“Engineer’s Thumb,” published on its own in the March 1892 of Strand Magazine, is the ninth story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The narrative begins with Watson remarking that in his entire association with Holmes—and remember, Watson is the chronicler and keeper of this record of problem-solving—only twice did he bring a case to Holmes’ attention. He’s proud of this—his two trophies, as it were. Normally Holmes has going on whatever he has going on and he requires Watson’s help or just wants his company. He’s a man who largely does not need friends, but it seems that he needs at least one, and that it must be this one. That strain of loneliness throughout the adventures sticks with me. One reason the stories comfort me so much—even pacify me, quell anxiety—is because Holmes cannot be entirely alone all of the time, and even when I am entirely alone—or feel that I am—I’m able to be with these two men, either together or separately. I’m with them temporarily, or they are with me by proxy. It’s as if I’m someone Watson has picked up at a juncture of his day, sensed my need, and brought me round to 221B.
But in this story, Watson is not the first to lay mitts on Mr. Victor Hatherley, a fellow who is the Victorian equivalent, I’d say, of a Millennial. He doesn’t know quite what he doesn’t know, the post-university world is jostling him harder than he expected, the start-up business he tried to launch has had a failure to do so. As he makes us aware several times—it’s obviously important to him and weighs upon him—his trade is that of hydraulic engineer. You almost wonder who he is trying to convince, ala the people who go on social media to tell you how happy they are.
Watson sets the scene and explains, at the same time, his current role as go-between: “I had returned to civil practice and had finally abandoned Holmes in his Baker Street rooms, although I continually visited him and occasionally even persuaded him to forgo his Bohemian habits so far as to come and visit us. My practice had steadily increased, and as I happened to live at no very great distance from Paddington Station, I got a few patients from among the officials. One of these, whom I had cured of a painful and lingering disease, was never weary of advertising my virtues and of endeavouring to send me on every sufferer over whom he might have any influence.”
In other words, Watson misses his friend and he will take any opportunity he can to visit him. You can’t really just pay a social call on Holmes—he’d question why you were there—but if you have a bit of business, you can hang out with him again.
The railway official whom Watson described had discovered young Mr. Hatherley in his compartment seat, passed out cold. It seems he has an injury to his hand, which the railway official looks at without flinching—making you later wonder what the hell this guy was used to seeing—and says, in effect, “right, I’m bringing you to Watson,” who happens to be in bed, even though it’s seven in the morning.
The maid goes to fetch him, Watson is irked at being “knocked up so early,’ and he tosses on some clothes to consult privately with the railway official who says little more than to indicate that he brought in a new patient. With that, the official spirits himself away, and Watson, wiping the sleep from his eyes, greets Hatherley, making some comment about how train rides can be monotonous, which causes Hatherley to start cackling like a madman and Watson to yell at him to pull himself together. This is not a peaceful morning scene with blue birds warbling.
People of all ages freak out and/or come apart when they get to Holmes and Watson. A few years later, in “The Adventure of the Priory School,” we’ll see a sixty-ish prestigious boarding school principal stumble into 221B, pass out, only to be revived and ask for a biscuit—that is, a cookie—and milk, as if he were a toddler whose nerves could only be soothed via a post-nap snack.
We don’t mind this splintering, melting, call it what you will—the fissuring of the last nerve—because we know that the person has at least made it to people who can help. It’s like your car with the knocking engine got to the garage without you having to push it off the road and call for a tow, or you arrived at the ER in time for medical staff to stop your heart attack before it was too late. That’s what Holmes and Watson represent, and that’s what they’ve represented to me in despair and pain, the soul-shucking aloneness, which one hopes is temporary, merely phasic, the reality of being in a trough, as David Brent of BBC version of The Offices aid, rather than atop a peak. They are the king’s men, sans the king’s horses, who can put you back together again.
That’s one reason why Conan Doyle had the friendship of the duo pass through its own phases, the series of troughs and peaks. When someone in turn enters the orbit of that friendship, they often come to learn something of the nature of that force, that potential force, a very complicated force. Friendship is a force; it’s not just a union. I think perhaps the scariest moment in all of the Sherlock Holmes canon occurs in “The Five Orange Pips” when the doomed John Openshaw—another Millennial type—forgathers with Holmes and Watson in their rooms as a rainstorm lashes London. Watson had been reading a seafaring tale, likening the rain against the windows to the swash in his volume, and when Openshaw—who will shortly be killed by the KKK—enters the domicile, he settles right into the mood of precipitate-heavy reflection. There are no pieces to put together with him is our sense, he can and only will be cracked apart. Holmes himself feels ageless, neither young nor old, but with qualities we associate with each group. The questing, curious spirit of the former, the lived-in sagacity of the latter. He could be thirty, he could be eighty, he will be the same, but different, in that he evolves.
In “Engineer’s Thumb,” back in Watson’s surgery, Hatherley is given a glass of brandy. He’s blanched, not merely pallid because of fear, which actually seems to have passed, but as though a 100-yard stare of sorts had set in. He’s overpowered by the absurdity of a despair that seems ever-larger, shape-shifting into as many forms as it pleases. Hatherley calms down long enough to let the doctor inspect his bandaged hand. Watson expects to find a cut there, which he’ll patch, but instead he sees that the thumb has been hacked away, hence the colorless cheeks—extreme loss of blood.
“This is a terrible injury,” Watson observes, a choice of noun that stays with me and has impressed me; the scaling back suggests a resistance to panic, to gather in, remain in some control.
When I struggle to do the most basic tasks, when anxiety has a hold of me, my heart pounds, my breath is hard to come by, I’ll try to do simple tasks that can lead to larger ones. Update the website, put up a new blog post, deposit a check if I’m fortunate enough to have one. Watson is engaged in the same enterprise here. Hatherley, we learn, was able to stop the bleeding with a cloth and a twig—an extemporized tourniquet—on account of his hydraulic engineer training. Watson can’t put the thumb back—the loss of which Hatherley informs him was no accident, no fault of any machine, but rather an attack—though what he can do is escort this young man over to 221B. Maybe Holmes can help matters. Besides, if Watson knows Holmes—and he sure does—they can likely cadge a free breakfast out of the visit, which speaks to how much food Mrs. Hudson must have prepared every morning for the dogged dispatcher of Professor Moriarty.