened it.
Standing there was an old withered bald man in full manservant’s regalia. He looked at the visitor and attempted to raise his eyebrows in happy surprise and recognition, but he was far too old and tired to be able to do that. Instead, he said, “Why, Sir Arthur, it’s a pleasure for these old eyes to observe your countenance again.”
“I’m not a knight,” said Doyle. “That won’t happen for another eight years.”
“My apologies, Mr. Doyle. I make many mistakes.”
“It’s good to see you again, Shingles. How is your mother?”
“She is well, sir, as far as I know. When one is the illegitimate son of the Queen, contact with the family is not assumed. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you, Shingles.” Doyle stepped into the foyer and removed his greatcoat, hat, scarf, gloves, suit jacket, waistcoat, shoes, and socks, which Shingles took and hung on the coat rack. The dog sniffed at Doyle’s feet and hurriedly retired to another room.
“May I inquire as to the purpose of your visit?” asked Shingles.
“Is your master here?” asked Doyle.
“Oh no, sir, he lives in rooms in Soho... Oh, I see what you mean. You’re referring to Mr. Wells.”
Doyle pondered that answer for a moment, then said, “Yes, I am. Is he here?”
Shingles paused, then said, “Yes and no.”
“What’s this all about, Shingles?” thundered Doyle. “May I see him or not?”
“Again, sir, yes and no.”
“Shingles, look, I have some bad news.”
“What’s that, Mr. Doyle?”
“It’s information that’s not good, Shingles.”
“I see, sir,” he said, looking at Doyle as if he were an idiot.
Doyle noticed the look but didn’t understand it. “I’m here to inform him of the sudden demise of our mutual friend Mr. Stevenson.”
“He is aware, sir. He’s in a state of, how should I phrase it, sir, he’s in a state of extreme sadness.”
“That’s a very good way of phrasing it. Where is he?”
“He’s in his study. Please follow me.”
Shingles took a candle from a drawer of the sideboard in the foyer and placed it in a brass candle holder. He lit the candle, and it threw a strange light down the corridor, creating strange shadowy phantoms over the walls.
I followed Shingles down the hall. He opened the study door, and said, “Mr. Wells, Mr. Doyle is here to see you.” I went into the study and turned to thank Shingles, but he’d already shut the door.
(You may have noticed that I’m now saying “I” instead of “Doyle”. I admit it. I am Doyle. When I began this account, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to admit that I was the author of this bizarre and, admittedly, unbelievable tale, but now as I think about it, I will take responsibility for what I’m relating. Also, I’m too lazy to go back to the beginning of the story and change all the pronouns.)
The room was in almost complete darkness. The curtains were drawn despite there being outside the remnants of the gloaming of the evening, the remains of the day. (Hmmm. Nice phrase. I may use that as a title of one of my books one day. Perhaps not.) Wells’ tall chair, facing away from me behind his desk, obscured him from me. In the dim light, I could see cigar smoke rising above it. From its smell, I could deduce it was Wells’ favourite brand of cigar, the tobacco imported from Cuba, and rolled into the finest cigars in nearby West Wickham.
The desk, which I could now see as my eyes adjusted to the vague light, was covered in plates full of uneaten food, cups of undrunken tea, and significantly, several empty crystal scotch whisky glasses. Shingles had obviously not been back to clear the muddle; what was the reason for that?
“Wells?” I asked apprehensively.
“Hello, Doyle?” he said, quizzically and noncommittally. He sounded a little drunk, which may have explained the empty scotch glasses.
“May I turn the gaslight on?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he said, more committally this time but almost rudely.
“Now, see here, Wells—”
His chair turned to me but it was so dark I couldn’t see him. “If you must,” he said.
Not knowing how to turn a gaslight on (I have an assistant at home, a poor unfortunate who was kicked in the head by a donkey when he was a boy, named Watson, who does all that kind of thing for me. Yes, it’s the same Watson I use as a nom de fume in my Sherlock Holmes stories, and whom I call “Doctor” as a private joke), I called for Shingles, who came in and gave us illumination. If it was Wells sitting in the chair, I wouldn’t have known him. All I could see was a cigar, suspended about three feet in the air.
I turned to Shingles, expecting an explanation. He looked at me and shrugged one of his shoulders, the other one not shrugging due to arthritis.
“Wells?” I asked tentatively.
“It’s good to see you, Doyle,” he said. “Although, I probably shouldn’t say that.”
I was confused. I looked about the room to see if I could ascertain where Wells was hiding. “What’s this all about, Wells? Are you practicing ventriloquism?”
“Not at all,” said Wells, his voice apparently coming from the vicinity of the cigar.
“And what do you mean by saying you ‘probably’ shouldn’t say it’s good to see me? That’s very rude.”
I thought I heard Wells sob.
“Wells, I came to tell you I received word that Stevenson died the other day. In Samoa. But Shingles told me you already knew.”
“Yes, poor Stevenson. The news distressed me very much.”
I understood Wells’ dismay. “Bob was a fine writer. A little out there for my tastes. I mean to say, for instance, ‘Treasure Island’. Is that for children or adults? Why would adults read children’s stories? But that’s hardly germane. Still—”
“Did you read ‘The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’?”
“Yes, I did. Rather silly, I thought, but—”
“Did you know it was a true story?”
That confused me. “Whatever do you mean?”
Wells’ chair creaked, and moved backward, and I had the sense that Wells was now moving about the room. The fact that the cigar moved through the space confirmed that.
“Stevenson dabbled in chemistry, and he discovered a potion that gave him a split personality, as he recounted in Jekyll and Hyde. As we now know, most people have fourteen separate personalities, not just two, but I suspect that Stevenson had only two because he’s Scottish. Either that, or he wanted to make his story simpler. Anyway, he gave me a sample of his potion. He and I had a few beverages one night on the King’s Road and, frankly, Stevenson was a bit of a lush. He was drunk and took his potion. I did not. He was still interesting when he was ‘Jekyll’ but when he turned into ‘Hyde’, he was quite the cad. He rubbed himself obscenely and then disappeared into the night with an armful of Chelsea strumpets. I didn’t see him again after that. He left for Europe, where the trollops are more numerous. And then he set sail for the South Seas. And now he’s gone.
“When I heard he died, I took the potion as a tribute to him. It goes down very well with scotch whisky. But it didn’t have the same effect on me. To me, it made me invisible! Look at me! If you know what I mean.”
I was dumbfounded, to say the least. It seemed incredible but yet, there it was, right in front of me. So to speak.
Wells continued. “It’s given me an idea for a novel which I think I will title ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Be Seen’, but obviously I’m in no condition to begin penning my magnum opus.”
“But why not?” I asked. “Follow your muse!”
“I can’t!” he said. “I’m invisible!”
“That shouldn’t stop you from picking up a pencil—”
“You don’t understand!” he cried. “I’m completely invisible! Every part of me! Including every part of my eyeball! Without a retina in my eyeball to catch light waves, I can’t see anything! I’m completely blind!”
“The country of the blind,” I murmured.
“Nothing. Just an idea for a story.”
“It would make a good title,” said Wells. “For now, though, could we concentrate on my problem?”
I scratched my head, and then my chin. I scratched my head again because I had nothing to suggest. “I have nothing to suggest,” I said.
“The great Doyle,” he sneered. “Never an original idea. Oh, how I wish I had a machine that would take me back in time to redress all this.”
A thought struck me. “Wells, why can’t I see your clothes? When your clothes touch your invisibility, does that mean they become invisible as well?”
“Doyle, you know I never wear clothes when I’m in my study.”
I remembered that was true, recalling the day I visited him and he was writing, completely naked, standing at his writing podium, his tackle clanging against the upright. (At the time, he was writing “The Chronic Argonauts,” a story that was about, I believe, footballers who partook of cannabis.)
My reverie was disturbed abruptly by the sound of breaking glass and wood. I looked up to see a lighted cigar disappearing through the shattered French doors and the curtain in front of them billowing in an increasing wind. Snow came in through the broken doors.
I rushed to the doors and saw footprints disappearing around the side of the house. I didn’t know why Wells didn’t just open the door.
Shingles came into the study holding my clothes, observed the situation, and said, matter-of-factly, “It was just a matter of time.”
The dog lumbered into the room, put his nose out into the blizzard, and howled forlornly. (Incidentally, the name of the dog was “Moreau”, for reasons I never understood. Something to do with a French actress, I surmised.)
I dressed quickly, and Shingles, Moreau, and I set off after Wells.
It was easy to track Wells’ footprints in the snow. As we went further, occasionally we could see that he’d fallen over, presumably because he couldn’t see anything, but we were still unable to catch up with him. We lost his trail by the time we’d reached Bromley High Street; the numerous deposits of horse dung had melted the snow.
Shingles and I proceeded cautiously up the street, looking for any sign of Wells. Near the statue of someone named Albert (whoever he was), two women shrieked. “What was that?” one of them cried. “Something touched my bustle!”
“Something touched my elbow!” said the other one. “The nerve! Someone touching an elbow of a very respectable woman!”
“Oh, Cecily, you are a card,” said one of their companions, possibly a husband, possibly a beau, more likely just a ruffian one encountered in Bromley in those days.
Moreau rushed forward to the statue.
Shingles and I could see, at the base of the statue, a pitiful confused creature, naked as a jaybird (if, in fact, jaybirds are naked. I’ll have to look that up). It was Wells. He had reverted to visibility; the potion had worn off.
I removed my greatcoat, wrapped it around Wells, and helped him up.
He looked around in complete confusion, and then at Shingles and me. “What happened? Where am I?”
“You’re on Bromley High Street, Mr. Wells,” said Shingles. “I think you had a bad reaction to Mr. Stevenson’s potion.”
“Oh my,” said Wells. “I don’t remember anything after hearing of Stevenson’s death and having a drink, well, several drinks, in his honour. How curious. Hello, Doyle, what are you doing here?”
Back in Wells’ study, he and I had a whisky while Shingles warmed Wells’ frozen feet in a tub of hot water. Moreau lay at Wells’ side and occasionally licked Wells’ warming feet. I recounted the events of the evening, interrupted only occasionally by Wells saying, “Well, well, well.” That ceased to be funny after a while.
Wells had no memory of the previous two days. He’d received a telegram telling him of Stevenson’s death, drank in his honour, and then obviously had taken some of Stevenson’s “Hyde Potion”. Taking mind-altering drugs after consuming a lot of alcohol was then, as now, not a great idea.
Around midnight, after Wells, Shingles, and I had finished the bottle of scotch, and then another one, Wells got a happily nasty gleam in his eye. “I want the two of you to take your clothes off.”
Shingles and I looked at each other in confusion. It wasn’t the first time Wells had ever said that, but it sounded a little more ominous this time. I hoped that Mrs. Wells hadn’t chosen that exact moment to come home from visiting her sister, and wasn’t standing outside the door, listening.
“Wells, whatever are you talking about?” I finally sputtered.
Wells chortled. “In our last drinks, I put some of Stevenson’s potion. In a few moments, we will all be invisible! Your story about my last two days sounded rather fun. We will turn invisible and go to Mrs. Wilkinson’s brothel on Bromley High Street! We will attach ourselves with a rope to Moreau so we won’t get lost! Such jollity we will have!”
“But, Wells,” I said. “How do you know that the potion will have the same effect on us as it did on you? After all, it didn’t affect Stevenson that way.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Wells, as he started to fade away. “I wonder if this potion was sent here by the Martians to take over Earth. That would be a true war of the worlds. Hmmm, there’s an idea...” And he was gone.
I looked over at Shingles, who had begun to transform. I also came over a might peculiar.
At that point, Mrs. Wells did come home from visiting her sister, and her timing couldn’t have been more advantageous. We went blank for two entire days but fortunately, Mrs. Wells took care of us when we returned to the cottage on Ravensbourne Road and to a state of almost-normality. She recounted the incidents, which were corroborated by Mrs. Wilkinson and the local constabulary.
Wells had gone off to Mrs. Wilkinson’s establishment, surprised many people with his invisible touch, and was found, curled up in a cupboard, muttering something about the potential of the human mind, repeating the phrase “things to come”, which he apparently thought was quite amusing.
Shingles became a new man, literally. He was fifty years younger, with fifty added pounds of muscle and a full head of hair. He joined Wells at Mrs. Wilkinson’s place of business and exhausted a lot of the working girls before he decided to go home and resume his butlering duties.
As for me, I was apparently agitated all the first night until I could go to the High Street in the morning, and purchase for myself a deerstalker, a tweed suit, a cape, a violin, several puzzles to solve, and a large quantity of cocaine, which I obtained on the High Street at Dover and Watts, Apothecaries. Legally, of course. I am a trained physician.
And then there was Moreau. He had licked up all the potion that Wells, in his drunken state, had spilled while surreptitiously spiking our whiskies (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, or spelt). Moreau transformed, bit by bit, until he became human-like, a man-animal hybrid. Mrs. Wells took a photograph of him with her new-fangled camera, and he was certainly a bizarre-looking brute.
Wells said this gave him another idea for a story. I was beginning to suspect Wells was all talk and would likely never write down any of his silly notions. ✦