It was the day after the first and final performance of the Shadow of Death at the Orpheum Theatre, and to mourn the early death of my first role as a leading man, I decided to indulge in a good spot of drinking at the Criterion Bar. Well, I say first leading role. But only because the less said about a certain performance of King Lear, the better. Still, things had never looked so bleak for my career. Steady work had begun to dry up in favour of fresh young faces, and I was confronted with the unfortunate truth that I could not recover from bad publicity as well as I could when I was a young man.
"Kincaid? Reginald Kincaid? Is that you?"
"Stamford. What a pleasure to see you," I said through gritted teeth. "Come all the way to the Criterion now to reject me for a role?"
Oh, it was a petty reaction, no doubt. The man was only doing his job, which was to weed through the throngs of actors competing for a sought-after role. Still. We actors can be fragile creatures when it came to our egos, and I was in a state of mind to be petty about all the missed opportunities and professional slights that had been foisted upon me during my career.
To his credit, Stamford did not bat an eye at my rudeness. "That was years ago, Reginald. And as I said, I never believed you to be lacking the talent - only the motivation and the right part. I have a good instinct about these things."
"Of course, of course. Care for a drink, then?" I offered, mostly because I did not want to be out-done by his too-calm veneer of politeness.
"Yes, please. Thank you. So, what have you been up to?"
"Looking for a part, as all actors do," I replied. "It's getting impossible to make a decent living in this city as an actor these days."
"Ah, I was hoping you would say so. I believe I have something of an interesting offer for you. What would you say if I told you that there is a role I am casting for which would provide you with long-term employment for the foreseeable future, as long as you agreed to an unusual set of conditions?"
I laughed. "I would tell you that you're an insane. No one can guarantee constant, long-term employment to any single actor, unless they were running the theatre themselves. You're not offering me a free theatre, are you? I've always had a soft spot for the Adelphi Theatre."
"Nothing quite as costly as that, I'm afraid. But it has the potential to be very glamorous indeed."
"You need not say more, Stamford. If you seek a high-calibre actor with extensive experience dealing with adoring crowds, then I am your man."
"Don't be too quick to accept, Reginald. There are some unusual stipulations to this role."
"Then don't hold back. Let me have it. What can possibly be so terrible about this job?"
"First, you must agree to absolute secrecy. Any slip of the truth, and your contract is effectively terminated."
"Good. Then this is the offer: if you accept this role, then you will cease to be Reginald Kincaid. Henceforth, you shall be known as Sherlock Holmes, and you will work under the employ of one Dr. John Watson. You will say nothing that is outside of the scripts provided to you at each scene, you will do nothing without Dr. Watson's approval, and you must maintain the facade at all times when in public. For compensation, you will be given free room and board at Dr. Watson's flat in Baker Street, as well as a small salary each week."
I stared at Stamford. "This seems less like acting to me than fraud. There isn't some shady business behind this, is there?"
"If you want the good doctor's reasoning for this charade, you are free to ask him yourself. However, I can assure you that there is nothing criminal going on. He simply needs a man who is willing to give up his current identity to resume a new one."
I've often wondered how different things would be if I had told Stamford off for being a madman on that day. Fortunately for Stamford, and looking back, fortunately for myself as well, I decided to at least hear this John Watson out.
We quickly called a cab and made our way over to a place known as the Diogenes Club. Stamford gave me further instructions on the ride over.
"Take care to observe the rules of this club carefully, Reginald. You must avoid all eye contact, and you must not speak until you are given the go-ahead."
It seemed to me that matters were quickly growing more and more absurd, but having very little to lose, I kept quiet and nodded.
Without the ambience of noise and conversation, the Diogenes Club was an eerie place. The place was quite a bit smaller than I imagined. Its main hallway led directly to what appeared to be a reading room, where men with blank faces studiously avoided each other while reading their periodicals and books. With a gentle nudge at my elbows, Stamford quickly ushered me into a small chamber nearby.
"This is the Strangers' Room," explained Stamford once we entered and closed the door behind us. "It is the only room in the club where conversation is permitted."
The first thing I noticed about John Watson were his eyes. He was a small, impeccably dressed man who gave all the appearances of a casually relaxed gentleman enjoying his evening reading. Yet his eyes, sharp and bright, darted from behind the newspaper to look me over and for a moment, I was rooted in place. It was the gaze of someone who was no stranger to digging out secrets, and every gamblers' instinct I had told me never to play cards against this man.
Oblivious to my discomfort, Stamford pulled me next to him and began the introductions. "Dr. John Watson, allow me to introduce you to Reginald Kincaid, the man who will become the legendary Sherlock Holmes."
Watson rose and shook my hands briskly. "How do you do, Mr. Kincaid. Tell me, as a compulsive gambler, an alcoholic and an incurable womanizer, do you think yourself capable of putting this behind you to maintain a facade of a respectable gentleman who is deeply unemotional and highly intelligent?"
How long I stood there slack-jawed, I could not recall. Finally, I spluttered: "I beg your pardon!"
Ignoring my indignant protests, Watson strode over next to Stamford and muttered: "This is the man you chose for the role? I could not think of anyone less suited to become the person I need Sherlock Holmes to be."
"Now see here! I haven't the faintest clue how you came to find out so much about me, and quite frankly, I don't care. Nevertheless, I can't remember the last time an actor was required to share the same attributes as the character he plays. London would be in trouble with all the Macbeths and Claudiuses running around."
"Mr. Kincaid, this is no ordinary role. You are required to keep in character at all times in public. I, and all your acquaintances shall henceforth refer to you as Sherlock Holmes. And if that is the case, I can't have you drinking and making a fool out of yourself, destroying his well-earned reputation."
I carefully considered the benefits of steady employment against the prospect of giving up drinking and gambling. "I suppose it's too late to change this Holmes character so that he's a fan of the occasional drink or two?"
Watson sank down in his seat and buried his face in his hands. "Stamford, this cannot possibly be the best that you can do."
"And who were you expecting me to find for this rotten business, Dr. Watson? Henry Irving?" Stamford barked out a short laugh. "Every actor who's anyone in this town would be too recognizable to suddenly become a new person, nor would they be desperate enough to take your offer. He's the best of a bad lot, I promise you."
There was probably a time when pride would have had me out of the door at that blatant display of disrespect. However, when Watson looked at me with tired, resigned eyes and asked: "Well?" I found myself mirroring his expression of dismay and nodding.
"You have yourself a deal, Dr. Watson. Though you'll have to explain to me why you desperately need someone to play this Sherlock Holmes fellow. He sounds like the sort of dreadful bore no one would pay to see in a theatre."