Work Header

The Folded Papers

Work Text:

It was a cold, wet month, and Holmes had been tramping about all day in the character of an ashman, wearing ragged clothes and the thinnest of overcoats. As he sat shivering by the fire picking at his dinner, I expostulated with him that he was no longer thirty-five and could not expect his constitution to suffer such abuse indefinitely.

"If you will not have a care for your own sake, you might think of me," I finished--rather angrily, for it was the third such offense in a short space and I felt that Holmes's carelessness was nearly criminal, though I did not dare use the word to him. "You will break your health and shorten your life."

He watched me with, as I could see, affectionate amusement and very little serious attention. "My dear Watson," he said, "that line of argument will not serve. One of my greatest comforts in life is the moral certainty that I will predecease you. You will do without me a deal better than I should without you. I am afraid you have entirely spoiled me for solitude."

It was such a dreadful thing to say that for a few moments I sat speechless in my chair. He clearly regarded this piece of effrontery as a great compliment. Considered in a certain light, it was, but I was in no mood to appreciate it. I privately shared his conviction: the strain which he placed upon himself in the course of his work, the dangers inherent in his profession, and his indifference to his own health meant that barring some unfortunate accident to myself, I was likely to outlive him.

That I would lose him twice while he himself was spared seemed a cruel injustice. My sole defense against this unhappy reflection was, that could the inevitable be put off long enough, I would likely not outlive him long. The blow that had only crippled a younger man might prove fatal in an older. It was meager enough comfort.

"I think that is the most selfish thing I have ever heard you say," I said at last, coldly. "I find it hard to forgive."

He was surprised--and not pleased. His gaze went to the engraving of Reichenbach Falls that hung above our fireplace. Privately, I thought it morbid to keep it after what had transpired. Left to myself, I would have sent the thing to the secondhand dealer--but I was not left to myself, thank God, and I had considered the choice rightfully his. For my part, I avoided looking at it, and disliked the frequency with which his eyes dwelt upon it.

"Really, Watson," he said, somewhat peevishly, "I think my assertion is justified. I did not see that my first demise had much effect upon your routine."

I was well aware that in my place Holmes would have made a more striking picture of mourning. Perhaps he did not mean to imply that the feeling must therefore be less; yet the words stung. "You really see no difference," I asked him stiffly, "between a man choosing to stay by his own fireside every night in the week when he has a companion, and when he is entirely alone?"

His face softened. "Watson--" he began.

Somehow even the affection in his tone fed my temper. "I do not know whom you do the greater injustice," I said, glad to hear that if my voice shook a little, yet I had not raised it, "yourself in imagining any man could with equanimity lose such a companion, or me in supposing me so unfeeling, so insensible to your merits, as to be that man."

"My dear fellow, you are quite right," Holmes said, plainly flattered by my emotion. "In apology I can only say that however you might exaggerate my powers, even you have never credited me with mind-reading."

It was no apology, but confirmation that he had really thought me resigned to his loss--and because his spies had seen little difference in my routine! There came into my mind his words after his sudden, shocking reappearance, which I had thought forgiven and forgotten: I had no idea you would be so affected.

"It should not have required mind-reading," I said. "It ought to have been a simple enough deduction." I recalled with terrible clarity the hour I spent at Reichenbach, when I had been first faced with his loss--as I had thought, forever. I had wept openly; if I shut my eyes, I yet could feel the leather of my gloves against my slick cheeks. I had given the gloves away after, unable to look at the salt-stains.

He had seen that. Were our positions reversed, nothing on this earth could have prevented me from going to him at such a moment, save his own express command.

I reminded myself that he had had very good reasons for his actions. He had had, even, responsibilites to society of which I, lacking his great powers, could not feel the full weight.

"It is unwise to bring deductive science onto such shaky ground as the human heart," Holmes said. "There are too many unknown factors."

"My years of faithful service," I said through lips tight with anger, "my unswerving loyalty and devotion, my care and affection for you--"

"I do not require a nursemaid, Watson!" he burst out suddenly.

"That is unworthy of you, Holmes!"

He fussed with his pipes upon the mantel, his back to me. "Your care is oppressive. I cannot be responsible for your whole sense of professional worth. That devolves to your patients."

"I see a flaw in your logic there," I said with a touch of malice. "Do I depend upon you too much or too little?"

He spun to face me, evidently struck by my words. "This is why I prefer intellectual problems to emotional ones," he said. "These tangles of feeling are impossible to unravel; one cannot get hold of the end of a thread. They follow no recognizable logic and can rarely be brought to any satisfactory conclusion."

"Our friendship is not a case!"

"Certainly not," he rapped out. "If it were, I should have given it up long ago as hopeless!"

I was conscious that we had now both lost our tempers. He was correct in one particular, at least: this could not be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, the only thing which would have given me any satisfaction would have been to strike him. The impulse appalled me. "I shall be at my club," I said with some effort and, taking up my stick, left the apartment.

By six o'clock my anger had cooled and I was heartily ashamed of myself--yet there remained some barrier within me that I could not find a way over. I could not return home and throw myself upon my friend's mercy. Childish it might be, but I wanted him to send for me. Even a peremptory Come at once, Watson would have contented me. A pretty apology, which he knew well enough how to make when he liked, would have come near to smoothing entirely my ruffled feathers.

By the time seven o'clock was struck, I was ready to laugh at myself. Holmes, I was sure, was not so foolish as to still be occupied with such a trifle. Likely he had forgotten the whole matter and was even now caught up in some new inquiry or experiment. If I waited for word from him, I would wait indefinitely. I rose to go--and, to my utmost astonishment, beheld the man himself in the doorway. The event was utterly without precedent in all the long history of our association.

Experience might have led me to expect a rueful wave and an extravagant supper at which Holmes exerted himself to talk brilliantly--followed, if he deemed me insufficiently softened, by a rendition of some of my favorite airs upon the violin. Experience was to prove no guide, however. His manner as he approached me was awkward. He flung himself into the chair opposite and stared into the fire for some minutes.

As I could not guess how long it would take him to gather his thoughts, I returned to my newspaper and was attempting to make sense of our relations with Austria-Hungary when I heard a rustle, and looked up to see Holmes slap some folded, irregularly sized papers down on the low table between us.

"Deduce, Watson." He watched me with keen eyes and an unreadable expression.

Slowly I took up the sheets and laid them flat, careful lest I damage them in the process. With a thrill of horror, I recognized the account I had written of my friend's supposed death.

"Well?" he said impatiently.

With shaking hands I set about examining the papers. "The paper and typeface tells us this is cut from one of the foreign English-language papers rather than the domestic," I said at last. "It has been folded twice, once horizontally and once vertically, in such a way that this article would be innermost. A few small water-stains appear on this side as well, as we would expect were it turned upwards in reading, so we may conclude that it was really this which engaged his attention, rather than anything printed on the reverse. The edges are clean and, to my eye, square: most likely done with a ruler and a knife, not scissors. The worn, creased fold indicates that--it was read many times," I concluded quietly.

He did not meet my eyes. "Very good as far as it goes, Watson. But there are a few additional points which may prove relevant. Observe it, folded. Two corners are ragged, on the side of the crease. From this we may deduce that it has been kept in a pocket for extended periods, and was folded for this reason. As the ragged corners are the upper and the lower, rather than the two lower, we may conclude that the pocket was one with a side opening. The most common pocket of this type is the breast pocket on a jacket, so we will advance as a working hypothesis that it was this pocket which was used--by the by, Watson, taking that as a given, and remarking that being kept in such a place resulted in no curvature of the paper, we may be pretty certain of what you have already assumed, that the owner of the jacket was a man. An examination of the back reveals that there has been more exposure to heat and friction on this side than the other, ergo we can say with tolerable certainty that it was a left breast pocket." He tapped once, jerkily, over his heart. "At some point the owner has stopped carrying the thing about with him. There has been an attempt to press it, perhaps in some heavy book, but this corner was not quite laid flat and has been sharply and cleanly bent. You have already remarked the waterstains. Can you draw no inference?"

"They tell me nothing," I said in surprise. "I suppose water has been spilled or spattered, or he has been in the rain. That is not unlikely, when something has been much read."

"Yes, but the slight corrosive action tells us more," he said impatiently. "This water is salt."

His meaning was clear enough. I was already much moved; this admission banished, as I thought, the last traces of my anger. And yet my worst instincts prompted me to say, "Then perhaps the owner of these papers spent some time by the sea, or made a journey by boat."

Holmes sent me a sidelong, amused glance. "Not a bad guess, Watson, but I feel confident that an analysis of the trace elements would indicate that those are human tears." He spread the papers on the table, smoothing the newly bent corner with his long, thin fingers. "I hope to become better and wiser than you have seen me," he said quietly. "But I was then and am now, and will be as long as there is yet some flickering spark which knows itself to be Sherlock Holmes--very sincerely yours."

The emotion that welled in me was not unfamiliar by any means, but it had not flowed so freely in longer than I cared to think. I was intensely relieved to feel it again. In that moment I recognized the truth in what he had said: I had treated him like a patient. I had tried to keep the obligations and dependencies between us all one way. Now that I saw it, my motives were clear enough. How could I rely on him, when he had left me? I was angry, not because he hadn't trusted me, but because I no longer trusted him. Worse still, my attempts to safeguard his health had come, not out of my regard for him, but out of a selfish, cringing fear of loss.

If there was to be any confidence between us again, there must also be equality. There must be generosity of spirit. We could not go on as we had been. That he had feared the change in me might mean I was not unreservedly glad to have him back, was a reproach that cut deep.

I saw now that I had been prey to the blackest depression, perhaps for years. Perhaps since that day at Reichenbach. As a medical man, I should have known better than to expect that my convalescence could be quick, no matter how entirely circumstances had changed. But if I could bring myself to lean on my friend--as he had so often consented, however reluctantly, to lean upon me--there was yet hope for recovery.

"I have been unhappy," I said haltingly. "What is worse, I have begun to lose hope that I should ever be any happier. I value our friendship as highly as I ever did, but I find in myself a reluctance to show you the easy affection that once came so naturally. I am--afraid." I met his eyes. "I must ask your help, Holmes, if I am to find my way back to you."

Tears stood in his eyes. He folded up his papers and slid them into his left breast pocket without looking, as if it was an accustomed motion. "I think we may continue this conversation in more comfort at home."

By unspoken mutual consent we chose to walk. There was silence on the way back to Baker Street. My heart was too full for speech. Merely the sound of my companion's footsteps on the pavement beside me seemed a great gift, the pressure of his hand in the crook of my arm a blessing far beyond anything a man could hope to deserve.

I do not know what I expected, but I was surprised when, on our return to our rooms, Holmes began to pace nervously about the apartment.

"Holmes?" I said. "Is anything still amiss?"

He sent me a little furtive look and continued pacing. "There is something I have wished to say to you," he said rapidly, "but a motley collection of old prejudices and fears prevented me. Even now I hardly know how to begin. I have been rather hot on the subject of the softer passions, I believe."

I thought I could surmise where this might be leading. I hid a smile. "I would say instead that you have been rather cool."

He chuckled even as he grimaced. "Your sense of humor does not improve with age, Watson."

"You told me once that whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which you place above all things," I helpfully supplied.

He waved a hand irritably. "Yes, yes, there is no need to go into particulars."

"Only recently, in the adventure of the devil's foot poison, you told me you had never loved," I reminded him, now enjoying myself quite thoroughly.

His pacing intensified. He fetched up at last against the mantel. "Yes, I was guilty of stretching the truth a point or two there." There were several long moments of silence, and then he spun round and fixed me with a piercing glare. "I love you, Watson!"

I could not help it; I burst out laughing.

He wheeled round again and gazed at the fire in a petulant attitude. "This is no time for levity."

"My dear Holmes," I said, still laughing, "I love you too, from the bottom of my heart."

He nodded jerkily and did not move. Then he strode to his chair and seated himself with a discontented flourish.

"I am sorry if the moment is anticlimactic," I said.

He drummed his fingers upon the arm of his chair, rather rueful now. "I cannot understand it," he said, a wry gleam in his bright eye. "Bringing the truth into the light should be more satisfying."

"I hope we were neither of us in serious doubt upon the point. But I promise you I am very glad to hear it. Thank you, Holmes."

He did not acknowledge this, but continued to watch me. "I suppose you think the deed should follow the word," he said at last, abruptly.

"Certainly not, my dear fellow," I said warmly. "You know I have always said that I desire nothing you cannot with pleasure give." Indeed, I had no complaints upon that score. The breadth and depth of my companion's erotic imagination, which was quite as fully developed as his criminological one, was a source of continual wonder to me. But it was as unpredictable as all his appetites, entirely dormant for days, even weeks, only to awaken with a single-minded hunger that never failed to amaze and (if I may admit to a little masculine vanity) flatter me.

He regarded me narrowly for a few moments longer. "Come here," he said, imperiously, and shifted so there was room for me to sit between his legs.

"If you wish it," I said, obeying. I was not over-concerned that he might be acting against his own wishes for my benefit; it was often his way to bring me to satiety when he began to feel uneasy. It seemed to reassure him to work his will upon me while remaining himself untouched. Of late this habit, which I had once found unspeakably charming, had grated upon me. Now, after all that had passed between us that evening, I felt once more the old eagerness to give him anything he might want--to give him everything.

His only answer was to lean in and bite the lobe of my ear, rather sharply. It was a small, idiosyncratic piece of domination of which he was fond. In time, association had made it dear to me as well. He went to work at the buttons of my trousers, his arms tight round me. I shut my eyes. For three dreary years, I had longed for the haven of his arms, only to find on his return that it was a haven for me no longer; the wind whistled where all had been snug and warm. Now I felt sheltered there again.

His hand closed round me; I gasped and let my head fall back against his shoulder. "I do adore you, Watson," he said. His voice was as I loved it best, a rich, smiling drawl pitched for my ears alone. "Enough to bias the judgment of a thousand men of uncommon genius."

My heady contentment startled me with its very familiarity. I was filled to overflowing once more with gratitude that we had been granted so many years together, that, God willing, we would be granted many more, and that such a man should have chosen me as his friend and companion. "Thank you," I said. As I spoke, he twisted his wrist to make my voice crack. I did not mind him hearing it.

He bit my ear again in answer.

One of the keenest pleasures of love is the certain knowledge that however great, however all-encompassing that love might be, it will presently grow. I experienced that pleasure then, my heart swelling all at once until I was half-afraid it would burst.

And yet I knew it would not. There was space within me yet for as much more feeling, good or ill, as life and my friend would give me.