February 0004

 


 

A story reprinted from “The Empire Book of Boys Stories, 1932” 

Roger of the Outback, by “Imperialist”. 

Roger lived in the middle of the vast tracts of central Australia, where his father owned one of the many huge farms which are larger than many a European state, on which he ran millions of sheep.  

One day, Roger was out riding his horse, and had reached a water hole about ten miles from home. He dismounted so his horse could drink, and he prepared to fill his water bottle. Before doing so, he surveyed the bush around him. Something strange happened. There was a rustling in the eucalyptus, and a figure emerged. This figure appeared to be aged about thirteen, Roger’s own age, and was almost naked, and very dark in colour. It was carrying a crudely fashioned spear. Otherwise it resembled a normal human being. Roger’s first reaction was to check that his rifle was attached to his saddle, and, having made sure of his own safety, to attempt to smile at the new arrival. Fortunately, the new arrival smiled back, and squatted at the edge of Roger’s water hole. Roger sat next to him, and said “I’m Roger. What’s your name?” In reply, he received a torrent of incomprehensible guttural sounds, and Roger understood that his new acquaintance spoke no English, and indeed that he was hearing Lardil, the dialect of the local aboriginal community. Armed with this realization, Roger said very slowly “I’M ROGER. YOU’RE JIMMY”, and he received a toothy grin in reply.  

Roger and Jimmy soon found that they enjoyed each others company, and Roger showed Jimmy how to play noughts and crosses, using a pencil and paper he had brought with him. In return, Jimmy showed Roger how to snare and skin a wombat. They parted good friends, after Roger had signed to Jimmy that they should meet the next day at the same place at noon. He did this by pointing to the sun, and rotating his hands once, and then pointing straight up. Jimmy enthusiastically nodded his agreement.  

The next day, Jimmy brought a didgeridoo with him, and taught Roger how to play it, while Roger taught Jimmy how to play tiddlywinks.  

And so it went on. Roger and Jimmy became better and better friends, and eventually Jimmy started to be able to speak a little English. One day, Jimmy said that they should become brothers. He brought out a sharp stone, and cut the end of his thumb. He then pointed to Roger’s thumb, and indicated that he should hold it out. Jimmy cut Roger’s thumb in the same way he had cut his own, and pressed their two thumbs together, so their blood mixed. They put their arms around each other’s shoulders, and stood together for a while enjoying the feeling of manly togetherness, and then Roger taught Jimmy how to shake hands. They parted for the night.  

Events continued the same way for a few more weeks. One evening, Roger arrived at home to find his father waiting for him.

“Your mother and I are a little concerned, Roger, about where you’ve been spending so much time recently” he said. Roger told him enthusiastically about all his recent adventures with Jimmy. On hearing this, his father looked concerned, and said:

“Roger, you need to understand that Jimmy is an Aboriginal, and aborigines don’t think the same way as we do. I really don’t think it would be a good idea for you to see Jimmy any more. I realize this will be hard for you, but you just need to put a brave face on it.” 

Roger realized that he had no choice but to obey, and in a few weeks, he had forgotten all about Jimmy, although he never forgot how to snare and skin a wombat.  

In the meantime, the mission doctor received an urgent summons to call on the aboriginal camp. He arrived, carrying his medical bag, to find that an aboriginal boy was very sick. It turned out to be Jimmy, although the doctor had no way of knowing who he was. He performed an examination.

“I’m sorry. This boy has hepatitis. There’s no hope for him”. He said, and wondered how Jimmy had contracted that disease here, as he walked thoughtfully back to his carriage in the sunset.

 

THE BAKER STREET ENIGMA. 
 

Early one December during my association with Sherlock Holmes, he sent me a postcard requesting my presence on a matter of considerable mutual interest.  

I had no other pressing affairs to claim my attention, so I immediately hailed a hackney carriage, and proceeded to Baker Street. On my arrival, I was distressed to find Holmes slumped in an armchair, evidently in the throes of his morphic passion, and sat down to await his recovery.  

While waiting, my eye chanced upon a small packet of documents and I began to read them. They appeared to be no more than the ravings of a lunatic, and I could make nothing of them. I concluded that they must be germane to the case Holmes was working on, and sat back to await him, and the clear explanation that would undoubtedly be forthcoming. While waiting. I was struck and distressed by the unfortunate change that had taken place in Holmes’ habit of self-destruction. Previously, he had only indulged his vice out of ennui, between cases. What terrible force had made him practice it while evidently engaged upon the problems of a client? 

At length Holmes awoke, “Ah Watson! I assume you have attempted to read the documents, but failed to make any sense of them, and replaced them as you found them?” I agreed that this was the case. 

“Sometimes, Watson, the truth is so strange the mind cannot encompass it. That is what happened here. You could actually understand the words that were written on those papers easily enough, but the message they contained was so shocking to you that your mind refused to accept it.” 

I recall a long, pregnant pause, disturbed only by the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and, once, by the shifting of some coals in the fire.  

“Brace yourself man. I have some disturbing news for you. These documents, the authenticity of which I can entertain no doubt whatsoever, for reasons I cannot disclose even to you, and whose provenance must also remain undisclosed, reveal beyond the possibility of contradiction, that we, you and I, are nothing more than works of fiction!” 

I stared at Holmes dumbfounded. Was the man still gripped by the drug which he had so recently injected into his veins using the nickel plated syringe which still lay on the table between us? 

“No Watson. This is nothing but the truth. Our author is a Scotsman, and a medical man to boot! You, Watson, are his alter ego. I am a recreation, with modifications, of a teacher who enormously impressed him as a medical student. 

“But Holmes-” I began to protest. “Hold Watson. When you have excluded every impossible explanation, what remains must be the truth. What I have said is the truth. You can console yourself with the thought that we inhabit a most successful fictional world. Our prestige is substantial, and almost the entire real world is familiar with us. We are no mere creations of a hack writer, though that appears to be how Doyle, for that is the name of our creator, thought of us.” 

Again I attempted to point out to Holmes the manifest absurdity of what he was saying, and again he cut me off. “Watson, a single proof should suffice to convince you. You recall the time I encountered Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, I trust?” I nodded my agreement. “Has it never struck you as odd that I did indeed fall to my death, and yet I am here now, in front of you, in the flesh? You will recall that you departed from the truth somewhat in your published account. In reality, you heard my cry as I fell, and you found my body, entwined with that of Moriarty at the foot of the falls, and, horrified, you fled from the scene. When you returned, my body had disappeared. The truth is that, disgusted with my persona, Doyle had dismissed me from his mind, and that is why you were unable to recover my corpse, despite that most exhaustive search. As you say, you know I died, yet here I am. I am no ghost, and I trust we are both sufficiently men of the world to know that there are no miracles.” 

“But Holmes”, I objected, “You say that this man, Doyle, was disgusted with you, and it is apparent to me from my recollections of my association with you, that we must inhabit a tale that is no more than a detective story, an yet you say we are characters who are esteemed, in a work that enjoys a high reputation. How can this be?” 

I can still recall the expression of delight and surprise that filled Holmes face. “Watson, sometimes you amaze me! Desperation has given you something akin to brilliance! Those are indeed cogent objections, and ones that do you much credit in the circumstances, but I am afraid I can do nothing other than to disillusion you.” There was another pause, while Holmes filled his meerschaum, tamped it to his satisfaction, and lit it. I recall thinking that the sounds of the carriages on the street outside were indicative of continuing independent lives, continuous with, and separate from ours. “Watson, the same thoughts I can see on your face occurred to me also. The continuity you are thinking of is no more than a writer’s artifice, a matter of a few skilfully chosen words tacked on to the end of a paragraph. This is indicative of no more than an elementary degree of competence. And yet, there is a consolation! We have an immortality that is denied to denizens of the real world. You are right to think Doyle despised the tales that contain our universe, and yet, in the words of the poet, he wrought better than he knew. You must know that Doyle himself is long departed, and yet we continue without end. Can you remember how long ago we met? It is indeed well over one hundred years since that auspicious event our creator devised for us! We are fortunate: we participated in our own creation story.”  

I struggled to recall the diagnostic methods I had been taught as a medical student, and tried to formulate a sequence of ordered questions to put to Holmes. “Holmes, you must explain this to me: How could a mere work of popular fiction enjoy such esteem, and how, having written such a work, could its author feel disgust towards you, the crucial element in his creation?” 

“Watson, I fancy I have taught you something at last. Those are indeed acute questions. Do you notice you have no recollection of your medical training – I nodded – that is because Doyle made no mention of it, and merely assumed it was similar to his own. As you know, to understand a problem, we must concentrate our attentions on its locus, that is, in this case, me. Do you not find me somewhat implausible? Can you really imagine a real person such as myself? Theatrical men speak of props. Am I not overloaded with them? There is my hat, my coat, my magnifying glass, my pipe, my violin, and that filthy habit with the needle! How I wish our author had not given me that! Do you not think a man of my will power could not have put that aside with ease, had I been real?” 

Dumbfounded, I continued to listen to Holmes, allowing all that he said to flow into my mind, save only his last point, concerning which I entertained grave doubts which arose from my medical experience. 

“And my method, Watson. Surely it is apparent to you, as a man of science, that it cannot really work. It is nothing but a series of dei ex machinae! Can you really believe in a man as predictable as our friend Inspector Lestrade, or in a villain so evil and yet so powerful as the erstwhile Moriarty, or in a concept as palpably absurd as that of the “Napoleon of Crime”? A moment ago, I spoke of the need to consider the locus in the case. Here there is a second locus. That is our man Doyle. The documents you were unable to comprehend were in fact our own manuscripts. I have made a careful study of them – you know I have written a number of monographs on handwriting as a key to the character of the writer. But now let us attend to your first objection. Doyle’s disgust with us is explained by our success: he conceived of us at a time when he needed money, and we solved this problem for him. His readers were hungry for more. He wanted to write tales of adventure, which he esteemed, and yet he was forced to devote much of his attention to us. This I have learned from the articles about Doyle which have mysteriously appeared in our collection of press clippings. Doyle was in fact one of the fathers of the school of detective writers, and he thought of it as a thoroughly inferior form. But his progeny proved to be popular. Doyle did not understand his own achievement. And recall, I pray you, that we are the principal characters, his chief instruments. My first death was his attempt to make away with us, but we proved to be too strong for him” Holmes gave a wry smile. 

I recall being unable to do more than stare at Holmes with incredulity, conflicting emotions filling my normally staid mind with turmoil. 

“Your second objection, Watson, was this. Why were these stories so successful? Was it no more than a one-day wonder, a brief brilliant but meretricious flash? No Watson, it was not. Recall that we have long outlived our creator. It appears from the same newspaper clippings, some of which date from two hundred years in the future – I gasped at this – that we enjoy a real and growing status as material of serious import. The question which is really the most important to us is this: why does this apparently trivial and implausible world Doyle created actually have such significance in reality? That is the explanation for our continued vigour.” 

I recall another pause, while Holmes collected his thoughts, and arranged them for presentation to me. 

“There is a third locus in this case, Watson. That is you. You must know, if I am an implausible creation, you are an absurd one. And yet you are Doyle’s alter ego. I do not wish to embarrass you, so I will refer only to your lack of imagination, and your lack of understanding. And your decency. Is it not strange that Doyle should present himself in such an unflattering light? Few writers do. Let us consider your medical training. Doyle scarcely referred to it, and so you have no memories of it, and yet, I fancy if you search your recollections, you will find vague impressions, and among those vague impressions, that of a teacher of great genius. That man was one Joseph Bell, and he was the basis upon which Doyle created me. His genius lay in his ability to make inferences. He could look at the hands of a patient, and note from the calluses not only that he was a working man – this much would be obvious to all – but precisely what occupation he practiced. He could state with confidence that this individual was a weaver, that a rat-catcher, and a third a seamstress. All this, he discovered from the particular marks on the hands of the patient. Now look at yourself. Forgive me, but I must remind you that you are a dunderhead. You could never achieve a comparable feat, and you are a print taken from the plate that was Doyle himself. Doyle wrote from humility – he admired Bell, and could not hope to emulate him. My talents, with all their implausibility, are Doyle’s frankly absurd effort to emulate Bell. And there you have it. Doyle laid the foundations for our longevity with his own modesty. Our world is a paean written by a generous creative spirit, and intuitive one, to a rational world he saw, and could not inhabit.” 

It was growing dark. I felt there was nothing else to say. Suddenly, I had the conviction that Holme was telling the truth. I was about to go home, and was fully confident I would arrive there, and yet I had no knowledge where it was, nor any idea what it looked like. My wife, likewise, I could not imagine, well as I knew her. I knew Doyle had given me a character with all the symptoms of many years of content and happiness with that good lady, but he had given her the most shadowy and ghost like of existences. What would happen to me, myself, as I left the immediate area of Baker Street, and the presence of Sherlock Holmes?

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