Since First I Saw Your Face
Since first I saw your face I resolved, to honour and renown ye,
If now I be disdained, I wish my heart had never known ye.
What I that loved and you that liked, shall we begin to wrangle?
No, no, no, my heart is fast, and cannot disentangle.
Gan-den Monastery, Tibet.
Holmes sits cross-legged on his narrow bed. Beside him, a bowl of tea grows cold. He can hear the shuffle of bare feet, cattle lowing, bells calling the hour and the trickle of streams. He looks out of the window to where mountains pierce the sky, then bends to his task again. The iron pen nib scratches against rough paper. ‘Watson,’ he murmurs, passing a hand over his eyes. ‘Watson. John. My dear John.’
I had been working for some months before I succeeded in perfecting the formula: a few crystals of sodium, not potassium, chloride, and a quantity of glacial acetic acid proving to be the correct combination. Pyridine I had tried, of course, instead of the acetic acid, but it was less reliable, and only the most reliable of tests would do for me. It was important, too, that the test proved the presence of only human, not animal, haemoglobin. As I watched the reaction occur for the fourth time that morning, my mind was suffused by the keenest of pleasures: a pure, a delicate, mental, nay, cerebral, joy. A joy which, I believed, would always surpass in quality the lesser joys of the flesh in just such a measure as the tone of my own violin, its quivering strings eloquent in their passion, would surpass the discordant scrapings of the street fiddlers of London.
Steps roused me from my happy contemplation. Two people. One was Stamford, my colleague, a rotund, inoffensive man, much attached to the pleasures of the table, although not yet prey to the cold sensuality of the glutton. The other . . . a smaller man than I, the length of his stride told me, stepping more heavily to one side than the other. The hint of a drag in a militarily precise pace: wounded on the right, high on the limb. A drift of gun-oil tickled my nostrils: gun cleaned recently. Too recently. Too often? Army man, invalided out. Smoked: ships’ tobacco. Cologne: a Palmerston Bouquet, its top notes of bergamot and cardamom muted now to spiced wood. Myself, I favoured Truefitt and Hill’s Imperial, a more delicate citrus fragrance. A green, floral indulgence, almost a weakness.
Why was he here? Of course - I had mentioned needing a room mate to Stamford. Dangerous, but I was confident of my ability to hide my own inversion if whoever shared my living quarters proved not of my kin. And sharing was a necessity, since I could not afford to live on my own. I required little in terms of food - but quiet decency of habitation, clean linen, the purifying Turkish bath, tobacco, my chemicals and the delights of music were essential, though costly, and my practice not yet sufficiently advanced to afford them as I wished. I had hoped Stamford would have taken the hint – a meek companion who could, for the most part, have been ignored – but it seemed he had chosen to bring this fellow in instead. Perhaps he feared being a subject for my experiments: I am certain that he thought me cold-blooded, since the occasion of the corpse and the riding crop. He had expressed himself with some vigour on the subject, absurdly tender-hearted on behalf of a carcase that ‘rolled round in earth’s diurnal course’ neither saw nor heard the stripes I inflicted. I myself would not object if after death my body furnished evidence to trap a murderer, so what cause had Stamford then to complain? But an army man who was also a doctor should be less qualmish. Testing him would be wise, however, before committing myself to shared accommodation.
I feigned cordiality before the stranger, although my excitement – that test, what a test! It would place my name securely in the annals of forensic science! – was real. I compelled myself to laugh, to take him by the coat sleeve and force him to observe my demonstration. He was not repelled. He was interested. He met my enthusiasm with warmth, his blue eyes (very dark blue: the irides displaying a brown central ring which darkened the whole aspect of the eye) brightening. He had been in Afghanistan, as I easily perceived from my rapid accumulation of data, wounded in the left shoulder, as well as the leg, then laid low by some tropical illness: an enteric fever, no doubt, for he was sallow under his tan, and painfully thin. His amazement at my deductions was gratifying, and his responses to my enumeration of my faults- of all of my faults save that most grave – was measured and even kind. For his own, I quibbled only at the bull pup, until he smiled and told me it was but a metaphor for his quick temper, not a canine companion in truth. It pleased me greatly to hear that he liked music: music has power to friend the friendless.
He would be safe, I decided, as we shook hands, and planned our rencontre in Baker Street. He had not blinked when I modulated my voice to a higher register, nor frowned at my childish glee over the experiment. He had not balked at my theatrical little bow, my languidly elegant hands. He had shown no recognisance at all of those subtle gestural flourishes, the coded glances, covert phrases, through which one invert knows another. And though he wore a red pocket square, matching mine, it was plain that the colour was of no significance to him. He was innocent, placidly unaware of my vile nature as he stood there, timid hope in his blue (night-blue) eyes. I pitied him then, seeing how poor he was, how lonely and hopeless, how reduced from the soldier and doctor he had once been, how grateful for the rope I had thrown him. Oh, he had been in deep waters, drowning, or near it. But his mouth had relaxed and his brow smoothed by the time he left me, and I knew that for tonight at least, the gun would not be used.
Later that evening, in my squalid rooms in Montague Street, I ruminated on our meeting. Companionship was always dangerous for my kind. We stood forever on the brink of a precipice, we whose desires were for our own gender, watching with eternal vigilance from the time of our awareness of our wrongness, our abnormality. Some concealed it even from themselves, but I had known my own needs since boyhood, almost as long as Mycroft had known his. Both of us pretended to each other that we did not know, colluding in the unspoken. He sequestered himself amidst the queer members of his queer club, where silence was the order. There, perhaps, he found some measure of freedom, of solace: if he did, I have no doubt that it too was taken in silence. His way was not my way. I could not so expose myself among the men of my own station, neither could I make use of my city’s rough trade: to do either would be to court disaster, and the malevolent attentions of the blackmailer. Instead, I chose other means to compel my desires into subservience, finding that the loose embrace of morphia served me better than my own hand to still my shameful flesh.
I had pitied the poor doctor-surgeon for his loneliness. Perhaps I should have pitied myself.
The rooms in Baker Street were light and airy, with wide windows affording an excellent view of the street. I had wanted him to take the bedchamber on the same level as the drawing room, having watched him halt upstairs, and arrive with his brow tightened with pain. He had refused, mouth shutting like a steel trap.
‘No, Holmes. I am very much the junior partner in this enterprise, in worth, if not in years. I will sleep upstairs, so let there be no more said about it. It’s enough of a boon to be here at all. Let be, now, there’s a good fellow, and say no more. I shall be comfortable enough, and besides, you need more room than I do.’
It was true that his belongings could have fitted entirely into the two smallest of my many valises. I confess to being something of a dandy after all, a dandy with a regrettable penchant for the finest of woollens, and the caress of silk. He, by contrast, had little, and all of the plainest, his linen neat and of good quality, but sadly worn, and his overcoat a threadbare apology that would certainly not serve the winter. It was true he could fit all his possessions into the slip of a room upstairs. But it was not that that removed him from the level nearest to the street, nearest to me, and to our landlady down below. It was not until the third night that I heard him scream in his sleep, and not until a week later that I dared to climb the stairs, barefoot in the dark, and listen outside his closed door to the strangled, terrified weeping that succeeded the screams. He’d told me that his nerves wouldn’t stand a row, and they would not, least of all one of his own mind’s making. Every morning, Mrs Hudson informed me that he came late to breakfast, weary and shadowed, before trifling with toast, taking great draughts of tea, as if it were some sovereign panacea, and retreating to his chair to drowse away the day. He’d asked, apologetically, for the simplest and plainest of food to be provided, and knowing that enteric fever led to months of unpleasant intestinal sequelae, I had so arranged it with Mrs Hudson.
‘The poor young doctor,’ she said to me compassionately, as I arrived home one brisk morning after an early walk. ‘He’s not eaten enough to keep a bird alive, not yesterday nor today, and there he is asleep in his chair again, for all the world like a tired child. Should he not see a physician, Mr Holmes, even though he is one himself? And should he not sleep on the sofa, instead of that hard armchair?’
I reassured Mrs Hudson then, informing her fully of the doctor’s condition, and representing to her that it would, in time, yield to the excellence of her food and fine housekeeping, and a good rest. However, I told her, to remove Watson from his armchair was more than my poor power: he curled into its embrace like a hermit crab into its shell (and possessed the same inclination to snap if removed).
‘We could, perhaps, provide a more invalid diet,’ I suggested hesitantly, still unsure of how far this kindly widow would indulge us. ‘I do recollect that when I was ill as a child, there were certain dishes . . . I can offer you a little extra money, if it helps. And perhaps some fruit? Grapes, or oranges?’
‘Bless me, grapes in February,’ she chided me. ‘As well ask for strawberries, Mr Holmes. But oranges there shall certainly be, and a steamed custard. Or a junket, plain, with just a dash of brandy. And a good fowl, with rice.’
‘Whatever you please,’ I took a sovereign from my pocket, not without some selfish reluctance, for it had been reserved for concert tickets. ‘I know nothing of such things. I depend upon you, Mrs Hudson, to lay this out to best advantage for the doctor’s health. And – and do not stint, do not hesitate to ask, for there is more. But simple, delicate food, remember, not to unduly tax his system. He has been very ill, it is clear, and in the service of his country too. He must be kindly treated.'
I would have to raise my fee for the Ricoletti case, just concluded, I reminded myself, as Mrs Hudson patted me on the arm – patted me on the arm, good heavens, when had that last happened to me? – smiled, and retreated into her own room. It was not as if Ricoletti could not pay after all: the man was rich in every material aspect.
My contubernal did enjoy the oranges, and the other delicacies of Mrs Hudson’s providing. His appetite improved, and I found myself making quite a scientific little study of it, charting his healthier colour and mien against the changes in his nutrition. It provided useful evidence for certain private theories of mine about the value of different foods to the system, and I expended more than the one hard-earned sovereign upon it. Mrs Hudson and I grew quite comfortable in our discussions, indeed, we were soon on easy terms. She reminded me somewhat of my first nanny, and Watson clearly felt the same.
‘We do very well here, don’t you find, Holmes?’ he asked me one afternoon. We sat engaged in our separate activities, I in performing Marsh’s test for arsenic on a specimen of stomach tissue from a domestic murder victim, and he in conning over his account book. ‘I cannot think how Mrs Hudson manages to feed us as she does for the amount we pay her. Why, we had fowl last week, and again this. And a surprising quantity of fruit.’
‘I had a fancy for fowl and offered her a little extra to procure one,’ I confessed. I must sound nonchalant, I thought, or he would be onto me, and there would be an ignominious end to our attempts to aid his convalescence. He was a proud man, John Watson, though a poor one. ‘My appetite is capricious sometimes, and I do become so weary of the eternal round of beef and mutton, mutton and beef. Hah, what do you think? Pray, look at this, Watson, it is clear as day. Do you see the arsenic mirror? What a blessing this test has been, for it has at a stroke saved more men from their wives’ evil ministrations than e’er the scold’s bridle did.’
Watson marvelled with me at the silvery black stain on the porcelain before reminding me gently that Mrs Hudson would not thank us for abusing her coffee saucer with arsenic, and, upon my nod, taking it away to clean. ‘For it is still arsenic, Holmes, even if in an oxidative state, and we must not poison our good housekeeper, or ourselves. Nor must we damage her property, for indulgent as she is, I do not think she will thank you for spoiling the set.’ He stood by the fire, into which he had thrown the arsenic-tainted rag, looking at the saucer as he turned it to and fro in his hands. He had small hands for a man, blunt-fingered, dexterous doctor’s hands that would be strong to heal, and kind to soothe. His smile was wry. ‘I do believe my nanny whipped me for breaking just such a saucer as this. It’s strange, the things one remembers about childhood. But Mrs Hudson is far kinder to us waifs and strays than we deserve.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. I did not wish to think about childhood. I turned off the burner, and wiped my hands, moved to the corner, picked up my violin. ‘Would you be averse to some music, Watson? I confess I am melancholy today: this endless rain and wind is tedious in the extreme.’
‘It is.’ He fetched a sigh, deep, catching in his chest. ‘Oh for a dry day, even a cold day, if there could but be a glimmer of sun. No, play on, Holmes, I beg you. I am weary enough myself, with this wretched weather, and the . . .’
He cut himself off, but I knew what he was going to say: the indignities of his personal torments could not be concealed in so confined an apartment. I had seen the cruel colics that racked him, that sent him post-haste to the privy to moan and sweat and writhe, reappearing ashen and apologetic, wrung out. There was no delicacy about the ill that afflicted him. And if I was fastidious, he, the doctor, was even more so. He had warned me of the dangers of sharing living quarters with him, and he kept himself, and our home, scrupulously clean, though it cost him dearly in labour and laundry and carbolic soap.
‘What would you have me play?’ I asked, to change his painful train of thought. ‘Shall it be Mendelssohn again?’ He loved the sweet, sympathetic cadences of the Lieder, stroking a picture into his mind of sun- or candle-lit days of long ago. ‘Or something popular perhaps?’ I bowed a bright snatch of music. ‘Poor, wand’ring one, though thou hast surely strayed, take heart of grace.’ I said softly, thinking to coax him into humour with Sullivan’s airs and Gilbert’s lyrics, but he shook his head, and his eyes were over-bright.
‘Nothing sentimental, for heaven’s sake, Holmes. I am so low, I could weep like a child. Let it be some Caprice or other, that I may lose myself in its brilliance yet not be mournful.’
I played to him for an hour, devising every fantastical tune I could, snatches of Sarasate, Paganini’s pyrotechnics, modulating to soft Mozartian airs as I saw him ease into sleep. Finally, as my violin sang the ‘Deh Vieni’, his account book slipped from nerveless fingers, and he gave the faintest little rumble of a snore. I put up my instrument, and crept away, not omitting to draw his blanket around his shoulders. We should be in Queer Street if he were to take cold: his constitution would not stand it. And that reminded me of his coat, which would certainly need to be changed. I might telegraph Lestrade, I thought, to see if the criminal world had need of cleansing. My store of sovereigns must not be allowed to run low, for I foresaw I would have uses for them.
Lestrade proved amenable, and my purse was comfortably replenished. Case after case – small, but lucrative - did he put my way, especially those cases to which the legal system could not bring justice. An odd man, Lestrade, with his own morality, more concerned with the spirit, than the letter of the law. He had a soft spot for unfortunates for whom there was no legal redress, or none affordable – the wives with abusive husbands, the women whose children were molested by a partner or relation. I liked him better than any at the Yard, a liking he repaid with the work I needed. So the cases came in, and were solved. However, I was obliged to ask Watson to vacate the drawing room when Lestrade or my clients visited, for I had an absurd fear of exposing too much of myself, my work. Too many people in my life had found my deductive skills freakish, unnatural even. I was not so secure in the doctor’s companionship that I wanted him to be one of my critics.
Watson was curious about my dealings, that much was plain, but too well-bred to inquire of me what I did. Though the questions plainly hovered on the tip of his tongue, he refrained from asking them, contenting himself with the occasional quizzical look as he limped up the stairs to his own room. The variety of my acquaintance puzzled him, and well it might, for my clients were drawn from every stratum of society, and might equally grace a princely palace or wash its marble floors. I would, in my turn, have vacated the drawing room for his visitors, had he had any, but not a soul did he see. He was so alone, more friendless even than I. I did once suggest we might invite Stamford to dine, not for any particular liking I had for the man, but to offer Watson some companionship other than mine. He repelled my suggestion with a decided shake of his head, and a frown.
‘I would rather not, Holmes, if it is all the same to you. I am unfit for any company but my own, with this melancholia and the, the intestinal disorder.’
I was ashamed of myself. Had I been pressing my presence on him too much? We had little time together during the day, for I was off working, and he could not leave the house unless the weather was exceptionally clement, but our evenings we mostly spent together, smoking, as I had thought, companionably enough. Often we were silent, unless we discussed the latest political news, and until we sipped a brandy and soda before the fire before parting at ten with a cordial handshake. Had he found me a burden? Would he have preferred solitude? Something of this must have shown on my face, for he smiled at me kindly.
‘I do not count you as company, Holmes. I daresay we will fall out at some point – it would be unnatural if we did not at times, sharing our rooms like this – but I am easy in your presence. With you, I need not fear the pitying glance, or the intrusive question. I enjoy our quiet evenings very much – these rooms are a haven, and your companionship no burden, but a pleasure. I am a lonely man, as no doubt you have deduced. It is a pure solace to me to have such a congenial . . .’ and he hesitated, before uttering the word ‘room-mate’, and adding hastily, ‘and your music is a delight, Holmes, for though you do torture your wretched cat-gut to insanity and beyond when the fit is upon you, you never fail to make amends by playing my many requests without demur.’
‘I am happy to oblige you there,’ I replied, seeking refuge in formality. Had he just expressed a liking for my presence? Tripped over the word ‘friend’ and replaced it with a milder alternative? ‘Although, alas, I must remind you for accuracy’s sake, that most stringed instruments now use gut wound with metal, and were never at any time produced from the intestines of a domestic feline, the guts of ovines being preferred. And your tastes in music correspond well to my own, so it is no hardship, but a pleasure to play for you. In indulging you, I please myself. And I have not often had so appreciative an audience.’
He laughed at my pedantry, and asked then about some technical issue or other to do with the manufacture of strings for instruments. So the subject of company dropped. He raised it again as we parted for the night after one Sunday that had seen hours of restless pain for him, and hours of impotent compassion for me. He suffered with a stoicism that I admired but which fretted my every nerve with wishing he might take something to ameliorate it.
‘Thank you,’ he said, simply, holding out his hand. ‘I have been damnably bad company for you today, Holmes, pray accept my most sincere apologies. I have barely spoken to you, and what words I have found have been brusque and rude.’
‘It is of no moment,’ I replied, taking his hand in mine. ‘I only wish you could be persuaded to take something for the pain. I do so dislike to see you suffer.’
He released my hand and turned away. ‘Perhaps I should suffer from under your eye then. For I cannot take opiates, Holmes, do you understand? When I was – when this –‘ gesturing at shoulder and leg, ‘happened in Afghanistan, I was dosed on opium as an over-indulged child might be stuffed with sugar plums. When I became aware of it, I reduced the dose myself, but it was too late, I had already developed a dependence that it is taking all of my will to combat. I am sure you have heard of such a thing.’
‘I have,’ I replied. He thought me temperate and clean, never suspecting how intimately I knew the dependence to which he referred. ‘I am sorry for it, Watson. Do not seclude yourself; it would make me uncomfortable. Rather we must endeavour to use other means to reduce your discomfort. There is – have you heard of, or experienced, the Turkish bath? The heat is powerful to relax tight muscles and relieve pain. I can recommend it, and would be pleased to accompany you.’
‘I have heard of it, of course. Experienced it, abroad in the army. But I don’t know of any establishment here that I would – do not such places have a poor moral reputation, Holmes?’
I knew what he meant. The Turkish bathhouses – if you were a certain type of man, if you knew what to look for, if you knew of the closeted rooms above them, if you knew what words to say to gain admittance to those rooms, were one of the few safe places where inverts might meet, even exchange pleasure. Yet I had only thought to ease his ills.
‘Some do,’ I replied. My heart had dropped. I was beginning to like this man: if he proved one of those who demonstrated an ineradicable, visceral hatred towards the notion of inversion, it would be a blow to me. I was not prepared there, as we spoke, to examine how much of a blow it would be, to find him one of those men, for it would be the certain cause of our parting. Innocence, ignorance or indifference, I could support. Hatred might see me ruined, and without my lifting a hand to him. ‘Some do,’ I repeated. ‘But there are many respectable married men who go there, and I do believe the heat would do you good. But if you do not like the risk, I will say no more of it . . .’
‘To be warm,’ he murmured, closing his eyes. ‘To be warm all through, and free of this wretched pain.’ Involuntarily, I uttered an answering murmur of sympathy (for I too felt the cold badly) and his eyes snapped open. ‘Forgive me, Holmes, you must think me a mere miss, whining about my ills. Yes, I will go to the baths with you, for if nothing else it will rid me of the sight of these four walls, of which, grateful as I am for their shelter, I have seen quite enough in recent weeks. And for the risk, no, I do not at all regard it. Only I would like to go somewhere reputable. And clean.’
‘And you do not mind the, the, possibility of – the men who -?’ I had to ask. I could not let it slip, not when it meant so much.
‘Inverts? Good heavens, man, what do you take me for? I am a doctor, for one thing. I have seen all sorts and conditions of men – aye, and women too, Holmes, abroad, and at home. I could tell you stories that would shock your innocent ears. I know there are men who abominate what is called the peccatum illud horribile, but I could never see it. For as you must know, it is only a passing tradition or a religion that cries out against it: there have been times and places in history where it was not so unusual, nor indeed a matter for reprobation. Now, do not tell me I have lost your good opinion, I beg you. I understand you to be cold-blooded, or so Stamford tells me, but I do not believe you are so narrow-minded. And you are a good companion to me, who can offer you nothing in return, so I know you capable of compassion.’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I am not so narrow-minded.’ I was relieved, but there was sadness with it. This man would not betray me: I had been right to trust him. But despite his tolerance for those afflicted as I, he would never know me. I would grapple him to my soul with hoops of steel as a companion, strive to honour and deserve him as a friend. I knew that now, now I had seen his gentle-heartedness. But for that very reason, I would not let him know me, lest our friendship be utterly changed, and suspicion wake in him. ‘And tomorrow, we will go to the baths in Northumberland Avenue and see if we can relieve your pain.'
‘Thank you,’ he said simply, and offered his hand again. ‘I do thank you, Holmes, for your kindness.’
‘It is nothing,’ I replied, returning his grasp, and so we parted for the night . . .
. . . and oh, but he was beautiful on that morrow, in the glimpses modesty allowed me. Too scarred for some, although to me each cicatrice wrote his history, too thin, too wasted, but a finely made man, compact and neat. His skin flushed deep rose under the kese, as it might under the hand of desire; the heat relaxed his taut, tormented muscles. He smiled at the pleasure of being free of pain, and shed five years in as many hours. I was glad that my morphia rendered me unresponsive to his beauty, for otherwise my body would surely have betrayed me.
There was a pause in the flow of cases, and for a week or more, I heard nothing from Lestrade. The weather cleared for a day, then worsened again, and with it my mood. I wanted to be out, out and doing. I needed action; the charm of the chase. Even if there were no chase, I wanted to be out with Watson.
I had coaxed him from within doors – though he needed little coaxing; an active man when in health, he was wild to be out – on the one sunny morning. I had insisted we take a cab to Primrose Hill, where I knew we would be able to breathe clean air, and although he demurred at the expense, he acquiesced when I reminded him that he had wanted a ramble across the hill, which he would certainly not be fit for if he was jostled along the pavement by every clumsy passer by on the way.
We did not speak much. Once on the hill, he drew breath deep into his lungs, straightened his shoulders, and set off across the grass, leaving me to watch him and wonder. He could not yet walk without a limp (I deduced from the irregularity in his gait that whatever afflicted him must have injured his quadriceps, for he had limited motion in the right knee, exactly as I had observed in the case of the cricketer whom I had cleared of a murder charge on the basis of his irregular footstep) but he went as if his life depended on it. I took a different route, to give him the space he needed, and we met under an oak near the summit. His eyes had been wet, I am sure, but as I joined him, he was smiling.
‘London,’ he said, gesturing at the whole smoky city spread out before us.
‘Indeed,’ I replied, answering the delight in his voice with a smile.
‘I grew up in the country.’
‘North Country.’ And when he glanced at me, ‘A trace remains in your speech. And you told me you’d been in the Fifth Northumberland. The deduction is logical.’ I could see the moment when he decided not to ask me – never had I met a man who so respected my reserve. I would gratify his unspoken curiosity then- a little, a very little.
‘My people are country squires, who hail from the Somerset/Wiltshire border,’ I told him. ‘Also in the country.’
‘But you prefer London.’
‘It does not therefore follow that I dislike the country.’ I saw him shiver. ‘Come Watson, I am finding it too cold to stand about. Will you walk? It is too early for primroses, but there are snowdrops in the rides.’
‘The air strikes chill despite the sun,’ he agreed, and turned towards me. ‘May I offer you an arm, Holmes, if you are cold? Two walk together warmer than one, you know. Unless you do not wish to, of course. It was always our habit at the University: was it not yours?’ he added, quickly, for he must have seen my uncertainty in my face.
‘I do not think I have ever walked thus in my life,’ I replied. ‘To be candid with you, I was a solitary fellow, and did not much regard the other students, nor had they time for me. I was – quite friendless.’
He stood with his arm crooked in invitation, smiling at me with such kindness as I vacillated there, though he shivered all the while in his too-thin coat. I tucked my hand timidly inside his arm, and he placed his other hand over mine to reposition it. ‘There,’ he said, very much in the manner of an uncle or grandfather to a child. ‘That is how it is done, and now let us walk, so you are warmer.’
It took us a little while to learn how to fall into step, for he was shorter than I, and I was shy at first of making use of his arm lest I further mar his uneven gait. He told me then that at the University he had been used to having a man lean on him for the length of a street, and that I was only a fly in comparison, so I was emboldened to hold him somewhat closer, which he seemed to approve. Once our paces suited, we rambled about for half an hour, seeing many snowdrops, for which I cared not a jot, and over which he rhapsodised in true Aesthetic fashion before I feigned fatigue to get him home. He was beginning to look pale under his tan, and I knew that Mrs Hudson would have a good fire and a fine, fat roast duck for our dinner.
He paid for the exercise in aches and pains the next day, but assured me he did not much mind it, which his more cheerful aspect proved. He even came down to breakfast humming, and declaring his willingness to accompany me on any promenade I chose.
‘You must not think me content to spend all my time on the couch,’ he told me. ‘It is only my health that makes me languid and lazy. I was active enough in the army, until this stupid wound laid me low, and I was forced to cosset myself like a valetudinarian of advanced years. I am no Mr Woodhouse, I assure you.’
‘I honour your service, and am grieved for its effects,’ I said, and would have spoken more, had I not feared to wake the demons that tormented him in his sleep. I saw that he was uneasy to talk about it, and cast around to change the subject. Fortunately, I did not understand his allusion, which led to a discussion, over toast and marmalade, of literature. I do not know who was more surprised, I by his extensive knowledge, or he by my ignorance of anything save poetry, and we ended by agreeing that he should read to me on some of our quiet evenings. He had a fine voice, flexible and mellow, a violoncello of a voice. I could lose myself in its music. Mine was a corncrake’s by comparison.
But the weather betrayed us, and was cruel, and for many days after that, he could not leave the house. I had, as I said, no more cases, it was too foul without doors even for me, and my mind began to tear itself to pieces for want of active employment. In such a mood, I could neither speak nor rouse myself to action, but only lie supine on the sofa, while my morphia wove its insidious spell. Even so, I was careful to take only enough to dull my mental pain. He may have suspected me, but he did not know, since I took pains to avoid him seeing my eyes, which would have betrayed my state to a medical man. And so we wore away a weary week together, fit neither for company nor for solitude.
It was the fourth of March, I recall, that set us on the adventure he would later immortalise as ‘A Study in Scarlet’, an adventure which irrevocably changed our association one with another. The day had begun unpropitiously. Watson had come down earlier than usual to breakfast, growling and grumbling after a bad night, a very bear because Mrs Hudson had not his toast and coffee ready. He’d flipped the pages of my magazine petulantly back and forth till I was nigh on screaming with nerves, for I too had slept badly, my dreams haunted by vague, erotic images. I had woken to find that my body had betrayed me as I slept, a thing I abhorred for the loss of control. So when he began to huff over an article, calling it ‘ineffable twaddle’ and ‘rubbish’ I would have inclined to a surly response even had I not written it. I confess also that I was hurt, for I had expended much thought and not a little polishing on the work. I had been nervous in submitting it, knowing how little credence I was given for my skills, and fearing just such a response as it had now garnered – and, sadly, garnered from one to whom I felt kindly, whose good opinion I coveted.
I tried to remain calm, despite my wounded feelings, and to explain what it was I did, and how, but I grew angry all over again when he referenced that charlatan Dupin, and the bungler, Lecocq. Then he became annoyed with me in his turn, for my lack of respect for characters he liked, and my abounding conceit, and we would have been well on our way to as pretty a childish scrap as ever I had indulged in, had it not been for the fortunate arrival of a retired Sergeant of Marines summoning me to Brixton. His advent enabled me to astound my sceptical Watson, which improved my mood more than a little.
For then – ah, then - he called my deduction ‘wonderful,’ and I was lost to his praise. He was so sincere with it, so penitent that he had doubted me, and so manifestly eager for more, that although I feigned disinterest in the case to whet his appetite, I would not have turned it down for the world. I am sure he did not know how his eyes pleaded with me to take him along, but I was forcibly reminded of a dog I had as a child that would give me just such beseeching glances.
We went, and there was the mystery, that was no mystery to me, laid plain before us. He watched, rapt, as I made a little performance of my deductions, and I found myself playing to him, rather than to Gregson and Lestrade. I showed away like any mountebank, in a word, breathing in the rich oxygen of his approbation until I was dizzy with it. It was not until we were in a cab on the way to interview Rance that I recollected I had better not show him all my secrets, lest he weary of me, and think me less than he did now.
His praise, his honest amazement were inexpressibly sweet to me, who had starved and thirsted for a kind word for years. He might have been charmed by my intellect, but I - I was limed fast like any thrush taken in its home bush, snared by his smile and his look of awe. Even as I sat listening to Norman-Neruda play arrangements of Chopin’s Nocturnes that afternoon, my inner eye traced again and again his air of wonder, my inner ear heard, above the pure and sonorous violin, his spontaneous praise.
I had expected him to be dining on my return, for I was unconscionably late, but he had waited for me, and was eager to hear of my doings. He was not looking himself, which did not surprise me, for case-hardened as a soldier and a doctor might be, there is a difference between death in the line of duty, or in a hospital bed, and cold-blooded murder. I said as much to him, and he nodded, then changed the subject back to the case. I was uneasy discussing it with him, for he was flushed, and, I thought, fevered, but he would not retire when I had to go out again to follow the old woman. I left him puffing meditatively at his pipe, and reading a well-worn copy of La Vie de Bohème. He was still there when I returned with nothing but a tale of deception and failure to offer him, and after an explanation of my stupidity, I packed him off to bed in short order. He looked done up, and I knew there would be nightmares waiting for him, so I stayed downstairs, smoking. I could no longer bear to hear him in distress, as he had been for so many nights, and this night I was determined to wake him, try to bring him some ease.
His dreams came in the darkest hour, before dawn. I poured brandy into two glasses, and stole upstairs with them, setting them, and my candle, down outside his door. He was murmuring, confused, agitated, the words indecipherable, a broken flurry of pleading, imprecatory snarls, moaning. I knocked, thrice, but there was no answer, so I entered. He was thrashing in a loose cocoon of sheet and blanket, his face flushed, sweat pouring from his brow. His eyes were open, but he was asleep and dreaming hard, still moaning pleas and curses.
‘Watson, rouse up, man.’ I called. I did not seek to woo him from sleep, but command him, and it might have gone well, for he stilled a moment, had I not made the mistake of reaching for his shoulder. I meant only a consoling grasp, but his dream-blurred mind interpreted it as a threat, and he sprang at me, his hands going to my throat. I warded him off, then submitted as he grappled me, knowing I was in grave danger if he thought me a threat, for weak as he was, he was trained to kill. I continued to call him, more softly now, to try and break his dream.
‘Watson, wake, it’s Holmes. You were dreaming, old fellow, there’s no threat. Wake, Watson, it’s a dream. I only sought to wake you, come now, Watson, it’s only I. Wake up, Watson, you were dreaming.’
I knew the instant he became aware, for he released me, and flung away, his breath heaving. He cowered there, his hands to his face, and I was broken, for I had harmed where I sought to heal, and all because of my own stupidity. I scrambled off the bed, went to the door to retrieve the brandy glasses, and approached him slowly, giving him time to recover a little.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Watson, believe me. I only sought to wake you, you sounded so distressed in your dream. I brought brandy; will you take a glass? And forgive me my clumsiness, I meant only to rouse you, since you sounded in such pain. I sleep badly and have nightmares myself, so I know what it is like to be caught in their toils,’ I added, for I did not want him to think he was alone in his torments. ‘Watson, do take the brandy, old fellow. I am so terribly sorry. Let me give you this, and I’ll leave you alone. We need never mention it, and I won’t ever again try to wake you.’
He held out a shaking hand, his face still turned from me, and I placed the glass within it. He trembled so much that I had to put my hand over his and guide it to his lips. I could not think what to say to the man – I had meant so well, and done so ill. Once he was steadier, and sipping the brandy, I would have released his hand, and moved away, but he detained me.
‘Sit down,’ he said, motioning to the chair. ‘Wait, Holmes. Do not go.’
I did as he commanded, taking my own brandy gratefully. I was shaken too. We were silent together for some time, and I was glad of the friendly dark. I did not want to watch him in his distress, for he would not want me to, nor for him to see me in mine.
He drew breath eventually, to speak, and I quivered, anticipating his rebuke.
‘When you wake me, Holmes, you must never touch me.’
I cringed, inwardly.
‘I have been a soldier, Holmes. I have killed in the line of duty, my dreams are of killing, and of death, and if I perceive you as a threat, I may well kill you. It is well for you that you had the sense not to resist me, and that you continued to speak to me, for if you had resisted, if you had been silent, my dreaming mind would have known you only as an enemy, and I would have harmed you, perhaps even killed you. I understand that you did not know this, and I understand that you meant well,’ he gestured with the glass, ‘but you put yourself in grave danger through your ignorance, and you endangered me also. Do not do so again.’
I had not been so magisterially rebuked since I was a child at school. He had such authority in his voice, despite his dishevelled hair and attire and his reddened eyes, and the reek of fear-sweat in the room. I knew he was right. He was combat-trained, a true killer, and I, despite my baritsu training, was not. Could I have fought back anyway, knowing he was not aware? Of course I could not: what outcome would there have been? Two broken, bloodied men, and a murder charge perhaps?
‘I am sorry,’ I murmured again. ‘I am so sorry, Watson, pray forgive me. It was – it was foolish of me, a foolish act.’
‘It was a kind act,’ he corrected me, and I dared to look at him. He was smiling, an odd little quirk of the lips. ‘It was a kind act, Holmes, and you meant to help me. I am grateful for the thought, and even for the act, since no true harm has come of it, and you have shaken me from my nightmare. But one thing we learned in the army, and the one thing you could not have known, is that if you have to wake a mate from bad dreams, you must not touch him, but stand apart, and call him, call patiently and low, till your voice penetrates the mist in his mind. I have woken a man many times in such a way, aye, and been woken too. We know how to deal with such things: we are all in barracks together, and one man’s dreams cannot ruin the sleep of all. But we never touch, for fear of just what happened between us. The mind in a dream seems to see the touch as a threat, and then there is more fear, and terror makes us cruel to the friend who would help us.’
‘I am sorry,’ I said again. ‘Forgive me, Watson, I did not know.’
‘I did not know you would think kindly enough of me to try to wake me,’ he replied. ‘Or I would have told you the proper means. Forgive me in my turn for hurting you, Holmes, for I am certain I did. Have I bruised you badly? I am a brute, if so, when you meant to be good to me.’
‘Perhaps only my amour propre,’ I murmured. ‘I do so dislike not knowing. Any bruises I have are a just punishment, I think.’
‘I shall salve any that need it in the morning,’ he replied. ‘Holmes, you must not refine too much upon your mistake. As I said, you meant kindly. And now you have woken me, I will be dream-free for the rest of the night. That is how it goes, and so I do thank you. I have often and often wished I was back in barracks for a friend’s voice to call me back to myself,’ and now his tone was wistful, the loneliness clear through it. ‘I am grateful for your thoughtfulness, and for this excellent brandy. Now do go to your own bed, like a good chap, and get some rest yourself. It was a long day, and we are not finished with your study of murder’s scarlet thread after all. I look forward to seeing you upon the trail again tomorrow. Or today, rather, when we take it up again. Come, take heart. There is no damage done, and you will know how to, next time you think to wake me. Indeed, I would be so grateful for that friendly office, Holmes, if you feel you could bring yourself to it. My dreams are cruel, and I am desperately weary of them.’
I stood, and found that he was holding out his hand to me. I approached, eyes downcast, and grasped his hand, and he pressed mine kindly between both of his.
‘Thank you, I shall sleep sound now,’ he said, and so I left him, stumbling from his room with my mind in turmoil.
By the next night I had turned Jefferson Hope in to Lestrade and Gregson, both of them relieved to have solved the double murder, but piqued in their pride that it was I who had solved it. It mattered little to me – the charm lay in the solving, not in the plaudits of commonplace men after it. The detectives might have the credit of it with my goodwill: I had won the only good opinion I cared about.
I had felt a little shy with Watson the morning after our unexpected tussle, wondering if he would resent me for having seen him at a disadvantage, as I would have resented him seeing my weakness if our situations had been reversed. But he had come to breakfast in good spirits, with a fresher colour, and more spark in his eye, and had patted me on the shoulder as he went to his seat.
‘I must thank you again, Holmes,’ he observed, after attacking his eggs and toast with unusual appetite. ‘I slept well after you left me, better than I have for many a night. But how are you? Turn your face to the light, will you?’
I did as requested. I had a bruise on one cheekbone (and others elsewhere that I was certainly not prepared to reveal) and he tutted over it.
‘Stay like that,’ he directed, and dropping his napkin, he came round the table to me, pulling a small pot from his pocket.
‘We shall have some arnica on that contusion,’ he told me. ‘Hold still now, Holmes.’
I could do nothing else, for I was frozen there as he brushed the ointment over my bruised cheek. His hands were warm, and his touch gentle, though impersonal as a doctor’s should be. I closed my eyes, and tried not to shiver.
‘There,’ he said, wiping his fingers on his pocket handkerchief. ‘And I am very sorry for hurting you, my dear chap. Still, this will help. It’s an amazing thing, arnica: a small flower, but so potent to reduce a haematoma.’
Then in came the Irregulars, followed by Gregson, and then Lestrade, and then, after we had ascertained that the pills – or at least one of the pills - was deadly by putting Mrs Hudson’s poor terrier out of its misery, came our quarry, Jefferson Hope himself, upon whom I clapped a very pretty little pair of manacles. Throughout all of it, Watson watched me as though I were able to call the stars down from the heavens or turn back the tides. And I watched him, far more distracted from my deductions than I had ever been by any human being. I saw the concern on his face when he noticed the bruise under Billy Wiggins’ eye. A damp napkin removed the layer of street grime, and the little pot of arnica came into requisition again. His hands were gentle on the poor little terrier: even a dog warranted his tenderness. For all that Hope was twice a murderer, Watson compassionated the wretched man, enquired after his pain, left him with one last, lingering serious look, as who should say ‘this night thy soul shall be required of thee.’ He was a doctor clear through, was Watson: it was in his grain. That and a killer, for although he gave the credit to Gregson and Lestrade in his account of the matter, it had been he who had finally subdued Hope with some army-taught trick before doctoring him. The paradoxical nature of the man bewitched me: I could not throw off his spell.
The following night, after Hope’s death, we sat together after our supper. The cloth had been drawn, and the tantalus sat on the table together with the day’s Echo. He asked me about my method of reasoning, and I explained my analytical path to him; indeed it was on that evening that the idea of putting my methods in writing first occurred to me. He listened closely, questioned me with an alert intelligence. Again, he called me wonderful, and again I wondered that he should find me so. He sat easy in his chair, one hand playing with his pocket watch, which he turned and twisted, watching the candlelight dance on it. The same candlelight gilded his hair, bringing out its mingled threads of gold and brown – and the odd silver too, if truth be told, for his army years and his suffering had greyed his temples. Candlelight smoothed the contours of his face and wrists, softening the sharp bones that still wanted healthy flesh to cover them. It darkened his eyes, eyes now fixed intently upon me as I spoke, now hidden as his gaze dipped, and he smiled a private, amused little smile.
He was all beautiful as he sat there, unselfconscious in his kindness and strength, the gentle heart of him, and the steel edge. He had stepped into my life, a fragile exhausted wraith of a man, broken – still broken, for his wounds were not of a day’s healing – but strong. He was tender and compassionate, but stern to command. He had taken my citadelled heart by storm, and it had fallen to him without resistance. I loved him. I loved him, I who had never cared for any man save once, and that with only a shadow of what I felt for my Watson. I loved him from that first case we shared together, loved with all that was in me, at once, completely. I loved him so very dearly, and my heart was sore.