It was the bookmark that gave him away: delivered him, finally, into my hands for a reckoning exactly the right number of years in coming.
On the anniversary of his return, over half-a-dozen Springs, I had presented him, without comment – and without response save a 'thank you' that moved his lips but never cracked his voice – with a gift, wrapped in plain brown paper tied with string. In 1895, a medal of St Roch, patron of (amongst others) bachelors and the falsely accused, born at Montpellier. The next year, a letter-opener of ivory traded up the Blue Nile through the Sudan to Cairo and Alexandria. 1897: frankincense of Arabia in a brass vessel inscribed with a prayer “in the name of God who is One”. My fourth gift was a new Persian carpet for our sitting room, bought with an unexpected run of luck on the horses. In the last year of the Nineteenth century I found, in a crooked little curio shop in Portsmouth Street, a Tibetan prayer wheel somehow liberated from that closed and mystical country, and in the first of the Twentieth, a tooled leather bookmark fashioned in the much-visited city of Dante and Machiavelli.
Thus did I tell back to him the tale of his wanderings in those lost years, retracing his steps to the point where he had disappeared into Florence and 'no-one in the world' – in particular, a specific no-one in Kensington – knew where he was. The annual tradition likewise ceased, returned to its source even as he had to the great city that caged and fed his genius.
Then, at last, I received his gracious permission to write for the great, unobservant public the triumph of the Empty House, and more stories that came after. In due course, another bound volume joined its fellows on the shelf next to my desk.
From time to time, I would find them shuffled about, as if disturbed by brownies in the night. I never saw him with one in his hands, nor on the night stand by his bed – even when the frequency and angle at which I viewed that particular piece of furniture had changed somewhat.
On the shelf, I never saw any with places marked, save one. The Memoirs, whose publication in covers of cerulean blue he had greeted at the time with his usual mix of congratulations on my success and censure of the public's taste for literary confabulation, acquired the Florentine bookmark soon after I gave it him. It remained at a place I estimated, because I hesitated to confirm, to be some twelve pages before the end.
It may be remembered that, as we sat in my consulting room that unforgettable, unimaginable spring day in 1894 – he gaunt and ground to a jagged edge, I still reeling from brandy and shock – he had excused his three-year lie to me on the grounds of an essential need that I believe him dead in order to paint him convincingly so to the world. Readers since have naturally supposed, as I did then, that he had picked up the previous December's edition of the Strand somewhere in France and acquainted himself with my rendering of that last, heroic struggle.
He had not read The Final Problem. Not then, not in ten years more.
There was little about this specific morning to distinguish it from many another at Baker Street. In retrospect, its significance is absolute. That may have had something to do with the ending of the matter occupying most of the week before, which I may someday commit to print, and which turned out to be the last of the Baker Street cases. I suspect, however, that it had more to do with certain words whispered, in a halting moment of exaltation both physical and spiritual, under cover of darkness late the previous night.
“I love you.”
I should blame no reader for supposing that I was the one who uttered them. I should think them a trifle inattentive for identifying the recipient as a yet-to-be named lady, but then not everyone has the leisure or the life experience to parse a text to the uttermost the first time. The truth is that neither assumption is correct.
Sherlock Holmes, the man who should never marry, who could never admit strong emotion where it might blunt the fine instruments of his deductive and reasoning faculties, who sneered at romanticism and mocked its admirers, had told me he loved me.
And thus he had put himself at my mercy. For there is no getting away from the fact that such a statement is as much plea as declaration. Love – that kind of love – wants an answer, a like pledge and promise for the present, for the future.
I almost gave it to him, then and there. Almost. Then I had the most sudden and vivid vision of that strip of crimson leather, twelve pages from the end of the Memoirs, and I held my tongue. I kissed him, soundly and fervently, so as not to be cruel quite beyond his deserving, but though he searched my face in the shadows of a candle flame, I would not yield further.
We rose, separately for the sake of safety and hot water. We breakfasted with the newspapers. From time to time I caught him steal a glance at me, at the door, at the shelf by my desk, as if divided between an impulse toward fight or flight. When at last he stretched himself expansively, joints cracking alarmingly as if to remind us both that time was no longer a resource we could afford to squander, I half-expected some shamefaced apology. He had forgot himself last night in the heat of the moment, dear fellow, pray do not mistake him for a sentimental fool, he hoped our...arrangement could continue as civilly and conveniently as it had before.
Holmes, however, did nothing by half-measures, even abasement.
“Watson. If there is nothing pressing today, could you do me a service?”
“Of course, if I am able. What service would that be?”
“I am going to read one of your stories, and I should like you to watch me.”
As he spoke, he crossed the room in four strides, plucked the blue book from its place and settled back into his chair with the pages splayed open on his knee at the place where the bookmark had sat for so long, waiting.
He wanted me to see him take his medicine, his punishment, the black draught and peeled switch forced down his long throat and thrashed across his narrow shoulders.
He wanted it, and so did I.
The heart of that tale is carved on my own heart, though some of the exact words have faded with the years. Yet I could tell when he reached the part about my marriage and the three cases of the year 1890, for he sighed with mingled regret and recognition. Had it not been for that other sorrow, twin to the one of losing my friend, I should never have returned to live here, and nothing would have come of the intimacy of our souls but more stories. If he smiled at his antics climbing over garden walls and dressing up as a priest, at mine haring through the Lowther Arcade and sending my new Norfolk jacket on without me to Folkstone, he was sober when he recalled the watchfulness of those days, when a spidery, far-reaching hand grabbed ever for our heels from London to the Alps.
There was that old glow of pride and exasperation, the same when he remembered our argument at Strasbourg as the one he wore during it, knowing full well that the more he spoke of danger, the more I was determined to meet it with him. His jaw had set just as it did now, that morning he turned from me on the path to Rosenlaui with a cheery aux revoir on his lips and an adieu in his footsteps. It may have been my imagination, but had he not swallowed two or three times, standing gazing at the torrent, just as he did this morning seated before the printed page? Had he looked up and searched in vain for my face as he pinned his farewell note to the barren rock? For he was looking at me now, reading me as he imagined me reading it: both of us a love-letter to a mystery, the mystery of him and me.
Slowly, he turned the last page and read steadily to the end, to what should have been his epitaph. I saw his mouth shape itself without sound around the words “best and wisest” and went to stand behind his chair, to spare him some mawkish scene that could not bear daylight upon it. He reached up with one hand, begging for mercy. I took it, twining our fingers in an embrace we would doubtless replicate that night with our bodies.
“I trust that now you are wiser than you were then, and if there is – as well there may be – a better man, then I would still know only you.”
By daylight, and in our sitting room, it was enough. I gave him his real answer later, one sheltered by the gathering darkness and none the worse for that.