It is universally acknowledged that a London gentleman of a certain age and who holds an elevated position in society will flee the city for the month of Christmas, taking to his country house for the endless round of balls and other frivolous yet deadly serious pastimes required of the season. It is also expected that said gentleman will enjoy it all.
One does not dare to speak for the vast majority of London gentlemen on the subject, but [perhaps arrogantly] I flatter myself that I can at least discern the feelings of the most singular fellow with whom I have shared rooms for nearly two decades. Of course, I am helped in that endeavour by the fact that he loudly and regularly proclaims his opinions on all things, including Christmas, country houses, balls and older, annoying brothers.
I was blessed once again with hearing his opinions on those particular subjects as Mr Sherlock Holmes sprawled out languidly on the satin coverlet of the bed and I proceeded to pack his travelling trunk. The task fell to me because yet another valet had months ago fled into the night, unable to deal with the mercurial moods of a master who did not fit the mould of a London gentleman of a certain age and who held an elevated position in society. We did not miss him or his ilk and had determined to bumble along without a valet at all. It was easier and safer this way and I did not begrudge having to tie Sherlock’s cravats.
In any event, I was amongst the very few who could deal with Holmes’s moods, aided no doubt by long experience.
And, of course, sentiment.
My own case was already packed and awaiting departure in the adjoining bedroom which housed my wardrobe but rarely myself.
As I arranged tailcoats and shirts, stockings and trousers, waistcoats and cravats, I tuned out the complaints themselves, simply letting the deep voice roll across me and let myself be swept away by memories.
There is nothing more useless than an invalided soldier on the streets of the cesspool that is London, even one with some skills at being a physician. That was the role in which I had found myself on a cold night not far from Christmas two decades ago. The solitary grimness of my lodgings drove me out into the city as often as possible.
My mood was low, my prospects few and I was too often contemplating the pleasures of the chilly and dark waters of the Thames or the feel of my flintlock pistol pressed to my temple. It was not that I wanted to die, but only that I was not certain that I wanted to live. Self-murder might be a sin, but like all sins, it held a certain attraction.
I stood on the pavement outside a public house and listened to the sounds coming from people in high spirits, yet feeling no desire to go in and join them.
And that is how, for the first time in my life, I risked shame and death by seeking out a molly house. Once admitted, I found a quiet corner and, with a mug of watered-down ale clutched in one hand, proceeded to observe this new world I had entered. Secret tales told between soldiers far from home and facing a fearsome enemy, facing death, had made places such as this sound exotic. A forbidden adventure.
However, it not take long for me to realise that I had little interest in much of what was going on. There were callow youths in shabby silk gowns, their painted faces more pitiful than appealing. There were young men of the gentry, no doubt here in the only act of rebellion they could manage against the plans their families certainly held for them. There were plump men edging past their middle age, who surely had wives at home and I wondered what excuses they gave for absenting themselves from the family hearth on nights like this one.
But contrary to what the laws of God or men instructed, I did not judge any one of them. Rather, I understood their purpose in coming to this place. I did, however, realise that I did not belong here. Just as I decided to flee back into the night, however, one figure caught my eye.
He did not belong here either, that much was immediately clear to me.
The man was of about my own age, perhaps a bit younger, and he was as pale and lovely as a carved marble statue by Michelangelo or one of the other great artists of antiquity. Dark curls spilled about his head and the trousers he wore fit like a second skin. But despite the beauty on show and the sudden ache it spawned in my chest, there was more that captured and held my attention.
His eyes were bright, even in the sparsely-lit parlour, and to me they looked improbably viridian and platinum as his gaze darted about the room with palpable curiosity.
Something told me that he was not here in search of some cheap illicit encounter with one of the sad painted boys
It was a moment before I realised that my contemplation of him was being returned in equal measure. His quick-silver gaze moved over me with that same sense of curiosity and somehow I felt that he knew me better even than I knew myself.
My mouth went suddenly dry as he moved towards me and taking a swallow of the piss-poor ale did not help.
Suddenly, he stood in front of me, too close and at the same time much too far away.
“You have never come to a place like this before,” he murmured in a voice that reminded me of the cup of rich dark chocolate I had enjoyed when a fellow soldier took me into White’s. “And you are about to depart, both slightly ashamed and disappointed that you have found no solace.”
I blinked at him and then rallied just a bit; I had, after all, been a soldier. “You belong here no more than do I,” was my knowing retort.
He raised a brow at me as a faint smile played about the corners of his dangerously tempting lips. “You do not disappoint me, sir,” he said.
Those words pleased me inordinately.
And then he began to talk and I tried to follow his quick words while not at the same time being distracted by his voice or his eyes or his scent.
The bones of the story he told me were about a man who patronised the molly houses of London, only to lure foolish boys away and savagely murder them. Six had fallen victim to his evil scheme so far and the Bow Street runners were very little interested. Apparently, some shadowy government figure was, however.
Even when his story was finished, I did not quite understand this stranger’s role in the sordid affair, but he waved away my questions with an impatient and slender hand. “Later, later,” he said.
‘Later’ implied at least something of a future beyond this smokey corner in which we were currently huddled and I was content with that.
Something of what he had told me had clearly penetrated my mind, despite the distractions, because it was I who first spotted the man in the yellow waistcoat. He was headed for the door, with a youth in tow. “There, sir,” I said.
And the chase was on.
I followed the stranger through a dank and dark alleyway and knew even then that I would follow him right unto the pits of hell if asked. When our prey suddenly stopped and turned, a blade plainly visible in his hand, I moved first, tackling him to the filthy ground. My companion tore off his cravat and used it to bind the man’s hands. Then he gave a sharp whistle and a boy appeared from the shadows. This one wore the ragged garb of a beggar, but his face was sharp. “You know where to go,” was what the man said and the boy took off, after grabbing from the air a coin flipped in his direction.
I watched this, bemused.
Finally one of those hands I had been admiring was held out. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said.
My hand was encased in his and I realised that, despite the appearance of cold marble, his flesh was warm. “John Watson,” I replied.
He gave me a grin. “My brother will send someone to haul this beast away,” he said. “And then, Mr John Watson, we will adjourn to my rooms on Baker Street for a brandy and some conversation about your future.”
And for the first time, I dared to imagine that future.
I looked at Sherlock Holmes now, sprawled still on the bed. The curls were silvering and the face lined, but he was still my lovely boy. We had managed to survive and even flourish in a world that would have condemned us for the love we shared. Together we solved the mysteries, great and small, people brought to us and then I scribbled my little stories for the Gentleman’s Magazine. And always we loved one another.
Sherlock had finally ceased his litany of complaints just as I finished the packing.
Soon the carriage that Mycroft was sending would arrive and we would depart for the Holmes country house. There we would dance with too many ladies and possibly with one another in a secret corner where the sound of the hired musicians was a mere whisper in the air. We would consume too much turkey and frumetnery, as well as far too many mince pies. We would suffer through Blind Man’s Bluff and Hunt the Slipper and endless card games, not to mention the courting of both of us by eager widows of our age.
When it all became too much, we would take the dogs, including our own pup who would travel with us as always, and walk through the winter landscape, whilst laughing at the foolishness of both society and of ourselves for playing the game.
When night came, because the house was so full of family and acquaintances, we would withdraw to the distant guest room we always so nobly agreed to share, and once there wrap ourselves together, knowing that even Christmas did not last forever.
Soon we would be back within our Baker Street rooms, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, sipping brandy and filling our pipes, whilst we shared details of our latest mystery. Just as it was always meant to be.