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The Adventure of the Dancing Man

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From the personal files of one Dr. John H. Watson, found unpublished at his death.

In the many accounts I've produced over the years of my adventures with Sherlock Holmes, I may have given the impression of a man whose head was so full of whirring cogs, that it left no room for a heart of flesh and blood. The time has come, I believe, to correct that bias. As this particular account concerns a case of a sensitive nature and so cannot be published, now seems a proper time to present a more rounded picture, for my friend would hardly consent to certain aspects of his character being shared beyond our closest circle. I find I cannot sleep easily until I set it down as best I can.

It was the spring of 1892, seven years after Holmes and I first met in the laboratories at St. Bart's and nearly twelve months to the day since my wife’s untimely death. I was well established in my medical practice but was hardly a rich man, my wife's medical bills having taken their effect on my finances and our cases dragging me away from my patients. For his part, Holmes's genius was not nearly as wellknown as it is now, when the rich and poor alike call on his services, and his coin-purse was often lighter than my own. Those were good but lean times, and we were both of us pleased when the Countess Howard sent word she might have need of us.

Her niece, a charming woman named Carolyn, had come to visit two weeks ago with her fiancé, a man she claimed was reading literature at university but whom she later admitted was a stagehand at a certain opera-house in Lyon with ambitions of becoming a dancer.

During that time several tribal masks went missing from the countess's house, and she was committed to recovering them. They were worth quite a sum on the antiquities market, she insisted, but worth more to her as a reminder of the stories her husband had told of how he acquired them: a market-trade in Bloemfontein, services rendered to a Bantu chief in Swaziland, and other adventures besides. She would pay any price to retrieve them if Holmes could help her.

I expected Holmes to refuse the case at once. Granted, we had just finished our business at Wisteria Hall and he had nothing else on, and the money would certainly be good, but a simple case of theft hardly seemed the kind to pull him away from London. What's more, the affair seemed hopeless; surely the man would have sold the artefacts by the time Holmes managed to trace him. I looked over to him, prepared to make our apologies, but saw his keen eyes fixed on Carolyn. The sign of her, nearly reduced to tears over her uncle's lost mementos and deeply embarrassed that she'd brought a swindler into their lives, seemed to move him somehow. He took the man's name – the one he'd given, Vincent Roux, which might prove useful even if false – along with a photograph the girl was able to provide, and he left for France three days later.

When I followed him some weeks after, Holmes told me how he'd traced the young man to this boarding-house and ultimately to the Théâtre des Céletins. He had confronted the troupe's director with the evidence of what he'd learned and, after displaying the not negligible talents at ballet he'd developed during his student days, he'd been given a role in the ensemble. That, however, had been nearly two weeks before my arrival. Holmes had fallen into the routine of a dancer – preparation, practice, dinner with the other dancers at the boarding house, and finally decamping to their boarding-house's roof for star-gazing and drinking cheap wine far into the night – but to little benefit.

When I came to Lyon I'd started to spend no small fraction of hours with the stage crew. As a dancer, Holmes could hardly mix with them unobtrusively, but he thought I might. So I had taken up a routine not wholly unlike his own: breakfast with Holmes at the boarding house, mornings hanging out at the theatre, followed by afternoons following up on leads Holmes thought might prove promising. Just now, I was standing beside one of the stage-hands, watching as the troupe prepared for their morning rehearsal.

The man standing to my left (Claude Duval, I recalled) looked over at me, then to where Holmes stood along the back wall. I realized I'd been staring. "Is he some friend of yours?" he asked in heavily-accented English. "You often watch him from offstage."

I nodded. "We shared a flat some time ago, in London." Technically true, if misleading. "He danced with a company in London but had a bad falling-out with the director, and came to Lyon some time ago when he'd nearly run through his savings. His brother has business dealings with some jewel-merchants here, and he was quite taken with the commitment your city has made to the arts, when he visited several years ago." That was a bold-faced lie, and I sincerely hoped that Mycroft Holmes never learned we'd put his name to such use, for I knew well the elder Holmes brother would disapprove of our business here on several counts. "He suggested his brother, meaning Sherlock, might get a fresh start here. I came to see how he was getting on."

Then, remembering the pointers Holmes had given him on teasing information out of people, I turned to a change of subject. Small-talk, to put the man at ease. I ran a kerchief across my brow and the back of my neck, turning my eye to the too-small windows above our heads. "How do you stand this heat? It's stifling." I stripped off my frock coat and folded it over my arms.

"Cotton trousers," Duval answered. "And a thinner weave of cloth than you Englishmen think proper." He looked at the discarded coat. "The French, thankfully, are much more permissive in our clothing standards than you Englishmen seem to allow."

"Your English is quite good, I must say," I said. "It's much better than anyone else's I've come across in this troupe, save of course Holmes's. Where did you learn it?" It was hardly a common trait among stagehands and, quite aside from my uselessness with the others, it was a large part of why Holmes had told me to get to know this man in particular.

"I grew up along the coast, in Normandy," Duval said, "My sister married an English bargeman and lives in Dover with her sons." He pulled a wallet from his trouser pockets and showed me a battered picture of a smiling woman, her dour-faced husband, and their tow-headed boys. "Eric and George," he continued. "They learned some French from their mother, of course, but it comes hard to them. I learned their language from an Irish laundry-woman, so as I can write to them."

Well, that explained that. Privately, I estimated the chances of Duval being an antiquity-thief slightly less than zero; he'd shown no hint of unexplained income, no awkward avoidances of certain subjects, no sign of being anything more than a common stagehand who loved his family in any way that I could detect. Still, there was little point in investigating men who spoke a language I didn't.

That left me little to do but watch Holmes. He held out an arm for balance and raised himself onto his toes before taking up what I now recognized (Duval had been tutoring me) as fifth position. First, the pliés and the tendrus, and then the stretches: the reach for his toes with his foot propped against the barre, the side-stretches, the calf pulled near parallel to his torso. My own legs burned in sympathy; there were some things the human body simply was ill-designed to do, yet he made it seem effortless.

His rhythm was undeniable, his toes all but tapping out a clear beat that only he could hear. I knew the opera bored him to tears, but he seemingly felt quite differently when he was on the stage. Those people who only know him from the lithographs that sometimes accompany my accounts may think him an imposing figure, all sharp lines and striking cheekbones, but on that stage his severity melted away to something else entirely. His mind bent to his task like this, there was no use denying it: Holmes was grace personified. He took on a supple elegance, his skin all but glowing under the theatre’s incandescent lights.

("He always watches from offstage" by youmissthewar, used with kind permission of the artist)

I wish I was skilled enough with charcoal to do that image justice, but as I am not, the description must suffice. On that stage, Holmes was not the man I knew from Baker Street, keeping the cocaine-syringe at bay through his single-minded focus on the work, but one who seemed at peace and utterly absorbed by his art. He spared me a smile, just then, before moving into a series of jetés en tournant. I saw the floor-lantern he seemingly missed and called out to him, but not before he landed square on its scalloped edge. He crumpled to the ground, grabbing at his ankle, and I ran across the stage as quickly as I could, Duval not far behind.

To his great credit, Holmes did not cry out against the pain. In the weeks to come, when he recounted the story to Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson and even the dance hall’s insurance adjustors who travelled all the way to London, he always took great pride in that fact, and were I committed to praising his stoic control in this account, I would leave the story there. As my true purpose is to show a more human side of the man I once described as the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen, I cannot quite pass by without comment the way he sucked in his breath in great silent sobs, or how his head rolled back against the floor until his back arched. I laid a firm hand against his shoulder, calming him as well as I could and, once his breathing had returned to something resembling its normal pace, with more probing fingers, professionally assessing his metatarsals, his tibia and fibia, until finally he grunted in pain and I pulled away.

"Probable fracture of the lateral malleolus," I said with a professional detachment that seemed to calm him. Then, noting the way his leg clenched up, I turned my attention to the underside of his knee. He hissed when I traced a certain ligament behind his knee, even through his cotton stockings. "Possible sprain to the knee" – Holmes tried to sit up in protest, but I pressed my hand against his collarbone and eased him back against the floor – "but it may be simple bruising. Requires a more thorough examination." As I didn't quite dare to take my hands off Holmes for more than a moment, I had Duval remove my coat and retrieve my notepad and pencil from the pocket. The two of us quickly composed a short note explaining Holmes's injury as best I could ascertain it, with Holmes himself devising rough translations for the medical terms Duval didn't know.

The local doctor came, confirmed my initial assessment and determined, thankfully, that the bone could be set without the need for surgery. Several hours later Holmes and I were settled in his rented room, his ankle wrapped in plaster. He groused about it for most of the evening, but even a mind such as Holmes's could not find a way to continue our investigation in his present state. No dancer, regardless of his skill, could execute his craft on one leg (though Holmes had half a mind to try), and I could hardly spend time at the Théâtre des Céletins without provoking suspicion unless Holmes was on the stage.

We had no other leads to speak of, and so when Holmes was declared travel-ready three days later, we left the city in poor spirits. The Lyon police chief promised to keep an eye on the troupe when he could, but Holmes later told me the Lyon Police Department made Scotland Yard look positively perceptive. He held little hope of recovering the Countess Howard’s family heirlooms, and even less of receiving the reward I knew he’d rather been anticipating.

After my war service I sometimes made use of a cane and, since the pain was intermittent and seemed as tied to my dark moods as any physical factor I could identify, I carried it with me while traveling further than a few blocks from Baker Street. Holmes clearly needed a cane suitable to his great height but between two weeks’ lost wages on my part and so much of Holmes’s money spent on doctors’ fees, a brace for his knee (sprained after all, though not as badly as I'd feared), and morphine, we could scarcely afford the travel fares home, much less a new cane. The doctor who treated him, however, took my cane in trade for a used one a healed patient had returned to him the previous week that more or less matched Holmes’s height. I didn’t care for the way it seemed to bend under his weight, but there seemed little else we could do.

The next day we bade adieu to Duval and to Holmes’s associates at the Théâtre des Céletins and bought two third-class rail tickets to Calais. I must say, I thought I’d suffered the harshest conditions a modern man could be expected to endure during my months in Afghanistan, but they hardly hold a candle to those seventeen hours sitting half on, half off a bench in a smoke-filled, windowless train-carriage. Holmes at least managed to sleep, resting his head against my shoulder, but I was jostled awake regularly by the cacophony of our neighbors.

When at last we reached Calais, I was almost glad we’d missed the last ferry across the Channel. I longed to be home again as much as any man might, but I also knew a night in a proper bed before we boarded another, sure to be overcrowded, train would do us both a world of good. Holmes had once solved a particularly tricky murder in a village not far from Calais, incidentally saving the son of the local publican (a man named Girard) from the gallows, and he thought Girard would give us a decent room and a meal more cheaply than we could manage in town. Holmes hired a buggy and we set out for Sangatte.

Girard was glad to see Holmes and wouldn't think of accepting payment of any sort. Somehow we both managed to swallow a concoction our host insisted was stew, washed it down with beer, and not long after I declared myself ready for bed. Holmes promised to join me shortly but said he wanted to sit up a while longer. His leg, it seemed, had been jostled more in our trip northward than I’d realized. Reaching into my coat pocket, I pulled out my remaining medical supplies and frowned at my meager quantities left, at last giving Holmes a half dose of morphine and saving the rest for the last leg of our trip home tomorrow.

Sometime later, I woke with a start, snatched from sleep by the memory of those blood-stained Afghan sands I dreamt of too often in those days. I closed my eyes at once and tried to remember Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson baking bread and Holmes playing the Mendelssohn he'd been working at when we were called away. At last I felt my breathing slow, and when I opened my eyes again I was relieved to see the woods outside our window. It wasn't home, but just then it would do. But where was Holmes? His luggage sat beside my own against the far wall, untouched so far as I could tell. A quick look at my wristwatch confirmed it was well past midnight. I pulled on the previous day’s clothes and went downstairs as quickly as I could, using the stair-rail as a cane in place of the one I’d left in Lyon.

The common room was empty save for Girard's daughter banking the fire for the night. She told me that Holmes had gone out several hours ago, saying he wanted to stretch his legs and take in the night sky. That in itself was puzzling, for Holmes famously knew little about astronomy, nor did he see the point in star-gazing.. Several thoughts struck me at once: the out-of-the-way accommodations, Holmes's insistence that he had been getting close to breaking the thieves' ring (for he was convinced it was a ring, at the time) before his accident, the way he kept himself as distant from me as he could manage all evening. I remembered, too, how some months ago the brother of a particularly vile criminal had threatened to come after us if Holmes didn't get his brother off. Holmes had of course refused but I'd slept uneasily for several days afterwards. What if Holmes had come closer to the truth than I'd given him credit for? If they recognized him and had followed us north, and now had abducted him?

I ran outside and quickly searched the public house's small garden, but without result. I told the girl to wire the police that the renowned Sherlock Holmes was missing and took an oil lamp from the wall. Once outside again, I saw two cloaked figures running down the main road and gave chase, but it turned out to only be young lovers out for a late-night tryst. I doubled back, then, looking for footprints or some other sign that might point to Holmes's fate, but no such luck. Finally, I circled around the public house and, just as I was about to give up the search and wait for the police to come, I heard a low groan from a low gully full of rainwater and kitchen refuse. There sat Holmes, a discarded potato peel perched idly atop his deerstalker.

"Good evening, Watson. I thought you'd never come."

That statement made little enough sense to me, but as Holmes was clearly in a cryptic mood, I knew he would not volunteer further details on his own. "You could have come in," I said. "I was expecting you hours ago."

"I really couldn't have." He nodded to his cane lying a few feet away, now broken in half. Taking the potato peel from his hat, he twirled it between his fingers, laughing darkly at himself. "I fear we made a poor trade in Lyon. But I'm glad it's you that found me. I hate to think what the papers would make of this folly, if the news of tonight's mishap got out."

Just then I heard the quick clip of horses' hooves in the courtyard and could just imagine a village policeman dismounting, ready to offer any assistance required. "Holmes, about that." I inclined my head toward the sound and Holmes, guessing my meaning, groaned good-naturedly. "Why were you out here, in any event?" I asked. "It's late. I expected you in our room hours ago. Can't you sleep?"

"Quite the opposite, I'm afraid," Holmes said. He looked down at the scratched palms of my hand. "But I thought you might need your privacy more than I did the rest." I blushed a little, as I often did when Holmes' keen eye laid my secrets bare, and felt a twinge of pity for him at the thought of his own approaching interview when the policemen found him like this. "The Germans have recently demonstrated, with what passes for scientific rigor in that backward discipline they call psychology, what every army sergeant and police inspector has long seen: that dark dreams often plague those who have survived great traumas, and that new traumas, even when they diverge significantly in the particulars, often bring on nightmares of old wounds." He fixed me with his keen gaze just then, but his face was peculiarly open. Kind, I would say, if that kind of naked sentiment was not such an anathema to my friend. "It has been a year, hasn't it?" he asked. "Since Mary?"

That reminder pierced me to the core, and for a long moment I could do little but nod in silence. "A year to the day tomorrow," I said at last. He reached into his coat out of the muck, producing a ball wrapped in tin foil and handed it to me. Inside I found several apple slices, cut thin and seemingly kept fresh with a kind of citric juice. There was no other word for this particular item but odd, and around Holmes little point in letting such mysteries pass without comment. "Explain."

"According to our friend Lestrade," he said, "the latest Scotland Yard research on violent trauma indicates many affected officers have recurrent nightmares, an overdeveloped sense of urgency to maintain the appearance of normalcy in other areas, pain that cannot be accounted for on strictly medical grounds, and a lack of interest in the necessities of life. I would not have you fading away."

"You're a one to talk on that point," I said. It felt odd, having such a conversation with a man who never spoke of sentiment, so I crouched down in the grass beside him. We would at least be equals in this. Then I added, as the full weight of what he'd said sunk in, "You researched – me?"

"I share rooms with a man," he said, "work with a man exhibiting a rather definite constellation of symptoms. He is well worth saving, endowed with a native curiosity that is pitifully rare these days and a sense of justice that sometimes seems to surpass even my own." He fixed my eyes on me. "Much though it pains me to say it, I care for him deeply, and if he had – say – a fracture of the lateral malleolus, I would take him to a doctor. His own suffering is less well-defined than such a man's, but it is no less worthy of understanding, even if I can do little enough to prevent it."

I wondered, then, what had really driven us to Lyon. The case itself was thoroughly dull and I'd attributed Holmes interest to a desire to help a distraught woman, coupled perhaps with his need to fatten his wallet. But now, looking down at Holmes in the muddy ditch, I was reminded of other requests that made little enough sense in the context of the case. Holmes had sent me to the Musée des Beaux-arts to see if any of the guards had a particular raspberry birthmark on their neck, and I had spent the whole afternoon absorbed in their wonderful collection of Rubens paintings. Then there was the conversation with a priest at the Cathedral Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the morning watching the tropical birds flit about at the Jardin Botanique, the hikes along Fourviere Hill, even the night when Holmes had taken me out after dinner to see the new fountain in the Place des Terraux square, lit up with lamplight with the moon reflected in its pool. It was perhaps the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. How many of those moments had been driven by the investigation's needs, truly?

"You know, most people don't combine a holiday with a criminal investigation," I said.

"You are no more most people than am I, and you would hardly have come otherwise. But let us avoid undue flattery. I did hope to find the Countess Howard's masks, and I still think I would have if not for that damnable stage-lamp." He looked down at his injured leg with a disdainful scowl, and I had to bite back a laugh, so strong was the resemblance between him and Mrs. Hudson's pet cat just then. "In any event it was a trial worth making," he continued, "to see if I could solve a puzzle set far from home or if my prowess was more tied to a rather intimate knowledge of London than my pride cares to acknowledge. I am beginning to get inquiries from abroad, and I would hate to learn how difficult such work can be on a case of more import."

That was an explanation more worthy of Holmes, but I couldn't quite push his first admission from my mind. He seemed to accept my basic premise before pointing to the more respectable reasons. And it still hardly addressed the fundamental question. "But why are you out here alone and in the middle of the night, in your condition no less? And what of the apples?"

"Apple," Holmes corrected me. "The last of this house's winter apples, in exchange for the last franc I won't need to reach Baker Street. Madame Girard is hardly as generous as her husband. I had hoped to keep us in Lyon for a few days more, occupying you with strange sights and the best work I could manage, to ease what I thought must be a painful day. I did not intend on getting injured and trapping you in a low-rate train-carriage with nothing to do but follow your mind where it took you. And as the state of both my leg and my wallet prevent me from offering much distraction, this seemed the most I could reasonably hope to offer. A lack of interest in the necessities of life – food especially, as it turns out. Apparently it helps to offer smaller meals, particularly when shared, and I thought – well. I hoped it might make the day easier to bear."

That declaration touched me profoundly. He needn't have worried himself; I missed Mary deeply and suspected I always would, but I had never been one particularly affected by dates. The revelation, however, that Holmes cared – again, no other word was sufficient to this revelation – and cared for me in this way was a worthy prize indeed. Examining an apple slice, I decided the foil wrap had protected it from the water well enough and offered it to Holmes. "Particularly when shared, you said."

Holmes shook his head at the offering, but before I could take offense, he chuckled to himself. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away, as the saying goes. I can hardly risk that. After all, I'd be lost without my Boswell."

I helped Holmes out of the mud and, held out my arm as support in the place of the broken cane, made our way back to the public house. The policeman was pleased enough to see that Holmes was found, so much so, that when Holmes confided we were on a rather sensitive case for the Countess Howard of Kent that would be better kept private, he agreed not to file a report. Holmes was spared the humiliation of seeing that evening's mishap splashed across the newspaper and, when Girard gave him an old walking stick to replace the broken cane the next morning, we were able to continue our trip home to London.

As it turned out, Holmes was able to solve the case and even retrieve most of the masks, though he could have done as well without ever leaving London. One day not long after our return to Baker Street I found him looking at the daguerreotype of the man we'd been seeking, particularly the dark stains on his forefingers. He pointed out the bulge in the man's top-hat which I immediately recognized as the telltale sign of a stethoscope carried there, and so we wired the countess's niece to come and talk to us privately.

Without her aunt's imposing presence, Carolyn had revealed there was some truth to her original story: that Vincent had indeed been a university student but had left for lack of funds, and that he had ambitions of becoming a doctor. She had taken the masks (her aunt had promised her as inheritance some day in any event) and given them to Vincent so he might sell them and finish his education. She had promised to marry him if he could ever offer her a stable home and had agreed to wait for five years – she had loved him, I saw, and guessed from the soft smile gracing Holmes's face that he saw it too – and in the folly of youth she had never imagined her aunt would even miss the masks.

With this information, Holmes guessed he must be living near the university and be known to the area chemists, and the Lyon police were able to find him easily enough. He had sold two of the masks by that time but still had a dozen more, which he returned to the countess. I have it on good authority, though we played no further role in the affair, that the young woman confessed her misdeeds to her aunt and that the countess sponsored Vincent Roux at my own school. Apparently, he was actually not such a poor match as they both had thought: she was after all the younger daughter of a younger line, and her family was hardly as rich as it once had been.

For our part, Holmes was paid well once we promised not to publish the particulars of the case. He nearly balked at the restriction since it implied his silence could be bought, but I assured him I had no intention of selling this particular tale to the magazines that usually carried my accounts and reminded him how the money would let him refuse future cases if they failed to interest him. It was a poor candidate for my usual chronicling in any case – there were no thrilling chases, no brilliant deductions to excite the mind – and it would hardly be worth telling if not for the moments along the way that would only interest the people more likely to learn the story from our own lips than the papers.

Even so, as I look back on all the cases we have worked on together, it delights me no less than does the resolution of Baskerville, our search for AGRA's treasure, or even Holmes's capture of Sebastian Moran after beating back death itself. I could not quite bear to let it go unrecorded, even if by necessity it must go unread.