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The Dying Detective

The Dying Detective

The detective Sherlock Holmes was seriously ill. He wanted to meet his assistant Watson. He asks his landlady to get him. Watson was surprised to see the condition of his master. Was Watson able to save his master? Read on to know more about the underlying story behind Holmes’ sickness.

Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, came to me and said, “Mr. Holmes is dying, Mr. Watson. For three days he has been sinking, and I doubt if he will last another day. He would not let me get a doctor. I told him I could not stand it anymore and would get a doctor.” He replied, “Let it be Watson then.”

I was horrified for I had not heard about his illness before. I rushed for my hat and coat. As we drove back, I asked her about the details.

“There is little I can tell you, sir. He has been working on a case down at Rotherhithe, near the river, and has brought this illness back with him. He took to bed on Wednesday afternoon and has never moved since. For three days neither food nor drink has passed his lips.” “Why did you not call a doctor?” I asked.

“He wouldn’t have it, sir. I didn’t dare to disobey him.”

He was indeed a sad sight. In the dim light of a foggy November day, the sick-room was a gloomy spot, but it was the gaunt face staring form the bed that brought chill to my heart. His eyes had the brightness of fever, his cheeks were flushed, and his hand twitched all the time. He lay listless.

“My dear fellow!” I cried approaching him.

“Stand back! Stand right back!” he cried.

“But why? I want to help you,” I said.

“Certainly, Watson, but it is for your own sake.”

“For my sake?” I was surprised.

“I know what is the matter with me. It is the disease from Sumatra. It is deadly and contagious, Watson – that’s it, by touch.”

“Good heavens, Holmes! Do you think this can stop me?” I said advancing towards him.

“If you will stand there, I will talk. If you don’t you must leave the room,” said my master.

I have always given in to Holmes’ wishes. But now my feelings as a doctor were aroused. I was at least his master in the sick-room.

“Holmes,” I said, “you are not yourself whether you like it or not. I will examine your symptoms and treat you.”

“If I am to have a doctor,” said he, “let me at least have someone in whom I have confidence.”

“Then you have none in me?”

“In your friendship, certainly. But facts are facts, Watson. You are a general practitioner, not a specialist of this disease.”

“If so, let me bring Sir Japer Meek or Penrose Fisher, or any other best man in London.”

“How ignorant you are! Watson!” he said with a groan.

“What do you know about Tarpaunli fever or the black Formosa plague?”

“I have never heard of them,” I admitted.

“There are many problems of the disease in the East. I have learnt that much during my recent researches. And during this course I caught this illness,” he said.

“I will bring Dr. Ainstree then,” I said going towards the door. Never have I had such a shock when the dying man bolted the door and locked it, shouted in an uncontrolled way and in a moment he was back in his bed.

“You won’t have the key by force from me Watson. Be here till 6 o’clock. It is four now”

“This is madness, Holmes,” I said.

“Only two hours, Watson. Then you can get a doctor of my choice. You can read some books, over there. At six we will talk again.”

Unable to settle down to reading, I walked slowly round and round, looking at the pictures. Finally I came to the mantel piece, where among other things I saw a small black and white ivory box with sliding lid. As I held it in my hand to examine it, I heard a dreadful cry. “Put it down! Down at once, Watson,” he said, “I hate to have my things touched. Sit down man, and let me have my rest!”

Then I sat in silent dejection until the stipulated time had passed.

“Now Watson,” he said, “Have you any change?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“How many half- crowns? Put them in your watch – pocket. And all the rest in your trouser pocket. You will light the gas lamp, but it must be half on. You will have the kindness to place some letters and paper on the table within my reach. Now place the ivory box on the table within my reach. Slide the lid a bit with tongs. Put the tongs on the table. Good! Now you can go and fetch Mr. Culverton Smith, of 13 Lower Burke Street’’.

I was hesitant to leave him now. He was delirious. “I have never heard of the name,’’ I said.

“Well, he is the man who has the knowledge of this disease but he is not a medical man. He is a planter. He lives in Sumatra, now visiting London. I didn’t want you to go before six, because you wouldn’t have found him in his study. I hope you will be able to persuade him to come. You will tell him exactly how you have left me.” He said, “You must tell him that I’m dying – plead with him, Watson.”

“I’ll bring him in a cab,’’ I said.

“No. You will persuade him to come and return before him. Make any excuse. Remember this, Watson.”

I saw Mrs. Hudson was waiting outside, trembling and crying. Below, as I waited for the cab, I met Inspector Morton of the Scotland Yard. He was not in his uniform.

“How is he?” asked Inspector Morton.

“He is very ill,” I answered.

I reached Mr. Culverton Smith’s house. The butler appeared at the doorway. Through the half-open door I heard a man’s voice telling the butler, “I am not at home, say so.” I pushed past the butler and entered the room. I saw a frail man with bald head sitting. “I am sorry,” I said, “but the matter cannot be delayed. Mr. Sherlock Holmes………….”

The mere mention of his name had a different effect on the man.

“Have you come from Holmes? How is he?” he asked.

“He is very ill. That is why I have come. Mr. Holmes has a high opinion of you and thought you are the only man in London who can help him.”

The little man was startled.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because of your knowledge of the Eastern diseases,” I replied.

“How did he get it?” he asked.

I told him everything. He smiled and agreed to come. Pretending that I had some other appointment. I left him. With a sinking heart I reached Holmes’ room. I told him that Mr. Smith was coming.

“Well done! Watson!” he said. “You have done everything that a good friend could do. Now you disappear to the next room. And don’t speak, or come here.”

I heard the footsteps. I heard a voice say, “Holmes! Holmes! Can you hear me?”

“Is that you Mr. Smith?” Holmes whispered. “You know what is wrong with me. You are the only one in London who can cure me.”

“Do you know the symptoms?” asked Smith.

“Only too well, Mr. Smith,” and he described the symptoms.

“They are the same, Holmes,” Smith said, “Poor Victor was a dead man on the fourth day -a strong and healthy young man. What a coincidence indeed!”

“I know that you did it,” said Holmes.

“Well, you can’t prove it.”

“Give me water, please,” Holmes groaned.

“Here.” I heard Smith’s voice.

“Cure me, please. Well, about Victor Savage’s death. You did it. I’ll forget everything, but cure me. I’ll forget about it.”

“You can forget or remember, just as you like. It doesn’t matter to me how my nephew died. Watson said you got it from the Chinese sailors. Could there be any other reason?”

“I can’t think. My mind is gone, help me,” pleaded Holmes.

“Did anything come by post? A box by chance? On Wednesday?”

“Yes I opened it and there was a sharp spring inside it. A joke perhaps. It drew blood,” said Holmes.

“No, it was not a joke, you fool, you’ve got it. Who asked you to cross my path? You knew too much about Victor’s death. Your end is near, Holmes. I’ll carry this box in my pocket. The last piece of evidence!”

“Turn up the gas, Smith,” said Holmes in his natural voice.

“Yes I will, so that I can see you better.” There was silence. Then I heard Smith say, “What’s all this?”

“Successful acting,” said Holmes, “for three days I didn’t taste anything – neither food nor drink.”

There were footsteps outside. The door opened and I heard Inspector Morton’s voice. “I arrest you on charge of murder,” he said.

“If so, let me bring Sir Jaspet Meek or Penrose fisher, or Holmes”.

There was a sudden rush and scuffle, followed by the clash of iron and sudden cry of pain. There was a click of handcuffs.

Holmes asked me to come in.

“Sorry, Watson, I was rude to you. I undermined your capability as a doctor. It was just to get Smith here. And I didn’t want you to know that I was not ill.”

“But your appearance--?” I said.

“Three days, fasting and the make- up did the trick.”

“The coins?”

“Oh! That was only to prove that I was delirious,” he laughed. “I need to eat now, Watson. Mr. Smith killed his nephew and he wanted to kill me the same way to avoid imprisonment. I need to eat now, Watson. I think that something nutritious at Simpsons’ would not be out of place.

And thank you, Watson,” he said.

Do You Know?

Joseph Bell (1837-1911). He was a lecturer in medicine whose detective approach to diagnosis inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline. Joseph Bell was born in Edinburgh.

About the Author

Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a British writer best known for his detective fiction featuring the character of Sherlock Holmes, which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. Doyle wrote forty-six short stories featuring the famous detective. The story is narrated by the character, Dr.Watson. Originally a physician, in 1887 he published A Study in Scarlet, the first of four novels about Holmes and Dr. Watson. In addition, Doyle wrote over fifty short stories featuring the famous detective. The Sherlock Holmes stories are generally considered milestones in the field of fiction. His notable works include Stories of Sherlock Holmes and The Lost World.


gaunt (adj.) - lean, especially because of suffering, hunger or age.

twitched (v) - give short, sudden jerking movements.

contagious (adj.) - spreading of a disease from one person to another by direct contact

groan (v) - make a deep inarticulate sound conveying pain or despair.

plague (n) - a contagious bacterial disease characterized by fever.

bolted (v) - closed the door with a bar that slides into a socket.

mantle piece (n) - a structure of wood or marble above or around the fireplace.

half-crown (n) - a former British coin equal to two shillings and sixpence (12 1/2p).

tongs (n) - a device used for picking up objects consisting of two long pieces free at one end and pressed together at the other end. delirious (adj.) - disturbed state of mind characterized by restlessness.

frail (adj.) - weak and delicate.

startled (v) - felt sudden shock or alarm.

scuffle (v) - to have a sudden short fight

Questions from the Prose

a. How did Watson feel when he heard of Holmes illness?

Ans: Watson felt horrified when he heard of Holme’s illness because he had not heard about it before.

b. Why didn’t the landlady call the doctor?

Ans: Since Holmes did not want any doctor and the landlady never disobeyed Holmes. So she didn’t call the doctor.

c. What was the condition of Holmes when Watson saw him?

Ans: Holmes had a gaunt face. His eyes had a brightness of fever, his cheeks were flushed and his hand twitched all the time. He lay listless.

d. According to Holmes what was the disease he was suffering from?

Ans: According to Holmes, he was suffering from the black Formosa plague.

e. Who did Watson see when he entered the room?

Ans: Watson saw Culverton Smith’s butler at the doorway. On entering the room, he saw a thin man with bald head, Mr. Culverton Smith.

f. What were the instructions given by Holmes to Watson?

Ans: Holmes instructed Watson to persuade Smith to come to meet Holmes. He also asked Watson to return before the arrival of Smith.

g. Why did Holmes plead with Smith?

Ans: Holmes pleaded with Smith to cure him of his disease.

h. Who was responsible for Victor Savage’s death? What was the evidence for it?

Ans: Mr. Culverton Smith was responsible for Victor savages death. The ivory box was the evidence for it.

i. What explanation did Holmes give for speaking rudely to Watson?

Ans: Holmes explained that he spoke rudely to Watson because he wanted to bring Smith there and he didn’t want Watson to know that he wasn’t ill.

j. How was Holmes able to look sick?

Ans: Holmes was able to look sick because of three days of fasting and the makeup.

Answer the following questions in one or two sentences.

1. Who was Mrs. Hudson? Why was she worried?

Mrs. Hudson was the landlady of Sherlock Holmes. She was worried because Holmes was very sick.

2. Why didn’t Holmes let Watson examine him?

Ans: Holmes was suffering from a contagious disease, by touch Watson can get the disease, hence he did not let Watson to examine him.

3. Why did Holmes warn Watson against touching his things? What was Watson’s reaction?

Ans: Holmes warned Watson against touching his things because he disliked others touching his things and the box was important evidence. Watson sat down silently.

4. What did Watson find on the table near the mantlepiece?

Ans: Watson found a small black and white ivory box on the table near the mantlepiece.

5. Who is Mr. Culverton Smith?

Ans: Mr. Culverton Smith is the man who has the knowledge of the disease, Holmes was suffering from. He is a planter. He lives in Sumatra, now visiting London.

6. What did Holmes ask Watson to do before leaving his room?

Ans: Holmes asked Watson to put the coins in the pocket, light the lamp to half and he asked to keep the ivory box open on the table.

7. What instructions did Holmes give Watson to get Mr. Smith?

Ans: Holmes asked Watson to persuade Mr. Culverton Smith of 13, Lower Burke Street to come and to tell him that Holmes was dying. He asked him to plead with Smith to save him.

8. Why did Holmes want Smith to treat him?

Ans: Holmes thought that Smith was the only man in London who could cure him. So, he wanted Smith to treat him.

9. According to Smith how did Holmes get the disease?

Ans: According to Smith, Holmes got the disease from the spring in the ivory box, that drew blood.

10. Who arrested Smith? What were the charges against him?

Ans: Inspector Morton arrested Smith on the charges of murdering his nephew Victor Savage.


Mrs Hudson – Landlady of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes – The detective who is ill

Mr.Watson – A general physician and friend of Holmes

Sir Japer Meek or Penrose Fisher or Dr.Ainstree – Other Doctors

Mr. Culverton Smith – The one who is accused of crime

Victor Savage – Mr.Culverton Smith’s nephew and was murdered by him

Morton – Inspector of Scotland Yard.

Additional Questions:

1. At which case was Sherlock Holmes working on?

Ans: He has been working on a case down at Rotherhithe, near the river.

2. On what day did Sherlock Holmes went to bed and never got back?

Ans: Wednesday afternoon

3. What was the month they were in?

Ans: November

4. Who were the doctors Watson said, he will bring?

Ans: Sir Japer Meek or Penrose Fisher or Dr.Ainstree

5. What is he disease name that Sherlock Holmes was infected with?

Ans: Tarpaunli fever or the black Formosa plague.

6. From where the disease has cause many problems?

Ans: In the East.

7. For what time did Sherlock Holmes asked Whatson to wait till?

Ans: Till 6’ O Clock.

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