Nearly all the Holmes stories, therefore, are stories of people who tell their stories.
—Michael Chabon, "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes"
For a man with such a unique and well-chronicled contempt for the laws of the solar system, Sherlock Holmes drew me into his orbit easily enough. By the end of our first week rooming together I found him an intriguing mystery; by the end of the first month, once we had shared our first adventure, my interest had graduated to a fascination. After that first case together, however, I found myself in a dilemma as to my continued position in his life. I had no desire to spend the rest of my days in sycophantic admiration of his considerable talents, and he was far too extraordinary an individual to have anything so simple as a friend. Rival and literary foil were clearly out. I might have thrown up my hands in despair at ever finding a place for myself in his life, had I not one day lit upon my notes from that adventure chronicled elsewhere in “A Study in Scarlet” alongside my list of his limits from the early days of our acquaintance, and so given myself a new idea.
If I could not hope to rival him in intellect, I thought, and establish myself as foil in the drama in which he starred daily as Sherlock Holmes, I would be his biographer, and provide him with both a service he could not possibly have contrived for himself and the audience he so desperately craved.
The arrangement worked admirably. For every "my boy" and "my dear Doctor"; for every deduction; for every logical inference by which he divined meticulous, microscopically detailed knowledge of my habits, the state of my practice, the exact route by which I had walked from the telegraph office to the railway station—I now had an answer. I held him in the palm of my hand. I could set him down as a god, a king, a valiant knight forever at war against the petty evils set adrift in the world, although I confess that I was not able to pen the last without the slightest edge of a smile. When I wrote he was mine and mine alone. I drank him in deeply and madly, taking every aspect of his life that was available to me as my own, and though he complained of the stories themselves I cannot say that he ever resented me for my actions; in this, at last, we had become equals. I was the writer and he my lead character, just as he was the world's only independent consulting detective and I the subject of his deductions.
In comparison to the constant tug-of-war that was my relationship with Holmes, my possession of Mary was almost distressingly simple. Perhaps that was why I sought it out. In a small way it began when she entered our sitting-room one fine autumn morning and her quiet prettiness was presented, under Holmes' supremely logical and uncaring eyes, as if for myself alone: a contract made concrete months later at our wedding ceremony. Promises were exchanged, to love and to honor, and, on her part, to obey; a kiss was bestowed; and, quickly and cleanly as that, she was mine, in the eyes of the law and the men under it. My wife.
For a brief time after my marriage I saw little of him. I was so busy testing the fit of my new role as consulting physician and loving husband that I had little time to reminisce about the place I had found at his side. But when he appeared in my consulting-rooms and sat down as if he were the true owner of my practice, with his top hat hooked over the back of the chair and an expression so cruelly supercilious that he seemed almost a caricature of himself, it was as sure a test as I have ever seen in my life.
“I trust Mrs. Watson has entirely recovered from all the little excitements connected with our adventure of the Sign of the Four?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoken of Mary to me since I had informed him of our engagement, and the only time after the case was finished that he mentioned her in connection with the adventure in question.
“Thank you,” I said, perhaps a bit coldly. “We are both well.”
We shook hands as if reading a script. He rattled off a series of deductions regarding my health, my shoes, and the state of my practice, and even as he recited the last of them with a magician’s flourish, he glanced up at me from under half-closed lids with what could only have been shyness. Obligingly, I presented him with my admiration and curiosity; and if the smile he then granted me had a bitter edge to it, I would like to imagine that it was overshadowed by his gratitude.
“I trust,” he said, with a lighter note to his voice, “that the cares of medical practice have not entirely obliterated the interest which you used to take in our little deductive problems. Would you care to go to Birmingham with me today?”
“Certainly,” I said, “if you wish”; and so we reintroduced his presence into my life. Over the next few months it became commonplace for him to steal into my office, or me to steal into my old chair in Baker Street with the dent that still lay in it as if I had never moved from the cushion, and we began to solve cases together once more. After those first few snags we slid into our old roles easily, each wearing them like an old and comfortable coat. Somehow I still managed to think of the rooms at Baker Street as ours, and when I left them it was with the ease and assurance of an actor who will return once more to the stage, in the confidence that the scene will remain set and waiting for him.
In that way our relationship stayed much the same. Or so I told myself, at any rate, and so I could see that he wanted to believe. Only on occasion did I find in his manner some remnant of that earlier bitterness, the shock and apprehension that he had lost a piece of me to someone he had not even considered to be an opponent.
Just as she had been that morning in my consulting-room, Mary, to him, was always Mrs. Watson. It was as if he had never known her, that small, quiet women who had entered our lives with unobtrusive tread and laid out before us, without any fuss, her greatest secret. Mary Morstan had evaporated before him, just as she had vanished in the eyes of the law as soon as she had signed the wedding papers.
However much of a Bohemian Holmes fashioned himself, the crux of his deductions rested upon keeping people in their preassigned roles. The baker, the solicitor, the sergeant of Marines might all switch clothing and mannerisms to form mirror-images to near perfection, but they could no more hide their true callings and social statures from Holmes’ cool, pale eyes than they could fly. Driven as he was by a desire for justice nearing physical thirst, his work also stemmed from an insatiable compulsion to order the world and find patterns in its dust; from this, no one, especially Mary, was exempt. It seemed to me at times that he was utterly bewildered, perhaps even betrayed, by her insistence on continuing to exist after her case was complete.
For all of her quiet stubbornness, Mary was not one to invite herself where she was not wanted. She stopped where she was meant to, caught between the curves of her domestic sphere, and I believe that she sincerely regretted the damage she had wrought on the carefully-built clockwork of Holmes' world. She sent apologies, from time to time: delicately phrased dinner invitations brought to Holmes by myself and recited verbatim. He declined every time, often politely, sometimes not, and no one was the bitterer, for we all knew that Mary's invitations were not truly meant to be received, nor was Holmes meant to accept them. As Holmes would say of his brother years later, we had our rails and we ran on them. Our futures moved forwards as regularly as trolley-cars.
So Holmes solved his cases, and I wrote my stories, and Mary, to my great surprise, read them. I returned home one afternoon, from what was supposed to be a quotidian day at my practice and had turned into a madcap chase across London at Holmes’ side, to find her sitting by the window, leafing through a recent edition of the Strand magazine.
“You’re reading that?” I said. No doubt I was capable of wittier repartee, but thankfully Mary had never expected as much from me as Holmes in that arena, and I was, inexplicably, quite shocked.
“Of course I am,” she smiled. “I enjoy literature just as much as you, you know. Although,” she waved the magazine, “mostly, it appears, from the other end.”
“Do you like it?”
Her expression softened. “It’s lovely, John.”
“Any criticisms?” I asked. “The author happens to be permanently at your disposal, after all.”
I had become accustomed enough to Sherlock Holmes’ bouts of ill-tempered censure, scathing enough for tales in which he starred as hero, that it came as a surprise to me when that sliver of a leading lady, appearing only in the opening paragraph of that particular story, smiled quietly and reached out to touch my uninjured shoulder.
Even after I realized that Mary had been reading my stories, I never thought to show her my raw manuscripts. In that, as in so many other aspects of my continuing life with Holmes, she was not explicitly forgotten, but simply resided outside the frame of the picture; so my surprise may be well imagined, when I picked up a sheaf of papers one day and found my writing embellished by a few, faint marginal notes in pencil, in a hand that was not my own.
In that first flash of discovery, I was certain that the notes were Holmes’. A moment of thought, however, proved this impossible: the annotations were kind and teacherly in tone despite their occasional criticism, and I would have recognized his handwriting anywhere in the world.
Though Holmes would have chastised me, if he had known, I decided against foraging for a scrap of Mary’s writing to compare. Concrete knowledge would have been too much for both of us, for all of us; I hardly dared to let my mind settle on the suspicion at all. So I said nothing to her as the neat, slanting handwriting spread through my piles of manuscripts, growing in decisiveness and strength of opinion as they did so. After a time it became commonplace for me to leave a draft of a new story on my desk in the morning and return in the evening, after a day of work at my practice or another impromptu adventure with Holmes, to find it fully annotated. Yet however strong the criticism, the quality of the mark-making remained impossibly faint, almost invisible next to my own stark ink lettering.
Perhaps I ought to have spoken of it to her sooner, but whenever I thought to approach the topic our conversation veered in another direction, and every time I raised my eyes to look at her over my manuscripts, she turned away. At the time I thought of my silence as respect for her privacy; she had so many things that she kept to herself then, as if her soul were a walled garden. Now I wonder whether, if not cowardice, it was simply a matter of inertia. Trundling along the lines of our parallel lives like Mycroft Holmes’ tram-cars, it would have taken a true catastrophe to upend our daily routine and finally bring us into collision; which, eventually, it did.
I do not mean to say that the terrible chain of events which lead to Holmes’ fateful confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls began that way. At first everything moved with a sickly, well-orchestrated horror, the two spheres of my life staying well distinct: Mary left on a visit to her aunt just as Holmes asked me away on his own cross-continental voyage. When I returned to England with nothing but a shadow at my side, sick with grief and fear and badly-digested anger, Mary had just arrived home in perfect time to comfort me, as if the events of the past month had been orchestrated by a greater hand than that of the late Professor Moriarty. The idea would have been laughable if the situation were not so sickening.
For some reason, despite my grief or perhaps because of it, it seemed imperative to me that the first thing I do upon returning home was to immediately set down the case in writing. The notion seized hold of me and would not let go. Perhaps it was merely due to force of habit; I had recorded Holmes’ cases for so long that to not do so would be to resign myself to his death all over again. Perhaps, in some dark corner of my soul, I believed that by reliving the role of his biographer I might bring him back to life at well. However incoherent the explanation, it did not matter. As I wrote Mary brought me dinner herself and forced me to eat, having been told the story herself by Inspector Lestrade as he helped me out of the train car. She had heard little enough from me.
She brought her sewing into the room and watched me as she worked, dry-eyed and quiet. Near panic, a coiled spring in my stomach, feeling every moment the lack of pressure where Holmes used to absent-mindedly tuck his hand into my elbow, I believe I scarcely noticed her except in moments of silent resentment for her kindness and the unavoidable fact that she was not him. So I wrote, into the night and until I had been awake for nearly forty-eight hours straight, at which point I reached the edge of setting down Holmes’ death and promptly felt my world collapse a second time over.
Although I had withdrawn almost completely within myself, I must have made a movement, or some sound, for Mary looked up suddenly and laid down her needle. “John,” she said gently. “What is it?”
“I have reached the end,” I informed her nonsensically. I must have looked a pretty sight by then, hair unwashed and mouth filled with what felt like Afghan sand. “I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what, John?” she asked, in the slow, soothing tone I recognized as one I had used myself as a doctor, and with which Holmes had so often calmed a panicking client’s nerves.
“I can’t,” I told her again, struggling towards coherence.
She watched me carefully.
"For God's sake, Mary," I rasped, "I cannot kill him again."
She considered me for a moment, head tilted slightly to one side. Comprehension lay quiet and cold in her face. "You shan't have to," she told me.
She wrote it instead.
I sketched the broad outlines of what had happened that day, mouth dry, heart pounding, and she wrote it down. Never did I adequately express how much her actions meant to me but I cannot imagine she did not come to an understanding herself. Her writing rivaled my own; if anything, it was better. I have wondered, many times, if it was greatly satisfying for her to take pen in hand herself after so many years spent tracing over the edges of my work like a half-forgotten ghost. I have wondered, too, whether a small part of that satisfaction may have come when she cast Holmes to his death at the edge of the falls; that it may have been not unlike the satisfaction I felt when writing, to take this man who had always been so far above her and make him say her words, to put him under her control, to kill at Reichenbach a symbol of those who for so long and so subtly had engineered her confinement.
We did not return to secrecy after that. There was no need; having been set onto a new course, a new script, we would continue moving forwards along it and playing our roles until another death did us part. Quickly we settled upon a routine. I would write the stories without her assistance, in order to keep them as close to fact as possible, and she would look over them afterwards and offer her opinion, my editor in all but salary and title. She never asked me why I kept writing even after Holmes had died; I believe she had figured it out for herself. Where previously we had only had a marriage, we had now stumbled upon a fragile partnership and we took pains to maintain it, Mary as my second set of eyes and my sounding-board. Surely the similarities to my former relationship with Holmes did not escape her.
I believe we came to the realization at the same time. It was a late October evening, dull and gray, and the wet leaves that the walk from my practice had left clinging to the sides of my shoes had only just begun to crack and fall away in front of the fireplace. Mary and I had situated ourselves comfortably in front of the flames when she suggested that we review my latest manuscript, as it was due to be sent to the publisher in a few days and she knew I had been struggling with some of the phrasing. Obligingly, I fetched the sheaf of pages from my desk.
I began to read aloud to her, for this was our way: I read and she listened, hands clasped in her lap, head tilted back, eyes closed and eyebrows drawn in a frown of intense concentration. Whenever she was particularly pleased or particularly concerned a small line would appear between her brows, sharp and neat as if it had been cut into her flesh with a scalpel.
I was halfway through yet another ridiculous description of Holmes’ hands when the realization came upon me; or, rather, failed to do so. It was the opposite of a blow, as if an unseen hand had reached down my throat and scooped out something I had never known was there. At the moment I believed that I would never speak again.
I looked up at Mary, whose eyes had flown open at the sound of my indrawn breath. They were wide, and blue, and entirely without pity, and I knew then that she had reached understanding in exactly the same instance as I.
"Oh, John," she said, quietly. "I am so very sorry."
When Holmes returned from what I knew instinctively to have been under the crushing weight of the waterfall, though he insisted that he was never beneath it, it took me a longer time than it ought for me to become used to seeing him there, in the flesh, no longer a paper facsimile and more than a dream. It was not that I had found anything to fill his role in my life; hardly that. But each time I saw him afterwards, it was strange to have in front of me a living, breathing being instead of lines of print on a page animated by a few quips and the strength of my longing, someone more than a literary creation, whom I had not remembered perfectly and had depths that remained hidden. He would no longer do as I wanted. He was difficult, inconsistent, and inexact—exactly what every writer attempts to avoid. Even as I looked back and forth between the wax bust and the living man before me, even as I kissed him for what did not feel like the first time, I could not help but be aware that I had misplaced something that I would never find again.
We lay side by side afterwards, curiously chaste in our rediscovery of who we now were and who we had once been together, and in a low voice I explained to him the circumstances of Mary’s death: her pregnancy, her difficulties near the end, the complications. It might have been the story of any woman on earth. Holmes listened at first with the expressionless face of one who has been dead and does not care to remember it, and, when I turned to him at my story’s end, the gentleness in his eyes was only for me. He had never really known her.
It was then that I realized I could never tell him what Mary had done for him. He would not have understood; he would have seen only the hunger in her, and become frightened. She had found a place to live in his negative space, and it had been enough, for a time. Lying there, with the curl of his cold fingers against my cheekbone, I ran my mind over the stories we had produced together and published under my name alone, and it seemed to me then that, despite all her efforts, she had faded out of existence as quietly and as surely as Holmes had faded back in.
The image I retain most strongly of Mary is, strangely, not one of her frowning in thought while I read her the draft of another story in which she was not present, or of her brave and pale face as we went about investigating her mysterious pearls. It was nothing I ever wrote down. I had just arrived home from my work that day, a year so before she died, and walked into the sitting-room to find her perched by a little table, my latest manuscript spread out in front of her in the full light of the afternoon. When she heard my footsteps she looked up at me and smiled.
“When I was a child,” she said to me dreamily, by way of introduction, “I used to imagine that I was the heroine of a novel.”
“So do we all, I believe,” I said, sitting down and kneading my shoulder. “As a boy I entertained fantasies of joining the army and single-handedly rescuing England from certain disaster. As you can see, matters did not work out as planned.”
She smiled again and turned her head to look out the window. “The only child of a soldier in an Indian regiment,” she said, sketching the ghost of the phrase she had used to introduce her story to Holmes when we first met. There was a strange, wistful light in her eyes. “I left India early, you know, and had just enough memories of it to make a good story.”
“No doubt you were the envy of the other children for it.”
“I had daydreams,” she said, “where my father would return from India fabulously wealthy. We would build a castle and live in it together, and never let anyone else in if we didn’t want them. So you can imagine what it was like, when he died.”
“It must have been terrible.”
She shook her head gently. “At first. But then—an orphaned child of a father who served in a far-off land, and those pearls began arriving every year? It was as if I had finally found myself in the novel I had so often longed for.”
As she spoke I found myself tracing over her entrance into my life five years ago in Baker Street, and wondering whether, when she had presented Holmes with the bare facts of her quiet and hitherto unremarkable life, this had been the story hiding within her the whole time. Even when I think of them now, the two scenes are always intertwined in my memory, layered over and around each other like a palimpsest: her edits looped in pencil over the crisp ink of my manuscripts and Holmes’ cold facts.
“The pearls were a mystery, you see,” she said lightly. “I liked having a secret, you know, and especially such a secret as that. Even after I received that note from Mr. Sholto I almost didn’t come to you and Mr. Holmes. I suppose wanted to keep something for myself alone.”
She ran her hands over the manuscript with a delicate flourish, as if a magician preparing to perform a trick. “But I had read your Study in Scarlet, of course.”
“You’d read it before you met me?” Somehow we had never come upon the topic before. “What did you think?”
“Tinged with romanticism, perhaps” she said, smiling. “But very well told. And I thought to myself as I walked into your rooms and saw you sitting there beside Mr. Holmes, well, that perhaps I would have to lose my secret in return for my safety, but that I would gain a story out of it, too.”
I wondered then, and I do still, if her decision to consult Holmes had been less influenced by his success in solving a case for her employer than by his position as hero in my little tale, though no doubt he would be horrified if I ever mentioned it to him now. And thinking back to the events of the Sign of the Four, and the story I had spun out of it, I wondered, too, if Mary had sat down to read it with a vision of herself as the heroine, only to find Sherlock Holmes front and center-stage, just as he had been in all my other stories where she was present only in a single paragraph, or a line of dialogue, or not at all; as if she had given away more than her hand in marriage after I had pried open the lid of that iron treasure-box, Mary looking calmly over my shoulder, and found it empty.
“And we did have an adventure,” she said. She had turned again to gaze out the window, looking at something I could not see. “A very fine one. And if I lost the treasure,” she said, and here my heart quickened at hearing her give voice to my private thoughts, however unintentionally, however unlike Holmes she had done it, “and my father’s legacy, surely that was only the ending to my story. I did gain a life out of it, after all.” She looked up at me as if for the first time, as if she had only just recalled that I was in the room. “It was worth it, of course,” she said to herself. Still I remember her pale face, her pale eyes, how the late-afternoon sun had turned her pale hair to fire. “Surely it was worth it.”