blood shift: the shifting of blood to the thoracic cavity, the region of the chest between the diaphragm and the neck, to avoid the collapse of the lungs under higher pressure during submersion in deep water.
I close the door carefully behind me. The soup is already on the table: tomato. I had lingered with my last patient of the day, half-hoping to miss it, as I have never liked it. I am three minutes late to dinner.
"Thank you, Rebecca," my wife says, smiling at our maid. "We will call you if you need you." The girl is new to service, and is, I suspect, younger than we were led to believe, but is blossoming under Mary's care. She bobs her head, and leaves.
"John," Mary says warmly. "Sit down."
"Thank you, my dear," I say, and I make an effort for her, as do I always. "I do apologise, Mrs. Faversham was rather persistant this evening. I'm glad you didn't wait."
"You are hardly late, don't fuss," Mary smiles, and passes me the bread basket.
Already the damp October weather is slipping away, shut out of this oasis of firelight and warm smells. It leaves behind only the bone-deep cold, a chill which is lodged in more than flesh, and which no fire can drive out. I have become accustomed to it, these five months. It is the cold of a drowned man.
"Did you have a long day, my boy?" she says quietly, without pity. I am grateful for it. I love my wife as no man should.
"It was rather tiresome," I say. "You know, I find that I am not that hungry."
"John," Mary says. She is looking pointedly at the soup bowl and the ladle before me. "Three ladles," she says. Three ladles for three minutes. Her gaze is calm and steady, and, meeting it with my own, I am able to take my first unfettered breath of the day. I pour out three ladles of soup.
"Eat up," she says. Her rosy lips are curved in a gentle smile. I have heard Mrs. Brown, our housekeeper, remark on "how wonderful it is, she's that attentive to him!" Holmes himself remarked on it shortly after we married, an eyebrow raised with perfect cruelty that would have stung me, before Mary. I eat the bitter liquid at a slow, measured pace, and I do not look up until I have spooned the last of it from my bowl.
"Good," Mary says, her eyes glowing with approval for me, and for a second, I feel almost warmed by it. "Now, the lamb."
I have written of the moment when Mary's hand stole into mine, at the climax of the adventure I have named The Sign of the Four. I have written of how it seemed to indicate, to me, our sympathy of mind, the intertwining of our souls destined to be cemented by marriage. She squeezed my hand too hard with a grip that was hardly ladylike, bruising my fingers. The pain flared and caught on the roiling, aching anger I had been feeling throughout our conversation with McMurdo, in which Holmes had revealed casually yet another facet of his talents and his past, as he did, occasionally, with a smiling glance at me, as if to remind me that I would never truly know him. The anger burned out like paper in that pain, and I felt peace for the first time in weeks, perhaps months, standing there with my hand in Mary's. I glanced at her, and her eyes were sharp and keen, her breath coming fast as she faced the great, dark house before us. She looked at me, then, and, prompted by I know not what that she saw on my face, in a moment I will never forget, her expression changed to one I had seen before only on one other person; the expression of a scientist, intent but cold, distant, and she squeezed my hand until my eyes stung and my heart pounded.
"If you will please," Holmes snapped, and I jerked my eyes from her, but she faced him calmly, and would not relinquish my hand, which by now felt as limp as a sponge.
"We are right behind you, Mr. Holmes," she said, and smiled. Holmes looked at me, and I smiled, too, a grimace which felt painful and unaccustomed, but I revelled in it as I saw it hit home.
He came to me that night, as he had not done for months. I have often wondered if he saw me slipping from his grasp and simply did not care, or if he did not see, or did not know how to call me back. He rolled me over and took me wordlessly, panting in my ear, and brought me to the height of pleasureable agony again and again before he let me fall, and we lay together, breathless.
"Holmes -" I said at last, my voice shaking.
"Be ready in the morning," he said. He left me there, unmoored and alone. The next morning, there was nothing to show he had been there, nor was his behaviour towards me different in word or expression, following the pattern he had set nearly a year before, the first time he came to my bed. The ache in my hand remained, though, when I flexed it. Holmes caught me doing it, and he seemed about to say something, once, but caught himself. I never again saw him falter for a single instant; not even when he sent me back to a Swiss village with a boy he knew was lying.
When I asked Mary for her hand, she said, "All right," and clung to me fiercely, and I felt something of my desperation in her. "You understand, don't you," she murmured. "You know."
I hesitated. She slipped her small hand into my sleeve and pinched the inner skin of my forearm viciously, and I caught my breath, held, inexorably, by the pain and her eyes.
"This is what I am, John," she said quietly. "Will you have me?"
"Yes," I breathed, forgetting I had already asked her to marry me. Her mouth quirked.
"Isn't it traditional for a gentleman to propose on one knee?"
The release of pain felt like the release from everything else; from my misery, from Holmes, and I laughed with it.
"Good Heavens, how many times must I propose to you?" I said, and I did go down on one knee for her, and was rewarded with a smile that reached her eyes, the first I had seen.
There had been an understanding of some kind with her previous employer, I came to know later, while she was working as a governess; we have never discussed it, or how that gentleman educated her, or she him. I believe that her desires, like mine, are innate, or implanted so deeply that we cannot root out their source. I am a medical man, but medicine has not yet caught up with us. She diagnosed me, nonetheless, the second we met. It took me longer to understand her; I am not even sure that I have done so, yet. We are neither of us happy, but we are of a kind, and we have found in each other a safe port in our own, private storms.
Holmes has been dead these five months and three days. His body will be bloated and half-eaten, now, perhaps wedged under an overhang upstream, perhaps caught deep underwater. Perhaps it has drifted like a rag-doll towards Meiringen, or even as far as Boden. Sometimes, I tell myself that he has been washed up and mistaken for a lost shepherd, buried in a shallow grave at the riverside. But much of the time, I believe that he is still drowning, his lungs choking for breath in the icy water without the volition of his mind, stunned by the fall, his legs drifting useless and broken, and the cold horror of it creeps to drag me under too.
"John." There is a whip in her voice. "Place your hands on the table."
I do so, and watch as she loads a fork with a small piece of lamb, a new potato, lovingly, carefully. I am mesmerized by the economy and precision of her movements, as ever. She spends her days embroidering pretty shawls for the needy, visiting the sick and painting watercolours, but she could have been a doctor, or a scientist, if she had been a man. She raises the fork to my mouth, then pauses.
"Say please," she whispers.
I say it.