The midnight frost still chilled me to the bone as we struggled out of our greatcoats, but Sherlock Holmes was in the highest of spirits. It pleased me to see him like this, overflowing with the pure delight of the night’s success, especially after the way I had seen this case tell on him these last few days.
“A magnificent effort, my dear Watson,” he said, his quick, strident tones caring nothing for the sleeping Mrs. Hudson. “Seldom have I seen a capture more perfectly executed. Even Inspector Lestrade performed admirably, ha, ha! The look on Barrows’s face—an unexpected surprise of his own! A clever man, but he never bet on Sherlock Holmes. I owe it all to you, though, my dear fellow. I was wholly at a loss until you suggested the treacle.”
I was surprised to hear my friend speak so glowingly of my small remark. “It was nothing—a mere trifle,” I responded truthfully, moving to help him out of the snow-heavy coat.
Holmes grinned more broadly. “A trifle! Watson, you scintillate to-night! My cases often hang on trifles, and tonight you found the trifle that brought everything together.” He freed his arms from the coat-sleeves and turned around to face me. “You were brilliant.”
My friend’s loquaciousness had run out, and he stood there silently, his whole frame alive with triumph. For I know not how long I listened to his quick breathing and smiled back at the brightness in the grey eyes. Then, abruptly, he moved forward and closed the gap between us. I felt the quick touch of his warm lips, slightly abrasive from the wind, on my own. He pulled back just as abruptly, and we were facing each other as before.
“Holmes,” I said in surprise, “what was that?”
Instantly a change came over my friend. The manic joy of success left him, leaving only the fatigue that should have accompanied the exertions of the case. An expression of pain flitted across his pale countenance, to be replaced by the cold, logical frown I knew so well. “Nothing, my dear fellow,” he said, in a low, exhausted murmur. “It has been something of a long day. Good night.” He spun away from me and fled the foyer with a quick step. A moment later I heard the slam of his bedroom door.
I left Holmes’s coat on the floor, where he was apt to leave it anyhow, and I retreated to my own bed, but did not sleep. Throughout that night I continually raised disbelieving fingers to my lips. What disturbed me the most was not the event itself, or anything it might imply, but the way Holmes had reacted to my thoughtless response. I could not help but feel that I had made a terrible mistake.
I woke—if the word can be applied to a transition into full awareness from that fitful state that had never really been sleep—to an acute sensation of hunger and the grey morning light streaming in my window. I dressed, the confusion of the night before still beating in my brain, and looked at my watch. Ten o’clock. Holmes would be at breakfast, if my estimate of his habits was correct, but I was too hungry to feign sleep long enough to avoid that contact. Instead, I resolved to adopt a strategy which Holmes himself tended to use on those rare occasions when we quarrelled: I would behave as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
“Good morning,” I said with a cheeriness I did not feel as I sat down and took a piece of toast from the rack. Holmes responded only with a grunt, and did not look up from the morning paper. It struck me, even at this oblique angle, that he looked even paler than usual, and I opened my mouth to voice my concern, but shut it immediately. Of course he had not slept, no more than I had done. To say anything would be as good as to mention the very subject I was trying to avoid.
“Anything good in the papers?” I asked instead, dreading the silence that threatened to fall.
Holmes stirred, and seemed to remember his rôle of unconcern. “Nothing whatsoever,” said he, folding the sheet and looking up at me over the toast. “There have been crimes, certainly: the burglary of a pawnbroker’s, a series of muggings, a straightforward enough case of spouse-murder—but nothing, I fear, that falls within my province. Even the agony column is more than usually devoid of sinister coded messages. It is as if truly interesting criminals operated on a quota system, and our friend Barrows has prevented any others from exercising their trade for the next few months.”
Never had I been so thankful for my friend’s skills as an actor. In ten seconds, with a conscious decision, he had restored the atmosphere between us to a very fair approximation of its usual ease. “Don’t you think that’s a little premature?” I asked, taking a relieved sip of coffee.
“Perhaps,” he admitted with a smile. I smiled back for a moment, and then we both simultaneously dropped our eyes, feigning intense distraction by the toast. Heat rose up in my cheeks: we had maintained eye contact an instant too long. We both felt it. The memory of last night would not dissipate so easily.
Holmes took a long sip of coffee, cleared his throat uneasily, and looked around the table as if he could find there more idle conversation to fill the heavy air. As to myself, I believe I was actually on the verge of uttering some vacuous remark about eggs when Mrs. Hudson entered with a card on a tray. Holmes’s relief at the interruption was evident. He nearly leapt from his chair to snatch up the card. “Mrs. Horatio Chisholm,” he read. “Hum! I have never heard the name. At any rate, her case is bound to hold more interest than today’s paper. Show her up.”
I rose, in some confusion. “I’ll retire to my room, if you like,” I faltered, regressing to the first months of our acquaintance, before I had begun to accompany Holmes on his cases.
“Oh, by all means stay, my dear fellow,” said Holmes, regaining his artificial fluidness of speech with scarcely a hesitation. “You know I value your assistance with my little problems, and indeed your facility with the fair sex may be quite useful in communication with this Mrs. Chisholm. Please, do stay.” He did not aim to avoid me, then. But he did continue to avoid my eyes as he ducked past me into the sitting-room.
Mrs. Horatio Chisholm was a tall, stately woman of about forty. Her fair hair was streaked with grey, and her face bore the lines of middle age, but she stood straight, and her stern countenance indicated that she was not to be trifled with.
“Good morning, madam,” said Holmes. “I trust you had a pleasant cab ride from Kensington?”
The woman’s strong carriage was evidently more than an appearance, for she did not even look surprised at the question. “Yes,” she said evenly. “You must be Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I am Gloria Chisholm.”
“Yes. I am Sherlock Holmes. Thi—” Holmes’s breath seemed to catch in his throat for an instant before he went on, “this is my friend and colleague Dr. Watson, who often assists in my cases. You may trust him absolutely.” No doubt the fact that he had made variations on that speech countless times helped him to do it smoothly. The hesitation had been so slight that I believe only I noticed it, but it showed me clearly the depth of his discomfort.
Mrs. Chisholm nodded to me, and Holmes went on: “What brings you here, madam?”
“In simplest terms, Mr. Holmes, my son has been accused of murder, and I want you to clear him.” For the first time, the woman smiled and looked down. “Forgive me,” she corrected herself. “I know of your reputation as a detective, Mr. Holmes. Say rather that I want you to find out the facts of the case.”
Sherlock Holmes gave her an answering smile. “Quite so. I can but attempt that much. But first, let me have the facts as you understand them.”
“There isn’t much to tell. My son Harry is in his second year at Camford. It is the winter vacation right now, and Harry invited one of his school friends to stay with us for the holiday. The young man’s name was Fred Gerrold; he and Harry both play on the ’Varsity cricket team. Mr. Gerrold stayed with us for three weeks. He was bright and pleasant. Nothing unusual happened during his stay, and I never knew Harry and he to quarrel. Four days ago he was to return home to Rochester, in Kent, and remain there until the start of the Lent term.”
“Was to return?” I asked.
“Yes, Doctor. Harry personally saw Mr. Gerrold to his train, but he never returned home. His brother sent for the police, and when they heard he had been in London, they notified Scotland Yard. Now this Inspector Lestrade is convinced that Harry has ‘done away with him’.”
“I have known Inspector Lestrade to be wrong before,” remarked Holmes. “Why is he so convinced that your son murdered this man?”
Mrs. Chisholm dropped her gaze again for a moment, but then looked straight back at Holmes and explained in her down-to-earth way: “It does look bad for Harry, Mr. Holmes. I admit it. What makes Inspector Lestrade suspicious is that Harry swears he saw Mr. Gerrold board his train, but the police can’t find anyone who saw him on the train at any time.”
“Lestrade thinks he’s lying,” said Holmes.
“Exactly. Harry was the last one to see Mr. Gerrold, and the Inspector believes that they never went to the train station at all, but that Harry took him somewhere else and killed him. It was early in the morning and there were not many people about. He could have disposed of the body in the river.”
Holmes steepled his fingers and stared ahead in thought for a moment. “Can you think of any reason your son might have had to wish this young man any harm?” he asked.
“Mr. Holmes, Harry would never have hurt him,” said Mrs. Chisholm with conviction. “Harry has always been a fine young man, not given to violence. I never knew him to quarrel with anyone, but even if there had been something, he would not have resorted to murder.”
“I see. In that case, have you any theory of what might have happened?”
The woman’s gaze faltered again, but she looked straight into Holmes’s eyes as always when she answered. “None.”
“Fascinating,” Holmes murmured. He stood up. “I’ll take the case,” he said. “Come along, Watson! Let the three of us proceed to Kensington.”
“By the way, Mr. Holmes,” said Mrs. Chisholm as we stepped into the crisp morning air, seeming suddenly to remember, “how did you know that I had taken a cab from Kensington?”
I could tell that the detective had been slightly disappointed at his client’s failure to ask that question in the first place, and he smiled as he answered it now. “Oh, as to that, madam, it was nothing extraordinary. The mud on your boots is of a shade only found in Kensington, but they bear very little trace of our own Baker Street mud, as they would if you had walked from the Underground station. Taxi!” I watched the familiar energy in his step as he darted into the road, and it occurred to me that this case was just what Holmes needed. Just what I needed, too, as a matter of fact, though I did not wish to admit it to myself. I had no desire to let my mind run again through the same confused course. Instead, I would hold fast to my notebook and dedicate my thoughts entirely to the mystery.
Mrs. Chisholm had some difficulty in opening her front door, chiefly due to its knocking up against Inspector Lestrade and a police sergeant, on their way out. “Well, Inspector?” she demanded. “Have you arrested my son?”
“We don’t have enough evidence to—why, good morning, Mr. Holmes!” exclaimed Lestrade as we shuffled past him. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.” The Inspector’s surprise carried with it a hint of disconcertment; after all, his cases never seemed to go as expected when Sherlock Holmes was involved. “Of course we members of the official force have to be back to work every day, same as always, but I don’t know what you’re doing here. It looks open-and-shut to me.”
“We shall see,” said Holmes.
“Well, you look into it, and you’ll see it’s nothing out of the ordinary. He’s lying, simple as that. Come along, Wilkins. Good morning, Mr. Holmes. Doctor; ma’am.” And donning a thick wool hat he departed down the street.
“Harry?” called Mrs. Chisholm.
“Are you and your son the only members of the household?” Holmes asked as we waited for a response.
“Yes.” She gave a sad smile. “Horatio died twelve years ago, and I keep no servants. Harry!”
“Up here, Mother,” came the answering shout from upstairs.
“Come into the parlour. These gentlemen are here to help.”
The young man who joined us certainly did not have a criminal look about him. His fair hair was of a more golden hue than his mother’s, and his ruddy cheeks, muscled hands, and ease of movement made it obvious that he was an athlete. His eyes retained a rebellious, harassed look, no doubt in response to Lestrade’s interrogations, but it did not sit easily on his physiognomy, and a smile broke out above his strong chin when he laid eyes on Holmes.
“Hullo, gentlemen,” he said in a pleasant, casual baritone. “You must be Sherlock Holmes, and I suppose you’re Dr. Watson.” We shook hands all around; Harry Chisholm’s grip was as powerful as his muscular build suggested.
“And you are Mr. Harry Chisholm,” said Holmes brightly. “Your mother didn’t mention that you were a musician.”
Chisholm looked surprised. “Well, I play piano a little,” he said. “But how’d you know that?”
“Splaying of the finger-tips,” Holmes explained, dismissing the matter as unimportant. “Quite obvious, to the trained eye.”
The young man whistled. “Impressive.”
We sat down, the Chisholms on the sofa, Holmes and I in the two chairs facing them. “Harry, you didn’t show Inspector Lestrade the door,” his mother chided gently.
“Well, I told him he knew where it was, and the sooner he found it, the better.”
Mrs. Chisholm smiled in spite of herself. It was obvious that she shared her son’s sentiments about the official police force.
“How long has Lestrade been troubling you?” Holmes asked.
“About two hours, today,” answered young Chisholm. “He was here the day before yesterday, when—after Fred disappeared, to find out whether we’d seen him, but it was only this morning he decided I was the prime suspect.”
“What happened this morning?”
“That inspector and three sergeants knocked at the door around eight-thirty. They turned my room upside down looking for I don’t believe they even knew what, and that Lestrade fellow kept asking me again and again what happened the other day.”
“And you told him . . . ?”
“Only the truth, Mr. Holmes. Four days ago, at seven-twenty in the morning, I personally saw Fred Gerrold board a train for Kent. I did not prevent him from boarding that train, and I certainly didn’t kill him. I have not seen or heard from him since.”
“Thank you.” Sherlock Holmes paused and leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his knees. I could tell that the next question would be more than simple routine, but I could not have been prepared for what he asked then. “Mr. Chisholm,” said he, “how long have you and Fred Gerrold been lovers?”
The rest of us stood up at once.
“I beg your pardon, sir!” demanded Chisholm, red-faced with anger.
“Mr. Holmes, how dare you!” said his mother at the same time.
“Holmes,” I cried, “this is intolerable! Such an accusation—and in front of the boy’s mother, at that—”
“She knows,” said Holmes coolly.
That silenced us. I gaped at my friend in surprise, while Chisholm and his mother glared furiously at this suddenly unwelcome guest.
“Am I wrong?”
He looked calmly from one to the other of them. Finally, young Chisholm seemed to come to a resolution. He broke off his glare and sat back down on the couch, crossing his legs casually. “Well, Mr. Holmes,” he said with a bitter smile, “you really are all that they say you are.”
“Harry!” his mother whispered desperately. “You don’t have to tell him anything.”
“No, it’s all right, Mother,” said Chisholm. “He’s figured it out anyhow. Why shouldn’t he have the facts?” Now that he had apparently given up the façade, he was surprisingly relaxed. Mrs. Chisholm and I relapsed into our seats. “How did you peg it, anyhow, Mr. Holmes?”
“It was quite simple,” said Holmes, “precisely because of your determination to hide it. First, you both attempted to obscure the depth of the relationship between you and Mr. Gerrold. I found it difficult to believe, Mrs. Chisholm, that you, who were able to refer to your late husband by his first name, and your son by a diminutive, to a total stranger, would continue to call the young man by a formal title even after he had lived under your roof for three weeks. In addition, when you did become adamant that your son ‘would never hurt Mr. Gerrold,’ you immediately effaced the remark with generalities about his nonviolent tendencies. Mr. Chisholm, you hesitated when you mentioned ‘Fred,’ and referred to him the second time by his full name, uncertain of how close you should appear to be to your alleged school chum.
“What made the situation obvious, though, was the attempt on both your parts to conceal your . . . sexual condition. You, madam, mentioned your son’s athletic talents though nothing else about his school life. And you, Mr. Chisholm. I have never seen anyone jump so at being called musical. That degree of finger splaying only occurs with habitual practice; I suspect you are a virtuoso. Your concealment of that fact, your deliberately deep voice, your ability to whistle, that vice of a handshake—every piece of conventional wisdom about the sexual invert, you have gone out of your way to contradict.”
Chisholm’s ruddy complexion had gone quite pale during these explanations, but he rallied and managed a hoarse “Amazing.”
“You needn’t worry, young man,” I said in an undertone. “Your secrets are safe with Sherlock Holmes, and I assure you that no-one else has his powers of perception.”
“Of course.” He relaxed, and the reckless grin re-asserted itself over his features. The glance Holmes shot me was grateful, if fleeting. “Well, I suppose I trust you, sir, and as I said, you shall have the facts. What was it you wanted to know?”
Chisholm thought for a moment. “About a year and a half,” he said.
“A year and a half,” Holmes repeated.
“Yes. We were room-mates our first year, and it was the first term when we became . . . more than friends. About a year and a half ago.”
“But how—how did you know—?” I stammered, a morbid curiosity getting the better of me.
He chuckled. “If you’ll pardon my saying so, Doctor, you’re a bit naïve. I always knew I was different, and I knew right away Fred was special. It was the same way for him, he told me. But it wasn’t as though we had to figure everything out ourselves. We weren’t living in a vacuum. In prep school, when they lectured us on ‘filth,’ we knew what they meant. And we had a good Classical education—the Greeks, the Aeneid, and all that. Not to mention the resources of the entire University library. . . . Once I found an old Spanish Catholic confessor’s manual, with all these questions for sinners: did you ever, did you ever. Well, Doctor Watson, we hadn’t. But we did.”
My shock at such frank revelations must have showed in my face, for the young man gave me a defiant look and turned back to Holmes. “I know it’s a crime again,” he said, “and you gentlemen can turn me over to the police, or whatever else you like. But don’t you see now, Mr. Holmes, that there’s no way I killed Fred? How could I have killed him? I loved him!”
We all sat silent for a moment. Chisholm seemed on the brink of tears at the thought of his lost—his lost lover, for there is no point now in my being less than frank with the reader. His mother was pale but composed, and I admired her ability to bear up under such terrible truths. I wondered how long she had known. Quite probably he had only told her two days ago, when Lestrade had begun to suspect him, and it was the desire to shield her son from the greater crime that kept her so resistant to the lesser. Sherlock Holmes seemed to be lost in thought. When he spoke, it was softly and deliberately.
“Mr. Chisholm,” he said, “I am quite confident that you did not murder this young man, and I swear I shall do everything in my power to get to the bottom of the matter. Now—”
He was interrupted by a pounding at the door. We all jumped up: the confidential nature of the talk had made us feel like conspirators.
“Police! Open up!” came a faint but familiar voice over the pounding.
Holmes swore. “What the devil is he doing here?” He turned to Chisholm and barked, “Don’t tell him anything, do you understand, anything! It’s in my hands.” The young man nodded, and Holmes went to answer the door.
“Inspector Lestrade!” he said warmly. “Journeys end in . . . What now? How chance thou art returned so soon?”
“Hardly a time for poetry, Holmes,” said Lestrade, entering with the same sergeant from before at his heels. “I have here a warrant for the arrest of your client.”
“What!” Holmes had placed himself between Lestrade and Chisholm. “I thought you hadn’t enough evidence.”
“I have acquired some evidence,” said the Inspector, practically beaming with self-satisfaction.
“What evidence?” Holmes asked reluctantly. It was obvious that Lestrade was intentionally baiting him, but the information was vital to the case.
“Well, I suppose there’s no harm in showing it to you.” He brought a small envelope from his coat pocket. “I know you’re fond of searching out the source of a crime; well, Scotland Yard can do that too. My man just got back from Camford, and it looks like nobody’s cleaned out the late Mr. Gerrold’s grate. Careful with it, now.”
The Inspector handed the envelope to Holmes, who handed it to me. Gingerly I took out a burnt scrap of paper and read it aloud:
when I found
became evident what
led astray; nonetheless I cann
crime. I would have thought my s
actions. Your mother is devastated,
My voice trembled as I read these last words, but Lestrade was too proud to notice it or the apprehension on the faces of the Chisholms. “We checked the handwriting,” he said. “It’s that of Sir Wilberforce Gerrold, the young man’s father. Now, I think it’s obvious what we’re dealing with here. He says his son was ‘led astray,’ see? So the two were co-conspirators in some dark business—a theft ring, maybe, or worse, we’ll track it down—and when Gerrold’s old man started to get suspicious, this young man lured him here and knocked him off to keep him from talking. What do you think of that, Holmes?”
In fact, Holmes seemed relieved at this gross misinterpretation of the facts, but he only said, “It is certainly plausible.”
“Plausible! Well, it’s enough to hold him on, that’s for sure. Wilkins?”
Chisholm had been standing still, as though in shock, but when the sergeant grasped his shoulder to put on the handcuffs, he suddenly sprang to life. “Here, what’s this?” he cried, struggling out of the man’s grip. “You don’t have to bind me like some . . .” He stopped; as he turned an object had fallen out of his waistcoat pocket with a sharp clatter.
The sergeant picked the thing up and handed it to Lestrade; it was a large silver pocketwatch. Lestrade turned it over in his hands and grinned. “G,” he read aloud. “Is that your monogram, Mr. Harry Chisholm? No? Did you take this before or after you murdered him? Planning to hock it after things cool down, eh?”
“I didn’t take it!” Chisholm protested. “I—I found it! He left it here! It—it’s not true!”
The young man’s desperation touched me, and I began, “Inspector, wait,” but Holmes seized me by the wrist, checking me into silence.
“Are you certain about the handwriting?” Holmes asked, lamely.
“Absolutely. You can check it yourself, if you doubt our experts.” Success was making Lestrade downright benevolent.
“No, it’s not necessary. There is one thing you can tell me, though. Can you give me that description of Mr. Fred Gerrold?”
“I have it memorized, by now. Five-ten, about ten stone, muscular, brown hair unkempt, green eyes, light skin, moustache. But if you ask me, the only chance you’ll get to use it is if you happen to be taking a walk by the riverside when he washes up.”
“We shall see,” Holmes spat, with more than his usual acerbity.
“‘Well, officer, arrest him at my suit.’ You’re not the only one who’s read the Comedy of Errors, Mister Sherlock Holmes.” And, chuckling at his own cleverness, despondent prisoner in tow, he departed.
“That pompous fool!” growled Holmes when the door had shut behind them. “He hasn’t got any evidence of murder at all!”
“Mr. Holmes, we can explain that letter and that watch. Shouldn’t we tell the Inspector?” asked Mrs. Chisholm, her voice finally betraying her distress.
Holmes’s fists were clenched at this impotence, but he replied, “No, madam, not unless there is no other alternative. Such a revelation at this point would strengthen Lestrade’s case more than anything. Mental disease—desire for secrecy—even the vaguely defined lover’s spat, would be his new motives, and any jury would accept it.”
“Mr. Holmes, it isn’t true!” cried the lady, appalled at the accusations. “I don’t have any evidence but my conviction, but I am sure Harry is innocent.”
“I share your conviction, madam,” said Sherlock Holmes. “But I need data; I cannot save your son with convictions.”
In the cab on the way home, I ventured to speak to Holmes of the case—of the case only, hoping that by so doing I could free myself of my apprehension about the night before, and of the cool touch that still lingered on my wrist. “Do you really believe the young man is innocent?” I asked.
“I do,” he answered. “Don’t you?”
“I do,” I admitted, “but I don’t see what else could have happened. While we’ve cleared up the situation between our client and the victim, I don’t see that we’re any closer to understanding what did happen that morning. People don’t simply disappear.”
“No, they don’t,” said Holmes pensively.
“You don’t think,” said I, “that any of what you said could really be true, do you? That he did kill his lover in order to preserve his own reputation?”
“No,” replied he, emphatically. “I have only my own impressions, but he was telling the truth about their relationship. I would stake my own reputation on it. Such depth of feeling could not have been counterfeited. Love, even the love of—” He caught my eyes and cut himself off abruptly, averting his face in a feigned cough. The turbulence in the pale eyes struck me to the heart.
We rode in silence for some minutes, and when we passed a post-office, Holmes rapped on the roof of the cab. “Don’t wait for me,” he said, without looking at me. As he prepared to hop down, he added, “Watson, is our Bradshaw current?”
I replied that it was.
“Good,” he said, and vanished.
It was not until evening that Sherlock Holmes returned to Baker Street. He picked up the telegram that had arrived for him, read and pocketed it without a word. We dined together, though chiefly in silence, and it was not until Mrs. Hudson had cleared away the dishes that he told me he was travelling on an investigation, and not to expect him back for a few days. I assumed he, like Lestrade’s men, was going to look for the source of this mystery at Camford, and for once I did not object to his not including me in the investigation. I murmured my understanding and retired to the sitting-room with a recent medical journal, where I listened to the sounds of Holmes packing. Finally he walked past me without a glance, and called from the stair, “I’m off!”
I started at the sound, hesitating for a moment. “Take care!” I shouted. A moment later I heard the door slam behind him.
I spent the next day in going over my notes of some of the recent cases I had shared with Sherlock Holmes. Revisiting the affair of the baronet’s sabotaged epées, though, and even the strikingly logical solution Holmes had employed in the case of the Fleet Street typesetting burglaries, did nothing to organize my troubled thoughts. In a manner that my logical friend would no doubt have denounced, my mind continually sprang back to the current case: the shocking confessions of Harry Chisholm, Holmes’s determination to protect his client . . . Holmes’s arresting grip on my arm . . . Invariably, I came back to the conclusion of the Barrows case, and my mind fell into chaos.
I finally put away my notes and lost myself in reading, but my discomfort was still so great that when Holmes did return from his investigations, around noon on the second day after his leaving, I found the risk of his glance too much to bear, and stole away into my bedroom with the latest translation of Gaboriau.
At seven-thirty that evening, I looked up from my book at the familiar sound of my flat-mate’s footsteps in the hall. They stopped before my door, but there was a pause of several seconds before a knock sounded. “Doctor?”
“Are you unwell?” he asked, a note of concern in his voice.
“Why, no,” I hastened to reassure him. “Do you need me for something?”
“No,” he answered; “no, only I know how you like to be in at the finish. I have invited Inspector Lestrade to join us, and I . . . I thought you might find it an interesting evening.”
It proved, in the end, to be a more interesting evening than I think even Holmes suspected. Lestrade arrived as expected, accompanied to my surprise by a restrained and confused-looking Harry Chisholm. “This is highly irregular, Mr. Holmes,” he said, coming in the door, “but you were of some help to the Yard in that Barrows affair, so we must make our little allowances. I do hope this information is as vital as you say it is, though.”
“I assure you, Inspector, it is of the utmost importance,” said Holmes, in his enigmatic fashion. “But we shall come to it in good time. Would you gentlemen care for some tea? For heaven’s sake, take those handcuffs off, Lestrade. He’s not going to take on the three of us.”
Lestrade reluctantly complied, and the four of us set to drinking the tea. Holmes was in fine form as a host, chatting amiably about the weather, and no less amiably about its possible correlation to crime. Lestrade, caught off his guard, told us earnestly about weather-related crimes he had known, and Holmes enlightened him with historical parallels. Indeed, it was not until the charmed Inspector had poured himself a second cup that he suddenly glared at it, and Holmes, with suspicion. “Hold on, now, Mister Sherlock Holmes. This is all very well and good, but you didn’t ask me to bring a suspect here to have tea with you. Where’s this important evidence you say you’ve got? . . . Holmes! Are you even listening to me?”
Holmes, who was not, motioned the Inspector into silence and perked up his ears. “Ah, I think I hear him on the stair now.” He crept to the door, and, just as the visitor was on the threshold, threw it open.
Before us stood a young man dressed in a suit of French cut, still holding fast to a black trilby. He was of average height, and thin, but the set of his shoulders gave him an air of quiet strength. His most striking features, however, were the deep red waves of hair that floated whimsically about his face, and the trim little moustache of equally arresting colour. All eyes were upon this mysterious personage, when Chisholm, hitherto silent and withdrawn, relinquished his teacup with a clatter and stood up.
“Harry!” cried the visitor, and ran to his side, taking the other’s hands tenderly in his own.
“The two of you have met, I believe,” said Holmes. “Inspector Lestrade, Doctor Watson, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Frederick Gerrold.”
Lestrade gaped. “Fred Gerrold? But he’s—this man killed Fred Gerrold! His co-consp . . . oh, my God.” His wide eyes were on the two young men as they clasped hands and whispered eagerly to one another: he had evidently remembered the text of that letter fragment, and seen through it to the true interpretation. He passed a hand in front of his eyes and went on, giving his attention to a problem more easily understood: “But look here, Holmes, I had that description memorized. Fred Gerrold’s hair is brown.”
“Lestrade,” said Holmes languidly, “when you were searching the trains for Mr. Gerrold, who gave you his description?”
“Why, the man he was staying with, Mr. Chis . . . oh, my God.”
“Exactly. And now I think you understand everything. No-one of Mr. Gerrold’s description was seen aboard that train, because that description was deliberately inaccurate.”
“But, look, that doesn’t make sense,” said Lestrade. “Why would he give false information to the police, when he knew it would put him under suspicion of murder?”
“I believe I can explain everything, although there are still one or two points I would like to clear up, if you gentlemen would indulge my curiosity.”
Chisholm and Gerrold nodded.
“Very well.” Holmes stood with his back to the fire and began, in matter-of-fact tones, “Our story begins with two university students of a particular sexual condition. Happily they find that they share the same inclinations, and many other qualities beside. They grow close; they become lovers.” Holmes paused in his narration and added, as an aside, “You needn’t look so shocked, Lestrade. You had all the evidence already.”
Lestrade grumbled and tried to look jaded. Holmes went on:
“They are respectable lads, popular with their peers, skilled in cricket, and they manage to conceal this state of affairs for over a year. But, near the end of the Michaelmas term, something happens. Mr. Gerrold’s father discovers, perhaps, some indiscreet piece of correspondence. His suspicions are aroused and he writes an angry letter to his son, quite probably declaring an intention to pull him out of the University. The son reveals the letter to his companion, and the two resolve to flee, to make a new life together away from this man’s influence.
“First, however, they return to Mr. Chisholm’s residence in London. They must plan, after all, and secure certain resources. And it is possible, too, that Mr. Chisholm desires to pass a real English Christmas with his mother.”
Chisholm assented. “She didn’t know anything about it until this week, and I didn’t want to alarm her. That’s why I came home, and why Fred left when he did; it would look suspicious if he didn’t go to see his own family.”
“Really, I was to go on ahead and find us a place, get things together,” explained Gerrold. “Harry was supposed to follow on the pretence of returning to school; with any luck, it would be weeks or months before his mother found out he had gone.”
“Ah,” said Holmes, “very good. But something went wrong. Mr. Gerrold was reported missing. How was it that you gentlemen failed to anticipate that possibility?”
“Now, Mr. Holmes, that’s what still baffles me,” said Gerrold. “From his letter, I was sure Father would be grateful never to see me again. I couldn’t believe he would actually send the police after me, and risk a scandal to the family name.”
“What about your brother?” asked Lestrade. “After all, it was him that called us in.”
“Tom?” He laughed. “I thought he was abroad! That explains it. He always did have a look-out for me. When he found I was gone, he probably started the search before Father could stop him—probably had no idea things had changed.”
“So, this caring but unwitting brother calls in the police,” Holmes continued, “and they appear at Mr. Harry Chisholm’s doorstep, asking questions as to Mr. Gerrold’s whereabouts. Mr. Chisholm has not expected this, but he knows Mr. Gerrold does not wish to be found, and so, in an attempt to slow the search, he provides a false description of the missing man. He is himself a skilled actor, of sorts, and understands a very important principle of disguise: a man can conceal only his most distinguishing feature, leaving the rest of his aspect unchanged, and nine times out of ten he will not be recognized. In a verbal description, the odds are practically certain.”
“Brilliant,” breathed Gerrold.
“Incredible,” muttered the Inspector, rubbing his forehead in chagrin. “To think I was so easily fooled!”
“You were fooled, I think, rather more effectively than Mr. Chisholm bargained on,” Holmes continued. “Still, desirous of protecting his friend, and of preventing a scandal, he failed to correct the deception, or to explain the true situation, even to the point of being arrested for murder.”
“You fool,” said Gerrold to Chisholm; “you utter fool!” But there was no heart in these remonstrances, and the green eyes shone with tender gratitude. In my years with Sherlock Holmes, I have seen many young couples reunited by his agency, for, in spite of his own cool demeanour, he is always sympathetic to lovers, and goes out of his way to ensure their happiness. But I can swear that of all the young persons I have seen rejoice simply at being together, none seemed happier to me than Messrs. Harry Chisholm and Fred Gerrold. One had been disowned by his family, the other was in police custody, and yet, as they sat side-by-side on the sofa, they seemed perfectly content, totally unaffected by the storms that swirled about them.
“The rest is simple enough,” said Holmes. “It was, of course, impossible that the young man had simply disappeared, and yet no-one of his description had boarded the train. I took the logical course and wired to Rochester for a description of Fred Gerrold. The reply corresponded in every particular save one, which I believe you noticed right away, Lestrade.”
Lestrade shot a sullen glare at the red locks.
“My theory confirmed, I went to the train station in Kensington. I surmised that Mr. Chisholm’s economy of deception extended to the rest of his story, and that Mr. Gerrold really had boarded the seven-twenty train for Kent that morning. Obviously, however, he did not get off in Rochester: instead, he rode past his hometown, and disembarked at the end of the line, in Dover.”
“Dover,” I repeated. “Calais!”
“Precisely!” cried Holmes, grinning. “I crossed the channel after him, and with the aid of my accurate description, for he is a somewhat conspicuous personage, was able to determine that he had inquired as to the next train to Paris. I took its counterpart, and, once in Paris, proceeded to the Montmartre district, where I presented myself as a professional musician in search of a comfortable apartment, pas trop cher, for myself and my . . .”—he hesitated deliberately— “ . . . room-mate.” At this, Inspector Lestrade was back to looking shocked. “I had the good fortune, at the fourth house I tried, to find that, alas, monsieur, the last one had just been taken by another gentleman, an English gentleman like myself. I immediately fetched said gentleman, who answered my description to the letter, and set up this little meeting. And that, I believe, is that.”
Fred Gerrold rose and shook Holmes by the hand. “Brilliant work, Mr. Holmes. Thank you for coming to find me.”
“I’m sorry I lied to you, sir,” said Chisholm. “But thanks to you, the two of us can finally get to Paris as planned.”
“Bon voyage to you both,” said Holmes.
“Now wait just a second!” Lestrade, seeming to collect himself, rose and quickly blocked the door. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Look here, Inspector!” cried the detective impatiently. “You can’t possibly tell me you still suspect Harry Chisholm of murder at this point. For heaven’s sake, man, your victim is alive.”
“No, you look here, Mr. Holmes. There’s been no murder here, I’ll admit, but a crime has been committed, and as an officer of the law it is my duty to prosecute the perpetrators. And under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of Eighteen Eighty-Five . . .”
Holmes smiled sweetly. “Ah, yes, yes, Inspector, that excellent Act . . . but tell me, who are you accusing of having violated the law? What law has been violated here?”
“Why,” Lestrade began, looking uncomfortable, but Holmes pressed on, in the most innocent of tones:
“Can you prove, Inspector, that a crime has been committed? If you have evidence of that particular crime, then by all means . . .”
Never before had I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Detective-Inspector Lestrade of the Yard go absolutely scarlet with embarrassment. He stammered uselessly for a few seconds, and finally muttered, “All right, Holmes. You win.” More loudly he managed to add, “But I don’t want to catch you two gents hanging around here anymore, understand?” And with that, the Inspector crammed his hat low over his eyes and fled the premises.
“Brilliant,” said Gerrold again, laughing heartily. “Thanks again, sir. We must be going.” He smiled at Chisholm. “The next train for Dover leaves in half an hour.”
Chisholm shook Holmes and me by the hand. “Thank you for all your help, gentlemen,” said he. “I’m sorry to have deceived you, Mr. Holmes; I’ll be happy to pay extra for the trouble.”
Holmes shook his head. “Don’t worry about that, Mr. Chisholm. There is one thing I would have you do, however.”
“When you arrive in Paris, write a letter to your mother. Adieu, gentlemen.”
“Do you think things will turn out well for them?” I asked Holmes when they had left us alone in the sitting-room. Holmes lounged on the sofa, and from my chair we could talk quite easily and naturally. I had lost my absurd apprehension of my friend; in fact, I believed I had hit upon the answer—the surprisingly simple answer—to all my confusion.
“I cannot tell,” he replied, after a moment’s thought. “All the world is against them, after all, and the Parisian vice squad can be persistent. But they have some means of living, and the neighbourhood is not a bad one. And they have one another. Who can say? That may turn out to be invaluable.”
This was the opening I sought. “Holmes,” I said, acutely conscious of my own heart-beats, “about the other night . . .”
My friend, suddenly tense, flushed up and averted his gaze. “Watson, I apologize,” he said, in anguished tones. “I beg of you, forget about the whole affair. But please, don’t—I should hate it if you left Baker Street because of my foolishness—“
He had risen as he spoke, and was about to leave the room, but I caught up with him and seized him by the shoulders. The flow of words ceased at once, and his wide, pale eyes looked at me in confusion, the silence punctuated only by his agitated breathing. I found my own breath short, but I knew what was ahead of me. I needed no more words. I leaned towards Sherlock Holmes and softly, deliberately pressed my lips to his.
“Watson?” he faltered, his eyes glistening over his pale cheekbones. “What was that?”
I understood what Holmes meant by this echoing of my own response. It was not some petty attempt at revenge; it was a second chance. Even now, when he was in such pain, he wanted to give me the opportunity to turn back, to avoid the shame and isolation that our client had faced and would have to face. To stop myself from violating the laws of man and God. I understood this, and I loved Sherlock Holmes all the more for it. But for me, there was no more turning back.
“It was a kiss, Holmes,” said I, simply.
The sinewy arms relaxed under my grasp, and the trembling lips parted in a smile. “My dear Watson!” murmured Sherlock Holmes, taking my hands and pressing them convulsively in his own. “My dear, dear Watson!”
And we embraced as though we had never known anything else.