I have many faults; I freely admit it. I give generously to cards and the turf, though they seldom return the favour. Given the chance (which when Holmes is on a case would be a fine chance indeed), I would lie in bed until noon. I revel in my enjoyment of expensive women and inexpensive wine. I am an accomplished liar in print, an almost-waste of a medical education and latest of all, a filthy-minded, socially reprehensible (though absurdly happy) sodomite.
Yet even such a gross reprobate has his limits.
“Holmes, I am not a thief.”
“Tsk, Watson. Attend to the precision of my terms. I did not say you were. I asked if you had *taken* my razor. Theft is but one explanation. Borrowing is the most obvious alternative, but one must never simply assume intent.”
It was far too early in the morning for this sort of thing, but I fell in with it. Life with Sherlock Holmes leaves one with little choice.
“I have not taken your razor. Did you leave it in the laundry basket again? One would think you had something against servants with all ten fingers.”
“It was folded last time, as you well know. It may indeed be folded now, but it’s of no use to me if I cannot lay my own fingers upon it. Come on, I daresay there is a spare chair at your barber’s.”
There was. Holmes contrived to be shaved first.
We carried on that morning as two gentlemen of leisure, giving no thought to earning our daily bread but a considerable amount to hunting down a musical offering that Holmes had not already been to twice or dismissed once. When at last we sat in the Queen’s Hall in front of an orchestra about to introduce a minor Hungarian nobleman’s symphonic soul to the London public, my friend casually reached into his coat pocket. He started, then began to rifle through his clothing, muttering loud enough to turn outraged eyes on both of us.
I confess it was a low trick, but I was working from instinct and the peculiar urgency of acute embarrassment. I brushed the back of his calf with my ankle. The chairs were so close-set that no-one else could have seen it, and only we two knew what it meant in any case. It was our signal – commonplace, perhaps, but Holmes’ public distaste and his private cravings have rarely matched. A signal that, whatever else we were doing at the time, by the end of the day I desired – nay, expected – to occupy the side of Holmes’ bed next to the wall, wrapped close in his long arms and legs, our breaths calming together into satisfied harmony.
Holmes froze in his seat. I gave the stage my full attention but allowed myself a small smile and a sideways glance for a candid camera snap of his face, scarlet and silenced. I hope I did not spoil the performance for him; he observed afterwards that the composer certainly ought to become less well known the more people heard his music.
“Something else gone missing?” I asked him, once we were on our way back to Baker Street.
“Hm. My handkerchief. I’m sure I put it in my coat before breakfast.”
I had not been in a position to confirm this or not. Wishing, as I did, to be in such a position the following morning, I held back from so much as hinting that he might be mistaken. Domestic harmony is worth a little restraint, and clean linen was, thanks to the estimable Mrs Hudson, easily re-stocked.
She knew, of course. Clean linen starts and ends soiled, and she was married once. Never a single word on the subject; nary so much as a look, mark you. Only safety and sanctuary, only well-trained maids who knocked and waited and who never dusted too early in the morning. If Sherlock Holmes ever in his adult life loved a woman, with all the intensity and carelessness of his singular nature, it was our landlady.
Ah, there it is: that word. Love. I do not hear it a tenth so often as I write it nor even say it myself, for a certain party has an aversion to saying it aloud; he claimed once that it brought him out in a rash. Yet if that is the price of being loved by Sherlock Holmes, I’d pay it with interest the rest of my life. Indeed, I sincerely hope I shall.
A case. He wanted a case, and a benevolent providence duly sent him one. Miss Lucy Filbert had been sick, sick all her life, but according to her doctor’s report not likely to die of it at thirty-eight. The railing of a lively and independent mind confined to a trivial round of paying formal calls and winding wool for her aged mother, would have been my own diagnosis. When she died less than a month after that sole parent left this world, it would have been easy to praise the riches of her filial affection and ignore the enormous fortune that would have finally set her free.
Dr Theophilus Simpson was a wiser man than that and called in the police. They proceeded to dim the lamps of wisdom and task him with wasting police time. Thus it was that next morning, on a baking hot Friday in June, he sought a second opinion in the sitting room at Baker Street.
“I am seldom persuaded by the concerns of medical men, Dr Simpson. They are quick to raise the alarm over intemperate habits, yet too slow to spot crime: surely a more immediate danger to life and health.”
I remained unmoved even as Simpson shifted in his seat, evidently wondering if he had used up his own store of wisdom by coming here. I knew this was pique, and a sly revenge for my query that morning whether Holmes really needed to fill his pipe less than five minutes after he had finished filling me. I am only prepared to give him certain kinds of satisfaction.
“However,” Holmes continued, when he’d allowed Simpson’s face to drop just enough, “in your case, I must make an exception. You have done well by your patient. If you could not have cured her in life, with your help we may still cut a cancer out of the ranks of her nearest and dearest.”
We sped through London’s bustling traffic to Bayswater, where Holmes negotiated our way into the house on the back of some breath-taking falsehoods and proceeded to strip the sickroom of everything that took his fancy. A large piece of wallpaper which he removed with a pen-knife was subjected to the most intense inspection, then folded and slipped into his silver cigarette case (‘SH from JHW, 1887’) to be taken away with his other trophies for a closer look.
It was well past time for lunch, so I wrapped my hunger around a beef sandwich and watched him clip pieces off the cabbage roses and swags that had surely been nearer Mrs Filbert’s expansive taste than her daughter’s. Some he dissolved in various tinctures of his own devising, which he kept stored in regiments of bottles on a shelf below the deal table. I was absorbed in my newspaper when a rising stream of muttering flooded over into a tide of frustration accompanied by books and files flying in every direction and a sound thump from an impatient fist on the toes of my left boot.
“Steel toe-caps. Very wise. Watson! My magnifying glass!”
“In your dressing-gown pocket,” I replied, not looking up – or, rather, down, for my beloved was evidently crawling about the floor like a giant praying mantis.
“No. The standing glass; it was on my desk this morning and is not there now.”
Holmes kept an astounding array of equipment in our small accommodations, from the high science of the laboratory to the low cunning of the roll of oilcloth containing his lock picks. The huge magnifier on its wooden stand would be hard to miss even amongst the mass of papers and other detritus of his trade that cluttered every surface. I got down on hands and knees myself and rummaged about with him, but it was definitely missing.
“Lumber room,” he announced at last and raced up the stairs to the second floor. I keep the key, by arrangement with Mrs Hudson to help stem the torrent of objects that would otherwise pass through its door, so I was obliged to follow him at a statelier pace, my legs being shorter and not so perfect in their willowy flex and wiry strength. He has a particular trick with his thighs…
But I fear I digress.
He found the spare magnifier beneath a large lady’s hat perched on a stuffed ram’s head and bore it down in triumph to the sitting room. I all but bowled him over when, with a cry of sheer amazement, he stopped dead in the doorway.
“Where? Where is it?”
The silver cigarette case and the remains of the wallpaper were not where he had left them, nor anywhere in the room, although he did turn up fourpence ha’penny in coppers in the toe of the Persian slipper, and a lost trouser button of mine whilst fishing among the sofa cushions.
Sherlock Holmes was not one to let a mere domestic mystery barge in ahead of its criminal brother in the queue. He corralled the control fragment which sat only in a dish of water beside its fellows in saucers in a drawer of the deal table and inspected that instead.
“Ha! Another pattern drawn over the print; so near in shade that it is easily missed. Drawn in poison, judging by the fourth and fifth test, see… here. Only wipe a cloth over it – a pillowcase, a nightgown – and contact with the skin brings slow and certain death from failure of the vital organs. Slow, certain and cruel.”
He lifted his eyes to me and there was no mercy in them for the culprit. Poison, like deceit and betrayal, offended him especially. Human relations, which he understood as few men I have known, rarely shocked him with their failings. It made him seem cold in first light, but the more I knew him the more I glimpsed the banked fires of his spirit. He was not shocked, but he would not accept the ways of the world. He burned to see right done, to know of promises kept and family ties honoured, and to bring those who offended to justice.
Besides, chemistry to him was a thing of transcendent beauty, and poison a hideous scar on its face.
Lucy Filbert had few relatives living, and a police force brought to heel by one of Holmes’ choicer lectures, in which the words ‘imbecile’, ‘idle’ and ‘myopia’ had starring roles, duly gathered up her first cousin and his mistress. The latter confessed at once. The cousin had slipped her into the house six months before with a fulsome reference and instructions to make herself useful to the dying Mrs Filbert and, ultimately, to himself. She had at least the vestiges of a conscience, not that it was likely to save her.
We sat all that evening in rather grim triumph – the penalties prescribed by the law are not our business, but two more lives would still be lost – distracting ourselves with a novel (myself) and a monograph on the identification of insects found on corpses (I offer no odds). Depressed spirits do not lend themselves to lusty bodies: when we retired, it was each to his own bed in the dusty silence of a London lodging.
I was certainly not expecting to be surprised in the middle of the night by the bedroom door opening and the dressing-gown clad form of Holmes tiptoeing in. He must have assumed that I would be fast asleep and so I should have been, were it not for a cramp in my leg which I had not long worked out. I was drifting in a dozy stream on my way downriver when he turned the knob, but quite awake by the time he reached my bedside.
“Holmes!” I hissed. He jumped at my voice, swore and clutched at himself in a very odd fashion that, in the darkness, I couldn’t quite make out.
“Damn it, Watson, you’ll give a man a seizure. Look here… er, I’ve a favour to ask.”
I reached for the candle and a match but he stopped me.
“Um...” Even in the throes of literary shame, asking for an erotic variation he had picked up in a pornographic story, he hadn’t sounded quite like this.
“Holmes. What is it?”
“I should like to get back to sleep some time tonight. Out with it!”
He groaned. “Bugger; that’s just the trouble. I need the pot.”
“Pot. Convenience. Porcelain friend. Mine’s gone missing.” I could see now exactly where his hand was grasping so tightly.
“Good Lord, why didn’t you say? Of course, of course: help yourself. Under the bed, foot end.”
He hauled it out and then waited, pointedly, until I turned to the wall, listening as he relieved himself with a heaving sigh. Even the most intimate of friends may not share everything. Perhaps one day. My memory obliged with a pleasant vision of him simply naked, just to be going on with.
“And no,” he said through gritted teeth as he tidied himself away and left me hiding a smile, “ I have no idea where the bloody thing went, or why. Tomorrow we shall get to the bot- to the heart of this.”
Sherlock Holmes loves an audience. I know it. My readers know it. Scotland Yard definitely knows it. It came to pass the next morning that we discovered someone else in the household with a flair for staging. I called on ‘downstairs’ to ask when breakfast might be served, only to find the kitchen door firmly shut against me.
“Shortly, Doctor,” came the reply through the wood.
We have been treated to some memorable Sunday morning feasts in our time. Smoked scotch haddock, eggs Benedict, Spanish-cured ham en croute: but never the enormous burden Mrs Hudson brought in on the biggest tray in the house. It was a large, round dish, wrapped in several layers of butter muslin. As she closed the door skilfully with one hip I thought I heard the clatter of a spoon.
She smiled as she placed it in front of her chief tenant with all her usual care. Then she promptly astonished us both by pulling up a chair and sitting down.
“Do tuck in, Mr Holmes.” Her smile would not, in point of fact, have been out of place on a successful turf accountant.
The moment the handle appeared he knew he was done for. Neatly arranged in a brand new, china chamber-pot were his cigarette case, his magnifier, a white cotton handkerchief and his cut-throat razor.
“Yes, Mr Holmes. Your razor was in the laundry again and I care not one whit if it was closed or open this time. This is not the first time you have left that cigarette case lying about with heaven knows what dangerous evidence inside it. What with all your papers piled up and the magnifier in line with the window, you were lucky I was passing and smelled smoke before the whole lot went up. As for this,” she tapped the side of the pot and it rang obediently, “there was a crack half an inch wide in the old one where someone had taken a hearty kick at it wearing heavy boots. The same boots, I should say, as the ones completing your boiler-maker’s disguise. The same disguise that failed to net you the Cricklewood gang. I have staff to think of, Mr Holmes. Betty threatened to give in her notice again yesterday, and she’s a good girl whom I shouldn’t care to lose.”
Chastened, as he only is in front of her, he chanced his arm one last time.
“And the handkerchief?”
“That, Mr Holmes, simply had a hole in it that you had failed to notice. Not every clue is what it seems.”
Indeed. Now I come to think of it, the “someone” who had kicked the pot under Sherlock Holmes’ bed in his haste to get into the aforesaid bed, had probably been wearing steel-capped shoes.