I have on more than one occasion alluded to those cases which my friend Sherlock Holmes forbade me to commit to paper. These decisions were usually communicated with some vehemence on the grounds of protecting the privacy of those involved, for he was himself an impeccably private man. In the years of our acquaintance I have not once gone against his word; though I have, on occasion, challenged him when moved by the conviction that a story must be told, and might be told while withholding those details that would have brought shame upon those parties involved.
In the year 1895, however, it so happened that Holmes and I became involved in not one but two cases of blackmail; the latter of which has never been spoken of since, for it was fraught with a danger which threatened the illusion of normalcy we had so desperately carved out of the ruins of our relationship since his return from the Reichenbach Falls a year prior. And yet it was of that case I often found myself thinking, as it carried some personal significance to both Holmes and myself and drastically changed our lives.
Our brush with Charles Augustus Milverton had shown me how much my friend detested this particular specimen of criminal, and although it wasn’t uncommon that he would exhaust himself in his efforts for justice, I had never before been privy to so swift a descent into his black moods. For months the darkness was upon him, tormenting him with periods of lethargy and fits of fearful restlessness. Upon observing him, it seemed to me that some inexplicable intuition had warned him that some dreadful event was about to occur.
When not tending to those poor souls at the free wards – where even so concerns for his well-being continued to plague me – I tried to coax him out of our rooms in Baker Street and into the brisk autumn air in the hope that that would, at the very least, be of some benefit to his fragile constitution. At times he agreed, though if only to appease me, as the easy-flowing conversation and indeed even the companionable silence were markedly absent from our rambles.
He ate but a few morsels of food and more than once did I observe his gaze wandering longingly to the cocaine bottle he thought hidden away from me in his morocco case. I held to the notion that he possessed enough strength to refrain; for whenever my eye strayed to his arms they were smooth and untouched, displaying none of the distressing puncture wounds for which victims of this vice were known.
He carried on in this miserable fashion until I accepted with some regret that I was powerless to alter his mood. All that was in my power to do was grant him privacy when he needed it; and company when so desired.
* * *
It was on a bleak, muddy Thursday evening - the ending to an equally miserable day - that I was attempting to unwind with a book by the fireside when Holmes, who had been sitting opposite me, startled out of his rigid position and moved to resume his vigil by the window. A strange habit he had begun to adopt a week or so ago.
He stood there for quite some time, perfectly still except for an odd momentum that pushed him forward onto the balls of his feet like an oversized bird of prey waiting to strike. One arm was firmly clasped behind his back while the hand of the other was tensely clutching the windowsill, exposing cramped, long fingers that were of a ghostly pale colour in the faint light of a nearby streetlamp.
By this time, I was quite accustomed to these spurts of nervousness that would overcome him, and although the haunted look in his eyes pained me, I lowered my gaze to my book once more, and tried to find the passage which I had just abandoned.
If I were to ask what was troubling him, he was likely to ignore me; I did not dare disturb the peace that had become so fragile since his return to London. So I left him to his unexplained surveillance until his sharp intake of breath, followed by a rap on the door downstairs demanded my attention once more. It seemed he had, indeed, foreseen someone’s arrival.
I had barely the time to set my book aside before Mrs. Hudson called out to us from the stairs and then proceeded to usher in a most striking looking gentleman. Under normal circumstances she would have grumbled at the lateness of the hour and departed with a stern reminder to keep our voices to a minimum so that we wouldn’t disturb her further. But on this day her demeanour was bright and open, almost sweet, and undoubtedly due to her own concern for Holmes’s well-being.
If this gentleman proved to be a client then there was the promise of a case, and a case hardly ever failed to rouse the spirits of my friend.
Prepared to abandon my book for the evening, I rose to my feet and extended a hand to the gentleman who had remained standing by the door which served as a barrier between us and the dangers of the outside world.
Our visitor was of a greater height than me, though not taller than Holmes, with a dark complexion and even darker lashes that fanned out luxuriously over a pair of evenly shaped brown eyes. He carried himself with grace that befitted his slender figure and looked at Holmes expectantly despite accepting my hand. It seemed to me that a silent conversation passed between them of which I was unable to understand a jot, except to say that the stranger in our living room was posing a question for which the answer clearly required some deliberation on Holmes’s part.
“Perhaps you would like to take a seat?” spoke he at long last, the greater part of his body still turned towards the window.
“If you are certain that I have not come at an inopportune moment?”
I found that I, too, had been gripped by an anticipation which had thickened the atmosphere in the room since the gentleman’s arrival, and felt an inexplicable sense of relief, of catharsis, at hearing him speak. His voice was peculiar but devoid of the negative connotations that usually accompany the word; it was melodious and pleasant to the ear, with just the faintest hint of an accent that betrayed his origin of India or Afghanistan.
I had witnessed London becoming a fixed point upon which the axes of colonialisation and trade met and crossed, and yet it had been some time since I had seen someone of his particular origin as impeccably dressed as he.
“Depending on its nature, any visit can be deemed inopportune. So I ask you again to take a seat.”
I was startled by the sharpness of my friend’s tone and reached out to guide our guest to the sofa onto which he sank at his leisure, crossing one long leg over the other. If he took offense at how he had been spoken to, he certainly did not show it. In fact, his handsome face was brightened by an almost complacent smile.
“Mr. Holmes, I have heard that you hate to waste time, so I will get to the crux of the matter as soon as you humour me in one more query.”
“By all means,” granted my friend who at last abandoned his post by the window and stalked across the room to take his usual seat in the armchair opposite me. His pinched lips told me that he was still put out by the sudden appearance of our visitor, though why, I could not say.
“The matter which I am about to relate to you is, as you must know, rather delicate. May I speak freely without fear of consequence even in front of your associate?”
I must admit that this took me by surprise, as I had shown nothing but courtesy and kindness to him. What, I wondered, had I done to evoke such suspicion? My friend, on the other hand, did not look startled in the least and arranged himself in his armchair until he was comfortable.
“Dr. Watson is a gentleman in every possible way. Whatever you have to say, you can freely say in front of him and be assured that he will not betray your confidence. So, pray, proceed and furnish us with the details of your problem. You are a busy man and likely in need of rest after a tiring evening at the University.”
By now I was quite accustomed to Holmes’s keen observations and his desire to make them known as swiftly as possible. They were, to me, akin to a street hawker crying his wares in a particular fashion so that he may be remembered above all others.
And, of course, it pleased Holmes to astonish his audience. Many was the time that he had flushed with delight at my praise of his extraordinary talent.
Our visitor, on the other hand, appeared little more than mildly amused.
“My dear, the descriptions do you justice. You are exactly like a peacock, strutting and showing off your tail feathers.”
His deep brown eyes washed over my friend in delight and it wasn’t long before he tipped his head back and let out a gleeful chuckle. But when his remark drew no reaction from Holmes or myself, he quickly sobered and continued to speak.
“Indeed you are right, Mr Holmes. I am a professor of mathematics at King’s College. Perhaps there is some mud upon my boots which has told you something about the distance travelled. Or perhaps it is much simpler; perhaps it is just some residue of chalk left upon my fingers.”
The mischievous glint in his eyes had not vanished and I was beginning to see that he enjoyed an audience just as much as my friend did and that – if not stopped -- they were running the risk of primping and preening until one of them succeeded in garnering the greatest attention.
“At any rate, my occupation has little to do with my motivation to seek you out. But the papers have painted such a marvellous picture of your skills and successes that I am inclined to think you are the only man in London who can help me.”
Words like these had oftentimes been directed at Holmes, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that another silent exchange was taking place between the two men.
In an effort to understand, I scooted closer to the edge of my seat, watching my friend carefully. Apart from the tension in his shoulders, however, there was little else to observe. By now he was reclining languidly in his chair once more, the tips of his slender fingers pressed together, his eyes half shut as if deep in thought.
“Perhaps you could begin by offering your name, Sir,” I ventured when the silence in the room extended and neither party seemed likely to break it.
“Hugo Laghari,” came the reply, albeit with some delay, as if my suggestion and indeed my presence came as a shock to him.
I am not ashamed to admit that I felt rather slighted by his response. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence that clients sought to exclude me from their interviews with Holmes, and who could fault them? It took great courage and not some little desperation to come to Baker Street in the first place to present an oftentimes intimately personal problem to a stranger whose brusqueness was well known.
It was an entirely different matter to be forgotten about, however, and I felt myself flush with envy at the puzzling connection in front of me.
“You have told us now repeatedly what you aren’t here for. Perhaps you would be kind enough to explain what does bring you here.”
He must have heard the impatience in my tone, for he chuckled in delight and rubbed his dark hands together.
“Well, Dr. Watson, you are clearly eager to hear more so I shan’t make you wait any longer. The facts are these. I frequent a certain gentleman’s club, the precise details of which I need not reveal just now. I am a familiar face to many there. It is a place of a somewhat Bohemian nature, where members seek and find great joy and freedom and, perhaps, occasional drama which the staff are well equipped to contain. So, you see, it is rare to find someone who isn’t enjoying himself, and yet that’s what I encountered several times in the past week.”
He paused to collect his thoughts, or perhaps to see if we were following his narrative.
“The man’s name is Adrian Wright. He is a nobody where London’s society is concerned, but I’ve always known him to be a kind and upright gentleman. He would happily engage with most chaps in the establishment, if only on a superficial level; and so I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw that he had isolated himself and proceeded to do so time and time again that week. Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I joined him even though he had the looks of a fellow who’d rather be left alone.
“’What’s the matter, dear?’” I asked him but the poor soul could hardly produce a word.
“Naturally, I tried to soothe him to the best of my abilities, but even with all my charm in effect, I could only bring him to splutter about danger and blackmail.”
Curiously, I observed Holmes sitting up straighter, as if the mention of blackmail alone was enough to make him tense. Charles Augustus Milverton may have been dead, but his legacy seemed potent enough to infest the memories of those unfortunate souls who had come in contact with him.
“Now neither instance is a novelty for the likes of us, but poor Adrian was so shaken by it all that I fear he might be inclined to do something foolish.”
“You think he may attempt to take his own life?” I inquired carefully.
The dreadful consequences of the master blackmailer’s evil deeds were fresh in my mind also.
“Oh far worse than that, Dr. Watson. I fear he might do something that could endanger even more lives.”
“So what exactly is it that you wish me to do, Mr. Laghari?” asked my friend at last with a voice as grave as the mood that had descended upon the room. “It does not seem to me that Mr. Wright asked for anyone to interfere with his predicament.”
“But I’m asking you.” There was a keen sharpness to the eyes that had previously been filled with mirth. “Because you have a grasp of the far-reaching consequences, Mr. Holmes. Because you know how many lives could be destroyed and I don’t believe for a moment that your conscience would allow you to stand by and do nothing.”
A jolt of energy seemed to pass through my friend who leapt to his feet, fetching his pipe from the mantelpiece. He lit it with a glowing cinder and at once began to pace the length of the room, sucking violently at the stem as he went.
The anger behind the gesture could not have been lost on our visitor, but he remained patiently seated, observing Holmes with mild interest.
Smoke billowed up in dense clouds from the gaping mouth of the pipe, shrouding the room in grey mist while my friend’s boots beat a firm staccato onto the carpeted floor.
“I am a busy man, Mr. Laghari,” spoke Holmes in the end, “and I am engaged in a few more little problems at present.” His footsteps halted and with a flourish he turned to face our visitor once more. “But I will give your conundrum some thought and contact you in due course regarding my decision.”
A look of mixed emotions washed across our visitor’s face before he rose to his feet and offered a hand to Holmes.
“Time is against us,” he urged softly when my friend reciprocated the gesture. “I hope you’ll make the right decision.”
Sensing the end of the conversation, I also stood to guide Mr. Laghari downstairs and to the front door, knowing that Holmes’s hospitality rarely extended beyond the threshold.
As we descended the staircase, Hugo Lagahari remained silent and polite and I noticed myself breathing a sigh of relief. There was no logical basis to my reaction and I could not formulate, even to myself, what I feared he might ask me. Yet I felt instinctively in awe of his confidence. He did not possess the physique that might commonly be associated with masculine beauty, but he carried himself with such purpose and conviction that it was difficult to look away.
Holmes had retreated to the window once more by the time I set foot into our living room again. The gas lamps had been turned down and even the embers in the fireplace were slowly dying.
“Holmes?” I called out to him carefully. The shadows that stretched across the ceiling were so daunting and the mood so peculiar that I was hesitant to approach him. “What an odd fellow, wouldn’t you say? What do you make of him and his problem?”
But Holmes remained silent, staring out into the gloomy London night while the pipe went cold in his hand. The expression upon his face was one of deepest thought and concentration, and when he spoke at last his voice appeared to unfurl from sound slumber.
“What did you observe about the man, Watson? Describe him to me.”
Reclaiming my seat in the armchair I considered this question, which he had presented to me many a time before, and thought nothing out of the ordinary about it.
“An unusual gentleman in many ways. His well-kept fingernails and impeccable suit would suggest that he is concerned about his appearance. His shoes have recently been polished although the dreadful London weather has been successful at destroying most of his efforts. He told us himself that he has a stable position at a University, and for that he must be very bright, which his eyes also suggest. Was there more of importance? Yes, I know that look, Holmes, there must have been more. But it’s getting late and I’m tired, so perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me what I’ve missed that’s left such an impression on you.”
He thrust his hands into his pockets and emitted a heavy rumble while his chin sank upon his chest. I hadn’t seen him quite so preoccupied since that gloomy evening in April four years ago when he had presented himself in my consulting room and asked me to escape to the continent with him.
This sudden realisation struck such fear into my heart that I was quite paralysed for a moment. Surely this case could not pose as big of a threat as the late Professor Moriarty?
“What of the flower in his buttonhole?”
“A purple carnation?” replied I, frowning at his perplexing question. “A touch flamboyant, perhaps. But I do not see what more there could possibly be to that.”
The look I received in return was one of such grief and anguish that I was unable to meet his eyes for long. The struggle that was clearly raging inside him was rendering him speechless and I, in turn, found myself powerless to help him.
It wasn’t the first time since his return to London that I found myself cut off from him by an endless gulf of conflicting emotions. The waters of the Reichenbach Falls ran deep and their strength was potent enough to drown us still.
Everything was quiet and dark, and in the darkness I wondered if I would ever find my way to his side again.
“The establishment our visitor was talking about is for inverts and pederasts, Watson.” With what agony that sentence emerged at last. What willpower it seemed to cost him. “So perhaps you can understand the delicacies and dangers that go hand in hand with this particular case. You are flushing even now, Watson, you cannot bear to look at me. Don’t be frightened, I do not blame you. The current political climate hardly leaves room for anything but shame and discomfort. So all I will ask of you is to consider your decision carefully, as I will mine. The implications are grave, indeed, should our involvement be misconstrued. I haven’t exactly been following social conventions and evidence against me could condemn you also.”
“Holmes?” I asked helplessly, wishing he would speak plainly at last, but he only turned back towards the window and bade me to go to bed in a tone that was brittle with exhaustion.