The sitting room of 221B Baker Street has seen many dramatic entrances over the years. Clients have burst in, excited or distraught, at odd hours. Holmes’s young squad of eyes and ears, the Irregulars, have crammed the space, filling it up with disorder in proportion to the indignation of our landlady. Wicked men of crime and vice have made their presence known through quiet hisses or sudden displays of brute force. I have attempted to capture my readers’ attention by giving each such occasion its due, but my focus has always remained firmly on the visitor.
In the case I am confiding to these pages, out of habit rather than any possibility of publication, it was the host who was in a state so remarkable as to obscure the entrance of the visitor. The host was I, and the visitor was a worthy opponent for taking centre-stage, if only for her exquisite beauty. Her face had the delicacy produced from generations of excellent breeding. From her hair, golden and heavy, gracing her head like a crown, to her small, narrow feet, she was as lovely a creature as a man could find, but at the moment of her arrival none of these observations were available to me. Holmes wouldn’t have congratulated me, even if he had been there. I made them later; at the start, all I noticed was her youth and the violent redness of her tearful eyes. The rest was lost on me.
To say that my soul was in turmoil would be inaccurate, for it would suggest unhappiness at least to some degree. While I was certainly unsettled, tense, and not a little frantic, misery played no part in my experiences. Quite the opposite—there was a joyous, bright feeling that shone through all the rest. It was rooted in an event that had taken place mere three hours earlier, but I was certain its effects would last for a much longer period than that.
Holmes and I were working on a smuggling case, the grand scale of which became more apparent with every step we made. Two weeks after a humble retired widow came to seek my friend’s assistance for the disappearance of a family heirloom Holmes was working around the clock, trying to piece together rumours and facts, reported incidents and distant hearsays. He had grown secretive, too, as was his habit. In the night to which I refer he had left at dusk on a mysterious mission and judging by his extraordinary conduct before his departure, I could only conclude that mission was to put him in mortal peril.
Why should I feel happiness at the prospect? There is a simple explanation—I didn’t. I was deeply worried and restless; I even debated going against his instructions to avoid contacting the police at all cost. Yet while preoccupied with fears about my friend’s safety, a part of me, an egotistical part, was busy re-living our parting.
After impressing upon me his instructions once more—"Don’t leave the house unless it is absolutely necessary, Watson. You must promise me again!"—Holmes quickly nodded at my reluctant assent and shook his head silently, cutting short my last attempt to convince him to take me with him. He held my eyes for a second longer than necessary. (Then again, that was often my feeling anyway, so I dismissed it as wishful fancy on my part. Besides, who could say how long was the necessary length of eye contact between two people with our close bond?) He then walked briskly to the door and opened it, made to go out. There, he stopped abruptly. He stood in the doorway for a few moments, his back to me, before turning decisively on his heels, coming back to me in a few long strides and…
He embraced me. Sherlock Holmes embraced me. He squeezed my upper arms first, his eyes boring into mine with unfathomable intensity, and he wrapped me in his arms. I hardly had the chance to come out of my stupor then he was already pulling away and looking at me again, his expression almost moved. Holmes’s hands did the most astonishing thing then—they seemed to flutter over me, as if he was making sure I was real and present. His eyes shone with something that, after repeatedly turning the image over in my head (as my stomach turned with it, warm and throbbing and exulted), I came to believe was akin to regret. He pulled me into his embrace again, a tighter one, and one in which I was damned well intent to play a more active part. I had barely closed my arms around his slender frame and pressed my chin against his shoulder when he pulled away again, nodded curtly, and disappeared.
How could the late evening appearance of an unaccompanied beautiful young woman, as much as she was sobbing into her glove, be more engaging than the tumultuous conflict of emotions battling in my chest? The man I held in higher esteem than any other for all the world to see, the man for whom my devotion and attraction had long passed any reasonable line from which it was wise to let the world watch, that man had given me a glimpse of his strong emotion—a miracle in its own right—and it was all directed at me, for me, bearing the unmistakable form of fondness. I was wild with questions, torn between the most persistently soaring hope and the sobering, heavy anchor of common sense—or was it self-preservation? Saying how that couldn’t be…could it?
Yet a gentleman had his conduct to uphold, even when he was secretly feeling much like an impressionable young lady himself and I am proud to say I stood up to the challenge. If I wasn’t already pacing around the room in a state of considerable agitation, I would have jumped when the door all but flew open, letting in the distraught young woman and a rather flustered Mrs. Hudson. After a few moments of confusion I was already busy reassuring our landlady on her way out, then directing the trembling visitor to the chair nearest to the fire—as it happened my own, though I had made hardly any use of it. A cup of tea was offered; it was declined with a voice that I had expected to match the gentle form of the lady. It was rough, instead, from crying and exhaustion as I was quick to conclude. I had another chance to privately frown at the rules of society that forbade a lady to be offered something stronger. I have often thought that in certain circumstances a sip of brandy would save a lot of anxiety to both the creatures of the fairer sex and their helpless companions. This was one of those occasions, yet there was nothing to be done. I ventured to pat her delicate shoulder and retreated into Holmes’s chair to wait for our visitor—I was certain she wasn’t my visitor—to restore the possession of her faculties and speak about the reason for her presence in the room at this hour.
Thankfully, the wait wasn’t a long one. Within a minute the lady’s breathing calmed. She sighed and rubbed her forehead somewhat abruptly, the gesture unbecoming and betraying her distress even more, as far as I could judge. Her swimming eyes met mine and I decided it was time to speak.
"May I ask about the purpose of your visit, Miss…"
"Fanshaw. Valerie Fanshaw," she whispered.
"Doctor Watson, at your service. I imagine you’ve come to see Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Miss Fanshaw."
Valerie Fanshaw opened her mouth as if to speak, but chose to nod vehemently.
"I regret to tell you he is not at home," I said. I intended to offer my assistance, more out of courtesy than any real profession to be of equal use. Before I had finished my sentence she was staring around the room with wild eyes as if expecting Holmes to appear from behind a secret door and disprove my words.
"He is not at home?" she repeated, voice trembling. "But I must see him. I must speak to him! Oh, I am so wretched!"
Her voice had gone shrill at her last words and she dug her fingers into her palms as she folded her hands into fists. Her eyes filled with tears again. I rushed to comfort her.
"Please, Miss Fanshaw, do not distress yourself! Can you tell me what is bothering you? Holmes may not be back for some—" Just in time I remembered his words of warning and bit my tongue. Valerie Fanshaw was certainly not a member of the Yard, but something in Holmes’s tense demeanour earlier made me stop and take extra precautions.
"Miss Fanshaw," I began once more, "If there is anything I could do to help you…"
She stared at me with sudden shrewdness—I could only think of it as suspicion fighting with desperation—and then her face fell.
"I am in a terrible situation, Doctor Watson," she said. "Strange occurrences have been happening to me in the last six weeks. Strange and sinister. I live alone in Richmond. My father died when I was two and my dear mother passed away a year ago. I have no siblings and no relatives that I am close to. For personal reasons I have a deep distrust of servants and only keep a maid in the house during the day." It seemed to me that there was hesitation when she said the last sentence, but I didn’t press her.
"I have enough means to allow me to live comfortably," she continued. "I dedicate my time to a couple of charities and to the various pursuits a lady in my position has. My life is simple. I don’t have many friends; I spend my evenings at home, doing embroidery, and I only go to the theatre once a month. There is no—I have no male acquaintances on whose help I can rely." She sighed and her head bowed, but she didn’t start crying again.
"Go on," I encouraged her.
"Well, as I said, it all began six weeks ago. One evening, as I was drawing the curtains closed, I chanced to look outside and I saw two men leaving the house across the street. I don’t know the people who live there. I don’t think I have ever seen them, but I have only lived in the area for the last three months. The two men were rough looking and—" She made a sharp gesture, as if she was about to hide her face in her palms, but then she stopped half-way. I looked at her, amazed. She seemed to have frozen, until in a few moments her hands dropped back in her lap, and she finished, stoically. "The men stared at me and leered at me, I am sure of it."
I thought she was trying to be brave and indeed she continued in a hurry to get her story over with.
"I have seen those same men or at least one of them every week since then. Not just on my street—they are everywhere I go. In the last week they have tried to approach me, coming closer, nodding and smiling at me in a most disgusting manner. Two days ago I was leaving our local church when someone brushed past me quite forcefully. When I looked up, it was one of those men. He just laughed at me! Oh, that hideous face!" Her little fist shot up in the air and made me start. I could see this was a mystery that would quickly catch Holmes’s interest. My heart suddenly plummeted in my chest. Miss Fanshaw’s extraordinary account had distracted me, but now the thought that my dear friend may never have the chance to learn about this case pierced me to my core. I collected myself.
"And what brings you here tonight?" I asked.
Miss Fanshaw looked me squarely in the face and I was at last struck by the true loveliness of her features. Her swollen eyes were the only thing to mar the perfection. Despite their pitiful state, there was hardness in them.
"This morning I received a note," she said. "It only read, ‘Prepare for the new dawn.’ I didn’t know what to think, but something told me those two horrible men had something to do with it. I’ve spent the day in unimaginable fantasies about what is to come. What can such a message mean, Doctor Watson? The dawn—it can only mean something will happen to me during the night." Suddenly she slid forward in her seat until she was on the edge, seemingly ready to drop on her knees in front of me. I regarded her in alarm, as she turned a pleading face at me.
"I am begging you, Doctor Watson, you must help me! There is no one I could turn to, no one! I was hoping that Mr. Holmes could explain these sinister events, but now you say he is not here…I cannot go back to my house alone. I don’t wish to go back there. I’m scared out of my wits as to what should happen to me. Doctor Watson, please, tell me what to do! Please, help me!"
At the last words she quivered forward like she was really about to throw herself at my feet. I jumped to mine.
"Miss Fanshaw! You are safe here. You won’t have to face those men alone. We must go to the police at once—"
She interrupted me with renewed vehemence.
"No! I spoke to them after the incident at the church. They laughed at me. They saw me as a fanciful young woman and sent me away."
"But if we go together and you show them the note—you kept the note, didn’t you?" I asked, thinking with a considerable delay that the note was where Holmes would have started.
"Have you brought it with you?"
She hesitated. "Yes," she said at last, her tone firm. "But I’ll show it to you when we get to my house. You must promise me that you will not leave me alone or make me go to the police."
"Miss Fanshaw," I pressed. "Mr. Sherlock Holmes is held in high esteem by certain members of the force. I am sure that if we go to them with—"
"No," she cried, making a motion as if to get up. "No, I don’t want to go back to them."
"Then we shan’t," I hurried to soothe her. It was evident there was something else at play here, but Miss Fanshaw was too distressed to be questioned further. I had seen plenty of clients come to seek Holmes’s help, but still hesitant to reveal everything to him. Only those in real despair were put in a position where they had to trust quickly. Miss Fanshaw still didn’t trust me and after all, she had her right—I was not Sherlock Holmes.
I made up my mind. If I couldn’t be of assistance with Holmes’s exceptional skills, then I could try and offer her my modest ones. Maybe then I could gain her confidence and apply his methods, question her further about those men and most importantly, examine the note and her surroundings.
"Miss Fanshaw," I said reassuringly. "Will it put your mind at ease if I accompanied you to your house and stayed there for the night, keeping watch?"
Her face, already red and shining from the nearness of the fire and from her ordeal, lit up.
"Yes! Oh, Doctor Watson, thank you! Thank you!" Her hand rose again, in a gesture that was quite a match to some of Holmes’s more theatrical ones. "I don’t know how I should repay you. Any fee you—"
I lifted my own hand. "Please. I am sure Holmes would be most intrigued by your case. I’m merely offering my presence and my revolver for the night."
She sprang to her feet. "Oh, I already feel silly for being so scared. How can I thank you for putting my mind at ease?"
I murmured another reassurance and excused myself. I made preparations for spending the night away, starting by scribbling a note to Lestrade. It was not the same as going to the police with the lady, I reasoned. With Holmes gone without a trace and myself disappearing into the night, it was sensible to make sure someone knew at least my whereabouts. Lestrade, Holmes and I had a long-standing, tested relationship, despite certain tensions between my friend and the respected police inspector. I knew Holmes singled him out for a good reason. As for myself, I felt a sense of camaraderie with Lestrade that made me consider him not just an official member of the force, but a trusted friend.
After I finished the note, I put my revolver in my coat pocket and quickly shrugged it on. I could see the lady was growing restless by the way she paced to the window and kept looking out. Time was advancing, indeed, and I was afraid to make our arrival in Richmond later than it already was. But I had to write another note. I answered Miss Fanshaw’s questions about both notes with half a lie. I told her the first note was to a patient who was expecting to hear from me, but I did tell her the truth about the intended recipient of the second.
As my words hastily filled the page, I felt deep unease. Such was my reluctance to disobey Holmes’s orders and such was my concern about him, that for a moment I hesitated if I should not ask Miss Fanshaw to spend the night at Baker Street. But aside from the lack of propriety of such a suggestion, I could hear my friend’s cry, "The game is afoot, Watson!" I had to leave, follow the scent in his absence. I quickly signed my note—"Yours, Watson"—hoping feverishly that he would read it and that he would understand my choice to break my promise. And was it really a break? He had told me to leave the house only in exceptional circumstances and I was sure he would agree these fitted the description. My eyes lingered for a moment on the word ‘yours’ and sweet pressure collapsed my lungs again. Then, with a final touch to my coat pocket, I left the house with Miss Fanshaw.
The journey to our destination allowed me to make further observations on my companion. There was not enough light in the carriage for this to be a truly successful endeavour, but I was nonetheless able to get a confirmation of her words about her financial situation. Her clothes and hat would have likely told Holmes half the story of her life in addition to the monthly sum she spent on her personal appearance. What I could say with certainty was that both dress and hat seemed of excellent quality. The hat in particular was the kind of accessory I had seen gracing the heads of ladies of some prominent stature in life.
Miss Fanshaw seemed barely over twenty years of age, so the flashes of strong character of which I had caught glimpses must have been due to her own nature rather than hardship. I couldn’t say what life she had led before her mother’s death, but her life now was sheltered and luxurious. I might not be Holmes, but I am a medical man—I was able to distinguish the signs of a healthy countenance that only good nutrition and comfortable living could give.
On a couple of occasions Miss Fanshaw caught me looking at her and I decided to abandon my pursuit for more information. I had always been baffled by Holmes’s skill to watch people without them noticing, but on this instance I was reminded that my amazement was even stronger on account of another, perhaps even more inexplicable phenomenon. People sometimes caught my friend’s keen gaze on them, but there was something about him that made them accept—if not willingly then at least begrudgingly—the intrusion of such a close look. Very likely it was the same something that commanded respect from both members of the noblest families and common London beggars alike.
Once outside, we managed to catch a hansom after two unsuccessful attempts. One was already driving past us as we left the house, and the driver didn’t seem to see me. The second had my companion almost settled into it when she gasped, averted her face with an expression of distaste, and alighted instantly, murmuring delicately that the conditions in the carriage were unacceptable. I didn’t enquire for details and naturally obliged her. Thus, we found ourselves on our way after we got on into the third hansom. There I had proof of what the lady had complained about earlier. A part of her clothing must have come to a close contact with something repulsive in the second carriage—as we rode, I kept catching a whiff of some very unpleasant smell. I could see Miss Fanshaw looked uncomfortable, too.
Aside from that, our journey was uneventful. My companion and I hardly spoke—she had withdrawn into her corner, the last twelve hours evidently taking their toll as she didn’t say more than a few words. She did direct a bashful smile at me a few times though, as if to convey the enduring strength of her gratitude.
For myself, I disliked the lack of conversation. It meant that, unhindered, my thoughts returned anxiously to Holmes and the possible dangers he was facing alone. I bitterly resented my compliance to his moods and to his whims, but that had always been the case, ever since we met and I was put under the instant spell of his most fascinating personality. Despite of showing Sherlock Holmes my admiration and my disapproval without discrimination, I could hardly ever affect him with them. I had failed to modify his habits and behaviour; at least that was the way I saw things then. He still did what he thought best and I still remained by his side—or in some cases ostensibly far from it.
With my gloomy reflections, the time to get to Kensington seemed both too short and too long to me. Looking out I tried to find my bearings, but was not successful; although this part of London was vaguely familiar to me, it was not familiar enough and soon I was completely lost. We drove quickly through some bigger streets, the hansom taking turn after turn that had me disoriented. I was just beginning to suspect our driver was unsure of the address when the horses slowed down until a few turns later they stopped outside the very last house in a close.
I alighted and paid the driver, then offered my hand to Miss Fanshaw and let her lead the way. The hooves of the retreating horses echoed for a few moments and then the fog swallowed both animals and sound, leaving the place eerily quiet. The hour had advanced—the street was barely illuminated by the weak light of a couple of street lamps, the one nearest to the house extinguished and making visibility even harder. I had no chance to have a proper look at the house across the street, the one where Miss Fanshaw had first seen the two strange men. I had tried to ask her about their descriptions at the start of our ride, but she had answered with a couple of tired words that there was nothing distinctive about them. They were both young men in their thirties, she had said, wearing workmen’s caps. Their faces were covered with a lot of facial hair. I had pressed about their clothing; the lady had all but snapped at me that she did not wish to dwell on her persecutors. I was respectful of how taxing the last six weeks must have been for her nerves so I excused her behaviour and dropped the subject. Now, there was nothing to add about the surroundings either. I was beginning to dread having to report to Holmes—there was hardly anything I could tell him! At least the lady’s home could give me some clues.
The houses opposite Miss Fanshaw’s property as well as those adjacent to it were all plunged in darkness. My fingers slid in my pocket instinctively and clasped around my revolver. I fought an impulse to murmur some reassurance to the thin, quiet figure unlocking the front door in front of me, but in the dead silence I was not convinced whom I was trying to reassure. The door opened without any noise, yet I was certain I heard some scratching sound from within the house. The fingers of my other hand closed around my young companion’s shoulder, making her jump. In a harsh whisper I apologized for startling her and suggested I should go in first. I couldn’t see her features well, but I saw her nod in agreement as she moved out of my way. I gripped my revolver tighter and pulled it out of my pocket, quietly releasing the safety catch, then moved into the pitch black house.
The corridor seemed perfectly silent. I heard Miss Fanshaw’s movements as she entered the house behind me. I took a few steps in and was just about to ask her to risk turning on the lights, when something sharp pressed against my neck and a different kind of blackness replaced the first.
Swimming out of unconsciousness turned out to be pleasanter than I had expected. I discovered that my head was resting on something which was supple yet hard enough to support it, and warmth surrounded me. My cravat had been removed and my collar loosened, so my breathing was unrestricted. The scents I inhaled did not add to my comfort: mould, stale air, and a distinct smell of dust, the way it smelled when it had covered furniture for a long time.
What did add to my comfort, although my mind was aware of it long after my body, was another smell—one I could never mistake amongst thousands of others. Paper, that soap, tobacco, that cologne, Baker Street, that unique scent of skin I had caught a whiff of so rarely, too rarely. My heart leapt in my chest.
Thin fingers moved over my torso like the legs of giant spiders. They slid across the planes of my chest in what seemed a most intimate fashion.
"Holmes!" I exclaimed.
"It’s nice of you to drop by, Watson." My friend’s voice near my ear sounded as nonchalant as if we were in our familiar lodgings at Baker Street, fire crackling in the fireplace and glasses of brandy glinting in our hands. His hands, however, had stilled, then lifted sharply, but when I made no motion to push them away they returned to their place on my chest.
At his words I moved to rise—quite why I should have wanted to do that is, in hindsight, beyond my comprehension—but his arms tightened to prevent me.
"I suggest you give yourself a few extra moments to recover," Holmes said. "The effects of what you were given should have worn off, but one can never be too cautious. Especially when one’s surroundings are as disorienting as they are for you."
I blinked into the darkness and had to admit he was right. There was almost no light in the space we occupied. I was able to distinguish the vague outlines of his arms only due to the sparkling white colour Mrs. Hudson strived to give all Holmes’s shirts. Other than that I wouldn’t have known whether I was in a space as small as a dog house or as big as a palace.
"Surely you can deduce the rough dimensions of the room by the echo my voice produces, Watson." Holmes’s tone was amused, albeit with a hint of reproach. "As well as the material of the walls, the number of objects in the space—or at least their character—their placement, their approximate size..."
I was about to ask him how he knew that I was thinking about our surroundings, when I realized my head must have moved left to right on his chest. At that point, the extraordinary fact that my head was on his chest assaulted me with great force and made me doubt the reality of my experiences. Was it possible that I was in the web of a dream, a concoction of a delirious brain suffering a trauma? Yet Holmes knowing what I should be thinking was too truthful to reality, not to mention too tame a fantasy to be one.
There was no need to ask him how he knew I was pondering the space we were in. What had in the early days started out as a deductive chain was now pure instinctive knowledge of one friend to another, and I was an open book to him. He knew all there was to know about me hence I had no illusions my secrets were anything of the kind. That was one of the reasons I had never attempted to speak them aloud: if he knew my biggest secret and still refrained from mentioning it by word or gesture, it could mean one thing only—this was not the kind of knowledge for which he had any use.
He had gone unusually still above me and I was momentarily glad to think my silence had managed to puzzle him. Then the reality of the situation returned to me, both in the incredible circumstances of finding myself in his arms—again!—and finding his arms, of all people’s, at this place.
"What are you doing here, Holmes?"
"The same thing as you, my dear fellow—chasing a hot scent."
I made to turn and look at his face on instinct. A futile attempt, of course, but that was not the reason I was glad that once more his sinewy arms tightened around me to hold me captive. I relaxed into what was tantalizingly close to an embrace and waited for him to continue.
"You know I have been working on the smuggling case," he said, "but with less success than I had hoped for. The day before yesterday I made considerable progress in discovering the hide-out of the operation—the place where the biggest trophies were held. I was able to discover the identity of three of the chief figures in these operations and they are the kind of fish which, once caught, will make our friend Lestrade the most celebrated name in the Yard. However, there was an obstacle in my progress.
"The place was a fortress, Watson; an impenetrable fortress. It was impossible for a stranger to break into it and then open their vault, not without serious preparation. Now they knew Sherlock Holmes was after them, I was sure they would move quickly and soon shift their treasure trove elsewhere. Who was to say how long it would take to track them down again? Scotland Yard had nothing for an arrest—these people are the best at their game." The familiar ring of respect found its place in my friend’s voice—he was always indiscriminate in his praise for the clever, regardless on which side of the law they stood.
"There was no time to devise a plan as to how to put a man into their small circle," he continued. "The only person who could have done it quickly—and with great effect, if I may add—was myself. Yet even my disguises wouldn’t have helped. They would have spotted my mysterious disappearance and would have deduced that the timing of the new fellow’s appearance in their ranks was not an accident. So there was only one thing I could do. If I couldn’t go in as someone else, I had to go in as myself."
"But how will they let you in?"
"They already have. This is the place."
This time his hands were unable to prevent me from lifting myself in alarm.
"This place? What in the name…"
"It’s really quite simple, Watson. I came here and made a false attempt to break into the house. I fully expected to be captured, locked in, and kept here until preparations were made for the disposal of my person. I confess my plan has its flaws. Waiting here without tobacco was beginning to get a bit trying even for me."
"Waiting for what?"
"Surely that’s obvious."
"Not to me."
"You, my dear fellow. Waiting for you."
Silence followed; it took me a few moments to realize that although the owner of the most penetrating mind, my friend’s eyes were still those of a human—he was unable to see me gaping at him and thus receive his cue to elaborate.
"I don’t understand," I said. My head was beginning to throb again.
"No, perhaps not," Holmes replied meditatively. "I can’t hold it against you. You aren’t aware of all the details in my plan. Here’s what I’d set out to do and have managed quite well so far. I wanted to find a way into their fortress and I did. My next step was to produce the tools necessary for opening their vault. I couldn’t conceal them on me—I did have some tools on my person that were found upon my capture and confiscated. The detail is what makes a performance brilliant, Watson. The smallest thing had to be in place to have them utterly convinced that I had come to break into the vault, intending to expose them with the evidence of their smuggling pursuits. Once they were sure I was harmless, they put me in here. But not before I managed to let it slip that I was in possession of the detailed plans of their house which I had hidden away, together with all my notes on their organization."
Holmes paused and I released my breath. When he spoke next, the pride in his voice was unmissable.
"It wasn’t difficult to imagine they would rush to the first place they could think—Baker Street. Knowing that worked extremely well in my advantage. I knew that if they found my friend Watson in the premises, they would need to get him out of there to search the house, then arrange for his disappearance too, for fear he knew too much. You have made my confidence in you too evident to the world, Watson. It was bound to get you into trouble. Anyway, the likelihood that they would bring you here was very high. My investigations had shown this house to be remarkably well situated and equipped for any dark, wicked business, be it storing smuggled items or disposing of people. It is virtually the only inhabited house at this end of the street, it’s soundproof, and there are both Richmond Park and the bottom of the river Thames at its doorstep.
"So all I had to do was conceal the real tools, necessary for the successful end of the operation, on your person, then make my insinuation to start the chain of events I’d just described. Once brought here, no one would have bothered searching you—after all, you weren’t even aware you were being lured out of the house. Who was it? The young lady, I assume?"
Until that point I had listened to Holmes utterly speechless, a turbulent mixture of feelings stirring in my chest. Now I cleared my voice and found myself justifying my stupidity.
"She was so distraught, Holmes. Her eyes were red and swollen—she had cried for hours. No one can be such a good actress!"
Holmes chuckled but the sound did not cheer me up.
"You are forgiven for not keeping in mind the intricacies of cooking, my dear Watson. As our landlady would readily remind you, close contact with some varieties of chopped onions produces an irritation in the eyes that leads to profuse watering. Surely you remember that from your studies? The effects on the eyes are to make them look much like they would after a few tearful hours."
Not only did I indeed remember that was the case, but something else struck me as well. The smell; the unusual, unpleasant smell I had caught a whiff of in the carriage. It hadn’t been the residue from Valerie Fanshaw’s contact with the disgusting insides of the second hansom—it was the smell of onions. Then another thought arrived. There hadn’t been anything wrong with the second carriage. She just pretended there was, so that we could get into the one driven by a member of their lot.
"You really mustn’t blame yourself for not seeing through their game, Watson." Holmes voice was flat but not without kindness. "I’ve had the opportunity to observe the lady over the last few weeks. She has a most remarkable future ahead of her. Or rather, she would have had, if our paths hadn’t crossed. She is rivalled only by the Woman, but is much younger than that lady. The Woman, it has to be said, has some advantages of character over her, and one particular advantage of circumstances. That one I intend to keep that way. I will not be tricked a second time, no matter how exceptionally gifted young Catherine Morgan is—that’s the name of your late night visitor."
We were silent for a moment. I asked myself if Holmes expected me to enquire further about this woman or about the details of the plan for my abduction. I had another question pressing.
"What about your plan?"
"Yes, my plan. Well, once I gathered that I needed the tools somehow smuggled into the building—if you pardon my word play—what better way to do it than to let my enemies provide me with them, whilst also obligingly giving me the company of my friend Watson. The solution was as simple as that: if I couldn’t have the tools on me, I could have them on you. Like I said, you wouldn’t have been searched, for you didn’t even suspect you were about to join me. Your ignorance was essential, Watson." There was a hint of apology in Holmes’s voice, but I was deaf to it. If there was light, I would have been blind to any regret on his features, too; a red mist was beginning to swim in front of my unseeing eyes.
I heard Holmes shuffle, as if he was making an attempt to come nearer to me in the darkness. He continued more quietly.
"You were able to play your part so well, because you did believe you were leaving the house to help a distressed lady. I had managed to hide the tools on your person during, um, our departure. A moment ago I was able to collect them back." The apology had increased in his voice, mingled with some embarrassment, but he didn’t elaborate—he paused instead. I could feel his hesitation.
"Where exactly were they?" I asked, barely covering the strain in my tone.
"You mustn’t wonder whether you should have noticed them. No one would. There are just two of them, extremely delicate and small. This is the most sophisticated type of safe I’ve ever come across, Watson. I should really take the time to study it after this business is over." The usual excitement when his work was discussed had replaced any other unnatural emotion in Holmes’s voice.
"I see," I managed.
Holmes was quiet again. He cleared his throat, but didn’t speak for another few moments. "I was afraid the tools might slip from their hiding places," he said awkwardly at last, "so I had to hold you—that is to say I had to make sure they were there and…and retrieve them, while you were unconscious. That was why you found me so…intruding when you resumed consciousness."
His speech was a strange mixture between stammering and hurrying, but all I was able to do was barely register the meaning of his words. My unexpected short laugh sounded terribly bitter to my own ears. I hoped without the sight of my expression Holmes would take it for amusement.
"You already have them," I said.
"Well. What are we waiting for?"
He hesitated again, as if torn between answering my question and saying something else. Luckily for him, he went with the force that was always mightier—his passion for the case. Luckily, because I was not in the mood to hear anything else, no matter what it might be. I wanted to get out of this place and go home, go to my own room, bury my head under the covers and this whole day under a mountain of rocks, and forget about it.
"I wanted to give you an explanation of my actions," Holmes said slowly. "As well as present you with the outline for the plan tonight and give Lestrade enough time to arrive here."
The last statement made me forget my anger for a moment.
"Lestrade?" A horrible thought occurred to me. "Holmes, I sent him a note. I know you said not to contact him, but I didn’t want to leave the house without letting him know you were gone, and were possibly in danger. Perhaps my note has deterred him in some way or confused him about your plan." This second cause for shame was harder to bear than the first. Being deceived by a skilful actress was nothing to be proud of but placing our lives in danger simply because I had ignored Holmes’s instructions was far, far worse.
I nearly jumped when I felt Holmes’s cold fingers close around my wrist. "Watson, I expected you to write to Lestrade. His instructions were to start off for this address as soon as he received your note. I had provided for various scenarios, of course, but this one was the likeliest. He is on his way and we should be on ours."
I pulled my hand free—it was a mystery how something icy could feel so piping hot that it was causing me pain.
"I’m ready," I said, swallowing my disappointment. There was no anger to swallow. The discovery that Holmes had predicted my actions to the last one, like the marionette that I was, deflated me. I still wanted to leave as soon as possible, but now I had restored some of my sensibility. A dangerous night still lay ahead of us and I needed my wits about me. Holmes also needed me to have my wits about me, no matter how limited they were or how keenly I felt his conduct as betrayal.
I heard him shuffle in the darkness and was sure he was standing up. In a moment I was on my feet, too, fighting an impulse to feel around with my hands, helpless; seeking for something, anything to guide me. I used the whiteness of his shirt as my North.
"Are you sure you are feeling up to it, Watson?" If there was concern in his voice, or that rare gentleness of tone, I felt oddly weakened by them, so chose to ignore them.
"Of course, Holmes. Lead the way, I’ll be right behind."
I have patchy memories at best for the following few hours—one more reason for this case to remain forever hidden from the eyes of the public. I remember Holmes’s stealthy movements, the white of his shirt continuing to glow like a beacon as we crept through corridors whose windows let the opaque, scant light of the night in. I remember his swift work on the safe, the typical quiet of his utmost concentration, and how loud it rang in my ears. I remember the whole place bursting with noise and light, people running around, the police constables’ whistles, a couple of warning shots. I remember Holmes’s hand darting to pick up something amongst the many objects revealed in the safe. I remember looking at Catherine Morgan and seeing clearly one more difference between her and Irene Adler—there was no longer a lady in front of me. I remember Lestrade’s eager face and his efficient conclusion of the operation; his eyes lit up when he spoke to Holmes and me, made sure we weren’t injured, and promised to visit us on the next day.
I remember the feeling that the fog had moved into my head.
Holmes didn’t seem to be coming down from his euphoria that night, after we returned home at last. He talked about the case in great detail as he glided across the room, one corner to another, absent-mindedly putting things away and attempting, as I realized, to bring some order into the chaos he’d created over the last few days. Occasionally he stopped, brandishing an incongruous object in hand, much like an absorbed conductor of an orchestra, and using it to visualize a particular point. Thus a swimsuit, of all things, was waved in my general direction as Holmes’s hand drew in the air an elaborate map of the south coast of England. All the while I felt like one of his chemical experiments gone awry—an explosive mixture brewing dangerously in my chest, the fumes unable to find an outlet.
Our arrival had awoken Mrs Hudson, so Holmes took advantage and requested some hot water. A small amount, sufficient for a quick wash, was soon brought up by our unperturbed landlady. Holmes disappeared into his room to make use of it but went on speaking to me through the door, which he had left ajar. This was not a common occurrence in our household, yet neither was it the first one of its kind. But while in the past I had done my best to reclaim my peace, staunchly denying that my unsettlement was rooted in the awareness of my friend being unclothed not three six away from me, this time, having had my soul poked in its most intimate places all night, the cacophony in my head became unbearable.
"For God’s sake, Holmes!" I erupted at a moment that in all likelihood marked a completely uneventful spot in his narrative.
Silence followed my cry. I bit my tongue almost literally; my right hand shot to cover my brow. I could hear Holmes’s movements in his bedroom, but he remained speechless. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In retrospect, I realize a retreat would have been most natural. It never occurred to me to leave. I had reached the end of my rope and was not willing to start a new journey, holding on for safety to another. There was great determination in me to see this through. By ‘this’ at the time I would have referred to having an argument, for I was preparing for one. Moreover, I was feeling up to one. But of course when you live with Sherlock Holmes an argument with him is much like one of his disguises: it leaves you tricked and confused should he wish you to be so. No matter how good the get-up, it always hides the real thing. And finally, if there’s no use of it, Sherlock Holmes does not employ it.
Thus, his reappearance in the room…well. He was clad only in a pair of trousers and a freshly laundered shirt, wide-open at the neck; the face above clean and smooth, his hair wet, fringe decadently hanging over his forehead. All heated words of reproach died on my lips.
What did I have to reproach him about anyway? That he looked the way he did? Like a crisp, fresh page of a new book; like a Greek god, to me at least, for where others would have found him too stripped from such a deity’s alluring abundance of flesh, to me the tidy, ascetic lines of his figure were all the more appealing for it.
Or that he acted the way he did? Ignited fires in my chest with a flick of his wrist, utterly unaware of the light striving to warm him; spread my soul like a big sheet on a clothes line and left it there flapping, sometimes staccato, sometimes gently as if held in the arms of the summer breeze.
That he was who he was? The only man who was an island and it was both my privilege and my curse to circle it in my boat, close enough to marvel at the view, but never allowed to accost, touch ground, drop to my knees and kiss it.
"The gift of silence on which I’ve complimented you, Watson, rests heavily on good timing."
Holmes’s tone was flat, calm, but his eyes were hooded as they observed me from the fireplace. I’d met them lifting my head at the sound of his voice, but I had no retort at the ready—not an uncommon occurrence in and of itself—so we spent a few seconds just looking at each other. I was suddenly struck by a vision of sorts, an outsider’s perspective to this little scene. How fitting that he should be standing, the flames behind him giving him a subtle aura, while I should be all but at his feet, looking up to him, the position of my body tugging at my chin to make my lips part as if in awe.
‘As if’ is not necessary. I have always been in awe of Holmes and never sought to hide it, from him or from the rest of the world. That night, though, all that I was in with him was out. We had had prolonged eye contact over the years on a number of occasions. Intensity, whether in our endeavours or our exchanges, was a familiar feature of our life together. I must have felt a shift coming, something impossible to manoeuvre around and avoid collision, because this time I felt my face heat up like it hadn’t since I was a tender youth. I was sure of the crimson colour of my skin; I was sure of the reason for it, too.
I wasn’t sure whether Holmes would ignore it or flee.
Years later, on a night more miraculous than the one I’m recalling, he told me that he wished to see whether after so many years he still retained his ability to surprise me. It was an uncharacteristic display of insecurity on his part, but where it comes to me Holmes occasionally loses his justified high opinions of himself and suffers from the most endearing fits of neediness.
Blindness, too, as I was about to be shown on the fateful night I’m confiding to these pages. But not before he managed to surprise me first. He neither ignored me nor fled.
I was still keeping my eyes on him, so it was impossible to miss the laborious movement of his Adam’s apple. In a perverse example of balance in nature, his face began draining of colour. His posture didn’t change—he remained leaning against the fireplace, left foot crossed over the right, arm dangling nonchalantly from where the elbow was resting on the mantel. Human perception is an extraordinary thing: I looked at Holmes and although there wasn’t a visible change in his demeanour, I could sense without a shadow of a doubt that tension was filling up his body, tension aggressive and gleeful at the sight of an empty vessel.
"Let me spare us both the execrable discussion, Watson," he said at last. "I know you are too much of a gentleman to say anything first. I dare hope it is also a remnant of your respect for me that stops you from giving way to your natural reaction."
I had no time to realize that I was puzzled as he carried on speaking quickly with some diffidence.
"I apologize. That is all I can offer. No, that is a lie—I could offer more; an explanation at the very least, but I’m afraid it would make matters worse. I am very sorry, my de—Please, accept my apology, Watson, and let me reassure you that should you by some inexplicable reason decide to stay as my cherished companion and put the whole thing behind us you would never have to worry about it occurring again. I realize it would take an effort on your part, not to mention more trust than even your generous soul is capable of, but you know me better than anyone and you must believe me when I give you my word."
I now knew what he referred to. I was very glad that he had felt my deep disappointment, but gratitude overran my gladness. He hadn’t guessed the real source of my anguish. He believed I was upset for not being taken into his confidence and for being used as a mere tool in his plans. However, I still failed to understand the vehemence of his statement. Surely he had to know I could never be so angry with him as to let the incident weigh so heavily between us? I rushed to put his mind at ease. It was painful to see him so grim, so anxious…almost repentant. Fleetingly, it made me once again consider whether there could be a very good reason as to why Sherlock Holmes was so disengaged from sentiment.
"My dear fellow," I said earnestly. "I confess that I am upset, but I won’t hear a word about my leaving your side. In fact, I think I’m more upset with your suggestion that such a thing is possible. I would hope you know me, too, to ever think that any incident could have as profound an effect on me as to make me…Holmes?"
I interrupted my monologue reluctantly, for I was rather getting into the spirit of eloquent indignation, but I had to—I was being treated to the most expressive display of eyebrows dancing I had ever seen on Holmes’s face. If his eyebrows had stayed in one place for more than a second, I would have had a chance to give name to their steps and routines. I must have gaped at him for he took a breath and ventured to explain himself.
"My dear Watson, forgive me. For once emotion got the better of me—a feat not as remarkable as I’d have thought on another night. But tonight seems to be about testing my limits and I’m ashamed to say, my perception of how well I know you. I have always credited you with the most deserving of characters, but even I doubted you’d be so…agreeable when it came to such a profoundly disquieting matter. Why, fellows had been known to hit other fellows over it. Not that I believe you truly capable of such conduct, but perhaps you can understand how—Watson?"
It was his turn to frown and cut his speech short, but unlike him, I had chosen a far more obvious expression of my own emotions. I had started frowning during his first couple of sentences, but from the moment he mentioned the preposterous idea that I would hit him over anything, I was positively spluttering. His surprised pause allowed the sounds to arrange into something more coherent.
"Holmes, what the deuce are you suggesting? I have always helped you with your cases with great enthusiasm—it’s been a privilege to me like I’ve said it time and time again. True, your tendency to hide things from me, be it your theories or your methods of bringing a case to a close, is occasionally aggravating. But I have got used to it. I’ve accepted early on that this is the way you work and have done my best to accompany you on your terms. I may still grumble when you push my own limits too far, for I always feel that I am more deserving of your trust, but there could be no circumstances save your killing an innocent man that would make me consider breaking up our partnership. I hoped you should know better. As to my ever hitting you…" I spread my arms as I took a deep breath, but found that words failed me to express how utterly ludicrous the very thought was.
This time Holmes’s face remained a mask; moreover, it seemed to solidify as my sentences progressed. When I finished he went on to look at me, silent and unblinking, for nearly ten seconds. I was about to say something to stop the oppressive quiet when his features animated.
"Of course," he said. "You’re quite right. It was stupid of me to make such a big question out of it. Let’s put the whole business out of our minds and get some rest. I’m sure our weariness is responsible for everything that was said tonight—well, my weariness about everything that I said. Forgive me, Watson." He bowed his head almost formally. "I shall leave you now and retreat to my bedroom. Goodnight and I trust you’ll sleep well."
He was already half-way to his bedroom door at the last sentence, so I had no time to waste in manners.
"Stop," I said.
He did, instantly; he wasn’t the only one with powers over the other in this household, although I had no illusions about their exact distribution.
I walked over and stood to face him. He met my eyes with what I was sure was an intention to prevaricate. My own intentions were to have none of it.
"Holmes, I have seen you send people away with a selected phrase or two and I know you did it with me just now. What I don’t know is why. But I’ll be damned if I let this whole business affect us. You are not honest with me and I don’t mean not telling me about the tools or your plans tonight. What is it that makes you wish to avoid me? Surely you must know I’ll forgive you anything, accept any request from you." I swallowed. "You are the wisest man I know. I know you always have your reasons. All I ask is that you trust me with them."
His eyes flickered between both of mine as if he was trying to find a crack somewhere, beyond which my real motives could be discovered. Never had I seen him so doubting of me. I wasn’t offended. On the contrary, my heart, hammering in my chest, went out to him. He appeared so exposed yet still impossible to read. I realized that there was something profound going on in him; no, something profound going on between us. But everything was happening too quickly for me to work it out, so as usual I remained in front of him, deliberately not letting my open gaze leave his face, waiting for him to explain. I was careless what he might read in my eyes. Perhaps it was my brush with the chimera of having my deepest wishes fulfilled, all in an embrace, in a look, but suddenly it was impossible to hide them, or to want to hide them. They were part of me, the better part of me; something I was proud to show.
As these thoughts flew through my mind, Holmes’s chin lifted slowly. His eyes met mine with the kind of calm one feels when one faces the front end of a firearm.
"I habitually underestimate your intuition, my dear Watson. This time, it seems, it’s led us to a spot from which there’s no turning back unless we are prepared to let doubt blot our friendship for good. I am not. You want to know the truth. Very well. I’ll give you some of it; the rest is there on offer, should you wish to follow that first step of the path to it. But if your intuition continues to serve you as well as it has, and you realize where the path is leading…Well, just a word from you and I’m prepared to never speak of it again.
"You are correct—I did attempt to prematurely end our conversation. The reason was my realization that you were under the wrong impression of its subject. We were talking at cross-purposes. I was referring to something far more intimate and dangerous than hiding my plans from you and using you as a transporter of tools. Judging by your reaction, I realize you were upset about that and I am sincerely sorry. Once I knew my first apology was wrongly interpreted, it meant that in turn I had made a mistake in my interpretation of your stormy demeanour. I had my reasons to prefer to end the night with your believing what you did."
My throat was dry. He had said ‘intimate’. He had said ‘dangerous’. His words from earlier were fresh in my mind; the passion in them, the fear. He spoke of cross-purposes and now I stood at a crossroads. Could a man survive his dreams being crushed twice in one night? It was a serious question, but if caution was in my nature, I wouldn’t have been standing in front of Sherlock Holmes at that moment—our paths would have barely touched before parting again.
"What was the real thing you apologized for?" I asked.
His eyes shone as they did when he murmured that he knew his Watson. This time, there might have been a hint of regret that he knew him too well.
"What is the thing that any fellow would fear could lead to severing of all ties between him and his friend? For most men that would be their desire for the wife of the other. But for a small number of men the wife can be taken out of the equation. The desire remains."
I stared at him, fearful I had misunderstood, dizzy with that scariest of beasts—real hope. Holmes hadn’t let go of my eyes, but once again he must have read something else in them.
"I revealed myself twice in the short space of twelve hours, Watson." His tone carried a hint of irritability at my perceived slowness; it was comforting in its reminder he was still utterly familiar to me. "For anyone else to embrace a friend so physically and touch him so intimately would have already raised suspicions. But for someone like me, me, who shies away from physical affection sometimes to the point of austerity…It was not unnatural to think you were upset because you’d pieced together—Because you’d finally realized the full scope of my appreciation for you. I had rarely seen you so close to combustion. I dared not believe it to be on account of something as trivial as getting you abducted across London and making you serve as a cog in one of my schemes. You surprised me happily there. But it was a short-lived surprise."
There were many things I could have said. The writer in me wept at the sweet irony of the situation, begging to be revealed, to roll out in sentences ornate and untrammelled. But before I met the confounding creature standing before me and had him turn me into a man of words, I was first a man of action. So I grabbed Holmes by his shirt and kissed him.
I have always known that between the two of us, Holmes and I make a perfect match. Where his mind soars, supreme and scintillating, his body’s needs are left dots on the ground. Holmes has little use of his sensory perceptions outside of his work. He doesn’t suffer hunger, tiredness, and other…conditions that become aggravated when one turns one’s back to one’s own flesh. Or rather he does, but he needs to be pushed to an extreme. Whereas I might not be the fastest thinker, but my body is my trusted soldier (therefore the betrayal when it was wounded, then ravaged by maladies, was even bitterer). I rely on my nose, my aim, my fists. My senses often guide me better than my intellect. I need my stomach full; sleepless nights leave me wretched and useless. In other respects I am a baser creature, too, but there I’ve had morals to be my gate keepers. Holmes would undoubtedly say that such baseness is a curse.
But I know better. As I pressed my lips to Holmes’s, pleasure flooded me, unhindered and triumphant like a blessing. I could feel the slightest quivering in the tendons of his neck, where my hand had moved to seek purchase on him. The sensations of the soft, silky strands of his hair as it caressed my fingers merged effortlessly with the tingling in the muscles of my thighs as they pressed against his. The taste of his mouth, tongue brushing against mine with the devastating exactness and perfect timing so characteristic of my friend’s entire persona, that taste hit me like the first touch of hot water on cold skin. I shivered, swiftly turning into a man possessed. I swore into his mouth, pulled him closer, endeavoured to claim more of that delicious tongue, of the lean body that radiated warmth beyond all expectations.
But I should have expected it. I had perceived the fire in Holmes, yet had let his coldness distract me and convince me it was his only state of existence. The man I kissed with such fervour was rearranging all my notions of him with each laboured breath in exchange of one of mine, with each clawing at my garments, and I knew that without either his fire or his ice, he would be a half-creature—a shadow of himself.
Not commonly one finds one’s deepest needs released and met abruptly, miraculously, after years spent in the dungeons. Images flew through my mind like a flock of birds—all of one species, but each one with its own distinctive plumage. My mouth detached itself from its intoxicating counterpart and slid lower to seek the skin on Holmes’s throat, so conveniently ready for me between the two peaks of his open collar. It was warm and slightly damp; it was so human, it made me want to weep into the crook of his neck. His heart beat wildly against mine. His thin fingers cradled the back of my head, but it was a light touch, wavering, as if he was unsure what pressure one should apply under such circumstances. He, the possessor of the most assured, most delicate touch, hesitated—for where ounces and drops were measurable, this thing between us was not. How does one measure the strength of one’s hold over an old friend’s hand, over a new lover’s nape? How does one measure the strength of the other’s hold over one’s own heart? Holmes wasn’t the only one uncertain. My head swam; the last crevice in me that had been left unoccupied by his extraordinary being was filling up. My lungs were drowning in his scent and my mouth in his taste, just like my mind had always filled to the brim with his brilliance and my soul with his unique spirit. I wrapped my arms around his torso possessively, holding him to myself, for myself, like I had never imagined I would. I felt his thin form bend, shift in my embrace, like a candle whose body had been gradually warmed by the close flame of a shorter one. I pulled him with me to his quiet room, vowing to have him safely melt there.
The morning rays of sunshine had no access through the thick, drawn curtains of Holmes’s bedroom, yet light would always make itself known, for as long as there is darkness to stand in its way. I had woken up a minute earlier and was observing the long line of Holmes’s patrician nose becoming starker as my eyes adjusted. Soon the tint of the air allowed for other features to take prominence, too: the high slope of his eyelids, the strong curvature of his chin. His forehead which, while impressive enough, was a modest encasement of his remarkable brain.
He turned in my arms to face me, then opened his eyes and lightly pulled away as if to see me better. That was indeed the case. His grey eyes glinted at me, both recognizably sharp and dulled in a languid way I had never seen them before. I couldn’t help myself—I reached and rearranged a long strand of black hair away from his brow. My fingers lingered and so did my eyes as they dropped to his mouth.
Holmes’s thin upper lip parted from its bold, fuller bottom twin.
"I sense a forthcoming burst of eloquence, Watson."
It was impossible not to smile. I was more perfectly happy than I had believed possible. To hell with Holmes’s indulgent irony, I thought. If I felt like bursting into a poetic recital right there and then, I would and he would listen.
The trouble was, I was not far from a state of indolence myself. So instead, I asked him something quite practical.
"Holmes, I saw you pick up something from the safe yesterday and hide it in your pocket. What was it?"
I couldn’t see the expression in his eyes all that well, but his voice had the quality of warm milk—a rarity, true, yet I was humbly touched to have heard it before directed at me. Before the linen was crushed between our bodies; before his head was near my bare shoulder, nose touching the skin, his breath and mind the least restless, the most satiated that I had ever seen them; before all that, I had still been his ‘dear friend’, his ‘old boy’. Honey had sweetened the warm milk for years before this moment.
So taken was I in his voice and my own emotions that I’d missed what he was saying.
"I’m sorry, Holmes. What did you just say?"
He tutted in an exaggerated manner, then suddenly and much to my alarm slithered out of bed. I was glad to discover it was only to draw the curtains open. His bedroom was overlooking the empty inner courtyard and was quite high as well, so an indiscretion was out of the question, yet I felt my chest contract with worry. I hurried to chase it away, grimly convinced I’d have enough of that ahead of me for years to come. For what it was worth, I hoped for it, too.
Holmes had meanwhile collected something from his yesterday’s trousers pocket and returned to bed, then settled himself sitting against the headrest. It took me a few moments to realize he was looking down at me expectantly. I blushed; I had been distracted by the perfection of his chest, muscles and nipples alike. A twitch moved his mouth’s left corner.
"If you could be so kind as to give me your full attention in a more intellectual manner, Watson, I would be very grateful. I promise not to take long, but you must try your best as well—it is your enquiry I am endeavouring to answer."
"Sorry, Holmes," I mumbled and stared resolutely in his eyes. I fancied a glimmer of laughter there, but didn’t dare drop my gaze to his mouth to check. Not to his mouth!
"The object you saw me…appropriate," Holmes began, "was initially for my collection." He was referring to his gathering of bizarre objects which all had meaning to him, but few had great value—save the blue carbuncle, of course. I nodded to show I followed.
"It is something of certain worth for those who treasure this sort of thing, but other than that it wouldn’t have been missed from the goods that were amassed at the place. I have no qualms taking it, but I feel the need to justify it to you. We’ve not always seen eye to eye on what constitutes justice. Consider the object my reward for the weeks devoted to the case, the risk I took with my life and to some extent even with yours. Finally, the successful solving of this particular case will not only restore the lost property of many inconsolable owners, but will return to the Crown a few items it was most keen not to have lost in the first place."
I started laughing. "You make a good case, Holmes. I’m already willing to accept anything you’re holding in your hand."
"Just as well you should. It is yours."
He was already extending his arm so that his hand was close to my face and with the word ‘yours’ in perfect timing he opened his fist.
In the middle of his palm there was a pair of small, delicate cufflinks in the shape of a pen crossed with a sword. They were exquisite. I blinked at them, then lifted my eyes to him questioningly. His eyes had turned my favourite shade, the deep, warm grey of a dove’s coat. There was an odd shine in them.
"The pen and the sword. One is said to be mightier than the other, I recently discovered." (Holmes’s ability to go through life an utter ignorant never ceased to amaze me.) "Upon hearing that saying, I realized how fortunate I was to have by my side someone who had both; moreover, had placed them both at my service."
I blinked again, this time quicker.
"Holmes, is this your attempt to compare me to your knight?"
There was a distinct pursing of the lips at the reply. "Don’t be absurd, Watson. That would make me a damsel in distress. Just take them and let us close the subject."
I reached for them, humbled to the brink of tears, but then my hand froze. I cleared my throat. "You said you’d taken them for your collection."
"I had. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to present them to you with the explanation of their significance. It seemed too risky to give them to you with it, but the alternative wasn’t appealing. I am a vain creature, Watson. You ought to know that better than anyone. The idea of you wearing them and not realizing the thought I’d put behind my choice would have diminished my joy of the gift."
I looked at him filled with new amazement and I had thought that impossible after the night we’d just spent. But here he was, showing a new side of himself perhaps without realizing it. He had just told me that he wanted me to know how truly appreciated I was, and had managed to pass that as selfishness on his part. I lifted myself and propped myself on my elbow, then laid my free hand on top of his open palm, capturing the gift in the middle. I stretched my neck until my face nearly reached his.
"It is my honour to serve thee," I murmured quietly aiming for a humourous reference to my ‘knighthood’ but coming across solemn.
Holmes bowed his head and closed the remaining few inches.