I had been expecting some calamity – only the form was yet unknown. Every knock on the door was like the echo of a sniper’s unseen rifle; every evening reached without news, merely the hanging silence in the mountains before an avalanche. I did not know what would be the exact penalty for my “impertinent interference” as the anonymous letter had it, but given my suspicions as to its ultimate source, the point of it could only be the malevolent exercise of power.
The telegram arrived, shortly before lunch amid hailstones in a thunderous July, at the hand of a pert lad with a lush crop of freckles and hair the colour of new carrots. It bore only the message: “Two days”. My enemy evidently wished to wear down his quarry before closing in to break its back with a final bite. As if I was not exhausted enough, running every dead-end alley in Whitehall, this time without Mycroft’s breadcrumbs to guide me through that labyrinth – for I refused to let him anywhere near this. I could smell the rotting corpse of honesty and good faith in the foul exchange of air between every underling and agent, and still found no evidence that would stand.
Two more days, then, in which to redouble my efforts, to make further contacts, to reassure Mrs. Hudson how really quite all right I was, how she might with good conscience go to visit her sick niece in Southend. To try to recall what I had planned (barely a week ago - that same night the first letter came) to do about the sensation of John Watson’s hand on my left knee under the dinner table, as we stammered over words which both of our fathers would have struck from our lips: his with an anguished glance, mine with a riding crop.
Watson did not attempt to press his suit in the days following, though a distinctly discernible air of hesitant yearning made a fair job of doing it for him. Perhaps he believed I’d had second thoughts. ‘Second thoughts’? My dear fellow, I hadn’t even formed a first thought that was rational.
There was that catch in my breath, the rush of startled desire, flushed from deep cover, that shiver racing through flesh and nerves from knee to groin, then running right through me until it went to ground in a territory I had thought subdued by reason and will years ago: yes, all those. But I had not known what to do next: how much to want, how to ask it of this man, who had been all I had - all I needed - for friendship these fourteen years. This was no mere one night’s acquaintance, as in the years of youth when I’d sought only the smell of a man’s skin – flushed, ready – and the profane grace of a helping hand.
Instead, I proceeded to pour my every energy and action into the case. I barely saw Watson, our home, even the sweltering summer streets. In and out of buildings and offices all day and half the night, lock-picks ever to hand: within two days of the telegram I had narrowed the possibilities to five names and the probabilities to three. Yet what was evident to me might prove quite opaque to the dullards at Scotland Yard.
Early on the third day, I was alone at Baker Street, idling near the open window with a breakfast pipe and my thoughts, when I spied a young constable stepping out of a Black Maria and up to the front door. His hand shook as he lifted the door-knocker; he seemed afraid as much of his duty as of me. Evidently, and perhaps literally, he had drawn the short straw. I knew him slightly; the details obligingly popped up like index cards from an overstuffed drawer. 358 Constable Prentice, David: Welsh, four years in the force, married, two children, another on the way, suffered with his back.
Really, it might have been any crime, I reflected as we rattled back to Marylebone police station, the cuffs a cold weight in my lap. Even a crime I had actually committed. Perhaps Prentice might have been a little less forceful in not allowing me the use of my razor before we left; perhaps he might have actually met my eye as I excoriated his superiors as credulous fools, manipulated by scoundrels; perhaps I would not have seen him surreptitiously wipe his hand on his sleeve after touching me. Yet the end would have been the same: a black silk hat resting on a coarse ticking mattress filled with straw.
As my breath and blood heat slowly warmed the cold cell, the bed, floor and walls began to leach the stink of sweat, gin, vomit and worse. A harsh bite of carbolic soap floated helplessly over the other smells. I dared take a little water but nothing else. Waiting, and the calculation of time from the shadows on the floor, fed me well enough. A salt stew of both settled heavy in the pit of my stomach.
Two hours and twenty seven minutes after the door had slammed shut behind me, came an axe-blow of electric light as the spy-hatch flew open. Watson’s pale, pinched face filled the gap; behind him, a dark-blue flash of movement made me plead silently that he take care what he said.
He was anxious for my well-being, certainly: outraged that I was in this predicament, sorry that he had taken so long to find me, desperate for a way to get me out again. But underneath all that, I was dismayed to find a part of him that feared I’d merely been so careless as to be caught. To assume that I was an habitual, practising invert might have been reasonable (though, as it happened, wrong), in the light of certain recently gained knowledge. To further assume that I did not, after all, wish to practice on him was sadly understandable (though, as it happened, also quite, quite wrong).
To assume that I had somehow ceased to be Sherlock Holmes, however, was really quite unwarranted.
“They wouldn’t tell me a thing, Holmes, only some muttering and shoe-shuffling about how sad it was that so great a man should come to this and other nonsense of the sort. Why are you here?”
Shame was what my enemy had intended for me. This shame, he could not have compassed, though no doubt would have had perverse delight in witnessing. Watson, then, had in mind not that a snooping uniform had witnessed some casual liaison with a guardsman in a public convenience, rather only petty housebreaking or the like, and he was already mortified, not to say terrified, on my behalf. It fell to me to spell out exactly what species of predicament I was in.
“The arrest warrant mentioned an ‘unmentionable offence’. Constable Prentice obligingly didn’t mention it, though the tenor of that particular phrase was crystal clear to both of us. When the Inspector here – Coulson: new; ambitious; shockingly bad breath – could, after some time questioning me, bring himself to mention some details, I divined from his roundabout tour of euphemisms ancient and modern that I am accused of corrupting two youths into submitting to unnatural relations to the full extent of section 62 of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861: to whit, indecent assault with intent to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”
Holmes, I saw the most extraordinary sight today. A man stepped into the path of a tram. Just before he pulled back, for a few seconds he stood quite still, and his face… the expression was one I’ve seen on a man directly after being shot.
“Rather, the Devil: a Devil in human form, whom I have been trying to track down these past several days. He has now moved to place me quite out of the game for his designs, and to ruin me for his sport.”
“But surely this cannot bear even the slightest inspection! Who are these supposed youths? Who can produce them?”
Why didn’t you tell me about the case? Let me help? Did you think me of no use?
Why did he persist in asking questions it did neither of us any good to answer?
“Telegraph boys, so I gather. My enemy can produce them, by the simple expedient of paying enough money to keep them, and their no doubt large and impoverished families, for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately,” I continued, anticipating the obvious objection, “any suggestion that they may have been so suborned will be met with a counter accusation that I myself paid them for…services rendered. The notion that I used my fame and the vulgar lure of sensational crime to wind them in will doubtless also feature in the prosecution’s case. Merely because you cannot countenance selling your honour or buying that of another, Watson, does not prevent it happening every day in this great city of ours.”
“But in Court…oh, God, in Court…look, in Court surely none will believe their word over yours. You are the foremost champion of law; a, a benefactor of the…” His fingers wrung at the iron ledge, ruddy and white by turns.
“Ah, your literary propaganda on my behalf: yet, am I not equally a Bohemian soul, much given to artificial stimulants, who abhors society, a lifelong bachelor who dislikes and distrusts the whole of the fair sex? Have I not flouted the law and set myself above its sanctioned servants? Do I not surround myself with boys of the lowest class and pay them to do my bidding?” It pained me to do it, but he must see how ‘eccentric genius’ might be rendered down to ‘amoral pervert’ in the right hands and given the right rendering pan. Reputation is an infinitely malleable thing; no man may count his own, or a friend’s, entirely secure.
“This is a matter of power. Power, who wields it, and what may be said by power to be true. I could stage a boxing match in the courtyard of the Old Bailey and still leave room for doubt that I am fully a man, once they are done with me. Corruption of the young: a nice touch, that. Every juryman will wonder what protection is afforded his son at school, in the barracks, from his employer, once they are done with me. For want of that protection, a scapegoat will do. They will say that I brought back this vice from the East; will be sure to note that I have French blood, for to defile oneself and others in such a fashion is against all that is English. Only root out the foreign contagion and all will be well again. Fear is the chief weapon of power. Reason will not submit to it, therefore reason will not be invited to the proceedings.”
I had to sit then; my legs simply would not support me. The curse of possessing clear reasoning and a measure of eloquent argument is that one is liable to persuade oneself, and at the most inconvenient moments.
“Tell me how to find him, your enemy,” Watson pleaded, heedless of our eavesdropper, bitter in his despair, knowing both what he could offer to the quest and what he could not. “…and do not forbid me to take my revolver.”
It is at those moments when a man is all but incapable of comforting himself, that he is best occupied in comforting others.
“Then you should be hanged, and I left with no-one to visit me but Mrs. Hudson, to bully me about the state of my accommodations. No, take no intemperate action. Perhaps we may trust after all to the good sense and thirst for fair play of the British jury.”
Granted, I do not count the offering of comfort as one of my sharper skills.
Watson sighed. He had seen less than I, but more than his share, of the obstacles prejudice may put up to justice. How many have I saved from the noose or the prison to which blind assumption (and woolly thinking) would have delivered them? More, I believe, than I have correctly condemned.
“Perhaps…he may be bargained with, were he to be found?”
I found I could raise at least a chuckle at that. “You recall the celebrated case of Earl Poulter, the workhouse embezzler, last November? That of the Reverend Daresby Hall, jailed for fraud in connection with the Clergy Widows and Orphans fund, from March just gone?”
“Wicked – truly wicked, the pair of them. But what have they to do with…”
“Innocent, along with at least a dozen others over the past two years: falsely accused, yet soundly convicted. I began to see the same hand at work, and resolved to trace, prove and expose it. That hand is well-connected, possessed of ample funds and utterly implacable. One may as well bargain with a landslide.”
The invisible hand of malign influence had put me in here, and now the ‘strong arm of the law’, as Mr. Dickens had it, reached out to pull Watson back from the cell door and send him away. Well, for what it might be worth:
“In the index, under March – the Hall trial, are my notes thus far. Do what you can!”
Two days, or a little less, until I should come before the magistrate. Two days for false witnesses to begin to make my name a byword. Two days to contemplate the possibility of defeat, of penal servitude – if my luck was exceptionally bad, The Honourable Mr. Justice Day was still handing out twenty years for buggery, sentencing restrictions be damned. There would be no music, no tobacco, no food worth the name, no company I could bear, some that was positively unsafe: no company at all for the months of close confinement, no sharp stab of beckoning transcendence from the curse of the commonplace. Nothing but walls, floor, bed, pail: nothing, nothing, nothing but my own mind eating and regurgitating itself in the midst of relentless nothing until it was destroyed.
No. Do not think of that.
Think of Watson. The good Doctor, beavering his clumsy, eager way through my notes, drawing the wrong inferences, following used-up leads, berating himself for failing me, walking though stares and speculation as to his knowledge of, but escaping (please God) association with, my ‘crime’. At the last, think of a face and a voice which infrequent visits and passing time would render ever kindly but increasingly remote: a golden friendship turned to plate worn thin.
No. Do not think of that.
Think of the problem. Deduce. Infer.
But there was no new material on which to practice my art. I had already considered what purpose there might be in the ruin of so many strangers. There was no connecting thread, no family tie, no cabal of influence to break, no secret society to destroy. All the victims had in common (myself included, though in my case the timing was also pertinent) was some measure of reputation to tear down.
There are, when all is said and done, relatively few motives to do others ill; I had already eliminated most. Not money – he had it, or could lay hands on it with ease. Desire for a woman (or a man – an economical sort of motive, encompassing two crimes for the price of one): nothing to suggest that. Revenge? An odd, and implausibly wide, assortment of grudges. No. It came back to power – a simple desire to break for the sake of breaking.
What resentment and spite must lie behind the casual, confident reach of that invisible hand! The three names on that list back in Baker Street all wore the veneer of civilization, but one of them was rotten wood underneath, and had been rotten for years. Casual readers of The Strand may have formed the impression that all my deductions unfold like a magician’s trick, the abracadabra following on swiftly after the drumroll of the client’s entrance or the discovery of an overlooked bullet-hole in a window frame: a moment later, the flourish of the reveal. It suits the imperative of the turning page to present it so. Reality grinds, like the mills of God and time, slow but exceeding small. Since March, I had used my spare moments and days seeking out rumours of the past deeds of anyone with the knowledge, means and connections to bend the law away from Justice into the service of Power: newspaper reports, cartoons, inveterate gossips high and low, victims, conspirators who had since fabricated themselves a conscience.
There are patterns in the lives of criminals, as in their crimes; 'the dog returns to its vomit'. I reasoned that it might be possible to find a trail of petty framings, then less petty ones as the hand grew stronger with success and the mind fed on that poison which its appetite demanded. So many tedious reminiscences of school days and old slights to pick through, so many lines of print to read between but gradually, gradually three distinct tracks emerged from out of the thicket. Had I been free, it should have been well within my powers to trace them all to source. My powers, perhaps, but…
“I’m so sorry, Holmes. I’m no closer to knowing which of the three is your man.”
It was very late, well after the darkening of a long summer day. I did not doubt that every moment he had been working for my release, but I could read the catalogue of closed doors and sneering servants as clear as a line of dancing men, just as I could Watson’s humiliation - not of failing to meet my expectations, but of meeting them. It would have been fatuous to offer some such crumb as ‘at least you tried’: success was the only game worth the play.
“Will I see you at the Magistrates’ on Monday?”
He set his teeth and glared at me: hopelessly, sublimely stubborn, afloat only by virtue his own deaf-blind courage.
“It will NOT come to that. Tomorrow; I will see you tomorrow, Holmes. Try to rest – and to eat something. You look as if a breath would blow you over.”
“If it were Inspector Coulson’s breath, quite conceivably. I’ll be all right.”
Eight feet by ten feet six by ten high, Dutch bond, two thousand six hundred and fifty eight bricks, more or less, brown painted to shoulder height, whitewashed above, whitewash renewed once a year, paint from the look of it never a cost therefore of some seven pounds thirteen shillings elevenpence three farthings spread over the course of its life so far, add four constables at seventy pounds a year to keep watch, add a charwoman, a total cost altogether of three hundred pounds ten shillings and eightpence per year, the grand total divided between the number of residents of the City of Westminster equals approximately fifteen shillings apiece to secure and keep me here not counting food as I have had none that door is not quite square on its hinges there is just enough light coming in to observe that the spider making its nest under the water closet in the corner is Tegenaria gigantea I wish to God I had my pipe my fiddle my pocket watch or a large dose of morphine there is too much turpentine in the floor polish Watson why could you not see at least one of them, you are too obvious in your approaches, I would have used disguise or subterfuge or an outright lie will I never fall asleep?
Dawn: a definitive, and negative, answer to the question previously posed.
Morning: a cack-handed barber, delivering an indifferent shave that left me, if anything, less presentable than before.
Noon: still not so hungry that I could bring myself to eat the steaming plate of boiled cabbage and fatty bacon which was thrust through the hatch.
Afternoon: the captive soul’s wants are few. Tobacco, tobacco, tobacco and a bath.
Evening: just before the light began to leave, my friend’s face again at the hatch, hiding a miracle and his triumph behind an insouciant, boyish smirk (though his hands did not stop trembling until I took them in my own, when we were safe in a hansom and halfway home). Close behind him in the cell-block corridor bustled the station sergeant, announcing between embarrassed coughs that I was free to go, that the ‘witnesses’ had given false names and now could not be found, that the police trusted we understood the person so maliciously deceived by them had sought only to uphold the law, as no doubt any concerned citizen would wish, and that they had particular instructions that the whole matter be kept out of the Press. Ten minutes later and we were cast out into the street, I stumbling and blinking daylight out of my eyes, my rescuer waving both arms in search of a cab like a drowning man signaling a lifeboat.
I had altogether failed to persuade Watson to leave a prescription for a daily gargle with alum and vinegar on Coulson’s desk. I suppose, upon reflection, it was an unworthy suggestion - possibly effective treatment, free of charge? I would not have the Doctor out of pocket.
We had mounted the seventeen steps to sanctuary, shut the guardian door behind us and there embraced – an embrace empty of passion but crammed to overflow with feeling, and incidentally the first time ever we had put our arms around each other – before Watson would give the least clue to the means of my release and then only to say that, after making no headway with my methods, he had turned to employing his own.
“Your methods? I hope this will not sound ungrateful but, so far as I have observed over the past several years, you have none.”
He snorted, as if to say that he expected nothing better from me, and that consequently all was well.
“First bathe, next eat, and then, my dear fellow, I propose a short trip to Norbury.”
“There is an unbecoming smugness about your expression, Watson, which I will forgive because you have quite probably just saved me from Hell. But I want to know how and I want to know now.”
But not another word would he utter until after he had fed me a sandwich of the last of the cold spiced brisket Mrs. Hudson had left for us in the meat safe, three cups of hot tea and a large brandy. It was close to midnight: a warm, deep blue moonlit night viewed through the open sash and curtains – I could not quite see to closing them, not just yet – both of us in our night attire, gowned and slippered, facing each other across the hearth in a pleasant haze of shag, around us the playing shadows of a thousand and one nights just like this one, and yet entirely not this one.
“When I left you yesterday evening,” Watson began at last, “I admit I had not the least idea how to proceed. All night I wracked my brains for some new angle but by morning, still nothing. I went out walking to clear my head and my steps took me past my old Kensington rooms: that medical practice on whose future success you so recently gambled – no, don’t deny it, I may not have your memory for trifles but I recall your connection to the name Vernet quite well enough. Whom should I see coming out of the house next door – the one that used to be mine - but my old friend Grey, newly set up in London himself, at the less fashionable end of Wimpole Street?
“He seemed troubled. I fell into step beside him and he confessed that a case he had seen recently had stumped him. It meant a great deal to him to succeed. The man was out of the ordinary run of his patients – wealthy, well-connected: a recommendation from him would carry some weight in certain circles which Grey had skirted, but had yet to enter. As he described the symptoms, I was put in mind of the paper I had read once of young Percy Trevelyan’s: remember, he of the Resident Patient? So sunk was I in trying to recall the contents of that paper that I almost missed Grey, in a fit of volubility born of anxiety, letting slip the patient’s name – and it was a name I knew. I had seen it in your handwriting the day before, had carried it in my pocketbook alongside two others all through that dreadful afternoon and evening.
“What no amount of pinchbeck sleuthing had brought me, sheer chance and a little, somewhat esoteric, medical knowledge might yet put into my hands. I made some excuse to Grey and hurried back to Baker Street, hoping that the paper had not been thrown out during some move of mine or in one of Mrs. Hudson’s tidying campaigns. And there it was, just as I had thought, the description of a young American doctor’s work in tracing a rare nervous lesion manifested through successive generations of one family. The patterns of inheritance were clear, inarguable; the symptoms the same. For the son to manifest the disease, his father or mother would have done so before. If neither had, he might be no true son, and therein could lie the spring that fed his hatred of the eminent and the secure and the means to secure your freedom. I tell you, Holmes, I was fairly giddy.”
Well might he be; it was as nice a piece of reasoning as one might hope to see. Gratitude forestalled any open expression of surprise on my part. In truth Watson, even then, looked surprised enough for us both.
“How to find out if I was right? I persuaded Grey to send, sealed, a letter I’d composed, offering a revolutionary new treatment in terms so glowing it amounted to quackery – I have not been accused of writing florid and sensational fiction for nothing. I purported to be bound for the continent and thus able to offer a consultation only that day and no later. I waited; the longest hours of my life.”
Fiction: a lie in writing, that he might have been hard put to utter in person. But then fiction was what he had made of my life – of our life and adventures – and I had profited from it before.
“He took the bait and granted me an interview. All innocent, he assured me that both his parents were alive, aged and in good health. I had him. A bastard has no social standing, no influence, nor rights of income or property: not even expectations against which money or opportunities may be advanced. A few words in the right ears and he would be ruined. I invited him to consider all this. Then I told him who I was and what I wanted him to do.”
“Doctor,” I ventured deliberately, “would it not be a violation of your physician’s oath to drop ‘a few words in the right ears’?”
He nodded, but casually, as if that was beside the point. Something in me shivered. ‘Fiction’ was one thing – admiration for me had long ago corrupted him to that; loyalty and our agreement on matters of natural justice had led him into some petty crimes here and there. But I would not have freedom or…or love, if the cost were Watson’s good faith.
“The precise words of that oath are: ‘What I may see or hear in the course of treatment or even outside of treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself.’ It says nothing of those things which ought to be spread abroad, as I pointed out to your persecutor. There will be no more false prosecutions.”
I had closed my eyes, so that I only heard him get up from his chair, only felt him press a hand to my shoulder and keep it there as I covered it with my own. I looked up into the same honest blue eyes as ever and watched them twinkle as he grinned like a champion.
“Bluff, Holmes. I can manage bluff – I’m not such a poor gambler as all that, not at such stakes. Thank God, he did not know me; to one who would not himself hesitate to act so, it was a credible threat.”
Both of us laughed aloud, our spirits still as much nervous as merry. As he bent over me, chuckling, hand still under mine and only the thickness of fine lawn between his fingers and the bare skin of my body, our faces moved very close. His jaw brushed my temple. I turned my head and stared at his mouth, soft with life and relief and, it must surely be, hot and sweet to taste as the brandy still tasted in mine.
My left knee was trembling.
Watson straightened abruptly and retreated to his chair, a hand sweeping across his brow to wipe his face clear of laughter, setting in its place strain and consternation.
“Holmes. You know we cannot. Not now, not after this. We must consider those words never uttered. It is not safe.”
Our life together thus far being dedicated to safety, of course. Yet in a sense, it was: the safety of silence, of words swallowed before they could be spoken. I would not be seduced by ‘safety’ a second time in as many weeks.
“Not entirely, no; nor is crossing the street, yet taking a glance to left and right, off you trot. If you would but apply a little reason, you would see that to act on those words, to continue where your hand left off the Thursday before last, is in point of fact no more dangerous now than it was then, and you made the overture nevertheless.”
“And you hesitated. This is not crossing the street, Holmes; I do not do this every day.”
“Nor I. I last stepped off that particular pavement… it must be sixteen years ago. Unless I am mistaken – and thankfully, as I make it my living not to be, that is rare – about the same is true for you, is it not?”
He reached for the glass of brandy on the floor beside his chair and drained it, looking over the rim and into his past.
“Longer. Not since I was at school. I was in my last year, and if I say so myself, had made something of a success of it. Moderately sharp, but no swot, kept enough of the rules to please the masters and broke enough to keep in with my fellows, played a lot of sport and always played fair. I had quite a crowd of friends. But there was one in particular, a year or so younger than I was: Collins, William Collins. We took to meeting alone, at first to talk; then it became more. He stayed with us for the Easter holidays and…well, I had my first taste of what it was to marry the senses with the heart, to be perfectly at ease with another at board or in bed . It was impossible to carry on like that back at school, of course. Oh, there were tarts and bloods, a lot of filthy talk and posturing - we boys knew all about lust. But love? I was in my last term besides, and he must stay.”
“What did you do?”
“I grew up. I turned to women and put away what I thought then to be childish things, a sort of apprenticeship. I’ve come to know myself better since. Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those tales ending in Collins’ romantic suicide, or expulsion and being cut off with a shilling. Last I heard, he had a thriving solicitor’s practice in Birmingham and seven children.”
He spread his hands; the past was made present and thereby, more past than ever. It seemed to be my turn to confess. I could only hope that the result would not be a penance of chastity tonight.
“My father would feel entirely justified were he here. He thought public schools a hotbed of vice and forbade either of his sons to go. Besides, I don’t doubt I should have hated it: all that enforced camaraderie. Cambridge was bad enough. People were always trying to ‘draw me out of myself’; as if one’s own society is by default deficient.”
“Yet you had one friend, you told me so. Friend and, I must now suppose, lover?”
I blinked. Victor Trevor would have set his dog on me in earnest had I suggested any such thing.
“The adventures I have had in the flesh I fear would disappoint your romantic soul, dear fellow. I did not have ‘lovers’. The few I met socially whom I knew to be of my inclination were inbred, wilting lilies. I was, I am, aroused by men. The back alleys near barracks and docks are familiar to me but never a shared bed. I never once lay down with another. And now I’ve shocked you.”
“No, not shocked, I… no wonder it seems to you so simple an enterprise. Have you had…have there been very many, then?”
The tremor in his voice told a different, but not simple, story. Shock, yes, even distaste: yet also a fresh layer of hesitation, as of a naïf but sincere artist greeted with the sophistication of a practiced society portraitist. Further down shifted subtler, greedier thoughts: a longing to hear the intimate details, for rough passions. I shrugged.
“Only variations on a theme; there are physical limits to what may be achieved standing and mostly clothed. It became commonplace through repetition. As you turned to women, I turned to my work. Watson, I am in no mood to provide you with mere aural pornography. It is late. Would you know me, or not?”
“I would. You know that. But…”
“Tsk. I have already seen off any logical objections. We evidently have no moral ones. Here we are, alone in the house; the moment could not be more opportune. They should invent a new law against ‘pusillanimous indecency’ Watson, especially for you.”
Watson bristled, made up his mind in a split second, took a single stride across the room and pulled me to my feet. He pulled the drapes shut and turned down the lamp. “Come on then, Holmes. Show me what you know.”
I turned him roughly so that his back was pressed to my front, (producing an instantaneous rise in us both), and seized him by the waist and hip, hustling him across the room as I spoke in my best expository tone.
“We are both underdressed for the lesson, but imagination may serve. We have established an initial physical attraction. Some small coin may have changed hands, as a favour you understand, sir; I am not a whore. Then, find a secluded corner – ah, just over here, at the bookcase, brace yourself against the frame, both hands if you please, sir. I will take care of everything: unbutton your trousers, or as here, lift up your nightshirt and take hold, thus…”
Watson curses like the soldier he once was, if you please him sufficiently. If you manage more than sufficiency, if at the same time as frigging him you contrive to hold him to the task by dint of using a free hand in kneading his flank, his balls or the back of one thigh by turns, you may find yourself addressed in quite startling terms of endearment. I confess I had never before considered myself a ‘sodding angel’, nor been anyone’s ‘beautiful boy’.
It was over all too soon, for him at least. I would not let him apologise for that, even as my body, my prick, thrummed and ached against his bent back. Instead I proposed that he might return the favour in his own way: that if he liked, we could go to my bed, lie down together. The source of my tension was not only physical. I needed to know if we could live on here with this change - at ease together at board and in bed. Before that, I needed to know what ‘bed’ might be like.
The sexual act, whoever the participants, is principally a matter of hydraulics, of nervous sensation, of muscular contraction. There is no particular reason to endow it with mystical overtones he is oddly shy, now we are lying naked together under the covers and so, I find to my surprise, am I, as one approaching a sacred place. Emotions, those tender feelings of which Watson is so fond of writing and seems perpetually surprised to find have any quarter in me, are not to be feared but neither are they to be indulged for no good reason there is peace here, his arms close about me, here is safety and warmth; I have not been kissed like this because I have never been kissed in all my adult life it is hot and sweet indeed as I knew it must be oh my dear please more and there and there, oh yes, there too and lower, lower still: kiss me until not a place is left un-kissed; do not stop now and never leave me without you because alone of everyone who has touched me I love y…
It must be possible to hold separate that deep affection for the steadfast companion of so many adventures, from the transports of touch, of taste, of climax his tongue is a whetstone, sharpening the edge of pleasure until it fillets me with exquisite, excruciating precision – that nerve cluster here, that square inch of delighted skin here. I make some slight sound, barely hearing it myself amid the rushing in my head like great wings beating. I know it now: we two already fit so perfectly that no-one could know our secret only by looking for we were already one, long ago and only in the dark are we different Watson looks up, smiles a cat-and-cream smile and bends again to do his work on me, to remake me a new creature that feels every stroke as pain and joy and calls out in an agony of desire, longing only to gasp my last under his hands and all at once I am doing it now, now; I fall dying on the crest of his name sweet Christ and all the stars in heaven, John.
Two days we have had now of this new thing that is not new in any important respect; two days of… valued extras, perhaps. There will be more, that is certain: two hundred days, two thousand, however many we have, we two who began to be one from the day we met.
And the law? I am its champion. He who knows me best of all has said as much. Even if it is, in the end, mostly fiction.
End note: Someone has bookmarked this as Holmes being accused of 'rape of a minor'. On a point of fact I must state this is not the case. 'Buggery' under the Act of 1861 included consensual anal sex (and bestiality, for those who care), and there was no age of consent established for males, ergo no such offence as 'rape of a minor' was established by that law. Historical context matters, folks, and this is Victorian England. not the modern US. It was anal intercourse that was punishable by a term of up to life imprisonment, age of participants notwithstanding.
Beta thanks to someone who helped a lot with the plot (and some incidental calculations) but doesn’t approve of me slashing Holmes and Watson so shall remain nameless at his own request Giant beta thanks to the stalwart mad_with_july for enduring the Victorian sexings once again and offering invaluable encouragement and the right kind of proofreading.