Sherlock Holmes is dying. Dr. Watson is called in to tend to him. His diagnosis: Tapanuli fever, contracted in London’s East End while the Great Detective was on a case. According to Mrs. Hudson, Holmes has eaten nor drunk anything in the last three days. Holmes instructs Watson, panic-stricken, not to come near him as the disease is highly contagious, insulting his medical abilities in the process, and demanding that he wait several hours before seeking a specialist. Watson waits as his friend degenerates into nonsense, biding the time by examining the objects in the room. When he touches one, Holmes bursts out angrily that he does he does not like his things touched.
At six o’clock, Holmes instructs Watson to turn the gaslight on, but only at half-full. Then Watson is to bring forth Culverton Smith, making sure that Watson returns to Baker Street before Smith does. At Smith’s address, Watson must force his way in, as Smith refuses to see anyone. After an explanation, Smith agrees to come to Baker Street within half an hour, at which point Watson excuses himself for another appointment.
Upon Smith’s arrival, and certain that he is alone with Holmes (Watson is hiding), Smith ends up confessing that Holmes has been exposed to the same sickness that killed Smith’s nephew Victor Savage, and that not only did Smith expose them both with a little ivory box sent to Holmes by post, but that Smith intends to watch Holmes die. Smith pockets the box with the sharp spring inside containing the infection.
Holmes requests Smith to turn the gas up to full, which sends a signal to Inspector Morton to come to arrest Smith for the murder of his nephew and the attempted murder of Holmes. When asked if there will be anything else, Holmes responds in his no longer sickly voice, “A match and a cigarette.” Even after starving himself for three days, it’s tobacco that he craves more than anything else. Knowing how smokers love their little cancer sticks, I can’t say as I’m surprised. The withdrawals probably helped with his performance in convincing Watson and Smith that he was dying. Holmes explains to Watson that he has enough enemies in the world that he examines all of his mail carefully before opening it. Then he verifies his respect for his friend’s medical skills, stating that if Watson were to have examined Holmes, he’d have found him to be in good health. If he could not fool Watson at a few feet, then the trap for Smith would also have not worked.
So, once more, Watson becomes the unwitting pawn in Holmes’ game of cat and mouse. One wonders why Watson puts up with him at all. Must be a true friendship.
According to tropical disease specialists, the Tapanuli fever is quite likely a real disease known as melioidosis. It’s been suggested that Conan Doyle first read a report of it published in 1912, before writing this story, published in 1913. Seems probable to me.