Is a man chiefly the sum of the things he does not know, and of the questions he is unable to answer? I began to think so, as they crowded around me that night in Sussex.
What had possessed me to come here, to this green county, this granite keep, to play houseguest to a man I hardly knew and barely tolerated? What demon had whispered to me that a needle full of white poison was just the thing to make the evening bearable? What was Watson doing at this precise moment, three doors down the long hall? Sleeping, as I was not? Dreaming, as I dared not?
And what in damnation was that?
Someone was at the door to my room. Not the footstep I would, above every other, have welcomed and feared, but another. Indoor shoes, work-roughened, soles ingrained with sawdust from the wine cellar. Brunton. As he seemed to have no intention of either knocking at or opening the door, I went to it myself, dressing-gowned and slippered.
It was there again in his expression: that amused insolence I had suffered under all through my last encounter with the Butler of Hurlstone. It was not, precisely, that he thought me his intellectual inferior – he was intelligent enough not to make that mistake. What he wanted was a co-conspirator in the games he played with his unwitting master, and to be able to look down on me for being so vulgar as to consent to it.
At my demand that he explain his presence now, he gave me such a glance as might be exchanged in the orchestra pit between two old players faced with a familiar score.
“I’m to be of service, Mr Holmes.”
“There is nothing I need.”
“Begging your pardon, but there is, sir. A good servant reads, anticipates: is at his master’s elbow with the coffee pot before the word is given. Or to mind he sits by the fire, against the snow in his blood.”
“Doctor Watson is not my servant.”
And what do you know about ‘snow’ in the blood?
“No sir. Of course not, sir…”
“Drop that infernal smirk, Brunton. What is it, pray, that you have decided I need when I myself am ignorant of it?”
“First I must come in, sir.”
As he stepped over the threshold, the hair at the nape of my neck rose. He brushed close by me, intolerably close, raking the air with a fluid, conductor’s gesture, compelling my attention: a musician’s unconscious obedience to direction. His other, trailing, hand played over my forearm for a long second, a suggestion that I follow him implicit in its dance. The tendons shrieked. After snow, ice: slipping, treacherous. Thaw. Dark, dripping, miserable thaw. It was coming.
I wanted, suddenly, to lock the door behind him, but he held the key. All the keys, for he surely knew that I was not certain on which side of the door I wanted him to be before I did it.
“I’ve been at Hurlstone a dozen years, sir; travelled with Mr Musgrave to other houses. Seen a great deal you wouldn’t credit. Been of… service to a great many ladies and gentlemen. As my father used to say, ‘knocked all around the shop’.”
He managed to give the phrase every ounce of disreputable weight it could possibly bear. I waited, to see if he was trying to provoke me – to anger, to disgust. To take the upper hand as, being his master’s guest, I ought.
“A fair few of those ladies and gentleman liked a bit of spice in their lives. I can fill a pipe with whatever you care to have in it; tap a syringe as well as any doctor; keep the window sashes up and the blinds down, sir. And afterward…”
He looked at me, at the high colour beginning to wash of out my face, at my shaking hands as I stuffed them into my pockets and turned away. A black wave crested in my veins, reared high, crashed down. I stumbled to the bed, lay face down on the stony beach of the eiderdown, not caring that he saw.
“Sleep sir, that’s it. Unless it’s too soon for that? A nightcap, perhaps? Something else? ”
It was the payment. The price of ascending the mountain, of the view from the top – the white clarity, the freedom. What my restless mind craved, my body paid for. Not in the way that Watson, ever fretful mother hen, prophesied on a weekly basis. At any rate, not yet.
I could hide it – I, the expert in hiding and finding - hide it from others and deny it to my own face. I could not banish it. Base, betraying desire: lust stimulated by the drug, humming under my skin and hanging heavy between my thighs, swelling against my will, mindlessly seeking even now. Even more so now, when my defences were breached by the downswing but I was not yet overrun. All was not yet quite dull and dreary enough. I shifted against the bedcovers. It made things worse.
The butler had taken it all in and was watching me with that peculiar stillness he had, that holding back I had observed before. A good servant is the soul of the house and, as was later proved, this one held several secrets tonight: more than mine, more than Musgrave’s.
“I will attend to it myself. You may go.” No use protesting that I did not take his meaning.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I’ve been watching you every bit as closely as you’ve been watching me. You’ve been thinking about something else altogether, wondering if I might be…inclined to it - to the Greek vice, I mean to say. You did it tonight, and the last time you were here, too. Looking for signs. Looking a good deal at my mouth, sir. The answer is yes. I am inclined, never made a distinction between the gentlemen and the ladies, as I said before. The offer stands. I shall endeavour to give full satisfaction, sir.”
He might have been applying for a situation as my valet. I sat up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed, and pointed to the door.
He stepped over and took the slippers from my feet, deftly, as he might a drunkard’s without waking him. As he rose, he passed his gaze deliberately over my groin and his tongue over his lips.
“Very well, sir. Goodnight, sir.”
Damn, damn, damn. The picture had already formed behind my eyes. It had been so long. So long without connection, years of schooling myself to make do with my own hand. Of telling myself ‘accept no man’s aid, or it is all-too-liable to become a habit; a dependence more deadly to reason than the occasional pharmaceutical indulgence; a fire lit under a copper full of dangerous imaginings; a longing for the particular that I must deny. That way lies, ultimately, destruction.’
One breach in the sea-wall, and all would be drowned – my work; my reputation, the only true friendship ever to exist in this undeserving world. And this seducer, still a mere servant for all his cleverness, dared tempt me with it.
“I will have you dismissed.”
He laughed, actually laughed. Afterward, I saw the joke, but then it only made me more furious.
“Will you, sir? For helping you off with your slippers when you’re not at your best? I should think that’d be an awkward conversation you’d be having with Mr Musgrave. ”
“He knows nothing. I could tell him any tale and he would believe it.” True, but not the sort of thing to say in a man’s house, to his butler.
“Then again, Mr Holmes, you could tell him nothing, and be believed just as well. Sleep well, sir.”
He went to the door and put his hand on the knob, twisting without pulling, squeezing without turning, fingertips polishing the surface. I closed my eyes. Worse, not better. I opened them to find him still standing there in a sensual slouch against the jamb, one thumb hooked in his watch-chain, hip cocked, handsome head tipped back.
“I’m still waiting. Go. Or are instructions optional at Hurlstone?”
Currently, my prick was doing a very good job of making them optional - or at any rate conflicted - of turning exhaustion into irresolution, making me a liar to myself and to my tormentor. A nightshirt is not quite the all-concealing garment a draper would tell you it is.
“You tell me, sir.”
“I do not want you to stay, Brunton.”
“No, sir. You have in mind someone else entirely. Trouble is, he doesn’t have you in mind, does he? Not tonight. No matter, I can play a sweet tune that you can set your own words to. It won’t trouble me who you have in mind. The piccolo, if you recall, sir, has two points of interference where the head joins the body, so as to make the fit. I make one connection: you make the other.”
I had watched him play – the flute, the oboe, an ancient clarinet that had belonged to Musgrave’s grandfather – over all of them, the butler was master. He had an embouchure like an obscene embrace, a delicacy of tone Boehm himself might have envied and fingering…fingering a man might die for, might die from. That particular variety of death crooked its little finger at me.
Take up the offer; command him, as you cannot command the other. One occasion of sin, then repentance for as long as you like, penance day and night at Baker Street: one floor down and a world away from peace.
It was the thought of that penance, perhaps, that, finally, made up my mind. There is an indulgence in dwelling on one’s faults nearly as great as in contemplating one’s triumphs. I could not think how wrong it was of me to want John Watson without thinking how very much I did want him, and thinking – thinking can be quite as absorbing as doing.
Or was it the way Brunton whisked a snow-white, linen table napkin from his pocket and folded it thrice: the unspoken promise that his skill was such that I would need it to bite on, or I should not be able to keep silent? The fact that he provided no rag to clean me; that I should either have to leave the evidence on the sheets or spill down his throat?
To my shame, I admit it. The breaking point was that last thought. He would keep my secret: that I am after all human, and fallible, and that I persist in futile want for what I cannot have. He would drink it deep, and leave no outward show.
I nodded, once. He turned the key in the door.
He did not simply go on his knees to me, there on the floor. With another conductor’s flourish, he directed me instead to sit back, to stretch both arms behind my head and take hold of the bedposts. He pushed my knees apart, then left me there for a long moment while he shrugged off all but shirt and trousers and rolled up his sleeves.
The room was silent, save for the creak of the springs and the rustle of linen, as he climbed over and hitched the nightshirt’s hem up to my waist. He gave it a good, hard stare - the animal, my enemy – then leaned in, reaching up with one hand, blindly, to my face, offering the folded gag. I took it between my teeth and shut my eyes.
He began with a breath, a slow exhale across the exposed flesh, tip to root; next, a quick inhale then panting puffs of air, warming and teasing all around the tender skin. Pistol cocked, thighs pinioned open by practised hands, I was rising to his lips like a swig of brandy in a glass, begging to be on his tongue an instant before I was, held stiff in his slack, wet mouth to be savoured as just the glans, still sheathed, he lusciously kissed in the French fashion.
I had meant to imagine, to banish the servant’s clever tricks and substitute honest love : to imagine my Watson doing this for me in the dead of night in my own city, our city, hansom cabs rattling by in the rain outside. I found, as I twisted my hands at their anchor and spread myself still wider, that I could not. Watson was not like me – estranged from all society; unmanned by the worship of reason; Bohemian; unnatural; perverted.
I could picture him tending my hurts, sounding my praises, scoffing at my excesses and wounded by my displeasure. I could not think of him serving me thus, that good man, however much I longed for it.
There are times when I can leave my body behind, break the link, be somewhere else than chained to earth. Drugs will do it; starvation of all kinds, a puzzle – a puzzle, above all. But so too, curiously, the crucible of sex: the more aroused, the more I soar. Heart racing, hyperventilating, oxygen deserting the brain for the groin: sensation so brittle, so brutal, that it cracks open and the mind is free.
I dreamed of a hearth, of two chairs and a worn Turkey rug, of a broad and gentle hand on my brow, on my hand, on my knee. I dreamed of a shared glance of warning, of amusement, of tacit agreement to prize honour and seek justice. I dreamed of looking behind me, beside me, and seeing always the loyal companion and friend, of knowing and being known.
Meanwhile, around the head of my cock, an interference fit so tight, so crucifyingly precise that I nearly bloodied the cloth in my mouth. The pied piper of Hurlstone stripped it slowly of its foreskin, pushed back along the shaft in tiny increments, each one measured by a shock to every nerve ending in my groin, suckling and releasing, breathing around me, pushing, pulling, eating me alive. If I had forced it, put a hand to his neck to get him full on, ordered him to use his hands instead to bring me off at once, I had no doubt he’d have departed in an instant, without leave or regret. I lay my head back on the pillows and surrendered.
I dreamed of veiled allusion, truth filtered, water mixed with wine, of ‘companion’ and ‘friend’ and the best man I had ever known, if probably not the wisest – for was he not here with me, in moral danger, asleep three rooms across? I dreamed of a day in the far, far future when we were old and before it was too late, when I might ask a certain question in plain speech and get a glad ‘yes’, equally plain. I dreamed of a close embrace and words I had never heard from, nor ever uttered to, any soul in this world.
Sherlock Holmes dreamed. His body sang. Shouted. Screamed.
I was glad of the gag. Without it, by the time my incubus had relaxed his throat enough to swallow me whole, to bring the delicious agony to a climax, I should have woken the gargoyles on the keep. Sweat was pooling under my back, tension racked rolling shudders from fingers to toes. The thaw was made a fast-running flood, cold enough, white enough to light the way. I teetered on the edge of the great fall, rocked back and forth, saw dizzying depths and clear blue sky.
A single, firm stroke, there, behind, in the secret, soft, yielding spot, one touch. I hitched once, twice, turned inside out and went over, rolling, falling, tumbled in the foam; lay, at last, boneless at bottom, the breath quite knocked out of me.
When I opened my eyes, the butler had gone, vanished with the completion of the task. Whatever else he was, Richard Brunton was a very good servant.
The dreams have not been nearly so obedient.