If only my friend would allow it, I could a tale unfold. With a few small omissions and elisions to protect the safety and privacy of all concerned, it would be quite fit for the press. Yet Holmes remains adamant. “Forgive a man his amour-propre, however ill-founded,Watson,” he has said. “I may have charged you with exaggerating my accomplishments, but I find myself in no hurry to see you publicise a matter in which I was such an utter gull from start to finish.”
In vain I have argued that what I shall dub here (where he cannot tax me with romantic folly) The Adventure of the Masked Ball, was as admirable a display of his remarkable abilities as I have ever witnessed. Of course I will abide by his wishes as I always have. But for my own satisfaction at least, I shall set the story down before any of the details fade. There is no feature of the case I should ever wish to forget.
Properly speaking it did not begin as Holmes’ case at all.
It was midnight, I was walking down Curzon Street alone, and I was being followed.
London was sunk in the first deep fog of the season. Every streetlamp was a mere tawny smear in the brown unnatural dark, in which ghostly patches of wall or cobbled ground seemed to hover in a void. I had just left my club, where I had run into Gilbreath, who had been a fellow-patient of mine at Peshawar. We had not seen one another in fifteen years, but he assured me he had read several of my Strand pieces – which idea prompted him to offer his condolences on the death of my friend, and to inquire after the health of my wife. Despite the press interest following the Moran case, it was not the first time I had had to explain to some baffled well-wisher that my poor wife was two years dead and my friend six months resurrected, but I was yet to find an uncomplicated way of doing it. When at last we had parted, the murk was more impenetrable than ever and I had been unable to find a cab. But my way home was straight enough that I was confident enough of reaching it on foot.
Aside from the light, rapid footsteps, and the soft regular tap of a cane on the pavement, the street was utterly empty. At least, so far as I could tell – for when London is lying smothered in her own dark exhalations, a man might pass by his dearest friend at a hand’s distance, and think himself always alone. As I crossed one of those islands of half-light beneath a lamp, I glanced over my shoulder. But still I could not see anyone, nor yet be certain that my intuitive certainty that those footsteps were tracking mine was correct.
I crossed the street, and so did the footsteps. I turned onto South Audley Street and my companion was behind me still.
I summoned such skills as my friend has taught me, while instincts embedded in my army days sparked along my nerves like lines of gunpowder: only one, slightly built, agile, but seems to need that cane, yes, limping on his right leg – shouldn’t be a match for me alone, unless he’s armed.
But nothing about the unseen stranger’s gait could give me an answer to that, or tell me his intentions. I had my own stick, but no other weapon.
Whoever he was, I saw reason to indulge him any further in the charade I had not noticed his presence. I could at least choose the ground on which I met him. I tried to lead my pursuer into another dim pool of light on the corner of Tilney Street, then stopped walking and turned round.
“Who’s there?” I demanded, and though I know my voice was steady, there is something chilling in uttering that question into apparent nothingness. I strained my eyes towards a shape that might almost be a trick of the mind -- a thickening of vapour in the dark.
But it answered – in a low, soft, deliberate voice. “Good evening, Dr. Watson.”
It does sometimes happen that persons unknown to me greet me in the street by name. Although I never describe myself in my writings, and though only one photograph of me has ever appeared in print (and that rather a poor one, for which I am thankful) still, I have not troubled to make any great secret of my habits, and some of my readers are assiduous in their enthusiasm.
Such encounters – sometimes tiresome, sometimes flattering -- had only ever occurred before in daylight.
“If you’re going to talk,” I said, “come into the lamplight.”
Obediently, the shape came closer; a smudge in the fog, then a dark column, then the outline of a slender young man in a long paletot. He was hatless despite the cold, exposing thick, backswept curls to the sickly air.
I looked to his hands and then his waist, for weapons either carried openly or concealed. I saw nothing but the silver-topped cane in his left hand, and he was leaning on that casually, hardly a combative stance. I strained to make out his face, as if through cataracts. He was smiling at me.
“You seem to have the advantage of me,” I observed.
“My name is Álvaro de León,” said the stranger. But even with the clue of a Spanish name, I could not satisfy myself to the origin of his curious, hovering accent. As he continued speaking it seemed to flutter from place to place without ever quite alighting, and I could only have said he certainly was not English. “I apologise if I startled you. You see, I missed you at your club, and the matter on which I hoped to consult you is somewhat urgent.”
I sighed, all my remaining apprehension sliding away into mere annoyance. Yet despite the hour, and the impudence of the solicitation, for a moment I did wonder if I had better not drag the fellow back to Holmes. We do, of course, abandon our rooms at all hours when the case demands it, and my friend had not worked in weeks. As London sank into miasma as if into a sickbed, so I had watched a pall of depression descend upon my friend, as if he truly were the city’s genius loci. It was the first such fit I had witnessed since his return, and either I had forgotten how painful they could be to watch, or the experience of watching a friend suffer is genuinely worse when one has, until relatively recently, supposed him lost for good. Perhaps it might have been expected that his extraordinary survival should have convinced me the man was all but invincible, but in fact, the opposite was true.
And he was still in the restless, nervous stage where the descent might sometimes yet be checked, if the right problem came along to rout the horrors massing in that remarkable brain. It is almost a harder stage to watch than the black hopelessness that, at the worst, succeeds it, for one knows help is not impossible and yet cannot help.
Nevertheless, unless lives were in imminent danger, I could not feel this mode of consulting with clients was to be encouraged and so I began firmly: “Well, if you would care to call at Baker Street tomorrow morning, Mr Holmes will, I am sure, be glad to listen to your statement ...”
“Oh, I have no need of a detective,” interrupted the stranger blithely. “It was your services that I hoped to engage.”
I had been about to walk on, but I was so astonished by this that I stopped in my tracks. “I beg your pardon?” was all I could manage at first. And then, stepping closer in some concern, “are you in need of a doctor?”
Mr de León did not appear unwell, now I could see him a little more clearly. His skin looked as clear and fresh as any could in that sallow light. He had a vivid, triangular face, the feline breadth of brow and cheekbone accentuated by the wealth of curls bracketing his temples, while a crisp goatee sharpened the point of his chin. A neat moustache framed smooth, full lips.
He shook his curly head. “I need a brave, discreet, reliable sort of a fellow, who doesn’t object to breaking the law in a good cause, and knows how to handle a gun.”
I was so disgusted by this as to question whether he deserved an answer at all. I turned away, but through my teeth I said: “Whatever you have heard of me, sir, you have been misled if you suppose I am a thug for hire.”
“Oh, not in the least!” said the young man, with a laugh. He sprang forward to keep pace with me and I observed that yes, the walking stick he carried appeared to be something more than an affectation, or even a weapon. He did limp, though the slight drag of his right leg was so smoothly incorporated into the flow of his gait that the impression of youthful energy and grace was not diminished.
“Again,” he said, “I must apologise. I fear I misrepresent myself. Were you to accept my terms there is little real chance you would be called upon to break the law, though I felt it only fair to warn you it is not impossible. There is a certain gentleman whose safety I have reason to fear for. I only want someone to watch over him – from a distance, for the next few days. I have been doing what I can myself, you understand, but for the rest of this week or so I shall have other engagements. You would keep an eye on this unfortunate friend of mine and, should anybody try to murder him, you would oblige me greatly by doing what is reasonably in your power to prevent it. What could a man like you object to in that?”
I had slowed my pace to listen to him, as much from exasperation with myself as with involuntary intrigue. His request was ridiculous, probably a foolish and malicious prank – yet I had witnessed so many strange things over the years that I could not quite dismiss the possibility there was some truth to it, and someone was in genuine danger.
“If you really believe that your friend is in danger of his life,” I said, warily, “You had better go to the police.”
“There is nothing the police can do,” replied Álvaro de León. “They are not in the habit of standing guard over persons against whom no crime has provably been committed. At most, they would advise him to be cautious, which he is already, and such a visit might alert him to my involvement, and that is one of many eventualities I wish to avoid.”
“What?” I cried, “You mean you wanted me – someone -- to watch him without his knowledge?”
“Well, of course. That is what I meant by discretion.”
“If he is in such peril, he has a right to know it.”
“He does know it,” said Mr de León, unperturbed. “He does not know he has protectors, that is all, and to make him aware of it would defeat the object. Without a doubt he would run off and act in such a way as to make his danger worse.”
“This is not – this is impossible.”
“Why?” Álvaro de León asked, eyes ingenuously wide.
“You had better come back tomorrow and discuss it with Mr Holmes,” I almost pleaded.
“But I would not wish to trespass on Mr Holmes’ time, when I have no need of his services. I have everything quite in hand, excepting only that I cannot be in two places at once. I would pay whatever you asked.”
I had to refuse, of course. I could not agree to spy upon a man without his knowledge, at the behest of a riddling stranger who appeared out of the fog in the middle of the night; I could not allow myself to be caught up in what was probably a foolish hoax. Yet I did hesitate. Uninviting as the task the strange youth had offered me was, still I did regret the necessity of sending him away and never knowing the truth of it.
“It is impossible,” I repeated, more firmly this time. “I cannot do as you wish.”
“Ah, how sorry I am to hear it!” exclaimed Mr de León, without rancour. “But I understand. It was an unorthodox request. Well then, I shall wish you goodnight.”
He gave me a little bow, and passed me by. For a moment I had the clearest vision of his face I had had yet. Wide, clear eyes met mine. They were neither light nor dark and I could not make out their true colour in that gloom (though I did see for the first time that his dark hair and beard were touched with red). But they were wonderful eyes, shining and deep and unexpectedly sad. And I was almost certain I had seen Mr de León somewhere before.
Then he was gone into the fog, and that flash of recognition vanished with him.
The lingering unease Mr de León had left behind him had dissipated by the time I reached Baker Street, and I was quite looking forward to telling Holmes of my minor adventure. The strangeness of it – the impudence of it, at least - ought to be enough to stir his interest, if only briefly.
I could hear no sound from our rooms as I mounted the stairs, and as I unlocked the inner door I felt my heart squeeze with a dread I am not sure I shall ever quite be free of -- dread that despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, the last six months had all been some longing dream: I was still in my desolate rooms in Kensington; Holmes was where he always had been; at the bottom of that awful chasm in Switzerland.
But he was there in his armchair beside a spent fire, fast asleep, coiled into what should have been an impossibly uncomfortable knot of angular limbs, his violin on the floor beside him.
I sat opposite him with a sigh, and watched him for a minute or two with relief and fondness and more sorrow than I could quite account for. I considered rousing him and steering him to his bedroom – but after the mood in which he’d spent the day there was a strong chance that to wake him would only rob him of what sleep he might come by that night.
I placed a blanket over him, and then went to bed, full of restless memories of Peshawar and Kensington and Switzerland, and through it all there flickered the peculiar impression Mr Álvaro de León had made upon me.