“Don’t be so bloody afraid all the time, Nick,” Blackwood laughs, and with a nimble flick of his foot sends him careening into the river.
Their last visit to the Chichester estate falls in the summer of 1869. They’re freshly polished from the years of secondary academia, set to enter the drudgery of politics, the baffling world of university or, most probably in Blackwood’s case, the reliable world of the Church, and Coward had loudly declared halfway through their penultimate Literature lesson they should spend their last free summer in style. They abandon the tedious task of unpacking and checking over the household on the moment of their arrival, once Blackwood professes a desire to take a stroll by the river at the bottom of the gardens – now, it seems, for more devious ends than relaxation.
Of course, Blackwood is well aware of the nippy undercurrent of the river – it’s the same one which had often disrupted their old boating-games and spun them many miles from their intended targets on the riverbank. On this occasion, Coward is without the heavenly protector of his rickety raft, having long outgrown it, and swiftly pulled under as well as along; he’s carried a full three hundred yards, battered by loose tree-roots and close to swooning from lack of air before Blackwood’s hand closes around his elbow and tugs him back onto the bank.
Wheezing uncontrollably, Coward pulls Blackwood down and kisses him. He feels Blackwood’s incredulity in the bunch of his muscles, the tightening of his chest as he gasps. Blackwood leans back, eventually, and runs a hand amusedly down Coward’s dripping face. “Don’t be afraid,” he repeats, softer than before.
Presently, Coward dries himself off in the sun, and they take a walk down the river bank, any thoughts of swimming extinguished by the near-drowning. “Do you think you’ll ever go to university, Harry?” Coward asks as the path curved from the river to bypass an old willow tree, its leaves lethargically tugged along by the current; when they were six, Blackwood had persuaded him to try and climb as high as he could, and Coward had fallen, snapping his collarbone.
Blackwood shrugs. “I should very much like to; science has always been a great interest of mine. Nevertheless, the odds are against me; even if John does succumb to this wretched disease of his – most selfish of him to do so – and I escape life as a pastor, I shall inherit the family title instead, and be forced into a life of politics.” The declaration disturbs Coward; although Blackwood has never seen eye to eye with John, the son of his adopted father’s first marriage, the disease is most likely fatal, and it would be awful for him to die with such a silly feud still standing. Blackwood laughs. “Don’t look at me like that, Nick, I can tell that you’re thinking ill of me. John will be fine, and I will be giving sermons thrice daily for the rest of my days. No,” he smiles, looking at Coward with a little regret, “academia would be an ideal life, but not one for the son of a Lord – even an adopted one.”
The river forks East at the end of the estate and across into the neighbouring farmland; the route is familiar to them, and they cross the ramshackle bridge to gaze at the view to the hills in the distance. “What of you, Nick?” Blackwood continues, eventually. “I heard from Father you have a place in the Home Secretary’s office. Planning to work your way up from the bottom?”
“My uncle on my mother’s side is Earl of Strafford, you know,” Coward interrupts, rather petulantly. “I am the next in line for the title when he dies.” He scowls viciously at Blackwood, and Blackwood laughs.
“Why, then, we shall both be Lords together, and how dreary that shall be! We may even sit in the House of Lords together some day, and, God help us, will die old, fat and miserable.”
The sun is setting across the backs of the hills, throwing odd, perverse illuminations across the crops in the field nearby. Coward has a fondness for this place, one that comes from his early art lessons spent sketching endless portraits of the scenery, each slightly worse than the one before until he threw a fit of pique and transferred his interests from painting to learning the piano. The light catches Blackwood’s face in an odd, distorted way, and it seems to lengthen and change in a manner that makes him shudder. He considers asking Blackwood whether he wants to lie with him here, just once more, as they have countless times in the summers before, but he knows Blackwood will always protest; the grass stains would be unimaginable, and, with the light fading fast, there is a high probability that the aging and decrepit butler, Williams, would send out a rescue party.
They don’t depart that spot until the sun has sunk properly below the horizon, but spend it in silence, stood, shoulder to shoulder, watching it go down.
There are pauses of weeks, months and even years between their correspondence once Coward leaves for London. He immerses himself in the frantic world of London politics and, with a steady hand and a steadier ambition, pulls himself wearily up through the ranks. The pace, however, is never quite fast enough, and the constant disappointments when a promotion slips him by grow ever more frustrating as the time passes.
He is never informed of John’s death; rather, his friend begins signing his letters as Lord H. Blackwood, and he deduces the rest. He’s unsure if the movement is intended to unsettle him, but it does, nonetheless; another way in which Blackwood is infinitely superior to him, set out in communiqué, and it adds a bitter, twisted taste to the letters from his childhood friend he had previously so looked forward to receiving. With the tragic death of his uncle later in the year, he is left with full claim on the peerage, and it is with great relish that he eventually returns the favour with an unpractised Lord Coward.
Seeing as little of Blackwood as he does, it is naturally quite a shock to enter his living quarters in Holborn rather late in the evening to find him standing, flushed by the moonlight, in his bedroom window.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says, by way of greeting, and turns from the window.
Ever the gracious host, Coward moves to the chestnut bureau, taking out a bottle of wine and two oversized glasses. “How was Switzerland?” He knows Blackwood returned to the country at least a week ago, but he’s received no correspondence to tell him the events of the long-awaited journey. The wine poured, he passes a glass to Blackwood, who nods, once, and drinks.
“Uneventful, save for the journey back, which I spent with a highly educated gentleman who convinced me of some rather interesting intellectual theories – ” A trademark sinister smile. “But that is of no matter.”
Coward shifts a little. “Would you like me to call for some food? Jeffries should still be up, even at this hour.”
“No,” Blackwood answers, shortly. He places down his glass. “Pick up your coat; there’s someone I would like for you to meet.”
Coward’s introduction to Sir Thomas leads, swiftly, to his indoctrination with the Order, and finally an insight into the parts of Blackwood’s life he has previously never been privy to. He learns of Blackwood’s parentage, of his conception, and of the previously unknown growing dark obsession with science and black magic which have dominated his most recent years.
By far the most significant, however, is his discovery of the true nature of his oldest friend, and the abhorrent terror that rises in him when he learns of it.
The confrontation is chaotic. Coward decides to drink, beforehand, the booster of necessary Dutch courage, and staggers rather than enters his friend’s lodgings, situated in a place that really is beyond his income, even by Blackwood’s extortionate wealth. That is, after all, the Order; the things which were beyond your wildest dreams are available in a heartbeat, in the movement of a pen. In the last meeting Coward attended, the words Home Secretary were flitting dangerously about the room; the youngest ever, he reckons, and a seat in the House of Lords, no less.
The Order gives you power, even at the expense of your soul, or your morality at the very least.
“Is it true?” Coward begins, failing to keep his voice in check; it borders on a yell, and Blackwood looks up, mildly perturbed, from his letter-writing. “Standish – he said, oh, Harry, tell me – you haven’t – ”
“Sit,” Blackwood says, and Coward sits, shaking, in a chair beside the fire, as Blackwood crosses the room and quietly shuts the door. “What has Standish told you?”
“Dreadful things,” Coward whispers, shaking his head. “Harry, he said – he said you murdered – ”
Blackwood says nothing. Coward whips around in his chair; his friend’s face is impassive, if resolute, with the tiniest hint of regret. “I am sorry that you heard it from him, and not myself, but yes, it is true. I have killed, and more than once.”
Coward gasps, shooting to his feet, and paces to the window, trembling. “For the Order?”
“For the power,” his friend replies, softly. “You know of my tastes in magic, Nicholas; this should not shock you so.”
Coward shakes his head. Is his potential promotion to Home Secretary merely the means in which to keep Blackwood’s murderous traits from ending in incarceration? Even if it is, would it really go beyond the price he’s willing to pay for his overwhelming ambition?
“Are you afraid of me, Nicholas?” Blackwood asks, and Coward shudders, closing his eyes; he is, and, in a sense, always has been. Blackwood paces across the room, standing close behind him. Coward, for an insane, hectic moment, misses the friend he used to know. “I have a plan, Nicholas, and it will turn the world on its head, and lead us into a new age of wonder.” His hand spreads out across Coward’s stomach, hot as Hell, and Coward shudders. Blackwood tightens his hand around Coward’s throat, and murmurs the instruction – “Do not be afraid.”
And oh, the spell is beautiful. Coward knows it is nothing more than conjuring tricks, is aware of Blackwood’s preoccupation with the dull, mechanical works of science, but the majesty in which the tasks are performed – the subtlety, the intricacy of Blackwood’s work, the precision and the refinement, that is magic indeed, if it does exist, on some high, ethereal plane. He chooses to call it magic.
Coward is appointed Home Secretary in the winter of 1885, barely having passed into his third decade, and his application to the House of Lords slips through later in the year.
“There is a detective,” Coward begins, glancing across the table at his friend. “A great intellectual, it is said.”
“Holmes,” Blackwood interrupts, and places down his cutlery. “You are speaking of Sherlock Holmes.”
Coward nods. “Does he propose a great threat to the plan, Blackwood? I understand he is acquainted with Inspector Lestrade, and I could quite easily have him killed, if you wish.”
Blackwood laughs. “He is of no great threat to us; rather, he is the perfect opportunity. And you shall do no such thing; he could become quite invaluable in the coming months.” He takes a drink of wine and sits back in his chair. “I plan to be arrested a fortnight on Friday, and I understand you are spending the next week in Geneva.”
“Which,” Coward finishes, thoroughly amused, “makes this the very last night we have together on this world, and we both know what you set your mind on once you’ve had that third glass of wine.” He stands, dinner abandoned, and Blackwood mimics the movement, still the tiniest fraction more regal, after all these years. Coward takes his hand.
Coward attends the hanging, standing solemnly amongst the ranks with as many other political equals as deemed fit to see the case through to the bitter end. They use it as a chance to gloat, to sigh and tut at the fall of the great Lord Henry Blackwood.
“Death,” Blackwood says, “is only the beginning,” and Coward has to resist the urge to laugh out loud – it is all so painfully obvious! There – the hook! Oh, how do they not see it?
Blackwood plays his part perfectly, as he always would, and so Coward steels himself, putting on a most accurate (if painfully exaggerated) façade of the distraught childhood acquaintance with absolutely no idea when it all went quite so awfully wrong.
He enters the library from the north side, a moment’s cessation by the liquor cabinet to procure the single glass and fill a finger’s-breadth of brandy. Blackwood prefers the chair facing across the Thames, but tonight sits in the one by the fire, fulfilling the slight pastiche of secrecy. They haven’t met since the hanging, a good few days before, and even now the visit is a surprise; he hardly needs affirmation of the plan, which has been set in place for longer than he cares to remember.
Coward turns, glass in hand, and smirks. “Behold, I am alive for ever more.”
“And have the keys of hell and of death,” Blackwood completes, tone quiet. “Revelations, 1: 18.”
“Chapter and verse. I must say, Blackwood, you make a very convincing corpse.” He drapes himself across the chaise, sipping a little. “Do you intend to stay the night?”
Blackwood shakes his head. “I have procured lodgings in Cheapside. A regretful necessity, but more suitably located for the following proceedings.”
He nods. “You plan to kill Sir Thomas, tonight, am I correct?” Coward chuckles a little. “Do you know he had Holmes brought in to the headquarters? All very cloak and dagger. Poor Sir Thomas is scared witless, of course, and grasping at the proverbial straws...”
Coward smiles. “Not taken in by the magic for an instant. He possesses a great mind, it is true, but insists on keeping it so very narrow.”
“It will be his downfall; I am certain of it.” He stands and regally sweeps his coat from the table by the window, a movement so oozing with superiority it is obnoxious even in Coward’s eyes. “Tonight, Sir Thomas; tomorrow, Standish.” Blackwood looks at him briefly in the firelight. “Do not be afraid,” he murmurs. “It will be over soon.”
“Yes,” Coward replies, absently, “quite.” Blackwood touches his hand, briefly, and leaves.
“Behold,” Coward says, his face pushed into the groggy air. “Lord Blackwood!”
Part perfectly played, Nick, he imagines Blackwood to say, and his face flushes with the pride of it, turning his shining eyes up to the pulpit of the Chamber as the Lords’ outrage spills through the House.
Here it is, the spell, so perfectly woven – by far the dominant emotion is fear, sheer, bloody panic, set in the faces of such religious, upstanding men, believing they see the Devil in plain dress before them. Even those not of religious fervour hold their zeal in their power – and the terror quickly spreads to them as Blackwood indicates the seething insubordinate masses outside.
The clock chimes noon, and Coward closes his eyes to listen to it ring through the House. Somewhere below their feet, the machine is working, ticking through the paces, releasing its poison up through the vents; oh, it’s good, it’s ever so good.
The twelfth chime, and Coward frowns; the hysteria does not abate, with the mass slumping of aging and decrepit bodies – it grows. Lord Fairfax’s eyes roll back in his head as his heart gives way, falling twitching on the panelling, but other than that, not a single Member drops to the floor.
Blackwood’s gaze searches him out through the pushing crowd – and Coward realises. “Holmes,” he breathes.
Here it is, the spell, shattering before his eyes – Blackwood turns, swivelling on one foot, and Coward shouts his name above the shriek of the crowd, but he does not look back. His mind whirls – their plan, Harry’s plan, undone by Holmes, who was meant to be, at best, dead, at worst, arrested, but he evaded Coward’s power, slipping through his fingers – oh, he’s been such a fool.
Coward is left alone, trapped in a seething mass of irate Lords; someone takes up the cry of “apprehend Lord Coward!” and he is set upon from every side.
Here it is, the sour burn of betrayal, as Blackwood no longer appears in the speaker’s stand and he is swarmed and pushed under by the mob.
“You’ll hang for this, Coward,” Lestrade tells him, lighting a cigar, perched on the window-seat of Coward’s office. The Captain snaps the handcuffs about his wrists and Coward slouches across the chair, his boots propped up on his writing-desk, and bites his lip against a laugh. As if Blackwood wouldn’t have a contingency plan! Oh, it was in no sense over, despite what the miraculously dim-witted Inspector may think.
“Begging your pardon, sir – ” A Constable, hanging nervously in the doorway, nods across the room at Lestrade.
“What is it, Clarkey?”
“We’ve had reports, sir, off a runner working in the docks at Rotherhithe. There’s a man, sir, hanging dead from Tower Bridge. Just dropped off now, sir, got all tangled in the chains – ”
“A man! Is it our man? Is it Holmes?”
“Runner didn’t know his face, sir, but by reports of the description...” The Constable eyes up Coward. “It’s Blackwood, sir, not Holmes.”
Coward pales, though he just about manages to stay in his chair. He is almost certain that Blackwood’s contingency plan would not involve death for a second time.
“Morning, Watson!” Holmes cries cheerily from his foetal position on the floor, curled up in his dressing-gown, as Watson tears open the second curtain.
“Afternoon, more like. It’s gone one o’clock.”
Watson drops the paper on his head, and Holmes curls a hand up to read it. “Why, then, with so much of the day already gone, I can’t imagine why you thought to wake me.”
“It’s the afternoon of Coward’s hanging,” Watson says quietly from the window. “I thought you might want to attend.”
“Ah,” Holmes replies, and drops the paper. “Quite. I suppose I should get changed.” He lurches across the room to gather appropriate clothing for a hanging – would it, he wonders, be dreadfully bad taste to wear the same as to the last one? On the verge of asking Watson’s opinion, his companion beats him to it.
“Do you think he deserves to hang for it?”
“Hmm,” Holmes says, and decides against the black neckerchief. White might be more fitting. “Attack of the conscience, old boy? He tried to kill me, remember.” He straightens the neckerchief, steps away from the looking-glass and glances across at Watson. “No, our dear friend Lord Coward chose his side a long time ago.”
“You look ridiculous,” Watson replies blandly. “Wear the black one.”
No hook around his neck, no harness across his stomach to soften the blow. The world drops open under Coward’s feet and, he decides, smiling, he doesn’t regret a thing.