Last night he dreamt he went to Manderley again.
In the dream, he had stood by the iron gate that guarded the drive with the house itself hidden in the distance. He found himself on the wrong side of it, and with the distinct impression that he should not enter, as if the memory was still barred to him.
To cross the threshold seemed unthinkable, and this hesitance restrained him from proceeding further. A blessing and a curse, as the estate was the embodiment of bittersweet memories. He was convinced that no place on earth could be so loved and so hated in equal measure.
He had not once returned here in sleep. He had not yet dared to revisit it in any way, be it mind or body - Manderley was the ultimate taboo. But like anything repressed in one’s waking hours, it was only a matter of time before it slipped its way into his less guarded subconscious.
He was accustomed to vivid dreams, due in part to his exceptional visual, spatial and sensory memory. When he reached forward to touch the metal of the gate, it was cool and rough with rust beneath his hands. The man-made had decayed while the wilderness thrived, the winding drive beyond having been reclaimed by nature with branches and bush eclipsing the once clear road leading to the house.
This was an unsettling observation - it was as if he were really at Manderely in spirit as it would be now. At this thought, he found himself to be in spirit quite literally. He was able to cross through the barrier of the gate, seeping through the bars like fog drifting in. His travel was unrestricted though the path had been usurped by the natural world, with gnarled roots and branches reaching out as if to impede him. He rather wished they would. Perhaps if he had been more corporeal, more firmly in the reality of the decrepit place, he would have known what to expect at the end of the journey.
Finally – it appeared, Manderley, unchanged in its grand appearance and undisturbed in its perfection. It was the same as it had been when he’d first laid eyes on it, years ago, on the front of a postcard. He’d seen it then with no recognition or appreciation of its significance, beyond a passing thought on the possible mysteries a distinguished estate home might hold. For a long moment Manderley appeared exactly as it had, picturesque like the image on the postcard. The gardens thriving, light spilling out from the windows onto the entryway, and the house less guarded of its secrets.
This was to be a transient fiction. The house’s appearance began to alter, dripping away like a painting left in the rain. When the illusion was extinguished, he could at last see destitution and the overwhelming evidence of a home gone to waste. There was no light at Manderley any more. No part of its past owner lingered.
The harsh reality spurred him to the realization that he was only dreaming, as he knew for certain that in his waking life he could never go back to Manderley. This image remained with him long after waking - the memory of a place that had been a marriage between his rational expectations of the present, and the wistful buried past.
He should have deleted it, cut out the memory like the tumour it was. If only he could - once something became an essential part of his organization, it was impossible to remove. And Manderley had already wormed its way into his memory palace against his better judgment. An annoyance, given that he could never speak of it.
Even before his exile, John’s hand would tremble at the passing mention of it. That likely should have warned him, but he had misunderstood John so deeply then, and in so many ways. The behaviour had been curious, and he could never resist the temptation of the mysterious. Especially if at the center of the puzzle was the key to the most interesting man he had ever met.
Manderley, like a spell, always had the power of causing a dark cloud to pass over John’s countenance. John, who had the patience of a saint, and was by nature a quiet and restrained man. All warmth from his face would vacate, transforming him into something distant and beyond all reach. And he could never resist the desire to please John. The only person it was important to please.
Once there had been others he had wanted to please, in the hopes of this greater goal. He couldn’t think of Manderley without recalling its inhabitants, and its actual master. A grand estate home is no greater than the sum of its parts. Namely, those in its service. And there was no one more influential to Manderley than the man who had ruled over its machinations like a spider at the center of its web.
He can remember his voice with absolute clarity, how it would change volume and tone at random and sing out like a children’s rhyme. Most often with a taunting reminder to him of the late Mrs Watson.
How he must have seemed, after Mary. The boy he’d been then - lanky and awkward with dark unruly hair, face strange with its angular features, and clothes ill-fitting from his ongoing growth spurt. His presence like an insult, stumbling about the place that she had once reigned over with grace and mastery.
But there’s no sense in dwelling on the ghosts of the past, or so he has been told.
Of course none of this would have ever transpired if not for his unfortunate acquaintance with Sebastian Wilkes. Which in contradiction, made him a most fortunate acquaintance indeed.
The man he was today would never have associated with Wilkes, let alone have agreed to an arrangement of that nature. However, at the time he had lacked the character traits he now valued above all others, confidence and self-security, and was unaccustomed to friendship or respect from his peers.
After abandoning his chemistry degree for a brief fling with a seven percent solution, his brother and only living relative had discontinued his financial support. If he refused to finish school – where admittedly he was not able to return even if he had wanted to, due to various transgressions and destruction of property – his only other option was to enter into employment deemed suitable by his brother.
Which was how he came to be in the unenviable position of official companion to the infamous Sebastian Wilkes. The dislike was mutual, but Wilkes coveted the image of his social status above even his own personal comfort. Having a personal companion was all the rage, and spoke to his growing wealth.
The Hotel Cote d'Azur in Monte Carlo was the perfect choice for Wilkes’ breed, which was how they found themselves seated in its gorgeously vast and vacuously decorated dining room. This was to be Wilkes’ location of choice for celebrity spying, first and foremost, and dining second. Sitting across the table in complete and utter boredom, he watched as Sebastian spooned multiple pieces of ravioli into his actively chewing gob. Wilkes had a fondness for talking while eating, which he was demonstrating at that particular moment. “There isn’t anybody worth anything here!" Wilkes commented, without any interest in his reply. "If no good company turns up, they’d better damn well not expect me to pay full price. Do they think I come here to look at the help?”
The lack of ‘unique’ personalities was a complaint Wilkes made most evenings, to the general offence of the other diners in the hotel as well as the wait staff. While he observed that the staff hated Wilkes, they were unable to direct their resentment to their actual target without fear of losing their positions. However, Wilkes’ meek and socially inferior companion was of course fair game. The waiter this particular evening had brought him a plate of cold cow’s tongue, which had already been sent back to the kitchens at lunch. He had swallowed his own tongue enough on this trip to find this completely unappetizing.
Eating slowed him down anyway. So did talking. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat or speak for days, preferring the company of his own thoughts to anyone outside of himself. While he and Wilkes had been in Nice, he’d been able to collect jellyfish from the sea and perform a variety of experiments on the viscosity of their secretions. The information he’d gathered was stored reliably in a section of his mind. This is where he coded items of interest using locations, a method of memory enhancement he referred to as a mind palace. There was a specific location in his memory structure, where he could feel round stones hard against his feet, and a stiff breeze tugging at his hair. It was easy for him to recede into the pleasant contemplation of the results, like slipping into a warm bath.
Or it would have been, if not for his attention being drawn to the obvious indications that the long vacant table next to theirs was to be occupied this evening. It was to be someone of particularly high standing, given that he could see the maître d’hotel bowing at the entrance of the room before leading the new guest further into the dining room.
Silver clattered against china as Wilkes abandoned his utensil in favour of his favourite sport, rubbing elbows with affluence.
“It’s John H. Watson,” Wilkes declared, the volume of his voice making his companion cringe. “The man who owns Manderley. Even you’ll have heard of that. He looks positively wretched, doesn’t he? They say he’s completely gone to bits over his wife’s death…”
It was strange to think how different his life would have been if Sebastian Wilkes had not been such a snob.
He had never heard of the man himself, and yet he couldn’t help but feel the sting of embarrassment from Wilkes’ loud discussion of Watson’s personal life. He was going to be associated with Wilkes by proximity, and for some reason he didn’t want the new arrival thinking ill of him in that way. He prayed that Wilkes would not go further than this, but unfortunately once he had set his sights on a visitor of distinction, stopping him was futile. Wilkes was already tapping his knuckles against his chin, a telltale sign that a plan of attack was being devised.
Wilkes began eating with renewed vigour, wanting to get dinner out of the way. With sauce dripping down his chin, Sebastian directed him, “Be a good chap, go upstairs and find the letter I've just received from Mike Stamford, and then bring it back down.”
He rose from his seat with a sigh. Having never intended to eat, leaving the table in the middle of the meal was no hardship - but he did resent being sent on errands. It didn’t require his level of insight to infer Stamford must have somehow known this John H. Watson, and that Wilkes intended to use the mutual acquaintance as an excuse for introduction.
He had been given little time to examine the object of Wilkes’ interest, but it was long enough to know the man in question would not appreciate the forced company of others. John Watson - traveling alone, and dressed smart, but unobtrusive (navy blue suit, classic button down, matching tie, and the in-fashion wide-legged trousers). It was easy to conclude Watson preferred to not draw attention, or to be disturbed by strangers. Especially given his grieving, as Sebastian had announced to the entire room. Anyone with any tact would have known to leave Watson well enough alone. He hesitated in the rooms after finding the letter, telling himself it was purely to spite Wilkes. He considered using the Service staircase, taking an out of ways route to the restaurant. He could warn Watson and allow him to make his escape from a shameless hanger-on.
He dismissed this idea as soon as it formed. People often did not respond well to his good intentions. He supposedly went about things the ‘wrong way’. Why would this situation be any different? And what did he care of a famous widower’s comfort?
On returning downstairs he realized he’d been in the room for much longer than he’d thought. The sought-after owner of Manderley had already left the dining room and Sebastian, likely out of fear of losing him, had initiated conversation without the help of the letter. Wilkes now had his prize in his grasp on a sofa in the lounge.
Deciding to complete his task regardless, he walked across the room to them and handed the letter to Wilkes without a word. Wilkes waved a hand at him in annoyance at being disturbed from his success, and mumbled his name as an introduction between himself and Watson.
Unlike Wilkes, John Watson rose to his feet at once in greeting. This was especially gracious, given that he used a cane to assist himself in standing.
If Watson had been about to say anything he was unsuccessful, as Wilkes cut in to inform him that Mr Watson was joining them for coffee, and would he go and ask a waiter for the third cup?
His tone was careless, but acted as a firm reminder of his place. As per usual he was not to be involved in the conversation. This was partially because his social skills left something to be desired, but mostly because Wilkes preferred to be the center of attention. Brandishing his position above another person also allowed him to appear more impressive, or so Sebastian imagined.
He had once been mistaken for Sebastian’s friend, which had been an embarrassment for them both. Wilkes had since learned the art of communicating his companion wasn’t to be thought of at all. Which is why it was particularly surprising that Watson continued to stand, and for him to take it upon himself to signal the waiter instead.
“I’m afraid I must contradict you,” he said to Wilkes, but with a surprisingly gentle voice. “You are both having coffee with me.”
Before he could gather his bearings, Watson had taken over the hard chair that Wilkes had clearly meant for him. As a result he sat next to Wilkes on the sofa, the only option left available to him. Sebastian grimaced at being so separated from Watson, but collected himself for their guest.
“Did you know I recognized you as soon as you came in? I thought to myself ‘there’s Mr Watson, Stamford’s friend, he must be dying to see Mike’s honeymoon photos!’ and here they are –“ Wilkes presented the contents of the letter with aplomb.
Watson offered a small smile in response. He observed that Watson was not easily overjoyed, but did seem at least fond of his friend Stamford as some of the expression was truthful. A tightness about Watson’s eyes and mouth spoke to his discomfort, and boredom, at having to socialize. He knew the feeling.
Wilkes droned on regardless, “- and there’s his wife, isn’t she gorgeous? Mike’s wild about her, as I’m sure you can imagine. He didn’t know her back when he threw the party where I first met you, but I dare say you don’t remember me from then, do you?”
It was this kind of blundering line of questioning that made it difficult for one to resist the urge to do bodily harm to Wilkes, but Watson was unfazed.
“On the contrary, I actually remember you very well,” Watson said with a smile that suggested it was very likely not a positive recollection. Before Wilkes could trap him in a rehashing of this apparent first meeting, he handed Wilkes a cigarette and lit it for him. Watson did not take one for himself (peculiar, for a gentleman). He couldn’t help but respect the strategy. He too would have done anything to keep Sebastian’s mouth distracted from speaking.
“I personally don’t think I’d care much for Palm Beach,” Watson said while blowing out the match.
He couldn’t help but think ‘no, I suppose you wouldn’t’, and realized after the fact that by accident he’d spoken the words aloud.
Suddenly he had the full attention of one John H. Watson, and his very open and direct blue eyes.
“What do you mean?” Watson asked with genuine interest.
He reminded himself that his observations and deductions put people off and that explaining them in full would only cause awkwardness, or worse, offence.
“You seem like a man who prefers action, something Florida isn’t exactly known for.”
Watson laughed in surprise. While tapping his leg with his cane to draw attention to it, he repeated, “A man who prefers action?”
Perhaps his comment was foolish? But Watson’s eyes were brighter than they had been a moment ago, and his lips twitched in a facsimile of a smile. He decided Watson was amused, if not also self-deprecating.
Even if the deduction seemed silly given the apparent disability, he knew he was right. He tried to picture Watson in Palm Beach and while he could see him looking well with a tan, he couldn’t see him happy in a place intended for vacation. Watson possessed a strength in his bearing, almost military, that spoke of steadfastness and loyalty. He had calluses on his hands from shooting a gun, likely for sport, and he imagined that Watson shot with precision and without hesitation. His face was unassuming but handsome, the lines of it speaking to years lived. Watson was not a soft, idle aristocrat – rather, he looked as though he belonged in a war zone defending his country.
Watson reminded him of a portrait he’d once seen in a gallery. It was a depiction of a Captain in action, someone who was willing to fight and die for his fellow man. He remembered the feeling of the soldier’s eyes watching him, continuing to follow him as he’d walked away.
He was broken from his musings by Sebastian’s chuckling, and realized he’d lost the thread of the conversation.
“Well, if Mike had a home like Manderley I imagine he also wouldn’t be playing around in Palm Beach,” and here was the real crux of the matter, what Wilkes really wanted to discuss, “I’m told it’s like a paradise, that there’s nowhere else quite like it.”
Sebastian paused here, expecting Watson to smile and gush about his renowned home. Watson’s face remained impassive, still beyond a line forming between his brows. His only response was to move his left hand from the table to his lap. The silence was uncomfortable, but more importantly unprecedented. Why would a man not want to hear compliments on his home? But, then of course the house held sad memories – his deceased wife. Of course.
Wilkes continued, undeterred, “I’ve seen pictures of it of course. I must say, I wonder how you can bear to ever leave it.”
Watson’s silence was now painful, and it would have been clear to any other audience that he did not wish to discuss it further. Even though he hated allowing Wilkes to embarrass him, he began to again feel uncomfortable by association. He didn't like experiencing guilt, and especially not secondhand. He willed Sebastian to stop by glaring daggers at the back of his head. This did very little. If anything, Wilkes increased the volume of his voice.
“Of course, like a true Englishman, you depreciate your home so we can’t accuse you of being prideful. Isn’t there a minstrels’ gallery at Manderley, and some very valuable portraits?”
Sebastian turned to him for the first time in the conversation to ease the tension.
“Mr Watson is so modest he won’t admit to it, but I believe that lovely home of his has been in his family’s possession since the Conquest. I suppose your ancestors entertained royalty at Manderley, eh Watson?”
This was more embarrassment than he had ever had to endure, even from Wilkes, but Watson responded at last.
“Not since Ethelred,” he replied, sarcasm evident in his tone.
Watson looked as though he would have gone further, but stopped short when he glanced directly at him. He realized his cheeks were flushed in shame from Wilkes’ behaviour, and that Watson must have noticed. If he’d been more assured in himself, he and Watson could have shared a laugh at Sebastian’s expense. He could have bonded with him in that moment, both of them derisive of Sebastian, but instead he was mortified.
Watson saw his distress, and leant forward to offer him more coffee with that same gentle voice. He was torn between appreciating the gesture, and feeling annoyed that his youth and awkwardness had attracted the attention.
“What do you think of Monte Carlo?” Watson asked. ”Or, do you not think of it at all?”
Being addressed so directly was a joy and a terror. He felt like an ungainly schoolboy next to this older, confident man. He began answering the question in halting words, saying something obvious about the artificiality of the whole place, before Wilkes once again reared his head.
“He’s spoiled Watson, that’s his trouble. Anyone else would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte.”
“Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?” Watson responded.
Watson cast a smile his way, and he couldn’t help but feels his lips twitch in response. Oh, but Watson was a bit glib. He found he rather liked it.
Sebastian’s criticism still rankled him, though. “I preferred Nice, is all,” he said, in his defence.
“Nice?” Watson asked, open to a new conversation topic. He would have responded, if Sebastian had not spoken over him once more.
“Oh yes, he loved Nice – he likes to do experiments in the hotel rooms, can you imagine? He was collecting things from the sea every day and doing Lord knows what with them. It’s either that or he’s obsessing over the obituaries in the papers. He’s a strange child, like you wouldn’t believe,” Wilkes concluded, smiling across at Watson, and expecting him to share in the joke of ribbing his companion.
In humiliation, he dipped his chin to avoid eye contact and flushed further at Wilkes exposing his hobbies. Now Watson would think he was weird, at best eccentric, like everyone else he had ever had sustained contact with. Watson did not smile back at Wilkes, and instead looked between the two of them in interest. He gathered Watson was unsure about the exact nature of their relationship.
“Are you two… partners?” Watson asked.
Sebastian’s jaw dropped, aghast, before laughing it off. “Us? Together? What a fantastic joke!”
“Oh – I’m sorry, I just assumed –“ Watson began, turning to look at him in apology.
He turned his face away from Watson in response. Would his embarrassment ever end?
“Watson, you’re a real card. In any event, I’m of course faithful to Monte –“ Wilkes proceeded to launch into a tirade about his constitution and the English winter, asking Watson if his rooms were large enough, if his valet was good enough, and other such asinine things. Watson continued to appear uncomfortable with questions that made any reference to his wealth. This was... intriguing. Watson was the epitome of fortune and class, but was traveling without help or company - a straightforward man of simple needs and creature comforts. Watson also continued to observe him from the corner of his eye throughout the rest of the conversation. He refused to look up and return the gaze, wanting to avoid any further loss of face.
“I hope your valet has unpacked your things, Watson?” Wilkes continued to prod.
“I’m afraid I don’t have one. Perhaps you’d like to do it for me?” Watson asked. Ah, Watson also smiled when he was angry - if gritted teeth and pulled back lips counted as smiling. Even Sebastian could feel the dig of that response, but was miraculously still able to laugh and brush it aside.
“Me! Well, this one could make himself useful,” Wilkes said, gesturing to him. As it turned out, it was possible for his face to redden further.
Watson seemed almost angered by the suggestion, before shaking his head. “I’ll have to turn down the offer. You see, I’m attached to the family motto: ‘He travels the fastest who travels alone.’ I suppose you’re not familiar with it.”
Watson stood from his hard chair following this biting comment. He watched Watson lean and shift his weight on his cane, while Watson excused himself. Wilkes might have taken more offence to the parting remark, if he hadn’t been so shocked by the abrupt departure.
“Well, did he think he was being funny just leaving like that? I can’t imagine - “
He didn’t hear any more of this commentary, as he decided to take leave of Wilkes himself. He followed the other man at a similar pace, but Watson was already gone by the time he entered the main hallway. Not that he’d been hoping to catch him. He’d rather avoid more social discomfort than seek it out. He returned to his room, taking the stairs to give himself time to clear his head.
Alone in his room, he set out to ‘obsess over the obituaries’ as Wilkes had put it. If there was a suspicious death of some kind in the papers, he could distract himself from the lingering secondhand disgrace he still felt. He refused to think of how awkward and uncultured he must have seemed to Watson, a truly competent and self-assured man.
He refused to allow himself to be affected by others. What did it matter how he came across? He preferred his own company; he had no need for the esteem of others. He had his own personal pursuits, and it didn’t matter if others understood them or him. If his fingers of their own accord flipped through the pages to the gossip columns, he of course did not skim them for mentions of a certain name. Before he could find anything of interest, there was a rapping at his door. He opened it to find Wilkes.
“There you are! What the hell are you doing going up early like that? Also, and this is kindly meant, really you know it is, but you were a little too forward tonight. You completely dominated the conversation, I can’t imagine what Watson must have thought.”
‘Watson thought you were abominable, and he pitied me for being stuck with you’, he thought. Despite feeling spiteful, he remained silent, a talent he had mastered in his time as a companion. He opted instead for closing the door in Wilkes’ face. There was enraged spluttering from the other side, but he wasn't concerned about Wilkes. He would presume it was just his companion being odd, and would forget to be affronted, as he so often did.
Except that soon after, another knock sounded at his door. Odd. Wilkes would usually have given up trying with him by now. That, and the knock had been off. Not forceful and incessant like Wilkes. A steady solitary rap against the wood.
A small card slid underneath the door. And then the sound of feet, and another object (cane), retreating, muffled by the hall carpet. He bent down to retrieve the card, curiosity mounting. He opened the envelope and read:
‘I was very rude this evening, please forgive me. - the man you had coffee with’
There was no further signature, but it was clear from the provided context (as well as the slant of the writing and the quality of the card stock) that it was from John Watson. He was floored – it was not John Watson who had been rude, and the very idea that he could have forgotten the man he’d just had coffee with. It was him who was forgotten, or remembered for being off-putting, not John Hamish Watson of Manderley.
He wondered if Wilkes had received a similar note? But then, why not just give one to Wilkes and have it include the same sentiments to them both? Perhaps he’d gotten the rooms mixed up? He wondered if he should deliver the card to Sebastian. But on the front of the envelope was his own name, and spelt correctly, which was unusual.
He placed it on his side table, and fell asleep facing it.
That night he dreamt he was in the art gallery, the same one where he had seen the painting of the soldier. He dreamt that as he observed the painting, the Captain from the portrait stepped out from the frame and walked towards him with purpose. He stopped and stood at parade rest in front of him. After saluting, the Captain reached out to touch his face.
But then it wasn’t the Captain from the portrait at all, whose face he couldn’t even recall. It was John Watson, dressed as the very same man. Watson even had to reach upwards to account for their difference in height. Watson had been shorter than him in reality, but while he was waifish, Watson was the personification of sturdy, reliable, well-built. He remembered this accurately in his dream, as he did anything that was important. He remembered that Watson had to look up to stroke his cheek, and to slide his small callused hands up into his hair. He dreamt that Watson spoke to him in his soft, strong voice, though he couldn't remember what was said. The voice was firm and calm, and he had believed every word.
The Watson created by his subconscious had been rather true to the real man, except for one large divergence. He dreamt that Watson had looked at him with care and genuine interest, rather than with kindness and pity.