I would not generally have gone to such a first interview accompanied by my sister, but as I had initially set out on the day's errands partially for the purpose of giving her some air, Althea was still following a few steps behind me as Stamford and I entered the chemical laboratory to meet my prospective fellow lodger.
Often, strangers would look at me, with my cane and my wolfsister, and either understand nothing about us at all, or think they understood far too much. The young man with the test tube only shook my hand, with a strength I should hardly have credited him, and said, "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
"Yes," I replied: not a difficult deduction, as there were few other reasons such a pair would have been dispatched, at loose ends, to London; but in the general case, I had found that Londoners either attempted to ignore Althea's presence or felt the need to comment upon it at length; even on occasion insisting on fussing over her as if she were a mere pet. Sherlock Holmes, by contrast, had already returned his attention to his chemical experiments. "We were both injured--" I began, but was interrupted.
"Never mind," he said. "We were speaking of hemoglobin. Of course, for one such as you, distinguishing between a stain of blood and any other substance, by smell alone, is most likely trivial." He addressed this last directly to Althea, a courtesy to which I had been unaccustomed from British civilians, and I found myself somewhat more in charity with him than I had expected; Althea, it appeared by the curve of her tail and color of her thoughts, approved as well. He continued, "But many of us are not so privileged as to keep company with wolves, even those who are much around blood; and at any rate, even you, Ma'am, might have some difficulty in identifying for certain a brownish stain that was perhaps as much as six months old, and had been, in the mean time, rather well contaminated by other scents."
He then proceeded to demonstrate his new discovery for us using a drop of his own blood, expressed with a bodkin via a fingertip, and I was suitably impressed, or at least, suitably impressed by his enthusiasm. Althea sat beside me, her attention fixed brightly upon his animation, her tail thumping softly upon the floor.
At length Stamford interrupted the chemistry lesson in favor of the business that had brought us there to begin with, the matter of Holmes's need for shared lodgings and my own desire for the same. He seemed quite delighted by the concept, mentioned he'd had his eye on a flat in Baker Street, and then ran down a list of most extraordinary shortcomings on his part, before he asked me for my own.
I laughed. "Well, I have a wolf-sister, as you may have noticed; that is generally the first factor upon which I have been disqualified."
"I presume that she is no less fit for polite company than yourself?"
"Much of the time, better," I conceded. "We have been in Afghanistan, as you perceived, and we object to rows, as our nerves are shaken, and we get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and we are extremely lazy. We have another set of vices when we are well, but those are the principal ones at present. Well," I added, "Althea is extremely lazy at all times."
Althea shoved affectionately against my good leg and stepped forward to inspect Holmes, carefully taking his measure in the ways of her kind. He stood still for it, but not with the anxiety of most men presented with a hundred pounds of savage beast; he held out one hand, open-palm, for her to sniff, and she politely did so as a conclusion to her assessment.
He smells interesting, she told me as she stepped back, sending me a quick wisp of tobacco-blood-chemistry-mud-lightning.
"Do you include violin-playing in the category of rows?" he asked.
"For myself, it depends on the player," I told him. "To a well-played violin, I have no objections. As for Althea, she has been known to sing along, but not without invitation, and I am told she has a fine voice and a keen ear for harmonies."
"Oh, that's all right," he said with a merry laugh. "I should rather be honored. I think we may consider things as settled; so long as Althea has no more objections, and the rooms are agreeable to you both, I have none either."
Do you object? I asked her, knowing already what her answer would be, for her reactions to Holmes, from his first words to her, had been tinged with as remarkable a degree of liking as had my own. "Althea finds you acceptable," I relayed. "When shall we see the rooms?"
"Call for me here at noon to-morrow, and we'll go together and settle everything."
"All right--noon exactly," I said, shaking his hand.
All the same, I said to my sister as we walked together toward my hotel, He did seem to be a rather peculiar man.
We shall study him, Althea answered. It will give me something to do--'The proper study of wolfkind is man,' you know.
I laughed, and strolled on to my hotel.
"Well, and there is the end of our little drama," I said to Holmes, as we sat smoking after the conclusion of the affair of the Sign of the Four. "It is always satisfactory to have a proper chance at studying your methods, and I believe that even Althea has learned something."
It is not my fault I was never taught the finer points of the art of tracking, Althea complained to me. I am a medic's wolf, as you well know.
Yes, I told her, stroking reassuringly down her shoulder, and you have always done remarkably well at it despite. But tell me it was not a pleasure in its own way to observe a true professional at work.
Toby was quite polite, she conceded, giving him his scent-name of London-mud-and-crushed-dandelions, and I laughed.
"Yes," Holmes said. "And unless I quite mistake myself, I do believe Miss Morstan betrayed a certain fondness for you, Doctor."
"As she made no attempt to disguise her partiality," I said cheerfully, "I have no difficulty in confirming your observation."
"And you showed a marked partiality to her as well, though you were subtler about it," he continued. "Yet I am to understand you have made no plans to continue the acquaintance."
"No," I said shortly, somewhat disinclined to continue this line of questioning, but well aware that with Holmes as my inquisitor I scarcely had a chance of turning it.
"Why?" he continued.
This was a rather more complicated question than Holmes perhaps was aware; and as I had noted that he generally removed himself from the particular concerns of the feminine sex, I considered carefully before I chose which aspect of my answer to present. There was the fact, of course, that for a large portion of our acquaintance, we had both expected that she was soon to come into a great fortune, and thus beyond my society, but that was only a portion of the difficulty. "I have a wolfsister, as you may be aware," I said at last.
"Yes," he replied. "Delightful company she is, and a great help in the work."
"And Miss Morstan is a respectable woman of gentle habits."
"And yet I did not note her to have any objection to Althea's presence. Indeed, she seem intrigued more than otherwise."
"That does not mean it would be suitable for me to--to court her," I said.
"I wasn't aware that such a companion made one unmarriageable. Why, I can name you several well-known heroes of the Army and Navy who, upon their return to civilian life, achieved quite brilliant nuptial matches, accompanied by their wolves to happy matrimonial homes."
"Yes," I said, perhaps more savagely than I had meant, "Wolfbrothers. It is...a different matter, when one is known to have a sister."
"Ah," said Holmes, and let this stand for some moments, himself smoking contemplatively, myself with somewhat less serenity, before he continued, "Do you so despise your own kind, then? I had--assumed, that within the pack, one learned a different morality."
"Yes," I agreed, though I had never thought about it in quite these terms before. "But that's it, you see. Miss Morstan can never be part of the pack; nor would I wish it upon her."
"And so you are caught between two standards, unable to fully give yourself to either," Holmes said quietly. "In fact-- in all the years I have known you, I have never observed you to seek out female company of any kind; respectable or otherwise; nor, for that matter, male. Surely a night's relief would not require any complications due to your sister. Indeed, I had understood that she herself would have gone through at least one of her cycles in the time you have lived here, and yet-- disregarding her affection for Toby-- I have seen no sign of it."
Althea snorted and said He should be so lucky!
I sighed. With anyone else, I would have done whatever was necessary, occasionally to the limit of violence, to avoid discussing these matters: and more people than one might expect, upon learning that one has a wolfsister, consider it appropriate to bring up the most disconcerting topics of conversation - but I had been sharing quarters with Holmes for years now, and I knew he asked almost entirely out of a pure scientific curiosity, untouched by pity or prurient concerns.
"When I was wounded at Maiwand," I began, "Althea was wounded as well, a gunshot through her abdomen."
Holmes nodded, knowing this portion of the story well enough. I continued, "The surgeons judged that the damage was such that it would be hazardous to her health should she continue to breed, and so rather than repair the relevant organs, they removed them."
"Ah," said Holmes, one quick exhalation. "Which explains her situation." He paused, in what might have been an attempt at delicacy, and continued, "Do you find, then, that this has affected yourself as well?"
This I had spoken of only once before, and shortly, to a physician at the hospital at Peshawar, and then I had been shattered and ill enough that I hardly even recalled the possibility. Now, to Holmes, I said, "I am fully functional in all my parts, I assure you, and quite as capable as before of appreciating a worthy female. But I find, since our return, that something of the urgency is gone."
"Fascinating," Holmes said, and tamped his pipe.
"I don't know whether it's due to Althea," I hastened to add. "I am given to understand that soldiers returned may find many changes and alterations in themselves, regardless of their brothers or sisters. Causes aside, however, I find myself content as I am."
I had tried, in those first weeks after my return to London. Of course I had tried, leaving Althea behind in my rooms with a benediction of a sort of affectionate condescension from one who knew herself now free from such inconvenient biological distractions; quite forgetting, it appeared, how proud and eager she had been for breeding, when it was her time. And thus had I proved to myself that I was, despite everything, still capable of functioning as a man, yet I found the experiences curiously flat and uninspiring. Perhaps it was simply that, next to the experience of Althea bringing her desire to me, and building it to that great peak in which all human thought was washed away, nothing else could compare. Nonetheless, I found myself entirely uninterested in such expeditions almost as soon as I had proved that they were a possibility, "And certainly," I added to Holmes, "I am without sufficiently ruling desire to subject a woman such as Miss Morstan to life as the wife of a wolfsister's brother."
He raised his eyebrows. "I find life with one quite pleasant."
"Yes, but even you must concede that it would be another matter entirely with a wife."
"As I have always considered it a matter more to be marvelled at than appreciated that the general course of mankind is so ready to throw aside all practical and logical concerns for the merely emotional excesses of love, I am not entirely certain what you wish me to concede. I plan never to become sufficiently familiar with the matters pertaining to wedded bliss to able to make such judgments."
Had I met Holmes before our injuries in Afghanistan, I would have considered his protestations of disinterest in affairs of the heart to be, at best, laughable; at worst, pathological. As it was, however, I found them rather to be something of a comfort.
"Well, as I have no current plans of the sort myself, Holmes, you and I and Althea shall simply have to continue on in pleasant company with one another. At least, until you find the woman who is logical and unemotional enough to be a match for you."
"A turn of events which I trust shall never come to pass."
No great span of time passed before the opportunity arose for Holmes's assertions in that matter to be put to the test, for a better match to Holmes than the woman lately known as Irene Adler I cannot possibly imagine.
Althea did not like the woman. But Althea did not much like the other party involved in Adler's case, either. The King of Bohemia was an overdressed man with an overinflated sense of his own worth, and his wolfbrother hardly better. Althea stared the young dog wolf into submission within minutes of his entry in Baker Street; Holmes was by necessity somewhat more polite to his brother, but the intent was the same.
Adler, by contrast - in fact, I did not expect that Althea or I would meet her ourselves; Holmes seemed to consider the case largely pedestrian, beyond its illustrious iniator, and I heard no more of the matter until the next evening, when a stranger stomped into our sitting room: ill-kempt and disreputable-looking, a groom, going by his dress, and likely a drunk as well. Althea growled low and aggressive beside me and I stood, my cane held defensively before me.
"Sir!" I said. "This is a private residence. If you have business with myself or Mr. Holmes, I should suggest that you show a minimum of courtesy."
He turned to me, tipped up one side of his crumpled cap, and gave a bark of laughter. "It is good to know that my home is still fiercely defended," he said, and I sank back into my chair with relief.
"Holmes," I said. It reflects poorly on me perhaps, that this late in our acquaintance, I could still be so easily fooled by one of his disguises, expert as he was, but I must confess that I had come to depend on my wolfsister's judgement in such matters, her sense of smell being sufficient to penetrate even the most effective of disguises. Which is why I turned next to glare down at her, but she laughed at me, her jaw hanging open and tongue lolling merrily.
You knew, I accused her.
Of course I did, she answered. But he asked me not to tell.
"You mustn't blame Althea," Holmes broke in to our communion; "I asked her not to give me away. You really do allow yourself to become most deplorably lazy, Watson, when your own senses ought to more than sufficient."
"I blame her entirely," I told him severely, "For she has no reason to give heed to your request beyond her own execrable sense of humor. Which does not mean that you are to be let off, Holmes; I see that you have corrupted my wolf."
He grinned at me through the grime of his disguise, and said, "Give me a moment to wash, Watson, and I will tell you how I have employed my morning; for I am sure you could never guess."
His morning, it was revealed, had been spent first in tailing Miss Irene Adler, and then in serving the role of witness as she became Mrs. Godfrey Norton instead. He showed me the golden sovereign he had been paid for his services, and then ordered himself some food, and asked if I would be willing to assist him in the next stage of the affair, even if it might involve breaking the law.
I assured him that I should be delighted to help, and he added, "And Althea as well?"
Althea lifted her head and said Of course!
"You have a role for her in your plan?"
"Yes. As for your own role, it will be largely to stand by until the very end, but I shall need to once again be in disguise and in close proximity to the woman, and it occurs to me that the sudden addition of a wolfsister to my person would be an excellent deterrent to any slight recognition that might occur."
It was sound enough reasoning, and as Althea was agreeable, we soon thereafter set out for Adler's abode of Briony Lodge. Holmes wore the persona of an elderly and slightly dotty veteran, perhaps of the Crimean war or before, Althea giving the impression of matching age by exaggerating the stiffness in her gait which was her souvenir of Maiwand. As for myself, my role was to be an unmemorable passer-by, and with Althea walking in step with Holmes rather than myself, it was strange to suddenly find myself lacking the turned heads and second glances in the street, to which I had become accustomed since my return to England accompanied by my sister.
We reached Serpentine Lane without incident, and upon Holmes sharing final instructions with both of us, separated, to infiltrate ourselves into the somewhat remarkable number of loafers and pedestrians already in the street. I had grown so used to Althea's presence always at my side that I will confess I found myself several times irresistibly drawn to search her out and convince myself of her safety; but each time I saw her pacing beside Holmes, and she sent me a reassuring wave of security and love, and I felt her to be as much in her place at Holmes's side as at my own. As for Althea, she had no difficulty whatsoever in playing her part, and I believe she found my insecurity to be rather ridiculous, for there was nothing that could make her less mine, as we both well knew.
When at length the lady's landau arrived, a scuffle quickly developed around her door, as several of the loafers jumped into the fray. The elderly old veteran, accompanied by his still-valiant wolf-sister, dashed into the midst of it to protect the lady, but was quickly struck down in the confusion, falling insensibly with blood across his face. The wolfsister turned immediately and lay across him, snarling at any who approached between licking at the blood on his face.
At this, the scufflers quickly took to their heels, and several of the more well-dressed passers-by gathered round, attempting to help but held at bay by the frightened wolfsister. Irene Adler, as I will still call her, had hurried up the steps; but she turned with her superb figure outlined against the lights of the hall, and called, "Is the poor gentleman much hurt?"
"He is dead," cried several voices.
"No, there is life in him!" cried another. "Were he dead the wolf would not guard him so. But he'll be gone soon if nothing is done."
"He's a brave fellow," said a woman. "And his wolf; I have always admired our fierce wolfbrothers. Without them who knows what may have happened to the lady. Ah, he's breathing now."
Miss Adler had descended the stairs; at her approach Althea moved stiff-legged and tense a few steps away from him, growling deep in her throat but allowing the bystanders to approach, should any dare. "Bring him into the sitting room!" Miss Adler declared, with an air of command that would have brought shame to several officers of my acquaintance, and was more than sufficient to grant the bystanders the fibre to pass Althea. "The wolf as well, of course. This way, please!"
Slowly and solemnly Holmes was borne into Briony Lodge and laid upon a couch, easily visible through the open blinds. Now, then, was my part in this play, though I felt, at that moment, quite heartily ashamed of myself when I thought of Adler's beauty, of her grace and kindness with which she had welcomed her duplicitous saviors in to her home.
Althea must have sensed my hesitation, for I quite distinctly heard her say to me, If I hear one more thought from you about the gentleness and frailty of female-kind, I shall bite her on the leg.
My sister has never had any patience with those who would judge her by her sex, and I thought of the things I had seen her and her sisters do in their time, and how much Adler's gracefulness and restraint resembled, in their way, the beauty of a wolfsister hunting. I hardened my heart and took from my ulster the smoke-rocket Holmes had entrusted to me. After all, I thought, it is she who sought to injure our client.
Althea must have conveyed somehow to Holmes that I was ready to act, for he importuned a maid to throw open the window, and at Althea's confirmation of the signal I threw the smoke-bomb into the room with a cry of "Fire!" The word was no sooner out of my mouth than a crowd of spectators joined in a general shriek of "Fire!", and over it all, that unmistakable and penetrating howl of a wolf giving warning of the approach of deadly flame. Slipping through the shouting crowd I made my way to the corner of the street, and soon rejoiced to find my friend's arm in mine and my wolf-sister returned to my side, and to get away from the scene of uproar. He walked swiftly and in silence until we approached quite near to Baker Street, and then he took it upon himself to explain the methods by which he had discovered Adler's most secure treasure-store.
That the rest of the passers-by in the Serpentine Road had been also accomplices, and that his injuries had been faked, I had guessed as much, for had there at any moment been a real danger to Holmes, Althea would have made it clear to me. But until he explained to me the purpose of the ruse with the fire-- that Adler would of course immediately turn to that which she valued most, I had not the slightest idea of his stratagem. And yet, as usual, upon his explanation it was obvious enough.
She was honestly frightened Althea confirmed to me, and she turned to it like a wolf with pups in danger. There is no doubt the thing is there, if she values it.
"So our quest is practically finished," Holmes continued. "I shall call on the King tomorrow, and with you, if you care to come with us."
We had reached Baker Street and had stopped at the door. As he was searching his pockets for the key, a slim youth in an ulster hurried by us and said, "Good-night, Mister--"
But that sentence was not finished, for she was interrupted by a sudden growl from Althea. That is Irene Adler, Althea told me with excitement, and dashed after as the woman fled.
I dashed after her, of course, and Holmes, abandoning our door without question, after me. She came to bay in a nearby alley, raising her hands laughing in surrender as we reached her and Althea.
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes," she said. "It appears I have been caught." Now, looking closely, it was easy to discern the fine lines of her face, the ulster and the boy's clothes disguising the elegant curves of her figure. Althea paced before her, tense, and giving off a palpably unwelcoming aura; though it was not the contemptuous dislike she had shown for the King and his brother. It was rather more the way that a pack-leader might respond to another she-wolf whom she felt capable of offering a threat to her leadership, however slight.
"Did you truly think a disguise of that sort would fool a wolfsister?" Holmes asked her.
"I had not been aware that the eminent detective Mr. Holmes was blessed with a sister," she replied. "Indeed, I suspected not a thing until I realized how I had betrayed myself in the alarm of fire. But I had been warned against you months ago, that if the King employed an agent, it would be you. And yet there was the wolfsister, and it is known that Holmes was never a soldier! So I sought to confirm my suspicions before acting. I see now my mistake; I had known of course of you, Dr. Watson, but I had not known that it was possible for a sister to have two brothers both at once. I congratulate you, ma'am; your taste is impeccable, though it is not mine," she said, and held her hand out to Althea.
Althea, without relaxing her stance, stepped forward sniffed the hand, and much to my surprise, then offered the woman her scent-name. And then mine, and Holmes's as well.
"It is not possible for a wolf to have more than one brother," I said, though I found myself entertaining the idea even as I said it.
"Oh, is it not?" she replied. "I am doubly mistaken, then. And Mr. Holmes, now that you have caught me: what do you plan to do with me?"
"What do you plan to do?" he replied.
"What we had already decided upon, though perhaps with more urgency. My husband and I shall be travelling to the continent, to make a new life for ourselves; I do not imagine that I should ever cross your path again."
"And the photograph?"
"Comes with me," she said coolly. "It is a safeguard, and a weapon against any steps he may take in the future. I have no plans to use it against him, Holmes, and regardless of what he might have told you, never did."
"And if we were to call upon you early to-morrow?"
"You should find Briony Lodge vacated entirely."
Which was, indeed, what we did, accompanied by the King of Bohemia, but with no mention on Holmes's part, or my own, of our encounter in the alley that previous night. In the hidden safe which Adler had unwittingly revealed to my companion the previous day, we found only a letter, which restated the assurances she had given us in person, and a photograph of herself, which Holmes requested as his reward, and still keeps framed in our chambers.
I still am unsure what to make of the woman, or of Holmes's relations with her, except that there was, and continues, on his part at least, the greatest respect between them. But I found myself highly unsettled in the wake of our encounter, which seemed to be something of a talent of hers.
"Is it possible for a wolf to have two brothers?" I asked Althea a few days later, not regretting the deception we had perpetrated-- for after all in the end it had come right-- but thinking about it. It had not been so far different from the way we often operated on Holmes's more difficult cases, the three of us acting as a team in whichever pairs were most expedient, Holmes only requiring me to intercede with Althea when it was necessary for her to convey something too complex for anything other than our bond. And yet I had rarely, if ever, heard of such teamwork occurring between a wolf and one to whom she was not bonded; but then I had very little experience of the lives of wolfbrothers and sisters beyond the context of the Army. And wolfbrothers did often marry.
I am yours, Althea answered me. And you are his. So he is mine.
It was not the most informative of answers. But it is the sort of answer one gets, from a wolf, and so I had to be satisfied with it.