Sometimes I even wonder if after all he is simply not so brilliant as we have both allowed ourselves to believe. Where are those extraordinary powers of his, that superhuman agility of perception that has dazzled me so often? My friend, the data is before you. You have not seen certain items of my clothing in weeks. A shirt and waistcoat laundered quite two days before the usual time, remain unaccountably unworn in my wardrobe. Other garments still have been destroyed. Why is this? I seek my room at odd times, when the effort of maintaining normal behaviour in front of you becomes exhausting. I have given up harassing you about your seven percent solution or your morphine, as I am no longer innocent of chemical assistance myself. I will leave your favourite poisons well alone, though I confess the appeal is less unfathomable to me than it once was. But I have had to purchase a small bottle of chloral, as sleep is now as precious to me as it is unreliable. I am sure there is more. When did these changes occur? What do you make of them? Apparently nothing.
You see but you do not observe.
* * *
I do not know why I should write as if I wished my friend to discover what I am at such pains to conceal from him. But in honesty, I feel as if I betray myself a thousand ways every instant, whenever I leave the house I expect the dullest of my fellow citizens to detect exactly what has occurred by the merest glance at me. To live with the world’s only consulting detective, a man who can unravel an entire life from the seam of a glove or a scuff on a boot, and watch him continue in apparent ignorance of an event whose memory, do what I will, has taken such inexorable possession of my mind -- it is like living on a knife edge.
Or it is like living in a strange echoing mist in which everything lacks its proper form and nothing is quite real.
I am no actor, as he is. Or I thought I was not. I think I have never been anything but a frank and straightforward person. He sometimes praises me for that, sometimes laughs at me. But somehow each morning, after lying for some time quite weak with dread at the day’s approach, I get up, breakfast with my friend and I listen to his talk; I work on my notes, and all through the day I can hear my own voice, as if from far off - acclaiming him, scolding him, laughing at him - running on as if nothing were amiss. Perhaps it is not so strange, for certainly I do not know how else I should act, or what I should do.
He picks idly at the small wound left on his face and I tell him to stop or it will scar. I do not tell him what it means to me that it should not.
I do not wish him to know what happened while he was bleeding and insensible on that marble floor. But that I should be capable of deceiving him, and he not be capable of cutting the deception at a stroke – sometimes I think I recognise neither one of us.
* * *
It has been snowing again. We cannot seem to get these rooms warm. The cold gnaws on my shoulder and numbs my fingers. Sherlock Holmes lies stretched as close to the fire as he can get like a great lazy cat, and yet even then, even when I am trying not to look at him I notice him shiver.
* * *
There is another interpretation, of course. It may be that he does know, and is too disgusted or too uncomprehending to speak of it. Well, that is much my own view of the matter, so I could hardly be surprised.
Come, man, rally yourself. What, after all, has taken place? The event could have lasted no more than fifteen minutes from start to finish. As a percentage of my time on earth it barely exists at all. What consequences need I fear? I was concerned at first about disease but weeks have passed and I think I may conclude I am safe. There was a degree of pain involved, certainly, but scarcely comparable with what I bore in Afghanistan. Once terms were agreed, the wretch made no particular effort to hurt me, as I had anticipated he might. My ... acquiescence to his wishes was, it seemed, enough for him. Such injuries as I did sustain might have been immeasurably worse and have since healed altogether.
Furthermore, it was unquestionably necessary. I can hear violin music from downstairs. I have nothing to regret.
* * *
Devil take the man, why should he begin to suspect something now?
It had been a quite routine day. We had swapped complaints, again, about the filthy snow in the streets and the tendrils of icy air breaching our walls through cracks in wood and plaster and lacing through our rooms. Holmes’ fits of despondent lethargy after the last case are giving way to a more serene languor and he was curled on the settee going through his correspondence, complaining that this or that was unbearably commonplace. He began tracing with one long finger the outline of the thin, fading v-shaped mark on his lean jaw which is all that is left of the wound. I suppose, seeing it, I must have tensed, and suddenly he whisked that hand away from his face and sat up saying, “You have been very cast down ever since that unpleasant business with Pelham Gilfoyle, Watson.”
“Not at all,” I said.
“You have,” he insisted. “I assure you, you have.”
“It was, I suppose,” I said carefully, “A particularly sordid affair.”
Holmes nodded. “Indeed it was, if uncomplicated from an analytic standpoint.” He lapsed back onto the settee, his thin arm trailing over its edge to the floor. I thought, involuntarily, of the strength held in those paradoxically delicate lines, and conversely, of all the violence of the underworld through which he must cut his path, and what it could do to him.
I had hoped we were done with the subject, but apparently he was in the mood to expound, though his gaze, thankfully, was now fixed somewhere on the ceiling rather than on me. “When one investigates a murder, however sad or terrible it is, there is at least no danger of the victim continuing to suffer. The dead are in a sense... safe. One proves the killer’s guilt and has done; it has to be enough. But when there are more living victims than can ever be traced, more than one can hope to rescue from continuing pain, then the satisfaction of delivering one man to a few years hard labour seems... insufficient.”
“Until recently it would hardly have been possible to punish him at all.1”
Holmes’ eyes grew hooded and a curious expression pulled at his lips. “Quite so. But from some angles Justice’s sword seems double-edged indeed.”
I didn’t have the strength of mind to wonder what he meant by that just then. The conversation had me dragged tight between contradictory tensions and yet I continued it. It was a torment to come so close to the memory but there was a tantalising fraction of relief in the chance to speak of some part of it.
I said softly, “I could never have imagined a man could instigate such horrible things... so casually.”
“Not to mention that it all came rather closer than I liked to costing us both our necks.”
I smiled as best I could and said nothing.
Holmes raised his head again and gazed at me at me curiously. “Yet there is something more.”
And of a sudden, I was strangely furious with him. “Why should there be? You were as depressed as I have ever seen you over that case, as soon as the exhilaration of solving it had faded. I knew you would be. Am I expected to witness the same things in complacency? And not a moment ago you were waxing eloquent on the world’s injustices. Are you aware how often you say such things? Am I always required to disagree with you?”
Holmes blinked and was, uncharacteristically at a loss for how to answer. “I know I get in the dumps sometimes,” he said at last, hesitantly. “But you...”
I was already regretting my outburst, and yet I could not stop. “Well, why not? No, you were right all along, London is nothing but a cesspool and no where else is any better. Perhaps you have finally convinced me of that.”
There was such simple shock in his face for a moment that I was filled with remorse, and exhaustion with it. “I am sorry, Holmes. I am tired, and this winter seems interminable, and we have both seen too much of the world’s troubles. That is all.”
He continued to stare at me, dark brows drawn together into an expression in which confused sympathy and pensive detachment were united in the most unsettling way. I could see him thinking. Panic gripped at something in my chest and clenched.
So he truly does not know, then. At least not yet. I must be far more careful.
Part of me wanted to flee to my room, but that would only have roused his curiosity further and besides –wary of him, angry with him as I was then – everything seems far darker and colder away from him. And even that sets my mind shivering with doubts I hardly dare put into words.
For the same reasons I cannot bring myself to quit these rooms altogether, despite this curious and unfocused dread that urges me to do so. And it is not only the fear that he will discover what has passed, it is a dully nightmarish sense of something irreparably wrong with everything around me and all that will put it right is somehow to vanish away. But even if I could bear to leave, how would I begin to explain it to him? And he has been before and may be again in need of my help.
I returned to my book. I forced myself through two pages and then, after some minutes of silence I let my head drop against the back of the arm chair and closed my eyes.
I heard the cold wind shaking at the windows and wailing in the chimney, quite drowning out the rustle of the fire. Then Holmes murmured, almost gently, “You are not asleep.”
I was not, but I was dog-tired. I ignored him.
* * *
Today the corpse of another unhappy creature was dragged from the Thames, having thrown herself, it seems, from Waterloo Bridge. Phyllis Mackey was a housemaid to a man whose name I recognise from the investigation, though he used a different one at the fashionable brothel in Park Lane (a house, by the way, whose nature you would never guess from the outside). He was rather infamous even there. I think I can guess what sent Phyllis to the bridge.
But surely there is a difference between what a woman may be compelled to suffer, and what a man may decide to endure as part of a... transaction.
I do not think I should choose the river, myself. How cold and dark and foul the water must be, at this season, on its course through this frozen and filthy city. Poor Phyllis – I suppose she had no money or knowledge to acquire gentler means of release and perhaps no warm safe bed to crawl into and fall asleep forever. An overdose of chloral would do it. If only I were not a medical man, it might be taken for an accident.
God, what am I thinking of?
1 The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885
This is the chapter that features a rape scene. It's not very graphic, but it is "onscreen."
Non-graphic reference also to child-prostitution.
I have not written directly of what happened during the Gilfoyle case and I do not know if I should, or can, but
Perhaps if I can get it onto the page it will no longer
For twenty minutes now I have sat here, having made the decision to set it down but quite unable to start. If this were any other case how would I
Enough of this. Write it.
* * *
It is true that the matter that led us to Gilfoyle’s house at the end of January had not presented any particular challenge to my friend’s unique abilities, but it was a bleak enough business. Since the Eliza Armstrong scandal last summer and the subsequent Amendment in Parliament, profiteers from the traffic of women and children have had life rather harder than was once the case. Even without Holmes’ help, Scotland Yard would surely soon have succeeded in connecting Pelham Gilfoyle’s fortune to that hideous industry. He was involved not only in the London vice trade but in the export of English girls to the continent and in the import of wretched human cargo of both sexes from as far as China. Our part in the matter was primarily to trace the whereabouts of a pair of specific children. That, the police could not have done in time. By the next day it would have been too late, the girls would have been sold, and violated, and vanished abroad, and it might have been impossible to recover them.
In a case in which perhaps every detail cuts and stings, it is disheartening to have to note that if the children in question had not been daughters of the middle class, we should probably never even have heard of them.
We had had only a few days to achieve what should properly have been the work of weeks or months – convince Gilfoyle to trust us. In those few days I had I learned of such things as underground rooms in which men could enjoy the screams of very young girls without fear of anyone else hearing them. I had seen children who had been on the streets for years before they even reached puberty.
I was already desperate for the business to be over and already aware that there were many for whom it never would be, no matter what we achieved that night.
Mr. Gilfoyle had a large villa built in the Palladian style in St. John’s Wood, set back from the road at the end of a short drive. His wealth gleamed from its every surface like an oil.
Gilfoyle received us in his study, about nine in the evening, and he impressed me throughout the disgusting interview as a man afflicted by the most soul-deep apathy I have ever seen in my life. He spoke in a listless, spiritless drawl, and sat slouched, barely stirring in his armchair. He was perhaps forty-five years old, still youthfully slender, sandy-haired, and pallid. His face might once have been handsome, but the slack lines of lassitude and dreary contempt drained any possible remaining beauty out of it. Not that it was now an ugly face. It was a kind of absence. He discussed the prostitution of two little girls as if it were the most commonplace and tedious thing in the world.
I had relatively little part in the conversation. As I said, I have no special gift for acting. (Oh God – did something in my face give us away?). Holmes had thought it would be more credible if I were acknowledged as a doctor, one of those – I can still hardly believe there are such men – who will attest to girls’ virginity before they are handed over to their ruin. Holmes, meanwhile, thoroughly disguised and dipping in and out of French, presented himself to Gilfoyle as a fellow-dealer in human flesh, who wanted to buy the two missing girls out from under the noses of their intended purchaser for the use of clients in Paris. Holmes had succeeded in winkling all the information we needed out of him in barely three quarters of an hour, and the shared thrill of triumph that I know went through us both seemed to wash us clean of the horror of the pretence.
As we left the villa, Holmes shuddered and muttered to me, “After that, Watson, I am not sure if I want a drink or a bath or an emetic more urgently. Where’s Lestrade?”
It was beginning to snow again. We made it as far as the gates.
I do not know what went wrong. The procuress who had claimed so fervently she was done with Gilfoyle and wanted him stopped– possibly she had, after all, betrayed us. Or perhaps Gilfoyle simply repented the folly of trusting two near-strangers only on her word. It no longer matters.
There were six men, some of them armed with cudgels. We are both good fighters in our way and I think we gave them as hard a time of containing us as anyone could, but the odds were too much for us to hold out for ever. And in truth, we did not think then that we were fighting for our lives. The crimes Gilfoyle had financed and thrived on were repulsive, but he was not a killer – not even by proxy, as far as we knew. And the police were coming.
So we were dragged back inside the house. Holmes’ wig and glasses had been torn away. We looked at each other. Holmes smiled. To one who knew him as I did it was certainly a rather shaken, apprehensive smile, but it was enough that I could smile in return.
Gilfoyle was standing in the hall, his form reflected in the shining marble under his feet. His hands shook faintly and there was a little colour in his pale cheeks. And yet, his eyes were still lustreless, and his face scarcely more animated than it had been before. It was as if whatever shock or rage he might have felt worked on his body only and on some higher level, he barely cared.
He said coldly, “It’s all up with us, I suppose. You are Sherlock Holmes. And I imagine the police must be on their way.”
“You are correct,” said Holmes, rakishly nonchalant between the two roughs who held him. He would probably have thrust his hands in his pockets if his arms had been free. “What shall we spend the time talking of?”
Oh, Holmes. At the time I was silently angry with you, for goading him when quiet and compliance might have been safer. But now I think nothing would have saved us from what followed, and I am glad you were so undaunted. So much yourself.
Gilfoyle turned away with slight shrug. “How long will I be breaking stones, then? I buy and sell, and nobody cared until six months ago. But I haven’t murdered anyone, Mr. Holmes. They don’t hang men like me.”
“Your fellow prisoners will be delighted to have such a paragon among them,” Holmes said.
Pelham Gilfoyle turned his empty face back towards Holmes, and glanced down at the open jack-knife in his hand. He said, with a sort of dull curiosity, “Maybe I should prefer to hang.”
* * *
Holmes is dangerous even restrained and unarmed, and Gilfoyle approached him too slowly. Holmes managed to arch up against the men that held him and kick out at the hand that held the knife. And as it spun from Gilfoyle’s grasp, Holmes stamped back against shins and knees; twisted, snakelike, and was somehow free. He jabbed a sharp punch into one man’s stomach, kicked viciously at the groin of a second. But counting Gilfoyle it was now four to one, and as Holmes tried to strike at the throat of an attacker, another of them slammed a heavy blow against the side of his face.
If we had been out in the open I think Holmes might have recovered from that, for a while, at least. But as it was the blow sent him reeling off balance, and before he could right himself his head struck back against a mirror on the wall with force enough to crack the glass.
After that explosion of force and motion, the silence as he dropped was terrible.
One of them turned him onto his back with a kick. And Gilfoyle had retrieved his knife. He knelt beside Holmes, staring down at him.
Of course, I had not merely been standing by and watching during all of this. I had been straining and elbowing and shouting for them to stop. I had been uselessly calling my friend’s name.
Gilfoyle looked at me, for the first time since we had been forced back into the house. It was little more than an irritable glance. And he turned back to Holmes and made a first, exploratory cut into his face.
Until then I was not even sure my friend was still alive. But he was not so far gone as not to feel that. He gasped and spasmed, and jerked away from the blade, his hands rising and then falling back. Gilfoyle laid a hand on his forehead, as if checking for fever, and leant his weight down to hold him still. He replaced the knife, this time against Holmes’ throat.
And for an instant I found more desperate strength than seemed my own; I kicked and wrenched my way out of the men’s grasp and lunged across the room. I seized Gilfoyle’s arm and knocked him sideways. Gilfoyle met my eyes again and stared at me in a sort of bafflement before his thugs caught hold of me again and hauled me away from him. He made an impatient gesture and I realised with horror that his men were dragging me from the room this time. I had thought it would be bad enough to have to watch, but to be forced away and know he was dying without me was beyond anything I could possibly bear and I cried out to Gilfoyle, “Please.”
They half-carried me through a door and onto the servants’ staircase, running from the attics to the cellars. They threw me down a flight of steps to a lower landing and I was bruised, I suppose, but I hardly felt it yet. I rose and stumbled up the steps towards the door again although I was sure it must be locked – worse, that it must already be too late –
But then Gilfoyle came through it, alone. He still had the knife in his hand. He saw me look at it.
“You are safe enough,” he said drearily. “He is the one who has ruined me. I don’t know why you came with him. You should not have come. But you are just one of his pawns, are you not?”
As far as I could tell, there was no more blood on the blade than there had been before. His thugs were still out there with their cudgels in the room where Holmes lay, but Gilfoyle had seemed to want the experience of killing Holmes himself. So there must be hope they would not finish the job without him.
Time was on my side, not his, I thought. If I could only keep him in here for a while. And despite what he had said he was staring at me with more fixed and keen attention than he’d seemed capable of before.
I tried to steady my breath. “A man like you must have connections.” I said, spreading my hands in what I hoped was a conciliatory gesture, “Even if you do go to prison, I’m sure you won’t be there very long, and...”
He was still staring at my face, but he seemed not to have heard. “When I was younger,” he said, softly, as if to himself. “I wanted to try everything. I wanted to do anything that was new to me. But it all runs out so fast, you realise, and almost at once there is nothing new at all.”
I began to think he was actually insane. “You cannot really want to die,” I said, “not just for the sake of – not for the mere pleasure of taking a life?”
“His life,” Gilfoyle murmured, remotely, glancing back towards the door. “Sherlock Holmes. That would be something.”
“Don’t, please,” I began, and swallowed, feeling that already I’d gone wrong.
The strange detached attention in that slack face was on me again. He asked, “What would you do to stop me?”
Some wild promise I would help him escape rose to my lips, and at that moment I would indeed have given him his freedom if I could. But my throat closed around the words and I couldn’t get them out. He was right, he was trapped. Even if I could somehow have spirited him beyond the reach of Scotland Yard that night, there was Holmes. And alive, Holmes would never have let him go.
I whispered, “What do you want?”
He did not answer me. So I stammered out something. Whatever you want. Anything. Something of that sort. Perhaps I had not realised it yet, but we were already past the point where it mattered what either of us said.
His posture shifted, indefinably, and his gaze at me sharpened, his lips parted to show the teeth. I can’t read whole pages of thoughts from a face as Holmes can, yet I have ordinary instinct enough to know what I saw in that look. It was predatory, and yet I believe it was not exactly lust. Or at least, it was very little like even the greediest gaze I have seen a man direct at a pretty woman. It was interest, the horrible stirring a half-atrophied desire for novelty – the novelty, I suppose, of seeing what I would do. It was almost the same look he had worn when he bent over Holmes with the knife. As if he were saying to himself only, Now what this will be like?
He said – I cannot convey how calmly and casually he said – “Show me.”
Things seemed to blur and quiver around me for a moment then I said, absurdly, “You cannot be suggesting...”
A weak, wavering parody of a good English gentleman’s scandalised bluster.
He didn’t answer. He merely waited.
I thought of the people we had seen on our recent journeys through London’s shadow-life. Shivering children. Bruised women somehow managing to smile and flutter in doorways. Wraith-thin, dead-eyed young men. What they must live through, night after night.
If they could ...
I forced myself up the last few steps towards him. I laid my hands weakly on his chest but they shook stupidly and I said, “I can’t.”
He actually smiled for the first time and made a little scoffing sound. He shrugged and drew away.
I seized his wrist and pulled him back.
We were both silent after that. I unbuckled him, reached inside. This is not so bad, I told myself. This is nothing.
Sometimes he directed me by a light, impatient pressure on the back of my head, or by taking hold of my hands and repositioning them. He unbuttoned his shirt as I worked my hand up and down, and pressed my face down against his chest. I kissed him there. Through most of the rest of it I could try to pretend – oh, that I was either conducting or undergoing some unpleasant medical procedure, or that I was not even there. But that was impossible when I was required to touch him with my lips.
His tongue pushed heavily against mine once, otherwise his mouth was almost inert against my own. The skin of his breast and belly were oddly cool. And later, kneeling at his feet, trying not to gag, I looked up at his face sometimes and his greenish eyes stayed open, watching me closely, without a flicker of anything in them.
I even wished he would go ahead and take what he wanted from me, rather than compel me to act out this parody of lovemaking.
And there is something else, and unless I confess it here I suppose it has been pointless to have written so much –
How can I say it – I had to think of something to make it possible, I could hardly pretend it was a woman’s body under my hands and mouth. I thought of my friend lying out there – so that I should not lose sight of why I must continue, you see – but that is not all. I thought, if this were Holmes –
Did Gilfoyle see that in me, from the beginning? Is that why -?
Finally his breathing came quicker; his hands, so sluggish at first, gripped at me hard. Then he pushed me away a little and pulled my coat from my shoulders, dragged at the waist of my trousers.
When at last he pressed me back onto the staircase, even while I seemed to empty away from my incredulous body, I felt a distant relief that at least I had nothing more to do with this, only to wait it out.
The breath seemed crushed out of me between his weight and the hard edges of the tiled steps beneath me. I no longer thought of Holmes, or of the ghastly parade of London’s outcasts. I thought of Afghanistan. Men screaming past the belts or sticks wedged between their teeth when we had no ether to give them. The rhythm of a surgical saw working in and out of flesh.
* * *
For some time after he left me I simply lay where I was. My mind screamed at me that someone would certainly find me there if I did not hurry and that I did not know whether Holmes was alive or dead, yet I could not seem to persuade myself to move.
But then I did get up, wincing, and pulled my clothes to rights as quickly as I could.
I believe the police found Gilfoyle waiting quietly at the gates, and that he gave them no trouble at all.
I crept back into the hall. The doors were wide open and the room was freezing, and it was empty now except for Holmes. He was still so horribly motionless, and his long slender body looked unbearably vulnerable sprawled there on the hard floor. I crouched, and felt over his head carefully for cracks. There were none, but his skull felt fragile as porcelain in my hands, under the silky hair and hot blood. One would hardly believe so much could be contained within.
His eyes stirred under the lids, but they did not open. Tears filled my own eyes suddenly and I had to draw my sleeve across them.
I hadn’t put my coat back on so I draped it over him. I think it was only a few minutes that I knelt there alone with him, trying to staunch the bleeding with a wadded handkerchief. “Lestrade,” I said, without looking up. “The two girls. They’re at the Vine inn by St Katharine’s Dock. They’ll be out to Ostend on the next tide. The ship is called The Rosina.”
The little inspector bent over Holmes an anxious hiss. “He’s been in the wars this time. Had we better get him to hospital?”
“I can’t tell. I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems. “ I rubbed at my face again. God, I was tired. “Let’s just get him out of here.”
Perhaps the cold air helped, for outside Holmes suddenly groaned and then announced indistinctly, “I’m fine,” and struggled until the men carrying him had to set him on his feet. “I’m fine,” he repeated, sounding vaguely aggrieved, when I slung one of his arms over my shoulder to keep him upright.
He was not fine, not yet. His face was ghastly with blood, he was what you might call punch-drunk; and he was beginning to tremble hard with cold. But the concussion, and the intoxication of danger passed combined to make him almost euphoric. He stared about with dazed triumph, then probed gingerly at the wound on his face.
“He thought he would make a name for himself as my killer,” he surmised.
Holmes detached himself from me and grinned at me glassily. “I believe you saved my life.”
“Yes,” I whispered.
He laid one hand on his breast and made me an entirely ill-advised little bow. At once he swayed and I had to catch him again. “A thousand thanks, Watson.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
* * *
It has been a mistake to carry on with these pages so long. There were times when I felt such a sick need to tell someone what had happened, and I thought writing might ease it – but now I think dwelling on the matter is morbid, and has done me more harm than good. I must try to brace up and forget, and there is an end to it.
1 In 1885, after weeks working undercover, W.T Stead published a harrowing series of articles on the child prostitution industry. To prove his claims that children were being bought and sold into sexual slavery and that society and the law connived at it, he concluded his investigation by buying a 13-year-old virgin himself for £5 – Eliza Armstrong. Pretty much all the details in this story about child prostitution (clients enjoying their victims’ screams in sound-proof rooms and doctors confirming virginity, for example) are taken from his exposé, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”.
The resulting scandal prompted Parliament finally to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which had been languishing for years. This introduced a range of legal protections for potential victims, including raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 and making it an offence to procure girls for prostitution by drugs, intimidation, fraud or abduction. Reporting and investigation of these crimes rose sharply.
The same Act extended existing sodomy laws to criminalise any kind of sexual contact between men. Ten years later, it was the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
Without the example of an habitual scribbler before me, it would doubtless not occur to me to take up the pen. I wish, however, to order my thoughts, and it must be done along different lines from those familiar to me, which too plainly do not avail us at all.
Indeed I very much fear that our situation calls for qualities I simply do not possess, or at least not in sufficient measure. I have little talent for friendship. John Watson, on the other hand, possesses a kind of genius for it. It is no very large statement to say I have never deserved it, for I am not sure there is a man or woman alive who would. He, of course, would make a far better companion to anyone suffering than I.
Perhaps if I imitate him in this, I shall be better able to imitate him in other things.
And already I see that it is harder than I supposed to be wholly truthful, even when one has determined to be rigorous and unsparing. What I honestly want is not to order my thoughts but to be rid of them. What I want is the pang of the needle and and the flow of any blessedly transparent substance into my blood, anything that would sluice the horror of this out of me. And far worse, it is such an easy, instinctive skip of the mind to me, to imagine offering my friend the same relief. Here, I could say. Try this. Be out of pain –- for a while. And he might accept it from me now.
I am, as far as I can see, the only source of help he has. And on learning he needs it my first instinct is to endanger him further. That, it seems, is what being loved by me looks like. As if I had not already caused him harm enough.
* * *
I had resorted to my syringe rather freely since the last case. It is only in the last ten days I have begun to feel my own energy returning to me. If I have any excuse for weeks of utter obtuseness (beyond the possibility that that thug of Gilfoyle’s knocked whatever intellect I claimed to possess out of my skull) it is that once the spark of excitement of ignited by engaging a villain like Gilfoyle and coming away alive had gone out, everything seemed very dark indeed. Watson’s mood seemed much of a piece with my own, and with the feel of the world. What was there for anyone to do but drift about this ugly, blighted town like another wisp of stained snow?
When he said as much to me, however, it sounded so unlike him I was quite shocked. He is as alive to the world’s cruelties as a kind man who has suffered much can be, but he does not denounce the whole show as meaningless. Yet that was what he came very close to doing.
“London is nothing but a cesspool and no where else is any better. Perhaps you have finally convinced me of that.”
Of course it is not as though he is some blandly self-satisfied bore who lacks the imagination or depth to be anything but content. If he were I should never have been able to tolerate him and we should not be in this fix. When I met him in the laboratory at Barts, I could see the war continuing on the inner horizon of his warm blue gaze as surely as I could see it had scorched his skin and almost broken his body. He should have had a cheerful, sprawling clan of friends and family waiting to welcome him home, and was even more alone in the world than I was.
And I liked him immediately, which is unusual enough that I should have taken it for the dangerous sign it was. Not being blind I could not fail to notice the beauty of his straight clear features and his body's wounded grace. Not being wholly ignorant of my own nature I knew I rather enjoyed the idea of a handsome soldier wandering about my rooms. I did, however, overestimate my own capacity for detachment as much as I underestimated him, when I expected my interest would not go too far. In fact I rather depended it would not. I wanted someone I could rub along with, someone who would leave me alone, and it was a pleasant extra that this someone’s face would brighten the place up a bit.
But he was – is – so quietly vivid with courage and kindness and curiosity, that I was in fact very far gone before I knew where I was. The thought that I had contaminated him with my own darkness was horrifying, and, good soul that he is, he was apologising to me for suggesting it almost at once.
* * *
I wish I had instantly set myself to discovering what troubled him, but I did not. It is true that I meant to respect his privacy, though also true that I expected to know the truth of it in the end, so I might as well have taken more direct measures at once. But I let days pass, merely observing him rather more closely and trusting the answer would soon deliver itself. The most I can say I did for him was to play his favourite pieces more often and lose myself in atonal chats with my fiddle rather less.
What I so belatedly began to see was subtle, and yet alarming. He showed no sign of being ill or in bodily pain, yet I have been reminded me of how he carried his arm when I first met him – the carefulness, the discreet effort, now extended to the whole of him.
“What happened,” I asked him at breakfast four days ago, “To your grey waistcoat and trousers?”
“I suppose they might have been salvaged after those roughs at St John’s Wood set about us,” he said evenly. “But then you bled all over them, and I had to give them up as a lost cause.”
Now, I did not expect Watson to lie to me, then or at any other time. However, if he ever did, I would have expected the attempt to be a lamentable failure. His eyebrows especially are quite endearingly honest.
Nothing in his face, his breathing or the posture of his hands altered to suggest he was telling me anything but the truth – and why should he not? And therefore, finding myself uncertain what to make of this very reasonable answer disconcerted me greatly, and I hardly know whether the idea that he might lie, or that I should not be sure he was doing it, disturbed me more. I wondered if his voice had been too steady, too unsurprised. As if he had expected me to ask and had practiced the reply.
Three nights ago I sat by the window and played Mozart to him and when I swept the last note out of the strings and looked at him I saw there was a gloss of water in his eyes.
He is readily moved by music, which is why it is a pleasure to play for him. But not usually to the point of tears, and not by that piece, which I had chosen with the aim of bringing some warmth and sunlight into our rooms as spring shows no sign of doing it for us.
I laid down the bow and violin. “Watson?”
The muscles around his eyes contracted in almost invisible effort, and the moisture was gone as if it had never been there. “It is very beautiful, that’s all,” he said softly. “It’s quite remarkable that one person should possess so many talents.”
It is delightfully easy to induce Watson to praise me, and yet I never tire of it and would usually have preened. But he looked too desperately sad for me to do anything but crouch anxiously in front of him and look into his eyes, placing my hand over his.
His hand tensed just appreciably under mine.
“What is it?” I asked. A rather uninspired attempt at investigation, but the most honest one.
“What I say,” he replied. “I was wondering how long the world would have to wait for someone like you to come along again.”
A complicated flutter occurred behind my ribs, plucking at my breath. I will not deny that part of it was pain at how perfect a statement that was. Oh, do not say things like that. Don’t make me want things I cannot have. I manage quite well; we have our patterns, I run along a groove beside you. Don’t knock me out of it.
But more to the point, I did not want him to look like that. Not like someone dying behind smoked glass. Not so raw and shuttered away from me at once. He was, in more than one way, beginning to frighten me.
It was the first time it half-occurred to me that whatever was wrong, perhaps I was having such trouble puzzling it out because it was something too terrible to see.
* * *
“Too terrible to see,” indeed. What feebleness. Let me indulge in no more such excuses.
Let me instead pause here to review and enumerate the errors I had made, as it may prove instructive. Or, if it is only painful, that is hardly unwarranted; that should not be flinched from.
Firstly – It may be pardonable that I was unable to form a very clear impression of events when suffering a concussion. But afterwards, even though I knew my judgement had been thus impaired, I failed to subject my inevitably superficial reading of the facts to even the most basic scrutiny. I never even asked myself exactly how the struggle with Gilfoyle had concluded.
Secondly – That I was thereafter so morbidly absorbed in myself, and as a result so often affected either by artificial stimulants or, though more rarely, narcotics, that I allowed abundant evidence of something gravely amiss – evidence of a most serious crime, for God’s sake – to pass by unremarked.
Thirdly – That when I was aware that the only friend I have was being eaten away from within by some profound unhappiness, instead of immediately, actively seeking new information or systematically reconsidering that I had already, I wasted time waiting for the answer to fall into my lap.
Fourthly – Although I was not conscious of this at the time, I now believe I was beginning to theorise prematurely, from the impressions whose shockingly cursory nature I have already discussed. I think I had begun to hypothesise that the Gilfoyle case was merely an exacerbating factor in my friend’s trouble, and that the true cause lay elsewhere – say in the arrival of news that for some reason he could not tell me, or in some painful event from his past (concerning, for example, a member of his family, or some aspect of his military career) whose power to hurt him had somehow been reawakened.
However to limit my mistakes to four seems excessively generous given how each one was repeated and compounded over the past seven weeks. And this is to say nothing of how I should never have allowed the situation to arise in the first place.
No case worth the name had come my way since the end of January, but I had spent as long as my pocket could stand without employment and so was compelled to address certain tedious little problems, all but one of which I was able to resolve without leaving our rooms. That last, however –a young woman had rushed round in a panic begging for help, declaring her brother was innocent of any crime, etcetera, etcetera – that did require an afternoon’s legwork down in Brixton, and also some fraternisation with the men of the Yard.
Although he had mysteriously contrived to be absent for the initial consultation with the young lady, I had assumed Watson would join me. However when I asked him to come – or rather told him to come, although I was less brusque about it than is, unfortunately, my usual way – he hesitated. He gave me a strange look -- both tense and remote -- and said, “The Yard men will be with you?”
I confirmed that they would.
He drifted over to his desk and the stack of medical journals and scattered pages of notes there. “If you won’t mind I think I shall stay. I have neglected this article too long already.”
This was not a piece directly concerned with my doings, although it had some of its roots in an outlandish murder case we had looked into last December. Partly to supplement his income and partly to keep himself from losing touch with the profession whose practice he hopes to resume, Watson sometimes turns his pen to medical subjects. This was called “Baptisia Tinctora as a Poison” and he had been tinkering with it for over a fortnight and making very little headway.
Despite this fine excuse his refusal worried me greatly, being, as it was, virtually unprecedented. But I did not press him and left, thinking that after all I could not claim the problem was likely to be a very interesting demonstration of my powers. And as it happened I had almost nothing to do except entreat young Inspector MacDonald to examine the differing colours of the sealing wax on certain documents more closely (or indeed, to examine them at all), and all was over in an hour and a half. Still, tiresome as it mostly was to me, Watson, I thought, might have found some romance in it. The young woman and her brother were quite beside themselves with relief at its conclusion.
The result was that I accompanied MacDonald back to the Yard, where I looked in on Lestrade.
“Might I look over your report of the Gilfoyle arrest?” I asked.
“Why,” he asked, bristling. “What do you think’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, Inspector, or I shouldn’t want to see it now.”
If Watson had accompanied me that day, I would not have asked. It was quite an idle idea. But I was preoccupied enough with his absence that at Iong last it did strike me that I should re-examine what information was to hand before I dismissed it as irrelevant.
Lestrade subsided, and gave an expressive shudder over the memory of Gilfoyle, “Something horrible about that man. I mean, even if I hadn’t known what he was up to, I swear, I’d have seen it. Nicely spoken as anything, and didn’t give us any trouble, but I didn’t like his face one bit.”
“Well, he gave me rather a deal of trouble,” I said, sliding my hand over the little mark remaining on my jaw.
Lestrade unconsciously rocked onto the balls of his feet so that he did not have to look up at me quite so far. This always amuses me, though there was also an ominously sanctimonious look in his little eyes. He agreed, “Yes, you may have been very clever getting him to tell about the girls. But you did come a cropper at the end, rather, Mr Holmes. It gave me quite a turn, seeing you there on the floor.”
I had the gall to be irritated with him, even though he was only incorrect in saying I had been clever, and, now I think of it, may actually have meant that he had been worried about me.
He got me the report and I wandered out of his office. In the corridor outside I read the first two lines. Neither contained Watson’s name or my own. But – I hardly know how to say it. Unless, as someone who lately had the experience of being slammed against a mirror with such force the glass breaks – I say that it was rather like that.
I have explained to Watson that sometimes it is easier for me to know something than to say how I know it. On this occasion, the conviction that I could see something unbearable straining against the bars of those neatly typed lines flashed through me with such speed that I did not know at first how I knew it. I did not even know what I had seen.
The sentences that had so appalled me were as follows:
At approximately ten minutes past ten on the night of January 22nd we approached 46, Caroline Street in St John’s Wood. We apprehended Mr. Gilfoyle at the gates, and placed him under arrest.
Now the first anomaly here is readily apparent, though I confess I was so agitated that I had to read the lines a second time before I could have explained even that much. What was Gilfoyle doing at the gates? I had a rather vivid last impression of him coming after me with a knife. Watson – I was certain Watson had knocked him away from me, but that was remarkable enough given how outnumbered he had been. He could hardly have ejected Gilfoyle from the house altogether.
Ah, but that might be explained, and without doing too much violence to my assumptions as they stood. Gilfoyle had expressed himself prepared to hang for killing me, and was, it could be posited, ready to go through with it as long as he was undisturbed. Still the noose might have seemed more daunting when he was faced with the prospect of being arrested in the very act. So – he is crouched over me with the knife. He cuts my face. Watson, heroically, succeeds in pushing him away from me, and that is enough. Gilfoyle hears the police coming, gives it up, and goes outside.
And that was not what had happened. I knew it even as I raced, impatiently, along the line of conjecture to its end.
For one thing, it did not fit Gilfoyle, a man who embarks on his first murder with a deliberate, if experimental, cut to the face a rather than an impassioned strike to the throat or heart.
I closed my eyes and made myself exhale, and saw Caroline Street as it had been that night. I felt the small weight of the glasses I disguised myself with on my face. I saw the house, standing in its self-satisfied mimicry of a Greek temple – the white pillars, the portico. I drifted inside, and saw the marble floor of the hallway; the mirror on the wall, still whole. Then the study. I saw Watson beside me, worn and tired by everything we had already seen, trying not to look disgusted when he had to shake Gilfoyle’s hand. Gilfoyle seated limply in the armchair by the fire. I saw the clock on the mantelpiece, a fussy little thing also ornamented with pillars and portico, like a miniature version of the house that contained it.
We had entered the house at nine, and Gilfoyle’s clock was at a quarter to ten when we left. Very shortly afterwards, we were dragged inside again. By the time my head connected with that mirror, it could have been no later than eight minutes before the hour, at a generous estimate. Lestrade said he had not arrived until ten past.
* * *
I had no idea I had been unconscious so long. I remember Gilfoyle bending over me and the flash of pain to my face, and then Watson shoving him away. And then, dimly, boots tramping in and someone hauling me up. When I truly came to myself I was already outside. Watson was supporting me - he was supporting me - and I was upright in the dark and the snow. I was bleeding rather freely from my face and scalp, and very dizzy, but not at all displeased with the day’s work. I thought giddily, like the swaggerer I am, that I presented an agreeably dramatic spectacle to the boys of the Yard.
I thought that was all that had happened. I thought only moments had passed.
Now, was I to believe that Gilfoyle, having shown every intention of murdering me, proceeded as far as inflicting one small wound, then suddenly tired of the activity and wandered outside, (leaving Watson, I suppose, chatting politely to our other attackers over my unconscious body) and stood there for quite twenty minutes while all concerned waited for the police?
The circumstances as I now understood them were so overwhelmingly against my survival that I should not, on any straightforward view of things, be alive at all. Were the three facts that there was only one conscious actor in that room who wanted me to live, and that I had lived, and that that same person had never told me any of this but had been nursing some private misery ever since, to be taken as coincidental and unconnected?
I kneaded at my forehead. I have never before had such a strangled sense of my mind dragging itself tight in contrary directions. All my strength seemed engaged in trying with equal urgency to know something and not to know it at once. The conclusion was inescapable that some kind of bargain had taken place between Gilfoyle and my friend. And, in exchange for my life, there was very little Watson could have offered, but... I continued to try, for the uncertainty was far too agonising to wish to prolong it, and yet I could not force myself any further.
“Mr Holmes,” said Lestrade, who was now hovering at my elbow and peering up at me. “Are you all right?”
I may have summoned enough composure to tell him I was fine, or I may have snarled at him and rushed off like a madman, I am not sure. Certainly moments later I was running along Whitehall in a rage because I could not immediately find a cab.
But no, I was not racing back to Baker Street and to my friend. Not yet.
On Parliament Street I did succeed in hailing a cab, and instructed the driver to take me to Wandsworth Prison.
I am confident I could distinguish between the prisons of London by smell alone. Newgate smells of every kind of decay, mildew and dry rot and layer upon ancient layer of human effluvia. Pentonville is cleaner, colder, hollower – black-lead and stone. At Wandsworth there is a permanent base scent of some stale, overboiled vegetable, in which the other principal elements of rancid breath, oakum, tar, urine and Jeyes cleaning fluid all eddy and stagnate. It is a bleak smell, and a bleak place. The prisoners are unable to communicate with each other even by so much as a smile; they are forbidden to speak, and their very faces are shrouded under grey cloth masks. They shuffle about in their communal solitude, voiceless as spectres, their eyes glinting through the two crude holes in each mask. I work zealously to swell their numbers with new recruits, and (especially in the last eight months, especially when I have been more liberal than I ought with morphine) I have occasional nightmares in which I am one of them.
I have never wished any prison more comfortless before, but that day I did, even before I saw Gilfoyle. I wanted Wandsworth’s every hardship endlessly multiplied, and every humane reform of the last hundred years undone.
The visiting room into which I contrived to be shown, (after tedious negotiations with the Governor’s clerk which included, on my side, a number of unabashed lies), is a small, yellow-painted, arch-roofed space divided by a screen of bars, a door on each side. Gilfoyle was conducted into his pen on one side of the room moments after I walked into mine.
He has yet to pollute a courtroom with his presence. Oh God, if by some chance he should escape the penalty of the law I shall – but I must not be distracted into fantasies. Still in his own clothes, therefore, he was discreetly fashionable and immaculate, his hair smoothly combed. Nevertheless he had already lost at least four pounds and looked shrunken and haggard. I was savagely glad to see it. But when he saw me he crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall of the cell with a faint, ironic, upward tilt to his eyebrows and the corners of his lips. And I knew, really. Oh, I had known when I saw that damned police report.
But I had come there for absolute certainty.
“I had supposed my acquaintance with you at an end, Mr. Gilfoyle,” I said. “But I find I must renew it. We have outstanding matters to discuss.”
I have excellent control over my features. On this occasion I had to stretch myself very hard to maintain it, but I could do it; I could stand there, quite still, looking down at him from my full height, and speak to him with nothing in my voice beyond the delicate suggestion of a sneer. At the same time I rather despised myself for succeeding. I did not want coolness and detachment and carefully measured venom. I wanted to be beating his face in shouting, What have you done, you filth, tell me what you have done.
“At our last meeting, you expressed a wish to graduate from a mere whoremonger and slave-trader to a murderer,” I continued, “And you proposed to make your assay at the title through me. You are hardly the first to try it, but I was, unfortunately, unable to observe you at the time, and I have been too occupied with certain trifles to pay your efforts in the field my full attention until now. ”
Gilfoyle pushed away from the wall to stand upright, and took a single step towards the bars. He surveyed me meditatively for a moment and I stared back, bare as bone, giving him nothing to feed on.
“Oh yes,” he said, “I did mean to kill you, Mr Holmes. And I could certainly have done it. There was nothing to stop me.”
“You had almost twenty minutes,” I said. He nodded slowly. “I should be interested to know, then, why you let such an opportunity slip.”
“You have not guessed?” That repellent smirk sharpened on his lips, and a little life kindled in his dreary eyes. “Tell your doctor,” he said, with a triumphant precision that made me dizzy with loathing even before he had said another word, “That if he ever falls on harder times than these, I think he could make a decent enough living in certain establishments. He’s a little old to make a start now, of course, and a little clumsy, and that sort of thing’s not really my specialty. But there are always those who are excited by military types. Perhaps you know all about that, Mr. Holmes. And good looks and natural talent make up for a good deal.”
I can hardly write those words down, though I know I have not forgotten one of them. I cannot look at them again. The effort of holding myself in check, still, was like a cauterisation.
“Thank you for clearing up a distressing gap in my understanding of events.” I said at last. “I hope it goes without saying I shall make you regret what you have done.”
“What can you do to me, Holmes?” he said, leaning carelessly back against the wall. “Kill me? You have already taken my life from me; if I cannot have it back as it was, I don’t much care about it. I’ve got some of my own back for that already. You try to kill me, if you like. You would be ruined. I should not mind that at all.”
“I will find something you will mind,” I promised him.
“Let us see. How is your friend? Do give him my regards.”
I started towards him then despite myself, and I found my lips had drawn back from clenched teeth before I could arrest the expression. I was thinking that I would bribe my way into his cell if it cost me my last shilling, and that I would tear him to pieces. I would take my time over it. I would beat that vile indifference out of him. I do not care a damn for the consequences –
Bloody visions of revenge were, for a second, vivid enough to blot out any others – ghastly images of what this creature had inflicted on my friend while I lay sottishly unconscious on that floor. But such images soon asserted themselves. Exactly where did it happen, I wonder? How close was I, while -- I cannot write more of this.
And afterwards Watson had evidently picked himself up, returned to my side, lent me his coat, kept me from tumbling over like a drunkard in the snow and even stitched up the injuries to my face and scalp when we got home. And all these weeks since, which must have passed for him in solitary agony, how had I helped him, what had I been doing with the life he’d saved? Skulking in my room with a needle in my arm, barely even bothering to look at him.
Somehow I turned away from the bars and the monster behind them.
Gilfoyle called after me, “Shouldn’t you be thanking me for your life, Mr Holmes? Aren’t you fortunate I am so easily appeased?”
I stepped out through the door and closed it quietly behind me. “That is all, thank you,” I said to the waiting guard.
Then I ran home. Literally ran, some of the way – sprinting across Wandsworth Common to the cab stand at the railway station, and then from Park Lane all the way to Baker Street when the hansom’s progress through the early evening traffic became unbearably slow. Somewhere in the course of the journey I must have struck something hard with my fist – judging from the state of my knuckles it was something a little more forgiving than brick, perhaps a wooden door. Probably, then, I was still inside the prison at the time, but I remember only the brief, purging blaze of the pain, not where or when it happened.
I crashed into our sitting room with all the delicacy of a wrecking ball. Watson had abandoned his desk and was on the settee, examining a copy of the British Medical Journal. His fingers were ink-speckled and his hair a little rumpled -- he had been wearily running his hands through it. His face was, as it has been for some time, paler than it should be. There was a raw place on his lower lip, a tiny streak of scarlet; he has been biting nervously at a patch of dry skin there. Every familiar detail of him seemed to burn me as if I were a blank sheet of paper and he were sunlight trained through a lens.
If I had formed any idea of what I would say when I saw him, it went out of my head. I said wildly, “Oh, my dear – “
It has been one of the small luxuries of our years together that I can call him dear as often as I wish, provided some suitable noun is appended. My dear chap, dear boy, dear fellow, dear Watson... At that moment, however, I could not think beyond the epithet.
Watson had looked up from his journal as I entered. Naturally he was alarmed by my precipitate arrival. He asked, “Holmes, what is wrong? Where have you been?”
I gasped, “Wandsworth.” And Watson said nothing, but he stopped breathing and such colour as he had left his face. His hands went very tight on the paper.
And next I came out with perhaps the most unforgivably stupid thing I have ever said in my life. It was this: “How could you?”
He took in a single, sharp breath as if I had struck him. Then his lips tightened bitterly and he rose, tossing the journal aside, and I suppose he would have left the room without a word if I had not rushed into his path and gripped his shoulders. Several times between Wandsworth and Baker Street my horrible imaginings of what had actually happened in Gilfoyle’s house had been interrupted by visions of that blade sliding, promptly and without fuss, into my breast. One caught me again now and I wished, fervently, that it had been fact. I stammered out, “Oh, Christ, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I mean only – I would have done anything to keep you from... I would never have wanted... it was far too dear at the price, Watson.”
At first, he stood there rigidly, not trying to force his way past me but refusing to look at me or acknowledge I was there. Then he understood what I was saying. He pushed me back a little, and then caught my forearms with such force it hurt, his fingertips boring against the bones. “How dare you say that?” he said hoarsely, staring me straight in the face now, “What do you think I should have done? It would be better if you were dead? You think I should have let him rob the world of you? What do you take me for?”
Not for the first time since leaving Wandsworth, tears rose in my eyes and I said, incoherently, “Please.” Then, aware of how much worse than useless I had been so far, I made an effort to control myself and amended, “Tell me, is there anything I can do?”
He dropped my wrists. “No,” he said flatly, “I don’t see that there is.”
“Oh God,” I said helplessly, and could no longer even attempt to keep the tears back. Watson’s gaze snagged back to my face and his expression softened a little, partly, I think, with shock. I am sure he had never seen me weep before. “Oh, God,” I said again, and meant it as a prayer, and then I closed my arms around him. As I did so the dreadful thought occurred to me ‘he will hate me to touch him’, for I felt him gasp and a kind of convulsive shudder ran through him, but the next moment he was crushing me against him with all his strength. So I grappled him even closer, handfuls of his jacket clasped tight in my fists and I felt our pulses clash; mine no quieter than his. Our foreheads came together, and I was for some seconds preoccupied with the impossible physical effort of trying, through that point of contact, to transmit whatever there might be within me that is any good.
For a moment I thought – not that this superstitious endeavour was working, exactly – but that his breathing was beginning to steady a little. My eyes had been shut. I opened them and I had just time to be freshly appalled by the despair in his. Then he kissed me.
To say I froze would not be perfectly accurate. My lips did part under his, though only in a gasp for unavailable air, and my hands shifted without strength on his shoulders. But I was powerless even to think, and it was only when I felt the impact of the wall against my back that I quite understood that this was actually happening.
My tastes may be criminal, and being kissed by John Watson may, in theory, be more bliss than I ever expected in this life, but I do not care to be an instrument of self-torture. Nor am I going to prey on him when he is half out of his mind with pain.
There was, in any case quite as much panic as sweetness in that kiss for me. It was as if the embrace were plunging us both over a cliff, and even if I had not been terrified for him, I do, after all, have some instinct of self-preservation.
I turned my face a little from his. “John,” I said. “Stop.”
He stiffened and let me go. Once again he would not look at me. “Forgive me.”
The tick of the clock on the mantel beside me seemed as shockingly loud as my own disordered breath, cutting against my brain as if I had an exceptionally severe hangover. I tried, without any real success, to catch my breath and collect myself. “Well, what was that?” I inquired.
It came out, quite against any intentions I may have had, as shrill but vaguely humorous.
He gave a short, desolate laugh. “An experiment.”
“Oh? And what were the results?” My voice, I am afraid, had a certain acidity to it. God knows the man had every excuse, but he was in danger of wrecking certain intangible but carefully-wrought structures in which I have lived safely enough, like a caddis-fly in its constructed shell, these many years. I had been shocked out of weeping but I was still leaning against the wall where he had left me. My heart was beating wildly.
He did not answer, but he looked at me at last. A man might look that way at a firing squad. I was not certain what it meant, but I could not speak again. I think I knocked my head back against the wall. Stop, stop, I thought stupidly to the world around me. I felt as if the channels of events should burn out under such an overload of chaos, and afford some kind of respite.
Naturally no such thing happened, and I was recalled to myself by Watson saying. “I will look for new lodgings.”
This was probably the worst thing I could have heard. However – I should never have imagined it could be so -- I believe I am grateful he said it. It focused my mind and established clear priorities. “You will do nothing of the sort,” I snapped.
“You have all the wretchedness of London to trouble yourself with; it is quite enough without – this. I must be going mad.”
“No, you are not.” And though I may have used the phrase ‘half out of his mind’ above, I was and am perfectly clear on this. “You are shaken and distressed. It is a severe but temporary state. You are not insane. He has not done that to you.”
He let out a long, jolting breath. “Oh, Holmes, I am sorry I–”
“For God’s sake, Watson, it is absurd to save a man’s life at terrible cost to yourself and then apologise to him!”
He had wandered to the mantelpiece and began sifting nervously among the debris of papers and spent bullets there. He muttered, “I don’t... I don’t know what I should...”
“Don’t leave,” I said curtly. “Sit down.”
He looked at me, shrugged, and did as I said. For an instant he sat there stiffly, hands clenched on his knees, looking at nothing.Then quite abruptly he sank back and rested utterly motionless against the back of the sofa, his eyes shut. He murmured softly, “God.” His skin looked paler and more easily broken than I have ever seen it.
I was intensely relieved he had obeyed me, but ‘Sit down’ seemed to be about the limit of my helpful suggestions. I tried to construct something more, a solution, or at least a piece of one. There is perhaps no condition I hate more than being unable to think of anything to say.
“Holmes,” he said, opening his eyes, his voice suddenly oddly close to normal. “Please. Stop pacing about.”
Until then I had not noticed I was doing so. I stopped and sat beside him. Then I rose almost at once in order to pour him a brandy. Watson stared at the glass in my hand, and then accepted it with a small hitch of half-incredulous laughter. I sat down again. After a time, while I continued to try to force some useful thought from a resistant brain, I picked up his left hand and held it between both of mine.
* * *
I was thinking then, if one can dignify the notion with the name of thought: This must be where it all stops. Not that I anticipated any external cataclysm, but I could not imagine time progressing from this point. We would be there forever, side by side and hand in hand like children, not speaking or looking at one another. All things considered that did not seem so terrible an ending.
But of course it could not be so.
At length Watson asked, “How did you find out?”
I told him, though doubtless not very lucidly, about Lestrade’s report, and the clock, and then stopped, realising I had no idea how to tell him about what had followed. I could not possibly repeat to him what Gilfoyle had said.
“You went to Wandsworth. You saw Gilfoyle.” I could hear him forcing himself not to avoid the name. “And he told you the rest. Yes. He would probably find that an interesting thing to do.”
“I shall kill him,” I said, involuntarily, bowing my head over our joined hands and staring down at them.
Watson looked at me with a brief, lopsided smile. “I have had similar ideas myself,” he said. “However they don’t seem particularly practical.” He took a breath and, to my regret, drew his hand away. He sat up, and began visibly reassembling himself. He asked carefully, his voice tense but even, “Does anyone else know?”
I shook my head, and whispered, “Do you wish to tell me any more than I know already?”
He got to his feet. “I must try and forget about it,” he said flatly, his back to me. “So must you.” He drained the rest of the brandy quickly, refilled his glass and found a second one for me.
I took the drink, discovering I wanted it badly, and did not answer this at once. After making such a bad beginning I did not want to contradict him, provided he did not return to such insane topics as leaving. And there have been episodes in my own life I have striven, if not precisely to forget, then to push to the very periphery of my vision.
It was at this point, while the alcohol began to smooth its way into my bloodstream and I considered the practicality of forgetting, that I first thought of the contents of my morocco case. And once I had thought of it it tugged at me with a stronger than usual promise of comfort, and not only for myself. I turned my eyes sharply from the mantelpiece where it rested, recoiling from myself.
“Watson,” I said, slowly, “Of course I will not try to compel any further confidence from you. I will be directed entirely by your wishes. I only ask that you do not try to force anything upon yourself either. If it would ever be a relief to speak to me of anything – if silence is ever a burden, then please, do not try to subject yourself to it.”
He was still on his feet, standing turned half away from me, but watching me sidelong.
“I know you never meant me to learn this,” I said. “And I regret very much that I was so... clumsy in revealing that I had. But I cannot be sorry that I do know. I wish to God I had known it before. “
He faced me again, with an impatient flex of the shoulders as if struggling against an invisible, tight-drawn net, and asked, “Why? What good is it for you to be dragged into this too?”
I said, “I wish you had not been alone with it all this time.”
Watson’s lips parted on an intaken breath; his eyes went wide, and then blinked hard against tears that had not appeared in all the turmoil that had gone before. He turned away with his hand to his face, but only for an instant. He managed again to smile at me.
“You are so kind,” he said, an absurd thing to call me for at last approaching the minimum standard of decent behaviour. “But no, I can’t talk of it. How could I?” I stayed silent, in case he should, after all, find a way. But he exhaled heavily and said, “Might we ... change the subject?”
I had to contain a throb of panic which seemed to be trying to shake me apart from within; all I could think was how unfitted I was for this. I did not see how we could hold an ordinary conversation, or how we could do anything else, come to that. But I had said I would do as he wanted. And time had not stopped as I had fancied it should, the minutes went on and we would have to go with them. So I said, thinly, “Well. What have you been doing today?”
He dropped into what is usually my armchair. “I still haven’t finished this bloody baptisia article.”
“No? What is the trouble?”
“Oh, the substance of it is done. It is rather the connecting passages, the structure... I am afraid you are right that I do not always order my ideas as meticulously as I should before I begin something. I have ... found it difficult to concentrate.” For a moment his eyes seemed to empty, but he gathered himself again quickly. “I never could have believed I should be hacking away at such a simple thing so long.”
“May I see it?” I suggested.
He sighed. “Where it is at all coherent, I’m afraid you’ll find it very dry.”
“My dear fellow,” I said, finding it was after all becoming easier, and indeed, how should a discussion of poisons with my closest friend be difficult? “The principles and methods of toxicology have been a delight to me since I was at my mother’s knee.”
“You must have been a very disquieting child, Holmes.”
Somehow we passed about an hour sitting on either side of the fire talking about the ghastly havoc the juice of a little American flower may wreak upon the human body if administered in sufficient quantities. I read his draft of the article and suggested he reverse the order of two sections and omit one of the passages that was giving him such trouble altogether.
I was conscious of him watching me while I turned his pages, and looked up once to see an odd, nervous, contemplative look just leaving his face. As if something had occurred to him, but he had then dismissed it.
He leaned over my shoulder to look at his own work and murmured, “-All things are poison and nothing is without poison.”
“What?” I said, unnerved.
“Paracelsus,” he said. “One of my old lecturers at university was very fond of quoting that. I can’t give it to you in the original German. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison, that was the rest of it. Baptisia can be used to treat enteric fever, you know.”
Mrs Hudson brought in supper, and looked anxiously at us both. She is a commendably unmeddlesome woman, but inconveniently kind-hearted and despite our joint efforts to appear as usual I suppose we neither of us quite succeeded, and she had probably been alarmed earlier by the sound of me racing up the stairs as if the devil were after me. She asked if all was well and we answered, in muted unison, “Yes.”
He ate less than usual, but more than I did. Afterwards he went back to his desk and began to work again, and I reached tentatively for my violin and asked, “Is there anything you would like to hear tonight?”
“No,” said Watson blankly. Feeling slightly shattered by that, I nodded and put down the bow, but he shook his head, “I meant, I can’t think of any specific piece at present. Not that I don’t want you to play.”
I tried Haydn. I wanted something in which peace and radiance and order still shone untouched. But my fingers stuttered on the strings and the music died in an ignominious squawk after the first few bars. I shook my head, uttered a grunt of confusion and apology and tried again. This time I got a little further, but stopped before I ran into the emptiness looming ahead of me where the cadenza should have been. I let the violin dangle from my hand as I turned away to face the windows, considerably shaken to find that I could not, for the life of me, remember how to play a piece I have known for eighteen years.
I turned back to find Watson looking at me, tense and questioning. “It’s nothing,” I said, and I set the violin under my chin again and started playing without thinking, without any conscious choice. For a while the wounded cries that came from the strings seemed not of my making at all, the sound seemed pouring into the room and into my skull from somewhere else, burning away language, everything, even the name of the music. It was perhaps half a minute before I was even able to say to myself – Bach. Partita in D minor.
What are you thinking? I reproached myself, though I could not have stopped. Playing such a tormented piece at such a time. But anguish was all I could get from the violin that night. The most I could do was coax the sadness in it towards calmer, softer regions: Mendelssohn, which I know he loves. Gluck’s mélodie from Orphée et Eurydice.
When I looked at Watson, I found he had stopped working, moved soundlessly back to the settee and put his head down on his arm, like an overtired schoolboy, his eyes shut.
He went to his room an hour earlier than usual, more for the sake of solitude than anything else, I must assume, for I am sure he cannot be sleeping well. I felt reluctant to let him out of my sight, which I suppose is stupid. He is a grown man, and the author of all this is not, at least, a continued threat to either of us. But I cannot stop myself dreading... I hardly know what. Being needed and being absent.
Alone, with neither Watson nor the violin to distract me, I became even more painfully aware of the syringe. It would not matter very much if I took a dose of cocaine, I thought. A temporary respite from the wretched consciousness of my shortcomings was not so much to ask. It might still be in my system the next morning, when I next saw Watson, but its effects would have dissipated; I should be myself, for whatever use that was, so where was the harm in it?
And I would be wanting more, even more intensely than I did already.
I acted before I could think about it too hard. I packed up my morocco case in brown paper and took it downstairs to Mrs. Hudson, disturbing the poor woman in her dressing gown as she too was about to retire for the night. I’m afraid I was more imperious than apologetic. I handed her the little parcel and told her it was crucial she kept it somewhere safe. Without quite saying so, I gave her the impression it was the lynchpin of some case.
I could have poured out the bottles and smashed the syringe, and I did not. I felt that unless I knew it was there if I needed it I should go out directly the shops were open and buy more.
I have no illusions I shall be able to stay away from the stuff for good. In fact, were I to start making grandiose promises of forswearing chemical consolation from this day forth I should quite terrify myself. It would even seem – perverse as I admit this would surely appear to anyone else – an admission of defeat, like accepting my friend will be in the shadow of what has happened forever. But for now, it will not do for me to be in any way impaired, either by the drugs themselves or by the reaction that follows when the relief has faded.
Of course, having put the needle beyond my reach, I wanted it even more keenly. But I am capable of doing without it, for quite long periods, if I have a problem worth working on. God knows I had one now, though I already knew this was not a case, and that such powers as I have, belatedly as I had begun to employ them, would be of no further use.
So, restless and purposeless, I paced the room, flexing my hands, constructing wild schemes for revenge upon Gilfoyle, trying not to remember the heat of Watson’s lips on mine, and contemplating creeping downstairs to pick Mrs Hudson’s lock and secretly retrieve my syringe. Then, looking across the room at Watson’s abandoned sheets of manuscript, I thought of his absorption when he writes of people rather than of poisons, and it occurred to me that there was one way of occupying myself that could, at least, do no harm. Or none beyond the pain of forcing myself to face the errors I have listed – and the notion of punishing myself was not wholly unwelcome.
So I sat down at his desk, stole a quantity of his foolscap, and I commenced writing this record, or confession, or whatever it is.
* * *
I went to bed some time after two. I did sleep, though not very well. I dreamt I was searching for something through the mud and slush of London, (the wet cobbles at Whitechapel melting eerily into the dirty sands at St Katharine’s Dock at low tide), but my vision was obscured by the coarse cloth mask over my face.
I had made a sequence of mistakes. Watson and I were watching each other through the partition in the visiting room at Wandsworth, and I did not know which side of it was which. He was as monochrome as a photograph, as if his skin and hair had been coated in grey paint. He said, sadly, “Poison.”
Now, I search the house for him without moving, whenever I wake from sleep – whether one of the temporary wakings in the dark or first thing, when morning grows too importunate to be ignored. When there is nothing, no shift of floorboards or of papers; no scent of coffee or cigarette smoke; no trace of steam in the air from the bathroom, then I resort to more panicked and fanciful measures. I trespass in spirit into his room, trying to determine from the texture of the silence what kind of night he is passing.
That first morning it was obvious enough that Watson was already down and that he had almost finished with breakfast. The occasional chiming of cup against saucer and knife against plate was in one sense, heartening, and yet from sheer cowardice I lay there for some time gathering the strength to face him.
Finally I lurched into the room in my dressing gown, and found that he, who quite often wanders down in much the same bohemian fashion, was already neatly dressed, his hair freshly washed and fastidiously combed. Armour, I thought – and the idea arrested me for a moment in the doorway. However he greeted me with a warm, if deliberate smile, and I went to the table, dropped into the chair opposite him and reached for the tea.
Despite the smile his eyes were heavy and bloodshot with sleeplessness, his fingers prone to fitful little starts of motion on the tablecloth, and his shoulders held with such uncharacteristic tightness that I ached in sympathy for the injured one. I wondered if this was merely the effect of last night’s shock, and the removal of the need for concealment, or whether I had actually made matters worse for him. It is a question I have still to resolve.
It was raining. It is raining as I write this now. The sky was so dark it seemed far earlier or far later than it was.
“This is an insulting excuse for a spring,” I said.
“At least it isn’t snowing.”
“I am not sure snow is not preferable – and I thought I heard hail in the night.”
“Will you stop looking at me like that? I am fine.”
I lowered my eyes at once. “Sorry,” I whispered.
His jaw twitched irritably and he strode over to the batch of letters transfixed to the mantelpiece. He demanded, “Are you going to take Mrs Bowen’s case or not?”
“Not,” I said, while tearing a slice of toast into pieces. “There is no case. A family wrangle about an inheritance is not a crime. She needs the services of a lawyer, not a detective.”
Perhaps in retrospect I should have agreed to listen to her troubles, made some suitably vague suggestions, and taken the money. I doubt my own ability to concentrate on anything more weighty just at present.
Watson sighed and sat down at his desk to begin writing a reply to the woman.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
He turned sharply in the chair, all sudden, barely-contained violence. “Is there something else I should be doing?”
I swallowed down a few of the scraps of toast with some difficulty, abandoned the table and retreated across the room in order to leave him alone. I gathered myself into a taut knot in my armchair, and tried to think.
I must think, I must think, I keep saying to myself, and yet thinking is no good. Later, catching me frowning into space with my chin sunk on my chest – he even came and laid a hand on my shoulder and said to me kindly, “Holmes, bless you, you must stop. There is very little a logician can do with this.”
There are some small things a violinist can do. In the evenings it calms him as it always has, and it keeps my mind off the syringe. What else? I produced a fair copy of his article on poisons and took it to the post office for him because of the rain. I see to it that he never has to look far for tea or tobacco. I am more careful not to let the fire go out, and I have tried to caulk up the gaps in the window through which the cold invades – I don’t know why it did not occur to me to do it before.
Such pitiful little gestures.
Almost a week of this now. By necessarily unspoken agreement, we have both treated the kiss – it feels something of a betrayal even to write the word – as stricken from the record. There is no other course, and I hope for him it is, or will be, as if it never occurred.
However, it is certainly not so for me. When one longs for something for years and then receives a taste of it in the worst imaginable circumstances, I suppose it is too much to expec t oneself to forget.
I can too easily comprehend what he meant by an “experiment”. Having been abused in a way he never imagined possible, and left wondering how such a thing could happen, he must have asked himself if something within him prompted it. Or else he imagines that if he was as decent and clean-souled a gentleman as England boasts before, he is so no longer. In either case, he kissed me to ascertain how badly he should consider himself damaged.
The implications are not pleasant.
I have kept the criminal part of my nature secret from him, and if it has sometimes been painful it has not been particularly difficult. Concealment comes much more naturally to me than confession, and curious as he has always been about me, he has never tried to prise out any truth I did not offer him. I have never felt before that I was in any way wronging him by the concealment. He is hardly the only person from whom the truth is withheld. My desires exist largely in the abstract and in the past, and despite his being the lone focus of them in the present, I have never felt them to be any more his business than anyone else’s.
Now, though, it starts to feel less a necessary containment, and more like self-serving deceit. Every time I wonder if he would pack his bags if he knew more about the man on whom he pressed that kiss, I find myself doubting it is right not to allow him the choice. Especially considering how I broke in on his own secret.
I must also admit that there have been rare occasions when I have – I will not exactly say hoped – wondered about my friend. When we have both drunk too much, or when he has been especially impressed with some flourish of mine. Little instances– which have not always concerned myself. Two years ago I was at once dismayed, intrigued and amused by the look of faintly puzzled fascination that crossed Watson’s face whenever he spoke to a young barrister who was defending a client of ours – he was, indeed so breathtaking to look at he must have passed his life assuming that dazzled admiration is the natural mien of the human countenance.
And very late one August night last year, after we had celebrated the capture of a murderer with opera at Covent Garden and with too much wine, Watson was sprawled on the sofa while I lay on the floor below it, my head on a cushion, plucking childish little tunes out of my violin. I glanced up to find him looking at me with a softness in his eyes that made my breath catch, and then he reached down and swept an affectionate and clumsy hand down over my hair and then let it rest on my shoulder. I laughed up at him and, being very drunk and fleetingly very happy, I thought, Why Watson, we will make a godless invert of you yet.
I later tried to obliterate the memory with rather a lot of morphine.
Between friends of the same sex, such moments are probably less rare than is generally admitted – the lees of the blurry passions of adolescence, floating unnoticed through the hearts of my innocent fellow-citizens who would never believe they had a thing in common with a man like me. If it does not quite mean nothing, it does not mean enough. A few days after the drunken incident just recounted, Watson was, in as gentlemanly a way as possble, fairly ogling a pretty little blonde who came to us about the missing manuscript of her father’s book. A fortnight after that he was transparently disappointed that the keen interest I had taken in an admittedly rather brilliant young widow evaporated once her case was solved.
I wish I had never known what his lips felt like, I used barely to allow myself to imagine even that much.
Dear God, what a mess, and if it were not so excruciating, I could almost laugh at it. As if explanations were possible now. Should I say to him, “Watson, if when you are more yourself you have any further notions in that direction by all means fling me against the nearest hard surface whenever you like, I assure you you need not wait for the invitation. However, in the more likely event that you recover a very proper or – God help me – heightened disgust for unnatural vices, would you kindly disregard the confession implicit in these remarks and thus avoid extending that disgust to me?”
It is shameful to catch myself dwelling more on my own troubles than on his. Gilfoyle’s trial begins in a month, is that fact not more to the point than any of this?
(Character limits meant chapter appeared as two back on Livejournal. It kind of works, but I've decided to let the scene play out unbroken here.)
We have spoken of it. The trial and – other matters. Remarkably enough, that is not what concerns me most at present. I am preoccupied with the existence of a certain document –
But let me take events in their proper order.
Five days have passed since I wrote here last. We have limped along together as best we can. At times the course runs a little smoother and I start to hope nothing lost is irretrievable. But it takes so little, or nothing, to jar us out of balance. I disturb him with my clumsiness or summon the very shadows I am afraid to see in his eyes by trying to make sure they are not there. We each sink into silence and cannot help each other out of it, and I want the relief of my syringe so badly that I almost cannot remember why I am trying to go without.
And I have had to accept that I cannot be foisting my bungling attentions on Watson every minute – my failure to find new work is only worrying and exasperating him. And yet even were there a client with an appropriate task for me, I would continue to doubt my ability to dispatch it well. There is one matter which is perfectly simple and plain, and yet does interest me. There is a man in Hampstead whose prosperity rests on a trade almost as poisonous as Gilfoyle’s and even harder for the law to touch. As a student of logic, I have no business contemplating it, but, as a student of crime...
For now I content myself and placate my friend with reviewing newspaper clippings and copies of certain letters - researches that may or may not come to anything. But the idea of striding off the path of the fence the law into justice’s wilder, fiercer regions, attracts me more than perhaps it should.
If I do anything, I must certainly do it alone.
* * *
On Tuesday evening Lestrade looked in on us. It was the first time Watson had seen him since the night of our disastrous sortie at Gilfoyle’s house, and the first time I had seen him in the knowledge of what his late arrival on had cost my friend.
Oh, but tempting as it is to load off some portion of guilt onto his unknowing shoulders, it is not Lestrade’s fault. Still we were not at our most welcoming. Watson, whether because the unfortunate little rodent’s face prompted too vivid a memory or because of the fear Lestrade too might eventually nose out what happened, tensed sharply at the sight of him. Then he made himself smile in greeting, deliberately loosened each taut muscle and began devoting a great deal of energy to trying to seem calm and at ease. But the effort left him with little conversation.
And meanwhile I was resenting Lestrade for every ounce of the strain I could sense dragging at my friend, and this soon set me considering the various other contingencies that would have spared him all this. If Lestrade had arrived earlier; if I had gone there alone; if Gilfoyle had been faster with the knife...
Lestrade was fussing about a spate of burglaries in Lambeth, but I think that was only a pretext.
“I don’t suppose you’re ever going to tell me why you turned white as a sheet and went tearing off when I gave you that report on Gilfoyle?” he asked.
Watson’s face went carefully blank while his hands twitched with the flinch he was trying to suppress.
“Something had occurred to me. It came to nothing,” I said, in the most supercilious way possible, as if he was stupid for asking. Not only did I mean to scare Lestrade off that subject, I had some hopes of driving him out of the house altogether.
Unhappily this had the effect of making Watson feel someone should make up for my rudeness, and he summoned an additional effort on top of that I knew he was making already and began a bluff, cheerful imitation of himself that seemed to me so patently artificial I felt surprised even Lestrade did not see through it.
But then, considering the puzzled glance back at us when at last he took his leave, perhaps he did.
I thought Watson might be relieved, as I was, when Lestrade had gone, but instead he stood for a while looking down at the street, with an expression of subdued frustration.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that, old chap,” I said.
“Through what? An ordinary conversation with our friend?” He sounded irritable, but there was a flat tone to his voice that told me his annoyance was, regrettably, more with himself than with me.
“It was not entirely ordinary,” I said. Watson had even managed some humourous remarks about the battered state I had been in when we left Gilfoyle’s.
“No,” muttered Watson. “Nothing is.” Then, adding something about getting to the tobacconists’ before it closed despite the fact that I have almost enough supplies to open a tobacconists myself, he went out and did not come back for three hours.
In doing so he proved his point, for ordinarily a gentleman can leave his rooms for a few hours without his fellow-lodger becoming half-convinced he must be dead in a gutter. I came very close to rushing out and commencing a panicked search for him, and if he had been another half hour I think I should have done it. It was less the the thought that I was probably being foolish than the fear I might regret being absent on his return that kept me in place so long.
I had involuntarily constructed a number of theories as to what might be happening and many of these scenarios ended with him returning, if at all, staggering drunk or beaten or robbed. But when, with a flood of relief I did hear his footsteps on the stairs, his pace told me he was merely tired and moving with the stiffness that comes when the cold wears at his old wounds. And when he came through the door I saw that, if he had been drinking,he was still some way short of being drunk.
“Yes, yes, I have been along Mortimer Street, and through Soho, and to the Embankment,” he said impatiently, noticing the movement of my eyes across his shoes and clothes, “and nothing has happened.” He cast himself into his chair and began to knead, grimacing, at his shoulder. He went on talking with a curious mixture of bitterness and resigned humour, “I went to a tavern on Wells Street; and on Greek Street a woman made a suggestion to me I which I intended to accept, but I did not, in fact, do so. The rest of the time I have been walking with no particular purpose in mind. I needed a change of air, that is all.”
I was still dazed with the relief of seeing him safe, but I was slightly taken aback too, because while I cannot imagine that in all his experience of women money has never changed hands, he does not speak about it. At least not to his apparently sexless friend.
But then, I had urged him to talk. And it is not very difficult to see what an abortive encounter with a prostitute had to do with preceding events, how he might have hoped it would function as a kind of exorcism. Wincing, I could see in it the converse of his ‘experiment’ with me.
“Don’t worry so much,” he added more softly, “There are people in London having a far worse time of it tonight.”
“You are thinking of the woman you met,” I said, trying to sound understanding yet dispassionate, though dispassionate was the last thing I felt.
He rubbed wearily at his face before before propping his chin on one hand, staring into the fire. “I went as far as accompanying her part of the way back to her rooms,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been the first time, you know. But then I thought – she was quite likely forced into it at the beginning. What she must think of the men who make use of her.”
“You gave her the money anyway,” I said. “Or perhaps rather more than she would have asked.”
Watson turned to me with a startled laugh. “Can you see through overcoats and weigh a man’s wallet, now, Holmes?” he asked. For a moment his face showed nothing but unclouded merriment and I was stupidly transfixed. “What on earth gave that away?”
“Nothing. It is the sort of thing you would do.”
He sighed. “Heaven knows who will end up pocketing most of it.” He let his gaze sink into the embers of the fire again, fatigue welling back. “Holmes,” he said. “I suppose by now you would have heard if they wanted you to testify at the trial?”
“I think they have enough without me,” I said. “You certainly will not have to.” I will do whatever I must ensure this is so. I went and sat opposite him. “I imagine we would both prefer not have to see him. Not without a revolver or a horsewhip in hand, at any rate.”
He said distantly, “Cowardly, isn’t it?”
“No. Or at least not in your case. To see him in such a setting, yet not be able to accuse him of his crime...”
Watson flinched, and he said stiffly, “I certainly would not want it discussed in public.”
“I know,” I said. I wish I could tell him he need not fear discovery, that no one who knew would alter their of view of him one whit, unless it were to wonder at his altruism. No sane or decent person would, but unfortunately that is not the same thing. Instead I said, “Watson, I hope the point is obvious to you, but it bears mentioning that you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Have I not?” He looked up me suddenly. “I kissed you.”
For a few seconds I was powerless to do anything but stare at him and think how can you simply say that? He said it so straightforwardly, although I can only think it must have taken immense courage. “You did,” I agreed, at last.
“What must you have thought?”
“I thought, as I believe I said at the time, that you were very distressed.”
There was a pause. “Only that?”
“Yes. Think no more of it.”
Watson’s voice dropped so low I could barely hear him. “You were not disgusted.”
“Of course I was not, what do you think I am?”
And there was a salient question. As soon as I had voiced the words they seemed to beat in the air so that it was difficult even to breathe: What did he think I was?
I could not understand at the time how the conversation had taken such a turn, but if I had not been so agitated during the hours he was absent, if this matter had not been weighing on my mind for so many days, I think I would have been able to steer it onto some new course. But as it was when he merely repeated my name, I gasped, “What do you want – what are you asking me? Whether I have anything in common with – with –?”
I am not so bold as Watson; I could not bring myself to say Gilfoyle’s name.
“No!” he said, horrified. “Of course there is nothing – Holmes. Are you all right?”
He had risen from his chair and was about to place his hand on my arm. I twitched away from him and said,“No.”
I attempted to smile, probably with ghastly results, and continued a little too loudly, “No, I never have been, according to the conventional view. I shall be interested to know whether you share it.”
I rose and dodged past him as Watson said, “My dear chap, please – don’t upset yourself, I never meant to –”
So I had some chance of stopping there, and yet I wanted none of it. Whatever the consequences now, I wanted what I had just said to be irrevocable, and to be forced to plunge on, agonising as it was I could not bear the prospect of trying to struggle my way back. I said, “No, you should know this.”
However I got no further for a little while. I was now wandering restlessly about the room with my violin and bow in my hands, though I am not sure exactly when or why I picked them up.
“Watson,” I murmured at last, without looking him. “You know I have never wanted to marry, never felt any desire for women at all. Perhaps you have never reflected what that was like, when I was young. Or supposed that I did try to feel something of that sort. It was never any use. One cannot force such feelings into existence – or out of it, come to that. For I have loved, a handful of times. When I was at school. And then at university. And there was someone for a while – older than me – a year after that.” Briefly I turned back and looked at him and asked, “Do you understand what I mean by this?”
I found myself the subject of a disconcertingly intent blue gaze. He said, after a second, “I think I do.”
“Well, then. No, it is not very likely I would be disgusted by a kiss which, as I have said, I do not regard as anything but an expression of ... of turmoil you should never have had to bear. The question is rather whether you are disgusted by—” My voice failed me; I could not quite say ‘by me’, when it came to it. Instead I said, “You might like to know that not for almost a decade have I done anything about it.”
Watson’s eyes widened at that, in apparent incredulity. I gestured impatiently with the bow. “It was not a moral decision. You may as well know that too. It was made on purely pragmatic grounds. I am quite arrogant enough to decide I know better than the law and the church and – oh, everyone. Years ago I diddecide that I had never harmed anybody and was done with shame over what was beyond my power to alter. However, given the career I had chosen, and given my temperament, I also concluded it would be... safer, in a number of ways, if I were to keep such feelings entirely in check. Especially since that was much more easily within my power than it would be for most men. When the world can bear to contemplate men of my kind, it imagines we must all be insatiable monsters, but really, to me it has been no great sacrifice at all, Watson.”
Towards the end of this I had a slightly unreal sense of speaking from a false position, even though I was not lying. I know what it was now; I was speaking in the role of myself as I was five years ago, before I met him.
I added quietly, ”Though I will not pretend I have never wished my character were formed differently. In many other respects, not only in this.”
At that the expression in his eyes, which I had tentatively identified as strong but surprisingly neutral curiosity, thawed into what was plainly compassion. I turned away to avoid looking at it for very long, and said, “There. The information is yours to do with as you like, and act on as you feel you must.”
He said swiftly, before I had time to wait in dread for his answer, “You don’t imagine I would do anything with it that would harm you. I never would have, whenever you told me.”
I uttered a ridiculous, wobbling little laugh. “You make it sound a foregone conclusion I would ever have told you.”
Watson came over to me, so that I had little choice but to face him. I saw him look down at my hands – the left, holding the violin, was somewhat steadied by the weight, the other was trembling badly. “I hope you would have,” he said at last. “Some time.”
I exhaled and let out an involuntary little sound on the breath.
“Do you want a drink?” Watson said.
“I want something stronger, but I will refrain for now,” I said. His eyes turned to the corner of the mantelpiece where the Morocco case usually rests, then, surprised, back to me. “You had not noticed its absence before?”
“I can be very slow,” he said softly. “Oh, Holmes.”
Having rejected alcohol and ruled out cocaine, I sat down still pathetically clinging to my violin as a child might clutch a toy in the dark. For a moment of perverse ingratitude I wondered sullenly how far I had my celibacy to thank for what seemed as if it might possibly be my friend’s acceptance. A chaste invert is doubtless a less alarming creature than one who proceeds with the courage of his convictions.
But soon I began to reflect that it appeared I had been, for nowhere near the first time, incredibly fortunate in my one friendship. I leant my head against the back of the chair feeling dizzy and weak.
“Are you wanting to play something?” he asked, glancing with apparent amusement at the bow resting across my knees and the violin lying on my lap like a cat.
“No,” I said expressionlessly, leaving them where they were.
He searched for and found my carefully stocked box of cigarettes and remarked pensively, “Actually, perhaps it is not so very surprising.”
Another mad-sounding laugh escaped me, “Watson, do not frighten me. If it is obvious then I am in very grave trouble.”
“I don’t mean I had ever guessed it before, you know that.”
“But in retrospect it is all too plain? That is not reassuring.”
Watson flushed slightly. “What I mean,” he said slowly, “is ... what, really, have you told me? Not ten minutes ago I mentioned indiscretions of my own, and at the very worst I feared you would mildly disapprove. It seems unjust you should have to suffer so much more anxiety over something so similar.”
He lit a cigarette and passed it to me. Putting it between my lips I felt a pang of awareness that it had just been between his, and of what I had not told him.
“You think it similar, do you?” I asked – and I don’t know why I said this sardonically, it must have been defensive instinct.
Watson sensibly ignored this, and sat down on the footstool by the fire. “Holmes. Forgive me. For days I have snapped at you and worried you and then I round it all off by goading you into telling me what was none of my business. I am sorry.”
“Watson,” I said, dragging on the cigarette and beginning to recover some degree of composure. “That is the one thing I must forbid you to say to me.”
Watson smiled at me briefly, then sat and smoked in silence. Lately silences between us have seemed to strand us miles apart, but this felt as familiar and steadying as the tobacco smoke in my lungs and the contours of the violin under my hand.
At last he tossed the butt of his cigarette into the fire and said quietly, “I don’t think he is the same way.”
“Gilfoyle. I expect he has done something of that sort before. To someone. But I don’t think he – prefers men. Not ... not as willing partners.”
I would never have wished the conversation we had just had – if it had to happen at all – to involve Gilfoyle, and Watson’s too-plausible inferences about the man were horrific. And yet, I had dreaded the possibility of that association settling in my friend's mind more than anything, and I was more relieved than I can easily express to hear it was not there.
Watson said, “ I think the point was more..."
“Cruelty,” I said. “Subjection.”
He sighed. “Those are as good words for it as any.”
I wished I had waited for him find his own words for it, for this was more than he had ever said about the experience before. I said, “I interrupted you.”
“I don’t know what else I would have said. Humiliation.” His face contorted suddenly and a tremor went through him like a spasm. He covered his face with one hand and said, “I can’t...”
“My dear fellow,” I said helplessly.
Watson shook his head and made a thwarted gesture, apparently baffled at his own distress. “Really, this is absurd. I don’t know why it should continue to make such a difference to me, after all this time.”
“It has not been very long at all.” I wanted very much to take his hand or squeeze his shoulder, and after what I had just told him, I did not feel that I could.
Watson, however, reached and gripped my hand where it rested over the violin. “I told you I couldn’t speak about it,” he said. “But I have done, in a way.”
“What way is that?” I whispered.
Watson said, “I wrote it down.”
I neither moved nor spoke, but I was very alert indeed.
Watson looked away from me with immediate anxiety and odd remorse. “I am so much in the habit of writing these days,” he explained. “And I imagined it might... help me.”
“And did it?” I asked.
“Not noticeably,” he said, managing a rueful smile.
“Because it was an incomplete exercise without a reader?”
He closed his eyes, and didn’t answer me at once. At last he murmured, “I never intended it to be read.”
“But if there had been someone you could have trusted with it...?”
“Much of it is not at all fair to you.” That, if anything, only heightened the urgency of the need to see it, but I could not help but tense to think that here at last, behind what he called unfairness, lay the censure my failings had deserved all along...
Watson, rather remarkably, contrived to detect this line of thought without so much as looking at me. “It is not that,” he said, firmly, turning to me again. “I have never blamed you for it, Holmes -- not for any part of it. You must not imagine that. But afterwards I was so afraid you would find it out – and yet the longer you did not, the more I was in suspense, and it made me irritable at times.”
“If that is your idea of being unfair to me -!”
He kept glancing between my face and his own hands, one of which was now curled into a fist and drumming out a tense rhythm on his knee. “It would not make pleasant reading,” he said at last, very softly.
“I don’t mind that.”
“Of course you would mind it,” he said, and fell silent again, teeth clenched and breath locked with the effort of a soundless struggle with himself.
I cannot bear this, I thought, I cannot watch you work so hard alone. “It would be a relief to you if I read it,” I said, “if you were not the only one who knew it all.”
“I’m not the only one,” he muttered grimly, and I began to feel ill. “Holmes, I don’t know.”
“You think it would. The fact that everything you have said against it concerns me argues as much. You would not need to trouble yourself with misplaced scruples about me unless you were weighing them against some possible benefit.”
By now I was leaning forward and was watching his features carefully. I suppose the scrutiny must have been rather too pointed, for he put up a deflecting hand, though he smiled at me from behind it. “Holmes.”
I compelled myself to settle back in the chair.
“I don’t know,” Watson repeated. “Not now, in any case. I couldn’t sit here and watch you reading it, and you must not heap any more strain upon yourself tonight. Let it be for now, please.”
“Very well,” I said, frustrated both at not being able to see the thing immediately and with myself for interrogating the poor man so.
“I should not have told you. Now you will be thinking about it all evening and you have had your nerves worked up enough on my account tonight already.”
“My nerves are fairly proof,” I said, stoutly enough, I think.
And they will have to be, for I believe I shall need to get more out of them. Still, the faint nausea did not recede, and though my hands had stopped trembling visibly I could still feel a subdued shivering continuing somewhere in my core.
The violin still lay on my knees and after a while I began to scrape at it, not melodies for the doctor this time but little plumes of sound for myself. I know these improvisations are not beautiful to anyone but me, except in an occasional, fragmented sense, and I have not allowed myself the relief of them for over a fortnight. Watson continued to smoke in patient silence beside me, and I was sorry not to be able to offer him anything better, not even to be able to make it up to him with a single canzonetta afterwards, but if I was going to sit there like a civilised person and a friend and not break into several rusted pieces of a defunct machine, then I was going to have to dose myself with something.
* * *
I wonder where he wrote the document, and where it is now. Probably not in his desk– even had it been locked in a drawer he must have dreadedI would somehow chance upon it. In his bedroom, then – the bedside table or in the chest of drawers. I can almost feel it there, like an open window letting in the cold air.
Wherever it is it cannot be much above thirty feet from where I sit.
I make it sound as if I am plotting to search out the manuscript and read it whether he wishes me to or no. I am not quite so wicked. But it is not easy to sit still, much less sleep, knowing oneself in the presence of such a thing.
* * *
I knew before he told me that he had made his decision.
While continuing my attempts to offer what meagre and unobtrusive comfort I could, I had tried for two days to distract myself from the proximity of the document on the one hand and my syringe on the other by pouring energy into vengeful loathing of my Hampstead blackmailer. That was not so very difficult, for the man strikes me as much more repulsive than a number of hot-blooded murderers I have had to do with in my career. And he is a murderer too, in a moral sense, if not a legal one -- I know of at least three suicides and one death from brain-fever he should have on his non-existent conscience.
I may have had no choice but to endure my suspense while Watson had the power to end or protract it as he chose, but he has been quite as agitated over this as I have. Perhaps ‘agitated’ is not the right word – I mean to say it has been leaching away his strength and left him even more obviously worn out than before. There have been no more flashes of anger with me. I could wish there had been. Instead, whenever he looked at me I could see him weighing possible consequences, some of them evidently disastrous. I did not know how to say, nothing will happen, I will never think of you differently, nothing you can have written could change me. Now I write them down those words seem perfectly simple. Perhaps it is just as well they were beyond my reach at the time ,for as it turns out they would not have been altogether true.
Amidst all this, the confession I made to him the other day seemed to have sunk nearly without trace. After so many years of secrecy, it is almost unnerving. Uneasy as he has been, he does not place himself at any uncharacteristic distance from me, or avoid touching me, or exhibit any symptom of squeamishness or pity that I had dreaded only a few degrees less than the possibility he would walk out and be done with it. There have been times where I suspect he was thinking of it, for I know what Watson looks like when he is curious about me. And if I had to speculate on the content of his thoughts I would say he was wondering exactly what I got up to when I was younger, and with whom, and whether the account I gave him of my reasons for choosing abstinence was complete. And that is all. It would be an extraordinary relief in other circumstances, but our situation does not quite allow for that.
Then on Thursday morning a telegram came for him. He looked at it, and then at me, and then deep into nothingness. And though he did not say anything then, I knew the die was cast, because for a little while, the tension left him.
He dodged off to his room, leaving the telegram on the breakfast table, so I read it. It was nothing momentous, merely an invitation from an Edwin Harcourt Burrage to call at the offices of The Young Briton the following day.
“Holmes,” he said after supper that evening, “I’ll have to go over to Mayfair tomorrow.” And if I had not already known that his absence would mean the delivery of his account into my hands, I would have had to be very dull not to guess it then. Watson looked as harrowed up as if he were telling me he would be spending the next day on trial for murder.
“Mr Burrage needs a series on various careers. You know, something edifying to put between all the pirate stories, so they can keep claiming it’s all about encouraging boys to make something of themselves. I’m not sure with my history I have any business persuading impressionable youths to become either soldiers or doctors or amateur crime-fighters, but I could probably hammer something out. Anyway, if I can agree something with Burrage then I might go on to the library to make a start there, and I must go to the bank, and ...”
“You’ll be out most of the day,” I finished for him.
“Well, until six or seven,” he said, breathlessly. “Will you be busy?” I shook my head and he tried to smile at me. “I suppose once I told you, this became inevitable.
I could actually see the fabric of his shirtfront jolting softly with his heartbeat. I wondered how either of us was was to endure the wait, and murmured, “Watson, I could take it away somewhere now, where you would not have to watch me.”
But he shook his head. “I would prefer to have something to do, in the meantime,” he said. “And in any case – Holmes, if I am knowingly going to put you through worse than I have already, I would rather you were not out in some alley in the dark at the time.”
I said a number of inadequate things but soon after he escaped again to his room and did not re-emerge.
I hardly know what I did with the rest of the night. I drank, wrote, smoked, roamed about the house and read over old cases, and some time around dawn I pitched unawares into sleep.
When I woke, sprawled across my bed in my clothes with no memory of how I came there, it was very late in the morning, and Watson was nowhere in the house. I determined that first, and then remembered what I had been waiting for, and leapt up and flung open the door to see if it had happened.
Yes, on my desk – a small sheaf of papers, neatly folded.
I seized it immediately and a sheet of notepaper, smaller than the other pages, fell out.
“My dear Holmes, [it said] we both know the following must give you pain, and your kindness in taking it upon yourself is one I fear I do wrong to accept. I would like to offer a way back, to say you are under no obligation to continue, &c. But I think that any such gesture would be a cowardly service to my own feelings rather than an honest attempt to spare yours. For I know you will, of course, read on.
Please, then, believe that things are better with me now than when I began to write this account of my thoughts, and time will, I suppose, do more for me still. I have not read these pages over and so they must stand as they are, and there are things within that I do not know what to think of or how to explain. But whatever else you think as you read, you must remember how very much worse it could have been. We are fortunate, all things considered, to have got away with our lives. As for what did happen, you know G. has been the cause of far more protracted and irremediable suffering to many others. Remember those two girls, and what would be happening to them at this moment, were it not for you. We shall never know, my friend, how many lives you have delivered from ruin or undeserved disgrace or death. I hope you know it remains my honour to help you.
I read this hastily and put it aside, somehow at once very touched and almost irritated in my impatience to know the whole of it at last. ‘Yes, yes, dear fellow’, I might have answered him, ‘you are goodness itself; I already love you for it hopelessly. Further proofs of the fact, however astonishing, are not merely superflous but more than I am equipped to bear at present. To the purpose, now.’
I turned to the main document.
* * *
I shall not say much about it.
He had given up writing some weeks ago, I understood, and his letter said he had not read it again - but there was one new addition to the text, made at the same time as he wrote that letter to me, in the same ink – a single penstroke. He had underlined the words I have nothing to regret.
I had intended to read every word of it; but I found this was like intending to hold heated iron in my hands without flinching – not a project destined to be completely successful. Sometimes I could not keep my eyes from wincing away from the page. I had to stop for a while when I came to the section concerning the death of a housemaid called Phyllis Mackey, and ran into his bedroom to find the little bottle of chloral there. When I came back I am afraid that at times I had difficulty even keeping my eyes clear enough to read for more than a line or two at a stretch. I tried, when I reached the end, to calm myself sufficiently to make a second pass through to catch whatever I had missed. I had to conclude in the end that this would not be possible.
It was indeed as well that the doctor was absent, for I could not have borne any witnesses to the state I was in by the time I decided I was, in more than one sense, finished.
I was on my knees on the living room floor. The pages were scattered around me. I couldn’t bring myself to touch them again. So I left them there and went downstairs.
Cocaine would not be adequate. Cocaine means clarity, confidence, and a beguiling sheen to the surfaces of the commonplace -- none of those things could have touched me and in any case what I wanted was erasure. And there was a bottle of morphine only a floor below me.
I reached the bottom of the steps, and stood staring at Mrs Hudson’s door for I don’t know how long. I was not conscious of any moral struggle, any indecision – I was merely baffled that it was taking me so long to do what I had come there for. Go to the door, knock, and demand back my property.
And then I did move, grasping the newel post at the foot of the stairs and propelling myself around it, and then striding out through the front door. I cannot credit any rational thought for making me do it. It was raining heavily, though this did not immediately engage my attention. I had not even a frock-coat over the clothes I had slept in, and I was drenched by the time I reached the end of the street, but this did not matter because I was going back to Wandsworth and this time, somehow, I was getting inside that cell. I was as happy to hang for what I meant to do there as Gilfoyle could possibly have been for killing me, curse him for leaving the task unfinished. I meant it. I ploughed through the icy rain, gasping for breath, with no other thought in my head.
Or almost no other thought. I know some part of my mind pointed out to me that what I was planning was both insane and unforgivable; that to allow the doctor to return and find me absent, -- permanently, if my attempt came to anything -- was the worst thing I could do to him. But that thought seemed to have nothing to do with the freezing, scarcely human creature I was now. It belonged to a man I had no more business trying to pretend to be.
It was a surprise, therefore, to find after some indeterminate rain-lashed sweep of time that I was indoors, and not in any part of Wandsworth Prison but in a certain residence of Pall Mall, and already in the act of banging on my brother’s door.
My fist continued to beat against the door of its own accord, even after I heard the floorboards within shifting under my brother’s heavy tread.
Mycroft greeted me with a gruff exclamation of “Good God.”
I gaped at my brother as if he were the one to turn up on my doorstep in his shirtsleeves and dripping wet. I replied, “What is the time?”
I should have been able to deduce the answer, not that I am sure why I wanted to know it. You can, as they say, set your watch by Mycroft, who scarcely needs to carry a timepiece himself, so deeply are his habits engraved into his very nerves. In that first moment he was probably at least as concerned at the evident derailment of his evening as he was for his brother’s sanity, for his exact, unchanging daily rituals mean as much to him as the beckoning flash of the unexpected usually means to me.
“It is twenty to five. Sherlock, what brings you here?”
If I had arrived five minutes later he would have been at the Diogenes, where I am sure I should not have followed him. I do not know what would have happened then. As it was I had misplaced a good three hours. I began to think about that, and then gave it up. “I am not altogether sure.”
He uttered a sound that began as an exasperated growl in his throat and ended in a sharp tut on his lips, and then all but hauled me inside.
I stood there shivering in a spreading pool of rainwater, offering no account of myself, still staring at him like an imbecile.
“You look half-drowned and frozen. Get out of those clothes, for heaven’s sake, before you catch your death.”
“No, no,” I said vaguely, beginning to look around the room in continuing puzzlement at my own presence there. “I’m not staying.”
“If you think you are going anywhere in that condition, without giving me an excellent reason for it, you are gravely mistaken.”
I caught an accidental glimpse of myself in the slightly warped glass of the old French mirror. It is really too big for Mycroft’s rooms, but it was our mother’s – it used to hang in her private sitting room, in the old house. I looked, indeed, so laughably wretched I could barely face myself. I saw Mycroft’s face behind me, watching me, his lips thoughtfully pursed. He did not look it, but I knew that by now he was very worried indeed, and that certainty, arriving in the same moment that I thought of the mirror in Gilfoyle’s hall, placed me in some danger of succumbing to tears again. I covered my face and begged, “Please, Mycroft, don’t speak to me for a while.”
I felt rather than saw Mycroft continuing to examine me in silence for a moment, before he said crisply, “Very well. Let us resume in a quarter of an hour, will that suit you?”
He turned away and I folded myself up in a chair. Parts of that walk through the rain were coming back to me now; I had gone a long way, as far as the very margin of Wandsworth. I remembered standing on Chelsea Bridge, halfway across, staring down at the swollen river for a long time. “How cold and dark and foul the water must be,” Watson had written. I think that was why I turned back, even if afterwards I suppose I could not countenance the defeat, let it all blur into one demented march.
Sitting in Mycroft’s chair I sank into a kind of stupor, and the relief of temporary apathy. Still my heart pounded palpably, not so very fast, but with hard strokes, like a chisel being worked against my ribs. And though for a while I seemed to regard the question with near indifference, I remained at a loss as to how I was to bear the knowledge of how its every beat had been purchased.
Meanwhile, I could hear Mycroft moving about, occasionally sighing heartily. His sighs are frequent, scarcely less forceful than the spout of a surfacing whale, and rarely accompanied by any reason he can name. In this case, however, it was of course clear where the cause was to be found.
In one sense it would be correct to say my brother and I are not close, for we go months without seeing each other. Yet if we had nothing else we should have the attachment between speakers of a very obscure and difficult dialect, or the fellow-feeling of survivors of a shipwreck. There are also the facts that he is the one soul I have ever taken wholly for granted, that in his remote way he knows me better than anyone else, and that I think I am the only person living who really knows him at all. It is always comforting to think of him progressing along the stately circuits which I had that afternoon disrupted -- from Whitehall to Pall Mall, I can almost hear him, like a steady, quiet drum beat, as I now could hear his solid paces about the room. I scarcely need to see him for that.
Mycroft had no trouble holding his tongue for the allotted fifteen minutes, but a towel soon descended unceremoniously about my shoulders and shortly after a cup of tea and a plate of bread and butter appeared at my elbow. Mycroft, like the Doctor, is apt to worry that I am too thin, and though his perspective on the matter is surely more skewed than Watson’s, he is even harder to persuade that I understand my own needs.
I ignored the plate, but I began listlessly scrubbing at my hair with the towel, as my time ran out.
“Well then,” said Mycroft, looking down at me.
“I shall be on my way,” I announced, springing to my feet. Mycroft gave another gusty sigh and pushed me back into the chair without difficulty. He is as surprisingly strong for his weight as I am for mine. Not that I put up much resistance. In fact, once back in the chair I curled myself up again with my forehead resting on my knees. I was very anxious at the prospect of having to talk to him, but I did not want to be elsewhere. In point of fact, I did not want to be anywhere at all. Escape, therefore, held little real appeal for me, and I seemed to be rather short of energy to effect it.
Satisfied that I was staying put, Mycroft settled into the chair opposite. “Why did you not come to consult me a fortnight ago? For whatever has happened to you today, I should say you have been in some kind of trouble at least that long. Although...” he paused, and when he spoke again I could hear the complicated smile in his voice. “It is a strange trouble that has you keeping off the morphine and cocaine. My dear boy. I am glad to see it.”
It is no good visiting Mycroft if you are going to be rattled by such things, so I was not – not exactly. But I did lift my head in order to see if I could follow his chain of observations. I was a little thinner, I supposed. Furtively examining my hands, I found a slightly reddened dent just below the first joint of my right index finger. Even to me, it seems astonishing to deduce two weeks of anguish from so little, but it did show I must have been gripping the bow too tightly over many days, not a usual bad habit of mine. I was less clear how he knew about the drugs. Any normal man would have concluded from the state of me that if he were ever looking at Sherlock Holmes in a state of chemically-induced ruin, now was the time.
I looked at him and saw him reading my thoughts. He smiled sadly. “You would not allow yourself to reach such a state of extremity without resorting to something, and I am afraid that something would not usually be a fraternal visit. Besides, it leaves more traces on you, and for longer, than you suppose. The texture of your skin. Your eyes. The difference is not very easy to summarise, but it is quite distinct, I assure you.”
“Don’t be too pleased,” I said sullenly, “I shan’t be able to keep it up forever.”
He didn’t argue with me. He leaned forward towards and said softly, “Sherlock, why don’t you tell me what is wrong?”
His tone was so uncharacteristically gentle that it nearly undid what little remained of my self-control. I croaked, “I cannot.”
“It does not concern only yourself?”
I shook my head and somehow that seemed to jolt from behind my teeth words I had not known were lurking there: “I wish he had never met me.”
Then we were both silent for a long while as I became uneasily aware of what a very great deal of information I had given him in that remark.
There was clearly only one person to whom I could have been referring. And there were various ways my living arrangements with the doctor might have toppled over into disaster, and Mycroft knew it. For he knows all about me, of course. My capacity for dissimulation may be fairly well-tested, but I am not equal to committing decades to the task of keeping Mycroft Holmes from noticing his brother is a homosexual. As for the full nature of my regard for John Watson – well, it was not something I had liked to think of, but yes, I would have wagered Mycroft had always known that too. I hope I should have preserved at least a little more dignity if I were merely disappointed in love, but still, some of the more brutal possibilities might conceivably have sent me running to my brother’s door regretting the folly of ever sharing rooms with anyone. I had, however, ruled almost all such possibilities out at a stroke. I had indicated that whatever had happened, I was not the primary casualty.
“There seems to be room for differences of opinion on your degree of culpability,” Mycroft said at last. “Your friend would presumably take himself elsewhere, if he felt you had wronged him as you seem to feel it.”
I said recklessly, “He’s an idiot not to.”
Mycroft’s gaze had gone remote and pale as distant cloud banks. He said in a quiet, almost expressionless murmur, “You are nearly as distraught as if your friend had just been killed, yet he is alive. Whatever has happened to him must be grave indeed, but I do not believe it is truly any of your doing, or why should he continue to tolerate your company? Yet you feel yourself accountable, so I suppose he must have been accompanying you on one of your cases, or acting for you in some other way. And then, I have not heard of you getting into any serious scrapes since that Gilfoyle matter, where I heard you took a nice knock to the head. If your friend had been seriously hurt surely I would have heard of that too...”
“Stop it,” I said. I had flinched despite myself at the phrase ‘acting for you,’ and again at Gilfoyle’s name, and I knew that must have told him even more.
But Mycroft could not be stopped. He continued to strip away the impossible:
“It was at Gilfoyle’s, then. But if he had been injured there, however much you might consider yourself to blame, why should you hesitate to tell me? And that was back in January, why should it only begin to affect you so severely in the last few weeks? No, I do not think you knew of this so long; he must have concealed it from you, which cannot have been easy. What could have been done to him that he shouldwish to keep secret...?”
His brow suddenly cleared, and then contracted again at once. His mouth fell slightly open.
“Don’t,” I whispered. “I haven’t any right to tell you this.”
Mycroft sat back, neatly shutting away the look of shock, and opened his snuff box. “You haven’t told me anything.”
I laughed despairingly. “It amounts to a breach of confidence to come anywhere near you.”
“My capacities are not your fault. It may possibly be your fault that you have no one else to go to, but being even less sociable than yourself I am in no position to judge.”
“There’s nothing I can do, there’s no way to make it right. You don’t understand...”
Mycroft swept specks of snuff from his waistcoat with his handkerchief. “Then had you not better tell me the whole of it? It is possible I have entirely misconstrued matters, but if not I think I have already deduced the worst of it. You know it will never go any further.”
I still do not know if I had any right to do it, but after some further hesitation I did tell him in the end. At least my brother never needs a thing to be explained at any length. In fact it shocked me that the whole business could be condensed to such a few terse sentences and a choked silence. Mycroft sat there motionless, his face turning chalk-white while I stumbled to my conclusion, dropping my head into my hands and muttering wretchedly, “I should never –”
“Never what?” demanded Mycroft abruptly, and so fiercely I started a little, “Never have been born? Never have woken after those villains attacked you? Sherlock, if you are looking for someone to agree with you that the world at large— your friend included – would be better off with you dead, you might try asking around among the inmates at Newgate or the gangs of Rotherhithe. I doubt anyone else who knows your name is likely to do it for you, and you might have ruled out your brother before you began.”
I did not say anything. I could not.
Mycroft subsided, pondering. Then, as if nothing more harrowing than a jumbled set of figures lay before him, he said, “Let us try to address the situation logically...”
I gave another wrecked laugh. “Logically! Mycroft, I congratulate you on working the thing out, I was far, far slower but I did as much myself in the end – but what then? My skills are not the equal of yours , but they have their uses when someone wants to discover exactly what horrible thing has occurred or who has committed it. But when all that remains is to make matters more bearable, I have to own myself entirely out of my depth. There is no place for logic. That is just it. ”
“What nonsense,” said Mycroft. “Certainly there is a place for logic. You are merely applying it in a very uneven manner. You seem to have concluded your ability to help will be impaired if you either distract or harm yourself with stimulants or narcotics. So far, you have proceeded with admirable sense. And yet you subject yourself, without scruple, to a variety of premeditated tortures, and you appear to be courting consumption. Do you not see the logical contradiction?”
I frowned. “I am not... that is not ... important.”
“For God’s sake, Sherlock,” exclaimed Mycroft irritably, before interrupting himself with another sigh. He brought his fingertips together and became more professorial and precise than ever.
“Let us examine a hypothetical case. A man enters a house in order to rescue two children from evil – in which laudable goal he is successful, by the way. While there, however, he is beaten unconscious and his companion subjected to a vicious assault. When the first man learns what has happened he does all he can think of, difficult as he finds it, to alleviate his friend’s distress. However let us then suppose his efforts are impeded at every turn by some third person, who enters the scene to begin whispering to the first man that he is entirely to blame, and had better have been killed. Is there anything rational or useful about this third person’s intervention, and can he be said to be serving the interests of the man’s friend? Is not the first man, in fact, rather a fool for not kicking this interloper out of his rooms and continuing about his business undisturbed?”
“A charming tale, Mycroft. ” I said impatiently, “Though it excludes a number of unpleasant yet significant details. The question of what on earth the first man can do for his friend strikes me as more pressing. ”
Mycroft paused. “Just what he has been doing, so far as I can see.”
“What do you imagine I have been doing, Mycroft? Because I’m afraid in reality playing the violin and buying tobacco is the limit of my endeavours.”
“Well. I doubt that is quite all that you have done, or your friend would probably not have relaxed so far as to show you his record of events. But yes, carry on playing the violin and buying tobacco, why not?” Mycroft glanced wryly at the untouched plate beside me. “I do not suppose I shall ever hit upon the perfect and infallible method of persuading you to eat properly, but I continue to try, for I like to think it means something to you that I make it evident I prefer you not to starve to death.”
I looked at my brother, taken aback because I never thought to hear him say that aloud, but I could not help but realise that yes, I had always known that was what he was doing -- which does not cast my habitually churlish responses to his efforts and Watson’s similar ones in any very flattering light. I still did not eat the damned bread and butter, but I did offer him a feeble and short-lived species of smile.
Mycroft asked, “Is it remotely possible you would be so severe to another man in your own case?”
Obstinate mule that I am, I muttered, “Yes,”
“Rubbish. If it were your friend? Or myself?”
I had no very good answer. I fell back on groaning, “It is not so simple.”
“I know it is not.” His eyes were as soft for a moment as I have ever seen them. “You are both going to suffer, for some time to come, no matter what either of you do. I am very sorry for it. But you cannot make his burden any lighter by heaping coals on your own head – quite the contrary. ” He folded his arms. “And if you think as highly of your friend as I believe you do, don’t call the man an idiot behind his back for choosing to associate with you. I imagine he knows his own mind, he must find your society congenial, now as before. He appears to prefer it to anyone else’s. ”
I didn’t reply. I didn’t thank my brother, or say he was right, or do anything he deserved. All I said, after sitting there in silence for some minutes longer with my eyes closed, was, “I must be back before six.”
“Then take a cab, will you? And warm up properly when you get there. “
I stood up, and made an attempt to smooth back my hair. Mycroft grimaced at the results.
“If you were not such a starveling I could at least lend you something dry to wear on the way,” he said regretfully, “but you would look even more deplorable object in my clothes than you do now.”
“Yes, well, our differences on the subject of diet are not likely to be resolved on this occasion,” I said. But then, as a kind of gesture, I picked up a piece of the bread and butter, ate it hastily and washed it down with the lukewarm tea.
I clasped Mycroft’s hand at the door and he patted my arm. We are not a demonstrative pair. I think there was more physical contact between us in the forty minutes I was there than in the last nine years combined.
* * *
I was very worried on the way home that Watson would have returned before me. Nevertheless, when the hansom stopped at Baker Street I came to myself with a start, realising that despite the dread, the jolting of the cab and the noise of the streets, I had unaccountably fallen asleep.
The house, thankfully, was empty. Inside our rooms I picked up Watson’s pages from the floor, shuffled them gingerly into order and folded them up as they had been, leaving his note to me beside them on the desk. I repaired other signs of disorder, hoping Watson would not notice the large chip in the rim of the tea-table and had not been particularly attached to the ashtray that used to stand upon the sideboard. Then, after lighting a fire, I finally changed out of my wet clothes and made myself at least moderately presentable, and settled in to wait.
There were a few letters for me. Naturally I had not paid them any attention before, and only looked at them while waiting because by quarter past six I realised I needed some distraction from the useless state of nerves I was working myself into. Only one struck me of any interest, as the envelope had apparently been addressed by an extemely anxious young woman, high-born, yet not rich, writing in secret in the dead of night. On opening it, however, I had only time to note that the name of the woman in question was Lady Eva Brackwell, when I heard the front door opening. I cast the letter aside at once.
Watson came up the stairs. I rose expectantly but he did not enter -- he was actually standing hesitating on the threshold of his own home. I could see his shadow under the door. I went and opened it.
Watson started a little and for a second or two we stood there in the doorway looking at each other, both immobile and silent. The rain had eased since I made my way home, but his coat was wet nevertheless, beads of water glittering on the darkened wool.
“Come on,” I said, standing out of his way. “Loitering’s a bad habit, dear fellow.”
He came in without taking his eyes from my face. I meant to say more to him at once, but speech – breath itself – caught oddly in my chest. Evidently my attempts to disguise the character of the day I had spent were not sufficient, for Watson placed a cold hand on my wrist looking pained and guilty and began, “I should not have –”
I dragged in air as if surfacing from deep underwater, “Yes, you should,” I said. “Thank you for allowing me to read it. Please do not tell me you regret it. You are the best and bravest man alive, and the truest friend – but I already knew that. I wish it had never been put to such a demonstration.”
Watson looked away for a moment as his face twisted and his hands flexed, but as the spasm released I thought a little of the tension flowed away with it. He went and picked up the sheaf of papers, shut it quickly in one of the drawers of his desk, and turned the key on it. “It can’t have been easy to read.”
“Easier than to have lived through it,” I said, following him into the room. He had missed the letter to me. I laid my hand on it. “Thank you for this too.”
Watson glanced at it. He gave me a small smile, and an almost sheepish shrug.
I swallowed. “Watson,” I said, and was dismayed to see the line of his mouth tighten with apprehension again. “The part about the chloral, and the bridge.”
Watson blinked, as if he had expected some other line of interrogation. “Oh,” he said, softly. Then, “I already told you in the letter –it is better with me now.”
“Is it?” I asked, trying to read the answer in his face. This time he didn’t try to evade my inspection of his features, but stood offering me back wide, candid blue eyes that seemed full of nothing but summer. The sheer earnest sweetness of that look transfigured him for a moment; he looked younger, and far less hurt, than he had ever truly been in all our acquaintance. And this served to tell me only that he was perfectly sincere in wanting to reassure me, not that he was genuinely safe. I demanded, “What dose to you take?”
“Usually forty grains.”
I tried not to let myself grimace. “That is rather the high end of enough, is it not?” I said. “Do you measure it carefully? In the light? At the same time each evening?”
“Yes! Well, not always at the same time, no, but I was never seriously intending...”
“Tell me what immediate steps should be taken in case of chloral poisoning.”
His eyes went even wider with surprise and alarm. “Holmes, I won’t. I promise. I’ve already told you. It was something I merely – wonderedabout, involuntarily. Not a considered thing.”
“You would have wondered about it more than once,” I said. “When was the most recent occasion?”
“I... I don’t know. But I have always dismissed it as soon as it occurred to me. You must believe me.”
“I do,” I said. “Of course I believe you. But you would hardly have started at so high a dose. Lesser quantities have ceased to work, so you have had to resort to more. These thoughts are dangerous, even without the intent to act on them. There are cases that the coroner must rule either suicide or accident but which are in truth something between. Suppose, for example, that with such thoughts as yours in the back of the mind, one takes a dose of a drug when too exhausted to concentrate or remember how much one has taken already, or when one does not much care what happens and the prospect of release seems well worth the risk...”
I stopped, realising Watson was watching my face quite as intently as I had studied his, frowning. “Corpses don’t tell of their thoughts,” he said. “How can even you know of them?”
I looked past him at a spot on the wall. “I was twenty-two, it was morphine and scopolamine,it was all rather unpleasant, this is not relevant,” I said rapidly, as his lips parted and his face paled. “Except as an illustration of what is to be avoided.”
Watson stared at me, still looking stricken.
“Ten years ago,” I reminded him. “You are in danger now.”
“I am not in danger,” he said, starting to become exasperated but then checking himself. He looked down. “I can’t stop taking it now. When I can’t sleep...”
“I have not asked you to stop taking it,” I said. “I don’t ask. I would have no right at all. And the last thing I want is for you to be unable to sleep. I only want you to be safe.”
Watson, it appeared, could not decide whether to be moved or annoyed or to go on worrying about the misadventures of my youth. He sighed. “A single chloral overdose produces profound sleep, accompanied by stertorous breathing. Sometimes there is also a lowered temperature. Usually the patient may be partially roused, though he will not be coherent. One should administer an emetic, and afterwards very strong coffee, and do all one can to keep him awake; make him walk about the room if he can. Meanwhile, in cases of chronic poisoning, the first dangerous symptom is a rash, rather similar to scarlatina. You should tell the patient to stop using the drug at once, and summon a doctor. There. Perhaps you will be able to save someone’s life with that information some day. But not mine, because I am not going to need it. Listen, in future I will take the dose in here, in front of you -- you can measure it out yourself, if you wish.”
“I do wish it,” I said. “How will I... how may I ascertain the symptoms you describe have not developed...?”
Watson grimaced. “I suppose you would have to look in on me after I’d taken it,” he said. “Oh, very well, but Holmes, for the tenth time, I do know what I’m doing; I am not going to die of it.”
“No, indeed, I give you my word, you are not.”
Watson met my eyes, looking rather arrested by this. Then he smiled. “Well,” he said, with a blandly indulgent air that half-reassured and half-exasperated me, for he might have been promising an aunt he would wear a muffler on rainy days. “That’s all right then.”
He went over to the fire to stoke it, and I could not help but venture, “Could you try a dose of say, thirty...?”
About five seconds passed before he looked at me. “It is curious to find myself on this end of a conversation about dosage,” he said. He was smiling again, but it faded rapidly. “No. Not yet. Even as it is, it takes a long time to work.”
I could not argue with him. I nodded.
“I knew reading the thing would distress you,” Watson murmured. “I didn’t imagine that part of it would... strike you so much.”
“It was the most important part,” I said, and suddenly I was so boundlessly tired I could no longer hide it from myself. I sat down in the middle of the settee, finding I could not remain on my feet. Watson came and sat beside me.
“There was nothing you could have done,” he told me.
I whispered, “I could have left you behind.”
“I chose to be there. And if I had not, you would now be dead. And you will not ever suggest to me again that that would have been a better outcome.”
I will try not to. I do not know how I am ever to stop thinking it, but he wishes me to, and my brother is right, as he so usually is, so I must make the effort. Possibly writing it here may reinforce the resolution.
“You have just said, these are dangerous thoughts,” Watson continued to urge me.
I nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. I am so sorry, my friend, about all of it –”
“You told me I was never to say that to you,” Watson pointed out. “I am not in any danger of coming to believe you are happy about what happened, Holmes. It doesn’t need saying.” He sighed and added quietly, “We are both still here.”
Well, if he was included in the observation, it was easy enough to endorse it. I breathed, “Yes, thank God,” and placed my arm round him. I meant it only to be a quick clasp, but his hand caught mine where it hung over his shoulder, holding it in place. So then I turned, kneeling up on the settee to close my other arm about him too, and I dropped a kiss onto his hair before I could think to stop myself. And then, with my head bowed over his, I seemed to forget about moving.
“Holmes,” murmured Watson, after a while. “You are exhausted. Did you eat anything today?”
I had just been thinking that I could live perfectly well on the subtle scent of his skin and hair indefinitely. English is regrettably imprecise about smell, French scarcely any better. The best one can say is that beneath the odour of tobacco and the thyme-and-cedar fragrance of soap, his own scent does not really resemble that of fresh coffee, yet has some warm quality that reminds me of it.
“Yes, actually,” I muttered, feeling a wash of shame that I had let myself get into a state that made any demands on his concern. Reading a short document and running back and forth across town surely should not be so very taxing, but there it was, and hearing my condition named seemed only to deepen it. I was exhausted, so much so that even the effort of replying appeared to drain me of the necessary energy to keep my eyes open.
Watson made a little sound of affection and vague amusement, and pulled me round so that I was resting half across him, my head on the arm of the settee. I was aware that I should be thinking about this, I should be wondering whether either of us had the slightest idea what he was doing. However I was not capable of thinking about it, and, more or less lying in my friend’s arms, I was rather glad it was so.
His left hand was on my chest, under its weight I could feel my own pulse; I think he had placed it there deliberately, so that he could feel it too.
Almost under his breath, as if unsure I was still awake, he asked, “Did you read it all?”
I opened my eyes and turned my head away a little. “Nearly. There were certain passages... which...”
I could not help but tense as I thought of it, and I could feel the muscles of his arms and torso stiffening at the same time.
I knew which passage had to be on his mind. And it was true I had only managed to read it in the most glancing fashion – but I had read enough to see my own name and understand why it was there. I cannot say what I thought at the time; I was rather past what one could call thinking at all. My considered view had to be that it was natural enough for anyone, forced to such a pass, to prefer to think of a friend, rather than...
I cannot write about it. Yet what I had already said remained true. It was not the most important part of the account.
So I covered his hand with mine and murmured, “Anything that made it easier, my dear Watson, nothing else matters.”
I knew I could not explain it to him any more than that. Answers were not mine to give.
We were silent for a minute or so, before I managed to prise up my eyelids again and look at him.
“Are you really ...getting on better?”
He thought about it for a while, then said quietly. “I don’t do well with secrets.”
I could feel the chill from outside gradually thawing out of his hand, and I remember thinking vaguely about the fact that my heartbeat was supplying some of the warmth passing into his fingers, and that there was a decent use for the thing.
It is an embarrassing admission, but it seems that after that I again fell asleep.
* * *
I would be very interested to know how long we remained like that, but I do not. At some point Watson managed to extricate himself without waking me, and it was half past nine when I awoke, and only then because he was gently shaking my shoulder.
“You must eat some supper,” he said. “And then go to bed. And, well, there’s our arrangement about this.”
He was holding the little bottle of chloral.
I had thought I would not write here again. Cases have endings of sorts, but this – I see there will be no finishing point that I do not impose myself, and I must give it up some time, must I not? There are moments, events that look like endings on the page, even feel like it before they slide past into something else. Yet after what has occurred – I must do something. I wrote when I began that I wished to order my thoughts, and catalogue my errors. And surely I have again made more than one dangerous mistake. I had better prepare myself to see it that way. And if I do not feel it yet –
I am descending into mere babble. I must begin again.
* * *
Each morning, there in the the Times, is the column headlined Central Criminal Court, and each morning one must decide whether or not one is going to read it. I watch Watson silently judge that it is all out of our hands and there is no point in distressing himself by looking at the page. Then ten minutes later he will decide this is cowardly and absurd and that he had better read the thing at once and get it over with. He proceeds to do this with the most impressive self-possession, though naturally his lips compress and his breathing changes. Sometimes he will pass me the paper afterwards, or quietly summarise what it says.
“It seems to be going badly enough for him,” he said quietly to me on Thursday morning, and I looked from his closed eyes, to his hand spread on the tablecloth as if to anchor himself here in our familiar rooms by its texture. He exhaled. “Well, it’ll be over soon now,” he murmured, as much to himself as to me.
But it will not be over, will it?
I read the column in my turn. It engrages me if Gilfoyle appears to have got the better of any exchange, even if there is a part of me that would rejoice were he acquitted, for then I should have my chance at him.
We are ten days into a stingy, grudging April, bleak as November except for a few bright days last week. The new leaves are stiff and reluctant on the trees in Regent’s Park, the grass in the mornings still brittle with frost. Three clients have come to me with problems; a landlord pursuing absconded debtors, a gentleman pining sadly for a missing greyhound, and a blackmailed bride. Watson did not attend any of these interviews, politely excusing himself to his room for the first two and leaving the house entirely some hours before the third, mentioning a trip to the library. As I ushered Lady Eva into the sitting room a number of points struck me about his absence:
Firstly, that although I usually impress upon clients that they may, indeed must, speak as freely before Watson as to myself, Lady Eva was so wracked with nerves, so terrified of her troubles becoming common knowledge, that it was in this case perhaps as well not to have to go to the effort of convincing her.
Secondly,that it appeared I no longer had a partner. Besides handling some of the correspondence, Watson had taken no part in any case of mine since that awful night in January. Why on earth should he?
I attempted to quell a foolish rush of loneliness. So I would not be dragging him into harm’s way any more, I told myself –well, so much the better. I had managed alone before he came, and it was miraculous indeed that I still had his company and friendship at all. To chafe at having to take my own notes and fight off my own assailants in future was surely petty in the extreme.
However, while I struggled for this proper perspective on a return to solitary practice, I made no effort at all to argue myself out of a new attack of rage at Gilfoyle. And that led me to my third thought: I had a sudden and awful suspicion where Watson was.
I did not, of course, allow these reflections to keep me from paying due attention to my client, who had remained deaf to my invitation to take a seat and stood there staring blankly before her, her teeth clenched, screwing one of her kid gloves into a ball between her hands.
“I can’t stay long. I only hope no one saw me coming here. I’m supposed to be shopping for wedding favours,” she said in a disjointed, mechanical fashion.
“Pray sit down, my lady,” I urged her, for the second time.
To have to address her so felt slightly ridiculous. Eva Blackwell is twenty-one, but does not look it. She is tall but with that childish, thin-skinned cast of beauty that rarely lasts long and is the more poignant for it; a slim, wispy girl with pale curls and huge, slightly protuberant blue eyes. Already desperation and sleeplessness had begun whittle away at the fresh softness of her features, and her lips were dragged into a harsh, taut line. Nevertheless, without the contextual evidence of coiffeur and clothes, one might guess her age at about fourteen. She is engaged to the Earl of Dovercourt, who is twenty years her senior.
“I would advise you to confide in your fiance,” I said. “Mr Milverton’s power over you would be entirely dispelled. And unless you are misleading me about the content of your letters to Mr Talbot or the date at which you sent them...”
“No! I told you – it was all over, two years ago. I had no idea the letters still existed. He promised he’d burn them.”
“Then they document a mere flirtation, well before your engagement with the Earl.”
“I cannot believe I was so stupid,” she moaned.
“You are by no means the only victim whose trust has been abused,” I said. “But while Mr Talbot has betrayed you, you have betrayed nobody. You have not wronged the Earl, and he can reproach you with nothing worse than youthful imprudence. Surely, if he were to know your trouble, his one wish would be to protect you.” I paused. “If he loves you.”
She hesitated. “He says he does,” she said in a tired, blank tone.
“Yet you have no confidence in him.”
Indignation flashed across her face for a moment, but she could not sustain it. She slumped in the chair and with a tight little smile agreed, “No.”
I did not ask her why not, only waited, and as I expected, she soon went on. “Walter has been a bachelor for a long time,” she said, carefully flattening expression out of her voice. “He was in no hurry to marry. He has seen a great deal of the world, but he had always intended, eventually, to marry a woman who had not. An innocent young girl whom he could guide and... and mould to suit him. Someone close to his own rank, of course, but with no real experience of life, someone very modest and reserved and... well. Pure.”
With that childlike little face she certainly looked the part. But there was something nauseating about this dreary recitation, and I was beginning to think that in wrecking this marriage, Milverton might actually be committing an inadvertent good deed.
“I have to marry him,” she said grimly, as if I had spoken this thought, and looked, for a moment, entirely adult.
“Forgive me for saying so, Lady Eva, but you sound, if determined, not exactly enthusiastic.”
She winced. “Do you know anything about my family?” she asked in a low voice.
Of course I did. The Blackwell divorce case occurred when I was about Lady Eva’s present age, before I had yet cultivated a professional interest in celebrity gossip and aristocratic scandals. Indeed, at that time of my life, my state of mind had rather precluded much interest in anything. Yet when marchionesses elope with French naval officers, one has to be stone dead not to hear about it.
“My father never got over it, I suppose,” said Lady Eva, dully. “He died eighteen months ago. My brother likes to blame my mother for that too. And my sister...”
She reached into her reticule and produced a small photograph in an oval frame. It showed two girls in white dresses, conventionally posed in a sisterly embrace: a beringletted, adolescent Lady Eva with her arm around the shoulders of a wary, secretive-looking child of perhaps eleven, who peered unsmilingly at the camera from behind dark hair and pressed against her sister’s side.
“That’s the only picture I have of Claudia,” said Lady Eva. “She’s in Earlswood Hospital.” And although I knew what the name of that institution signified, she elaborated in a voice suddenly hoarse with incredulous rage: “She’s in Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots. She has been there for three years. I have been able to do nothing.”
Furious tears sprang into her eyes, and she started up and walked about the room.
“Claudia is not an idiot,” she said thickly, “She was so clever – oh, God, not was, she is, I am sure she still is. But Milverton knows about her - he told me – I had to hear it from him – about a month ago she tried to... hurt herself.” She looked sharply at me, “She is not mad any more than she is an idiot,” she inisted, as if I were claiming otherwise. “Or she was not until they sent her away, and if she is mad now it is not her fault.”
“Lady Eva,” I said, “Do you mean it is for your sister’s sake that you have engaged yourself to the Earl?”
“Yes,” she said, fiercely, quite past pretending that any of the love involved in this transaction was for her fiance. “I have to, I have to get her out of that place. I would do anything. ”
I had already been angry, before she had even begun to speak. Of course I had been angry for weeks. Now I felt it quiver along my bloodstream, frightening and heady and sickening all at once, like one drink too many. It was becoming clear that even if I could free her from Milverton’s grip, she would remain in a snare from which I could not release her. I was sick of London and all its hard bargains. I was so very sick of problems I could not solve.
“Then, I suppose, your fiance has agreed that after the wedding, you may take charge of your sister’s care,” I supplied.
She nodded. “You must understand,” she said when she was a little calmer. “Claudia never much resembled any of the rest of the family. And not long after that photograph was taken, she began to have – fits. They were not so bad at first, but my father began... well, I suppose he had thought as much for a long time, but he began to say openly there had never been anything like that in his family, and my brother and I were healthy enough so... my mother must have left him a little cuckoo in the nest to remember her by.”
She was scrabbling in the reticule – whose contents seemed schoolgirlishly untidy – for a handkerchief. I handed her one from the box I have been compelled to keep for such occasions – weeping clients are no rare occurrence. “And her condition deteriorated,” I said.
“Yes. The fits became more frequent – and she would behave strangely for a while before and after, she wouldn’t know what was happening or understand what you said to her. It always passed, and she would be herself again, but then when she was fifteen, she had a very bad attack, and ... there were people visiting, she came into the dining room and she wasn’t ... properly dressed. And so father put her in that place, and my brother and his wife see no reason she shouldn’t stay there. It is killing her, I knew that even before I heard what she’d done to herself last month. I have only three thousand pounds of my own, I cannot make a home for us both on that. My brother wouldn’t let her be released into my care even if I could. So you see I need help. And more money.”
She stopped crying quite suddenly, and her face went empty again.
“So there it is,” she said. “I have told you what kind of wife Walter wants. You may imagine that there is already some doubt a girl from a family like mine qualifies. His mother is still living – she does not approve of his marrying a Blackwell at all. He would not see the letters as you do, Mr Holmes, he would see them as evidence I should make the same kind of wife as my mother did.”
We were both silent for some time, I weighing various possibilities and she staring in vacant misery at the carpet.
“Mr Milverton has given you ten days to respond?” I asked at last. She nodded. “It may take me a little time to arrive at a solution...”
“Solution...?” she repeated blankly, lifting her eyes to meet mine, then sighed. “No, no. I am sorry, Mr Holmes, for bringing you a problem that must hardly be worth your time – there’s no mystery for you, is there? And there’s no time for you to do anything clever. I just didn’t know where else to go. Tell him I’ll pay him, as much as I possibly can, but I don’t have what he’s asking for – if I did, I’d give it to him. He doesn’t seem to understand that. Perhaps you can make him understand. That’s why I came to you.”
The prospect of sending Milverton away merely slightly disappointed in his profits, so this heroic child could sell herself undisturbed, was not very inviting. “I will do what I can,” I said. And inwardly I made a bargain of my own. I would attempt, in all sincerity, to do as she directed. But if that failed, as I already expected it would, I would count myself free to take whatever measures I liked.
After dispatching my telegram to Milverton I spent the afternoon searching through my notes and cuttings on him for some kind of leverage. I found little that was useful and a great number of these unhelpful papers ended up flung about our living room floor. I was not careless with everything, however; in anticipation of his arrival I also took the frankly paranoid step of concealing these pages of mine behind a loose flap of wallpaper in my bedroom. The drawer to Watson’s desk which held the folded document was still locked and I could not bring myself to open it, but I removed the key and put it in the Persian slipper. I was beginning ruefully to gather up some of the mess I had made when Watson came home.
He had been indoors, out of the rain, seated for some time, in more crowded conditions than one would expect of the library (a long strand of grey hair and a few wisps of cat fur been transferred from someone’s sleeve to his) . Added to that, the haggard expression and the fact that he went straight to the sideboard to pour himself a drink before taking off his coat or even speaking to me...
“Watson,” I said, “Were you at the Old Bailey today?” He nodded expressionlessly. I barely needed to see it. “Dear God,” I said, seizing hold of his arm and shoulder on horrified instinct, as if I had seen him about to be run down by a carriage. I stared at him. “How long were you there?”
“A couple of hours.”
I tightened my grip. “Don’t go there again,” I blurted out, to my own surprise.
His eyes narrowed a little. “Why should I not?” he demanded, a dangerous edge to his voice.
I became aware of how I was clutching at him, and let go. I had to let some seconds pass before I could trust myself to answer. “I should not have the courage to do such a thing myself, that is all,” I said. Watson smiled sadly, past me rather than at me and I read the thought and almost snapped at him, “Yes, courage is the correct term for it, Watson.”
He sighed and let himself drop into his armchair. “It was not exactly pleasant,” he told me, “but neither is speculating about it from a distance. He did not see I was there.”
I tried to get my breath back. “How . . . how did he look?”
Watson considered for a moment. “Tired,” he said. “Thinner. Unwell.”
Watson smiled briefly. “Quite.” But then he tightened his lips as if against nausea. I could see him remembering the worst of it; I felt another spasm of disbelief and self-disgust that it had taken me so long to understand. I passed a hand helplessly over his shoulder. “Is there anything – can I –?”
Watson looked up at me. It was an unexpected relief to see his face clear as he did so, also that he understood what I was trying to ask and was genuinely considering the question. “You could come for a walk with me.”
“Are you sure? You look done in.”
“I am,” he admitted, softly. “But not enough.”
I looked involuntarily at that wretched bottle of chloral. In an unfortunate illustration of the association of ideas, Watson initially placed it almost exactly in my morocco case’s accustomed spot. I have moved it to the bookcase. I am reminded of my syringe quite often enough without having to think of it while I am trying to administer a safe dose of poison to my friend.
“You are building up a tolerance to it,” I said, flatly.
“I shall be all right so long as I’m tired enough.” He managed another smile while I imagined what a nuit blanche after such a day would probably be like. “Anyway, you should get out too – you look ready to murder someone.”
We proceeded to the park. At least the cold air was dry and as clear as it is likely to get. Watson, despite my habit of unconsciously dragging him along at higher speed than was comfortable for him, seemed somewhat restored and refreshed. In a certain sense, the walk improved my mood too; my friend’s arm was looped through mine and I was almost unbearably grateful for that. However, though I began to feel less scattered and desperate, I did not approach calm. I was savagely glad Milverton was coming, and I am afraid I did notwant him to accept Lady Eva’s terms. I wanted him to give me an excuse to do somethingdrastic, though I hardly knew what. When we returned to find his card on the table, I was still so wound up that, in an infantile explosion of temper, I threw it on the floor.
Watson, naturally, picked it up.
“The worst man – the worst free man in London,” I said vengefully, as he read the name. And it turned out I had a good deal more to say on the subject of Milverton and I let poor Watson have it. “How,” I finished, “could one compare the ruffian who in hot blood bludgeons his mate with this man, who methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves—?”
My friend, I belatedly noticed, was watching me through this tirade with something between curiosity and concern, but at this point he glanced down into the street. “I suppose that’s his carriage,” he said.
I collected myself. “Then perhaps you would let me have the run of the sitting room for half an hour or so?”
Watson was still craning his neck in an attempt to observe Milverton descending from his carriage. “If you like,” he said, with a suggestion of a shrug. “But I am rather curious to know what a blackmailer king looks like.”
“Loathsome, by all accounts,” I said, all but bundling him out of the room, and then realised what I was doing, and stopped. “I had thought—” I began, and hesitated again, looking at him anxiously. I wanted him to stay. And I wanted him hundreds of miles away from this. I should have thought he had spent enough time looking at evil for one day.
“For God’s sake,” said Watson irritably, striding past me to collect his notebook and pencil from his desk. “Bring him on; I think I am at least up to half an hour of him.”
The knock at the door came before I could decide quite what to make of this, but I grinned at him quickly, and when Milverton oiled in and had the impertinence to question his presence, I snarled, “Dr Watson is my friend and partner,” even though I was still not sure whether the second part was true or wishful thinking.
“Very good, Mr Holmes,” Milverton simpered. He soon forgot to worry about Watson, who had settled himself in discreet silence to one side of the room. He has a rare gift of making himself so unobtrusive as to be almost invisible when he wishes it; and unless one is very cautious one does not notice how attentively he is listening. I have rather a flair for disguise, but I cannot ever camouflage myself so effectively whilst still remaining myself.
I tried to do my best by my client, as I had promised. My hand was weak, however, and I did play one card I already knew was a dud; I said Lady Eva should trust to her future husband’s generosity.
Milverton thought that an excellent joke. “You evidently do not know the Earl,” he tittered. “Oh dear me, no, I’m afraid our little friend’s quite used up all the generosity she can expect from that quarter already. But as she would set her cap at him – perhaps you’ve heard of her reasons? Has she not any diamonds she can turn into paste for such a good cause? Surely her mother did not make off with all of them.”
I studied him for an instant after this speech, considering. To hell with it, I concluded, and lunged at him.
He made to rise from the chair, and struggled hard when I forced him back into it, but I had little difficulty in pinioning him and wrenching his note-book from his pocket. But when I drew back with the book in my hand, Milverton scuttled over to the wall, snatching something from the pocket of his astrachan, and I found – as I have a number of times in the past but never before in my own home – that I had a revolver levelled at my breast.
Watson, moving with instantaneous, lethal grace, silently swept up a chair and very nearly brained him with it. I was barely in time to stop him with a look.
Milverton had not even seen how close he had come to a smashed skull. “You will be so good as to return my property,” he gasped.
It was galling, certainly, but I tossed it over. It had seemed worth tackling him over the small chance that the note-book held Lady Eva’s letters or at least, something incriminating enough to slow him down for a while, but it was not worth the kind of trouble a dead body on the floor would cause us. Watson had lowered the chair but not let go of it.
Milverton recovered quickly once he had the notebook back in his pocket, and became quite prolix in self-congratulation. I was not really listening. I continued staring foolishly at Watson, who abruptly put down the chair with a thud, shoved the door open and growled, “Out.”
Milverton blinked and chuckled and slithered away.
“Good Lord, Watson,” I said feebly, when he was gone.
Watson slammed the door shut and glowered at me; he looked, just for a moment, rather terrifying. For some time we were both silent, watching each other. He was breathing hard and so was I. The room seemed full of some volatile, blazing substance in place of air.
“Now what?” he asked at last.
“That will take some time to determine,” I said.
He cast himself heavily into his chair by the fire again, leaning back with closed eyes. His hands trembled slightly for the first minute or so.
I was not, in truth, contemplating what to do; my course was quite plain already. I was merely hesitating about leaving my friend. For half an hour we sat there, motionless and silent, finally, however, I rose and went to my room. Whatever other considerations were in play, I decided, I had a duty to my client. I had undertaken a task and I had very limited time in which to complete it. I began to work.
Disguise is one of those skills one must enjoy in order to master. This time the relief at escape from myself was far more intense than usual. Stripping off my clothes I felt how constrictive my frock coat, waistcoat and tie had been compared to the loose work clothes I donned in their place. The contours of my face already subtly adjusted with make-up, I pressed a twist of hair into the spirit gum on my chin, trimmed it carefully, and smiled with a kind of joy at the results. I decided this new creature was called Escott, and I liked him already. The life I endowed him with was so tantalisingly simple.
This accomplished, I was rather eager to get out of 221b. Escott had no business to be there. But Watson, I saw, had been watching my door anxiously and sprang up as soon as he saw me. “Holmes, where are you going?” he asked.
It felt bizarrely intimate and disconcerting to be addressed by my real name when my new persona was only minutes old; Escott seemed to blur as if Watson had run his hand over a portrait while the paint was still wet. “Hampstead, of course,” I said, lighting my pipe at the lamp.
“Don’t –” he took a cramped step towards me and then stopped as if he’d run into a barrier. His jaw clenched. “Promise you’ll be careful,” he said tightly, at last.
Come with me, I had a mad impulse to say. I scoffed at myself; I would not have permitted it even if he had wished to come. I went to the book case and pocketed the bottle of chloral; after what he had told me I was not leaving him alone with it.
“I’ll be back some time, Watson,” I said.
In a metaphysical sense I left Sherlock Holmes there with him, and Escott went out.
For several days I enjoyed being Escott; I fled gratefully into him early each morning and only relinquished him late and reluctantly at night. That first night I made a cursory reconaissance of Appledore Towers then steered him into the nearest pub – the Spaniards Inn, on the edge of the Heath. Escott fell easily into companionable conversation with whoever happened to sit beside him, sang cheerfully along with the jolly patrons of the Spaniards when a regular at the piano led them in a round of ‘Champagne Charlie.’
Good for any game at night, my boys,
Good for any game at night, my boy s,
Who'll come and join me in a spree?
The instrument needed tuning and Escott, being equipped with my nerves and senses, may have had his teeth set on edge every time the pianist played what was supposed to be D7. Nevertheless, he was happy. He was ready to like everyone he met, and accordingly was liked by everyone – with the exception of young William Parkes, the coachman who had spent the last six months failing to propose to Milverton’s housemaid. I really was extraordinarily lucky – I had not only located most of Appledore Towers’ staff, I had caught this couple bickering fiercely in a corner, quite unconscious for the moment that anyone else was in the room. I had to wait mere minutes until the girl rose to her feet, tossed her head, and stalked away, and then I had little more to do than to step into her path. I provided her with a glass of gin, and the opportunity she had been dying for to make Parkes properly jealous.
Perhaps my conduct to that young woman may not be above censure, but I still consider ours was, for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“I should see you safe home,” I murmured in her ear, a few hours later, while Parkes glared daggers at me across the room. “Don’t want to get you in trouble with the master – keeping you out at all hours.”
She laughed scornfully. “Don’t you worry about him. He sleeps like the dead.”
“Really? He’s not going to be ringing the bell for you to fluff his pillows for him?”
“No. Out like a light at half-past ten. Always. He don’t get up till ten in the morning, neither.”
“Well that’s handy, anyhow,” I said, which was no less than the truth. “You can meet me tomorrow night.”
“Oh yeah?” She grinned at me.
I put my arm round her – I would have had to in any case, for she was shivering a little in the wind from the heath. I chuckled sourly. “I can’t stand these lazy toffs. All that time on their hands, and what do they do with it?”
“Huh,” said Agatha bitterly. “Tell that to my Wi – you should tell Parkes that. He’d go, ‘oh no, Aggie, it’s not for us to pass judgement on Mr Milverton! Oh Aggie, you should be more respectful.’ Like I don’t get enough of having to be that all day.”
“Slavedriver, is he?” I asked sympathetically.
“Oh, well, I’ve been worse places, I suppose. But he makes my skin crawl, if you want to know. With that horrible smile of his. And all that money and he don’t pay as well as he could, either – just spends it all cluttering the place up with his old gewgaws that need dusting every ten minutes, and all those stinking foreign flowers. And where does he get it all from, I’d like to know? All them people traipsing through his study at all hours whispering and trying not to let anyone get a good look at ‘em. I reckon he’s shady somehow.”
That was enough for one evening. I knew I must, that night and each subsequent one, spend at least an hour back at Baker Street. I returned about a quarter to midnight after that first expedition to find a worried and rather indignant Watson waiting for me.
“There’s nothing worth telling yet,” I said, pouring the chloral into the measuring glass and holding it up to the light.
Watson sighed, and examined the ceiling. “Will you explain one thing to me?”
I looked at him warily. I dislike talking of my plans when they are still new and may have to be changed.
“Why are you doing this? No – not all that,” he said, gesturing at the remains of Escott. “I’m sure you have your reasons. And God knows I want that man stopped. But this marriage, Holmes. Lady Eva. Is it really likely Dovercourt would abandon her over these letters?”
He grimaced in sheer incomprehension, and shook his head, “I cannot – I would never ...” he murmured before words failed him altogether.
“You would never treat someone you loved so?” I tipped a trickle of chloral from the glass back into the bottle. “Of course you wouldn’t.”
“Neither would you,” he replied.
I was at once touched and slightly unsettled. Either he had spoken so thoughtlessly as to forget just why I was never likely to be in a position to jilt a girl at the altar, or he actually meant to compliment me on how he supposed I would behave with a man. Both interpretations were disconcerting and I decided to leave the remark alone. “Well, you may draw your own conclusions about the Earl,” I said.
“He does not love her. He cannot. Holmes, is it worth rescuing such a marriage? Is it even right?”
“My dear fellow, you know as well as I what would happen if he broke off the engagement. The assumption would be that he had discovered something disgraceful about her, and she would, duly, be disgraced. Doubly so if he let the existence of the letters get about. Their actual contents would not matter.”
“Yes, but if she were to break it off?”
“Still rather a blot on her copy-book,” I said, avoiding his eyes.
Watson looked impatient. “Yes, there would be a fuss, I suppose, but she’s very young; it would blow over in time. Is that not preferable to tying herself for life to a man who has so little regard for her? Is she really so besotted she does not care what he thinks of her?”
I hesitated, sighed, and told him Lady Eva’s reasons. There was a pause. His face closed. “Is there nothing else to be done?” he asked.
“What could I do?” I cried despite myself, all the rage and defeat I’d escaped as Escott catching up with me at once. “Interrupt them at the altar with a pistol? Abduct the girl from the asylum? What should I do with her if I could? Lady Eva is perfectly correct; to help her sister, she needs funds she does not have. Lord Dovercourt has promised her that much. I can clear her path for her, perhaps, but I cannot work miracles! I cannot produce her a home or a fortune out of the air!”
There was a longer silence. “Poor girls,” Watson said shortly, before draining the glass of chloral.
This evening ritual is vastly preferable to the alternatives; nevertheless I detest it. I am – it scarcely needs saying – obsessively careful in measuring the stuff out. I will gladly exasperate my friend for minutes at a time refusing to hand it over until I am perfectly satisfied the level in the glass is not a hair above where it should be. At this dose, high as it is, it should not cause him any sudden harm (I am vigilant for signs of more gradual poisoning). Yet it is such a wretchedly unpredictable substance. I have conducted furtive researches into its properties and only confirmed what I thought I remembered from my studies of poisons in general: that there are cases of reckless insomniacs swallowing sixty or eighty or even a hundred grains without any apparent ill effects, and then there are others who have been killed by only a very little more than the quantity I nightly hand to my friend and watch him swallow down.
Half an hour after he has retired and then again twenty minutes after that, I look in on him. I try to execute this task as dispassionately as possible. I have been known to barge into his room early in the morning in order to drag him off to a promising crime scene, but the act of creeping in to study a sleeper without waking him is quite different; even knowing I have permission to enter I feel a sinister, intruding presence, a burglar or a ghoul from a children’s tale. So I go no closer than two paces from the bed; I try, absurd as it must sound, to observe him without seeing him, to count the number of breaths to a minute without noticing if his hands are drawn into fists and his jaw clenched, or if his eyes are flickering under the lids. For he is usually restless, even under the soft weight of the drug. And if, as only occasionally happens, he is still and relaxed, and then I try not to be aware of the loveliness of his face in the candlelight.
* * *
In the morning, he appeared unexpectedly early and caught me in my bedroom, finishing my preparations for the day’s campaign. I had arranged to meet Aggie in the evening, but I wanted to spend some time beforehand simply observing the house and its comings and goings through a pair of field-glasses, and the rest of the day talking to local tradesmen. I wanted to locate the conservatory that Agatha’s talk of “foreign flowers” suggested – I had been unable to see it from the road.
“There’s something else,” Watson said. “I remembered something.”
He held out a small pocketbook. I glanced at it and recoiled a little when I realised it was one he had used during our preliminary investigations of the Gilfoyle case.
“Mrs Jameson’s house. The one with the... room, below street level...”
“I remember it, ” I said impatiently, though I should have preferred not to. It was the particularly nightmarish brothel at which Phyllis Mackey’s employer had been a patron.
The notebook was open at hastily jotted list, linking the pseudonyms of regular clients of the brothel with what we believed to be their real names, in case we should need them.
“ ‘Bertie’ = thos. ellory kensington?”
“ ‘Jack Bright’ = donald ware?”
“ ‘Mr Meadows’ = henry ingram, highgate?”
“ ‘Mr W’ = walter earl dovercourt?”
I stopped in the act of dragging on Escott’s jacket and sagged back into my chair. “I wish you hadn’t shown me that,” I groaned after a moment.
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “I thought it was important.”
“It is an altogether commonplace situation,” I said dully. “Mrs Jameson specialised in virgins, he may not even have any diseases. He may prove an exemplary husband.”
“Holmes,” said Watson, softly, almost apologetically. “Lady Eva’s sister – how old is she? ”
I stared at him. That Watson should have come up with a more bleakly convincing interpretation of the facts than had yet occurred to me was depressing enough in itself. I put my head into my hands. “I can’t –” I began, and broke off helplessly. “I have – I must get back the letters. I don’t know what else. I have very little time, Watson. I can’t stay.”
Perhaps one might advise Lady Eva to house her sister elsewhere, I said to myself as I hurried off along Baker Street. At least the girl will be alive, at least they will both have a chance. There is only so much I can do.
It took much longer than it had the night before for Escott to settle comfortingly over me, but it did happen eventually.
* * *
Mostly, Agatha and I talked about Parkes. I believe she was rather hoping he would fight me for her.
Agatha was not especially pretty, but she had a certain mutinous vivacity – I could see why Parkes liked her; I could believe that Escott would tolerate her inability to stop talking about another man. It is strange how I could, for a while, really feel Escott’s pleasure in her company -- even while a bored, distressed and anxious Sherlock Holmes engineered the conversation around a strict ratio of subjects. Three things about Parkes, one about Escott’s life, ambitions and feelings, and one about Milverton’s habits.
“I mean if he can’t make up his mind to ask me, why shouldn’t I do what I like?” she said, on my last evening with her. She had already comfirmed for me that the conservatory opened onto a drawing room, from which a passage led to the study and bedroom, so I was allowing her her pet subject again as a reward.
I caught her hand and swung it. “Well, then, you’ll have to marry me instead,” I said easily.
She looked up at me, mischievous and sad at once. “Why not?” she agreed, and giggled. She lifted her face expectantly, so I bent my head and kissed her.
To my surprise, for I had not expected to be affected at all, this had the unfortunate effect of killing poor Escott dead. Not that it was a physically unpleasant sensation. It was merely unspeakably empty, and the contrast between lives was suddenly too sharp. I thought, as I had been trying so hard not to, of Watson’s kiss, and of everything I had done without for so long. It was a very irritating development, really, for I found the abrupt loneliness of it impervious to reason and it significantly impaired my ability to act. I wanted terribly to get away from poor Aggie and home to Watson as fast as possible.
I may never have felt it so abruptly or keenly before, but the shift from delight in disguise to spiritual nausea at it is not new to me – in fact, strange as it sounds, it is one of the charms of the exercise. One takes a holiday from oneself and finds one does not, after all, wish to stay away forever. The relief that flooded me as I turned towards home at last, plucking off my goatee on the way and tossing it into a gutter, was so intense that by the time I reached our rooms I was in a curious, elevated, slightly frenzied mood that resembled happiness from some angles. After all, I had everything I needed, and I knew what I was going to do. Looked at from certain standpoints even the bleakness of this case and my own entanglements struck me as remarkably funny.
"You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?" I demanded, a little too ringingly as I strode in.
Watson’s expression at this, was, I am afraid, extremely amusing. "No, indeed!"
"You'll be interested to hear that I am engaged."
My poor friend, looking utterly bewildered, blinked and then actually began to congratulate me. I don’t know what I was thinking, confusing him so. Conscience-stricken, I hastily explained myself.
Watson’s honourable sensibilities were much dismayed and he was not as impressed as I thought he should have been by my protests that poor old Escott, had he only existed, would have been in far worse danger of having his heart broken than Agatha was.
I concluded we might as well change the subject. “I mean to burgle Milverton’s house tonight,” I told him.
Of course I knew he would be shocked, but I was unprepared for him to look quite so aghast. His breath caught, and he went pale. "For Heaven's sake, Holmes, think what you are doing.”
“I have given it every consideration,” I said, both alarmed and slightly needled.
“If Milverton catches you,” he pleaded. “Your career, your life, Holmes . . .”
“My dear fellow,” I said, beginning to feel rather guilty, but it was not as if I could turn my back on my plans or my client now. “Let us look at the matter clearly and fairly.”
Sometimes I am so very dense. I got Watson to admit it was morally justifiable. I went rattling on about how important the enterprise was, how villainous Milverton, how piteous the lady’s plight, and how much my sense of honour was bound up in it – I even pointed out that he had been willing to commit assault and battery for the cause already, and yet it truly did not occur to me what I was talking him into until he sighed and said, “Well, I don’t like it, but I suppose it must be. When do we start?”
I stared at him.
“You are not coming,” I said. This seemed quite obvious to me, from any number of perspectives. I could not think how he could be confused upon the point.
"Then you are not going,” said Watson vehemently, looking quite as dangerous as he had when brandishing that chair. Still, I had just time to flatter myself that he had no way of stopping me doing that or anything else I wished to do, before he said: “I give you my word of honour – and I never broke it in my life – that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away, unless you let me share this with you.”
I fear my mouth fell slightly open. I thought for a while. "You can't help me,” I told him, more softly now.
"How do you know that? You can't tell what may happen.” His face had turned soft and anxious again for a moment, but then it set into an absolutely implacable expression. “Anyway, my resolution is taken. Other people beside you have self-respect, and even reputations."
My first instinct was to be irritated – I am so very accustomed to getting my own way. Besides, he was making the duty of keeping him from further harm unnecessarily difficult. Now I was going to have to divert my limited time and harassed energies into somehow making him drop the idea, when of course I should have liked more than anything to have him with me.
And then it occurred to me that I could not remember when I had heard anyone say anything so wonderful.
“My dear fellow,” I said again, a little incoherently. I could have embraced him. Well, given the chance, I could have thrown myself at him and done any number of more irretrievable things, but I contented myself with making a joke about us sharing a prison cell, wincing at myself a little, and clapping his shoulder.
Watson sighed again, but this was a sigh of a particular character which I knew very well, though I had not heard it for a while. It sounds put-upon and long-suffering, and in reality is nothing of the sort. It is his usual response to being dragged into some scheme that he would not miss for anything. It is generally accompanied by a short roll of the eyes heavenwards, and followed by a slow smile. To my delight, it was so on this occasion too.
I knew I was taking him into danger. I knew that even if I succeeded the morning would bring back the grim consciousness of the kind of future that awaited the Blackwell sisters, even at the best. But at that moment all I could care about was that I was going to confound Milverton, I was at last about to test my hypothesis that I would have made a highly efficient criminal, and that Watson was coming with me.
“See here,” I said, practically levitating across the room in order to show off the neat little collection of tools in my desk drawer, “I wouldn’t dream of going on such an expedition unprepared. I have a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit.”
I couldn’t get the damn grin off my face. I must have looked a fool, though Watson’s reaction – a widening of the eyes, a clutch at his hair, and a groan of, “Oh, Christ, of course you have,” – was very satisfying.
Then we discussed disguise. “I can make a couple of masks out of black silk,” Watson volunteered.
I was too giddy with happiness at the mere prospect of his company to pay this remarkable claim the attention it deserved at the time. I think I imagined something in the order of a bag over the head with eyeholes, and, after he had disappeared to his room while I carried out my own preparations, I dismissed a vague chill at the memory of the masks of the prisoners at Wandsworth.
I did not expect the deftly constructed, rather beautiful things Watson produced within a mere forty minutes. The silk, I believe, had once been intended to reline a hat, and Watson had cut it into broad bandanas to be tied at the back of the head. The edges and the oval holes for the eyes were hastily but neatly hemmed. There were small darts on either side of the nose to accommodate the contours of the face securely and comfortably. I turned over mine thoughtfully.
“This is an unexpected and mysterious addition to your catalogue of talents, Watson,” I said.
He laughed. “What, that I can sew? It is not mysterious at all. Really, Holmes, this is no challenge to you.”
“Well, indeed, a military man must be able to patch up his uniform and a doctor, of course, must stitch up skin.”
“There you are,” he said.
“But really, this is different,” I said, examining the soft, glossy band I held. “This is next door to . . . millinery.”
“Well,” Watson said cheerfully, “if all else fails I shall have that to fall back on.”
I suppressed a small flinch; I had remembered Gilfoyle’s hideous speech about what my friend could fall back on. But it was not as hard as it might have been to put it out of my mind. Watson had not stopped smiling. “I thought it wouldn’t do to have them fraying into our eyes,” he said.
“There must be some further explanation,” I insisted. “You were the costumier of your school play. The nurses in India used to lend you their sewing to occupy you on the veranda. Your grandmother was a dressmaker and you have needlework in the blood. Come, out with the truth.”
I suppose I do not often admit to Watson that he has baffled me. He looked quite complacent. “You will have to remain mystified,” he said.
“That is not to be borne,” I protested.
“Then I await your deductions.” He held up his own mask to his face – black silk framing blue eyes and skimming across straight cheekbones – and looked at me. I hardly dare describe the effect. I just managed to look back impassively, though Heaven knows it cost me a considerable effort.
* * *
By the time we reached Hampstead, Watson’s misgivings had so thoroughly and visibly dissolved – in fact, he looked so shockingly eager to begin – that I could not resist teasing him about it: “For a man who claimed he did not like the prospect of initiation into crime, you have a decided spring in your step, Watson,” I said.
“There was no question of letting you go alone,” he replied rather crossly, and I was a little abashed. There was a pause. Glancing at him as we walked, I saw his expression grow thoughtful.
“I know I have been neglecting our work – nonsense, of course I have,” he added, as I began to protest this way of putting it. “Lately I have not felt so . . . keen to observe the criminal world from close quarters,” he admitted.
I had slowed so as to keep an anxious watch on his face. Watson noticed.
“But then you kept coming in and out at all hours in that get-up,” he said, smiling, “and I could not help but reflect that whatever you were up to, it must be much more interesting than what I was doing. Sitting indoors with a periodical and when one might be running about London in disguise began to seem intolerably dull.”
We stopped for a moment, looking at each other. I permitted myself to smile only briefly; we were near Milverton’s house now and I could not indulge in any further transports, though I glowed at his calling it ‘our work’.
“We might put our masks on here, I think,” I said.
* * *
God, when I think what might have happened -- Perhaps after all “efficient” is not the word for the kind of criminal I would make, if I were to go on choosing targets with as many enemies Milverton had. I thought I had taken a number of eventualities into account –I was prepared, despite Agatha’s account of Milverton’s regular hours, for the man to walk into the study before we were finished, and we were safely concealed behind the curtain in when the veiled stranger entered to meet him. I had only just coaxed the safe open and had not been able to close it properly in time, but I doubted Milverton would notice, and was confident that Watson and I could handle matters even if he did. I wrapped my hand around Watson’s to try and promise him as much;
I had not considered that someone might choose that night to deal with Milverton in a far more thorough and straightforward way.
I felt Watson’s jolt of shock at the first crack of the gun, and then he started forwards automatically on compassionate instinct. I loved him for it, and pulled him firmly back. There was nothing he could have done for Milverton, and justified as the murderess might be I was not having my friend jump into the path of an agitated killer. To my intense relief, he went still immediately, as if he had read my very thoughts. The woman vanished as if she had not been a human being but an avenging spirit out of Greek myth.
I ignored Milverton’s corpse and sprang over it to reach the safe. There were a few other items within besides papers– a small tin case which proved to contain bundles of hard cash, a couple of jeweller’s pouches resting on top of a stack of leather-bound notebooks. They did not concern me. I heaped the letters into the fire, armful by armful, as the house burst into life around us. Instead of creeping unseen through the dark as we had come, we had to sprint for our lives.
Watson must have been a remarkable athlete before his injuries to be capable of such speed even after them; he was only a little behind me as the servants chased us across the gardens. But our pursuers were swift too, and as I cleared the wall at the edge of the grounds, I heard a shout and the sounds of violence breaking out behind, and realised that one of them had caught him.
I started back toward the wall in utter horror, Oh, God, I thought. He’ll be arrested for murder. I had time for the most appalling visions of what I had done by bringing him there – trial and imprisonment and even the gallows – before a voice that was not my friend’s grunted in pain and there was the thud of somebody hitting the ground, and then Watson emerged over the top of the wall. He had no time to judge the landing carefully and fell headlong; I dragged him up, aware that even a sprained ankle would be disastrous now, but he seemed sound enough and we ran for the Heath.
The shock of it gave way to a sense of bitterness that I could not seem to outpace by running. I thought of the veiled woman. I admired and envied her fiercely. I will free the world of a poisonous thing. Why had I not done that, I asked myself. What had I even accomplished after all of this? I had ensured no future blackmailer would get his hands on those letters, but it was none of my doing that the immediate danger to my client was past. And now there was nothing between her and that obscene contract of a marriage and I would never really have helped her at all.
“Holmes,” called Watson, behind me.
He was flagging at last, I realised, turning back.
He stumbled up to me and took hold of my arms as if to steady him or to keep me from running onwards. “It’s all right,” he panted. “They’re not following. We’re safe. I’m sure of it.”
He was right; the heath was utterly silent around us except for the shrilling of the wind. But there was something odd in his voice, more than shock or fatigue or even pain. “Are you all right?” I asked.
The wind was scouring the wet clouds away from a half-moon. The light caught his face and I saw that his eyes were wild and shining. “God,” he gasped, and now I understood what the strange note in his voice meant. “God, that was –” He sounded as if he were about to say some word like wonderful. He laughed. “What can be wrong with me? That was cold-blooded murder we witnessed, however wicked he was, I should not...” he shook his head and gave up trying to talk himself out of exhilaration. “But what a night!”
“I thought that gardener had you,” I muttered.
“How did you know he was the gardener...? Never mind. I need to discuss something with you,” Watson said, trying without much success to look sombre. “Milverton mentioned forcing women to turn their diamonds into paste . . .” He reached into his breast pocket and drew something out -- a small velvet pouch. “Is this morally justifiable, would you say?” he whispered, and tipped a little heap of glittering stones into his hand.
For a long moment there was only the sound of our breath and the wind in the dark. “Watson!” I cried softly at last.
“I know,” he said, looking down with a humorous, self-conscious little twist of the mouth, as much like him as robbery was out of character. “I know we said we’d take nothing except what was used for an illegal purpose. But then – everything in that safe was acquired illegally. Everything in that house must have been bought with the proceeds of his trade. The jewels would only have gone to his heirs, whoever they are – and I think they’ll do well enough out of that pile already.” He reached for my hand, and clapped the stones into it. “You could try to find the original owners,” he suggested.
The jewels clinked in my palm, glinting dimly in the moonlight. I didn’t want them there; I could not think what we were to do with them. I could not make any very exact examination in that light, but they must have been prised from their settings in a number of different pieces, being of various shapes, sizes and colours. “It will be all but impossible,” I said. “The victims will have acquired convincing replicas, and will never have been able to admit the loss. If I had not burnt the letters one might have tried...”
Watson nodded. “That is what I thought. So I thought perhaps, in the circumstances, one might send them to Lady Eva, as a wedding present. Or to make use of as she saw fit, even if the wedding should happen for any reason to be delayed.”
Another silence, and then I began breathlessly to laugh.
“What do you think?” he inquired.
I could not answer him. I was thinking that it was becoming almost impossible not to kiss him. Watson laughed with me, surveying my masked face.
“You look,” he said, fondly, drawing closer to me, “like a highwayman.”
“You are the thief here,” I said. “I have come away with nothing.”
He took hold of my arms again. “Holmes,” he murmured.
His fingers on my left arm flexed subtly; his hand drifted up towards my shoulder. I glanced down and watched its progress for a moment, then closed my eyes. Several layers of fabric separated his skin from mine, yet this was enough to start me trembling. “This –” I began. “You don’t want –” another false start. I compelled myself to look at him. “This is not you—”
“Yes it is,” he said, and as if to remove literal doubt of who he was, stepped back a little and dragged off his mask, leaving his hair sweetly dishevelled. More hesitantly now, his hand lifted and came back to rest lightly on the join of my neck and jaw, then stroked up over my cheek towards the mask I still wore. I felt his fingertip slide under the edge of the silk.
And that was all I could stand. I caught hold of that hand with some notion of pushing it away, but instead I pressed my lips first against the inside of the wrist and then, dragging him to me, against his mouth.
And his lips parted for mine at once; he strained me even closer with one arm tight around my waist, the other hand at the back of my head, on the knot of the mask amid my hair. There was almost as much desperate force to the way he held me as that first time, but this time I was kissing him just as fiercely, this time his tongue skimmed with knowing skill over mine, this time I couldn’t have dreamt of telling him to stop.
I lowered my lips to the pulse racing below his jaw and whispered helplessly, “Oh, love,” against the warm skin. And he said nothing but kissed my temple through the silk, then the bare skin of my closed eyelid – and though I wanted this and more so much, it was terrifying too; I seemed to see a hundred possible outcomes and most of them were devastating to both of us – but then his lips found mine again and I could not care.
If we had been indoors, or if it had been summer, I have little doubt how things would have escalated, but as it was icy wind raked across us and we both shivered, and went still, catching our breath against each other’s faces. But we remained pressed close together for a while, grateful for the warmth.
“Let’s get home,” I murmured at last.
We walked close to one another, but no longer touching and in silence. I knew that when we finally reached home we would both be exhausted, that we would not continue from where we had left off, and nor would we speak of it, and I tried to prepare myself for awkwardness and regret and worse. But instead I seemed to feel an odd kind of normality folding around us. Well, after all how many times, after some strange or violent end to a case, had we walked homewards side by side in the middle of the night?
We mounted a rise and looked down at a darkened London; I could just see lights on the river in the far distance. Watson reached over, plucked off my mask, and folded it together with his own. “Holmes,” he said, “I never made anything of the kind before in my life. But I thought it would not be very difficult, and I was right.” He tucked them both into my breast pocket, and smiled at me. “I suppose I have a strong natural turn for this sort of thing.”
On Monday the 20th of February, 1882, I first noticed that against my intentions, despite my powers of emotional economy, I was falling in love with my friend. It was a bright, silver-edged winter day of the kind we have not seen once this year. I was alone, walking northwards over Westminster Bridge, I had not had any cocaine for over a week and yet the sky and the Thames and even the relentless details of the lives streaming past me glittered as if I had just shot home a dose of 10% solution. A junior minister recently initiated into the Freemasons, a carriage containing the Marquess of Bowmont and Cessford, whose debts are becoming serious, a solicitor just back from a weekend’s golf, a pair of journalists...
A genial, middle-aged lady (with a son in the Home Office – just been promoted? No, no: engaged – family going to dinner to celebrate) caught my eye and smiled at me – an amused, indulgent, motherly smile. I must have given that well-meaning woman a very odd look in return, not being at all accustomed to receiving such looks from anyone, let alone from strangers. Then it occurred to me that she was reacting to the broad smile I had, quite uncharacteristically, been proffering to public scrutiny for several minutes. I corrected this anomaly, and strode onward, tracing my way back through the thoughts that had occupied my walk from Lambeth Palace. With part of my mind I had been busy with the studies I had conducted at the archives into the early career of an archdeacon who was now unlikely to remain either an archdeacon or a free man for much longer. But I had also passed an elderly, medical man of scholarly mien and dress, on his way to St Thomas’s to deliver a lecture, and that had naturally set me thinking of the interesting acquaintances one can make if one has the good sense to hang about in teaching hospitals. Then again, the mere facts that the sky was blue and all London was shining and singing like a strings section and I had almost solved a case were perfectly adequate reasons to begin thinking about Watson. The case still presented one or two little tangles to be teased apart – how keenly I was looking forward to telling him I had done it! Two days before I had been in a rather self-pitying, morose state over the problem and Watson had informed me he viewed my success as inevitable, and there was really no need to make the tale of my eventual triumph more dramatic by throwing in these tragic elements beforehand. Ten days before that, our page boy had managed to scald his hand rather badly; after dousing the burn in cold water, Watson had dressed it admirably and distracted the lad from his pain by telling him stories of tigers and Maharajahs for a good forty minutes. He was growing stronger all the time, he was handsomer than ever, but that was not the half of it; the man had no idea how simply good he was, and in an hour or so I would see him again—
Ah, I thought. Damn.
For good or ill, imagination failed me there. I was only exasperated with myself – nowhere near as alarmed as I should have been. I knew in an abstract way that this was going to be painful, but I was still too buoyant to care very much.
If that day had somehow closed with my kissing Watson on Hampstead Heath, I am sure that in a trice I should have set about trying to break my incoherently-formed vow of chastity as thoroughly as possible. And if the young man I was then could have seen how now I hesitate, how I think wistfully of things as they were and ask myself if hopelessness is not after all a more peaceful condition than hope – he would have been quite dismayed and thought himself destined to turn out a very poor-spirited sort of fellow.
But he had only been sharing his home and work and life with John Watson for a year.
As it was, as I reached the north bank of the Thames, I assessed the limited options available to me. I knew, of course, that the only absolutely safe choice was to extract myself carefully from the friendship and from our rooms at Baker Street— and I was not going to do that, could not countenance it, in fact. And as I was also not about to make overtures to a man I was sure would not welcome them, my only remaining course was to pave it over and let it be, like one of London’s subterranean rivers. So that was that.
And I did that, quite successfully, for years – and even if it required more in the way of will and morphine than I had anticipated, I found the effort far from thankless. I was rewarded with so much, in fact, that after even another year I could never have risked it all without panic at what I stood to lose.
But at least I should have supposed myself the only one in significant jeopardy. But now, suppose we were to proceed any further than we have, and suppose within a month or a year it comes to pieces because we’d gambled everything for the sake of a mirage – well, I would be back to regretting Gilfoyle’s unhurried approach to murder, and as for my friend, where would he be? He does not, as he said, do well with secrets. Would he find someone to whom he could entrust his expanded collection of them?
What would it be like to love someone enough to do what he has for me, and then lose him because you made a mistake as to what kind of love it was?
Yet somehow, with all this, we have been easier together than we have been in months. Lestrade came bustling round the morning after Milverton’s death, and Watson found it scarcely less taxing to talk naturally to the man than last time, but this time because he was trying desperately hard not to laugh. I’m afraid I have even found myself ordering him to read me correspondence and making jokes at his expense in quite my old style. And he responds in his, with patience and amusement and by laying quiet satirical tripwires for me when I go too far.
And on Wednesday night he kissed me again – having lingered longer in the sitting room than usual after I gave him the chloral. And of course it could not go on for long, not with the drug pulling him away from me, and I was at once intensely frustrated, and grateful for his timing.
This is more than I ever hoped for, and not enough, and too much all at once.
If I ever look over these effusions again, surely I will be mortified. One might as well condense it all to an algebraic paradox – (X = not-X ), or transcribe Petrarch 134 – Pace non trovo, e non ò da far guerra, Temo e spero; ed ardo e son un ghiaccio – and save the time and paper.
* * *
I woke yesterday morning to the consciousness that though it was, by my standards, quite early, Watson had already left the house, and the simultaneous knowledge of why he had done so. I cursed myself and my useless, self-indulgent habits as I threw on my clothes and raced across town.
Watson was not hard to find. He was standing by the railings of the Old Bailey, smoking a cigarette and regarding the passers-by with a look of faintly sardonic detachment utterly wrong for his beautiful open face, and rage and exhaustion lurking behind it.
“Two years,” he said shortly, when he saw me.
Two years. I shall summarise the obvious points to be made about this only very briefly, as they are not easy to think of and remain calm.
1) It is not remotely adequate.
2) It is what we both expected.
3) It could be enough, under the right or wrong circumstances, to break a man’s health permanently.
4) It is exactly what I could expect to receive from a different clause of the self-same law, were my life laid bare before it, and God help us both, so could my friend now. He has kissed me three times, after all, and as of 1885 that is an offence level with the sale and violation of children.
“He saw me,” Watson added, without expression.
Among the many reasons to be furious at that moment, there was the fact that that I could only murmur his name and clasp his arm. We stood in the heart of the City and so I could not wrap myself around him, which was what I wanted to do a fraction more urgently than I wanted to make Gilfoyle choke to death on his own blood.
“He tried to smile,” Watson continued. “But he didn’t quite manage it. I am sure the sentence was no more than he expected, but perhaps when it came to it he was not quite as indifferent as he thought he would be. So I looked back at him until they took him down.”
There was just the faintest note of satisfaction in his voice, alongside the blank disgust.
We walked homewards in silence. I made a few inane suggestions. Alcohol – music. I wanted to load up the day with anything else.
“I should prefer not to mark the occasion with anything out of the ordinary,” said Watson through his teeth, striking a clod of mud out of his path with a vengeful swipe of his stick.
When we reached home he went to his desk and began working ferociously on his piece for The Young Briton, pen fairly stabbing at the paper, at such breakneck speed that the pages of neat jaunty, prose that piled beside him seemed miraculous. I remained in the room, but I left him alone until I heard a short, frustrated cry, and the thud of his hand striking the desk. He had tried to refill his pen, and either because he had jammed the eyedropper too aggressively into the pen-barrel, or because his hands had begun shaking slightly, the ink had splashed across the half-completed page.
He made no move to throw away the ruined page or begin another. He simply stopped, glaring down at the ink, breathing rapidly, otherwise horribly motionless.
“Watson,” I said, desperately. “Have you revised your views on indoor marksmanship at all?”
Watson lifted his head and stared at me in irritated incomprehension. Then he drew his hand across his face, fingertips discreetly sweeping past the inner corners of his eyes, and laughed.
“I suppose I have never given it a fair try,” he conceded. “Though I don’t think I need the practice.”
He did not, as he illustrated by taking his revolver from a drawer and effortlessly adding a neat full stop to the monogram with which I adorned our wall over Christmas. The glassware on the sideboard rattled and the smell of gunpowder, which I have always found rather pleasant, filled the room. I heard a small, startled shriek from somewhere downstairs, but Mrs Hudson, bless her, is past the point of coming running over such things.
Watson surveyed his handiwork. “I admit it has its points,” he said.
“We have as many rounds as you could require,” I urged.
I would have liked him to blast a crater into our wall, but Watson said dryly, “That was sufficient, thank you.” I think it was more the absurdity of this exercise than the violence of it that loosened a little of the tension gripping him, but he shook his head and looked at me with such amused fondness that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “You have the oddest ideas about – everything.”
I was so eager to get the day over that when it came to it I resented the business of pouring out the chloral less than usual. Watson had gone out alone during the afternoon to try again to walk himself into exhaustion, which worked to the extent that he returned speechless with longing for unconsciousness and stiff with physical pain.
When I went to his room that night, he was lying curled in the far corner of the bed, against the wall, one arm drawn up over his face. As I approached he stirred and whispered “Holmes.”
I had approached in utter silence, and I should have known from his breathing what was amiss, but I still asked, “Did I wake you?”
He shook his head, and pulled himself up on the pillows. “The chloral would have worked by now if it was going to. I’ve built up too much of a tolerance to it.” I sat down on the bed beside him and from somewhere, he dredged up a smile for me. “It’s all right. I know I mustn’t take any more of it,” he glanced at the cabinet where the little bottle had stood before the new regime displaced it to the sitting room. “You were right, though. It’s a good thing it’s not there. I might have done.”
For a moment I felt almost as helpless as I had the day I ran home from Wandsworth Prison. I skimmed my fingertips over his brow and cheek, and though his eyelids had sunk closed as he finished speaking, I felt his pulse throbbing with fierce, wakeful force under his jaw.
Certainly there is a place for logic, said my brother’s voice.
“Come on,” I commanded him, “Up.”
Watson groaned an incredulous, wordless question.
“You have established you cannot sleep. Therefore lying there is an irrational waste of time. There are any number of useful things you could be doing.”
Watson instructed me to clear out, I ignored him and hectored and bullied and before long he was stumbling down the stairs behind me. “Why am I doing as you tell me?” he wondered aloud.
“Because experience teaches you my smallest act tends to some definite purpose,” I said grandly. Watson snorted. I shepherded him to the sofa, before going to my room to collect the cover from my bed and a heavy stack of papers. I dropped first the one then the other into his lap. “There. I believe these date from the first half of 1884. First they will need to be sorted into chronological order. Then you might compile a short table of contents, and an index of the notable individuals concerned – then I will be able to transfer what is essential to my dockets.”
Watson rubbed the space between his eyes. “So your papers are not, after all, arranged according to a system too refined and esoteric for the ordinary mind to grasp, and will not be irreparably disordered by my touching them. They are, as they appear to me, simply a jumble that for two years you’ve been keeping...” he swept a finger through a fine layer of dust on the top page “...under your bed.”
Under normal circumstances, I dislike sorting my case notes and I dislike having anyone else attempt it still more. This is mostly a matter of laziness and paranoia, though here I may even confess that when a case exists only as raw memory rather than as a present challenge or an aid to future work – that is to say when it is finished but not yet neatly consigned to my indices – I find its relics slightly disturbing. However these were not normal circumstances, and that particular bundle’s alarming qualities were beginning to mellow with age.
“Under the dressing table, actually, and I have not said there was no system, only that I wish you to impose a different one.” I was fetching him writing materials and light as I spoke.
“You are not in earnest.”
“There you clutch at straws, Watson.”
“And how are you going to be employed,” he inquired sourly.
I picked up my fiddle and sat down cross-legged on the carpet. “I am going to start with Massenet, then perhaps move on to Handel, and after that – well, I shall think of something; maybe the Lieder if you are not too terribly sick of it.”
All the irritation left his face and he smiled at me. “You need not,” he murmured.
I frowned, and played through a couple of scales. Watson sighed and undid the loose string around the bundle. “It’s very kind of you, Holmes, but I doubt it will work.”
Yes it will, I resolved, though I began to play the Massenet piece rather than answer. The music and the little tasks I had set him were surely better than lying there alone in the dark among the ruins of such a day. Logically, therefore, the enterprise could be considered adequately successful even if we both stayed awake all night. But I did so want to do better than that.
‘O doux printemps’ is very melancholy but it is a very soft, lucid sort of sadness. Then I spun a number of little variations around the melody of ‘Art thou troubled’. I was seated on the floor with my back to him – for who can fall asleep with somebody staring at him? But once, as I moved on to Mendelssohn, I glanced back and saw he was reading a page more attentively than I had meant him to, with a reminiscent smile. Ah, yes, the Vittoria Borelli case, a colourful little problem concerning a Italian circus belle; no wonder if he enjoyed the memory of it. And somehow, seeing him look like that, something loosened within me, a remaining coil of tension at that bundle being opened of which I had not been aware. And then I began to improvise repetitive ripples of sound that half-hypnotised even me.
It took a long time, and I kept playing even after I heard the pencil drop to the floor behind me. Then at last I laid the violin down on the floor and rested my head on my knees, and listened to him breathing. I smiled a little at having succeeded, yet I was oddly afraid to turn again and look at him. I felt if I did, it would cost me the very last of what I had begun to lose that bright afternoon four years ago.
I thought about silk masks and masks of grey prison cotton; I thought about fog and poison and how dark and cold the Thames must be, and I wished we were out of London.
Then I wondered why I was treating an idea as a wistful pipe dream when it was in fact perfectly practicable.
* * *
At breakfast, Watson handed me one of the society papers, folded open.
“We are dismayed to observe an ominous eclipse looming in the social firmament. No new date has been set for the marriage of Walter, Earl of Dovercourt and the fascinating Lady Eva Blackwell, and if rumours are true the union’s abrupt postponement last week is set to become permanent. A member of the Earl’s Kensington coterie who favoured us with an interview laments that Lady Eva, the most beautiful debutante of the last season (whose dramatic family history will be well-remembered), has returned the ring while the Earl is to quit these shores for brighter horizons in California.”
We grinned at each other.
Good girl, I thought. It is quite likely she did not even need the little tips I gave her. The package she received was technically anonymous, but I had included a note advising if she needed to account for her sudden acquisition, she might suggest it was a present from her long-lost and contrite mother. And if she met any further demands for explanations, or was presented with any difficulties by certain persons, she might find the page torn from Watson’s notebook helpful.
We ate and read in silence for a while before I announced across my copy of The Times. “I believe we should go to the South of France.”
There was a pause while Watson tilted his head and frowned at me warily. “What is in the South of France?”
“Vineyards,” I said carelessly. “Lavender fields. Attractive villages. Decent weather. I had expected you would have heard as much.”
Watson laid down his paper in silence. He had understood me now, of course, and to my dismay he looked slightly hurt. “Holmes,” he said quietly at last. “I am not ill. I do not require a convalescence.”
“I said nothing of you. I find myself in urgent need of rest and tranquillity. I have for many years, as you have often remarked, neglected and presumed upon my constitution to the point of wilful abuse. It is very likely I am now on the brink of outright collapse. If you do not wish to accompany me to the Dordogne, I suppose I must go alone, but I cannot help but think how unfortunate it would be, if I were to suffer some crisis so far from a trustworthy English physician.” I fetched a melancholy sigh.
Watson could not keep his lips from twitching at this. Still he said, “No, for heaven’s sake. I cannot afford it.”
“Certainly you can. Lady Eva’s cheque was made out to me, but you will not dispute that you had a significant share in the work – though as remittance for jewel robbery you may find your profits disappointing.”
Watson coloured. I had already discovered that any reference to his exploits that night causes him to look down and smile to himself with mingled embarrassment and pride while a blush glows across his cheekbones. Naturally this makes me want to chatter to him about diamonds and the stealing of them non-stop, but the power to make him look like that is not to be squandered all at once.
“Well,” he said, though he was still smiling, “I’m afraid I have no intention of going anywhere.”
Considering that he had followed me to far less pleasant places than the South of France, I think I may be forgiven for not worrying very much about this assertion.
“I shall purchase two tickets tomorrow,” I said.
“You will waste half your money.”
“We shall see.”
He laughed then, despite himself. I tried to conceal how much this delighted me, then wondered why I was doing it and did my best to stop. Something about the results seemed to make Watson’s breath catch and his eyes widen for an instant. Then with deliberate casualness, he looked away.
“I am not sure you are capable of a holiday, Holmes,” he said, “Inaction, sometimes, yes, but not a holiday. When you mentioned France I expected you to say there was some international crisis brewing there requiring your attention.”
“Well there may be, in which case I had better be on hand,” I said. “And if there is, what use will I be without you?”
Petrarch 134 – "Pace non trovo, e non ò da far guerra, Temo e spero; ed ardo e son un ghiaccio." In Thomas Wyatt's translation: " I find no peace, and all my war is done. I hope and fear, and burn and freeze like ice. "
The Château de Beynac – Notes:
Rising high on the promontory above the Dordogne River, the Château appears impregnable, even now in its ruinous state. The village is ranked steeply against the hillside in a maze of terraces. With its sunken roads and thick town walls, the town is still so heavily braced and fortified against attacks that no longer threaten it.
Yet within are pots of geraniums and hanging wreaths of wisteria against sun-warmed, honey-coloured stone.
[Remember send postcard Mrs. H]
* * *
Last night was difficult. Though I did reduce the dosage over a period of a week before ceasing to take the drug altogether, clearly the incline was too steep and I should have continued for a while longer at ten grains. Nightmare; tremors; little actual sleep. Yet having gone without it once, I feel reluctant to take it up again, even at a low dose. I am surely past the worst of it now,
* * *
I have idled away a good deal of the afternoon I meant to spend sketching out a rough account of the Milverton case. I am keeping very irregular hours at present but I suppose there is no harm in it. I dozed off in the garden, half in the sun and half in the shade of a walnut tree, and have woken to find I have the cottage to myself. Holmes, I surmise, must have gone into Saint Léon for more wine, or the smooth white cheese with walnuts from the market.
Holmes cannot see the use of writing of that extraordinary night.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “if conscience compels you to turn us both in, can’t it wait until we return home? Allow us to savour our remaining days of freedom. ”
I might have said that considering his own remarks in Lestrade’s presence (“Why, it might be a description of Watson,”` indeed!) he had little right to lecture me about discretion. Instead I said, “I shall be careful. And decades from now, perhaps the tale will have its day.”
He gave me a quick and startled smile. “You will have had quite enough of my profession’s peculiarities by then,” he murmured.
“I shall never have had that,” I said. And then one of those moments occurred in which we are both trapped and panicked in the inability to stop looking at each other, and it was as if I had said, I shall never have had enough of anything to do with you – which was, and is the truth.
In a kind of desperation to release us both I added at last, “Besides, I like to write for myself.”
And I find that is true too; I have begun aimlessly scribbling things down again, when for months the idea of committing any private thought to paper filled me only with a dull sense of defeat. But today I cannot after all turn my pen to Milverton. What can I say of the moments of that night that are most on my mind? And what do I need with pen and ink to commemorate them?
And even that memory possesses me less than the pleasant urgency of anticipating Holmes’ return. I wonder what time he left? If our positions were reversed I suppose he would deduce it. I feel too lazy even to try it, however – I had rather indolently sit and wait, watching this line of ink unroll across the page and asking myself when will he be back? without trying to answer.
I fear he has timed his excursion poorly for I can feel a faint warning throb in my shoulder, and beside the scent of lavender and laurel the air is heavy with approaching thunder. I have decamped inside. I should not mind a storm, to scour the tarnish off the bright Southern heat, but if my friend is unlucky he may be caught in it – Saint Léon is twenty minutes’ walk away.
He may have been grateful for a little time to himself.
Oh, God, that even here, and after everything, we should both be so frightened of each other.
I have the advantage of him. For once, I think I know more of his mind than he knows of mine. I know he has loved me a long time. I know he is afraid that all the answering desire I have shown for him will, if tested any further, vanish like a soap bubble. And then he will lose the only friend he has, and he will never forgive himself.
And these are not groundless fears. I am afraid I have been blighted beyond repair, or that I always was and it has merely been uncovered. I am afraid we will ruin each other, or that we already have. How can I offer or promise him anything when I can’t get such ideas out of my head? And at times I see the last remnants of the future I expected vanishing and I cannot help grieving for it.
(Yet what use have I had for the expected since I first met him?)
If neither of us dares move to accelerate our slide, nor do we do anything to arrest it. My friend, I think, does not quite understand that however often we shift to a safe, chaste distance from each other, however strictly we both behave as if touches and kisses already exchanged never happened, it is already too late to retrace our steps. And nor can we linger here on the edge for ever. He has told me nothing about his past affairs but he was very young when the last of them ended; wise as he is, I am not sure he recognises that a pair of lovers who have come as far as we have– who live in constant temptation and have nothing to keep them apart – must either separate and place very concrete obstacles between themselves, or else let themselves be swept off as if on a torrent of floodwater. And I need not remark that the first course would be painful beyond bearing when it is so clear we have no intention of taking it.. If we had we would hardly have removed ourselves to an isolated cottage of amber stone in a country where even the law is grandly indifferent to anything we have done or might do.
(And I have discovered that I do not always object to breaking laws, if the cause seems worth it.)
And now I have written the word lovers quite coolly, as if it were any other word, although I know, in some room of my mind, there must be shock at it. But wherever it is I cannot find my way to it. Sometimes – now, after everything I have just written of ruin and fear – all this agonising seems simply silly, the struggle not to touch him, both futile and absurd. Why should we both work so hard to maintain that little space between us, when we have closed it already and the sky failed to fall in?
I can read French tolerably well, and I can manage a simple conversation if Holmes is not present. My friend’s fluency renders me unfortunately self-conscious: I trip over words I have known since my schooldays, my accent thickens atrociously, and the struggle to communicate seems such a waste of everyone’s time when Holmes could say whatever needs to be said so much more smoothly. Holmes finds this unsatisfactory. Therefore at unpredictable intervals I am subjected to intensive, mandatory French lessons. Yesterday afternoon he refused to answer me if spoken to in anything but that language but for the entirety of lunch and afterwards compelled me to summarise and discuss the news from Le Matin. The garden slopes down sharply to a rapid stream, icily cold but clean and bright as diamonds, and he sat beside me under the willows at its edge, correcting my mistakes with increasing impatience.
Finally he lapsed abruptly into English. “Watson,” he said, “are you being intentionally dense?”
I tried to look innocently dejected, and found it a struggle because the truth was yes, I had been deliberately confusing avoir and être for the past half-hour with the sole purpose of annoying him.
Under his suspicious gaze I soon had to give way to laughter. Holmes frowned, reached out and gave me a light, schoolmasterly cuff to the back of the head with my dictionary.
This is better. His carefulness with me touches me very much, but it troubles me too. I don’t wish to be treated like a tragic foundling out of a Dickens novel, certainly not by Holmes of all people. I am the same man I always was.
I considered pinning him down in the grass, by way of retaliation. If I had had a second glass of wine at lunch I believe I should have tried it.
“Je croyais nous étions en vacances,” I complained instead, with, I think, a rather better accent than I can usually command.
“Le travail est aussi rafraîchissant pour l'esprit que le repos!" decreed my friend imperiously, still in his character as a dictatorial teacher. “On ne gagne rien sans le travail.”
“Ou sans danger,” I said – but I retreated into timid, mumbling incoherency as I said it.
It was very hot; he had pulled off his collar that morning as soon as he returned with papers and croissants from Saint Leon, and I could see the long line of his throat slope down to the hollow shadowed within his shirt. There was a faint streak of sunburn on the crest of each cheekbone, almost precisely where the edge of the silk mask fit his face. His eyes – amused and annoyed and provoking – were the same colour as the bright stream.
There is a tiny silver scar on his jaw, about the size of a grain of rice, only visible in certain lights.
I was right about the weather; a moment ago an immense crack sounded among the clouds and rain is fairly crashing down on the garden and sparking white against the windows.
I have written briefly of that first night without chloral. I came to myself after a short, delirious struggle with visions I shall not record. I lay there for a while, trembling and trying without success to quiet my pulse. Even as I decided these symptoms indicated only that my system had received a minor shock from the too-rapid discontinuation of the drug, black thoughts rose to meet them. It is not only the memory of that awful night that torments me at such times. Sometimes, when I find myself in conversation, whether with a friend or stranger – with Lestrade, say, or Mr Burrage, or the lady with whom I chatted briefly in the tea-room at Charing Cross – I think, If you knew what has happened, and what I have done . . .
. . . and it does not matter much whether I complete the thought, whether I imagine revulsion or disbelief or embarrassed pity. A barrier, transparent as glass and impermeable as marble, cuts me off from my interlocutor and from all the world, and there is very little space or room to breathe on my side of it. And when I am awake late at night I start thinking of spending the rest of my life confined so.
Having learned the lesson that it is better to get up than lie passively at the mercy of such horrors, I rose, lit a candle, and went downstairs in search of some distraction. I tried to move soundlessly, but the creaking stairs of this ancient cottage betrayed me and Holmes soon discovered me pacing the floor of the sitting room. I reassured him I was not looking for the chloral bottle and I would not let him do anything for me – he cannot always be ministering to me – but I could not persuade him to leave me. So there we sat, talking of the château we visited and the campaigns it has witnessed -- the crusades and the Hundred Years War.
Waking at dawn to discover we were clumsily entangled on the sofa and that I was half draped across him, I felt ashamed that I had kept him from his comfortable bed. And I think that was all I was ashamed of.
There is nothing on the other bank of the stream but trees. Yesterday, in the garden, we could have done anything we wished and no one would have seen us.
But there is no shortage of time.
It now appears to me that these idle jottings, begun without any conscious design, all gather to a quite outrageous purpose: here I am working myself up to the task of ambushing my friend on his return and surrendering us both, finally, to what I seem to have concluded is inevitable. Well, then. When have either of us ever shied away from danger before?
Now I can see him coming down the lane, between the poplars. He is carrying something clasped against his chest, but he is not hunching against the rain nor running from it, being evidently so drenched already that it is no longer worth trying to protect himself. It is not cold, after all.
Watson: I thought we were on holiday.
Holmes: Work is as refreshing to the spirit as repose! One gains nothing without work.
Watson: Or without danger.