The Strange Case of the Ruby Crucifix
Private Diary of Dr. John H. Watson, December 26th, 1899.
Once again I commit to my journal a tale which I will never divulge to the public. The drama and absurdity of the proceedings would certainly satisfy the average reader’s thirst for sensation; but I have made it my principle that I shall not harm anyone with my publications, nor insult the name of families or individuals who appear in them through no fault of their own. But record it I shall, lest the details of this remarkable incident should be lost to me once my memory begins to fade.
(Addition, scrawled at the side of the paper:
Nov. 30th, 1902. Subject has come up again. Have recorded it under the working title “The Vampire of Sussex” and may publish it someday. So my original recordings may be of use, after all.)
Holmes and I heard of the matter on a cold December afternoon upon our return from a very pleasant walk through Regent’s Park. We had been strolling about for over an hour, enjoying the crisp air, the snow-clad scenery and each other’s company.
“Lestrade is here,” Holmes announced brightly as soon as he had opened the front door. “I hope he has something interesting on his mind. Why, the day can get even better!”
“You saw,” I tried, because I knew he would be disappointed if I did not, “the Inspector’s footsteps in the snow of our front steps...”
“... which are easily recognizable if one has noticed the fashionable new winter shoes Lestrade purchased two weeks ago, and?”
“Mrs. Hudson has already made tea.”
“Excellent, my dear, you’re improving all the time. It’s Lestrade’s favourite brand, in fact. Come, let us see what he has to tell us!”
He took my arm and practically shoved me up the stairs. I laughed at his excitement; he had been in a bright mood all day and the prospect of an interesting case to him was the equivalent of an early Christmas gift. I should note here, perhaps, that I don’t begrudge him his patronizing ways; I am used to them, and he means no harm. I fact, I happen to know that he would not play “the game”, as he calls it, with me had he not considerable faith in my intellect.
Lestrade awaited us in our sitting room, nursing a cup of tea and looking thoughtful. He rose as we entered and greeted us cordially.
“My dear Inspector,” my friend asked him after we had all settled comfortably in front of the fire, ”what brings you to our humble home on a wonderful day like this?”
“A mystery just after your taste, I should say, Mr. Holmes,” Lestrade returned. “You are both educated men who have travelled far, and have encountered many strange things in your lives. What do you think about vampires?”
My friend looked at him, brows raised in surprise. “Vampires? They are creatures of legend. Children’s tales, I should say, were those stories not far too monstrous to entertain children. But there are,” he added with a pointed look at me, “certain individuals with a weakness for trivial romantic literature...”
“You didn’t even read it, Holmes,” I protested. “And I didn’t say I believed in them. I merely said that Stoker’s novel is entertaining. He also conducted rather thorough research on the tales and superstition concerning the subject, if I’m well informed.”
“It seems, Inspector, that our friend Watson is more the more competent man to answer your question. But I suppose you have a reason for your sudden interest in the supernatural?”
“Indeed. I already attempted to contact you earlier today. Sir James Warden was found dead this morning.”
“Yes. And the circumstances of his death are strange, to put it mildly.”
“Sir James, aged 49, recently married to his second wife, Lady Elizabeth Holsworth, aged 24, a very beautiful and gifted young woman. He came down with brain fever five weeks ago. The doctors were positive that he was improving and his life was out of danger but this morning, when the maid checked on him, she found him lifeless, with no sign of violence upon him save a wound on his throat.”
“A bite mark.”
“How do you...”
“You wouldn’t have talked of vampires otherwise.”
“True,” Lestrade confessed ruefully. “Anyway, it looks like it might be a bite mark. There was no sign of anyone breaking into the house. No footprints in the snow, either.”
“What does his wife say?”
“She did not sleep in the same room as they had arranged a special sickroom for him. She is thoroughly shocked.”
“Who else slept in the house?”
“The servants and the Lady’s elder brother. They have already been questioned; you may read the reports. None of them has seen anything, and we couldn’t discern a motive.”
“And now you decided to hunt for vampires.”
“I am merely keeping an open mind.”
“This agency,” Holmes stated with wry amusement, “stands flat-footed on the ground, and there it must remain. No ghosts need apply.”
“Un-Dead,” I corrected him.
“However,” he continued, pointedly ignoring me, “Your tale is not devoid of interest. I should very much like to have a look at the matter.”
“I rather thought you would,” Lestrade said with a grim smile. “However, Gentlemen, the family is anxious to keep the matter out of the papers. They are afraid of a scandal, and of course, there is always the risk of a public panic.”
“Of course. Then I suggest we should be on our way, Lestrade, before your men succeed in destroying whatever evidence may be left by now. Come, Watson.”
He rose with a flourish to get his hat and coat. Lestrade shot me one of his usual “however do you put up with him” looks before we made to follow him. The Inspector is one of the very few people who know that I put up with Sherlock Holmes in far more intimate ways than one should assume, but he will certainly never see the attraction.
To my friend’s dismay the body had already been transported to the morgue when we arrived at the Wardens’ lavishly appointed town house. Lestrade led us directly to the place where the death had occurred. It was a large, airy room on the second floor, comfortable and luxurious, with two windows facing the snow covered lawn and an unmade bed of generous size.
Holmes examined the room meticulously, running a slender hand over the windowsill, probing the lock and the door, searching for blood stains on the sheets and the wooden floor, sniffing at the pillow and the glass on the bedside table and gazing intently at the elegant walking stick leaning against the wall. He was in deepest concentration, his keen grey eyes taking in every detail, his movements quick and precise while his brain was working almost visibly. I never tire to watch him like this, although I know that his attention is entirely focused on his subject, and the stimulating effect this display invariably has on me is lost to him. I do not mind; it is, in fact, part of the appeal.
The Lady of the House awaited us in the sitting room when my friend had finished his inspection. Lestrade had not exaggerated when he had described her as beautiful; she was of striking appearance, with a pleasing figure, a finely chiseled pale face and elaborately styled, flaming red hair. She was wearing a necklace with a golden crucifix. Outwardly she appeared calm and composed, although her large blue eyes evidenced recent crying.
“Gentlemen,” she told us when we had been introduced, “I very much value your attempt to bring light into this horrible affair, but I fear that your investigations are taking the wrong direction. The one who caused this is beyond the law, and cannot be approached by your usual methods.”
“You do believe, then,” Holmes asked her, “that your unfortunate husband’s death was caused by... supernatural forces?”
The Lady’s hand clutched her crucifix. “I have long known that these things exist, Gentlemen,” she said earnestly. “Most people don’t believe me. James didn’t. My brother David doesn’t. But now we have proof right before our eyes. And he won’t stop... if he isn’t destroyed, no one in this house will be safe.”
“What proof are you referring to?”
“The marks on his neck, Mr. Holmes,” she answered, her eyes opened wide. “They looked just like Mr. Stoker described them in his novel. And... oh, don’t be amused, Sir... there are other reports. I have read all about them. It all fits. He got in here without leaving a trace, someone must have invited him, involuntarily, no doubt, and James was so sick and pale for weeks...”
“Madam,” Holmes interrupted her gently, “did you notice these marks on your husband’s neck before today?”
“I... no,” she confessed. “But his throat was usually covered. And I didn’t assume the worst until...” She broke off, her eyes filling with tears. I offered her a handkerchief which she gratefully accepted.
“Gentlemen,” she added when she had recovered her composure, “I pray that you will be able to help us, and protect us from the evil that is shadowing this house. Especially now that... it is a torturing thought, but... now there will be two...”
“We will do all that lies in our power,” I assured her earnestly before we departed from her.
“I know my sister believes that this is the work of a vampire,” Sir David Holsworth told us with a pleasant smile. The Lady’s brother was a very handsome and elegant gentleman in his late twenties, tall and broad-shouldered, with intelligent eyes and carefully groomed dark hair. He claimed to have been invited to the house for a social visit and had been in residence for less than a fortnight.
“Elizabeth is a great admirer of these things. Ghosts, wraiths, fairies... we always had plenty of them in the house when she was a child. It didn’t concern her in the slightest that she was the only one who believed in them.”
“So you yourself don’t believe in a supernatural explanation?” Holmes inquired.
“I? God forbid. We are fast approaching the twentieth century, aren’t we?”
“Indeed. So what is your explanation for Sir James’ untimely demise?”
“It must have been murder,” the young man said with conviction, “though I cannot fathom who should have been the culprit. Possibly one of the servants? My brother-in-law was generally well liked among them but there are always minor resentments...”
“Sir David,” Holmes inquired seriously, “I beg your pardon for asking, but was your sister’s marriage a happy one?”
“As much as can be expected,” Sir David returned, a bit reluctantly. “He was, of course, rather too old for her. But you know how it goes… Our parents are dead, and she needed the protection of marriage. And she knows her duties.” He paused. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I have always felt a bit guilty about this arrangement. I knew about her childhood dreams of romance and happiness, and she ended up in a marriage where love was of no consideration. But it wasn’t to be helped.”
I felt a surge of pity for the lively young woman who had been obligated to get married to a man of nearly fifty. But then, I reminded myself, the rules of our society, honorable as it claims to be, are in many ways harsh to the individuals who live in it. Holmes and I know that only too well. The nature of our relationship hurts no-one, and we have helped to bring justice to a hundred and more wrongdoers, but still, if it were not for the genuine friendship and understanding of our good Inspector, we would have shared their fate as soon as he had discovered what we are to each other.
Holmes shot me a significant look, and I knew that he was sharing my thoughts. But we both knew better than to let sentiment cloud our judgment; an unhappy marriage could very well be a powerful motive for murder.
The young man could tell us nothing else that Holmes regarded as important, and after a brief introduction to the servants we were on our way to Scotland Yard, where both Holmes and I intended to inspect the body. It had already become dark outside, and snow was falling softly against the windows of our carriage. My friend was thoughtful and silent during the ride, absently placing his hand on my arm, a gesture which Lestrade studiously ignored but which was, I knew, merely a habitual display of affection. Holmes is never in the mood for romanticism when his mind is on a case, and I wouldn’t want it any other way because this single-minded concentration on the chase, the utter focus on the powers of his mind is very much a part of my friend, and one of the many attributes that make him so special. I love him all the more for it. This, too, is something Lestrade cannot understand.
The post-mortem had already been completed when we arrived at the morgue. The leading police surgeon, Dr. Miles Anderson, gave us a less than friendly greeting. He and Holmes are not on the best terms, and have not been for all the time I have known them, though I have never divined the precise reason behind their mutual dislike. I do remember Holmes casually implicating Anderson to have an extramarital affair, and on another occasion I think the doctor suspected my friend to be the perpetrator of some particularly gruesome serial murders, but neither accusation came to anything and they are able to tolerate one another, if grudgingly, only because Lestrade says they must.
“Suffocation, most likely,” Anderson told us without preamble. “There is no obstruction of the air ways now, so it was probably done with a cushion or something similar. The attempt to disguise this as a vampire attack is quite pathetic. The marks on his neck might have been caused by vampire teeth...”
“I’m sure you have seen so many of those that we can trust you on the subject,” my friend interjected, unusually rude even for his own standards.
“But,” the surgeon continued angrily, “there is no blood loss, at least no more than normal in the aftermath of a brain fever. Vampires are supposed to drink their victim’s blood, so he should be severely anemic by now if that had been the explanation.”
“I see. Improbable as it may seem, I cannot argue with your reasoning here. Now this gives our investigation a new turn, doesn’t it? Lady Warden will be deeply disappointed.”
“Besides,” Anderson added, looking very pleased with himself, “a vampire would certainly never have worn this.”
He held up his right hand. Dangling from a fine chain was a small crucifix, golden but with skillfully crafted inlays of flawless, blood-coloured ruby.
“We found it in the victim’s hand,” the doctor explained. “He clutched it so tightly that we could hardly make him release it. You can see that the chain is torn, so he probably ripped it off his murderer’s person when he was attacked.”
Holmes’ eyes narrowed. He looked very much like a hound who has just taken up a scent. He took the jewellery and inspected it carefully from all sides.
“Watson,” he said softly, “Watson!”
I looked over his shoulder and saw that he was pointing at a tiny imprint. He quickly drew his magnifying glass.
“It’s a coat of arms,” he announced. “The Holsworth, if I’m not mistaken; in any case, it’s the same as the one on young Sir David Holsworth’s cuff links. Very interesting.”
“Sir David then, or Lady Elizabeth,“ I resumed. “This does look more like a woman’s jewellery.”
“It very likely is,” Lestrade mused, “considering Lady Elizabeth’s fascination with the supernatural. And her brother implied that she didn’t marry Sir James out of love. That would be a motive.”
“True,“ Holmes acknowledged, “but...“
He broke off and stared absent-mindedly at the wall, his eyes taking on the characteristic vacant expression which I knew to be a sign of deep concentration.
“Anderson,” he said abruptly when he had snapped out of his reverie, “what have you found on the body, beside the obvious traces of brain fever and a lame leg?”
Anderson opened his mouth in surprise, then closed it again, defiantly refusing to ask the obvious question. “Nothing of interest, Mr. Holmes,” he returned instead. “I am almost certain that he was choked, and he was most likely not able to put up a fight since he was still in a weakened state, but that is all.”
My quick inspection of the unfortunate politician’s body confirmed his impression. The wounds on the throat had been caused by a small, sharp instrument such as a pin or a large needle, but could well have been inflicted after the victim’s death.
“It was, as you said, a rather pathetic disguise,” I concluded when I had finished. “The murderer was clearly very naïve and unprofessional if he – or she – expected to get away with this.”
“Yes”, Holmes agreed, “or...”
He broke off again, looking thoughtful but, to my considerable frustration, not explaining himself. Instead he addressed the Inspector.
“Is there already a date for the burial?”
“In three days, as far as I know, Wednesday the twenty-first in the family tomb at Highgate Cemetery.”
“Then we have a few days off now. Lestrade, keep us informed. I can tell you with confidence that nothing of importance will happen at the Wardens’ house, but do keep an eye on the body and the evidence. Ensure that they are very securely locked up.”
“Do you expect me to decorate the morgue with garlic?” the Inspector asked in amusement. “I thought we had established that this is not necessary.”
“No, but you don’t want the ruby crucifix to grow legs and walk away, do you?” my companion replied with a twinkle. “The villain must have noticed it’s disappearance by now. It must be very old and very valuable, and is most certainly a family heirloom, so the killer will spare no pains to get it back. It is of prime importance that you tell no-one, absolutely no-one, that it has been found. Not even if you are asked.”
Lestrade looked as if he would have liked to argue, but thought better of it. Anderson nodded reluctantly.
“And now, Gentlemen, we’re off. Good evening. I am really looking forward to a warm fire and a nice glass of brandy. Anderson, how do you tolerate there arctic temperatures?”
“Unlike some people, I don’t choose my working environment by means of a momentary fancy,” the surgeon snapped after my friend as the latter took my arm and drew me along, hardly leaving me any time for some more polite parting words.
Holmes, as usual, was right. No news reached us from the Wardens’ residence during the next two days, save the information that the Lady of the House had spared no pains to furnish her home with excessive amounts of garlic. At the same time two attempts were noted to break into Scotland Yard’s morgue, and one member of the cleaning personnel was offered a generous sum as an exchange for Sir James’ personal belongings. The perpetrator of both actions could not be determined, but Holmes seemed strangely content.
“The fact in itself is suggestive,” he told me when I commented on his uncharacteristic lack of frustration that the would-be burglar had escaped for the second time in a row. “From what I can tell, the burglar was a professional. He was most likely hired for his services. The bribing attempt was also carried out in a very professional, discreet way, through an intermediate who cannot be traced back. Isn’t it curious that the same criminal who operates so carefully here supposedly tried to cover up a murder in the most naïve fashion? No, Watson, we are progressing nicely. I am almost certain – and I expect to have the needed proof on Wednesday.”
My friend was busy and concentrated during those two days, working on some chemical experiments which he hoped would give the final clue to Durbin the forger’s ingenious method of reproducing pound notes. I must confess that, although I respect and adore his single-minded focus on his work, at times I get frustrated when he keeps concentrating for days on end, giving no thought to the more earthly pleasures in life. Yet I understood that he was not in the mood to be distracted, and any attempt to seduce him would only be rewarded with irritation; instead I used my spare time for some Christmas shopping, which gave me the opportunity to combine business with pleasure and enjoy the cold and sunny winter days, the colorful shop decorations and the bustle of the crowd in eager anticipation of the festive season.
“Holmes,” I inquired on Tuesday evening while we were making ourselves comfortable in front of the fire with a glass of whisky and soda, “there is no chance that you will tell me in advance, for a change, what we will have to expect tomorrow afternoon?”
My friend gave me a languid smile. Lazily stretched out on the settee as he was, with his feet in my lap, he looked very much like a smug cat relishing in the heat of an oven. “It all depends,” he said casually.
“On the suspects’ reaction to the ruby crucifix.”
“You intend to confront them with the evidence.”
“After a fashion. We might be in for a night watch.”
“At the house?”
“No. At the cemetery.”
I nearly choked on my drink, though to my defense I managed to regain my composure in an instant. Not quickly enough, it turned out.
“Now, now, Watson,” Holmes remarked with a teasing grin. “Scared of vampires, are you? And this from the man who confronted Sebastian Moran...”
“I’m not scared,” I protested, “but don’t you think you are taking your love for the dramatic a little too far? We’ll be frozen stiff within half an hour.”
“I’ll keep you warm.”
“Lestrade will not approve.”
“That alone would be a valid reason, don’t you think?”
We both chuckled at that. Holmes looked positively mischievous, and I knew that the idea of a night watch on a wintry cemetery appealed to him immensely.
“Allow me to keep you guessing, my dear fellow,” he said. “You know how much I would hate it if you should find me wrong.”
I propped my own feet upon the ottoman and took a sip of my drink, knowing that to argue with him would be of no use whatsoever.
“Oh, and Holmes,” I remembered after a while, “The lame leg. I’m so sorry. I forgot to ask.”
“That was elementary,” he said with a yawn, ignoring my little jibe. “The walking stick in Sir James’ sick room. It was new, but showed signs of heavy use – so much, in fact, that it is unlikely he used it only as a fashion accessory. But I doubt that this detail has any bearing on the case.”
“If you say so, Holmes,” I replied, absently massaging his left foot. “I’ll trust your judgment, as usual.”
“And I hope you won’t be disappointed, my dear.” Holmes raised one eyebrow and smiled lazily. “And now, Watson, I think we should get a little rest. We must be in top form tomorrow.” With an elegant movement he swung his long legs off the settee and strode towards his bedroom door, waving a casual good-night to me before he disappeared into his chamber. I briefly considered following him to suggest a certain method of ensuring a sound night's sleep, but decided against it. It was most likely the very thing he expected, and I do like to thwart Sherlock Holmes’ expectations from time to time.
The day of the burial was as cold and clear as the previous ones, the winter sun shining brightly in a pale blue sky. Sir James’ funeral procession was no less than impressive, for the deceased had been an influential man with many friends, acquaintances and admirers, and no pains had been spared to ensure a maximum of display, from the elegant black four-wheeler carrying the polished oak coffin to the rich assortment of flowers adorning the numerous coaches. The church as well was decorated luxuriously with flowers, and the casket was ceremoniously carried to the altar, where it was opened one last time for the mourners to say a last farewell. A policeman was standing discreetly, but clearly visible in the background.
“The body was never left unattended,” Holmes explained. “Come, let me show you.”
We approached the body with grave demeanour, like family members wishing to take a last look at the deceased. Sir James’ face was pale and still, but he looked peaceful in death. He was clad in an embroidered white burial gown, and around his neck he wore the ruby crucifix.
I spoke only when we had found seats in one of the front rows where we had an excellent view of all who might approach the body.
“You have arranged this, I take it, to provoke a reaction in the owner – another attempt at burglary?”
“Indeed. And to make sure they know where they can recover it, should there be no chance to retrieve it now, which is unlikely.”
“Won’t they get suspicious that it wasn’t returned, or used as a piece of evidence?”
“That may have a number of reasons, but certainly, yes. The family members have already seen the body, and to my knowledge there was no attempt of a robbery yet, nor do I think there will be another one during the ceremony. Hence the night watch.”
“You think they will try to rob the grave?”
“I have reason to suspect that it will happen tonight. Grave-robbing is an unpleasant enough business for the unpracticed without a half decayed corpse to deal with. And it is highly unlikely that they will be able to hire somebody for the job. People are superstitious, especially the poorer classes, and the nights around Solstice are said to be among the most severely haunted in the year.”
“And we are going to spend the night on a cemetery. Splendid.”
“Watson!” my friend chided me gently, but I could see that his eyes were sparkling.
The service was long and extensive, and all the while I watched our two suspects as closely as I could, but could detect no unusual behavior in either of them. Lady Elizabeth and Sir David sat in one of the front rows side by side, both dressed in elegant black attire; the Lady’s face was covered by a black veil, while her brother appeared pale and distressed. Afterwards the procession made its way through Highgate Cemetery, passing the impressive, exotic architecture of mausoleums and rows of tombs built in Egyptian style, towards the Warden’s family tomb.
Holmes and I bravely endured the lengthy ceremony before the casket was placed in the tomb, but I confess that it is at times like these that I am reminded most of the unpleasant aspects of our work. Several very important gentlemen delivered very pompous speeches without saying anything in particular, and when Holmes discreetly offered me his arm I noticed that my old leg wound must have started throbbing a while ago. Poor Sir James, I thought absently; not only were you murdered, but doubtlessly this kind of talk was your daily routine when you were alive. Sometimes I almost forget what kind of luxury it is to have a brilliant bohemian consulting detective as a constant companion. Almost, but never quite.
“I honestly don’t know why I have agreed to this,” a very grumpy Lestrade told us when we were about to leave him at his hiding-place near the impressive western entrance of Highgate Cemetery in the late afternoon. It was not yet quite dark, but already cold enough to make me shiver despite my warm winter garments. The Inspector’s face looked narrow and pale above his thick muffler.
“Because you are a professional at heart, who devotes his life and health to the persecution of crime,” my friend offered helpfully. “And also, if I am not very much mistaken, because you thoroughly enjoy a good adventure from time to time.”
“Yes, but I do appreciate tolerable temperatures and the company of living men.”
“We won’t be far away, Lestrade,” Holmes assured him, sounding almost cheerful. I could tell that he was excited and thoroughly enjoying himself. “Nor will be your men, who, I assume, are all in position? Good. Besides, it really baffles me why you should object to the company of the dead. The living are far more dangerous.”
“If you say so, Mr. Holmes,” Lestrade returned softly, and exchanged a meaningful glance with me. I understood his reservations. Neither he nor I are prone to superstition, but there are more things between heaven and earth than are known to us, and while Highgate Cemetery is a well-kept, respectable location in daylight, I could imagine without difficulty how the imposing tombs and statues, the leafless trees and the snow-clad gravestones would look like in the moonshine. It was enough to give a rational man second thoughts.
I gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm before following my friend along the narrow path toward the Wardens’ family tomb.
Holmes and I found a suitable hiding-place which provided a plain view of the tomb’s entrance, and thus commenced one of the longest and coldest night watches I can ever remember. Before long the last colours of the day had faded, and the bright light of the moon illuminated a scenery that would seem ghostly even to a less imaginative mind than my own. The ornate gothic tombs, not without charm in the light of day, now looked monumental and cast long dark shadows over the narrow paths, and their beautiful decorations of angels and animals and skulls seemed to come alive in the half-light. In the absence of men, the sounds of nature seemed unnaturally loud, and once or twice I was startled by a loud rustle in the ivy to my immediate right caused by a bird or a fox. Holmes was huddled beside me, his right arm wrapped around my shoulder, his body tense and alert. As much as I welcomed his proximity, it could not avert the cold that seemed to leak through the thick layers of my clothing and made me shiver uncontrollably.
I had lost all sense of time, but in retrospect it must have been around half past one when I felt Holmes stiffen beside me and grab my arm. I froze, tightening my grip around my revolver and trying to ascertain what my friend’s sharper senses had perceived. A few moments later I could see the silhouette of a man slowly approaching the tomb. He was carrying a bag and avoided the full moonlight, and his bearing and movements spoke of nervousness. He crept up to the entrance and fumbled at the lock for a moment before the door swung open. With another nervous glance around, the man disappeared inside.
I started forward, but Holmes iron grip on my wrist held me back. “Stop!” he hissed, and I could hear the tension vibrating in his voice. “We have to wait until he gets out.”
“But Holmes,” I whispered back, “are you going to allow him to desecrate the grave?”
“We need proof, Watson,” Holmes returned without averting his gaze from the entrance. His pale face seemed almost white in the moonlight, and his eyes were shining in excitement. “I am sure Sir James will forgive us if this leads to the conviction of his murderer. No, we have to ambush him when he comes out. You have to make sure that his way back into the tomb is blocked. He might barricade himself inside otherwise; I am certain that he has a weapon.”
It was only a few minutes until the man emerged again, closing the door behind him and turning the key in the lock. He had barely secured it in his waist pocket when Holmes stepped out of our hideout, his revolver drawn.
“Good evening, Sir David,” he said conversationally.
The man froze, then spun around like a cornered animal. Before Holmes could continue, he ducked out of the revolver’s firing range and bolted behind the nearest tomb with surprising agility. Holmes cursed audibly under his breath before he started after him.
I made to follow them, but found to my great dismay that I could hardly move my wounded leg, which was stiff and viciously hurting from our long, cold vigil. As quickly as I could I limped into the direction where my friend and the villain had vanished, cursing my own uselessness, when I hear a shout before me, and then, a few moments later and nearer this time, a choked scream. I felt as if an icy hand was gripping my heart; it had been Holmes’ voice. I would recognize it anywhere.
I gave a hoarse shout and stumbled blindly on, but only a few seconds later I was stopped in my tracks. Before me the ground took a fall of several feet, supported by a stone wall. A staircase was situated a few yards to my left. Below me lay a graveled path, and in the bright light of the moon I could see two figures – the tall broad-shouldered shape of young Sir David, his face turned towards me, standing over the lean body of my companion, obviously in the process of strangling him with his own muffler.
I am a man of quick reaction, but in the split second it took me to process this horrible scene, something very strange happened. Sir David suddenly let go of Holmes, staggered back as though he had see a ghost, and let out a blood-chilling scream. Then he whirled around and ran as I have rarely seen a man running.
I am not in the habit of shooting at a fleeing man’s back, but I could not pursue him on foot, and so fired at his legs as precisely as the pale moonlight allowed it. The villain broke down with a cry of pain, and then, to my great bewilderment, attempted to drag himself away on his hands and knees, still screaming as though he had seen Lucifer in the flesh.
I was at my friend’s side in an instant, turning him around and quickly unwinding the muffler from his throat. Holmes’ face was white, and his breath was coming in painful gasps, but he was alive.
“Watson...” he panted, as soon as he had recovered his speech, “Watson, quick... after him...”
“He’s not going anywhere, Holmes,” I assured him, helping him to sit up and holding him tightly. “And look, here come Lestrade’s men.”
We watched in fascination as the three policemen, equipped with lamps and pistols, apprehended the wounded man who, instead if resisting them, clutched one of them around the knees, all the while shouting desperately: “Help me, help me, he’s coming for me... he’s coming... he’s coming...”
In the meanwhile I could see Lestrade hurrying along the path. He quickly exchanged a few words with his men, and the Constables dragged their whining prisoner along with them, leaving the Inspector, Holmes and myself alone on the scene. We all remained silent until the noise had died down, and the snowy graveyard was again the quiet and eerie place it had been before the violent interlude.
Holmes stirred, and leaned heavily on me as I helped him stand up. Lestrade gave us a searching look but chose to comment neither on my companion’s apparent indisposition nor the fact that my arm was still wrapped tightly around his waist, deeply shocked as I was by the sudden danger to his life.
“Would one of you care to enlighten me as to what has happened to that man?” the Inspector asked instead. “He appears to be frightened out of his wits.”
“I really don’t know,” I returned, still bemused. “He broke away and Holmes stopped him, and when he saw me he went out of his mind.”
“You are considerately omitting the fact that you saved my life,” Holmes interjected, his voice still hoarse. “It may have been a tad careless of me to engage in a physical struggle with a trained sportsman who is almost twenty years my junior.”
“But I didn’t do anything, Holmes! He just looked at me and began to scream.”
“You were standing over there, weren’t you?”
We all looked into the direction my friend indicated. The bright moon was clearly visible over the edge of the wall I had been standing upon. I could see the reflection in Holmes’ eyes.
“Watson,” he continued in excitement, “did he see you walk?”
“Yes, I suppose. I shouted, and he was looking up at me when I came into view. But why...?”
“You are limping, Watson! And quite heavily at the moment, I should say, from the way you are holding your leg right now. The walking stick, do you remember?”
“The lame leg”, I said slowly, realization dawning at me. “Of course. Sir James had a lame leg, he must have been limping...”
“And from this position, the villain would only have seen your silhouette against the moon. Your height and figure are not unlike Sir James’, and you must have looked quite impressive in your long coat.”
“So he thought the man he had murdered was coming for him,” I said with a shudder. “No wonder he went out of his mind.”
“A higher justice, perhaps, for his fiendish plot to dispose not only of his rich brother-in-law, but also of his own sister. He made sure that all the evidence pointed towards her, no doubt in the attempt to clear his own way towards the Wardens’ family fortune. But he betrayed himself when he tried to recover the ruby crucifix.”
“It will be found upon his person, I presume,” the Inspector interjected, having listened so far with rapt attention.
“I have no doubt about that,” Holmes agreed. “But now that our work here is done, I suggest that we leave those who lie here to rest in peace, and return to our own comfortable beds.”
Slowly we made our way back toward the main entrance where we knew Lestrade’s carriage to be waiting. Holmes supported me now, as my leg would hardly carry me any longer.
“I wonder how he intended to explain to his sister the fact that he had regained possession of the crucifix,” I mused eventually, trying to banish the feeling of unease that still haunted me. “She knew it had been buried along with her husband.”
“Ah, but you are forgetting that he had a very good excuse to visit the grave again,” Holmes told us, clearly recovering his good spirits. “Lady Elizabeth believed that her husband had been turned into a vampire. She thought someone would have to stake his heart and cut off his head to grant him eternal peace. I suppose her brother offered to do it for her, to give her peace of mind even if he, as she knew, did not believe in such things. He most likely told her that he had for her sake endeavoured to protect Sir James’ soul with the crucifix, and intended to recover it when it was no longer needed.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” I admitted. “But Holmes? How do you know one has to stake a vampire’s heart and decapitate him if you didn’t read Stoker’s novel?”
“I... well, I never said I didn’t read it,” my friend replied, a little huffily. “There are many educational aspects about it – cultural superstitions, for example, or the detailed description of Transylvanian landscape...”
“I see,” I replied, amused in spite of myself. “In that case I can warmly recommend to you some novels that happen to be in my possession, which contain a wealth of knowledge about seafaring traditions and foreign countries. They are of high educational value, even if they might seem a tad trivial to the naïve reader.”
“As I was saying,” Holmes continued irritably, ignoring Lestrade’s undignified snort, “the villain had a very good justification for the recovery of the ruby crucifix. But when you inspect his bag you will undoubtedly find that he did not bring any tools for the desecration of the body, but only those necessary to open the casket. He wanted his property back, and nothing more.”
“It did him little good,” Lestrade said ominously.
And with a considerable feeling of relief we departed from that strange place of mystery and gloom and returned to the life and warmth of our familiar urban surroundings.
I was in a strange mood when we stepped out of Lestrade’s carriage that night and walked up the few steps to our front door. I did not feel tired; despite the late hour, the excitement and danger of these past hours had driven away any prospect of sleep. Instead, I felt a bit of the curious light-headedness that comes with the passing of danger, coupled with the deeply rooted feeling of shock that my companion had made such a narrow escape. Holmes appeared brisk and elated, but I knew him well enough to recognize the feverish intensity in his demeanour and the unnatural glint in his keen grey eyes when he helped me up our seventeen steps. He reached for a cigarette as soon as he had set foot in our darkened sitting room, while I lit a lamp and went to the sideboard for a glass of brandy.
I turned to see him leaning against the door, engulfed in a thin veil of cigarette smoke.
“Now, what do I say to this night’s adventure?”
He gave me a short nod, his keen eyes watching me intently.
“I say,” I replied calmly, draining my glass and setting it on the table before advancing him slowly, “that we were successful once again, and you have proven once more that you are the greatest crime fighter of our era. I also say that you were very lucky to get away this time. Far too lucky for my taste.”
“That can be disputed,” he returned with a shrug. “You were with me. Sir David was not the first to find that fighting one of us means fighting both, and that this is a considerable disadvantage for the other party.”
“You cannot rely on that,” I said angrily. “I could hardly walk. I could have been too late. For a moment I thought I was.”
He did not reply, but watched me with a strange expression as I limped towards him and then, in a sudden surge of anger, backed him up against the door.
“You could have died,” I hissed, my pent-up nervous energy getting the better of me. “He nearly killed you! You are not invulnerable, will you ever learn that?”
“I know,” he said very softly, not fighting me when I grabbed his wrists and pinned them over his head with one hand, extinguishing his cigarette with the other.
“But?” I prompted, my face so close to him that I could feel his breath on my cheek.
“It is a habitual risk,” he replied with remarkable coolness. “It has always been. Isn’t that part of the appeal?”
“No,” I said emphatically, and suddenly I was furiously determined to make him lose his nonchalance, to prove to him that he was human and succumbed to the same rules as we other mortals. His eyes were still shining with a strange light, and he looked at me almost as if he was daring me to do so. I resisted the urge to kiss his lips, inviting as they might be, and instead buried my face in his neck, giving it a soft bite when my lips found his flesh. He sighed and tilted back his head, causing the rest of his body to lean against me. I could feel my own heartbeat quickening.
“You,” I snarled against his skin, “are irreplaceable to me. Thus far we have been lucky and escaped harm, but what if one day we don’t? What if we’re getting,” and I traced a silver strand in his black hair with my free hand, “too old?”
“Nonsense, Watson,” Holmes replied hoarsely. “This is what we are. This is what we do. And don’t you think that we should now leave the discussion for later?”
“I want you to understand,” I breathed, slowly running my lips along his exposed throat that still showed the marks of his brush with death. He moaned softly and closed his eyes. It was an intensely erotic sight, and for a moment I was almost overwhelmed by conflicting feelings of adoration and fierce possessiveness.
“I do,” Holmes whispered, and then he stopped speaking altogether, because I had busied myself with his trousers and then my own, and he succumbed to my movements as I began to touch both of us in an accelerating rhythm.
“Holmes,” I tried, because I vaguely remembered that I intended to lecture him, but then I realized that I had lost track of my objective. He made no indication that he had heard me, and soon I forgot that I had meant to speak at all, and it was of no importance, because nothing mattered beside the heat of his slender body below my own, and the sight of his pale face with closed eyes and half open lips and a strand of black hair out of place, and the sound of his heavy breathing. Before long he collapsed in my arms with a soft cry, and I followed him almost instantly.
For a moment we just remained as we were, leaning against the door with disarranged clothing and weak knees and breath that came too fast. But it was Holmes, as usual, who first regained his composure.
“I never get your limits, Watson,” he said softly, and when I looked up at him he traced the side of my face with infinite tenderness.
“Don’t you?” I asked stupidly, because, as much as I would have loved to counter his cryptic remark with a witty reply, I could think of none at the moment. “Enlighten me.”
“I never expected you to get so worked up over this incident. My life has been in danger before.”
It was true, but I was now beginning to understand the crux of the matter. “Holmes,” I said softly, “normally, when something like this happens, I am in a position where I can act to prevent it. This time I was almost too late, because my body does not obey me the way it used to. And until now, you were always more than a match for any ruffian who came your way. It seems that has begun to change. What if it happens again and I am as useless as I was today?”
“I would hardly call your intervention today useless,” Holmes said with amusement, and I noticed that his own strange mood seemed to have faded.
“That was pure luck. Holmes,” I insisted, absent-mindedly rearranging our clothing, “Do you think we are getting too old? I mean it. This adventure nearly ended in a catastrophe.”
He pondered my words for a moment.
“No, Watson,” he returned decidedly. “Not yet. I suppose that day will come, and when it comes, I promise to find a quiet little place by the seaside for you and me. But we aren’t finished yet. We may have to be a little more careful, that is all.”
“Is that a promise?” I demanded doubtfully.
“It is,” he assured me sincerely. “I know I sometimes get a little carried away by the chase, but I promise not to take foolhardy risks. It would mean gambling with your safety, too, and that happens to be far too great a treasure to put at risk.”
I could think of no adequate reply to this remarkable declaration of loyalty and love, so I kissed him instead. He smiled against my lips, and suddenly I felt overwhelmed by the awareness of how much I love this life of romance and adventure, and I understood that it would, indeed, be far too early to give it up. The time for that would come; but not tonight.
“Of Witches, Fairies and Magical Beasts – Examining Myths and Superstition from the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. By Robert D. Jennings, 1885.” Holmes turned the massive volume in his hands, looking genuinely delighted. “Thank you, Watson.”
“I thought it might come in handy,” I offered. “Of course, when I purchased this I had no idea that you also derive your knowledge from so-called trivial sources. I might have come up with something more entertaining.”
“I am sure that this is very entertaining, thank you,” my friend returned with only a hint of indignation, and I did not attempt to hide my grin. I was in decidedly high spirits, for our dear landlady had presented us with a glorious Christmas tree which was now alight with many candles, and the air was filled with the scents of roasted chestnuts, hot punch and unusually expensive tobacco. The very fine new Bowler hat Holmes had given to me was resting on the table, and I could hardly wait to show it off on our next ramble through the neighborhood.
“Merry Christmas, old fellow,” I said cheerfully. “And now let us have a look at those Christmas Cards. It will take us until tomorrow to read them all.”
“Undoubtedly,” Holmes admitted, casually shuffling through an impressive stack of correspondence. “Now, what have we here? Mr. Percy Phelps, I didn’t know you were still in contact with him… Mycroft, of course… Inspector Gregson from the Yard… Sir Henry and Lady Beryl Baskerville… and,” he added, opening an envelope, “Lady Elizabeth Warden, nee Holsworth. She thanks us for clearing her of a suspicion which could have cost her far more than her honourable reputation, even if the revelation of her brother’s true character came as a painful shock. She asks, however, if it would be possible to keep this affair out of the papers, as she might encounter personal difficulties in the future should her name be associated with such a scandalous and tragic affair....”
“We should do all that is in our power to grant her this wish.”
“I agree. And listen to this, Watson: ‘Beyond all else I am deeply obliged to you for giving me the assurance that my loved one’s noble soul remains unblemished, and now resides in Heaven, where I hope to be reunited with him when my own time comes.’ It sounds like her childhood dreams did come true, doesn’t it? Even if only for a short time.”
“She did love him, then,” I mused, “even though he was so much older. But love can take the strangest forms and shapes.”
“We should know, my friend,” Holmes said very softly. “We should know.”
He put down the letter and walked over to the window, leaning against the frame and looking outside with a thoughtful expression. I stood beside him, casually placing my arm around his waist, and together we watched the bright Christmas lights in the windows and the merry wreathes at the doors and the soft snow falling through the darkness outside. I thought of all those families in their comfortable, festive parlors, and of Lady Elizabeth, who had lost the two people who had been closest to her, and who was carrying on so bravely. And then I thought of my own life, spent in the company of the person I love most in the world, sharing his home and bed and adventures and spending Christmas with him, the season of love and hope. My own childhood dreams were of a different variety, but no dream, however fanciful, could have surpassed the life I am leading today.
He did not see my smile, but he must have heard it in my words. “I do know, my dear Holmes,” I said gently.
And from somewhere outside, we could hear the faint tune of a Christmas Carol.