It all begins with a tiny winged insect.
“Phylloxera,” Holmes says, his face alight. “Phylloxera vastatrix.”
Watson nods slowly. Holmes still holds the letter he has just finished reading from a M. Lehouiller in Bordeaux, first reciting it in in French and then translating it for the benefit of his flat-mate (Watson would have had the duty of reading the lettre aloud had it been in English, a holdover from Before). Watson had caught that non-French word during the reading, as well as his friend’s name. “An insect genus of some sort, by the sound.”
“An aphid, to be precise. An American invader, and the scourge of winemakers all over France as it has devastated grapevines for decades. Whilst I was tracking down Moriarty’s gang I spent a few months in the Aquitaine region assisting several vintners with the grafting of American stock, which is the sole cure for this blight. Monsieur Lehouiller is the owner of Le Trois Pierres and wishes me to repeat my visit to his establishment to give my opinion on the efficacy of the graft. I must say, after three years of flight and the very successful conclusion of the entire business this April, I do think a change of scenery will prove as good as a rest. I mean to accept his offer.”
The mention of his friend’s years of absence brings a stabbing pain to Watson’s breast; Sherlock Holmes stands before him in the very living flesh and blood, but three years of sorrow and two months of utter despair do not lightly leave a man’s shoulders in one season. Watson tries to smile. “For how long will you be gone?”
Holmes gives Watson a puzzled look. “From England? Less than a month, I should think. From your side? Not so much as an hour’s breadth. You are to come too, my dear Watson, or I do not go.”
Which is why, in early July of the year 1894, the recently-reunited men head to the Bordeaux region of the Aquitaine in the south of France.
Watson need make few preparations for the journey, recently bereaved and unemployed as he is (his scant practice has already gone to the sight-unseen Dr. Vernet, whose agent has reimbursed Watson to such an astonishing degree that he need not worry about expenses for at least six months); he takes only his old travelling-bag, and his Gladstone out of habit. No one in London will notice he is gone.
Le Trois Pierres stands like a combination of compact grey castle and French country home amid rolling fields of dark green vines and dark purple grapes bathed in the summer sun of the Dordogne valley braced by a grove of trees at one end of the 160-acre estate; the heavy, syrupy smell of the vines is evident long before the men’s dog-cart from the train station reaches the main courtyard. The winery and house are all the same entity; Baroque towers and halls bracket the yard and merge into walkways down to the buildings where the work is done.
Monsieur Charles Lehouiller, a short dark man with thick rough hands, greets Holmes and Watson like visiting dignitaries. He provides a late midday dinner of cold broiled beef and vegetables accompanied by glasses of the winery’s blood-red Bordeaux; everything is beautifully prepared and Watson enjoys it all, but Lehouiller apologises profusely for providing such a scant and hasty mouthful for his important visitors. Holmes converses with their host in flawless French and translates for both Lehouiller and his friend – Watson and the winery owner laugh ruefully at each other’s language barrier (the vintner speaks as little English as Watson does French).
Lehouiller credits Holmes’ endorsement of the controversial graft with saving his stock, and with it the winery that has been in his family for centuries. (“Pooh-pooh! I only provided another opinion, and you rightly followed your own winemaker’s instincts,” Holmes rebuts.) “Many others don’t want the graft,” the vintner says (through Holmes), and demonstrates the procedure for the amused doctor’s benefit with two stalks of grilled asparagus. “American grapes on French roots, they say – a scandal, a loss!”
Holmes shrugs in a very Gallic fashion. “An American vine can withstand an American infestation – and the French roots will work their will on their new vines. The vintners who resist are still fighting the Phylloxera, and their harvests have plummeted. Perhaps they prefer to let their wines and wineries die out altogether.”
Lehouiller makes a rude noise (it is only the three of them at this meal – his family has retired for a mid-afternoon doze in the heat – so no one is scandalised). “Do they think they grow the same grapes that were grown 200 years ago? Their grandfathers made changes, added new things, and now they are what has always been! Change comes, and it makes things better if they accept it!”
At that dinner table Watson learns a good deal about the aphid blight and its cure – and laughs more, eats more and drinks more (with less urge to start a fight) than he has for a very long time. He is pleased to see Holmes do ample justice to the good food and splendid wine as well. The mood stays with him during his and Holmes’ tour of the arms room, chapel and living quarters (the caves and cellars will be for tomorrow); their suppertime introduction to Mme. Lehouiller, their three children, and the household staff as vital as the field-hands; an evening meal that makes him understand why Charles Lehouiller scorned their dinner as unfit. Both men retire early to their respective bedrooms, replete and exhausted.
That night Watson awakes, shaking and throat aching. He is alone in a neatly furnished room in a whimsical stone tower with a lovely moonlit view of the fields and river that is nothing like the echoing emptiness of his house in Kensington. But not until he has lit the candle, left his room and headed down the stairs – ostensibly toward the necessity but in truth to look in on the room Holmes was given and hear the long deep breaths of his sleeping friend – can he resume slumber in the bed he was given. His cheeks still hurt from their evening at the table; it has been a long time since he has smiled so much.
Breakfast is light and simple compared both to English morning fare and to the repast the night before; this would be dismissed as “bread and coffee” at home, except that it is freshly-baked baguettes, spread with local butter and homemade strawberry preserves that carry the taste of summer in every bite, and the café au lait is a meal in itself. Watson worries briefly if Mrs. Hudson’s hearty oat scones will suffer in comparison when they return to Baker Street.
Today they tour the winery works themselves, the cool cellars and caves heady with the smell of crushed grapes and fermentation even though harvest will not be for at least two more months, lined with vats, barrels and racks. They see the hands in the fields – pruning and watering vines, adjusting the grape-clusters to avoid breakage and to provide maximum exposure to the sun in preparation for verasion, the time in mid-August when the grapes form their sugar. Watson basks in the summer heat but Holmes looks a good deal less comfortable, glaring out from under his summer boater. Watson remembers how very pallid and gaunt Holmes had been when he first saw him in April – as white as if he’d deliberately stayed out of daylight – and his stomach twists yet again. They finally retreat to the cool house just as the workers head for the trees to begin their own midday repast.
After dinner Lehouiller takes them to the house library and shows them the precise records kept by the winery that go back to the days of Henri de Bourbon. Like many of its fellows, Les Trois Pierres shows a severe reduction in the vintages bottled between the 1870s and mid-1880s, victim of the voracious American aphid; these entries are accompanied by neat line drawings depicting the crumpled leaves and shriveled grapes – Madame Lehouillier’s artwork, the dark little man says proudly. (Other short years – M. Lehouiller pulls the records to show Watson – are the result of war shortages or devastation, drought, revolution and other ripples from French history.)
Then down comes a new-bound book printed with a gold-leaf 1894 on the spine; Lehouiller opens it in the middle, where a partially-filled page of neat writing faces a blank second half. “For your observations, Monsieur Holmes.”
The record-book’s clean blank page makes Watson’s hand itch for a pen. It is the first time he has had the urge to write in – months, years. But the old hunger is back as surely as is his physical appetite.
Holmes nods and smiles. “Tomorrow we start earning our board, Watson.”
Watson nods in reply. Something inside him feels unbearably raw, curled in on itself not unlike the aphid-shriveled leaves. At odd moments during the past few days he’s looked around wondering what he is really experiencing at the moment, because none of this seems real. It is all so different from how he had been only a few months ago, the thing he was doing that looked like life where he walked and breathed and tended patients and occasionally ate (usually at Lestrade’s nagging). Holmes is beside him, and Holmes is dead, so he himself must be dead too, except that he didn’t think Heaven would have so many people cursing each other in French. But if he was dead Mary would be here too, and Mary is not here.
The sun is lush and idyllic. The family is warm and welcoming. The food is superb, the wine a perfect match. The two men have peaceful work ahead – they are not tracking a felon nor fleeing a criminal mastermind who is trying to kill them. His room overlooks a valley that could be a description of Paradise.
But in his sleep Watson wanders an endless fogged-in cemetery, unable to see and visit Mary’s grave until he has found Holmes’ first, and the two roses clutched in his hand (one red, one white) leave a trail of blood from his fingers as he calls Holmes’ name over a roar of water.
Holmes shows Watson the grafted vines on the first plant in the first row, the binding site already grown together and only a change of colour to mark the new vines from the old rootstock. The leaves are dark green and shining, the grapes heavy and sound; they exhibit none of the blighted look of Celeste Lehouiller’s sketches of the aphid victims.
Watson straightens from his observation. He looks out over the vast field of identically dark green and lush vines and dangling, heavy grape-clusters, and exhales mightily. “‘The graft is a great success, and Les Trois Pierres’ signature wines are free of the danger caused by the Phylloxera. Bordeaux lovers may look forward to an unbroken supply of their cherished vintage from the celebrated M. Lehouiller this season, and for years to come.’ ”
Holmes lets loose a bark of laughter, in which Watson joins. It’s a glorious day, and both are wearing light linen suits and boaters to deflect the heat. The regular workers are tending the field further down, talking and laughing and swearing.
“You’ve put a very neat capper on our work, my boy, and we’ve only just started the inspection.”
Watson spreads his hands to encompass the vines around them. “This robust field speaks for itself, Holmes.”
Holmes taps his pursed lips with one forefinger. Watson eyes both and feels something else stir awake. “My impression is that M. Lehouiller is not overly concerned with either of us exerting ourselves mightily during our stay here. Nonetheless, we can search down each row for any vines that might require more of our host’s attention.”
“Agreed.” Watson opens his notebook and pulls out a pencil.
So they proceed, Holmes calling out and Watson writing down. They pinpoint the location of less robust vines so that their host can return to the precise spots and ensure that the aphid has not returned. The notes are of a sameness: “Row 3, nineteenth vine in, sparser leaves and smaller fruit than its neighbours, graft site sticky, may need examination; forty-sixth vine in, thinner vines and smaller clusters; rest of row, good. Row 4, twelfth vine in, more leaves than grapes, leaves paler than its neighbours.” Et cetera.
Such repetitive work is conducive to conversation, so they talk. Watson learns both about Holmes’ French ancestors and the history of winemaking in this part of the country – topics that do not often crop up in Baker Street. He drinks in the conversation the way a man starved for three years falls on a banquet. (The way he is falling on the food here; in three months he had lost the gaunt, spare look that Holmes carries well but which ill-fit Watson’s frame, but he may return from his French sojourn looking more like Mycroft. The thought amuses him.)
They get some curious (and suspicious) looks from the vine-hands, these two pale English gentlemen in their boss’ fields at a time when only their sunburnt hard-labouring selves should populate them, but Holmes calls out to the men in his flawless French, in which Watson catches “Emil” and several other men’s names. The change in expressions and the cries of “Ah, Monsieur Holmes!” lets Watson know that Holmes worked with the foreman and several of these men during his first visit. All return to their duties; Watson ponders the strangeness of his friend being acclaimed by people for his scientific acumen alone, who either do not know or do not care that he is a celebrated criminologist. In these fields, Holmes is simply a scientist assisting a wine farmer.
At midday the workers head to a cluster of trees under which some are beginning their dinner. Emil the foreman calls the Englishmen over, to their surprise. The workmen are smoking, eating enormous sandwiches, and drinking wine from wooden cups (in obedience to Scripture, Lehouiller muzzles not the oxen that treadeth out his corn, and his hired hands are generously supplied with the end product of their labour). Holmes and Watson accept offerings of Bordeaux and strong French tobacco, and Watson’s “Merci,” makes the men laugh at his accent. They drink toasts to their work, their wives, and to a good harvest. Watson is comfortably warmed by the blazing sun, the work, the wine, the smoke, and the camaraderie when he and Holmes go to the house for their own repast with the family.
Watson apologizes profusely when he yawns over his nearly-empty plate and glass, and Lehouiller makes a dismissive motion with his hands, gesturing them toward the tower in which both men have their rooms. “A siesta would do me good as well, Watson – this heat is rather much for Londoners,” Holmes says, repeating the same in French for their host’s benefit.
It seems so decadent to sleep in the middle of the day. Watson smiles. Or perhaps they are reverting to when they first met each other, when he was still a convalescing invalid – I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy – those early days when they began to feel their way around each other, hoping only for an agreeable flat-mate.
They leave the table and head for the stairs together. Holmes goes into his room on the first floor; Watson wants to follow him in and sleep with him on the same bed, or ask him to come up one more flight of stairs. The longing is an ache in his body like the sexual yearning, even though all he wants to do for now is sleep off the wine, the sun and the food with his miraculously-returned loved one safe in his arms. Instead, Watson continues up to his room and wraps his arms around himself, curled on his side on one-half of the generous bed. Fortunately his sleep is dreamless.
When they awake two hours later, they return to the field and resume their inspection. The sun is still warm and less than halfway down. The workmen have resumed their own labours as well, and several of them are singing. French is such a lovely-sounding language – the song’s topic could be vulgar or even pornographic for all Watson knows, but every word sounds romantic.
English verse must announce itself as such, and this beautiful day on these beautiful grounds effortlessly pulls one from Watson’s memory that fits their surroundings. “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” he murmurs as he takes his notes.
Holmes laughs. “Do we reside at Duke Leonato’s estate in Messina, my dear?”
Watson feels a warm squeeze at his heart at the term, and then a chill as rapidly grips him. He shakes it off and focuses on the rest of his friend’s reply. “You belie that dratted list of mine, Holmes. But even a man with little knowledge of literature makes an exception in favour of the Bard.”
“Not ‘little,’ Watson – ‘Nil’ was the term you used.”
Both men laugh. The warmth and humour in Holmes’ voice is like a coal-fire on a bitter night, banishing Watson’s momentary dread.
“Naturally I preferred the tales of bloodshed and crime to the comedies. Fourteenth vine in, leaves smaller and paler, fruit smaller, graft good.” Holmes waits till Watson jots it down. “‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is not a favourite of mine, Watson. Don John’s plot is laughably easy to discern, which makes Claudio an insufferable dolt for not seeing through it in an instant.”
“True. It also speaks very poorly of Claudio’s ability to trust a girl he claims to love. If I were the Duke and,” Watson ploughs through a stab of pain at his heart with the ease of practise, “my daughter were treated in that foul way by such a man, he’d be lucky to escape a thrashing, and I would adamantly forbid Hero to reconsider Claudio let alone forgive him. No, Holmes, no one attends ‘Much Ado’ for the plot, or for Claudio and Hero’s love story. They come for Beatrice and Benedick.”
“Agreed. Beatrice and Benedick at least are in possession of wits they sharpen against each other, in place of the perpetual simpering by most romantic couples in such comedies. Vine second from end, more leaves than grapes, graft site sticky. End of row fourteen.”
The cold grips Watson again, despite the July sun. He watches Holmes bent over yet another vine, immaculate in his pearl-grey linen suit.
Much Ado About Nothing – the play that ends when Claudio, stricken with grief and guilt, is stunned by the miraculous reappearance of his love Hero, whom he believed dead because of his foul slandering of her at their very wedding altar.
Did Claudio deserve to wed Hero after his contemptible actions? Does John Watson have the right to broach a subject to Sherlock Holmes that he is certain lies unspoken between the two of them? Worse, will that moment of confession reveal the truth – far worse than a mere rejection could ever be?
Twenty rows finished for the day. Holmes straightens and groans. Watson flexes his writing hand; it has been a long, long time since he has written so much at one setting. But both men now know they have earned their splendid bread and wine for supper that night, and head back to the estate just ahead of the field hands, deeply satisfied with the work they have done. The sky is still nearly at full daylight but will darken rapidly once the sun finishes descending below the horizon; such is summer at this latitude. At the cistern they stop for a drink; Emil and the other men laugh at the way the fastidious English bathe their hands and faces to cool down, as they douse their heads entirely from the water bucket.
Lehouiller is a good and generous host, but also a practical man running a winery. He has taken advantage of his guests’ labour in the fields to turn his own attention to preparing orders for bottles and cork that will be needed at harvest-time, based on his study of Emil’s daily reports. He trusts Emil to oversee the July fieldwork and Holmes to alert him to any trouble among his resurrected vines. Charles is restless from his day indoors, but laughs at the table with his family and guests. “Yes, I sit and study my ledgers, and get bored. So I go out to the vines, and sweat and get hot and tired, and in no time I’m happy to be back inside with my ledgers!”
Watson always laughs a few seconds later than everyone else at the table since Holmes must translate for him. “A happy balance,” Watson says. He thinks of his former life – intrigue and crime and excitement, then long peaceful stretches at his writing-desk surrounded by the smells of shag tobacco and strong chemicals, and the sound of rustling newspapers. Again, the cold grips him. He looks around him, takes another forkful of the magnificent cassoulet the house cook has prepared, raises his wineglass to his lips.
It is cold foul porridge, and fetid water. You are in a brick cell. The warmth is only fever created by your brain. The moment you reveal all and step forward, the curtain will lift and you will truly know what Hell is.
Lehouiller is pleased at the report – and even more pleased when Holmes promises that they will inspect the entire estate. Watson thinks of the grounds, the rows of vines they have yet to see, the length of time it will take, and buries his burgeoning smile in his wineglass. A holiday in the south of France in all but name, with good honest peaceful work to do.
That evening Holmes retires to the study to transcribe Watson’s notes into French for the record book. Exhausted by the day, Watson turns in. His writing hand aches, the day’s summer heat radiates from his body even if he has made sure to cover his head, he is full and muzzed with wine, and he looks forward to tomorrow’s work. Each of those things is tangible; nothing about any of it is dreamlike, until he begins to think of where he and Holmes must go from here.
He awakes with the scent of lily-of-the-valley in his mind and everything aching from throat to chest.
So the days begin to pass, twenty rows of vines at a time under the baking sun and Delft-blue sky.
After only two more days the Londoners eschew the midday meal with the family; they head out for the day with a sack containing their lunch and a bottle of stout red, and take their ease under the trees as do the field-hands, napping in the shade after their meal before resuming the vine inspection (a maid gives them an old bedsheet to serve as their picnic cloth and dozing blanket). In the evening after supper both men fall to writing; Holmes, transcribing Watson’s notes into the ledger, and Watson, beginning to keep a diary for the first time in three years.
Watson gains the same eye as his friend for looking down the long row and finding anomalies that could be possible weak vines, to highlight in the ledger for their host’s attention. They alternate spotting and note-taking, moving down each row together, calling out numbers and observations or writing them down, and talking in the interim.
Watson regains the brown colouring he brought home from Afghanistan. Holmes loses the pallid look of a man who has been in exile, even if he continues studiously to shelter himself from sun exposure.
They could theoretically split up, each taking a row, and halve the time in which to do this work – that is, if time and efficiency were considerations at all, and if they could bear to be parted from each other. For Watson knows it is not just he who is drinking in this contact; he sees how Holmes is more at ease in his presence, less staring and alert as if fearful of enemies than when he is by himself.
Watson feels the sun that drenches these fields, watches the swallows swoop and dive, surveys the gorgeous countryside. He sees the man moving down the field with him, tall and elegant despite being as scandalously down to his shirtsleeves out-of-doors as he is in this heat, speaking in a sonorous tone he had thought lost forever, even from his dreams. And still he wonders when it will all come crashing down.
Late one restless night, a week into their inspection, Watson hears soft footfalls outside his door, steps he knows from his previous life. Holmes does not open the door nor speak to him, just stands on the other side. And Watson knows what he is doing, for it’s the same thing he’s done after restless sleep here: Holmes is listening to his friend breathing.
The next morning in the fields Watson says, “Tell me about your travels. All of them.” All of them – not merely the amusing, fascinating or thrilling parts of Holmes’ three years of exile, flight and predation.
The look Holmes gives him unfolds like a paper flower – he knows Watson had heard him, has deduced perhaps that Watson did the same, knows that both of them know. Watson matches the look – level, fearful, tender – with his own steady regard.
So Holmes speaks, in between comments on the vines. Watson learns where Holmes got the scar around his upper right thigh, why he was so pale when he returned to England, and why that haunted look is only now leaving his face. When the doctor relinquishes the notepad and pencil to Holmes to take his turn inspecting the next rows, both his hands hold his friends’ for a great deal longer than was needed for the transfer, and both stand quite still for it. “My dear man,” is all Watson says, looking at their joined hands.
The rest of the morning’s rows are worked in silence broken only by observations and note-taking. The afternoon is spent in talk only of London and the changes Holmes sees in his town (“Fitz’s stopped carrying Peterson Flake at least a year ago, judging from the smell of the shop. Was there trouble with the shippers?”). They are subdued at supper and retire early.
Seventeen rows later, on another day, when it is Watson’s turn to inspect the row and Holmes’ to take the notes, Holmes says, “Tell me everything.”
Watson had expected this. How much easier to say such things while facing a cluster of grapes.
And Watson tells Holmes of life in those three years, up to the end of January this year. He speaks of the early days when he had trouble rising in the morning, dressing, eating – all insurmountable tasks for a man who’d once leapt from bed in the wee hours, revolver in hand, to head to a train station. When he was able to function once again he turned all his attention to his patients, choosing to be useful since he was not happy. He admits that he turned not to the bottle nor the needle in his grief but to the anesthaesia of routine, a placid normal life with the unremarkable medical practise and ordinary club associations of a typical middle-class physician, not the sort of person who would ever do anything as unorthodox as associate with a detective. It even worked for a while, Watson says; it was a relief quietly to grow comfortably numb.
And then, January. “And then you came back like Hero,” Watson finishes. He knows that he has not told Holmes “everything” and knows Holmes knows it too. There is a great, gaping hole in his narrative where Mary Watson should stand. “Hero who was dead.”
Holmes dismisses the analogy with a snort, lightening the mood and letting Watson know that his friend will not probe that wound. “If you must compare me to one of the female roles in Much Ado, Watson, I would prefer to be Beatrice.”
Watson smiles. “True, ‘you will never run mad.’”
Holmes smiles back and tartly responds quote for quote, “No, not till a hot January.”
January – No, he’s only quoting Beatrice. “Your wit is sharp enough for Beatrice, certainly. But will mine serve for Benedick?”
“Watson, you could have modeled the fellow for the Bard. Or do you deny that you are ‘of a noble strain, of approvéd valour and confirmed honesty’? Further, your strain of humour would not be out of place at Leonato’s estate.”
The warmth that spreads from Watson’s core outward is not from the Aquitaine sun. He also feels relief after telling Holmes so much, even if it is not all.
That night Watson dreams of Mary again. She does not speak, but stands at one end of a vineyard row, smiling at him. He must go down the row and keep up his work, which takes him away from her; she never stops smiling as he turns away to follow Holmes. He already knows that she will be gone if he turns around to look, so he does not turn around. He awakens with the smell of turned earth and grapevines in his nostrils.
What is happening between them is no mystery. Something new is being grafted onto solid rootstock here, too, as steadily and surely as the way they move down the fields.
They have inspected strains of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and Bordeaux, their own movements along the rows mirroring the curve of the nearby La Dordogne whose banks have shaped the fields. Their wounds from their separation they have exposed to healing air and light, one at a time, spoken to the mute grapevines and bandaged in between with badinage of the lightest kind – talk of home, easy silences, tart quotes.
One deep wound is revealed inadvertently, with Holmes laying the straw upon the camel’s back.
Watson arises after Holmes from his midday siesta. When he appears in the 151st row Holmes is already at work and says jovially, “What, my dear Disdain! Are you yet living?” A greeting to Beatrice, nothing more than that.
But the blow strikes too close to home, and what falls out of Watson’s mouth is the truth. “Not for want of desire to alter that state.”
Both go still. Holmes goes white, despite the French sun – as pallid as when he’d first returned to London. Despite his own stunned realisation of his outburst, Watson almost wants to reply with another quote: I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.
Alea jacta est. Blessing the comforts of routine and duty however voluntary, Watson turns the page of the notebook and starts an entry for Row 151, and nods to Holmes – who only then breaks out of his frozen state, and turns away to resume his inspection.
The infected wound has been exposed. Time to take up the lancet.
During that row and the one that follows, Watson speaks to Holmes’ silent back (rigid even though he moves along the row with his usual fluid grace). The actual tragedy he lays out with an economy of words, but ones that shout his pain to the man who knows him above all others: “We both thought she was pregnant, and I began to know what joy was again. But Mary became violently ill right after Christmas, and that was when we learned that it was not pregnancy but a tumour inside her. She did not survive the surgery, and before Twelfth Night everyone in the world who loved me and whom I loved was dead.”
Watson talks about the days after that which never ended, each day enduring a physical pain like a blanket of black lead atop him. He speaks of the mirage that constantly hovered just out of reach which made every day a struggle not to load his revolver and bring it to his head, or to keep walking across a bridge on a dark foggy evening after a call on a patient rather than throw himself into the Thames, or the comfort he took from cataloguing every blade and drug and poison in his Gladstone against the day he could bear the burden no longer. The first glimmer of relief that came in the news of a bizarre death in a locked room, an event that stirred the embers of his curiosity and love of mystery back to life.
“And that is everything I endured in those three years, my dear Beatrice,” Watson says to that silent, still-rigid back. His voice is as level and calm as it was when he recited the ways he avoided taking his own life. “Or are you Hero, who died and yet came back from the dead to greet her Claudio? I am grateful that I myself don’t know how close you came to emulating Juliet’s resurrection instead.”
Holmes does not meet his eyes when they pass the notebook between them at the end of that row, but both his hands are cold and trembling. Exhausted from his emotional bloodletting, Watson can offer no comfort of touch or voice; he lets the robust green leaves and heavy purple grapes be all that fills his sight for two rows.
That unbroken silence stays between them for the rest of the day and the evening. Lehouiller is happy with their data, attributes their reticence to physical weariness from their work, and reminds both that tomorrow is Sunday.
Drained as he is, Watson lies sleepless in his bed that night. After hours of futility, he arises, lights the lamp and fumbles for a pen. He tells Mary everything in the letter he writes, soldiering his way through the pain in his chest and throat with the ease of long practise. He hears the familiar footfalls at his door once again; he gives his friend his privacy, letting Holmes hear him breathe without acknowledging him or calling him into the room, until the footsteps go away again an hour later. Only after he has finished pouring his heart out into three pages of close script can Watson return to bed and finally sleep.
The silence between the men remains in the family chapel and at the breakfast table. Both speak only to politely decline when M. Lehouiller invites his guests to join the family in their excursion to his mother-in-law’s home for Sunday dinner. The servants are away with their own families today, but Marie the cook has left enough for both men before taking the rest of the day off at midmorning. Holmes and Watson have the winery to themselves when the Lehouillers drive away.
Watson wanders through the family library, looking longingly at books he cannot read. He feels grounded, more solidly present than he has for most of his stay.
Holmes walks past him. He has been ensconced in a chair reading without hindrance from the French-language tomes available. Watson envies him. “Strange how the body reacts to a day without work, Watson,” he says, and Watson blesses that familiar, normal tone of observation. “One seems to crave rest when one is already resting the most. Perhaps the body works like a cell building up its charge whilst in repose.”
Watson blinks and finds it hard to open his eyes for a second. “I agree, old fellow. I was just thinking that a nap would be an excellent idea, too.”
Both laugh, just a little, but it is another bandage on a raw wound – or a wrapping around a new graft.
They head for their tower, Holmes’ hand tucked into the crook of Watson’s arm as if they are taking an evening stroll in London together. Unlike during their old London walks, Watson leans in against Holmes, and feels his friend do the same. Even as warmth rises in Watson’s core it is followed by a wave of dread.
At Holmes’ room, they stand in the doorway together, looking at each other.
Watson knows he has not misread the look, the longing that he shares.
Mary laughs in his mind. His act of writing the letter must have freed this memory of her; for the first time in months he sees her alive and beautiful, not contorted in pain nor crumpled in grief nor cold and white in her coffin. Her smile is as warm and tender in his memory as when he’d seen it at the breakfast table, by the hearth, in their bed. She had loved him, and he her. She had understood how important Holmes was to him. She had grieved nearly as hard as he had upon his return from the Continent. She had known of his dual nature, or had guessed what had lain at the bottom of his regard for his aloof friend. Women were so much better at discerning men than the other way round, for all his friend’s scoffing at the sex.
And now she stood apart, away from him in his mind as she had stood at the end of the vine-row in his dream. He is waiting for you, darling. He has been waiting for a very long time. Go to him.
He takes that step forward. “My dear man. I would like very much to share your bed.”
And when Sherlock Holmes smiles, it is so sweet and tender that all John Watson wants to do is kiss it off his mouth. Again, he closes the gap, and he is the one to initiate the kiss. The moment he does he is wrapped in Holmes’ embrace and the other man makes a sound like a suppressed sob.
Warm, moist, the scratch of stubble, coffee, tobacco, my god he is kissing Sherlock Holmes, the man who was dead and is alive again, his dear friend who wasn’t killed after all, miraculously returned, safe in his arms in this beautiful winery. The joy rises inside him, a warm tide sweeping out to –
Ice. Ice through his center. No, it’s a lie, it’s all a lie!
He pulls away hard, contracts. Terror throttles him, grief, disbelief, panic. Self-loathing at the distress on Holmes’ face, grief, fear even as he shakes his head. It’s a lie, it’s all a lie, it must be a lie, gibbers the cold core inside.
He thanks God for his friend’s gifts, because Sherlock Holmes spends less than a second in pained incomprehension before his grey eyes sweep his friend top to bottom. Holmes does not move to reestablish touch or to hold Watson. “You are afraid, John. For God’s sake, why? You are not fearful of my reaction, you are not fearful of the acts that will follow, indeed you are no stranger to this form of conjugation as you discovered your half-inverted nature in your youth –” Dear God, Sherlock Holmes is babbling, his deductions held back all this time waiting for Watson to initiate this contact. “–we are alone in the house, we will take every precaution to keep ourselves safe and our hosts’ reputation unblemished. Why are you afraid?”
“Because this isn’t real,” Watson blurts out. “None of this can be real. None of it! It’s only a matter of time now, soon.”
“Soon? What?” Holmes is as poleaxed as Watson has ever seen him look.
“Because now that I’ve kissed you, or perhaps when I finally take you to bed, is the moment I awaken to reality.”
Holmes shakes his head, his eyes tender even full of pain as they are now. He still makes no attempt to touch his friend. “John, this is no dream.”
“No, not a dream, it’s worse. It’s insanity. This, all of this,” and Watson’s wild sweep of his arm encompasses Holmes, himself, the field, the house, the winery, “this is very likely a cell in Bedlam, and right now I’m in a straitjacket babbling sodomitic fantasies to the doctors on the other side of a barred door.”
“Watson –” Holmes reaches a hand out. Distress rings in his voice.
Watson turns around in a full circle, heads back out into the main part of the house. He hears Holmes following him. “It feels real. This place, the people. The food, the wine, the sun. You. But it’s not real, it can’t be.” Watson heaves for breath. His eyes sting as they have not for a long time. He forbade himself to shed tears in Switzerland, and by the time January happened he could not. He rests his open palms on Holmes’ shoulders. “You’re not real. You’re a doctor, or a nurse or a guard. My friend Sherlock Holmes is dead, he died at Reichenbach because I abandoned him when he needed me most.”
“No.” Grey eyes wide, grief-stricken.
“My stupidity, believing that messenger, leaving you alone to face that monster –” The bitterness and bile from that old, poorly-healed wound gush forth, stunning Watson himself even as the words tumble out in his cracking voice. “ – I left you to die, I failed you. I didn’t have the right to mourn.”
“No, John, that’s not –”
“And just when I started to learn how to live again, Mary died. That’s real. That’s true.” Watson takes a breath and everything inside him feels like a building in an earthquake. He can’t take his eyes off Holmes’ face, contorted even as it is in pain and sympathy. Soon, the fear inside him whimpers, soon reality will happen and he will be lost to me once again. “I was so happy in December, happier than I’d been in years. Both of us were. I thought this was my absolution, proof that I could help create life. But that was a lie. It wasn’t real. It was death, more death. It wasn’t enough for Holmes to die because of me, she had to die too.” Watson laughs like breaking glass, and even then tries to assuage the look of fear on Holmes’ face. “No, no, it’s all right, really. Now it makes sense! I clearly couldn’t bear the grief any longer after my wife died, so my brain magically brought my friend back from the dead. Look around us, Sherlock Holmes – or whoever you truly are! What’s the more likely outcome, he would say? That the shock and grief of those deaths drove me mad, broke my mind the way the war broke my body? Or that Sherlock Holmes has risen from the dead like Lazarus and wishes that we become lovers in the middle of a holiday in the south of France – offering me something I’ve wanted for a very long time?” Watson shakes his head. “Impossible. And when the madness ends, and I once more know a hawk from a handsaw…” Cold cell, foul porridge, beatings, electrical shocks, dead all of them dead, alone alone alone –
Two strong lean cool hands grip his shoulders tightly. Eyes – grey, familiar eyes, beautiful even when dimmed as they are now – hold his own. A voice he had lost even from his dreams speaks, clear and strong. “No! No, my dearest man.” The breath in that voice echoes what the kiss told him – French tobacco, café au lait. “Not impossible. Improbable. And what do I say about improbable things? You know my methods, John Watson, you know them.”
Watson can no more look away from those eyes nor stop listening to that voice than he can stop breathing. Stillness ripples outward from his core; the earthquake grumbles, subsides.
It’s true. He does know his friend’s ways.
Eliminate the impossible.
One possibility: I am dreaming. No, impossible. Far too much detail and sensory input for a dream – I am too full of good French food and acutely aware of my sunburned skin. I am too afraid for this to be a sweet dream, and too full of joy for this to be a nightmare. Conclusion: Not a dream.
Possibility two: I am mad with grief. I believe Holmes to be holding me, but this is actually a nurse or an orderly in an asylum. Verdict? Impossible – unless an asylum guard is in the habit of wearing Childress’ Best Pomade. It is not his tobacco nor his usual coffee that I smell – but under it all is the essence of the man with whom I had lived for 10 years, shared quarters, living space, and long tense nights of waiting for a bank robber or a deadly intruder. These are his hands holding me, those his eyes from their usual height above me. That is his voice which has been telling me the terrible story of his exile all this past week. Conclusion: Everything in my mind says that the person before me is indeed Sherlock Holmes.
Possibility three, continuing on the second: I am living in a madness-induced world. Verdict: Possible, but probable? I have no understanding of how an insane mind comprehends reality. If this is indeed madness, it is a sweeter reality I live now than the one with which I began the year. Perhaps, if it is madness, I will never leave it at all, and I may live happily with my beloved man, safe in the confines of my disordered mind, whilst I am loathed and pitied by outsiders but causing no grief to loved ones as they are all dead.
Now, the crux of his terror: And if this madness evaporates and I reawaken to the hell in which I lived before April – a reality worse than any Inferno could be?
Those steady grey eyes are his fixed point. Watson sees that Holmes sees how he is thinking all this out. The man is a lighthouse, and Watson flies to his refuge.
If I return to that Tartarus? Then memory of this Elysian Field of an idyll will comfort and sustain me in my torment. Perhaps I will even ask my keepers for paper and ink, and write down as much of this as I can. Let them study this pursuit of my madness!
The last of his fear falls away. The worst has been faced. Watson exhales.
Possibility the last: Sherlock Holmes is indeed alive and well, he did indeed defeat Moriarty at Reichenbach and did indeed spent three years in exile hunting down the rest of the professor’s crime gang. Sherlock Holmes stands before me now, as wounded as I am from this parting between us, and he too grieves for my loss. He does indeed desire me as I do him – he is a full invert whilst I am attracted to both women and men – and has been waiting for me. Verdict: Highly improbable. And yet, when the impossible is eliminated…
He lifts his chin. “I believe this. I choose to believe this.”
Holmes squeezes his hands. “You are the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
“A frightened fool,” Watson mutters.
“I will take your soldier’s fear over a banker’s courage, my dear fellow.” Holmes takes a breath, visibly summoning up his own courage, and leans his head forward.
Watson sees and correctly deduces, and meets his friend halfway. This time their tender kiss is uninterrupted by an attack of panicked fright. When their lips no longer meet, their hands are still joined together. The look they give each other is the same one they shared when they survived the Friesland together.
Holmes, especially, looks like a man reprieved from the gallows. “Watson, we need not express all parameters of our union until you are quite ready. My invitation still stands, even if sleep is all you wish to share with me for the time being.”
Watson is relieved too, and sad at the same time. But the best and wisest man he has ever known is correct. “Then sleep it is.” Both are emotionally wrung as well as physically tired.
With no further drama they return to Holmes’ room together, partially disrobe and lie down. The cool sheets and the reassuring contact with the other man is pleasure enough at the moment. Without hesitation they wind their arms around each other and kiss once more, before settling for their siesta.
By the time the family returns home in the early evening (the summer sun still high in the sky) they are awake, clad once again, and finishing the cold supper Marie has left them.
The days that follow are much like the ones before them. Row by row, field by field, the two men inspect the vines and make their notes. And they continue to talk.
Holmes tells Watson about his own terrifying dreams during his work abroad. Many feature him coming home one day too late – that he’s taken down Moriarty’s last man only after that man has succeeded in killing Watson. (“In my cruelest dreams, your body was still warm when I reached you.”) Now Watson knows just why Holmes went so ashen at hearing of his own thoughts on self-destruction.
Sometimes Watson makes Holmes laugh, such as when he tells him about his and Mary’s disastrous Christmas dinner with Lestrade and his family two years earlier (“Small boys and Christmas-tree candles are a poor combination”). And sometimes what he says makes Holmes go still and silent (“In February I was in a prison cell for drunkenness and disturbing the peace. Lestrade berated me like a disappointed father. That was the last time I went out looking for trouble. I will never mock Lestrade again, Holmes – not though he arrests the Queen for the Ripper murders”).
They bicker about the police’s efficacy in Holmes’ absence, how deep Mycroft’s hands are entangled in the latest diplomatic missions, whether or not Mrs. Hudson’s current hired girl is a patch on Brigid.
Holmes says nothing when Watson pauses in his work to look around himself – reassuring himself that all this is reality. And when Holmes fixes his gaze on Watson for far longer than it takes to exchange a notebook or proffer a winecup at lunchtime, Watson knows that both of them are doing the same thing.
There is one small difference between before and after that Sunday, however. Watson hands the notebook and pencil over to Holmes at the end of the row, and they kiss. Holmes puts a hand on Watson's shoulder to halt work for their midday meal and nap, and they kiss. They toast each other with the red wine, and kiss during their lunch. They settle into a comfortable nearness during their nap; they awake, and they kiss before resuming the afternoon work. They return from the field arm in arm as in their London strolls. When their day is over, they kiss goodnight in Holmes’ room before Watson retires to his own quarters.
Watson writes in his diary every night, and tells Mary what is happening inside himself. His sleep is deep and dreamless.
The graft is losing its rawness at the join.
“We’re home today, old fellow,” Watson cheerily announces at their first row toward the week’s end. They are nearly done with M. Lehouiller’s fields, and will finish their work today – or tomorrow, if the thick dark clouds moving toward them tell the truth.
Holmes does not groan or roll his eyes, as Lestrade would do when he finally got the reference. “Unless Mrs. Hudson has set up our tea things in the middle of Row 221, I doubt that it will feel much like home.” But he smiles as he makes the proper notation and cups Watson's cheek for a flicker of a moment. “When you’re ready, my dear man.”
The rain catches them just before noon, and they return to the house wet through from the summer rainstorm. “Now that’s more like home,” Watson says, and both laugh. Emil and the other workers return from the fields at the other end of the estate where Holmes and Watson began their work, laughing and swearing at getting wet.
Holmes reports their success to Lehouiller and promises that their inspection will be complete the next day and that his guests can leave the winery by Sunday. Charles is delighted with the work they have done, and promises that the family can drop the men off at the train station before continuing on to Lehouiller mére for their usual Sabbath gathering. Both men spend that rainy afternoon packing most of their things away.
In the final row on the final day, Holmes hefts a great cluster of fat purple grapes on one of the strong-grafted vines, and cuts it off with his pocket-knife. When Watson sits under their tree for a late lunch – they decided to work straight through to finish the job – Holmes lays the warm heavy weight of the grape-cluster across the other man’s lap.
Watson looks up at his friend kneeling before him; Holmes’ position and expression alone would get him arrested if they’d been in a London street. His throat is dry; his groin aches. Without a word, he spreads his legs open, just a little.
Smiling, Sherlock Holmes bows over Watson's lap, lips reaching. Watson expresses a soft sound as his friend’s lips pluck a grape from the cluster and raise it to his own lips. Oh God.
Watson takes the gift, his lips brushing Holmes’ for a moment. The grape is still tart, but with an underlying crisp sweetness that will reach its full promise within the fortnight; verasion has begun.
Down goes Holmes’ head again. Back up with another grape.
Watson laughs even as he robs his friend. He swallows this grape whole, and does not imagine the way Holmes’ Adam’s apple bobs in a swallow of his own at the sight.
Grape number three is tussled back and forth between their mouths, until Watson succeeds in pushing it back into Holmes’ mouth with his tongue so that the other man may eat this one. “Sherlock. We will be here a considerable time, if we wait to finish all the grapes,” Watson says hoarsely.
“Not all of them.” Holmes is as hoarse, for the same reasons, for no cluster of grapes hides what his own groin shamelessly announces. “Twelve altogether, my dear John.”
Watson frowns, trying to deduce what he means. “Twelve?”
“Yes.” Those cool grey eyes are hotter than this sun. “According to every church authority, the activity we are soon to undertake will consign us to Hell.”
John Watson smiles and cups the lean cheek in one hand, pouring all his love into his gaze. “Dearest man. I have already spent my time in Hell, and nothing that Lucifer prepares for sodomites can frighten me now.”
The firm lips tremble a moment. “Nonetheless,” says Sherlock Holmes. “While both of us may be consigned to the pit for this inversion, your half-inverted nature may mean you only spend half your time in the flames. I prefer to take every precaution. As I’m afraid this excellent winery is sadly lacking in pomegranate seeds, I have been forced to provide a substitute.”
Watson laughs, and Holmes cannot help but join him. “Twelve,” he gasps. “For twelve months.”
“Twelve.” Holmes has stopped laughing. “So no matter in which direction our souls travel after death, dear Watson, you must stay with me always. I have spent three years in exile from the man I love; I will not be parted from him for half the year throughout eternity.”
Watson grins. “No fear of that, old man.” Without looking away from Holmes’ eyes, he plucks grape number four and brings it to his mouth, and purses his own lips forward, offering it to his partner.
Grape by grape, they seal their fates. “And when I lived, I was your other wife,” Holmes murmurs at grape six; “And when you loved, you were my other husband,” Watson finishes Hero’s quote with grape seven.
Their hands as well as their mouths become more clever, more bold. Both bathe the twelfth and last grape held by both their mouths with their tongues before setting their teeth to it and leaving each man with a half. Then they no longer require the excuse of the grapes to set mouths to each other, and hands.
“Not here,” Holmes whispers, raising his mouth from a passionate kiss. “Home. We will do this at home.”
With his blood racing like red wine in his veins, Watson almost whimpers at the thought of abstaining for another full day before returning to London…until his mind catches on to his own pawky joke of the day before. The smile he shares with Holmes is quite wicked indeed.
They set themselves and each other to rights, quick glances confirming Holmes’ original deduction that Emil and the other workers are acres away, out of earshot as well as sight; Holmes gathers up the worn old sheet upon which they have lunched and napped. They move back up the fields, and disappear from sight into row 221.
“I love you,” Watson says softly. “My beloved Beatrice.”
Holmes tosses his head, his eyes bright. “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” He offers the remaining grape cluster, cupped in his hands, and Watson feeds. The look in his grey eyes is warmer than the sun; his mouth is sweeter than the fruit as he kisses Watson.
As they disrobe, Watson is nervous only about one thing more – which ends in relieved laughter when Holmes slyly reveals the tin of pomade he has brought out with him to the fields.
So atop a sheet on damp hot soil between the vines, on land owned by a devout Catholic, they unite, their grafting witnessed only by the swooping swallows. Watson feels the exact moment when his friend becomes his lover as they lock together, chest to back. On his elbows and knees, Watson shudders as Holmes takes firm hold of him, strikes precisely within him; he cries out the blessing of Dionysus as his cock spurts its offering into the soil with every pump inside him. Hotter than the sun is the mouth on the back of his neck and shoulders, the heat filling him as Holmes curses and arches then goes limp. Grinning like a satyr, John Watson lifts himself off Holmes’ cock and lets his lover’s seed ooze from his arse and drip into the fertile ground, mingling with the seed he himself has spilled at the base of this grapevine. “Christ,” Holmes gasps, watching his lover; “Evohe,” Watson corrects him before rejoining Holmes on the sheet and pulling the man close to repay the favour, one fist gripping the black hair. His ballocks feel as hot and heavy as their grape-cluster, and with a softly-wailing Holmes clasped tightly in his arms he fills his lover like a wineskin. Exultation fills him, not just from the physical joy of the union; John Watson vows to remember every moment of this profane second marriage ceremony, bares his teeth in defiance at his panic – this is real, this is more real than any icy Bedlam cell or grey-faced doctor could be – more real than the life he lived as a respectable doctor with respectable clubs and respectable friends. This, if it is all in his mind, is worth the cost. The gibbering fear flees and Watson shouts in triumph.
Their faithful old sheet is pressed into service as washclout and towel in setting both to rights afterward. The mud that has already stained the sheet’s underside covers their sin admirably; they look no grimier than usual when they emerge, fully dressed, from that row. They cool their hands and faces at the cistern before going back into the house arm in arm.
That night Sherlock Holmes enters Watson’s room; he is in his blue dressing-gown, the one that does lovely things to his eyes. No doubt he has made sure to disturb his bedding enough to convince the maids that he slept there before continuing up the stairs. Watson greets him with a kiss and embrace, and welcomes the man into his bed; they finally make love like a civilised couple before settling for the night.
Watson awakes in the night, gasping at the content of his latest dream. He is lying next to a warm body – a lean and hard body, smelling of tobacco and lavender soap and pomade and a dozen other un-feminine things.
The pain in his eyes is like being blinded with knives, and the throttling pain at his throat impedes breath. He folds himself in tight, trying to still his shaking lest he awaken the other man.
But a hand curls around Watson's shoulder and turns him in, burying his face against a nightshirt-clad shoulder so that his grief will be hidden even from the dark room.
He grips the wiry body beneath his. His cry is muffled in the cotton that smells of a life returned. The pain in his eyes is suddenly eased as a rising tide floods them and washes away the terrible stabbing pain.
The other man holds him close and says never a word as his nightshirt becomes sodden.
After years of dry, broken earth, the rains have come at last.
The Lehouillers laugh and shout and talk as the wagon bumps along toward the train station before they go off to Grandmere’s home.
Holmes and Watson sit in the back watching the turrets and walls of Les Trois Pierres recede behind them. A case of Charles’ best vintage Bordeaux rests between them, their payment for the work. Watson yawns. “It will be good to see dear old Baker Street again.”
After a long pause, Holmes speaks. “My dear Watson, what would you say to us postponing our return to London by one more week?” He waves his beautiful hand over their gift. “We can have these delivered to Mrs. Hudson for safekeeping in the meantime, but since our bags are already packed and our clothes impeccably laundered I see no reason not to make our holiday in France last just a little longer.”
“Another winery has asked for inspection?” Watson turns to look at his friend.
“No winery.” A little smile plays on Holmes’ face. “Paris. A week in Paris. Possibly two.”
Watson purses his lips and looks away from his friend, blinking hard and prepared to blame the road dust if necessary should his eyes water. A honeymoon. “Deux semaines? Charmant, mon ami.”
Holmes grins wide. “Bon, mon cher Jean. Nous irons à Paris.”