There are some who contend that if one but lived a virtuous life, they need never fear the malicious mischief of a blackmailer. Such a notion is both ridiculously naive and demonstrably false, for virtue alone does not spare men from the burden of secrets, nor from the necessity to guard them closely. I myself know this of a certainty—not that I can lay claim to any virtue whatsoever.
Thus, I have long held that blackmailers are the most craven and despicable of beings, preying on that which we hold dearest: the very core of our essence, our heart and soul, our humanity. Yet they boldly and shamelessly walk amongst us, presenting an air of respectability when they really ought to be banished to the deepest sewers of London, and pity the rats who would have to share their company. Charles Augustus Milverton was, without doubt, the absolute worst of the species.
Watson and I watched in impotent fury as that disgusting creature left the sitting room, smug and confident. To my deep chagrin, he had won the opening salvo handily. The thought of anyone being at his mercy sickened me, and I determined then that the course of our next meeting would go quite differently.
I determined then that I would see him, once and for all, thoroughly bested.
* * * * *
Holmes was inordinately pleased at the prospect of demonstrating his housebreaking skills, which may at first seem to run directly counter to his hatred of all that is criminal. He did believe in justice, unquestionably: his unique talents and formidable skills were often called upon to right wrongs on behalf of those who were unable to do so themselves, a task he undertook gladly and performed most admirably. However, he was also perfectly capable of appreciating the technical aspects of proficient burglary quite apart from the questionable morality of the act itself. My friend had a great fondness for proficiency, as he himself was wonderfully proficient, adept and masterful in all his ways.
But abstract contemplations aside, there was in this instance the very real presence of Milverton to consider. I confess I had not needed much convincing to see that the end justified the means in this case: putting a stop to this evil blackmailer's deeds would certainly justify the thievery, for it was clear that legal avenues to forestall his wanton destruction of human lives had been woefully inadequate.
In fact, it was Holmes who required some convincing, as he was oddly reluctant to include me in his illicit errand. But convince him I did, for there could be no mistaking my resolve: I would not be left behind.
* * * * *
Watson was as avid and enthused as a schoolboy on holiday as we entered Milverton's study. From behind his mask he grinned widely, and his eyes shone with excitement at the audacity of our noble actions.
While it had not been my intention to expose my friend to the perils inherent in criminal trespass, I must admit that the dangerous thrill of the undertaking was greatly enhanced by Watson's steadfast attendance at my side. However, my own excitement was somewhat less noble than his, I fear.
Watson has often noted that I enjoy an audience. I cannot deny this; and yet, such is not even the whole of my conceit. In truth, it is his attention I crave most, his approval and his regard. His… everything. All of him.
Here, under the cover of darkness and the need for stealth, I was able to touch him, to hold his hand in mine. I brought our heads close together and whispered into his ear.
This was danger of a different sort.
It took me much longer to open the safe than it should have, distracted as I was by Watson's fondly admiring gaze. I had barely managed the task when footsteps approached, leaving us no choice except to hide behind the curtains and wait.
Pressed up against Watson, I held my breath.
* * * * *
As Milverton entered the study, Holmes slipped his hand into mine. It was a gesture of friendly affection, the sort he was accustomed to bestowing upon me, and I had always cherished the contact even as I secretly longed for touches from him which were far less platonic in nature. But on this night, welcome though it was, the squeeze of his fingers did not have the calming effect upon me he no doubt intended, as I suddenly saw the safe was not completely closed.
The crack, though a mere hair's-breadth, was plainly evident, at least to my eyes. While I prayed the anomaly would be overlooked, I silently made ready in case it was not. For long, agonizing minutes, we waited while Milverton lounged in his leather chair, casually smoking his confounded cigar.
Finally, the man folded the document he had been perusing and made to stand. As he leaned forward over his desk, he stopped abruptly, his attention clearly focused in the corner of the room where the safe stood.
Before he could raise a hue and cry, I leapt out from behind the curtains and flung my great-coat over his head.
Milverton was surprisingly strong, and we both fell into a struggling heap on the floor. I held on doggedly, trying to pinion his arms against his body.
* * * * *
For one horrible moment, I stood frozen in shock as Watson lunged upon Milverton. My friend has never lacked for courage, but his precipitant action surprised me greatly. I quickly recovered, however, and rushed to assist him.
Milverton had, by dint of desperation, flung off the coat and wrenched free of Watson's hold, throwing my friend violently against the corner of the desk. As Watson lay stunned, Milverton scrabbled in a drawer and drew out his revolver.
I immediately grappled with the scoundrel in an attempt to subdue him. Milverton hissed and twisted like the snake that he was, and the gun swung wildly. Two shots rang out, then another.
I heard Watson yell something, then the marble bust of Athene connected squarely with the side of Milverton's head. He crumpled on the spot, senseless. The weapon fell out of his hand, and I kicked it away.
Watson had already dropped the bust and was kneeling next to Milverton's side, feeling for a pulse. His compassionate nature never ceases to amaze me. I believe the good doctor would have rendered aid to the Devil himself, and he certainly would have done what he could for Milverton, despite the blackguard's murderous intent towards us. But Watson shook his head; the man was dead.
Then I noticed crimson seeping through Watson's waistcoat. Blood.
* * * * *
Seldom have I seen Holmes so shaken. I pressed my hand against my ribs and tried not to wince. "It's only a graze," I said.
Sounds of alarm and running feet reached our ears, and Holmes quickly turned and locked the door.
"Come, we must go," he said urgently, taking my arm.
"No, the papers," I reminded him, "Or tonight's work will be all for naught."
Holmes muttered under his breath, but he went to the safe. His expression darkened when he saw it was ajar, but he said nothing.
The compartment was full of letters, and the volume of sheer human misery it represented was quite appalling. Holmes emptied the safe swiftly, throwing bundle after bundle into the fireplace. The flames rose up, greedily consuming everything, laying every last secret to rest.
All the while, we could hear the household being rallied. Soon someone was in the passage, beating on the door. As soon as Holmes had consigned the final letter to perdition, he grabbed our coats and we slipped through the outer door. Locking it behind us, Holmes gave me a sharp, worried glance.
"Are you sure you are alright?"
I was still bleeding freely from where the bullet had creased my side, it hurt to breathe, and my head ached abominably.
"I'm fine," I said. "Never better."
* * * * *
"You," I managed to say, "are a terrible liar, Watson." But I was grateful for the fiction, nonetheless.
We ran through the garden in back of the house. Pursuit was close behind, and I only hoped fervently that my soon-to-be former fiancée would not set the dog upon us as well.
When we reached the wall, I knelt and cupped my hands. Taking my meaning, Watson placed his foot in my hands and I gave him a leg up. I then stood and began to follow suit, grabbing the coping just as I heard him cry out in pain.
The top of the wall was capped with broken shards of glass. Horrified, I watched as Watson struggled to lift himself off the sharp edges. I tossed up our coats, thinking he might somehow use them as a barrier, but he gasped out, "Never mind that. Just push!"
There was nothing for it. I got under his dangling feet and pushed. Watson's groans and the hideous sounds of scraping and tearing nearly undid me, but then he was over and on the other side. I sprang up, kicking off the hand that had seized my ankle, and scrambled over, dragging the coats with me.
It was nearly pitch-black on this side. I looked about frantically.
Watson was lying face-down in the bushes.
* * * * *
The fall knocked the wind out of me, and it took several long moments before I regained my breath. I heard Holmes land at my side, and in the next instant I felt his hands upon me.
"John!" His voice was low, but he sounded stricken. I began to raise myself up onto my hands and knees so as not to worry him further. With a sigh of relief, Holmes helped me to my feet. "Can you walk?" he asked anxiously. From the other side of the wall, the clamour of angry shouts proclaimed we were not out of the woods yet.
"By the sound of things, we will have to do better than walk," I said grimly. I donned my great-coat to hide the gore and my ruined clothing. Holmes put his arm around me and together we stumbled as swiftly as we could across Hampstead Heath. Finally we stopped to catch our breath; or rather, I stopped to catch my breath while Holmes checked to see if any pursuers were yet on our trail.
"Nothing," he said. I was still panting heavily and could only nod gratefully.
Thankfully, the streets were nearly deserted at that hour and we were able to reach Baker Street without incident.
In the sitting room, I gingerly removed my now-bloodied coat, and Holmes blanched.
* * * * *
Watson's waistcoat and shirt were shredded into gory tatters, and beneath that…. I am not a squeamish man, but the sight of his grotesquely torn flesh and the knowledge that I had been the cause of those injuries were nearly intolerable to me. I shuddered.
With his customary aplomb, Watson said, "It looks a mess, but none of the cuts are so very deep. A simple matter of a few stitches." His tone was even, but there was a hitch in his breathing. I dragged my eyes from his wounds to his face.
He was deathly pale and obviously weary, but his expression was one of gentle concern—concern for me, I realised, his innate protectiveness coming to the fore, as always. I felt my throat tighten, and it was all I could do not to kiss him, soothe away the exhaustion and pain.
I pushed the impossible thought away. I did not have the time to indulge in such fantasies. All other considerations aside, he needed immediate medical attention, and as we could not safely call upon another physician, my stalwart doctor would have to heal himself. If I was going to be of any meaningful assistance to him whatsoever, I could not give way to the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. I swallowed hard.
"I'll fetch your bag."
* * * * *
A simple matter of a few stitches, I had said. The words were true enough, but putting them into practice proved to be rather more difficult than I had anticipated.
I fumbled with the thread and needle, but try as I might, I could not coordinate my movements to fit one into the other. Fatigue had well and truly set in, and fine tremors were shaking my hands. Holmes's fingers caught hold of mine.
"If you will permit me," he murmured. He sat on the floor at my feet and took the implements from me. I watched in something of a daze as Holmes threaded the needle and began to stitch my wounds.
As I have noted before, my friend is marvelously adept, and a very quick study besides. It only needed me to explain the technique once for him to acquire the knack. Holmes also took great care to cause me as little discomfort as possible. His touch was remarkably tender, almost loving… or so I desperately wanted to believe.
"Thank you, Doctor Holmes," I said, smiling, as he finished. He looked up, and only then did I see how strained and grey he was. "My dear fellow!" I exclaimed, my smile fading. It was my turn to catch and still his hands as he dropped them from the bandages.
* * * * *
Watson frowned when he saw a small gash on my left palm. "You were injured also," he said, circling a fingertip around the cut. "Why did you not say?"
It was the lightest of touches, the merest ghost of a caress, but it was enough. My control broke, shattering into a thousand useless fragments.
"My God, John, my carelessness got you hurt! How can you.... And Milverton! Yet you persist—" I tried to pull away.
"Holmes, you're talking nonsense; stop this, at once!" Watson would not release me, and I dared not use force lest I caused him even further harm. Defeated, I slumped forward, resting my forehead on the cushion next to his leg.
Watson sighed. "What happened was not your fault, surely you must know that. All blame rests on Milverton. I cannot bring myself to feel any regret over his death, for he would have sent you or I to Hades without a qualm." He still held my hand firmly in one of his, but the other came to rest on the back of my head. "Perhaps it would not be so bad if we went together, but...."
My heart was pounding so loudly I thought it had drowned out the rest of his words, but then I realised he'd stopped speaking.
I had to know.
* * * * *
Holmes lifted his head to gaze at me.
His eyes, they held so much: longing, fear, hope.... I looked into those eyes and was utterly lost.
"I would go anywhere with you, to Hell itself. But only together. Never apart. I could not bear it." I brought his hand to my lips.
His face gentled into the most beautiful expression of happiness I have ever seen, and my own heart swelled with the joy of it all.
"I love you."
I pulled him into my arms and kissed him.
"You called me 'John,'" I said, sometime later.
"Did I?" he said, with pretended indifference.
Holmes had put out the light and was climbing into bed, carefully arranging himself next to me. While my injuries temporarily precluded other, more vigorous activities, we had agreed: never apart.
"You did; twice, I believe. Shall I return the favour?" I asked.
"Pray do not, there's a good fellow," he said feelingly. I laughed.
"Not to worry, I find I cannot think of you as 'my dear Sherlock,' my dear Holmes."
He chuckled and drew the covers over us.
I was nearly asleep when he said, "Do you find it objectionable?"
"My name? Of course not, not if it pleases you," I replied drowsily.
"Good," he murmured as I drifted off. "John the Beloved. My beloved."
* * * * *
"I am afraid I can't help you, Lestrade," Sherlock Holmes said.
At first, I was taken aback by his refusing outright to look in on the case. It was a most extraordinary case, what with the deceased having his head bashed in and the murderers not taking anything of value and all. "But Mr. Holmes—"
"No, it's no use arguing," he said flatly. "My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim."
Well, I could see his point there. Blackmailers are the scum of the earth, digging round things what was none of their business. This Mr. Milverton had been a bad one, no mistake, and his coming to a bad end would grieve nobody, certainly not any of us down at the Yard.
Finally I said, "Very well. Good day, gentlemen."
Doctor Watson, who had been lying quietly on the settee whilst Mr. Holmes and I conversed, bade me a good morning. I wished him a quick recovery from his relapse of fever, and departed.
As I left, I thought about secrets. I thought about a spot of blood on a cushion, of glances exchanged, and of bandages not quite hidden beneath a dressing gown. I then decided it was best not to think about such things over much.
It was, after all, none of my business.