The middle months of 1880 were not ones that I would under any circumstances choose to repeat. I was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand, and though my army career was effectively terminated then, it took another quarter of a year before I was standing once again on English soil. I wanted nothing to do with anything at the time, being so disillusioned with the world, so I did the only thing I thought I could think of and went to London.
London was hospitable, in the way that only the biggest cities can be. I was alone in the middle of a crowd, solitary among multitudes, and I could have been lost forever. I was surviving on a pension that barely kept me fed and housed, and even then I was living beyond my means. My hands shook too badly to recommend me for a position at the hospital, and my nerves were too shattered to guarantee a full night's sleep. I woke more often than not with the sound of gunfire ringing in my ears.
By the beginning of 1881, I was convinced that my habits were not sustainable, but I refused to leave my new urban home. There was nothing for me outside London—no family to count on, no friends devoted enough to offer support—and so I knew I had to make do where I was. I would have to find a place other than my hotel: perhaps take a bed in a boarding house, or find someone to go halves on a set of rooms with me.
It was only a few days after I had made this pronouncement to myself that young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Bart's, spotted me in a crowd at the Criterion. One moment I was utterly alone, and the next his round, familiar face seemed to materialise in front of me.
"Watson!" he cried, shaking my hand heartily. "Good to see you again, my dear fellow. Whatever have you been doing with yourself?"
The question took rather a long time to answer, as it turned out, once we had moved past the usual lies and assurances of well-being. I invited him for lunch in Holborn, and we spent the afternoon trading stories of India and England since our time together at the hospital. Finally he asked me what I was doing with myself that very evening. I admitted that I hadn't any plans. I hardly ever had plans, unless they were to drink myself into trouble and gamble my way out of it again. I didn't admit that to him.
"I don't know if you'll be interested," Stamford said, pulling an envelope out of his pocket, "but I've got a ticket to a play tonight I can't get away for, and I don't want the seat going to waste. I've got to get back to cover a lecture, but I was really looking forward to this one."
"Stamford, I couldn't," I protested.
"Watson, I insist. I swear I can't go, and I can't find anyone who'll take it. Put your pocketbook away, man, and you can owe me a favour later if you must."
I put the ticket inside my jacket pocket. I hadn't any business going to the theatre—I doubted I had anything suitable to wear—but something about the possibility thrilled me. It was such a luxury; I'd never have bought a ticket on my own. After Stamford and I had shaken hands and parted ways, I spent the afternoon convincing myself to go. The theatre was not very far from my hotel in the Strand, and it would be an utter waste of an opportunity if I didn't attend. But my clothing was anything but fashionable, and the only civilian suit that would be appropriate was three years out of style and no longer fit my emaciated form.
Then again, I told myself, there would be no one to recognise me, and therefore no one to concern themselves with my appearance. I wished it didn't matter so bloody much. I stared long and hard at my thin, unnaturally-tanned face in the glass above the wash stand, and told myself I was being absurd. Normal people went to the theatre all the time.
I slipped out of the hotel, avoiding the proprietor and his accusatory glare, and walked the few streets to the theatre. There was a crowd of people already milling about outside it, and I joined the throng with some trepidation. The normal hustle and bustle of a London street did not make me anxious, but the determined press of theatre-goers had an unknown quality. I gritted my teeth and went inside.
The ticket-taker gave me the briefest of glances and then passed me on to the usher, who showed me to my seat.
Once seated, I could stare my fill at the interior of the theatre. I was quite far forward in the house, only a few rows from the edge of the stage, where the orchestra pit had been covered over and the footlights shone upwards at the sumptuous curtain. The seat was red velvet, plush and unfamiliar under my hands and backside. There was enough room between the rows for me to stretch my bad leg out on the carpet, and I tucked my walking stick between my seat and the next one. The armrests were dark mahogany, polished until they were gleaming.
The stage itself was painted wood, showing the scuff marks of dozens of shoes and with bits of coloured paper stuck here and there to mark where the actors were meant to stand. The curtain looked like the same red velvet as my seat, and it rippled in the footlights in the wake of an actor or a stagehand crossing the stage behind it. Its gold tassels brushed the ground with the barest susurration. I let out my breath on a quiet, deliberate sigh, and forced my shoulders to relax.
In the back of my mind, I knew I still retained something of the contents of Hamlet, but sitting there before the play began I could remember little other than that it took place in Denmark and contained some reference to a haunting. A young woman died. Come to think of it, everyone died.
Well, I was familiar with that.
The audience around me began to fill, and I had to move my walking stick for a gentleman beside me, and then pick up my feet for a lady on the other side. Within ten minutes I was surrounded completely, hemmed in by people on every side. I closed my eyes to wait for the curtain.
When the stage grew dark and the audience around me fell silent, I was able to open them again. The actors emerged, walking a perimeter around the stage, and I was at once transported. The ghost brought my heart into my mouth. The fear of the soldiers was my own. I trembled in my seat, and then the Prince of Denmark appeared.
Hamlet was tall, probably over six feet, and seemed taller because of his incredible leanness. He was all in black, from his soft cloth shoes to his leather doublet, which made him look as pale as the ghost he was meant to see. His narrow face was accentuated in the footlights, and when he spoke his voice reverberated through me. I was captivated. I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
He dragged me deeper. His suspicion grew inside me, and I saw spectres where he indicated. His tortured monologues rang out to the thump of my sympathetic heart, his madness echoed my own lost soul. He thought too much, analysed too deeply, where I had only followed orders. His sweetheart tried to pry him from his own mind, but he was stuck there and I was there with him. He spoke right to me when he went 'round in circles, trying to untangle the web he had woven, and I could do nothing to help. I was tortured for him, with him, by him, and when he finally succumbed to the insanity of the ghost and the poison on the sword, I felt as though my heart were breaking.
For a long moment the theatre was almost completely silent, and then the applause began, somewhere in the back of the house. It rushed forward, a wave of sound, and I found myself upon my feet with the rest of the people that surrounded me. We clapped and clapped as the actors returned to the stage and made their bows. Hamlet was still daubed with blood, and his dark hair was falling over his fine, high forehead, damp with sweat. His smile was broad and gracious, and he nodded his thanks to the thunderous audience. Then, as the actors retreated, so did the applause, until it was entirely subsumed by the general clamour and commotion of patrons leaving their seats.
I sat down again to wait for the row to clear, and picked up my program.
Featuring S. Scott Holmes as Hamlet. He was marvellous; I don’t mind saying it. The memory of his voice sent a shiver through me. I hadn’t felt so affected by another person in so long. What a shame, I thought, that it had been all imaginary.
"Can I help you?" a familiar voice asked. I looked up in surprise.
S. Scott Holmes stood barefoot on the empty stage, wiping his hands on a rag stained with false blood. He had cleaned most of the blood off of his face, and he had changed out of doublet and hose. Now, in shirtsleeves and trousers, his braces hanging loose and his collar unbuttoned, he was entirely transformed. Instead of the aching, melancholy, untouchable Prince of Denmark, it was a mortal man before me.
He smiled when I met his eyes: a bland, expectant smile. "Is there something the matter?"
The house was almost entirely empty, save myself and Holmes. I cleared my throat, embarrassed. "No," I said, struggling to my feet and leaning on my walking stick. "I was just… lost in thought. I didn’t realise… You were magnificent."
The smile widened into a more genuine article, and Holmes ducked his chin as if to hide it. "Thank you," he said, beginning to fold up the rag he held. I stared at his hands, transfixed. They were entirely steady, his movements smooth and crisp, nothing like the fluttering, overwrought gesturing of the Prince. It was as though he had finally settled, after death. Found peace at the end of his life.
But, no. The actor before me was very much alive. He had thrown off the persona of the dead Prince, leaving it abandoned with his costume backstage.
I looked up again to find him watching me, his eyes sparkling with amusement and his thin mouth turned up in a knowing little smirk. I felt myself blushing.
"Let me shake your hand," Holmes said, coming to the edge of the stage.
"Let me shake your hand," he repeated, holding out his own. "It’s only decent of me."
Startled, I manoeuvred my way out of the row. Holmes watched as I came down the aisle, but he made no move to join me on the floor. Instead, he waited until I was at the very edge of the stage, at which point he reached down as I reached up. We clasped hands. Up close, I could see the stage make-up on his face: the liner around his eyes that deepened and brightened their strange, silvery hue; the tint of rouge on his cheeks and lips that flushed his pale face in the footlights. On another, softer-featured man, they would have made him look effeminate. As he was, all sharp lines and angles, it only accentuated his masculine appeal. My throat felt dry.
"You’ve been in Afghanistan," he said, holding onto my hand.
"Yes," I said, taken aback by his statement. "Good heavens, how did you know?" I wasn’t wearing any part of my uniform.
"You carry yourself like a military man," he said, crouching to look at me more closely, "and your complexion speaks volumes. Not to mention your gait is slightly altered, and you hold your left arm closer to your body than your right, suggesting you were wounded in action. You have the grip of a doctor, though."
"Assistant Surgeon," I confirmed. "Attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, and later the 66th Berkshires."
He let out a low whistle of appreciation. "You were at Maiwand," he said. "You’re a hero, sir."
"God, no," I protested, trying to turn away from that piercing gaze, but he was still holding onto my hand.
"Well," Holmes said, "at least let me buy you a drink."
I stared at him. "What, now?"
When he let go of my hand, for a moment my palm was cold. He straightened again. "Give me ten minutes to get my makeup off, and I am your man."
"I–" I didn’t know what to say.
"Forgive me," he said, pausing halfway across the stage, "You are otherwise engaged."
I grimaced. "No," I admitted.
His smile was back, and it had taken a mischievous slope. "You are now," he said, and disappeared into the wings.
I swallowed hard. My heart was racing, and my hands felt clammy. For a moment, I thought I was ill. Then the excitement caught up with me, and I grinned so hard my face ached. I went up the aisle lighter on my feet than I had felt in six months, and when I opened the door to the lobby, the girl on the other side gave a little cry of surprise.
Schooling my features from what was no doubt a manic grimace, I apologised and made my way past her to the doors of the lobby. She muttered something at my back, but I was too euphoric to pay her any mind. I fastened my coat against the winter wind and tucked my muffler around my neck and face to hide the smile that I couldn’t control.
In the army, I had made a name for myself as an incorrigible rake, gaining the attentions of women across three continents. I had not slept with men while I was out of England, but now that I was back my old habits from University and earlier had made a reappearance. I was lucky that I found myself attracted to both sexes; I kept myself out of trouble for the most part.
But I had heard things about actors, and it seemed Mr S. Scott Holmes fit the bill.
On the other hand, he might be nothing more than a citizen of London wishing to show his appreciation for a protector of the realm. I was getting ahead of myself. If women would be frightened by the sight of my wounds, I doubted civilian men would be any different. They were horrible to look at, and I was a wreck of a man. My ruined thigh barely held me up as I stood, and I had the gall to imagine it making no difference in an amorous context? I was ridiculous, I told myself, pulling my hat down against the wind.
I stood for what felt like an age in the cold, berating myself for my foolishness, wishing I had a pocket watch on which to rely. It had to be more than ten minutes, I thought. Holmes wasn’t coming to meet me. Now I was a fool, as well as an idiot, and I ought to make myself scarce before someone spotted me lurking and had me arrested.
I took up my stick and made my way down the stairs to the street, the cold air stabbing straight through my coat and into my shoulder. I hugged my arm closer to my side and risked the icy pavement, gritting my teeth against the ache.
Behind me, a voice called, "Doctor!"
I turned. A tall, thin figure detached itself from the shadows in the alley beside the theatre and hurried toward me. As he came into the circle of light from the streetlamp I stood under, I saw that it was Holmes after all.
"I don't know your name, Doctor," he said, stopping in front of me.
"Watson," said I. "John Watson."
"Sherlock Holmes," he replied, and we shook hands a second time. Even through the layers of our gloves, I could feel the strength in his grip. "I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Doctor Watson," Holmes went on. "Miss Sillars had a mishap with the spirit gum and she wouldn’t let us go on without her. I should have come to get you, but I didn’t think you’d be waiting out in the cold."
"Never mind," Holmes said, taking my arm. "I shan’t make you stay out in this blasted weather a minute longer. We’re just going up the street."
I allowed myself to be led back the way I had come, past the theatre, trailing behind a gaggle of people who were all laughing and talking together, their powerful voices and affectionate camaraderie giving them away as the troupe of actors I had just watched. Holmes did not seem to be in a hurry to catch up, and we walked at some little distance, Holmes’s hand tucked into the crook of my elbow. His body blocked some of the wind, and I could feel the warmth from him seeping in along my side.
Soon, the company turned off the street and into a brightly lit public house. The noise and heat of the pub spilled out the door, and we quickened our step to reach it before it closed again. Holmes held the door for me and put his hand on the small of my back as I passed.
I breathed in the warm, humid, smoky air with a smile of relief. The cold, which I had feared would settle in my bones, already felt as though it were leaking out of me, and in its place I felt the hot, tingling pulse of my blood returning to my extremities. Behind me, Holmes took off his hat and coat, and offered to take mine as well. I only hesitated for the briefest moment, thinking of how miserable I would be if I lost this coat to carelessness or theft, and he smiled.
"You may rely on me to keep it safe, Doctor," he said. "We're something of a band of regulars here."
I nodded, embarrassed. I had no idea I was so transparent.
A moment later, Holmes returned, and he ushered me close to the bar, calling for a pair of brandies over the din. The rest of the company had become one with the patronage of the pub, and out of their costumes were almost entirely indistinguishable from the regular crowd. The only way I could identify them was by the traces of make-up on their faces, which made them look slightly surreal, larger than life.
Holmes handed me my glass and clinked our edges together. "For your service," he said softly, and kept his eyes fixed upon me as he took a sip.
I am ashamed to admit it, even now, but my throat closed up and I had to look away, blinking against the sting of tears. The war had brought honours and promotion to many of my comrades, but I had suffered nothing but misfortune and disaster. Even my discharge had been little more than an afterthought; I was too ruined in body and spirit to be any more use, and so they had sent me home. This single man, in a back alley pub, with a smear of fake blood still visible below his left ear and his hair slicked back from his face with more sweat than pomade, had just given me more genuine thanks for what I had risked than had my own regiment.
"Oh, my dear fellow," Holmes said at once, curling his arm around me and drawing me away from the crush at the bar. "I didn't— I hope you have not taken offence."
"No," I said, shaking my head and swallowing hard. "No, I'm— you caught me unawares, that is all."
"Forgive me," he said. "I shouldn't have dredged up unwanted memories."
I managed a laugh, and tasted the brandy he had given me. It served for an answer, and so Holmes led me to a table in the corner. We slid in across from one another, and Holmes took another appreciative sip of his drink. He leaned back in his chair and gazed at me at length, his eyes tracking over me from the top of my head to the buttons on my jacket and back again. When I refused to squirm under his gaze, he smiled.
"You are quite correct," he said, "I am nothing like the Prince of Denmark."
"Nothing at all," I said, and then started. "Good God!"
Holmes tipped his head back and laughed, delighted with himself. I stared, amazed, unable to keep from smiling myself.
"I am a professional mimic," he said. "I get by on my wits and my ability to read people, Doctor. Is it any surprise that I could read you? You have been quite fixated upon my left ear; I suppose there is make-up that I have missed. Then there is the fact that you keep looking at my companions, and then at me, with an expression of consideration, as you attempt to assign parts to faces you do not quite recognise. It's quite natural. Out of costume, we all look alike. Or perhaps we look nothing alike, and that is the trouble."
"Very true," I agreed. "Perhaps it is both. Forgive my ignorance, but you look very young to be playing a role as demanding as Hamlet."
Holmes tipped his drink in my direction, pursing his lips in thought. "I have been with the Lyceum Players for six years," he said. "It’s quite long enough to work my way up from the ranks of the Messengers and Courtiers. I played Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, and I had the honour of playing Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I, though I would say, of all of them, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet was my favourite role."
"It’s been a very long time since I read Shakespeare at school," I admitted.
"I’m very well suited to dashing or tragic heroes, sometimes at the same time," Holmes explained with a grin.
"I’ll have to take your word on the matter."
"I’d like to do a comedy some day," he went on, "but Irving is a dour old bastard and–"
We were interrupted by the sudden arrival of one of the actresses, the young, blonde woman who played Ophelia. She swept in and sank down in the chair beside Holmes, resting her wrist upon her shoulder and folding her face into her arm.
"Sherlock," she lamented, "save me from that dreadful row! Aiden and Quincy are at it again." She sat up again. "I can't stand it anymore. Introduce me to your handsome friend, won't you?"
Holmes allowed this invasion of his space without flinching, and he even let his hand drift onto the curve of her shoulder. He did this while looking at me, and I could have sworn I felt his touch upon my own arm.
"This is Doctor John Watson," Holmes said to Ophelia. "Doctor, this is Miss Lydia Bainbridge."
"Miss Bainbridge," I said. She offered me her hand like a lady would, and I took it and kissed it. She laughed, a high, silvery laugh that made Holmes and me both smile. "A pleasure," said I, "as was your performance tonight."
"Oh, you saw the play, did you?" Miss Bainbridge asked. "Well, thank you very much, in that case."
"I found him sitting in the audience after everyone else had gone. Saxby came back to say the Doctor here wanted something to do with me, but really he was just—"
"In awe," I offered, as Holmes paused to choose a word. "I haven't seen theatre like that in quite a long time."
Miss Bainbridge blushed. "Oh, now you're flattering, Doctor. Shame on you."
A voice across the room called her name, and she looked up, head cocked in query, her heart-shaped face the picture of innocence; no trace visible of the anguish I had seen in Ophelia. Incredible, mercurial creatures, actors.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, I have to settle an argument," Miss Bainbridge said, and removed herself from Holmes's light embrace. She blew Holmes a kiss as she left, and swanned off in the direction of her summons.
"Is she your sweetheart?" I asked, before I could stop myself. I felt my face flushing, and I lifted my glass to my lips to hide it.
Holmes slanted me an unreadable look, and then leaned forward to rest his chin upon his hand, gazing in her direction. His eyes became hooded, and a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. "I am in love with her every night," he said, "and every night it is my love that kills her."
I swallowed the sip I had taken. "I do believe you’re teasing me," said I.
He grinned. "I’d never be so presumptuous."
"Now I know you are."
Holmes reached across the table for my hand, and his long fingers paused surreptitiously at my wrist, taking my pulse. I caught his hand in mine and squeezed it. In the low light, Holmes’s quicksilver gaze made my heart flutter. There were still smudges of kohl around his eyes, which made him look especially exotic and dangerous. I hadn't been on the receiving end of such an overt flirtation from a man in so long, and I was finding it quite a thrill. Holmes clearly knew how to convey what he wanted, and I was not immune to his charms.
"Well," he said, as our hands slid apart, "perhaps I can’t resist." Flashing me another half-smile, he fished a cigarette out of his pocket and put it between his lips. I fumbled for a match, struck it on the taut knee of my trousers, and cupped my hand around it as I offered it to him. Again our eyes met, over the tip of the cigarette as he inhaled. I shook the match out and he leaned back in his chair with a sigh.
"You don’t mind the smell, I hope?" he asked.
"I always smoke ‘ship’s’ myself," I admitted.
"What are you doing tomorrow night?"
"Nothing," I said. I managed not to admit that I was rarely doing anything of note at all.
"Come and see me again," he said, taking another drag on the cigarette. "After the performance, I’ll show you what goes on backstage."
I suppressed a shudder of excitement. "I would probably enjoy that."
"Oh, Doctor," Holmes said, "I'm certain that you would."
I didn't know what to say to that, but from Holmes's delighted laugh I'm sure that my face said everything I needed it to. I turned my glass around in its ring upon the table, biting my lip. "Very well," I said finally. "Tomorrow night."
I remember every minute of the rest of that evening, but most of it does not bear telling. We were surrounded by the Hamlet company, and so even when Holmes shifted his seat to make room for someone, thereby taking up a place beside me with his long thigh an inch from mine and his arm draped along the back of my chair, there was nothing but polite distance between us. His fellow actors gave us a few knowing looks— one of them went so far as to wink at me— but no one brought the subject up. We were the soul of decency, even as I thrilled at the brush of his thumb against the back of my shoulder.
Finally, when the hours of the night were growing small and the little public house was beginning to quiet, Holmes handed me my overcoat and donned his own. Bundled up against the cold, we stepped outside together, Holmes bidding what fellow actors remained goodnight and I lingering at his elbow, thanking whoever caught my eye for the evening's entertainment and company. Then the cold air as we crossed the threshold made the breath catch in my chest.
Holmes pulled his muffler up around his nose and glanced at me. "Which way are your lodgings?"
"That way," I said, indicating.
"Excellent," Holmes said. "I'm headed that way as well. May I walk with you?"
"Certainly," I said, feeling that hopeful swoop in the pit of my stomach again. We set off down the pavement side by side, elbows just brushing as we walked. I clenched my hand into a fist inside my coat pocket. My other hand already felt frozen around the head of my walking stick.
Holmes walked with me to the very door of my hotel, promising that he was only around the next corner, and when I stopped and said, "Thank you for tonight," he stuck out his hand for me to take. We shook once more, and he squeezed my fingers.
"Thank you," he said, "for coming, and for lingering unexpectedly."
"It was my pleasure," I said earnestly.
"Tomorrow night, then," said Holmes, smiling his own peculiar half-smile.
"Tomorrow night," I agreed.
I would have stayed there on the stoop, but the warmth of the hotel was beckoning, and Holmes was beginning to shiver. I let go of his hand reluctantly and went inside, glancing over my shoulder just before the door closed to see him still standing there, watching me. When I peeked out the transom window as I went up the stairs, I saw him walking back the way we had come. He'd gone out of his way for me after all, the liar, and the notion made warmth bloom in the middle of my chest.
I dressed for bed swiftly and silently, thinking over everything that had transpired. When I got into bed, however, my thoughts turned to everything that might yet happen. I couldn't afford to see the show again— I couldn't have afforded to see it the first time— but I could guess what time it would be over and what time the backstage would begin to clear out. If we had communicated properly, flirted overtly enough, I understood that I would not be getting an extensive tour of the mechanics of the stage nor a lengthy introduction to each member of the cast. I imagined I would see the hallway and the inside of Holmes's dressing room, and probably not much else.
It wouldn't do to make assumptions, however. I told myself not to get my hopes up, but it was much too late for that.