In the first month of 1899, just as the century was starting to turn, I was privileged to find myself in the service of a remarkable woman, and also, in a sense, remarkable men.
It was the 7th of January, the Christmas festivities had come to an end, and I called on Sherlock Holmes. I had spent much of Christmas alone and comtemplative, as it occurred around the time of my wife’s death; Holmes had very briefly called to say he would have a case to distract me- one that promised travel and a change of scene- if I was willing. I was.
When I entered, he had bags packed and ready, enough for a long journey. Mine, too, were added to the mix. He smiled when he saw me, and gestured to the adjacent chair.
"I am glad you decided to come. I have been called to Paris to meet an old friend, Watson. A woman-"
"A woman!" I said, before catching myself.
"In truth, ‘woman’ seems hardly fitting a label," he said, casually. "Her name is Grantaire, Léa Grantaire. She is elderly now, and most accomplished-" I heard the voice of Mary in my head, reprimanding him for failing to correlate femininity with achievement. "During my hiatus I spent a week in her presence, and she was a source of great help. I am in her debt, and now I must repay her. But we don’t have long, she’s dying."
Naturally he would impart that vital detail to me last. "Of what cause?" I asked, as it was the simplest question.
"A tumour that cannot be removed." I had seen many such cases. All were unpleasant. "She is putting her affairs in order, and she wants me to clear up a mystery from her past. She told me it was a small thing, but the lie was obvious. Whatever I uncover will mean a great deal to her."
"What are you to uncover?"
"The fate of her elder brother." I waited for the story. "She told me little about the man, but quite a lot about the boy. They were close in childhood, but the same malady that ensnares so many ensnared him: he turned to drink. When came the riots of 1832, he was found dead in the upstairs room of one of the many bars he frequented, shot to death. How came he to that end? Léa wants to know."
It was a long time since I’d heard him use a woman’s first name.
"That was 67 years ago, Holmes. What evidence will be left of any riot?"
"Any resentment, any rage, any uprising of the people will always leave traces behind," said Holmes. "It is their objective."
"This is true."
"A detective shares many traits with a historian, Watson, do you see?” I did. “The smallest detail of a case, of a battle, of a riot - it may turn the whole story on its head. The streets of London, or indeed Paris, are as a library. Which author has left a message therein? We must away to France, Watson, as soon as possible. There, we shall see.”
Our journey to France was slow, dull, and utterly uneventful. I sensed Holmes was secretly hoping for a body to fall from a carriage and land atop his head; I merely wished for a long rest and a welcoming hand when I awoke.
Léa Grantaire provided that welcoming hand.
She was a woman who defied description, for to describe her only in terms of her looks and her beauty would have been doing her a disservice. It had been the same case with my Mary. Suffice it to say, though, there was a deep and true kindness in her face.
“You may call me Léa, John, not ‘Miss Grantaire,’” she told me warmly. “I have heard so much about you I consider you a friend.” But Holmes she called ‘Mr Holmes.’”
We slept the night in a beautifully decorated bedroom which smelt of fresh flowers and paint, and when we awoke we were served an English breakfast. Surrounding us in the sitting room were nine paintings, some framed and some hanging on the wall, and almost all of them depicting a person or persons. We were watched by what seemed like hundreds of eyes as we ate and made small talk.
Then – she must have been impatient, but she hid it well – Léa started talking about her brother, the elder and much lamented Grantaire.
“My mother always told me he would come to a bad end, Mr Holmes,” Léa said. “Yet it broke her heart to be proved right. I was but a child at the time, yet the memories occur to me as if he only died yesterday,”
Holmes nodded with empathy, and I with sympathy. I too had known the loss of a sibling. After this moment of silence Holmes rose and examined the paintings, treating them with delicacy, as if they would break.
"My brother had few belongings at the time of his death," Léa said. "Perhaps he sold them to buy drink, or to repay gambling debts. The paintings were all that was left. He was an apprentice of Gros, in his youth, you see. He used to write so well about Art, Mr Holmes-"
The lady hesitated and drew a hand across her face.
"They are not magnificent," Holmes said, which I thought unnecessarily harsh til he continued. "They speak of your brother’s turmoil before his death. But the talent is there, and perhaps more importantly the passion is there. Who is this?” He turned a tenth painting, one I had not noticed, around. Meeting our gaze from his prison of paint was a young gentleman- light-haired, blue-eyed, clad in red, and striking into me deep unease.
"I never liked that one," Léa said. "He looks to me like some heavenly judge of souls. Who has found you very wanting."
"But you don’t know who he is?"
"I assumed him a figure of my brother’s imagination."
"Perhaps," said Holmes, and he propped it up on a cabinet so it was in full view of us all. I could not remove my eyes from the painted ones. Whoever the man in the artwork was, he had clearly been an object of great admiration for the artist.
“Forgive me, Mr Holmes,” said Léa, “but I have spent many hours staring at these paintings, waiting for them to yield a clue. I am no detective, but I was a sister, and-“
“There is no ‘was’ about it,” said Holmes, and those words hung in the air.
“He was a slave to drink, Mr Holmes, utterly and completely,” said Léa stoically, after the moment had passed. “It brought out his worse qualities. Not violence – never violence – but melancholy and distress and mania.”
“It is the same with many men,” I said, hoping to comfort her, but suspecting I had achieved only the opposite as her expression failed to change.
“My greatest fear is that he died in the throes of that poison, sirs, in fear and resignation as bodies fell around him,” Léa said. The painting of the angelic young man was positioned behind her as she paced and spoke, and the golden hair of the painting almost seemed to form a halo around the flesh-and-blood woman. “That he did not even move as stray bullets pierced him, because he felt his life was worth nothing.”
“We shall see,” Holmes said. “Have you anything else of his?”
“Only this,” said Léa.
From a pocket she retrieved a watch, and she handed it to Holmes. He examined it for some time, before I realised that his continued silence was due not to being stuck on a riddle but from being reluctant to tell the answer.
"Watson," Holmes said, "I hope you will not mind me saying - I hope this brings no grief to you - this watch reminds me of your brother’s." I looked at it, at the telltale scratches and dents.
"I pray Léa’s brother had a happier fate than mine," was all I could say. I noted the initials on the back: RR. "Was this watch inherited? Those are not our man’s initials."
Holmes smiled in that infuriating, though affectionate, way of his. “Ah, Watson, You need to polish up on your French. Grantaire - or grand R; capital R. An appropriate moniker. And a clever man to adopt it. I do not think drink dulled his wits much, Léa.”
Léa smiled, a little.
“His Christian name was René, after René Descartes,” she said. “’Then I must be put before the horse,’ was his favourite English joke to repeat to me.”
“Indeed,” said Holmes. “It did not dull his wits.” He returned the watch to her and turned his attention once more to the paintings. He turned each of them around, sometimes running his fingers over the frames, but never over the canvases. I observed, as I knew he too had done, that all but the painting of the golden-haired man were marked with a red R. Finally he stood.
“We shall leave within the hour,” said he, “and seek evidence.”
The streets of Paris were crisp and clear and filled with sunshine. Holmes surveyed it with a dispassionate eye as we walked side by side. Then, inexplicably, his attention was drawn to something on the side of a wall.
Holmes pointed with his stick. “You see, Watson? Evidence.”
Carved into the plaster with a sharp point or a nail was the legend Vivent les Peuples.
"Long live the people," Holmes said. After a moment’s reflection, we continued on our way.
There were many beggars on the streets. I gave each of them a coin, and Holmes did too. Then suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and fixated on a building nearby.
“What is it?” I asked. The name of the establishment, written on the wall, was “Le Cheval”
“Before the horse,” Holmes said, in a tone that comprised both satisfaction and wonder. “Here seems a good place to start.”
I didn’t understand the train of his thought one bit, before remembering the English pun which was a favourite of our man. I followed Holmes into the darkened building. It was much drearier than outside, and a sense of foreboding lay about the place like dust in the air.
“This place has been once destroyed, and then rebuilt,” Holmes said with confidence. It filled me with none.
An old woman was waiting on the tables. Me and Holmes took a seat, and as soon as the woman had a moment to herself my friend called on her.
“Madame. Has this establishment a history which you might share?”
The woman looked at him with a sort of resigned fear, or at least that was what I read it as. There was also confusion, which I shared. I could not understand at all why we were here.
“In days gone by, this café was called the Corinthe, and it was a rallying point for revolutionaries,” she said. She turned her gaze to me. I thought perhaps, through the haze of dust in the room, she mistook me for a silent ghost. “It has changed hands many a time since then. But I remain.”
“But you are either loved or wealthy,” said Holmes. “Your shoes are new and barely marked. Same with your dress.”
The woman stared at Holmes for what seemed like an eternity. “Loved,” she finally said, in a tone so quiet I barely heard it.
“And may you continue to be,” said Holmes. “These revolutionaries you speak of. Do you recollect among them a man with a heavenly face and a hellish manner?”
“He was killed in the riots and no trace of him remains,” the woman said, almost in a cry. Then she lowered her voice. I suspected that for all her life she had been taught to hold her tongue.
“Yes, I remember him.” She looked from left to right, but she and I both knew there were few in the room who saw her even as a creature capable of independent thought. “The barricades were no place for a woman, but I crept back in the dead of night to bear witness. I remember the speech he gave to rally his men.”
Holmes just nodded ever so slightly.
The woman looked down. Though her, our mysterious prey made a pronouncement. “’This barricade is made neither of paving stones, nor of timbers, nor of iron; it is made of two mounds, a mound of ideas and a mound of sorrows. Here misery encounters the ideal. Here the day embraces the night, and says: I will die with you and you will be born again with me,’ said he,”
“Quite the magnificent orator, was this young man,” Holmes mused. I wondered if he had been touched by the words.
“Not the same, on my tongue,” said the woman. Then suddenly, without warning and without another word, she swept away to serve a gang of shouting layabouts at another table.
I realised the noise in the bar was tremendous, but at the same time it washed over me like rain.
“Well,” said Holmes, "we have found our Judge of Souls."
We left a small sum of money on the table, although we had had nothing to eat or drink, and made our exit.
“How does this lead us to Grantaire, Holmes?” I asked him.
“The painting, Watson. The painting. How could there not be a connection? All the paintings were marked with a red R for refuse, all except that one. The artist never once tried to sell or exhibit it. What might we deduce about his feelings towards the subject?” This question he did not answer. I realised I had simply assumed the R to be an initial rather than a mark.
“A great deal,” said I, as one solitary piece of the puzzle clicked into place.
“A great deal indeed.”
“Yet the trail seems to have gone dry,” I said to him. “We suspect our man’s motivations for being present at the riot. But we know nothing of how he met his end.”
“Paris is large and teeming with life,” Holmes said. “There will be someone within it who knows.”
For a while we seemed to simply wander aimlessly around the city. It wasn’t until the sun was beginning to sink beneath the skyline that Holmes seemed to decide on a course of action.
“We’ll dine at this cafe, Watson. I understand you have never had the opportunity to really try French cuisine.”
We found a table by a large street-facing window. I assumed Holmes had a good reason for this, and once I had finished my meal – not remotely to my taste as it turned out – he revealed it.
“It seems the run-down establishment on the opposite side of the street to us is mainly frequented by former soldiers. From my observances over the past hour, I believe many of them have seen battle both abroad and domestic. Shall we?”
I opted not to ask about how he’d reached that conclusion. It didn’t seem the time for it. I left my mangled meal behind me and followed him out.
When we entered the building across the street, many pairs of suspicious eyes instantly turned to us. I took in the muskets hanging on the wall, the heavy smell of alcohol, the cling of decay in the air. It was then that something curious happened to the face of my friend. Suddenly it was older and heavier. The wrinkles were more pronounced, the eyes were less alert, and even his frame seemed to shrink as if in age. I could not tell if this was a performance or a dropping of one.
He looked like he belonged in the room. And I realised I did also, because gradually all eyes turned away from us. We were just two more old soldiers, strangers to all but each other in the darkness of the room.
“Watson,” Holmes hissed in my ear, “purchase three drinks.” Then he was gone.
It took me a good few minutes to do so, and by that time Holmes was already speaking to a man. How he had done it, I cared not to know. I passed him a drink and slid another one across the table to our interviewee.
The man was incredibly advanced in age, grey of hair, and with eyes that remained half-closed as if he were partway into a dream state.
“The June Rebellion is but a footnote in history,” he said to my friend.
“It won’t always be,” said Holmes.
“Some here have recollections of it, I believe,” said the old man, “but no soldier remembers every person he kills.”
“No,” confirmed I, not knowing what I had said until it was too late to retract it.
The man looked at me just for a second, then hollered in a louder voice than I would have expected from him:
“Henri! Viens ici!”
Another man got up from another table and came slowly towards us. He bore a walking-stick and a harsh scar across his face.
“Henri was present that June,” said our companion. “That’s how he gained his scar,” With his foot, he pushed out a chair for his friend. And then, as if deciding for himself that his presence was no longer needed, he got up and left with the drink we had bought him.
Holmes and I turned our attention to Henri.
“You are English, no?” said the man. “You are lucky I speak your tongue fluently, because I can tell you want a story from me.”
“We want to hear the tale of the June Rebellion,” said Holmes without preamble. “And specifically the tale of the students’ leader, the one who met his end at the Corinthe. Do you remember him?”
The man gave no sign of surprise, just nodded slowly. Then he began to divulge the answers we had sought.
"I was 24 at the time, good sirs. I am 91 now, and healthier and heartier than perhaps I deserve. But the story that you seek-
"I could not deny my country’s call. My family were staunch Monarchists. These men with their guns, their red flags, their rallying call - I thought of them as foolish schoolboys, nothing more. I manned the cannon, as was my duty, and I pursued as many survivors as I could to their deaths.”
Holmes nodded. The man continued.
“There were – others will have no doubt told you – there were women and children there. Old men as well.” They had not told us. “These people died too. I saw a young girl, disguised as a boy, lying dead with her fellows in the street.”
"But, the last man. The leader. With his looks, his manner, his prideful glance, I should have said he was Apollo reborn. I was not the only one who thought so. He threw down his broken weapon, and challenged us to kill him, and once more it was our duty to do so. Many of us hesitated. Whether behind a gun or in front of it, there is no other weapon which will demonstrate what a man really is."
I could not help but nod at this.
"And then - and then-"
"And then," Holmes finished for him, "the man was joined by a second."
"Yes,” said Henri. I had already spoken that same “Yes” in my mind, for Léa’s brother had been found.
“Who gave some great and noble cry.”
“Long since lost to memory,” said the man, with the smallest of nods.
Holmes drank, elegantly, and said, “Can you spare no more detail?”
The man stared past us as if he saw something we could not. “A small thing,” he said. “Such a small thing.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“The second man said something to the first. Quietly. Do you permit this, was what I heard. Your Apollo, he took his hand.”
“That is not a small thing,” Holmes said.
“Be that as it may,” said the old solider. “He looked at his companion like he was a man reborn. Then we fired. Then they died.”
I pictured, in silence, the scene.
“So,” said the soldier, “is this what you came here for?”
“Yes,” said Holmes. And then, in a lower and darker tone, “Thank you for your service.”
The scarred man gave the smallest of nods. He looked at me as if searching for a kindred spirit, but he found none, and he walked away.
“We must depart,” said Holmes.
The streets we walked down were dark and unlit, and there was not a soul in sight. Yet I felt like I was being watched.
“René,” Holmes mused aloud. “In Latin, reborn,”
“It means nothing,” I found myself saying. I found his manner too dismissive, too far away. “He was not a fictional character, Holmes. He was real as you and me.”
“Quite,” said Holmes.
“What we encountered there were not clues, Holmes. Just coincidences,” I said. “When Léa’s brother was alive the café was named the Corinthe, not Le Cheval. His first name hinting at the choosing of his fate is not something that was planned in advance.”
My dearest companion just nodded. We reached the doorstep of Léa Grantaire. And then, whatever it was Holmes was feeling, he seemed to shake it off as easily as one might disrobe from a cloak.
“Léa has no servants, as I’m sure you observed,” he said to me. “She cooks for herself, cleans for herself, and opens her own door. She will have left a key under a brick for us. We will enter her house quietly and see her in the morning.”
I am sorry to report that I slept very well that night. Mary was there in my dreams, and so was Holmes. I was happy in that state, knowing I had people who loved me, and yet that happiness made me regret Léa’s grief all the more. A guilt at happiness was not a new feeling – I had felt it many a time after the dark days of war – but it was no friend of mine.
When morning came, Holmes had already gone downstairs. It took me a minute before I remembered there were no servants here to assist with my morning routine. I shaved my face with the help of an immaculately clean mirror, got dressed, and joined him.
Over cups of lukewarm tea and plates of buttered toast, we told Léa the story we had uncovered. She remained stoic throughout, barely uttering a word until the end.
"So what killed my brother, in the end, was neither drink nor misaimed bullets," Léa said steadily. "It was love for another."
“Yes,” said Holmes.
The room filled with a strange silence, and then something even stranger happened. Holmes put his hand on my shoulder and nodded at Léa.
"I have been subtly prodded about the nature of our arrangements,” said he to the woman and to me. “Though it may be intended to shame me, it does not. Irene Adler might say the same: I hear that on finding herself out of wedlock she followed her heart in a manner quite unbecoming of such a woman- and thoroughly disproved the ideas of our Queen, might I add.”
"You are thought of as a very liberal figure back in London, Holmes," I said.
"Good, good. I have no desire for petty politics to drown out life as they so often do."
Léa stared out of the window. She did not ask who Irene Adler was, she did not ask which things were considered unbecoming of a woman, and she did not ask about our arrangements. Her thoughtful expression in that moment made me think of my Mary, and what she would have grown to be in old age had God been kinder.
“There is no gravestone,” she finally said. “Not for any of them, most likely. It will all be forgotten soon, Mr Holmes, Mr Watson, even more than it already is. Walls will be re-plastered, cobblestones replaced, window frames repainted. The dead cannot tell their stories forever.”
“They can and they do. We call it History,” Holmes replied. I saw Léa smile, it was the first time I’d seen such a thing, and I wish I had seen it longer.
“Thank you,” she said.
Our parting from Léa I do not wish to dwell on, but suffice it to say, it was bittersweet. Riding the cab to the docks, I found myself reaching for my notebooks and pen.
“Attempting to take notes whilst driving over cobblestones,” Holmes said to me with a smile. “That is the mark of a true writer.”
“It is not enough,” I told him. “I have no names, few faces, a mere handful of characters and most of them victims. We have a host of killers, but no way of knowing which one fired the fatal shot. This is not my usual fare.”
“It is not,” said Holmes.
“And even if I wrote it I doubt it would find a buyer. People dislike revolutions and they despise those who fight in them and die anyway. And lastly, it is not my place, a singular man of considerable privilege, to give the nameless names.”
“There is work we can do to render them no longer nameless,” Holmes said gently.
I stared out of the carriage window. This stirred my mind into consideration of the petrol car, and how it might soon take the place of the hansom cab.
“Within a short time we will be in a new century,” I said. “Yet turmoil covers the globe, and it shows no sign of abating. Slavery still exists in more secretive forms, women cannot vote, babies die of starvation every day. What was the point, my dearest, of the tale of R?”
“He walked forward,” said Holmes. “He took his hand.”
I let out a breath. “True.”
I wished I could have left the conversation there. I wished it dearly. But I found myself saying, “That is another reason the story will not sell.”
“For shame,” Holmes murmured to nobody. “As if one’s soul should be judged on such a innocent thing.”
All was silence then, save from the rattling of the wheels.
“You simply must write it, Watson,” Holmes said suddenly. “Lea will die before she has the chance. We gave her our word, one single word: History. And you know that I believe in you.”
“Yes,” I said, as our carriage drew to a stop. “I know. I will write it. But I shall do so in the expectation that I will never be the only one to tell the story.”
“That is what I had hoped for,” said Holmes.
He took my hand, and kissed my lips, and we clambered out into the sun.