Horses' hooves clipped briskly to a stop outside and I glanced at the clock. It was now very nearly four.
Two full hours. I was going to need to hold him for two full hours.
It seemed an impossible task, one that should have never been necessary in the first place.
Everything had gone wrong in a single instant. Of course, how else do things ever go wrong? One moment is the exact one when the wheel comes off the cart or the cracked dam bursts. One second is order, and the next is chaos.
She stood in my doorway with her arms crossed, a solid snow-topped mountain looming in the distance as I laid in my bed.
"Mr. Holmes, you cannot continue on like this."
"In fact, I can, Mrs. Hudson," I said, pausing for a gasp of imaginary pain at my side and also the best possible dramatic effect. "And I assure you, I shall."
My plan had gone well until this point. I was to refuse her this last time, and then when she inevitably returned in a few hours to check on me once again, I would be delirious, in agony and in the most desperate need of a doctor. One doctor in particular, as a matter of fact.
I expected another of her pleading responses, begging me to reconsider sending for some or any help, pleading with me to allow her to bring a bowl of broth or even a glass of water. That was not what I received.
Instead, Mrs. Hudson said nothing at all; she only stood, looking me over. Her silence was not something I expected and it was that very moment I realized I was already lost.
She wasn't crying. She was not even sniffling or biting at her lip to prevent it from trembling. She was simply standing there, immovable.
I adopted a threatening tone, something that normally brought her to bear when nothing else would.
"Mrs. Hudson, I have made my desires quite clear to you and you must abide by them."
I need not have bothered. We were much too far gone by then.
She stared me down. "No, I must not. With your leave or without it, Mr. Holmes, I am going for a doctor this very hour."
It did not take a detective, a master reader of people and their intentions to see the woman was intractable. There was little point in continuing with an argument already lost.
"Let it be Watson, then, if you absolutely refuse to listen to reason," I replied, hissing my annoyance. "At least he will mind my wishes even if you will not."
"If the man cares at all about you, Mr. Holmes, he won't listen to you either."
And with that, she was gone.
She was gone to fetch a doctor to aid me, the doctor, and there was nothing at all I could do about it. Nothing I could do to stop her, and certainly nothing I could do to delay her for the several hours more I needed.
Mrs. Hudson was gone.
And Watson was coming.
Pre-stage nerves kept my toes tapping together underneath the sheets as he made his way up the stairs in a brisker version of his standard uneven gait. The distinctive syncopated rhythm ceased at the top of the stairs and there was a momentary quiet.
He was preparing himself.
As was I. Watson was going to be a sympathetic audience, but that was entirely the problem.
The doctor came in gingerly, peering inside before stepping in, concerned about what he might find living, or not, behind the door. I could see his lapels laid tear-stained and crushed against him, improvements recently made by Mrs. Hudson, no doubt.
"Well, Watson, we seem to have fallen upon evil days," I gave as my greeting, deliberately croaking out the words.
I do not believe he thought I could speak, at least not coherently. He jumped at the sound of my weakened voice. "My dear fellow!"
His natural doctor's instincts pushed him toward me. The day was growing more evil by the second.
"Stand back! Stand right back! If you approach me, Watson, I shall order you out of the house."
He stopped instantly, so quickly the gladstone bag in his hands knocked against his leg and the glassware inside jingled its protest. "But why?"
"Because it is my desire," I said. "Is that not enough?"
"I only wished to help."
"Exactly! You will help best by doing what you are told."
"Certainly," he conceded.
Well, that seemed to have gone marvelously, and I was quite pleased with myself to have made it past the initial hurdle at Watson's arrival. I'd put him off for the first two minutes. Only two hours more to go.
"You are not angry?" I inquired as he cracked open his bag on the table and began extracting various vials and select instruments. "It's for your own sake, Watson."
He threw a glance over his shoulder as he worked. "For my sake?"
I had his attention. Good. I spoke quickly, squeezing all of my expository information into the short length of time I purchased by allowing the doctor to dig through his kit.
"I know what is the matter with me. It is a coolie disease from Sumatra - a thing that the Dutch know more about than we, though they have made little of it up to date. One thing only is certain. It is infallibly deadly, and it is horribly contagious. Contagious by touch, Watson - that's it, by touch. Keep your distance and all is well."
Watson was indignant, insulted by the implication. "Good heavens, Holmes! Do you suppose that such a consideration weighs with me for an instant?"
I had highly doubted it, and correctly so. My doctor has always been dedicated to his craft.
"It would not affect me in the case of a stranger," said he. "Do you imagine it would prevent me from doing my duty to so old a friend?"
His open generosity had the unfortunate effect of lowering my guard somewhat along with my shooing hands. Watson seized this opportunity and tried once more to approach me.
I raised my quavering voice. "No! If you stand there, I will talk. If you do not, you must leave the room."
His patience with my routine was running miserably low already, and we had only barely started. He dropped the genial physician demeanor, giving way to the army surgeon instead, pronouncing straight orders and assessments, and pointing at me emphatically with his thermometer.
"Holmes. You are not yourself. A sick man is but a child, and so I will treat you. Whether you like it or not, I will examine your symptoms and treat you for them."
It was an aggressive move. In a game of aggression, reciprocal force is often required. I wish the force I had at hand at the time had been anything other than what it was. My tongue makes for a wounding lash when I require it, but my choices were exceedingly limited.
"If I am to have a doctor whether I will or not, let me at least have someone in whom I have confidence."
The bite of that whipsting I could see as it hit him. "Then you have none in me?"
"In your friendship, certainly." I would never have him believe otherwise, although I had to twist the knife in his back regardless. "But facts are facts, Watson, and after all, you are only a general practitioner with very limited experience and mediocre qualifications."
He looked crestfallen. I'd hurt him badly, as intended. "Such a remark is unworthy of you, Holmes. It shows me very clearly the state of your nerves." He tugged at his waistcoat, straightening it to restore a bit of his lost dignity. "But if you have no confidence in me I would not intrude my services."
I very nearly sighed my relief, but he continued. "Let me bring Sir Jasper Meek or Penrose Fisher, or any of the best men in London. But someone you must have, and that is final. If you think that I am going to stand here and see you die without either helping you myself or bringing anyone else to help you, then you have mistaken your man."
I had not. Not in the slightest. That fact did me absolutely no good whatsoever, and it did him even less.
Again I attempted to soften my blade with the thinnest coating of sugar. "You mean well, Watson. But shall I demonstrate your ignorance? What do you know, pray, of Tapanuli fever? What do you know of the black Formosa corruption?"
"I have never heard of either," he said with reluctance. It would have been a surprise if he had, given I had only just then invented them.
"There are many problems of disease, many strange pathological possibilities in the East, Watson. I have learned so much during some recent researches which have a medico-criminal aspect. It was in the course of them that I contracted this complaint."
Watson listened to my litany, motionless, captivated more by my trembling and halting breaths than my words.
"You can do nothing," I said at last. That he definitely heard and understood.
I should have more concretely planned for what happened next. Watson's actions were inevitable, given the circumstances and the strong fibre of the man himself. To explain the puerile gambit I made in response, however, is virtually impossible as it was desperate nonsense. I can only claim it was the poor planning of a pressed man under difficult conditions. Hunger and thirst are problems a well-trained person may deal with successfully. The tobacco withdrawal, however, fogged my mind severely.
"Possibly not," Watson said in reply. "But I happen to know that Dr. Ainstree, the greatest living authority upon tropical disease, is now in London. All remonstrance is useless, Holmes. I am going this instant to fetch him."
Before I had even the time to argue, he was already halfway to the door. He could not be allowed to leave, not this early. The entire case and justice itself depended upon it. With no other options I could see remaining, I launched myself up and dashed to the door first, slamming it shut and locking it. My retreat back to the safety of the quilts of my bed left me panting and authentically strained. I felt tired and worn and quite furious for painting myself into this ridiculous corner. I needed to keep Watson away from me at all costs, and now I had just locked the two of us in a room together.
"You won't take this key by force, Watson," I said as I palmed it away from his sight. "I've got you, my friend. Here you are, and here you will stay until I say otherwise."
Watson folded his arms into a hard knot and creased his brow. If he wasn't angry before, he certainly was now.
"You've only my own good at heart," I told him, ineptly trying to control his reaction. "Of course I know that very well. You shall have your way, but give me time to get my strength. Not now, Watson, not now. It's four o'clock. At six you can go."
"This is insanity, Holmes."
The doctor's diagnosis was quite correct, and the symptoms were only worsening by the minute.
"Only two hours, Watson. I promise you will go at six. Are you content to wait?"
"No. Absolutely not. 'Only two hours'? Holmes, fever delirium is speaking for you and I have no intention of listening to its nonsense." I opened my mouth to interject but he stopped me.
"You cannot wait any longer for treatment in your condition. Even this mediocre general practitioner can see that. If you will not have me to tend you, then you must have another. I will bring anyone you wish, but for that I shall require the key.
"It is your decision, Holmes, but you must make it at once. I will accept your wrath but not further delay. Choose, or I choose for you."
"I have already chosen, Watson. At six, you may leave to fetch him." Despite my efforts, he began stalking around the corner of the bed. My frustration boiled over. "No! No, Watson, stop! You told me earlier you would not intrude your services where they were unwanted. You were lying then, I see?"
Watson finally did stop then, dead in his tracks. His eyes grew wide, flashing affront and ire in the light.
"No, Holmes, I was not lying to you. I have never lied to you. I offered you your choice of any physician in the city, anyone at all. You chose none and locked me in this room with you instead. What option do I have left to me at this point but to tend you myself? Because I also told you that I would not stand idly by and watch you die without trying to help you, no matter what it is you say you want. I was telling the truth then, too.
"Have you any comprehension at all of what you are asking of me? You demand that I sit aside placidly, locked in this room with you while we wait for no sane reason for the hours to pass. Perhaps you will pass first instead and I will have done nothing, nothing at all to prevent it. All I will have done is watch.
"Even if that is your wish, do you honestly believe I could endure the experience? That I could live comfortably with that memory inside my mind for the decades to follow? You are my friend and I am a doctor, Holmes. You do not understand what it is you are asking of me."
Hesitant, I licked my parched lips. "On the contrary, Watson. I understand quite perfectly what it is I am asking of you. What I am requesting is our only hope for a positive outcome. There is only one way in which this scenario ends well for all involved, I assure you. I need you to stay away from me, and I need you to wait. No, no closer! Contagious by touch, remember?
"Watson, please, if you have ever trusted my judgement, trust me now and stop. I would not ask this of you if I were not certain it was absolutely necessary."
"And I would not impose myself upon you were I not certain my intervention was absolutely necessary as well. Please, Holmes. Your fears are arising not from your rational brain but from your fevered one. You ask for my trust. Would you give me none of your own?"
I wished I could tell him the truth that I was doing nothing but trusting him. That in fact my faith in him was the base cause of our now-multitudinous difficulties. If I didn't trust him, I would never have chosen him for this important task, and I would not now be trapped, trying so fervently to hold him on the other side of the room to keep his observant and skilled medical eye as far away from my person as possible.
I decided to tell him another truth instead.
"Watson, this has nothing at all to do with trust and everything to do with ability. It is highly regrettable, but there is nothing you can do to help me with this affliction, Doctor. I know well that you would if in any way you could, but you cannot.
"This exotic infection necessitates a rare expertise. Only one man in all England is able to aid me and unfortunately I happen to know that man is actively in transit at this very moment and unavailable. In just two hours time, however, he shall be easily found at the study where he conducts his biological research.
"All my hopes," I said, "rest on you bringing him here to me when you are able. Will you wait and fetch him when the time comes? Please, you must do this for me."
Watson replied in soothing tones and gestures. "Of course I will bring him to you, Holmes, you needn't worry about that. Calm yourself. Anyone or anything you need you shall have. But who is this man?"
"Mr. Culverton Smith, of 13 Lower Burke Street. It must be he and no one else."
"Mister Culverton Smith? This man is not a physician?"
"In fact, no. It may surprise you to know that the man upon earth who is best versed in this disease is not a medical man, but a planter. Culverton Smith is a well-known resident of Sumatra, now visiting London. An outbreak of the disease upon his plantation, which was distant from medical aid, caused him to study it himself with some rather far-reaching consequences. He is a very methodical person, and I do not desire you to start before six because I am well aware that you will not find him in his study until that hour.
"You will have to plead with him, Watson. There is no good feeling between us. His nephew, Watson -- I had suspicions of foul play and I allowed him to see it. The boy died horribly. He has a grudge against me. You will soften him, Watson. Beg him, pray him, get him here by any means. He can save me -- only he!"
"I will bring him in a cab, if I have to carry him down to it."
The mental image of Watson, stout and strong, hoisting a sniveling, thrashing Culverton Smith over his shoulder like a misbehaving child was terribly amusing. And completely unsuitable.
"You will do nothing of the sort. You will persuade him to come. And then you will return in front of him. Make any excuse so as not to come with him. Don't forget, Watson. You won't fail me. You never did fail me."
"Of course not, Holmes. I will bring him to you, whatever it takes. You know I will." He paused for a swallow. "But you also know I can't allow you to wait without care until that time comes."
I groaned. "It's not safe, Watson. This illness is spread by touch! How many times must I remind you of the fact? It is exceedingly deadly and virulently contagious, absolutely not worth the dire risk involved!"
"Your life isn't worth the risk, in your estimation? I am glad then it is not your risk to take, but mine."
He sat himself on the edge of the bed near my feet. I tensed and looked away from him, staring down to keep my full face out of his vision. The stitching on the quilt was crooked, a flaw I'd noticed before.
"Holmes. Somewhere in your great mind you know that I am right. Look at yourself. Examine the evidence. Your breathing is rapid and constrained. You're shivering and sweating. You are fighting off chills and spasms of pain that you are only barely able to hold in check. It has been days since even a drop of water last passed your lips.
"What good, pray, will this planter's miracle cure do you if you succumb to dehydration and fever while you wait to receive it? Think of it, Holmes. Please. I ask you to think of it, and then let me help you." He reached for me but at the distance could only make it to my blanket-covered knee. He gripped it with one capable hand and squeezed.
"Let me help you."
"Watson," I began, searching without avail for an adequate expression to offer him in return. "Your stalwart kindness is a gift I shall never possess the ability to repay," I said at last.
I took a ragged, portent-filled breath and held it before continuing.
"But this situation is not as simple as you make it sound, Doctor. I will consider your question if you will but consider mine first. What happens if this disease breaks out loose into the city, beyond the confines of this room and the squalid isolation of the Rotherhithe docks? What happens if we are careless and the great masses of London are exposed to the spectre of plague and death by our doing?
"Tell me, Doctor, what happens then?"
Watson didn't move, but his grip upon me loosened just slightly. "We are not going to allow that to happen."
"No," I said. "We are not."
In my peripheral vision, I could see his shoulders rising and falling in his mounting agitation as he thought through the implications of the situation.
"But what would you have me do, Holmes? What? I cannot simply stand aside and watch you die. How can I possibly do that?"
"You are not going to watch me die. You are going to watch me lie here and rest quietly until you can bring me Culverton Smith. I've successfully suffered through for three days so far now, surely I can make it a few hours more. Indeed, I must! For there is no other choice. Watson, you must know this is the only way."
"It can't be the only way."
For my reply, I dared to face him, meeting his eyes for emphasis.
"You know it is. You know it as well as I do. We cannot chance disaster."
The doctor surprised me with a quick rise to his feet. "It is much too late for staving off disaster, Holmes. We are well into the depths of that black territory already. There must be something I can do to help you in the meantime. There must be."
I shook my head.
"Nothing? Nothing at all you can think of? If ever we needed one of your conjured tricks, your miraculous reveals, now is the time, Holmes. Tell me what I can do. Tell me!"
"Watson. Stop. We both know what must be done."
"You don't understand," he said, raking through his hair. "This isn't something you can understand. I can't do it. I can't do nothing while you lie here slipping away before me! Dear God! I can't!" His voice cracked, and for the first time since his arrival, he turned away from me, pacing the room in his distress.
"You are not doing nothing, Watson! You are helping me immensely. You will help me in a way that no one else can when you bring Smith to me. I trust only you for this vital task. Watson, please listen. You are helping."
There was no answer. At the far wall, he gripped the mantelpiece and hung his head. Given the sound of his caught breathing, he was hiding from me to prevent me from seeing him blink back his tears. The good doctor does not believe in upsetting his patient.
I retreated lower into my blankets, similarly hiding myself away as much as I then could. Watson had finally stopped trying to reach me. I had found success at last, but only in the form of extraordinary failure.
In that moment, I had no idea what to do, listening to him trying and failing to steady himself to face me again. There was little I could do. I closed my eyes to give him a small modicum of privacy with his grief, the only solace I had to offer.
With my keen hearing and imagination, though, I had only managed to make the situation worse.
Although I made every effort not to, my mind conjured for me the image of him, as clear and flawless and cutting as a diamond. He stood leveling his breath and his head at my mantel, rifling through the detritus of my life accumulated there. It was a eulogy made manifest for him to touch, one memory at a time.
A stack of papers from our last case crinkled under his fingers. Pipes clattered and glass syringes rang as they knocked against one another. A tobacco pouch rustled softly. A penknife snapped closed and an assorted collection of revolver-cartridges rattled metallically as they rolled, nudged onward by a surgeon's delicate touch.
At last, I heard an odd clinking noise, of something solid and hard. The material sounded almost like... ivory, of all things.
Ivory. The Box.
I leapt from the bed to stand and stop him, beseeching him with all of my energy. "Put it down! Down, this instant, Watson -- this instant, I say!"
Good God, somehow in all the terrific catastrophe of the day I had managed to forget that Culverton Smith's hideous envenomed box was lying out for all to see. And to touch.
And to open.
Watson stood paralyzed before me for a moment. The corpse white object's lid remained closed while he hurried to replace it in an effort to calm me, horrified as he was by my appearance and actions. He had no inkling of how near to assured death he had just passed, and even less understanding that it had come about due to my own abject carelessness. In my effort to feign death, I very nearly brought it upon my one and only true friend.
"I hate to have my things touched, Watson," I said, scolding him, awash in the enervating remnants of fear and shock. "You know that I... I hate... it." As I spoke, I began to sway, and the world around me began dimming to a pinhole. Before it blinked away entirely, taking my view of a scared-looking John Watson with it, it occurred to me that my jump up to stand was quite poorly considered given my current physical condition. The last thing I could do as I fell was attempt to angle my body in the hope of hitting the mattress and not the floor in my faint.
I opened my eyes and the ceiling appeared above me, blurry and indistinct. The softness at my back seemed to indicate I was again lying on the bed, but the recollection of how I'd arrived there and what was now occurring was lost in a fog of confusion and dulled senses.
"Gently, gently," I could hear him say from far away, somewhere else. At least, that was my closest guess at deciphering his speech through my ringing ears. "I am here. Don't try to get up yet, Holmes. Just breathe, deeply and slowly now."
I twisted my neck to look at him and gradually he came into focus, sitting forward in the wooden chair across the room, watching me. The insect screech in my head was taking too long to quiet. My bounding heart rattled lopsided against my chest and refused to slow.
Watson appeared concerned, but made no move toward me. Instead, he leaned further forward with his elbows at his knees, pointing himself and his attention at me with his steepled fingers leading the way. In the grey mist of my recovering consciousness, I made one observation.
"You're not where I left you."
"No, I suppose I'm not," he said, lifting his eyebrows. "And you didn't leave me, although for one too-long moment you had me convinced otherwise. You fainted, Holmes, several minutes ago. Now kindly stop talking and take those deep breaths I asked of you."
Several minutes. Anything could have taken place in several minutes. He'd had the box in his hands. I had seen it.
"What happened?" My voice did not need artificial distortion now.
He gave me a medical description of the incident, an explanation involving thirst and hunger and rapid standing. It was all incredibly obvious and beside the point.
"No, not that! What happened after that? Watson, what did you do?" I tried to push myself up to address him straight on, but my swirling head kept me horizontal.
"Nothing, I did nothing! Lie back, will you? I never touched you, through any of it, no matter how intensely I wished to do otherwise. I know what is at stake, and since I could see you were only unconscious, I left you alone. But if you don't stop trying to sit up, I may not be able to keep my word in that regard. Holmes, lie still. You're in no condition to move."
Perhaps he was on target with his assessment. But still I needed to know.
"You put it back? You never opened it?"
"What are you talking about? The little white box? Yes, I put it down as soon as you told me to. I did everything you asked, Holmes. Your things are perfectly safe. Don't worry so. Just rest."
My frustration was rising even if I could not. If Watson did not mindlessly pick up things that did not belong to him, my already stressed system would not have had such a violent start, and I would not have needed to interrogate him while gasping like a dispossessed fish, half on and half off my own bed. What had he been doing with the box at all? Why had he been standing by the mantel in the first place to even discover it?
The doctor cocked his head at me, still doing his best to diagnose and monitor me from a distance, and I caught a glimpse with my improving sight of his glistening, reddened eyes.
Ah, yes. That was why.
"Good, that's good, Watson. Keep your hands entirely to yourself in this room. It's the only safe decision."
"Of course, Holmes. Now calm yourself and rest, please. You are quite exhausted."
The doctor was correct in that regard. I could feel every second of my days of self-imposed austerity in my bones. Every instant I woke more from my faint, the more I felt that all I wanted was to slide back into sleep. At Watson's encouragement once he was assured I could move without promptly swooning again, I pulled myself up and back into the warm embrace of the pillows and blankets, lying properly in bed instead of awkwardly sprawled atop it.
"You should sleep for now, if you are able," he said. "I will wake you when six o'clock comes. It's all right, Holmes. I'll be here if you need me."
He always was.
As Watson looked on, I drifted off, until the chime of six when he woke me again to fetch the key and Culverton Smith. I had planned upon a campaign of faux delirium to push him along at the end of our meeting, but after all that had occurred, it was beyond unnecessary. His still shaken countenance told me that much easily.
He gave me a few doctorly instructions before he departed, to sip the cool water he left behind if I could, and above all else to remain in bed until he returned. Watson's worry was palpable as he left, but he held a brave face for his patient as a professional must.
I had no doubt he would be successful in the task I gave him. I chose Watson's assistance for good reason, even if my good reason seemed to be in tremendously short supply.
The doctor returned even faster than I had expected, almost too quickly, I thought.
"Well, did you see him, Watson?"
"Yes; he is coming," he said tersely, his jaw set.
I was delighted. Finally, good news for this miserable day. "Admirable, Watson! Admirable! You are the best of messengers." He deserved more praise than that for his superlative actions, all of them, but time was strictly limited. Our murderer was due to join us at any minute.
"He wished to return with me."
Undoubtedly. It was not hard to imagine the eagerness Smith must have had to feast his eyes upon his handiwork.
"That would never do, Watson. That would be obviously impossible. Did he ask what ailed me?"
"I told him about the Chinese in the East End."
"Exactly! Well, Watson, you have done all that a good friend could. You can now disappear from the scene." I was entertaining myself envisioning the repulsive fly making its now-inexorable way to my web and utter doom. I had him.
"I must wait and hear his opinion, Holmes."
Ah, it was like returning to the fresh air of the surface after too long underwater to be back at last to my original plan of attack. The pieces were falling into place as they should have hours ago. I had waited a long time for that statement.
"Of course you must. But I have reasons to suppose that this opinion would be very much more frank and valuable if he imagines that we are alone. There is just room behind the head of my bed, Watson," I said, gesturing.
His mouth dropped open. "My dear Holmes!"
"I fear there is no alternative, Watson. The room does not lend itself to concealment, which is as well, as it is less likely to arouse suspicion. But just there, I fancy that it could be done."
My ears pricked up as a cat's do when a mouse scurries inside a wall. "There are the wheels, Watson."
He stiffened, suddenly full of apprehension and consternation. Watson flicked his gaze between myself and his would-be sanctuary directly behind me, the only place I knew he would be both useful and safe while I engaged the madman at hand. But he remained stubbornly unmoved, and I could hear the swing of the clock's pendulum along with the knock at the front door.
"Quick, man, if you love me!"
He blinked and I swore I thought I saw him wince. Perhaps I should have been more judicious in the phrasing of my plea, but I was too tired for any more art or guile when it came to my Watson. I was reserving that energy for the visitor downstairs. Open begging would have to suffice instead, and it did, leading directly to the necessary result. Watson dashed to his designated post and wedged himself between the headboard and the wall.
"And don't budge, whatever happens -- whatever happens, do you hear? Don't speak! Don't move! Just listen with all your ears."
I received no answer to my imploring, nor did I expect one. The doctor, always a consummate professional, was already busy at work, fulfilling my wishes.
"Is there any other little service I can do you, my friend?" Culverton Smith's words dripped thick with the cold black blood of an innocent youth.
"A match and a cigarette," I replied, the first phrase I was able to say in my own full-throated voice in three interminable days. I was thankful for the freedom to speak without an affected death rattle, but not nearly as thankful as I was for the tools and ability to smoke.
At my back, I heard my still-concealed accomplice stifle silent a laugh of delight and surprise. Smith snapped around to gape at me, stunned into near paralysis.
"Too much to ask? Oh, don't bother yourself. I have my own small kit secreted away here by the bed for such emergencies."
He stammered. "What- What's the meaning of this?"
I smiled at my prey and sparked the match. The first inhale as you light a cigarette always burns in your lungs the sweetest, and that particular one, after so long a wait, was exquisite.
"Ah, yes, that is very much better. The best way of successfully acting a part is to be it, Smith. I give you my word that for three days I have tasted neither food nor drink. But it was the tobacco which I found the most irksome to do without."
Footsteps on the stairs caught my attention. My reinforcements, right on cue.
"Halloa! halloa! Do I hear the step of a friend?"
Inspector Morton burst in, alert as a deer. I pointed to introduce my guest.
"All is in order and this is your man."
Culverton Smith startled and frantically searched about the room for some answer to his predicament. The only way out for him now sat heavy in his pocket like a weighted stone in the coat of a drowning man, but he hadn't the spine to open the malevolent box and take its opportunity.
"I arrest you on the charge of the murder of one Victor Savage," Morton said, his handcuffs at the ready.
"And you might add of the attempted murder of one Sherlock Holmes," I said as I chuckled to myself. Smith put up a pointless struggle against the Inspector's muscle and found himself a captive of the law, as was always his destiny.
"A nice trap!" the criminal barked. "It will bring you into the dock, Holmes, not me." Smith decided to waste his energies pleading to Inspector Morton. "He asked me to come here to cure him. I was sorry for him and I came. Now he will pretend, no doubt, that I have said anything which he may invent which will corroborate his insane suspicions. You can lie as you like, Holmes. My word is always as good as yours."
"No, it truly isn't, but that's well beside the point. What is more to it is that while you have the murder weapon in your pocket, I have a reliable witness to our little affair in mine. A well-known and respected London physician, as a matter of fact. Please come join us if you would, Doctor."
Watson crept out of his foxhole between the wall and the headboard and took his more familiar position standing watch at my side, somewhere between myself and the most pressing danger he could perceive in the room. He looked sternly at Smith who blanched white the second he recognized my partner. His shock was priceless.
"I need not introduce you to Watson here, surely. I understand you met somewhat earlier in the evening."
Watson glanced down at me and threw a triumphant grin my way. When his attention turned back to the monster in our midst, his bared teeth became malevolent but no less gleeful.
"It is such a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Smith."
In the immediate aftermath of the springing of my trap, I scrubbed myself back to life with soap and water, aided by a plate of Mrs. Hudson's biscuits and a glass of claret she considered but decided against throwing in my face.
Watson seemed perfectly amused at the scene, perched on the bed where I had laid for so long, basking in the glow of our great success and relishing both my explication of the case's intricacies and the description of my unique malingering methods. In the end, my initial timing error had worked itself from disaster to victory, so there was surely no reason to bring up that particular detail in my recounting.
The landlady seemed to enjoy my storytelling much less, but she too hovered close by to watch me lather and continue living. I did my best to explain the necessity of my actions to her.
"It was very essential that I should impress you with the reality of my condition, Mrs. Hudson, since you were to convey it to Watson, and he in turn to Culverton Smith. You see?"
She ignored me entirely.
"When you have enough food in you to keep you standing upright and you no longer appear to be half in your grave, Mr. Holmes, I suggest you take poor Dr. Watson here out to dinner. You owe him at least a good meal for all you put him through."
"An excellent suggestion, indeed. And it serves the double purpose of preventing you from needing to fill my starved-empty stomach tonight. A debt repayment for you as well."
She considered my proposal. "You may want to consider making your reservations for the rest of this week, if that's your offer. I've already spent half of it not feeding you, after all, so perhaps I should finish in the same manner. You are welcome to order your board from me if you wish, of course, but you may find it delayed for the time being. Rather delayed, Mr. Holmes."
Ah, my Mrs. Hudson. "Perfectly understood, madam. I shall make the necessary arrangements for myself." Her adopted scowl softened when I squeezed her bony shoulder. "I thank you, Mrs. Hudson. You are as vitally essential to my processes as ever. Well, not as ever, I suppose, but I am certain you shall be again into the foreseeable future after this week of punishment against me ends."
If there was a reply she wished to give, she did not seem to have the vocabulary to put to it. Instead she merely threw up her hands in exasperation and scoffed before leaving. I turned to Watson and shrugged for comedic deadpan effect, but he was already laughing.
"You've done it now, my dear Holmes. She is going to be furious with you for some time indeed, I think. I at least have a wife who will cook for me. What shall you do for your sustenance without Mrs. Hudson? You may have a wide multitude of talents, but cooking was never among them."
"Quite so, which is why I believe I shall follow her wise advice, my good Watson. Would you be inclined to join me for something nutritious at Simpson's, say, for this evening at least? Dining situations in future days we can consider as they come."
Again, he laughed. "Certainly. It would be my pleasure."
And certainly, a pleasure it was. We dined well that night and drank even better. No bottle of wine has ever tasted as refreshing and divine as that one after an eighty hour fast. Watson and I toasted to success and health, bounties we were enjoying in great quantity.
But at some point, as I was sawing another delectable bite off my beef Wellington, it occurred to me that some pieces of my memory of the events of the day did not add up properly. I ran through it multiple times in my mind, watching it all unfold again and searching meticulously for the anomaly in the data, the fly in the ointment.
I trust my instincts implicitly. Something was off, even if I could not be at all certain what that something was.
"What's troubling you, Holmes?"
Watson's voice wrenched me back into the present.
"Hmm? Ah, nothing. Was I that obvious?"
"You were stabbing your fork into your meat as if you were torturing it for answers. I doubt the cow will have the answer to your question, at least not at this point. What is it?"
I debated whether to tell him. Could I even tell him? What was the question, after all?
"There's something that doesn't make sense to me. In my mind. In my memory. I am attempting to parse out what I can recall to discover the problem."
"Well, give yourself some time. With some food, drink, and rest, it will come to you. Your body and brain have been cruelly misused for days on end. Remember, you fainted only hours ago. Be easy on yourself, Holmes. It will come."
The doctor's prescription was absolutely correct, because that was the very instant I knew. The deduction came to me in parts that fit together into a perfect crystalline whole.
Our argument. Two intractable sides duelling with inexorable logic.
The box, a coiled viper sitting in Watson's outstretched hands.
My head, full of bees and candy floss.
A direction chosen and an effort made at the last possible moment.
My bedroom ceiling, seeming to glide over me as I attempted to refocus my vision.
And of course, the most valuable point, as always.
"If you think that I am going to stand here and see you die," I could see him saying, spine rigid, distraught but defiant, "then you have mistaken your man."
I clapped my hands and burst into a fit of laughter at the revelation. In another universe from our table, heads were turning and annoyed glares from other diners were being thrown, but all that was much too distant to concern me in the slightest.
For his part, my Watson never can resist laughing when someone in his company does, and so he joined me merrily.
"I take it you solved your problem, then? That was quick indeed! What was it?"
"I knew I was missing something. I knew it! Watson, you lied to me!"
The smile on his face melted off. "What are you talking about? Holmes, I told you I have never lied to you."
"You turned me over," I said, still mirthful despite my companion's clear lack of the emotion.
"Turned you over?"
"You told me you never touched me after I fainted, but I know that cannot be true because I know you turned me over. Fantastic!"
"It was not a lie. I don't lie to you, Holmes."
"Well, you rolled me over in some way or another, presumably to aid my breathing. I suppose it's possible that rather than your hands, you used a tool of some kind. Something long would serve best, perhaps your cane or my singlestick. I still strongly suspect, though, that this was a task you would do with your own two hands. Either way, you turned me over, Watson. I fell with my face to the mattress and woke with my back to it. Ah, but there's a paradox!"
"Yes, the John Watson paradox, of course. You had to have known I was malingering, because I know you. It took me everything I could think of to keep you away from me when I was awake. When I was not, well, how could my good doctor have stopped himself from helping an unconscious patient in need, particularly when I was that patient? At that close distance and with your skill, you easily would have found me out.
"But at the same time, you could not have known, because you were clearly so convincing to Culverton Smith, luring him to Baker Street with speed and ease."
"Wait. I have a question. Why is it that convincing Culverton Smith has anything to do with whether or not I knew you were only pretending to be ailing? I don't follow."
"You won't be offended, Watson? You will realize that among your many talents dissimulation finds no place, and that if you had shared my secret you would never have been able to impress Smith with the urgent necessity of his presence, which was the vital point of the whole scheme."
His familiar smile returned in a flash. "I may not be a master of deception as you are, Holmes, but I have my methods when I need them. I did in fact discover you were faking your illness, and I convinced Smith to follow me anyway, which was simplicity itself. Ah, you're impressed!"
I conceded him the obvious point. "You knew? But how did you do it, then? I do mean no offense by the observation, but acting is not your forte, Doctor."
"Perhaps not, but I once heard a smart man say that the best way of successfully acting a part is to be it."
I laughed again. "Indeed! Well, it is an intelligent recommendation, and your advisor is to be commended. But now I must admit I am the one who doesn't follow. What do you mean?"
"I mean only that it was simple to play the part of an alarmed, fearful friend to Culverton Smith because by convenient coincidence, that was precisely what I was."
"Alarmed, I may understand. But fearful? Watson, you knew I was not dying, in truth. You said you had figured it out."
"You weren't dying from a cruel Oriental fever plague, I knew that much, yes. But Holmes, I also knew you in the midst of a duel with a murderer, a man you admitted had a furious grudge against you. You told me that much yourself. You were soon to meet this violent criminal face to face, as weakened and fragile as I knew you were, and in fact, I was to be the one to lure him to your bedside!
"So, yes, Holmes, I was fearful for you. It did not take much to convince Smith of that. Especially after your spontaneous and terrifying fainting spell. That's as near to your death as I ever care to approach."
"Well, you did nearly stop my heart picking up the monstrous ivory box, after all. If I had departed for the great beyond then, it would have been your fault," I said, trying to joke with him and failing.
He didn't answer right away. When he did, he talked to his wine glass rather than me, in a hushed tone. "You still don't understand."
Watson sat back in his chair and began our story from his perspective, picking up at the point at which my perspective dimmed into temporary oblivion.
"At the time, I had no idea what was happening while I was holding Smith's box. I did not know what it was or what I had done to offend you so intensely. All I knew is that you were deathly ill, I could not even help you, and yet somehow, inexplicably, you were suddenly standing and screaming at me to put down some random item I had picked up off your mantel.
"You hadn't even finished berating me about the object before you wobbled and your eyes rolled back into your skull, Holmes. I could do naught but observe as you dropped unceremoniously onto the bed, twisted and face down, your legs dangling off to the side. I shouted your name, but I knew before the word came out of my mouth that you weren't going to respond. That fact did not stop me from trying, again and again.
"I started to rush to you, my every inclination pulling me to you. To help you. To know. But somewhere in the depths of my mind, I could still clearly hear your voice, as frigid and starkly horrifying as a fall through ice.
"'We cannot chance disaster,' you said.
Here he paused, searching with difficulty for the proper word. Again, he directed his words and his attention to the stem of his wine glass rather than meet my eyes. Safer there, I suppose.
"It is painful for me to describe that moment. Although you laid but feet from me, I had no way of knowing whether you were alive or dead. I couldn't touch you to feel for your pulse. I could not even see if you were breathing or not in the contorted pile you'd fallen into.
"I had to do something. There was not any choice for me. There simply wasn't.
"But I knew what the dangers were, Holmes. You made those all too clear to me. And that is when my thoughts fell to my gloves."
I could not help but interrupt him. "Gloves! Your gloves were your solution! Oh, Watson, that's brilliant. Likely completely ineffective at protecting against real contagion, but brilliant."
"I would not call it brilliant, Holmes. I would have better termed it 'desperate'. I thought with a layer of leather between us, I would not in actuality be touching you. I'd still be following your given instructions to the word, if not the spirit.
"At least that is what I told myself then. As I said, I could not do nothing."
Of course he could not. He is John Watson, after all. What is more in his nature than to forge his path into danger to help another who requires him?
"You were still alive; I could tell that as soon as I gripped your shoulder to turn you and I heard you faintly whimper. Rolled onto your back, you breathed much more freely. In fact, I was thrilled by the clarity and depth of your respiration given how shallow and unsteady it had been earlier as we spoke. Your pulse pounded too fast at my leather-wrapped fingers, but I was relieved to find it even and steady. I put my palm to your forehead to attempt to gauge your temperature through the gloves, but it was a lost cause; the leather was too thick and insulating to allow it.
"Though I noticed something strange and out of sorts when my hand came away with not the expected fever sweat but an unknown and greasy fluid on my glove, glistening wetly on the black hide. As I rubbed my fingers over it, I discovered a familiar slippery, viscous quality to the mystery substance, and I realized I knew what it was.
"It was Vaseline.
"Vaseline, I thought. Why on earth would you have Vaseline on your forehead?
"It was then I knew that something else was going on I could not see. That happens often enough when one accompanies the world's only consulting detective, but I certainly hadn't expected it today. And I remained as lost as ever to what it all meant.
"Leaning over you, I could easily see your suffering written into the features of your face. Cracked lips, sunken eyes, dark lines - you showed every sign indicative of severe thirst and self-neglect. Curiously, I noticed something else on your face as well. On closer inspection, the high flush on your cheekbones appeared in fact to be a skillful application of women's makeup, of all things.
"I decided to take a risk. I tugged off one of my gloves and dared to press a bare hand to your ribs over your night clothes, still careful to avoid any form of skin contact. From that vantage point through the fabric, I could feel your lungs filling fully, your heart beating strongly, and instead of the sickly fever heat I feared, you radiated only warmth, the soothing, natural warmth made by a healthy living human body.
"You were living. You were healthy.
"A sensation of absolute delight trilled through me. You were never in honesty dying at all! It was all some form of an elaborate trick! An elaborate, detailed trick you designed to make the world believe you were in your last hours. To make me believe it.
"My first thought was that there had to be a serious reason for your deception. Sherlock Holmes does not do things without purpose. I could not fathom the answer, of course, but I could continue the game you started, playing my part to the best of my ability. Clearly, this was a matter of life and death. You would not have taken such drastic measures otherwise, and you very specifically gave me a job to do along with them. I took that assignment very seriously.
"By this time, you were just beginning to come back around to consciousness, and so I fled to the other side of the room to take my place before you could wake. I knew where you wanted me and what you wanted from me, and I had every intention of doing what needed to be done. I already had your orders, Holmes. It was simply a matter of waiting for the time to come to follow them."
His story ended and he looked at me flatly across our scatter of plates and glasses. For once, I could not read his expression to know what was feeling.
"You played your part in this drama today," I said, "with an artist's mastery, Watson. You followed my orders beautifully. Even the ones you refused to follow.
I took a long drink of water, giving me time to think of how to form my thoughts into sentences. I had never been as thirsty.
"Watson, the plot I devised to capture Victor Savage's murderer always involved some cruelty to Mrs. Hudson and yourself. I knew that as I was constructing it. I lamented it, but a bright young man had died after the most exquisite agony solely for the profit of his soulless uncle, and I knew a way I could bring the sadist to justice.
"For that I am sorry to both of you, as I would have been sorry had everything gone exactly to plan. Sorry, but not regretful. It was done for the best, and that is all one can ever do.
"But things did not go exactly to plan, nor even close. It was very nearly a total loss, in more ways than one. You must believe me, Watson, when I tell you that I never meant to ask as much of you as I did today.
"In my concept as I conceived it, you were to see me in my bed for minutes only. I knew it would frighten you to think I was severely ill, but that was the point, you see. I required two things from you. I needed you to bear witness to a confession to murder, and for that to happen, I needed you to fear for my death.
"But when Mrs. Hudson jumped my gun and brought you to me hours early, I found myself forced to improvise an entirely new scheme, the details of which I invented as we spoke. I debated against myself the notion of abandoning this solution to the case, but it was the only way I saw possible to force Culverton Smith into confessing. I had to try to finish it, no matter what came. Even if what came was you, two hours early.
"Watson, I asked you to do something completely impossible when I asked you to stand aside and do nothing to aid me as I languished in front of you. It was impossible for you and yet you were trying with all your heart do it anyway, regardless of how much every second of it gutted you. Because you are a good man, a gentleman, and you know that difficult decisions sometimes must be made for the greater good.
"Even John Watson has his limits, however. When I fainted, which was the barest minimum sentence I deserved for having nearly killed you myself with Smith's own weapon, I put you in an excruciating position that no doctor and no friend should ever have to face."
Watson interjected. "It wouldn't have been your fault, Holmes."
"If you had opened the box? It would hardly have been anyone else's. I could have put it away, kept it hidden until it was needed. Instead, I left it out and it well-nigh caused a catastrophe."
"It didn't. You had the case on your mind, and the box was pivotal to it. It makes sense you would leave it where you, and later your prey could see it. But when you saw me touch it, you drove yourself to the very brink to protect me from it, with no thought at all to yourself. That means something to me, Holmes. You honored me by your actions."
I swallowed the hard lump lodged in my throat. I had no way at all of answering him that would do justice to his words. Watson smiled gently when he saw my expression.
"Enough of this. We have a fine meal in front of us, half of a superb bottle of French wine left, and a round of brandy and cigars to look forward to when we are finished. Let us enjoy this evening together for now and let the rest of the day be forgotten, at least until tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, when I write the details of this case into my notes. Someday, much later I am sure, I will submit it as another memoir for the Strand."
"You are planning on writing this one, of all of our adventures? This one?"
"You must admit, it is a fantastic basis for a story, the plot you conceived. It may have been tumultuous, but I think you'll agree, it ended well."