After the Matilda Briggs Went Down
by Michael D. Winkle
Read by Alethea Kontis
Listen to the audio version
Holmes and I rode back to Baker Street without a word between us, my thoughts at least
awhirl with the climax of our adventure. I saw again the monstrous Rat in the hold of the Matilda
Briggs, its eyes like agates, its teeth like chisels. I heard in my mind the charges set by Holmes
bursting one by one, sending the freighter and its demoniac stowaway to the bottom.
We climbed slowly to our chambers at 221B. Thankfully, Mrs. Hudson had built up a
cheery fire. Holmes set his Gladstone on his worktable, pushing aside several beakers and
"Watson, I think it best if you refrain from publishing any account of the Matilda Briggs
affair for the present," he said as I stirred the embers.
"Have no fear of that, Holmes," I replied, setting the poker back with a clatter. "I've
written the title 'Giant Rat of Sumatra' a dozen times, yet not one word have I penned beneath it.
Who would believe such an absurd tale?"
Holmes drew a small glass jar out of his bag. He flashed the merest line of a smile.
"Your reputation for honesty might well be called into question, Watson, but I fear more
that the whole of England would panic. Especially did the populace learn of these!"
He set the jar onto the table with a sharp clack. Some dark objects within bounced about,
pinging off the glass and lid with considerable force.
"What are those, Holmes? Crickets?"
Holmes hung up his greatcoat.
"No, Watson. I gathered those on the ship. They are fleas."
I stepped closer to examine the insects. The rotund, banded bodies of the energetic
arthropods were not at all like a cricket's or a locust's.
"But, Holmes! They're enormous!"
My friend returned to the table, his expression grim.
"They are monstrous, Watson. That a single anomaly like the Giant Rat of Sumatra could
exist, I can accept--it would be the sort of hereditary sport called for by Darwinism. But a rodent
colossus that provides its own Brobdingnagian parasites--"
He shook his head.
"Holmes!" I cried. "Are you suggesting that creature could pass its--peculiarity--on to
the meaner species of the sewer and forest? It could spell the end of the world!"
"I do suggest it, but I emphasize the word suggest. We must study the matter further."
The pronoun 'we' excluded Dr. John H. Watson. Holmes sent specimens of his six-legged
grotesqueries to the Royal Society and the Zoological Gardens, and he stood at his chemistry
table 'round the clock, scrutinizing slide after slide under the microscope. He introduced normal
parasites into a jar containing one of his "pets," and I could only think of that poem: "Great fleas
have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em." Once I accused him of taking up cocaine again,
only to learn that the needle was for drawing sustenance for his unnatural charges.
I tended to my medical practice--half-heartedly, I confess--and at last, a fortnight later, I
entered the flat to find Holmes cleaning his cherrywood pipe, his clutter of test tubes and slides
washed and stacked.
"Holmes! You've solved the riddle of the monster vermin!" I ventured.
Holmes chuckled. He took down the Persian slipper that served him as tobacco pouch.
"I have indeed, Watson, so far as my limited resources allow."
"What was it, Holmes?" I asked, seating myself at my writing desk. "Some bizarre
"The Rat generated a remarkable chemical in its endocrine system," he explained. "The
excretion affected the pests that feasted directly on its blood, but the parasites in turn did not
generate this substance."
He tapped a jar containing a dead flea, dry and desiccated like a knot of rattan fibers.
"With the Rat dead, there will be no more of these abominations."
I scanned my desk for pencil and paper. I would record this for my benefit, if no one
"I say, Holmes," I observed as I sharpened a wooden nub, "it appears you've beaten the
Royal Society and the Zoological Gardens to the solution."
"I am not being modest, Watson, when I admit to having a considerable head start."
Holmes stuffed shag into his pipe and lit it with a taper from the fire. Mrs. Hudson
appeared with the mail.
"Speak of the Devil!" exclaimed Holmes, snatching one cream-coloured envelope from a
royal flush of correspondence. "A communication from Professor Redwood."
Holmes worked his jackknife loose from the scarred mantelpiece and slit open the
envelope. His gaunt features wrinkled into a scowl as he read:
Hickleybrow, Kent, July 25th
Dear Mr. Holmes:
Thank you again for the opportunity to examine the Xenopsylla
specimens collected from the unique representative of Rhizomys sumatrensis that
so distressed Messrs. Morrison, Morrison, and Dodd. You may be interested to
learn that, with the help of Mr. Bensington of the Royal Society, I have isolated
the compound responsible for the animal's extraordinary development. It is our
belief that this compound, which we have named Herakleaphorbia (i.e., not
merely the nectar, but the very food of the gods), may be of great value to the
We hope you find time to visit our Experimental Farm, where we
are conducting further tests on the substance.
Edward Llewellyn Redwood, F.R.S., M.D., D. Sc., &c.
Through the open window I heard the high-pitched calls of young news vendors. Holmes
dropped into his velvet armchair as I rose.
"What's all the commotion about?" I asked.
Normally, special editions, with their lurid headlines of murder and disaster, drew
Holmes to the window as carrion attracts vultures. Today, however, my friend sat stonily,
watching the orange flickers of the hearth.
I spotted a placard with huge black letters: GIGANTIC WASPS IN KENT. I passed the
headline to Holmes and added, "What the deuce does it mean?"
"An ill wind, Watson," murmured Sherlock Holmes. "An ill wind, indeed."