Over the top of my newspaper, I watched Holmes rise from his seat. He walked to the window and peered out, his pipe clenched between his teeth. It was the third time he had made the journey to the window in a quarter hour. I waited for his announcement of a visitor. I listened for the sound of carriage wheels, the knock upon the downstairs door. The street remained quiet, the door-knocker still, even the lowering clouds I could see above the buildings over the road held in their rain. My newspaper rustled as I turned a page. Holmes sent a sharp glance my way and strode back to his chair. Tobacco smoke trailed behind him like the steam of an engine. Being near him when this mood strikes is like standing on the platform of a railway station as the furnaces of the great locomotives are stoked. There, I find myself infected with the possibilities of the place, in sympathy alike with those alighting from their journeys and those hastening across the vast halls to catch the iron beasts before they disappear in billows of smoke. I often concoct stories while I wait about the travellers and those who greet them or bid them farewell. Here, when Holmes takes to prowling about our sitting-room, I experience a greater anticipation, my eye irresistibly drawn to his restless form, my mind eager for the details of whatever occupies him, for he is the source of the story that matters most to me.
“Whom are you expecting?” I ventured to ask. He had resumed his seat, turning towards the fire, and instead of reading my paper, I took the liberty of contemplating his profile. His head was angled downward as though he was studying the rate of combustion of the logs. He might have been.
The pyramid of wood collapsed, sparks flew up the chimney, embers tinkled through the grate. Holmes gave no sign of answering, but I knew that he had heard me. His hearing is acute. I wonder that the clamour of a city is not irritating to someone with such finely-tuned ears, but he does not seem to find it so. It is part of the stream of information from which he deduces so much that he appears clairvoyant at times. I left off my consideration of the firelight over his features, of the movement of his lips about the stem of his pipe, and lowered my eyes to the smaller headlines of my newspaper.
I startled when he finally spoke. “No one,” he said, “and no sign of that changing. A dull day.”
I knew what followed such pronouncements and I wished there was some way I could divert him from opening the neat morocco case and using what it contained. I have thought on the matter long and hard and not discovered an alternative I have been bold enough to try. Holmes had taken note of my irritability regarding his practice, and I thought that occasionally he refrained a while on my account. It had been at such times, lacking a client with a problem worthy of his attention, that Holmes had turned his attention on me. It invariably made me flush. Sometimes he narrowed his eyes at me when I did so, sometimes he smiled. I believed he must know how often my thoughts turned to him and the mystery that he represented to me. It seemed that now and then, he offered me openings to ascertain whether I dared to explore further.
“What has interested you so in your reading?” he asked mildly.
“There is an announcement of a new play,” I began, moving my thumb to scan the full text. I left a smudge upon the margin. Beneath my collar, my skin prickled. “’The Poison-Flower’ by a poet called Todhunter.” I felt a smile spread across my face. Poisons interested Holmes.
His eyes roamed over me, glints of firelight in them. “You are an admirer of the poet or the American writer?” he asked.
I was sure my face would have betrayed the answer. Lying to Holmes is an endeavour bound to fail, especially when his eyes are upon one as his were upon me, and I did not attempt it. I felt a bit foolish admitting that I had never heard of the poet and had not finished reading the particular Hawthorne story upon which the drama was said to be based.
“I know of Todhunter from his opera librettos,” Holmes said, steepling his fingers below his chin and settling back in his chair to study me more comfortably. “What about the American pleases you, another work of his perhaps?”
My muscles relaxed as his did. I had lured his thoughts away from the morocco case and the bottle upon the mantel. I aspired to keep them away. My eyes flickered in the opposite direction, to the darkening sky beyond our windows and back to the newspaper in my lap. I had read a few things by Hawthorne. I could have named them as the source of my pleasing memory, but Holmes would have spotted my prevarication and thought less of me. The notion discomfited me. I have come to value his good opinion of me a great deal. I decided that if he was to think less of me, it might as well be for the real reason.
I raised my face, but did not look directly at Holmes. “I have perused some of his short stories…”
Holmes lifted his hand to silence me and I obeyed its directive. “The book is in this house,” he said.
I nodded. “I...”
Holmes tapped a long, pale forefinger against his lips. “If you would be so kind as to bring it to me, I will tell you why it makes you smile,” he said.
In the months since Holmes and I had become fellow-lodgers, I had had the opportunity to witness his powers on many occasions, not the least of which had been during the case he solved, which I had entitled A Study in Scarlet when I began writing up an account of it. A case, however, offers a variety of clues and it seemed to me that it was in their intersection that Holmes often found his answers. I doubted he could do the same with a single item and was happy to bestir myself to fetch the book and let him try. In any event, it was an alternative activity.
During the few minutes I was gone, Holmes had mixed us each a whiskey-and-soda. I noted the bubbles in mine rising quietly to the surface next to my chair. I imagined the ones in his breaking against his lips as he sipped. I thanked him for the libation as I crossed the room and drew the curtains against the dark before returning to the fireside to settle into my seat. I tried not to notice the gleam of moisture upon his upper lip as he set his glass aside and reached for the leather-bound book in my hands. The habit of minute observation I have acquired from Holmes has had some drawbacks for me.
I sat silently as he turned the volume over in his long, lean hands, studied it from various angles by the light of the lamp near his chair with and without his powerful lens, held it beneath his nose, stroked his fingertips over its front and back and spine before he opened it. I exhaled and he glanced up at me, his eyes a-twinkle, before tilting the book to inspect the title page.
I have dreamt of his hands living a life of their own. They are the graceful and expressive hands of a hedonist that he has impressed into the service of science. They subvert his intent and curve around his test-tubes with a delicacy of which the most renowned ballet dancer would be jealous. I watched them stroke down the silken front of his dressing gown to disappear into his pockets on some mundane search and wondered what sensations were transmitted from his fingertips to that great mind of his. He has catalogued nuances of texture that he uses in his investigations to excellent effect, the type, the age, the provenance, of cloth, of wood, of fur, of leather. I have speculated whether he has also categorised every variation of skin temperature and texture. He has closed his slim hand around my wrist to lead me this way or that and I have pondered how much he knew of me by the time he released his grip. His hands played over the endpapers. I lifted the whiskey to my lips. My mouth was dry. I could not wrest my gaze away.
Holmes held the book open on his palms and raised it to his face. I heard him sniff twice. He closed the book and set it on the arm of his chair, the fingers of one hand tapping lightly against it. He smiled at me.
“How is Stamford?” he asked.
My eyes widened in surprise. Of all the remarks I might have expected him to make after examining the book this would have been the last. “He is fine,” I stammered out.
“And the Eton mess was to your satisfaction?” he asked.
Perhaps my brows lowered because one of his rose as he watched me. Holmes’s work took him all over London. It was possible that some interest or another had brought him to the Criterion at the same time as Stamford and me. There was also the chance that for some reason he had chosen to follow me that day. Either way, to pass off information gathered thus as the fruits of his deductions now was less than I would expect of him. He probably read it all in my face.
“I might have joined you if I had been there,” he said. His voice had cooled.
“But how?” I asked, already knowing I would feel ashamed of my doubts shortly.
Holmes grimaced. After all his tutelage, my inability to follow the tiniest of clues which are to him as huge sign-posts distresses him.
“Where you marked your place, part of a coat-check stub remains.” He held up the flimsy slip of pale green paper between two fingers as one would hold a cigarette.
Half the printed name of the restaurant was visible along one edge. I felt abashed and let him see it plainly. I had parted my lips to express the sentiment verbally, when he waved my apology away before I could select the words.
“Shall I continue?” he asked with a hint of a tease in the question because, of course, he knew that I wanted to hear the rest.
“Please,” I replied and put my remorse in my tone. He tilted his head in acknowledgement, his gaze sharpening. A thrill ran through me. I had an idea. There was danger in inviting the razor’s edge of his attention with a plan forming in my mind. If I did not fold, it would be the wildest wager I had ever made.
He re-opened the book, turned a couple pages back, moistened a fingertip and ran it along the crease of the pages. My eyes were riveted. His hands usually had that effect on me, but there was more to their movements now, almost a beckoning. I pushed these thoughts aside and endeavoured to focus on what he was about to say. I wondered whether he was confirming his earlier deduction by taste. Was my bet already on the table? Did he want to be certain to win it?
“You had Eton mess for pudding. Reaching for your glass, you brushed past the confection and a few crumbs clung to your sleeve. After bidding Stamford farewell, you went round to Sotheran’s to look again at a book that had caught your eye.”
I thought to question how he had known it was with Stamford I had had luncheon and how he could know I had not seen the book he held in his hand for the first time that day, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of his explanation or to chill the warmth that was returning to his voice.
"Even discounted, the book is not inexpensive and you had had a run of bad luck at cards until a few days ago,” he said. "As to Stamford being your dining companion, last month you received a note from him cancelling an engagement because his mother was ill, which left you free to accompany me to Scotland Yard that day. The illness was serious because Stamford looked pale and agitated whenever I saw him at Barts until a week ago, when he told me of his mother's recovery and asked me to pass the good news on to you. When I did, you frowned before thanking me, for the same reason you did not buy the book earlier. Once fortune smiled on you, you wanted to make up the missed meal with Stamford as soon as possible. You do not owe him money, but you seem to owe him a debt of gratitude for something."
My temperature rose a little higher at his accuracy about my losses. I had won everything back, however, and a pleasant premium as well. I am skilled at cards, but one cannot deny that there is a measure of luck to the enterprise.
“To return to the book," Holmes said. "It is part of a set and you were undecided as to which you wanted most as the cost of the full set was too great an indulgence for you to consider even after your recent success,” he stated.
The truth of what he said must have been evident on my face for he smiled fully now.
“The design beneath the publisher’s information identifies it as part of a set although the binder has not included the volume number on the spine. The original binding was less luxurious. It was rebound to match the décor of a private library, Lord Eccleston’s to be precise. The gilt, embossed bird is part of his family crest and appears on all the books bound for his collection. His heirs were not able to meet the estate duties. Most of the contents of his town house were sold at auction last winter to cover the expense. I found a book there entitled The Origin of Tree Worship with some useful notations in the margins and an excellent volume of old London maps, but your enterprising bookseller had clearly already been as I did not see this.”
My eyebrows shot up.
“He marked the books he bought for resale at a pleasing profit and is willing to break up the sets now on the ones that haven’t sold. Several prices have been inscribed in pencil at front and back, erased and replaced with lower values. The indentations from the pressure of the pencil, although faint, can be discerned on the page below. ”
“How…” I uttered even though I had meant to remain silent a while longer.
“How can you verify my deductions about your book’s provenance? Have a look on the top shelf.” Holmes pointed. “You’ll find the book of maps there with the embossed bird on the cover and a book plate inside with the full crest.”
I rose to follow his directions. “I do not doubt you, you know,” I protested as I located the aforementioned volume and opened the cover. I had seen it there the previous month, but had not noted the device on the front, else I might have recognised it on my own book. I sighed. Holmes was always abjuring me to seek the information that resides in details.
As I made my way back to my chair, Holmes resumed his explanations.
“Your book had spent some time too close to a heat source, a wood-burning hearth to be exact, and the paste affixing the book plate had dried and the book plate fallen off and been lost. A discoloured rectangle can be seen on the inside of the cover where it once was.”
I took a sip of my whiskey-and-soda when I was settled once more. Holmes paused and did likewise. “I doubt,” he continued, “that all the books in the set were similarly denuded, but you didn’t pay attention to them as you were not interested in who had owned the book, but in its contents.” Holmes took another sip.
“I would have thought such matters were of a kind with the configuration of the solar system and would have been cleared out of your attic as soon as they entered it,” I opined.
“On the contrary, determining the ownership of goods is often useful in my line of work. You have seen it yourself. And the presence of a book from someone else’s library will often indicate a relationship where one might not have been suspected. Have I ever told you of the case involving the newly-published fourth edition of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat?”
I shook my head.
“Remind me sometime,” Holmes said. “I think you would like it and it is a good illustration of this very point. However, let us return to the matter at hand and the most engaging question related to it, which is the question of why you chose to buy this book rather than another in the set.”
I leaned forward again. Could he possibly tell?
He tapped his finger on the pages lying open in his lap. “The meringue gives it away,” he said.
“Some grains fell from your sleeve and were caught between the pages here when you stopped to read rather than merely flipping through the pages to glance at illustrations or titles.” Holmes leaned back in his seat. “You have enjoyed other works by the author. Faced with a set devoted to his works, you checked for ones you had already read, which eliminated several, and then looked for something that would attract you to one of those remaining. You found it here, on the…” He turned back a page. “On the third page of Rappacini’s Daughter. The word doctor caught your eye and then…” Holmes began to read, “’…he distils these plants into medicines that are as potent as a charm. Oftentimes you may see the signor doctor at work, and perchance the signora, his daughter, too, gathering the strange flowers that grow in the garden.’” It was enough to decide you. A bit of narcissism,” he said, glancing over at me, “and a mystery. You are attracted to mysteries.”
I swallowed. Since we met, Holmes had been the chief mystery in my life. My interest was supposed to have been something to occupy my time within the limits my health and finances had imposed on my activities. Yet as both improved, I found the other pursuits in which I could again begin to engage had become mere distractions from the central matter that occupied my thoughts. Sometimes, I think he knows and teases me with it. It seemed so then, as he languidly stretched out an arm for his whiskey. He turned his head as he did, but knew I watched. If he were a woman I would be certain I was being encouraged to make an approach, of what kind would depend on the nature of the lady, but he is Sherlock Holmes, subtle beyond my ken and of a nature I cannot parse, although I know it attracts me. There I have stated it. It is not simple admiration for his intellect that I feel. There is something more.
Holmes relinquished his glass and let his head fall back upon his chair.
Above his collar, the pale stretch of his throat was exposed to my gaze. It was cleanly-shaven as he usually keeps it unless he is assuming a disguise that requires stubble. An impulse rose up in me to test the thoroughness of his razor or to imitate his methods and deduce how long since he had drawn it over his skin by touching him there.
“There is the suggestion of science combined with an air of romance,” Holmes said.
I had to clear my head of my ruminations to realise he spoke of the story in the book.
“You like to muddle the two,” he said.
My back straightened.
“Science and romance,” he clarified.
I was muddling more than that together by our fireside as I watched the muscles of his throat move as he spoke.
Suddenly, he sat up, his glittering eyes catching mine before they dropped to the book in his lap. He held it out to me. “Read the story to me and we will judge together whether your impulse to choose it was a wise one.”
I was relieved to look away from his gaze to take the book. He may not read minds, but his art allows him knowledge of others that is close enough. For an electrifying instant I felt the grazing of his fingers as we exchanged the weight of the book. He turned for his pipe as soon as his hands were free and I was grateful for that as well. Otherwise, he would have observed the reaction run through me.
I turned the jet up on the paraffin lamp and arranged myself so that the light fell across the page. “Shall I read from the beginning or from the paragraph you quoted?” I asked.
I could smell his tobacco as he rekindled his pipe. He chuckled and drew on it again before he replied. “To give the author the full chance to weave his spell?” He closed his lips around the pipe stem for a moment, smoke issued forth with his next words. “No, from where I quoted. I read what went before and I doubt he will enchant me either way. I shall be looking for clues.” He resumed drawing on his pipe.
“As to where the author’s views align or diverge from yours, so I can conclude whether you are satisfied with your acquisition or not,” he said.
He took a drink of his whiskey-and-soda, stretched out his legs and devoted his attention to his pipe. I began to read.
I was parched by the time I had finished, despite having paused for a sip now and then along the way. I emptied my glass and steeled my nerves. I was sure my tone of voice had revealed far more than I had wished it to and Holmes would now lay out every hidden thought I had on the subject of love and attraction.
“You are tired, Watson,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He was on his second pipe. “Rest now and if some missive or messenger hasn’t summoned us to a more urgent problem, we will consider the clues I have gathered tomorrow.”
It was as if his words had cast a spell, for a fatigue descended on me that rendered it difficult to rise from my chair.
Holmes rose from his seat, pipe in one hand and extended his other to me. My hand closed around his forearm. I felt his muscles tense to give me solid leverage and hoped he would not be rolling up his sleeve after I left to utilise the remedy for boredom he had been considering earlier in the day. “Will you sleep as well?” I asked.
“Not just yet,” he said.
I was standing, my hand still clasped about his arm. The slenderness of his frame makes him look frail, but he is far from that. I have witnessed the surprise of many a burlier adversary after a demonstration of Holmes’s pugilistic skills and he is well-versed in other forms of combat and defence as well. It seemed that I could sense all of that in the flexing of the muscles beneath my palm. Without thought, my thumb rubbed across one. I let go, the heat of a flush creeping up my face. I turned towards the book that I had set upon the side table to give myself a moment to school my expression.
“Leave it here, so you are not tempted to read more,” Holmes said. “It will serve you better to dream.”
He turned away at those words. “Like the young hero with whom you share a name, you have much to dream on,” he added over his shoulder.
At the door, I glanced back as I bid Holmes good-night. He had opened his violin case and was rosining the bow.
“I shall play a little. It will help us both sleep, I think.”
I nodded although he was not looking my way and I left the door ajar. As I mounted the stairs, I heard him tuning the instrument. I did not close my door completely either and let the song he played lead me through my night-time routine and on into my dreams.
The morning was drear. The eaves dripped, the light seeping around the edges of the curtains was grey. I closed my eyes, pulled the covers up to my ears and let sleep claim me again.
Rapid steps upon the stairs woke me the second time. The front door slammed. I squinted at the light upon the wall. It had a hint of yellow to it. I decided to face the day and a good breakfast. I touched the bell to alert Mrs Hudson.
The sun and the rain clouds were engaged in a running battle when I gained the sitting-room. The intermittent light played over the newspapers strewn along the sofa. I had selected one Holmes had folded open to an article about the new play as Mrs Hudson brought in the breakfast tray.
“Mr Holmes left an envelope for you on the mantel. He asked me to bring it to your attention,” Mrs Hudson said.
I spotted it propped up against a book and tried not to take offence at his assumption that I might not notice it unaided. It was not his usual stationery I observed as I turned it over. Inside were two tickets for that evening’s performance of The Poison-Flower. He’d been out and back once already this morning. I wasn’t sure whether he was humouring me by procuring them or demonstrating his ability to do so.
The doorbell rang as I took my seat and Mrs Hudson scowled down from the landing at whoever it was that little Martha had let in. After a couple minutes of careful steps, a wide box came through the door with a grimy cap above it and patched trousers below. When the lad had navigated the room until he stood by the chemistry table, he deposited his burden without disrupting any of the delicate equipment there. He gave a little nod in self-congratulation it seemed to me, untucked a card from his pockets and came towards me with his arm outstretched.
I felt in my waistcoat pocket to see if I might have a coin as I had not dressed for the street and my money remained in my room.
“Mr ‘Olmes said I was to wait until you had opened it before leaving, sir,” the lad announced, whisking his cap off his head as though remembering an instruction to be performed now that his hands were free of other duties.
“Noted,” I said with military crispness. Holmes directed his Baker Street Irregulars in the manner of a commanding officer and I had adopted the habit of thinking of them as his troops. I wasn’t sure what rank this lad would have though. I had almost said corporal; he had the earnest expression for it. I opened the envelope, which contained printed instructions for the care of three plants: brugmansia, datura and ipomoea purpurea. Written, in Holmes’s precise hand, across the top of the first two cards was the admonition: do not inhale. I smiled. I was familiar with datura from my time in India and knew that any blooms would not truly be sweet until the evening. I set the cards aside and looked up. The boy stood even straighter. “Mission accomplished. Message received,” I said seriously and held out my hand with the coin I had found. He accepted it with a quick movement and a grave nod before turning to the door with measured steps. Once on the landing, he bobbed his head to Mrs Hudson, then scampered down the stairs.
Mrs Hudson watched him descend and shut the door behind him from the vantage point she had maintained during the exchange. “Shall I bring you a fresh pot?” she asked when she appeared satisfied that her house was free of the grubby urchin.
“Yes, thank you, Mrs Hudson,” I replied, reaching once more for the second envelope of the morning from Holmes. There was at least one book on toxic plants that I had noticed among the esoteric volumes in Holmes’s library. They would provide more detail than the cards and I thought to peruse the relevant entries before Holmes returned. I had no doubt I would find all the specimens wrapped in waxy paper across the room to be featured in it and wondered what new experiments in noxious substances were going to be the result of my attempt to divert Holmes from one of his dark moods with a story about poisonous plants.
By the time I heard Holmes’s foot upon the stair, I had bathed and shaved and was brushing off my evening clothes in preparation for our outing. I listened for other voices, but only heard Holmes requesting tea in a half hour’s time. After a few minutes, the sound of water from the bath revealed how he would be occupying the interim. I had considered going for a proper bath in the afternoon, but the skies had looked untrustworthy and I remained disinclined to subject myself to heavenly dousings unless accompanying Holmes for a case necessitated it. I finished my brushing and descended to the sitting-room to see if I might find any further clues as to how Holmes had spent his day.
A sweet fragrance suffused the chamber. Two of the plants, the datura and brugmansia to be precise, were freed of their wrappings and gracing his chemistry table, each with a blossom open. Remembering their nature, I resisted the natural impulse to sniff them and indeed, found myself breathing shallowly while I inspected what else was changed in the room. A wrought iron stand now stood in front of the right-hand window. Atop it perched an ornamental cage of black wires, inside which a small plant had been installed, its delicate stem wound about one of the vertical wires of the cage. The plant offered no blooms, but several dark buds promised it would be true to its name in the morning. I withdrew to the hearth once I had made these observations, the smell near the window being too intense for my taste.
Upon gaining some distance, I noticed what I had not upon first entering the room: a small box upon the table Mrs Hudson had set for tea. I bent to inspect it. It seemed too flimsy to hold even a small potted plant and it bore no markings. I was breathing freely once more, the perfume of the flowers pleasing at a remove. With a glance towards the firmly closed door of Holmes’s bed-room, I made bold to satisfy my curiosity and opened the box. Its contents made me chastise myself for my laziness. Despite having spent much of the afternoon reading about the toxic or medicinal qualities of a number of plants, I had dismissed the notion of walking round to the florist’s to get a flower for my lapel. I had blamed the intermittent drizzle for my reluctance to move from the fireside, but I was not sure that was the true reason. The nearest flower-seller was only half a street away at the station.
Holmes, however, had not overlooked that part of his evening dress and it was clear he had not availed himself of the station’s pedestrian offerings. I touched the tip of a tiny leaf. Surely, he had tapped one of those myriad, esoteric resources that were at his command to produce the unusual boutonniere before me. It consisted of several small flowers and leaves wrapped with green satin ribbon around the stem of a moss rose bud. I shook my head at the memories that came unbidden at the sight of the pale pink rose. Her sisters had scented the air by the verandah of the hospital in Peshawar and their thorny stems had reared up in my fever dreams to scourge the fiery demons that had come to consume me. I still dreamt of them sometimes. Could Holmes know?
I bent to smell it, but the perfumes of the datura and the brugmansia were too pervasive and the rosebud only beginning to open. What I could detect was a hint of jasmine. I moved a rose leaf aside to find a sprig of the tiny blossoms, its stem crossed below the rose with a spray of small, white flowers which I did not immediately recognise. A stem of little, purple blooms peeped out above the rose. I glanced at the volume on botany I had been reading earlier. Among its scientific descriptions, I had been surprised to find paragraphs on the lore associated with each plant, if such there were, including the meanings that were ascribed to them in poetry and art. I fetched the tome from my chair and opened it upon the table next to the box.
The entry on jasmine I located quickly and discovered among the several illustrations of its varieties one that matched the pointy petals of my specimen. I had before me jasminum grandiflorum, also known as Spanish jasmine. I had been aware of some of its medical and decorative uses in those climes where I had spent so many trying months. What I had not known was its symbolic meaning, although not because I was generally unaware of such things. I had sent meaningful bouquets to certain young ladies in my time. I simply wouldn’t have been bold enough to send a message that had sensuality as one of its component parts. By the time I had reached that level of experience, I rarely thought of wooing. I had developed more vices by then and my robust health allowed me to indulge them.
I peered at the other small flowers and at their leaves. Tea. Vervain. I returned to the index and verified my vague recollection with the drawings. Enchantment. I pursed my lips. Could it be mere coincidence? What the florist had on hand? Was I thinking about these meanings simply because my afternoon’s research had set them in my way or was I in a fanciful mood because of the story I had read aloud the previous evening? I glanced again at the door to Holmes’s room. Holmes relied on details. He held forth on their importance. There had been a case where a discarded bouquet had been a significant clue. I determined to complete my translation. If it was irrelevant, then so be it.
I shifted my attention to the spike of white flowers on the other side of the rose. They were not dissimilar to the jasmine, but the leaves and arrangement of the blooms were completely different. Without even a guess at a name, I had no way to utilise the index in the book. Perhaps I would have to abandon my pursuit after all. I frowned. It doesn’t suit my temperament to give up.
The tinkling of china disrupted my thoughts and heralded the arrival of Mrs Hudson with the tea tray.
“What a beautiful fragrance,” she exclaimed, setting down a platter of cakes and scones, another of sandwiches and a pot of tea.
I found the aroma of the food a pleasant change.
“Shall I pour you a cup now?” Mrs Hudson asked.
I nodded. I could have my first cup while I waited for Holmes.
She glanced into the open box after she handed me my cup. “Such lovely flowers,” she said. “I’m surprised to see those this time of year, but with hothouses anything’s possible, I suppose.”
“Which ones?” I asked.
She pointed to the very ones over which I had been puzzling.
“Do you know what they’re called?” I enquired.
“Tuberoses,” she said directly. “I always thought that peculiar. They don’t look anything like roses.”
“No, they don’t,” I agreed, already pulling the book closer.
“They smell best at night,” she added and picked up her tray. “Ring if you need a fresh pot of tea,” she said.
I looked up from the index. “Yes, thank you, Mrs Hudson,” I said, holding my finger at the page number. Before she had reached the doorway, I was rustling through the pages. Polianthes tuberose, perennial, perfume, Mexico, dangerous pleasures. I read it twice before I closed the book. The door to Holmes’s room began to open. I set the book beside me on the floor and lifted my tea cup.
He was wearing his dressing gown and slippers, but was otherwise dressed. He tilted his head at me and left the door to his room open. It felt as though a fresh breeze had followed him into the room.
“I see you received my messages,” he said, taking his seat and reaching for the teapot. “Are you pleased?” he asked as he poured.
I took a sip of tea rather than answering. In my mind, the words sensual, enchantment and dangerous pleasure, for such was the meaning ascribed to tuberoses, were drawing images about themselves like a swarm of bees and I was mindful of the possibility that an inappropriate word might slip out if I attempted to speak.
Holmes smiled to himself and finished preparing his tea.
I probably did not need to speak to tell him everything he needed to know. I kept my cup aloft and took another sip of tea.
Holmes took a taste from his cup, set it noiselessly in its saucer and pulled the open box towards his plate. He tilted the box and looked in. His eyebrows went up. “I left the wrong box out,” he said and stood, taking it up.
I watched him withdraw, perplexed.
In a moment, he was back from his room with an identical container. “There,” he said. “That one is for you. I didn’t think you would venture out this afternoon.”
“Ah. Thank you,” I replied. I drank more tea, mulling over how it might affect meaning if that was the message he wore rather than the one he presented to me.
Holmes nodded graciously, expecting perhaps a little more embellishment on my appreciation, but giving no overt sign. He resumed his seat and partook heartily of Mrs Hudson’s offerings.
I concluded that it made the message about him if he wore the emblems. It cleared my mind enough to say that I had been pleasantly surprised to find the tickets in the sitting-room in the morning. I poured myself another cup of tea.
“Well, I was up early and thought I might as well stop round and see what I could do. Best to see the play as soon after reading Hawthorne’s story as possible, don’t you think?” he said.
My mind had already wandered off to the contents of the box now upon the table. I considered the possibility that it might conceal the exact same arrangement and considered what that might mean. I glanced at Holmes and realised he was awaiting a response to whatever he had just said. I nodded.
“And now we shall,” he stated and spread more cream over his scone.
He appeared in exceptionally good spirits for being without a case. “Are you working on a new case?” I thought to ask.
He thought for an instant. “Yes, I am,” he declared.
I contemplated the pause. “You weren’t sure if you would take it?” I asked, thinking that he must have needed to do some preliminary research before deciding to accept it.
“No, I was sure from the first instant,” he said. “It is a singularly absorbing case.”
I was thrilled to hear it. At least until it was concluded, it would put off the black mood that descended when his marvellous brain was not engaged. I may have sighed. My little diversion was not needed after all and yet Holmes had set aside a few hours for the play. Perhaps he thought I would be disappointed not to see it since I had brought it up or perhaps the play had some bearing on the new case. Holmes continued to eat with appetite and my eyes drifted to the covered box.
“Have a look,” he said.
I glanced at him. He was amused at something. My bewilderment at matters that were crystal clear to him often amused him. It had irked me at first and I would try to catch him out at his game; I still do sometimes for the sport of it, but the feeling of irritation has almost completely melted away. I drew the box towards me and opened it.
The contents were a surprise. The diminutive bouquet was about as different from the other as possible, although it did include rose buds: two miniature ones, red and white bound together with a sprig of lemon blossom and diverse leaves. I lowered my head to sniff. “We could make soup,” I said, for sheltered by the sides of the box I could detect the faint aroma of sage, fennel and spearmint. There was also a large oak leaf serving as a kind of background for the little collection. My index finger traced the edge of the box. Beneath my chair, my heel connected with the spine of the volume on botany.
Holmes reached out to draw one of the platters closer to his side of the table. “There’s room for the book,” he said, a glint of mischief in his eye.
I should have known he had spied the book. How could I have thought otherwise? I nudged my plate away and brought up the book.
“You have an interest in plants I had not appreciated,” Holmes said. “It would have been another element that attracted you to the story.”
I supposed it had been, but far from the main one. I turned to the index.
“You recognised everything there. Someone close to you had a herb garden,” he said.
He was scrutinising me now, over his teacup. I felt warmer. I had admitted to myself that I sometimes did things to attract his attention. I had left the finished manuscript of the case I called A Study in Scarlet out on my desk the evening before I planned to post it to my publisher. I had told myself I was too tired to wrap it up before retiring. It was nonsense. I had written those words to please him, left the pages there in hopes that he would read them. I had worked hard on framing the story of the case with descriptions of the extraordinary detective who had solved it. I was impatient to earn some praise and did not wish to wait until the story was in print to receive it. If he had looked at my manuscript, he had not uttered a word about it. And now I gained attention for knowing a few common herbs.
“Did you know all the ones in my boutonniere?”
I shook my head. “I had to look them up to be sure. It’s how I discovered the meanings.” I had not meant to say that last part. Holmes was watching me very carefully. He took a sip of tea.
“Of course, you knew some of the meanings,” he went on, setting his cup down. “A man so favoured by the ladies would know of such things.”
“The plants were unusual, in season and out. Where did you find them?” I asked to move the conversation onto a different path.
“I know someone at the Chelsea Physic Garden,” he said with a smile.
With his studies of poisons, of course, Holmes would have acquaintances in the Society of Apothecaries. I should have thought of it.
Holmes stood. “The hansom should be here in a quarter hour,” he said and returned to his room, door closing behind him.
With alacrity I flipped pages. I knew the oak leaf stood for bravery. I discovered that the fennel meant worthy of praise; the spearmint, warmth of sentiment; the sage, esteem. My dressing gown grew oppressive; I slipped it off. I had a strong suspicion that I was blushing over the book. There was a long section below the entry on roses, with numerous cross-references to the sundry varieties. I found at last that red and white rosebuds bound together meant unity. Well, it would. I should have been able to guess that.
I checked my watch. A few moments later I was back in the sitting-room, my jacket and shoes on, my hat and cloak draped over the chair. I was stabbing myself with the pin I had found in the box when Holmes re-emerged. His cloak was already on, one side flung over his shoulder to reveal the boutonniere. Men look well in evening clothes. They are something of a uniform and have much the same flattering effect upon the male form. My admiration may have shown on my face. It was hard to refrain from expressing it, for Holmes’s tall, spare proportions were particularly suited to the style.
“A quick brandy before we leave?” he asked and turned with perhaps more verve than was necessary. The black cloak swirled about him, showing more of the lustrous silk lining.
I nodded in answer and I suppose he saw because he poured two glasses and handed me one.
“Shall I help you with that?” he asked, inclining his head toward the boutonniere I still held in my other hand.
I nodded again and he set his glass aside. He made short work of the task, which was just as well, because at close quarters I could smell the fragrance of his flowers and they were very sweet.
The drizzle had stopped or at least paused. The wet streets shone with the reflected flare of streetlamps. Windows glowed from dark walls and carriage lamps flickered between them. This dance of lights was accompanied by the syncopated clop of horses’ hooves, the splash and clatter of carriage wheels. Holmes seemed occupied with his new case and said little. I let the warmth of the brandy and the sway of the carriage lull me. My thoughts flitted where they would.
I had not been to the Opera Comique since my return. I had read that there had been refurbishments in my absence. The consensus seemed to be that they were very pleasing. I was looking forward to seeing what they had made of the place. I recalled the theatre as being rather cramped.
More than half-way there, the crinkle of papers interrupted my reveries. Holmes was holding a pamphlet in front of me. “When I secured our tickets, I secured a copy of the play as well,” he said. “I thought you might like to read through it later, see if you find it an improvement on the original.”
I took the papers. There wasn’t enough light for reading and I thought I might prefer to have the effect of the performance first. The fact that Holmes had bothered to read it, made me wonder afresh if there was some connection between his new case and the play. It would be the most extraordinary coincidence if the book I happened to buy and the play whose announcement I happened to see, had some bearing on what he was investigating. Holmes did not have a high opinion of coincidence and I had to admit that the connection between the first two was remarkable enough. Still, I had witnessed stranger things on our adventures. The extraordinary was rather commonplace around Holmes.
The horse stopped. We had gained The Strand.
Holmes had acquired a box to the left of the stage. Only the actors themselves were going to have a nearer view of the drama. The manager accompanied us to our seats full of the greatest solicitude for my companion and for me as his guest. I doffed my hat and cloak and proceeded to survey our surroundings. The gilt and gas-lit space was filling with the excited chatter of people intent on their amusement. Our box overlooked the pit where the musicians were beginning to seat themselves and I thought the music could be what held an attraction for Holmes, if there was no connection to a case. He was still listening to the effusions of the manager, so I let my eye be distracted by the soft-hued shimmer of the women’s gowns and the glimmer of jewels on soft bosoms.
The musicians started to tune their instruments. The manager departed and Holmes arranged his chair so that he could stretch his legs before him. “Let’s see how the story has fared in the poet’s hands,” Holmes said as he cast his eye over the auditorium.
I may have slumped a bit at his comment. Perhaps he had read my manuscript and not found my rendering of his investigations to his liking. His expression revealed only a modicum of interest in the crowd, possibly a faint hope that one of them would commit a crime during the evening.
Holmes folded his legs, pulled his chair closer to the railing and peered into the pit. The movement wafted the scent of his flowers briefly in my direction. It was a most fitting accompaniment to our evening, evoking a connection in my mind between ourselves and the characters we would see brought to life upon the stage. I speculated whether Holmes had created that connection. His actions were always deliberate. It was up to me to determine what his goal might have been.
“They have a couple good violinists amongst them. The music may be tolerable,” he said.
The lights dimmed, the crowd quieted and the curtains parted.
As the curtain fell on the first scene, Holmes passed me his flask and raised an eyebrow.
I shrugged and accepted the flask. “The hero and the heroine lose their hearts rather abruptly,” I murmured and drank deeply.
Holmes took the flask back with a tilt of his head. “It is a phantasy,” he reminded me. The tone of his words was hard to classify. It might have been an amused sarcasm, but I wasn’t confident of that.
From the pit, the notes of a flute soared over the steady hum of strings. We turned again to the stage as the curtain rose on the second scene.
The backdrop for the garden was filled with flowers, although this version had the most striking plant growing from a tomb rather than a ruined fountain. The eye was drawn by the rich colours and the music was pleasing, but I was inclined to favour the story over the play it had inspired. I glanced at Holmes. He had his elbows balanced on the balustrade, his chin resting on his clasped hands. I considered the possibility that one of the actors had perpetrated or been the victim of a crime. Something was holding Holmes’s attention.
The curtain remained closed longer between the second and the final act. The music swelled in compensation, I supposed. The melodies were appealing and I could imagine myself humming them on the morrow. A celeste began to play. I hadn’t noticed one and leaned forward to find it tucked nearly under the apron of the stage. Its sound encouraged a magical interpretation of the play.
Holmes’s attention was on the pit now as well. I had more than half expected him to suggest we leave. He turned his head slowly towards me, no doubt having seen me turn to him out of the corner of his eye. His hand reached inside his jacket and drew out the flask once more. I was going to decline. The theatre was warm and I had taken a rather liberal swallow earlier, but his hand looked so delicate curved around the silver that I reached out and placed my hand over it without thinking. He didn’t withdraw immediately or give any sign of distaste that I could discern. With my thumb, I stroked past his knuckles. He let go then, as if I had given a signal, but he didn’t do so hastily and the feel of his fingers sliding away from beneath mine left a tactile imprint that the cool metal did not erase. I uncapped the flask and drank, handed it back to him open and watched as he raised it to his lips. He has such an elegance of movement. I have seen him demonstrate it in boxing and fencing and as he uses his philosophical instruments. No aspect of his movements is clumsy. He lowered his eyes for a moment as he lowered the flask, then he looked up at me and extended his hand for the cap. I didn’t move for a bit, held by his eyes. After a moment, I returned the top, allowing my fingertips a brief touch to his wrist before leaving the bit of metal in his palm.
There was no longer room for doubt. One did not need to be Sherlock Holmes to read these signs. I was certainly prepared to leave then, but Holmes turned back to the stage and the curtain rose as though it had been waiting for his attention.
The brandy was very warm in my stomach. I was very warm generally as though a blaze had been lit on the floor of our ornate box in that gilded theatre. I had clearly been waiting for his attention.
The ending of the play hinted at a marriage beyond the grave. My thoughts were already elsewhere. As the applause died away, I followed Holmes outside. Everything was dripping. We had missed the rain again. Hansoms lined the kerb. We were in one in a moment.
The West End streets were crowded with people doing exactly what we were doing. Well, perhaps not exactly. Holmes had relaxed back against the cushions and closed his eyes, one gloved hand in his lap the other palm up on the seat between us. At irregular intervals, I would catch a glimpse of his glove, the winking glint of the pearl button that held the cloth closed at his wrist and the teardrop-shaped opening above it. I was tempted to remove my glove and touch my finger just there, over the pulse, but the semi-darkness stayed my hand. I preferred to see what response I engendered. I would never see as much as Holmes might if the situation was reversed, but I wanted to see as much as I could. So, I waited and watched for that tiny patch of skin to flicker into view as the streetlamps passed.
“Ah,” Holmes breathed after opening the door to the sitting-room.
I peered past him, fearing that despite the late hour, Mrs Hudson had let a visitor in to wait in our rooms. Someone she knew, perhaps Lestrade. By the light from the hallway, I was gratified to spot the gleam of covered platters arrayed on a table otherwise set for supper and nothing more. The room was dim, the scent from having been closed up for hours, strong.
Holmes went to examine the dishes and I lit the sconces above the mantel, before setting my hat and stick aside, draping my cloak over a chair and kneeling to bring the banked fire to life.
The flames sputtered. I felt the draft upon my shoulders, heard Holmes in his room. By the time I stood from my task at the hearth, he had returned and was pouring the wine. He had discarded his cloak and coat and donned one of his dressing gowns. The firelight glimmered in the silk brocade as he moved. Despite my desire for clarity, I had left the jets of the sconces low, feeling a sudden shift to brightness would be jarring. Darkness still shrouded the farther reaches of the room, punctuated here and there by various stationary items that caught the light. Only the light that Holmes reflected was moving and it seemed to entrance me. When he turned about with our glasses, he found me staring.
“I think our hero wore a similar expression as he gazed out of his window at the singer in the poisonous garden,” Holmes said, stepping closer to give me my wine, “fascination and revulsion at war in his young heart.” Holmes sat and twirled his glass as though studying the crystal’s refractive qualities.
“Fascination we may have in common, yes,” I agreed, sitting. What we were discussing was clear after an opening like that. I prepared myself to uphold my side of the discourse. If there was to be an examination, I intended to pass. “Revulsion, never.”
“But the hero in both versions of the story suffered from it terribly,” Holmes insisted.
“As you said earlier, he was young,” I replied, “and I would add, not well-travelled. He looked out on the garden from a fusty, old room through a narrow window. Since my university days, the years have been filled with experiences which have broadened what I hope was an already open mind.” Many countries and three continents worth of experience had I gained and although much of it had been with the fairer sex, not all had been. I had even come to doubt the classification itself. There were too many instances where it did not fit. I sipped my brandy and waited. This conversation was not to be rushed and I hoped the late hour might continue to save us from being interrupted.
We had not exchanged histories, Holmes and I. Perhaps he preferred to deduce, because I had seen the flare of interest whenever he acquired an additional fact about me as we went along. And I, who had been intrigued from our first meeting, indeed even before, because of Stamford’s enigmatic cautions, had never ceased to collect as many details as I could about Holmes without engaging in the impertinence of asking outright.
“When you read the first part of the story, Rappaccini reminded you of me,” Holmes said. “The cold empiricist, who valued knowledge above people.”
I shook my head. It did not in any way describe Holmes, who used his knowledge to save people from injury or loss or injustice. He certainly valued the scientific method and the careful accumulation of facts, but he understood people’s thoughts and emotions and could identify them as well as he could the constituent parts of a chemical compound. It was how he could find the answer to the crucial question of who had the motivation and so identify a criminal or an innocent. I little doubted that he had been applying this method to me, and although I hadn’t committed a crime, I had, for some time it seemed, been contemplating one, a technical one, at least in this place and time.
I had been places where it was not a crime. So had Holmes.
I looked at him across the space between our chairs. The lines and shadows of him have become familiar to me. Living with him, working with him wasn’t enough though. I had to recreate him in words to preserve the marvel that he was, the wonder of what he could do. To think about him more.
I had had the proofs back of my first manuscript. I had re-read it and marked the printer’s errors, there had been only a few. The pages were gone again, but certain words echoed in my mind. The editor hadn’t seen it, thought it was an exciting adventure. He hadn’t seen that it was the record of my fascination.
“Empiricist, yes. Cold, no,” I replied. I glanced at his lapel, but the flowers were, of course, gone. “I could imagine you doing incredible things with such a garden.”
He touched the lapel of his dressing gown and smiled. “As you learned today, I have access to one as remarkable and my study of poisons has benefited from it.”
My hand, in turn, went to my boutonniere. The leaves were limp from the heat of the theatre. I pinched one and took the smell of mint away on my fingers.
“They have had their day,” Holmes remarked.
“But their meaning remains,” I said.
Holmes set his glass down. “Yes,” he agreed. He steepled his fingers beneath his chin and regarded me. “And you feel you have parsed it.”
Again, I didn’t answer immediately. Some of the plants had multiple meanings, even contradictory ones. There was definitely room for misinterpretation, and yet taken together… “I believe I have,” I said.
“And will you heed the warning?” Holmes asked.
I unpinned the boutonniere from my lapel and pulled the oak leaf out of the binding. “Unlike our young hero, I do not deny the existence of danger,” I replied, leaning forward, elbow upon knee and holding out the leaf. “But I am willing to face it.”
Holmes did not move or shift his gaze. The fire crackled, its glow gilding the edges of the leaf. There was the chance I had misconstrued everything, but I was willing to gamble everything that I had not. I stretched my arm out further. Holmes dropped his eyes away from mine. I closed my own then, without moving otherwise. I had risked and lost. It is one of the dangers of the game. I drew in a breath, determined not to let it out in a sigh like a boy. It was time to gather my wits and my dignity. I leaned back and opened my eyes.
Holmes had likewise settled back in his seat, his lids lowered as he twirled an oak leaf between his thumb and index finger.
I stared at my hand. It was empty. I gaped at Holmes.
He tapped the oak leaf against the underside of his chin.
I realised that my mouth was open, although no words were coming out. I closed it.
“I think we can conclude that your choice of reading material was an excellent one,” Holmes said and smiled.