When the last of the wealthy patrons leave, John takes up his medical bag and makes his way backstage. His rounds are cursory tonight, a simple rap of the knuckles against one of the many wooden supports and the call of “Maintenance.” A general cry comes back: one twisted ankle in the second act and nothing more. John dealt with that particular dancer hours ago, but he checks on her condition nonetheless. On his way farther backstage, he slips Mrs Hudson’s evening soother into the dance mistress’s hand. My hip, she mouths apologetically, and John nods. Despite the incredible heat of the lights, stage and chandelier both, the complaints of autumn are coming on. John’s shoulder can feel it too.
In the tumult following the night’s performance, it’s an easy matter to slip away from the ordered chaos. Down this hall, down that, down the stairs two levels into the basement, and then duck around the barrels beneath the stairs. Between the casks and the wooden wall, there is enough space for a reasonably sized man. Though blind in the dark, he feels for the latch easily enough tonight. He slides through the small door, careful not to brush his knees against the dirty floor. Once in, he secures it behind himself.
He sets down his bag and fishes out his matches from the inner pocket of his jacket. When struck, the match shines upon the waiting lamp, and John lights this in turn. The passageway is brick and stone, cool enough in the stale air to be a relief after the blaze of fire and tightly packed human bodies above.
Hefting up his bag, he walks. He walks for some time. His footsteps echo ahead, a deliberate warning.
At the final turn, another source of light becomes apparent, flickers of candlelight visible beneath a wooden door.
John knocks. “Mr Vernet,” he calls.
“Doctor,” is the man’s even response. The deep rumble rises from the patch of light shining on John’s shoes.
“Permission to enter.”
With a dismissive sigh: “Granted.”
Inside, there is a man. The man stands before a thick, heavily engraved desk, part of its surface raised and slanting. Upon the desk, paper and ink stand at attention, illuminated by candle and reflecting mirror. The man’s suit is a solid black, his waistcoat grey, and the mask that covers nearly the entirety of his face is porcelain white beneath his dark, untamed curls. His bottom lip and chin are visible, but nothing more. Holding the neck in one hand and planting the bottom of the instrument against his hip, the man carries a violin.
“No,” John says immediately. “Put that down.”
“No,” Vernet replies. Despite the French name, his drawled refusal is unmistakeably English. Whatever the man’s true surname is, it can’t be Vernet. After all, John’s been told as much.
“Two weeks,” John says, setting his lamp upon one of the two tables, the less cluttered of the surfaces. The room isn’t terribly large, though what it lacks in width and length, it certainly makes up for in height. “That’s all I asked. None of that until I take the stitches out.”
“You’re taking them out tonight,” Vernet counters.
“Or redoing them, if you’ve torn anything open,” John threatens.
Vernet sighs and sets his violin into its case with more care than even a loving mother takes with her infant. He flexes his left hand in a way John doesn’t like.
John sets his things up at the table, sitting upon the one seat with a cushion. He gestures to the other man without looking up from his materials. Best to keep an eye on a flame, even that of a candle, when holding scissors into it. “Give it here.”
With simultaneous grudging refusal and nonchalant acceptance, Vernet approaches to perch in the chair adjacent to John’s. He shrugs off his jacket en route and drapes it on the back of the chair.
“Feet on the floor,” John instructs. “Unless you’d rather fall over while I pull thread out of you. I’m sure that won’t hurt too badly.”
Vernet’s feet drop to the floor with the flash of impeccably shined leather. He rolls up his sleeve nearly to the elbow and lays his arm upon the table. “I’m starting to see why Havill chose you.”
John raises an eyebrow at the mention of the manager.
“I hadn’t thought an army doctor would do well in an opera house,” Vernet muses as John inspects the healing skin of his palm and forearm. “Not an incorrect assumption on my part, of course: simply a lack of one.”
“Shouting, heat, long periods of waiting between the chaos.” John eases the thin scissors into position and makes the first snip. “Nothing out of the usual, and everyone is much less likely to die. It’s relaxing, to be honest.”
“You don’t find them too high-strung?”
John grins a little.
“What?” Vernet asks.
“Nothing,” John says. “It’s just a bit funny when someone panics over the Opera Ghost, these days. Seems strange to pitch a fuss over a dead man in the attic when we’ve a living one in the basement.”
Vernet’s mouth twitches. It’s all of the man’s face that John knows or is likely to ever know. From what John knows of Vernet’s contract, the Earl has made his position very clear on that matter. “Superstition is always absurd,” Vernet agrees, his voice a low, amused rumble. Not for the first time, John suspects the man’s mouth was left half uncovered for John’s peace of mind as well as Vernet’s ease of breathing: if John had never seen that bottom lip move, he would have sworn Vernet’s voice came directly from the man’s chest like the purr of a large, exotic cat. “I don’t mind staying down here if it means avoiding such nonsense.”
John shakes his head, easing out the thread from Vernet’s forearm with care, using the scissors as tweezers. It’s healing nicely. The wrist and palm, however, have seen strain in the past two weeks. “But are you living here or haunting here?” John asks.
Although the mask shades his eyes, Vernet’s gaze bites into John’s face. “You haven’t seen me in shadow. Mrs Hudson says I look very much a ghost in the dark.”
A white face floating above black? In the dark, yes, easily enough mistaken for an apparition. The mask covers all but a diamond of skin, nose to chin exposed. With Vernet’s pale skin lost to shadow, his image might resemble a screaming skull. Might. “I know a living man from a dead one,” John answers dryly.
“With my health in your hands, I should hope so,” Vernet replies.
John grins a bit more. “You’re flesh and blood, all right. And a few other things besides.” That’s the forearm finished. “Uncurl your fingers.” He prods here and there, inspecting, squeezing gently to check for colour. “I told you to leave it be.”
“Two weeks without my violin?” Eyebrows must raise beneath that mask. “Are you mad?”
“Of the two of us,” John answers, as slow and careful with his words as he is with his scissors, “which is living in the basement of an opera house on the condition of absolute anonymity?”
“You have no musical passion.” Vernet states this much the same way John’s father once told Harriet she was going to Hell. Resignation rules his voice, that and the fading hope for the possibility of something better.
“And you have no common sense,” John replies.
“It’s hardly a priority.”
“Right. Then the next time you fall in the dark and break your lamp, I imagine you’ll plant your arm on the glass again. If Mrs Hudson didn’t know you were down here, you might have lost the hand.”
Vernet pulls a face, or so his shoulders and the cant of his head imply. There’s only so much John can infer from a single lip and a chin. “It wasn’t so terrible.”
“No, not having an infection isn’t terrible at all,” John agrees. “Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”
“Yes, Doctor,” Vernet replies, duty incarnate.
In a feat of incredible suspension of disbelief, John decides to accept that as sincere. He puts away his scissors and almost closes his medical bag before he remembers. “Ah, right. Here you are.”
Motionless, Vernet conveys a sense of blinking or staring. The low light does much to hide his eyes. It’s one of the two, but certainly surprise at the newspaper in John’s hand.
“You said you missed the daily paper,” John prompts.
“I did.” Vernet doesn’t move to take it, frozen in the midst of rolling down his sleeve. The doubt in his voice turns the statement into a question.
“When I checked on you last week.”
“I know when I said it,” Vernet corrects quickly. For all the rapidity of his mouth, his body remains unmoving.
A moment longer of holding out the paper, and John sets it upon the table. Maybe Vernet dislikes the Telegraph. He snaps his bag shut. “If that’s all...?”
“Yes, yes, fine,” Vernet dismisses. He inspects the skin of his palm. “Permanent scarring, you said?”
“Keeping it out of sunlight will help, and I can see you’re doing a fine job of that already.”
Vernet laughs, a sharp, sudden sound. “Then you agree: my living arrangement has its benefits.”
John laughs as well, though it may be a sigh in disguise. “It’s good to see there are some.” He stands and takes up his bag. “Are there any others?” he can’t help but ask.
“Anonymity prevents financial liability,” Vernet supplies. “When every lost prop is blamed on a ghost, it would be unwise to put a name and a face to the man in the basement.”
“So that actually is for your benefit.”
“I’d hardly put up with it, otherwise.” Despite his cultured tones, Vernet leaves John with a very distinct impression of having rolled his eyes.
As one of them has to pretend to belong to polite society, John keeps his expression as bland as he can make it. Even so, he’s absolutely certain that Vernet is grinning with his eyes.
John holds out his right hand and says, “I won’t keep you from your composing any longer.”
Vernet stands. His fingers are cool, his palm dry. His grip is firm in a way that makes John’s firmer. “Thank you.”
Vernet doesn’t release his hand.
“Something the matter?” John asks.
“You’re an army doctor,” Vernet muses. “Ex-army, invalided. Where did you serve?”
“Can I have my hand back, please?”
Vernet releases him. “Where did you serve? India, was it? You must have been young for it.”
“Somewhat,” John allows. “I’m sorry, is this important?”
Vernet bites his lip and looks to the grand desk. “Yes, I think it is. A firsthand account would be invaluable to my work.”
“To your opera?”
“Yes,” Vernet states. “It would be. I can approximate emotion, but I prefer not to imagine it. You may have noticed that source material is somewhat difficult to come by.”
“Is your opera set in India?”
“Alexandria, but I’m sure the general themes will translate.”
“Combat, duty, loss...” Vernet lists with a wave of the hand. “Basic descriptions translate poorly to music. I need something more in-depth, more detailed.”
“I’m not sure how I could help you,” John answers slowly.
“Wait,” Vernet bids him, crossing the small room to reclaim his violin. “Listen. Tell me who this is.”
John frowns at the curious instruction, but Vernet begins to play. The first stroke of the bow fills the room from floor to vaulted ceiling with authoritative sound. Masterful and grand, the theme makes itself clear within moments. With the answer on his lips and his heart abruptly pounding, John doesn’t dare interrupt as Vernet rocks with the motions of his playing. Rolled only loosely, his sleeve falls to the crook of his elbow, his left forearm bare, tendons visible in their efforts.
When Vernet stops, it is as abrupt and jarring as a missing stair. “Well?” he demands.
“An idealised general,” John responds immediately.
John nods. “Grand and strong, but not really... real.”
“But a young soldier’s idea of his general? Provided the general had a strong reputation.”
John laughs with the truth of it. “That. Exactly that, yes.”
Vernet hums, rich and deep. “And this?” He launches into what John initially mistakes for the same piece, but the differences rapidly grow clear. A change of key and triumph turns to tragedy. The tempo changes, warping the phrase from adoration into disgust. The volume falls where before it had risen.
When Vernet stops, John applauds. Between only the two of them, the motion is small and stupid. John stops quickly, but Vernet bows with a flourish and a wide grin.
“That was incredible,” John says. “That is exactly what disillusionment with the army feels like.”
“Yes.” Without hesitation, yes.
Vernet nods, mouth set in a thoughtful line.
“Are you sure you need the help?” John asks.
“I prefer undertaking tasks with the proper research.”
“It sounds as if you’ve managed well so far.” A gross understatement.
“I want it to be better,” Vernet states. “It can be and it should be.”
“You honestly think my input could make a difference?”
Vernet nods. The mask doesn’t quite stay still upon his face, dipping down with the bob of his head. It’s a poor fit, a scavenged prop, but it is more efficient than the bag Vernet had worn over his head upon his first encounter with John. What incredible nerve, sitting blind while a stranger pushed a needle through his skin. With the hand holding his bow, Vernet adjusts the mask.
“Then I’ll help,” John promises. “But, ah...” John checks his pocket watch. Nearly midnight. “Not tonight, I’m afraid.” Not if he’s to avoid being locked in for the night.
“When can you return?”
“Tomorrow morning,” John says. “Midmorning, perhaps. Say, half ten?”
“Half ten,” Vernet agrees, violin cocked against his hip.
“Until then.” John leaves with an odd sort of amusement. The sound of violin music follows him, echoing through the passage until the steady rhythm of John’s footsteps is enough to drown out the fading melody.
When John speaks, Vernet becomes a statue. Focused and still, as if he were carved into position. As if John’s chair had been deliberately set before the figure of a man intent beyond belief, forcing John to bear the brunt of unmoving, unseen eyes. After an initial question, Vernet never speaks, never moves until John can find no more words and falls into silence.
It is disconcerting in the extreme and followed, given time, by the scornful prompting of “Is that all?”
It is not all. John proves it with biting words and a sharp temper before he can think better of it, and Vernet’s answering grin prevents any apology on John’s part. When John finishes explaining for the second time, for the first full time, what it feels like to have a friend die beneath his hands, Vernet nods and stands.
Provoked beyond manners, John snaps at him, and then the man lifts his violin and begins to play.
John becomes the statue.
Vernet comes alive.
The man walks into the melody, and though he stumbles, he soon begins to run. Harsh strides, hard strokes, the sound of restrained panic strangling the heart. He wanders, running toward and from, strings shrieking with each misstep before they sing the voiceless terror of heavy duty in mortal hands.
He concludes only to begin again, to begin anew. Variation upon variation fills the air between them, and John realises through his own disbelief in Vernet’s reality, that Vernet is watching him still. It’s nigh impossible to tell through the mask, through the rocking of the man’s body as his violin plays him, but Vernet keeps his face turned toward John’s, fixed while his feet shuffle and his fingers fly.
A refrain repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and upon hearing it for what may be the fifth or the fiftieth time, John nods. Yes. Yes, Vernet has it.
With that, Vernet tears the violin from his shoulder, fingers tight about its wooden neck. The cut-off note dies strangled. “Good?” Vernet demands.
“Yes,” John says, and says again. “Yes, that was... yes.” Breathless. There’s no air in the room, only music.
“What you felt,” Vernet prompts.
“I want exact.”
“God. I think it would kill me.”
“Good,” Vernet answers, vicious in his enthusiasm. “That’s what music ought to do.”
Heart pounding, John sags in his chair as if he’d been standing for hours, not sitting for barely one. He hurts in the centre of his chest, somewhere along the lungs that has no right to shake.
“This will be sufficient for now,” Vernet continues, striding to his desk. He sets down the violin and takes up the pen. Brave man, to compose with a pen. “Working with you will obviously cause drastic rewriting of the score, but it can’t be helped.”
John nods. “Does it help?” His voice is an odd rasp and strangely teary. He clears his throat.
Vernet’s lips quirk, but his bowed head doesn’t lift. He writes quickly and responds almost absently. “I’ll show you the difference once it’s settled.”
“Settled? Is that different than being finished?”
Vernet doesn’t respond.
Vernet continues writing, the scratch of his pen so small and quiet in the unfilled space.
“I’ll be off, then,” John says pointedly.
Again, no response.
John picks up his bag and leaves a copy of the day’s newspaper beside the sleeping violin.
A fortnight later, Mrs Hudson tugs at John’s sleeve, a subtle motion behind their backs.
“I’m sorry,” John murmurs. “I can’t do anything else for your hip.”
“Not that, dear,” she answers. “He wants to see you.”
“He,” she confirms, and John abruptly understands.
“Health or music?” John asks.
Mrs Hudson smiles, eyes crinkling. “With him, I couldn’t say there’s any difference.”
Something not unlike a smile tugs at the corner of John’s mouth. It feels the same, at any rate. “Mrs Hudson, could I ask you something?”
“That depends on what it is,” she answers plainly.
“If he’s been down there for only two months, why have people claimed to see an opera ghost for decades?”
Mrs Hudson’s look turns pitying. “He’s hardly the opera ghost, dear. We thought he’d be mistaken for the ghost if he were found, that’s all. Not that it’s likely anyone will find him, but it’s best not to take chances.”
Feeling his perception of her shift, John blinks. “But... surely you don’t believe in this ghost?” Mrs Hudson has always been one of the reasonable ones here, too experienced to be so high-strung.
“Dr Watson, I have been with this opera house nearly my entire life,” she reminds him. “We haven’t always had a doctor on hand. Of course there’s a ghost in here. What kind of opera house would we be without one? Why do you think we leave the ghost light out at night?”
John considers his answer only to ask instead, “Have you finished with the morning paper?”
The second session is much the same as the first. John speaks, Vernet needles him, and John snaps back. Before John can wholly lose his temper, Vernet snatches up his violin and produces thunderous rage, notes bellowing from a minimum of two strings at once. It takes John aback, sets him in surprise and keeps him there.
Vernet plays on, merging the theme of the general with this new dose of rage, and it spans the gap from idealisation to disillusionment, to utter bitterness.
Only when Vernet stops can John breathe. The air is stale and unmoving, he reminds himself. Too little air, and that was magnificent.
“Have you, um. Was any of that written down before?”
“Improvisation,” Vernet replies distractedly, exchanging violin for pen. “I knew the shape, but not the substance.”
“And you can remember enough of it to set it down?”
“If you’d stop speaking.”
John closes his mouth, cross until he realises the preservation of that music is dependent upon his silence. Abruptly, sitting still and quiet becomes a protective duty.
Vernet hums softly as he writes, a sound that grows into wordless singing, the vocalisation of a melody, a repeated melody, the individual pieces of a harmony. He stops, repeats, rephrases, holding a musical debate with himself. The sound is never loud enough for John to make out how skilled a singer Vernet is. Though more contained than his fluid bow strokes, the motions of his writing are no less impassioned. He tilts his head and beckons oddly with his left hand, listening to what John realises is an imaginary orchestra, section by section.
When Vernet shows no sign of stopping in the near future, John stands as quietly as he can and picks up his case.
“No,” Vernet says without looking up. “Stay. I need you.” Words without inflexion contrast strangely with the music beneath his breath.
John sits. He checks his pocket watch. “I’ll be missed in half an hour.”
Vernet hums and continues without looking up.
John sits. For a while, he simply clasps his hands together and looks at the rug, at the banality of the sparse furniture of the room. Then, wincing at the sound it makes, he pulls the second-hand newspaper from his bag. He reads.
“It’s been half an hour.”
John checks his watch. “Right. Thank you.” He picks up his bag and replaces it with the newspaper.
“This will take two days,” Vernet continues, bowed over his desk. “Return in three.”
John’s feet press into the floor. His back straightens.
Vernet looks up. “What?”
“Writing a general does not make you my superior officer,” John replies. And neither do the refined tones of the man’s deep voice, not without a name behind them.
Vernet stares at him, the stillness of his gaze implied by his frozen mouth.
“No,” Vernet murmurs. “It does not.” His lips quirk. “Will you return in three days?”
“No,” John says. “Sunday’s my day off. I’ll be in on Monday.”
“Fine,” Vernet says and promptly resumes ignoring him.
John leaves him the newspaper anyway.
“How are you getting food?” John asks.
“Not relevant,” Vernet dismisses. “Now, about the ships--”
“When your doctor asks after your diet, you answer him.”
Vernet looks at him oddly. It’s only in the tilt of his head, but John knows it well by now. “Since when are you my doctor?”
John looks pointedly at Vernet’s left hand.
“You were my doctor, granted,” Vernet allows.
“I wasn’t aware it was a continuing condition.”
“It is,” John says. “At least until you get another one. We’re a bit scarce on the ground in opera house basements. Secret passages too, those are always a bit of a stretch. Terrible for cultivating a practice if no one can find you.”
Vernet rolls his eyes. “Are you finished?”
“I can keep going,” John promises.
“Mrs Hudson provides for me. We have an arrangement.” Vernet gestures toward an adjoining passage. “When she can’t come down, there’s enough in tins.”
“I have enough.”
“Again, Doctor: I have enough. Are you pestering me for a reason, or are you so easily distracted?”
“Ships mean supply problems,” John answers.
With those few words, Vernet’s scorn turns to rapt attention. “I see.”
“Put that on top of cramped living, too much combined body heat and too little air, and it can get messy.”
“Messy enough I’d say you could set an entire opera on a ship full of soldiers, only I’ve no idea where the ballet would have room to turn around in.”
Vernet laughs, a silent lift of his grinning mouth. Questions follow, and John speaks until he risks being missed up above. Though it matters relatively little if he isn’t standing by during orchestra rehearsals, the ballet is another matter.
“But I haven’t-!” Vernet gestures furtively toward his violin.
“We’ll have to time it better,” John answers.
“Fine,” Vernet grumbles, and a childish piece of John’s heart sulks with him. “Thursday?”
“Thursday.” John takes the newspaper from his bag and leaves it in the same spot. There’s no trace to be seen of the paper’s previous fellows. This time when John leaves, music follows him out, agitated in its enclosed, airless space. It’s quite good, even if John tenses to hear it. When he closes the concealed door on the tunnels, the abrupt darkness and silence has a sinister edge to it. He shivers at the cold and climbs the stairs somewhat more quickly than necessary.
Thursday brings much the same. The walk inside plays tricks on his imagination, but the company is more than ample compensation for his discomfort. Vernet cuts him off early to snatch up his violin. He plays with his eyes forever on John’s face, his music subject to whatever chastisement and guidance can be found in John’s furrowed brow or wandering attention. Should John lose focus for as much as a second, Vernet responds with a drastic sforzando to startle him back into the moment. Vernet’s expectations for his audience are exacting, wearying, exhausting, but his musical endeavours seldom deserve less from their listener.
John leaves to the scratching of Vernet’s pen that day. He does the same on Monday, and the Thursday after that. On each occasion, he arrives somewhat earlier and leaves slightly later. Visit by visit, the worst of the war, the worst of the army, the worst of his own mind is dragged out of him by this man. His guilt and fears turn into melodies no less harsh or demanding. If anything, they worsen when aired aloud, exaggerated into dramatic form, but Vernet breaks them as he would horses. The worst terror grows responsive to Vernet’s slim hands until, at last, it is tamed.
Lighter and heavier at once, John finds himself loath to leave. Regardless of his focus at his desk, Vernet’s gaze begins to snap to John when their limited time expires. It’s an odd friendship, to be certain, but John would no longer hesitate in calling it such.
“I’m ready to write the libretto for the first act,” Vernet announces as John stands. “Or I will be, once I’ve finished with this.”
“I’m not sure how I could help you with that.”
“Do you speak Italian?”
“No,” John replies. “Latin helps me understand a bit, but no.”
“In that case, don’t bother me until I’m finished.”
The blunt dismissal cuts. “Ah.”
Vernet rolls his eyes. “Don’t.”
Rather than answer, Vernet says, “Once I finish, I’ll play you the first act. As much as it can be played on violin.”
Mollified, John struggles for a proper response of his own. Rather than find one, he asks, “How long has the first act taken? You’d already been down here for two months when we met.” At this rate, they’ll be at this for years. The thought of it fails to intimidate.
Vernet shakes his head. “I’ve put aside the vast majority of my initial work. This is better.”
“So you’ve composed an act in, what, a month?”
Vernet shrugs. “The Barber of Seville took Rossini thirteen days.”
“That one’s fairly short, though,” John points out. Though John knows very little about opera, he pays very close attention to the length of each performance. Honestly, he has little choice but to pay attention. John quite likes the Barber of Seville: it has only two acts.
“In the last thirty years, Verdi has composed twenty-five operas. That’s not taking into account his other works.”
“Is that what you’re trying to match?” John asks.
“It seems abruptly possible,” Vernet replies, a smile touching his lips.
As happens so often in the other man’s company, John stands somewhat taller.
“I’ll send word once I’m ready,” Vernet promises. “Until then, I may forget how to speak in English.”
John laughs and Vernet grins in reply.
“Fair enough,” John says. He comes close and offers his hand.
Vernet takes it, his touch cool. “Until then.”
The first two days pass as per usual, but upon the third, the urge to walk down into the basement takes hold of John’s feet. He resists mid-motion, turning around and setting himself back on his usual rounds. There are throats to be cared for, infected blisters to see to. Every stable feature of John’s life remains, but so does the siren call of the violin deep beneath the floorboards.
Fortunately, a matter of interest soon arises. The resulting flood of gossip through the opera house clogs John’s ears, too petty and ordinary for all that it concerns an Earl. Or the Earl, as the denizens of the opera house refer to him. The Earl, as he is the owner of the opera house. Neither the Earl nor his family have been seen in the opera house since his mother died a few years ago, but they make their return tonight.
“It’s a very sweet story,” Mrs Hudson tells him. “A bit much, but sweet. When the Earl was still a Viscount, his mother loved the opera. That was her favourite box up there, Box Five. That one there.”
John knows it well enough. It’s the single box he’ll never have to pay a professional visit to. “The one no one ever uses.”
“You’ve never seen it used?”
“She’d stopped attending by the time I was hired,” John reminds her.
“I keep forgetting. I always think you’ve been here so much longer.”
“You were saying about Box Five?”
“The Countess wanted it reserved for her, but there was some sort of complication.”
John’s eyebrows lift. “That’s why the Earl bought the opera house?”
In the lack of any otherwise respectful response, John falls back on banality. “She must have been an amazing woman.”
“The Countess? Oh, she was,” Mrs Hudson replies. “From what I understand, her first love of the arts was painting, but we snuck our way in too.” There’s no lack of pride in her voice or upon her features. “She was the niece of some French painter. I can’t remember which one. There are two paintings of his in the lobby, the ones with the battle scenes.”
“Even so,” John says. “Buying an entire opera house?”
“It is a bit silly, isn’t it? But sweet. Though it was an amazing fuss at the time. The old owner wasn’t keen to let go. Stubborn man, terrible temper. Irish, you know. Now if he came back to haunt us, I wouldn’t be surprised.” She sighs and pointedly lifts her voice toward the other occupants of the stage. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see about the trapdoor entrance for the second act. We can’t have skirts getting stuck in it again.”
“It wasn’t my fault, I swear,” one of the dancers cries immediately. “Everyone knows the ghost loves making you fall.”
“Like with the banister last week!” another of the girls pipes up.
Before he can get pulled into that superstitious mess, John wishes them well and continues on. Though absolutely everything must be perfect tonight for the owner’s pleasure, the focus of the opera house is, as always, upon the performance as opposed to the individuals performing. Ultimately, John stands down and takes his dinner. If there’s any night for a patron to injure themselves or fall ill, it would be tonight. Unlike other pieces of opera house superstition, this is one worth warding against.
The usher who comes to fetch him is flushed with sweat. Hardly an uncommon appearance in the opera once the lights are lit, but hardly an encouraging one, particularly when it’s the head usher.
“Box Five,” Hopkins reports, and John’s body moves without conscious thought. “A baroness, a guest of the Earl’s, she’s collapsed, sir.”
“Not the ghost, then?” John responds, trying to joke, and Hopkins laughs weakly.
John walks quickly, but he does not run. There is a place for decorum, even in a potential emergency, and a potential emergency is no time to start a panic. That said, John can walk very quickly.
Upon his arrival, he finds the door already open and immediately notes that the curtains have been drawn. The remaining light in the box is from the two gaslights, one on either side of the box, but this is sufficient to see that the woman in question has regained consciousness.
John nods to the three men also in the box, bowing slightly to the group rather than revealing he isn’t certain which of them is the Earl. In his four years of employment here, he’s seen the man twice before and ought to have been paying more attention. The medical bag and his professional bearing are often enough to see him through what would otherwise be breaches of courtesy, provided his services are at all called for. “My lords,” he greets, certain that where there is the Baroness, there is her husband the Baron. Having followed him into the crammed space, the usher will have to handle public relations for the moment.
“Your Ladyship,” he says, kneeling at the side of her chair, “I am a doctor. Can you describe your symptoms?”
“It’s the heat,” she says, and indeed, the sleeves of her dress are soaked through with sweat, her face shining with damp as well as embarrassment. “I couldn’t breathe.”
“The lights are very hot,” John agrees. “If your dress can allow for it, I recommend lying down with raised feet. The manager has a sofa in his office that will serve. It’s much cooler in there.” As he says this, he looks up to the other men in the room and sees the oldest nodding permission. With the barriers of decorum so often falling to medical necessity, women are at times tricky patients, and noblewomen even more so. So allowed, John looks to the hovering usher and instructs: “The manager’s office, bring water and a cloth.”
The oldest man present is evidently the Baron, and he helps John assist the Baroness downstairs. The Earl and the third man follow behind, the Earl engaging the husband in a flawless flow of chitchat the entire way. It’s a calming tactic, an effective one, and John makes a note to thank the Earl later. Or praise him, as that might prove more appropriate.
The manager’s office is unlocked, the manager present. The Earl greets Mr Havill with the warmth of an old school friend. Reassurances abound on all sides, and John escorts his patient to the promised sofa. Once her feet are raised and a cool compress is administered, John takes her pulse and checks her breathing. When certain of the full extent of the problem, John speaks with the Baron in quiet tones regarding the dangers of too tight corsets. Mr Havill adds that they will have absolute privacy in his office. It is agreed, and all other parties exit the room. John assures the couple that he will be directly outside in the unlikely event further measures are called for, and the Baroness attempts to assure both of them that her fainting spell has truly passed.
Outside the office, John closes the door firmly behind him and smiles politely as Mr Havill performs the belated introductions.
“My lord, this is our house doctor, Dr Watson. Dr Watson, may I present Lord Holmes and his brother, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
“How fortunate Mr Havill keeps you at hand, Doctor,” Lord Holmes remarks. A tall man rendered taller still by the slim cut of his lapels, he would utterly dominate the hallway were it not for the presence of his fractionally shorter brother. The resemblance between the two is noticeable only in the sharpness of their features and the silent intensity of their pale eyes. Both could be handsome, should the mood strike them.
“Mr Havill is a man of sensible precautions, my lord,” John replies with a slight bow, medical bag in his left hand.
“Of which I am well aware.” Lord Holmes grants Mr Havill a look of unmistakeable approval. Beside and slightly behind him, his brother simply looks bored.
With a small proud smile, Mr Havill says, “I do hope--”
A scream pierces the air. Not a cry of terror from one voice alone, but a massive shout penetrating through the very walls. All traces of colour vanish from Mr Havill’s already pale face.
“Excuse me, my lord,” John says to the Earl. “I believe my services are needed elsewhere.” He delivers this mid-stride, the Earl following on his heels.
John is first into the theatre, no mean feat when contending with the Earl’s long strides and the rush of the fleeing crowd. He pushes through, leading with the medical bag, and the source of the panic is immediately clear, kicking and jerking above the stage. And, more importantly, swinging.
The aisles are packed, and there’s no way for John to cross the orchestra pit in time. Already, the stagehands hurriedly close the curtain. John bullies back to the doors, apologising rapidly, and then he runs. Around to the back, to the wings, and he struggles to find a way through the crowd of dancers rushing in. While the audience may appreciate an emergency distraction in front of the curtain, John doesn’t in the slightest.
“Let the doctor through!” a man shouts from behind John, and that does help.
John reaches the stage just as the body is being lowered, still thrashing at the ends.
“Joe’s already dead, Doc!” calls the stage manager, another John, surname Green.
“The knot’s in the wrong spot!” John answers, speaking loudly but calmly. “Get him down!”
He helps lower the body, immediately pulling at the noose, and Green steps in to cut it. Joseph Harrison had only had the barest of a chance, only that because of the swinging and the knot placement, but not chance enough.
They lower Harrison’s body to the stage.
“Can’t believe he hung himself,” Green mutters.
“Hanged,” interjects another man.
John looks over his shoulder to discover Mr Holmes has followed him.
“Moreover,” Mr Holmes continues, “I believe the doctor disagrees with you.”
Green looks to John with confusion.
“Was there anyone up there with him?” John asks, pointing up to the catwalks. “Anyone near him at all?”
Green’s expression hardens. “No idea.”
“Find out, will you?” John asks.
“You’d better believe I will,” Green replies.
“Good man.” John claps him briefly on the shoulder. He kneels and sees to the body, but it’s already clear by the distortion to the neck and face, not to mention the stink of shit and piss. Even so, he feels for the pulse and holds his open pocket watch over the dead man’s mouth. When he checks the glass for fogging, he checks the time. Ten forty-eight. The fall was roughly at ten forty-two.
As John stands, a wheeled table rattles forward, one Miss Hooper at the helm. “Props table,” she explains. “I took everything off and put a sheet over it.”
“Excellent thinking,” John says. “Give it here.”
They quickly lay the sheet down and John rolls the body on with as much dignity as he can muster. Though multiple stagehands come near for the duty, Mr Holmes grasps the other side of the sheet and joins them in hefting Harrison’s remains onto the table. They wheel him away with all due haste.
John pulls one of the stagehands aside. “Jamison, he has a sister here, doesn’t he? Didn’t he?”
“Oh, God.” Jamison nods, rubbing a hand over his face. “Lucy. Seamstress in the back.”
“Do you know where? She’ll need to be told.”
“I’ll do it,” Jamison volunteers. “I was his friend, I...”
“Was he a man with debts?” Mr Holmes breaks in. John does a double-take at finding him still present.
“Joseph Harrison,” Mr Holmes prompts.
“We’ll know that shortly,” John interrupts. “For now, Miss Harrison: try to find her before the news sets her into a panic. God knows it’s hard enough to hear without the entire place in an uproar.”
Jamison nods and leaves. John stays with the body and a growing sense of unease. He turns back to the Earl’s brother and explains, “Finding a potential motive must come after the damage control. If it really is a suicide--”
“But you don’t think it is,” Mr Holmes interrupts. His voice has a light quality to it, too intent to be frivolous and yet oddly at play. It’s light without turning nasal, the sort of voice that floats gently atop the tongue. “Why?”
John looks around the crowded back hall, the cramped space. “Not here.”
They move the body out of the way, beneath one of the many wooden staircases.
Mr Holmes looks at him expectantly. “Well, Doctor?”
“It wasn’t a straight drop,” John replies. “The knot was on the wrong side, it was too much rope and too old a rope. If it had been a straight drop, a fall of that height would have taken his head off. Not to mention, the knot was at the back of his neck, not on the left side.”
“What makes this murder rather than an inept suicide?” Mr Holmes asks.
“Harrison loved a good hanging. A lot of the boys do.” John shakes his head. “He would have done it better. More than that, he would have done it somewhere else.”
“Some like a grand showing off,” Mr Holmes counters. “What could be grander?”
“His sister still works here,” John says. “Fairly close, from what I know. I don’t think he’d risk her well-being this way.”
“That’s a matter of expertise as a doctor?”
“As a brother,” John corrects. The face Mr Holmes makes immediately gives John cause to wonder if he’s gone too far. “But perhaps that’s sentiment.”
“Your... younger sister?” Mr Holmes ventures.
“Dead,” John confirms. He looks at the sheet-covered body. “At any rate, I need to get back out there. If there’s been any fainting or trampling in the stalls, there might be something I can actually do.” He waves down a stagehand and entrusts the keeping of the body to him for the time being. Holmes follows him nearly all the way out, then catches at his arm.
“What are you going to tell my brother?” Mr Holmes asks.
John blinks at him.
Mr Holmes gazes back with steady blue eyes.
“Beg pardon?” John asks.
“What are you going to tell my brother?” Mr Holmes repeats, and it’s possible that his voice is higher and lighter than it had seemed. The urgency of the statement had made the tone uncanny in a way John can’t quite place.
“That it looks like a terribly performed suicide, but we will make certain whether that was the case.”
“That was a death with a statement, Doctor,” Mr Holmes replies. “Too long a straight fall and the head pops off. He managed to swing instead.”
“And yet there was no one up there with him,” John counters, no longer certain what he thinks.
“But did you see how it looked?” Mr Holmes asks. “Perfectly centred. Beyond the flailing about, of course, but centred on the stage. It was a dramatic statement. Could you hear the music through the walls? He fell at the peak of a crescendo.”
“Either Harrison wanted to say this place was killing him, or someone wanted to make a showy murder, is that it?” John asks.
“Or a showy threat,” Mr Holmes replies. “It’s not every night the opera house owner is present. The timing is suspect.”
John has to give him that. “Would your lord brother respect it more coming from you or from a doctor?”
Mr Holmes considers it. “Both of us.”
John nods and follows him.
When John returns the following morning, the rumour mill of the opera house has already spun a thousand tales, at least twelve of them worthy of the stage itself. One of the twelve tells of suicide due to debts, though no one can agree on how they were accrued. The other eleven, of course, pertain to the opera ghost. On whether the opera ghost killed him outright or drove him to suicide, opinions differ.
Though Lord Holmes has instructed he write should anything come to his attention, John wouldn’t bother mentioning this mess of hearsay to Mr Havill, let alone the Earl.
Mrs Hudson, however, is a different story.
“I’m worried about Vernet,” John confides.
“Why would—Oh, don’t even think it!” she dismisses immediately. “He’d not that kind of a man. Shame on you, John Watson.”
“No, I don’t—I think if he were seen, he could be mistaken for the opera ghost,” John says. “He could get hurt.”
Mrs Hudson’s expression softens immediately. She pats his arm. “No one is going to see him.”
“What if he has to come out for some reason?” John asks. “He’s already had one emergency.”
“I’ll speak with him,” she promises.
“Thank you.” He nearly turns to go. “Has, um. Has he said how the libretto is coming along?”
“He hasn’t. Do you want me to ask?”
He nearly says no. “If it’s not any trouble.”
“It isn’t, dear.”
“Any time, Dr Watson.”
Over the next week, Mrs Hudson makes a point of catching his eye and shaking her head once daily. John can accept this. He has enough to do. Fortunately, some responsibilities disappear when Harrison’s death is confirmed as a suicide on the day his debt collectors appear to harass his sister. With that mystery as settled as it will ever be, life resumes as normal.
Mrs Hudson catches his eye, smiles, and nods.
Before John can slip away, she draws him aside and mentions in a pitched voice, “As much as I appreciate it, dear, you really don’t need to be at hand for this rehearsal. Some days, the girls do best without an audience.”
“I see,” John says as the younger dancers giggle. “How long do you think the rehearsal will last?”
“Oh, an hour at the very least,” she replies, patting him on the arm.
John squeezes her hand and exits quietly. He stops only once upon the way. Within minutes, he stands at the top of a very specific stairwell and walks down it at an entirely unhurried pace. As there is no one at its bottom, he ducks around the back, behind the barrels, and opens the secret door by feel. He enters, strikes a match, and lights the waiting lantern.
The walk to Vernet’s chamber stretches an absurd distance, and John turns the wrong way twice, certain he’s already gone too far. Has the path always been so long? Upon rounding the last corner and finally seeing light, he stands straighter and walks slower. Over the sounds of his own footsteps, he can hear nothing from Vernet.
Inside, John finds the man not at his desk but instead leaning against the table with one hip. With his mask firmly in place, Vernet obviously expected John to come today, and yet he doesn’t look up. Instead, he simply rosins his bow, a rhythmic scraping soft and slow.
John smiles. “Afternoon.”
“Ah,” Vernet remarks. The single rumbling syllable is an entire comment in itself. “Doctor.”
“How’s the libretto?”
Vernet shrugs with one shoulder. Scrape, scrape, bow over rosin. “Oh, it’s superb.”
“And the first act?”
“And how are you?”
“Completely exhausted,” Vernet responds, the first serious word, rather than simply an overdramatic one.
“I see,” John says. “Then you’ll hardly want to play it right now.” He nearly manages to turn around before Vernet tucks the violin beneath his chin.
“I never said that, Doctor.” He points to John’s chair with a flourish of the bow.
John opens his medical bag upon the table and withdraws the recently acquired newspaper. This too, he sets upon the table, lest he forget to do so when he leaves. He sits.
Vernet tilts his head as if to ask, Are you done?
John folds his hands in his lap and smiles just politely enough to be rude.
Vernet lifts his bow, bringing hair to strings. He closes his eyes, and with one long pull of an arching wrist, he begins to play.