I don’t know what made me so certain that I would be able to take Cream out in a physical fight if push came, quite literally, to shove. Not that I was not capable in a fight, but Cream had, through horrific crime after horrific crime, proved himself to be equally so. When he was at the university, we might have been equally robust; now it had been some years and though I was not decrepit yet, I was not young either, while he was fully in his prime. Nevertheless, I went to our rendezvous on the cliff convinced that I would not let him walk away from it. Perhaps it was my very fury at his actions that convinced me that I would win. I am not as naive as Doyle, but I’ll admit that I do believe the righteous ought to triumph, no matter how many times I have witnessed that they often do not.
At any rate, I wrote to Doyle my apologies on undertaking a dangerous enterprise alone, and I’ll admit I had my fears, but I went in with the anticipation that preparation could lead to success. I didn’t need to come out of our bout unscathed: I only had to make sure Cream went over the cliff as well as I, and try my best to survive the fall. In the end I succeeded at the latter, but failed at the more important former.
This was mostly because Cream had caught me by surprise by not trying to shove me but instead stabbing me in the leg. So I was left lying on a ledge with blood seeping through my trousers, trying my best to only curse in my head instead of out loud. I’d also banged my head—blood in my eyes as well—and I was pretty sure I’d broken at least one rib, and bruised pretty much everything else. So I had a time of it not moaning and groaning and making it obvious I was still alive. Still, I lay still and silent. I was worried Cream was still on the edge of the cliff looking down at me, and I did not want him to come down and finish the job. I had no delusions that I could fight him off like this.
I waited a long time to see if Cream would arrive, but when he did not, I knew I could not stay on the ledge forever. So I began to climb, slowly and painfully, down the cliff. My foot had been injured worse than I had realized, and my shoulder ached whenever I had to put wait on my arm, but I made it to the bottom at last. Many things are possible when they are necessary.
Then for a while I lay down and played dead again, too exhausted to go on. The sun was high in the sky, and with that and the sweat of my endeavors I at least was not cold. But at last I knew that if I continued to lie there until someone came to find me, it might be hours, and my condition would get considerably worse. And, too, it might very well be Cream.
So I got up again and began to walk. At least it wasn’t a cliff this time, though movement still pained me, and I regretted that I had lost my cane in the brief scuffle before falling. I walked slowly back towards the inn where I might tell Doyle of the encounter and my unfortunate failure. I was so slow that I had perhaps been walking for an hour, with small breaks now and again, before I glimpsed the smoke.
By the time I got back to the boarding house, the fire had been mostly put out. It had taken them longer than one might have expected because the fire didn’t seem to want to die.
“There was probably an accelerant,” I said. “There will be traces in the wood, if I’m allowed a look.” I wanted Inspector Langton to let me go up to the room which had been on fire—Doyle’s room. I had been able to tell that even from the view outside.
Langton was being stubborn. “Dr. Bell, you need medical treatment. And you need to sit down.”
I sat down slowly on the ground and immediately regretted. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get up again. “Send for Dr. Bulweather, then. But I want a look at the room. All the evidence will be fresh. Your people are already in there, and soon there will be more—I need to look immediately.”
“Dr. Bell, perhaps you could look tomorrow. You’re tired. And you need to give me a statement on your own encounter.”
“I can give you a statement after I look. Let me in. You can send for Bulweather, and he’ll be here by the time I’m done. Please, Inspector. Time is of the essence.”
Langton reluctantly agreed, with the provision that he would stay by my side while I looked and if he said to, I would go downstairs immediately. So we made our way in.
It might, of course, not have been Cream’s doing at all, that fire. So I told myself. Or a mere attempt at intimidation—directed at Doyle, since Cream probably assumed I was now dead. The fire would destroy Doyle’s things, and the place which he had been calling a home. That, paired with my own death, would be a blow. (It would be anticlimactic, compared to Cream murdering me, but I was ignoring that. Just as I was ignoring what Doyle had told me of Cream’s threats while he was Cream’s captive—“I think I will roast you alive for your heresies.”)
And Langton had told me there was a body in the room. But Cream had left corpses and horrors for Doyle’s perusal before. The body could well be anyone.
These were the things I told myself as I headed up to Doyle’s burnt out room. The smell of smoke was so thick that I had to hold a handkerchief over my nose and mouth. Burnt wood, with a faint scent of oil—I was still convinced of the use of an accelerant—and the stronger odor of roasted flesh.
I went into the room and considered the evidence.
The body lay near the door, and Langton informed me it had been closer, pressed up against the door, before the firefighters had had to break their way in to put the fire out. The door had been locked, the key missing, the landlord unavailable. When the firefighters had broken the door down, they’d shoved the body aside before realizing what it was.
The door, therefore, must have been locked from the outside. Cream must have somehow stolen Doyle’s key… but my thoughts were moving too quickly, and I forced them to slow down, though the scene told the story well enough already. The body itself was too burnt to be recognizable, but it was of average height. I thought it looked a little tall to be Doyle, but on the other hand, I knew I sometimes thought of Doyle as smaller and weaker than he actually was. It was a habit I could not help; I had seen the more pitiful side of him far too often.
There were only two items in the room that might help with identification (before an autopsy, at least), and those were a half-burnt coat and the silver head of my missing cane.
The coat’s cloth seemed like Doyle’s. But I told Langton it would be hasty to make a positive identification. “Everything here is burnt. To say I can make much of it would be arrogance. I can only see as much as you doubtless can too: someone used oil to set a fire. There was a fight—you can tell that by the things lying in disarray. Then one person locked the other into the room, where he died.” Something rose in my throat. I turned to the door; it was broken now, and I could easily make an escape from the room where Doyle—where the unidentified individual had struggled and perished. “I believe you are right, and I should go and sit down.”
Bulweather had arrived, and he treated my injuries. He told me I had damaged my foot further by walking such a distance on it. I agreed. It would have been better for my foot to have waited at the base of the cliff for help. But it would have been far better for Doyle for me to have gotten back sooner, or perhaps never to have gone out to meet Cream after all. I had thought to lower the risk to him by meeting Cream by myself, but it had been folly. Cream had never attacked both of us at the same time, but only tried to isolate us and attack us separately. I had played into his hands.
Had Doyle been in my situation, I knew pretty well what his reaction would have been. I had seen him after Elsbeth’s death, the quick-burning rage and then the despair that had left him wrecked for weeks, and changed irrevocably afterwards. My own passions do not run so high, besides which, I told myself, I did not yet have all the facts. Besides which, for the rage which was slowly growing in me, I had no productive vent. I wanted to go back in time to the cliff with Cream and manage to actually push him over the edge this time; failing that, to find him as soon as possible and make him suffer as Doyle had suffered. My own anger burns slow, and it usually finds a use in the end, but I must admit I was not content to sit in the boarding house parlor and watch policemen discuss events uselessly with the landlord and other witnesses. Nor was I yet resigned to waiting another several years before finding Cream again. He couldn’t be out of town yet—or if he was out of town, at least he’d still be in the area—and I itched with the need for action, for justice.
So although it was not exactly a high priority task, I argued Langton into coming down to the cliff with me to see where Cream and I had fought earlier. I wanted to see if there were any clues in that area, though of course I already knew all about the crime committed there. And I was wary enough to not go on my own, well aware of my current weakness.
Langton brought me there in the police wagon. The ride was jolting due to the country road, and it was not kind to my injuries. Still, it was much better than walking.
“I am surprised you managed to drag yourself so far,” Langton commented to me.
“You make it sound very undignified. I assure you I did not drag myself. I hobbled.” It was amusing, in a grim sort of way, how Langton fussed over me, how Bulweather had fussed over me earlier, because of how I was hurt. I was not dead, so to me it did not matter much—what mattered more was that I had failed to kill Cream. That hurt me deeper than any wound.
We got out of the carriage when we ran out of road, and Langton offered me his arm. I’m afraid I didn’t pay him much attention, because I had glimpsed a figure at the cliff, staring off over the edge. As Langton tried to get my attention, I walked towards the figure. It did not move, but was perfectly stationary, as if it could hold its post there for hours, unaffected by the howling wind.
I called out to it. “Doyle!”
When he turned around, his face broke in its relief. I’d wager I did not look far different.
I held my arms open, and he came to me. His clutching embrace jarred my shoulder, but after the events of the day, it was a welcome pain. I hugged him back. I had not, even up until that moment, let myself entirely believe, on an intellectual level, that he was dead. But the belief had rooted itself in my bones. Now I let Doyle wring it slowly out of me, and I held him close. He smelled of smoke and oil, like that hideous room had, but here he was, alive and whole. I believe I cried a little. I don't know. It was a very emotional day, and it is not one that Doyle and I speak of very often.
After that, Doyle and I explained some things to each other. Although Doyle was very eager to hear my version of the day, I forced him to go first. Truthfully, I was not ready to speak, and I was still wondering over the fact that he was alive.
He told me Cream had come to his room, informed him that I was dead, and then set the place ablaze with kerosene. That he’d fought his way out, locked the door, and ran out to the cliff to see if Cream had told the truth.
(The inspector was still hovering at a distance, so he made his explanation brief. In moments he’d have to tell the police a version of this story that didn’t make him sound like a cold-blooded killer. I could never view him that way, but the fact remained that he had locked a man into a burning room without a moment’s hesitation. That went somewhat beyond self defense.)
“You must have seen my body was not there,” I said. “Why did you not come back to the boarding house? I would have returned eventually.”
“I had not looked.”
“What? Doyle.” He had certainly seemed to be looking to me.
“I had glanced,” he admitted, “but I could not bring myself to look very carefully, or to go down and check the ground. I was… waiting.”
“For anything,” he said. “For you—you came in the end, didn’t you?” He raised his eyebrows at that, an impudently smug student. Still, he could not hold the expression for long; mostly he looked sick. I do not like to think what would have become of him if I had not showed up, or if I had indeed been dead beneath the cliff. I’d spent years prying him out of morbid moods and trying to ward off an imminent opium addiction. It would have been a cruel irony if at last it were my death that pushed him over the brink; Cream would have loved it.
I shivered, thinking of it, and put an arm around Doyle. “Help me back to the carriage. The inspector is waiting. We came here to look for clues, but I think that can be done later. Cream is dead at any rate. I saw the aftermath of that fire you started.”
And at the news that Cream was dead, Doyle gave a sturdier smile than I had seen from him thus far. I told him not to make that face at the inspector. It would give a bad impression. But I could not help but share in his joy that we had both survived and that our enemy at long last lay defeated.