It is my custom, you may have noticed, to save those little cases which we have solved until such time as danger to those involved has passed, or until Holmes otherwise suggests I may write about them.
The happenings at Hurlstone Hall, however, received a very different treatment indeed.
At the time, I feared writing up the case. The circumstances of its investigation were so inextricably entangled with our personal circumstances that I had no idea how to describe the mystery without betraying us to the public. I thought it was better, then, to couch it as a tale told to me by Holmes alone, effecting a healthy separation between me and the events that took place. It seemed safer. It seemed wiser.
It is only now nearing the end of our life together, when Holmes is out walking the downs or examining the ejecta from the channel, that I find myself at liberty to transcribe the true events of that case which I eventually entitled, "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual." My reasons for this are two-fold: the first, so that I may once again easily traverse the hills and valleys of my memory, remembering a time which has taken on the halcyon glow of the past now that my joints have all but failed and this mortal envelope cannot hope to keep up with the inspiration of my soul.
As for the second reason, it is my fondest wish that some kinder future will find this letter and look with sympathy upon us in a time when two life-long partners such as we can live our lives without fear of censure or gaol. I would wish them to have the truth of what happened during that particular, fated, world-changing trip to Sussex.
It was a cold and chilly autumn day when we set out. Holmes had been using himself quite a bit harder than I should have liked, and it had all caught up with him. He was desperately in need of respite, so when his collegiate acquaintance Reginald Musgrave wrote to him I was allowed to bully him into a bit of a holiday.
At this time he and I were friends, no more and no less, though I admit in my heart of hearts affection had been steadily burning away at my margins and turning my steadfast nature to ash. In quieter moments when we were in our sitting room together, I at my writing desk and he in his chair, when the ticking of the clock marked our domestic seconds, there was a calm sense of completion in my chest that I knew no other could inspire. It drove me to find secret joy in the small things. Even such a tiny gift as a glance or a smile could warm me from the inside out, and it was an everyday fact of life that I lived from such moment to such moment.
On that morning that we travelled from our cozy home in Baker St. to the damp and draughty manor of Hurlstone, for example, we were sitting in a dog-cart on the last leg of our journey. The morning air was crisp and lacking in fog, but it was a great many degrees cooler out in the country than in the city. We were bundled up together for warmth—Holmes under a horrid shawl he had found beneath the seats—and we talked of the journey ahead, but I admit the most of my attention was drawn by the sensation of his thigh against mine. Whomever reads this may not have read my stories in the Strand, so may not have a clear picture in his mind about the strength in that thigh, or its grace or its length, but let it be known now that Holmes's legs were beautiful. Everything about him was beautiful.
It is possible I have misapprehended the degree of my regard for him at that time. Or perhaps our years together now colour every inch of memory, and all is tinged with the rosy glow of romanticism. I do not know, and I'm not sure I care.
As I remember it, Holmes's cheeks were reddened by the crisp wind, and his eyes sparkled as he spoke. It was relief to see him so after his illness. "Musgrave is a scion of one of the oldest families in England." He shifted, and briefly his thigh pressed harder against mine. "He was not generally popular among the undergraduates, but it always seemed to me that what was set down as pride, was really a cover for extreme natural diffidence. Indeed I never think of his pale, lean face and the poise of his head without associating him with grey archways, mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep."
I informed him that it he disliked Musgrave so entirely he shouldn't have accepted his invitation. We bickered playfully for a moment—a welcome sign that Holmes was not nearly as ill has he seemed—before he propped his heels on the trunk at his feet. They contained, I was informed, records of his early work.
Now, he and I had spent some time together, and I prided myself on our closeness. I was hurt, then, to find that there were records of his earlier cases and that he had never shared them with me. Even if he hadn't wanted me to write them up formally, I would dearly loved to have read them.
"The case of Vamberry the wine merchant, the adventure of the old Russian woman, a full account of Ricoletti with the clubfoot and his abominable wife, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch."
"Now that was something a little recherché."
I don't mind admitting that I stewed in my hurt almost until we reached the house. Records! Of his early cases! And for some reason, a reason known only to Holmes himself, he had been keeping them from me.
We pulled up to find waiting for us the lean, dark, lime-creamed form of Brunton, the butler. He was exactly as Holmes described: a schoolteacher out of place, though not as young as I was expecting, with a deference that one could sense stemmed only from training and not from natural inclination.
Musgrave, on the other hand, was not so bad as all that. He was a bit brighter of eye than I had expected, a bit fuller of form, though there was something of the haddock around his mouth. Perhaps over the years he had changed. Perhaps Holmes found him changed as well. In any event, he greeted us warmly and seemed genuinely glad to receive visitors. I was impressed to hear he was a member of parliament, though, I must admit, not surprised; Holmes did seem to float among the most variable of social circles. It was not uncommon for him, after all, to meet with a visiting dignitary in the morning and to enjoy the company of a band of Irregulars in the afternoon. It had almost become a fact of our life together.
(When I think of it now, it is strange that I should even have noted his social standing at all. I suppose I can chalk it up to the ego of youth.)
He left me with our bags and Brunton as he wandered off to reconnect with his friend.
"Holmes tells me you're a musician?" I asked Brunton, trying to steer him off from an incipient conversation about the cut of the stonework or the year they had to level the ground for a flowerbed. I fancy myself I can fake interest with the best of them, but it had been a long day of ushering Holmes and baggage here and there. I was worn out.
Brunton bowed a nod and tucked his hands behind his back. "I am, sir."
"What instrument do you play?"
"Nearly all that are found in the contemporary orchestra. I find joy in all of them."
It took most of my remaining strength not to roll my eyes at him. "Is that so?"
"I must admit, however, if pressed, that the flute is by far my favourite. I once came across a rare piccolo which I judge was made in the year—"
Fortunately, a housemaid emerged like a spectre from the shadows, and Brunton's face shuttered. "What is it, Rachel?"
The girl scowled at him and spun away.
Curious, I studied his expression for some clue as to what had just occurred, but could discern nothing. His composure was noticeably shaken, however, and rather than continue his lecture on the history of the flute he simply instructed the porters to take the bags up to our rooms. I was left standing on the front portico to pay the driver and wonder to where Holmes and Musgrave had disappeared.
I found Musgrave in the courtyard, having a turn about the paths with a contemplative expression on his face.
"Doctor Watson," he said, inclining his head to me. "Holmes has been shown up to his room. He's been ill, I trust?"
Not wanting to worry his old friend, I smiled. "Only a bit of influenza. Nowhere near as troublesome as it could have been."
"And no match for you, I expect. A trusted source tells me you are a splendid physician."
I blinked. "Well, thank you." I wondered where he could have heard that. I'd thought that my skills had been atrophying since the day I took up with Holmes. Particularly in those days, I spent far more of my time with a revolver in my hand than a stethoscope. "If I may ask, was this a former patient with whom you've come into contact?"
His eyebrow quirked. "Why, I heard of it from Holmes himself. I'd thought that obvious." He didn't smile, but the tiniest bit of twinkle shined in his eye. I thought this might be the natural diffidence of which Holmes had spoke. "That was my intended joke, at any rate."
"Ah." I looked at him, then around at the courtyard, not quite knowing what to say. "He flatters me."
"I'm sure he doesn't."
I caught a look from him, an amused thing that told me he knew Holmes better than Holmes had let on. I quirked a smile. "No. He doesn't."
"Not to your face, I'm sure. But that's how Holmes works of course. He keeps all the most important things to himself."
"Strange. He said something similar about you." To this day, I don't know why I said it. The words came tumbling out of my mouth and I immediately wished I could snatch them back. I anticipated a sharp look, but instead Musgrave just granted me a curious smile and led me into the manor.
"I expect he did."
I found Holmes on the second floor, in a spacious room with the fire already blazing. He was huddled up in another blanket and staring into the flames. I entered the room without knocking and sat down on the other chair.
"You've been tattling."
Holmes tilted his head to indicate he heard, but his gaze never left the fire, and all he said was a quiet, "Hm?"
"You've been speaking with Musgrave."
I studied the side of his head. He'd been running his fingers through his hair. "Holmes. What could possibly be the matter?"
Finally his head swivelled and he glared at me as if I'd insinuated he'd set fire to Musgrave's bull pup. "Nothing's the matter. Why would you think something was wrong?"
I raised an eyebrow at him.
He huffed, flung himself almost sideways in the chair in a petulant flurry of blankets, and gestured imperiously. "I don't know how I'm going to survive in this place."
"You can't possibly be too cold, Holmes. The fire is throwing off enough heat that the entire front of this seat is warm to the touch." I stood and pressed my hand to his forehead, as if that would indicate a thing, then insinuated it along the side of his neck between his skin and his collar. It was far too warm, but then, he was sitting right in front of a blaze.
My investigation was pulled to a staggering halt when he looked up at me with a strange, guarded expression in his eyes. I realised I was taking liberties with his body, certainly, inventing an intimacy that went too far even for us. The sweat from his neck clung to my fingers as I pulled back, so I wiped them on my trouser leg.
He continued to stare at me even as I backed away and sat back down. I stared back in return, but my mouth was dry and I couldn't find words. So I once again stood.
"Musgrave mentioned on the way up that supper is served precisely at seven o'clock. Brunton gets cross if he's made to wait, so. Please be dressed."
I thought he was going to speak, but instead he turned his head and addressed his gaze at the flames. I sighed, and slipped from the room to read before supper.
Just before seven, I called at Holmes's door. There was only the sound of splashing water so I dared to enter without invitation, expecting to find him already dressed and washing his face. The room was empty. My gaze fell upon the box which had been operating as a footrest in the cart, now open, its contents open to the perusal of any curious party—myself included. Keeping an eye out for Holmes's emergence from the bath I snuck into the room to take a peek.
I picked up a bundle of ribbon-tied documents. My mouth fairly watered with anticipation; how long had I been wondering about those early cases? How long had I been trying to prise details out from between those thin lips? Before I could read anything, however, I looked to a small table on the side and my heart sank, the papers forgotten.
Gathered into a small, distressing pile were a bottle of cocaine, a tourniquet, and one of his discharged glass syringes.
It is no secret that I disapproved of the methods he had of destroying his mind and body. Many of my colleagues recommended cocaine for various ailments, it's true, but I much preferred he find a different manner of keeping himself stimulated during the lull in his work. I cared about him too much to take it lightly, even before the events of the weekend came to pass, and I knew that degradation of his mind must have been one of his chief nightmares. I wondered if he'd ever thought about how it felt to me to see that beautiful mind tossed, artificially sharpened, and cutting itself to bits on cocaine. When he partook he said he felt more himself than ever, but in truth I barely recognised him at all.
When Sherlock Holmes was carried away, I missed him.
It was with a deep, gnawing sense of sadness that I stood and slipped from the room before Holmes could see me there. I didn't want to have a conversation with him about the cocaine yet again, and I was going to need a moment to myself before supper. I would need all my gathered strength if I planned to swallow down a meal while facing a much-altered Sherlock Holmes.
Supper was just about as much of a trial as I expected it to be. Holmes cackled at everything Brunton did, from the littlest turn of his head to the manner in which he pronounced the word "jus". And I, I began to have suspicions about our host.
That Musgrave and Holmes knew each other at university, it was a known fact. Holmes had led me to believe it was barely more than a passing acquaintanceship. The signs I saw at supper, however, indicated that Musgrave knew Holmes far better than I had previously understood.
There was an understanding in the way he ignored Holmes’s' poorly-timed bursts of laughter which first made me curious. It was as if he were used to the bizarre tenor of Holmes's jests and, while he didn't welcome them, he knew perfectly well what they were about. Any other man would have questioned Holmes after the first half-hour of strange giggles, but Musgrave only pressed his fishy lips tighter together and continued to eat his cutlet. He followed up Holmes's outburst about the colour of the curtains with a gracious nod of his head and only turned to inquire after the state of my practise.
All in all, it led me to this conclusion: Holmes had partaken even when at university, and Musgrave had experience related to this fact.
So when Holmes, with a spectacular shiver, quit the table, I stayed and tried to form my mouth around the words which would elicit the answers I craved.
"Watson, chap. There's no need to choose your words carefully around me. Or apologise, for that matter. I know perfectly well what is going on."
I stared at him, and I'm afraid I blinked rather stupidly in my shock.
"He's still seeking comfort in the cocaine bottle, I see? I must say, I'd expected different. If only because he now has a completely different medicine in which to indulge when things become a bit strained."
"I'm afraid I don't—"
"It was the same when we were in our college. More than one of us tried to rouse him out of his humour in other ways, as you can expect, but none of us were particularly successful. He had only eyes for his work and his bottle, and only rarely could anyone pull his attention toward anything else that might lift his spirits or ease his lethargy."
"Is…is that so?"
"Arousing him became a challenge that we all attacked in our various ways. Some of us more eagerly and with more physical enthusiasm than others."
I began to feel I had lost the thread of the conversation.
He leaned forward to whisper to me after glancing around to make certain we were alone. "You see, I, too, am a bachelor in perpetuity. Many of our cohorts have since married, but I'd rather not, and have never been fortunate enough to find a…partner with whom to spend my bachelorhood, as he has with you. You two are very lucky."
I did not believe what I was hearing. "Do you mean to tell me that you… That Holmes…"
Rather than fear that he might have given himself away, he simply inclined his head. It was as if he knew implicitly that I was a safe locker in which to lodge his secret. He seemed to trust me far more than I trusted myself.
"But I— I don't— I don't understand." I shook my head to underline this fact.
"I'm sure you do," he said.
"Holmes and I…share our residence. We do not…"
"Share anything else?" He examined my face, which felt both flushed and pale at the same time. My palms were damp and my stomach roiled, and I didn't know which way my thoughts were tending. "Doctor Watson, if you are finished with your cheese perhaps you'd like to join Holmes for some brandy? I might recommend it. If you don't mind me saying, you look as if you've had a bit of a shock."
It was an understatement if ever I'd heard one. Not only was Holmes inclined to enjoy physical comfort from his fellows at college, but it seemed Musgrave was also to that inclination. Did he just confirm that he…? Did they…? I blushed, finished my cheese, and allowed myself to be led into a discussion of the history and artefacts of the Musgrave family as we made our way to the study.
I examined Holmes when we arrived. This was the man I'd always known, of course, but now that I knew more—Holmes had always been partial to the needle, Holmes had always been partial to other vices as well—I could not help but see him in another light.
If you'd asked me my opinions on the use of cocaine, I would have an answer based upon the evidence of science and my observations as a professional. I was aware my objections to Holmes's use were chiefly selfish. However, if you'd asked me about the latter issue, that of dalliances between men, I would not have a clear answer. My specialties were not of either the heart or of ecumenical teaching, and I knew perfectly well the prevailing winds of morality and the law, but I also knew about the comforts men will cling to in the shattering, echoing loneliness of wartime, of the way war knits unnatural closeness, of the blessing a friendship can be. I knew all these things, yet I remained still a man divided, torn by fact and experience and the sudden, desperate yearnings I felt rise up in my chest.
Holmes's profile was beautiful and beloved, and when it cracked into giddy laughter I fled to the safety of a chair.
That evening, before bed, I found myself at Holmes's room again. Toward the end of our time in the study I noticed the tell-tale signs of Holmes's drop into post-cocaine misery, and though he covered it with the grace of a long (longer than I had presumed) practitioner, a close compatriot knew. His habits were as familiar to me as my own.
"Holmes," I said as I knocked on the door and pushed it open a crack. "Holmes, can I get you something?"
Prone on his bed, his dinner jacket draped across his face, he groaned and twitched a foot.
I entered the room and pulled a chair up to to his side. He jerked away from my hand where it snaked under the jacket and started stroking his hair, but he seemed to think better of it and relaxed into the touch. I thought about what I was doing; it was the sort of thing I had long done to soothe him, but it took on a different light when I thought about the activities he had likely indulged in at university. I didn't know what I was doing, but it seems I was doing it anyway.
His forelocks were still sticky with pomade, but the hair near the back of his head was soft. He sighed and rolled over, so, taking the hint, I carded my fingers through his hair and gently kneaded the muscles of his neck before speaking.
"I do wish you wouldn't do this, Holmes."
There was a long moment of silence, but finally he did reply. "I know you do."
"Yet you do it anyway."
"You've always done it."
He was quiet. "Musgrave told you."
"Yes. Musgrave told me."
For several weighted seconds Holmes seemed to process this, then he fumbled back and wrapped his fingers around my arm. He simply grasped it, breathed a few times, and pulled.
"What are you—" I started, but in this as in other things I followed his lead. I clambered onto the bed, shoes and all, and when he tucked my arm up against his stomach I let him.
He seemed to relax. I was the one on edge. I sat on the edge of the mattress and waited to see what was going to happen next, if he was going to let go or not.
Instead he growled, "Lie down, Watson, for God's sake," and hugged my arm more firmly against his chest.
My mind spinning, I simply did what he asked. I allowed myself to be fitted up against his back, and when I was stretched full-out he sunk back against my body and heaved the sigh of the deeply-relieved.
I did not know what was going on. Which is to say, I knew in very practical terms what was happening—Holmes was coming down from the chemical ecstasy, which always made him a curious combination of cantankerous and sad, and he was using my body for warmth and comfort—but as to the 'whys' and the 'why nows', I could only presume that my knowledge of his activities at university and my apparent acceptance had seemed to give him permission to take liberties with my person which he had not done before.
The question left tumbling through my mind was: what was I going to do about it?
The answer, it turned out, was to myself sigh and press myself closer against his back. It appeared that his relief was transferrable from body to body through skin and clothing, because I felt myself relax into the most gorgeous feeling of calm, of serenity, of peace I had felt in an age. Pressed so against Holmes I imagined we were melting into one being, and I had never been more whole. Filled with these fanciful thoughts, I tilted my head forward and pushed my mouth against his shoulder in a sort of dry kiss. In return, he only held my arm tighter to his ribs and melted into me.
'Please', I remember thinking over and over. 'Please.'
I cradled him, am not ashamed to say I held him there, as the drug slipped from his system and his brain tortured him into a restless, shifting sleep. When he had finally dropped off I detangled myself from around him, covered him with blankets, stoked up the fire in the grate, and went back to my own room.
My bed was very, very cold.
In my fiction for The Strand, I conveyed the state of the second housemaid, Rachel, through the storytelling efforts of Musgrave. In truth, however, I was far more intimately acquainted with her status.
When I came down to breakfast the next morning Holmes and Musgrave were already there. I tried to catch Holmes's eye but he would not look at me, instead sitting and smoking and wearing another infernal knitted shawl he'd likely found somewhere on the Manor grounds. If we were at home I would have made a bid for his attention, but as Musgrave was right there and servants were circulating, I simply found my seat and waited for tea to be poured.
My heart was beating just a bit quicker than usual, no doubt; I'd slept fitfully, uneasy about what had passed between Holmes and I in the quiet hours of the previous evening. More than once I wondered what it would have been like simply to allow myself to fall asleep next to him, listening to his breath, stroking his hair when he whimpered, lulling him back to sleep. No doubt it was largely the medical man's desire to soothe and heal that kept me awake, but I would be lying to myself if I did not admit to just a little bit of greed as well. Caring for Holmes has been, always, one of my cherished gifts and, I felt, rightly so: as much as I'd had to doctor to him in our years together, his presence in my life was a balm which healed me just as much in return.
His chin was held too high as he glanced at the activity going on around him. It looked to me as if he were compensating for the lethargy and depression which usually follow his chemical indulgences. Too, I wondered even at the time if he did not know something about Rachel or if his natural curiosity were simply aroused by Musgraves stories after supper, for his eyes followed her more than any other person in the room.
More than they followed me, at any rate.
My story in The Strand plays havoc with the timeline as it actually occurred. If this has not already become apparent, it will be more so as this narrative continues. However, it might do for me to point out now that in the fictionalised version, Holmes comes into the investigation long after both Brunton and Rachel are gone. In truth, as you have seen, both were still attending their master when we arrived, and when we sat down to breakfast I did not believe that fact had changed. I had no hint of what was to come.
Which is why I was so confused by Holmes’s expression as Rachel came round to pour my tea. From the quirk of his lip, I knew he was going to say something before he said it, but I had no idea that the question he would ask would be, “Where’s Brunton this morning?”
Pity he chose to enquire just as Rachel began to pour. I narrowly escaped scalding due to a combination of reflexes and woolen trousers, and wondered whether Holmes had done that on purpose. Was this some punishment for our indiscretion last night? But he had been the one to instigate…
My accusatory thoughts were interrupted by Rachel falling into a faint, and from then on I could spare no time for Holmes or his machinations. I caught her, but only barely. She cried out something about Brunton being missing—I believed it a delusion brought on by fever, and therefore without merit—and I shuttled her to her room for doctoring. As far as I knew the luckier Holmes and Musgrave disregarded the outburst, finished their breakfasts and moved on to other, rather more social, activities.
Or so I had thought. But after some searching, and a cold bit of toast, a servant directed me to what I was told was Brunton's room. When I arrived I found Holmes and Musgrave there, and Rachel’s story was confirmed: the butler was, indeed, missing.
I made my report on Rachel’s status, rubbing the fresh scratch I had received by her at her aid. I wish I'd known what else could be done besides the obvious—sleep and constant care—but I could make no sense of her bursts of activity mixed with the catatonia of deep horror. It reminded me not a little of Holmes in one of his fits, and I suppose that made me judge her just a bit more harshly than I should have. "A fine Welsh temper" is not a very scientific diagnosis, after all.
My small wound did serve some purpose, however; it seemed by that point that Holmes was in a far better state than he had been, and when he saw that I had been scratched he clasped my hand in support and expressed some regret for my injury. I had honestly expected to be locked out of his notice for the entire day, so to have his attention even for a few moments eased the tightness in my stomach not a little.
We, Musgrave and I, left Holmes and went for a shoot, and I found myself in a much better humour than I had any right to.
Musgrave's friends were congenial, and the walk was refreshing, and I even managed to take down a pheasant. All in all it was an excellent shoot, and when I found Holmes resting on a bench outdoors my heart lightened even further.
Both Musgrave and I parted from the rest of the party to head over to where Holmes was sitting; Musgrave had just begun to tell me of something which had occurred the night before, and he desired a bit of advice from Holmes. This is where the story about Brunton's spying in the library had come out, and it had only happened the previous evening, not several days before Rachel's distress as I had reported in The Strand.
The rest of the story fell out almost exactly as I have written. Brunton had been caught looking through the family papers in the drawer of Musgrave's desk—perhaps he thought that, Holmes and I in residence, his master would be too busy to visit his own study—and had been subsequently let go. He had stuffed a paper in his pocket before leaving the room, but had left another paper behind: the paper bearing the curious cadence of the ritual passed down from generation to generation of Musgraves. Brunton had seemed most eager to stay in the household instead of being immediately sent packing, which is why his sudden departure was such a mystery. We theorised then and there that, having been dismissed, rather than stay for the agreed-upon week he would stage his disappearance immediately.
We all three of us trooped into the library to study the document.
"This is a strange catechism," said Holmes, and he was right.
"Whose was it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come.
Where was the sun?
Over the oak.
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm.
How was it stepped?
West 8 by 8. South 7 by 7. West 6 by 6. South 5 by 5. And 2 by 2, and so, under.
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours.
Why should we give it?
For the sake of the trust."
Holmes read the call and, with only a bit of prompting, Musgrave and I read out the response. It reminded me quite a lot of school. When we finished, I smiled. "Why, it's a treasure hunt!"
Bearing umbrellas against the threat of rain we went to examine the first on the list of clues, the patriarch among oaks which stood on the edge of a field. It was a splendid example of the breed, but as we examined it it became obvious that, if this were the oak in question, with generations of Musgraves following the directions the treasure would surely have been found already.
As the joy of discovery wavered in me, my skin was prickled by the electric rise of the oncoming storm. No matter that we could proceed no further that night, still I was filled with a strange certainty that something nonetheless was going to happen.
I sat on my bed after supper, reading a paperback novel which, though it edified me almost not at all, still held at bay the flickering curiosity about the future. Just as I expressed to myself the relief that Holmes was not there to chide me for my reading material, he knocked at my door and entered without waiting for my response.
"Do you believe Musgrave—that having been dismissed Brunton simply disappeared himself?" Holmes threw himself next to me with his usual disregard for propriety between us. My heart began to pound.
"After bargaining Musgrave down from immediate dismissal, to save his sense of pride, as Musgrave described?" I set my book aside. "I'm not sure I do, no."
"Nor do I." Holmes pillowed his hands beneath his head. "It is very curious."
"I find it more curious that a case should crop up while we are supposed to be on holiday." I settled further, my back against the headboard, Holmes's dark head at my hip.
"Do you indeed." Holmes looked up at me, and the corner of his mouth quirked.
"Not really, no."
"Ha!" He rolled over into a strange contortion, his body facing me but his head twisted and propped so he could continue to watch my face. It looked uncomfortable.
I slid down, then, so we were all at a level. Holmes's face was so very, very close to mine. "I don't suppose you knew this was going to happen?"
"Not at all." He smiled. "Have you any ideas?"
"I admit, I'd put it from my mind after supper." I was having a great deal of difficulty not looking at his mouth.
"Pity. I would have appreciated your perspective."
"Would you have?"
"Of course. Your opinion is indispensable to me."
"Is that so."
From only a few inches away, his back to the firelit room, Holmes's eyes looked very dark. I felt a tremendous compulsion to scoot closer but held my ground; our relationship was intimate enough to warrant such close quarters, but there was no reason to reduce the distance, no matter how much I wanted it.
Now, please don't think me ignorant. I knew even at the time that our connection was unnaturally strong, and that my affection for Holmes may have ranged slightly into murky waters, but even then I did not think we were in any danger. We'd been friendly for so long, and been through so much, and knew each other so well, that I always supposed our relationship to be more brotherly than anything else. He was like no friend I'd ever had, my Holmes, and even if I knew what deviant behaviours he'd been up to at university that was nothing to me. I loved him like my own heart, and that wouldn't change.
Down at our sides, I reached for Holmes's hand and touched it gently with my fingertips. Our fingers entwined. "I'm happy to give my opinion whenever you ask it of me, Holmes."
"And sometimes when I don't ask it of you."
Holmes smiled and gently dragged our hands up between our chests, and with his dry, warm, spindle-fingered hand he cradled mine to his ribs, an echo of our position last night. My heart beat faster and my mouth was dry. "Whichever it is, I am thankful for it."
I didn't understand where this sudden flood of truth was coming from, but that didn't mean I wasn't appreciative of it. It was a rare day when Holmes admitted aloud I was more than his biographer. The days when his words exceeded appreciation and strayed into affection were even fewer and farther between. My heart seemed to expand in my chest.
There was a heavy moment dragged out, then, as we looked at each other. I could not find the right words to express what I was feeling, nor could I find words even to continue the teasing note of our conversation. So instead I simply looked back at him and studied the lines on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, and I enjoyed the steady pulse of his heart through his ribcage and into the backs of my fingers.
He licked his lips. "It's late."
"Somewhat," I said.
"I should go. I'd like to think through this tidy problem before we continue our treasure hunt in the morning."
"You could think here."
The corner of his mouth twitched into a part-smile; not unfriendly, but not an expression of humour either. He let go of my hand and slipped gracefully from my bed. "Good night, Watson," he said at the door.
"Good night, Holmes." I was tremendously sorry to see him go.
The next morning dawned dark and miserable and cold, and no better for Rachel having vanished in the night.
Musgrave woke me earlier than expected, and once again I was left without a decent breakfast in order that we should join Holmes down at the edge of the mere, to where her footsteps disappeared into the gravel. He looked moderately well-rested, and was wrapped once more in that damned-ridiculous shawl, but still I was inordinately pleased to see him.
He barely looked at me, however; a group of farmhands had just finished dragging the mere and had come up empty when there was a cry from further on down the bank. We all took off running to find another man pulling out of the water a cloth sack, dripping and entangled with weed.
"What does it contain?" I asked.
"Nothing of value," Holmes said, having ripped it open. Its contents appeared to be only mud and sludge and dirty bits of metal.
"Thrown in by anybody at any time," Musgrave said.
"No, recently, or the water would have rotted the bag." Holmes was tremendously disappointed with the lack of clue, as, I must say, was I. "Well, it would explain her journey to the mere, but then…where did she go?"
We all examined the find in the library after first cleaning it in a large earthenware bowl (which doubtless cost a fortune but Musgrave found mouldering in a corner of his study. Would that we all could abuse such treasures). Unfortunately, nothing illuminating came of it. Gone was Brunton, gone was Rachel, and all we had to show for our efforts was a pile of rusted and discoloured metal and a few pebbles. Musgrave wondered aloud why anyone would have bothered to throw the rubbish into the lake in the first place.
Holmes began the steady pacing that presaged an announcement. I watched him wind himself up then declare it was his opinion there were not three mysteries here, but only one, and the key to all of them lay in the ritual which Brunton had been so interested in researching that he'd risked his situation to get it. Stroking the back of his hair in the way which never failed to distract me, he reread the ritual and stopped to addressed us.
"Under the elm," he declared.
It was as good a place as any to begin.
Musgrave led us to the remaining stump of an ancient and venerable elm which had towered over the lawn when he had been a boy.
"I suppose it's impossible to tell me how high it was," Holmes asked, gesturing with his cane.
"I can tell you that at once. It was sixty-four feet." Musgrave had had a tutor who was more than a little obsessed with trigonometry.
"Tell me. Did Brunton ever ask you such a question here on this lawn?"
After a moment, recollection lighted Musgrave's grey face. He told us how one day he'd found Brunton here, on Musgrave’s own private lawn, strolling about with a cigarette. When approached, Brunton had only said he was there to settle a wager about the height of the tree. After Musgrave had told him the height was sixty-four feet, Brunton had seemed satisfied and wandered off.
"I'm afraid I'd completely dismissed it from my mind," Musgrave told us.
It was at that point I noticed Holmes staring at a fixed point above our heads. I turned around and stepped in close to his back—far closer than perhaps necessary—to see where he was looking. I was astonished to see that there, on the top of the weathervane, was the iron silhouette of an oak tree, as plain as day. I wondered that no one following the treasure hunt of the ritual had before noticed it. On the heels of that thought was a second one: perhaps someone had, and perhaps that someone had been Brunton?
If we had our elm, and we had our oak, we then had to determine where the shadow would have fallen if the elm had not been cut down. The answer to that lay with the same branch of mathematics which brought us our elm's height.
I was deadly sick of tying knots in rope.
My story for The Strand allocated the task to Sherlock. I was pleased to be writing myself out of the story because I would not want anyone to know it was I who, instead of questioning Holmes's methods, continued to knot nearly a hundred feet of rope without asking why, in the name of our Lord, I could not simply mark the rope with paint or string or something which did not require me to pull the entirety of the rope back through itself at every yard.
Have you ever tried to knot a hundred feet of rope? It is a misery.
Grumpy with both myself and Holmes, I allowed myself to be directed about like a piece of Holmes's scientific equipment until we—Musgrave, Holmes, I, our hundred yards of rope and a fishing rod Holmes had specially selected from all the rods in the house—were gathered out on the lawn near the site of the elm. From there, it became clear what Sherlock's plan was: he measured the length of the fishing rod's shadow at nine feet, and from that extrapolated that the shadow of the elm was 96 feet, and in the same direction.
When we stretched out the thrice-damned rope, we discovered at the full 96 feet a divot in the ground which Holmes maintained must have been left by Brunton. It was not proof he had found the treasure, but it was good evidence that he had been on the same track as we.
We paced out the full force of the Ritual, 64 steps and 42 and 36, and we were nearly through the last set of 25 when fate brought us up against the edge of the moat. What else was there to do but row across to the tiny door we could see in the wall, directly across from us? Musgrove provided the muscle, I provided the steering, and Holmes…Holmes stood upright and tall in the bow like Boadicea on her chariot, leading her troops out against the Roman invaders.
He clambered into the small room, took four steps in, and deflated. There was no way this was our spot.
"I don't believe it," he said, banging his cane on the flagstone floor.
"Some mistake in your calculations," I offered.
"That's impossible." And too right, especially since we were not chiefly relying on my arithmetic alone.
Holmes puzzled over the pristine, unbroken surface of the tiny storeroom, and Musgrave pointed out, quite rightly, that the stones hadn't been moved in many a year. I, on the other hand, was undeterred. I reread the ritual from the paper, sounding everything out to make sure I did not miss a clue, when I came upon it. "Holmes!" I said, joy filling me at being the one to notice. As you can imagine, it did not please me to have to give Musgrave the credit in my published work. "You've forgotten the 'and under'!"
We all looked down. It fell out, then, as it did in the published tale, that there was a cellar below us, as old as the house. And in that cellar was a heavy stone trap door with Brunton's muffler tied to the handle. And there, under that trap door, was poor Brunton, dead with a stifled expression upon his face and with a plain wooden chest next to him.
The next deviation the published tale took was to describe us summoning police to aid us in lifting the stone. In truth our strength was enough to shift it, but I thought it better to say that the official services were there with us, for that would give credence to my story and plant in the reader's thoughts that perhaps, when a possible dead body and ancient treasure are in the mix, we ought not have been doing it alone. We were, of course; Holmes would not have stood for having his crime scene trampled by a million cloddish feet. Not when he had a chance first to examine it all on his own.
It was only after we had uncovered Brunton's body that we brought the police in on our little tale, but even then we tailored our stories to excise all mention of the Musgrave Ritual. When the Inspector inquired what Brunton had been doing in a disused part of the house, Musgrave replied,
"A butler's duties are many and varied, Inspector. I can't possibly answer that question."
I put in my oar as well. "Well no one would have heard his cries for help in that part of the house, that is the point surely, Inspector."
The Inspector seemed suspicious but inclined to believe until the officers removed the body. It was then that the gamekeeper's daughter, Janet, Brunton's most-recent dalliance, came over into a screaming fit.
"Rachel! She done it! She killed him! That's why she ran away!"
I very nearly rolled my eyes and buried my head in my hand but with every fibre of decorum restrained myself. If we were going to convince the police to rule it an accident and get on their way without poking their noses too far into the Ritual, this was no way to do it. Still, I thought it would not be a very bad thing to have an answer as to what had happened to Rachel. It seemed clear that she was, in fact, gone. The Inspector went to have a word with Janet, and he seemed anxious to have a word with Rachel as well. As to the latter, I felt inclined to wish him good luck.
Musgrave and I exchanged a look and went to go see what Holmes was up to.
'What Holmes was down to' would have been a more apt turn of phrase. We found him half in the hole, investigating the scene of Brunton's death with a dour expression plastered on his face.
"I must confess that so far I am disappointed in my investigation." He had expected to solve the matter upon finding the place referred to in the Ritual, but he remained as in the dark as Brunton had been, stuck in that hole until death. His perplexedness remained, and as he sat to stew over the matters of how Brunton had come to be there, and where Rachel had gone, I explained to Musgrave Holmes's method in such circumstances.
"He... he puts himself in the man's place having first gauged his intelligence and then he...he tries to imagine how he himself would have proceeded in similar circumstances."
"In this case Brunton's intelligence is first rate," Holmes murmured.
"So you see it is unnecessary to make allowance for the personal equation."
Musgrave gave me a look of incomprehension. Sometimes my ability to explain such concepts to men who are not of science escapes me. I could explain how, in astronomy, different observers may record different times for the same event. I could explain how that may throw off calculations. But Holmes has never been overly fond of astronomy even if it did grant us this terminology, and I didn’t like to vex him while he was thinking. So instead of a full explanation, I simply said:
"As the astronomers have dubbed it."
I thought it had been explanation enough, but Musgrave gave me another strange look. No doubt he was wondering how astronomic theory applied to the fate of his servants. I felt his stare burning into the side of my face. Instead of engaging, however, I stared at Holmes staring into space and tried my most innocent of expressions.
When Holmes spoke, it was trance-like, quiet and even. He described Brunton's discovery of the trapdoor, his failed attempt to lift it even with the aid of his muffler tied around the handle, and his enlistment of Rachel, who he thought still loved him in spite of all her words of hate. Holmes cast his gaze around us at the wood covering the floor.
He dove for a piece near his left knee and lifted it up reverently. It bore a mark across the middle, as if a heavy edge had put its full weight on it and crushed the fibres. "There is a slight indentation on this log." Holmes selected another one. "And on this."
He supposed—as we all did, by this point—that they had used the scattered firewood to prop up the lid, bit by bit, until it was opened enough for Brunton to drop down into the hole. And there he was when the lid fell shut and quite literally sealed his fate. If Rachel had been there to see it, and had not called for help but instead had let Brunton suffocate there, it would certainly explain her mad behaviour the next morning.
Holmes dropped entirely down into the hole and lifted up the box for us to examine. Musgrave and I pawed through it, finding only fungi.
"But what was in the box, Holmes?" I wondered aloud.
In answer, one of Holmes's hands emerged from the darkness, pinching a coin between forefinger and middle finger. I have mentioned Holmes's hands before, but I have never allowed myself to ruminate so fully as I've wanted on their grace, on their dexterity, and how the sight of them, bare to the elbows, makes me want to do inexplicable things. This time was no different, and I'm afraid it was even worse having had those fingers wrapped around mine two nights in a row. Holmes and Musgrave spoke words, but they remained unheard while I was captivated instead by the beauty of Holmes's hands. When he wished to be extricated from the depths, I admit that I jumped eagerly to be the one to clasp them and pull him up.
It was with great ambivalence that I let him go.
Back in the house, Holmes rubbed those hands together vigorously in preparation for his grand revelation, the pièce de résistance with which he most liked to reveal his best deductions. The fire in his eyes lit me from within.
A few minutes with the contents of the bag fished from the mere, and Holmes became excited. "Gentlemen," he said, and held out his hand. "Look."
One of the pebbles, upon closer examination, was nothing less than a jewel. "A family heirloom," I supposed aloud.
"It's possible," Musgrave said. He confirmed that yes, his ancestor was a prominent cavalier, and a friend to Charles II in his wanderings.
With great theatricality, Holmes revealed then that the dull and filthy bits of metal we had been holding in our hands was in fact the ancient crown of the kings of England. He quoted the Ritual as he arranged the pieces of metal on a tray.
"Whose was it? His who is gone. That was the execution of Charles. And then who shall have it? He who will come. That was Charles the Second, whose advent was already foreseen. There can, I think, be no doubt, gentlemen, that this battered and shapeless diadem once encircled the brows of the royal Stuarts."
In front of him was a circle, and it did then seem a plausible story.
"How then came it to my family?" Musgrave said, a logical question.
Holmes went into some paroxysm of conjecture, his usual sort, wherein he described how when Charles the First was executed his crown was broken into pieces and sold for a thousand guineas, and from that moment forth its whereabouts were never known. He supposed it fell into Musgrave hands where it stayed, some forebear having died before explaining the Ritual's true nature. And from that day to this, the only relic which passed from father to son was the Ritual itself, hollow of meaning and lacking import.
"Until at last it came within reach of a man who tore its secret out of it and lost his life in the venture," Holmes said, and all three of us fell quite silent.
Supper that evening was a somber affair. Rather than try to catch the last train Holmes and I decided to stay until the morning, and so we were treated to a lavish meal lacking much in any conversation and full to the brim with unfocused staring. I had to ask Holmes twice to pass the sliced carrots, and at one point Musgrave missed the mutton on his plate several times with his fork before eventually skewering it.
I would have expected Holmes to be more jovial after the conclusion of such a case, but instead his conversation seemed more pensive than pleasant. I retired soon afterward, leaving Holmes to spend some quiet time with his old school friend as I holed myself up for some quiet thinking of my own.
It was gone eleven by the time Holmes pushed into my room, as I'd half expected him to. He was already in his nightshirt, bare-footed, with that bloody shawl wrapped around him. I myself was in bed and under the blankets, trying to finish my novel before we got back home to work and bustle, before I would have to write up this case and send it off to my literary agent.
He bustled into the room as if he had every right to be there, but then stopped short at the edge of the bed. He looked at me like a pleading puppy-dog.
"Oh, fine," I said, and pulled back the covers. "But leave that blasted shawl out of it. Lord only knows where it's been."
He dropped the shawl where he stood and crawled into my bed. At the time I barely noted the racing of my heart, but in the years after I had ample time to note my trepidation, my excitement, my terror. After dropping my book over the side of the bed I flicked the blankets over the two of us and scooted down to face him. It felt like playing schoolboys, in a way, and a traitorous part of my mind reminded me just what he had gotten up to when he had been at university. Rather than causing me to recoil, instead I found myself sinking further into the bed.
"What do you suppose happened to Rachel?" he asked me, his voice low. It hadn't very far to carry.
"Is this in my capacity as—"
"As my partner in detection, as an observer of the human condition, as one who has seen many things in our years together. What do you suppose happened?"
"I suppose." I sighed, and it ruffled the soft fringe of hair flopping over onto the pillow. He must have bathed after supper. "I suppose she must have fled, fearing that we would find out what she and Brunton had done. Your reputation casts a far net, Holmes. She must have suspected that you would find Brunton in due course, and know her to have a hand in his death. Barring that, she must have been too upset to remain in a household where she and Brunton had been so happy, knowing his fate so intimately. Even if it had been accidental, the fall of the trap door, she could have gone for help."
I found myself wondering why Brunton did not shy away from dropping into a hole which took two to open, and which could fall shut with the slightest breath of wind. I should have been fearful of doing so. Holmes, as usual, read the thoughts on my face.
"He did not have his Watson with him. He trusted where he should not."
I looked into his eyes, shadowed as they were from the firelight in the room. They still seemed to glow.
"It always pleases me to hear of your trust," I said quietly.
"I trust you with my life," he said, and very small smile graced the corners of his mouth. If I did not know him as well as I did I would not have seen it. He shocked me by placing his palm on the side of my face. It was warm and dry and comforting, like being cradled. "I am certain of your love."
I could not look away. "Are you?"
"I am sure of it."
My heart pounded in my ears. A most tender feeling rose up and thickened my throat as I gazed back at those clear, grey eyes, that aristocratic jut of nose, that sharp-tongued slash of mouth. It was a face familiar to me as breathing, and I adored it. I loved the brain behind it, as well, and the heart in the body that housed it. I was grateful for him, and the resolution of this case had made that perfectly clear.
Holmes's mouth tightened as if he steeled himself for something, then he scooted forward to curl up against my body, seeking comfort. I had no choice but to wrap my arms about him and hold him even closer.
"Are you warm enough?" I whispered. He nodded. I chafed my palms against his back just in case. My cheek against his hair registered softness, and I smelled soap and aftershave. My heart clenched in my chest. Gently, slowly, I bumped my mouth against his head, a clumsy buss that did nothing to dispel the tension in my throat and indeed only made my heart beat harder. Tenderness seemed to well up in my fingers and toes and teeth and eyelids, making them ache.
"Are you unwell?" Holmes asked. I realised I had been breathing like a steam train. I shook my head and skated my cheek along his hair again.
Holmes tucked himself in tighter against my chest, and his breath was hot in the placket at the collar of my nightshirt. I wrapped my arms more firmly around his back. It felt no more or less intimate than our usual casual touches, but it felt a hundred-fold more satisfying. To be holed up together in bed, warm against the chill of one of the oldest inhabited houses left in England, it felt as if we were a united front against the cold.
"I am certain of you, too," I said.
I realised that the movements of his head were Holmes pressing soft, gentle kisses to my neck, the one after the other. It clenched something in my chest, and my breath halted. When I sucked in more air, I shook. Holmes resumed kissing me, a slow, deliberate trail up to my jaw. I squeezed my eyes closed against the emotion that rose up in me, at the strange beauty of it, at the way I loved him so much in that moment that it pained me. Every few seconds, I had to force myself to breathe.
Holmes was trembling in my arms when he reached my mouth, and when he pressed the first kiss to my lips, I let him. When he pressed the second, I pushed my lips forward to meet his. When he pressed the third, I tilted my head, opened my mouth, and was lost.
It was glacially slow, and exploratory, and we both shook with the power of it. I felt both weak and strong concurrently, my body so confused by the welter of signals it was processing that it was like flying and swimming and running all at the same time. Holmes, here, so intimate and close and so beloved…
I heard myself whimper.
Holmes rolled forward, pressing against me even more strongly, as if our two bodies might overlap. I felt weighted down, surrounded, safe, and even when his thigh slid between mine I wasn't alarmed. All I wanted was more closeness, more delicious heat. I crushed him to my chest, broke the kiss, and tried to breathe. His ribs were heaving against mine.
"Watson…" I heard him murmur. Something in me broke, and I had to bury my face against his shoulder and try to reintegrate myself.
I felt so much I could scarcely make sense of it all. I was almost over-warm now, and sweating. I was having trouble pulling in enough air. I was immensely confused about the physical performance we were enacting right then, but above those things I felt love—so much love I was drowning in it. I felt it in every place my body touched Holmes, which, since he was lying on top of me, was nearly everywhere, and it suffused my every capillary and vein and organ and artery. If this was what others felt when they indulged in such acts, I understood without a doubt why they did it.
I loved him, and it was so much a part of my being that I could not have separated myself from it if I tried.
He nudged a kiss to my neck and another to the hinge of my jaw. I buried my fingers in his hair and tilted my head into a kiss as thick and redolent with emotion as the ones that came before. He shifted, and I realised he was hard at my hip. A strange desire overtook me: to feel him come to pieces, shattering with ecstasy in my arms. I wanted him to feel physical bliss, and more than that I wanted to be the one to do it to him. I wanted to share with him the connection that sort of intimacy could forge; links made of shared moments, links annealed by pleasure.
With this in mind I slipped my fingers under the hem of Holmes's nightshirt. The solidity of his thigh enchanted me, as it always did whenever I was reminded that on top of those bones was a layer of muscle and skin and little else. Sometimes it entertained me to think of him as a wisp of fog, liable to float away in a strong wind, but here was my proof he was otherwise: solid muscle over strong bone, wiry hair over smooth skin. Touching Holmes's thigh without seeing it inflamed me. I captured his mouth with a kiss and skated my palm up toward his groin.
He made a quiet noise into our kiss, and I felt him grasp my pillow at one side of my head as he supported his weight on his elbows. He began to shake again. "Shh…" I soothed my palm down his back with one hand, even as explored the region between his legs with the other.
I felt more wiry hair, and warmth, and soon the soft, unyielding firmness of his manhood. I touched him and his head fell forward with a whimper. I let my fingertips stray more southerly, and they encountered his sack, heavy with the seed I wanted to make him spill. He shifted, and I felt his breath tremble as he exhaled.
It was warm under the blankets, but I could not bear the thought of exposing this to light and air. This was private, between we two. Touching him like this was something just for us alone. Tenderness made my jaw ache and my bones feel like melting wax. I pressed my forehead to his temple. "Holmes." My heart, I wanted to say, but I kept my teeth together and breathed through it.
His inhalation broke and shattered against my skin and I knew I had him for as long as I wanted him. Thus fortified, I wrapped my hand around him and pulled. He jerked in my arms and released a long, low moan into my shoulder to muffle it.
"Shh…" I reminded him, and began to frig him steadily, smoothly, for all that the angle pained my wrist. His trembling increased in amplitude. I heard him stifling noises deep in his throat.
After a few moments I felt him scrabbling at the hem of my own nightshirt, pushing it up to my waist. I must confess it wasn't until that moment that I considered reciprocation, but his hand returned then to the pillow beside my head instead of touching me in the place I craved.
I both heard and felt his breath become heavier, and heavier, and heavier. I was sweating beneath him, the place where we touched becoming humid. He pressed his mouth to my shoulder and he exhaled three long, low, whispered cries before I felt him begin to come apart against me. He shook with the effort, spilling himself all over my hand and hip, his body jerking. Sympathetic pleasure rose up in me, and I felt myself rise at the feel, at the smell, at the muffled sound of him. I had brought the man in my arms brilliant pleasure and release, and my body woke up aching for the same.
He slumped and caught his breath against my neck. Every moment or so, he twitched with the echo of his climax. I wrapped my arms as tight around him as I could manage and held him there, supporting him on his journey back to earth from ethereal bliss.
"Holmes," I said, and saying his name helped ease a measure of the ache I felt in my chest.
We spent several minutes still locked together as he came back down, and then he shifted to one side. "Are you interested in…" he said, and reached beneath the covers to trail his fingers over my growing member.
Oh, and those fingers. I felt myself reach up to meet them with a thousand memories of their grace and dexterity rushing through my mind. His touch burned like exquisite flame and I felt the heat in me flare up and threaten to consume me from the inside out.
He chuckled quietly. "Yes, then," he said, and from that moment my entire existence was in his capable hands. He brought me to my fall carefully, with great precision, each stroke and flick of his thumb causing me to climb higher and higher toward a plateau of joy. He hooked his other thumb into my mouth to anchor me to him, and sucking it muffled the sounds I made as pleasure rolled through me.
All at once, he stopped. I opened my eyes to see him pass his hand over his mouth and then the pleasure was back two-fold, three-fold, a hundred-fold as his skin slicked and sped over mine. I felt climax tugging at my heels like the incipient pull of the tide before suddenly, before I was ready, like a wave it was upon me. Gorgeous pleasure rose up and overflowed, and the spill was liquid and pulsing and complete.
Soaked in lethargy I jerked against Holmes as my body repeatedly spasmed, not completely finished squeezing out bliss. It came in short bursts even while my bones's threat to melt to wax seemed finally to come true. I wanted to hold on to him, but I could not move.
He came to me instead, resettling our clothes between us and fitting our bodies tightly together. He whispered against my neck. "I trust you with my life," he said.
"I hope I shall remain equal to the task," I said.
"I have no doubt of it."
My brain would roil in the days and weeks to come with the full measure of what we'd done, but in that moment I was perfectly content. The wind howled outside, but inside the stone pile of the ancient house, in the quiet and empty wing, we were secure and safe and together, a force against the world.
After a few minutes of a shared and silent communion Holmes extricated himself from my bed and slipped back into his room. I fell asleep almost immediately, my body and mind wrung too dry for any more activity that night.
In the dawn, I awoke with a shock to find the maid laying the fire. My system was on high alert, and where ordinarily I would have slept through such an everyday occurrence, my brain had apparently been playing look-out. Assured that everything was fine I attempted to fall back asleep. It was a failure. Too concerned about the future, I tossed and turned and fretted before finally giving up and ringing for a bath.
Evidence of last night was on the inside of my nightshirt and all over my body. Distinctly remembering my boyhood days I scrubbed at the cloth as best I could and hung it to dry near the fire. As for myself, I cleaned most away with my morning supply of hot water and, when it was ready, let the bath carry away any remaining residue. My heart beat quicker with the secrecy of what I'd done—of what we'd done—and I wondered whether it would ever happen again.
More than that, I wondered if it could happen again, and how often, and if this degree of stealth was going to punctuate my mornings for the rest of my mortal life.
I came down to breakfast late, once again. I found it a fitting coda to our visit that only on the last day would I manage to have a complete meal of egg and soldiers, sitting down at table, like a civilised being.
Holmes was there already. He didn't look up when I entered the room, but only mumbled me a 'good morning' on the heels of Musgrave's welcome. My heart clenching with fear and confusion, I sat and accepted my plate. I tried to be reasonable about Holmes's dismissive greeting—on the whole, it was not out of the ordinary in the least for him to ignore me until he was ready to grant my existence, and it had long since ceased to bother me—but after our indiscretion in the night I confess I let my imagination run away with me.
Meal thus ruined, I swallowed down my food with little pleasure, answered Musgrave's few questions about our travel plans, and fled back upstairs to pack. Not ten minutes later Holmes entered the room. He walked straight up to where I stood, shoving clothing into my gladstone, and spoke directly into my ear.
"I cannot look at you."
My breakfast churned. Something of it must have shown in my face, for he took one look at me and rolled his eyes.
"Oh, Watson, don't be ridiculous," said aloud, a familiar tone which did very little to ease my distress. He stepped in close again. "If I look at you, I'm afraid I'll betray myself, and that will not do."
"Betray yourself?" I said.
"My thoughts are fixed on last night, and my body yearns for more." I felt myself begin to blush. "If our friendship is going to be cemented in such a way, I will have to create some manner of distance between us until I am certain I can hide it. As brilliant at disguises as you believe me to be, some things cut too close to the bone not to visibly flinch."
I tried to stifle a smile, and I did not look at him even when he pulled back to glance at my face.
"Plus, you really are a most abominable actor," he said as a parting shot, and in a trice he had left the room.
I allowed myself to grin, then, and packing up my few remaining belongings was a much more enjoyable activity once I knew that I would soon be heading for home, where a new life awaited us, a life of secrets and stealth, but shared. He trusted me with his life, and in return I trusted him, and I had no doubt that whatever trials would come we would face them together.
I folded up a damp and sticky nightshirt. Whatever the future held, however, we would certainly have to wash our own linens.
On the dog cart home, Holmes put as much space between as as he could. I did not blame him; I wanted to hold him and speak softly and touch him, and not only did I know that sort of behaviour was verboten, I also did not expect a relationship with this particular person ever to be that gentle.
"Was it chance that the wood slipped? Was she only guilty of silence?" I said. "She had a passionate, Celtic soul."
He leaned back against the cushions like a visiting dignitary and waved about his cigarette. "I'm not sure I approve of this new habit of yours."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Have you learned nothing from our investigations?"
I searched my memory. Was there something in our past that held the key to Rachel's actions? I must admit, I had no vantage point from which to comprehend leaving a former lover to that sort of fate, even if our relationship had ended. I shook my head.
"You cannot expect to fully place yourself in the shoes of a perpetrator if you do not understand the human condition, and you will not understand the human condition if you insist on making these wild, unfounded judgements."
Once again I shook my head.
"Watson, why do you continually insist upon describing Rachel as a Celtic soul? Her family is originally from somewhere near Essex. Surely even you can hear it in her speech. Must you categorise people in such a brash and overly-romantic way?"
I frowned. "Just for that, when I submit this story to the Strand, I will take every opportunity to describe her thus. I will do it to vex you." I wanted to call him several rude names, but the presence of the driver as well as the curious expression on Holmes’s face stopped me. "What?"
"The Strand," he said.
Casting a glance at the driver, I nodded. "I am aware. I spent some time this morning thinking about just that subject. Do not distress yourself. This time I think I won't receive much censure from you if I take some liberties with the truth?"
He too glanced at the back of the driver's head. "Not at all."
"It is settled, then. I will write it up as I plan to, an exciting tale of your solo adventure at Hurlstone, and all will be well."
"And all manner of thing will be well," Holmes said, and he passed his thumb over the back of my hand as he went to his pocket for another cigarette. I turned my head and smiled. It was turning out to be a most beautiful autumn day.