The Call of the Dance, by William Meikle

An original Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes story

I hoped that my friend Sherlock Holmes would be more settled when I called on him that evening in May of ’87. His recovery from his travails in France meant that a period of house rest was prescribed. As ever, he paid little attention to doctor’s orders, however well intentioned, and had remained active, if at least housebound for most of the time. He had driven poor Mrs. Hudson to despair with a long string of requests for exotic beverages and fruits that required her to scour every market north of the Thames to satisfy him.

I expected it to be the lady herself answering the door, but Holmes greeted me in the hallway as I entered the apartments in Baker Street.

“Come in, Doctor Watson,” he said in a near-perfect impression of Mrs. Hudson’s Scots brogue. “You’ll be wanting some tea?”

He laughed, and bounded up the stairs to his apartment. I had not seen him in such good humour for several months. I discovered why when we arrived in the apartment.

He had something new to occupy his mind. A small contraption of cogs, wax disks and tin foil sat on his desk.

“I took a stroll down Regent Street this morning,” he replied. “And procured this fine item. I believe it is called a Graphophone and they say it is the future of music.”

He turned a key and his voice – tinny and muted but most definitely Holmes’ – asked me whether I was having a good day.

“It records via a series of markings on wax discs,” Holmes said, clearly fascinated. “And it is newly issued from the Bell – Tainter Laboratories. I do believe, Watson, that we will soon have a new way for you to transcribe your histories of our work together.”

He took great delight in showing me how it worked. It did indeed seem a marvellous thing, but I could not imagine it ever replacing my trusty pen.

Finally, I managed to get Holmes to sit. As ever, his quick mind had already moved on to other matters and we spent a pleasant hour discussing the merits of HMS Buzzard. It was being launched on the morrow. Holmes had a hankering to take a trip to Sheerness to view the first sailing of the new scoop, and I agreed to accompany him.

But our plans were soon scuppered.

The first indication of something amiss came when we heard the front door open and the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.

Holmes smiled.

“See what Thomas wants, will you, Watson? He has already delivered the post today.”

I knew better than to ask at that point how he knew the caller’s identity, but as ever he was correct. Thomas Jeffries stood outside Holmes’ door, cap in hand, looking as sorry and hangdog as any man I have ever seen.

“Begging your pardon Doctor,” he said. “But would it be possible to talk to Mr. Holmes? I have need of his services.

Thomas and I both knew that he scarcely had two pennies to rub together, but he looked so lost that I could only stand aside and show him in.

And so began the strangest case I have ever had to relate.

At first Thomas was ill at ease, perched on the edge of a chair as if afraid he might break it. But once Holmes got him talking, it was difficult to get him to stop,

“It’s the workshop, Mr. Holmes,” he said. “I’m feared to go in there at night. But I’m paid to watch the place and I can’t lose the job, not if I want to feed the kids. It’s hard enough as it is keeping both that and the post job going without a haunt trying to stop me.”

I had not known that Thomas was also working another job, but if Holmes had been ignorant of the fact he did not show it. He sat back in his chair, his elbows on the arms, his fingers steepled in front of his mouth, lips already pursed in concentration.

“Tell me,” he said quietly, and that started Thomas off.

“You don’t know Mr. Boothroyd, the gentleman who employs me, Mr. Holmes,” he began. “He keeps himself to himself, working away all day in that workshop of his. But word went round the Market Porter last month that he needed a night watchman, and as I’ve said, I need the money. He took me on straight away and I started that very night.

“Right from the get-go I knew there was something dodgy going on. When he showed me round the workshop he tried to explain the machinery to me. I ain’t got the schooling for stuff like that – there something about ether and emanations but it was all gobbledygook to me. I was just happy to get paid.

“Or so I thought. But as soon as he left me alone in the night I got the heebie-jeebies right bad. There’s a big iron drum in there that sings to me, every night. I feel it in my head even now. And it glows – green and sick. It ain’t natural Mr. Holmes, I’ll tell you that for nowt.”

Holmes spoke softly.

“But that is not why you are here. Is it, Thomas?”

For long seconds I thought Thomas would not reply, and when he finally spoke it was with a tremulous tone unusual in the man.

“I would appreciate your help, sir,” he said. “You’re the most learned man I know. You must talk to Mr. Boothroyd – get him to stop his experiments. I fear that I am in greater peril every night I spend there. But Mr. Boothroyd is even worse off. He came in last night to do some work on his machines. The lights weren’t on, and that’s when I saw it – the green stuff that glows. It was inside him, Mr. Holmes – inside him and shining out of his eyes.”

Of course I knew immediately that, payment or not, Holmes could not turn such a matter away from his door. His curiosity was piqued, and there would be nothing for it but to charge ahead until an answer was forthcoming.

After we sent Thomas home with a promise to help where we could, I tried to impress on Holmes that he was not in the best of health and that a new case at this juncture might prove too much for him. But he would have none of it.

“Do not attempt to mollycoddle me, Watson. I have had more than enough of that from Mrs. Hudson.”

I did, however, insist that we at least filled our stomachs before venturing forth, and we went to Dawson’s Pie and Ale House for a hearty late lunch. Even there Holmes was distant and distracted, already worrying at this latest mystery.

“So what do you think, Holmes? Is Thomas havering?”

Holmes laughed.

“No. He seems a steady enough sort. But I need more information before I can comment further. But I will tell you this, Watson – I do not like what I have heard.”

He said no more, even though the carriage journey to the Boothroyd House on the south edge of Hackney took nearly fifteen minutes. I was used to Holmes’ quiet spells and contented myself with watching the city pass by as darkness slowly descended. The streets became quiet as we passed beyond the commercial areas, and by the time we reached the boundaries of Hackney there was scarcely a person around.

The carriage left us at the end of a long drive and departed into the night. Everything fell quiet, and I was just starting to wonder whether we might have been dropped at the wrong house when there were heavy footsteps on the drive behind us.

Holmes did not even turn.

“Well met, Thomas,” he said. “Are you ready to show us what Master Boothroyd is up to?”

Now that we were there, Thomas had suddenly become nervous.

“I’m not sure if I should…” he started, but Holmes was already striding away up the driveway.

“Come, Watson,” he said, looking back. “I am keen to see what manner of new thing Master Boothroyd has wrought. Maybe we should just knock at the main house?”

That last was for Thomas’ benefit and, as Holmes knew it would, got the other man moving. He ran up to Holmes’ side.

“There’s no need for that, Mr. Holmes sir. It’s more than my job’s worth to interrupt him after dark. Let’s just have a quick look at the workshop. Then you’ll see what’s what.”

“I thought you wanted us to talk to your master?” I started, but Holmes put a finger to his lips and hushed me.

“I believe we need to see the lay of the land first, Watson. Now come. It seems some burglary is called for.”

We walked the length of the drive in silence, keeping to the deeper shadows under an avenue of mature chestnut trees. There was a single flickering light ahead in the main house, and as we approached I saw a figure move inside. Thomas gripped my arm and pulled me aside, leading us around the south side of the house where a large wooden shed dominated what in another house might have been given over to lawn.

The structure sat in darkness, and was darker still inside. Thomas lit an oil lantern and headed off into the interior. We followed. As my eyes adjusted to the faint light I saw we were surrounded by machinery in various stages of construction. I’m afraid I have never had much of a head for engineering, but Holmes seemed fascinated.

He stopped so often on our walk through the workshop that Thomas had to keep walking back to our position to shine the light on something new that took Holmes’ interest.

“Boothroyd is certainly serious in his enthusiasms,” Holmes said. “This has all cost a large amount of his money – some of this equipment has come all the way across the Atlantic. But the purpose of it all still escapes me.”

Thomas spoke up, and there was obvious exasperation in his voice.

“That’s what I brought you to see, Mr. Holmes – the main machine he spends all his time on these days. Come – it is at the far end here.”

We followed the bobbing lantern along the length of the workshop. I had to shoo Holmes forward on several occasions when he seemed tempted to stop and examine another machine of interest, but eventually we came to a halt beside Thomas.

“Here you go, Mr. Holmes. I hope you can make something of it, for I am at a loss.”

He leaned forward and shone his light over a particularly large tube of black metal. To my untrained eye it seemed to be merely an empty cylinder wrapped in copper wire, but as I bent closer every hair on my head stood up straight. A blue bolt sparked across the roof and discharged with a distinct smell of ozone. Holmes laughed at my obvious discomfort.

“It is a simple charge generator, Watson,” he said. “It seems friend Thomas has brought us here under false pretences.”

He turned to get Thomas’ confirmation – but Thomas was already backing away, staring at the metal tube with something that looked like abject terror.

“You’ll see, Mr. Holmes. Now you’ll see.”

And with that he could take no more. He turned and fled, leaving Holmes and I there in the dark.

Only it wasn’t dark.

I realized I could see Holmes quite clearly, although his face looked to have taken on a sickly green tinge. He moved towards the black cylinder.

“I say, old chap, do you think that’s wise?”

As ever, Holmes had his own view on what was required in the situation. And as I turned to follow him I saw what had taken his attention. The cylinder was no longer black. It had taken on a green glow.

“What is it, Holmes?” I whispered, but my friend did not answer. The glow from the cylinder intensified. At first I thought Holmes was moving in for a closer look, then I saw he was intent on something on the trestle to one side – a journal of some kind. But as he stepped slowly nearer, so the glow grew brighter. I have seen the aurora in Northern climes, and the light that danced there above us in that workshop reminded me of that. But I was not inspired by the same sense of awe – no, this was more like fear, an animal terror of something unworldly, something far beyond my experience.

I forced myself to concentrate. Holmes was already at the trestle, but it was hard to make out his form inside an ever-moving cloud of glowing green mist.

“Holmes!” I called out.

“I’ll be right with you, Watson,” he replied, but it sounded like he was shouting from a long way away in a wind. More blue sparks ran across the roof of the warehouse. I felt a chill at my back, as if a door had been opened.

“Thank goodness, Thomas,” I said. “I need some help here.”

But when I turned to the source of the breeze it was not Thomas I saw. A tall gentleman stood there, dressed in a waistcoat and trousers that were long in need of a good wash. He had not shaved for more than a week and his hair was disheveled. All these things I noticed, all while trying not to notice his eyes. Thomas had been right – this must be Boothroyd – and his eyes did indeed glow. Whatever that iron cylinder might be, it had infected him. The green flickered as his gaze fell on me.

And just like that, I was gone.

I felt it first through the soles of my feet, but soon my whole frame shook, vibrating in time with a rhythm that seemed to beat through the mist. My head swam, and it seemed as if the very walls of the workshop melted and ran. The black cylinder receded into a great distance until it was little more than a darker blob in a blanket of darkness, and I was alone, in a vast cathedral of emptiness where nothing existed save the dark and the pounding beat from below.

Shapes moved in the dark, wispy shadows with no substance, shadows that capered and whirled as our dance grew ever more frenetic. I was buffeted, as if by a strong, surging tide, but as the beat grew ever stronger I cared little. I gave myself to it, and I know not how long I wandered, there in the space between. I forgot myself and I forgot my friend, lost in blackness where only the rhythm mattered.

I do believe I would be there yet if Holmes had not come to my aid.

Even then I was confused as I felt his hand in mine, there in the dark. It was his voice, and the calm reassurance of it, than brought me back to myself.

“It is time we were going, Watson,” he said. “I fear we have overstayed our welcome.”

I felt him tug at my hand. My friend called. I answered.

We ran out of the workshop. I turned back once, just in time to see the green mist flare then fade. The last hint of it to go was in Boothroyd’s eyes. He stood in the doorway of the workshop, watching us all the way as we fled.

It took over half an hour to get back to Baker Street, most of the journey on foot. Holmes scarcely said a word the whole time, but he did wave the journal he had taken from the trestle at me.

“The answer will be here, Watson, trust me on that.”

I myself had much on my mind, not the least of which was that black cathedral of dancing shadows. It had felt wrong, but even as I walked along the thoroughfares of North London I could feel its insidious tug at my mind. For the first time I had some inkling, some idea of kinship, with those poor souls who spent their waking hours chasing the dragon in the opium dens of the East End.

And even after we reached Holmes’ apartments and settled in our chairs awaiting a welcome pot of tea, still Holmes did not speak. He lost himself in the newly found journal. I knew I would get little out of him until he was good and ready. I went to help Mrs. Hudson prepare our supper and afterwards read the Thunderer from front to back.

It was near midnight before Holmes put down the journal. He stayed quiet through the process of lighting a pipe, and it was only when he was satisfied he had it going that he brought me in to his findings.

“It is a rum do, Watson,” he began between puffs. “But I fear Boothroyd, in his search for knowledge, has uncovered something far more arcane.”

He tapped the journal with his pipe.

“He has been corresponding with a young man in the United States. They have some wonderful theories regarding the transmission of sound through the ether without the need for wires, and they even conjecture that electrical power may one day be available in this fashion. But that is a story for another day. What concerns us here is what happened on their first attempted transmission.

“It appears they woke something up with their racket,” Holmes continued with a thin smile. “Something that has been asleep a long time. Here is what Boothroyd has to say in his journal.”

He read.

“’Tesla believes it to be a denizen of some other dimension, a creature so vast we can scarcely encompass its nature in our primitive brains. Normally it is dormant, merely drifting, somewhere not in or even out of our space, but somewhere between. Whatever it is, we have woken it. And it has taken note of us. God help me, it haunts my every dream. We have a theory as to how we might be able to placate this thing before it fully wakes, to send it back to its long sleep. But will we be given the time? At night I dance with it, there in the vast blackness. And, dear God, I find I have little will to resist. I would that I could be there now, lost in the dance.’”

That last gave me a bit of a turn, I can tell you, bringing the events of the evening rushing back to me. But if Holmes noticed, he paid no heed.

“There is some more,” he said. “Notes on how they intended to put this entity back to slumber, but there is some experimentation of my own I must attempt before broaching that subject. It may take some hours, old chap. Maybe you would prefer to return in the morning?”

I knew my friend well enough. I might be able to return to bed that night, but he would not; he would be unable to leave a problem alone for that long. Besides, I had spent so many nights in the old chair by the fire that its upholstery was moulded in the shape of my spine and it had become almost as comfortable as my own bed.

I lit a last pipe of the night and watched Holmes work.

He seemed to spend most of his time trying to decipher some kind of code that took up a dozen sheets of handwritten journal. And it had him stumped. After almost an hour he gave up and retired to his own chair to brood over a pipe of his own.

After a while I drifted into a fitful sleep, troubled by dreams of vast, black emptiness and dancing shadows. I woke with a start to find Holmes shaking a fistful of papers in my face.

“I have it, Watson,” he said, his face flushed with excitement. “It is not a code at all. It is a rhythmic notation – the steps of the dance, if you will.”

He said no more, having already moved to start making marks on the wax disks of the Graphophone. I could not for the life of me follow what he was up to, so I closed my eyes again and tried to rest, knowing that Holmes might have need of a rested friend in the morning.

But sleep would not come, interrupted as it was by a series of unworldly screeches and drum-like raps from Holmes’ experiments. I gave in to the inevitable, sat up and got a fresh pipe going. Just as I had it lit to my satisfaction, Holmes stood from his work, stretched with palms pressed to his spine, and turned towards me, smiling broadly.

“I believe I have it, Watson,” he said. “But time is of the essence, and the only way to test the theory is to return to Boothroyd’s workshop. Are you ready for more burglary?”

Watery morning sunshine greeted us as we approached the Boothroyd House. The trip back to Hackney had been made somewhat easier by the use of a carriage that Holmes managed to flag down at Paddington. I was most grateful, for he had left it to me to carry the Graphophone and, despite it being encased in a rather attractive carrying valise, it was rather cumbersome, if not particularly heavy. But what with that and the weight of my service revolver – which I thought circumspect to bring along – I felt rather burdened as we walked along the avenue.

Holmes made no pretence of hiding our approach, striding down the centre of the drive as if we were simply making a house call on a friend. I had no idea how we might explain ourselves to Boothroyd should he note our arrival and confront us. It was a moot point however, as we reached the workshop without any interruption.

The workshop itself lay in silence. As we approached I was on tenterhooks, straining to listen for any resumption of the vibration that had so bewildered me the night before. Holmes had no such qualms. He strode forward and threw open the large wooden doors.

I had my free hand on my revolver, but it was not required.

“It seems we have the run of the place, Watson,” Holmes said, and before I could speak, he walked quickly inside so that I had no option but to follow him.

In the dim daylight that filtered in through whitewashed windows above, the array of machinery was even more bewildering. Metal tubes and cables snaked across all surfaces, and steam hissed from pipes – obviously under a high degree of pressure. But my gaze kept returning to the main object of Holmes’ attention – the large, black, iron cylinder.

“Don’t stand there gawping, old boy,” Holmes said. “Fetch me the Graphophone.”

I was loath to step too close to the trestle where the iron cylinder sat, but I had come this far, and six feet more would not make much difference. I did as I was requested, and Holmes immediately got to work setting it up. I saw that he had made certain modifications to the instrument that would allow him to play several wax disks in succession and, with minimal manual intervention, restart the whole thing at the turn of a key.

But even while he was still setting it up, I felt the vibrations start to build around the iron cylinder, and the air inside the workshop took on a green tint, like a fine emerald mist.

I felt the vibrations first through the soles of my feet, but soon my whole frame shook, vibrating in time with the rhythm. My head swam, and once again it seemed as if the very walls of the workshop melted and ran. Holmes turned towards me, but his pale face receded into a great distance until it was little more than a pinpoint of light in a blanket of darkness. I was once again alone, in a vast cathedral of emptiness where nothing existed save the dark and an ever louder, pounding beat. I gave myself willingly to it, lost in the dance, lost in the dark.

Some time later, I was brought back directly to the workshop by a new sound – Holmes had switched on his modified Graphophone. A giant drum still beat all around me, but I no longer felt any compunction to join it in the blackness beyond.

Above the black cylinder the room was filled with a dancing green aurora so dense that I could not see the workshop walls. For the first time I could sense a presence directly, probing at my defences, looking for a passage through.

The Graphophone sounded thin and tinny in comparison to the deep vibration that echoed in the room, but when Holmes began to stamp and pound on the trestle in time with the wax disks the vibration seemed to falter. The aurora thinned enough that I could momentarily see the walls of the room. I almost let out a cry of victory, but I was premature.

I was looking at the cylinder and only just caught a movement at the corner of my eye as Boothroyd came at a run along the corridor between the trestles and barrelled into Holmes, knocking him to the ground.

The aurora surged. Sparks flew across the iron cylinder, the sudden light so bright I had to squeeze my eyes shut, and even then the after-image stayed there for long seconds.

Boothroyd reached for the Graphophone.

“Shoot him,” Holmes shouted. “Before it comes through completely.”

I pulled out the revolver but could not fire – not on an unarmed man – not until Boothroyd turned and stared at me, the green aurora dancing in his eyes. I felt the tug of the place beyond calling me. I pulled the trigger until it went away.

Boothroyd took four bullets to the chest. The green aurora glowed in all four wounds. He staggered, but did not fall. He turned away from me, once again reaching for the Graphophone.

“In the head,” Holmes shouted.

I obliged him, putting my last two shots into the back of Boothroyd’s skull. More green showed as a mixture of blood and brains escaped. Finally, the body fell away.

The aurora above the iron cylinder surged as if alive, and once again I felt the tugging in my mind, the thing between, searching for me. But Holmes immediately went back to stamping and thumping on the trestle in time with the recordings on his wax disks.

He also started to chant in time with the recordings, meaningless sounds, but strangely apt to accompany his stamping and thumping. The new sound found some sympathy in the walls of the workshop itself. A new beat grew; a bass drum pounding in perfect time with Holmes’ chanting.

Once more the green aurora surged and threw itself forward towards Holmes.

His voice faltered… just for a fraction of a second. The aurora swelled and pressed an attack stronger than any previously made. I raised my voice, joining Holmes and putting more depth into the chant, aware that there were surely mere seconds left to us before the wax disks stopped spinning.

In answer, the whole workshop seemed to swell in song, our voices echoed and amplified, as if recorded and re-recorded on a thousand Graphophones simultaneously. Even as the wax disks started to falter, the aurora shrank and diminished. A blue spark crackled and I was forced to blink. When I looked again, it was just in time to see the aurora hover over the iron cylinder, like a cape falling over the contraption.

The Graphophone played out with a last dying whirr. The aurora fell, streaming inside the cylinder, then was gone. The echoes faded and died and our chants died with them. We stood in a sudden silence.

We had made our way back to Baker Street in silence, and it was only when I inquired about informing Lestrade about the body we had left behind that Holmes spoke.

“No,” he said. “We cannot allow the police access to that workshop. They would only cause more mischief. I shall send the journal to Mycroft. The defence of the realm is, after all, more his domain than mine.”

“The defence of the realm?” I asked. “You believe it was that much of a threat?”

He was quiet for so long that I thought he would not answer. When he did, he was deadly serious.

“It was only my knowledge of musical theory that saved us from enslavement and calamity,” he said. “Boothroyd has opened a door that we might not be able to shut. We were fortunate in that I was able to set up a rhythm that exactly cancelled out the vibration they had brought forth from between. For if it had been otherwise, we two would also have been taken away – I believe you got a glimpse of the place to which I am referring?”

He went on before I could reply.

“If allowed to persist, the dance would have spread as the vibrations grew stronger. All of London, perhaps even the whole of Europe, may have fallen under its sway if the vibration had not been countered.

“We have sent it back into dormancy. But for how long? That is the question that vexes me now, Watson. I believe that the experimentation we saw in that workshop is some twenty to thirty years in advance of current scientific theory. But what will happen when other scientists catch up and start sending out more and more transmissions into the ether? What happens when the dreamer in the dance wakes once more?”

He went quiet.

I had no answer for him — not at that time.

But there are some nights when I dream, and I am back there in the dark cathedral of emptiness, back between.

I hear the call of the dance.

William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with ten novels published in the genre press and over 200 short story credits in thirteen countries, the author of the ongoing Midnight Eye series among others.  His work has appeared in a number of professional anthologies.  His current best seller is The Invasion, a sci-fi alien invasion tale with mass carnage, plucky survivors, and last minute rescues. It has been as high as #2 in the Kindle science fiction charts (and #4 in Kindle horror ).  Click here to view and buy William Meikle’s books at Amazon.com.

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Illustration by mimulux.

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8 responses to “The Call of the Dance, by William Meikle

  1. Fine job capturing the essence of Holmes and Watson. Very descriptive and eerie. Enjoyed the bit with Tesla and the foreshadowing at the end of the story. Nice job, William.

  2. A good read. Bringing in Mycroft was a very fine point. There were a few anachronisms/alterations but overall a most satisfactory feeling was evoked, one in which the Lovecraftian melded well with the Sherlockian. Many thanks.

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