.. .. ..
I arrived at the auberge just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, casting its soft orange glow over the snow-covered Alpine slopes. The first indications of what had happened were already there to see, had I paid more attention to that little part of my brain that was constantly engaged in observing my surroundings.
My mind was on other things, however. I paid little heed to the topic of conversation between the two old Prussian ladies seated nearby in the hotel lobby, nor to the front page of the newspaper which lay on the counter. I was simply desperately looking forward to seeing Watson again, after three days spent on a fruitless hunt through the towns of the Haute-Savoie. I was looking forward to an evening spent dining with him, and perhaps a gentle after-dinner stroll on the lower slopes of the mountains, appreciating the outlines of their towering peaks by the light of the moon. I was looking forward to retiring to his bed or mine, and reacquainting myself with the man I had come to know as well as my own soul.
The landlord appeared through the door at the far end of the hotel lobby, a pile of table-linen in his arms.
"Bonsoir, monsieur," he said. "I was beginning to wonder whether I should relet your rooms."
I was taken aback. "But the Doctor -- Didn't Dr Watson come back on Sunday?"
He shook his head. "Will you be wanting dinner tonight?"
"What? No." I turned away, quickly reviewing the facts of the matter in my mind. I had left Watson on the shores of Lake Geneva three days previously. He had been supposed to return directly to Chamonix, accompanying our client's wife, while I took a more circuitous route in order to follow up on a few leads that at the time seemed more important than they proved to be. Watson ought to have arrived at the hotel several days before I did.
I began to feel faintly uneasy.
I turned back to the landlord. He was holding out an envelope of flimsy yellow paper.
"I almost forgot. You received a telegram a couple of days ago."
I snatched it from him and tore it open. The contents were frustrating in their brevity.
LADY A FLED INTO CHABLAIS STOP HAVE GONE AFTER HER STOP WILL ADVISE STOP YOURS JW
I stared at the message, different ideas chasing each other round in my mind. What on earth had prompted Watson to deviate from our carefully laid plans? What on earth had possessed Lady Alice to venture into the Chablais mountains, particularly at this time of year? Distinctly wintry weather had set in in earnest over the past week, and I could already imagine a dozen different nasty accidents which might explain their failure to return to Chamonix. My subconscious remembered the newspaper headline I had seen a few minutes previously, and made the connection my conscious mind refused to.
I snatched the newspaper from under the nose of an elderly gentleman, who had just made his laborious way up to the counter with the aid of his walking stick. The edition was a few days old, but I had not been keeping up with the local papers during my travels, and it was new to me. I found the relevant article, determinedly ignoring the frantic beating of my heart.
Tragic accident... missing English holiday-maker... Lady Alice Cherwell, wife of the Viscount of Aberforth, the well-known dilettante, holidaying in the region... reported the loss of her companion, identified as a retired British Army surgeon... the pair had been walking in the Chablais when the weather took an unexpected turn for the worse...
I was dimly aware of the elderly gentleman glowering at me and clearing his throat meaningfully.
I held the telegram and newspaper in a steady hand, but inside I was trembling all over. Words echoed around in my head, succeeding one another in a painful cacophony.
have gone after Lady A stop... see you in a few days, my dear Holmes... the loss of her companion...
One word in particular made my throat clench in despair.
The constraints both of a telegram and of ever-necessary discretion had cheated me forever of anything better.
.. .. ..
Our client was fabulously wealthy: wealthy enough to stand Watson and me two luxurious compartments on the Paris-Lausanne sleeper, and wealthy enough that he would have been left unmoved by the waste of money, had he ever discovered that one of those two compartments remained almost entirely unused.
"Sherry?" said Watson, holding up the bottle which had been left in the sleeping compartment for its fortunate first-class passengers.
I sat down cross-legged on the bed with a stack of Paris' evening newspapers, and watched him pour out two generous glasses. The sleeping-car attendant had already come by to draw the thick velvet curtains and transform the seats into beds. Now we were settling in for an undisturbed night in each other's company.
Watson came to join me on the bed, kicking off his slippers so that he could curl up against me. He sat reading over my shoulder for a while, but seemed quickly to grow tired of that, for soon I felt the soft touch of lips on the back of my neck.
I shivered in spite of myself, and lost my place in an article about Belgian foreign exchange bonds.
I felt Watson's breath on the back of my neck as he chuckled. He kissed me once more, then withdrew. He began to move about the compartment, tidying his affairs and preparing to turn in for the night.
It was pleasant to sit there, comfortably ensconced in blankets on the bed, watching him by the soft light of the electric lamp. We were cocooned in our own little world, shut in for the night with the only thing each of us wanted or needed: the other. Watson seemed to be in good spirits, to my considerable relief. I had been anxiously and discreetly trying to gauge his mood all day. Had I known that this case would lead us to Switzerland, for the first time in over a decade -- the first time since 1891 -- I would have thought twice before accepting it. The memory of the last time we had travelled there together could not help but cast a pall over my thoughts. Watson, however, seemed not to have a care in the world.
It would not have cost me a moment's thought to refuse the case, in fact, for it seemed to be almost entirely devoid of interest. The client was a dilettante English Viscount, wintering on the Continent with his wife. It was she who had prompted our engagement: she claimed she was being harassed and followed by various mysterious, unsavoury characters. The matter could no doubt have been dealt with by some semi-capable local detective, but the Viscount was willing to outlay an enormous sum of money for the attention of the great Sherlock Holmes in person, and I was delighted to take it from him.
Watson still had some noble ideas about the purity of the detective's work as an intellectual challenge. While I do not deny having voiced such a view of things myself in the past, one must nevertheless bear in mind that at least half the profound, philosophical reflections he attributed to me were of his own devising. At the time of this particular business, in any case, all that interested me was taking a string of wealthy clients, with the worthy aim of laying aside enough money to provide a pension for Watson and me to retire on. I had begun my work towards this goal some two years previously, with the generous cheque bestowed on me by the Duke of Holdernesse, on the occasion of a minor incident at the Priory School in Hallamshire.
As we grew older, I grew more and more tired of the constant fear of discovery to which we were subjected, and the constant secrecy to which we were compelled. Almost unbidden, a dream had slowly grown to fruition in my brain: a dream of the two of us comfortably installed in a quiet, out-of-the-way corner in my native Sussex.
Watson and I had even discussed the idea on occasion, though in the vaguest of terms. He proposed that we keep bees. I laughed at first, but at odd moments I found myself giving the matter some consideration.
Meanwhile, I took cases like this one, for the basest of reasons.
Watson had joined me on the bed while my mind wandered. It was barely wide enough for two, and he could comfortably lay his hand on my thigh from where he was installed. I finished my reading, bundled together those articles I had torn out, and bent down to slip them into a compartment of my open suitcase.
When I righted myself, I found Watson lying on his back with his hands behind his head, grinning up at me.
"I know I have often said as much before, Holmes, but in such luxurious surroundings the horrid fact is even more marked - that dressing gown of yours is really in an appalling state."
"You exaggerate, my dear Watson," I said. "In fact, I cannot help but suspect it's simply a ploy to encourage me to remove it."
I bent to kiss him, paving the way for him to do just that.
"Better?" I said, shivering at the touch of his hands through my thin nightshirt.
He did not bother to reply, but rather grasped fistfuls of the cotton of my shirt, drawing me down towards him. Our mouths met and opened, beginning their familiar, delicious duet. I would have been content to lie like that for hours, luxuriating in the feeling of Watson's warm skin under my fingertips, and the tickling of his moustache as his lips moved down the tendons in my neck.
Soon, however, I found myself flat on my back, Watson straddling my hips. My whole body was aroused from its comfortable state of half-slumber, and I gasped as he pressed against me. I breathed his name, fumbling to push aside the thin layers of cotton that lay between us.
Watson bent to cover my body with his. His hands gripped my shoulders, strong and desperate. I felt an urgency born of desolation in his grasp and suddenly I wondered whether he were not remembering what had happened at Reichenbach after all.
.. .. ..
A thin scattering of snow covered the pavement outside the Hotel du Lac, where the Viscount of Aberforth was staying with his wife and entourage. He received us warmly, and presented us to his wife, Lady Alice. I had plenty of opportunity to observe her over the course of the day, and to draw some preliminary conclusions. At first glance she seemed a lady in possession of a great deal of common sense, and not necessarily given to paranoid fantasies of being followed or observed.
I said as much to Watson when we retired to dress for dinner.
"No indeed, she seems a most level-headed, sensible person. And really rather charming too."
I looked with amusement on Watson's enthusiasm. There was a time when I was desperately jealous of such attentions paid to other people, but I have been confident of him for many years now.
"In that case, I'm sure the task of following her around all day will prove to be less arduous for you than I feared," I said, straightening his tie. "However, I shall leave the task of responding to her inane chatter to you, my dear Watson."
"I wouldn't call it inane," he said mildly. "Though I am always willing to relieve you of the burden of making small talk, you know."
"How lucky I am to have you," I said. Somehow, in spite of myself, the words came out with the genuine ring of affection, and not the flippant tone I had intended.
Watson paused in the act of buttoning his dinner jacket, and raised his gaze slowly to meet mine.
The distasteful act of exchanging florid expressions of sentiment was something which had always made me feel ill at ease, but Watson assured me that he in no way felt the lack. He was only human, however, and now his whole face was lit up with a smile.
I cleared my throat, feeling a little foolish.
Watson leant over to kiss my cheek. "Come along, old fellow," he said, and led the way down to dinner.
In the days that followed we accompanied Lady Alice wherever she went, sometimes obtrusively but more often discreetly. Watson was responsible for the former, and I for the latter, for despite decades of exposure to a master of the craft, Watson had never quite grasped the art of disguise and stealth.
Lady Alice was somewhat younger than the middle-aged Viscount, and seemed to have an everlasting supply of energy. Her sister was with her in Lausanne, and their days were spent constantly on the move, from the lakeside to the lending library to the milliner's or the dress-maker's, and then back to the lakeside once more for another brisk walk. The summer season was long since at an end, but Lausanne was still full of the cream of European society. Fashionably dressed couples promenaded along the lakeside, past convalescents in bath-chairs who were here for the mountain air. The lakeside terraces were full of demanding elderly heiresses with their sullen middle-aged companions, and young gentlemen discovering the gaps in their education in modern languages.
We saw very little of the Viscount. At first I had suspected that the marriage was one of convenience, with he and Lady Alice living practically separate lives. It soon became clear, however, that Lady Alice found her husband's continual absence as noteworthy as I did. I began to wonder whether it could be the Viscount himself who was the target of the men who had alarmed her, for she reported their presence to be considerably reduced since our arrival.
I was pleased when Watson suggested as much, one evening as we sat in the corner of Lausanne's assembly rooms for a society ball.
"Or perhaps we are simply a very expensive comfort blanket for Lady Alice," I said.
"She doesn't seem the kind of person who would need one."
The band struck up a mazurka, and couples began to flood out onto the dance floor. Watson and I had already had to fend off several interfering old matrons who wished us to make the acquaintance of their unmarried and widowed friends, having as we did the air of two fairly well-off eligible bachelors. Watson loved to dance, and I would have been loath to deprive him of the pleasure of a whirl or two, as long as -- if I am honest -- it was with one of the plainer ladies. He seemed however to consider that it would be an abandonment of his duty to Lady Alice.
Lady Alice herself was currently having her toes stepped on by an elderly Italian military man. I kept an eye on her painful progression about the dance floor.
"Holmes," Watson said suddenly.
I continued to follow Lady Alice with my gaze. "Yes?"
"I have noticed what you're doing, you know."
His tone was such to make me turn rapidly to face him. "In what context?" I said cautiously.
His mouth twitched in a small, affectionate smile. "There's no need for you to accept only those cases where the monetary reward is greatest, you know. Not when it's to the detriment of those that really kindle your interest."
Whatever I had been expecting, it was not this. I swallowed the first reply that rose to my lips, and let him continue.
Watson went on, "Naturally I too have been thinking about the practicalities of retirement. I believe we could very nearly do so already, if you wished, but it would probably be wiser if I were to start practising again, for a year or two. I have a friend who's about to give up a surgery in an excellent part of town, and who would be delighted to pass it on to me."
I sat looking at him over the top of my folded hands, my heart swelling with fondness. Watson has never had a head for accounting; I believe such an attribute must be almost entirely incompatible with a weakness for gambling. It was unrealistic in the extreme of him to suppose that he could accumulate anything like so large a bank balance by practising medicine as I could extract from our wealthier clients, even were he suddenly to become hard-hearted overnight and begin charging the poorest of his patients through the nose. It was for that reason that it had been many decades since I let Watson keep his own chequebook. Watson and I had shared our finances before even we shared a bed; indeed bed was the last in a line of growing intimacies.
"Really, Watson, it is fortunate that at least one of us has a head for figures," I said. "And you are being foolish in imagining that I am somehow sacrificing myself in accepting cases such as this. I assure you, it is no sacrifice to sit here tonight, as long as I have you with me. Why, the pleasure of your company even outweighs the mediocrity of the orchestra."
As I spoke, I watched his expression change from insulted to resigned to unwillingly amused and back again. It was dreadful of him still to allow me to play him like a violin, after all these years. I often suspected he enjoyed it as much as I did.
"You're of the same mind as I am, then?" Watson said. "On the subject of retirement, I mean to say."
"I had next summer in mind. Just the right time of year to move to the countryside - "
I could not help but let my surprise show in my face.
Watson's lips twisted in a self-satisfied smirk. "You see I have come to read your mind as well as you have always read mine."
In lieu of a kiss, I let my hand brush his where it lay on the table, cupped around the stem of his glass. He smiled back at me, and his eyes spoke what he could not say aloud in public.
.. .. ..
We had continued to see very little of the Viscount outside of meal-times. The journey into the mountains, however, of necessity threw us together more than before. I was intrigued to discover just how many agents and secretaries he had in his entourage, a surprising number given the fact that the bulk of his wealth was reputed to come from his properties in England. I was beginning to suspect that there was a great deal more to this case than the paranoid fantasies of a bored woman, but for the moment I kept my thoughts to myself.
We crossed Lake Geneva into France, where the terrain almost immediately began to become more mountainous. Half a day's journey along zigzagging roads and hairpin bends brought us to Chamonix, nestled in a steep-sided valley thousands of feet above sea level. As we accompanied Lady Alice and her sister on their constitutional that evening, we were constantly overshadowed by the imposing silhouette of the Mont Blanc, towering above the town and indeed about the rest of the continent.
Lady Alice was a tireless explorer of the mountains around Chamonix. The weather was excellent, with day after day of clear skies, and not the slightest hint of a snowstorm to hamper her activities. The ground was covered with snow, however, and Watson and I encountered that peculiar pursuit known as ski-ing for the first time.
Lady Alice even tried the activity for herself, accompanied by my intrepid Watson. Preferring not to risk making a fool of myself, I feigned an injured knee. In the event, though, they only progressed slowly and sedately along the flat, and did not try to descend any slopes at high speed, as apparently people now do.
Watson was thick as thieves with Lady Alice. There was a time when I would have been furious: wildly jealous of the lady and cold and standoffish with Watson for at least a week afterwards. I do not wish to give the undeserved impression that I had grown to be a better, more balanced person. It was rather the case that I had grown to find it impossible not to trust Watson implicitly.
As for the original reason for our presence, my vigilance continued unabated. While we were in Lausanne, I had had little more to go on than Lady Alice's description of the ruffians who had been alarming her before our arrival. Now, I began to build up a stock of observations of my own. I took to frequenting the hotel in disguise while Watson and the ladies were away in the mountains, supposedly accompanied by myself. One afternoon I saw the Viscount's chief accountant arrive at the hotel by the back door, accompanied by two men who were discreetly but to my eyes unmistakeably armed. A few days later, I trailed the Viscount's private secretary to a dingy bar in a deserted backstreet. The establishment was so small as to make it impossible for me to enter without being noticed, but from my vantage point on the far side of the street I was quite sure that I could see money exchanging hands.
Lady Alice claimed not to have felt shadowed or observed since we left Lausanne, but in any case I was sure by now that she was not the target. I began to feel that I would have to go away for a few days, to make enquiries elsewhere. One afternoon, as we walked along a narrow mountain path high above the town, I drew Watson aside to make him aware of my plans to absent myself.
"While I keep an eye on Lady Alice here?" he said.
"And on the Viscount's private secretary. My suspicions are beginning to crystallise around him."
We rounded an outcrop of rock, and a stunning landscape opened up before us. We were high above an immense glacier, the Mer de Glace, which crept its way down the mountain along the deep path it had carved out for itself over millennia. Hundreds of feet below, the enormous body of ice spread out before us, its glittering blue-white surface fissured by deep cracks and crevasses. From our lofty perch, we could hear the almost imperceptibly faint creaks and groans of the glacier, punctuated by sudden sharp cracks of breaking ice.
Lady Alice and her sister were much further down the slope with our guide. I stepped off the path, to the very edge of a rocky outcrop which overhung the glacier. Below me, the mass of ice sparkled in the winter sunlight, its frozen flow seeming like a moment captured out of eternity. I stared down into the dark, dangerous crevasses, thinking of tales of people who fell into their depths, to turn up perfectly preserved hundreds of years later.
I heard the crunch of footsteps on the snow behind me, and Watson came to stand at my elbow.
I was reminded suddenly of another such place, a similar landscape, less than a hundred miles away across the mountains. In place of the sea of ice, my mind's eye stared down into a distant, dangerous pool of foaming water, and the thundering, roaring memory of a tremendous cascade of water filled my ears.
Watson was very quiet beside me. I looked sideways at him, attempting to read the expression in eyes which were shadowed by his woollen cap. After a moment he turned and gave me a small smile, then took my elbow and gave it a squeeze.
"Come along, we mustn't let the ladies get too far ahead."
I watched him pick his way down the stony path ahead of me, a tall, broad-shouldered figure, head bent so that he could watch his footing, in a thick brown coat that was chosen more for comfort than appearance. A wave of affection caught in my throat.
.. .. ..
I bid Watson farewell and set off for Chamonix alone, by a roundabout way, never suspecting the contents of the telegram I would find waiting for me three days later.
.. .. ..
"My dear fellow, I am so very sorry, believe me. Such a tragic accident." He laid a hand on my arm. "Such an unfortunate thing to happen. I have been trying to get in touch with you for the past few days -- how on earth did you come to be separated from the others, by the way?"
I was still anxious to learn the exact circumstances of Watson and the ladies' deviation from their planned itinerary, and in no mood to be consoled by a man I had come to view with some suspicion.
"Where is Lady Alice?" I demanded with no regard for civility.
He blinked. "I'm afraid she's indisposed."
I am not ashamed to say that I gave not one second's thought to Lady Alice's well-being.
"In that case, I must speak with her sister."
The Viscount appeared to hesitate for a moment, but I was too worked up to take the time to analyse his expression.
"Of course, my dear fellow. Very understandable. Let us go and find her at once."
He abandoned his dinner, and we were half-way up the stairs when it occurred to me to wonder why the Viscount was accompanying me himself, a task he would usually have delegated to one of his entourage.
He led me to the wing of the building which he had commandeered for his own use, and ushered me into a sitting room.
"Why don't you wait here for a moment, old chap," he said. "I expect she is sitting with my dear wife. I'll just go and see, shall I?"
I stood waiting in the centre of the room, still holding Watson's telegram. I heard a noise behind me, but before I could turn around, something hard and heavy cracked against the back of my head, and the Persian carpet rushed up to meet me.
.. .. ..
I opened my eyes just as someone loomed over me and dragged me none too gently to my feet. I scarcely had time to recognise the Viscount's secretary before he spun me around and pushed me forwards.
We were standing high above the Mer de Glace, on a rocky outcrop which ended abruptly a few feet away from me, to plunge down into the snow-covered glacier, hundreds of feet below.
Something sharp and cold was poking into my back, forcing me towards the precipice.
My mind raced, and with eyes that were still blurry I tried quickly to assess my surroundings. My ears strained to detect how many men might be behind me, but all I could hear was the breathing of the Viscount's secretary, and the crunch of snow as he shifted his weight, in preparation to pushing me over the edge.
I had just made up my mind to spin suddenly round, gun or no gun, when a shot rang out and the man behind me howled in pain.
I turned and saw a group of men in uniform come running down the path towards us, converging on the Viscount, who stood a few feet away from his injured secretary. Behind them was a tall, broad-shouldered fellow I would have recognised anywhere, before he was close enough to make out even the detail of his moustache.
I persist in the assertion that if I lost consciousness for a few moments, it was certainly due to a combination of my head wound and exposure to the cold, and as such hardly deserves to be characterised as a swoon.
.. .. ..
Watson sipped his tea. "I had to bandy your name about quite a bit in the past few days, you know, Holmes. It was the fastest way to get the police in Geneva to listen to me." He sat back, looking pleased with himself. "Lady Alice and her sister are safe in Geneva now, of course. She turned out to be very willing to participate in my plan, as soon as she realised that her husband had been drawing the bulk of his income for years from smuggling, gun-running and who knows what else."
"And that the unsavoury characters who had so alarmed her by their continual presence were in fact in the Viscount's employ?"
Watson nodded. "I suppose he originally intended just to placate her with our presence, and keep himself and his men out of the way until he sent us back to England. Then you began poking your nose in certain places, and it seemed we would have to meet with unfortunate accidents instead."
"How - ?"
He grinned at me from under his moustache. "It was Lady Alice herself who first aroused my suspicions. In her innocence she let slip certain details which suggested the true nature of the Viscount's business affairs. After a little further investigation, I realised he was planning to do away with me almost immediately, and you as soon as you returned to Chamonix. The only way to ensure my freedom of movement seemed to be -- well, to pretend to have fallen into his trap, with Lady Alice's cooperation. I hurried to Geneva to get the help of the police, and then to come and intercept you here."
"And you really arrived on -- these things?" I gestured at the long wooden skis he had propped up in the corner.
He beamed. "You really should try them, you know. One soon gets the hang of it."
We sat there together for a while, our silence broken only by the crackling of the fire. Its light played over Watson's face, tinting red and orange the square jaw and grey brows I had thought never to see again outside my dreams.
There was one question that still burned through my thoughts, and yet I hesitated to speak it aloud.
I was quite sure that Watson had the same thing on his mind. He was sitting staring into the fire, his face set in grave, thoughtful lines. It was he who looked up and spoke first.
"I am dreadfully sorry, you know, Holmes. Believe me when I say that if I could somehow have let you know that I was still alive, I would have."
I tried to keep the tone of my voice light as I replied, "I don't quite see why you couldn't."
"Do you still have the telegram?"
I drew it from my inside pocket and held it out. Watson caught my eye. His gaze was soft and bright. He took the envelope and turned it over, holding it in the light from the fire for me to see. Before, I had been in no mind to even think to look. Now I saw, besides the damage from where I had torn it savagely open, the small but unmistakable signs of an envelope that has been steamed open and resealed.
"Half of the staff at the hotel were in the Viscount's pay," said Watson.
He still held the telegram in his hand, as though unsure what to do with it. I stared at the fragile yellow paper, remembering those dreadful hours when I had thought it would be the last thing I had left of Watson. I took it from him and threw it into the fire.
"I did wonder -- " I admitted finally, being honest in spite of myself.
Watson met my gaze, his eyes filled with understanding. " -- whether it had anything to do with those years you left me to mourn for you in error?" He reached out, taking my hand in his. "I never -- my dear Holmes, I swear I have not held it against you all these years."
I looked down at our hands, joined on my knee. I ran a finger along the familiar lines and creases that crossed his palm, wondering how I could ever have made him endure for three years what I could not bear even for a day.
"Watson, I believe I owe you an apology," I said suddenly, looking up at him. "I realise it's abominably late in coming. All these years, and I could never bring myself to - "
He leant forward to silence me with a kiss. "Don't think of it, my dear. I never do."
.. .. ..
.. .. ..