I did not feel my spirits lift until I quit the train. Pulling my ulster closer, I boarded the sleigh as the last rays of the winter sun died behind the pine trees that surrounded us. Five months had crawled past since my last visit... Five wasted months passed in the same shallow pursuits and futile attempts to escape from sorrow. What can I do but live by fits and starts, or make this my last meeting? ‘Honour binds’ should be the motto of his house and I cannot kill myself even for love, so I live out this posthumous existence, envied by some.
“My dear fellow,” said someone at our club the other day. “I wish I was in your place. You have everything - position, money, looks and education. What more could you ask for?”
Peace, that is what I ask for. How often we want what we cannot have.
I dismissed these thoughts and looked out at the dense, dark forest that hemmed me in on all sides; no sign of light anywhere. A soft, cold wind blew snowflakes into my eyes, almost blinding me as the journey continued in silence.
Ten minutes or more must have passed when we slid around a corner to our left and I could recognise the outline of the hunting lodge. There was a blaze of light streaming out of the front door. He must have heard us coming and thrown it open, for he was striding bare-headed towards the sleigh, his arms open wide.
Not waiting for the sleigh to stop I leapt out and ran towards him. But I slipped on the snow-covered ice and landed breathless on my knees before him. In one fluid movement he raised me to hold me in a warm embrace.
“No need to kneel, cousin,” he said with a wry smile. “I promised never to stand on ceremony with you and I keep my word. Come in. It’s damned cold out here.”
We entered together. How well I knew every aspect of the place. Yet once again I was devouring every detail with my eyes as best I could, as if to store it away for ever in my memory. My second winter here but already I seemed to know ever angle of the walls, every grained line on the floorboards. These sights were those that coloured my lonely hours in England.
As we passed through the hall I shook the last of the snowflakes from my hair but my eyes were still a little dazzled from the cold. An icy tear ran down my cheek.
“You are unhurt?” His concern was immediately apparent.
“Yes, thank you.”
“But you are in tears.”
“It was only the snow in my eyes,” I lied.
Always, always there was this awkward start. Nobody’s fault, but it is ever thus. He looked fatigued, thinner than I remembered him - less colourful. Could only five months work such a change or had love tinted my memories of him?
“You look pale and tired.” He regarded me gravely.
His voice cut into my private thoughts and made me start, for I still saw him as he had been on my last visit in that golden October. The time of the last of the summer wine and roses, full of warmth and seduction.
“It is nothing. The journey took longer than I expected. Some trouble at Dover, I believe.”
“Ah, you English. You all think civilisation ends at Dover, is that not so?”
“Only some of us,” I answered shortly.
“There, there. I should not tease you. Some brandy, that is what is needed!”
“You are right.”
I laid my ulster over the back of a chair and sunk into my usual place on the sofa. I could not remember moving from the hall. He sat beside me and put a glass in my hand. I was keenly aware of his eyes on me as he raised his glass, encouraging me to follow his example.
“To life and love.”
“To life and love,” I echoed, my voice shaking as I spoke. My throat tightened as I met his pledge and I could only swallow with difficulty.
To my intense relief the warmth of the room and the drink broke through my natural reserve. Our brandies finished, I slipped my hands around the back of his head and initiated a long, strong kiss; the kiss that signalled my return to life. No quarter was given or asked for.
I spent these first precious moments with him as if my bank account of time here had neither limitation or end.
Colour was returning to his face, vigour to his movements, and I dare swear I resembled him in this. How could it be otherwise? Starved of love and affection when apart from each other, together we were lost in those emotions.
“You are always so unconventional,” he gasped at last.
“And you are not? I doubt if what we are about here would meet with approval in your closely revolving circles.”
“Touché.” His voice held a warm amused tone; it was irresistible.
The wheel had come full circle and now I was teasing him: like to like.
I got to my feet to lead the well-known way to the bedroom and greater pleasures yet.
“The bed awaits.”
“Thank heaven,” said he, “for I thought you were never going to mention it.”
“Do you fondly imagine I crossed half Europe at great expense and personal inconvenience to spend twenty-four celibate hours with you?”
“Some would consider it an honour. I prayed you would not. ‘May Eton Flourish’. Never liked that Latin tag.”
“No more did I. But why drag my old school into this?”
“I thought while your public schools may have their short-comings, in matters of the heart they lead the field.”
I waited until we drew level at the door then kissed him gently, first on the right temple and then on the left.
“So delicate. ‘Matters of the heart’ indeed! I know well enough what you mean and no, I did not.” How could he believe such a thing of me?
“Come now, you must have been a most attractive youth. Why your colouring alone would have acted as a magnet, while an encounter with the classics - however brief - would have done the rest.” He was genuinely amazed.
For the first time that evening I blushed deeply as I opened the door. “There were offers. I rejected them - all of them.”
I had difficulty in keeping the distress out of my voice at his suggestions.
We started to undress each other. I was still upset when, halfway down his shirt, he arrested my progress by clasping my hands in his. Then, releasing his right hand, he raised my lowered head until our eyes met.
“Pay no attention to me. Unlike your gracious queen I have no skills in small talk. Forgive me, I only thought if you had formed an intense friendship there it would have made matters more simple for you here.”
I smiled uncertainly and withdrew my hands and fixed my eyes once more on his buttons.
“You were and are my first and only love.” I almost threw my line away, at once betraying how deeply my sentiments were engaged.
He pulled my shirt over my head, having tired of the buttons, then swept my hair back into place.
“I can say the latter, would that I could say the former.”
His sorrow filled the room like an uninvited guest and stayed. We could have been on different planets. We undressed ourselves in silence. I glanced at him a couple of times, praying for a change from his depression of spirits.
Unable to endure this state of affairs a moment longer, I drew him to me. None knew better than I how often he had been forced to answer the stern call of duty.
“I understand,” I said simply. “You could not have played the hand you were dealt in any other way. You did what you did because it was expected of you.”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
I was suddenly aware how cold he had become; his arms encircled me like a ring of ice. I myself was cooling from the feet upwards, in spite of the stove and the thick furs on the floor.
“The past will destroy our happiness,” he said finally.
“Only if we let it. You must not dwell on it, my love.”
He must have sensed the edge desperation had given to my voice for he took me by the hand and guided me into the bed.
“Then the past is banished from our presence and this place.”
I closed the small space between us over the warm sheets. The stove in the corner gave a sudden crack and the air filled with the scent of burning pine.
Slowly we started, each movement a mirror image of the other, warm beneath the covers, secure in our love. There was no need for words. How swiftly we had learned each other’s needs and desires, how quick to meet them. So alike were we that this knowledge was gained effortlessly. It was instinctive. Nothing was withheld, no wish denied. We drifted, one motion following the other unbroken to their climax. I was lost once more in so deep a sea of love I wanted nothing else.
But return I had to, however much I resented it. Suddenly I was conscious of the strong beating of a heart. I could not, if my life had depended on my answer, have said if it was his heart or mine. I lay as one cast upon a beach after a tempest has spent itself. The one entity we had been but moments ago was slowly but inexorably dying, dissolving. That was my hand and there was his. His heart from mine, his arms from mine. Without my wanting to I was becoming myself alone.
“This loneliness will be my death. I cannot endure it.”
I think it was my love who spoke. It did not matter. It was the price we both had to pay for our happiness. Only one sob escaped me, then I was aware that his fingers were making small circling movements across my throat to comfort me. His hand slipped into mine until I slept.
We did not rise until after ten. There being only a small wash room it was not until well after half past before we breakfasted. There had been a heavy fall of snow overnight and traitorous low clouds promised more before the day was done. He crossed to the window and looked out on the forest.
“I was going to propose a walk this afternoon.”
“All is not lost. We could go out this morning,” I said. “We could start now.”
“Yes, why not?”
In borrowed boots and furs I walked out with him into that cold bright day. The new snow lay crisp and firm beneath our feet. We made our way to the lake through an enchanted land where all familiar things were lost entirely or transformed by the snow.
We had almost gained the lake’s edge when I was overwhelmed by a desire to look back at the lodge. The sight took my breath away. It appeared in the brilliant late morning light to be composed solely of ice and snow, the whites and silvers relieved by the amber lights that shone from its windows. At once all these beauties of nature vanished, struck from my sight in a moment.
He had covered my eyes and drew me backwards towards him. Then, releasing me, he walked around to face me. He removed first his gloves, and then my own.
“I have never given you anything.”
These were his first words to me as we stood on the margin of that frozen lake.
“How can you tell me that? You have given me all I can ever need.” I spoke the truth.
He was struggling to get something out of his breast pocket.
“I want you to have this.”
To my surprise he produced a simple ring.
“Will you take it? I cannot beg, but will you?”
I was about to refuse - I was an adult man, not a school girl to be won in such a manner. Won, that was it! I needed nothing but what I had. Still, in this one instance he might differ from me. I knew not what he might gain from giving this gift, but to throw it back in his face was impossible. To me it would prove a charm to ward off sorrow when I returned to my own country.
“I accept it with all my heart.”
It fitted perfectly. I never doubted that it would but was intrigued by two deeply incised letters on its outer edge.
“These initials, I cannot make them out. What are they?”
“Simply the reverse of her Britannic Majesty’s,” he laughed.
It took me a minute or two to understand his ironic joke.
He picked up a pebble and sent it skimming and cracking across the lake. It sounded like pistol shots amid all that silence.
“Come,” he said, “the light is starting to fail already and we must return.”
Tea! How very English and civilised. The curtains were closed, my portmanteau was packed and placed by the door. All so final, like the last chapter in a romance. I went through the motions of eating and drinking but enjoyed nothing. My appetite was gone.
A deep despondency had settled on the pair of us. Time was flying. I hardly dared to look at the clock.
To comfort me he placed his hand on my shoulder as I sadly twisted his ring. I turned my head to kiss his fingers.
“You return in the Spring. Time will pass,” he said quietly.
The knock on the door, though expected, made him start.
“It is but eight weeks,” I had to agree.
“I will walk with you to the door.”
When we reached it I threw my arms around him, clinging to all that I held dear in the world. Every leave-taking distressed me but with this one I experienced a dreadful foreboding that we should never meet again.
“Back to the mundane and the common place.”
He did not seem to hear me, close as we were. I withdrew slowly. He picked up my luggage and his mood lightened a little.
“A visit is planned, you know. In August. London, Windsor and the like.”
I pressed his hands as I mounted the sleigh. However bleak the future looked, there was still hope.
“I can scarcely wait. You are my ruling passion... Goodbye.”
His own farewell was born away on the evening air.
We returned to our respective prisons, but now the one that was once his is mine! I am trapped between those two pillars of society, Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim. No escape for me back to 305 Park Lane, that other prison of mine, though there is little to choose between them.
I try as best I can to loose myself in affairs of state and court life but it is impossible since every room in the palace reminds me of him. Rupert was right when he called me ‘play actor’, damn him. This role must be played to the death. No ‘resting’ or ‘intervals’ can be allowed; the very throne depends on it.
I have been walking in the rose garden again this evening. It has become my habit of late. I need one hour out of the twenty-four to myself and I think they understand.
The air is warm and heavy with the scent of the flowers. Coming to the end of the walk I turned abruptly to confront the palace and there, looking out at me was his pale, sad face.
They had lied to me! He was still alive and being confined for some dark reason of state.
My sense deserted me. Already I was forming a plan of rescue. I had done it once before and could succeed again. How could I fail with such a prize before me?
I ran toward the building, my arms outstretched. And he was gone.
What I had seen was my own reflection in the window.
Reflect on that Rassendyll. How could it have been the King? His body lies in a shallow grave, Heaven knows where, torn apart. And I, poor ghost, here to supply his place.
I turned the ring he had given me that winter day by the lake, the letters as clear as ever. ‘R V’ - Rudolph the Fifth. I smiled sadly as I recalled my last words on earth to him: “You are my ruling passion... Goodbye.”
The french windows opened and the upright figure of the old soldier was coming towards me through the dusk.
“Sire, the English Ambassador will arrive within the hour.”
“Ever faithful Sapt,” I said sincerely. “I will be ready for him, have no fear. I will play my part to the end, cost what it may.” He took my meaning at once, I knew it.
“I never doubted it, lad,” he said gruffly as he followed me into the drawing room. “Fate does not always make the right man king.”
The window closed behind me with a sharp click and I was once again in prison. Zenda would win, with or without my help, that was the only thing of which I could be certain...
“Scribbling again, Doctor?”
Having supposed that Holmes intended to attend Madame Rimaldi’s recital this afternoon, the sound of his voice just after the clock had struck three was unexpected, causing me to start. My pen spluttered and deposited a large blot of ink on the page upon which I had been writing.
“Really, Holmes!” I expostulated as I swung around from my desk. “I wish you would not creep up behind me like this. Now look what you have caused me to do.”
My voice was thickened by the wretched head cold I had taken two days previously when I accompanied Holmes as he burgled the home of Charles Augustus Milverton - as loathsome a specimen of humanity as it has been my misfortune to meet.
I confess it was not solely the cold which thickened my voice but also a certain emotional involvement with the tale I had spent the afternoon scribbling.
Holmes withdrew from where he had been leaning over me, his smile fading. “I beg your pardon, Doctor. I perceive your head cold has worsened in my absence.”
I blew my nose soundly. “I hardly need the services of the world’s greatest consulting detective to tell me that,” I snapped crossly.
“Indeed you do not,” conceded Holmes.
In anyone else I would have called the tone subdued. My faint pang of conscience was easily stifled however and I turned back to my desk.
While I knew my manner to be unreasonable, I was not in the mood to apologise. My companion is not the easiest of men to live with at the best of times; these were far from being the best of times.
Certain elements of the Milverton affair had troubled Holmes more than they might have done a few years ago. Quite apart from the despicable trade Milverton had plied, living off the frailties of others, I knew that Holmes regretted the behaviour of ‘Escott’ the plumber in raising false hopes in the breast of a maid servant. That troubled me as well, if not for quite the same reasons. I could not help but reflect that occasionally it would be pleasant if Holmes concerned himself with my feelings.
I blew my sore and reddened nose again, whilst avoiding my companion’s gaze. Remarks connected to the inability of physicians to heal themselves had worn my patience thin. I was irritated by my awareness of Holmes, who still stood behind me. If the idea had not been so absurd I would have said he did not know where else to go.
“You have been writing all afternoon, I perceive,” remarked Holmes, with what I took to be a trace of condescension.
“I believe every man should have a hobby. I do not criticise yours,” I replied stiffly.
“Only the more bizarre and addictive ones.” His voice was dry as dust.
I returned to exam my writing book. I was relieved to discover the ink blot had fallen on a blank portion of the page, so that it had not obliterated any of my prose. While this story had been penned for my own eyes only, I knew it was one I would not be able to forget. I decided to make a fair copy of it, even though the tale had not ended in the manner I had intended. Initially begun as a joke for my own amusement, as soon as my pen began to cross the page the characters assumed a life of their own. The joke had become a poignant, bitter-sweet love-story, which in turn had changed to tragedy.
It had been my wish, unrealistic though it might have been - particularly for an ex-army doctor who has cause to know better - to write a story in which romance and true love triumphed, if only for that serious and unhappy Englishman. The impulse to pen something of my own history, while fleeting, had been dangerously tempting. In describing the completeness of Rudolph and Rassendyll’s physical union I knew I had certainly exposed some of my most private hopes and dreams.
As I took my time in blotting up the ink, I became aware of disturbances taking place around me. When it suited him Holmes could be the most inconspicuous of individuals; today he bore a marked resemblance to an invading army.
He flicked through the afternoon post, found nothing to interest him and tossed it away with a graceful, dismissive gesture. His shoes were exchanged for his slippers, once the latter had been located where he had thrown them in a burst of frustration. The fire received a vigorous and unnecessary poking, which did nothing but reduce the heat it sent out into the room on this grey November afternoon.
“Really, it is too bad,” Holmes announced. “Mrs Hudson should ensure that you have a good fire.”
I murmured some non-committal response. My attention was given to the plight of the two lovers who had become so real to me.
“Am I permitted to inquire which of my cases has been occupying all your attention for the last thirty-six hours?”
The trace of pique in Holmes’ voice did not go unnoticed but while I wondered at its cause, I did not pursue the matter.
“It is not one of your cases,” I told him in my most repressive manner. “Contrary to popular belief, the universe does not revolve around the world’s first consulting detective.”
There must be some way out for Rassendyll, whose heaviness of heart was weighing down my own spirits. I had slept badly the last two nights, dreaming of despair and unnamed loss; my mood had been a black one all day.
The tone was that of Holmes at his most insufferable. I swung around but was prevented from voicing a remark which I might later have regretted by a series of sneezes, which necessitated my fumbling for my unpleasantly soggy handkerchief again.
Holmes twitched it from my hand and tossed it on the fire before shaking out his own handkerchief for me. While I made vigorous use of the dry linen I could feel him looking down at me. About to vent my ill-humour on him again, I looked up, glimpsed his unguarded expression and was lost.
“I am sorry, Holmes,” I said sincerely. “I had but a poor night’s sleep. That, combined with this damned head cold, has made me as irritable as a bear with a sore head.”
He gave one of his fleeting, half-shy smiles. “You have not been your normal pawky self,” he allowed. This time his smile reached his fine grey eyes.
Holmes’ gaze could be uncomfortably piercing, and many a miscreant could vouch for its sternness, but for those in desperate need - but with no one else to turn to - there was a wealth of kindness, try to disguise it as he might. But I was one of a very small, honoured band fortunate enough to know his smile.
“My dear fellow,” he continued, placing a cool white hand on my forehead, “you are very flushed. While I lack your expertise in such matters, I believe you may have a fever.”
“Only a slight one,” I assured him huskily, resisting the temptation to rest my aching head against his torso.
“I gauge your temperature to be one hundred and two degrees exactly and would estimate your pulse to be equally disordered. You might have been wiser to remain in bed rather than sitting here...working.”
While Holmes was too well-bred to press me, his gaze drifted to the mottled cover of the book in which I always pen the first draft of any of my work.
“Thank you, doctor,” I said dryly.
Unabashed, he offered a graceful, dismissive gesture with one hand.
“However, you are out in one respect,” I told him with - I admit it - some pleasure. “It isn’t patients’ notes which have been keeping me busy. No, I have been indulging in the writing of some fiction. And, before you say anything, let me remind you that my reports of your cases are not - strictly speaking - fiction.”
“Save where you flatter me...” he murmured in that silken voice of his. “Pray spare my blushes.”
Knowing of his love of the dramatic, not to mention his streak of vanity, I kept a prudent silence. Besides, I maintained the greatest fiction solely for the benefit of the readers of ‘The Strand Magazine’ and the subject was that of my marriages and weakness for the ladies, bless their hearts, not Holmes’ undisputed genius as the world’s greatest consulting detective.
“What manner of fiction has been preoccupying you?” Holmes added, with a flowing gesture in the direction of my book.
Hardly knowing what I did, I snatched up the book, holding it protectively to my chest.
“My dear Watson, pray spare me any dramatics. I had no intention of prying into your private papers.”
While his tone was one of languid dismissal, my years with Holmes had attuned me to subtle nuances; I had hurt him.
I half rose in my chair. “I did not intend to imply... Damn it, this is the first piece of fiction - real fiction - I have ever attempted to write. Purely for my own amusement, you understand,” I hastened to add. “And so the idea of anyone - even you - reading it...”
Holmes held up one of his beautiful hands, before encouraging me to return to my seat. “Say no more, my dear fellow. I begin to understand. You know, I trust, that you may rely upon me not to trespass.”
“Of course,” I said thickly, clasping his hand, just before I was forced to relinquish it in order to blow my nose once more.
Holmes cupped my shoulder lightly in one of those rare, brief moments of intimacy which mean so much to me and - I like to believe - to him.
“A hot toddy, while not in itself a cure for the common cold, may make its duration less unpleasant,” he announced in his most decisive tones. “And perhaps some hot, buttered crumpets?”
He knows my weaknesses too well.
My nod released him and all was activity as Mrs Hudson was summoned to procure lemons, sugar and spices - not to mention crumpets - at the drop of a hat. Naturally she produced them with the minimum of delay and fuss. She is a remarkable woman. Heaven knows that neither Holmes or myself are the easiest or most conventional of tenants but the comforts we enjoy at 221B Baker Street are second to none.
Abandoning my seat at my desk for a chair beside the fire, I sat back to enjoy the sight of my friend’s incisive profile as he sat cross-legged on the floor, toasting-fork in hand, passing me crumpets to butter before returning the plate to the hearth to keep warm.
The novelty of Holmes fussing over me was very pleasant, mainly I suspect, because I could be certain that it would not last. It would have made me extremely uncomfortable had it been his habit. As it was, I was able to sit back in my chair, the last of the crumpets eaten and my buttery fingers licked clean, to sip the potent mixture he had brewed for me.
Idly watching Holmes, who now sat in the chair opposite mine with his eyes closed, humming under his breath while his fingers tapped out a particularly complex piece of bowing, I revelled in the feeling of the utmost contentment.
Stretching out my feet to the fire, I picked up ‘The Times’ and discovered that today I had little interest in the affairs of the world. My mind insisted on returning to the story of the two lovers. They were not, of course, characters of my own creating, but those of - let us abide by the nom de plume he has selected for himself - Mr Anthony Hope. I feel sure he would, as a lawyer, disapprove in the strongest possible terms of my ‘borrowing’ characters of his creating, and more, in portraying them as ‘Unfortunates’. In common with most of Society it would never occur to him to refer to them as ‘lovers’.
I frequently longed to read fictional accounts of men similar to myself. To be sure, any man about town knows where to purchase the filth purveyed by some ‘booksellers’, or that is available at certain clubs. That does not interest me. Over the years I had come to long for stories of courage and honour and adventure about men I could respect and admire; men who happened to have formed deep and lasting attachments to a member of their own sex.
I could, of course, have written of Holmes and myself. Adventures we have had in plenty, many of which, for one reason or another, have not been made public, and Holmes and I have been on the most intimate of terms for several years. But even in my most optimistic of moods I could not claim that we made a romantic pair. It is not in Sherlock’s nature and by and large I would not have him any different - save perhaps to wish that some of his chemical experiments did not leave an odour which lingered in the room for days, despite our opening the windows in the most inclement weather. No, we were not the stuff of romance.
Today, feeling low in spirits and - I admit it with shame - unappreciated by my lover - I had yearned for romance.
What I had created haunted me.
Try as I might, I could not get Rassendyll’s plight out of my mind.
But how to resurrect Rudolph? Mr Hope had been very clear on that point. Rudolph had died, his throat torn out by a mastiff. Plot and re-plot as I might, I could see no way around it.
Something drew me from my abstraction, I do not know what it might have been, and I looked up in time to see Holmes watching me. The look of brooding unhappiness on his face drove all thoughts of fictional lovers from my head.
Collecting my book from where I had left it on the desk, I crossed to Holmes’ side.
“Would you care to read what I have been working on?” I asked diffidently.
His eyes flickered before his gaze rose to meet mine; a shy delight dawned on his face.
“You would entrust your work to me?”
“I should be honoured - not least because mine are the only works of fiction I have known you to read. I fear this will not be to your taste. It is a romance,” I explained at his look of question, a trace of defiance in my tone.
“A romance,” he echoed. His hand flicked from himself to me and back again. “Like so?”
“No, nothing like us.” Despite myself I know there was a trace of wistfulness in my voice.
Holmes gave me one of his sharp, assessing glances but made no immediate comment as he took the book from me. He raised himself effortlessly on his chair to tuck his long legs under him in the cross-legged position of which he is so fond. With his sleek, dark hair clinging to his scalp, his keen, inquisitive features and the quick, athleticism of his movements, there were times when he put me in mind of an otter, cutting gracefully through the water.
Lighting his pipe, Holmes opened my book and visibly began to concentrate.
I confess I could not bear to remain in the room. This tale, short as it was, held too great a place in my heart. It seemed a matter of the utmost importance that Holmes should not criticise this as he had some of my other scribblings in our early days. His destructive powers were formidable and his incisive observations could be as cruel as they were correct. On a more mundane note, the smoke from his pipe, combined with sulphur fumes from the fire, made the air unbreathable to me in my current condition.
I would have left Baker Street but I felt too unwell. The fog, which had yet to clear from this morning, had turned into a real pea-souper; it muffled the sounds of life in the street outside, while seeming to trickle under the front door and make me cough. So I retired to my bed chamber, shivering a little because the fire needed attention. That chore done, I stood by the window, watching the fog close in until it seemed to cling to the very glass, its chill continuing to seep into the room.
The knock on the door made me tense, for I knew who it must be.
Holmes entered the room with a strange diffidence, as if he had never done so before. He was, of course, more accustomed to making nocturnal visits; we always used my room because it was the most private from Mrs Hudson.
“You have read it then,” I said tonelessly, bracing myself for the mockery I felt sure would be forthcoming.
“I have.” His entire expression softened wonderfully, a look in his eyes such as I have never seen before. “Oh, my dear John. I had no idea.” He made a graceful gesture eloquent of helplessness with those wonderful hands of his.
Before I quite knew what had happened I was in his warm, embrace, held fast in the security of his arms while small, fervent kisses were pressed to my brow, my cheek and finally to my mouth.
I opened to him like a flower to the sun.
Highly-strung and a genius in his field, Sherlock is a complex and passionate man. He eased me onto the bed, dealt with our clothing as best he could, and used his strength to hold us together as we moved one against the other. The intimacy of making love in the daylight rather than in the darkness, as was our usual modest habit, was intense. I drank in every small detail as we drove ourselves to completion, warmth spilling first from Holmes, and later from myself, to mingle between our close-pressed bodies.
He gave a short, cut-off cry at the end, burying the sound against me; his hands held me in a bruising grip and I gloried in it. His weight was pressing me into the bedding, impeding my attempts to breathe. I had no complaint.
One hand cradling the back of his head, with the other I continued to rub his back, allowing my palm to sink down until it covered his rump.
He stretched from top to toe, like some great cat, and pressed up against my hand with a soft sound of contentment. My arm tightened around him for a moment.
One heart, one mind...
He lifted his head to give me a smile of unfeigned sweetness before he kissed me with great tenderness on the mouth.
“You are my heart,” he murmured, his head drooping until it lay on my shoulder once more.
And so, for a short while, I believe we both slept.
It was Holmes who fetched hot water from the bathroom and washed the evidence of our love-making from our bodies with a great sponge, before we reordered our clothing.
“This room really is not warm enough for you,” he said, looking worried as I began to cough. “Will you return to the sitting room with me?”
I would have walked through fire with him, although, naturally, I said nothing of that. Rather, I nodded and followed him downstairs. He pulled our two chairs close together, having called out to Mrs Hudson that we were not to be disturbed at any costs - an order she had certainly become familiar with over the years.
“I told you once that I have never loved,” Holmes said abruptly, his voice brittle with nervous energy. “You may recall?”
“Indeed I do. That dreadful affair of ‘The Devil’s Foot’, but I do not see - ”
”Pray allow me to finish, John. I thought it was the truth because at the time I did not fully comprehend the depth and extent of my regard for and dependence upon you.”
My eyes rose to his face in astonishment. I could feel the delighted disbelief coursing through me and the smile which lit me from within. My hand sought out his, gripping it tightly, as though it were a lifeline.
“Oh, my heart.” It was not my cold which caused my emotion-roughened voice to crack.
His fingers twined with mine, tightening, before he drew our linked hands to his mouth and saluted my knuckles with several slow kisses. My shiver owed nothing to my cold.
“I have no expertise and little personal experience where matters of the heart are concerned - except for what I have learned from you,” he said in his velvety voice, his fingertips brushing my temples. “But I do hold you in the highest regard. My one regret is that I do not make you aware of it often enough. Would I were not so reticent. The fault is mine.”
I could not speak. I could only smile at him, although my vision was blurred by tears of joy. Making a choked sound, I locked my arms around him. For the first time in my life I could hold the world well lost for love.
It was with a trace of self-consciousness that I entered the sitting room the following morning. Holmes and I had remained together in my bed chamber for the entire night. As sounds outside the window proclaimed that the great city of London was stirring to greet the new day, we had taken great joy of one another once more.
Holmes was sitting at the table, ‘The Morning Post’ folded by his plate, eating a hearty breakfast. He waved his fork at me.
“Good morning, Doctor. Pray make haste to sample these kidneys which the estimable Mrs Hudson has had the goodness to prepare for us.”
“Now then, Mr Holmes,” she scolded as she bustled in with a fresh pot of tea and set it on the table. “Why, Doctor, you do look better this morning. You must have spent a good night.”
“I spent an excellent night, thank you, Mrs Hudson,” I told her unblushingly.
Holmes directed a small private smile at his plate and continued to eat with an appetite which it did my heart good to see.
We ate in a companionable silence. After Mrs Hudson had returned to clear the table, by mutual consent Holmes and I adjourned to our chairs by the fire. Fog had given way to pouring rain; it was not a day to stir outside unless absolutely necessary.
I tensed when Holmes picked up my writing book.
“I confess that I have been thinking a great deal about the ‘Return to Zenda: The Further Adventures of an English Gentleman’,” he said in his most matter of fact tone.
This the last thing I had expected to hear, my head rose.
“So have I,” I said, reeling. “Initially it was intended as a private jest - the story of a man who is in love with another man who is his exact image. But as I began to write the characters took on a life of their own. Now... I can see no way out of it. It is plain from Mr Hope’s work that Rudolph’s fate was...”
Holmes waved me into silence with an imperious hand. “Who is Mr Hope?” he demanded.
After all these years I was quite accustomed to these gaps in his knowledge. I explained the origins of Rudolph and Rassendyll and supplied a brief synopsis of the somewhat complicated plot of the two novels, ending with Rudolph’s death.
“Ah, that is awkward,” Holmes allowed. “Do you have a copy of ‘Rupert of Hentzau’ to hand?”
“In my room.”
“Then make haste to obtain it. Really, Watson...”
While I laughed, I found myself doing his bidding; his tone and manner of suppressed excitement were so exactly those to be heard and seen at the beginning of a new case.
It did not take me above a minute or so to locate the book and return to the sitting room.
“Do you intend to read this now?” I asked as I handed over the volume.
Holmes looked up in honest astonishment. “Whatever for? You know my views on cluttering up my mind with irrelevant trivia. Find me the section which relates to Rudolph’s death.”
He read the section several times. When he looked up his eyes had that glitter of excitement I know so well. Then he placed his index finger to his lips, an indication that his great brain was engaged in a matter of some complexity.
“I believe I can see a way out of this - although I hesitate to offer an opinion where your work is concerned,” he said at last.
My lips twitched in amusement at that mendacious statement but I let it pass unchallenged. Holmes had taken my humble scribbling seriously enough to set his great mind to the problem. Indeed, I was willing to swear he had been moved by the tale. It is strange how love mellows a man.
“I should be grateful for any help you can give,” I said gravely.
“Of course there are a number of avenues to be explored, although some will undoubtedly prove to be blind alleys. It is a matter of some complexity. I believe you may find yourself writing a lengthy novel rather than the short story you intended. Are you game?”
I smiled. What else could I do? “You know I am yours to command,” I said with simple truth.
He glanced up at me through his lashes. “Then I trust that you will remember that the reverse is true,” he said with quiet sincerity, before his voice became more brisk. “Now, to work! You may care to make some notes...”
I retrieved my notebook and uncapped my pen.