On that last morning in early May, I was awakened just before dawn by Sherlock Holmes leaning over me. In the dim gray light, I could make out that he was already dressed in shirtsleeves and waistcoat. The room was redolent of pipe smoke.
"Has something happened?" I asked anxiously, sitting up among the bedclothes.
"No," he replied. "But we must make an early start if we are to reach Rosenlaui by nightfall. These mountain paths are treacherous."
"Of course." I made to rise, but he placed a hand on my shoulder.
"Watson," he said, "I wish I could persuade you to return to England."
I had already explained to him that I would do no such thing, and so I only shook my head. And then he surprised me utterly, for he bent down and kissed me.
It was not a dispassionate kiss, though there was warmth rather than heat behind it. His long fingers brushed over my cheek, and his brow rested for a moment against mine as he pulled away.
I sat there utterly stunned, for while I was bound to him with ties of the deepest friendship and affection, I had never once expected such a sign of it. The window behind him was growing lighter, but I could not see his face.
"I'll leave you to get dressed," Holmes said quietly, reaching for his jacket. I spoke his name, but he was already walking briskly down the stairs and calling to Steiler for our breakfast.
Despite this unexpected occurrence, our walk toward the Falls that day was not unduly awkward. We did not speak much: Holmes seemed preoccupied, devoting his full concentration to placing his Alpine-stock among the rocks. As for myself, I was deeply absorbed in reflections that had little to do with the marvellous scenery, or Professor Moriarty, or the danger we faced - which indeed seemed very distant at that moment. Sometimes I would sneak a glance at my companion's familiar, dear face, and wish that we were in Rosenlaui or back in our inn at Meiringen, so that I might more fully explain the depth of my regard for him. Once or twice he met that look and smiled at me, although I thought that he seemed sad.
I hardly noticed when we reached Reichenbach, but I was brought out of my thoughts by the spray pleasantly cool on my face, and caught my breath at the view. Beside me, Holmes was leaning down to peer into the abyss.
"This is what the travellers who preceded us first called sublime, two centuries ago," he said. "Not a delight consistent with reason, but mingled with horrors, and sometimes almost with despair."
"Despair?" I asked.
"All the accomplishments of our minds are as nothing here. This beauty is greater than they are, and far more lasting."
I thought I saw him teeter on the brink and caught him back, my heart in my throat. For a moment his wiry body was yielding in my arms, and then he drew away.
"Really, Watson, I am not about to swoon."
"All the same, I would prefer we were on firmer footing."
"As would I," he said, and led the way back along the dead-end path, at the end of which we saw the Swiss lad hurrying to give me a message from Meiringen.
"You had better go," Holmes said, when I had read it and told him the contents. "The case sounds a grave one."
I hesitated. "I do not like to leave you to make the journey alone."
"This boy will guide me on to Rosenlaui - will you not?"
"Yes, sir," he said eagerly, I thought in expectation of a healthy tip.
"We will walk slowly," Holmes went on. "And you will catch us up this evening if you can."
I was already turned toward Meiringen, filled with concern for my supposed patient - consumption was a dreadful death - but I looked back at Holmes one last time, filled with a feeling I could not explain. We were not private - I could make no demonstration of it - so we only looked at one another, and he nodded, and I turned and went back down the mountainside, never to see him more. The only thing I had of him thereafter was his final letter, in which he signed himself very sincerely mine - as I had been his, almost since our first meeting.
The weeks after my return to London are difficult for me to recall; if it had not been for Holmes' final request, I might have been lost entirely, engulfed within the foam of the waterfall. I know that I wandered endlessly through the rooms Mrs. Hudson promised to turn into a museum, looking through his papers and once even attempting to play his violin. When no doom smote me for touching the Stradivarius, I knew that he was truly gone.
Over and over, I unfolded and reread the scrap of his last letter, aloud to Mrs. Hudson or silently to myself, almost fancying that I could hear his wry voice.
In the end, of course, I made a hash of things - Ronald Adair was dead despite my laughable attempts at protection, and I was nearly arrested myself for his murder. I could hardly summon the strength to care, except that I was determined not to disgrace Holmes or his methods. To that end I found myself in Park Lane, examining the scene of the crime and bumping into an old bookseller.
When, back at Baker Street, that bookseller reappeared and removed his disguise, I am not ashamed to say that I fainted.
Once I regained my senses, Holmes was too close to allow of any doubt, his hands gentle as they folded back my collar. He was thinner and grayer and smiling rather helplessly, as if he did not know what was to be done with me.
"Holmes!" I exclaimed.
"My dear Watson, I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea you would be so affected."
I clutched at him, feeling his arms through his coat to reassure myself that he was not a spectre. "But," I said, wondering and somewhat hurt, "how could you not know?" You have been gone for months, I wanted to tell him. I thought you were dead. I played your violin.
His look was pensive as he smoothed back my hair, and I thought his eyes more reflective than their wont. "How indeed?" he asked himself quietly.
The next hours were taken up with explanations and with planning. Through it all I must have hovered about Holmes like the Moon about the Earth (a fact of which he claims to be ignorant), thrilling to his presence in our sitting room, his pleased smiles at relating his own cleverness, the softening of his expression when he described watching me read his letter. Mrs. Hudson brought us endless cups of tea and participated in our plans, almost as overwrought with joy as I.
If to be with him in our rooms was exquisite torture, how much more so the interminable time we spent alone on watch in the empty house, when his lips would hover near my ear to whisper instructions or his fingers brush over my mouth to bid me to silence. I distracted myself in watching the street, and the eerie outline of my friend moving in the lighted window opposite. It was a familiar profile and one that I had never dreamed to see again, but it would not have fooled me.
"Watson," Holmes said, so little breath behind it that I was reading the words through the movement of his lips. "I am truly sorry for the pain my necessary deception has caused you. I hope you shall allow me to make it up."
I shivered, and did not tell him that he already had, for that was when Colonel Sebastian Moran and his air rifle burst through the door.
Afterward, as we usually did after successfully concluded cases, we took port in our armchairs by the fire. Mrs. Hudson had long gone to bed, still tutting over the damaged wax sculpture, which had itself been removed as police evidence. She claimed it was an invaluable work of art, but I confess I felt glad to see it gone – the copy was accurate in every detail, but nothing in comparison to my friend warm and breathing beside me.
His slipper brushed casually against my ankle, and I nearly spilled my port. I did not know if the event of the Meirengen inn had been an extraordinary one caused by the danger of our circumstances, or if it would ever be repeated; I told myself that, so long as Holmes was here, it did not matter.
"My dear Watson," he said tolerantly, setting down his port glass on the table, and stretching out an elegant hand. "I think it past time we were in bed."
I have occasionally been slow on the uptake, and the past days had proven that I would never make an independent detective or perfect the art of disguise - Holmes had not been able to stifle his laughter when I told him of my stint as an Italian padre. I know, however, that I am at my best when I have Holmes for a guide; and in such cases, I have occasionally even managed to take him aback with the firmness of my resolve.