THE HEART BELIEVES
Being the Further Adventures of An English Gentleman,
With the Unstinting Help
of His Valued Friend J.H.W.
THE ENGLISH GENTLEMAN
For one who claimed to set logic above all else, as I look back to that extraordinary day, I feel certain that the romantic flights of fancy which were to flow with such ease from Holmes must have, in part, been inspired from our actions of the previous night.
I freely own that our return to sample once again the softer passions which once had been so sweet was a delight to me. There had been nothing since Holmes’ ‘fatal’ encounter with the Napoleon of crime and I could not but suspect something had occurred in Tibet to set him forever against what we had both so freely enjoyed. So long had the break been that I had almost convinced myself that - while still both his colleague and, more importantly, his friend - that particular aspect of love was forever dead. I suffered some anxiety in case Holmes had tolerated our union of the night (and morning) before, inspired by nothing more than a sudden wave of sympathy for me because I was unwell. If that were true it was, I flattered myself, enough to unlock the door to his shuttered heart. I needed no other key, for he had called me ‘John’ last night, in the old familiar way.
I blushed at the memory of the first occasion he had condescended to use it: the circumstances had not been ideal; the surroundings primitive; and the cost to his self-confidence not inconsiderable. His had been the courage to take the first step. It was months before I had been able to summon up mine and follow his example.
I knew I had weaned him from those destructive stimulants which had in the past threatened to destroy not only his body but his mental faculties. If not so I would have sworn that he was in the grip of that addictive poison once more, so strange and bizarre were his suggestions as to what lines my tale should follow.
When he leaned far back in his armchair by the fire, his thin face looked grey in the cold winter light, the sun having just emerged from behind the clouds. He regarded the ceiling intently for some time before turning his head to face me.
'Do you recall, Doctor, the case of Alice Faulkner?'
The formality of address cut me to the quick. 'With the greatest clarity.'
I had at the time feared that my colleague’s sentiments might be engaged. Miss Faulkner would have been perfect: kind, honest, brave and clever. Fortunately for me, it was not to be.
'You will then remember that infernal gas chamber and Moriarty’s pawn Larabee. The instructions from his master to kill Miss Faulkner could not have been clearer.'
'Indeed, Holmes, I never thought to see either of you alive again.' I had spent a miserable enough time waiting for news once I had discovered where he had gone.
'Quite so. Our present predicament puts me in mind of my position then. As I said to Miss Faulkner at the time, there are so many escapes I hardly know which one to choose.'
'You mean there is hope, Holmes?' I asked anxiously.
'Must assuredly. I lay before you several suggestions which will furnish you with a series of ‘escapes’, Doctor. Choose which you will for your epic and welcome.'
'Lead on MacDuff,' I misquoted on purpose.
Holmes looked pained and closed his eyes for a moment.
'Use this,' he instructed, throwing me a pencil. 'For you will never be able to keep up using a pen.'
It suddenly occurred to me how much of my life was spent trying to keep up with him.
This morning was no exception. Plot followed plot and I begged him time and again to slow down. His knowledge of the characters, the terrains, the politics, the architecture and history of this non-existent mid-European country was beyond belief.
‘Do you intend to read this now?’ I had asked him less than an hour ago. ‘Whatever for?’ he had replied.
I had believed him, simple, trusting fool that I was. He knew both novels. Better than I could ever hope to. This was not the first of his tricks I had fallen for. He had been ‘dead’ for three years. My throat tightened at this bitter memory and I coughed harshly.
'I tire you, Watson. Shall I stop? I had quite forgotten you are unwell.'
I felt like Scheherazade’s Sultan, desperate to know how the story was going to unfold, and no cough or cold would get in my way. Besides, something seemed to have banished my cold several days before I might have expected it. Perhaps our revels of last night, I mused, reflecting that if I had stumbled upon the perfect cure, it was not one I would be able to offer to The Lancet.
'By no means. But, Holmes, you speak as if you spent half your life in Ruritania.'
He gave an odd, shy smile before he spoke again. 'You may believe it, Watson. I have read recently something to the effect that Only those things the heart believes are true.'
'Have a care, Holmes. That’s a dangerous philosophy for one with your constitution.'
He gave a barely perceptible shrug. 'You are doubtless right, Doctor. However, if I choose to pass my holiday writing a brief monograph on the part Elphburg patronage played in the construction of the name and chancel of Strausal’s cathedral, that is surely no one’s business but my own.'
He spoke with such absolute conviction that I was on the brink of asking if I might join him on his next visit to Ruritania. Then Holmes was off again, offering yet another flight of fancy.
To my distress, each new plot he laid before me took on a darker hue; nevertheless my pencil flew across the paper, desperate as I was to miss nothing. Holmes paused for a moment, as if marshalling his thoughts, then he addressed me once more.
'There is a seventh alternative, if you would care to consider it, Watson.'
'Holmes,' I said shortly, 'if it ends in death and destruction as the sixth was about to I want nothing to do with it.'
Holmes looked genuinely surprised at my sudden outburst; obviously neither of these eventualities upset him in the least.
'Well, as to the former, definitely not, since you are so adamant on the subject, but regarding the latter, it is a card one could play to great advantage, it really is, you know.'
I moved uneasily in my chair as a sudden chill gripped me. 'Someone has just walked over my grave.'
'Really, Watson, how a man of science like yourself can subscribe to such twaddle is beyond me.'
This from the man who wants to holiday in Ruritania! He had a point, I suppose, but I was always susceptible to changes in emotional atmosphere and knew the chilling direction the Rassendyll adventure was moving. The temperature had dropped several degrees.
Holmes got up from the chair and paced about the room; he crossed it to look out of the window for a moment or two at the crowds on their way to work or pleasure.
'Artisan, excellent prospects but not out to impress. How strange, I would if I were him. About to be - no, most definitely, married.'
'Holmes,' I snapped, 'can you never stop?'
I thought he had not heard me and was about to repeat myself in a yet more forceful manner when, pushing his hair back into place with an impatient hand, he returned to the centre of the room. He cast a disdainful eye over the breakfast table and selected a slice of dry toast before continuing his walk around the sofa, after which he halted to face me.
'Ah, Watson, I had not forgotten you...my dear fellow.'
He added the last words more from habit than pure affection. I still could not understand the change towards me from the night before. In the past he had been kindness itself the following day. Why the change? The chill curled tighter around my heart.
Fine grey ashes fell from the grate to settle on the hearth. The silence in the room was broken only by the muffled noises from the street below. I waited for Holmes to offer an explanation, however improbable, to my unspoken question and was conscious of the sound of my heart beating.
He discarded the toast before speaking to me with complete sincerity.
'I put it to you, Watson, that there never was a Rudolph Rassendyll.'
The very idea was so outrageous that I stammered out the first words that came into my head.
'Impossible, Holmes. The whole action revolves about the fact there were two Rudolphs.'
'Not so, Watson,' he cut in. 'Insanity could be traced back through generations of the Elphburg line.'
Maybe he was right. I called to mind the dreadful business of the Ripper murders, and how one of the highest families in the land had been implicated. Only Holmes knew for certain how the younger son of the unhappy Duke Shires met his death in the Crown and Anchor, Whitechapel.
'His Majesty’s character was not of the strongest,' Holmes continued. 'He was, however, burdened with a conscience which would not let him rest.'
'I have encountered a couple of patients who were afflicted in exactly the manner you describe. Eventually they recovered but it took many months of intensive treatment. They had to avoid strain of all kinds, particularly the mental. But what of everyone else? Surely they exist: Fritz; the Colonel; and Black Michael himself? What of him?'
Holmes stirred the ashes in the hearth for a second, then returned to his chair. He had obviously rejected the case of the Arkwright abduction. Those were all that remained of the letter the Coal King had written him, demanding help as if it was his God-given right.
'You find the dark and glittering brother attractive?' Holmes asked abruptly. 'That is an aspect of your personality I would never have suspected you possessed.'
'Holmes! For pity’s sake, whatever you intend to do - with or without Rassendyll - let me know at once.'
'Rassendyll is, if you like, what the king wishes to become. Michael, having failed to unseat his half-brother - and for the only time in his life - did the honourable thing. The honourable thing...' he repeated, as though momentarily distracted by some sad, bitter thought. 'There was a devil of a job concealing the truth - that one so close to the throne had died in such a way. It was given out that Michael had succumbed to heart failure while out hunting. The lie served its purpose, or at all events was believed by half the courts of Europe.'
'The king, what of the king?' I cried. 'I can now partly see where you would lead me. Surely he will end his days dangerously insane, locked away, Heaven help him, by those who were once his servants but who would inevitably become his guards.'
Holmes walked to his bedroom door, removing his dressing gown en route and leaving it on the back of his armchair. He paused with his hand on the finger plate of the door and regarded me with an innocent air.
'I think not, Watson. The influence of a strange mystic recluse - a man of immense strength - restores him to his right mind. He is spared to rule over a land blessed with peace and plenty. To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘Rudolph’s himself again’.'
'Good Lord, Holmes.' I sat considering what he had suggested. 'Even that would work, at a pinch. I must say, your idea has taken hold of my imagination. Hentzau banished, betrayed by his own friends for gain. It has a strange attraction.'
'Of course it has, Doctor. Might I suggest a letter from a distant cousin. A certain Englishman with hair that favours the Elphburg hue.'
'But Holmes, I thought you said ‘he’ did not exist.'
'All’s fair in love and war, Watson, and as you are a gentle man, I leave Ruritania in your capable hands.'
So full of his plots was my head that I hardly noticed him leave the room. I consulted my copious notes, correcting and clarifying where necessary. How had Holmes read my notes with such ease, when he never passed by a chance to remark upon their illegibility?
In spite of the interesting possibilities of the seventh alternative my friend had presented to me, I settled on his first, and to my mind, the brightest, happiest line of escape.
<i>After the fragrant air of the rose garden I found that of the palace close and oppressive. A tired gentleman advanced from the shadows thrown by the heavy crimson curtains to ask if there were any other duties he could perform for me.
'None, thank you. You may leave, Zuckor.'
'Thank you, sire. God save your Majesty,' he said, giving a formal salute.
'Would He could,' I murmured, once he had left the drawing room. 'Colonel, how much longer can I go on with this charade? There will be State papers to sign and I cannot maintain this fiction of an injured hand for more than a week.'
'Your copy of his hand improves with each day that passes, lad. A week will give you ample time to perfect it.'
'But surely there are a thousand pitfalls, ways I might come to grief?'
'Name one, Rassendyll, and I will dine on this Order of St Michael.' The old soldier indicated the largest decoration in his collection. To give him his due, I believe he would.
'I regret I can think of no single example at the moment. By morning I am sure something will come to mind.' I gave a nervous laugh.
'That is a mercy at any rate. Good night. God and His holy angels guard your Majesty.'
I was too tired to make the formal Court reply, nor could I read the odd expression in his eyes.
'Good night, Sapt. As to the angels, I can do with all the help I can get.'
The old fellow left the room with a final bow towards me and in the general direction of the chair which had been the king’s favourite.
I, as an Englishman and past pupil of one of my country’s foremost public schools, am not given to sudden flights of fancy, but that evening, alone in those surroundings once so familiar to my love, I felt something akin to panic.
This subsided as surely as it had come as I watched the shadows cast by the moon and firelight moving across the fine plaster ceiling and into the alcoves on either side of the main door.
My fear was replaced by an unease which I could not at first put into words, but slowly it became tangible to me. It was as if his sad ghost was beside me, so close I could have thrown my arms around him.
I passed two small studies of him on the wall by the fireplace. The first was of an enchanting child of some six years; the second captured my attention and held it for five minutes or more. He would have been in his early twenties and wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Green Brunswickers. His eyes held a confidence which one might have expected in a prince, but the mouth showed a sweetness of disposition I was quite unprepared for.
I poured myself a glass of wine and looked around that vault of a place. Raising my glass in a salute, I whispered: 'Here’s to my love.'
That fatal toast.
Too tired to go to bed, I fell into a deep sleep in his chair, still under the distinct impression that I was not alone. I feared no friendly shade, for if all I am left is his love from beyond the grave, I will embrace him as eagerly as ever I did in life.</i>
In the distance I became aware of a clock chiming and looked up. To my disgust I saw that I should have left for my consulting rooms ten minutes ago. Snatching up my bag, I was shrugging into my coat as I left 221B.
Ruritania would have to wait for my return, I thought resentfully, as I hailed a passing cab and set my hat on my head.
My working day dragged on endlessly. I have to admit I could not wait for it to end. Ashamed of my lack of interest in my patients, I vowed I would not permit my hobby take hold of my life. I refused to become addicted to it.
I must honestly confess that by my tenth patient, a disgusting case of scabies, my heart longed to return to Ruritania. All may not be sweetness and light there, but the seductive power of romance, danger and intrigue was undeniable, and happy endings within my power to bestow or withhold as whimsy took me. Although I must confess I have ever inclined toward the romantic.
Small wonder then, I reflected, as I took tea, that Holmes felt at home there. One of his options had included the Princess Flavia. Would he have truly elicited her help? I had seen on more than one occasion the charm he could exert over the fair sex when he needed to. He had always said - and believed - that title and social position meant nothing to him; the work itself was everything. And yet, was there more where the Princess was concerned?
The green-eyed monster struck without warning and with a devastating ferocity. She had so much more to commend her to him and could give him what it was impossible for me to offer. The venomous poison spread deeper. To have to share him would be worse than to quit the field altogether.
Blessed common sense returned with the sound of a squeak of outraged dignity from my maid. Before I could react the consulting room door was flung open.
To my amazement my last patient announced himself as the son of Harold Arkwright, the Coal King. Holmes had burnt a letter from the father only this morning. Without waiting for an invitation, he entered the room and cast a disdainful eye around him, obviously finding nothing to his liking. He was an unpleasant, slouching youth, with a high colour, unruly blond whiskers and a top lip which seemed curved in a permanent sneer.
What was this young puppy, whose life was devoted to pleasures of the most immediate and shallow kind, doing here? I voiced the question, although not in such intemperate terms.
'Passing by.' He leered suggestively at my maid. 'Thought, he’ll do as well as any.'
'Do what?' I asked, trying to control my fury at his bursting in unannounced and his manner to date. 'Why, anything I tell you, my man. Look here, give me a medical certificate for - what’s the thing where you lose your voice?'
'Laryngitis,' I snapped, unable to meet his eyes lest I show my true anger.
'Right you are. I want the condition to last a week. Not a day longer, do you understand? There’s a charity luncheon I am anxious to avoid.'
'I understand you perfectly,' I said, not troubling to hide my distaste. 'You wish me to furnish you with a fake certificate in order that you can escape your duty.'
'Bravo,' he sneered, taking a couple of steps forward. 'Five guineas should be sufficient. You look as if you need them.'
I was no longer master of myself.
'You may go. It is not my habit to conduct physical examinations at a distance of fifteen feet, or to issue the sort of certificate you seem to require.'
'What an odd little fellow it is. No matter. I merely called in as you were conveniently placed. Barty Sanderson will do as well. I hold him here, you know.' He patted his breast pocket to emphasise the point and left the room as precipitately as he had entered it.
From the hall I could hear him clearly berating my poor maid.
'Door, child. Stir yourself. Must I tell you everything? Take this, girl. Make sure the doctor receives it directly.' The oaf then bent and whispered something to her.
I had view enough to see the envelope he handed over, before he tossed her a half a crown in the most objectionable manner. The front door slammed behind him.
The girl come to the door of my consulting room and extended the envelope, her expression very solemn.
'I heard,' I said shortly. Taking it from her, I crumpled it in my hand and tossed it into my waste basket. 'That will be all. I’m sorry you had to tolerate the attentions of that - that - '
'That’s all right, Doctor.' Bobbing her head, she backed out into the hall.
I have every respect for those who by their own efforts have worked their way to the top of their profession and once there use their powers to better the conditions of their less fortunate brothers. The Coal King was not one of those men. Who could forget the Barnsthorpe and Harrington disasters of two years ago? In both cases the tragedies were caused directly by the deliberate use of cheap, unsuitable wood for the pit props, employed because the mines were all but worked out. Despite the public outcry Arkwright had bought his way out of trouble.
It seemed that Arkwright’s only weakness was his son. From all accounts the boy had been denied nothing from the cradle onwards. Holmes had mentioned last week that there had been various threats to the wastrel’s life. My only comment had been that he would be no great loss.
There was no trace of Holmes when I returned home. It was not unknown for him to take on a case of great delicacy. The first hint of what had occurred I would have was his being invested with an Order of Merit from a grateful monarch, or receiving a substantial cheque. It was only when I wrote up the case from his dictation that I would learn the true facts.
I enjoyed an excellent supper before getting back to my story. So keen was I to return to it that I finished a large plate of cheese biscuits as I wrote, a scattering of crumbs falling across the page.
<i>Fritz woke me at eight, so soundly had I slept in the king’s chair. The marks from the folds of his cushion were clearly visible on my cheek and the pressure of his ring against my flesh had made a small indentation.
'Rassendyll, hurry for goodness sake!' Fritz called, still shaking me. 'Have you forgotten you are to review the veterans of the Battle of Rozveldt? I will help you.'
Together we dashed up the back stairs, Fritz leading the way to my dressing room. He was still helping me adjust the ceremonial sword when Colonel Sapt entered, after knocking sharply on the door.
Fritz and Sapt stood by me throughout the ceremony to ensure it was a complete success. The court and its rules and traditions had taken hold of my life as securely as ever chains had held a prisoner. How little there was of Rudolph Rassendyll. In a year or so nothing of the man I had once been would exist.
There were days, at the beginning, when I would have happily revealed all to escape from the corrosive atmosphere of the Court, but I could not. There was his land, his people and, above all for me, his reputation and name to protect.
Hardly had I taken lunch and changed to formal clothes when I faced the greatest test of all: an English trade delegation led by a close member of my sister-in-law’s family. He was an odious fellow, under whose roof I had spent the most unhappy Christmas of my life, the conversation revolving around his money and position. If ever I needed the skills of a play actor it was now.
'Irving be my aid,' I murmured as the doors to the Throne Room opened to admit the Trade Delegation.</i>
'Come in, Holmes,' I called out, not looking up as I heard a noise outside the sitting room door. The door opened and I continued, 'You have missed one of Mrs Hudson’s finest suppers. By the by, I cannot conceive of a credible way of getting them into - '
Heaven be praised, I looked up in time to see none other than Inspector Lestrade. He looked anxious and his clothing was in total disarray.
'Why, whatever is wrong, Lestrade?' said I, laying aside my pen and springing to my feet. 'How may I be of help?'
'Did you not get Mr Holmes’ message, Doctor?'
'He left before I did this morning, since when I have heard nothing.'
'That is strange. You did not know he was working on the Coal King business? Harold Arkwright’s son was abducted last week. Thanks to Mr Holmes we now know that he is the prisoner of ruthless anarchists.'
I shook my head. 'You are wrong there, Lestrade, for Harold Arkwright’s son was in my consulting room but five hours ago. And a damned insolent puppy he is.'
Lestrade caught hold of my arm; something of his urgency communicated itself to me. 'Come with me as I explain, Doctor. For by now Mr Holmes will have rescued Arkwright’s son and substituted himself. The game, as he would say, is almost played out.'
Pausing only to collect my service revolver, I hurried out after Lestrade to the waiting cab, cursing myself as I went.
'It is impossible. Holmes is twenty years older, dark, thin...' My voice trailed away as the cabman whipped up the horse.
'It ought to be impossible, Doctor, but where your friend is concerned things are seldom what they seem. The visitor to your consulting room,' Lestrade prompted when I looked blank. 'Lambeth, cabbie. There’s a pound over the fare if you make it within the hour.'
Such largesse from Lestrade was all the confirmation I required that matters were grim indeed. The traffic being light, we sped off towards our goal. I confess that my chief emotion at this point was that of intense irritation with Holmes.
What had he written in that confounded note of his? The note I had crumpled unread into the waste basket. What would it have cost him to have confided in me before he left? If he was in danger now for want of a friend’s help he was more to be censured than pitied.
That notion cleared my conscience a little, while thoughts of Ruritania slid insidiously into my mind. It was becoming a drug to me. Never again would I upbraid Holmes were he to return to cocaine.
His conversational overtures having received no encouragement from me, Lestrade had slipped into sleep, his head propped against the window. Grateful for the silence, I stared into the middle distance. How often had Holmes gone off, leaving me to worrying needlessly. Well, tonight would be different.
A scene of a pine forest sharpened in my mind’s eye, the exquisite turrets of the castle becoming clearer and clearer.
<i>Every hurdle was clear thanks to my loyal supports Sapt and Von Tarlenhiem and the extraordinary conduct of my sister-in-law’s cousin. What had prompted him to attempt to patronise me, unless it was his until then unshakeable belief that being British entitled him to conduct himself as a first class bore at all times, I shall never know.
Sapt, having given a nod of a bow in my direction, whispered that all the Elphburgs had fiery tempers and knew exactly how and when to lose them. All the pent up anger at my impossible situation and irredeemable loss welled to the surface to descend on that wretched fellow’s head. Rose’s cousin dissolved before my eyes like a child’s sandcastle when struck by the first waves of the incoming tide. His companions ushered him out with as good a grace as could be mustered, still apologising for Rose’s cousin [nota bene: find a name for the wretched fellow] as they left the room.
'Another success to us, lad,' beamed old Sapt as he left for a regimental dinner. 'We will make a ‘royal’ Elphburg of you yet.'
He exchanged a sinister but knowing glance with Fritz as he left. Some plot was developing between those two gentlemen of which I was ignorant, but for good or ill there was no clue to be read from their expressions.
Tea arrived. As we ate the talk was of various and unconnected subjects; Von Tarlenhiem was clearly on edge. I had no doubt that his uneasy conduct sprung from his secret with the colonel. I was about to broach the subject when, by the greatest good fortune, he forestalled me.
'I can continue no longer. There is no honour in what we have done.'
Mistaking his purpose and thinking he meant my impersonation of the king, I quickly answered, 'I agree. But can you suggest another course where our good names will not be tarnished?' He gave me a look I did not know how to interpret.
'We speak at cross-purposes. Meet me in that summer house at this hour tomorrow and, as your original invitation stated, come alone.'
I hid my curiosity as best I could. Whatever their secret might be, I knew enough of both men to be certain that I could trust them with my life.
'I will, and know well enough the place you mean.'
'Then it is settled. You’re a good man, Rassendyll. Better than you know.' The tension left him and he was the same gay, light-hearted fellow as ever.</i>
My mental preoccupation with Ruritania came to an abrupt end as the cab lurched to a final halt on some waste ground close to the Bishop’s Palace. I was astonished that we should have got here within the hour, and appalled at how easily I had lost track of the time. Our driver was a marvel and had earned every penny of his tip. Abruptly the romantic world it was in my power to control dissolved and concern for Holmes’ safety flooded me, together with a quantity of guilt that I should have pushed the real world aside at such a time.
Getting out of the cab, I could clearly see four or five of Lestrade’s men awaiting his instructions. In front of them stood Harold Arkwright with his arms around the shoulders of his disreputable son, who appeared embarrassed by such a public display of affection on his father’s part.
'Do leave off,' said he, pushing his father aside. 'As you can see, I’m well enough. That Holmes fellow did a fair job of getting me out without those hounds noticing a thing. I would have thought of escaping that way myself, given time,' he added dismissively.
'No need to hurry, Inspector,' called Arkwright. 'My lad’s here and taken no hurt, have you, chucky?'
'None in the least, father.'
'What of Holmes?' I asked, disgusted by the casual way they dismissed Holmes’ efforts of their behalf.
'Still down there, I suppose, as cool as ever,' said the youth. 'It’s what he’s paid for, after all.' His manner was so insufferable that I yearned to teach that young puppy a lesson he would not forget.
'He’s right,' agreed old Arkwright. 'I don’t know why you’re making all this fuss. There are two ways in to where my boy was kept. Where Holmes is now, I suppose.'
'We have a plan of the old cellars, thank you,' said Lestrade. It was obvious from his tone that he cared for this unsavoury pair as little as I. 'Sergeant, bring your men over here.'
Lestrade positioned four officers at what was the largest entrance to head off any retreat. I joined Lestrade and the sergeant as they repaired to a space some five feet wide, behind the remains of a stone wall. The damp air from the river gave an edge to the already chill night.
'Where exactly are we?' I whispered as I attempt to control my shivering.
'What’s left of Hallette Hall, Doctor Watson. That’s where we are. Mud and water everywhere. Watch your step.'
Moving with the greatest of care, we proceeded in near total darkness through the cellar and underground passageways of the ruins that had caused such a stir last year. It was Professor Dalton who had declared the place to have dated from Roman times. An embittered rival of Slav extraction had exposed his mistake and proved the bricks to be merely Tudor. Dalton lost the respect of his peers at Oxford; his last action was to publish a paper stating that the bricks used in the construction were indeed Roman. But it was too late and he was compelled to retire at forty, a ruined man. Ahead of us a faint light flickered and I caught the murmur of voices. We pressed on.
'Take your payment, work here is complete.'
By now I could hear what was said. The voice was harsh and the English employed a shade too perfect to be genuine.
There was the sound of someone being dragged and a thump as they were dropped.
'I will take care of him, have no fear. The money for our cause is secured. He is no longer of any value.'
The footsteps died away and Lestrade motioned our small party forward. I had never been more thankful to feel the reassuring weight of my service revolver in my hand.
'It will be more than a duty, it will be a pleasure to rid the world of vermin like you. Stand still and die like a man.'
'Your hand is played out, Dubosc. Even now your lackeys are in the hands of the police.'
My friend’s voice reverberated in the cellar.
'Ciel, what is this? You are not - '
'Who I am is of no consequence,' cut in Holmes in his sternest tones. 'Your hopes to finance your plan to ferment wholesale insurrection amongst the miners by arranging the worst mining disaster in history and then blaming it on Harold Arkwright has failed, as it richly deserved to. You will never leave here alive.'
We three threw ourselves at a low door, the last obstacle to bar our way, and staggered into a vast wine cellar. Holmes was locked in combat with the anarchist Dubosc. No quarter was given.
'Holmes, hold him still! Let me get a shot at him,' I called.
Holmes was fighting so ferociously he heard nothing. My warning shot produced no effect and I dared not fire again, so closely locked were the two combatants.
Sergeant Allerton circled around to attempt to disarm and capture Dubosc, for Holmes had no weapon. Both men were too quick and fierce for Atherton. They crashed against the far wall, which collapsed under their combined weight. They vanished from sight and there followed the sounds of frantic splashing as the fight continued in the water.
'Quick, sergeant, doctor! That leads into the old cistern! It’s flooded.'
Lestrade held his lantern aloft and with its aid I could see Holmes fending off blows from Dubosc’s cane. Holmes suddenly wrenched at it. There was a hiss, then a flash of light on metal, and Holmes fell back against the wall to find himself facing the razor sharp blade of a swordstick. Two lunges he parried; the third caught him a glancing blow down the side as Dubosc lost his footing in the treacherous mud and rubble which covered the floor. Dubosc screamed and clawed the air in a vain attempt to save himself before he went under.
'Here, sir!' called the sergeant to Holmes, as he threw him his heavy cape. 'He can take one end while you fish him out.'
I watched as, mindless of the danger in which he placed himself, Holmes waded forward; the water was already halfway up his thighs and he was obviously having difficulty in maintaining his balance. He threw out the cape as far as it would go just as, with a final curse, Dubosc disappeared under the surface of the water. He did not reappear. When his body was recovered the following day it was realised that he must have been dragged through the underwater opening to fall fifteen feet below into the swirling waters of the Thames.
It was not without some difficulty that I, with the help of both Lestrade and his right hand man, managed to extricate Holmes from what could have become his last resting place.
All of us were soaked and filthy from that damnable place, the shadows leaping from the light cast by the lanterns. We were only twenty or so feet underground and already I was eager to reach the surface. The idea of being deeper, in a mine for instance, was unpalatable enough to make me shudder. While wringing water from my coat, which appeared to be ruined, I mused upon the malice of Dubosc, who had planned such a filthy death for so many, deep in the bowels of the earth.
Stumbling over the treacherous ground, we squelched our way up into the clean night air.
'A most rewarding conclusion, Lestrade,' Holmes remarked, as Dubosc’s minions were removed in a closed police conveyance.
'Indeed it is, Mr Holmes. I would have thought Mr Arkwright would have waited to thank you for all you have done for them,' added Lestrade with a frown of disapproval.
Holmes gave a faint, wry smile and dabbed at a bruise springing into prominence over his cheekbone.
'I would not. Good night, Inspector. Come, Watson, let us get out of this night air before the frost comes down. I am starving.'
He set off across the wasteland in the direction of the road without a backward glance, drops of water flying as he threw one end of his scarf over his shoulder.
Virtually trotting to catch up with him, I managed to hail a cab almost immediately. The driver looked at the pair of us with the utmost suspicion. I cannot say I blamed him. We were streaming with filthy water, smelling to high heaven, and the blond whiskers and wig Holmes had adopted were drooping in the saddest way. His grazed and bruised face made it obvious he had recently been involved in a fight, although I doubted if the cabbie could see the blood staining the side of Holmes’ coat, where Dubosc’s swordstick had caught him.
I gave an involuntary shudder and at the same time heard Holmes’ teeth starting to chatter in the cold air. The cabbie jumped down and brought an old horse blanket with him, which he threw around Holmes’ shoulders. He gave him a helping push up in the cab before addressing me with the air of us both being men of the world.
'Now, now, Dad! Don’t be too hard on your boy. He’s got to sew his wild oats somewhere.'
Giving the cabbie a sour look I followed Holmes into the cab. The disguise did make him look younger, I conceded, the light here was bad, and the driver was a little the worse for wear with drink. But I could not look old enough to be Holmes’ father. My reflection in the window of the cab proved I did not.
I had checked my reflection several times before I became aware of my companion’s quiet amusement. I gave Holmes a cold look and proceeded to ignore him for what remained of the journey.
We returned to Baker Street in an uncomfortable silence which I was in no mood to break. Holmes shivered miserably beneath the blanket and the unpleasant smell of wet wool and Thames water filled the cab. It still lingered when we entered the sitting room of 221B Baker Street. I was tempted to speak but did not trust myself to do so. I was still too angry with Holmes.
Given the matters of State to which I had been made a party in the past, I could not understand why the affairs of the Coal King and some half-baked anarchist must be kept from me. I was tired of being included in Holmes’ life only at his whim, and deeply hurt that he should have excluded me at a time when I had believed we were... But then I was often in error where Holmes was concerned, I reminded myself bleakly.
As Holmes peeled off his sodden coat, jacket and waistcoat it became obvious that he had taken several hard knocks, and that the cut down his side would require attention. Knowing Holmes’ dislike of receiving medical attention, particularly from me, I handed him my medical bag and left him to clean the wound himself. But I could not prevent myself from directing surreptitious glances his way to ensure that my services were not necessary. Had that been the case, nothing would have prevented me from offering them.
Holmes tended to the gash in a subdued silence, save when he sucked in a painful breath. Busy making up the miserable fire, I tried not to notice the ugly bruises he had acquired. The cut itself, while obviously causing him some discomfort, did not look to require stitches. Tossing the bloodstained gauze onto the fire, which hissed angrily, Holmes glanced at me and obviously thought the better of what ever he had been about to say. He went for what must have been a lukewarm bath.
After going upstairs to change from my damp garments into my nightwear I returned to our sitting room and poured myself a large brandy, which I sipped in front of the fire. I could still feel the chill of that dreadful cellar about me, and I had no wish to contract another cold.
Fifteen minutes later Holmes returned in his nightshirt with his dressing gown tightly drawn about him. I handed him a brandy, into which I had already poured a moderate amount of a proprietary anodyne. He took the glass from my hand and drained it without acknowledging me, then sank into the depths of his chair, dragging a blanket around himself. There being no food, he lit his briar and pulled noisily on the stem.
While he gazed moodily into the fire I went over to the table. It was preferable to sitting opposite Holmes, trying not to wonder what he might be thinking or feeling. Sad at heart, I sifted listlessly through my notes on Ruritania. A sentence catching my attention, I slowly seated myself. Within minutes I had forgotten my troubled heart and returned once more to Zenda.
<i>At the appointed time I arrived at the dear old summer house which had been a trysting place for lovers over the years. Even the doomed and beautiful Antionette de Mauban had known a fleeting happiness here.
I opened the door and found to my surprise all but one of the shutters closed. A little light filtered in from the skylight but for the most part the room was in shadow. Fritz guided me to the centre of the room, where a figure in a wheelchair sat with his back towards us. I glanced around the room again. I do not know what I had been hoping for but it was not this.
After a moment, no doubt giving me a chance to become accustomed to the dark, Fritz motioned me to approach the front of the chair.
'You are his and our only hope. God help you both,' he murmured as he stepped back out of my line of vision. I neither know nor cared where he went. I had forgotten his very existence. All I could do was stand and stare.
The figure in the wheelchair was that of the king, but how altered. He was so thin and frail looking.
I stood stock still, unable to speak and not knowing what to do.
The king was alive, not dead as I had been led to believe.
Rudolph was alive.
A travelling blanket covered him from the feet to the waist and his fingers toyed fitfully with its fringe from time to time. Seeing that small movement, I began to believe the evidence of my own eyes.
I longed to fold him in my arms and tell him of my love to bring to mind happier days but I feared this would prove too much for his troubled mind.
Fritz reminded me that my love and I were not alone when he began to open the shutters, bathing the room in warm evening light.
Suddenly the king raised his head and his sad, dull eyes met mine.
Something inspired me to start at the beginning - that afternoon we had first met, all those years ago in the forest. I used the first words I could recall speaking to my love.
'I must pray pardon, sire, for my presumption,' said I quietly. 'I trust I will not forfeit your Majesty’s favour.'
There was no response for an age and my heart sank as I began to fear the worst. This would be a cruel jest indeed, to return the body of my love to me while the spirit was absent.
'By Heaven! You’ll always enjoy the king’s countenance whether I like it or not...' He spoke slowly and uncertainly, as if he was remembering a speech from a play he had learned long ago.
I could not bear to see him suffering in this way. Whether my next actions destroyed us both or not I decided to follow where my heart led. I dropped to my knees and took his hands in mine.
He looked at me like one trying to see through a misted window.
I placed my head on his knees, feeling as if I had come home from the longest journey of my life. If love still held sway it would surely return him to me from that land of shadows which now held him in its thrall. My voice shook so much I could hardly say the words that would save us if anything could. Once more I raised my head and looked directly into his eyes. Surely he had suffered enough.
'My prince,' I said simply, everything I felt for him contained in those two words.
A slow, beautiful smile lightened his pale face.
'Cousin Rudolph,' he murmured. 'You exist. Then we are safe, my dearest love.'
His term of endearment was whispered so softly that, close as he was, Von Tarlenhiem did not catch it. The king was at once aware that we were not alone and clasped my hands tightly, using as I judged, most of his remaining strength as he looked past me.
'Von Tarlenhiem, where have you been skulking?' His expression grew more sombre, and distant, as if searching for something just out of sight. 'I have been unwell, have I not?'
'Gravely, sir. You were attacked. Can you remember?'
He frowned and raised one white hand to his forehead.
'Boris the dog...he was about to be set upon me. Something, perhaps a sound from outside, or a shadow moving, startled him. Instead of savaging me, he turned on the assassin. Went for his throat. There was a shot fired, perhaps two, and the hound fell dead, its jaws still fastened in the assassin’s throat. There was blood, so much blood. And a fire. I was wounded. Shot, I believe. I managed to fight my way through the flames and escaped the house to run towards the trees. The rest of what happened is...not clear. Not doubt it will return to me in time.'
'No doubt, your Majesty,' agreed Fritz. 'The sound of the shot was to have been the signal for Hentzau’s men to set fire to the lodge. As it was, their dastardly plot went awry and you escaped their clutches. We found you wandering in the forest. You had sustained a gun shot wound to the shoulder and a deep head wound. We believe it is that which has made you so unwell. You neither knew us nor recognised your surroundings.'
'You tell me so, so it must be so.' The king shook his head. 'I would that I could remember more.' He looked up, directly into my face. 'It is like travelling in a train, Rassendyll.' He ran his thumb repeatedly across mine before continuing. 'What I can remember is where I can see out of the windows. Then there are tunnels where all is darkness.'
'Those tunnels will become shorter,' said I with a confidence I wish I truly felt.
'I came here from - from Konigslau, is that not so?'
A long sigh escaped from Fritz. I looked at him for reassurance; it was immediately forthcoming and at once I knew that in time all would be restored.
'Yes, your Majesty, you did,' I answered, trying to contain the joy I felt. It was not for Von Tarlenhiem’s eyes.
But as I rose to my feet I had to smile at Rudolph because my love and relief and longing for him would no longer consent to be hidden away as if they were a matter for shame. While the change on his face was perhaps too slight for Fritz to notice from where he stood, the light was already returning to Rudolph’s eyes.
That sight gave me hope enough to add, 'Do you feel strong enough to walk the short distance to your palace?' Selfishly I could not wait to be alone with him, but I knew I would have to master my impatience for an hour or two longer.
'With your help, dear cousin,' he murmured, then speaking a little louder added, 'and that of Fritz, I have no doubt I can. Let us go, for I have a mind to dine in my palace tonight.' Using his arms to push himself upright he stood unsteadily for a second, then accepted my offered support.
'Your Majesty has made me the happiest of men,' I said with truth as Von Tarlenhiem went ahead and opened the door into the gardens.
'The mists still clear, Rassendyll.' He turned towards me as I moved my arm from where it had supported his shoulders until it encircled his waist. When his hand covered mine I knew beyond doubt that my love, while frail, had returned to me in full. It was, I discovered, ease itself to adapt to happiness. 'And it is my earnest desire to make you happier yet,' he added whimsically.
Our eyes met, kissing as our mouths could not.</i>
The chimes of the clock brought me back to reality. Three-quarters of an hour had passed as if in a dream. But I was well satisfied. While there was still much work to be done, and minor matters to be sorted out, I was content with the way events in Zenda were shaping up.
Reality might fail me, but there was always the kingdom of the mind to fall back on.
My sense of euphoria already failing, I turned on my chair. Holmes was dozing, hunched up in his chair; he looked most uncomfortable. I got up, stretched and walked across to him and shook his by the shoulder.
'Come, Holmes. To bed with you.'
He jumped slightly, then looked up at me through half-open eyes. I was not sure what to make of the expression on his face.
'Not tonight,' he whispered. 'I have a headache, Watson.'
Given the blows he had sustained in his fight with Dubosc, he might have been speaking the literal truth. Equally, it was in his nature to tease; sometimes about matters in which I could see little humour.
Tightening my lips, lest I say something I might later regret, I helped Holmes to his feet. He stumbled and I locked an arm around his waist, taking much of his weight. Half-supporting him thus, I steered him in the direction of his bedroom. I was suddenly struck by how Holmes and I were mirroring the movements of Rassendyll and the king, save that we did not know the happiness of that pair.
Holmes leaned with more than half his weight against me as I opened the door to his room. Mrs Hudson had turned down the bed covers and made up the fire as usual. This room was warmer than our sitting room, which was just as well since such of Holmes as I could touch felt cold and clammy. I knew better than to comment.
I pushed, pulled and shoved until I was certain he was ‘comfortable’ as we in the medical profession like to say of our patients.
Holmes gave me a look of reproach. 'There’s no need to be so rough, Watson,' said he as I drew the blankets up and stood back to admire my work. 'You may stay if you wish, Doctor - or after this evening, should I say, Papa?' He gave me a sly, half-smile from over the top of the quilt.
Five minutes earlier I would have sworn I was too tired for these games, but suddenly I felt wide awake and ready for whatever challenge he might set me. Holmes in a playful mood is difficult to resist and, like Mr Wilde, I can resist anything but temptation.
'You may go too far,' I warned him with all the sternness I could command.
Looking down at my friend of many years, I still could not discern what exactly was the attraction that held me to him. If I identified it would that be the end of all we had?
Holmes yawned and looked up from the pile of pillows. 'A penny for your thoughts, Doctor.'
'Not worth it,' I muttered gruffly.
Then, pierced by the poignancy of our situation, the words spilled from me as I dropped to my knees at his bedside, my hands clenched over the softness of the quilt.
'Am I never to be ‘John’ again?' I asked painfully.
Holmes pushed himself up onto his elbow. 'Did you not read my note?' He looked at me with such sorrow that I thought his heart would break. 'For the first and only time I wrote of what I feel for you,' he added in a low, hurt voice.
I went cold. That blasted note. In my mind’s eye I could see it lying crumpled amongst the other papers in the waste basket at my surgery. It was an occasion when only the truth would serve. I shook my head in shame and explained what had become of it.
Holmes seemed to cheer up a little. 'Honest to the end, my friend.' Almost shy, his hand lightly rested upon mine. 'I suppose it was a foolish way to deliver a letter of such importance but I was - am - nervous.'
'It was foolish in the extreme,' I told him, but I could not help smiling; the happiness coursing through my veins required some expression. Accustomed to Holmes’ certainty in all matters, I had failed to allow for the fact that even he could be prone to doubts where matters of the heart were concerned.
'I am glad you can see something to laugh at,' Holmes said pettishly.
He used the most underhand trick, glancing up at me from under his lashes in such a way that... I could resist him no longer and I leant over to kiss him. Without artifice he put his arms around my neck and drew me to him.
'My friend,' I offered a chaste kiss to his right cheek, 'and colleague,' I offered a slightly less chaste kiss to his left, 'you never cease to amaze me.' My final kiss claimed his mouth. There was nothing at all chaste about that kiss.
I am not a fanciful man, despite what Holmes maintains, but I swear I heard music when he responded to my kiss with a ripening passion. I gave myself up to him with the utmost joy.
Who could resist him in this mood?
I had no intention of trying, but as we moved together I became concerned about that cut to his side after he suppressed a gasp that had little to do with passion.
In the soft light cast by the gas lamp positioned above the bed I slowly pushed up the crisp cotton of his nightshirt, baring his left thigh, flank and side to just below the armpit. His body was mottled with bruises and grazes, the cut from Dubosc’s swordstick a livid gash down his side.
Abruptly I relieved the horror of the moment when I feared I had lost my love to the dark, dangerous waters of the Thames. Unable to help myself, I placed my mouth to the heated flesh surrounding the gash. I felt Holmes’ hand settle on my hair, his long fingers caressing my scalp.
'Perhaps if you were to move a trifle lower?' he suggested some time later, with a diffidence which made me give an involuntary smile.
I permitted my hand to slide down to caress the pale skin of his lower abdomen. In no hurry, I allowed the slow, sensual movements of my hand to do their work and was gratified when Holmes’ breath caught and his body again reacted to mine. But then the anodyne I had given him had been mild; his need for me was not. As I bent over him his hands slid over my back, then lower, to raise my nightshirt. I shivered, less at the touch of the cooler air over the most private parts of my body, than the teasing drift of his fingers, but I would not allow myself to be distracted.
I lavished my small skills and all the love in my heart until I had the supreme satisfaction of making him lose control as he gave himself up to me.
While the sound would not have carried outside the room, the sharp urgency of it was a delight so pagan that I did not know how to express it. I had experienced nothing like the piercing sweetness of it in my life.
'I have you,' I told him, my voice thickened by passion.
'Then surely the reverse must be true,' he said.
Revealing an energy which had looked beyond him moments before he roughly dragged up the bunched folds of our nightshirts so that our naked bodies could meet. 'Now let me have you,' he murmured, his mouth against my lips, which were smarting a little after their recent exertions.
My need of him was such that I could wait no longer and I began to move against him, holding onto him as a drowning sailor might latch onto a spar.
'Ah, John,' he whispered, when I, too, was spent. The satisfaction in his voice, as much as his generosity of spirit in deliberately making use of my name, meant that I found the energy to kiss him once more, and brush the tangle of dark hair from his face.
On this occasion there was nothing shy about the smile he gave me.
Becoming conscious that he must be in some discomfort from my weight I attempted to move away but he would not permit it, his palms pressed over my buttocks, holding me to him.
'Stay a while?' he murmured, as if by so doing I would be humouring him.
I raised myself a little and set about ensuring that our night attire was more decorously arranged.
'If you wish it,' I said, before my head turned on the pillow and I smiled at him, gratified to note the rare signs of relaxation to his face.
Under the bedclothes his hand sought out mine and squeezed it gently. We fell asleep so linked.
The raucous voice of the coal-man woke me when it was barely light. Groggily pushing myself up on one arm as I tried to focus, I found Holmes sitting up in bed, smoking a cigarette and watching me.
My years as a medical man and confederate of Holmes have not accustomed me to the first few minutes of the morning. I mumbled some incoherent query, hoping against hope that Holmes did not plan to drag me halfway across the country on some new case. Although it seemed unlikely, given that he was still sharing the bed.
'My dear fellow, go back to sleep. There is no need for concern, I assure you. Mrs Hudson is merely berating the coal-heaver for the poor quality nutty slack he delivered last month.'
His arm around me, my head against his shoulder, we lay enjoying those few moments, tranquil despite the heightening sounds of argument outside. Eventually Holmes’ curiosity would not be gainsaid. Still pulling on his dressing gown as he flew out of the room, he peered out of the window on the landing, which offered the best view of the cobbled yard at the rear of 221B Baker Street.
'Ah, it’s nothing,' he announced. 'The redoubtable Mrs Hudson has noticed that the coal-heaver beats his horse and is making her opinion of him plain.'
'He also beats those two young lads,' I pointed out tartly as I joined Holmes at the window. I was half of a mind to go downstairs and settle with the brute. I despise bullies.
Holmes’ head turned to me, his expression relaxing. 'Just so. Do you have any idea how many lads already make up the Baker Street Irregulars?'
'Too many,' I told him shortly, having lost my favourite pair of binoculars to a new recruit only a month before. The watch that had once belonged to my unfortunate brother had been returned to me on five occasions, twice with the pawn ticket still attached.
'Then you will hardly notice two more,' said Holmes urbanely. 'See to it, there’s a good fellow.'
'What will you be doing?' I demanded with a well-founded suspicion.
'Sleeping, of course. I had the most disturbed night.' Favouring me with one of his fleeting smiles, Holmes clapped my shoulder and then he was gone with a dramatic swirl of his dressing gown.
Smiling even while I shook my head, I made my way upstairs to my room to dress.