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Since First I Saw Your Face

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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.
(Anonymous, 1607)

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.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face. Part 2: Resolved To Honour You

Gan-den Monastery, Tibet.

The nights are cold, brilliant with stars. Once the little lamps in houses and cells have been extinguished, there is nothing to dull the celestial radiance. Sometimes, Holmes sits out for much of the night, muffled in wool against the frost, and smoking a battered chillum, the harsh tobacco within laced generously with golden-brown charas. Later, much later, as the heavens wheel, some of those same stars will shine on Watson. If Holmes murmurs any message for them to convey in their eternal round, if he whispers a name, it is so low, so private, so quietly desolate, that not even his own ears hear it.

March had come in like a lion, bringing the Hope case with it, and went out like one in a series of blustery days, iced by a wind hailing straight from the steppes of Siberia. It sliced through clothing, and restricted Watson to brief sojourns out of doors, from which he returned, blue-lipped and shaking. He was still wearing the threadbare coat, since I had not yet worked out how to replace it without hurting his pride. On the last day of the month, he was in such bad case after his afternoon walk – a solitary walk, for he would not always allow me to accompany him - that I called Mrs Hudson to make up the fire, drew his chair close to it, and ordered hot grog for both of us on the pretext of having a slight sore throat myself. He thanked me, and drank, but it took him a long time to stop shivering, and I could see that he was weary with pain after the cold.

I fidgeted around the room with my papers for a while, glancing across at him at intervals as he warmed his shaking hands on his glass, and wondering what to say to him about the damned coat. I did not realise that I was so transparent, until he heaved a sigh, and motioned to the other chair.

‘Do sit down, for heaven’s sake, Holmes,’ he murmured. ‘You go on like a cat afraid to cross the road between cabs, sometimes. I agree, I was foolish to go outside: the wind is keener than a knife and my coat does not serve its purpose. But I must exercise and fit myself for duty again. I cannot afford to laze around for ever.’

I felt a sudden uncomfortable roiling in my stomach. ‘Fit yourself for duty again?’ I repeated. I probably sounded quite stupid. ‘What do you mean?’

He sighed again.

‘Holmes, I was shot at Maiwand, as I recall telling you. That was in July, last year.’

‘What of it?’ I asked.

‘When I was invalided out, I was given a half-pay pension for nine months, on the proviso that at the end of that time, I would either be fit to return to active duty, or I would have to leave the service: in effect, I was given nine months to improve my health to the point where I might be of use to my country again. Although my pension did not begin until the middle of August – and I was fortunate in that they delayed its commencement for that long or I would be in worse straits than I am now – that nine months will be up by the middle of May. I must then go before a medical board, and either be pronounced fit for duty, or leave. And a man cannot live on nothing. So I cannot wait a more convenient season for exercise; I must try to do what I can now.’

I was silent, aghast. I had no experience of the army, and had not reckoned with even the possibility of losing him. It was true, I recollected, that we had taken the Baker Street rooms for only six months, but I certainly had no thought but that we would renew our lease, and neither, I had thought, had he.

‘I did not take this lease under false pretences,’ he said, stiffly, in response to my silence. ‘The rooms were engaged, if you recall, only for six months. We entered into possession on the thirtieth of January, and I had already taken the precaution of setting enough money aside to account for my rent and living through to the end of July, having hoped to be declared fit, and then delay my return until that date. Or to enable you to stay here on your own, if I were recalled immediately. I can pay my way, Holmes, you have no need to worry.’ He levered himself to his feet, set down his cup decidedly and turned to go. He was frowning, his hands clenched, and the tremor in the left quite visible.

I had not collected my thoughts sufficiently to reply to him, when he turned at the door, and spoke again, his colour heightened, and his voice oddly constricted.

‘Forgive me,’ he said, and it was an entreaty. ‘I – I have not cheated you, Holmes, although I knew that I might have to return to the service before our time was up here. I can pay what is needed so that you do not have to leave, even if I must, at least for the term of our tenure here, although I cannot see my way through to continuing after July. But I was - ’ he swallowed hard, and looked away from me. ‘I perhaps did not – I so much wanted – needed - it has been a very haven here,’ he went on, wistfully, and now he did look up, and his gaze was fond as it dwelt on all the small comforts of our rooms. ‘It has been a home, my dear fellow, and you not the least of what has made it so, despite your damned experiments, and explosions.’

And then he nodded to me once, a curt, formal nod, and left the room.

I did not speak, or follow him, for I had caught the sheen of tears in his eyes. His mouth had tightened, and I saw his shoulders hitch as he retreated. Instead I cursed myself roundly for my stupidity – I, to call myself a detective, and pride myself on my observations, when I had not entirely realised what his poor attire, the careful portioning of his money, and his anxious attention to his account book portended. He had told me he had been a gambler in health, fond of a game of cards, or a flutter on the horses. It followed then, that he had saved little or none of his pay, for he bore no mark of the man lucky in games of chance. I wondered now to what straits he had reduced himself during that period from his landing in England to our meeting. Eleven shillings and sixpence a day – nine months of a pension, paid quarterly in advance, and then nothing, if he were unable to return, for he was too young, and had served for too short a time to receive the army pension for life.

One hundred and forty seven guineas he’d have had, for the nine months, sixteen or so guineas a month, and five months of it possibly spent before I met him. Sixty four guineas at the most for four months, and thirty of them set aside for our six months’ rent and good lodging. Thirty four guineas was all his poor living then, and that for six months, if he wanted to stretch it to July: seven hundred and fourteen bright silver shillings to stretch over one hundred and eighty days. About three shillings and ten-pence ha’penny a day, by rough reckoning . . . Twenty-seven or so shillings a week, and five of them a week at least on his laundry for he was fastidious as a cat. It did not leave much for his menus plaisirs, such as they were, nor nearly enough to support the character and living of a gentleman. Moreover that was at my best reckoning, taking into account all variable factors I might deduce. It might even be less: I had not the true means of calculating it. Small wonder then, that his coat was shabby, his linen worn from frequent washing, and his boots needed re-soling. Small wonder that he balked at cab fares, declined invitations to concerts, and smoked the cheapest, rankest ship’s tobacco to be bought. And that half-crown for the Turkish bath – two shillings and sixpence, good heavens, and we’d taken coffee together for a few pence more . . . he’d have had only a few pence left of the day’s allowance.

And now he had gone alone to his cold little room, whither I dared not follow him, distressed, uncomforted, and thinking that I, perhaps, thought less of him. It was true that we had only engaged the rooms for six months, but I had hoped, I discovered now . . . he had wound himself inextricably into my – life - and my –

Ah, surely, surely he could not mean to leave me? He could not mean to go back . . .

*****

By the next morning, I was beside myself with anxiety, although, of course, I constrained myself to show nothing. I omitted my usual morning walk to linger at the fire before breakfast, which I had asked Mrs Hudson to put back half an hour, citing Watson’s fatigue as a reason. He had not yet appeared, and I longed for, yet dreaded, his presence.

‘The doctor walked too far on such a cold day,’ Mrs Hudson commented, as she bustled around the room, righting my papers in a way that irritated me intensely. ‘And that coat of his is too thin by half, Mr Holmes, for a man in his state of health.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is too thin. But I cannot think how to . . .’ I re-arranged the papers she had moved, and frowned as direfully as I could at her. ‘Thank you, Mrs Hudson.’

She dusted around my correspondence on the mantelpiece in silence for a few moments, carefully removing and then replacing my Persian slipper. I refilled my pipe, adjusted the slipper’s position a little to the left, and returned to my chair.

‘I am a widow,’ she observed, after a while, as she retrieved my cigar case from the coal scuttle and laid it on my table.

Good heavens, what need to tell me that? How could it possibly be important?

‘What of it, Mrs Hudson?’ I asked, in no very patient tone. I would have to move that cigar case back again as soon as she had finished.

She looked at me, and again I was forcibly reminded of my first nanny.

‘As a widow,’ she went on, ‘I might be expected to have some of my deceased husband’s clothing remaining in my possession. Had I such garments, among them might be a . . .’

‘A coat!’ I exclaimed, leaping from my chair, ‘A warm overcoat, possibly not entirely new, but bearing few marks of wear. A coat of good heavy wool with perhaps an astrakhan collar: Mrs Hudson, if you had such a coat . . .’

‘I do not, in fact, have such a coat, or indeed any man’s coat,’ she admitted, smiling at me gently. ‘But I do believe I could obtain such a coat. And you may not be aware, Mr Holmes, but sometimes a man might be prevailed upon to accept from an elderly lady – a tearful elderly lady, old enough to be his grandmother - a kindness he could not accept from a man because of his pride.’

I hastened to my desk and scrambled for my pocket book, removing a quantity of sovereigns and pressing them into her hands, for I heard Watson’s step on the stair. ‘Blue, Mrs Hudson,’ I murmured hastily, since it would never do to be caught conspiring with my landlady, ‘I am sure that your late husband’s coat was a very dark blue, was it not? And – forgive me - he dressed above his station, perhaps?’

‘He was always a smartly turned out gentleman,’ she agreed, solemnly. ‘I shall send Janey up directly with your breakfast, gentlemen. Good morning, Dr Watson,’ as he entered the room. ‘I trust you slept well. By the way, your overcoat is sadly splashed with mud, I notice. If you will let me have it, Janey shall dry it, and go over it with spirits of hartshorn and a stiff brush for you, to furbish it up before you wear it again.’

‘Fairly well, I thank you, Mrs Hudson,’ he replied, and moved to hold the door for her as she left the room, ‘And thank you, yes, I would be grateful if you would see to it. That is very kind of you.’

A rapid train of deduction presented me with a picture of Mrs Hudson’s clumsy maid of all work, and the stiff brush, and the threadbare coat . . . and an apologetic Mrs Hudson, and an irate Watson, and . . . oh, the duplicity of woman! What can a man do against it? We are helpless in their toils when they so choose.

‘We are fortunate in our landlady,’ Watson remarked. He filled and lit his pipe, ‘She bore two sons, did you know? The older died at Inkermann, and the younger in the final assault on Sebastopol, in the late conflict in the Crimea. They were young . . . not twenty-one, either of them, poor lads. Holmes, I have seen all too many die as young as they. But I must apologise for leaving you so abruptly last night; it was discourteous of me. And we should perhaps discuss our situation. Pray forgive me for not being entirely open with you. It is not that I do not wish to stay here, it is that I cannot, after July. I must find gainful employment before then or rejoin the army: there is no help for it, I am afraid.

The arrival of breakfast interrupted us, and I made sure that Watson’s plate was well supplied with kedgeree and his coffee cup filled before I spoke. I wanted him to stay with me – would have paid almost any price for him to stay – but I knew that I had to tread carefully with so proud a man.

‘Do you – do you wish to re-join the army?’ I asked, waiting with bated breath for the answer. ‘What would you wish to do if you could?’

‘I had always hoped for a practice of my own,’ he admitted. ‘To set up my plate in a respectable area, and to treat enough of those sufficiently able to pay to enable me to treat the poor, gratis. I saw much during my time at Barts, Holmes, that made me understand how sadly the poor, and especially the children of the poor, suffer from lack of the most simple care. If you had seen what I have, not only in the free wards, of which there are too few, but, alas, in the morgue . . . boys, their lungs rotting or their skin cankered from scrofulous ulcers, girls twisted by rickets, dying in childbed too soon. Forgive me, I know polite society does not mention such things. I should perhaps not speak of them to you.'

‘There is nothing you cannot speak of to me,’ I returned. My hands shook with my need to touch him, to reach out to assure him of understanding, for I too pitied the children. Had I not seen them sold into work little better than slavery, bought body and soul? Those sold for their bodies, both those of my own persuasion, and those not, I pitied above all, for they were often roughly used, and I grieved for their cruel handling as if my own flesh felt it. Had I not my little group of Irregulars, after all, to whom I passed many a shilling for light tasks, my small attempt to offer solace and security? I laid my fork on my plate. ‘There is nothing you cannot speak of to me. You call me innocent, Watson, but I have seen the vilest crimes, as you have seen the direst cruelty. It is a shame, and yes, a sin, that in these times such things are so. But you wished to set up your plate?’ I prompted, for he had fallen into a brown study, and shadows moved behind his eyes.

He smiled, and it was rueful. ‘I had not the money, nor the standing, nor the connexion to buy into a practice, Holmes. It was my plan to go into the army, to cover myself with glory, and to come home with honour, and a modicum of wealth, enough to buy a practice, and a home. And then perhaps . . .’

I saw in his eyes then, what he was too shy to say, that he had, perhaps, thought of a wife, as most men do, and children round his feet. It pierced me through and through that he would never think of me. That I could never . . .

‘And now here I am,’ he went on, forcing his tone to cheerfulness. ‘thrown quite upon the world. My wounds and the fever have put paid to those hopes for a long time, perhaps for ever. I must ‘begin the world again,’ as poor Richard Jarndyce says, and in a house as bleak. If I do re-join the army, I will not be allowed to stay here, and if I do not re-join the army, I can not afford to stay here. I shall try to find some doctoring work, if I am rejected for active service, but it will be years before I can get back to where I was before Maiwand. But do not worry, old fellow, we have some months before us yet. And it will soon be summer, so you may stop fussing over my coat. You are a bit of a dandy, you know, Holmes, and I know I am not nearly smart enough to be seen with such a very elegant fellow. That is why we do not walk together half so often as I would like: it would never do for you to be seen with such a shabby companion, when you have your way to make in the world. Which reminds me, Holmes, should you have any real objection if I were to write you up? What you do is very wonderful, you know, and it must help your practice, for you to be more widely known. And we will let July bring what July brings, and enjoy our companionship here, will we not? The rain is setting in for the day,’ he went on, putting down his napkin, and walking to the window. ‘I do believe not even your criminals will venture out today, so we shall be confined to barracks. I have some small tasks to do, and maybe I will try my hand at writing, but perhaps we might read together later? I shall introduce you to Mr Frank Churchill, who is more of a fine-feathered dandy than you, and in return, will you play for me?’

‘With the greatest of pleasure,’ I replied, and tried to smile at him. ‘But you will stay here, Watson, while you work? Your room is cold, I am sure.’

He hesitated then, and gave a queer, embarrassed little laugh. ‘Very well, Holmes, I will stay in here. But you must not mind me darning my socks, old chap. My orderly, Murray, taught me to do it when we were in Afghanistan, and very useful I have found it since. I know it is not a manly occupation, but needs must in the army, if we have no-one to do it for us. There are many of us who are handy at sewing as any sailor in the navy or any fine, finicking miss at her embroidery, I assure you, and no-one thinks a thing of it. And I was a surgeon, so I must, of course, know how to handle a needle.’

‘Then I will not think a thing of it either,’ I promised. ‘Fetch your needle, Doctor, and I will ring for more coffee, and coal for the fire. I might perhaps attempt to re-order my papers,’ I went on, glancing doubtfully around the room. ‘They appear to have dispersed themselves over a wider area than usual, I am afraid. You are a patient fellow, Watson, to put up with my eccentricities and oddnesses. I am sure I do not know where I would find another such as you to share rooms with.’

But it was not only my rooms I wanted to share with him, it was my all. We spent the most domestic and ordinary of days, yet I was charmed by it, my restlessness tamed by his content. He could put aside all his uncertainties, and give himself over wholly to the simple pleasures of warmth, and peace, and quiet company, for which I envied him more than I could well say, having never been skilled at it in my life. He darned socks with meticulous care, while I ordered and annotated my commonplace book. We ate a small luncheon; then he wrote, and after clearing some space I practised at singlestick. He raised his eyebrows when I came near to knocking the lamp off the table, and reminded me that Mrs Hudson would be distressed if I broke it: it was a relic, apparently, of her late lamented sister’s. Later, after dinner, when I shed my jacket and tie and donned a dressing gown, he loosened his own tie, and we sat at our ease. He read to me, and laughed at me for not liking Frank Churchill and his palterings with poor, besieged Jane (for of course I deduced immediately what their prior connexion must have been, though I did not mention it to Watson, not wishing to spoil his fun). I played until my fingers ached, and he applauded me, but told me to stop after an hour, lest I hurt my hands.

We parted at ten, he with a bright face and buoyant step, and I with an ache in my heart. If I were not a man, my treacherous mind whispered to me . . . if I were not a man, or if he were a man such as I, we might have had all of this and more. I could have smiled with my heart in my eyes, not dipped my gaze lest I betray myself. His hand might have rested on mine, or my head bowed to his kind shoulder as we sat close. Our mouths might have met, gently, caressing, our bodies touched, and then, ah then, were I not a man, there might have been fiercer, sweeter joys, the joys I knew of only from Ovid and Juvenal, and Catullus . . . joys I had never thought to want. Joys I had despised.

But these would never be my joys, I thought, grimly, preparing my morphia before I went to bed. These would never be my joys, and to retain what joy I had, I could never show what more I, and my wilful, craving heart, wanted.

*****

We were quiet together again the following morning, as the rain beat down, and the wind howled in the chimney. Watson sat scratch-scratching with his pen for much of it, wholly absorbed. For myself, under cover of a microscopic examination of some stone chips from the different bridges over the Thames, I watched him as he wrote, trying to fathom the mysteries of my own inexplicable love for him.

‘Holmes,’ he said to me, just before noon, capping his pen with a satisfied air, ‘I do not believe you are interested in that blessed experiment at all. Every time I look up, your eyes are piercing quite through me. Have I a smut on my face the origins of which you are deducing, or am I simply a convenient resting point in the distance?’

I startled. Had I been too obvious? My God, had he seen something of what I concealed? ‘I am restless, cooped up in here,’ I replied, admitting the lesser cause to hide the greater. ‘My mind tears itself to pieces without work. A day, a day or so after a case, to allow my brain to classify, or quantify, or discard, all that I have learnt, and then I begin to hunger for new things. I must have work, Watson.’

‘I know,’ he said then, surprising me. ‘I see it in you, Holmes. There were chaps like you in the army, just such restive, nervous types: thoroughbred horses, eager for the race, willing and fiery, but the devil to drive or ride. And then there were chaps like me,’ he went on, rising to his feet, and stretching. ‘We are the workhorses of this world, are we not, steady at the plough? But that,’ he went on, and then he broke off, and strolled to the window. I narrowed my eyes, observing. His nonchalance was affected, a cover for some deep feeling; I was sure of it. ‘But that is not what I wished to say. Yesterday, we spoke of my return to the army.’

‘We did,’ I replied, not wishing to commit myself to more. ‘Is there . . .?’

His back was towards me; he stood, head bent, fiddling with the tie of the curtain, passing the silk through his thin fingers.

‘Holmes,’ He stopped, cleared his throat, began again. ‘Holmes, should you think me a great coward if I said that I do not wish to return? Even if they will have me? Oh, it is not that I would not fight for my country, if needed,’ he went on, hurriedly. ‘Of course, I should do my duty. I hope – I hope I am not such a coward as not to do my duty in a just war. It is only – I am a doctor. And I have seen so many die. There have been so many I could not save. It was not a just war, that is another thing.’ His head dropped further; the silk curtain cord twisting through his hands. ‘I did not truly expect glory – when I spoke just then of covering myself with glory it was irony, in part – but I did not expect so much dishonour, Holmes. Nor the treachery of men, nor the cruel waste of life. And yet, in that unjust war, I killed. I am a healer, yet I have killed, ruthlessly, repeatedly, to save my own worthless life, and in my dreams, I kill again. You know this, do you not? You have seen . . .’

‘I have,’ I replied, gravely, and I had. I had woken him now on more than one occasion, standing and calling him softly, beguiling him back to the world. Sometimes he would turn away from me when he woke, shamed and shaking, and then I set his brandy down by him, and retreated without a word, to spare him. Sometimes he would utter a word of thanks, stretch out his hand, and I would give him the glass. Once our fingers touched. I felt his trembling, and he uttered a wordless apology, and pulled away. Once he smiled at me, and called me a good fellow, and kind to him. Kind! Would that I could have been kinder! Would that I could have been tender to him in his distress! I scarcely knew what tenderness was, either given or received, but for him I would have learned.

‘You may not be passed fit for active service,’ I reminded him, to buy time while I thought what best to say. ‘And if you are not, they will not take you back, so the question of your cowardice – which I do not in the least believe in, by the way – will not arise. And if you are passed fit, we will decide then. I do not think you are obliged to serve again, Watson.’

‘But I must do something. In July.’ There was a long pause. ‘I have been wondering . . . Holmes . . .?’

I set my stone samples aside and joined him by the window, where we stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the falling rain.

‘The answer is yes,’ I told him. ‘If we can by any means afford it, Watson, I would wish to remain in Baker Street, and I do not believe I would go on half so comfortably with any other but you as a companion. So we need only think of what you might do. You might see clients here, as I do.’ I glanced around. ‘Ah – then again . . . perhaps not . . . My experiments have, it appears, left some ineradicable traces. I wonder that Mrs Hudson does not complain more often, now I come to look about me.’

He shook his head, and laid a hand briefly on my arm. ‘If you have not deduced by now that Mrs Hudson looks on you as a son, even after so short a time, you have not the perception I believe you to have. And I would not like to share with anyone but you, old man. You have been the best of companions to me these months.’

‘Then it is settled,’ I said. ‘Let us think now of how you may obtain your living. It should not be difficult, Watson: you have the training of a physician and a surgeon both. Either would serve you. Do you have an accoucheur’s skills, or have you not practised those? Women do have this habit of parturition, you know, since the human race seems driven to renew itself. Children are born every minute: surely there must be a pressing need for assistance in bringing them into the world?’

He laughed then, and glanced at me, his eyes amused. ‘And what would you know of such things? You are the complete bachelor, Holmes: never was a man more unapt for marriage and fatherhood. Although you are kind to your Irregulars: I must not belie you there. No, Holmes, even if I begin to work up a practice directly after the army board, even if every gravid female in this part of London were to beat a path to my unpractised door, it would not bring in enough immediately to live here. I must have regular employment. I might look around the hospitals, I think.’

‘Would Stamford perhaps know of an opening?’ I suggested, diffidently.

He sighed. ‘He once worked under me, and paid for the privilege. How far have I fallen now, that I must go cap in hand to my old dresser? Yet it is a capital thought, Holmes, and to say truth, I am too poor for pride.’

‘You are too good for false pride, Watson,’ I told him. ‘And I also have been too poor for pride. It is only now that I have proved myself to Lestrade and Gregson that the sovereigns come in a little more easily. I have been poorer than you.’ I shivered, inadvertently, thinking of some of the places I had inhabited, the dirt, the noise, the impossibility of keeping clean, and he looked at me in concern.

‘You are cold? You should eat more, Holmes, you are too thin by half: it is no wonder you shiver. Come away from the window now, nearer the fire. I will speak to Stamford tomorrow. And – are you sure, Holmes?’

‘Very sure, Watson.’ I allowed myself to be shepherded to the fire. ‘Very sure.’

‘Then I shall speak to Stamford. And it cannot hurt to ask around some of the other hospitals. If the rain eases at all, old fellow, what do you say to a walk? You need to get out before you are shooting the walls again, and I am sure Mrs Hudson will have my coat ready soon. Shall it be Regent’s Park, or should we venture further afield?’

*****

The rain did not ease that day, but the following morning dawned fair, washed clean and smiling. Watson rose earlier than I for once, and was down betimes. I heard him ring for Mrs Hudson, and her step on the stair. Some short colloquy passed between them, and then the air was rent with a wounded, leonine roar such as I had never heard from the good doctor before.

‘Spirits of salts! What business had the foolish girl with spirits of salts? Why do we even have spirits of salts in the house for all love? Bring me the coat, Mrs Hudson, bring me my damn – bring me my coat. Or what is left of it,’ he added bitterly, in a slightly lower tone. ‘My God, what have I done to deserve – what will I do for a - but is Janey hurt, Mrs Hudson? Has it burned her? Bring me the coat and the child.’

I did not hear exactly what she said, but his voice was still raised when he replied.

‘Of course she is a child, she is but fourteen. And of course you shall not dismiss her, Mrs Hudson, what do you take me for? Dismiss a child over an old coat? A silly child with but half her wits, and from the foundling hospital too? What would become of her if we were to dismiss her? She has no family to take her back: you know what fate would await her. I must see she is not hurt: if you say she will not venture here, for fear of my anger, let us go to the kitchen directly.’

There were more murmurs. Then, in his normal tones,

‘Of course I will not shout at her, Mrs Hudson. I will roar her as gently as any sucking dove, but I must be certain she has come to no harm. Heavens, if it had splashed her eyes, her face, poor little wretch: she did not know what she meddled with, clearly. It does not disfigure quite like oil of vitriol, but it burns deep for all that.’

Mrs Hudson’s voice, raised a little, ‘But what of the damage to your coat, Doctor?’

‘To hell with the coat, Mrs Hudson, saving your presence. I must see that the child has come to no harm. Instantly if you please.’

And then their voices, retreating down the stairs. I made haste to dress, and prepare myself for the day. I chose my oldest and plainest suit. I sat, and I waited . . .

His step on the stair, when he returned.

His step on the stair. As if I could see his face, I could read his weariness and despair. I heard him sit, heavily. When I went in to him, he sat bowed over the wreck of his old coat, one hand idly stroking the lapel.

‘I daresay you heard all of that; forgive me my bad temper, Holmes. She’s not harmed,’ he said to me, without looking up. ‘The coat is no matter, but I feared lest Janey might be harmed. But believe me, I have given Mrs Hudson a pretty stiff lecture about labelling bottles correctly. Fortunately, the child poured it on, rather than dab it with a cloth, and she saw what she had done directly the coat began to stain and ruin. And she is sorry, of course. Good grief, Holmes, how she did weep and howl and sniffle, and Mrs Hudson lament. Never was there such an outpouring of salt water: it was a veritable Niagara. May heaven defend me at all costs from the too-copious tears of women! I ended by begging some pennies of Mrs Hudson and sending the child to buy bonbons, to stop her wailing. She will certainly never pour anything from an unlabelled bottle again. Poor silly wench, she’s ‘nobbut sixpence i’ th’ shilling’ as my countryfolk in the North have it. I could not ask Mrs Hudson to turn her away, for all that she has left me coat-less.’

‘She mistook the spirits of salts for spirits of hartshorn?’ I enquired. ‘My heart was wrung for him. I had all but planned this, it was true, but Mrs Hudson had been more wholesale than I had believed she could be. My deductions had led me to a tear or a rip, the stiff brush scouring through old fabric. I had not envisaged such competent destruction. Whatever she thought about me, it seemed it was Watson she regarded as a son: her maternal ruthlessness quite astounded me. ‘Well, we shall have to find a new coat for you, old fellow, since that one is ruined.’

‘Mrs Hudson has a man’s coat,’ he replied. His mouth was wry. ‘Some relic of son or husband. I never thought that I should come to such a pass that I should be indebted to my own landlady for the loan of a coat. But I must take it, be it never so old, for I certainly cannot wear this nor afford another. It is an unlucky chance, old fellow, and I fear that we will not be walking together soon. I do not know what she will bring me, but whatever it is, I must wear it, or go without. Dear God, let it not be too bad.’

Mrs Hudson brought the coat with our breakfast. His relief and thankfulness were so great when he saw it, that if he had ever entertained any suspicion he had been practised upon, I believe it was wholly swallowed up in that relief. Although, when I considered it again, watching him deal patiently with Mrs Hudson, I was sure he did not suspect our plot: never was man more innocent or transparent. He apologised sweetly to her for what he termed ‘unparliamentary language used in the heat of the moment, and now much regretted as unbefitting from a gentleman to a lady’, apologised for his temper – ‘l snapped at you in a wholly unwarranted fashion, Mrs Hudson, do, pray, forgive me my ill manners’ - enquired after the girl, and repaid Mrs Hudson the tuppence he had borrowed. Meekly, at her urging, he donned the coat to try it, a good, plain indigo-blue broadcloth, a little rubbed, and made after a slightly military fashion. It was a trifle large on him, but no matter, he would fill it out in time. She hung it on the peg for him with a small, satisfied smile, and I knew as well as if she had told me that she and the girl would take a private delight in their complicity. When, after breakfast, he looked out of the window at the clear April sky and suggested we walk, my heart bounded irrepressibly, gambolled like a puppy, and I hastened into my own coat as he donned his. Once on the pavement, he crooked an elbow, I tucked my hand in his arm, and we set out for Regent’s Park.

It was purest happiness to walk with him that morning. The coat’s colour brought out his blue eyes, as I had known it would. He was warm, and well-clad, and I no longer feared that the winds of winter or strong spring breezes would wreak havoc on his unprotected breast. We rambled about for a good hour, and I took pains to amuse him with my deductions, teasing out scraps of stories from passers by, seeing the little histories written in face or hand or demeanour. He praised me, and laughed, and his arm kept my hand so very warm within his close hold. My fingers touched the fine wool; I caressed it, moving as light as a falling leaf, lest he should remark my touch. And I walked on air, my heart dancing within me. He wanted to stay with me. He would choose to stay with me, to remain at Baker Street, with me, who had never had a true friend. What if he and I could never be more? I might not have got what I wanted, might never have what I wanted, but oh, how I wanted what I had got.

*****

It was as well that we had seen to his coat, for April was mostly wet and windy, and there were frosts even into May. The cases came in slowly, and so we walked together often. Now that he was no longer ashamed to be seen with me, I prevailed upon him to accept my near constant presence, and we ventured further afield.

A ‘client gifted me with tickets’ to hear Joachim perform in early April. I inveigled a reluctant Watson into coming with me, sadly citing my lack of other friends. He melted at my hint of loneliness, and we sat in the stalls together, his navy broadcloth sleeve companionably touching my black one. I was not rapt away by the violin as usual, although Joachim displayed his usual fiery brilliance of attack, for I was engaged in watching Watson’s response to the music. He was open as the sky: no dissembler of feeling he, alas. Afterwards he allowed that the celebrated violinist played well, and that Madame Schumann had accompanied him to perfection, but added, ‘I confess to preferring my private concerts with you, old fellow.’ I could have wept, or kissed his feet: instead I waved away the compliment and believed that I did not feel myself blush with pride and pleasure.

A new museum of Natural History opened in South Kensington, and we visited often. He was more knowledgeable than I about the animal kingdom, and had read more: he was well aware of Mr Darwin’s and Mr Lyell’s work, and could tell me much about the curiosities displayed in the fine cases. I could not see how such knowledge would assist me in my work, but I was always glad to hear him talk, to mark the brightening of his eyes as he expounded a theory or detailed a fact. Sometimes I learned something of his own experiences from him through our discourse, but for the most part, he was as chary of talking of them as I was of mine. I deduced much of his childhood from his omissions, and wondered to find that he, like me, had been lonely and neglected.

And it was joy to be with him at the museums and exhibitions we frequented. If I won a smile from him at my woeful ignorance, if he clapped me on the shoulder with a laughing, “Really, old fellow, did you not know that?’, if I could walk close to his side, our steps matching, my hand always within his arm, I was happy. Coffee was cheap enough, and a saveloy or a penny bun for a frugal luncheon, and a concert, maybe, before we returned home to Mrs Hudson’s good dinners. Then there were quiet evenings in our sanctum, when he read to me, and I played for him. Although I maintained my regimen of morphia, to quell the beast within, I was scrupulous in my dosages, taking only so much as would quieten my flesh. I would not sully our friendship with my shameful desires.

Towards the end of April, there was a new operetta at the Opera Comique. It was ‘Patience’, a satire on the Aesthetic movement which I longed, yet feared, to attend. It pained me to see Wilde burlesqued. We were not acquaintances, but I knew of him through the Fancy: for he was a man of my year, and had been up at Oxford when I was moping around my Cambridge rooms. We both boxed as amateurs, though we had never been up against each other. His was a very different character to mine, yet I had marked him long since as one such as I. He was a dedicated aesthete: I believed him also to be an invert, whether he knew it yet or no. And he fascinated me, for he was so much what I was not. His verbal and sartorial flamboyance astounded and appalled me; his courting of social disaster terrified and electrified me at once. Myself, although in moments of excitement I could not always control my manner, I took care that my demeanour tended to the coolly severe, my dress to the quietly prim, with no hint of a luxuriance that might betray me. Though internally I might feel so acutely as to be almost mad with it at times, and externally I delighted, as I have said, in the caress of silk, in all that was sensuous and fine, I allowed nothing of this to show to the world. In any case, I suggested to Watson that we might attend Patience, and was both pained and relieved at his decided negative.

‘I do not like to see a man pilloried for what he is,’ he said to me, quietly. ‘Parodying the government, or society in general, is fair game, but for myself I will not see a man’s weakness or personal beliefs mocked.’

‘Weakness?’ I queried. I know my tone was sharp. ‘You see his aestheticism as weak? Why, Watson, you have enthused over the flowers of the field many times in my hearing. You love what is fine and beautiful, what stirs the soul. Yet you call it weakness, to have, to express, these feelings?’

‘To have them, no; I freely confess that beauty moves me. To express them immodestly and immoderately as he does, yes, it is weakness - and foolishness into the bargain. Wilde courts adulation and obloquy in equal measure, it seems. And it is his personal flamboyance that they parody, not just Aestheticism itself. I do not like mockery, Holmes, so I pray you will excuse me from attending. And I am not in spirits for comedy, to be truthful with you. The newspapers report that a cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan is imminent, and I am anxious about the fate of my regiment, and the men I knew.’

‘But you do not condemn the man himself?’

‘I know nothing of him to condemn.’

‘His manner and lifestyle are excessively – emphatic. Exuberant. Decadent? Effeminate? Many condemn him.’

‘I think he is a singularly foolish young man with a taste for showing away that may yet be his downfall. The world is not kind to those it affects to lionise, and as I said, he courts adulation. Yet I do not condemn a man for his character, Holmes. We all have our demons, sleeping and waking. Do you object to him so much?’

‘No. Yes, I – I don’t know . . .’ I was at a loss to know what to say. How to explain. That I worried lest he see Wilde’s inversion in me, that it repel him. It mattered little to me whether he condemn Wilde or not. Only that he should not condemn me.

‘You are his very antithesis, it is true,’ he remarked then. ‘Holmes, Holmes, what is this? I do not understand your anxiety in the least. Do you so wish me to attend Patience with you? I will if it pleases you, of course; I am not so churlish as to deny you that, old fellow.’

“No,’ I sighed. ‘Perhaps I only wish you to have patience with me, Watson. Forget I spoke, it is of no matter. Tell me instead of your regiment. Of Afghanistan.’

We dropped the subject of Wilde by mutual agreement, and our talk was then of politics and soldiering. The renewed interest in the end of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the conduct of our diplomats and generals there occupied him exclusively over the next weeks. His nightmares returned in full force, and with them a relapse of the fever. He spent several days huddled over the fire, wan and weary, and refusing food. Mrs Hudson and I cockered him up with nourishing soup, and whatever small delicacies I could afford and she could devise. He thanked us with gentle courtesy, but half the time I could see that his mind was far away. I wondered to what extent his bodily weakness was the result of his anguished feeling, or whether he might have been less physically low had he been mentally stronger, but soon I came to understand that the two were so intertwined as not to be separated. Whatever the underlying cause of his relapse, however, the end result was that by the time of his medical board in May, he was reduced to so very low and wan and trembling a condition as for its decision to be a foregone conclusion. He was invalided out from the army, and sent, with thanks for his sacrifice of health and livelihood, and a further small gratuity of twenty-five guineas ‘in recognition of your outstanding and noble service, Dr Watson, and may we say how sorry we are that you are not fit enough to return,’ out into the world to make his own way as best he could with shattered health, and no connexions.

*****

We spent a quiet, a very quiet summer. Watson pulled round, slowly, and the advent of better weather and some sun improved his health. The twenty-five guineas he gave straight to me, telling me that it would pay for his share of five more months at Baker Street. In July I renewed our lease for six months, to Mrs Hudson’s unexpected (unexpected to me, in any case) joy, and I returned him five of his guineas. I urged him to trust that he would be able to make the two months rent not yet paid by the time it was needed in the autumn, and represented to him very gently that he might need the rest . . . ‘your boots, my dear fellow, among other necessary expenses. We walk a good deal, do we not? And you are sure of some work through Stamford, not to mention that your stories are in requisition now. Let us be hopeful about our future.’

For he had a knack, had Watson, of describing in vivid terms the trials of everyday life: he had even a certain vein of sardonic North Country humour. When we strolled together, arm in arm through the streets of our great city, and I murmured my deductions to him, he found ample material in them for his tales. He was a great romantic though; not a story but saw some fair-curled, blue-eyed damsel in distress, rescued by a brave heart. In a moment of madness, I once considered begging him to write a different object for his affections, but it passed, and I renewed my guard on tongue and eye. Still, his romances brought in the shillings, and occasionally a sovereign. He wrote pretty constantly through the summer, but he had also other work in increasing quantities.

Watson had asked Stamford, now a doctor, rather than a humble dresser, where there might be an opening, and Stamford, good man, had spoken on his behalf. I, swallowing my pride, made a private application to Sir James Paget on the subject of his collegiate fellow from Barts, which I believe may have done rather more. The hours Watson worked were moderate, and the pay, consequently, moderate too, but by August we were sure that, with care, we would be able to remain in Baker Street. I took every case that came my way, the small, the unimportant, the curious. Lestrade became a frequent visitor in our rooms; Gregson put many a little mystery my way. My practice began to grow, and I had strange tales to tell Watson in our evenings together.

Matters stood thus in October, when there came a case that both anguished and relieved me. The day had been warm – unseasonably warm, even stifling, with a fine, drifting drizzle that wrapped London in a sticky cloud. I lay curled on the sofa, in my shirtsleeves, unable to bear the rasp of wool against my skin, and reading a letter from brother Mycroft, which gave me unwelcome pause for thought. Watson roused me from my cogitation by sighing heavily, and throwing down his paper. The slightest exercise of my deductive faculty enabled me to discern his train of thought: it was not difficult then, to amaze him by elucidating it for him. It was clear that he had been once more engaged on ruminating over the sadness and horror, and useless waste of life that was war. Although his eyes had brightened initially, as he looked at the portraits of Gordon and Beecher, and he’d revisited his romantic views of gallantry and glory in combat, he had soon fallen into melancholy. When his hand stole towards his own old wound, rubbing and pressing his shoulder as if the flesh were yet tender and healing, when his smile quivered on his lips, and he shook his head, I knew it was time to rouse him from reverie. How quick he was to smile at me! How swift to praise and wonder as I deduced him! As his eyes softened, and he gazed at me, how easily I could have knelt at his feet and confessed my love to him. Instead I jumped up, opened the window, and felt that the murky air had cooled a little, freshening with the night’s breeze. He was quick to respond to my suggestion of a ramble, and although it was well past dark, we went out into the thoroughfares of London, wandering Fleet Street, and the Strand.

I often wondered what he thought of those walks. We were always arm in arm now. I needed it, hungered for it: the only touch we had. He would stand, waiting for me, his elbow crooked. When I approached, and tucked my hand into his arm, he would press me gently against his side, almost embracing my hand as he sheltered it. Though wool and linen separated my flesh from his, I sensed his skin as if my hand could penetrate his shield of clothing and reach home to him. I was in an agony of desire then, my whole being focused on the point of contact between us. Sometimes, expounding a point of deduction, I would allow myself to grip his arm hard, as if wrought up by my intellectual exercise, and unconscious of my act. He would remonstrate, laughing at me – ‘Holmes, old chap, do calm down. I am not a criminal, you need not maul me so, I shall not hurt you.’ Sometimes he would pat my hand, soothing me. ‘Holmes, come now, you’re gripping me hard enough to bruise. Your nervous system is too finely tuned, my dear fellow, you’ll have me prescribing you valerian, as I do for my patients. It’s no wonder you’re so thin: that great brain of yours wears out your body.’

Oh, it did. My brain did wear out my body, the body quivering in hopeless longing, the brain feverishly engaged, spilling out roulades of deduction and reasoning, lancing, lightning-fast, the dull clouds of obscurity that was the whole of human conduct. Would that I could have been blind to my own desires, as so many I saw were to theirs. I was not blind.

As we walked, I watched, and I saw. Some couples were open and joyous. A young man raised his girl’s hand, linked fast in his, to his lips, and kissed it. She tilted her cheek, eyes slanted sideways at him, and her smile invited, and promised. An older couple walked arm in arm. He leaned on her; she guided his faltering step with tender patience. Years of companionship suited their paces so perfectly that they gave and took unthinking, their bodies almost dancing together. Other couples concealed desires illicit but acknowledged. Two women dawdled along the way in animated discourse. They did not touch, but their steps matched. Gold-hair laughed at raven-hair, and when their eyes met, they too exchanged an invitation and a promise. Gold-hair’s lips moved in the slightest of hinted kisses, and raven-hair blushed, looked down, then up through lowered lashes. I could see them. I could see what they hid. Could they see me? To me, my desire was naked, burning, as if I were stripped, transparent in my need and longing. Others saw only two sombre-suited gentlemen, respectable and arm in arm, one animated, expounding some point of interest, the other listening, quietly responsive. Thank God that they could not see, that I yet had strength not to betray myself and send both of us into ruin.

So we walked, many a time, I half agony, half hope. A vain hope, I told myself. A lost hope. I should not cherish it, weak, wounded thing that it was, not dare to give it house room in my breast. Then that October night we returned from our three hours ramble, refreshed, and he laughing at me, ‘It was unfair of you, old man: I would never have guessed her occupation in a century of years: you are too sharp for me in choosing these puzzles, too quick for my dull brain’ – and Dr Percy Trevelyan’s brougham stood at our door.

*****

The events chronicled - in part - in the case that Watson called ‘The Resident Patient’ are too well known now, thanks to his writing, to need any further elucidation here. What I immediately realised, and what I believed Watson did not, was that Trevelyan, that shy, nervous man, ‘like a sensitive gentleman,’ as Watson was to describe him, was an invert, and that his tale of patronage, fantastical as it seemed, was only a cover for a more prosaic, perhaps brutal, arrangement. In short, Trevelyan was not only Blessington’s – or Sutton’s, I should say – protégé, but also his catamite. I had in fact, on observing his attenuated form and sickly pallor, been reminded forcibly of those lines of Catullus, to wit, ‘clamant Victoris rupta miselli ilia, et emulso labra notata sero.' Sutton also, when I met him, brought to mind one of the schoolmasters of my youth, a brutish, hard-driving man with rough manners and a heavy hand. He liked to flog, and took his pleasure in doing so, as we winced and pleaded beneath his cuts. It was clear to me that the unfortunate Trevelyan was caught in the toils of just such an one, and, for all his prating of five and threepences in the guinea, and for all his fine brougham and great house, had been bought and sold like any child of the streets.

I cannot say what I was afraid of in the case, but afraid I was. I took it, of course, for we valued every penny, and Trevelyan was liberal. I only knew that as I observed him speak to Watson at our first meeting, as they discussed the ‘obscure monograph on nervous lesions’ – or was it the nervous lesions that were obscure, rather than the monograph? I forget, or do not care to remember - I disliked it more and more. A creeping, nervous unease possessed me, as I observed Trevelyan’s prim, cool manner, his thin, white, long-fingered hands, more the hands of a musician than a surgeon, his sober black and white, with the ill-suited crimson of his necktie the only touch of colour about him. Watson thought my interest keenly aroused in the case, but it was not that. It was not that, let me be honest. It was that he was a client in whom Watson might legitimately take an interest of his own, they both being medical men, and we had not had such a client before. And Watson felt sorry for the man, I could tell. It was evident in his gentler manner, in the acuteness with which he observed him. I did not want to see him thus attentive, I confess.

Sutton proved unhelpful that night, and since he had not told me the truth I left him to come to his senses. The note from Trevelyan the following morning – hurriedly pencilled on a torn scrap of paper, the irregular letters betraying great unease and distress, sent me post haste to Watson’s room, where I tenderly observed his peaceful sleep for a few moments before waking him in our usual fashion. He was worried as we hastened to Brook Street.

‘I do hope . . .’ he began, and then stopped.

‘What do you hope?’ I enquired. ‘I don’t expect anything good to have come of this, Watson. I could have helped Blessington had he been honest with me, but he is clearly in fear for his own life, and no man is ever so without knowing the cause. I suspect him of a past that has come back to haunt him, do not you?’

‘I do,’ he agreed. ‘And I am worried for that young doctor. As you know, I at first suspected him, but you have proved to me that he can have had no hand in it, and I must therefore consider . . .’ and then he broke off, and no persuasion of mine could induce him to utter another word.

When Trevelyan came out to meet us, his face a mask of horror, his long white hands twisting themselves ineffectually about each other, Watson gave an exclamation of dismay and hastened to support him, placing an arm round his shoulders and urging him into his consulting room to be seated. Trevelyan was, in truth, so pallid that syncope appeared a likely possibility, but I still did not think my friend had need to be so very solicitous. He continued to hover at Trevelyan’s shoulder throughout the remainder of the investigation until we left, and was unwontedly silent on our way home. He paid me no mind, but sat, looking into the distance. Finally, I could bear it no longer.

‘You take an eager interest in Dr Trevelyan’s concerns,’ I observed.

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?’

‘His misfortunes,’ I repeated, contemptuously, ‘Yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed. He has been fortunate enough to obtain preferment for small cost, and at the expense of a resident patient who now no longer lingers to be an incubus or a hindrance in his rise to fame and fortune. Yes, he has been unfortunate indeed.’

I could see that my acerbity surprised him. He remained silent for a few minutes, and then observed softly. ‘I think you do not like this poor young man, Holmes.’

‘He is a matter of indifference to me,’ I replied, with as haughty an inflection as I could manage. ‘I simply wonder to see you so concerned about a stranger.’

‘I am a doctor first and foremost, Holmes,’ was his reply, and he fell silent again. For the first time that night, we did not sit together over a brandy, but he excused himself and went early to bed. We shook hands, as usual, but he left me with a look so serious, so uncheerful as to chill my heart.

I slept badly that night. I loved him so much that I could not bear there to be a shadow of coolness between us, and I tossed and turned, sleepless and sorry, waiting for the morning, when I could make peace with him. Alas, when I entered the drawing room he was not there, and Mrs Hudson informed me he had left early, citing a pressing appointment at the hospital, whither I knew he should not be going that morning, for he had not told me he was needed. An enquiry proved that no sudden summons had come by telegram, and so I could not think of any need for him to leave our sanctum thus.

I telegraphed Scotland Yard about the case – which is not, of course how Watson wrote it up - but otherwise would not stir, determined not to leave until my friend returned. For he was my friend, both in the sense that the pronoun implied, and in the singularity of the noun. My friend. There was no other. When he arrived home after luncheon – which I had refused – his coat was wet with the drizzle, and his face more serious than I had ever seen it. I pounced on him – positively pounced, I am sorry to say – insisting that he remove his wet coat, and set it to dry, that he come to the fire and warm himself, and that he instantly remove his shoes and put on slippers, crying that he was not to stir until Mrs Hudson had brought him a hot grog. He suffered my ministrations with an abstracted air, but becoming, at length, aware that I was observing him closely, he rewarded my care with a weary smile.

‘Holmes, you must not worry about me,’ he reproved me. He patted me on the arm. ‘I have had a trying day, and I am simply tired. But I shall do very well now.’

The grog arrived, and I gave it to him. ‘You were out so early, old man,’ I said. I tried for nonchalance, but I am sure my voice shook dreadfully. ‘I was anxious about you in this beastly weather.’ For the stifling heat of a few days previously was breaking, and the wind was rising. ‘It will storm tonight: I did not want you caught out in it.’

‘I shall do very well now,’ he repeated, and closed his eyes.

I sat down opposite to him. It was not a man’s part to ask him where he had been, but it was all I could compass not to do it. And he offered no explanation for his day, but simply sat in sad reverie, until we parted. He did not even ask me to play for him.

The storm broke that night with an unparalleled fury, a tempest of wind and rain. The streets were rivers; the continual boom amd growl of the thunder and the lurid flashes of lightning rendered sleep impossible. I crept from my room, coaxed the fire into life, and stood by the window, watching. After a little, I heard Watson’s step on the stair, and he entered the room and crossed it to join me. He, like me, wore his dressing gown, but he had pulled on trousers under his nightshirt, and thrust his feet into slippers. He raised his eyebrows when he saw my bare toes.

‘Holmes, if we are to watch the storm together, go instantly to your room and put on socks and slippers. And smalls would not come amiss either. The air is chill near the window, and I doubt either of us will be sleeping for a while. This is a truly majestic spectacle,’ he went on, gesturing at the scene outside. “I have rarely seen one as tremendous, not even in the hill country in India.’

I did as I was bid – I was so pitifully eager for him to care for me that I would not have refused him - and brought back with me also my old blanket. He, meanwhile, had poured us a brandy and soda. He handed me mine, and smiled as I twitched the blanket across his shoulders as well as my own. For a while, we just stood there, watching the flash and glow, timing the thunder against the lightning. At one point the storm was directly over us, and I shivered in excitement. He moved closer, and took my hand, tucking it in his arm. I believe he thought me afraid. We did not speak. Eventually, the storm died down, and we parted, silently, to go to our respective beds. I was consoled, our closeness, I thought, restored.

But in the morning, he was gone again, and he remained away most of the day. By luncheon, I was frantic. I suspected him of being with Trevelyan: was our friendship nothing to him then, that he could absent himself from my side without a word? Again he came in late, and weary, and was silent most of the evening. He went to bed shortly after, and this time there was no storm, no friendly nocturnal companionship to allay my fears or my jealousy.

I did not sleep at all that night. I waited and watched, not stirring from my room until Watson came quietly down, and let himself out. I followed him. As I suspected, he went to Brook Street, and it was to Trevelyan’s house. I saw him enter the house, then after some short time, he left it with Trevelyan, the latter muffled in a greatcoat and scarf. They hailed a cab, and I followed in another. There followed a long drive westward through the city, Watson’s cab twisting through street after street. Eventually we came to a long road of houses, detached and set back from the road. Watson’s cab drew up at one of them, and I told my cabbie to drive past. A hundred yards further on, I stopped him, asking him to wait until I returned. The man looked oddly at me, so I told him I was on Yard business, and that there would be money in it for him if he kept his mouth shut. I doubled back, silently, down the drive, to where Watson and Trevelyan stood, and listened.

‘ . . . may already be too late.’ Trevelyan was saying, in tones of utmost despair. ‘If I had not been such a fool, Watson. I have been such a fool.’

‘And you have paid a hard price for your folly, I am afraid. You must put yourself in my colleague’s hands, and hope. And for God’s sake, Trevelyan, if you must – and I know you cannot help yourself, so you will - then for God’s sake do not be so foolish again. You must in any case take precautions now if ever . . .’ and then he lowered his voice and I heard nothing more distinct.

I thought their discussion was ended, but then Trevelyan spoke again, and I heard my own name. ‘ . . . tell your friend Holmes? I wish you would not. He showed plainly that he had little sympathy for such as I. For he knew, Watson, he knew and he despised me. Any fool could see it. Christ, I see it, and I despise myself.’

Watson expostulated, seeming to offer comfort and reassurance, for he laid his hand gently on the other’s arm, and spoke. His voice was clear and distinct, and its import sent my mind reeling.

‘With your consent, yes, I must tell my friend, because I would not keep anything that pertains to his work from him: even this secrecy has grieved me. I owe him much, for I was alone when he took me in, and he has been kind. But you are wrong, Trevelyan, Holmes would not despise you if he knew. I do not believe he does: the man is curiously innocent of such knowledge, though a genius in all other respects. Also, you need have no fear of him. He is a friend to justice, not a servant of the law, and he holds no brief for those who persecute a man because his nature is as yours. Do not despise yourself, Trevelyan: I am convinced in my own mind, as a medical man, that such desires are inborn, and cannot be changed, I have seen enough, across the world, to be quite sure of this. Try to live with a little less self loathing, and you will do better. And do not again enter into any such devil’s bargain as you did. If you go whole and clean again you will be a fortunate man: do not take more such risks.’

His words were kind, but his voice was the voice of a captain speaking to a man under his command. There was no gainsaying it, and Trevelyan consented to his speaking to me, thanked him – blessed him for his kindness - in a low, moved voice, before entering the house. Watson stood looking after him for a moment, waited till the door closed, sighed, and limped to his cab. He passed me close in the drive, not remarking me in his abstraction, and I saw him tug his moustache as he murmured, ‘It is too late. He has left it too late. Poor young fool, if only he had heeded the signs, and he a doctor. Poor man. Poor, foolish, wretched man, and he a doctor.’

*****

The following morning saw me in a quandary. I wanted to speak to Watson of what I had overheard – for I had deduced now the whole sorry story – but I could not without betraying my dishonourable dealings. That they were dishonourable, I saw clearly now, the fog of jealousy having lifted. I had been driven by my own demons to spy on my friend, a thing unthinkably base and vile. Yet I had been rewarded, not punished, as I should have been, and that most richly. For as well as having my mind set at rest over Trevelyan – who clearly was no more than his patient – I had heard enough to understand that Watson valued me, not in the same way as I valued him, it is true, but value me he did. I was, if not dear to him in any romantic sense, dear to him as a younger brother is dear. It was more than my deserts: I should be thankful, therefore.

In the end though, I did not have to speak. He was at Barts all day, and I in the Yard, tormenting Gregson into offering me work. We sat down to dinner together and talked through our days, but when we filled our pipes and sat in shirtsleeves and gowns after dinner, when I would have played for him, he stopped me, and motioned me to sit down opposite him.

‘I must talk to you, Holmes, and I beg your indulgence for what I have to say, for it may offend you. Yet it must be said, so I will essay it.’

An icy rill trickled down my spine. Had he seen me follow him? He had not, it appeared, and I breathed a sigh of relief as he continued.

‘You did not like Trevelyan, and so I have not informed you of what I was about these last few days. But it has grieved me to be secret with you,’ – they were his very words from the night before – ‘and since I have, in sort, received my patient’s permission to inform you of our dealings, I must do so. I do not believe you were aware of this, Holmes – you are such an innocent in some matters of the world – but the relationship between Trevelyan and Sutton was not only a business one. Trevelyan was, in short, Sutton’s paramour, brought thereto by no real affection but by a lively sense of obligation, and some strong, coercive suasion. I am sure it seems odd to you, who are all purity of mind, that a man might stoop so far, but I beg you will refrain from censure, at least for my sake as his physician. To shorten my tale for you, I saw this at once, having had experience of seeing such abuse in the army – I will not bore you with details of the unfortunate young man under my command whom I had to rescue from similar sorry circumstances – and I saw also certain symptoms in Trevelyan that gave me cause for concern. You may have remarked his eyes: that irregularity in the pupils? That, his pallor, and a hesitation in his gait, coupled with certain tests I did after we concluded our case, make it quite clear. Trevelyan has contracted the lues Veneris, from Sutton, it appears, since he has had no other – attachment, and on such a feeble frame, it works rapidly. Yesterday I conveyed him to a discreet house where he can be cared for, and he will be attended by my colleague, Power, who is a renowned ophthalmologist, but it may already be too late. He will most certainly lose his eyesight, and I fear that once tabes sets in, no amount of mercury will stop the progression of the disease. He has paid dearly for his association with Sutton, poor foolish young man. I am so very sorry for him. His life cannot be of any long duration now.

‘Why did you not tell me?’ I asked, weakly. It was not that I had not deduced the whole, for I had, although admittedly, I had not realised Trevelyan’s fate would be upon him so swiftly. It was Watson’s heart that amazed me, that he should – I knew he was a compassionate man, but that he was one to go so far out of his way for a stranger, and the stranger a man tainted not just by unnatural vice, but by a disease that would render him loathsome and leprous to many, that, that I had not reckoned with. ‘Why did you not say anything?’

He sighed. ‘Holmes, you are a good man. A moral man, a fighter for justice. But although you have much experience of vice and criminality, it is theoretical. You have not – forgive me, I do not want to wound you – you do not have much practical experience within yourself of the frailties of humankind, and perhaps that makes you the least bit – mechanical - in your reasoning. Even - dismissive - of the frailty of us ordinary mortals. You were cool to poor Trevelyan from the outset: you have been kind to me, but I know how sharp-tongued you can be. I did not want to expose the poor man to any more derision than he will inevitably now garner. The rest of his life, and it may be a short one, will be filled with humiliation and pain. I acted as a physician must in attempting to spare him what I could.’

‘I will not be so sharp-spoken again if it makes you think me cruel,’ I promised, through a closing throat. ‘Watson, I am so very sorry you have such a poor opinion of me. I would hate you to think ill of me, old fellow. Did – did you think me intolerant of his moral weakness, or of his physical disease?’

There was a pause before he answered. A long pause, and I trembled.

‘I have been in the army,’ he observed.

‘And so?’ I prompted.

‘Of course, one comes across such cases. Forgive me for speaking broad, Holmes, and stop me if what I say is distasteful to you. It is very much reprobated – cried out upon, especially when there is inequality in rank. But it is not unknown for close friendships – one might even say ‘heroic’ friendships, of the Achilles and Patroclus variety, if you remember your Homer – to form between a man and a comrade, and for these friendships to have an element that is physical. You have been to school, Holmes, surely you are not so unaware? And the situation out there conduces to such things, not just the strong sense of camaraderie, of fighting together against the odds, but the desperate search for some meaning – some kindness, Holmes, in a world of desolation and blood and death. Of course, it never came close to me. I was a doctor, and of necessity I held myself aloof: one cannot be friendly with a man whose leg or arm one may be amputating next day: I kept myself at a distance, being cordial to all, but friendly with none, as was my duty. But I could not but see, and what I saw was that there was joy to be had, for some, and much solace. I saw abuse, certainly, such as Sutton’s to Trevelyan, and that I put a stop to, of course. I would not countenance abuse among my men, though I was deliberately blind to – certain liaisons. You see, although I was brought up, as you have been, to consider such things vile and immoral, I could not find it in me to condemn men for seeking a little comfort when comfort was hard to be had. So I did not condemn those who made such things their solace.’ He shrugged. ‘And there you have it, Holmes. You are consorting with a man of broad sympathies, sympathies not strictly in accordance with modern morality. If you cannot forgive me that, then let us part, for I will not change. My resolution is fixed: I will condemn nothing loving or affectionate that is mutually agreed, no matter what form it take. But Trevelyan, as I said, was not so fortunate in his connexion: he suffered abuse, and will pay for it with his life.’ He paused, and waited. ‘What, Holmes, quite silent? Have I shocked you so very much?’

‘No,’ I replied, but it was a lie. He had shocked me – shaken my foundation to the core, but not for the reasons he thought. ‘I just – I do not know what to say, Watson.’

‘Are we to part then?’ he asked, bluntly. ‘If my views are abhorrent to you, I will leave, Holmes. I do not expect you to partake of them: I know they are not usual.’

‘I do not want you to leave,’ I must make that clear. ‘Your views are not abhorrent. Just – just so very unexpected. I have never met anyone who thinks like you. But do not leave, Watson.’ “Do not leave me” I would have said, but I was too shy to utter it. ‘And I will ask you again: did you think it was Trevelyan’s morals, or his physical state I would find distasteful?’

‘You evinced a dislike to him that I believed was based on his appearance and manner. I did not know whether you had guessed at his inversion; his disease I knew you could not have diagnosed, for you have not the skill. The signs are yet too slight for any but an experienced man to see, but the venereal afflictions are common in the army, and I have that knowledge. But you might have disliked his being an invert. So, no, I could not be sure of you, Holmes. Of your sympathy for him, or your understanding.’

‘And you cared for him, provided for him, suspecting, no, knowing him, to be an invert, and aware of his disease?’

‘Most certainly I did. What do you take me for, Holmes? I did not swear the oath to tend and heal only such as suited my liking or could afford my fee, although since Trevelyan has reimbursed me for my doctoring, I am not out of pocket in this instance. I swore an oath to succour all, and so I will, that come within my purview.’

‘Then I admire and honour you more than I can say,’ I murmured. I could not look him in the eye, for fear he might see too much of me. ‘And – and I am sorry I let a transient dislike, an irrational impulse, blind me to doing good. For I aided Trevelyan, yes, but from material motives, and without my heart engaged. That was wrong of me, very wrong, to be so cold. Yet if I engage my heart, how shall I fare when reason only is required for deduction? What am I to do, Watson? Assist me, I beg you.’

He laughed then, his whole demeanour relaxing. ‘You refine too much upon trifles,’ he told me, and leaned forward to pat my knee. ‘You are the consulting detective, Holmes: let those skills you have remain your skills. Only perhaps be mindful that your reasoning deals with humans, and that humans have feelings that can be wounded. Hearts that can be pierced.’

‘I will,’ I murmured. ‘I promise that I will. And you will help me, Watson? We will work the cases together, with my brain, and your heart? You will be my, my Boswell, if you like, my companion, my associate – my friend?’

‘I will,’ he replied, standing, and smiling down at me. ‘I will, since you are generous-hearted enough not to scorn me for my unorthodox views. I will, my dear fellow, in anything that is within my small power, and here’s my hand on it with all goodwill.’

I rose also and shook him by the hand, trying not to let my touch linger too long.

‘Then we have a partnership?’ I pressed, to be sure of him. ‘You will come with me on cases and assist me, soften my faults, guide me in what I do not do well?’

‘We have a partnership,’ he agreed, ‘but I will not dare to lecture you. I shall just – be there, when needed.’

‘Yes,’ I said, my heart swelling. ‘Yes. You will be there when I – when I need you. I - I shall retire now, old chap, and see you on the morrow; I find I am a trifle weary. Good night now, and, and pleasant dreams.’

And I left him there, still standing, smiling at me kindly, as I stumbled to my room, nigh blinded by tears I would not have him see. He was so much more than I had ever dreamed of, my friend, Watson, so much more than I had ever hoped to have. He was all I could have wanted had I known there was anything to want. He was all I wanted now. He was all I could not have, would never have. He would, it appeared, have loved me without shame or stint, had he loved in the manner of my kind. But alas for me, he did not so love . . .

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face Part 3.

First Christmas

Holmes turns away from the lamassery. He sighs, treading steadily down the rocky path. It has been a haven – for a while. But he has finally established contact with Mycroft, who will provide him with a ready supply of money, dropped poste restante at designated places. Moran’s agents have failed to find him, so carefully has he hidden, but now he must turn the tables on his enemy, using all his hunting skills to track the old shikari as a beast to his lair.

He fumbles in his pocket, checking. The heavy iron scholar’s pen case hangs at the girdle of his woollen robe, but his pockets harbour, wrapped in paper, a great store of greeny gold lumps of hashish, and tarry black-brown raw opium. He will use them when the dreams become too hard to bear. He had hoped his exile would be over by now; that he would be back in London, where even in hiding, he might have had the opportunity to don a disguise and at least see Watson, himself remaining unseen. He knows from Mycroft’s letters that he would find him much changed, but even a glimpse of the sad, attenuated wraith his friend has reverted to would be better than this echoing emptiness. He is beginning to lose hope of ever being with Watson again.

*****

Trevelyan died before Christmas, half-blind and wholly raving, the disease having ravaged his feeble frame with devastating rapidity. Watson borrowed a black coat and tie from me, and we went to his funeral on a chill day in mid-December. When I initially offered to go with him, he had refused my company.

‘Powell and I will attend, and a couple of other medical fellows. He wanted no other, indeed at the last, he would not let even me see him. He was so ashamed, poor fellow, so ashamed to be seen.’

‘Did he – was he aware of his affliction, to be ashamed of it, at the end?’ I enquired. ‘I understood it was not so with the disease.’

‘He had periods of lucidity, and then his torments were great, for he remembered what he had done and said, and what he was. It was a terrible end, Holmes. I am glad that you have never seen such. And the worst of it is how people treat the afflicted. It cannot be caught even from kissing, or from a cup, yet people shun those with the disease as if they were lepers. Or worse than lepers. Man is cruel to man.’

I rose and went to him, standing before him as he sat: I could not see his misery unmoved.

‘Yet there is much good in the world,’ I reproved him. ‘For example, here before me is an honourable doctor, once sorely wounded himself, and still in need of care, who has been kindness’ self to a chance-met stranger, succouring him to the best of his ability, unfailingly thoughtful and generous. And here is a man of, let us face it, doubtful morals and dubious reputation who is very grateful and proud to be companioned by that same good doctor. Pray let me attend with you, Watson. You developed a friendly feeling for young Trevelyan, I am sure. It is grievous to lose a friend, and so you regarded him, did you not?’

‘Not a friend,’ was his reply, one which surprised me. He looked up at me. ‘I do not call many ‘friend’, Holmes. He was my patient, and I cared for him in due form. That is all, believe me. If you wish to come, I will not gainsay you, however. You are a good fellow, after all, and I know that you are sorry you misprised him at first.'

So I stood at that forlorn grave, out of pity for the man put into it, and love for Watson. Afterwards, we dined together. I plied him with enough brandy to mellow him, escorted his faltering steps to the foot of the stairs, and handed him his candle with a warning to take care. He turned and looked at me, his eyes too bright, the flame casting flickering shadows that distorted his features into a Greek mask. His lips opened, parting on an unuttered word; then he shook his head and retreated. For a moment I almost wondered if he – whether he might have asked – if he had wanted. But I did not finish voicing the thought before I slammed iron bars around it, and bade it sink forever. He had looked so lonely in that instant. I wondered, in my madness, if he had been about to speak, to reach out a hand, to ask. But it was only madness, a cloud across the moon.

*****

Soon after came Christmas, our first together as room mates. Mrs Hudson had asked my permission to decorate our rooms. I could not see why she would want to, but gave it nevertheless, ‘Only that you do not disturb my decomposition experiment, Mrs Hudson, for a man’s life may depend upon it.’

‘Then it may depend upon it out of doors for the festive season,’ she told me. ‘If it is flesh you have decomposing, Mr Holmes, it is not doing so in here. The mutton chop you disposed of under the sofa was bad enough.’

‘Not all the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten that mutton chop,’ agreed Watson, strolling in and lifting his hat courteously to our landlady. ‘I could, as Hamlet said of Polonius, “nose him as I went up the stairs.” I am entirely of Mrs Hudson’s mind, Holmes. I have a few days leave from the hospital - where I have a surfeit of flesh, decomposing or otherwise every day – over Christmas, and I want no reminders here. If you like, Mrs Hudson, I will myself take the apparatus down and outside, and ensure that it remains covered and seemly. Here is your tobacco, Holmes. I was out for my own, and thought to purchase some for you as well. The weather is less dreary today: will you walk with me later, or do you have news from the Yard?’

‘The approaching season of goodwill appears to have affected even criminals,’ I replied, and saw him raise his eyebrows at my morose tone. ‘Neither Lestrade nor Gregson has been next or nigh me for a se’nnight, I swear. There is a sore dearth of work, and I am weary of idleness. Let us venture further afield today, Watson, and see what we come across. Perhaps we will chance upon a crime, if one does not come by chance to us. Will you come?’

‘A moment to set myself straight and I am your man,’ he promised me, his eyes brightening. ‘Mrs Hudson, while I think of it, may I ask what you are doing for the festive season? I am sure Holmes and I can shift for ourselves if need be, for Christmas day itself, if you have anyone you wish to visit. It is a time to be with one’s own, to cherish those who are dear to us.’

‘I shall be remaining here and providing you with dinner of course, Dr Watson; whatever are you thinking? I shall certainly not abandon you at such a time. There will be a fine goose, and all the trimmings, I promise you, and a pudding into the bargain. And Janey and I shall have our own celebration too. She has a brother in service, and two little sisters still in the foundling hospital: if you should not object, gentlemen, I thought to have them here for the day.’

Dear Watson. He told her it was a capital idea, and his hand went into his pocket book, returning with a sovereign I knew he could yet ill afford. ‘For the little ones,’ he urged her, when she would have demurred at taking it. ‘See that they are warmly clad, with a gift or two and a shilling, and come to me for more, if you have need. I have not had a real Christmas in England for some years – at least, not one that bids so fair to be happy,’ he added, glancing around our sanctum. ‘Let us spread a little joy, Mrs Hudson, and remember how old Scrooge came to his senses with the ghosts. He was in the right of it in the end, and so let us be too, for it takes little enough to make a child happy, as he did with Cratchit’s children. Now, Holmes, give me but five minutes, and as I said, I am your man. And take that experiment downstairs now, there’s a good chap, then I will help you secure it against the weather later, when we return.’

I was helpless to resist him when he was happy. He smiled so genially, and commanded so gently that I found myself obeying him as I had never obeyed anyone, unable to refuse his pleasure. We took a cab all the way out to Richmond, to walk in the park, and he regaled me with some ridiculous story or other of an old miser who had come to his aged senses when visited by three tediously moralistic ghosts. I had never heard the tale before, and found it both fanciful and dreadfully sentimental, but apparently it was a tale often told at Christmas time, ‘and I cannot believe you have never come across it, Holmes. Why, even in Afghanistan there were a couple of chaps who had copies, and we used to read it if we could. It was a bit of home, in that inhospitable place, and I do not mind telling you I have been near to tears out there, thinking of home and Christmas. And now to have Christmas here, and in such comfort, and with you, old fellow. Forgive me, I daresay you think me sentimental, but it is so much to me to have this . . .’

He broke off, clearing his throat, and I dared a slight pressure on his arm. My heart swelled with words I could not utter, and I stared in fierce, dogged silence at the unoffending ground.

‘Holmes?’ he questioned me, after a while. ‘You will not object so very much to a little celebration will you? I know that your austerity, your reason, preclude, to some extent, enjoyment of the lesser pleasures, but you will keep the season with me, will you not? I promise I shall not overwhelm you with it.’

I could have wept in my frustration. He thought me so far above pleasure, yet I craved it. I starved for his affection, for the warmth of his smile, his touch, his loving kindness. I was not the austere icon, the saint of the intellect he thought me. I was not the passionless creature I had pretended to be for so many years. I was human, and hungry, and the torment of longing and not having fevered me to madness. It was not just my illicit desires, the sick fantasies I medicated away, it was not even those that I yearned for most. It was the right to touch him lovingly, to caress and cling, to be healed and soothed and comforted, and to soothe and comfort in my turn. To know myself broken but accepted, flawed but loved. He was looking at me anxiously now, and his joy had dimmed, reined back to a patient acceptance. I could not see him joyless.

‘I am not, ah, not a man of sentiment.’ I lied, for I was, I was awash with feeling where he was concerned. ‘I – I was not brought up to be.’ And that was the truth – ignored, neglected, the unwanted second son (for my parents had wished for a daughter to complete their pigeon pair) oh yes, that was the truth. ‘But Watson, you must not think me – ah – averse to all innocent pleasures.’ No, nor the chance of some less innocent, I added to myself. ‘I shall enjoy this Christmas much more because I am sharing it with you in our own home, and so let us by all means make merry, since it is your first Christmas here for some time.’

‘Not quite the first,’ he said, his voice low. ‘ Last Christmas, I was in a London hotel. I had no home, no family, no regiment, no friends. My wounds meant I could do nothing, I was wasting my small substance on games of chance, and Holmes, it was, among many lonely Christmases, the loneliest I have ever spent. That this is so different seems a miracle to me – and it is all thanks to you.’ And he patted my hand as it trembled on his arm.

‘I – I,’ I stammered. ‘I am, ah – glad of your company, too, Watson. And it was an excellent thought about the children. Perhaps I shall ask Mrs Hudson to provide some comforts for my Irregulars, what think you of that? Let us - ’ Yes, I knew then what I could say. ‘Let us enact the ghost of Christmas Present from the tale you told me, and spread some happiness, if it pleases you to do so. We have been fortunate of late: let us, as you say, give joy to others.

‘Splendid,’ he exclaimed, and his smile outshone the sun. ‘We shall have a splendid time, Holmes. I am so happy, old fellow, that we are of one mind. If it truly does not displease you to celebrate, then I could not be happpier.’

*****

The tide of Christmas rolled inexorably over us. As if the fates had conspired to make Watson’s days bright, they provided us with a succession of starry nights, and calm, snowy days. A fir tree was washed into Baker Street on that tide, courtesy of one of Watson’s hospital patients. Delicate glass baubles appeared, to depend from its slender branches. Mrs Hudson (whom I am certain perpetrated the baubles overnight) affixed small silver clasps holding white candles to each branch end, and provided a bucket of sand and one of water to stand by the tree. (The sand proved exceedingly useful for one of my experiments: I made a mental note to ensure that there was always sand in our rooms.) A brief experiment with the actual flammability of fir twigs demonstrated the need for the water. Watson was quite put out, until I pointed out to him that the incinerated needles had a pleasantly resinous odour, reminiscent of incense. He enquired whether I had a fondness for burning incense, and on my admitting that I found it a charming habit, he presented me the next day with a packet, obtained, as I later discovered, from a fascinating little emporium purveying religious goods to the high Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Thereafter our rooms were delightfully scented, and, as he commented, since frankincense and myrrh had been two of the gifts of the soi-disant ‘magi’, the incense was entirely appropriate for the season. Mrs Hudson also commented favourably on the perfumed air, not failing to remind me once more of that damned mutton chop, which had been nothing more than an unfortunate oversight on my part. I do not like being cajoled or ordered to eat, and it had seemed the simplest way of disposing of it at the time. Had I not forgotten about it until it was quite, quite putrescent and announcing its presence rather loudly, all would have been well. As it was, I submitted to a stern lecture from Watson on my (really ridiculous) need for sustenance, and was forced into the indignity of scrubbing the carpet myself, ‘since I am damned if I make Mrs Hudson or Janey do it, Holmes, and I am equally damned if I do it myself. Really, you are quite impossible. Had it been summer, the place would be crawling with maggots by now. And do not, do not try to excuse yourself by saying that maggots are useful. I know they are, but nonetheless, I loathe them.’

In any case, the spirit of Christmas Present (not content with simply telling me the tale, Watson had been reading it to me in instalments) was firmly ensconced in our dwelling. It was inescapable. Swathes of greenery dripped from every available surface. The air was redolent not just of our incense, but of cinnamon, orange and spice. Our table was heaped with practical presents for the Irregulars, purchased on our behalf by Mrs Hudson, and a veritable confiserie of poisonously-coloured (and quite possibly poisonous, although I was at least able to remove the verdigris-tinted horrors) sugar surreptitiously obtained by Watson, and added to the pile with a shamefaced air and the comment, ‘I remember how much I longed for sweets as a child.’ It occurred to me, then, what a good father he would make – firm and kind, strict and indulgent in all the right ways.

We did not attend church – by some silent, mutual agreement, we both, I think, recognised it for the hypocrisy it would have been – but on the eve of Christmas, I came into the drawing room to find Watson turning the pages of a Bible, a small, stained volume, its limp India-paper leaves much dog-eared.

‘It was my grandmother’s,’ he explained, in response to my raised eyebrow. ‘I took it to Afghanistan, for what sentimental reason I do not know. I believed once, as a child, Holmes, until it was forcibly borne in upon me that it could not be so. The belief was beaten out of me quite soon, in fact. Sometimes I wish – but one cannot go back. One can only go on, with no belief, and little hope. Sometimes it would be comforting to believe, but I know it would be a hollow comfort, a thing of no substance. I thought to read the Christmas story, for old times’ sake,’ he went on, ‘ but you know, old fellow, I cannot see it as once I did.’

‘I think there are many in that situation,’ I told him, ‘Are we not all brought up as children to believe? And how many retain that belief? Very few. When we begin to question what truth is, when we see how religion guides man neither to honour or virtue, but instead serves as an excuse, or even a reason for the vilest of crimes, how can we continue to believe? For myself, I confess that I too am one of those who has lost belief. I am an infidel. I would it were not so – it must be comforting to believe – but I cannot. And one must strive then, to replace childhood’s certainties with some moral code that satisfies, and all the while in a world of uncertainty and pain, juggling doubtful good with certain ill in every act.’

‘And if we replace religion with the Darwinian model, it seems to lead to a grim end,’ he observed. ‘All nature striving for survival, at the expense of others. Red in tooth and claw. What of goodness then, Holmes? What reason can there be for selflessness, if it brings no advantage to the individual who practises it?’ What moral code can a man follow without a deity?’

‘You must look into Winwood Reade with me.’ I retrieved my copy from under my chair (how did things always find themselves there?) and showed it to him. ‘Perhaps we could take a healthy course of philosophy together, Reade and Feuerbach, not to mention Kant, as an antidote to this intolerable deal of seasonal sentiment and sugar.’ And then, seeing the hurt in his face that he could not conceal, I thought myself a brute. ‘No, no, I did not mean that, Watson, truly I did not mean it like that. I am a cross-grained creature enough, but not such a brute as not to feel. I am most terribly afraid of sentiment, you see. It – I feel things – I find myself moved – perhaps more than I would wish to be moved – and, and, well, I would not wish you to think me unmanly. Please, my dear fellow, don’t let my careless words hurt you. I – I am –dash it, it is difficult to say this, but, but, well, I have not had such a happy Christmas for many years. I am really very –‘ I looked around at our home, ‘I am quite con – so content here in, in our home.’

He closed the little Bible, not without a regretful caress of its cover, and rose from his seat to replace it in the drawer of his desk. Mute with distress now, I handed him my book to replace his, and he clasped my shoulder kindly.

‘My dear Holmes, you meant no harm. It is I, on the contrary, who am too sensitive on this subject. I fear I am dragging you into all sorts of sociabilities and expenses you would not go to if it were not for me, and I feel rather guilty, d’you see? But is it so much to ask for? Food for the hungry, and a little cheer; the sweetness of Christmas song,’ he nodded to the window outside which a group of waits was butchering the melody of ‘Lo how a rose e’er blooming’. ‘And I know you do not like sentiment. You are a good fellow to indulge me in mine without quibbling.’

‘If more of us valued food and cheer and song above gain and gold, it would be a merrier world,’ I said, blinking hard against the moisture in my eyes. ‘But as for sweetness of song, Watson, even you must be able to hear that those waits are deplorably flat. Hand me my violin, dear chap, and I shall show you how the immortal Bach intended his chorale to sound.’

Our tender moment passed, as I had meant it to: I could not afford his tenderness. He had no shame in showing it, but it was dangerous for me. He laughed, and passed the violin over, and I played to him. When we parted for the night, his goodnight was fervent, his eyes warm with affection, and he wrung my hand with such hearty goodwill that it was quite bruised.

I cherished those bruises. I cherished every day, every hour, every minute of our Christmas. On the feast itself, he handed out sugar plums in abundance to the dirty, but delighted, Irregulars. The heavens opened and showered them with cakes and pies, mufflers, gloves, socks and boots, (which I told them firmly were to be worn, not converted into sordid specie for the purchase of tobacco and surreptitious tots of gin) oranges and nuts, clasp knives (which I knew perfectly well would be used to assist my urchins to commit numerous small crimes) and bright new shillings. When they left, sticky, surfeited and awed, he visited Mrs Hudson with our gift to her, a ridiculously expensive shawl, after the purchase of which he had assured me ‘my grandmother had just such an one, Holmes, and very fine she looked in it.’ He regaled Janey and her siblings with similar largesse to the Irregulars: never was there a man who so loved to give.

Finally, I summoned him upstairs with some impatience, having waited to give him my own gift until he had leisure to contemplate it. No, let me be honest. Not until he had leisure to contemplate it. Until he had leisure to think only of me, to see only me. I wanted his warmth shining on me, so I could bask in it, for it to be me to whom he spoke with a suspicious break in his voice, for mine to be the hand he clasped and wrung again with affection and delight. I wanted his exclamations of wonder, his thanks and praise.

Yet he did none of these things in the way I had expected, and somehow that moved me more than all. I had, not without doubt, and many hesitations, ordered from my tailor a dressing gown such as mine, cut from a sinfully soft cashmere in deep blue, and lined with what I hoped he would not realise was a very expensive silk. I had near bankrupted myself on it – had, in fact, been making excuses about being too busy to attend concerts for a month – but his eyes, his face, were worth every penny and more. He received it with ill-concealed surprise – he had clearly not expected any gift. The ribbon with which Mrs Hudson had tied it (for we had agreed it would appear to come from us both, and so I had told him) was undone by careful, surgeon’s hands, smoothed, and rolled into a neat bandage. He folded the paper back by little and little, and his brow creased in bewilderment as he saw the expanse of cloth. When he lifted it out, and it draped itself over him in opulent folds, he turned first red and then pale. He stroked the cashmere – stroked it with a lover’s touch, his hand shaking a little, and his head bowed. His unoccupied hand covered his eyes for a moment, and he set his mouth hard. For one horrified moment, I feared he was angry and then I saw that he was near tears. So I sat very still, and said nothing, and after a while he recovered. He told me in a low, trembling tone that he had never in his life had such a beautiful gift, that it was the finest thing he’d ever had, or was ever like to have, to wear. That I was his dear fellow, the kindest and best of friends. That he would always think kindly of me when he wore it.

Mrs Hudson came in then, with our sherry, and he went straight to her, took her hand with courtly grace and kissed it, calling her the best and most generous of women. She asked him to put the dressing gown on, and they grew quite merry over how fine he looked. We drank sherry together, for I gave her my glass, and found a clean beaker for myself, and all the while he did not look at me. Not quite.

He was unwontedly shy with me all through luncheon, and, I thought, did not eat as heartily as usual, toying with the pudding, and refusing cheese. He removed his jacket and tie afterwards, and wore the dressing gown again, spreading its folds softly about him as he lay back and sighed. I was about to sit down too, when he asked me if I would not prefer to take off my tie and be comfortable. On my return, also en deshabille, he looked up at me, smiled, and told me that we were both fine-feathered peacocks now. I subsided into my seat, colouring up, and he leaned forward in his chair.

‘I have a gift for you too, Holmes, but I fear it cannot compare in glory with this one. Nonetheless, I offer it with much respect and affection, my dear man, and hope you may find it acceptable.’

I opened my own packet with as much care as he, ruffling the paper back to expose a dark grey shagreen case with silver fittings. I knew it was a pipe immediately, but the shape of the case gave me momentary pause for thought . . . ah, an extension, of course. I lifted the lid to reveal, nestled into its crimson velvet lining, a Barling briar pipe, the Dublin bowl silver-fitted like the case. A cloudy amber mouthpiece, a horn mouthpiece, and a fine, albatross-bone extension, all mounted with silver, completed the set. It was a work of art - whatever he said, the gift was princely. Then a thought occurred to me, and I raised the pipe to my nose, and sniffed. As I had thought, it smelt of my own tobacco. I looked a query at him.

‘I smoked it once for you, Holmes’ he said. ‘To check that it drew well, you understand, before I offered it. It draws sweet and cool, no acrid aftertaste or excessive heat. I liked the extension; it makes the pipe like a churchwarden, and easier to manage with a book in your hand.’ He handed me a pouch. ‘Will you try it? If it is not to your liking, I could always return . . .’

‘No!’ I clutched the pipe to me. ‘It is a beautiful pipe, exquisitely made, a pipe fit for a king, Watson, and you shall not reave me of it. Leave off: it is mine now, I thank you! You shall not have it back! I have never had such a fine one: you are too kind to me.’

He chuckled then, and bade me try it. It was indeed a princely pipe, but all I could think of, as we smoked in companionable silence, was that his mouth had touched it. His lips had caressed it, his tongue tasted its essence; velvety amber warm to his kiss, the bowl cupped in his hand. I shivered in a sensual delirium, as if he had touched me, as if he had taken me into . . . or as if (my mouth watered, involuntarily) as if I now tasted him, as I'd imagined, as my dreams had shown me, slick-soft, dewed, his own salt harsh on my palate . . .

‘Is it good?’ he asked, and I opened fevered eyes to see him regarding me with a soft, quizzical smile. ‘Is the taste pleasing?’

‘Yes,’ I whispered. ‘It’s the best pipe I’ve ever tried, Watson.’

‘Good,’ He was completely unaware of my dilemma as I sat there, grateful for the folds of dressing gown across my lap. ‘I’d hoped my taste was pleasing to you.’

‘It’s perfect.’ I closed my eyes and smoked in silence for a while, willing my treacherous body back under my control. ‘Thank you, Watson, you are kinder to me than I deserve. I shall always treasure this, I assure you.’

*****

We had been smoking and reading for an hour or so, when he looked at his watch, excused himself, and went to his room. He was down again in minutes, dressed in his street suit, his hat tucked under his arm. I was drowsing in my chair, lost in reverie, but I roused as he asked if I would mind if he left me to go for a walk. “I won’t be long,” he promised, “I have only a small errand to run.”

On Christmas Day? I observed him narrowly through drooping eyelids. What errand could wile him from me on this of all days? And he looked oddly embarrassed, ashamed, even. My heart sank: surely he was not seeking a carnal interlude?

“May I not come with you?” I asked. I was hurt, too, I confess. We normally walked together, after all. “I’ve eaten to excess today: the exercise would be welcome.”

“Well, it’s only that – I shall not be walking our usual round, old fellow. I have a little private business, that is all.”

Private business. Was that indeed what he was about? My shock - it was, it must be an assignation – must have been visible, and also legible, for he coloured, a deep flush pinking his cheeks and ears. “Holmes! On this day of all others: how can you think it? Do I seem to you the sort of man who is so – so incontinent in his needs? What cause have I ever given you to think - ?”

His pain was sincere, and now it was my turn to blush. Had my mind not been on sensuality, on the imaginary delights of a caress given and received, I would never have thought it, it was true. “None, none,” I hastened to assure him. “Forgive me, my dear friend, it was unpardonable. My mind is the veriest sink it would appear: I consort too much with criminals. It is only that you looked – well, to be honest, Watson, you have the guiltiest air about you. And surely you can have no business on this day, of all days. But I will ask no more. You are no client to be deduced: you have a right to your privacy. Pray pardon me my offence, my dear fellow.”

“Granted as soon as asked,” he assured me, though his brow was still sober. “I am not guilty, Holmes, merely – well, dammit, man, look here, and do not judge me. I know you dislike my sentimentality, and I am afraid of you laughing at me . . .” and he pulled from his pocket a small leather purse and spilled its contents on the table.

“Shillings?” I questioned. “You have purchases to make? Can they not wait till tomorrow?”

“I save them,” he said, and if ever a man looked sheepish, the good doctor did then. “Only the bright new ones, with a shine still upon them. I save all year, Holmes, I always have done, even as a medical student, although of course they were sadly few then. And then I – well, Holmes, there is always some wretched child or other, hungry in the streets. I cannot eat my Christmas dinner in peace, do you see, if I do not make some return on this of all days.” And he coughed, scooped the coins back into his purse, and strode to the window. “It’s not much. I don’t do enough.”

“Do any of us?” My voice was unsteady, and I know he heard it. He was so in earnest, with his bright pile of coin, it unmanned me quite. “Watson, you put me to shame. Let me come with you, old fellow. If I add what I have, we can do more.”

“I am a doctor, you see,” he said, as if excusing himself, and still shamefaced. “I always wanted to be a doctor, even as quite a small boy.”

“You are a good man,” I rose, and went for my pocket book. “Give me only a minute, Watson, and I am with you.”
*****

We rambled through London. My arm was within his, and he was in merry humour now, certain that I neither laughed nor scorned him. Every grimy denizen of the city that we came across as we wandered thro’ the charter’d streets, every shabby figure lurking at shadowed corner or crouched in foetid alley was offered coin; told to “Run and find a baker’s, my child, or go to the pie-shop, and get yourself something to eat.” Several were bidden present themselves at the free ward of Barts on the morrow. “Ask for Dr Watson, and be sure to be there.”

“Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” I murmured as we wended our way homeward, his purse empty, and my pockets lighter. “I mark in ev’ry face I meet. It is a sad city we live in Watson, is it not?”

“You know Blake’s verse too? I often think of it as I work, Holmes: for it is true. Too many ills, too irremediable. Sometimes it is hard to have hope.”

“Hope lies in our small choices,” I told him. “To heal, to give. To love .”

“But is it enough?”

“Arguably it is never enough, as long as Want and Ignorance hide beneath the cloak of Christmas Present,” I told him, for although I had thought his Christmas tale sentimental, that image at least had stayed in my head. “When they are no more, then we will have done enough. But it may take better men than you or me.”

“I have great hopes of the advancement of science. Surely we cannot remain in this stupor of ignorance and bigotry.” He stood aside, gesturing to me to precede him up the stairs to our rooms. “I have great hopes, Holmes.”

So had not I, though I said nothing, not wanting to bring a cloud to his brow. Mrs Hudson had prepared us a small cold collation, of which, his gifts now given, he partook with a heartier appetite. I played for him, and we read. We talked. He wore his dressing gown again, and I kept my pipe in my hand, caressing it as I dared not caress him. The night wore on, yet we lingered, as if loath to part.

Finally he yawned, and apologised. “I shall have to retire, Holmes, or I shall sleep where I sit. Will you bid me goodnight, my dear fellow?”

I rose as he did, and we met by the door. I clasped his hand in mine, and it rested there easily, unafraid. He was not trembling, though I was all a-quiver.

“Goodnight, Watson,” I said, feeling his strong fingers press mine. “Thank you. For today, and many days, for your friendship, and the gift.” I could not look him in the eye. My mouth had dried as if I’d thirsted for hours.

“Goodnight, Holmes,” he said. “I must work tomorrow morning, so we will not be breakfasting together.” He reached forward, upward a little, and his lips brushed my brow in the most innocently chaste of kisses. “A Christmas blessing, my friend. Rest well, now, and sleep peacefully.

The briefest of touches to my shoulder, his hand left mine, and he was gone, his tread decided, almost military, on the stair.

“A – a Christmas blessing,” I called after him. “Thank you, Watson.”

I felt blessed. I felt – I was - blest indeed – but I could not sleep.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face Part 4

In Lahore

In the cold hour before dawn, Holmes bids farewell to Mahbub Ali at the Kashmir Serai. He drifts out of Lahore by way of the railway station, and back in again by another route. It is not that he does not trust the burly, crimson-bearded Pathan who has shepherded him down from the high passes – he’s worked his way by grooming Mahbub’s string of sturdy Kabuli horses, after all, and now there’s nothing he does not know about this horse-trader turned spy - it is that he cannot afford to let hostile eyes see his connexion to Mahbub. He works his way slowly through the Motee Bazaar to the Ajaib-Gher, the Lahore Museum. Mycroft has assured him that the curator is a safe man, and Holmes needs both shelter and money. And rest: it’s been a long trek from Gan-Den.

Holmes wanders on. He is not remarked, for he wears the garb and mien of a saddhu, and all India is full of holy men, stammering gospels in strange tongues, shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal. No-one notices one sunnyasi more, or less. He stoops, to take off the height that would otherwise make him too conspicuous, hunches himself into his robes and shuffles along. He is burnt deep by the sun, and with his sea-grey, sea-green eyes can pass as some traveller from the high peaks of Kafiristan, where Alexander’s men once sowed their seed among the native women. If his language is imperfect and halting, it is only to be expected from a member of the Kafiristani tribes whom the Pathan regards as infidel, and the Brahmin as corrupt of faith and tongue.

It is in clumsy Hindustani then, that Holmes hails a group of small boys, squabbling over command of the great gun, Zam-Zammah, that sits on its brick platform opposite the museum. They turn to look at him as he speaks.

‘Bachche, jahaan main sangrahaalay ke rakshak mil jaega?’

One child, the leader, a slender, arrogant whip of a boy, strolls casually across to him, looking him up and down with an eye as keen as Holmes’ own. ‘Aap kaha se hai, Lala?

‘Mai Kafiristan se hu,’ Holmes replies. He looks carefully at the child. His command of the vernacular is perfect, but he is not Indian. Where his ragged shirt parts over his breast, his skin is white. A poor white, then, perhaps some soldier’s bastard. But intelligent, to recognise Holmes’ guise at once. The child has given him the title - ‘Lala’ - of a Hindu sunnyasi, but there is that in his eye which says he is not fooled in the slightest.

‘T- tum nam kyaa hai?’ Holmes enquires curiously.

The boy smiles, dipping his eyes and then looking up at Holmes through long dark lashes.

‘Mera nam duniya ke ek dost kai,’ he replies, ‘sangrahaalay ke kyooretar kaam kar raha hai. Mere saath aao, Lala.’

Holmes makes namaste and follows the child into the museum. The curator, serious and white-bearded, replies to Holmes’ code phrases in Hindustani, and takes him into his office, tossing the child a few annas and a couple of greasy sweetmeats, and issuing a stern injunction not to listen. Once sure that the child has gone, Holmes asks the question that has been pressing upon him during the weeks he has travelled. ‘What news does Mycroft send of Watson?’

’None good, Sir, I am afraid,’ is the reply, and his heart sinks.

If Now I Be Disdained

I had expected that Watson would repent of his affectionate Christmas farewell to me, and so indeed it proved: on Boxing Day, as we ate luncheon after he had returned from Barts, he apologised, stiffly, for taking liberties, ‘I should not treat you as a younger sibling, Holmes, since it is inappropriate, and over-familiar.’

I endeavoured to say, while my throat closed in sorrow, that I would be honoured to be regarded as his brother, and that I did not consider it a liberty, but at that moment we were interrupted by Mrs Hudson bringing in Lestrade, who compelled in front of him a small, excitable fellow, gesticulating wildly, and insisting that he was in no need of the services of Sherlock Holmes.

‘Then let me swiftly dissuade you from retaining them,’ I uttered, sternly, for Lestrade’s arrival was most inopportune at such a critical moment. ‘I am afraid you have the advantage of me, Sir. Lestrade, my good fellow, who is your reluctant companion, and why do you bring him here at such a season? Dr Watson and I have barely lunched: this must surely be a matter of terrible urgency?’

‘Forgive me, Mr Holmes,’ replied Lestrade, ‘but I have just this moment managed to persuade my colleague here, Dr Stevenson, to call upon you . . .’

‘Why, it is Stevenson,’ here interrupted Watson, who had been turned away to the mantelpiece, filling his pipe, ‘What make you here, old man? Not at Guy’s today?’

‘Watson!’ exclaimed the fellow, surging forward and shaking Watson warmly by the hand, ‘I do not know what you are doing here, but for heaven’s sake help me to persuade Inspector Lestrade that I have no need of this mountebank’s interference in my work. He has driven me here willy-nilly, and all because he insists that this man, Holmes,’ casting me a suspicious glance, ‘can materially assist me in the terrible case of the Wimbledon murder.’

I confess my heart leapt when I saw Watson’s sorrow at hearing me thus belittled: his eyes turned to me with an expression of acute pain before he spoke.

‘Now, Stevenson, you must not dispraise Holmes to me: we are friends, you know. I am here because this is my lodging, of course. Lestrade, may I offer you the compliments of the season? Mrs Hudson,’ turning to her, ‘Could I trouble you for coffee for the four of us? And then perhaps, Stevenson, we can consider the matter which brings you here without so much heat. Holmes, my dear fellow, may I introduce my colleague to you? Dr Thomas Stevenson, of Guy’s and London University, in the field of medical jurisprudence and forensic science. I am sure, Stevenson, that my friend Holmes will be of material assistance to you in whatever brings you here. I can attest to his brilliance myself, you know.’

My dear Watson. A man of quiet manners and simple common sense, but when needed, his authority was absolute. It calmed the man, Stevenson; it made Lestrade smile amiably. It sent Mrs Hudson, with a nod and a fond, approving cluck, to the lower regions of the house to make coffee. It mollified me, silencing the haughty retort even then on my lips, as I shook Stevenson’s hand, and uttered the usual inane platitudes, assuring him of my best attention, and inviting him to take a seat.

Once Stevenson and Lestrade were seated, and the coffee brought and served, I leaned forward in my chair. Some banal utterances about the amenities of the season and the weather had passed between us, but I felt it was time to turn to matters at hand. Watson had remained standing behind me, his hand on the back of my chair during these exchanges. Strangely, I felt it was a gesture of protection: a lion-like standing guard, and I was comforted and strengthened. Now as I began to speak, he unobtrusively went to his desk, retrieved pen and notebook, and seated himself a little away from us. He would take notes, it appeared: excellent!

‘I understand, Dr Stevenson, that you are here on the business of the late tragedy at Wimbledon: the suspected poisoning of young Percy John by his brother-in-law. A sad business indeed. I know nothing about it save what has been reported in the newspapers: to wit, that the young man died after a visit from his brother-in-law, that suspicions were entertained as to his death, and that an inquest was opened on the 6th of December last, and adjourned the next day; the Morning Post of that date informing us that the circumstances of his death continue to cause great concern, and much excitement in the neighbourhood, if reports are to be believed – which they often are not, to be sure. I know that on the 8th instant the Pall Mall Gazette reported that a communication had been received from the suspected gentleman, Dr George Henry Lamson’s, father to the effect that his son was lying ill at Paris, having been much affected by his brother in law’s death, that Lamson himself returned and went voluntarily to Scotland Yard asking that the aspersions against him should be removed, and that on the 9th or 10th he was refused bail, and remanded in custody on suspicion of Percy John’s murder. Hand me my London clippings file for December, will you, Watson? We are up to date, are we not? Thank you, my dear fellow. I notice that by the 15th, the avid reader of murder cases was teased only by the fact that ‘information of an important character bearing on the case’ had been obtained, and that by the 16th, the noble bloodhounds of the press were telegraphing the Pall Mall Gazette to the effect that since a vegetable poison, possibly aconitine, had been found in great quantity in the stomach of the deceased young man, an exhumation was likely. The Evening Standard concurred in this view, and Paget, on the following day was quoted as saying that bail would on no account be granted to the accused, it being murder or nothing. The London Daily News of the 17th instant was much more forthcoming, and gave us a superfluity of detail on the accused’s impecunious state, and his having taken a fictitious medical title, as well as providing information about multitudinous capsules and papers, and introducing us to two young chemist’s assistants who really should be more certain about whether it is aconitia or atropia they are dispensing. Dear me, dear me, how poorly we are served: why, Watson, any one of us might be poisoned at any moment. Mr Bond - your forensic specialist, Lestrade - opined that death was due to a vegetable spinal poison acting on the nervous system rather than the stomach, and that is where we leave the case until the 22nd, awaiting the intervention of Mr Montague Williams – Lamson has succeeded in retaining a man of parts for his defence, I see, but doubtless his father in Florence pays the score. Williams was prompt in his asking for depositions, with intent to resume on the 22nd, but in fact on the 20th, you, Dr Stevenson, asked for a fourteen day adjournment which would take us to January 11th. A knotty problem indeed, Doctor, compounded by the fact that the magistrate is of the opinion that there can be no charge of poisoning by the cake Lamson shared, only these capsules being suspected of carrying the lethal dose. You did well to come to me, despite your reservations, for I have followed that case with interest. I have already formed my own opinions based on a process of adductive reasoning from the facts at my disposal, and I am sure I can help you out.’

‘Wonderful,’ ejaculated Watson. ‘It is quite wonderful, Holmes, how you have every fact at your fingertips. You will see, Stevenson, that you were quite right to take Lestrade’s advice. Do not hesitate to lay all before my friend: he will make matters as clear as day. He will solve your case if any man can!’

Stevenson did not appear to share Watson’s admiration, but he grudgingly allowed that I had given a workmanlike account of the events to date, and admitted that he and his fellow specialist, Dupré, were endeavouring without success to determine whence, how, and in what quantity the aconitine – for it was definitely aconitine – had been administered; there also being some question of quinine tonic powders and quinine capsules that might have been adulterated with poison. Lamson had previously provided medicines for the unfortunate young man that had caused him sickness, but it was a question of how this final fatal dose had been given, and what vehicle had been used, and that they were by no means sure how to determine.

Stevenson warmed further when I admitted to a keen amateur interest in toxicology. I flattered him to the top of my bent, and finally he agreed to allow me to experiment with him, since he had applied for a license to experiment on animals, to discover how the fatal dose might have been administered. We determined, therefore, that on the following day we should, Stevenson, Watson and I together, adjourn with Dupré to the laboratories at Guy’s. I drew Stevenson’s attention, before he and Lestrade departed, to a letter in the Morning Post of the 21st from a Dr Anna Kingford, of the Paris school of medicine, maintaining that animal experimentation would be inappropriate, since it was by no means the case that all lower orders of beings reacted similarly to vegetable alkaloids – rabbits, for example being impervious to atropia, and goats to nicotinia in quantities that would poison a human. I took the liberty of suggesting that he should attempt the Paris method of analysis Dr Kingsford mentioned: that of Rabuteau, Valser and Bouis who used chemical reagents to determine which alkaloid was in question, but he was little inclined to give credence to a Frenchman, still less to a female, and departed in renewed dudgeon, although without rescinding his invitation to collaborate.

‘I cannot see,’ I observed to Watson, as he massaged his hand, cramped from writing notes, ‘why the average male is inclined to doubt the intelligence of women merely by virtue of their being women. I neither like nor trust the sex, Watson – the most cunning poisoner I ever met was a slip of a thing, blue-eyed, blonde-curled, and quite, quite ruthless: she disposed of two husbands and at least one child before being discovered, and but for the quantity of evidence against her would have wept her way prettily into a pardon – but I have never believed they are lesser beings.’

‘I have never doubted female faculties,’ he replied. ‘I have known too many fine independent women for that, Holmes, not to mention the fact that one only has to see an Indian matriarch holding sway over her family to be assured of their absolute ability to manage and rule – and of course there is the example of our own dear Queen, may God bless her – but I am afraid my own profession is among the most recalcitrant when it comes to admitting the ability of the female sex. The Blackwell sisters, Mrs Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake are proof of this ability in the medical field, yet they are confined to practising at their own women’s hospital, and my colleagues at Bart’s and Guy’s will not accept them. It is shameful indeed. But as to this poisoning – Holmes, I have never been more impressed in my life with how you had all the knowledge there, ready to call up – do you indeed have a theory? Do you, in fact, know how it was done? Put me out of my suspense, I beg you. If it was indeed aconitia, the sufferings of that poor, crippled young man –a mere boy, already struggling with paralysis of his lower limbs- would have been most cruel. I should like to see his murderer face justice and a due penalty.’

Oh, how his eagerness tempted me! I would have liked to tell him then and there what was almost a certainty to me, but some imp of perversity made me hesitate, made me draw out the delicious suspense that he might praise me more later. I temporised, whereat he accused me of teasing him, until I diverted his mind by proposing that we could ourselves engage in the chemical analyses suggested by Rabuteau, were we to find ourselves in possession of some of the viscera and stomach matter of the deceased. ‘Which we will not do without permission, Holmes,’ he asserted firmly. ‘I will willingly assist you in any experiment you wish to carry out, but I will not be party to the surreptitious removal of evidence in a murder enquiry, so do not even think to attempt it or I will myself hand you over to Lestrade.’

I protested that he lacked a proper spirit of adventure, and accused him of faint-heartedness, but he would not be cajoled or flummeried into yielding, and I was forced to give way. The diversion – and I blessed Lestrade for it – had, however, lifted the awkwardness of the morning, and Watson’s sweet, unshadowed smile and affectionate hand-clasp as we later bade each other goodnight assured me that all was well between us once more.

*****

The following days were busy indeed. Watson alternated between his own cases at Bart’s, the poky, malodorous hole in Guy’s where Stevenson worked with Dupré and Bond, the analytical chemist, and our sanctum. I divided my time between Guy’s and Baker Street, where I pursued my own independent line of enquiry.

The case was a sad one, and the more that came out in the papers the sadder it seemed, for Lamson was a man near our own age, twenty-nine years to my twenty –eight, and Watson’s nearly thirty. He was a man whose life was built on a lie - on more than one lie, it appeared. It came out, as January went on, that he had neither the MD from Paris nor the FRCP from London nor the certificate from Cambridge that he had claimed, although his Scottish qualification was true, and he was entitled to be called doctor. His service in the Russo-Turkish conflict, in Servia and Roumania appeared to be beyond dispute, but whether he had, in fact received the honours to which he laid claim was anyone’s guess. Bankrupt, desperate, caught in a trap of his own making, a soldier corrupted, a doctor addicted – for addicted he undoubtedly was, to morphia - he made me uneasy when I compared him to my own stalwart soldier and doctor. Or to myself.

For it disquieted me greatly, as the evidence mounted towards the end of January, to see to what degree Lamson’s morphia addiction had mounted, and to what lengths he had gone to hide it. His trick of combining morphia with atropine – the belladonna used to give fashionably huge-pupilled eyes to Italian women of the Renaissance – was a clever one: it had never occurred to me to counteract the pin-point pupils of morphia influence by adding atropia to my dose. I had never concealed - had never had anyone from whom to conceal - my own morphia use. The circumstances of my life allowed me privacy to indulge myself: not for me now the shared squalor of some drug den, but the decency of my own room, where I could lie in dreamy languor, undisturbed and undiscovered. Suddenly, my own morocco case, with its guilty burden of syringe and needle, was stark to me as it sat on my desk. I had never concealed it, but I had never needed to. I had thought never to need to. Watson was the soul of honour: he would have died rather than meddle with aught of mine. Now, however, I felt within myself a desire to hide it, to conceal it, and that part of myself, from him. I put the case aside, locked the alluring demon in a chest under my bed. I vowed not to use it, promised myself to submit to its spell no more: I was no addict like Lamson, enthralled, helpless, morally bankrupt. It gave me pause for thought in other ways too. I had always been careless in dress, but hearing reports of the abscesses and collapsed venous processes in his arm seen by Lamson’s doctors, I became scrupulous about my sleeve and cuff buttons. I had more than one scar I did not wish to expose. Lamson’s degradation, his abuse and the lengths to which it had led him, were an object lesson, and an unwelcome one, alas.

Watson too appeared uneasy as January wore on, although to begin with I did not understand why. The little forensic analyst, Dupré, had taken a great liking to me. I thought at first it was only because the poor man was homesick for his mother tongue, and desperate for someone with whom to speak it. I slipped quite naturally into French when conversing, the mellifluous Latinates coming soft from my tongue, and it pleased me greatly to regain my own former fluency. I fell into the habit of lunching with Dupré when Watson was at Barts, sometimes with Stevenson and Bond, sometimes without. Watson made little comment, but it was borne in on me that he did not like Dupré when he quizzed me over our luncheons, ‘ . . . although I suppose at least you do eat during the day when you lunch with him. I cannot fathom what you see in such a trifling, dandified fellow. It is not that he is a Frenchman, Holmes: I have no quarrel with the French, indeed, I am sorry I do not speak their tongue rather better myself, so that we might converse together too, but I own, I cannot quite take to him.’ I promised to teach my Watson the rudiments of French, and he smiled, but his brow was clouded again the next instant.

Whether Dupré wanted more than lunches or French conversation did not occur to me until much later, and by then I had already quarrelled with Watson over him. For Dupré had but one real vice, which was that he, like me, occasionally took a pipe of opium. One evening after working late with him, I succumbed to temptation – that damned morocco case had called me once too often, and I had abstained so long that the beast was growling within me, hungry for what it could not have with Watson, tormenting me with dreams of his mouth, his hands, his – dreams from which I awoke polluted and unsatisfied - and on Dupré’s suggestion I accompanied him to an opium den. What he hoped of me there, once I was subdued by the drowsy reek of poppy, I do not know, but I was habituated to the drug, and the small quantity I took served to stimulate, not to stupefy me. He, more unpractised, was soon overcome, and after calling a cab, manhandling him into it, and depositing him at his house – and into the arms of a manservant who confirmed all my suspicions about Dupré’s nature into the bargain– I ambled home with the stench of opium smoke heavy about me. I had thought I would have time to wash it away, but Watson was awake when I returned. He had clearly worried about my prolonged absence. There was a ruffled track in the carpet, where he had been pacing, the butts of two cigars smoked right down were on the mantelpiece, and a drained glass on the table. He himself was in shirtsleeves and dressing gown, his hair brushed up and dishevelled as if he had run his fingers through it repeatedly.

‘Where have you been, Holmes?’ he snapped at me as I walked in – and then his head came up, and he scented me, and knew. ‘Holmes, was this for the case? Even so, I cannot condone it. Dammit, man, what are you about? You have taken opium have you not? I can smell the damn stuff on you.’

He pounced then, grasping me by the arm and pulling me into the room to stand near the light, taking my chin and turning my face. I closed my eyes, but he shook my shoulder and demanded that I look at him.

‘Open your eyes, Holmes, let me see. How much? You are walking at least. Do you not understand what this stuff can do to you? This is not justified, even for the case, Holmes. Where the devil have you been, and with whom?’

I could have lied. Perhaps I should have lied, but I would not lie to him. I opened my heavy lids, submitted to his examination. His face was so close to mine, his own dear eyes more anxious than angry. His hands were tender on my face, despite his sharp words. I swayed closer to him, desperate to touch.

‘No’ I admitted, the words thick and heavy on my tongue. ‘It was not for the case. I went with Dupré. To an opium den, yes. In Limehouse, somewhere. He became intoxicated: I, as you see, did not. I took him to his house in a cab,’ Watson growled, low under his breath, ‘and then I walked home. I am as you see me, Doctor. Elevated, perhaps, but not intoxicated.’

‘Elevated! You are a damned fool,’ he told me, tone hard, and hands gentle as he led me to a chair and deposited me there. I uttered a protest when he left my side, but he had gone to fetch the coffee jug. ‘Sit there, you foolish fellow and I will heat the dregs of this coffee. You are a thrice-damned idiot, Holmes, to wander the streets of this filthy city under the influence of drugs. Anything might have happened to you. And as for Dupré, I shall be speaking to him: what is he thinking of? A fellow twice your age to lead you astray, to entice you into such a place. He will know his own damned place when I have spoken to him, by God he will. I shall have such words with the damned fellow that he will regret he ever . . .’ He broke off, and brought me the coffee, which he had warmed by turning the glass jug over the fire before pouring its contents into a glass. “Drink this, Holmes. It is not remotely palatable, but you must have a stimulant. I have smoked Mrs Hudson’s jug in the fire; oh, I shall catch it tomorrow. It is of no matter. Drink, I say.’

I drank, mouthing clumsily at the glass which he held to my lips. The initial stimulation of the opium had worn off, and I was entering the drowsy phase, that dream-ridden haven where men sink, and rise no more.

‘I’ve not smoked much,’ I whispered, closing my eyes. ‘Only a mouthful, Watson, dear Watson. Only to chase the dreams away. You know I have dreams, Watson. I have such dreams . . .’

*****

I woke the next morning in my bed, my head throbbing, my stomach uneasy, and a foul taste in my mouth. I had been stripped to my underwear, and put on my side under the blankets, in such a manner that should I vomit I would not choke myself to death. As I stirred, protesting the light assaulting my closed eyelids, a firm hand helped me to sit, and guided me back against banked pillows. My hand was wrapped round a glass, and I drank, greedily, spilling down my chin.

‘Have you been here all night?’ I asked. Shame now, not nausea, twisted my gut. ‘I do not deserve such kindness. I am so very sorry, pray do forgive me, Watson.’

‘Hush,’ he said then. ‘There is nothing to forgive.’ He wiped my chin, took the glass away, and handed me a cup. ‘Drink your coffee, Holmes. Yes, I was angry last night. You were foolish, and also very fortunate that there was no worse outcome to your indiscretion. But you are not the first young man to fall foul of the demon of opium, and you will not be the last. Nor are you the first fellow by whose bedside I have watched in such circumstances: there were wild young men enough in Kandahar.’

‘You speak as if you were some wise greybeard,’ I protested. ‘We are not so very far apart in age, are we?’

‘In age, no, in experience, yes,’ he said. ‘I have been about the world a little more than you, my friend. You might have been robbed last night, assaulted, even,’ and his hand pressed my shoulder. ‘You ran a risk that I would not have thought you capable of. What possessed you, Holmes? You have seemed – disturbed these last few days? Is it the case? If so, I confess, it disturbs me, also. We have not had much time to discuss it, what with our analyses, and my work: perhaps we should do so.’

‘It is the case,’ I admitted, there being nothing else to which I could admit. ‘And I would be glad to talk about it. You are not at Barts today?’

‘I sent a telegram,’ he said, ‘and told them that I was unavoidably detained at home. I’m but a small part of their machine, Holmes, they can well manage without me for a day or so. You are more important, dammit! And I have sent a messenger round to Guy’s, informing them that you will not be there today either. Mrs Hudson has drawn you a bath, and there is plenty of hot water so I shall leave you to it, old man. Are you feeling very ill? I cannot give you an opiate for the headache and pain, of course, but there is willow-bark tea if you wish it.’

I thanked him, and accepted. He left me then, and I buried my face in my pillow. All the time he had been talking I had been struggling for composure: he was so kind to me, so forgiving, so wholly gentle and generous and understanding. One sob, one, wrenched me. I stifled it, but my tears flowed silently as I bathed and dressed. When I finally regained control of myself, I knew that my face would be marked, but I cared not. I would offer him my shame as recompense for the lust of which he knew nothing, the weakness that had broken me, the unspoken words with which I still lied to him. I would allow him to see me as lesser, as flawed – I, who had so coveted his praise and respect, who had so desired to shine before him. It was fitting: a truly condign punishment.

And yet, when we met at table over a late breakfast, there was no punishment. There was no shame. There was not even a reproach, for, as he told me, all reproaches were done. It was an error of judgement, he said, and God knew he had made many himself. He told me then in detail he had not before, of how he had himself struggled with taking morphine, how in pain from shattered shoulder and broken thigh he had begged and pleaded for relief, whimpered like a child before the blessed numbness overtook him, sunk eagerly into the morphine dreams, until he had come to his senses to find himself healed, but at the point of addiction. He had himself taken charge of his own recovery, tapering the dose off over weeks and months, sternly denying himself relief from pain, bearing the sleepless nights, the fevers, bone pains, nausea, the anxiety and low mood.

‘And you have helped me with that,’ he told me. ‘You have been so kind to me, Holmes, a friend more true than a brother. I was so very low when we met, so hopeless and weary and hurt. So forlorn and despairing. I believe you knew that, did you not? I have always thought you knew.’

‘I did,’ I admitted. ‘I could see it in you. I . . .’

‘You need not hesitate to say it,’ He rose, and limped to the window, ‘Without you, it might not have been long before I had chosen the coward’s way out: better men than I have returned from war twisted and scarred, ruined beyond repair, only to choose their own deaths. You saved me from that: anything that I do for you is small in comparison. But Holmes, I beg you – Lamson is a horrible object lesson in what can happen. His case disturbs me beyond measure because I too am a doctor. I too was a soldier and wounded, and fell to the seductive charm of opium – or opiates at least. My God, they are an edged weapon: we cannot do without them, yet to have to do with them is perilous. I have seen men in such pain, shattered, broken, dying, aye, and women in the throes of cross-births, or children retching and tormented with fatal obstructions, and I have put my hand to the laudanum bottle or the syringe, and dosed them into absence of pain, when I could do nothing more for them. Even this wretched murdered cripple, this Percy John, was given morphine in his last extremity, as the aconite burned through him- ’ He stopped, and I heard him swallow hard. ‘But I have also felt for myself how hard it is to resist when once you become accustomed. I have seen the emaciated, drugged addicts of Limehouse, the children of the poor, their eyes luminous with opium-starvation, their bellies swollen with want, and not just here, but in India. Oh Holmes, Holmes, if you had seen what I have seen . . . I beg you, my dear, dear friend, do not fall into that trap. Why, why did you go last night? What cause can you have to use such a substance? Was it curiosity? Idle fancy? Need? What drove you there?’

I could not tell him, of course. I could not tell him the real reason. He would leave me – all, all would fall to ruin. But I could not lie, not to him.

‘I cannot tell you,’ I said. ‘I cannot, not now. But I will, Watson. If you could trust me a little, and not use me harshly – if you could wait a little, I will tell you. Can you wait a little? I will promise not to go there again if you want me to promise.’

He told me then that of course he would wait, that if I had confidences, he would not force them. That he had no right to demand any promise of me, and therefore would not do so, but that he was glad to hear I would not go back. That if I felt the need, any need, I was to come to him ‘for addiction can be swift to set in, Holmes: you must be vigilant,’ and he would aid me. And he asked me whether the case distressed me too much, whether it would be better to withdraw, ‘for your constitution is a nervous one. Vigorous and powerful of its kind, but nervous. I have seen the reaction on you after a case, when you have expended energy to the point of exhaustion. Opium is not the answer, however, and I desire as your physician that you should not attempt to make it one.’

I vowed to him that I would not, and admitted that the case distressed me. ‘It is partly that he is a doctor and a soldier, like you. Yet you stand, as it were, at the antipodes of such a position, or rather you at the zenith, he at the nadir. It is very terrible to me when a good man goes astray. The brutes of Spitalfields or Limehouse, the denizens of our prisons, they are in great part, what their circumstances have made them. Bred foully, they do foully, since they know no better. They have souls, yes, as we do, but brutalised from birth by this society we live in, they are lower than the brute beasts. Beasts at least act bestially after their kind: they are moved by need, not greed. Man is a corrupt thing, a fallen angel.’ I stopped then, unable to go on, my head spinning, my heart beating painfully hard in the reaction from the drug.

Watson moved to assist me, helping me from the chair to lie upon the sofa. He covered me with an old worn afghan of ours, and when I would have spoken, laid a finger to my lips. ‘Hush now. You must neither exert nor excite yourself, but lie here until these palpitations subside. You are a poor subject for drugs, Holmes, you are too volatile as it is. Not another word out of you for an hour, and you must try to sleep again, please.’

I did indeed feel ill, unusually so: perhaps my abstinence had rendered the drug more powerful. I closed my eyes, and endeavoured to rest, but then I heard him move from my side.

“Watson?’ I asked. ‘Where are you going? Are you leaving me?’

He made a funny little tutting noise, an unworded negation. ‘Of course I am not leaving you. I am fetching Winwood Reade, sitting here, and perusing it as you bade me. When you are rested we will walk together, putting the world to rights as we do so, and for the rest of today we will not think of the case. Let tomorrow’s evil be the evil of tomorrow: today we will rest, and you will recover. And I shall not embarrass you in front of Dupré, Holmes, but tomorrow he will be hearing my mind on the iniquity of leading young men into opium dens. I doubt Stevenson himself would be happy to hear of him going to such a place, especially when we are engaged in a matter of such importance. What if he let slip something pertinent to the case?’

*****

Whatever Watson said to Dupré, it served to warn him from me. He treated me with correct courtesy thereafter, and there were no more lunches with only the two of us. He and I, with Stevenson and Bond, continued our analyses of the suspected materials taken from the room of Percy John. Of the twenty numbered quinine powders Lamson had put up for him in the summer (when he had been ill at Shanklin after taking the quinine capsule Lamson had given him) while the six larger powders were innocuous, and some of the fourteen smaller powders numbered 7 to 20 contained only quinine as expected, papers 16, 18, and 20 contained enough aconitine in each to kill. It was clear that Lamson had made previous attempts on the boy’s life, first by directly offering him pills, then by sending him ‘tonic powders’ some, but not all, of which were doctored with the poison. It then became necessary to determine from which apothecary or chemist Lamson had obtained this aconitine, which was of different formulation from that found in the stomach, urine and viscera after the poor lad’s death. I offered to pursue enquiries down in Bournemouth where Lamson had resided at the time, and accordingly, at the beginning of February, Watson and I were asked to slip quietly down there from London. There was so much excitement about the case, because of its horrible nature, that the gentlemen of the press watched Lestrade, Stevenson, Bond and Dupré wherever they went. It was logical, therefore for Watson and I to go. I had insisted that my name did not appear at all in connexion with the investigation (this to mollify the tetchy Stevenson, who was jealous of his professional honour) and so my involvement and of course Watson’s, was quite unknown.

‘Watson, what shall we do about rooms?’ I asked him, the morning after this was decided. ‘It should be somewhere quiet, and out of town for preference, so we are not remarked. There are bloodhounds hot on the trail of anything to do with this case, and Stevenson wants us to investigate discreetly.’

‘Lestrade recommends an inn - The Ragged Cat at Boscombe. It is two miles out of Bournemouth, still quite rural and remote, and near to the new Spa. If need be, we can be a gentleman in ill health – that is you, Holmes - and his medical attendant. He has offered to see to it for us, since his division will be paying. It will not be luxurious, but I daresay it will do for a couple of nights. He told me yesterday that he would wire down to make arrangements, so if you pack your valise, we will take the train directly after luncheon. I must run into Barts this morning – I have patients to see after – but I can meet you at Waterloo Station in time for the three-thirty. I am afraid it is generally considered a slow route, but at least our train does not stop until Southampton. And Lestrade has wired for a carriage to be at our disposal from Bournemouth to Boscombe, and for running about the town. I asked him if we needed an introduction to the local police, but he said not.’

‘My life is infinitely easier with you to assist me, Watson,’ I remarked, and was gratified to observe him colour up with pleasure. ‘No small difficulty, but you are there to smooth it out; no arrangement to be made, but I find it is already in hand. You are a jewel among companions.’

‘Flattery,’ he observed sternly, ‘will get you nowhere, Holmes. You are fretting yourself into a fiddlestring with this case, and I shall be glad to get you away from that poisonous atmosphere at Guy’s.’ I knew by his look that he did not refer simply to the miasmatic air in that close room, but to the stench of moral and spiritual degeneration that surrounded the whole sorry affair. ‘Two nights in the quiet of the country will rest and restore you. What are those lines of Cowper’s? ‘Rural sounds exhilarate the spirit, and restore the tone of languid nature.’ Well, we will enjoy our rural sounds, and I trust your languid nature will return both exhilarated and restored to this dispiriting metropolis.’

‘It is more likely to return exasperated and resentful,’ I teased him. ‘if ‘ten thousand warblers cheer the day’ from first light to dusk. Although it is also more likely to be the prosaic cockerel that cheers the day, rather than a delicate warbler, Watson, and very early indeed. But I shall expect you not to mind it, lover of nature that you are.’

He laughed, picked up his modest valise, clapped me on the shoulder, and went to his work with a spring in his step and a smile. I packed, soberly, not forgetting his injunction to take a muffler, ‘for the air is chill in the evenings.’ If truth be told, I was wild to be away. The one taste of opium had re-awakened the craving, and I was hard beset at times. It stood before me, an Apollyon in my way, and like Christian battling the foul fiend, I was wounded, and weary and spent. Watson guarded me well, albeit unknowing the demon from which he guarded me, ever alert to my moods, ever ready to amuse or beguile, or suggest. As yet, I had not told him how long standing a war this was, or that he had seen only a minor skirmish in the campaign I waged against myself.

The train was half an hour late departing. The trains were always late, and slow from Waterloo, indeed, the less than affectionate sobriquet for the London and South Western Railway was ‘the Long Slow Way Round.’ We had a carriage to ourselves, there being few people travelling at that time, and I was glad of it. It was a dull day, the houses and hills we passed fading into washes of grey as the light dimmed. Watson drew the blinds down, and lit the gas early, and sat reading, while I fidgeted, and shifted in my seat. For I had resolved – I had almost resolved – I was nearly wanting to – tell him about the morphia, yet I was so terribly afraid. I had stood for a long time looking at my morocco case, before packing it. It would be the easiest way to tell him. But I was not sure I dared. And so I shifted, and, I daresay, sighed.

‘Holmes,’ he remonstrated, eventually, casting aside his paper. ‘You fidget like a dog with a flea, old man, and puff like a grampus. I know it is a tedious journey, but have you nothing to occupy you? Shall I read to you? Or do you wish to talk? I have been unsociable enough to bore you, it is true.’

‘No,’ I said. I would put it off no longer. ‘It is only - ’ I rose, and fetched my case down from the rack, unstrapped and opened it. ‘It is this, Watson.’ And I placed the morocco case into his hands. ‘Open it. It is the, the answer to a question you asked me, a little while ago, and I promised to answer when I could.’

He looked hard at me, I think to determine if this was some jest. Then slowly, very slowly, he opened the case. What he thought to see, I knew not, but it was not that, for his brows drew together, and he looked first at the syringe and apparatus, then at me, then back at the case again. He took up the syringe, observed it closely, smelt it, and then laid it down beside the small strip of cloth I kept tucked under it. This he took up and twisted round his own arm, testing its strength before replacing it, and closing the case. ‘Holmes?’ was all he said.

He knew. He wanted me to tell him it was not true, but I could not. Instead, I divested myself of my coat and jacket, unbuttoned my shirt cuffs, and rolled my sleeves above my elbows. I held out my arms, baring them for his inspection. I believe my hands were quite steady, but his were not.

He supported my left arm with one hand, drew the fingers of the other down over my skin from the tender inside of my elbow to my wrist, then retraced his steps, lingering on the marks. ‘You had an abscess here, and here. Your needle missed the vein here. But these marks here, and here, and here,’ gently pressing them, ‘these marks are clean. You clean the needles, with rubbing alcohol, I presume. And make up the solution fresh each time? This vein has collapsed, you will not be able to use it again.’ He shivered then; I felt it go quite through him, communicating itself to me through his fingers. He let my arm rest gently on my knee, then took up my other arm. ‘Another abscess was here. You lance them yourself, do you not? No trained surgeon would cut like that. And dress them? Do you use fomentations to bring the matter to a head and purge it? They should not be too hot: your skin is delicate, and you have abused it. A warm kaolin poultice would serve you better. None of these marks is very recent: but you have been using the needle for some years. When was the last time?’ and as I opened my lips to reply, ‘No, it is of no matter. It is within the time I have lived with you, that is clear. And I saw, but I did not observe as you often say: the more fool I. There now, I have seen what I need to. It is brave of you to trust me, my dear fellow. Thank you, Holmes.’ A single salt droplet fell on my left wrist. He wiped it away with his thumb in a small, caressing movement, then touched his hand to his eyes. ‘Forgive me.’ He drew my sleeves down, over my scarred arms, and buttoned them again, setting my cuffs to rights with precise, almost finicking movements. ‘Put on your jacket and coat again: it grows colder now.’

I obeyed him silently, not daring to speak. The silence grew and grew between us, yawning, abyssal: a clamouring, terrible silence. I sat with my eyes cast down; he stared out of the window. The train drew into Southampton: passengers alighted, others ascended the train. We remained alone in our compartment. With huge groans from the engine and clanking of wheels, we moved again. It was an upward gradient: the labouring vehicle strained, toiling to make headway. It was now fully dark outside.

I could bear it no longer. ‘Watson,’ I pleaded. ‘Speak to me.’

‘I do not know what to say,’ he said. ‘I have so many questions, both as your doctor, and your – friend, yet I do not know which to ask. Or whether I may ask any. Or if, by asking, I shall drive you back into yourself, and ruin all hope of confidence between us. I do not know what I may say, and what I may not.’

‘Anything,’ I said. ‘You may ask me anything, only do not be silent. Do not - ’ reject me, I was about to say, but the words dried in my throat.

‘Perhaps – perhaps it will be easier if I do not ask, Holmes. As your friend, I would like to know how it began, if you felt you could tell me. And where, perhaps.’

‘I was quite young,’ I said. ‘At – at the university.’ My mind raced: would it be possible to tell my tale without revealing myself completely? It might, if I chose my words carefully. ‘It is a long story, but – I was foolish, and also lonely. I chose my friendships – friendships, forsooth: there had been but one - poorly, and spoiled them, and I paid a price. The morphia was part of it.’

‘Then you shall tell me that story if you want to, Holmes, and I will listen. I do not like to think of you lonely. As your doctor . . .’

‘As my doctor, you wish to know what strength. And how, and how often. I use the proportions for Keyes’ solution – you are aware of it, of course?’

‘Two hundred and fifty-six grains of morphine sulphate, eight grains of salicylic acid in sixteen fluid ounces of distilled water,’ he recited, as if by rote. ‘I daresay you have the very book that I do, Holmes – Kane, of New York, upon the hypodermic injection of morphia? Published but two years ago?’ and on my silent assent, ‘I expected no less of you: you are a scientist. I am glad at least you do not use the muriate or acetate of morphia, they are more –dear God in heaven, what am I saying? Glad! Of course I am not glad. It is only that the sulphate is more stable – less acidic and damaging. Oh, I cannot think– Holmes, my dear Holmes, if you have read Kane’s book . . . you must know . . .’

‘I do. I – I have much diminished my usage, I assure you, since reading it. I was never in the habit of taking more than twelve to sixteen grains in the twenty-four hours, so I do not believe it was so bad, but . . .’

‘The greatest therapeutic dose is one and a half to two grains.’ he said, passing a hand over his eyes. ‘In case we find a marked idiosyncratic response, we are advised to start with one sixteenth, or even one thirty-secondth, of a grain in those new to the drug. Or so I do, anyway. Let be on whatever dose you take: we will discuss it later. How often?’

‘I generally take a dose at night,’ I confessed, feeling more low and wretched by the moment. ‘To quiet my – to calm me before I sleep. So I can sleep.’

‘Every night? Not quite? Most nights, then. And you have never thought to see a physician? About the insomnia?’

‘N-No. I - I do not know any.’

‘Which is to say, you will not. Holmes, I think there is more here than I can tease out in a damned railway carriage – damn it, of all the places to tell me this – could you not have chosen a better? Or was it that you had me captive, so that I could not run away? I should not act as your physician, being your friend – yes of course I am still your friend, my dear fellow, always and ever your friend, and I shall not run away. When will you believe me, when I say my own weaknesses have taught me not to judge? As Burns says, ‘what’s done we partly may compute, but know not what’s resisted.’ I do not know your demons, only my own. Oh, dear God above, I am no good at this – oh for a woman’s touch, for a woman’s gentleness . . . I am a mere man, all unaccustomed to this depth: I have no delicacy of touch with the soul’s ills. But I will do my best, I swear to you. Although, as I said, I should not act as your physician, being your friend . . .’

‘You must,’ I told him. ‘For I will have none other. And I should not talk to you at all if you were a woman, Watson. I can barely talk to you as it is.’

The train slowed, then stopped. ‘We are at Ringwood,’ he observed. And that was all he said, for our carriage was invaded by a jovial farmer and his wife, who conversed with Watson until Bournemouth was reached. He had moved from opposite to beside me on their entry, offering them, with his usual courtesy, the opportunity to be seated together. He removed his scarf, folded it, and bade me rest my head on it and try to doze, telling the couple that I was inclined to headache and nausea in trains, and had better not talk. He did not address me thereafter, but the comfort of his solid bulk was against my side as he chatted quietly and comfortably with them about the weather and the price of cattle. Eventually, we reached our destination, and tumbled out, stiff and sore from long sitting, to find our carriage waiting. Of course we could not converse then either, and it was not until we were settled before the fire in the parlour Lestrade had reserved for us, that we renewed our discourse. And all the while, he treated me with the most courteous, reverent gentleness, the softest, most respectful manner. I hated it - could not bear it.

‘I wish you would not – not step around me like this,’ I complained. ‘You are treating me like an invalid, Watson. As if I am some puling, green-sick maiden, or some delicate child. Rail at me, scold me. Dislike me, hate me even, but do anything but this. I feel as if I shall never hold my head up again with you. Do you think me so weak now, so unworthy of respect?’

‘Never,’ he told me, his tone suddenly fierce. ‘Never. It is not that. I respect you no less; you are no less a friend.’

‘Then what?’

‘I am angry.’

‘With me? You have every right: you have been living with a degenerate, a man who uses drugs, a confirmed opium-eater, as it were. A man who has contracted a morphia habit.’

‘No, with myself, that I did not observe the signs in you.’

‘I did not wish you to, therefore you did not. I am practised at hiding, like all addicts.’

‘Are you an addict?’

‘An habitué then. I can give it up: there are periods when I do not use it.’

‘But the craving is still there?’ And when I did not answer. ‘The craving is still there, Holmes?’

‘Yes,’ I admitted. ‘It is – I was taking it regularly during most of last year, and the beginning of this: A nightly dose. Earlier last year, perhaps more than a nightly dose. Perhaps twice a day.’

‘I thought you sunk in depression at times, with no cases, but it was this then? You used it to medicate your boredom.’ He said it as if he had just realised this fact.

‘Yes.’

‘And what made you stop?’

‘This wretched case of the poisoner, Lamson. Seeing what he had become. Watson, I found myself thinking that, that I could, as he did, and Kane suggests, combine atropia with the morphia. That it would counteract the effect on the pupils. That – and then I realised I was setting myself up for a course in deception, as had he. Planning to conceal my use. There was no monetary temptation in my case, no financial irregularity to hide, none of his desperation. But there might have been. I might have become even as he. So I stopped my nightly soporific.’

‘Suddenly? Without tapering the dose? It is no wonder you have been restless, and unsettled then. But then you accompanied Dupré to the opium den?’

‘My need was strong that night. The circumstances – my situation: the need that drove me to take morphia in the first place. It was strong.’

‘And that you have not explained.’ He rose and yawned, stretched. ‘Holmes, I am your friend. If you wish to tell me, then I wish to know all, so that I can help you to the best of my ability. It is late, but there will be a moon tonight. I propose a light supper, a brief walk, and then we should retire. There are two beds in my room: will you share my barracks tonight, as if we were true comrades in arms together? It is easier, sometimes, to offer a confidence so: darkness can be kind. And you shall tell me whatever you wish. For tomorrow, we must be on the trail again, and it would be as well to have put this somewhat to rest.’

So it was in the kindly darkness, as we lay together and apart on our narrow pallets, the moonlight chequering the room in black and silver, that I told him of Victor Trevor. Of how I had been an unsociable fellow at college, always fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so I never mixed much with the men of my year. He already knew that bar fencing and boxing, I had few athletic tastes, and that my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had had no points of contact at all.

‘Were you very lonely, Holmes?’ he interjected softly at this point in my story.

‘If I was, I did not know it,’ I told him. ‘I was always a solitary child.’ I did not tell him of Mycroft, or of my parents. ‘Perhaps I did not wish to know it. I used to look at the other fellows from afar, wondering what lack it was in me that made me so apart, but I could never bring myself to join them, and they appeared to accept my isolation. A self-imposed isolation, I see that now. Perhaps they would have been friendly enough, had I been more forthcoming.’

‘So you were solitary, my poor friend. Pray continue, if you wish it.’

‘If you do not find me tedious,’ I confessed then, ‘It is a curious relief to speak.’

‘You are never tedious. Go on, Holmes.’

‘Victor Trevor, then. His bull terrier froze onto my ankle one morning, as I went down to chapel. The bite festered, as they do: I could do nothing but wait out the healing. I was laid by the heels for ten days but he used to come in to enquire after me. At first it was only a minute, but soon his visits lengthened, and before the end of the term we were close friends. He was a hearty, full-blooded fellow, full of spirits and energy, the very opposite of me in some respects. We had some subjects in common – the natural sciences – and it was a bond of union between us, when I found that he was as friendless as I.’

I related then to Watson, as earth turned, and the moon-shadows shifted across us, the events he later chronicled in the ‘Adventure of the Gloria Scott.’ What I could not, and did not say to him was that I had desired Victor. Nay, I had thought myself in love with him, insofar I was then able to feel love, not with a tenth of the passion I felt for Watson, but with all I was then capable of. Although my youthful desires had been sufficiently stirred for me to be aware of my own feelings, it was not until Victor that I truly understood that as a man I was, and ever would be, incapable of desiring a woman, that I was a congenital invert. It was then that I had turned to morphia to quell the cravings of my flesh, to ensure that I remained hidden, for Victor would never have countenanced anything of the sort between us. ‘Beastliness’ he called it, or ‘being spoony’ and maintained that such softness had no place between men, but was the mark of a weak and degenerate character. I could not tell Watson this, that I had longed, and desired, and forbidden myself from thought and deed with my evil demon’s help. Instead, I allowed him to infer that the events of the elder Trevor’s death, the guilt of my feeling that I had, in some sort contributed to it either by deducing imperfectly, or deducing anything at all, had driven me into a deep depression compounded by renewed loneliness.

‘So I entered my second year even more solitary than before,’ I told him. ‘Trevor had departed for the tea-planting at Terai. We’d met once since his father’s death, a stiff, dry meeting, to put the world between us. He bade me goodbye, and told me to forget him. I promised I would. He wanted no more of me, blamed me, it was clear, for what had happened. I fell, that autumn, into a deep depression. As I said, perhaps I had not realised I was lonely before, but my only friend once departed, the solitude I had cherished weighed on me more and more heavily. I had been prescribed morphia for the dog bite: to an analytical chemist it was not difficult to deduce the formula, prepare the drug, and inject it. You may, perhaps have wondered why I never took my degree: there is the reason. Some of my fellows, more puritanical, or perhaps more envious of my academic success – for I was successful in my field - than the rest, took it upon themselves to inform the Master of my drug-taking. There were many who indulged, or experimented, in secret, and unrebuked, but once he was formally brought to notice it, he could do nothing but send me down. My family wanted nothing to do with me, gave me enough to enable me to scrape a living, and so I wandered on, through bad, and worse, and a few better days, in increasing despair at ever improving my mode of living, until I asked Stamford whether he might know of anyone who wanted to share rooms, and he brought me you, Watson.’

‘Perhaps to the salvation of both of us,’ he murmured. His hand reached across the gap between us, and I put mine to meet it. We clasped hands for a moment; then I released him, as I knew I must.

‘I cannot think what to do now,’ he told me. ‘I must settle what is consonant with my duty as a physician, and my duty as a friend. But we are still friends, Holmes, and that you may hold to. You must decide for yourself, what you take and when. I would rather you did not take it at all, although I know that would be hard.’ He paused, reached across, and patted my shoulder. ‘Do you think you can sleep, Holmes, now? Is your mind easier? I will help you all I can, be sure of it.’

‘Yes,’ I whispered to him, while my traitorous body burned at the thought of him so near. ‘Yes, my mind is easier, thank you, Watson.’

*****

In the morning, all was friendly between us: no hint in Watson’s demeanour of those confidences of the night before. Yet all was changed, too: there are some conversations which leave a mark, which move a friendship to a different level of intimacy, a level that there is no retreating from. He had acknowledged his dependency on me, and I on him, in a manner very unlike most men who have not fought long together, or who are not tied by bonds of blood. It would rest unspoken now, between us, but it would be there, and it gave me a little – a very little- hope.

In any case, during the whole of the day – and it was a foul, wet, windy day, such as only January can throw at the unfortunate inhabitants of these shores - we pursued the tangled threads of Lamson’s aconitine purchases. We unravelled, as well, his dealings with the pawnbrokers, bailiffs, and financial agents of the town where he had gone to make a name for himself as a war hero and promising young medic, and found only disgrace. It was a deeply saddening and dirty process, and I would, as I said to Watson, have preferred a good clean stabbing any day.

‘I cannot work out,’ said he to me, as we returned for our second night at the Ragged Cat, ‘whether the addiction preceded the business failure, or was subsequent to it, or concomitant with it. This is a man who returned with honours, so it is said, from the war. Who saved lives. Who married well, a good woman, of property and bought a practice, where he might do some good in the world, in an up-and-coming little town. Yet all, all, is thrown away, and there is no doubt but that he murdered that young man, his brother in law. What is it, Holmes, that drives one man so far down the road to destruction, when another travels the high road to success? Is it character? Upbringing? Chance? Why am I not as he? Why are not you?’

‘Perhaps I am not so very far from him, degenerate that I am,’ I murmured. ‘Watson, I am tired of this case. My throat is sore and my head buzzing: I want to go home. We have found out all there is to find out in Bournemouth; I have been certain of how the poison was administered for some short while now, and if your idiot colleague Stevenson has not found it out by the time we have returned, I shall tell him tomorrow, and be shot of it. For I am sick and tired of everything.’

‘This is the merest irritation of nerves, and yes, you are going to have a heavy cold,’ he scolded me. ‘You are not in the least like this wretched murderer, Holmes. You take morphia, yes. That is the only point of similarity between you, yet you are becoming positively morbid on the subject, and I will hear no more of it. Unless you wish me to find some aconitia for you, and to offer myself as your murder subject so you can indulge yourself with some genuine reason for these doleful recriminations? Would you be satisfied with that? And if you know how Lamson administered the dose to young Percy John, and have not told us, it is wrong of you, old chap. Stevenson has been wearing himself to a thread-paper with his distillations and acidifications and washings with ether, and reductions of this and that. How long have you known?’

‘It was only proved to me the day before we came down here,’ I admitted. ‘I had theorised, but the proof came only when I finally persuaded Bond to give me the bottle of stomach contents that Stevenson, despite my pointing him in that direction, has repeatedly ignored in favour of his urinalyses, and his dissections of the viscera for lesions, and his poking about with the damned capsules and quinine powders. We know Lamson tried on several occasions to poison his brother in law, but Stevenson has only succeeded in proving that, not how the fatal dose was given. If he had not been in such an all-fired hurry to send us down here, I would have told him yesterday. It is his own fault he has had to wait for his explanation. And so will you have to wait,’ I added. My tone was querulous, and I did not care, for I was thoroughly out-of-sorts, but he simply laughed at me.

‘Holmes, you are truly vile when you are ill: never was a man less patient than you. Retire to your bed, for heaven’s sake, and I shall ask the good woman of this house to bring you a toddy and a bowl of soup.’

‘What will you do?’ I was shaken by a series of sneezes, and forced to bury myself in the linen square he handed me. ‘Are you going to desert me, now I am ill?’

He handed me another five handkerchiefs. ‘Here. Pitch them in the fire when you are done with them: I cannot bear them hanging around damp and be-slimed. Yes, I thought I would go to the tap-room, and consort with the locals. No, Holmes, of course I am not going to desert you. I am going to eat my soup in your room with you, drink my own toddy, and then retire to my own, rather less infectious, atmosphere. Although you have probably already given that cold to me, damn you.’

I would have thanked him then, but could not, for the sneezing. I was sure he understood, despite my inability to speak.

*****

The triumph of my exposition of how Lamson had poisoned his brother in law was very sadly lessened by that cold. It was hard to sound impressive, when one’s throat appeared to have been sand-papered, and every second sentence was punctuated with positively stentorian explosions. Stevenson was clearly quite horrified by the violence of the infection, and I was certain afterwards that he had barely listened, so occupied was he in wincing every time I erupted.

‘The crucial issue of this case was that the capsules and powders and all of that business with the sugar – those powders handled on the third of December, when Lamson visited his brother in law – they all constituted an elaborate charade,’ I told the persons assembled at Scotland Yard. ‘Lamson arrived to see Percy on that evening. He conversed with Mr Bedbrook, the headmaster of Percy’s school, and the two men took wine together, Bedbrook offering Lamson a sherry. Lamson made some comment that was immediately suspicious: he asked for sugar ‘to take off the alcoholic effect of the sherry’, and mixed a spoonful into his glass. Watson, another handkerchief, if you please. Thank you.

Now that is ridiculous, in fact, since sugar in sherry has no such effect, not to mention being the ruination of a fine amontillado or palo cortado. He then produced from his bag, we are told, a Dundee cake, and some crystallised fruits, which were shared out. Now you, Stevenson, contended, that since all shared in these, they could not be the vehicle for the poison. But mark what Lamson does next. He produces, from his bag, a small packet of the new-fangled gelatine capsules, which are coming into use for delivering powders: while these may easily be prised apart, filled and re-closed, thus encapsulating any unpalatable powder within, the process of deglutition renders the gelatine flexible and soft, it further dissolves in the acids of the stomach, and the drug thus delivered is imparted to the system without – dear me, another handkerchief, please, Watson, and if you would be kind enough to dispose of this one? Thank you, dear fellow, and do not neglect your own needs – without, as I was saying, any unpleasant taste.

Lamson proceeds to demonstrate this process; opening a capsule, filling it with sugar from the communal bowl using a small spade spoon, closing it, and handing it to Percy to take, which he dutifully does. Lamson is thus enabled - a third handkerchief, Watson, if you would be so kind - to claim, when the lad is dead, and poison is suspected, that it cannot be he who has done it, since the sugar came from the household store, Bedbrook saw the capsule filled himself, and thus can attest to the fact that nothing but the communal sugar went into it, and since Lamson, Bedbrook and Percy John all shared in the cake and fruit, none of those can be tainted.

Pray Watson, your flask, if I may, and another handkerchief. Thank you. But mark the cunning nature of our murderer. It is said that Augustus, knowing his wife, Livia, to be an adept in poisoning, and fearing for his own life, would eat nothing but what his own hand had prepared, and no fruit that he had not picked from the tree: she therefore had recourse to smearing the poison on the fruit as it grew, and all unsuspecting, he plucked, ate and died. It appears to have escaped your notice, Dr Stevenson, but when Lansom produced his cake and sweetmeats, the cake was already cut. He could not poison the sugar plums, for they were offered at choice, but the cake he distributed with his own hand. It is therefore entirely probable that the cake was poisoned. Pray, forgive me a moment, gentlemen. Watson, is there another handkerchief? A moment more only while I dispose of these. Thank you. But not the whole cake, of course: only that piece which was offered to Percy John.

In this flask, which I have, it is fair to say, asked repeatedly - very well, Watson, I will not go into that then - in this flask, the contents of which I have examined microscopically, I found, much triturated, the scant remains of a raisin, and some apple peel such as might be found in a Dundee cake. A Dundee cake, gentlemen, is rich enough to conceal the initial slight bitterness of aconite. And an extract from this flask, touched with the tongue, produces the characteristic bite of the drug we are looking for. Lamson injected the poison into the slice of cake he gave young Percy, Stevenson. Either that, or he removed a few raisins, soaked them in the tincture, and replaced them. Of course, by handing everyone cake, he ensured that the eating was general: the boy, seeing his head teacher eat of the cake himself, thought no harm, despite his former suspicions of Lamson, until the drug began to work in him. So there you have it, gentlemen. The numbered powders adulterated with aconitia, and the capsule that made young Percy so ill in the Isle of Wight last summer were all preliminary attempts: rehearsals, if you like, for murder. The real culprit was not the capsule so ostentatiously filled, presented and swallowed, but the cake.

And now if you will excuse me gentlemen – Stevenson, Bond, I wish you a very good day and all the credit of a successful case: I care for none of it. M’sieur Dupré, mes félicitations: il est bel, votre garçon, comme le chanson: mais soyez prudent qu’il soit aussi bon pour vous, parce’ qu’il y a quelques beaux chanteurs qui ont bien maîtrisé leur chantage, croyez-vous. Lestrade, if you will be kind enough to call tomorrow, Watson and I will be at your disposal for the paperwork, and I am certain Mrs Hudson can set covers for three for luncheon. Watson, my dear fellow, let us away to Gamages before we go home: we are down to our last dozen handkerchiefs.’

*****

Lamson was convicted, on my evidence, and sentenced, on March 14th, to hang, still protesting his innocence. His friends in America, indeed the President himself, pleaded on his behalf, endeavouring to have the sentence reduced on the grounds of his insanity due to morphine addiction, but despite all the evidence adduced of his habitual use over long periods, and the awful effect it had on him, the sentence stood, and he was sent to the scaffold on April 28th. At my request, Lestrade made available to me the affidavits of his friends, and Watson and I read them together. His own account of his addiction greatly affected both of us: Watson because of the evidence he read of the man’s former courage in battle, and because he had once been, as Watson himself was, wounded, and had taken to the morphia to control pain, and to render himself able to work: whence followed, most tragically the addiction. For me, his description of the effects of the drug – the need to repeat injections to find relief from the drug wearing off, the physical and nervous afflictions peculiar to the addiction, and worse than anything else, the inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and the moral degradation that followed haunted my dreams for weeks. Watson woke me from them, as I was used to wake him. As I still did wake him, for the case brought back his dreams as well.

I never met Lamson before he died. Watson, that good soldier, and good doctor, did. He visited him as a colleague in distress, and found him repentant, the withdrawal of the drug in prison having brought him back to his right mind. He confessed, at the last, maintaining that not he, but the morphia had acted. His friends ensured that his poor wife, who had clung to him throughout, refusing to believe that her kind husband could have killed her little brother, and his little daughter, were given new names, and sent to America, there to find new lives, and a modicum of peace.

We did not need to say much to each other, Watson and I. The proverbs of Solomon speak of ‘a friend who is closer than a brother, a friend in a thousand.’ Watson was that man to me, and I to him thereafter. He was everything to me, tried, tested, true. He had not abandoned me when he knew of my weakness, but he would not condone it either. A word, a hint from me, that the demon called, and he was there, to walk with me, read with me. And when I fell, and I did fall, he was there: patient, kind as ever, to reach out his hand and lift me up.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face: Part 5

Umballa, residence of Colonel Creighton of the Ethnographical Survey.

‘What is it you want, Lala?’ Creighton’s voice is sharp, as, eyes narrowed, he observes the stooped, shabby figure of the old Sunnyasi before him. ‘I am a busy man. Is it food you desire? Go to my kitchen then.’

Holmes straightens his back, wipes his face with his sleeve, and removes his headdress. ‘A busy man, but with time for me perhaps? Forgive the disguise, Creighton. It would not have done for me to be remarked in my own form. Mahbub and A7 in Lahore warned me that Moran’s spies are everywhere.’

‘My God! It’s Sigerson!’ Creighton springs to his feet, wrings his visitor’s grimy hand. ‘Sigerson, man, where have you sprung from? We thought you lost in the fastnesses of Tibet. So you found Mahbub Ali? He was told to look for you in his travels.’

Holmes grimaces slightly at the use of his alias. It has been so long since he’s been Holmes. Sometimes he wonders whether there is anything left of Holmes., the consulting detective of Baker Street. So much has been stripped away. He has changed almost beyond his own recognition.

‘I did, and came down to Lahore as groom to his Kabulis, sleeping with the horseboys.’ Holmes sniffs, and frowns. ‘And I still stink of horse. Of your mercy, Creighton, a bath before we speak of – other things. There is much I need to tell you: and Moran is behind all of it: in league with the Russians against you, steeped in infamy and treachery to his bones. If you do not take care, there will be bloodshed and rapine before long.’

‘But where have you been? We last heard of you a year and a half ago, in Tibet, at Gan-Den. We knew you had left, but then we lost you, caught only a rumour of you in Kafiristan. How in God’s name did you manage to get from Lhasa to Mahbub in Kabul? You must have traversed the length of the border!’

‘I did.’ Holmes sighs. ‘I have been closer to you here than you realise: had I come straight from Gan-Den you would have heard of me long since, but my journey took me further north, to Chitral and Parun: thence to Kabul and your Pathan spy. Cherish that man, Creighton: his cunning is unparalleled. Oh, dear God, but I am weary of walking. So weary of walking. And of asses that bite, and refractory horses, and wooden-wheeled carts.’

‘I will order a bath for you.’ Creighton rises to pull at an ornate rope. ‘Do sit, for heaven’s sake, Sigerson, you are exhausted. Sleep, eat, and we shall talk later. Ah, Ram Das, there you are. Find a room for Sigerson Sahib here: have water heated, and assign a boy to tend to him. No, wait – tend to him yourself, and inform the household that I shall not look kindly on idle talk. Go with him, Sigerson, we can talk later, when you have slept. You look entirely destroyed, man.’

‘Wait,’ Holmes tells the young man. ‘Creighton, is there any news for me from home? A7 said he had passed on information to you. What has m - My – has H1 sent? A – a telegram? A letter?’

‘A letter,’ Creighton opens a drawer. ‘You wish for it now?’

‘Yes, yes, now - and take these.’ Holmes dips into his ragged clothing and hands over a package swathed in dirty oiled silk. ‘The odour is repulsive, but you must forgive me for it, Creighton: I have slept with this next to my very skin, sweated on, bled on, repeatedly unsealed, added to, resealed, rewrapped, and re-sewn, for months, never letting go of it for fear of it falling into unauthorised hands. These are the fruits of my journey: I have encoded the writings for the most part, but the maps would have given me away. You know the key. I am glad to be rid of it: it has weighed heavy on my heart as well as my breast.’

‘Sigerson!’ Creighton takes the packet. ‘You are the prince of spies, man: my God, what it must have cost you. Here, here is your letter.’

‘Yes,’ Holmes pounces eagerly on the sealed sheet, rips it open, reads.

There is a silence. ‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘I’ll have that bath now, Creighton. Thank you. We will meet at dinner then.’

But his voice is strained, and his hands tremble.

*****

Once bathed, and clothed in cleaned robes, for he must still maintain his disguise, Holmes sits on his bed, turning the letter over and over in his hands. His face is wet.

‘My dear Sherlock,’ Mycroft has written. ‘I am sorry to say that I can give you no very promising news of your friend, Watson. He has been forced of late almost to abandon his practice, which he has placed in the hands of one Anstruther, of whose probity I have grave doubts. His wife is in extremely poor health, and he tends her with patient assiduity, despite her coldness and, my informants tell me, her frequent and bitter reproaches for their poverty. There has been no child, and is now never likely to be one, for I fear she cannot live long. Watson himself is sadly thin, and your little band of Irregulars, as you call them, report that he rarely smiles, even when he attends them. They, and the other street arabs of your old acquaintance, are almost the only contact he has with people now. He has given up all work at Barts save for that in the free wards. I made an opportunity – such is the affection I bear to you, dear brother – to encounter him there. Watson looked gaunt and pale, clean, but shabby and worn. He was wearing an old blue overcoat that had clearly seen better days. I could see from his boots that he had walked from his home, and he had not been shaved that day. When he saw me, he turned away, but then appeared to recollect himself, and replied to my greeting. He enquired politely after my health, and that of our dear mutual friend, Melas, although he refused my invitation to dine quietly with us. His is the desperate, unbelieving sadness of a grieving widower: I do not doubt, however, that it is not his dying wife he mourns. I would have spoken of you, but he divined my intent, and his raised hand, his quivering lip and welling eyes, implored me to spare him. It was a subject, it was clear, too painful even to touch upon. I shall endeavour to keep a watch over him, but urge you, dear brother, to leave no stone unturned in your attempts to foil that adversary of ours and to return quickly, and ere it is too late, to the friend who yet mourns you with unshaken devotion. For the rest, the estate continues to . . .’

Holmes looks around, although he is quite alone, then touches his lips to each written reiteration of the word ‘Watson’. His tears flow, become strangled, gasping sobs. Curled into a weary knot, he allows his grief to overwhelm him. Eventually, he sleeps.

I That Loved And You That Liked . . .

After my sad revelation, Watson and I went on quietly together for a few months. I endeavoured to diminish my morphia, tapering it off by little and little, but it proved difficult. On my suggestion, Watson began to administer my decreasing nightly dose to me, and then to lock away the drug and the syringe. It was a strangely intimate event: I bared my arm, he wiped my skin with alcohol, drew up the solution and showed me the amount, raised a vein and performed the injection with neat-handed ease. Afterwards, he would wipe my arm again before drawing the sleeve of my shirt or nightgown down and bidding me goodnight. There was an absent-minded affectionateness in his look when he did so; a soft, sure familiarity. I cherished the warmth of him near me, the scent of his skin, the touch of his strong, kind fingers. When he concentrated on the injection I could gaze my fill on him, learning him a piece at a time. The whorls of his ear, the way the muscles corded in his neck, the faint lines at the corner of his eye – they fascinated me to the point of obsession. I would never have enough of him. I needed to breathe him in as I needed air: without him I suffocated, breathless, dying.

And he, in some way, needed me: that was my salvation. On his suggestion, the box in which we kept syringe and drug was closed with two patent padlocks, to one of which I held the key, while he held the other; thus neither of us could access the poison without the other’s consent. I had demurred, initially when he had asked me for this, but he had overruled me.

‘We must guard each other, for I am not safe with it either, Holmes,’ he said, one morning at breakfast, showing me the box and padlocks. His eyes were haunted. ‘I do not want to put temptation in your way, but I cannot wholly trust myself, and last night I was very sorely tempted by it, after I had given you your dose. I – I am so weary of the ache-ache-ache of this damn shoulder, and the knife of pain that stabs my thigh, that I would willingly exchange my vigilance for intoxication and oblivion.’ He sighed. ‘I feel so damn old, Holmes. I am but thirty, and there are days when I walk like a rheumatic cripple. Halt and maimed, halt and maimed: what hope is there for me? Will I never be well? Will I never be as I was?’

I knew what he was driving at, but I could not answer. Stamford had married in the February, when we were still tied up with the Lamson case, and we had both snatched the time to attend his wedding. Even to my jaundiced view, his bride was, as Watson put it, ‘a bonny wee slip of a girl.’ With wide, china-blue eyes, and golden curls that owed nothing to chamomile wash or the twisting of night-time rags, she was a very doll: porcelain and fragile in her beauty. To be sure there was a certain tightness to her curved lip, and a firmness to her dimpled chin that presaged a shrewishness of disposition I could see she was currently reining in, but by all standards of our time, she was lovely indeed.

Watson sighed wistfully from afar – too gentle, he, for envy – and on the occasional visit he had been allowed – for Stamford was kept on a meagre allowance of male companionship – came home full of their domestic comforts and inclined to acid animadversion on my propensity to mark furniture and carpet with the results of my experiments. I sighed wistfully also, but for different reasons.

On this occasion, however, since he had complained, as he rarely did, of pain, I was ready with a thought to soothe it. April was drawing to a close with a tempestuous easterly, and I was not surprised his wounds hurt him. It was bitter chill, a dry, gnawing cold, with flurries of snow in the air.

‘We might go to the Turkish bath, Watson, if you are so inclined? We have not been this age, not for six months, I believe, or nearly. Last year our poverty made it a rare indulgence, and since New Year we seem to have done nothing but work with the Yard. We are both rather more solvent now: would you not like to make it a regular thing? Their masseurs are exceptionally good, so perhaps with more frequent manipulation we could loosen those muscles that give you so much trouble.’

Greatly daring, I moved to stand behind him as he sat in his chair by the fire, ruefully contemplating the box of temptation in his lap. ‘Put that aside for a moment, my dear fellow. It is here that it hurts you most, is it not?’ I probed his shoulder with care, feeling through dressing gown and shirt. I had long since, with the help of an anatomy textbook, deduced his wound. The bullet had entered from the front – he was no coward, my Watson, to be shot in the back, fleeing from an enemy – piercing him under his clavicle, grazing the subclavian artery, and exiting through the scapula, ripping the infraspinatus muscle with it. The incompetent butchers who had treated him had laid torn muscle and flesh back together, stabilised the broken bone by binding the whole shoulder – I had asked Stamford about the treatment for such injuries – and left it to heal, but infection had set in back and front, and they had had to cut and cut to remove rot and proud flesh. It was a mangled ruin, a corrugated, seamed mass still raw and shiny in places. He did not yet have full sensation in all parts of it, or full movement of the shoulder joint, and as I manipulated it gently I could feel the pull and grind. He tensed under my touch. ‘Holmes?’

‘I am sorry,’ I snatched my hands away. ‘Forgive me. I hate to see you in such pain: I thought to see if I could ease it a little for you, like I was used to with our dogs, or my horse when I was a boy, but I will do more harm than good, I think. Let us go to the baths today, Watson, and someone more competent than I can work on it.’

‘You did not hurt me.’ He turned his head, looking up at me, and his smile was almost fond. ‘Of course I should have known that you would have some understanding of this as of other things. What did I say about you when first we met? “Knowledge of anatomy, accurate but unsystematic”? No, if I startled it was from surprise, that you seemed to know how it hurt me and how to ease it.’ He sighed and leaned forward, away from the back of the chair. ‘Yes, let us go later. I confess, I was hardly able to bear it last night. And I have not slept.’

‘Did – did I ease it?’ I laid my hands on his shoulder again, rocking him gently, and he relaxed into my touch, trusting and acquiescent as I worked on the knotted muscle to soften it. ‘There now, how is that?’

‘Good.’ He sighed again. ‘You have clearly missed your calling, Holmes, I doubt if a professional could do much better. But you had better stop, or I shall be asleep where I sit. I must go to see that unhappy man, Lamson, today – his execution is set for tomorrow – and then go to Barts, to walk the free wards and look after my waifs and strays. Later I have a couple of professional letters to write if we are going to the bath.’ He put up one hand, and patted mine as it lay on his shoulder. ‘Thank you, you are kinder to me than I deserve. What will you do today?’

I moved to sit in my own chair. ‘I am to consult with Lestrade yet again about the Yalding murder: the trial began yesterday. Do you know, Watson, I believe we have no hope of bringing that child’s death home to the perpetrator? The circumstantial evidence against Esther Pay is conclusive. The complete chain of events can be reasoned out and I am certain as I can be, as is Lestrade, that she did, in fact kill the child, Georgina Moore. All evidence save that which is essential – a positive identification – is there.’

‘Can no-one identify her with the child on the way to the place of the murder?’

‘The nearest approach to identification is at the earliest link of our chain, Watson. A boy who was at school with the child in the morning saw her with the accused in Pimlico the same afternoon. At least, he thought it was with Pay, and he picked her out at the police-station for Lestrade. But he was not so positive in front of the police magistrate, and anyway, it is perfectly possible that the child might have met Pay in the street early in the afternoon, and yet have been taken into the country by another woman. There is no evidence of the journey by train, but a flyman at Paddock Wood remembered being asked, "one afternoon about Christmas time," by a woman who had a child with her, what the fare was to Yalding. She was not willing to pay the price - four shillings - but she also said that she did not want to go by train, though the fare was only three pence. He could not say, however, whether it was Esther Pay he saw, or even whether the child was a girl.’

‘And is there nothing after that? It seems almost incomprehensible that a woman may walk off with a child in broad daylight, transport her a goodly distance into the country, by public transport no less, and then drown her in a river - the Medway river, hardly some hidden stream - all unremarked. It makes one shiver to see how easily it seems to have been done. Can you do nothing to bring it home to her, to bring the evil woman to justice, Holmes? For it was done out of spite, was it not?’

‘Indeed it was, to spite a man she hated, and whom she felt had wronged her. I fear I cannot. Esther Pay, or someone like her, was seen with the child at a public house near the station, at the right time. She, or someone in her image, was seen with a child about a quarter past four in the afternoon, on the day we surmise the murder took place, going towards Judd's Corner. Someone on the road to that damned river saw her, or a shape like her, with a child of Georgina Moore’s age. At another public-house on the road to Yalding, a woman resembling her was seen by the landlady and by a man in the house, and two other men saw a woman and child leaving the house and going towards Yalding. But not one of them, Watson, was able to identify the prisoner as the woman they had seen. They have all ‘not been sure’ or have been ‘unable to be certain’. Oh, it terrifies me to think that crime can go so unremarked. But as I have often mentioned to you, my dear fellow, people see, but they do not observe. Of circumstantial evidence, we have un embarras de richesse. But the jury cannot convict on circumstantial evidence: there must be proof positive, for so the law requires. And that I cannot find.’

‘What of the place of the murder? Was there nothing there?’ Watson leaned forward in his eagerness, drawing his chair closer to mine so that our knees almost touched. His eyes were bright, intent: he was all soldier and hunter. ‘Holmes, surely such a simple woman – a murder so – so commonplace, lacking all, well, all intricacy, surely it cannot baffle you. Not that it is not very terrible,’ he amended, self-consciously, and I suppressed a smile at his conscientious recognisance that he might be forgetting the wretched little victim in his writer’s desire for the story. ‘Poor child, poor innocent, bewildered little child. It is so very sad.’

‘There is another public-house, where a somewhat nearer approach to the required evidence was made,’ I admitted. ‘The landlord, on a night which he was able to fix as that of December 20th, had served a woman, whom he believed to be Esther Pay, with some whiskey, and a child, whom, when shown a photograph, he said he believed to be Georgina Moore, with biscuits. But he had not thought about the matter till three months later, when a police serjeant had asked him whether he remembered a woman and child coming to his house; and though he said in Court yesterday that he believed the prisoner before him was the woman, he maintained that it was plainly a possibility, at this distance of time, that he might be mistaken. And further than that I cannot push him, Watson, lest in attempting to avoid a perversion of the course of justice, I pervert it myself by over-persuading a witness. I am sorry, old boy, you must be content to own me fallible. Am I much diminished in your eyes, my dear fellow? I shall regret it bitterly if I am.’

‘Never, no, never,’ he assured me. ‘How can you think it, Holmes? I am sure if anything more could have been done to assure the woman’s rightful punishment for this crime – you are quite certain, are you not, that she committed it? – you would have done it. And of course, once the child was at the river bank, in that lonely and desolate place where they found her body, there would be no-one to hear her cries.’

‘There was someone who heard a cry by the riverbank,’ I told him. ‘But the irony of that, in a case where ‘a woman’ has been seen at all places with this little girl, is that on this occasion, the person who heard what was surely her last cry, saw nothing. Nothing at all. It was growing dark, and he - a labourer living in a cottage about two hundred yards from the spot where the body was found - got up and went outside, to make out where the cry came from. But he saw nothing, and yesterday he continued to repeat on oath that he was not quite sure whether he had heard it on the night of the 20th, or on some later night. So you see, our last hope of securing an identification is gone. Only darkness and the river know what happened next. Why, Watson, my dear Watson, how you shiver! What is it? I shall tell you no more stories if they are to upset you so. Come, will you tell me what I have said that pains you so? I have not seemed callous, have I? I know I have appeared so in the past to you: tell me, pray, according to our compact, if I have offended against humanity.’

‘Not at all,’ He shifted restlessly in his chair, rose, and moved to the window. He would often stand thus with his back to me when he wished to speak of things that moved him deeply: it was as if he could not bear me to see him, as he thought, soft, or mawkish or sentimental.

‘I have been wrong, Holmes, to say, even to imply, that you are a callous man. This last few months with the Lamson case have taught me that, and no, you have not offended. I know that despite how busy you have been, you have done your utmost in this little child’s case, and I agree, when there is so much circumstantial evidence, but no proof, it is heart-breaking. And I find it most strange, that we have solved a murder committed by means of a surreptitiously administered and thought to be untraceable poison, yet we cannot solve a murder committed by simple violence, and requiring no tests, no chemical analyses, no detailed examination, but simply proof positive of identity to confirm. I find it most strange that tomorrow Lamson will hang, yet, as you say, Esther Pay is likely to be acquitted, although as guilty as he. It makes me question the whole of our means of justice. Is it a travesty? Should he die then, and have no chance, through incarceration, and restitution, to make amends, when she is at liberty, if she chooses, to murder again? Can amends even be made for taking a life? And what of those such as I, who have killed in the service of the country? Am I a murderer too? Do I merit death myself, I, who will today visit, and medicine, and console a man condemned for one killing, when I have slain many? What hypocrisy is this? I tell you, Holmes, it makes my brain whirl. We have always, in this country, taken life for life. Is it truly the best way? The Old Testament enjoins it “ an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: so surely then, I must suffer that penalty too. And what of the more merciful law that followed? What of that?’

I sprang up to join him at the window, for this was dangerous territory, quicksand, and he was sinking. I knew his nightmares still bedevilled him: he would not be the only soldier who was so haunted by his past that he laid violent hands upon himself in despair at what he had done. I had to help him see that he was no Lamson or Pay.

‘If, as you say, Watson, it is wrong to take a life, even when under orders and fighting for your country, then you must consider what you do now,’ I told him, desperately trying to construct some argument that would lighten his burden. ‘You say that perhaps it is wrong to take life for life: the death penalty is harsh, and should, perhaps be re-considered, although for myself, I cannot see what else might deter the assassin. There are crimes committed in inadvertence, it is true, or in an excess of ungovernable passion, or even from desperation, when some poor long-abused cur turns and savages the hand that hurts them: for those perhaps some lesser penalty, some chance for making amends could be offered. But there are murders deeply thought out, Watson, plotted long, committed with the utmost cruelty by men – aye, and women - remorseless and vicious. For these, I will still maintain that life should be forfeited. But if you believe in a lesser penalty, in restitution, and recompense, in making amends or in forfeiture of goods as in the olden days, when wergild was paid, then let that be your own solace. You have killed in the service of your country, yes, and under orders. But you have paid a heavy price, my friend, and you pay it every day. You have paid in pain, and illness, in poverty, and loss of career. And you do make amends. You make amends every day, my dear fellow, when you heal and help those who are helpless. Let that be your restitution, and I pray, let it be your solace also.’

I did not dare to touch him again, but I stood close to him, and for a moment he leaned his shoulder against mine. I wanted to turn, and hold him to me, to embrace him, draw his head to my shoulder, caress it, and give it rest, but I knew I must not. He sighed, next to me, his arm touching mine.

‘You always have an answer, Holmes. I am grateful for it, and that you think to console me, rather than accuse me of being unmanly, or a coward. I am not convinced, but I take it kindly of you. There are no easy answers to this dilemma.’

‘It is not unmanly to feel or to reflect on your actions,’ I told him. ‘It is not unmanly to be tender hearted, or to think that you have done wrong, or to question. It is gentle-hearted of you. The truest, bravest knight of all was Galahad, and he was gentle.’

He laughed then, ‘Why, Holmes, that is almost poetic. I would not have thought it of you, but I am grateful, though I am no Galahad. But it is more than that, at least today, and with this case. It is that I cannot tolerate unkindness, or cruelty to children. It moves me deeply, again, perhaps in a way that makes me – less of a man. Forgive me, I beg you, for my foolishness. I was – well, my childhood was not – well, anyway, I have not forgotten what it is to be small, and hurt, and - ’ He stopped then, turned away, and I let him go, not wanting to shame him by appearing to notice the roughness in his voice. ‘In any case, I must go. I have much to do. Where shall we dine, Holmes? And what time do you wish to go to the baths?’

‘I shall be taking luncheon with Lestrade: and in court all afternoon: we should go at six. I could ask Mrs Hudson to provide a cold collation here for afterwards, with perhaps some soup to reheat. Will that suit you?’

‘Providing we do not heat anything in your flasks,’ He smiled at me, although his eyes were sombre. ‘I have no desire to court poisoning. Until later then.’

He was gone shortly after, and I summoned Mrs Hudson to discuss our commissariat. ‘Doctor Watson is in pain, and so he is rather low today: I would like to have something to tempt his appetite. What can we offer him, Mrs Hudson? What can you and I do to cheer him a little, other than the Turkish baths?’

‘He broods too much on these murders of yours, Mr Holmes.’ She bustled around, moving papers, straightening the worn old afghan on the sofa. ‘Dear me, this is very shabby. It is time it was replaced. He craves the excitement of his army life, but it is not altogether wholesome for him, if you ask my opinion. And working in that hospital, seeing the cases he does, day after day, it does not surprise me that he feels it. I shall make him one of those venison pasties he particularly likes, and some other dainties, but what he needs is some pleasant excursion in prospect, or some cheerful event to attend. And if you are to be out today, Mr Holmes, I shall tidy and clean in here. It is enough to make anybody feel low, the disorder you have it in. Begone with you, Sir, and leave it to Janey and me to make it more comfortable.’

‘I consider myself duly rebuked,’ I replied, unable to repress a smile. Her fondness for us touched me more than I liked to admit. ‘I will instantly relieve you of my unwelcome presence, and no doubt return to find you have worked miracles both culinary and domestic to improve our dear doctor’s spirits.’

‘Get along with you, then,’ she said, sweeping her hand along the mantelpiece, and tutting at the layer of ash, ‘Really, the pair of you are worse than my own two boys that were, and my husband into the bargain.’

But she was laughing as she spoke, and I did not feel very much scolded.

*****

Watson’s eyes were still shadowed when I met him at the Northumberland Avenue baths later. In answer to my questions, as we left our boots in the boot room, he told me that Lamson was not in a good way. ‘He wavers between penitence and railing against his fate: I do not know how he will go on tomorrow morning, when it comes to the last hour. His spirit is failing him, I am afraid, as that hour draws near.

‘But you will not go,’ I asked him, as we stripped to our drawers in the changing room. ‘Pray, Watson, do say that you will not go. I do not like to think of you there.’

‘I will not,’ he assured me, arranging his shirt back over his maimed shoulder. He was self-conscious about it, clearly. ‘It is to be private. And I would not be welcome to his family anyway, being one of those involved in bringing him to justice. No, I shall not be there, you need not worry.’

The attendants came then, with a peshtemal for each of us and towels, and modestly draped we proceeded through the drying room. A glance upwards showed me that the secluded corner I favoured on the upper gallery was free, and a word and a promise in my attendant’s ear ensured that it would remain so until we came to it. We sat for a while in the coolest of the warm rooms, then moved to the hottest of the three. Watson relaxed even as I watched him, the heat easing his pain. At one point he unwrapped his peshtemal, placed it under him, and lay prone. His face was on his folded arms, turned away from me, and shameless, I allowed my eyes to linger on the musculature of his back, charting the difference between uninjured and wounded shoulder. From there it was a short distance to the long track of his naked spine, each vertebra a little too prominent, and the sweet, smooth curves of flank and buttock. The dip where his gluteus maximums and gluteus medius attached to the tensor fasciae was in itself a thing of beauty.

‘Holmes,’ he reproved me, sleepily, and I jumped and bit my tongue. ‘I can feel you staring at my scar. I beg you will desist; it is ugly, and I am not proud of it.’

It was not his scar I was staring at, but the crease where buttock met thigh, lightly downed with hair, slicked with sweat. Dear heaven, I could smell him, salt and animal musk. ‘I’m sorry.’ I was not sorry. ‘They butchered you, Watson: what shocking doctors you had. I swear there is a part of your infraspinatus actually missing. And your scapula has healed incorrectly: it is misplaced.’

He groaned, and sat up, flicking the peshtemal to cover himself, although not before I had caught a glimpse of his member, all flushed with the heat. ‘Accurate but unsystematic was wrong. I dare say you could name systematically every muscle in the body, Holmes. And every bone too. Yes, there is. And yes, the scapula has healed crookedly. I was the best surgeon out there, although I say it myself, but I could not put myself back together of course. Is it hot enough for you in here? Have you sweated enough? I am eager to get to the massage, and be free of the pain. I shall ask them to deal with this leg, as well, and perhaps then I shall move more easily for a few days. This was a capital idea, old fellow, and now we can afford it, you are right to suggest we make it a regular occurrence. Are you ready?’

We moved to the shampooing room, and lay on the gobektasi for the keselenmek; the massage treatment. I turned to face him. His cheek was pillowed on one arm, his eyes closed, as the tellak lathered him with the kese and black soap. From where he was lying, I could see the scarring on his back, and my fingers itched to touch it, to learn its contours.

‘It is not ugly,’ I told him. ‘It is a mark of your courage, so own it as such. Be proud: it is a badge of valour and of your duty well done.’

A smile curved his lips, ‘ “Then will he strip his sleeve, and show his scars, and say ‘these wounds I had on Crispin’s day’ ” Oh Holmes, you are the most consummate romantic. There was nothing valiant about my service, it was a thing of hard duty and slogging endurance. And shamefully short, into the bargain. Ahhhh . . .’ He moaned, long and guttural as the tellak scrubbed the back of his wounded thigh, ‘Dikkatli ol! Bu acıttı!’ and when the man questioned him in a long, involved roulade of liquid Turkish, laughed and shook his head. ‘Biraz konuşuyorum. Ben bir ordu doktoruyum. Yaralanan askerlere önem veriyorum. No, I don’t understand all of that, Hayır, hayır – no, no more.’ And to me, ‘I must have learned those phrases in a dozen languages when I was at Netley. “I am a doctor, I care for hurt soldiers.” There were places it stood me in good stead on the way to Kandahar, but it did me no good at Maiwand, alas. My enemy shot from a vantage point without caring that I was engaged in a work of mercy. The poor chap I was doctoring bled to death under me, and I bled near to death on him, and that was the end of both our careers. An ignominious end, do you not think so? Ye Gods, this is good!’ He moaned again, a long, unashamed sound of relief, sensual, innocent.

I was not innocent. My tellak motioned to me to turn onto my back, and I shook my head. Not only was I not innocent, I was not unaroused. The mere sight of him, the sounds he was making - involuntary, sotto-voce mewls as muscles relaxed under the scrubbing, an almost purr as his feet were lathered – I wanted it to be me taking him apart, my fingers teasing pleasure from every nerve, caressing him until he moaned. But I could not. I could not even think it without shame. I recited Mendeleev’s new periodic table of the elements, willed myself into quiescence. My body was accustomed to obeying me: fiercely, I compelled it to yield before I lay on my back. The diminution of my morphine dose had certainly not helped with my shameful desires, and whereas on the stronger doses of morphine I could dream, but achieve nothing, on these lesser amounts my body became uncomfortably clamorous, even, at times, insistent.

‘Holmes, are you uncomfortable? You look as if you are in pain?’

‘My left knee.’ I lied, ‘I think I must have strained a muscle.’

The deep, punishing, healing massage succeeded the shampooing, and then, rinsed, cooled and swathed in sheets, we repaired to our secluded couches on the gallery of the drying room. A nod to my attendant, and he drew the curtain, cutting our alcove off from view, but allowing the air free passage. Watson stretched on his couch, sighing, his eyelids already closing as he abandoned himself to ease.

‘If only there were some magical conjuration to transport us instantly home,’ he murmured. ‘Holmes, there is no pain. I feel as if I could sleep for a week.’

‘Sleep,’ I told him, ‘If you wish to. There is nothing we must do, and you need the rest, for you have slept ill these past few nights.’

‘I cannot.’ He dragged his eyes open. ‘Not in a public place.’

’We are quite private here, and I will stand watch for you. Sleep, my dear fellow, it will do you good.’ I laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Sleep, there is nothing to harm you, and I am here. I will stay by you. Close your eyes, Watson.’

He slept for two hours. Two most precious hours, when he was solely mine, his safety, his peace given into my hand, his body mine to guard and cherish. I marked his every dream as it crossed his face, the flicker of his eyes beneath closed eyelids, his involuntary movements and murmurs. When he sank deep, no longer dreaming, I dared to smooth his hair from his forehead with a brief, light touch, then to rest my hand - not on his person, for I would not go so far - but on the hem of his sheet as it lay across the arm of the couch.

Our attendant looked in at one point. He asked in the lowest of tones if I required tea, and I indicated yes, in an hour. He smiled, and went away, giving me a sympathetic glance as he did so – a glance which told me that for once, I, to whom all needs and longings were transparent, was, in my own need, my own heart’s longing, transparent to this simple servitor. As to refreshment, I needed nothing: my thirst was assuaged by every sip of him I took. I bent close: his breath fanned my cheek. A fine dew pearled at his brow: I longed to press reverent lips to it. He shifted, and the displaced linen released air warmed by his body: I passed my hand over the cloth as if to caress. I was in a fever, a delirium, yet so ruthlessly had I suppressed my desire, so much did I hate the thought of desecrating, by one unchaste thought, one hint of pollution, the trust he had placed in me as he lay there abandoned to sleep in my care, that my flesh lay innocent now, and unstirred. It was my heart that swelled, my mind that whirled and dazzled, my thoughts which turned in my brain with exquisite intensity. I was transported: no drug had ever matched this ecstasy . . .

‘You look a little pale,’ he said to me, later, as we partook of Mrs Hudson’s excellent venison pasties, devilled kidneys kept hot in a chafing dish, and sherried mushroom soup. ‘Take another glass of claret, Holmes, and for goodness’ sake eat a little more. You wear yourself out with brainwork, and then do not nourish the body your brain feeds on. Here.’ He ladled more soup into my plate. ‘At least eat this, if you will not have one of these delicious pasties.’

‘You took the one I wanted,’ I grumbled, just to tease him, ‘The littlest one, that was least well done. You know I cannot stomach over-cooked pastry, or too much of it.’

He sighed, rolled his eyes, and reached for my knife. ‘Here, give me that.’ He cut off the corner he had just bitten into, and handed me the rest. ‘You wanted it: now eat it.’

I could do naught save comply. But he smiled very kindly at me as I did so.

*****

Lamson was executed; Esther Pay acquitted. In early May came the Phoenix Park murders, and Watson and I (at my brother’s request, although I did not mention this to Watson) travelled quietly to Ireland, to assist with the regrettably rather simple investigation there. Afterwards, most uncharacteristically, Watson became roaring drunk in a low tavern in Dublin, so I hauled him back to our hotel with his arm over my shoulder, and held his head all night while he wept and railed against life’s cruelty. In the morning he was shamefaced and sad, and so the following night I provoked a fight in a tavern even lower, and allowed my opponent to land a punch on me before knocking him out cold. Watson scolded me fiercely all the way back to the hotel before salving my bruised cheekbone and split lip, but at least his self respect was restored.

We took ourselves off to Galway on a repairing lease after that, out of the way of city temptations. Over a fortnight, we rode, and fished – unsuccessfully, alas - and we walked for miles while he instructed me with learned enthusiasm on the peculiar flora of the Burren. In the evenings, we returned to our humble cottage and ate a peasant’s meal of roasted potatoes, cabbage, bacon, butter and milk, washed down with the excellent whiskey of the country. Other than Watson’s company, there were no delights to this rural location which did not soon pall on me: there were no more murders, no scheming Fenians to baffle, and had it not been for the pleasure of watching him, I would have been bored out of my wits. But Mrs Hudson had recommended a pleasant excursion, or some cheerful event, and I was doing my best to comply with her instructions. It certainly seemed to improve his mood: the exercise and fresh air suited him, and although it rained rather copiously on our bucolic pleasures, there were enough sunny days for him to return to London with a healthier glow than he had had since I had known him.

June and July saw Watson back at Barts, working hard, and with renewed energy for his London waifs and strays, while I idled away my time with a series of run-of-the-mill cases for Lestrade and Gregson, whose rivalry, it had to be said, had reached the point where, like a pair of professional beauties, they came nigh to stabbing or poisoning each other. It amused me to play them off against each other, although I had to be careful in so doing, since I needed the cases they provided. My own personal clientele was not yet paying me enough for me to dispense with the Yard’s patronage. We were doing well, Watson and I, but not quite well enough, and although I could see, as August brazened the dusty air and curled the horse chestnut leaves with prematurely autumnal tints, that he yearned for the glades of the New Forest, or the shingle of some breezy beach, I was obliged to veto any further holidays lest we deplete our bank accounts too gravely. The singular affair of the two ears packed in a cardboard box came just in time to save us both from terminal ennui, and although it was a sad business, as such love-caused murders often are, it replenished our funds, and sent us into the autumn in fair financial weather.

Afterwards, though, it was I who flagged. My trouble was simple: the diminution, the almost complete deprivation of my morphia dose. It had reached a point where I could sleep without it, but at the price of vivid, detailed erotic dreams, leading inevitably to nocturnal pollution. I found also that, as if punishing me for the long years I had denied it, my too-responsive member, no longer restrained by morphia, would tempt me too frequently to desire manual stimulation and release. I did not give in to it, for I knew that medical professionals inveighed against the practice of onanism as extremely deleterious to health. I had been well schooled in the appalling effects of self-abuse, and as I valued my mind more than anything else, I refused to indulge. I had no wish to become one of those mentally enfeebled, pallid specimens whose sad addiction is plain to all.

In September I had therefore purchased, and constrained myself to wear, appropriate devices to tame my beast, both by day and by night. But they chafed and stung, and hurt me all the time, a veritable hair shirt of penitence; the night one being by far the worst. The pain made me, I confess, irritable and morose, and I replied snappishly to Watson’s kind enquiries, so that for a while he drew back, offended, and no longer bothered to ask me. Then I felt sorry for myself, and, I regret to say, sulked and growled even more, so that a perceptible coolness grew between us even as the year cooled. I could see that he was not happy, and steeled myself for the day I felt would inevitably come, when he no longer wished to share a room with such an unpleasant fellow, and would announce his intention to seek other quarters.

I was in this very low state, sore, and desperate and miserable, when he came to me one mid-November morning an hour or so after breakfast with a very serious mien, and that relentlessly gentle air he had when he was, as a doctor, most concerned for his patient. One look was enough to tell me that he meant to have it out with me, and internally I trembled, for I fully believed he would leave me, and I could not trust myself not to fall at his feet and plead my love for him, to my certain undoing.

‘What is it you want, Watson?’ I growled at him, in a vain attempt to drive him from me. ‘I am busy this morning: I don’t have time for idle talk. Do, for heaven’s sake, go away and leave me alone.

‘Nor do I,’ he replied, equably enough. ‘But it is not idle talk I want with you, Holmes. I wish for a serious discussion with you, man to man, and try as you might, and I know you will, to chase me away or deflect me, I shall not yield to you. And to that end, I have telegraphed both Lestrade and Gregson to say that you are not well, and I have sent Mrs Hudson and Janey out to buy Janey a new dress length, and Mrs Hudson a new tea-kettle. And glad they were to get some respite, my friend, for you have been a very bear to all of us these last two months, and I am determined to understand your trouble and remedy it, so we can go back to living at our ease again. Now, will you tell me freely what ails you, my dear man? I am still your friend, you know, for all that you have tried to drive me away with surly answers and evil looks. Come, Holmes, will you confide in me of your own accord? I think of you as a very dear brother, and good brothers care for each other.’

‘How dare you be so officious as to press me?’ I snapped at him, my mind in turmoil. I had to make him go; I could not let him know my shameful secret. ‘What right have you to go behind my back and do these things? Will you bring in other doctors next, to have me declared not in my right mind? To confine me?’

‘I shall tell no-one of our discussions today, Holmes,’ he replied, still with that air of imperturbable gravity. ‘They are private to you and to me, and so they will always remain. And no, of course I will not have you declared insane: that is a ridiculous suggestion, so do not dare to insult me so. You know that I take my duty as a physician very seriously: indeed it is that duty that compels me,’ and here he swallowed, and his eyes gleamed with a suspicious moisture, ‘that compels me to speak to you today even if afterwards you do reject my service, or my friendship. I would not be doing my duty if I did not speak. So let me ask you again, my dear friend, will you tell me of your own accord, what it is that ails you?’

‘Why do you suppose there is anything that ails me?’ I replied, deliberately making my voice as hard, as uncompromising as I could. ‘Perhaps it is you who are at fault: do you think it is always easy for me to live with a man of such mediocre intelligence and poor standing in the world? Perhaps it is that I am tired of living with you, of bearing with, of tolerating your ordinary and pedestrian nature. I am an intelligent man: perhaps I grow weary of living with a dullard.’

I had hurt him. I could see that I had hurt him, and my own heart bled for him, even as I sharpened further words with which to pierce his.

‘It has not been easy this last year and a half,’ I mused, affecting an air of cruel unconcern, ‘living with a cripple, a man who can follow me neither physically nor intellectually. So yes, it must be you. You are what ails me, Watson, and I thank you for making it clear for me. It only remains now for you to leave me, as I am sure you must wish to do. As you must see is the best for both of us.’ And I rose, pushed my chair back and flung away from him, as though I could no longer bear his presence.

‘Stop, Holmes!’ It was his captain’s voice, and I did, indeed, stop in my tracks. ‘Enough of this.’ He moved deliberately round to face me again. ‘Insult me all you choose: you cannot prevent me from doing my duty, more, from acting on that affection for you I do most certainly feel, and will not cease to feel, though you say you feel none for me. Let there be no more railing at me. I tell you again, I know that you are unwell, and in pain.’

His voice softened. ‘Will you, my dear Holmes, tell me what ails you? Will you trust me, both as a doctor and a friend, to counsel and heal and console you? Holmes,’ and now he was pleading, ‘My friend, I am so very sorry to force your confidence – so deeply, deeply sorry to do it, but pray, my dear, do not carry this charade any further. Pray do tell me.’

I could barely stand by this point. The night had been bad, and I had woken to blood on the sheets, and renewed pain, which made it impossible to walk or sit with comfort. The night device – which I had torn from me in a frenzy of disgust and shame - once removed, and the daytime one forced on my shivering flesh, I was near mad with it. And after I had ripped up at him like a Billingsgate fishwife, I was trembling so much, both with grief for my hard words to him – oh, they might have hurt him, but to throw them at him had hurt me intolerably, bitten deep into my very soul – and with shame for myself. He could not, I knew, have divined my true torment, but whatever he thought my difficulty was, I could never tell him the truth. He saw my shaking, took my arm – so gentle, his touch, so gentle – and led me to a chair, into which I dropped, cowering, my hands covering my face. I could do no more, torn as I was with pain and sorrow.

‘I cannot,’ I gasped, hating the sound of my own broken voice. ‘I cannot, Watson, I beg you, don’t ask me. Leave me: I can tell you nothing.

He knelt in front of me, his hands on the arms of my chair as if to embrace me, looking up into my face with those dark-blue eyes.

‘Cannot you so, my dear? Then I must tell you myself, it seems. You see, I have a very dear friend with whom I live, and who is a brother to me in all but name, and we go on more than tolerably together, having a good deal of fun, to tell the truth, such as I have not had since I was a boy, and perhaps not even as a boy – give me your wrist, Holmes: I wish to check your pulse. There, that is calming a little now.’

He touched my hand, caressing it with his thumb. ‘And my friend is, rather regrettably, addicted to morphia, and has bravely – so very bravely, Holmes - battled his addiction until he has almost overcome it. And by and large, my dear fellow, because his doctor has diminished his dose by little and little, he has mostly avoided those very distressing effects of withdrawal of which you know, and of which I know, and have warned him. But there is one effect of ceasing to take morphia about which – your wrist again, Holmes – thanks, my dear fellow, that is even better now – his doctor, who is as you say, the dullest of dullards that ever walked this earth, did not think to warn him.’

He paused, and passed his hand over his eyes. ‘Oh, this is difficult to say to you. I have so wished not to trespass on your intimate matters, to force your confidence, but I must, I must say something. And that is, that while under the influence of morphia a man may, as it were, desire all but achieve nothing, he is, when the system is unsullied by the drug, capable of both desire and the act . . . and when that very stupid doctor,’ and as I dared to look at him, I saw that his eyes were bright with tears, ‘that very stupid doctor, who has wondered for some months now why his friend, who should by this time be going on so much better without the drug, is not better, is in fact worse: worse tempered and more irritable, when he finds an object of torture such as this lying where he sees it by pure chance,’ and he dipped his hand into his pocket and brought out my night-time device, showing it to me on his palm, ‘it is not difficult for that doctor to deduce, dullard though he be, what has happened to his friend, or why his friend is in so much pain.’

His eyes met mine. I cursed my stupidity for not looking where I had flung the device. It must have rolled out of my door, to some shadowed corner where he had found it.

‘Watson,’ I whispered, for he was looking at me with so much sorrow, and there was no point in me hiding now, none at all, when all was discovered, and my ignominious weakness exposed, ‘Watson, I must. I must wear them. Watson, you know how I value my mind. I do, I am sorry. I have tried to be above it all, but I do feel. I am – I am a human male: I cannot choose but feel, or react. But I cannot act on it. You are a doctor, you know what giving in to – to the impulse. You know what it leads to: the degradation, the loss of vital force, of intellect. I cannot lose my intellect, Watson. Without it I am nothing. You are a doctor: you know.’

‘Yes, I am a doctor,’ he said ‘And what I know, I know. Do you trust me, Holmes?’

‘Always,’ But I could not trust my voice. ‘You know I do.’

‘Then at once into your bedroom with you, remove the device you wear now – you are wearing one, are you not? – and go to your dressing table. I have left warm water there. I wish you to wash yourself with great care, taking note of any open lesions, and use the linen I have left you to pat yourself dry. Gently, Holmes. On any open sore, you will put the unction I have given you, and you will dust yourself with the basilicum powder. Put on loose cotton drawers, and your shirt and dressing gown - or a nightshirt and dressing gown if you prefer - and return to me. Bring me the device, and do not on any account wipe it. I will not at this moment force you to the indignity of a personal examination, but I must see if you have bled, and deduce where. You have been immeasurably foolish to subject yourself to this torment, and all to no avail, as I shall presently explain to you, but I have been worse than foolish. I have been criminally negligent, not to address this issue with you, but you see, I feared to embarrass you– it is not for nothing, doctors are discouraged from treating their nearest and dearest – and so I said nothing, where with a stranger I might have been more frank, knowing he could choose not to face me again. And for that, I shall not soon forgive myself. Now, my friend, can you do as I have asked?’

I nodded, for I could not speak.

‘Are you sure? Can I help you stand, Holmes? There, that is it. Go gently, and make all right, my dear fellow, and call me if you have need. There is nothing to be afraid of, you will not lose your mind. You have been sadly misinformed, as have so many other young men, but I shall explain to you that there is nothing to fear.’

All the time he spoke, he was supporting me, his arm around my shoulders, as I limped, not trying to hide now, into my room. Once the door was shut behind me, I made haste to strip myself, and unlock the metal sheath that confined me, releasing flesh rubbed raw and bruised. The device I wore during the day had no spikes, as did my night-time torment, but it was unyielding. I could confess now to myself that the constant edge of pain had materially impaired my temper and my ability to function, but I had seen no option but to persist until I had brought myself into subjugation. What Watson was talking of – that I had been misinformed – I had no idea: all my teaching had been that the act of self abuse led to mental impairment and an early grave. But he had asked me if I trusted him, and I did, so I obeyed.

Slowly, I cleansed and anointed myself, dressing in my nightshirt, drawers and gown. I felt ridiculously tired, drained as if I had been ill for weeks. If Mrs Hudson and the girl were indeed out, if there were to be no interruptions, I might perhaps sleep. Rest had been – elusive - of late, while I battled my demons.

Watson tapped at the door. ‘Holmes, my dear fellow, are you decent? May I enter? I know it is early in the day, but I have brought you a little brandy, just to steady your nerves. Will you have it here, or come and sit on the sofa?’

‘On the sofa,’ I told him. ‘I have done as you bade me, Watson, but I am so stupidly fatigued. I feel as if I could sleep for a day. For a week.’

‘It is no wonder.’ He took my hand, as if I had been a child, led me to the sofa, and made me lie down on it, covering me with a blanket once I was reclining. ‘Here, sip your brandy. Now, Holmes, my dear fellow, I shall sit here, on the floor, with my back to you, so you can listen to me, but I shall not embarrass you by looking at you, and we shall just have this out very plainly and simply. Whatever you appear to have been told about that act commonly designated as self-abuse is incorrect. It is a natural thing, as men mature, for the male member to become aroused at times, and natural for it to wish to spend itself in release. In the marital relationship, of course, there is mutual agreement between husband and wife, and there is, or there should be, pleasure for both from the desire and the action, which need not, if the couple does not wish it, lead to procreation. Malthus, you know, was quite clear that indeed it should not always lead to procreation, lest the earth be overrun with humanity. We should read him together,’ he added as an aside, ‘I believe you would be interested.’

‘Of – of course. A-Anything you wish me to, I will of course, but, but - ’

‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘There are many men who are not married, and who cannot seek release with a partner, and who will not use the services of such women as sell release. And for such men, when there is desire that is not relieved by that nocturnal emission of seed which all of us, even you, Holmes, naturally experience, then in that case, to deal with the matter oneself by – by simple manipulation is infinitely the best thing. First and foremost, it is clean, incurring no risk of disease. Then it is honest and pure, for it involves no other person bought and sold, and it is, very importantly, safe, for it gets no woman pregnant, to her ruin. It is, in truth, the best and most practical way of taking care of the situation when as it does in the natural way of things, it occurs – I will not say arises, lest you suspect me of a pun.’

‘But I was taught . . .’ I protested. He was turning everything I had been taught on its head: I could not reconcile what he was saying with my understanding.

He snorted – positively snorted - with disgust. ‘Taught! Of course you were taught! And by whom were you taught, Holmes? By ignorant nannies, parroting what they did not understand, ‘it is a sin for little boys to touch themselves’? By pedantic schoolmasters, sour with joyless Christianity? Such men are eager to channel the energy of youth into their own purposes, Holmes, the purposes of Empire, and glory, which they do for the most part by damming its flow in the direction of satisfying physical needs, that they may divert it more forcefully elsewhere, into hate against our enemies. By doctors, peddling the same outworn creed, telling bogeyman tales to frighten children into obedience?‘

I would have spoken, but, ‘and damned, dangerous, inaccurate tales into the bargain,’ he went on, and I saw him raise his hand to tug at his moustache, a habit of his when most moved, ‘for this so-called sin of Onan that they so deprecate was without a doubt coitus interruptus since his desire was not to impregnate his brother’s wife: why, if it was simply self-abuse he wished to avoid, was he having to do with his brother’s wife at all, I ask you? It was the act incomplete, and thus in the eyes of the priest and Levite, tarnished, that was deprecated, not the mere spilling of seed, which incurred in their laws only a temporary loss of cleanliness.’

‘I do not know,’ I replied, and I truly did not: I had accepted this, as I had accepted my own inversion, as a burden I was condemned to carry. ‘I do not know, not now, not when you say it like that. But, but aside from Onan, what of the, what of the physical effects? Is it not true then, Watson, that the, the, expenditure of, of s-seminal f-fluid, is deleterious to health? What of the effects of r-repeated emission on sanity, on the capacity for physical and m-mental exertion?’

He heaved a huge sigh, and turned to face me, taking the hand I had stretched out to him between both of his. ‘Holmes, old Bach, whose complex and difficult music you play for me so very beautifully, sired twenty children. At very least he must have approached his wives twenty times, then, if not many more, given that it is not always the first act of coitus that leads inevitably to fecundation. Would you say that he lacked mental capacity? That he lacked genius? Da Vinci, that great artist and inventor, was a passionate lover of boys: did his inspiration flag? And there are many more examples I could offer you. As for physical strength? My friend, if the act of self-pleasure, for I will not call it abuse, led to an enfeebled physical state then England would be in peril indeed. For I do not know a soldier who does not, when the need is upon him, take care of himself. And you do not see platoons of etiolated degenerates marching into battle to defend our Empire, do you? Our soldiers are, once taken into the army, and well fed, as hale and hearty a set of lads as you will find and it is not, NOT, my dear fellow, because they torture themselves with serrated metal and cruel spikes and deny themselves what innocent – yes, innocent, for they harm no-one, Holmes, so you need not look so disbelieving at me with those anguished eyes, my dear friend – innocent pleasures they can find.’

He released my hand, and turned away, shaking his head.

‘So there is nothing wrong w-with, with the act of self pleasure?’ I asked. ‘You do not believe so, at any rate, Watson? And, and are there other doctors who agree with you? Others who do not believe what I have always been told?’

‘There are. We are a small voice of reason, fighting, it has to be said, not just male but female physicians who take a more repressive stance. But I firmly believe we will increase in number, those of us who believe in a sensible attitude to these problems, and to reproductive issues, and the treatment of women. If you like, I shall introduce you to some of my colleagues who feel similarly to me. Dr Moore Agar, perhaps, might serve your turn, or you might find Dr Burns-Gibson sympathetic.’

He rose to his feet and walked to the window. ‘Holmes, my dear man, would you like me to stay with you now, or shall I leave you alone for a while? I know for someone as innocent, as pure minded as you, discovering this, this aspect of yourself must have been terribly difficult, especially believing as you did. I am not surprised you have been bad tempered, and all out of sorts. What can I do best now to assist you?’

‘I don’t know. I am so – I don’t know what to do,’ I admitted. I felt desperately weary, but there was yet one thing I had to say to him. ‘Watson – I – I spoke most cruelly to you, most harshly in my anger. Will you forgive me, and still be my friend? I – I do truly value you, and our friendship. I did not mean those unkind words I spoke to you, and they were none of them true, not one. Can you forgive me?’

‘Of course, let us say no more about it. It was entirely understandable, and to be honest, I could see that you did not mean it, but were giving way to the prompting of some inner demon driving you, as you have been doing these last months.’ He returned to my side and stood looking down at me. ‘Holmes, for the rest of the day, I shall treat you as my patient. You are clean, now, and comfortable. Return to your bed, stay there and rest, and when Mrs Hudson returns, I will tell her you have a slight fever, and must cosset yourself today on my orders. We will eat when you wake, and I shall read my latest story to you, that you may have the fun of criticising it. And I shall make an arrangement for you to see Moore Agar, I think. You should, nay, you must, be properly examined lest you have done yourself permanent damage, and it will be less embarrassing for both of us if it is done by a physician who is not your friend, to whom you may speak freely, without having to encounter him over the breakfast table in the remembrance of those too personal thoughts you have shared. Meanwhile you will give me your word that you will not use your devices, and that you will endeavour to think more kindly of your body’s wants and needs. It is not just the vehicle which carries that great brain of yours around: it is wedded inextricably to brain and heart both, and you cannot divorce them without doing damage.’

I acquiesced. He assisted me to stand, and guided me to my room, his arm around me. I told him on the way that I knew he was right, that while I had been battling my rebel flesh, I had had not owned my former acuity of mind, nor yet my tempered reason, and he buffeted me gently on the shoulder, telling me it was a good thing that he had enough common sense for the pair of us. I believe he was still tucking me in like a child, or like the younger brother he called me, when I fell asleep.

*****

Watson always had a kindly, genial way of making things easy. After our intimate discussion – dear Heaven, how painfully, excruciatingly intimate it had been, and how I had blushed and sweated and stammered my way through it – I had thought to feel more sense of gêne than I did, but there was none. He summoned Dr Moore Agar, who on examining me pronounced that I had done no permanent nerve damage, but had foolishly caused several deep sores that would take a while to heal, also that I was thoroughly overstrained, undernourished and exhausted.

On Agar’s recommendation, and with Watson’s approval, I kept my bed for a week, cared for like some Eastern pasha, swathed in an afghan against the chill that crept in through the windows, and taking the short days and long evenings at my ease. Mrs Hudson cosseted me with nourishing soup, and Watson read to me and played chess. My mind was light and free, and my torments, for a while, in abeyance: I felt no desire, for I was too weary and, somehow, too relieved. It suited me to stay curled up against my pillows, to watch the firelight on Watson’s hair as he read me some fantastic tale or other, and to laugh with him over cartoons in Punch, or the Spectator’s acerbic commentary. It was a halcyon time, an oasis in the drear desert that was my hopeless longing for a man whom I thought would never long for me. But he loved me though, loved me with the true, enduring love of comrade and brother, and though I knew, somehow, that he could not ever make me his all, I was yet content to make him mine.

I felt well again after that week of ease, and was eager to be up and doing. The Married Woman’s Property Act had received its royal assent in the August, and would be enforced from the January soon to come. Lestrade, who had a notorious soft spot for women in difficulty, especially if they had children, put many cases related to its provisions in prospect for me, to be actioned when the time came. I knew I would be busy, and in work where Watson could join me in my crusade.

So we wore out the year preparing for that work, and then it was Christmas again, the second of our fraternity. I bought Watson a very handsome pocket pistol from Paris: a pretty, deadly thing, with gold-washed fancy-work, and an ebony butt. He gave me the newly published sheet music for Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy Suite, and a dressing gown. My mouse-coloured cashmere was shabby and torn, splotched with dye and stained with chemicals. He offered me its exact like, telling me that I should keep it to change into when clients arrived, and save the old one for experiments, and I smiled to think that my correct and proper doctor had been so far lured from les convenances as to take my seeing our clients in informal attire in his stride.

We celebrated in style with the children – all of them for I had expanded my little force of Irregulars, as the money flowed in more regularly; and we sent Mrs Hudson, Janey, and her siblings to the circus for a treat. We did not omit our afternoon Christmas walk with Watson’s pocketful of shillings, either, although this time we took poor Lestrade with us. His wife, the sorry shrew, had sent him packing on the very afternoon of the feast, for having had one sherry too many, and protesting his servitude. He came to us as he had nowhere else to go, unfortunate man that he was, and spent the night on our sofa, until she came round on Boxing Day morning, making a doleful noise, accusing him of rank desertion, and eventually dragging him off by his coat sleeve as she rained execrations on both Watson, and Mrs Hudson. To me she did not speak: I was clearly beneath contempt.

The New Year entered quietly, without fanfare. I had not forgotten what Watson had told me about the needs of a man; moreover, at his urging, I had spoken to other doctors. So when there was that need, and I could not ignore or suppress it by exercise of will, I learned gradually to deal with it in the most expedient fashion. It was a purely mechanical exercise on the rare occasion I utilised it for relief, and sometimes a damned tedious one at that, for I never could think of what to think about to achieve my result speedily. I could not demean Watson, of course, by making him the object of my fantasy. My reveries of him remained in my mind, surfacing now and again in dreams not of lust or stark need but of a diffuse and exquisite sensuality, a luxuriance of repeated caresses, love words whispered in the dark, the prayerful reverence of worship, for I loved him with a love that was close to idolatry. There was a difference between love and lust to my mind, and although I had become convinced that there was no sin in servicing my body, to profane my love for him with feelings and thoughts unsought, unwanted, even unguessed at – that, I could not do. That, to me, would have been sin indeed.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face: Part 6

Umballa, residence of Colonel Creighton of the Ethnographical Survey.

Brother Mycroft,

I am encoding this letter with our own private code, that it may be the more secure, and I have prevailed upon our friend in Umballa to entrust it to the diplomatic bag from Lucknow: I trust, therefore that it will not be too long before it reaches you. A reply directed to the Persian rendezvous we agreed on, will I believe, be our next best chance of communicating . . .

Holmes stops, gazing out of the window, and taps the pen on the table. As if summoned, Ram Das enters with a cup of tea, and a saucer of sticky sweetmeats, which Holmes immediately waves away.

‘Mr Creighton asks if you will be at leisure to attend him in the drawing room in twenty minutes, Sir, to discuss your onward journey,’ Ram Das says, and Holmes notices that he does not now offer the honorific ‘Sahib’ habitual to Indians under the British government, but the English usage. He sips his tea and observes: here is one who is more than a servant; an educated, trusted confidant, with a proudly discreet bearing. ‘Kshatriya caste, and a Rajasthani. Creighton tells me you were orphaned young, and taken into the service of the Ethnographic Survey. But then sent to Bilayut and - Harrow-educated, I think,’ he muses, and Ram Das laughs outright.

‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘I was fortunate that Mr Creighton offered me education and training. Sir, you are everything he has said of you.’

‘You are as a son to him,’ but the young man shakes his head, his eyes modestly cast down, and Holmes amends ‘a – a companion, then? A beloved companion,’ he adds, softly, and is overcome by a wave of misery. ‘I had one such.’

He says no more, but stares into the distance. After a while, Ram Das retreats, soft-footed, to tell Creighton that his guest will not be attending him. It is an hour before Holmes begins to write again, painstakingly encoding his letter. . .

I cannot bear to think of him poor or distressed, Mycroft. He has suffered and lost so much already, and is like to lose more. You know he left me for a wife, and I called it a selfish act, yet I am partly to blame: he would not have done so had I – but it is of no use to repine. I hoped that he might be happy at least, and achieve all he dreamed of, the respectable house, the happy marriage, the children around his feet. Oh, he has been sorely disappointed: would it were possible to remedy those ills which have afflicted him! Would it were possible to save his wife for him despite all . . .

As for that venal weasel, Anstruther, he is well enough in his way as a doctor - although in all honesty, I care little who he kills so long as Watson’s reputation – or what rags of it he has left, from what you tell me – does not suffer - but he requires a sharp eye kept upon his defalcations: pray ensure that this is done, and that he is warned against cheating Watson. If you were to tell me that he was pocketing one fee in three – or two, even - before giving over the agreed proportion of the rest, it would not surprise me much. And if Watson’s issue is lack of paying patients, could you not direct some to him? You cannot offer him financial help, but surely there must be something you can do? Why is he working only on the free wards? Speak to Lestrade, make them offer him work with the Yard: give him at least that remnant of our former life. Help him, Mycroft, help him for me, brother. He must not suffer more.

I am glad, I suppose, that he is seeing my little band, but ensure that he is closely watched, and pray, fee my children generously, as well as feeding them; give them good reason to observe him. If needs be, you must have him forcibly kept safe: you cannot know how low he has been in the past, nor what temptations to self-murder have assailed him. Would that I could return immediately, but I cannot. I cannot. Not without endangering all our plans, and that I know I must not do. What will I do if he is no more when I return? What will be left for me without him? Keep him safe for me, Mycroft, as he and I kept your Juventus for you, even in his last extremity. I am nothing without him, every breath, every moment, his absence torments me.

Pardon, dear brother: this whining, this complaint is unseemly. Let me turn now to affairs more fitting a man. You will by now have received A7’s report, and the information therein from C23. Pray pass all on to the authorities in England. There are at least five in the league against us besides the rajahs of Hilas and Bunar, malcontents both, and traitors to their people whom they are selling into slavery to the Bear . . .

Some goodly while later, Holmes looks up to see Ram Das standing once more in the doorway. He pauses from his encoding.

‘Forgive me,’ he says, ‘one moment, and I am with you and Creighton. I had no idea I had been so long. I was – thinking.’ He takes up his pen.

. . . my kindest regards to your Juventus, dear brother, and I trust your Greek connexion will continue to prosper. For myself, I hope only to return home to my own beloved companion upon whom, Mycroft, I charge you yet again, as you love me, to keep the most vigilant watch . . .

‘Yes, Sir.’ Ram Das offers him a small linen towel. ‘Sir – allow me to give you this.’

Holmes looks almost stupidly at the linen. It is not until Ram Das touches it to his face, that he realises that he has been weeping again.

*****

Shall We Begin To Wrangle?

‘Norbury,’ said Watson to me, as we wandered one windy March day among the primroses. I had so far allowed myself to relax from our busy working lives – for we had had a ceaseless flow of cases in the earlier months of the year, and among them the strange case of Mr Grant Munro and his wife – as to indulge both of us with a day spent at leisure in the spring sunshine. I loved to see Watson outdoors, his hair ruffled by the wind, his eyes bright as he observed the world around him. He had been looking pale recently: had I been his doctor I would have prescribed a tonic.

‘Norbury?’ I asked, taking his arm. My hand settled in the crook of his elbow in our dear, familiar way, and he smiled at me and patted it absently as it lay at rest there. ‘What of Norbury, my dear fellow? Come, Watson, you cannot fire off an accusation like that at me, one which I have asked you most particularly to use when I am at fault, and then not explain yourself. So what of it? Am I becoming a little over-confident in my powers, or is it that I am presently taking insufficient pains over a case? Which is it? Tell me what I must do to make amends.’

‘I am applying it more to myself,’ was his answer. ‘Look, Holmes, is that not a fine clump, there by the beech tree? Let me show you . . .’ and he directed us over to a large clump of primroses in full flower, ‘Have you ever seen how finely they are organised?’ He stooped and detached two flowers, handling the little blooms with care. ‘See here, this one, this is a ‘pin’ primrose. The stigma is long, and protrudes slightly; the stamens are short, and cluster around its base. Thus the female part of the blossom is more prominent.’ He gently teased open the centre, and I bent my head to observe the fragile structure. He handed it to me, and showed the other, ‘And this is a ‘thrum’ primrose. The stigma is short, and hidden, but the stamens bearing the pollen are longer, and protrude, so that the male part lies open to the busy bee. Thus cross-fertilisation is achieved, for the insect as it searches for that drop of sweetness at the base of the petals transfers the pollen of one type to the receptive organ of the other. Both grow on the same plant, is that not strange?’

‘It is indeed,’ I murmured, taking the other flower from him. I opened my pocket book and laid both between the pages, clasping the book back around them. ‘I shall look at them further when we return, perhaps with the microscope. Thank you, Watson – or no, wait - ’ I stooped, and plucked a few primroses of my own. ‘Oblige me by putting these in your lancet case, would you? They will remain fresher so for dissection and I shall retain those you gave me as pressed specimens in my commonplace book.’

He tucked the flowers away, and we walked on. ‘But what of Norbury?’ I asked him again. ‘You say you are applying it to yourself? You are the very prince of diligence, Watson, and I have never known you overreach in confidence. Explain your meaning: I am at a loss to account for your attribution of blame to yourself.’

‘I endeavour not to be over-confident – it is not hard when one is faced continually with life and death – but I question whether I am doing enough, Holmes, whether I am ‘sleeping on the case’ as it were.’ He stood still, and I stopped perforce, too. ‘I have been speaking to our police divisional surgeon, Dr Burns-Gibson recently - a man whose medical, and indeed, political, views are much after my own heart. He is of the opinion that we want reform in the profession, in society, and perhaps even in Parliament, and I agree with him. He shares the views of Mrs Besant, and Mr Bradlaugh, and is much interested in advancing them.’

‘Watson,’ I felt dismayed by his comments, I confess, ‘Watson, what are you about? Have you fallen in with the Radicals, old fellow? You are sailing deep political waters if you are. They are agitators, many of them, and dangerous to know.’

‘Well, you are the one who would have me peruse Winwoode Reade,’ he protested. ‘The logical end of his thinking is that society must reform to do without the yoke, the crushing oppression of religion, the inequalities and injustices of the law, and these are the people who are in the forefront of that movement. You know of Bradlaugh’s struggles, I am sure, and Mrs Besant is a fine example of a reformer. She has attracted obloquy: she is in the eyes of polite society a disgraced woman, yet I cannot but support her views on women and childbirth. Holmes, Holmes, you know how I feel about the girls I see in the hospital.’

I did indeed know how he felt. On more than one occasion I had seen him return from Barts weary beyond belief, grim, silent, tight-lipped. He would retreat to his room; in the night I would hear him pacing, and in the morning, I knew he would have wept. His inability to save women in mortal childbirth, the knowledge that their poverty and ignorance made them too vulnerable to resist and too frail to bear and that he could do nothing, bit deep and rankled. I had sometimes wondered whether it was some personal grief from his childhood that rendered him thus sensitive, but I never dared to ask. If health, and the welfare of the poor was, however, a motivating force behind his sudden interest in the groups on the edges of our political system, it would behove me to tread warily. We did not discuss politics, Watson and I, but I suppose for all my bohemian ways, I had been born and bred a Tory, as was Mycroft, and as had been my ancestors in the squirearchy before me. I knew Watson had Liberal, as well as liberal tendencies - he spoke approvingly of Gladstone, for example – but I had not suspected him of adhering to the radical cause. (And for myself, I had the gravest suspicion’s of Gladstone’s motives, not to mention his efforts with the ‘fallen women’ of London. He was another Marquis of Wallsend to my mind, and the hypocrite to end all hypocrites. But Watson was too fine a man to recognise gilded hypocrisy of course: he was no cynic.)

I agreed with him then, about the need for reform in society, but begged to differ as to the mode of achieving it, to which he pointed out quite correctly that when England had been a land of farmers – tillers of the soil and herders of cattle - it was easier for those of a higher social echelon to care for their dependents, since they were mostly clustered around them in villages, but that now we were an industrial nation it was a very different matter, ‘for there are fewer now, Holmes, who owe their allegiance and living to the squire, and their nourishment and moral teaching to the bounty of the squire’s wife. If ever indeed they did, or such care was universal.

And do not pretend to be unaware,’ he added, patting my hand again. ‘You keep a band of urchins yourself, the lowest of the low and poorest of the poor, as well as sundry undesirable characters in your pay: you have steeped yourself in the dark life of this city, and in truth you do much good in it. I know you are thinking me a dangerous radical, but I am not so determined a law-breaker as they. I want only to see reform, as do Burns-Gibson, and Mrs Besant, and a good many others. You should come to my club, my dear fellow, and meet the group of men I mean. I am sure you would agree with their views, and some of them are men of true character. Labouchère, for example: now there is a reformer for you.’

‘Labouchère!’ It was all I could do not to spit. ‘I do not like him. An oily, devious do-gooder, a very sanctified, poison-lipped villain. He is not at all to my taste, I assure you. And I do not know Mrs Annie Besant, but I do not like her pompous, prating brother, Walter. Bradlaugh is all very well but he is rash and impulsive. But I will meet them if it please you, Watson,’ I added, ‘I would not have you think me closed minded. I am interested in what interests you, of course.’

It would in fact have taken rope and the gallows to prevent me from attending whatever meeting he went to with him. It was not just that I feared that his charitable instincts would lead him astray, and that alone, he would pilot his frail ship into dangerous waters; it was, I confess, that I was jealous of his company. That he should spend time with others was natural. That he should like them more, value them more, than me, was not. No other man had a right to his arm, his smiles, his attentions. I would not – could not - tolerate it..

‘Well, we will essay the meetings together,’ was all his comment. ‘I have not yet met Labouchère: he is much occupied in the House and with the Egypt Question at present: indeed he is a most indefatigable worker, with many irons in the fire. But the others we should most assuredly meet: Holmes, you are a man of such parts, such standing, that if we could win you to the cause of reform it would be a great thing for us. You liked Burns-Gibson, did you not? And would not object to coming with me? I do so little good in the world,’ he added, wistfully, ‘and there is so much to do. I am unlikely to leave aught of value behind me: even a good name would be something.’

‘Why, Watson, what is this? “We could win you?” ’ I queried. I felt truly savage, irritated, alarmed by his words. ‘You make common cause with these men already? Then I must, will-you, nill-you, be part of the game, since are we not brothers? And you do do good in your way and in full measure. You do more in the free wards than others, you give of yourself whenever asked – why, you may not have a practice with a brass plate, but you cannot deny that we have an increasing number of requests at the door at home, and that you have set up a veritable dispensary and consulting room in Mrs Hudson’s kitchen for our young patients. Why do you judge yourself so very harshly, my dear fellow? There is no need for it.’

‘I do little enough,’ he repeated, ‘in face of such need one man can not do enough. But men together may, which is why I am glad you will be with us, old boy. I have the greatest faith in your powers, you know.’

‘My small success is in problem solving, not in effecting political change,’ I pointed out, ‘but I shall endeavour not to disappoint you, Watson.’

‘Oh,’ said he, and patted my hand again, ‘I have faith you will not do that, Holmes.’

*****

We had not engaged further with Watson’s Radical friends when we were embroiled in the very first days of April, with Dr Grimesby Roylott, that antithesis to my good companion, the doctor. It was the first real occasion on which I had had cause to test Watson’s mettle since our encounter with Jefferson Hope, and he did not disappoint. His eye brightened when he saw my display of strength with the poker, and he clapped me on the shoulder, saying ‘I am proud of you, old chap, I did not think you could have done it, and I am damn sure I could not. There is steel wire and whipcord under your fine broadcloth, is there not?’ Then he laughed at me because I blushed at the compliment, and told me I was as shy as a boy and modest as a maid. He liked poor Helen Stoner, and treated her with that delicate, unobtrusive chivalry which so became him – which I did not much mind, since she was attached – and he was stalwart in the face of danger. The merest hint that I might not allow him to accompany me and he hackled like a fighting cock, insisting that he was allowed part of the action. The snake I did not like: I have never liked them – but with him there, sitting close, his breath on my ear, his hand touching mine, or mine on his coat sleeve, I found it easy to be brave. It was a satisfactory case, all in all, despite that it would bring in little money, for Miss Stoner and her betrothed were relatively poor, and so I did not ask a high fee. I told them instead that they might recommend my services to any other of their acquaintance who required them, and that I would be pleased to hear of their eventual marriage now that matters were brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

‘And will you be?’ Watson asked me, as we walked back in the early hours to the Crown Inn, leaving Miss Stoner with the housekeeper, and her betrothed, Armitage, a rather ineffectual young man who had fretted and fussed around her while she dealt competently with the local police. ‘Pleased to hear of their marriage, Holmes?’

‘Of course.’ I could not think of any reason for him to question me. ‘Why would I not be? Do I seem to you to be such a misanthropic wretch as not to rejoice for another’s happiness? I am not, you know.’

‘Oh, it is only that you seemed to observe Miss Stoner with a somewhat jaundiced eye, if you don’t mind me saying so. She is a pretty girl, yet you seemed not to think so, and they are clearly greatly attached to each other, yet you did not seem to much regard it, or even wish them well at our parting.’

‘Perhaps I was too tired.’ We let ourselves into the silent inn, and crept up the stairs. ‘And I am no great lover of women, as you well know. There is only one bed, Watson, albeit a large one. Pray take it, my dear fellow, and I will content myself with the couch in the sitting room: I do not expect to sleep much.’

‘Nonsense, ‘ he replied. ‘Sleep you must and sleep you shall. I know you did not like that snake – neither did I, old fellow; since India and Afghanistan I cannot abide the beastly things – and you were quite pale after you had subdued and caged it. You have real courage, Holmes, to wait out your adversary so quietly, and then to catch it after it had disposed of its owner, when it was almost more dangerous.’

‘More dangerous,’ I asked. ‘How so? It had discharged its venom: therefore it had none to expend on me.’

‘That is not quite the case,’ he told me, and I knew that I paled further as he did so. ‘Once discharged, the poison sacs are immediately replenished with fresh and more potent venom; moreover some snakes can strike and envenom their victim more than once. Many a man has made that mistake – good heavens, Holmes, you have gone positively grey, sit at once, sit here, and put your head down,’ and he forced me to the sofa and made me bow my head between my knees, ‘oh my dear fellow, I am very sorry: you really do not like them, do you?’

‘N-No,’ I uttered, trying in vain to control the weakness that seemed to be invading every limb as I considered the casual way I had handled the beast, ‘oh, oh Watson, you could have been killed – it could have turned on you, and I would not have known. I thought us safe, once the creature had bitten Roylott. Pray forgive me: my ignorance has put you at risk . . .’ I turned away from him, for my gorge was rising at the thought. ‘Oh, my dear Watson . . .’ and a moment later, he was holding my head over the bedroom utensil, which he had dashed for the second, so he told me later, that I turned green about the gills, and into that homely article I was most dreadfully, shamefully sick for quite some while.

The fit once over, he bathed my head and hands in cool water from the jug, compelled me into the bedroom, stripped me to my underwear, and rolled me in a blanket on the bed. I shivered and protested, but he was ruthless, though gentle-handed, hushing all my muttered imprecations and pleas. I was completely silenced, however, when he stripped himself likewise to his smalls, donned his own blanket, lay down close behind me and covered us both with the counterpane.

‘Now be quiet,’ he said to me, already sounding drowsy, ‘for although the birds are beginning to sing we have still a few hours before we must return, and I intend us to spend it sleeping. Once you warm up - and this is the best way to do it – you will soon doze off. That was a nasty bout you had there, my poor friend. But Roylott – and Roylott’s snake - were enough to turn anyone’s stomach, it is true.’

Within minutes, he was snoring, a gentle, almost musical little snore that made me smile. I did not sleep. I lay, and slowly grew warm, and enjoyed his breath on my neck, the curve of his arm across my waist, for he had flung it over me as he shifted, and the lovely, solid weight of him against my back. I savoured the sight and sound and scent of every minute of the four hours he slept, rising only when he began to stir and wake, so that he should find me washed and decent when he did. He scolded me for not sleeping but I countered that I was feeling infinitely better for the rest, and he must not abuse his doctor’s power over me. We returned to London in the best of spirits, laughing and joking like boys, and recounted the story of the snake to Mrs Hudson, who was much impressed. And although I cautioned Watson that he must not publish the story yet, I enjoyed the stirring tale he made of it when he wrote it up over the course of the following week and gave it me to read.

‘You did not mention me being sick, however,’ I said to him, wondering a little, ‘or not knowing about the snake, and so putting us both in danger.’

‘Of course not,’ he replied, indignantly. ‘I would never expose you in that way, Holmes. I am your Boswell, you know – your very admiring Boswell. And comrades-in-arms do not rat on a friend. We are all of us sometimes sickened by combat, in whatsoever kind or shape it comes. And all of us are prone to error: you are no different. Furthermore, my dear chap, I seem to remember you holding my head for similar reasons but for a much less worthy cause when I was so shamefully inebriated in Dublin last spring. We are quits now, although you have the advantage a trifle, do you not think so?’

‘Perhaps,’ I said, and he laughed again, and told me not to doubt it.

*****

With regard to our Dublin adventure of the previous year, Watson and I had known for some months that we would not be required to give evidence in the trial of the Phoenix Park murderers, which was to come on later that spring. It had taken nearly a year to unravel the tangled web of conspiracy, for the intricacies of the Fenian groups – the Irish National Invincibles being the one responsible for the murders of Cavendish and Burke – were not to be understood by any mere tyro, and John Mallon, who led the investigation, had had to turn at least one member of the group informer before he could find evidence enough to hang the perpetrators. Our involvement had been through Mycroft, and was necessarily secret, a thing for which I was glad when I considered how deep the assassins were steeped in hatred of the English oppressor, and how probable was the vengeance of their compatriots on those who had discovered the killers. I had some sympathy for the wretched country, much oppressed, much suffering, as had Watson, but I intended no more such involvement that might put my friend at risk. Mycroft delighted in politics, but for me, the narrower field of operation was more fitting. I was no spy, nor wanted to own that title, for what I did covertly in pursuit of criminals was secrecy enough for me. In truth my mind revolted at low cunning: I had always considered spying an ignoble art.

Sadly, however, we had barely seen Roylott to a well-deserved end when we were once more involved in the affairs of our Irish brethren. This time it was not a case of murder, but the so-called ‘Dynamite Conspiracy’, which involved not dynamite itself, but the production by certain disaffected Irish Americans of sufficient quantity of nitro-glycerine to blow up the Houses of Parliament in a most satisfactory way – satisfactory, of course, to the perpetrators. I was called in at short notice by our colleague Dupré of the Westminster Hospital, with whom we had collaborated on the Lamson case, to join him in the analysis of both the constituent articles of the explosive, and the explosive itself. It was a fascinating chemical study; one that I took care to write up in minute detail in case I should ever need to know how to make the substance myself, and I was grateful to Dupré for inviting me to participate. (It transpired that he did so out of his own sense of gratitude: he confided in me that he had parted from the young man against whom I had warned him, and found a rather less ambitious and more honest recipient of his carnal affections. I hoped for his sake that he had left nothing to chance and would not suffer the blackmail that was the fate of so many inverts.)

Watson was not pleased that I was working with Dupré again: he thought the man a bad influence on me, since he had offered me drugs. I had diminished my morphine use to an occasional dose, supervised by my good doctor, when sleep proved very elusive, and I was weary to the point of exhaustion, yet could find no rest. He grumbled at the telegram summoning me to Westminster Hospital, insisted on accompanying me to see Dupré for the first occasion of our collaborating, and hovered at my shoulder with a bulldog air of protection. I read a stern ‘no opium’ in his eye, and so, quite clearly, did Dupré, who was at pains to assure us both that he had given up the habit. In the end, Watson made the unfortunate man nervous enough for his hand to shake, so I chased him away to his young patients at Barts, lest he precipitate some dire chemical catastrophe upon us.

‘I am sorry,’ I said to him later that day – a cold, wet, April day - on his return home, ‘for ejecting you so summarily, but the compound is dangerous if agitated, and poor Dupré’s hands were becoming more tremulous by the moment under the force of your scrutiny. You are most awe-inspiring at times, Watson, are you not? From a gentleman whose manners are generally speaking mild and complaisant, you become a very martinet: no lowly soldier but would jump to do your bidding. Were you thus in the army, my dear fellow? I am glad I was not one of your recruits, if so.’

He shrugged, setting down his pocket book on the table, and advancing to the fireside, where I sat curled into my chair, thinking. ‘Oh, you would never have been one of my recruits,’ he said lightly, ‘I would not have tolerated your insubordination and impertinence for a minute, Sir, not one single minute. You would have been under my discipline and learning obedience in short order, and I daresay you would have rebelled to the last point. We should never have got on, you and I in the army, I think, but disputed over my commands.’

‘I would have tried, for you deserve obedience.’ I felt stung, somehow, that he should so dismiss me, and my hurt must have bled into my tone of voice, for he placed the pipe he was cleaning back on the mantelpiece, and laid a hand on my shoulder.

‘Of course you would, my friend. Holmes, Holmes, were you never teased at school, my dear fellow? I spoke but in jest: “no offence in the world” as Hamlet said. Why, I did not mean to give you pain, do not look so cast down.’

‘Not, not kindly teased, as you do, Watson,’ I told him, and he pressed my shoulder in silent apology. ‘It was never kind.’

‘I forget what a sensitive soul you are.’ He rubbed my upper arm, and I leaned into the pressure, praying that he would continue to touch me. ‘Forgive your rough soldier friend, Holmes. I am sincerely attached to you, you must know that, and would not hurt you for the world. I am sure you would be the most gallant of soldiers: as I have said to you before you are one of those mettlesome colts that make the best cavalry chargers, while I am a mere plodding infantry mule, a workhorse of workhorses. But let us leave this sorry subject: tell me instead what you have been doing with Dupré, for I do not really understand this business of the nitrous glycerine, or whatever the substance is called, only that it is apparently extremely volatile and dangerous.’

‘Nitro-glycerine,’ I reproved him, moving to my table. ‘ I have some of it in my flask here: pray approach and observe it, Watson. It is slightly viscous and oily, and, in its natural state, is colourless, but this has acquired a delicate shade of pink by reason of how it was kept by Gallagher and his accomplices in rubber fisherman’s stockings. It is a compound of course, and in general produced and made popular by a gentleman by the name of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish scientist of some renown.’

‘And he designed it as an explosive?’ Watson bent over the table, taking up the flask, and gently rotating it to note how it clung to the glass. ‘But how does one set light to a liquid? Does it burn, as oil does, with a wick? Or must one actually take a flame to it? It seems such an innocuous substance. You say this is what the perpetrators of the conspiracy wished to use to blow up Parliament? How very curious it is to think it could be done with this simple fluid. And why keep it in fisherman’s waders?’

He rotated the flask again, and in sudden alarm I removed it from his careless grasp. ‘It is safest kept in a waterproof, flexible container, rather than in glass. Moreover, it is not a simple fluid at all, Watson, and the process of obtaining the pure and effective mixture is exceedingly complex. It was first created in Italy in 1847, by Ascanio Sobrero, but he considered it too dangerous to use. However, it has been quite common since Nobel began to produce it for use in mines, although even he has not dealt with it without danger, for an explosion of the stuff killed his younger brother twenty or so years ago, and he has blown up his manufactory with it - twice, I believe. He has now developed a preparation of it which is less volatile,’

I set the flask down with extreme care, and took up a small package which I opened for him. ‘This is a diatomaceous earth common in Germany, where it is termed kieselgur – which of course our newspapers, in reporting this sorry case, are quite failing to spell correctly - and mixing these two substances, triturating them slowly and carefully to a paste, renders the explosive less dangerous. In such a state he terms it ‘dynamite’ and it is now sold for mining operations, where it is desired to shift great masses of rock. I begged a little of the liquid and the earth from Dupré, in order to experiment.’

‘I see,’ Watson ran his fingers through the fine, brownish-grey earth, lifted them to his nose, and sniffed. ‘I assume he derives the name from the Greek, ‘dynamos’, if it is indeed so powerful. Yet it seems unobjectionable enough like this, the liquid and the solid both. And what do you intend to do to this substance when you have mixed it?’

‘I thought to test its power, and wondered if you would like to assist,’ I told him. ‘We could make some together and shape it into its little sticks. But I have run out of sodium carbonate, or washing soda, as most people know it, and to make dynamite, I must first obtain soda from Mrs Hudson, for that must go into the compounded mix as well. I might ask her for some now, I think, so as to lose no time, and to have all ready for our experiments with it on the morrow.’

‘I rather think I had better go down myself and ask her,’ he replied with a smile at which I wondered. ‘She is a long-suffering lady, but she might not look with favour on explosives, Holmes. And are you sure we should be doing this at all?’

‘Of course.’ I opened the flask, and withdrew a drop of the oily fluid with a pipette. ‘It is not so dangerous in small quantities, and I am not intending to blow up a lot of it. I merely wish to ascertain the strength of this particular mixture of the solution for myself, since it was not made by an expert, and has not been tested. But for now, I shall just make do with testing the liquid’s power. Observe, Watson.’

As he looked on with a flattering degree of interest, I placed a wooden board on a chair by the window, and dropped a small quantity of the fluid onto it. ‘All I have now to do is to place the liquid under pressure, and you will see the reaction.’

‘And how will you do that?’ I was sorry to see him edge away a little, and motioned him closer, so that he could observe the effect rather more clearly.

‘Simply with this, my dear fellow.’ I took a hammer, and stood poised to rap it sharply into the little puddle. ‘Now as I touch it with the hammer, it will – good heavens!’

The flash was so bright that it was some time before the after-image faded from my retina, and groping blindly for Watson to ensure that he was unharmed, I found that he was in a similar dazzled state. I blinked water from my eyes, and looked at him in alarm, for he was heaving great gasps of breath, and tears were running down into his moustache as he squeaked and crowed in a most disconcerting fashion.

‘Watson, Watson,’ I cried, patting him about the shoulders, ‘Watson, I am so sorry: pray tell me where you are injured. If I had thought it would go off like – Watson, are you – why are you – out of breath, are you hurt?’

He shook his head, submitting to my touch but appearing to be completely incapable of speech, and waved at me. I waited anxiously while his paroxysm subsided, when he gasped out , ‘No, no, Holmes, I am unharmed, I - ’ and then he was heaving and shaking again with uncontrolled spasms of –

‘You’re laughing at me,’ I accused him, suddenly understanding.

He nodded, tears still streaming down his face, while he brought himself sufficiently under control to be intelligible. I waited, mortified and silent, until he stopped, mopped his face with his handkerchief, and wiped his eyes. I could not for the life of me see what it was he found so risible and felt quite offended by his unseemly mirth.

‘I do not think,’ I began, trying for an air of hauteur, ‘that there is anything to - ’ but then he surged forward, clasped me fervently in his strong arms and (there is no other word for it) hugged me with some force, laughing the while.

‘Oh Holmes,’ he said (chuckled, giggled even, if such a word can be used to describe a man’s laugh) ‘Holmes, do you have any idea how much I love living here with you? How much – well, amusement - I have? I have never laughed like this, nor felt so happy, nor been so well companioned in my life before - ’

‘But I have just caused an explosion,’ I expostulated, very much non-plussed. ‘I certainly intended to demonstrate what is called the ‘brisance’ of the material, but I had no idea it would detonate with such alacrity and force. I must make sure and telegraph to Dupré – or no, Janey can find one of the boys and send a message, that will be better – it must be because it has been improperly kept, and thus is deteriorating rapidly – but I assure you Watson, it is no laughing matter – why are you laughing still? I do not in the least see what I have done that is so amusing.’

‘No,’ he sighed, releasing me (he had been looking into my face, his hands on my shoulders all the while I had been speaking) and turning to pick up the damaged board, ‘no, you do not in the least see, my dear man, and that is not the least part of your charm. What a fellow you are, Holmes. How is it possible for a man to be so wise and so simple, so erudite and so innocent at once? Pray send out your message at once, for if Dupré does indeed have quantities of this stuff, and it is all as volatile – good heavens, this board, which I now perceive, by the way, to be our new breadboard, is split quite through as well as burned, and I do believe the lower window pane is cracked too, so we will have to tape it until the glazier can be called – he is in sore need of your warning. Then let us clear up this little experiment, and settle in for a cosy evening. Or better still, Holmes, do you tidy up the mess in here, and I will deal with Mrs Hudson about the window – at least the chair is not damaged – and summon a boy to take your message. Certainly we cannot have the whole of Westminster hospital reduced to rubble, or we, not the conspirators in this case, will be for the long drop or the gaol. Write your note for me now, my dear chap, while I go and wash my face, lest my tears lead Mrs Hudson to think me grief stricken for no cause. And do not take it amiss that I laughed. It is only that I am happy – happy, Holmes, when for so long I thought I might never be again, after the war. There are times here with you when I feel like a mere heedless boy again, or the carefree, playful child I was never truly able to be.’

He sobered then, turned from casting the broken pieces of board into the fire (where they blazed immediately with a fierce, leaping flame, there being still minute quantities of unspent nitro-glycerine upon them) and gazed at me with eyes brimming with such affection that I was nearly brought to tears. ‘Are you happy too, Holmes? I know it is not a question one man is wont to ask of his mate. Not a usual question at all for two reserved English gentlemen to debate, one with another. But tell me, my dear fellow, are you happy?’

‘Yes,’ I said, looking at him as he stood, his hair picking up the firelight (I swear it had sometimes a most becoming auburn tint to it, among the gold and silver) and his eyes very blue, and bright. He was so open, so kind, so loving – yes, loving - to me, and I loved him so very much. He gave me all he could: who was I to pine for more? He did not know me for an invert, he was not one himself. Why would he ever suspect me of pining for more? And I was happy. I was his only true friend; mine was the gift of making him happy and caring for him. It was I with whom he laughed, his merriment lightening his whole demeanour until he seemed, as he had said he felt, a mere boy. It was I who owned the privilege of comforting him when he was sad, and who was comforted in my turn. ‘Yes, Watson. Despite all, I am happy.’

‘Good,’ he said, briskly, setting sentiment aside, and went to wash, and then to speak to Mrs Hudson. I tidied, meticulously for once, poked up the sluggish fire, cleaned and filled his pipe and my own, and set his slippers to warm. When he returned, he was bearing a tray of fine roast beef sandwiches, prepared as only our Mrs Hudson could, and a plate of her Dundee cake and Wensleydale cheese, so I hastened to pour us two glasses of my most expensive burgundy. He took in my preparations with an appreciative glance, and bade me put on my dressing gown before going upstairs to achieve his own dishabille. Thus comfortable, we drew our chairs to the fire, and sat over our simple meal, sipping our wine and then smoking a pipe together while I told him the story of my investigation.

‘Some of these men, Watson, have been in England since January or February, preparing their explosives in immense quantities. Thomas Gallagher is the moving force; he is an Irishman whose family emigrated about fifteen years ago, and he is as rabid a Fenian as you might find, hand in hand with ‘the Old Man,’ a fellow called O’Donovan Rossa. But the man who has made our explosive is Albert Whitehead, who is a chemist. He took a small shop in Birmingham, ostensibly for the purpose of selling paint, which he was to mix himself, and there he proceeded to order from two different chemists huge quantities of nitric and sulphuric acids, totalling over 1,700 pounds in weight of nitric, and over 3,400 of sulphuric, and - ’

‘So much!’ Watson interjected, leaning forward, ‘This was no small plot then!’

‘ – and over two hundredweight of glycerine, as well as sundry carboys of linseed and boiled oil and turpentine - ’

‘ – to give colour to his story of selling paint, as you mentioned, Holmes, but it was the acid and the glycerine which he intended – ’

‘ – precisely, Watson, to turn into the nitro-glycerine, and did in fact do so, in a furnace in the kitchen, which he vented by means of a galvanised iron funnel leading to the chimney. The fisherman’s waders were but one of a number of rubber receptacles he obtained, the liquid being safer to transport so, and being transferred in them to a chest which he conveyed by devious means to Gallagher in London. All in all, after washing and refining there was left a quantity of three hundredweight of nitro-glycerine, which would produce twelve hundredweight of dynamite - ’

‘ – more than half a ton, Holmes – more than half a ton, when only twenty-five pounds in weight was used to blow up the local Government Board in March? How very great an explosion would it have - ’

‘I have calculated that it would be sufficient to devastate an area of London in square form from the Thames in the south to Oxford Street in the north, then extending east to Chancery Lane, and west to the Haymarket,’ I replied, pouring him another glass of wine. ‘Come, Watson, you are not eating: do take some of this excellent cake. I worked it out it for Dupré, who has been asked by the gentlemen of the press. But I am glad we sent him a note, for it seems to me that the article is more unstable by half than it should be, and I rather dread some accident. Perhaps after all, we should not compound it into dynamite, Watson, lest worse befall.’

His face fell. ‘Could we not just experiment with a very small amount?’ he asked me wistfully, ‘I have never seen dynamite made, and I should dearly like to, Holmes, if you should not very much object. We had perhaps better not attempt to detonate it here, but if we were to take it out onto Hampstead Heath, for example, or even as far away as Richmond Park, where there would be no-one to startle but the stags? If I were to contrive a length of slow-match – we were accustomed to prepare it in the Army – we could use it as a fuse and detonate our explosive at no risk to ourselves.’

‘I have no gunpowder - ’ I protested, but he waved away my objection.

‘I have cartridges enough and to spare for my revolver, Holmes, it is no great matter to dissect them and obtain enough. Do say that we may, old chap?’

I capitulated, for I could not bear to see him disappointed, and the following day I left Dupré to fend for himself, having warned him again the previous evening about the nitro-glycerine, and suggested that he desensitise it by the addition of quantities of ethanol to render it less dangerous. Watson had contrived a length of slow match with the gunpowder from half a dozen cartridges, a solution of sugar of lead, which I had been using for another experiment, and an old cotton sock, which he slit into strips and sewed together most handily before filling his match with powder. I, meanwhile, carefully mixed nitro-glycerine into my diatomaceous earth to obtain a thick paste, which I shaped into a small, slender pencil, and wrapped in paper greased with one of our candles. Our preparations concluded, we raised our glasses to a successful experiment, and turned in to our separate, alas, beds. Watson roused me at first light, and we took a cab to Richmond Park with our cargo.

Our experiment was entirely successful. We set it up in a hidden hollow in a remote area of the park, having first ensured that there were no deer in the vicinity. Watson’s slow match smouldered along the ground until it reached my little stick of dynamite, which detonated with a surprisingly loud noise, scattering earth and grass everywhere, leaving a scar more than a yard in diameter, and besmutting both of us liberally with falling dust and leaf debris.

‘It is indeed well-named with the word dynamite,’ said my companion, clutching my sleeve in excitement. ‘Holmes, its power is very great: is it not a pity that we cannot experiment again with a larger amount of the stuff? I should so much like to do so, should not you?’

‘Indeed I should,’ I replied, brushing first him, and then myself down, ‘but Watson, I think we should perhaps leave now. That was a louder noise than I expected, and I am loath to attract attention, my dear fellow.’

There were no immediate repercussions from our little experiment, but two or three days later I received a visit from Lestrade. He hemmed and hawed and hesitated a good deal over his enquiry, but finally asked me whether I had been in Richmond Park recently. I owned to the visit, and he informed me that a cabbie who had transported us back to our habitation in Baker Street had laid an information against us as being Fenians and anarchists, based on the conversation he had overheard – he must have been stretching his ears like a donkey’s, the wretched man – and the smell of gunpowder and explosive hanging about us.

‘He appears to think you are connected to Gallagher’s gang,’ he said to me, ‘but of course, Mr Holmes, I knew you could not be, nor our Dr Watson neither. I disabused him of his notions – he was very vehement against you, averring that he heard you mention Gallagher, and Whitehead, for the news of their arrest is bruited widely about the street – and once I had dealt with him I thought then to warn you, in case of any further problem. All of London is in a ferment to think how much explosive these men brought to the capital (and that ass Dupré telling the world how great an area would have been devastated has not helped) so there is a fever to catch them.’

His eyes twinkled, and his pointed nose twitched. ‘I should, however, very much like to know what you and Dr Watson were doing in Richmond Park so early, to return reeking of gunpowder and earth, as was reported to us, but I daresay you will not tell me, charm I never so wisely, will you, Mr Holmes?’

I smiled down at the little man as he stood there, warming his back at our fire, and rising and falling on his heels a little, his sharp face as intent as a hunting dog on a scent. I could almost see his ears prick forward.

‘Well, my conscience is causing me pain over that ferment,’ I told him, ‘since it was I who provided our esteemed colleague Dupré with his information, and thus it is (in part at least) my fault if you are policing unruly streets. So I will tell you, Lestrade, for your ear only, that having tested a small quantity of the nitro-glycerine, and finding it answer rather too sharply to the hammer, I warned Dupré twice about its volatility, made up a little of it into dynamite, and Watson and I took it off to a quiet area to perform our own little test. Consequent to which,’ I continued, ignoring the bark of laughter with which he greeted my revelation, ‘Dupré and I managed to determine that the entire quantity was degenerating to the point at which it would have exploded within a day or two anyway had it not been found, and were at pains to desensitise it and render our streets safer. Behold me, then, a public benefactor: no recreant or anarchist am I! And nor is Watson, of course. His probity is without a flaw: I do not know how you could even suspect him.’

‘I rather suspect you of leading him astray, knowing your fondness for chemistry,’ Lestrade straightened himself. ‘Well, the case will be determined very shortly, Mr Holmes. It is curious how it came to light you know; it was through a young man in the police force who had a similar nose for detection and a like curiosity to your own.’

‘Yes, the sergeant, Richard Price,’ I agreed. ‘It is indeed, curious. I have met him at Westminster with Dupré, and it strikes me, Lestrade, that he is wasting his time as a mere policeman in Birmingham. He has displayed extraordinary initiative and intelligence: he it was who first noticed the large deliveries of chemicals to the shop, and elected to investigate them of his own accord. He was made suspicious by the contents of the shop, by Whitehead’s wearing two suits of clothes for protection from burns, and those clothes being much burnt by acids. He determined to pursue the matter further, entered the shop with a skeleton key in the small hours of the succeeding night, and saw enough to justify entering again with the Chief Constable, Mr Ferndale, and Inspector Black - and then in arresting Whitehead.’

‘He must have had some knowledge of chemistry to enable him to determine that it was nitro-glycerine being made,’ remarked Lestrade. ‘That in itself is not so very usual in the force, Mr Holmes. It is M. Dupré and your good self we rely on for that, as we do upon Dr Burns-Gibson and your own dear doctor for medical advice.’

‘And neither Dupré nor myself truly belong to you. Now this man, Price, impressed me most favourably, Lestrade. He is of poor and common stock, but an auto-didact, having attended the evening Science lectures available to the working public to learn about electricity and chemistry. Does it not seem a pity that he cannot work with you and put that curiosity to a better use than walking the beat? I am sure he would be receptive to an offer, and should the cost of his, and his family’s, removal to London be prohibitive for him, then Watson and I would assist, quite anonymously, of course. It would be comparatively little and I daresay I can make it up by fleecing some rich client or other over a lost jewel or a rogue heir.’

‘And it will not be the first time for either of those things, Mr Holmes, as I well know. You have sponsored several into our force, and all of them are fine young men. Well, well, I must leave you now that that is all is cleared up, Sir, but do not go exploding any more dynamite, if you please. It makes our cabbies nervous.’

‘But the worst of all of it was,’ I said later, when I told Watson of Lestrade’s visit, ‘That the good Inspector thinks it was I who led you astray, when in truth, dear boy, it was you who took me by the hand and beguiled me into evil-doing, for yours was the suggestion that we should blow up our dynamite in Richmond Park.’

*****

The “Dynamite Conspiracy’ once resolved – although I could see that the underlying issue, that of Home Rule for Ireland, was not going to disappear – I had hoped that there might be some rather more complex cases to amuse me, for my brain rebelled at stagnation, and then the temptations to lose myself in morphia began to tease at me, insinuating themselves into my mind with a force I found hard to resist. I mentioned this to Watson, as we wandered one late June day in the park among other strolling couples. The sky was clear and blue, and I had hesitated to raise the subject with him - I did not want to spoil his fragile content. He had had a hard couple of months, for his work with me brought him into many cases where his medical knowledge was invaluable, but his too-ready sympathies were painfully wrung. I needed – something, and what that something was was not forthcoming.

I needed something? Let me be honest. I needed him, with an increasing hunger that left me hollow and desperate. I had no morphia to quell my desires, no mechanical means of curbing my imperious flesh, and no intention of making him the subject of my fantastical longings: relieved, even satiated I might be on occasion, but I was never satisfied. Sometimes I did not know how long I could go on like this, silently desirous, hopeless, yearning - and I almost resolved to put an end to the torment, to declare that we should part – but he was so dear a friend, as well as a love, that I could not bring myself to do it. So I fed myself on scant hope – and though well nigh starving on it was yet better nourished than had we parted and I had never seen him more in this life or any other, if any other were to be.

‘If the temptation is strong upon you, perhaps we should remove you from its grasp, rather than remove it from you. We could run down to the country for a couple of weeks,’ he suggested, when I broached the issue. ‘You are looking jaded, I can see that, and to say truth, I am in need of some time out of London myself. That last case of mine at the hospital . . . the burned child . . .’ and he shivered, despite the warmth. ‘A clearer atmosphere, perhaps, some good hard walking to exhaust you in a healthier way, a little botanising or geology – they might do you good. The heat here is enervating, and the air unclean.’

I pressed his arm in silent sympathy. ‘And they would be good for you too, Watson. Can we contrive it, do you think? The work on Gallagher paid well enough: we might live simply and cheaply for a few weeks.’

‘And Mrs Hudson might go to her friend’s in Margate and take the girl with her. Yes, let us do it, Holmes. Where should you like to go? Bournemouth is pretty at this time of year: we might visit Boscombe again– or stay, should you like to be nearer London? Perhaps directly south then, to Eastbourne?’

‘Somewhere lonely,’ I told him. ‘I am weary, Watson: “odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” if you recall your Horace from school. ‘Do you remember? “ . . . somnus agrestium lenis virorum . . .” Can you go on? I hate the vulgar crowd, and so avoid them . . . a farmer’s calm slumber . . .?’

‘I think so: “ . . . non humilis domos fastidit umbrosamque ripam” is that how it goes? Disdains neither the, the humble cottage, the shady river bank . . . and I forget - ’

‘Nor the soft breeze, my boy,’ I supplied for him: “non Zephyris agitata Tempe,” nor valley gentled by the Western wind. Could we, do you think?’

He stopped then, and observed me closely. ‘It is not just the morphia is it? Holmes, are you suffering from your melancholy? Is it the black mood upon you again?’

‘A little,’ I owned. ‘Forgive me, Watson: it must be tedious for you to live with a fellow who is forever either up in the attics or down in the cellar. I did warn you, however, that I was subject to moods during which I no longer wished to speak. I fear one is approaching me now: a reaction, no doubt, to our busy spring followed by a dearth of stimulation. I feel myself slowly sinking, I must confess. At such times the – the temptation is to resort to anything – I hate the desolation, the emptiness.’

‘Then let us away,’ he said, setting us in motion again. ‘Leave all to me, Holmes: I shall contrive it just as you require, and we shall be out of London before you know it. I cannot have you falling into the morbs, old fellow, not when we are doing so well with avoiding the morphia. And I should be grateful for clean air myself.’

*****

The following Friday found us in a cart, jolting painfully over a rough track, while I huddled in a rug against the sharp evening wind that assaulted us. Watson was sitting on the box, chatting with revolting cheerfulness to the yokel who drove us (although if he could understand more than one word in seven of the wretched man’s accent, I would have been surprised) while I propped myself up as best as I could amid our bags and boxes. I had, despite my best intentions, descended even further into my own private, peculiar little hell than before. Work, music, food – all were tasteless to me: it was as if some dulling shroud, some grey, clinging veil interposed itself between my vision and the world. The sun had no warmth, the very air no savour. Even my hearing diminished, sounds appearing to come from an immense distance. Every day, Watson commanded me to make my toilet, so that I was at least clean, but I could do nothing else but lie on the sofa in a stupor without sleep. Eventually, the wheels rumbled to a halt, and Watson let down the cart’s tailgate so I could stumble out, stiff and sore with long sitting. I looked around. I had demanded loneliness, and this was indeed lonely: the waning light showed ours to be the only habitation within sight. A rough track led into the gathering dusk, but other than that, there was no sign that humanity existed. The cottage itself was small, but looked, from the outside at least, clean under new limewash.

‘Ends of the earth, Watson?’

He was unpacking our belongings from the cart, but he turned to me with that kind smile of his. ‘Indeed. I am sorry it took so long, my dear fellow, but we shall soon be comfortable. Go you in, and get warm: there should be a fire already.’

It was not long before he had transported all our boxes into the little hall where I was standing, engaged in contemplating the curious bubbles in the thick glass pane in the door. He led me to the sofa drawn up before a blazing fire in what I took to be the parlour, and made me lie down. Blankets appeared as if from nowhere, and divested of my outer garments and shoes, my tie loosened and removed, and my cold feet in new woollen socks, I reclined, if not at ease in my mind, at least comfortable in body. He bustled around quietly while I lay, gazing into the fire, musing idly upon the chemistry of the flames dancing in the grate. It was a driftwood fire: streaks of blue and lavender mingled with the gold. I could have watched for hours, resting there almost in a state of catatonia. When Watson came in and handed me a cup of soup I would have waved it away, but he compelled me to drink, and when I had finished, smoothed my hair with his hand, and covered me close with the blanket, telling me that he would leave me there to sleep. It seemed to me that this would not do, so I held his hand and begged him to stay with me.

‘Very well,’ he said, ‘but release me for a moment, old man, while I make myself comfortable. I promise I will come back.’

It was some time later that I woke from what seemed to have been an interminably long sleep, to find Watson, fully dressed, stretched in a chair by my side, with his feet up on a stool. In the pale dawn light, his face was grey and worn, and the state of his chin showed that he had not shaved for some time. Fingering my own chin, it appeared I was in a similar state, and I rather wondered that I had been so slovenly as to omit my usual morning toilet. My mouth was dry and stale, as if I had been speaking for hours, and when I coughed, experimentally, my throat was also parched. I gulped down the glass of water that I found by my sofa, and feeling a little restored, leaned forward to wake Watson, who looked desperately uncomfortable.

‘Rouse up, old chap, lying there will do your shoulder and leg no good at all. What time is it? I seem to have mislaid my watch.’

He groaned, his eyes still closed, and reached under the chair, dragging his watch up by the chain. ‘It is five in the morning, Holmes. Could you not have chosen a more civilised time to come round after two days of near stupor? Go back to sleep until the day is properly aired for heavens’ sake: you know how I hate early mornings.’

‘Two days? What have you done? Have you slept, or changed your clothes? Eaten? Have you been with me all this time?’

‘Well just over two days, and yes, I have, since for some reason you were loath to see me depart. I have both slept, and washed and eaten, when you were most deeply cradled in the arms of Morpheus. You have slept – or lain with your eyes closed – since Friday evening, my dear fellow, and it is now Monday morning. God only knows where your mind has been but I hope it was pleasant for you at least, since it was difficult to watch for me. You spoke but briefly to me on Saturday, and yesterday not at all.’ He rose to his feet, yawning and stretching. ‘I see you will not go back to sleep: could you eat?’ Are you hungry?’

‘As a hunter,’ I swung myself off the sofa, then staggered as I rose to my feet and waves of dizziness assailed me. ‘Perhaps I had better sit for a minute, Watson, but a piece of bread and some milk would be very acceptable, if you would be so kind.’

‘Not just acceptable but imperative,’ he grunted, for he had caught me under the arms and heaved me inelegantly back onto my couch. ‘Lie there, and I shall bring you your breakfast. You must eat and regain your strength.’

‘I had soup, I seem to recall,’ I protested, as he covered me again with the blankets. ‘I am too warm now, Watson, you need not swaddle me like a babe.’

‘You are half-dead with hunger, and weak as a kitten,’ he told me, his hand tightening on my shoulder, ‘and all there is here is bone. You could not straighten a poker in your current state, you foolish man, you have near starved yourself. Well, I will not have you fainting from inanition on my watch. And the soup, for your information, was nearly sixty hours ago, and you had not eaten all day before it. Be still, and do as you are told.’

‘How will you procure breakfast?’ I asked him, ‘You told me you had taken a place with no live in servant, and surely no-one from the village, if there is a village, will be here so early.’

‘There is bread, butter, ham and eggs, and I can make shift to cook them myself, of course. Most soldiers can make shift to cook, as well as to sew: I have told you, we must often fettle for ourselves in the army. And for the rest of our time here, we shall either tramp to some hostelry, or you will make do with my cooking. We have cheese, and the aforementioned ham, and a round of beef to cut at, with pickles and cresses and cucumbers. I brought wine, and beer we can have from the farm. We shall do very well on our own, never you fear.’

‘What of tea?’ I asked, hopefully, ‘Or coffee?’

‘Patience, Holmes,’ he sighed, and vanished into what I took to be the kitchen. I lay, waiting for my breakfast, and contemplated my mood. Usually, after one of these periods of catatonia, I would waken in pain, my head throbbing, nauseous and aching as the morphia I had taken to medicate the dreadful emptiness ebbed from my brain and body, leaving me spent and weary. My mind would retain a vague recollection of bespelled dreams, of purple tinged landscapes, oddly angular, or of lofty vaulted halls stretching into a blue distance that elongated itself into infinity as I endeavoured to approach its end. Endless incarnadine seas lapped on grey shores lit by a light that was neither sun nor moon, and always, wherever I walked, there was the sense that some unseen shadow dogged my footsteps. I shivered, and became aware that Watson was standing in the doorway watching me, his eyes anxious. I smiled at him, and his face instantly cleared – and I wondered that such a man as I so faulty, so bedevilled by my wretched mind, could inspire affection in one so stalwart and straightforward.

‘There you are again,’ he said, limping forward, ‘Oh, do not mind this, it is just a temporary stiffness: it will go off when we walk. I am glad to see you back to yourself. Eat this, Holmes, and then you must bathe. There is only a hip-bath, but the water in the copper is hot, and I have laid all ready for you in the scullery.’

I bit cautiously into the ham sandwich he offered me, and found my appetite come back with a rush. He placed my tea on the bedside table.

‘Is it good? You can taste it properly?’

I nodded, devouring the bread in great bites as my stomach pleaded to be filled.

‘How long since your food has had savour, Holmes? You began your descent some days before you spoke to me about a holiday did you not? I begin to recognise the signs now, so I shall know better next time, and we will get ourselves to some retreat where I can look after you properly. Oh, my dear fellow, you should have told me. I would not condemn you for it, not I. I wish I could have done more to help.’

‘You did help. It is better with you here,’ I told him. ‘I have taken nothing for it, this time, no drugs or stimulants. Usually I cannot bear the emptiness, the dark cloud of melancholy that seems to encompass me, to weigh me down, but I knew you were there, Watson, and it helped.’

‘I am glad of it. It is a joy to me to be able to be of use, when you have done so much to help me. Drink your tea, and let us prepare for the day. I have not even unpacked yet, and there is much to do. I must explore the garden: I took the cottage with garden produce, and I should like to see if there is fruit to be had. There is a cherry tree, but I fear most have gone to feed the birds.’

‘Must we unpack?’ I looked out of the window, where the sun was beginning to turn all to gold. ‘I saw nothing of this place when we arrived. Where are we, Watson?’

‘The nearest town of any size is Eastbourne, but we sit above it, high on the Down. There is no village nearby: you demanded solitude, and save for a neighbouring farm, solitude you have. The garden is walled, and sheltered from the wind, and from the land adjoining it there is a path – precipitous enough, but secure in dry weather – to the shore. I have brought your microscope and your glass slides, your books – or some of them, at least, and your violin, and a quantity of paper for myself, which you may share if you wish to write. But you will do better, I think, to examine the land and the shore around you, and draw deductions about them. And we can walk, until you are tired, or we can drive into Eastbourne if you wish for civilisation and company.’

‘Drive! We have no means of summoning a carriage, Watson, that I can see.’

‘We have a dog cart, and an elderly mare called Ruby. I am told she is quite placid and well behaved, and although she is, I daresay, not what either of us is used to, we shall do very well with her. Which reminds me, I had better give the poor beast her oats, for she will have been waiting this hour or more, and then I must turn her out to graze. There is a boy coming from the farm down the lane to set all fair in the stable, and he will bring us fresh milk and bread, and, indeed, aught else we desire. You see, Holmes, I have taken good care of you.’

‘You always take good care of me.’ My heart beat hard and painfully in my beast as I contemplated how well he did, indeed, take care of me. ‘I think I should like to explore the garden: will that suit you? And a walk?’

‘If your strength allows.’ He held out his hand to me to pull me up. ‘Come then, let us begin the day. I am so glad, more happy than I can well express, to see you better and speaking like yourself again, Holmes.’

‘The clouds have lifted, thanks to you. Go and feed our equine, Watson, and I promise I will not use all the water in the copper. I am a very sloven, but even you need to shave: a beard does not suit your military style of neatness.’

*****

We passed a halcyon month: my Watson’s company, the scenery, the weather all conspired to heal my melancholy. I had thought that I would find it tedious, without work, without cases, without London, where I could sit in the midst of the city and feel it alive about me, but here was another, quieter kingdom into which I entered as if born for its commanding. Watson and I fell very quickly into a routine: we would rise early and, on fine days, make our way down the narrow path to the sea, strip, and fling ourselves into the waves, there to disport ourselves, dolphin-like, until the cold drove us towel-wrapped, blue and shivering back to the cottage, where hot coffee, ham and eggs soon warmed us up. Watson usually wrote in the mornings, while I botanised, and sometimes even drew – for the flora was unique to the area, and I contemplated a monograph – or simply lay and drowsed in the garden near the raspberry canes and currant bushes, raising a hand now and again to pluck some particularly tempting berry. After luncheon we would walk for hours, conversing, laughing, or simply silent in the dear intimacy of two men who know each other well, and are completely at their ease. We would end our walk at some humble inn, dine, drink our beer, and ramble back together as the July dusk deepened into night. We lived the most rustic of idylls: alone in an innocent rural Arcadia.

There were wet days, but they were few. On one of them, I had been lounging beneath the cherry tree – which we had ruthlessly stripped of its remaining fruit -when a squally shower blew in from the sea, and drenched me unceremoniously. I gathered my books, raced for the door, and precipitated myself, books and all, into the cottage. At that moment, a sharp pain assailed me, and brushing at its source by reflex, I discovered I had been stung by a bee which must have been on my book. The little creature, its wings soaked and bedraggled by the fat summer drops, was crawling on the table, mortally wounded, for in my removing it from my hand, it appeared that I had wrenched the barb not only from my flesh, but also from the insect’s very bowels. My cry of pain had alerted Watson, who flung down his pen and hastened to me, grasping my hand between his and observing the puncture.

‘The sting is quite out: nothing remains,’ he declared.

‘I have killed it Watson,’ I said, softly, and for some ridiculous reason, the tears rose to my eyes. ‘I did not mean to, poor wretched little thing, but see, it is dying.’

‘So do they all,’ he replied, pragmatically. ‘Have you never been bee-stung before, Holmes? It is the nature of the honey bee: unlike other insects of their order, they die defending themselves or their hive and the store of honey therein. Wasps do not, and nor do solitary bumble bees, but the honey bee is a martyr. Did you not know?’

‘I have never had cause to know,’ I murmured, ‘Watson, deliver the coup de grace if you would. I cannot bear to see it struggle. No, I did not know. I know very little about these insects: if you were to ask me about blowflies, or maggots or such carrion feeders I could inform you of all their habits, since it pertains to my work, but I have never had cause to learn about the bee save as producers of honey and inhabitants of hive or skep. In Africa, I believe, they nest in hollow trees, and of course beeswax – our candles are made of beeswax – and they are matriarchal, answering to their queen, but other than that, no. What are you doing there with it?’

‘Entomologists use killing jars containing ether.’ He took his bag from under the table, removed a small bottle, and by manipulating the stopper, allowed a drop of the contents to fall upon the insect, which immediately became still. ‘If I were to crush it, you should not like it, and a drop of ether is the kindest way. I thought also that you might like to examine it more closely, if you knew nothing about their anatomy or physiology. There, it is out of its misery. Your hand is already reddening, but I believe you received only a little venom: you were quick to remove the bee, and the barb with it. A little bicarbonate of soda and water will alleviate that.’

‘I must set up my microscope. Watson: may I trouble you for a corner of the table? And have you brought your lancet case? Thank you, my dear fellow, now if you were to pass me a spill from the jar on the mantelpiece I can attenuate it to a fine point to serve as a probe. I have no book on the subject of bees: do you think if we were to send to town early enough tomorrow we could obtain one? I have no idea what there is to be had, but there are beekeepers enough – in fact if this is a domesticated honey bee, then there may be one in the vicinity. And I must have a new notebook: there is clearly much to be discovered. Have you not done with that hand yet? Do not make the bandage too bulky or it will impede my movements. And why bicarbonate of soda, pray? What effect is that supposed to have?’

‘It is supposed to neutralise the toxin,’ he replied. ‘Do, my dear fellow, hold still for one more moment. When Jack comes to put Ruby in, I will ensure that an express is sent to town, and we can see what there is to be had on the subject of the honeybee. I had no idea you would be interested in such things, Holmes, no idea at all.’

‘Do not forget to ask Jack about beekeepers,’ I reminded him, as he left the room. ‘I should dearly like to see the economy of the hive at work.’

‘So should not I.’ He paused in the doorway and shivered. ‘I do not like insects in huge numbers. But I suppose at least they are not wasps, which seem to me to serve no earthly good at all on this earth.’

‘We must capture one tomorrow,’ I told him, ‘for I wish to compare the barb of both bee and wasp. I do not understand why one may sting again and again with impunity, while one pays for its first act of aggression with its very life. I am so pleased I was stung, Watson, for had I not been, I would perhaps never have become interested. I wonder how many species of bee and wasp there are? They are of the order coleoptera, are they not?’

‘Hymenoptera,’ he corrected me. ‘Their wings are membraneous, not hard sheaths, as in the beetles. Did you pay no attention to biological science at school, my dear fellow? Still, I suppose had you done so I would have to own myself at all points your inferior, instead of which I receive a gratifying sense of superiority when you demonstrate your rare ignorance and I may set you right on some matter or other.’

I looked up at him, uncertain, for I was not sure whether he had complimented me or not, but his eyes were merry, and his smile soft and fond, so I was emboldened to tell him that he was by far my superior, that I was grateful not just for his instruction, but also his kindness and support. I did not add – compelled myself to refrain from adding – that I loved him more dearly than ever man was loved, and would happily spend my life with him. I doubted if I would ever be able to tell him that.

*****

The following day’s late post brought down a copy of ‘Langstroth On The Honey Bee’, ‘The Beekeeper’s Manual’, by one Henry Taylor, a similarly titled volume by a Polish gentleman named Dobrogost Chylinski which had been rendered inexpertly into English by the author himself and contained more moralistic tales about his countrymen than could be either necessary or useful, and a tattered copy of François Huber’s seminal work ‘Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles’. (The Huber was, in fact the most useful of all of them, for I had no intention of keeping bees, I merely wished to know about them.)

For the next few days, save for our morning bathe, I barely left the cottage, so engrossed was I in our researches. Watson supplied me with a couple of wasps, and two dead bumble bees which he found upon his solitary promenade one afternoon, and I performed delicate dissections to establish their comparative anatomy. I was, in fact, quite fascinated to discover that the thoracic cavity contained no lungs, but a network of branching tracheae. I told Watson this and he laughed, and said ‘No, do they in truth? Here have I been imagining tiny little pulmonary sacs, just like ours.’

I discovered, much to my pain, that my first bee’s demise had been caused by my too-hasty action in brushing it away, and that had I remained calm it would have painstakingly withdrawn its barbed weapon by walking itself around the point of puncture until it had unwound the sting without harm to itself. However when I mentioned it to Watson, he said he did not think he would have the patience to wait for that himself, and he rather wondered that I should, being in pain at the time.

‘It would, of course, increase the amount of venom in the wound, which is not such a good thing.’ I replaced the cap on my microscope lens, and stretched. ‘But it would save the bee, and that must always be an object with me. They are such honest, humble little creatures, performing a work of great use and profit to mankind. I wonder that they are not more regarded as benefactors. Good heavens, it is growing quite dark: no wonder it was difficult to see my specimens. And I do believe I am starving. What time is it, Watson? And is there anything to eat?’

‘Too late to go anywhere to find food.’ he said, ‘so you will have to make do with the stew I have concocted. And then we will sit with a glass of wine. Would you play for me, Holmes, if you have finished your work for the day? You have hardly touched your violin in two weeks; I should love a little music, if you would be kind enough to indulge me. I am quite written out for the day, and shall do no more until tomorrow.’

He sounded a little weary, and looking at him, I realised he was wearing that air of indescribable forlornity, which I generally associated with his writing not going well. With a pang of guilt and sorrow, I realised that I had ignored him for nearly four days, so involved had I been in my research, leaving him to fend for both of us, and walk the hills on his own. My mind replayed the wistful hope in his tone as he asked whether I would walk with him, and my own dismissive reply. I recollected with pain the steady kindness which had led to my being presented with sandwiches, cups of tea and plates of ham and eggs, and the surly thanklessness with which I had received them. I recalled occasions on which he had hovered near, watching my work, and I had simply bidden him stand out of my light. Now as he sat there, patient and hopeful, still looking kindly at me, l I felt the hot blood of shame rise in my cheeks. I dropped to my knees beside his chair, and laid a hand on his arm.

‘Watson,’ I exclaimed, and then hesitated. ‘Watson, I have not been a good companion to you these last few days. I have been selfish and rude, and in truth I have behaved abominably.’

His hand covered mine, a quick, light clasp, and then fell away. ‘You are not a creature of moderation, my dear Holmes. When an idea strikes you, you pursue it to the exclusion of all else. I knew how it would be once the books arrived: it is nothing I did not expect. And I am glad to see you amused and happy. I feared lest your melancholy would return in so quiet and secluded a spot, but you have found a new interest to sustain you, have you not?’

‘I – I believe I have,’ I said. ‘I had not thought of it like this but, Watson, in these little communities of insects, in these animalcular microcosms of our own society, I believe I might find respite from my cares. There is always something new, something different to observe. And there always will be. Watson, I am so grateful for your patient care of me. You are good beyond expression: what can I give you in return? Say but the word, and anything that is in my power to give shall be yours.’

‘Oh, Holmes,’ he said, fondly. And stopped. And then, ‘Let it be your company and your dear music this evening then. My writing is going badly – this wretched chap Alleyne seems a mere puling fainéant, Hordle John a vulgar, lewd fellow of no worth. Even my beautiful Maude is a simpering ninny, with no spirit or fire. I am blue-devilled writing their anaemic love story. Blue-devilled,’ he repeated slowly, ‘since I have,’ and then he stopped, bowed his head, and passed his hand before his eyes.

I knew what he was not saying, and it hurt.

‘Since you have none of your own,’ I whispered. ‘I am – I am so sorry, W-Watson, that I have left you lonely this past few days. My friendship is no substitute, I know, since I am too often neglectful and curt with you. But such as it is, it is very truly and sincerely yours.’

‘I know it, my good friend, and cherish it dearly.’ He set my hand aside, and rose to his feet. ‘Forgive my maudlin moment, Holmes: it is mere weakness and sentimentality. I have nothing to offer, I, a useless, wounded soldier with no wealth, no prospects other than to trudge on, until my health fails me, and I can do no more.’

He moved to the kitchen, and I heard the homely clatter of pots and pans as he moved the stew closer to the heat, and set out the bowls. I made myself tidy the room a little, setting aside my microscope and scouring the table with a piece of waste paper. ‘Where is the cloth,’ I called to him. ‘And the salt cellar?’

‘Over the back of the sofa,’ he told me. ‘and the salt by the fire. It was taking the damp: you know it is strongly hygroscopic. Thanks, Holmes, I will be with you shortly. Set out the glasses, my dear chap, I shall drink deep tonight, and forget such melancholy matters. And forgive my silliness. It was only that writing my young, limber hero in all the fine bloom of his manhood, I was struck by the contrast between creator and creation. What once I was . . .”Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cinarae” I am no longer fit for Venus’ wars, but must bid her to spare me, “Parce, precor, precor.” Perhaps I should not read Horace: he speaks so movingly of lost love, of love denied, unrequited, relinquished, given up, that I am melancholy every time I hear him. I should read our manly, vigorous English poets, not some dandified Roman aesthete. Here, take your bowl of this concoction (and god help you, for it is at my limits of culinary expertise) sit with me, and pour the wine to wash it down our protesting gullets.’

‘Have you ever been in love,’ I asked, filling him a glass, which he immediately drained. ‘Pardon me, I should not ask you. But I will match you truth for truth, if you choose. And do not underestimate yourself: this is –not – ah, not at all inedible.’

‘Oh, my stew is damned with faint praise, I see!’ He laughed, and poured himself a second glass of wine. ‘Done then: a truth for a truth. I have fancied myself in love many a time, Holmes. It is not always beauty that attracts me. Sometimes it is a sweet voice, or a trick of demeanour, or a character trait that appeals, that rouses my empathy, or piques my interest. It is not beauty, that classic, static perfection. I like a wildness, a wantonness if you like: “such sweet neglect more pleaseth me than all the adulteries of art . . .” I like eyes that see clear, and look straight at you – that judge, even, for I would love my equal, not my inferior. And I want a manner free from that affectation which women seem to be taught as a matter of course, god help them: we serve them ill when we do so. And sense, and intelligence: a companion I can walk with, not a strangling ivy. A Dorothea Brooke, not a Rosamond Vincy. And since I am nice in my choice, d’you see, and poor into the bargain, I have never gone further than polite niceties, “no more deep have I indited mine eye” than my own honour has consented to. I will raise no hopes I cannot fulfil, and I will make no compromises, so I fear,’ he emptied his glass and filled it again, ‘I fear I am destined to keep bachelor’s hall to the end of my days. Unlike my hero. But what of you, Holmes? Have you ever loved? What delicate pale nymph, or golden goddess has taken your fancy? I know you have the needs of a man, but how they are directed,’ he hiccupped, ‘how they are directed, I know not.’

‘I do not want a delicate pale nymph, or any golden goddess,’ I began, with great caution. ‘Watson, hand me the bottle. You have had three glasses in very short order, and a fourth is too much. You will say what you would not, and in the morning you will have a vile headache, and be cross as crabs into the bargain. Thank you, dear boy, we will drink no more. I, like you, am nice in my choice. If I were ever to choose a partner it would not be for their looks either. I would have someone kind, and tender, and honest. A m-mild temper is m-much to be desired,’ I went on at random, for my treacherous tongue had nearly tripped over the phrase “a man who”. I put the bottle firmly out of reach of both of us. ‘Someone who truly cares for me, a friend, with whom I can walk, and talk, and n-not be afraid when I am sad or melancholy. Someone who sees me for who I am,’ I ended, a little desperately. ‘And now, Watson, I believe we have had enough truth for one evening. We shall set the dishes aside till the morning, and I shall play for you. Make yourself comfortable on the sofa – in fact, go and change, and be comfortable – and I shall tune this sadly neglected instrument and make her sing for you.’

‘So you will keep bachelor hall too, it seems,’ he said to me a few moments later, as he settled himself, dressing-gowned and at his ease.

‘I shall, lifelong, I do believe,’ I replied, ‘for I do not think I will get my wanting in this life or the next. So I shall want what I have got, if I cannot get what I want, Watson.’

‘As will I.’ There was a long pause, while I tuned and re-tuned. I was just about to set bow to fiddle when he spoke again, his voice somewhat muffled and unsteady.

‘I have always thought it must be the loneliest of lives, to keep bachelor’s hall on one’s own, Holmes. Never to be companioned, to be intimate – oh not in the physical sense, but to have a soul’s companion. Do you know, I have,’ his voice roughened further, ‘I have no-one now, to call me by my given name? I shall be doctor, or Dr Watson, or Watson to the end. There never were many, but there are none now.’

My eyes filled. I set my violin aside, and went to kneel by the sofa. ‘If I have anything to say to it, we will not keep bachelor’s hall alone but be together as long as you wish it,’ I told him softly, taking his hand. ‘I have no friend as good and true as you, and I want no other – John.’

‘Thank you.’ He would not look at me, but his hand clung. In that moment, he was all mine, and my heart exulted, even as I reproached myself for any joy, when he was so sorrowful and so lonely. ‘Thank you, Sherlock.’

In the morning he was Watson again, for propriety’s sake, and before the world, and I was Holmes. But I had played him to sleep that night with every love song in my repertoire, and when he had regained command of his countenance he had turned and smiled at me, his eyes fixed on mine until they closed. I had covered him warm as he lay, deep in slumber, and once, with trembling touch, had stroked his hair, whispering ‘Sleep, my dear John.’ We were becoming all in all to each other, matched soul to soul, mind to mind.

I was content.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face: Part 7

The Moti Mahal, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur. April 1893

Holmes peers down through the lattice of the hidden balcony into the room below. Opposite him, sunlight, softened by its passage through stained glass doors, chequers the clothes and faces of the crowd below in ruby, sapphire, topaz and emerald. Jaswant Singh, resplendent on his throne, and attended by his court, is receiving Lord Frederick Roberts, the departing Commander-in-Chief of all British India.

‘The Commander-in-Chief has asked to see you personally, Mr Sigerson,’ murmurs Major Beatson, the officer assigned to accompany Holmes. ‘The reception is nearly at an end: it will not be long now.”

Holmes makes a sign of assent, but does not speak. The balconies, built into the Moti Mahal so that Rajah Sur Singh’s queens could listen privately to his council meetings, are not soundproof. His presence is sanctioned, was requested by Pratap Singh, the Maharajah’s brother and advisor, but he does not want to draw attention to himself, for among the guests below is a man who is his enemy. Directly below: he is looking straight down onto Moran’s grizzled pate, his broad shoulders.

‘Colonel Moran thinks he has Sir Pratap’s ear,’ says Beatson, too loudly, and Holmes curses him internally for the naïve and noisy enthusiast that he is. He has never liked hearty sporting types. ‘But thanks to you, Sigerson, we are aware of him. Once Lord Roberts has received your report, we can move against him.’

A change in the level of noise below signals that the reception is about to end. Beatson slips away – silently, thank God, thinks Holmes – and Holmes tenses, watches. There can be no assassination attempt in so public a place, that he knows: it is not thus Moran works, but in secret, from afar, and he is here to spy out the land, not to kill. But Holmes’ nerves are on edge none the less, for Moran’s target is the Maharajah himself. Jaswant Singh’s strong loyalty to the Empire is a threat to the Russian desire to destabilise British India. Under Sir Pratap, the Imperial Service Troops of Jodhpur are the best organised and equipped group of the Sepoy Army. To deprive them of leadership, and the Viceroy, Lansdowne, of an ally of such importance would be a feat indeed – and it is a feat that Holmes must prevent at all costs. And his interest in seeing Moran’s downfall is personal, as well as political. The information he shared with Creighton at Umballa included a list of Moran’s assassination targets, one of whom is Jaswant Singh, another of whom is Mycroft. He himself is merely an incidental annoyance, a piece of grit in the sensitive instrument of espionage, a fly to be swatted casually, in passing.

Immersed in his thoughts, Holmes has lost sight of his quarry. He rakes the crowd below with his eyes, but Moran has left. Beatson, however is only too much in evidence; his laugh rings loud and clear as he claps Sir Pratap Singh on the shoulder, ‘ . . . we’ll go and see that little mare tomorrow, she sounds just the thing!’ he says, and Holmes rolls his eyes. Can the wretched man think of nothing but polo? Footsteps, stealthy, quiet, sound on the stair, and he darts behind the silken curtain separating one balcony from another, cursing. Who is it that Beatson has allowed into this hidden sanctuary? Holmes holds his breath.

The intruder, his soft footfall perceptible more as a vibration than a sound, pushes the door open and advances. The scent of strong tobacco tells Holmes the stalker is a male; his tread, measured and careful, that he is on the track of game. The man moves to the patterned and gilded wooden screen, pierced by openings that allow the occupant of the balcony to observe, but remain themselves unseen, and as he passes the screened opening to the second balcony, Holmes sees that it is Moran. He freezes, hardly daring to breathe, for he is unarmed, and Moran carries knives; moreover he is weary and spent with a fever that has been on him since Umballa. Only Beatson knows he is there: it would be easy for Moran to knife him and slip away. He retreats, noiseless, behind the curtained door into the third balcony.

Below the balconies there is a flurry of movement, laughter, broken snatches of conversation, then more steps on the stairs. Holmes presses himself further back into the room. There is nothing to hide behind, save the curtain separating the third balcony from the fourth. A rustle of silk alerts him just in time to retreat, and as he conceals himself again, he sees Moran, his eyes fixed on the men entering the first balcony, dart backwards into the second and then the third. Holmes draws breath, bites his lip: if it were not so deadly, this game of hide and seek would make him smile. Moran utters a sotto-voce curse, slips eel-like into the corridor leading to the stairs, and is gone, his hurried steps masked by the conversation now taking place in the first balcony. Holmes breathes a sigh of relief, but it is tempered by regret at his lost opportunity. Moran has escaped him once more.

‘I left him here, where has the man got to?’ It is Beatson, his voice carrying. Holmes stalks, scowling, out of his hiding place, swishes the curtains aside and is about, in his irritation, to confront Beatson in propria persona as Holmes, when he recollects himself. He rounds his shoulders, taking a couple of inches off his height, re-settles his glasses a little further down his nose so he can peer over them in a pretence of scholarly amiability, and ambles gently into the first balcony. His voice, when he speaks, has Sigerson’s Nordic intonations, the merest hint of an accent to imply that, although he speaks it fluently, English is not his first language.

‘Your security is most careless,’ he reproves Beatson, before turning to the other person in the room. ‘Moran was where you now stand but a moment ago: observing the court below. He certainly knows the secret of these balconies, and there is no doubt in my mind that if an assassination attempt comes, it could come from here. When you, my Lord, and Major Beatson here entered so loudly, he slipped down the stairs and was gone. I avoided him myself only by a rapid and silent retreat: and he is armed, I unarmed. He could not have entered this area without assistance. Beatson, you must look to the Maharajah’s household, to see if there be any who hold a grudge and would betray him for gain.’ He looks at the man he has addressed as ‘my Lord’, a small, slight man with greyed hair and keen eyes. ‘Forgive me, Lord Roberts, but this breach of security is serious. I am here to prevent an assassination only to find the assassin with the entry to the very place from which he should most rigorously be excluded.’

General Lord Frederick Roberts, GCIE, recently ennobled to the newly created Barony of Kandahar and Waterford, inclines his head, one hand stroking his Dundreary whiskers. Holmes is conscious of being scrutinised by a gaze as keen and searching as his own. Roberts smiles, after a while, observing the way Holmes neither flinches from his gaze nor stares back at him, but bears it all patiently.

‘So Mr ‘Sigerson’ – I take it that is not your real name – let us get down to business. You have intelligence, and I have need of it. Tell me more about Colonel Sebastian Moran. Beatson, my good fellow, if we are to conduct our business here, then chairs, rather than a cushioned divan would be my preference, and I am sure Mr Sigerson and I would welcome a drink. And I take your point, Sigerson, about enemies in the camp: Moran should not have known about these rooms, much less been able to enter them. Post guards on the stairways, Beatson, if you please, and in the room below – guards for whose loyalty you can personally vouch. We do not wish to be the bleating kid and attract the tiger to us quite yet, not until our trap for him is set, that he may spring it to his ruin.’

‘Thank you my Lord,’ replies Holmes, as Beatson, somewhat chastened, leaves the room. ‘My Lord, before we begin, may I take this opportunity to commend you for your victory at Kandahar. I have a close friend who was grievously wounded fighting Ayyub Khan at Maiwand, and then invalided out of the service. I thank you for avenging him.’

‘His name? I might have met him?’ and as Holmes shakes his head, mute, ‘No, in your line of work, you cannot tell me, of course. Well, I commiserate with your friend. That was a bad business.’ Lord Roberts’ eyes are distant. ‘A very bad business, Maiwand. I visited the hospitals afterwards, after that defeat. There were terrible sights, not only the men wounded, but those dying of an enteric fever that swept the camps and hospitals, carrying off many who might otherwise have recovered. Poor lads, poor young lads. I have always striven to care for the common soldier. They lay their lives down freely in the service of their country, for so little reward.’

‘All India knows that Bobs Bahadur cares well for his troops, my Lord,’ says Holmes. He bows, with a little flourish, as a European, rather than an Englishman might. ‘I am grateful for my friend’s life.’

‘You make too much of very little,’ is the gruff reply. ‘To business, Sigerson. Give me your intelligence about this renegade Moran. It seems we have come too near to disaster already. I must despatch all this business haste, haste, post-haste, before my sojourn here ends, and I go back to England. My term of office is nearly over, but perhaps it is as well: I can do more back there to persuade the government of the Russian menace. I must speak to H1, for he is a man of sense, and will support me; moreover he has Gladstone’s ear, as he had Disraeli’s not so long ago.’

*****

Later that night, Holmes sits on his charpoy. In his hand are two folded papers that have been passed to him under seal that day from the diplomatic bag. Mycroft’s coded note is blunt and to the point.

I have had to restrain him from writing about your ‘noble death’, he writes, lest he expose our business with Moriarty (whose brother, it has to be said, is offering provocation that could be termed extreme) and Moran. Here enclosed is a draft that, under some strong persuasion, he agreed to give to me ‘for safekeeping’. I could not on any account allow it to be published, of course. Let alone that towards the end it does, in part, disclose our business, it is dangerous to both of you. If the reading public balked at Tennyson grieving for his Hallam, or found Disraeli’s heroes curiously feminine, how much more would these elevated sentiments expose his feelings for you, feelings of which, like you, I believed him to be unaware. I could not let it go to the printer without revision, and beg you will destroy it, once read: do not on any account bring it back to England. Society’s opinion is hardening against Greek affections, for Labouchère’s amendment has done the work he designed it to do. And Labouchère has never forgiven you, brother.

In material terms, Watson is in a better situation. I have arranged an unexpected ‘legacy’ from a distant cousin from his mother’s side, so he is no longer in poverty, and now his wife, who is nearing her end, is living in comfort – even luxury. I have persuaded Lestrade to give him work, but there is little else I can do, and Lestrade can do little enough. Watson is near insane with grieving, Sherlock. I fear for him. Use dispatch about our business, I pray you.

And on the other paper, its ink blotted and smeared, in Watson’s neat, pointed hand:

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these, the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts and the unparalleled powers of my dearest friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes. It was my intention, after laying before the public the facts recounted in ‘The Naval Treaty, to say nought of that event which created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done nothing to fill. Yes, I will admit it. My very existence is as nothing without him, for what is life but a deadly, lonely thing when a man has, as I have, lost the companion of his soul?

I sit here in the moonlight, writing of my friend (my task to right him in the eyes of the world; to lift from him those foul slanders that have tainted his name) and with every word inscribed I am conscious of a terrible craving for that sympathy and fellowship which once I rejoiced in. Nay, let me be honest. It was more than fellowship. We progressed through those gradual shades of advance from fellowship to friendship to intimacy, to an intimacy deeper than I have ever known, to something more sacred still, something which can scarcely be written, far less spoken of to another. It was more than mere brotherly affection. Ours was the bond that united David and Jonathan, and with David I mourn, saying ‘How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle: my Jonathan, thou wast slain in the high places. I grieve for thee, my Jonathan, very pleasant hast thou been unto me, thy love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.'

I grieve. To live, to work with Sherlock Holmes, to be with him, the sharer of his joys and sorrows, his triumphs and failures, was everything to me. When he was present, and kind, I spent the day as a God: in his absence, or even in his reproof, all days were dark to me. His affection, his friendship, should have been my all: it should have been enough for me, yet I proved unworthy at the last. Dear as he was to me, I rejected him, when I should have clasped him closer to my breast. I left him, when I should have cleaved to him. And at Reichenbach I lost him, or he lost me, when I should have refused to lose or be lost. I, who swore to him ‘comme un frère je veux te cherir’, who offered him Nadir’s promise, ‘oui, partageons le même sort, soyons unis jusqu’à la morte,’ I allowed myself to be tricked - and thus my Zurga died alone, crushed, along with his mortal enemy, by the dreadful waters. Even now, it seems to me that I hear him call me from those pitiless depths. Would to God that I had died for him . . . or if not for him, with him.

There is more to Watson’s draft, but Holmes dare not read it. He remembers too vividly the April night, six years ago now, when they had watched Bizet’s opera Leila: the turmoil in his breast, the tears he had barely restrained as the tenor, Nadir, sung by Garulli, swore eternal friendship unto death to Lhèrie’s tragic Zurga. He remembers how he had turned away during the applause to conceal his unruly emotions, how outside the theatre, as they walked home, Watson, aglow with excitement, had impulsively, passionately, repeated to him the words of the duet, vowing that they would never part, but be together ‘jusqu’à la morte’. He feels again the horror with which he, catching sight of the bullet-headed figure of Labouchère, suave and smiling nearby as he watched Watson, had understood what danger they were in. That realisation, the strain on emotions already wrung by his two-month absence from Watson for the Maupertuis case, had completely prostrated him.

And yet, in the depths of his present exhaustion, his fever, and the weariness of his life as a spy, he feels a faint glimmer of hope. These words of Watson’s are dear to him. If he can succeed, if he can return, perhaps, after all, he may be happy. Not with the fullness of happiness, for that, he thinks, is too much to ask. But if Watson will forgive him, then his presence – his companionship, friendship, affection – these may again be Holmes’s to treasure.

*****

My Heart Is Fast.

We had separated the pages of our daily paper, as was our wont, and were reading quietly together after breakfast. Our Sussex sojourn lay a week behind us, and I for one, although sorry to lose our cherished solitude, was eager to take up the reins of work again. My melancholia had dissipated – how could it not? – under Watson’s care, and my health was better than it had been for some time. I poured more coffee into my friend’s cup, and tapped gently at the sheet he held before his face.

‘There is an article here about Afghanistan, which I will exchange for the page you are conning so closely,’ I informed him, as he took up his cup with a nod of thanks. ‘I wish to see the agony column, in case there is anything of interest – no? Ah well, but in any case, my dear fellow, it would be safer if you were not to peruse the racing information on the back of that sheet with quite so much attention. And may I remind you that your cheque book reposes in my desk, and the key is upon my person? You cannot afford to lose more this month, you know. For a man who is such a good judge of health, I cannot think how it is that your doctor’s instinct fails you in the equine department: you back the sorriest screws in the race and then mourn bitterly when they fall over and die.’

‘I own your impeachment,’ he replied, smiling at me. His eyes were very blue this morning. He had slathered – there was no other word for it – honey on his breakfast toast, and a golden drop still kissed the left-hand corner of his lip. ‘I have learned my lesson, Holmes, I assure you, and am duly penitent. Hand over your page then, and I will let you have mine. Do you choose to go out this evening, my dear chap? There is Iolanthe, at the Savoy, which we have been too busy to see. I know it is not entirely to your taste, but Sullivan’s music is very fine. I confess I am in the mood for some light entertainment. Here, take your sheet. And tell me how your bee studies go on: I have not heard you mention them for a few days now.'

‘They do not pall, but increase in interest.’ I took the paper. ‘When I experiment on my own account, I shall use Langstroth’s method of hiving them, but that will not be for a while. Watson, if a bee were to enter at this moment, it would find you a welcome source of food.’ I indicated my own lip. ‘You have acquired a stray drop of honey: an overabundance was on your toast, I think.’

‘Forgive me,’ Unselfconscious as a child, he wiped his finger over the offending substance, and licked it. ‘There, is that better?’

‘Much,’ I said, my throat unaccountably dry all of a sudden. ‘Yes, I will attend the Savoy with you. We have nothing else to do, it seems.’

‘Are you bored?’ His eyes were anxious. ‘I am sure Lestrade will have something for us shortly: pray do not despair yet, Holmes. And in any case, since you have the time, I wondered if you might choose to attend a dinner with me later in the week. I am to dine with Burns-Gibson, and a group of other fellows – not all of them medical, but some like-minded men who share my views on politics. You did mention that you wished to join me, did you not?'

‘I did.’ I endeavoured to keep my tone light. Our summer work, my melancholia, and our holiday had prevented him from pursuing his radical acquaintances, but if he were to take them up again, I would certainly go with him. I nodded toward the paper. ‘Do read that article on Afghanistan for me, old man, and let me know your opinion: I am interested in what you, as a military man, think. And by the by, it appears there has been an interesting volcanic eruption in the Sunda Strait: there is a report there, after your Afghan one. Apparently some mountain or island named Krakatoa has summarily blown itself to pieces with resounding fury and immense clouds of ash. I have often read Pliny’s account of the celebrated Vesuvian event that killed his uncle, and wished I could have seen it, and now here is another cataclysm that we have missed. Why do such things not happen here, I wonder? I have never heard of one in England.’

‘I would not wish it. And if it did occur, you would be just such an one as the elder Pliny, Holmes. You would be making notes even as the ash cloud rushed to overwhelm you, and since I doubt I would be able to sling you over my shoulder and run away with you, we should perish ignominiously together. I do not know why we do not have them here. They happen only in certain places, it seems, where there is an upwelling of the Earth’s molten blood. Is her skin thinner there? I know little of geology save the few facts I have gleaned from Lyell, Wallace, Owen and Miller. Perhaps when you indulge yourself in your Hymenoptera, I shall study Mistress Earth and her ways.’

I murmured an assent. After a few moments’ silence, he looked up at me from his paper. ‘Oh, this is a bad business, Holmes. Lytton mishandled the entire conduct of my conflict during his tenure as Viceroy. If it were not for little Bobs’ victory at Kandahar, after our defeat at Maiwand, we should never have expelled Ayyub Khan and restored Abdur Raman. And although as Lytton’s successor, Ripon has commanded the respect of the native Indians to a certain extent, he is too greatly impeded by Gladstone’s directives to advance their rights as he wishes so of course there is disaffection. Of course, also, Russia meddles in Afghanistan to the top of her bent. It is not just that the Bear covets India’s riches, it is that the Tsar sorely wants a warm water port. From India, he can sail the world’s oceans, unhindered by northern ice. And in my opinion, Abdur Raman Khan cannot be trusted. He aligned himself with the Russians when he was in exile, and now has thrown in his lot with the British for gain. He will switch again just as easily, and who can blame him? We will never secure Afghanistan. It is a tribal society, riven by old loyalties, ancient betrayals, and feuds that date back beyond our presence there. We cannot understand it, and indeed we have no place there.’ He rose, setting back his chair. ‘I must away to Barts, Holmes. I shall return in time to change for our outing. And do you think we can stretch to a little supper after the performance? My last story sold well: I have a little money to spare, despite my mishaps on the racetrack. I should like to take you out, old man, to celebrate our happy return to London, and your restoration to health – and mine too, I suppose.’

‘Of course,’ I rose too. ‘Thank you for the thought; that would be delightful. You are in a particularly good humour this morning, Watson, yet I cannot deduce a particular cause. Do you care to enlighten me?’

‘Oh,’ he said, and smiled. ‘I enjoyed our holiday. I have not felt so rested, nor slept so well in months. I am so very happy too, my dear fellow, to see you so well and serene. It is a great thing for me, you know, to know that I have been of use to you in that way. By the way, I shall be passing our tobacconists, so do not trouble to replenish your store today, for I shall do it. And do not use all the hot water in the house, I beg you, for I shall need to bathe before we go.'

‘Oh, these domestic details,’ I teased him. My heart was swelling with a feeling I could not describe: pleasure at his content, his happiness, was there, but pain too, that I could not caress him, hold him to me, kiss his brow, his cheek . . . his honeyed mouth . . . before he left. ‘These little domestic details . . .’

*****

Later that evening, having taken a cab part way there, we walked to the Savoy Theatre, its new electrical lights a coruscating brilliance in the misty air. Watson, as I had not hesitated to tell him, was fine as fivepence in a smoothly brushed top hat, and a new summer suit. His cravat was deep blue, and seeing he had no pin for it, I had lent him one of mine, a diamond, discreet, small, but of the finest water. His eyes were bright with excitement, and his stride military: a month’s swimming, stretching, and walking in the summer warmth had put muscle on him and almost done away with his limp. He was beautiful – and, alas, I was not the only one who saw it, for we were not able to be alone, as I had wished. All London, it seemed, had elected to visit the Savoy that night. Among them were several of Watson’s acquaintance, although (despite a momentary pang of suspicion) I acquitted him of collusion as soon as I saw the comic look of resigned despair he turned on me when Burns-Gibson bustled up to him in the foyer, several people trailing after him.

‘Watson!’ exclaimed that worthy. ‘And Holmes! What a pleasant surprise! I had no idea you were attending tonight. My dear sir, I wonder if you would be kind enough to allow me to introduce my friends to you . . .’

They were earnest, I decided, mechanically going through those despised forms of introduction within which men jockey for position and assess each other as rivals. More than anything else, they were earnest. Burns-Gibson I could barely look at without embarrassment, since to me he must always be an unpleasant reminder of my weakness: no man should be forced to look in the eye one to whom he has confessed his most intimate physical secrets unless that man be his lover, the gaze be in intimate association, and the intimacy accompanied by the tenderest professions of love and esteem, To do him justice though, Burns-Gibson was a doctor through and through: he never gave a hint of our one-time professional association, but treated me with the gravest dignity and respect throughout. As for the two most noteworthy of the others, Percival Chubb, and Havelock Ellis, they were younger than Watson by six or seven years, than me by four or five, and still retained much of the callow enthusiasm of youth.

Ellis was a medical student at St Thomas’s – thank God he was not at Barts - and hung on Watson’s every word with flattering attention: he was a fine-featured, handsome young man, with strong brows, a prominent nose, and a dark, bushy beard. Although younger, he had this in common with Watson, that both had travelled – he in Australia, that barren, cultureless wilderness – and during the interval of Gilbert and Sullivan’s faerie fantasia, as we mingled together in the bar (for their seats were, fortunately, at some remove from ours, so at least I had my Watson to myself during the operetta) they swapped travel tales and stories of risks taken and dangers overcome. Listening to them, I found myself sadly aware that I had nothing comparable in my own life, and wondered if it made me an unfit companion for a man of Watson’s experience. Chubb, a round-headed youngster with a narrow chin, smiling mouth and extraordinarily wide-set eyes, was a civil service clerk. A dedicated auto-didact, he informed me in detail of his visits to the gymnasium to ensure a healthy body, and of his evening attendance at Birkbeck, a working men’s college, to study Greek and German, that he might read Plato and Kant in the original and thus ensure a healthy mind. I diverted his attention from Watson, whom he was regarding with a too-fascinated gaze, by some slight philosophical comments – I myself found Kant an engrossing study – and discovered him to have interesting ideas, with some originality of thought.

Had I not been so irritated by the pair’s fawning adulation of Watson, and Burns-Gibson’s sententious pronouncement on politics and public health, I might have taken some interest in my conversation with Chubb. As it was, I was quick to shepherd Watson back to our seats when the bell rang, feigning a strong desire not to miss one syllable of our airy entertainment. By the end of the piece, my black mood was descending, the lights were an acute agony, and Sullivan’s sweetest notes a torment. All I wanted was the peace and quiet of our own sanctum in Baker Street. I said nothing to Watson, for we had agreed to go out to supper together, and I wanted his company – and only his company – but after observing me narrowly for some minutes, when the clapping had died down, and we were waiting to leave our seats, he asked me in low tones if I had the headache.

‘A little. It is no matter. I am hungry, I daresay, and will be better when we have eaten. I had no luncheon, now I recall.’

‘We might join Burns-Gibson, Chubb and Ellis and their party – they have invited us – but I think we had better not. Another time perhaps, for they are interesting men, and I would like you to get to know them better. They have been contemplating the formation of a new political society, one that will support the rights of the working man, and provide better rights, and care and living for women and children, and I am sure you would be in agreement with their thoughts and ideals did you but know them. Let us give them the go-by for tonight then – it was a slight enough invitation: no shame to us if we follow our previous plans – and retire to Simpson’s. It was my intention to offer you dinner, after all. You had better not have their beef tonight, my dear fellow, it may sit too heavily on your stomach after a day’s fasting, but I am sure a plainly grilled sole, and a glass of a light hock will suit you.’

‘I hate hock,’ I commented, as I made my way behind him to the doors, and without seeing his face, I could imagine the fond, but exasperated expression with which he replied ‘Chablis then, if it suits you better.'

He had the beef at Simpson’s of course. As I picked at my Dover sole – there was nothing wrong with it, but my appetite was small - I considered broaching a subject I had long wanted to raise. Watson had told me virtually nothing about his childhood, but it was more what he had not said that led me to believe it had not been happy. I had felt for some time that the reason for his interest in social questions, particularly those relating to the welfare of children, and his urge to involve himself, lay therein.

‘You are in a contemplative mood tonight,’ he observed, before I had had time to formulate my enquiry. ‘Or is it just the headache? Try to eat at least two of those little fillets, my dear fellow. You are not on a case, and so need not deprive yourself. I do not wish to press you to converse, Holmes, but I am interested in your opinion of the men we met tonight. What did you think of them?’

‘They are idealists,’ I replied. I took a bite of fish, which at least served to give me time to reply. ‘Ellis is an interesting man. There is more about him than at first appears, and I predict a future which will bring him to men’s notice. Chubb is an idealist – an white-hot enthusiast for his cause. Only time will tell whether he retains those enthusiasms, and they carry his ideals into reality, or whether he cools to mediocrity and becomes a civic functionary with a soul as dry as his files. Even with closer knowledge, I would never call either of them friend, if that is your question. I do not count many men among my friends, as you know. In fact, it is you only who may lay sole claim to that rather dubious distinction.’

He beamed at me, bright and warm. ‘It is a singular honour to be your friend, Holmes, and even more so to be your only friend. I could ask for nothing more, you know, than to be your companion and associate. And our friendship is on quite a different footing, of course, from my acquaintance with these men. With them, it is that I believe we share a common cause, so I will associate myself with them in a friendly way, as is right, and as I do with my colleagues at work.’

I reflected, as I finished my fish in silence, that this was the essential difference between us. I had never been a clubbable man, fond of casual society. Watson, by reason of his careers both in medicine and in the army, had been forced into sociability, and found, with his easy temperament, that he did not object to it. In the first two years of our acquaintance, he had been both too sick, and too poor to indulge in society to any great extent: I had, perforce, been his only companion for most of that time. Now, restored to better, although still somewhat precarious, health, and with security of work and money, he would naturally be able to be more gregarious, with a wider circle of acquaintance. This possibility had not occurred to me before, and the prospect was unwelcome, especially after our halcyon interval in Sussex, where we had been all in all to each other. If he became more involved in the world’s affairs, he would have less time for me, and we would grow apart.

I had not realised how long I had been silent, until I woke from my reverie, and found him patiently sitting waiting for my reply. He was observing me gravely, only the hint of a smile on his lips. ‘Are you still there, Holmes?’

‘Forgive me,’ I placed my knife and fork on my plate. I really could not eat any more. ‘I was lost in contemplation: it is shameful of me to insist on your company alone, come here with you and then ignore you. It is only – I find myself asking why, Watson? I do not wish to trespass upon your reserve,’ I added hastily, as he raised a quizzical eyebrow, ‘it is only that I question why you are so involved in these social issues. Oh, your desire to be so involved is admirable, do not think I doubt it,’ for both eyebrows were raised at me now, with that authoritative hauteur that Captain Watson could assume at will. ‘Do not look askance at me: you know it is my habit to enquire into men’s motivations. I shall not press the matter if it offends you, my dear friend. You must know I would never force your hand.’

‘I am not looking askance,’ and now his brow had smoothed again. ‘I do have reason, Holmes, perhaps more reason than most. But it is not a subject for a public place. If you are ready, we shall walk home, and I will tell you what little there is to be told over a brandy, in the quiet of our own home.’

‘I will not insist upon your confidence,’ I assured him. ‘If there is nothing you wish to tell me, I will not question you further.’

‘I do wish to tell you,’ he said, slowly. ‘I have thought for a long time I should like to tell someone. I have no yardstick for it, you see, to measure my experience in men’s eyes. I do not know if I dwell too much upon it, or should be more angry than I am. Certainly, I have never mentioned my childhood to anyone before.’

‘Then let us go home. The rain will be setting in soon, and if there was ever a time for confidences it is a rainy evening. If there are to be tears within, at least there will be tears without to balance them.’

‘You have a poet’s trick with words, my dear fellow.'

‘I prefer to think of it as a liking for pattern and congruence,’ I told him. ‘It seems to me that the weather often matches my mood - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the mood matches the weather. Come, Watson, are we ready?’

We were quiet together as we went home, my arm, as always, in his. I fancied, in my love-sickness, that he inclined a little more towards me than usual, that he was at pains to shelter me from the bustling crowds. I thought the silence a comfortable one. Yet when we were finally settled, each in our own armchairs, he seemed strained, and weary, and did not speak. I watched as he drained his brandy and soda in silence, and jumped up to pour again for him. He did not drink, but rose, and moved restlessly around the room, finally returning to the fireplace, where he stood, his back to me, and gave a deep sigh.

I thought to myself then, that I must treat him as a client, although with infinitely more tenderness and care, for I had seen many thus, burdened with news of import, and unable to begin, silenced by the feelings they could not express.

‘Shall I attempt . . .’ I began, exactly as he said, his tone roughened by emotion, ‘Holmes, do you think you could . . .?’

‘What can I do?’ I asked him, but he waved at me, and said ‘No, Holmes, go on.’

‘I was only going to ask if it would help you to begin if I were to attempt to deduce you, as I have done with my clients,’ I almost felt I should apologise for the thought. ‘But of course, my dear Watson, I will not, if you do not wish it.’

‘I do wish it. I beg you, Holmes, help me to heave this off my heart. I feel I can confide in you, in no-one better, but it is so damned hard to start. Men do not talk of such things, after all.’

‘Very well then,’ I went to him, and tried to coax him back to his chair. ‘But sit down, my dear, at least. Let us be comfortable, my dear Watson, come, sit with me.'

‘I shall sit on the hearthrug, and be damned to my sore knees and back tomorrow,’ he said, resisting my attempts and dropping to the rug at my feet, where he sat half turned from me, so I could not see his face. ‘Here, move your chair closer to the fire, and I can lean against it and be warm. I am so cold, this evening. That is better. Go on then, do your worst. Or your best, whichever it is to be. What can you deduce – what have you deduced already - about my childhood?'

‘Well,’ I said, resisting the urge to touch the head that now rested close to my knee, ‘I know from your accent that you come from the North country, and from your army service that you hail from Northumberland, but I do not know whether you were born there. You spent your childhood there, though not all your young adulthood, for your adult vocabulary contains words that have no northern accent at all, and I therefore deduce that you went away to school. I know from the occasional things that you have said, that your family was wealthy enough to have a nanny - therefore you lived amid plenty. She was strict, because you have mentioned her whipping you for breaking a saucer, and she rarely allowed you things that you wanted, for you over-indulge now, when you can. But you regret your indulgences afterwards, therefore your upbringing was austere: a Protestant family then, not one of the old Catholic families of the north, who retained the old faith despite all persecution. There is a soupçon of a Catholic’s cavalier attitude toward religion about you, though, so possibly, like mine, your family is split. I know you had an older brother because of your watch, the provenance of which I deduced some time ago, along with your brother’s habits: now since he was hasty and intemperate, while you are merely (although in truth there is no ‘merely’ about it) courageous, brave to the point of recklessness, and a little too fond of gambling, I would say that there is a family history of such behaviour, stronger in some than in others. Whether you have, or have had other siblings, I know not, although I am inclined, from what I have observed of your behaviour to children, to deduce that you had a sister . . .’

‘I had a little sister. She died. Pray continue, Holmes: your ability amazes me.’

I could not see his face: he had twisted to keep it hidden, and his body was tense. He was not quite leaning against my knee, but against the chair, or I would have been able to deduce his agitation more accurately through touch. Even as I thought this, he jumped up, and moved again to stand looking into the fire.

I went on, more cautiously now. ‘Your brother took to drink, as we discussed. He would not have done so had he been happy; therefore he was not happy. Perhaps he disappointed as a son, or was disappointed. Often sons and fathers – there can be problems. He did not go into the army like you, but into business, and he struggled to succeed. You, on the contrary, went into the army. Your father was an army man, in a Northern regiment?’

‘He reached the rank of Colonel in my own regiment, the Fifth Northumberland. He himself was at odds with his father, my grandfather, an ironmaster from Bradford, who had wanted him to take over the business. But my father joined the army, with his mother’s, and an uncle’s support. You are right about religion. My father, and his, were Protestants – Dissenters, not our established church. My mother was a Catholic. She was Irish, from a good, though poor, family, which disowned her for marrying a Protestant. I never knew her family, nor those grandparents. My brother went back to my grandfather’s manufactory for a time, but he could never make a go of anything after my mother died. He was her darling, more than either me, or my sister. He had my father’s blond hair and brown eyes. He was a handsome boy, was Harry, until he ruined his looks and liver with laudanum and drink.’

‘So your father was a family rebel in his own right, but a career soldier. And your mother was Irish. You have her eyes, of course, the true, deep Irish blue, but your father’s colouring. And her stature? I thought so.’ I paused then, for I was uncertain of what I had to say next: reasoning dictated that it should be so, for all the signs were there, but to put it to the proof was quite another thing. ‘Their marriage was happy at first: a love match, despite her family’s disapproval. There was a disparity of age, perhaps, as well as status and religion? And their dates of birth?’

‘He was born in the year of Waterloo. Thirteen years lay between them. I do not know how you do it, but you are damnably accurate, Holmes. My mother was only seventeen when my brother was born in ’45. And yes, I believe they were happy then. There were seven years between us: by the time I was born, I believe she was less so. My father was away often and my mother was lonely. The marriage was disapproved of on both sides, you see. I was born in ’52, my sister in ’57. She was different . . . delicate. A strange little girl, often frightened. Her name was Mary, but we always called her Minnie. Things became even less happy after she was born, but not because of her. It was the war – the Crimean War. My father had changed before I was born, but he changed more after the war. It was – well, I have had the evil dreams, of course, and the melancholia, but he had had a head injury, and he was never quite the same. He had always been a quick tempered man, gentle to my mother, but hard-handed to us boys, demanding excellence, and swift to mend our manners or our morals with a stick – oh, I was beaten many times, although not so much as my brother – but he became brutal. And then he became brutal to her. And also to Minnie. She had a trick of singing to herself, an odd, low little croon, not unpleasant, indeed quite tuneful, but incessant, and it drove him wild: he could not support the noise, or any noise, for that matter. My mother protected her as best she could. Sometimes, indeed, I saw her take blows for the child. I did myself, for both of them, but I could not, always.’

He came to me, knelt beside me, and bared his left arm to the elbow. ‘It looks strong enough, does it not? But if you were to examine the bone, you would soon feel a bump in it. He broke my arm, and it set just a little crooked. There were other incidents: I have the scars. He was violent when he was in his fits: we tried, all of us, to get away, but he would hunt us down. I was twelve when that happened – my arm. My brother struck him for it, and received the beating of his life: I thought my father would never stop, with my mother sobbing pitifully, and imploring him to be kind, that we loved him, he was not to hurt us. It was soon after that that Harry left us, swearing he would never see our father again.’

‘But she died, your mother.’ I spoke softly, for it was now no more my task to deduce, but his to confide. ‘How old were you then?'

‘She died in ’67. I was fifteen, and away at school, where she had sent me to get me out of the way: my brother was twenty-two. He had been estranged from my father for three years: he lived with our grandparents in Bradford. My sister was not at home then either, for she had been sent to live with friends nearby who ran a little dame school. She was happy enough. She could not write to me; even at ten she had not learned her letters, but she sent me drawings.’ He paused, looked at me briefly, then stood, and turned away to the mantelpiece again, his shoulders stiff.

‘I was summoned home for my mother’s funeral – her death was a shock to all of us, for although she had been low, and ailing for some time, all her pretty colour gone and her eyes big and sad, we had not thought there to be anything seriously wrong with her. She had fallen downstairs and broken her neck straightway, no help for it, it was said, and it is true that in her coffin, in the shadow, one side of her face was dark and bruised. The coroner brought it in accidental death, and the whole of the town commiserated with the gallant Colonel, widowed of his lovely young wife, with two bairns to bring up, and his eldest son already going to the bad.’

‘Oh, my dear Watson. Oh, my dear fellow, I am so very sorry.'

He flicked me the briefest of glances, his eyes very bright. ‘It is a not uncommon tale, Holmes. Spousal abuse, the beating of children. He was drinking hard, of course. And a man’s right is absolute, you know: a woman may not say him nay. Children have no rights at all it seems. Have you heard enough of my sorry tale to understand why I must defend the weak? Why I must make up for what I could not do then? I did not save her: I was not there. She had sent me away, sent Minnie away, for our safety, and she died for it. I never knew the true story: perhaps he pushed her, perhaps her feet tangled in her skirts as she ran from him and she did indeed fall. Perhaps he struck her hard enough to cause her death, I do not know. All I know is that I was not there. I failed her. And her death ruined my brother: he held himself responsible too. He was twenty–two when she died, and he cried like a child at her funeral, cursing my father, to the scandal of all who stood by. Within a year, he had destroyed himself with drink and laudanum, as I told you. Then my father turned away most of the servants, save for an old woman who came in to do the most rudimentary cooking, and her surly other half to ruin the garden and our poor horses together. He haled Minnie and me home from school, first Minnie, straight after the funeral, then, at the close of my sixteenth year, me. I wanted to go up to one of the medical schools, to become a doctor, but he would have none of it: I was to follow him into the army, learn what it was to be a man, and make up for my weakling of a brother. He tutored and drilled me himself, with many a blow, and hard words, to toughen me. I could do nothing right for him. He was quite – insane, I think.’

He was silent, staring into the fire. I did not dare to interrupt him. I knew there was more, that there must be more, but I did not know what to say. I suspected, as I had suspected with Roylott’s stepdaughter, what that more was, but I did not want to give voice to my suspicions. He was near the end of his tale, that I knew, and the end of his strength for telling it also. And I was frozen in my indecision. I wanted to hold him, to embrace him, give him comfort and my strength, pillow his head on my shoulder – although some more practical, less romantic and besotted part of me commented wryly that he would find that no pillow at all but uncomfortably bony. At least I could go to stand by him, I thought, but as I began to rise he came back to me, and sat again on the rug. I shifted my chair a little, and, greatly daring, put my hand on his shoulder and guided him back to rest against me.

‘Do you want to say more?’ I asked him, keeping my voice low. ‘You need not tell me more, John, not if you find it hard. I can tell you what I think might have happened, if you cannot find the words.’

‘I think you know, do you not? It was – what you – you remember Stoke Moran, and Roylott? And – and our thoughts – our fears . . .?’

‘Your father began to abuse Minnie. Not just to beat her, but to use her as he should not. She was too young, but old enough for his use.’

‘I did not know, not for a very long time, not until the end, in fact. I could not suspect, it was such a heinous crime. She was frightened at first when she was home, and she sang no more, but became completely mute. Then after a while she seemed quieter and I thought they were going on better together. He was kinder to her, seemed to be taking an interest in her for the first time. He would stroke her hair, or throw her a sweetmeat. Sometimes she fawned on him, more often she shrank from him, but then that had always been her way, to be changeable, and start like a hare at noises no-one heard, or things no-one sensed. But he had stopped beating her, you see, so I counted that as a gain, and thought better of him. For he seemed, although grieving, to be quieter himself, as if the great storm had wrecked our house, and rolled on, uncaring, leaving stillness in its wake. But then it came again, and much louder, more violent, more destructive than before.'

‘She was thirteen or fourteen when she died? Was there a child, John?'

‘There was a child. I saw Minnie grow rounder, her figure develop, but I assumed it was the normal course of nature. And I did not know to suspect: I was so ignorant then, so innocent of life. I had seen the farmyard bull and the cow, seen dog and bitch couple; the cow drop her calf, and the bitch kindle and whelp. I knew it in animals: I did not recognise the signs in her because it was unthinkable that it should be so, she being so young, and kept within the house. And he confined her to her chamber the last month she was with child, on some imagined misdemeanour, and would not let her out, only the old woman in to give her food and water, and she was terrified of my father, would not go against him. I could not get in. I talked to Minnie through the locked door, every day - twice, thrice, four times a day, so she would know that she was not alone, but she never answered me.’ His voice broke. ‘I should have done more. It is no excuse to say that I was being brutally treated too, that I went to bed many a time bruised and hungry and cold. I should have had more courage, gone to someone to get help, but I did not. I did not. I should have done: I will never forgive myself for that, for being a coward.’

‘You were no coward but only a boy, alone and afraid. As for your Minnie - there would have been no help, when her time came. Or unskilled and rough help. And she was young and too small, as are the girls you try to save in the hospitals. So she and the babe died both. John, come up here. I do not care if this is not manly, at least let me hold you as a brother might. Oh my dear, my dear, I am so sorry.’

‘There was help,’ he said, into my shoulder. ‘But it was unskilled and rough help. I – I was not a doctor then, Sherlock. She had been silent for so long . . . I broke down the door when I heard her moaning, that last morning. She must have been in labour all night. Near the end, I thought all might be well, but then she screamed, and there was too much blood. She died in my arms.’

I tightened my clasp around his shoulders, and held him. I knew his tears flowed fast, but we said nothing. There was nothing more to say, only mourning, he for the innocence lost, betrayed, dying, I for the young man he had been then, and the girl he had not saved. The fire died down, the room grew dark, and rain beat against the window. Still we sat there, his hand in mine, powerless against the cruelty that had taken a young life – two lives - and a boy’s innocence with one blow.

The fire fell to ashes. It was very late when he shifted finally, and raised his head.

‘He came home blind drunk and raving later that day. God only knows what he had thought would happen to Minnie: I think he had closed his eyes to his own misdeeds. I confronted him, struck him on the mouth, told him he was a murderer and not just once, that he should see justice and no mercy, and left him maudlin and sobbing there with her body – I had made shift to clean her, and wrap her and the babe decently – it was stillborn, poor little thing. The old woman had helped me, under my strong coercion, much subdued, and muttering about the evil in men’s hearts. I took a horse, and went for the local magistrate, a bluff, honest man named Murray. He saw my father alone: I do not know what he said, but my father went for a walk with his gun, and did not return. The magistrate bade me leave all to him: he said it would be better so if all were hushed up for my sake, as well as Minnie’s and my father’s. They had been in the army together, of course, so he stood by his own. Minnie and the child – a little girl – were buried together in my mother’s grave. It was given out that she had died of a haemorrhage, and people assumed she had had consumption: the child was not mentioned.’

He fell silent for some while, then, ‘I had not thought there was so much hypocrisy among men. My father’s suicide passed as an accident, so he received Christian burial. He did not deserve it; God rot his soul in hell for the bastard he was. May he burn forever, damn him. General Murray helped me to sell the place – it had gone to rack and ruin, and was thought an unlucky house, into the bargain, after four deaths in as many years. It did not fetch much, but the proceeds saw me into the army, and then I found my own way. I have never told anyone this before; never thought to, for it is not the sort of thing you tell even a wife. But a friend – I thought I could tell a friend such as you have become, Sherlock. And now you know all. Do you see now, what drives me? Why I must strive and strive? And why the hope that these people - Burns-Gibson and his group - offer of ameliorating the lot of women and children, even if it be but a slight hope, is one to which I must, perforce, cling?’

‘I do.’ I released him from my light embrace, knowing that if I did not separate myself physically from him, I would allow my affection to take me beyond what could reasonably be construed as manly comfort, that of one soldier for another, wounded.

‘John, I cannot see but that you did as well as you could. You were only nineteen, brutally treated, beaten. We are not taught to go against our parents, our legal authority: we are trained to obey. As for the childbirth, you were untrained, unskilled, ignorant. Was there any help to be had? No? Then you did what you could: it is entirely possible that no-one, not the most skilled accoucheur could have saved her, given – oh John, my dear friend, forgive me, John, forgive me. For I teased you when we first knew each other about being skilled in dealing with childing women. I teased you. Forgive me that I misspoke so grievously - I must have hurt you so.’

‘There is nothing to forgive: you could not have known. My case - well there is not one like it in my knowledge. Nor in yours, I daresay. No, there is nothing anyone could have done: I know that now, with better training. She was too young, and too narrow-hipped, and he was a big man. And the child, I realised later when I studied such things, was not full term. It could not have survived. My poor Minnie. I loved my little sister very dearly, Sherlock, for all that she was mute and fey. She had the sweetest smile, when she was happy, and my mother’s blue eyes and black hair. I have nothing left of either of them, not even one of Minnie’s drawings.’

‘I do not know what to say to you, John. Nothing I say seems enough, nothing. You have borne so much. Lost so much.’

‘It is over now. They are at peace, Mama, and poor Harry, and Minnie.’ His face was ravaged, for he had wept out his old grief anew, but his eyes were quiet, and he stood straight once more, free of his burden. ‘I will never forget that you have stood by me while I told this tale, and listened to me. I feel at peace within myself now. But you can see, can you not, why I have no-one to call me by my name? There is none save you, my dear friend.’

‘I wish – I wish I had known you then,’ I said. ‘To be a comfort when you had none.

‘You comfort me now, more than you can ever know. I must sleep; it is late and I can do no more. I feel I have wept for a twelvemonth. I cannot thank you enough for bearing with my unmanliness. May I – may I speak freely of this to you, Sh – Holmes? Or does it disgust you too much?’

‘Speak whenever you wish,’ I assured him. ‘ Whatever you wish. Always. And it is not unmanly to grieve. Not over such tragedy.’

We parted that night with an embrace, silent, but most heartfelt. I had much to think about: so much of John’s – Watson’s, I reminded myself, Watson’s – behaviour made sense now: his intolerance of abuse; his patient work in the free wards, outside his normal duties, and unremunerated for the most part; his strong tenderness for children; the distress he showed when a childbirth had gone wrong. I had now at least a partial key to his character. Partial, but not whole. And with or without a key, I vowed to cherish him the more for his lack of cherishing in his childhood.

It was, also, more than clear now why he was interested in the social reforms discussed by men such as Burns-Gibson, Ellis, and Chubb: it was not enough for him to work on individual cases, but he must have a share in a movement – for such, I foresaw, it would shortly become – that would reach more than his personal remit as a healer allowed. He could touch more lives that way. For myself, I was a selfish creature, and freely admitted it: what cases I had taken on had been for their interest, their value as puzzles; they were an intellectual challenge, akin to the love of the chase. Justice motivated me, but it was not my only motivation. That should change, I vowed to myself. I would be kinder, altruistic as he, in the future.

*****

For some time after our discussion that night, Watson fought shy of me. He was polite enough, but cool, almost as if I had offended him, or taken offence with him myself. I wondered why he thus withdrew himself, but of course I could not ask. And far from renewing the subject, as he had asked if he might, he seemed rather to shun it. I respected his reticence even as it pained me, for I understood that he had gone far outside himself to tell me this part of his story, and believed that he felt shamed for having wept on my shoulder, despite the reassurances I had given him.

My case load was light throughout the early autumn. In September I was involved in the Walthamstow murder case, but I took care to keep that from Watson, for I thought it too near his own tragedy in many respects: the deaths of five young children at the hands of their father. I engaged in any activities related to it only when I could be sure that he was otherwise occupied at Barts all day, and that there would be no distressing news for him to hear, warning Lestrade that he was on no account to contact me about it at Baker Street, but to leave any messages at the Yard for me to retrieve. Once Gouldstone was respited from death and brought in as ‘Guilty but Insane’ under the new law that had been passed only a few months before, I washed my hands of all dealing with it. Of course it was in the papers, but I feigned disinterest in the reports, and ignored any of Watson’s comments about it.

For all of October, I was, in any case, involved in the dry business of microscopic analysis - analysis of paper, that driest of all dry things: I was not even working on a murder case, but assisting in the Whalley Priestman will forgery business, that was to come to trial later in the autumn. The case was of a fraudulent will – the fraudulent will of a miser, who had yet designed to leave his all to an illegitimate son, but had been cogged into signing a sheet of paper which was then turned into a will leaving most of his substance to the man with whom he lodged. It was interesting from the intellectual point of view, and it suited me. I had had enough of blood for a while.

‘What in the name of heaven are you doing?’ said Watson to me one evening, arriving home as I was deeply engaged in these researches. His tone was sharp, and it made me jump. The day had been foul: squalls of driving rain had slashed the city since morning, and flung dirty water in the faces of those who ventured out. Watson, it was clear, had been outside for some time, for the brim of his hat drooped under its weight of water, and the shoulders of his blue broadcloth – wearing a little now, after two years: I must remind him gently that he could afford a new coat – were dark with rain. He looked irritated and tired. I could see that his leg and shoulder were hurting again – the weather would always affect him, I thought, so that he would be a regular bear for bad temper when he was older.

However, looking round at the paper-strewn surfaces, and the sickly fire dying of inanition in the grate, I could also see that at least some of his temper might be justified, for today, Baker Street was not a welcoming place for a man to come home to. There was a sharp, unpleasant stench in the room as well – the results of my chemical analysis of the paper fibres. Without answering him, I hastened to open a window to clear the mephitic air, and a gust of rain blew in, scattering papers damply all about, and sending a billow of smoke around the room. I wrestled the window closed again, and turned to apologise, but he had stamped up to his room, growling under his breath about ‘damned inconsiderate friends’, his footstep on the stair growing more and more irregular as he went.

Panic-stricken, I rang the bell for Mrs Hudson, and when she came, implored her to provide some supper for us, and to send Janey to mend the fire . She cast a severe glance around, picked up Watson’s hat and coat from where he had cast them, and tutted over how very wet they were.

‘I take it the doctor is not in a good humour,’ she said, observing me narrowly. ‘I am not surprised, Mr Holmes, when he comes home wet and cold and tired after a hard day’s work to such a pickle as this. You had best tidy up a little – more than a little, perhaps. There really is no excuse for it: if it is still the paper you are testing,’ – for she was well aware by now of the extent of my experimental work – ‘you had much better rig up a line across the room and peg the papers on it to dry, rather than letting them lie all about, haphazard in heaps, and getting crumpled. It is what any woman would do after all, that has ever run a house. But there, you’ve never done washing, so you couldn’t be expected to know. Pour Dr Watson a sherry, take it up to him, and tell him the room will be to rights in ten minutes, a good fire blazing, and there will be a roasted partridge with bread sauce for his supper, and syllabub after.’

‘I will,’ I said, thinking, not for the first time, how fortunate we had been to find this place. ‘Thank you, Mrs Hudson, I do not know how we would go on without you.’

‘Indeed, Sir, and neither do I. There’s not a man alive who doesn’t need a woman to tell him how to go on by times, and you two are no exception, bless you. And when you’ve taken the sherry up, come straight back down again, Mr Holmes. Not a single surface here is fit to put a cup upon, and there are papers on every chair. Well, it will be you that tidies it in time for dinner, not I: the very idea of it!’

I poured Watson’s sherry, and went slowly up the stairs, unsure of my welcome, so that my tap on his door was a feeble, tentative thing.

‘What?’ he growled. There was a rustle and a thud, as if he had just rolled off his bed. ‘What do you want now, Holmes?’ He sounded exasperated, I thought.

‘I have brought you a sherry, Watson.’ I did not know if I sounded meek, but I felt it. ‘Janey is mending the fire, and Mrs Hudson has roast partridge for our dinner, with syllabub for pudding. And – and I shall just leave this here with you, I think, and go down to tidy our room. I did not realise it had become such a mess, but Mrs Hudson has scolded me roundly, and told me it is no fit place for any man to come back to, and indeed it is not. I am very sorry, Watson. I know it must be infuriating to live with. It is just that I become engrossed, and I forget, you know.’

‘I do indeed know, and it is infuriating.’ His voice was gruff. ‘I was minded just to go to bed cold and supperless and be done with this wretched, desolate day, coming home and seeing all in a muddle like that. Not a chair to sit in, Holmes, that vile stench, and the fire almost out! I wonder that you did not feel the cold yourself: it was decidedly chilly even with your blasted apparatus going.’

‘I did.’ I admitted, and suppressed a shiver. ‘I am cold to my bones, now I come to think about it.’ I tapped again. ‘Will you take your sherry, my dear fellow, while I go and set the room to rights? And – I shall put on the dressing gown you bought me; it is warmer than this old one. Would it please you if I played for you tonight?’

‘It always pleases me to hear you play. But just leave the glass there, Holmes, and I shall fetch it as I come down. Give me a moment, will you? I am not - quite fit - for company at present. And – and - yes, put your damned warm gown on, lest you take cold, for heaven’s sake.’

‘C-certainly, of c-course,’ I stammered, a reason for his hesitation suddenly occurring to me. I set the glass down, and fled, feeling the blood rush to my cheeks. Alas, it rushed to other parts as well, even as I sternly bade my mind not dwell upon what Watson might have been doing on his bed. It was fortunate that both Mrs Hudson and Janey were setting the room to rights when I got downstairs; Janey building the fire high, and Mrs Hudson, having unceremoniously swept my papers to one side, laying the table with snowy linen and our best silverware. Their presence, and the need to organise my papers, was an effective stay to my unruly fancy, yet when in our warmed, tidied room, I faced Watson across our dinner table, I blushed again and again, feeling the colour mount and then recede into pallor as I shivered.

He asked me sharply if I had a fever, and insisted on taking my pulse and temperature. I acquiesced for the pleasure of his gentle fingers on my wrist, and his palm over my brow, trembling the while with feelings I could not have described.

‘If you do not have a fever now, you are letting yourself in for one,’ he commented, as he went back to his pudding. ‘What a fellow you are, Holmes!’

‘I am not the one who came in soaking wet, and would have gone to bed without supper,’ I pointed out, attempting to sound virtuous. ‘If anyone is setting themselves up for a fever, it is you, Watson. Really, must you l-lick your spoon like that, old fellow? If that was not enough syllabub for you, I am sure you may have the rest of mine and welcome, I – I do not think I can eat any more.’

‘You eat like a bird,’ he scolded me, reaching across the table. ‘Give it to me then if you cannot eat it: it is shame and a sin to let Mrs Hudson’s syllabub go to waste. What are you doing tomorrow, Holmes? Is there anything afoot? We have not been out on a case together this age, or so it seems.’

‘There is nothing,’ I lied to him. On the morrow I was to go to St Mary’s, at Paddington to consult with Lestrade on a murder victim, but we would be looking at the terribly mutilated body of a young woman, and I did not wish to subject him to the sight. ‘I might go down to Limehouse, perhaps, to encourage the Irregulars. They have been slack in bringing me in news. Perhaps they need a little financial inducement to do so. And then I must pursue this wretched forgery case.'

‘I will come with you to Limehouse then,’ he declared, to my no small consternation. ‘I must see young Billy in any case: the fracture in his leg healed well, but there was muscle wastage, and I would like to see how he goes on. We might take some pies, or a few cakes for the children, what do you think, Holmes?’

I sat silent, snared in my own lie, and for once unable to think of a rejoinder that could loose me. I had no option but to go to Lestrade at St Mary’s: he had been pressing me for the last four and twenty hours, and I had been putting him off, moreover this murder case he wanted me to see about was one following what we were beginning to see as a pattern, and a worrying pattern at that.

I had hesitated too long. Watson put his spoon down and stood, his manner constrained, and his eyes averted. ‘It is no matter. Perhaps after all you had better go on your own, Holmes: I daresay you do not need me along, and now I come to think of it there is a case I must consult Powers on tomorrow, an affliction of the eyes in a young man in one of the free wards. When Mrs Hudson comes up, do you think you could be kind enough to ask her if I might have an early breakfast tomorrow? I will be away betimes. And I shall be from home tomorrow evening: I shall accept Burns-Gibson’s standing invitation to dine with him, so you may pursue your experiments uninterrupted. Goodnight, my dear fellow, wrap yourself warmly now, and call me if you are not feeling well.’

And he was gone, with a brush of his hand over my shoulder, and his halting step on the stair. I sat desolate amid the remains of our dinner.

He was gone in the morning, when I rose to a silent house and quizzical looks from Mrs Hudson, who presented me, mid-morning, with a parcel of cakes and pies, ‘for your children, Mr Holmes. Dr Watson said you would be going to Limehouse this morning, and I was to be sure and give you these, and you were to look at young Billy’s leg and inform him if you thought all was not going well. Are you not going to St Mary’s today then, Sir? And will you be dining with the doctor and Dr Burns-Gibson this evening, or do you wish me to prepare a meal for you here?’

He was not there at midday, when having dutifully made my way to Limehouse, distributed Watson’s largesse, and inspected the grimy, but sturdy, lower limb held out for my inspection by a bashfullly grinning Billy, I took a cab to St Mary’s to meet Lestrade for our rencontre - which was grisly enough, the body of the young woman we were examining having been completely eviscerated, and her heart removed. (The following hours turned even my accustomed stomach, and I was grateful for the coffee and strong tobacco with which Lestrade plied me afterwards.)

He was not there, when, on one of the filthiest evenings I could recall, the rain coming down in wavering curtains fitfully illuminated by guttering gas lights, and every cab having vanished from the emptied streets, I wended my unhappy way to the Underground Railway line.

He was not there when I took a train from Praed Street, reflecting that I should be extremely fortunate if Mrs Hudson had kept the dinner I had commanded for seven – an hour ago now – warm for me. He was not there.

*****

It seemed to me, as I roused, that I had been asleep for some time, for my eyes were sticky and the lids unwilling to open. I knew from the scent of the linen that I lay in my own bed at Baker Street, but had no recollection of how I had arrived there. I put out a questing hand which was immediately taken, and grasped in two warm ones that I knew at once for my Watson’s.

‘Holmes!’ His voice was rough, broken; I did not know why. ‘Oh, my dear Holmes. Oh, my dear man, thank God you have woken at last. Do not move, my dear, do not move your head too much yet. I must call Mrs Hudson.’

‘Wait.’ Memory came flooding back, and with it, pain. ‘Watson, I am sorry. I hurt you, I know, and I should not have told you what I did. It was not that I did not want you, it was that I thought you would be too affected; it was almost too much even for me. When I said that to you yesterday - ’

‘Yesterday! You have been lying here for three days out of your senses, Holmes.’ He rubbed a hand across his eyes, eyes that were reddened and weary, as if he had wept. Although he was clean, as always, he had shaved carelessly, missing a line of bristle along his jaw, and his dressing gown was crumpled. ‘Hush now, you must not talk, but I assure you all is well. Lestrade has explained to me what you were about, there is no need to fret or to worry about anything. It is I, on the contrary, who have been a fool. You thought to protect me after I told you about Minnie, did you not? And that is why you did not want me?’

‘I was so sorry, Watson. It hurt you so terribly, then. I did not want you to have to see – all of that. Watson, how did I come here, and why is my head so sore? What has been happening, these three days? I have been in an accident, but how?’

‘There was a great explosion: the damned Fenians planted a bomb, two bombs. Your train was caught up in it: I shall explain all later, Do pray hush, my dear, and be still. I must call Mrs Hudson, she has been fretting her heart out for her boy. And there is nourishing soup: you must have soup.’

‘A bomb! In the Underground railway! I remember nothing after leaving St Mary’s.’ I attempted to struggle up, and was immediately pressed down again. ‘Watson, were you there? Were you hurt?’

‘Lie down, damn you. I was not. I was at dinner with Burns-Gibson, and sore at heart with it, when came a messenger post-haste from Lestrade to say that there had been a bomb set off between Charing Cross and Westminster, which caused little damage; then five minutes later a second at Praed Street, several carriages of a train derailed and glass everywhere, many injured – sixty, indeed, at last count - and among them, you, found unconscious and recognised by an intelligent constable on the scene, may he be blessed for ever.’ He swallowed hard, and blinked.

‘Burns-Gibson and I hastened to help of course, with others of St Mary’s who were quickly on the scene, but I thought only of you. I had you conveyed here, it being better than the hospital, and here you have lain ever since. Poor Lestrade has been every day to enquire after you, the house is haunted by a succession of anxious boys, and little Janey is wholly dissolved in tears. And as for Mrs Hudson, she has been near out of her mind with worry. Now will you lie still, and behave yourself while I call her? I shall give you your soup, and you must rest for a while. It is just like yourself that you should immediately want to know everything, Holmes, but you must stay quiet and be content to be doctored.’

After a final admonitory pat on the hand – my right hand, for the left, it appeared, was heavily bandaged – he left the room, and I lay back against my pillows. My head was throbbing, my hand sore – I recognised the distinctive itch and pull of sutures, so I must have been cut by the glass – and bruises were making themselves felt about my person, but for all that, a welcome spring, a freshet of gladness welled in my heart that he and I were no long at odds.

He was not long away, but came back with the threatened soup, and Mrs Hudson, laughing and weeping at once, wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron, and smiling at me as she scolded - though to what purpose I did not know, for there was nothing I could have done about my injury: it was pure chance that had taken me there, as with all the other folk so affected. Watson sent her away after a few moments, and, sitting behind me on the bed, lifted me against his shoulder to support me while I ate my soup. I felt that he would fain have fed it to me, for he cradled me like a cat her kitten, but he stopped short of that. When I had eaten, I was dizzy, and even a little nauseated, and he bade me stay upright, still resting against him, until the feeling passed off.

By the time I felt more like myself, it had been long dark, and he ordered me to sleep. It appeared that I had been washed, during my mind’s absence, and my nightshirt changed, for it was not the one I recollected having worn on that night of my argument with him. I blushed to think that he had seen me naked, had tended to me, handled me, and I blushed even more when he handed me a bottle, rather than allow me to struggle to the necessary office. As I readied myself for bed, so did he, retreating modestly behind a screen to remove his shirt and smalls, and reappearing nightshirted and gowned to settle down on the truckle-bed that had been brought in to the corner of the room. He was barefoot – I had noticed before that he had charmingly delicate feet, small, and slight-boned, the instep dusted with a light fuzz of golden hair – and when he came to perch on the edge of my bed and smile shyly at me, I could have fallen to my knees at those feet and worshipped him.

‘I am so very glad you are alive, and not too badly harmed, Holmes,’ he said to me. He did not touch me, but his eyes met mine, serious, direct, thoughtful. ‘When I thought I had lost you, all that was in my mind was that I had offended you somehow, and might never mend it. I thought, you see, that you did not want me on cases any more. I knew there were some in September that you had kept from me, for Burns-Gibson mentioned them. Then when I talked to Lestrade – poor man, he was so concerned about you, and not just, I think, because he stood to lose your assistance – I realised that what you had been keeping from me, you had concealed out of concern. Is that truly so, Holmes?’

‘I did not want to distress you,’ I told him. ‘And you were distant with me after you had told me about your childhood. I felt that it had raised ghosts for you that you regretted raising, and that by not bringing them sharp to your mind with our cases, I might lay them again. And the answer to the question that you asked me, and I did not answer – whether you dwelt too much on those events, or whether you should be more angry about them – is that what happened to you was terrible in so many ways I cannot begin to count them, and that if you are angry about it, it is no wonder. I have never told you anything of my childhood, and may never do so, for I also have things on which I do not care to dwell - but it was not terrible as yours was, Watson.’

‘I was distant because I felt you might think less of me, the poor and ineffectual son of an incestuous father, a wife-beater and a drunkard. The brother of a suicide, for effectively it was slow suicide, and an addict. And then Minnie – there are those who would blame her. And so I gave you the chance to draw away from me, and it seemed to me, when you no longer invited me on cases, that you had taken it.’

‘I do not think less of you for anything. I do not think you ineffectual – or a coward.’

‘I do not in the least regret telling you. It was a great relief, to have someone know.'

‘Good. Watson, I do not think I have ever felt so weary, and my head feels as if a thousand drums are reverberating within. Will it ever pass off, do you think?’

‘You were rendered unconscious by a knock on that same intransigent head, you foolish man,’ he told me, but his tone was gentle, and the word ‘foolish’ almost a caress. ‘I begged you to be still, but you have insisted on conversing. How do you expect to feel, pray? Yes, it will pass off, over the next days and weeks. Drink your willowbark tea – that is all I can allow you - and close your eyes. You will feel very much better in the morning.’

‘And you will still be here?’

‘I will still be here, Holmes, depend upon it.’

*****

My headache was not, in fact, better in the morning, or for several mornings after that, but increased most vilely upon me, accompanied by a touch of fever. Throughout the ensuing week, Watson cared for me diligently: never had man a better nurse, tender and capable, firm and kind. I was not very seriously ill, but felt languid and disinclined for exertion, and willing to let the world wander along on its own for a time. Watson let his work go hang for all but the poorest patients (whom he would never abandon on any account) and we sat companionably by the fire, reading the Persian ghazals of Hafez in Whinfield’s translation, and comparing his new rendering of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam unfavourably to Fitzgerald’s.

All too soon however, society – and a society - intruded upon our idyll. Throughout October, Chubb, Ellis, and the pestilential Burns-Gibson had continued their campaign to woo Watson to their infant coterie. By November that bastard slip of growth had been baptised with the rather pretentious soubriquet ‘The Fellowship of the New Life’, and struggled from meeting to ill-attended meeting in a welter of good intentions that led nowhere to action, and resolutions noteworthy only for resolving nothing. Watson, as I said, they courted assiduously – and once I had recovered from my temporary indisposition, I found myself wooed along with him.

For myself, I had no patience with any of the group’s doings, from the singing of their ‘humanistic’ hymns, milkily warm as Wordsworth-and-water, to their inability to determine what, actually, was the purpose of their gatherings, but I was obliged, in order to keep Watson under my eye, to attend and be civil. Their politics seemed to me to be nothing but diluted Marx, although many of them did not truly know his work at that time: the German philosopher had died six months earlier, and in England his influence was recognised only by a few of us who had read his ‘Das Kapital’.

(This book – and tedious enough it was - had been recommended to me by my brother (I think partly in a spirit of mischief, for he always purported to think me an anarchist) and I had perused it with some interest, but more dissent, I believe, than he would ever have expected. Few of the Fellowship had read it in the original. Had they been aware of the full import of Marx’s political theories, they would have shunned him as they would shun a leper: for all that they discussed the formation of new colonies in which everything would be held in common, had they actually been required to put this into practice, the air would have filled with cries of outraged privilege. Nor would they have recognised in themselves the slaves of Capital: they saw themselves as liberators, and were unconscious of their own chains.)

In any case, philosophy and politics aside, I had no intention of seeing Watson succumb to the blandishments of either the male or the female disciples of this group. He was fatally popular with both: one could not relax for a moment without him being drawn from one’s side by some sweetly-cooing lady asking for the doctor’s opinion on her pet philanthropic project, or some earnest-eyed young sprig asking for the soldier’s worldly advice. I spent the meetings on tenterhooks, wondering if he would be wooed further from me by one of the Misses Ford, or the earnest Miss Haddon, or serious Miss Robins, and whether, in that case, my love, unspoken as it was, would have any power at all to draw him back.

By the December meeting, as I had predicted, all unanimity of spirit was gone, for nothing, as a chronicler of the group commented, more promotes discord than close association between persons with the strong and independent opinions of the average socialist. It might be expected that high ideals would be a protection against such discord, but, as I remarked to Watson, it appeared to be a common experience of groups such as these that the higher the ideals, the fiercer the hostilities of the idealists. ‘Or in other words,’ as Watson replied, ‘they are inhabiting cloud-cuckoo-land: the whole damned, contentious, quarrelsome set of them.’ For my worldly doctor, with more age and experience, had both more tolerance of dissent than the younger idealists, and less patience with their insistence on idealistic purity.

And yet, after all, I was grateful for those meetings, for it was at one of them that I came for the first time into the company of one who was an invert professed and unashamed. He – Edward Carpenter - was a man ten years older than me, and openly of my hidden persuasion. I was fascinated by him thereafter, although we could not have been more different. I knew of him first as a poet, of course – his slim, recently published volume ‘Towards a New Democracy’, was almost required reading for the Fellowship, and I had been forced to endure many a Whitmanesque stanza. (Watson liked it: he did not distinguish between unadulterated Whitman and Whitman’s pale political and poetical disciple. For myself, I was not an admirer of the great American. I found him too wordy and discursive.)

Yet when we met Carpenter, at a meeting at Williams’s Library, in Gower Street, I instantly repented ever applying the epithet ‘pale’ to him. We were listening that evening, Watson very attentive, and I rather less bored than usual, to the Russian exile, Nikolai Tchaikovsky, a man who had been part of the Narodnik movement: an active revolutionary, whose experience was worth more than all the boyish dreams of the Fellowship put together. Although I found his views extreme, the man had at least the merit of having had the courage to put them into practice, and his stories of Russian life were engaging and well told. I was, I remember, sitting with my back to the door, and hearing someone open it, I turned round for a moment, and saw two brightly gleaming eyes out of the background of a quietly humorous face. That was my first sight of Carpenter, and in it, I gained a vivid impression of his character: that of a kindly, open man, curious, unafraid.

He went to sit beside Havelock Ellis, who, at the end of Tchaikovsky’s lecture, brought him over and introduced him to me, and to Watson. He shook hands cordially with both of us, making some slight comments about the speaker, Tchaikovsky, who also arrived at that moment to join us, and on being told our names, addressed some very flattering comments to me. I was not, alas, as appreciative of the great man’s conversation as I should have been, for I had half an ear at least on Watson and his interlocutor.

‘I much admire your work,’ he was telling Carpenter earnestly. ‘I am new to these political ideas myself, having but within the last two years returned from combat, but working as I do now, among many who are effectively disenfranchised, I see the want of a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. And women, particularly, must be allowed a say in their own destinies. It is a shame and a sin that half the population has no voice. I wish there were more who shared your views.’

I reflected, sardonically, that but a few weeks ago it had been a shame and a sin to let Mrs Hudson’s syllabub go to waste, and that the two things were by no means comparable in importance, murmuring, meanwhile, an agreement to Tchaikovsky’s comments about our judicial system, and our police work (which he compared to his own, to Russia’s detriment).

‘I applaud your sentiments,’ Carpenter told my friend. He had a fine speaking voice, rounded and clear, not in the least like my own rather strident tones. ‘And I thank you Sir, both for your honourable service to our country, and for the work you do now. My friend Ellis has mentioned your work in the free wards, Doctor Watson, and how patiently you strive to better the lot of the poorest. You are a true reformer.’

I saw Watson blush– yes, he positively blushed, like a boy at his first dance – while Carpenter continued to regard him with that gentle, encompassing smile. The man fairly radiated warmth, sincerity, openness, and Watson was blossoming in it like a daisy in the sun. His eyes brightened and he began to quiz Carpenter about his own work in Sheffield, (where he was much engaged with educating the working man) and his visit to Walt Whitman. Carpenter, for his part, extolled the virtues of his workers: ‘these rough lads, down to earth, simple of mind and manner, hands calloused with toil, bodies redolent of honest sweat’ in a way that left no doubt in my mind – and, it became clear, no doubt in Watson’s mind either – of his liking for physical, as well as mental communion with these objects of his approbation. Upon Ellis re-joining the pair of them, the conversation became more medical, and I became painfully, bitterly aware, while trying to sustain a discussion of Russia’s history with Tchaikovsky – who was not, I was saddened to learn, related to the composer whose works I enjoyed so much – that their subject was inversion.

I could not bear it. It was intolerable, a chain of words tightened round me to chafe and torment. They tossed around terms such as ‘Uranian’ ‘Urning’ ‘Dioning’ with gay abandon, as if to be such a thing were no more forbidden than the indulgence of the more natural urges for man for woman. They pondered the reasons for what they called ‘homosexuality’ (a linguistic, if not a metaphorical bastard of a term) as defined in the writings of one Karl-Maria Kertbeny, of whom I had never heard.

Watson, who, to my horror was far more knowledgeable than I had thought, referenced the classification system of a Karl Heinrich Ulrich with regard to men of a female nature, and I wondered, in sudden, savage despair, where he would place me in that categorisation. Because, I think, he was speaking to another medical man, he discussed at greater length, and in more detail than he ever had with me, the liaisons he had previously referenced from his army days, considering whether they might be evidence for what Ulrich termed the ‘Uraniaster’ or man who lay with men solely because there were no women to be had, and positing that at least one of his men had been by nature a ‘Weibling’, or feminine-acting man. That topic exhausted, Carpenter expounded on his own enlightenment, describing how he had come to the conclusion that his own affectional nature was that of an Urning, and how since that revelation he had realised he need not be as he had hitherto been, alone.

‘I discovered,’ he owned openly to the small group that had gathered round him, drawn like bees to the honey of his warmth, the kindness of his gaze, the undoubted charm of his manner, ‘that others of like temperament to myself were abundant in all directions, and to be found in every class of society; and I am sure that I need not say that from that time forward, life was changed for me. I found sympathy, understanding, love, in a hundred different forms, and my world of the heart became as rich in that which it needed as before it had been fruitless and barren.’

‘And do you,’ asked Ellis, ‘ consider yourself the better for having acted on these desires, consenting to fulfil that sexual attraction that society so reprobates and to follow your affectional nature?’

‘Of course.’ Carpenter was in earnest now. ‘and whether such a state of affairs may be desirable or undesirable, whether it indicate a high moral nature or a low moral nature and so forth, are questions which – in a land where everything is either moral or immoral - are sure to be asked. Yet in a sense such questions are quite beside the point. They do not alter the fact of my nature, and that has always been the same since my very earliest days. I cannot recollect a time when I was not as I am now. But it will be evident enough – to anyone who takes the trouble to think about what these things mean – that to a person of my emotional nature, the conditions which brought about – to a comparatively late age – the absence of marriage, or its equivalent were a fruitful source of trouble and nervous prostration . . . ’

How deeply I felt that, I mused, listening. Had I not experienced the same within myself? My companion had, by this time, also caught Carpenter’s comments, spoken as they were in the clear tones of an accustomed orator, and by mutual unspoken agreement we joined their group, as he continued, ‘ . . . I realised in my own person some of the sufferings which are endured by an immense number of modern women, especially of the well-to-do classes, as well as by that large class of men of whom we have just been speaking, and to whom the name Uranians is often given.’

‘And do you,’ asked Tchaikovsky, ‘consider that these problems differ between the social classes? That one class is more exempt from them than another?’

‘Certainly I do. I can hardly bear, even now that I have broken through the double veil, to think of my earlier life, and of that idiotic social reserve and Britannic pretence which prevailed over all that period – and to a great extent still does prevail, especially among the so-called well-to-do classes of this country – the denial and systematic ignoring of the obvious facts of heart and sex, and the consequent desolation and nerve-ruin - ’ he broke off, seemingly much moved.

‘Not just the ignoring,’ put in Watson, quietly, ‘It is the ignorance about the whole subject that is productive of so much pain. And that is irrespective of class, is it not?’

‘Indeed,’ agreed Carpenter. ‘But it is the, as one might term it, neurasthenia, among members of the middle classes, that is so damaging, brought up as they often are in strong constraints, every common impulse, every natural feeling stifled. The boys are ignored by their parents and sent away at the earliest opportunity to be snipped and forced into the shape of diplomats and soldiers to support their country, the girls, like my poor sisters, are idle in a household where servants do even the lightest housework, wearing away their lives and their affectional capacities with nothing to do and no-one to care for – a little music, a little drawing, a walk up and down the Promenade - but the primal needs of life unspoken and unalloyed. They are suffering from a state of society that has set up gold and gain in the high place of the human heart, and to make more room for these has disavowed and dishonoured love . . . oh, it does not bear thinking about. Their state of life is wholly artificial: for the working classes at least, there is the immediacy of their loves to keep them nearer wholesomeness and more honest expression of affection, because there is less artificiality of social intercourse, of dress, even, and of habit.’

‘No, instead there is hunger, poverty and ignorance,’ interjected Tchaikovsky, dryly. ‘Little use to care for affectional nature if the means of feeding the body is absent. There must be regulation of the means of production, so that all are fed, and none suffer: and this will not come from reformation, but from revolution.’

‘True. It is true,’ Carpenter admitted. ‘I am too carried away by my own flights of fancy. I assure you, I do not mean to ignore, or reduce in importance the very real sufferings that exist among our poor. I meant only to say that there has been more joy for me in the affectionate arms of the simple working man than the neurotic affections of the scions of rich families. But as for reformation or revolution – I have hopes that we may achieve this better society peacefully, Sir, do not you . . .?’

I made some excuse and stole quietly away to the window, where I stood, looking out into the street. I could not bear to hear any more. Here was a man, an invert, as was I, openly avowing his preferences, his ‘affectional nature’ as he called it. To say he was shameless would have been wrong: he did not see anything to be ashamed of. He had openly accepted his own nature. He had sought fulfilment, had lain in men’s arms and experienced – what I would never experience. I had thought myself accustomed to my own desires. I knew myself to be an invert: what more was there to know? I did not seek to conceal my nature by marriage to some wretched woman; I was not such a cheat. I merely refrained from seeking what I had had to own to myself I desperately wanted. I had thought myself above love, but I was not. I thought myself brave for acknowledging my own inversion, but this man was braver than I for despite the dangers and difficulties, he had persisted, with a curious innocence that seemed to defy the world, in finding his own measure of love with his own kind. He had not meant his words to sting, he had spoken innocently – he was well meaning, and with goodwill to all as was plain to be seen – but his words had barbs, and they had pierced me in tender places.

“Idiotic social reserve and Britannic pretence,” he had said. Oh, I was skilled at that – I had practised it for decades. “The denial and systematic ignoring of the obvious facts of heart and sex.” I had denied – denied like Peter denying the Christ, destructively, persistently. Was it to the ruin of my soul, the entire stunting of my ability to form any normal relationship? “The consequent desolation and nerve-ruin,” that too I had experienced. My life – my affectional life – had been a desert until Watson entered it. Watered by his kindness, a few, tentative blooms had sprung, but I would not allow them root-room, for I was afraid that they would grow to vines, strangling, thorny, dangerous. I feared their lush potential, were I to give them growth. “The neurotic affections of the scions of rich families.” That hurt worse than all, a painful reminder of who and what I was.

A hand touched the small of my back, just above my buttocks, and I leaned into it, seeking its warmth. ‘Watson,’ I said, thinking it was he, ‘Watson, my dear fellow, I am so very weary. May we go home now, do you think?’

‘It is not Dr Watson,’ said a voice, quietly, and I turned, horrified, to find Carpenter regarding me with kind, worried eyes. ‘Do not start, Mr Holmes, you have not betrayed yourself. Or if you have, it is only to me, and I do not matter. I hurt you deeply, did I not, prating of neurasthenia and the denial of affections as I did? I should have realised, my poor lad, that I was wounding you, but I spoke without thinking. You have that same heart-hunger as I did.'

He had caught me off guard, and I could not help it: my gaze turned involuntarily to where Watson, animation in his figure, his eyes, his gestures, was still debating with Ellis, Chubb, Tchaikovsky and a group of others. Carpenter’s eyes followed mine, and he nodded. ‘Yes, your doctor-companion. You look at him now with your very heart in your eyes, my poor boy. Will you not risk all and tell him?’

‘I cannot.’ I felt so beaten down, and he was so kind – I trusted him instinctively, which I was never wont to do with anyone, but what reason had he to hurt me? I could do more damage to him than he to me. ‘He is not an invert. You have heard him speak: he is not antipathetic, he does not hate, but he is not as – as you are, and, and, as – as I am. I cannot risk his friendship. I have that at least.’

He nodded. ‘I understand. It is only what I have done in the past, what many of us do: we kill our love-liking at birth, so that we can retain the shadow of our wanting, even if we cannot have its substance. And so the poor soul starves on, longing, hopeless, when it could have grasped after substance and found itself fed. Thinking itself in an arid, barren desert, when fruit lies waiting to be plucked, and there are streams of living water to quench its long thirst.’

‘But what if the fruit is the fruit of Tantalus?’ I was too weary to fence with him, or deny, and there was a curious freedom, a relief, in for once speaking out to one who would not condemn me. ‘If it recedes from my grasp as I reach or worse, allows itself to be plucked yet when tasted turns to ashes in my mouth? What if the water sinks from beneath my lip as I bend to drink, or, consenting to be swallowed, turns to poison? What then, Carpenter? He is,’ I clenched my teeth hard before admitting it, ‘he is my all. I will not lose him, but keep him, come what may.’

‘He watches you: look up, lad. Ah, that loving smile! I think you need have no doubt of his affections for you, Mr Holmes, never was man more fond. And he is a handsome fellow, with those blue eyes,’ and as I straightened, glaring at him. ‘My boy, you must not mind me. I am no threat to you or your doctor, indeed, I wish you all the happiness in the world: I am happy myself, and so I like to see it in others. He is coming this way: a frown mars the smoothness of that noble brow. You are perhaps looking too pale for his liking: in fact, my dear, you are too pale and attenuated for mine. Have you been ill? ’

I was explaining about the Praed Street bombing, when Watson reached my side. Without ado, he took my wrist, pressed his fingers over my suddenly accelerating pulse, and frowned. ‘You have had enough, Holmes: I should never have brought you here, or having done so, not allowed you to stay for so long. You are not yet fully recovered, it would seem. Your pulse is galloping out of all rhythm, and you look paler than I like. Forgive me, my dear fellow, I really should never have dragged you here. By your leave, Mr Carpenter, I must take my friend – my patient - home. He has not long been out of his bed after a bad knock on the head.’

‘By all means, take your friend home to bed,’ there was a dulcet mischief in his tone that made me quake, but Watson was oblivious. ‘Take him home and care for him,’ he went on. ‘I may not see you at one of these gatherings for some time, gentlemen, for I have recently purchased a property at Millthorpe, in Sheffield, and as well as devoting myself to writing and lecturing, shall be endeavouring to support myself by market gardening. But I shall always be happy to see you, should you visit. It is a bachelor establishment: you would be allowed the fullest freedoms. Dr Watson, it has been a pleasure to meet you, Sir. I was about to promise your friend, Mr Holmes here, a copy of a book that has been written by a friend of mine. I believe both he and you would find it of interest. It addresses the issues we were talking of earlier. The title is ‘A Problem In Greek Ethics,’ and my friend is John Addington Symonds.’

‘I know of him: indeed, I have his Introduction to the Study of Dante,’ I said, intrigued despite myself. ‘I know he has written ‘Studies of the Greek Poets’ but I was not aware he had touched on ethics.'

‘Although it was written a decade ago, it was not printed until this year, and there are but ten copies in existence. Its subject matter is perhaps contentious, but to a medical man and a student of nature, it will be intelligible and germane. I disagree with him in some respects – I believe a more pragmatic view can, and should be taken of the physical expression of affection – but it is a noble, a brave piece of work. I would only beg that you return it to me once read. Symonds distributed most of his copies, and since, because of his health, he is now a resident of a Davos sanatorium, I should not be able to obtain another.’

Watson promised earnestly to return the book after reading it, ‘by all means, Sir, and Holmes and I will peruse it together; for as you say, a good book is best enjoyed in company. And I am sorry we are unlikely to meet again. I have much enjoyed our intercourse. I honour your courage and openness about these issues, both with what you term ‘Uranian love’ and the position of women, and only wish it were easier for those like you to speak out. It grieves my heart to see so many good men and women deprived of joy, of love. If – when – society is changed, there will, we must hope, be no more fear, and all may love as they wish.’

‘May I venture to ask if there is some fair creature who keeps your heart?’ enquired Carpenter, his tone light and casual. ‘A future Mrs Watson, perhaps? It would be well worth the winning, that heart, I think.’

‘I am an invalided soldier, and a part-time doctor,’ was the reply, ‘I do not consider myself a worth-while match for any woman. I am quite content – quite happy – sharing a house and company with Holmes here. We suit each other well, do we not, my dear fellow?’ and he crooked his arm for me to take it, unconscious of the amusement and encouragement that that wretch, Carpenter was telegraphing to me with gently smiling eyes. ‘Our dear, kind landlady cares for all our material needs, and for the rest, we look after each other, as good comrades-in-arms must.’

I could see what Carpenter was doing, of course: he was endeavouring to find out for me whether Watson would be averse to my love – even, perhaps, to my person - but it would not do. I could risk it no longer, but with a word in Watson’s ear about my throbbing head, I set in motion our leave-taking. Carpenter took my hand in both of his and earnestly wished me farewell, begging me to consider our conversation carefully. Watson, he patted on the shoulder. ‘You are a kind man, Dr Watson, the world has not driven it out of you as it has with so many others. Keep that kindness: there are always those in need of it, and sometimes those we least expect.’

*****

We did not converse much on the way home from that meeting: I prevented it by pleading headache, and so escaped discourse. The subject of Carpenter came up several times over the next few days, however, and when the promised book arrived, we did, in fact, read it together over the dark December and January evenings. It was, as I had suspected it might be, a passionate, detailed and scholarly exegesis of the phenomenon of Paiderastia in Greek society: the deep and spiritual affection between an older and a younger man. Watson bridled at its title and subject matter: he was no supporter of what he termed ‘the damnable corruption of the innocent,’ and at first was angry that Carpenter had supposed him to be in favour of love between man and child. I persuaded him, however, that neither Carpenter nor Symonds was advocating the vileness that had marred his own young life, and he allowed, somewhat reluctantly, that the situation had been different in Ancient Greece, where adulthood, and the taking of an adult’s part in life came earlier than it did with us, and where the relationship of erastes and eromenos, of lover and beloved, was spiritual, conducing to valour and high ideals, rather than what the Greeks would have termed effeminacy and softness, or even brute desire.

‘But I still cannot allow there to be any true reciprocity where there is not complete equality of mind and living and understanding,’ he said to me one afternoon towards the end of January, when we had snatched a little leisure to finish our reading. ‘Whether it be between man and woman, or man and man – or indeed, I suppose,’ he added, in tones of slight surprise, ‘between woman and woman. For we read here, do we not, that Sappho and the Aeolian women were so affected, one to another, even if it was not regarded as honourably as paiderastia. And Carpenter did mention – I think it was after you had left our group for your little drop of solitude – that of course there are many women who have no desire for the sexual relationship with men but only with women, and some among both men and women who have no desire for the sexual relationship at all. There are most certainly those who would not agree with the celebrated Dr Johnson when he says ‘marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures’. There are always those for whom celibacy is in itself a lure, otherwise there would be no monasteries, and no convents either. I wonder, then, how it is we have come to fix so definitively and exclusively on only one right way of doing things? And how we have come too, to allowing nothing else?’

‘For that, you must read Leviticus.’ I pointed out. ‘And I think, Watson, that you will find that the views and needs of an agricultural society based around tribal units, and always in need of more fertile land have much to do with it. They have certainly superseded the Greek model wherever Christianity holds sway.’

‘You are right, Holmes, of course. Well, this is an excellent little book, and I am glad to have read it: I shall feel better informed in the future if I have ever to deal with men such as I did in my army days. But it is not quite what Carpenter is advocating, is it? Symonds’ premise is that the deepest love between men is sanctioned by the Greek tradition, and that it should not be censured. He talks much of the difference between heroic and profane love, and how one is more to be praised than the other. Carpenter, however makes no bones about such a love being given physical expression: he takes male lovers. I wonder that he escapes censure, but then he is such a singular character – has such a kind, winning manner – it seems impossible to believe him guilty of wrong-doing. It is not wrong when he does it, I think.’

‘He is a kind man,’ I said, feeling that the conversation had gone as far as it could. ‘Whatever you think of his – ah – affectional nature.’

‘You do not approve?’

I could have sworn there was a shade of sadness in his tone. ‘I do not disapprove.’ I replied. ‘I think that the less these matters are discussed openly, the better, although of course I do not mean that they may not be raised occasionally between friends, such as we are. I simply prefer to be cautious when exposing anyone to the potential censure of the prurient, the curious and the ill-disposed.’

‘You are right, of course.’ But there still seemed to be a touch of constraint in his manner. ‘Holmes, I was so busy with meetings and at the hospital over the Christmas and New Year period, and you so occupied with Lestrade, that I felt a decided lack of your company. Here we are already at the end of the month, and we have not been out. I would very much like us to dine together tonight. Could you fancy a meal at Romano’s with me?’

‘Of course,’ There were no circumstances in which it did not suit me to dine with him. ‘What do you think of the latest turn the Fellowship has taken, Watson? What of this split? I find it quite amusing that after all the delays in deciding upon its remit, the more political branch has named itself after the great Delayer himself: who would ever have thought that Fabius Cunctator would rise again as the patron of a little political society designed to do good slowly and by stealth, as it were. Our fiery friend Tchaikovsky does not approve, you know: he is all for revolution. But for myself I prefer the more decorous route of reformation, as I think you do.’

‘Oh, I am well content to be a Fabian,’ he replied. ‘I shall pay my dues, and support the movement politically, and when letters are to be written, I will be there with my pen. I shall even attend the occasional meeting: I feel it my duty to be supportive wherever I can. I agree with you, however, that one cannot be always attending meetings and engaging in earnest conversation: too much of that and there is no time for doing. I know you have not wholly approved my venture into the world of reform, Holmes. It has been kind in you to accompany me, and show an interest. And I have learned much from it, as, you say, have you. But it seems to me that the more one stands and listens to speeches, or engages in high-toned political discourse, the less one works with the people affected by the political situation one is speaking about, and the more one loses sight of the people who are in one’s care. I do not choose to do that. For myself, I feel I am better soldiering on in the field, rather than planning the fight.’

‘And since all that some people do is to plan, but never to carry out their plans, I feel that yours is the more noble course,’ We had been sitting together on the sofa poring over Symonds’ book, and I rose to take it from him, and put it away on a shelf. ‘We shall send this back when we have finished it, and follow our politics at some small remove from henceforth, for you, as you have said, feel better if you benefit humanity by healing its ills, and I, I must confess, if I do so by catching its criminals. And although I do not object to the cut and thrust of political debate, I must confess to a deep, and ever deepening loathing of the society, the smallness and the smaller talk that goes with it as it is manifested in the political meeting. I propose, therefore, that we do as much good as we might in our own humble way, and, other than engaging when necessary with those issues that it is the bounden duty of every man (who is not an idiot) to engage in, we waste no more time upon theorising. Are you content with that, Watson, my dear chap?’

‘Content with that, and with our lives here, my dear Holmes,’ he said, and smiled up at me, his gaze guileless and warm with unshadowed affection. ‘So very content.’

‘Good,’ I touched him on the shoulder briefly, a fleeting, treasured caress. ‘Then when you are ready, we shall go to Romano’s. And I would welcome your help on this new case that we may be consulted on, Watson. I had a telegram from Lestrade earlier, and it promises to be most interesting. Are you with me, my friend?’

‘Indeed I am, ever and always,’ He stood, alert as a hound given the scent, sturdy, reliable . . . loving, loyal . . . infinitely beloved. ‘I am your man. Shall I bring my revolver, do you think, Holmes?’

‘Perhaps not to Romano’s, my dear fellow,’ I said. ‘We are only going to dine – this evening, at least.’

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face: Part 8

Karachi, at the D J Singh Government College.

Mycroft, writes Holmes, the steel nib of his pen sputtering angrily across the paper as he scratches out the code, I regret to inform you that your agents in India are of sadly poor calibre. Why, pray, can we not employ Indian natives for this delicate and dangerous work, rather than these raw subalterns fresh out of England and still wet behind the ears? I would sooner have a tried and trusted man of the country than one of your imbecilic infants with no thought in their head but death or glory. Of glory there is none in this wretched task, which I hoped by now to have successfully concluded, and death is, alas, a too constant companion for comfort.

As I mentioned in my last, it is entirely owing to the idiocy of some of your aforementioned infants that Moran has escaped, leaving behind one dead imbecile with his throat slashed, and your brother with a scar he will wear lifelong. I daresay a man may survive with only one kidney, but I would sooner have not attempted it: I am grateful therefore for J9 (who is a less-than-imbecilic man of the country and deserving of much more trust than his superiors place in him) who has ensured that I still have two.

I suppose I should also be grateful to you for finding me this place to convalesce in, but for heaven’s sake, could you think of no other alias? Professor James John? Why send me to a college, for all love: am I a teacher? Jackson, moreover, is a parvenu and deeply unfriendly to our kind: “non amo te, Sabidi”. I like him not, “et fieri sentio.” In any case, Dr Moses Jackson aside, before I elaborate further, as you request, upon the details of my unsuccessful rencontre with Colonel Moran, I must tell you that if you do not soon arrange my transport from Karachi to Bushire and thence to Shiraz, I may be too late to intercept him before more of your infants die. Moran is a killer in cold blood: neither pity nor remorse will stay his hand. And in Persia he has old friends, because of his father’s work there.

I thank you that you have at least managed to assure us of a more regular and confidential correspondence, since without it I would have no-one to whom to vent either my spleen or my increasing impatience to be done with this life of lies and espionage, but it is small comfort in my present state of impatience when you do not give me enough information about how my Watson does. More news, brother: let me have more news.

Holmes lays down his pen. ‘Né spero i dolci dí tornino indietro, ma pur di male in peggio quel ch'avanza, et di mio corso ò già passato 'l mezzo,’ he murmurs. His pocket Petrarch, battered, crumpled, bedraggled, is open by him, but he barely needs it, so often has he read those impassioned, sorrowful cries. He touches the blunted corner of the book surreptitiously, almost as a prayer, then answers the discreet tap on the door with a ‘come in’ spoken not in Sigerson’s distinctive accent, but in a slight, West Country burr. His ‘convalescence’ – although he has not truly had time to convalesce since Jibril stitched him back together again – is consisting of a week spent within the confines of the D J Singh Government college on the port city of Karachi as ‘Professor James John’, a visiting teacher of chemistry. Ostensibly he is there to assist the Principal in assessing the teaching in the science department. In reality, he is waiting for safe transport to the small port of Bushire, and thence to Shiraz, where he hopes to have a rendezvous, brokered by another agent, with Moran himself.

‘Professor John? You wished to see me?’

‘Dr Jackson,’ replies Holmes. He shifts carefully in his chair, trying to conceal the pain from the as-yet unhealed wound in his back, and offers a manila folder tied in pink tape. ‘I have completed my review of your establishment, and shall be happy to give you whatever help lies within my small power. You are doing admirable work here, Sir, most admirable.’

‘The standards are as yet insufficiently high,’ says Jackson, stiffly, ‘and we suffer much from our inability to sever ourselves from the University of Bombay. I believe we should endeavour largely to shake them off, and in these matters follow a line of our own. It is not certain that what is thought best for Bombay is also best for Sindhi students . . .’

Holmes, listening to and commenting on Jackson’s exposition of his plans and dreams for his college, mentally tallies what he sees – a tall, stalwart man, handsome, grave-faced and with a sombre, almost abrupt manner – with what he knows, but knows that Jackson does not know that he knows, about him. Eight years ago now, he thinks. Eight years. It has been so long.

‘ . . . dear old Mo,’ says the shivering, sad-eyed, young man draped in Watson’s afghan and sipping brandy before the fire in 221B, ‘It is not surprising that he does not understand. He is such a splendid fellow, and so manly. Of course he thinks it is beastliness: ‘being spoony’ he calls it, and who can wonder? It is as alien to him as if I were to say that I loved my horse in such kind.’

Watson grunts, pressing sticking plaster to the end of the bandage around the boy’s slender wrist. ‘There, that will do better now, my lad. I shall tape an oiled silk to it, and you must try not to wet it when you bathe. Mrs Hudson has all ready for you now: and you may borrow my clothes to return home in. You have given your friends quite a fright, disappearing like that for a week, but you are still alive at least.’

‘Am I?’ The young man’s voice cracks. ‘He would not – said he could not countenance such an – an immoderate affection. That it could not be, would never be, that I must give it up, that we should never be friends, that if I vexed him by persisting, we must part, that it did not suit him to have me say such words . . . that I must throw the thought away. Must I live? Would it not be better if I had died?’

‘No.’ Holmes places a hand on a thin shoulder, grips hard. ‘No, you must not think that. Who knows what you have yet to offer the world: you must not despair. Trust me, it is not the end. Grieve, but do not do away with yourself. Think, man, you love him still, do you not? Then if you cannot get what you want, learn to want what you have got. You would do better to move out, of course: it may not do to be living there – no,’ as the drooping figure shivers again. ‘You cannot: it will be torture. You were foolish to reveal your feelings: men such as – such as you are walk on a knife edge, and now more than ever. So you may not be able to remain. But be steadfast, live for yourself. And if that prospect does not please, at least live for him. Live to be of use to him, and who knows what may happen. Even if he never returns your affection, you may still be his friend, patient, unshaken, faithful.’

‘Enough for the moment, Holmes.’ Watson checks him in decided fashion. ‘Into the bath with you, young man, before you chill any further; we do not want you with an inflammation of the lungs on top of all this turmoil. Jackson’s brother will be here anon: he has been quite frantic about you. As has Jackson: he sent by express to your parents enquiring after your whereabouts after you did not come home for days, and both Jacksons have had a great to-do covering this up. You must not disappear like this again, my friend: I understand why you did so, for your situation must have appeared to you to be quite intolerable, but men must be circumspect in times like this, not to bring suspicion on each other. And Holmes is right, you must move out, if not for your sake, then for his.’

Later, after their guest has been collected by his friend’s brother, and, broken-hearted but resolved, gone to make what he can of his shattered hopes, Holmes turns to Watson as they sit by the fire.

‘You were brutal with him, Watson. For all that you told him you did not think his feelings wrong, you pushed him very hard at the last to leave his friend. I know I suggested it, but after, I thought I should not have done so, to deprive him of the comfort of his love’s company, at least.’

‘I was pragmatic, Holmes, not brutal. The tide of opinion has turned against Greek affections, and he is in danger. If his friend turns against him, it is both of their reputations and their livelihoods in danger, and therefore from mere self-interest he is unlikely to do so, but others may interfere. And the poor boy will not heal with the reminder of his unrequited affections ever present with him.’

‘You think not?’ Holmes turns away, makes a show of tidying some papers. ‘Do you not believe a man can live with an unanswered, unwanted love, Watson?’

‘I did not say he could not live, Holmes. I said he could not heal. It is not all who learn to live with their wounds. He is sensitive, delicate, devoted: he may carry this to his grave. I feared to see him suffer more, constantly in the presence of the man he loves, unable to utter a word of that which suffocates him unuttered, and would choke him if spoken. It takes strength to live like that. He is yet young, and this is his first trial. He will have many, as inverts do: at least let this one be mitigated by distance. The boy, moreover, is transparent as glass: no dissembler he. He could not conceal an improper affection if his life depended on it. Poor lad, poor unhappy boy. I feel for him, and what his life must be.’.

‘I too compassionate him, for his friend is not only obdurate, but unfeeling. But yet again I hear you speak of inversion as if it were no great matter, Watson.’

‘It is not, to me. I have told you before: Afghanistan taught me many things, and one was not to laugh at or scorn or reprove any kindness in that place of hatred and wounds and death. Any love, do you hear me, Holmes? I speak of love, not mere lust. The coupling of man and man in love and tenderness – and I have, although not seen such, of course, been aware that it existed, aye, and among my fellows – is less bestial in my eyes than the buying of innocent young girls by wealthy men, the prostitution of poverty-stricken children on our streets. Which is why, may God forgive me,’ Watson’s voice is grim, ‘why I supported Stead and Labouchère in the campaign to diminish their suffering. I did not expect Labouchère to turn of a sudden, and take aim at a completely different target. God curse the man: he is a vile thing: “beware of Labby,” as I have heard others repeat, “he talks to everybody, writes to everybody, and betrays everybody”, and I would that I had never thought him admirable. That poor, broken boy, Holmes: I could weep for it. He fled as one leprous, unclean, seeking who knows what pitiful oblivion. We were fortunate to find him. And there will be so many more, now that this damned bill has passed.’ He rose abruptly. ‘I am fatigued, my dear fellow, and by your leave, I will retire. No, don’t get up: you are comfortably snugged in there, and there is no need.’

‘ . . . and of course, the quality of teaching is not such as I would wish. But I shall root out slackness and incompetence, Professor John, and we shall soon come to rival Bombay and Madras. I have great hopes of my current crop of engineers: they are grand lads. I press them hard, and harry them a little, but one must do so to keep them up to the mark. There is no excuse for a man’s weakness, do you not think?’

‘Indeed, Dr Jackson, it is clear that you think so. With regard to your work, I will do what is in my small power to assist you. You still lack resources, Sir, and must be supplied. Perhaps if we were to repair to the laboratory, we might consider your needs in detail. I have some influence in England: we can obtain equipment for you.’

Holmes has no desire to help Jackson – he has no sympathy either with his views or his actions - but some return must be made for the sanctuary he has been granted at this Karachi staging post on his long journey home. Pacing slowly by his host, listening to this vigorous, powerful, self-assured man, four years younger than his own thirty-nine, Holmes feels old. He has no need to feign the greater age that his alias confesses to, for he is gaunt with pain, incapacity, fever and fatigue, and looks fifty. His hair is beginning to silver at the temples, and recede a little above them, and his eyes are deeply shadowed. He is weary beyond belief, and the knowledge of Watson’s grief sits heavy on his heart. ‘To return to sweeter days I cannot hope,’ he says, under his breath, the rough English harsher on his tongue than the slippery silk of Petrarch’s Italian. ‘but only to progress from bad to worse, and already half my days of life are done.’

‘Thank you, Dr Watson, you have been kinder than I deserve. It was foolish of me – I did not mean to inconvenience anyone. It was only – it seems to me - that I have loved Mo for so long, ever since we were boys at Oxford together. And for so long, I did not understand what it meant. I had dreams – oh, that we might adventure together, go around the world as comrades. I did not know why or how I wanted – what I wanted, or what it meant. And when I understood – he had always been kind to me - I hoped he might understand too.’

‘But he did not. I am sorry, my lad, for your heartache.’ Holmes, standing by the drawing room door, hears their voices receding down the stairs, as Watson shows their visitor out. ‘May you have strength to do what is needed.’

There is a pause, then, ‘Dr Watson – do you – is there any hope for – for people like me to be happy? Do you know – anyone – I do not wish to ask but are you . . .’

‘Mr Holmes and I are good friends.’ Does Holmes imagine it, or is Watson’s voice sad? ‘He is an ascetic, lad, and makes little of the softer emotions.’ Can Watson really believe that? Is it a polite fiction he tells himself? Has he seen nothing of Holmes’ heart? ‘We go on very well together, and I value his company above all: but we are colleagues, simply that. And now more than ever, my boy, you should not be asking questions like that. Labouchère’s addition to this Criminal Law Amendment Act has put us all under suspicion – all of us who share rooms with another fellow, that is.’ Holmes wonders at Watson’s use of ‘us’, and his hasty change of words. ‘Many things will change, I think, because of it.’

“Yes. I am sorry.’

‘It is no matter. Learn how to guard yourself, lad, and know that by doing so, you guard him. The law is against you – now more than ever before – but you must be brave. It was that which sent you running as well, was it not?’

‘I had never thought that to love was criminal.’

‘Love between those who agree, and consent to it in full faith and with knowing heart is not criminal, my boy. I do believe this, despite all. I do not believe you are a criminal. We must all wait . . .’ (Heavens, thinks Holmes, listening intently, he is counting himself in with them again: what is the man about?) ‘. . . for better times to come, and meanwhile live our lives as best we may.’

‘I would have died for him, Dr Watson,’

‘But that is not yours to choose, lad. You must learn to live for him instead.’

After Watson, insisting that Holmes should not rise to bid him goodnight with their usual handclasp, has retired to bed, Holmes sits on, alone with the dying fire, contemplating Watson’s words. ‘Learn how to guard yourself,’ he had said, ‘and by doing so, to guard him . . . many things will change . . . has put us all under suspicion . . . you must learn to live for him, instead.’ He covers his face with his hands, and tries not to weep.

‘Dr Jackson?’ One of the college servants, a salver in his hand, interrupts them as they open the laboratory door. ‘Sir, a messenger has come. There is a telegram from Bushire for Professor John, Sir, marked ‘most urgent’ so I thought to bring it at once.’

 

*****

‘Watson,’ said I, laying my paste brush down in a convenient saucer, ‘this February fog is not going to clear miraculously between one breath and the next. You have sprung from your chair and paced to the window and back five times in as many minutes: pray are you afflicted by St Vitus, or is the newspaper so tedious that it cannot hold your attention for the space of an article? Admit it, my dear fellow, you are suffering from taedium vitae, and would be better for a change. What can I do to help? Will you walk, despite this vile weather – I swear we have not seen the sky for days, let alone the sun – or can I play for you, read to you, spar with you – what would you have? Or only tell me what is vexing you, and I shall at once endeavour to do away with your ennui - if it is within my small power.’

He had been frowning when I began my speech, but he laughed at its end, his eyes narrowing in mirth, then opening to mine, their blue gaze warm with affection.

‘You read me like a book, Holmes,’ His tone was both fond and rueful. ‘I am intolerably restless, I confess. It is this particular time of year perhaps, when it seems that winter will never end. I wonder how I can remain cooped up in a house any longer, submerged in this Stygian gloom, choked to death whenever I set foot outside the door, the very air grimed and unclean.’ His hand went to his collar and tugged, as if it were suffocating him. ‘I feel – constricted – caged. I am a bad subject for domestic life, I think: the army has given me a thirst for excitement. And we have had none for ages, or so it seems.’

‘There are murders a-plenty, but none worth note.’ I observed him narrowly, not liking the flush high on his cheekbones. ‘And I have nothing else in prospect for you, Watson, which is why I am engaged with my records. But having nothing in prospect here, it occurs to me that we could take ourselves elsewhere, if you were minded to. Unless of course it is my society of which you weary, and would sooner strike out on your own, and find your own adventure.’

‘Never that,’ he said, with an alacrity I found charming. ‘I do not weary of your society, Holmes, and I do not believe I ever will. The ease and comfort with which we live together – it is beyond all that I hoped for. Although,’ he added, looking around, ‘I speak of ease and comfort of the soul – a heart’s ease of fellowship, as it were. The body would, I confess, be more comfortable if it did not trip over quite so many papers.’ He was smiling: it was not a serious complaint. ‘Really, my dear man, could we not perhaps dispose of a few – a very few - of the less important ones?’

‘They are all important,’ I protested. ‘And I have them in a very particular order. It would not suit me at all to disturb them.’

‘Perhaps a slight rearrangement then?’ he asked. ‘It is only that I have a damned great bruise upon my shin, Holmes, from the box which you retrieved from the garret last week, deposited in the middle of our floor and warned me against touching, since it was to be of immediate use. I could not see it in the dark last night, with the moon hidden behind clouds, and met it unexpectedly when I came downstairs.’

‘That is entirely your own fault: what were you doing prowling the drawing-room by owl-light? Watson, were you unable to sleep? Was it the dreams again? You know you have only to call me if you had need of me. I thought you understood that.’

‘The wind moaned so,’ he said. His tone was tight, and his gaze averted now. ‘I did not wish to wake you: it was as bad as I have ever known – or worse, perhaps. And you were deeply asleep, so I would not disturb that small miracle.’

‘You should have roused me - I am always glad of your company. We might have read together or I could have played you back to sleep. I was only dozing.’

‘You were snoring, Holmes.’

‘Watson, I do not snore.’

‘If you say so, my dear Holmes. Although it sounded remarkably like, unless some stertorous and deep-breathed creature of the abyss had usurped your bed. It was almost cetacean in character, indeed.’ His mouth was quirked in a faint smile.

‘Watson,’ I was half minded to argue the point with him, for I do not, I most decidedly do not, snore, but he put up a hand, conceding.

‘Very well, it was wholly my imagination then, my dear fellow. But touching this wretched box, Holmes, can we really not at least push it to one side?’

‘It contains an interesting case about which I intended to tell you – you have complained of being short of copy of late, and I thought it might serve your purpose. But if you do not care to hear it, then I will remove box and papers together.’

‘Of course I care to hear it. It is before I met you, obviously. Do tell me, Holmes. Take my mind away from darkness, I beg you. The dreams were evil last night,’ he rose and strode to the window again. ‘Sometimes I think I will never be free of them. It is a good thing I have no – no bedfellow - for I could not in all conscience burden another with my restlessness. And this dream - it was the same, yet different, and – and I cannot shake it off even in daylight: it lingers with me and will not go.’

I saw him shiver, and moved to the window to stand by him, slipping my hand into his arm as if we were walking together. ‘Do you wish to tell me?’

‘It was the battlefield. I was not shot, but searching among the bodies of the dead. There were many I recognised whom I knew to be dead, many lying dead whom my conscious mind knew to be alive. That I have dreamed before: it was nothing out of the ordinary. But this time, I knew I was searching for one, one man in particular; I did not know for whom. But when I found him, then I knew it was he I had looked for, searched for, hunted for with increasing desperation. And when I found him, he was dead. My companion – my friend - gazed at the sky, sightless, solemn, and his eyes were wet, as if he had wept.’ He was shivering again, and I touched his wrist, surreptitiously feeling the pulse, wondering if he was to have a relapse of the fever.

‘Was it someone you knew?’ I pressed his arm. ‘Someone you had failed to save?’ I knew that his failures, as he called them, haunted his sleep: I had heard him call out so often, I could even say the names of some of them. ‘My dear Watson, I am so very sorry. You should have woken me.’

‘I did not dare.’ He turned away as if ashamed. ‘It was you, Holmes. It was you I was looking for among the dead. I – I woke, and came downstairs, and to begin with, I thought I could not – could not go to find you, did not dare, in case my dream were true.’ His voice roughened and he dashed angrily at his eyes with his free hand. ‘Forgive me, this is morbid sentimentality. I know not whence it is sprung nor why. In any case, I was glad to hear - ’ he scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve again, but his mouth curved in a wry smile – ‘ I was glad to hear whatever inhabitant of the deep was making the rhythmical noises emanating from your room. Now tell me you think it terribly missish of me to be so affected by what was a mere fancy of the night, and that I should have more courage.’

‘If I were to accuse you of lack of courage, I would have to own to it myself, Watson, I told him, ‘for I have bad dreams myself, dreams of being pursued by some nameless horror, of running through quicksand to escape a relentless Nemesis. I suspect you are one of many who suffer after war, whereas I – I suffer after – other events. But there is nothing to be ashamed of: we are not masters of our conscious minds, and perhaps it is better so. Perhaps our dreams allow us to understand our demons of each day.’

‘Perhaps.’ He leaned closer for a brief second. ‘Anyway, I was glad you were alive, old chap, snoring or not. It was a great relief to me, despite barking my shin on the box. But it has left a shadow, as such dreams do.  Will you tell me your tale over a luncheon now, and harp my melancholy away, as David did for Saul?’

‘I will do better than that,’ I said, for I hated to see him this miserable, low in spirits, fevered, and beset by his night terrors. He needed diversion, and I would supply it whether he would or no. ‘I shall send old Musgrave a telegram, and propose that we should visit on the morrow: then I can tell you the tale in its setting, and with its protagonist to add verisimilitude to my narrative. Musgrave has a superb library, too. And an even more impressive cellar. Of wines, I mean, not indeed that cellar where the event took place.’

‘The event! You intrigue me, Holmes. I should not take leave of the hospital,’ He sounded doubtful, but I could see that he was tempted. ‘I have much to do.’

‘You make too much of that much to do. Come, Watson, you will do better for a week’s repose in the country. You have shivered at least twice in the last few minutes, your flush is hectic, and Mrs Hudson will be distressed if you have a relapse. Admit that you do not feel well. Musgrave keeps bachelor hall: we shall not be under any constraint, and you may cosset yourself back into health to the accompaniment of a story you have never heard the like of before. Go to oblige me if you will not go for yourself, my dear fellow,’ I added, knowing that he would not oppose me in this at least. ‘I am weary of the weather too, and for once, London palls: what good is it to me to sit waiting for a fly to twitch the strings of my web and bring me running to a case when not one thread of that web can be seen a hand’s breadth in front of one’s nose? Let us go to the country, Watson, and hope the change of scene means an end to the dreams for a while. I am sorry I was so inconsiderate as to die in yours. I confess that had I dreamed that you had died, old chap, I should be distressed indeed.’

*****

‘So tell me about your friend, Musgrave,’ said Watson, the following morning.

We were travelling in a closed carriage, for a sleety, steady rain had set in overnight, and now streamed down the panes, obscuring our views of the Buckinghamshire countryside. I had spent the previous day ensuring that he remained warm and comfortable in our own home. We had gone through the documents in the chest, so that I could entertain him with stories, and I had allowed him to make notes on some old cases before reluctantly consenting to tidying some of my piles of paper away – Watson having suggested an improved way of sorting and filing them.

(I did not believe it more efficacious than mine, but consented to please him. I would have done anything to please him that day, for several times I looked up to find his eyes fixed on me with a wistful affection that I am sure he did not mean to show, and more than once he stretched out a hand to touch my arm or shoulder, as if to assure himself of my continued reality or presence. I would have given my all to take him into my arms and care for him, or to lay my head on his shoulder and rest in his embrace, and yet I could not. I dared not, for what would become of us if I erred? Better my metaphorical dinner of herbs and contentment therewith, as it said in the Bible, than a fat ox, and dissension in the house, or worse, the downfall of the house. So I refrained myself, though it cost me dear; “cœur serré” and my shameful body firmly kept under.)

Later, Mrs Hudson had provided us with a veritable feast for dinner, and afterwards I had played him to sleep. Several times in the night I had crept barefoot up the stairs, to listen, to see if he dreamed, but his sleep was peaceful, and in the morning he looked less weary and ill, so we were packed and away betimes.

‘He was nothing but an acquaintance at university – as you know, I had no friends there save the one, and Musgrave was not a man of my year after all, being in his last year while I was in my first – but I remember him coming to shake my hand after one of my more public deductions – it was about who had stolen the Master’s silver repeater, as I recall – and declare that he had never heard the like. Then later, when he had his own trouble, he telegraphed me and asked for my assistance. I suppose you could say that he was my first real case.’

‘I look forward to meeting him and hearing the story then.’ He reached to touch my sleeve. ‘I know you do not like to be thanked for your kindness, but you must allow me to do so, my dear Holmes. I was near falling into the blackest melancholy, but I am feeling much better now.’

I observed him carefully. ‘You are looking better. A rest, some clean air, and quiet nights, and you will be wholly well. Your nervous system and your physical state are intimately connected, Watson: one influences the other. I have observed this often. In fact, I am surprised that you, an excellent physician, do not recognise it, for you must have seen it in others.’

He sighed. ‘I do. I have. I find it shameful – unmanly. I was never thus before the war, but since then I do not seem able to control it. It is not just the dreams, of course, but other things as well. And you are correct, I have observed it in many soldiers before – not just the physical sequelae of wounds, but difficulty sleeping, digestive issues, aversion to noise, a hand that trembles or a leg that will not stay its weight, an increased nervousness, almost a febrility of disposition. The army does not recognise it of course. It cannot, or what would become of discipline? It has but one answer to such issues, and that is to shoot the coward who displays them, who quails at battle, or who deserts, unable to bear the strain.’

‘Then the army is an ass. It would do better to honour its soldiers’ service by healing and helping them. I am not interested in the army in general, however, but in my own particular Captain and Doctor. Tell me, Watson, if another man were to come to you with your symptoms, what would you recommend?’

‘Kindness, gentleness and patience, both from and with others, and to oneself, I suppose. Other than that, there is little that can be done. Pray do not be angry with me, Holmes. I cannot help that I feel ashamed of my weakness. I fight – I try to be armed at all points against it – but it is a cunning and relentless enemy.’

‘I am not angry. I am trying to persuade you to extend that same kindness and consideration to yourself that I have seen you offer to others. Logic dictates that you should do so, my dear friend: succumb to its inexorable command.’

He laughed then, and my heart lifted, for I knew he had understood me. ‘God forbid I ever dispute your reasoning, Holmes, you are the most excellent logician. But a false one too, because you seek to influence me with cold reason, when your voice and your actions speak most cogently of warmth and friendship, as is evidenced by this pleasure trip you have enticed me to take. Enough of me: tell me more of our host, and what I may expect. Is he a reading man, a sporting man? What like is he?’

‘He was an historian at University. He comes from an old family, of which he is proud. But I will tell you more of Musgrave when I have told you the story: there is that in it which I cannot reveal without spoiling the dénouement of my tale, and I do not wish to do that. But I beg that when I tell you, you will refrain from any censure of the – other protagonist, in front of Musgrave. And I will tell you why that is later too, when we are more private together. Like many of these affairs, part can be drawn out for public consumption, and part must remain sub rosa.’

‘Of course I can be discreet, Holmes. Is that the house, there, through the trees? It is a handsome place, and these grounds are delightful – or would be in sunshine.’

I was intrigued, I confess, to see how the several years since I had seen Musgrave had treated him. We had corresponded in a desultory fashion, as men do, but I knew little of his present living arrangements, other than the one I had been instrumental in arranging. He met us at the gate, all expansive smiles and eagerness – there had always been something boyish about him, and there was still, although his hair was prematurely grey, and his shoulders stooped -  and escorted us into the hall, where his butler, Stark, a burly man of fifty with an authoritative mien and a kind eye, relieved of us coats and cases. Stark was, I thought to myself, observing him as he brought coffee while Musgrave settled Watson in a chair by the fireside, unlikely to be a thief, a philanderer and a fence as Brunton had been: it was to be hoped that whatever his other vices, he was, as he had been warranted to be, not a blackmailer.

We passed the day very pleasantly together, but within doors, for the rain would not let up. My Watson and Musgrave played billiards together after luncheon while I amused myself with some of the rarer incunabula in the library. One book, indeed, I was most tempted by - a copy of Dallington’s 1592 translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or the Strife of Love in a Dream. I was engaged in conning over the exquisite woodcuts, and thinking how very inferior were those of our present day illustrators, when Watson came to perch on the arm of my chair.

‘Have a care,’ I warned him, ‘It will not do to crumple these pages. Look, did you ever see anything more beautifully done?’

‘No, indeed, Holmes, it is a wonder of a book. This is a magnificent library, a joy to the intellect and the eye, and I would be more than happy to spend some hours here with you. Our host has soundly thrashed me at the game, by the way: I am woefully out of practice. He is gone now about some business with his bailiff, and desired me to tell you to ring if you required anything – tea, or whatever – before his return. What an agreeable man he is, Holmes! He has been telling me of his memories of you at college. I did not know you were such an expert at the noble arts of sword and fisticuffs. I have never seen you fight in a contest.’

‘I rarely have cause now, other than in a street battle. I was accounted good at the sport once, but like you with billiards, I am woefully out of practice. Why do you mention it – do you wish to see me fight?’

‘Of course not: I would not see you hurt. I was only intrigued.’ He yawned. ‘Holmes, should you object if I were to retire for a nap? I do not know how it is – the country air, or that excellent luncheon, or Musgrave’s fine burgundy – but I am near falling asleep where I sit.’

‘Then by all means seek your bed; you will be better in it than drowsing on the sofa and waking with a crick in your neck. I shall do very well here for a while. Go, Watson, and sleep.’

He smiled, clasped my shoulder warmly, and was gone. I lay back in my chair, the book open in my lap. Our rooms adjoined, upstairs. He would close his door behind him, unfasten his collar – I must remind him to wear an Ascot on the morrow, no need to stand on ceremony here – and his cuffs, and lay them aside. He would disrobe, at least in part, unlacing his shoes, stripping his socks, the olive-toned tweed trousers he affected for country wear, and perhaps even his drawers. His shirt would be loosened at the neck, revealing the little dip at the base of his throat. He would lie down, curled on his side as I had often seen him. He slept protecting himself, pillows tucked close against his back, his knees drawn up, his elbows folded tight into his belly, one hand beneath the pillow where, I knew, he no longer kept a gun as he had in the army, lest he should use it, dream-thralled, to someone’s harm.

I could go to him now, I thought, and say, ‘Watson, let me sleep with you. Turn to me, let me be your solace, your comfort. I know nothing, but for you I would learn, do, offer, all.’ I could fit my body to the curve of his, protecting his back, watch him sleeping as, waking, he watched me. Perhaps after sleep, loosened from the bonds of fear, he might turn to me, accepting, trusting, and we might embrace, our hands seeking each other’s bodies, tenderly exploring flank and hip and groin, our mouths, lip to lip, exchanging breath that would hitch and sob, speed and falter, become broken, ecstatic, triumphant . . . sated, sweet . . . then murmur praise, love, joy in vows and promises that we would be alone no longer, but a conjoined creature, of one mind, one body, one heart, coupled, inseparable . . .

‘Holmes, are you falling asleep over that book?’ Musgrave was standing in the door of the library. ‘I am done with business for the moment and have rung for tea. What are you reading there? Oh, it is my ‘Strife of Love in a Dream’ – I have not picked that up in an age. What a pleasant fellow your soldier friend is, by the by; he has a fund of excellent stories, and I do not know when I have last been so entertained. Have you known him long?’

‘We have shared rooms for three years.’ I moved a newspaper onto my lap and put the book on top of it. My reverie had produced certain stirrings, and I cursed poor Musgrave internally for his inopportune arrival. ‘We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and quickly came to terms. He was in need of quiet, and comfortable accommodation – he was wounded in honourable service in the late campaign in Afghanistan – and I in need of someone to share the expense of lodging, so it has fallen out very happily indeed. His health is still precarious, however, and he was in sad want of country air, so I am grateful to you, Musgrave, for accommodating us.’

‘Not at all, not at all,’ He moved to the window to toy nervously with the curtain. ‘You could ask far more of me than a trifling visit, Holmes: I have never forgotten what you did for me over that business of the Ritual, and how good you were to me in the dreadful aftermath. Our lives lie in different places, but I have the kindest remembrance of you, you must know that. I have never been more shocked than when Brunton – well, the man is dead, God mend him. I do not know how I would have gone on without your support.’ He paused.

‘I have not told Watson more than that I assisted you with a case,’ I told him, for I could see that he was anxious, and wanting to ask one of those questions it was better not to voice aloud. ‘I thought to tell him the historical aspects, and perhaps take him over the ground and the process of our investigation, if you did not object. I need not tell him all, of course, or of the more personal betrayal. But he is a safe man, kind, generous and very accepting of others. His travel abroad has taught him much about the differences between other – schools of belief – and your own.’

‘If you warrant him safe, I have no concerns,’ he said. ‘I am better situated now, of course, thanks to you, and in any case, I live very much retired.’

It was thanks to Mycroft and the Diogenes that he was better, and more safely situated, poor man, but I did not tell him that, of course. ‘Then perhaps we might venture on the morrow to retrace the steps of our investigation. It is always a pleasure to show Watson these things: he has a writer’s eye and ear for them.’

‘Has he indeed?’ Musgrave turned to me. ‘Then let us show him the lie of the land. It is a curious old history, that of the Ritual, and I am proud of it, and of the family’s connection to the late lamented royal martyr: I should not object to see it in story form. Suitably amended, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I nodded in response to his raised eyebrow. ‘You need have no fear, Musgrave, he is the soul of discretion. And here is our tea.’

*****

The following day we re-enacted the events that had brought me to Hurlstone Hall in the first place, beguiling Watson step by step through the arcane family rite, our discovery of its meaning, the eventual realisation of what Brunton had been about, the horrific dénouement and inevitable sad ending. He listened, rapt, as we laid it out for his amusement: Musgrave’s discovery of Brunton in the library, tampering with his papers, the dismissal and plea for reprieve, in part granted, the man’s disappearance followed by that of poor Rachel, and my solving both Ritual and case together. His story-teller’s heart was stirred, that much was clear, but so too was his compassion. He saw before I did that Musgrave was much affected by revisiting the cellar where Brunton had been found dead, and insisted, after we had returned to the house at the end of our ‘investigation’ that he should take a stiff glass of brandy, ‘for I do not like your colour at all, Musgrave, and it will not do to have you swooning away. Ring for your man, if you please, and let us have tea as well, and perhaps a bite to eat to steady you, and settle your nerves.’

The tea was not brought by the little maid – a village child, innocent as the day about the unconventional household she worked in – but by Stark, who demonstrated a fatherly, if restrained attention to his young master, and demanded of Watson if it would be necessary for him to call the apothecary and procure a composing draught. This my doctor declined, saying that it was the merest temporary issue, but Musgrave remained subdued for the rest of the day. He retired early, pleading indisposition, and leaving Watson and myself in undisputed possession of his library.

For a while we smoked and read in silence, I cherishing an exquisite volume of Petrarch, octavo, calf-bound, and adorned with tooled and gilded bay leaves; Watson fathoms deep in a bound copy of some old Annales de Chimie et de Physique, from which he looked up at intervals to demand that I translate a word for him. He was reading about Pelletier and Caventou’s extractions of certain pure vegetable alkaloids, and when I asked, maintained that it was so he might be able to distinguish between them should we ever meet them in a case. Personally, I wondered if he were planning to use one on me, and said as much, at which he laughed, and replied that it was sadly tempting at times, but on the whole he thought he had very much better not.

‘I thought you did not know French at all,’ I challenged him. ‘You would not speak it to Dupré when we had to do with him last year, nor the year before that. Yet now I find you reading it. Your mendacity knows no bounds, Watson. I am put out, and require an explanation.’

‘I can make shift to understand the gist of it if the subject be scientific or medical, not literary French. The technical words are similar, give or take a vowel or two and your preposterous French endings, and of course that part of it is in Latin helps, so I stumble along, re-reading and refining bit by bit. I tried once to read the Count of Monte Cristo in the original, but failed miserably for want of common vocabulary, and the only English translation I could come by seemed poorly written, so I gave it up. And I cannot speak French at all other than, like Chaucer’s Prioress, ‘after the school of Stratford-Atte-Bowe’. I was ill-taught at school, and then after – well you know about that now. So it is easier to say that I speak it not at all, rather than open my mouth, utter rank idiocies, and expose myself as an illiterate.’

‘Did you enjoy Monte Cristo?’ I asked him. ‘I have read it in the original, and found it most intriguing. You mention it of course, your mind flew to it, because the poison Madame de Villefort employs to kill old Noirtier and with which she instead kills the servant, Barrois, is brucine, which you have just read was extracted in its pure state by Caventou and Pelletier two decades or so before Dumas wrote his masterpiece. Watson, my dear fellow, the English translations of the book which you will have come across are very much inferior to the original, and, indeed, omit several fascinating and enlightening passages. Would it please you if we were to read it together, in the French, and I to translate as we go along? Two objectives might thus be achieved, the amelioration of your French, and our shared enjoyment of the book. It is a fascinating study: the tale of a man sorely wronged, strangely released from his confinement, motivated by a revenge which an unexpected and immense fortune empowers him to carry out, thinking himself God’s avenger, and softened, redeemed, at the end, by an unexpected love. I have perused it several times, and each time found something new, something charming: I would much enjoy discovering it afresh with a new reader.’

And it will mean we can sit together, I thought. Perhaps we might touch

He assented enthusiastically, casting his bound papers aside to move to the indexed library record, an imposing loose-leaf leather folio in which Musgraves past had inscribed their purchases in alphabetical order. ‘If Musgrave has a copy in French, we might begin now, do you not think, Holmes? I should like that very much. Let me see -  here’s D . . . Dallington – that was a fascinating book you had there, I should like to peruse it after you have finished with it . . . Dante, the divine poet, incomparable. My mother had Cary’s translation, and would read it often. I tried Bannerman’s but it was an affront to the ear: now I have that of William Rossetti, the brother to our painter, and his poet sister. I am too old to learn the Italian for it, I fear. Daudet: his new Tartarin de Tarascon: would you read that with me? Descartes – I do not suppose I might persuade you to enlighten me as to the Discours de la Methode? Dickens, of course. He cannot write women: they are saints or caricatures. Doctor John Donne – I like his work, do you? Though it is not fashionable to say so, of course, and it is regarded as difficult: what did Samuel Johnson say of it? “The most obscure, no, the most heterogeneous ideas are chained by violence together” -  but then I do not reckon much to Johnson . . . now: Dumas, fils, La Dame aux Camellias: I would enjoy that too, would not you? Dumas, père - aha, we are in luck!’

‘Watson,’ I said. I was quite stunned by his cascade of literary references – I knew him to be an avid reader, as all good writers must be, but I had not comprehended until now how dearly he loved literature, nor perhaps, how much he must have missed access to books because of his poverty. I had certainly never seen him revel as he was revelling now, pouncing on each discovery with positive glee. ‘Watson, do you want to – should we move to the - ’

‘I shall sit by you,’ he declared, as he returned to my side, brandishing the book with an air of triumph, ‘and that way I can con the page as you read. Perhaps it will make it easier to pick up a few words. By the way, Holmes, do I take it that Musgrave was somewhat more attached to Brunton than a man usually is to his servant? Of course that is why he was so upset at Brunton’s treachery, both with treasure and with girl. And that good man Stark is the replacement?’ He raised a quizzical eyebrow at my no doubt dropped jaw. ‘My dear fellow, real attachment is always visible on the face of one who – cares - when the object of their attention is sick. A doctor must remark this many, many times. I am no detective as are you, but I have officiated at enough sickbeds to see that, at least. And its reverse, alas,’ he added, frowning.

‘Brunton had begun to add blackmail to his other undesirable activities,’ I admitted, rather weakly. ‘In truth, it was a mercy that his demise came when it did: his grip would only have tightened, and I believe Musgrave, when it came to it, would have found it impossible to be rid of him. As it was, the double shock of finding out about the – ah - historical, and the, um, personal treachery quite overset him.’

‘I hope he is well served now, in that case,’ commented Watson. ‘Here, take the book, and I will pour us a brandy and soda each. Poor gentle, lonely soul, he is in sad need of compassion and care, that much is plain.’

‘Stark was – carefully chosen.’ I laid aside my Petrarch, not without some regret, and took up the Dumas. ‘Musgrave was orphaned young, is of a, of a, ah, nervous, and, and somewhat, ah, yielding disposition, and wants, needs um, a strong and guiding hand in certain areas. And a kindly one.’

‘You imply that he is a devotee of the English vice? It is strange how many are: it has never held any charm for me, however. I hope Stark is careful, although observing them, I suspect he is.’ Watson placed my glass on the end table, then sank down onto the sofa next to me with a sigh part amusement, part exasperation. ‘Oh Holmes, do not, I pray you, look so shocked: you might be a maiden aunt with that prim expression. I went to an English public school, a surgeon’s training college, and was in the army: I have been reminding you of this now for three years and also that there is nothing new to me under the sun.’ He leaned into me, the lightest press of his side against mine and angled the book so it rested across our knees. ‘There, I will see the words clear now. Shall we begin, my dear fellow? The translation I read was badly enough worded to make me certain that the French itself could not be so, given the reputation of the author. I am eager to be proven correct.’ He laid his hand over mine, and turned the page. ‘Will you read for me, Holmes?’

‘Le 24 février 1815, la vigie de Notre-Dame de la Garde signala le trois-mâts le Pharaon, venant de Smyrne, Trieste et Naples,’ I began, my nerves a-quiver. His free arm lay along the back of the sofa. I dared to lean into it, and he allowed his hand to rest tenderly on my shoulder, pressed it, and stilled.

‘Yes, yes, that is right, that is comfortable and friendly. Go on,’ he said, ‘read a couple of sentences and then translate, if you would be so good. I love to hear how you switch between the languages with such ease. Your French well-spoken and accented is the most mellifluous of languages.’ I felt him sigh, a long, luxurious, relieved sigh, and relax a little more against me. ‘I do thank you: this is so very kind of you to indulge me, my dear Holmes.’

‘Comme d'habitude, un pilote côtier partit aussitôt du port, rasa le château d'If, et alla aborder le navire entre le cap de Morgion et l'île de Ron . . . on the 24th February 1815, the look-out at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-masted ship, Pharaon, hailing from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples. As usual, a pilot vessel put off immediately to meet her, rounded the Château d’If, and went aboard the boat between Cape Morgion, and the Île de Ron . . .’

“If it were now to die,” I thought, as I paused for breath, my mind leaping to a completely different writer, “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy, for my soul hath her content so absolute” . . . oh, John, John. I do so love you.

*****

We passed an agreeable week at Hurlstone. We were only alone together one other evening, when Musgrave again ‘retired early’ and Watson made haste to suggest the sofa, and another session with Dumas. Again I bathed in his warmth, his sturdy presence close at my side, the lamp-light ticking his down-dropped eyelashes with gold, the scent of him, his soft-drawn breath, his arm around my shoulders and the occasional touch of his hand on mine as he turned the page. And after we had returned home from Hurlstone it became an accepted thing that we should sit on the sofa and read, rather than in our separate armchairs. I startled and bit my tongue the first time, Mrs Hudson walked in and caught us out thus close together, but she made no remark, only smiled a little.

A week later a new, and larger afghan, knitted in thick wool of a deep, lapis blue appeared on the sofa, and under its kindly warmth through the last days of a bitter cold February and the first week of March, we progressed with poor Dantès to his examination before de Villefort, the villainous Procureur du Roi. We were, in fact, sitting together reading one evening when Mrs Hudson tapped on the door and announced Lestrade, and it was with some reluctance that Watson returned to his own chair, sighing, and casting an annoyed glance at the door.

Lestrade was unusually ill at ease when he came in, and stood twisting his hat in his hands until I bid him say what he had to. During an interminable, vertiginous moment, I wondered if some evil suspicion of sodomy had arisen to haunt us, but it soon became apparent that what ailed him was wounded professional amour-propre, and no more than that.

‘It’s a strange thing, Mr Holmes,’ he began, ‘that whereas I would normally come to you off my own bat, so to speak, in this instance, I have been directed to involve you in an investigation. And I cannot for the life of me tell exactly whence that direction arises, and why. Or rather, I know why – it is the prettiest little problem in some ways, and just the sort of thing for you – but I do not like to be a mere messenger, see and not to know who is properly in the driving seat. It does not suit me at all, to tell you the truth.’

‘It does not suit me either, Lestrade, as you must know if you know me at all, man. I am no puppet to be moved at any man’s whim. Pray, what is the problem, and what am I requested to do? For I tell you now that with such a beginning I will have nothing to do with it, if I like it not.’

His glance flicked to Watson, and I shook my head.

‘No, Lestrade, you will either discuss it with both of us or neither. I do not stir one step in this matter without my associate: I must have a trustworthy friend at my side.’ I took pity on him then, for I had never seen him look so perplexed. ‘Come, let us be at ease, we have worked together for some time now. Take a glass of wine with us, and tell me. If you wish me to advise you unofficially, I will. It is not about the Earl of Euston’s affair is it? For if it is, I tell you I will not be party to his quest for a divorce: he made his marital bed when he took up with Kate Walsh, and must lie in it. Or not, of course, as the case undoubtedly is that he does not, just as neither does she. He is no saint, Euston.’

Lestrade had laid aside coat and hat, and chuckled as he accepted a glass of wine from Watson. ‘Trust you, Mr Holmes, to be fly to the time of day. I dare swear you have ears in all of London: you hear things sooner than I. Our friend Shinwell Johnson is it, this time? Through Miss Kitty?’

‘Hush, it will not do to mention his name. Or hers, poor girl. Johnson abhors your kind, Lestrade: if he knew you knew of him, I would not be able to keep him. Suffice it to say that the other Kitty - Kate – the Countess of Euston, I should say – has a fondness for her former sisters in . . . trade, and is not the most discreet of personages. It is not much blown about yet, is it, the proposed divorce? I see nothing in the press to date.’

‘It will be bruited abroad soon enough, Mr Holmes. Your very good health, Sir, and yours, Dr Watson.’ He drained his glass. I winced – it was not thus one should treat a fine claret – but nodded to Watson to refill it. I had rarely known Lestrade drink on duty: an indication, perhaps of how grave the matter was on which he sought my advice. He drank again, and then set the glass down.

‘I will have to ask you to cast your mind back several years, Mr Holmes. To the year ‘77, to be precise. You were unknown to us at that time, Sir.’

‘I was.’ I suppressed a shiver. In the year 1877 I had been an unhappy, lonely young man, three years down from a university I had left in disgrace, eking out a sparse existence on hack detective work, and in my too copious spare time, sitting amid the nude kouroi and marble athletes in the British Museum attempting to understand the depths of my own perverse nature. ‘And Watson was in the army, were you not, my dear fellow?’

‘In India. I had come out of Netley, and was still in the Fusiliers: I had not yet transferred to Afghanistan. We knew little of London news then, so I cannot cast my mind back as Holmes can.’ Watson moved to the fireplace and rang the bell. ‘You look weary, Lestrade, and I daresay you have not eaten. I shall see if Mrs Hudson would be kind enough to provide us with a small cold collation, then we can discuss whatever troubles you in comfort.’

‘That is good of you, Dr Watson. You are perhaps aware, then, Mr Holmes, of the so-called ‘Trial of the Detectives’ of that year? The de Goncourt fraud case?’

‘Indeed.’ I glanced at Watson, who shook his head. ‘You are not? I will explain it in detail later, but for now, all you need to know is that the perpetrator of the de Goncourt fraud, that fraud once discovered, appeared continually to be one step ahead of the police on his trail: this was because certain detectives at the very highest level were taking bribes to inform him in advance of the moves against him. Those detectives themselves came to trial, and were ejected ignominiously from the force. Do not wince, Lestrade: I cast no aspersions upon you. It was in a chastened and thoroughly reformed Criminal Investigation Department that you rose to your well-deserved position.’

‘I have never heard of either case – ah, Mrs Hudson, I was going to ask you, but I see you have anticipated our every want: you are a treasure. Pray let me take the tray from you. There are your pasties, I see, and a pork pie. How kind you are to us.’

‘Very kind of you, Mrs Hudson,’ uttered Lestrade, rubbing his hands together and fixing his eyes on the piled viands. ‘We are most grateful. Pasties and pie, well, well, how delightful. Cold beef too! Pickles! And is that a Cheshire cheese?’

‘It does not take too much common sense to understand that when the Inspector visits at this time, and does not leave immediately with you and Mr Holmes hot on his heels, a supper will be required, Sir. I will be telling the girl to go to bed, and retiring myself shortly, so if there is anything else you need, Dr Watson, you may go to get it yourself. There is a blanket on the landing should the Inspector be staying the night on your sofa, Mr Holmes. Now, Doctor, I leave it to you to see that the house is secure, and not on any account to allow Mr Holmes or Mr Lestrade into my kitchen. Goodnight, gentlemen.’

‘She is truly a treasure,’ said Lestrade, through a bite of pasty, to the sound of her retreating footstep on the stair. ‘Mr Holmes, you are a fortunate man. Were I to demand food at this hour at home, I would never hear the last of it.’ He sighed. ‘Marriage has many pains.’

‘I am sure your wife is an excellent woman, Lestrade,’ replied Watson, diplomatically, carving the man five slices of beef onto a plate and adding two more pasties and a dollop of mustard. (How he could forget the tirade Mrs Lestrade had once directed at him, I knew not: she had an evil tongue.) ‘And you are blessed with children, are you not? I envy you, I confess.’

‘Not to say blessed, exactly,’ replied Lestrade, ‘Thank you, Dr Watson, just a touch of that pie – a little more, perhaps, and some of that fine-looking cheese, ‘I have four hopeful daughters and three strong sons, besides our little Polly, who does not thrive so well, poor mite, but how they do wear out linen and shoe leather to be sure! And eat! There is no keeping them in bread, I assure you. Except poor Polly, that is. Well, my wife is a neat woman, and clean, and an excellent manager. Perhaps she is not too tender with the children, but to spare the rod is to spoil the child, as my father was used to say. But this is all by the by - ’

‘It is,’ I interjected. ‘It is all very much by the by. No, Watson, I want nothing, but do you eat: I am sure you went hungry at the hospital, yet you made a poor dinner.  Oh very well, if I must, I must. A corner of pasty then; of yours, if you please.

‘You will have your little joke, Mr Holmes.’ Lestrade swallowed a huge mouthful of beef and came abruptly to the point. ‘Of those former disgraced detectives, it is Meiklejohn we have to do with.’

‘Meiklejohn!’ I put the piece of pasty aside untasted. ‘I know of him, and so do my informants. Most will have nothing to do with him: do not raise your hopes there. I thought he was in Dublin, or Scotland. My people know him as a scoundrel: they say better an honest rogue than a policeman corrupted.’

‘He calls himself a private detective now. No, Mr Holmes, he is sniffing around here, the dirty dog. He has been seen around the Criterion bar, and in the areas – hmmm – ah – in the – umm, in short where those gentlemen of a certain persuasion live. In Eaton Square, for example. But he has been crossing frequently between here and Dublin, over the winter, on whatever nefarious purposes – he has been an extortionist for years, you know, was as a detective, even before he was found out -  and it has been suggested to me that you might be – with your network of lads – you might be, in short, the person to find out what he was about. It is the Dublin connection that we think very curious, Mr Holmes, very curious indeed. But the man is clever: he is accustomed to covering his traces. So it was suggested that you, as another private detective - ’

‘I am a consulting detective, not a private investigator of petty men’s journeys. By whom, Lestrade, by whom was this given you? Come, you must have more information than this. I will not stir, I tell you, unless I know what you do.’

‘All I can tell you, Sir, is that I was called earlier today into the office of Mr Williamson, who heads the new Irish Special Branch. Mr Adolphus Williamson. And he told me of concerns that this Meiklejohn was investigating on his own account, or paid by a third party. That he was not working for the Constabulary, not over there, nor here, and that someone was, it appeared, fishing for information, and that his actions might bring the Establishment into disrepute.

‘I know of Dolly Williamson. He was one of those much criticised during the investigation into Meiklejohn, as it appeared he had no control of his staff. His honesty, however was never in question. This is intriguing: go on.’

‘There was another gentleman there, Mr Holmes, who stood with his face to the window throughout, half-hidden by the drape. A tall gentleman, much of your height, or a little taller, but larger, heavier built.’

‘Ah, was there, indeed? Describe him, Lestrade: what like was he? Hair? Voice? Did he speak? Did you see his face, hear him? Would you recognise him again?’

‘Grey-haired I think, or greying, but he stood so much in the shadow, I could not be sure. He leaned on a walking cane which had a curious head: when he once lifted his hand what light there was picked out a shape, as of a silver lion, but with a sea-horse’s tail. He did not turn around, and I never saw his face. I might perhaps find him out again, but I am by no means sure. He spoke once to Mr Williamson, whom he summoned to him in the shadow as one that had the right, but his voice was soft, very soft, and they spoke low, so I could not catch the words. It was after that that your name was mentioned, Mr Holmes, and I was directed to involve you.’

‘You observe well in detail, Lestrade: I have always marked that of you. A curious stick, you say? Venetian lion and sea-horse? Well, I will take your case.’

‘His cloth was of the finest,’ continued Lestrade, as if he had not remarked me, ‘and he carried himself – did I hear you correctly, Mr Holmes? You will take the case? But you know no more than I do. I do not understand.’

‘I will take it on the word of Mr Williamson, Lestrade.’

Lestrade looked at me narrowly: I could see that he was not fooled in the least by my ready capitulation. Watson had remained silent throughout our exchange, but now he too was on the alert, ears pricked and leaning forward in his chair. I would have to explain something: that much was clear.

‘I have some contacts of whom it is best that you remain unaware, Lestrade, you do know this, do you not? Or they would be unwilling to talk both to me and, through me, to you, to solve our little mysteries. Let us just say that I recognise the stick of the gentleman you mention, and if he and Mr Williamson wish to retain my services in this matter, I am  - not unwilling. Although I could wish that he had not let his hand be seen so plainly.’

‘A criminal?’ gasped Lestrade, whose eyes had appeared to protrude from his head in horror during my comments. ‘Mr Adolphus Williamson, the Chief of the Irish Branch, consorting with a criminal to retain your services, Mr Holmes? Whatever next? What is the world coming to: good heavens above!’

‘I did not say he was a criminal, Lestrade, and in fact he is not. Let us just say that the gentleman with the stick is an old, a very old acquaintance of mine and my late unlamented father’s, that he is not unconnected with the government, and that he is, in fact, a far more respectable person than I am. And although I am under no obligation to him, and do not by any means usually feel inclined to oblige him. I will do so in this case. So strangely, Lestrade, it appears now that I do know more about this than you. For if he is involved, then the matter is grave.’

Lestrade’s brow darkened. ‘And now it is you that will not tell me.’ He half rose from his chair. ‘I am a common man, Mr Holmes, and I do not like that I am dragged hither and yon, fooled to the top of my bent by your fine gentlemen friends. Perhaps I had better be going then, and leave you to your mysteries.’

‘Stay, Lestrade, be seated again, I beg you, and do not take offence. I spoke lightly, perhaps, but it was not my intent to injure or anger you.’ I turned to Watson. ‘Doctor, would you trust me, would you be happy to investigate at my side without knowing the principal actor behind these machinations? For I should not tell you the identity of the gentleman with the stick either, although I do most certainly know it. Would you take my word for it that if he is involved then the matter is grave?’

‘Assuredly, Holmes.’ Heavens, how his blue eyes looked into mine, speaking a trust I prayed I would never cease to deserve. ‘Implicitly. Wholeheartedly. Why, Lestrade, I am just as much in the dark as you, but if Holmes thinks he must take this case and investigate what this Meiklejohn fellow is about, surely we should support him?’

‘It is not the same for you, Dr Watson, saving your presence. This is not your professional field: it is mine, and you are a professional gentleman in your own right. You know you would not tolerate it yourself if it were your own professional matter. I do not like to be overridden, and kept in the dark - and what if this is not legitimate? This may seem a game to you, Mr Holmes, but to me, it is my livelihood. And my family’s. I must have some certainty.’

I cursed Mycroft inwardly for mishandling this and leaving me with the aftermath, but I saw how it must have been: he must have had to go through Dolly Williamson, so that his own hand did not appear to any intermediary outside his department, and Williamson must have withstood him until he pushed, so he had needed to be there for the meeting with Lestrade - but if I could not now mollify Lestrade’s wounded pride, then my pitch was queered for good. I had spent years already coaxing him, and Gregson, to work with me, and now I stood to lose all. And rightly too, for I would not be happy if I stood in his shoes. The whole affair felt strange.

‘If I can prove to you that this is all above board, Lestrade, would you work with me then? What is it you want? What can I say or do to persuade you?’

‘Show me a little trust, Mr Holmes. We have trusted you at Scotland Yard, aye, and both Gregson and I have been well ribbed for it, that we cannot do our own work but must depend on the good offices of a gentleman born – for so you are, and there’s no denying it: we did not go to your grand universities, we two, but worked our way up through the ranks. But we put up with the ribbing and the jokes at our expense because there are criminals out there who must be caught, and would not be caught without you. I do not love to see a murderer swing – I am not a vindictive man – but I rejoice to see him – or her – put where they can do no harm to the innocent. So that is why we trust you, and put work your way, and applaud when you are successful. It is for the protection of the innocent, Mr Holmes.’

Watson, clearly concerned about him, went over and patted his shoulder. ‘You are an honourable man, Lestrade, and quite right in what you say. This is not fair dealing, and does not make for trust. Holmes, if you know, if you have the means of divining who the principal is in this, then I think you must tell Lestrade. I would be angry too, were I to be treated so.’

‘And you?’ I asked him. I did not know why I had never told him about Mycroft: could not tell in the least. Was it jealousy, perhaps, that meeting Mycroft, so much my superior in intellect, Watson would think less of me? Fear, that he might learn about me matters which would diminish me in his eyes? Whatever it was, I had refrained from telling him anything about my childhood, and he, kind heart, had never asked. ‘Do you not wish to know who this person is?’

‘Not in the least,’ he replied, cheerily. ‘I am going down to check the house door, Holmes, as Mrs Hudson requested, and to fetch another bottle of wine from the cellar, and I suggest you tell Lestrade about the mysterious personage with the stick – heavens, how the thought whets my writer’s appetite, yet I find I can live quite easily without knowing the fact – and then when everything is cleared up, the two of you can tell me about Mr Meiklejohn of ill-fame before Lestrade betakes himself to the sofa and we to our beds. Hand me a shilling, old fellow, there is bound to be a boy hanging about somewhere – there generally is, even at this hour – and he can take a message to Mrs Lestrade that her husband is unavoidably detained.’

I threw him a shilling, and he left, smiling at me as he closed the door. Silence fell, a silence which, I confess, I did not know how to break.

‘You have a good friend there, Mr Holmes,’ observed Lestrade eventually. His voice was low, and thoughtful. ‘A very good friend indeed.’

‘Yes.’ My heart swelled in my bosom at the thought of Watson’s trust in me. I drew a deep breath. ‘It is my brother, Lestrade, your gentleman with the silver-headed stick. I swear to you I cannot tell you what it is he does: I must not. But in a sense, he is in the government. I cannot express to you how un – how odd - it is that he should interfere in this way. I would I knew why he does. But I do trust him.’

‘Your brother!’

‘I am sorry. Yes.’

‘But you . . . what of the job you do?’

‘He does not entirely approve of me, Lestrade, yes. He is my older – quite some years older – brother. I understand the disapprobation is not entirely uncommon. He does not like my line of work. And in character, we are not alike.’

‘I would say not.’ Lestrade’s guard appeared to have dropped a little. ‘I have an older brother myself. Mine was a – well, he was a meddlesome, overbearing, tale-carrying – I am not unfamiliar with the – but what is it about, Mr Holmes? What is all this about? Why all of this mystery?’

‘I wish I knew.’

‘I did not know you had a brother – but why should I, indeed? And the doctor does not know either. Your brother must be high in the government, if what I saw is correct. Mr Williamson deferred to him.’

‘He has Sir William Harcourt’s complete confidence.’

‘The Home Secretary!

‘Indeed. And Mr Gladstone’s. I must beg your discretion, Lestrade. The work he does is of primary importance to the country. I will tell you more as I can: what I can say is this. For him to have been there means that you, you yourself are trusted at the very highest level. And also that we must work together on this,’

‘And the doctor? Will you tell him?’

‘He will not ask: you heard him, he says he does not need to know. He will be with us anyway, wherever this investigation takes us.’

‘You should tell him: the man deserves it. And this is still a damned, sly, dirty business.’ Lestrade sprang his chair and went to the window, looked out. ‘Politics, politics. Give me an honest crime any day, Mr Holmes. The stinking pitch of politics will stick to any man’s fingers and smirch all he touches thereafter. Well, I will work with you. I like it not, but I will work with you, and we shall see what we shall see. Meiklejohn is a foul man, a blackmailer proven, and I hate all such like poison: they are the lowest of the low, shunned even in prison.’

‘And, and you will not think the worse of me for my brother, Lestrade?’ I found myself oddly anxious, waiting for his reply: it appeared that I coveted his good opinion. And it had cost me a pang when he told me that he and Gregson had come in for ragging over my work with them. I would not have had that happen for the world.

He smiled then, and I relaxed a little. Perhaps all would be well. Maybe. But I sensed change in the air, and it did not make me happy.

‘We cannot help our relations, Mr Holmes. Particularly not our older brothers. That is Dr Watson’s foot on the stair, and I daresay he has another bottle with him. Well, we should tell him about Meiklejohn, and then set out our plan.’

*****

The following morning, after Lestrade had left, Watson and I took a cab to Richmond Park. We had discussed the de Goncourt case – how a wealthy widow had been inveigled into parting with thirty thousand pounds of her principal by two unscrupulous crooks, how these crooks, by name Benson and Kurr, had been discovered, but had paid three detectives – Meiklejohn, Druscovich and Palmer, and a lawyer, Froggatt, to tip them off so as to baffle all pursuit, and how eventually this had been discovered, and they had been brought to justice. The trial of the detectives had followed, of course, and despite the jury recommending Druscovich and Palmer to mercy, they had all been broken and sent down for two years hard.

‘And it should have been five years hard, or even more,’ Lestrade had said bitterly as we bade him goodnight, leaving him to the comfort of a banked fire and a blanket. ‘The Force has been living Meiklejohn’s felonies down ever since.’

Now, pacing arm in arm with Watson along the Richmond paths, and amidst grass just beginning to show the fresh green of spring, I explained to him the extent of Meiklejohn’s corruption.

‘So he has been running a system of blackmail for years?’ he asked. ‘But not as blackmail, in the sense that he has information that he holds over someone?’

‘That too, when he could, but is more that he knew where people were walking on the shady side of the law, and encouraged them to be confident in doing so, knowing that if they were in danger of being caught, he would tip them off; indeed, that for a consideration – quite a substantial consideration, and often in gold - he would ensure that the law’s attention was directed elsewhere, perhaps to people who were not so – generous – to him. I believe in America, the term for it is a ‘protection racket’. He was broken for it, of course, came out of prison, and was forced to make a living doing what he knows best to do – investigating. And because of his contacts, he can be hired for any underhand business: thieves can employ him to spy on their rivals, criminal cartels to watch the minions of the law for them. Johnson will, as I told, Lestrade, have nothing to do with him, neither will my other informants, nor my Irregulars. He is hated and feared in equal measure.’

‘And some mysterious personage in government – and the chief of the Irish Branch – both wish you and Lestrade to investigate the investigator. Intriguing, Holmes.’

‘They wish us to investigate,’ I pressed his arm. ‘You will come in with me, Watson, despite my reticence on certain matters? Let me have your assent, my dear fellow. Indeed, I would be hard put to it to do without you.’

‘Really?’ He touched my wrist. ‘You say so, Holmes, but sometimes I wonder.’

‘How can you wonder? You have accompanied me, in part or in whole on every case. Do you think I would invite, welcome your presence if it were not of importance to me? If having you there were not of inestimable value? I never knew what it was to have a trusted colleague before, Watson. We have been together three years now – I do not know how I would go on if you were not there to assist me. You know that I can be abrupt, impatient, arrogant, but when I look at you it is as if my better self whispers to me. I am reminded of how you would be, courteous, patient, affable: I amend my behaviour, since I hate to incur your disapproval. You do not always see the workings of what I do: what of it? None do. Yet you see differently, and I am the richer for that, and for our discourse. I cannot, will not do without you, Watson. With you beside me I am safe. Pray, say that you will not abandon me.’

His hand soothed mine, gentle and reassuring. ‘I will always be at your side when you want me, Holmes. You know - you must know -  that I count it an honour and privilege to protect – to serve – to be with you.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You might say that I choose to be with you because I have nowhere else to go, no family remaining, no friends alive to speak of -  that I am a singularly lonely man clinging to the only companionship offered me -  and many people might believe that to be true. But were I most richly endowed, were I to be most fortunate in people to, to love, and be loved by, I would still choose you above all others, my dear, my kind friend.’

He stood still in his earnest entreaty, caressing my hand the while (I think almost unconsciously) and with his gaze upturned to mine. It was a moment of exquisite, of almost Greek, intensity, one I feared to break. We looked into each other’s eyes: what he saw in mine I know not, but there was such honesty, such beautiful trust and affection in his blue orbs, the heart shining through them, and all open to me. A slight smile curved his fine-cut mouth. ‘Believe it -  believe me, Holmes.’

‘My Pythias,’ I said to him, hearing my voice waver. ‘ “My gallant soldier and fast friend - my halved heart.” ’

‘Well, my Damon,’ he returned, and I thrilled that he recognised the quotation from the play we had recently read, ‘you are my "most noble senator."  And if I am Pythias, then with him, I must say “Thou hast thine armour on: I am thy sword, shield, helm; I but enclose myself and my own heart and heart's blood when I stand before thee." Holmes, Holmes, there has never been a man like you. When I returned from the war, I thought there was nothing for me, that I would never have friends more. And then there you were: my miracle.’

He set us in motion again, our arms still closely entwined. ‘You will think me sentimental,’ he said, after a while. ‘You must forgive me: my warm feeling, my affection for you gets the better of me at times.’

‘No,’ I would not let that pass. ‘No. There were years – years when, if I am to speak honestly, I went forlorn and soul-hungry, solitary amid the crowds, with never a gentle word to cheer me. Yours are a gift I cannot treasure enough. Let us be kind to each other then: to whom the harm?’

‘To no-one,’ he agreed. We had, as if by some common, unspoken, consent stepped back a little from the deep intimacy of our words, our locked eyes: we could not – or I could not, and he, I thought, would not – stay long in that place. Our eyes did not meet again. Our consent, though, his to me, and mine to him, to our closeness was acknowledged: henceforth he was my soldier and my shield: I his willing devotee.

For the rest of the day we rambled about in silence, as befits two men who know each other intimately, That evening we dined and read together. When we parted for the night, he called me to him, and, as once before, laid a chaste and simple kiss on my brow. If my delirium between the sheets that night was more sensual than austere, then that was the fault of my fleshly envelope. It clamoured for more, teemed with unholy thoughts, which tortured with their hateful presence the fancy that would fain be pure. Waking, I laid my stern command upon it, yet it betrayed me sleeping. On that following, and on other mornings, I needs must lave away the shameful stigmata of my need, swearing once again that I would never profane our devotion with lust. For he, I believed, was untainted by my depravity, and if he had sensual dreams, they were not of such as I.

*****

Some days later, having sent out my spies, I received a visit from Shinwell Johnson. It was unusual for him to come to me, but I was glad of it, for it meant that I could introduce him to Watson, whom he had not met before. He rolled corpulently into our rooms after luncheon, bringing with him an aroma of gin, cheap tobacco and bay rum, and shook Watson’s hand heartily, commenting that ‘all of us have heard of Dr Watson, o’ course: delighted to meet you, Doctor, an’ if ever you fancy a walk on the wild side, or an introduction or two to some o’ my gay girls, then I should be happy to oblige you. Anythin’ for one of Mr Holmes’ friends. I’ll e’en give you a cut rate: never say I won’t help out a friend.’

Watson clapped him on the shoulder, and maintained that his own army experience had left him glad enough for a chance at a tame life. He smiled then, and swore he was ‘chaste as Diana, Mr Johnson, stainless as the moon,’ and for a moment I saw, in the steely glint in his eye, the set to his mouth, a sterner, more authoritative Watson, accustomed to the coarse humour of the barracks, at ease with foul-mouthed sergeants, and whoring subalterns, but determined to allow no liberties. He was an adept, practised in an easy yet authoritative camaraderie to which I would never attain, I, who must cow men into submission with deductions that made them fear even as they marvelled (for there are few who are without a shameful secret of one sort or other, after all). I allowed Watson to banter with him for a few moments, wanting him to take Johnson’s measure in full, and was about to recall them to business, when Watson recollected himself.

‘But what of the information Mr Holmes requested,’ he asked, direct, a captain to one of his men. ‘What do you have for us, Johnson?’

‘Meiklejohn is goin’ under cover o’ “Mr Brown” as he has done before,’ Johnson told us. ‘He’s brought two young men wi’ him – Irish lads, renters, Mr Holmes. He keeps ’em straitly confined in an hotel, an’ sozzled with gin – half-cut they are for the most part. Word on the street is he’s after others o’ their breed, an’ daren’t leave these in Dublin for fear of ’em bein’ got at. Came wi’ fifteen subpoenas, an’ a tame lawyer to serve ‘em, or so I’m told, but he’s not the most popular, an’ he’s findin’ his quarry gone missin’ as often as not. That kind stick together ‘gainst such as him.’

I cast a glance at Watson, wondering how he would respond to this, and he shook his head at me. ‘The army, Holmes. And I’ve seen lads of that ilk in the hospital. They live precarious lives, hard lives. Go on, Johnson.’

‘He’s after a lad called Dublin Jack, who’s been a renter for years. Came over from Ireland as a pretty young’un, went back in ’79, when his father died, wandered back to London a year later. He’s wi’ Hammond, much o’ the time, Charlie Hammond, that keeps a disorderly house with his French whore o’ a wife.’

‘Who is the principal? Meiklejohn will not be doing this of his own accord. He is paid or he does nothing.’

Johnson shrugged. ‘Damned if I bloody know.’

‘Who are they aiming at with this? What is the word, Johnson? It must be coming from Dublin. If it is rent boys they are after, is this to do with James Ellis French? His prosecution has been hanging on and off since November last year while he pretends insanity.’

‘I’m thinkin’ it’s more than to do wi’ that, Mr Holmes. French is a poor fish, lily-livered and limp-wristed, an’ he’s not got the spirit to fight. They’re after bigger game – aiming at the English around the Castle: they hate it worse than poison.’

‘Dublin Castle has always been loathed: it stands in for the oppressor. And the Irish have been shabbily treated. They should have had home rule long ago,’ Watson’s voice was hard. ‘Innocent people have gone to their deaths protesting the English tyranny. French may or may not be guilty of sodomy, but he is not being libelled and persecuted simply for that. He is paying the price for English misrule in Ireland.’

‘Y’are a rebel are you, Dr Watson?’ Johnson cocked an eyebrow at me, ‘Your friend has Liberal sympathies, I see.’

‘Dr Watson has a good eye for politics. I fear you are right, Watson. This aims at more than French. Do you have any names for me, Johnson? If they are after Charlie Hammond’s boys, then they will be looking at sodomy charges. Who is likely to be aimed at? Come now,’ as he hesitated, ‘I know you have names.’

Johnson’s smile was wry. ‘Sometimes you know too much, Mr Holmes: the devil himsel’ might be whisperin’ in your ear. Very well then. That sneak Meiklejohn has been back an’ forth all winter. The spooney lads he’s brought with him are called McGrane an’ Clarke. They’re old friends o’ our Dublin Jack. There’s another lad, they’re after, Cecil Graham. I’ve other names, not here, but in Dublin.’

‘Come to those later. Meiklejohn is acting on instruction. Have you heard any names that signify as movers in this matter? Any at all?’

‘Chance. An’ Miley. That’s all I know.’

‘Could be solicitors,’ put in Watson. He leapt up and went to my files. ‘Perhaps it’s a good thing we tidied, Holmes. Here.’ He handed me the ‘C’ and the ‘M’ file.

‘The newspaper behind the reporting on the French case is the United Ireland,’ I said to him, riffling through the papers. ‘It could be the same. Proprietor: William O’Brien, Member of Parliament and Irish Patriot.’

‘William O’Brien, prick, publisher, rat, rabble-rouser an’ rogue,’ snorted Johnson. ‘Parnell’s bloody bleedin’-heart ban-dog, he is. Bought an’ paid for like a tuppenny-upright, twice-an-hour, pox-ridden, ball-breakin’ punk.’

‘Shrill as a Billingsgate fish-wife crying stale cod,’ agreed Watson. ‘That’s a fine flow of invective, Johnson, but you’re not one of my sergeants addressing the troops, so we’ll have less of it in here, if you please. Have you found anything, Holmes?’

‘Chance and Miley act for O’Brien. They are behind the libel against French.’ I handed him the clippings file. ‘So ostensibly, they are Meiklejohn’s principal, but O’Brien is behind that. Is this only about French though?’

‘There’s another thin’.’ For the first time Johnson hesitated. ‘A week or so ago, questions were bein’ asked. There was a man over from Ireland, a gennleman, not a detective. A grand, smooth, quiet-speakin’ gennleman, older, an’ very full of juice – throwin’ sovereigns around like sixpences, he was. He was after the same people as Meiklejohn, but f’different reasons, I think. Dublin Jack knows him of old, says his name is Cornwall. Gustavus Cornwall of the General Post Office.

‘I know of Cornwall. And Jack Saul knows him of old, you say? Well, Johnson, you must get me a meeting with Jack. No, not like that,’ as Johnson uttered a great laugh and another vilely obscene comment, this time about what Jack and I might do, ‘Enough, man, enough, I wish to speak to him about all of this: he may have information that is relevant to the case.’

‘Will you come to us, Mr Holmes, or will I have ‘im visit you?’

‘We will come to you, Johnson,’ Watson put in. ‘At your house, if you please. I shall examine you at the same time: I do not like the look of that sore on your neck, nor the growth by your lip. Do you smoke your tobacco, or chew it? We must deal with it, in any case. Let us know the time and place.’ He stood. ‘Holmes, we shall be late for our appointment at the Yard: do you go and fetch the files you need, and I shall see Mr Johnson out.’

It was news to me that we had any appointment at the Yard, and I was almost about to say so, when I encountered such a fiery glance from Watson as made me pause. There was ire in his eye and command in his bearing. He clapped Johnson on the shoulder again, perhaps rather harder than necessary.

‘Come, Mr Johnson, you know very well you should have seen a doctor before this. Tell me how long the growth has been present.’

I had never seen Johnson allow himself to be shepherded anywhere, let alone to go meekly, but if ever a man was chastened, he was: he followed lamb-like as Watson swept him to the door, chatting briskly the while. What had caused Watson’s sudden access of authority, I knew not, but although gentle in tone, it was iron-hard in intent. I could not account for it. I was soon to be enlightened, however.

‘I have let Mr Johnson know that if he makes another such suggestion anent your honour it will go very ill with him indeed,’ he said, the moment he returned to our room. His eyes were hot, his fists clenched convulsively, and his shoulders were braced: suddenly I saw the ‘bull-pup’ of a temper that he had owned to when we first met. ‘I’ll not have you maligned like that, Holmes: how dare he suggest that you might consort with a prostitute in the street. Had you not had need of him I would have taken him down where he stood, the foul creature. I’ll not have it, Holmes.’

‘It was a jest,’ I protested. ‘I have known Johnson a long time, Watson, and truly, he meant no harm. It is just his way of speaking: I took no offence.’

‘I will still not have it.’ He crossed to the table, poured a measure of brandy, and drank it down. With some dismay, I saw that his hands were shaking. ‘I will not stand by and allow you to be maligned. That was a vile insinuation against your honour.’

‘He merely suggested that I might welcome Jack’s presence for the reasons most men do,’ I pointed out. ‘Since, rationally, I know that I would not, where is the harm in allowing Johnson his joke?  If jesting makes him more inclined to help me, then I will not censure it: it matters nothing. “Let the galled jade wince”, as your favourite, Hamlet, says, “our withers are un-wrung.” And I know on the free wards you try to heal and help prostitutes, Watson, the men and the women both, so I do not understand your reaction. It is not poor Jack himself to whom you object, is it?’

‘No,’ He passed a hand over his eyes and sighed. I could see his shoulders droop, and realised that his sudden flash of temper had spent itself. I went to him, and took the glass gently from his hand. ‘No, of course not. It is only that, well, it angered me to see him standing there, and making that foul suggestion about you. I am sorry, Holmes, I hope I have not queered your pitch. I will button my lip in future, I promise you, old boy. But I do not think I have: he was very glad to get the promise of doctoring, and we shall have off that growth before it becomes worse. He will be left with a very dashing scar, and so I told him. It is no different from dealing with my men in the army, after all. They learned quickly I would not stand for vile talk. Only one must be kind, as well as firm.’ He paused, then grasped my hand. ‘Forgive me my hot temper, Holmes. I am jealous for your honour, my dear fellow, that is all.’

‘Well you are my Pythias, are you not?’ I could not think of anything else to say. No one had ever defended me as he did, and I did not entirely know how to feel about it other than that it made my heart flutter, and desire spark along my every nerve.

‘I am your soldier, it is true. Tell me, my Damon, my learned senator, what do you make of this business? And who is this Gustavus Cornwall of the GPO?’

*****

If I had known little of Cornwall before, I was soon to know much more than I wanted. The man was a bugger: that much was soon clear. Which is to say that he had regularly engaged in in the past, and habitually did engage in ‘peccatum illud horribile inter Christianos non nominandum’: that detestable sin which Christians do not name. He had, moreover, according to Dublin Jack, engaged in it, and in other acts, with a wanton lack of discrimination: in his house, in others’ houses, in clubs, and pubs, in bawdy houses and botanical gardens, in cabs and urinals, privatim et seriatim, as the saying goes, for several decades, until I rather wondered that he had found time to carry out his Post Office duties with the praiseworthy regularity he had. I had never met Mr Cornwall, but, as I confided to Watson, he impressed me as an energetic and thorough specimen. Watson, who had sullenly guarded me to my meeting with the pleasant young Irishman, was unimpressed, growling that it was a sorry state of affairs when a man’s private business could not remain his private business. He looked so annoyed that I apologised for being flippant, and told him the truth, which was that I, like he, loathed this making windows into men’s souls.

‘Then why are we doing it?’ he asked me wearily, as, both clad in nondescript garments, we trudged through the streets to another meeting with our cheerful young prostitute. ‘Why, Holmes, are we engaged in this deeply sordid affair? Surely there are other matters more worthy of our time and attention? Could not Lestrade do it?’

‘Jack will not talk to Lestrade. He will only countenance me because Johnson has vouched for me, and you because you began by making it quite clear at our initial meeting that you were there to guard my dubious virtue, and that amused him - and then you turned round on your growling and doctored him sweetly, and gratis. I am sorry you do not like him though, Watson, he is as harmless a fellow as ever stepped. There is no malice in him, and I find his honesty almost – endearing, after all. And he is well-mannered.’

‘I do not dislike him: I feel sorry for him, as well as being concerned about his health. I hate to think that a promising lad has so little other chance in life that he must sell himself, body and soul, to get on.’

‘He would not thank you for your pity, although he was grateful for your pills and potions, Watson. To himself he seems to have made the best choice out of many, and all of those choices worse than his. He gives pleasure, and he receives pleasure, and money into the bargain. Is that so bad?’

‘It is when the lad is in a muck sweat for fear of this Meiklejohn, and can be put in subjection by such as he. If ever I meet that fellow I shall greet him with my fist and no words. He is an insufferable bully.’

‘Watson, I have never known you to behave so belligerently: of a sudden you bear the sword of Ares, not Hermes’ caduceus. Where is my gentle doctor?’

‘At your side, Holmes, as always, unless you turn me away. Oh, I am sorry. I do not like this work: there is no honour in it. And it is cloudy and uncertain, for I have no more idea of what we are truly investigating than my poor sister might have done.’

‘Would it help if I told you that I am beginning to? And that it is big – bigger than anything I have touched hitherto?’

‘Holmes!’ He stopped in his tracks, and I took his arm and urged him on again.

‘Keep walking, Doctor, this is no place to dawdle around: not unless you wish to be relieved of your watch at knife-point.’

I told him then, as we traversed the dreary way, what I suspected, which was that this was related to the Phoenix Park murders of two years gone, when Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, and Burke, the Lord Lieutenant’s secretary, had been assassinated by Fenians. Parnell, the leader of the Irish Nationalists seeking independence from Britain, had been furious about the assassination: “how can I carry on a public agitation if I am stabbed in the back in this way?” he had said. His Nationalist party had lost the moral high ground as the assassination had placed them firmly in the league of murderers and illegitimates, and had never recovered its political standing.

Since then those about Parnell had been desperately trying to regain it: not least among them William O’ Brien, owner of the United Irishman, MP and rabble rouser as Shinwell Johnson had said. It was he who had, last summer, targeted the wretched James Ellis French, director of the detective branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary, successful investigator of the Phoenix Park murders, and a sodomite so notorious in the service that young constables were warned about his proclivities and his intemperance in satisfying them. In Catholic Ireland, his acts made him more loathed even than they would have been in England. Combining as he did the attributes of being a traitor who worked for the English oppressor, a vicious opponent of Fenians and Nationalists, a representative of the loathed English authority at Dublin Castle, and the perpetrator of a ‘sin’ universally cried out against by Irish and English alike, the unhappy French was an obvious target for ‘Screaming William’ to take aim at in his sorry rag of a journal.

‘So you are telling me that French was targeted because of who he represents, not just because of what he does – if he does? That O’Brien has provoked him deliberately, because he wants a libel case? The man must be mad.’

I urged Watson forward again. ‘The combination of French’s position and his errors have made him an ideal stalking horse for O’Brien’s purpose, which is to blacken English authority in Ireland so deeply that the Phoenix Park murders pale into insignificance beside England’s infamy. But he chose the wrong man when he attempted to persuade French into a libel action – for it is a libel action that he wants, to bring these matters into the public eye, and then he will plead justification, of course, saying that he has acted in the public interest by exposing the detestable sin.’

‘I cannot believe this. Is this the purpose of journalism, to harry and harass a man about his private affairs? It is that which is iniquitous, not French’s personal life.’

‘I believe that this is the new style of journalism, Watson, where a man’s private life is not private if he be a man in the public eye. O’Brien is not the only journalist to behave so: take your favourite, Labouchère. That repulsive broadsheet of his – ‘Truth’ he calls it – is of the same ilk.’

‘Burns-Gibson says that Labouchère’s aim is to expose corruption and injustice, so that the lot of the poor may be ameliorated. And he is not ‘my favourite, Labouchère,’ expostulated Watson. He sounded put-out. ‘There are many groups working together at the moment – Mrs Butler’s, and William Stead’s, for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act: that I certainly support. There is a fellow called Benjamin Waugh – my Fabian acquaintance, Ellis, has been telling me about him – who wishes to create a national society that protects children, just as there is already one that protects animals – do not you think it shocking, Holmes, that dumb beasts are afforded greater protection in this country than the young of our own species? Labouchère popularises all of these causes in his journal. Surely, surely, you must see that this is to the good of all? I do not understand your prejudice against him.’

‘I do not like him: I do not know why.’

‘It is “I do not like thee, Dr Fell,” with you, in fact.’

‘It is: I am sorry, Watson. It is an unconquerable repulsion, if you like, similar to that which I feel when I see a snake – and you well know how I feel about snakes.’

‘A snake! Poor Labouchère! Holmes, I have never known you to be so melodramatic. But I will not press you again to meet him, if you do not wish to: it is true that you have put me off several times, but I had no idea you disliked him so intensely.’

‘I think him hypocritical, Watson. He inveighs against scandal and sin, yet he is living out of wedlock himself, and has been for years. He reprobates the Bohemian, yet arrogates to himself the privileges of an artist - in dress, in the way he lives, in licentious behaviour. He can afford to be reckless in his accusations because his personal fortune is immense. It matters little to him who he libels and slanders: whatever the verdict he can stand the cost, so he is careless with people’s lives for the sake of outdoing William O’Brien in gaining readers. He may do some good: I do not deny it. Ask yourself also how much harm he does.’

‘If that is your opinion I will weigh it well, I assure you: I would never wish to quarrel with you, my dear fellow. But to return to the man, French, whom you say is the wrong man for O’Brien to have taken aim at . . .’

‘French is craven, and will not step up to the bar. He has hung on and off with this libel action until it is too late to do anything. So O’Brien, balked of that prey, takes aim at another: he is muckraking for anything he can find about Cornwall, whom, although he belongs to the Post Office, and not, strictly speaking, to the Castle, also represents the English oppressor. He believes, perhaps, that Cornwall will rise to the challenge and sue him for libel. That is why he has sent Meiklejohn, through his intermediaries, Chance and Miley, to find what he can – and I fear me that there is much to find from what Jack says.’

‘But how can it matter what Cornwall does in private? His – his proclivities are a matter for himself. They do not affect his efficiency, nor his conduct of his business: if it were the case that a man’s sexual peccadilloes precluded him from governing, half the cabinet would be found guilty and the Government would fall. These people are none of them without sin, Holmes, so why are they casting stones?’

‘It is true that they are fornicators and adulterers to the last man, my dear fellow. But they do not fornicate with men, and that is the difference. Cast your eye backwards into history. What comes to mind when I say to you ‘Edward the Second’ and ‘James the First’? “Speak now, sad brow, and honest maid”. What comes to mind?’

‘It is “true maid,” not “honest maid”: if you are quoting, for all love, at least quote accurately. Well then, you are right. Piers Gaveston, and George Villiers. The favourites of those two ill-reputed kings.’

‘And why were they ill-reputed, my dear Watson?’

‘Because they wasted their substance on male lovers, and were therefore thought to be effeminate, and easily swayed. They were deemed not to govern honestly.’

‘Thought to be less than men,’ I corrected him. ‘And therefore unfit to govern. Why was Alexander the Great criticised? For the excessive love he bore Hephaistion, which rendered him, when his lover died, weak and womanish. What was said of Julius Caesar? That he was every woman’s man, and every man’s woman. Think you his assassination was mere coincidence? What charge was levelled at Caligula, at Nero, at Heliogabalus? That they dressed as women, and were unfit to govern – as unfit as Boulton and Park would have been. Now Boulton and Park were harmless. They did nothing wrong but dress as females, and parade around as ‘Stella’ and ‘Fanny’. They could be forgiven: they were creatures of no importance themselves, and not representative of a nation. But what did Jack tell us when last we saw him, Watson? That Cornwall’s nick-name is ‘the Duchess’ and that one of his male associates went by ‘Lizzie.’ They are called by women’s names: the accusation will be that - forgive me for my broad speaking, I beg you - that they act between the sheets the woman’s part. Does not this put a different complexion on the matter?’

‘There are moves afoot this year to ask for the vote for women: I do not think even Gladstone will prevail upon the House to allow that. If men will not consider women as their true partners in all areas of life then a man who takes the name of a woman, plays the part of a woman, loses all respect. If the consensus is that women are unfit to play a part in public life, then a man who acts as a woman will also be deemed unfit. I take your meaning, Holmes. And I see how this takes aim at the English ascendancy in Ireland. Are you sure of this? Do you have proof?’

‘The chain of reasoning holds. I have spent much time and pain in constructing it, and I believe it sound. Proof? No. That I await, which is why we are visiting Jack, again in the hopes of finding out a little more. Before I can see my way clear as to what to do, I must know what I may not do without endangering – certain people.’

He caught my sleeve. ‘Stay, Holmes. Your highly placed principal who met Lestrade with Adolphus Williams – oh, do not look at me like that, of course he is highly placed or you and Lestrade would not have been put onto this trail – do you think he is involved in this? I have not speculated as to his identity - ’

‘ – continue not to speculate, my dear Watson, if you would be so kind - ’

‘ – and it is not my intention to speculate: really, Holmes, you might trust me a little, my dear man. But I take it that this is something that touches the very highest.’

‘I believe it to be.’

‘Then what should be done? What is the best way of dealing with this?’

‘England would be better leaving Ireland to herself, for one thing. But failing that exceptionally unlikely event coming to pass, given that it is undoubtedly true that Cornwall, and possibly others connected with the English establishment in Ireland have been committing at least what is reprobated as indecency, if not sodomy, with a complete lack of discretion, and also given that there will undoubtedly be evidence to that effect somewhere, it would be far better if any libellous accusations in O’Brien’s scandal sheet were completely ignored. But I daresay they will not be: to ignore the accusation is to assent by silence to its truth. The battle must be fought, even if the cause is lost from the beginning. Once a man’s name is stained by these accusations, it is hard to be seen as spotless. Even if acquitted, something still lingers, and his reputation is never the same again.’

We walked on for a while in silence, until we came to Johnson’s door.

‘At least it is difficult to prove sodomy has occurred,’ said Watson, thoughtfully. ‘Or rather, it is difficult to prove unless immediately after the event. And despite what Juvenal is indicating when he remarks “sed podice levi caeduntur tumidae medico ridente mariscae,” the infundibuliform anus is not an inevitable mark of the passive partner in sodomy: any decent surgeon would be prepared to testify that it can also be caused by certain diseases, and would so take oath in this case even if only to preserve a man’s reputation. I certainly do not know any of my colleagues who would swear away a man’s life and freedom on what may be a mere accident of physiology or an incipient tumour, or an unfortunate haemorrhoidal issue. Or even a lifetime’s over-enthusiastic use of cathartics, in fact.’

‘Thank you, Watson,’ said I, rapping discreetly at the door. ‘It is entirely possible that I may never forget that you said that. Especially the Juvenal and the cathartics.’

‘Oh, don’t mention it,’ he replied, his gaze absent, his mind still, no doubt, revolving other professional conundra. ‘What is the point of knowing a doctor after all if you cannot get a medical opinion on a case when you need one? And although the medical consequences of improperly performed sodomy are not a pleasant subject to discuss, of course, I consider you quite as an honorary colleague, my dear fellow, so I have no need to be squeamish and veil my words as I might if I were addressing the matter with a layman.’

‘Indeed not,’ I replied, swallowing hard, and passing a hand across a brow that was unaccountably damp. ‘It is an honour I do not deserve, however: my knowledge is sadly limited about the physical consequences of immoderate and ah, unusual, ah, um, erotic activity compared to yours.’

‘Well, you do not have to examine the sick,’ said he, seriously. ‘And I do, of course.’

*****

By the time we were on our way to our third meeting with Jack Saul, I was certain of my hypothesis: that the intention of William O’Brien, his colleague, Tim Healy, and those supporting them, was to use Cornwall, French, and another man, George Bolton’s, irregularities of life to bring down the English administration in Ireland. I had communicated this information discreetly to Mycroft, and had also told him to his face that his intervention had nearly cost me my professional association with Lestrade. He was not apologetic: for him the welfare of the country was more important then anything else. I understood this, but did not condone it. Unusually for him, he had stopped me as I was about to leave the Diogenes after our somewhat cool meeting, and made a personal enquiry after Dr Watson.

‘He is well, I thank you,’ I had replied, moving towards the door. ‘His health has improved, but is still delicate, although he has not had a relapse of the fever for a while. I ensure he does not overdo, of course.’

‘Indeed. And may one hope to meet him, Sherlock?’

‘In due course, I am sure, Mycroft. I have not told him anything about my family.’

‘I would not expect it: I know your reticence. Well, I am happy to see you looking better in yourself, and with a little more flesh on your bones. And you have completely left off the morphia, I see. He is good for you, brother, your doctor. I broached the last case of the 1858 Romanée-Conti from our father’s cellar this week, and it is a superb wine, superb. Will you take a bottle or two for your friend?’

I had hesitated, I confess. I hated to take anything from our old home, that place of grey, relentless misery, but the wine was, in fact, superb, and I knew Watson would enjoy it. The season for game was over, but I could ask Mrs Hudson for beef or duck. Before I could say any more, Mycroft nodded. ‘Duck, I would advise. A pair of fat ducks sharply roasted would go well. I shall send a couple of bottles round to you then. Good day to you, Sherlock. And thank you. I do not know where this investigation will go, but I do not think it bodes well for us.’

He had not specified ‘us’ and I was glad. I had no wish to have the thing out in the open between us: better a gentlemanly reticence on the fact that neither of us, confirmed bachelors as we were, had ever been likely to provide an heir for our parents. (Mycroft ran the estate, but I knew he had had it placed in trust for a cousin, who would inherit in due course.)

The wine – six bottles of it, half the case - had duly arrived, along with a pair of ducks, (much to Mrs Hudson’s chagrin, for like all good housekeepers she prided herself on her ability to choose her meat herself), a bottle of an exceptionally fine Napoleon cognac, half a barrel of oysters and a dozen of Chablis. My brother was a generous man when he chose, and I was, reluctantly, forced to own myself touched.

Watson, however, was amused. I did not even need to open my mouth and concoct some lie before he had raised an eyebrow, and remarked, ‘Your highly-placed acquaintance is clearly pleased with your work, my dear Holmes. Tell me, could there be more of it after we have finished this? I could become accustomed to living in such style,’ while raising his glass in a silent toast. Now, as we waited for Johnson, he animadverted again to the gift, saying that he could estimate the situation’s gravity by the generosity of our donor.

‘I think it will be impossible to determine how grave the situation is until we have all the available information,’ I told him, as the door was opened for us. ‘Johnson: thank you. What, or who, do you have for us today?’

‘Good morning, Johnson: step into the light for a moment before you answer Mr Holmes, please. Let me look at your face. No, tilt your chin to the left. That is healing very well. You must continue to keep it clean. Forgive me, Holmes, pray continue now.’ Watson stood aside to let both Johnson and myself precede him into the house. ‘Yes, who do you have for us today?’

‘I’ve someone Meiklejohn ‘ld dearly like to get his hands on,’ grinned Johnson. ‘An’ news of others into the bargain.’

‘An’ can ye not be satisfied with meself, then, Doctor Watson? Am I not fine enough for ye? Me heart’s broken, Sir, broken, an’ who’s to mend it?’

‘I’m no breaker of hearts, Jack, my lad.’ Watson’s suspicions of Jack had lasted precisely one meeting. The fresh-faced, fair-haired young man standing by the fire - a boy with eyes as Irish blue as Watson’s own and who could almost have been his smaller and slighter young brother – smiled at us and held out a languid hand to my  companion. He was twenty-six to Watson’s thirty-two, and had gentle, graceful manners, with an almost feminine delicacy about him and a touch of class: it could be said that he had turned the necessity of being pleasing for his profession into a gift. (His demeanour came across as innocently unstudied, although his words often belied the behaviour.)

‘How are you today, my boy? Did you take the coltsfoot linctus as I bade you?’ And anoint your chest with the mentholated rub? That was a bad cough you had there after your cold: you cannot be too careful with afflictions of the chest, not with your family history.’

‘’Twould have been better if I’d had you around to rub it into me, Doctor, and give it me good an’ hot an’ strong. Sure an’ ‘twas an electuary or a bolus I was after, to exercise me tongue between whiles, as it were. There’s no trouble in swallowing a linctus, it slips down me throat as easy as . . .’

‘Jack!’ Watson’s voice was stern. ‘I’ll not have you speaking filth in front of Mr Holmes. Behave now, and tell us what you have for us.’

‘I’ll be telling ye the entirety of me sad story, Doctor, since I’ve seen that I can trust ye with it. An’ Mally here’ll be doing the same, won’t ye my boy?’

(I hid a smile at this: it was not my persuasions that had won the young man over, but Watson’s careful doctoring, offered, as it always was, without reference to the social standing of the patient. I could keep my informants sweet with filthy lucre, but Watson won their loyalty with patient kindness. And no matter how much he grumbled and growled at the outset, he doctored every waif and stray he found.)

‘If you warrant them sound, Jack. Malcolm Johnstone at your service, gentleman. Jack here tells me you have information about this damned detective haunting the city, preventing us honest men from going about our business.’ Johnstone smirked at me as he spoke. What he was doing in this area I could not think: the man was no Jack, earning his pennies with the only assets he had, but judging by his clothes, his boots and his soft, well-manicured hands, a wealthy, spoilt scion of trade. He was turned out as an exquisite, his hair oiled and curled, and his whole person reeking of some sickly scent – and he was a repulsive specimen. I would sooner have had to do with Jack’s honest whoredom than this wretched cur.

‘I think we will take your information first before we offer our own,’ I said. Damn the fellow, he was eyeing Watson with a lecherous grin on his face: I could have struck the smile from it without more ado had I not had need of his story. ‘Let us sit. Proceed, Jack. Dr Watson will take notes, if you do not mind.’

‘As ye know, gentlemen, I’m a poor Catholic lad, Dublin born, and bred, unlike me rich friend Mally here. And since me father couldn’t provide for me, I had to do the best I could. An’ that was where me friend Martin came in . . .’

Jack told us his first lover of note had been Martin Oranmore ‘Lizzie’ Kirwan, a Lieutenant in the first Dublin Regiment of Foot. He’d been twenty-eight to Jack’s eighteen, spoilt, snobbish, good-looking, and fond of ‘a bit of rough.’ (I did not know what it was that attracted so many middle-class youths to much younger working-class men, but it appeared to be part of a pattern: Edward Carpenter, I recalled, had hymned their praises also.) It was Kirwan who had groomed Jack out of his thick Irish brogue, leaving just enough of a lilt in his speech to entice, Kirwan who had taught him to dress and behave in ways acceptable to polite society, and Kirwan who introduced him to the fifty-three year old Gustavus Cornwall, whom his family had known since Kirwan’s boyhood. (The distinction between who paired with whom, or which one procured bed-mates and which was the procuree appeared to be fluid: similar, I thought, to the erastes/eromenos pairings of the Greeks, where the eromenos, once mature, would himself in turn become an erastes to a younger man. Although I doubted if the teaching of civic duty was part of these pairings.)

‘Were Cornwall and Kirwan lovers?’ Watson asked, coolly, laying down his pen and flexing his fingers. ‘Or had they been?’

‘Well, now, that I couldn’t bring meself to say,’ replied Jack. ‘Ye must know, me dear Doctor, that in our world there’s no marrying an’ giving in marriage, although many of the ladies do settle down for a while. We’re more of the butterfly sort: here today an’ gone tomorrow. Martin was fond of old Gus, like ye might be of an old lover, ‘tis true. There was five-an’-twenty years between them: an’ dear Gus always did have an eye for a pretty lad. ‘Twas Gus himself that gave me me next leg up, as it were, after we’d been introduced at a musical party. But when I was first with Martin, Gus was head-over-heels about another lad: Alfred McKiernan.’

‘His is one of the names on Meiklejohn’s subpoenas. Thank you. But what of the musical parties, Jack? Meiklejohn has been making enquiries about them: he seems to think them significant.’

‘Well, Mr Holmes, we must meet somewhere, d’ye not think? McKiernan has a lovely voice he does, just like a lark an’ there’s nothing wrong with a little music. Do ye not like the music y’rself, Mr Holmes? ‘Tis a fine speaking voice ye have, now, although not a patch on the Doctor’s. I could listen to him whispering sweet nothings in me ear all night, so I could.’

‘Jack,’ came the quiet warning.

‘Oh, very well, Dr Watson,’ Jack’s eyes were mischievous. ‘But ye’ll not be telling me ye are pure as a priest, now, the fine upstanding man that ye are. I’ll take me Bible oath that there were many girls who sighed for ye in the army. An’ lads too, like your Mr Holmes here sighs.’

‘Any thought of romanticism is anathema to me.’ I said, coldly, though an unstoppable tide of red had burned from my throat to my brow. ‘Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all other things.’

‘Mr Holmes and I are companions, nothing more, Jack.’ Watson spoke briskly, his gaze, after one quick glance at my no doubt scorching blush, carefully averted. ‘He is a man of great intellect whose avocation is the pursuit of knowledge. I owe him a debt of gratitude for assisting me to recover after my war injuries. We are as brothers. Now let me have no more of this, if you please: in truth, the situation is serious enough, and we have no time for folly.’

‘Very well, Sir, if ye say so, then ‘tis meself that’ll not be teasing ye more. The parties are an excuse to meet with other like-minded gents, Mr Holmes. There’s a lot a song can say that words in the street cannot, if ye take my meaning. So assignations are made an’ broken, an’ we’re safe enough with our own kind.’

‘But Cornwall is married,’ remarked Watson. ‘And so, presumably are others.’

‘They are, Sir, but their wives are often away. An’ some of the men are bachelors, Farquharson the banker, for example, an’ they’re the ones who entertain, for the most part. We all know who’s who, Mr Holmes, an’ if a man wants to come in, he has to be vouched for. ‘Twas me friend Martin got me the entry – an’ another man, Boyle, who brought in McKiernan and Taylor.’

‘Do Clarke and McGrane, that Meiklejohn has in his clutches, have the entry? Have they seen this happen, been to these parties?’

‘They’re more like the rough trade, Mr Holmes. Billy Clarke can neither read nor write: what would he do with a song sheet, now? But they’ll take a walk with a man for a few shillings, or a cab ride to the Botanic Gardens. We all know where to go.’

‘How many men are involved in this, Jack?’

Jack shrugged, as if to say he did not know, and neither did he care, and Malcolm Johnstone, who, up until this point had been sitting silently leering at my Watson, rolled his eyes at me.

‘As good ask how many gay girls there are in London,’ he said, impatiently. ‘The musical party set – maybe a hundred, maybe two. But lads who earn their pennies by joining a gentleman in a cab for a quick fumble, or go to their knees in an alley are two-a-penny, Mr Holmes, as you must know, you and your ‘companion’ here.’ He sneered slightly as he said it, and Watson eyed him hard, whereat he flushed and dropped his impertinent gaze. ‘What does it matter what men do: if there’s no harm in it? I do not see that it matters to anyone, least of all this detective fellow. What can they prove unless they catch you in the act? If all of us boys French and Cornwall have buggered or been buggered by were laid end to end they’d reach from London to Dublin, but he’ll never prove it, any more than he’ll prove anything else I have done. Let him bring it on: I have nothing to fear.’

‘The aim is to damage reputation rather than to send down at her Majesty’s pleasure,’ explained Watson, after one look at me. For once, he was the one of us keeping his temper, and I the one biting back angry words: no insult aimed at me hit a mark, but insolence to Watson I could not tolerate.

Johnstone rolled his eyes again: he was a damned unpleasant fellow, and had it not been for the severity of the issue, I would have handed him over to Meiklejohn, blackguard as he was, for the mere pleasure of seeing him taken down a peg or two.

‘And where do you two come in then? Whose side are you on?’

‘I work with Scotland Yard – and the Yard has an interest in what Meiklejohn is doing: a corrupt ex-detective is good news for nobody. It upsets the honest inspectors and it adds to their burden. And have you not considered why Meiklejohn is after you, Johnstone? You have just told me that you have had carnal relations with French and Cornwall. Do you wish to go into court and testify to that? Be intimately examined by the court’s doctors? Is everything in your life so innocent that you have nothing to fear? Meiklejohn already has Clarke, and McGrane, and he is after you, and after Jack here. You are to be used to bring down two powerful men, and if, in the process, what you have left of reputation in the world is ruined, or you acquire a gaol sentence, he cares nothing. He is a bully, a drunk, a blackmailer, and a man accustomed to violence. By all means walk into his trap if you choose: I shall not prevent you. I am here to find information, not to save your miserable hide or answer impertinent questions. Go about your business then: it is clear you have nothing of value to offer us and have had a warning for free.’

‘We do not need you as much as you need us, Johnstone.’ Watson’s voice was cold. ‘No doubt you have family, respectable family, who would not want to see you dragged through the courts. Sing a little smaller, man, if you know what is good for you: you are on dangerous ground.’

Johnstone blustered and wriggled, but did not leave, and before the meeting was out had given me more names: Juan Albert de Fernandez, who was an army surgeon holding the rank of major in the grenadier guards and known slightly to Watson; Johnston Lyttle, Malcolm’s own cousin; Farquharson and Boyle, bankers; James Pillar, a Quaker wine merchant now in his seventieth year: Charles Fitzgerald, another aristocrat like Kirwan; a Captain George Joy, a man now in his forties, who had known Cornwall since he was fifteen; two keepers of disorderly houses, Considine and Fowler; innumerable captains and majors in the army; two priests, the Right Reverend Thomas Dancer Hutchinson and Father Paul Keogh, who according to Johnston had danced together (in a rare show of ecumenical unity to which I doubted their respective Protestant and Catholic churches would ever attain) at a ball at Johnston’s father’s house where half the men dressed as women; and an elderly Tory member of parliament: Sir James Tynte Agg-Gardner, who had introduced Johnston himself to Kirwan. He sang, in fact, as the thieves’ parlance had it, not small, but like a bird, and with each and every name my heart sank, for if Meiklejohn was uncovering this network, and it was all to come to court then the ramifications of the exposure would be grave indeed.

I cared nothing for the propping up of the dubious English authority in Dublin, although I knew that that was what concerned my brother, but I cared, I have to admit, a great deal for Mycroft. And Agg-Gardner, before he had escaped abroad to live a less trammelled life than was possible in England, had been a member of Mycroft’s club, the Diogenes. Meiklejohn, in his venal, blundering, violent way, had stumbled upon a network of men who lived quietly undercover lives, lives that society, if it knew of them, would hold up to scorn and obloquy. They harmed no-one as a rule (although I thought those the more honest who did not marry but stayed bachelors) but wove their way through society, in it, but not of it. It seemed to me to be a sad way to live, always hiding, always seeking for the community of their kind in a secret, mirrored version of what others had freely and openly, but who was I to judge them? I, who had crimsoned at poor, honest Jack’s hint that I might sigh for my doctor, I, who sweated and moaned in my bed at the thought of Watson’s kind hands on me, I, who had never dared to give voice to my thoughts or substance to my need - I was a coward: they had courage to own their affections as best they could.

*****

‘O’Brien has accused Cornwall - in the House - of unmentionable crimes,’ said Watson, quietly, coming in with the evening paper on a mid-May evening. ‘I am afraid, Holmes, he must sue for libel, or be damned by his silence. A newspaper article like the one last week on the tenth can be ignored, but in the Commons, O’Brien is protected by parliamentary privilege, and cannot be called to account otherwise now. I am sorry, my dear fellow. I know that your friend in government did not want this to come to court, but I am afraid there is no longer any choice. There will be a libel action. O’Brien has succeeded in that at very least. Given what you and I have heard from Jack, and others, O’Brien will be able to prove justification. And if he proves that his libel was justified, then Cornwall, French, Kirwan – they will all have to stand trial for sodomy. The Government cannot be seen to wink at vice in its officials, and thus O’Brien’s purpose will be fulfilled.’

‘I am aware of it, Watson. Lestrade was here earlier, while you were at the hospital. We collated our information for my friend in government. Have you dined?’

‘I have not, no. Do you wish to go out this evening? I believe Mrs Hudson has cooked for us: there is a very savoury smell coming from the kitchen. Do you not wish to stay here?’

‘I am stifling. If I sit here all evening with nothing to do, I shall go mad. My brain is tearing itself to pieces.’

‘Would it help you to play? I can see the black mood is on you, my dear: tell me what I must do to alleviate it.’

‘I cannot touch the violin today. Morphia would lift this mood, but you will say that I must not have any.’

‘Indeed you must not, my dear Holmes: let us not go down that road again. Has Lestrade no case for you?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Then let us walk, Holmes. Perhaps we can tire you out enough to find a little peace. I shall tell Mrs Hudson to set dinner aside: we can always eat it tomorrow, and we shall buy a pie or an ordinary wherever we chance upon it. Come, take off your dressing gown, and let us go. Have you not stirred all day, my dear fellow?,’

‘No. I could not, Watson, you know I could not.’

‘I know.’ He had tugged me to my feet, and stripped my gown from me, now he brought me my coat and saw me into it, tidied my loosened tie, and brought my shoes. ‘Put these on: I shall speak to Mrs Hudson, and return directly for you. We will go down to St Giles, or Limehouse if you want a longer walk, enquire after some of our lads and lasses, and see what good we can do. You need something that will stretch your legs and make you breathe. It is not good for you to sit here and brood all day, Holmes.’

It was not good for me, and I knew it was not good for me, but at times like this, I did not know how to drag myself out of the Slough of Despond. Walking beside Watson, my hand tucked into his arm, matching him stride for stride, as near to him as I could be without impeding his steps, I felt at least a measure of equanimity return to me. He set a fast pace at first to tire me out, but I slowed him after a while: it was he, not I, who would suffer if we overdid it.  The evening was close: it had been unseasonably hot for May, and there was tension in the air.

‘I think it is going to storm,’ Watson remarked, as we paused for breath. He disengaged himself from me, took off his hat, and mopped his brow. We had been going for about thirty minutes and were traversing the narrow, filthy streets around St Giles. ‘A good night of rain would clean these damned kennels: they stink. This whole place is an affront to the eye and the nostril. Look at it!’ He gestured around, and I followed his eye: the rookeries of Seven Dials were, as he said, kennels, save that they were not fit to house even a dog. Children, their clothing in every state of dilapidation, their bare, dirty feet scuffing through the indescribable sludge of the overflowing gutters, screamed and squabbled and swarmed like mice amid the costermongers’ and hawkers’ barrows and stalls, and on every street corner were lads no older than fifteen and girls even younger plying for hire.

‘For pity’s sake, let us move on,’ he went on, ‘For some reason, I cannot stand it here today. We said we could do some good but what avails anything we do? If I were to sain one bruise, there would still be a thousand unanointed: if I were to rescue one child, there would be yet a thousand left. This cannot, must not continue. We are in a civilised country in 1884: I have seen no worse than this in the reeking slums of Bombay or Calcutta. My God, Holmes this is vile. No! My God! Look at that villain!’ and leaving my side entirely he plunged across the street to where a brute of a man was twisting a young girl’s arm behind her back.

She, a fragile, fair slip of a thing, was completely silent under his cruel abuse, until, just as Watson reached her, I heard the bone snap. She screamed then, shrill and high, and he let go of her in time for Watson to catch her as she swooned. The man snarled, and swung at Watson, and throwing off my coat, caring little or nothing that he was at least twice my weight, I went for the brute with my fists up, a red mist before my eyes and a terrible joy in my heart . . .

 . . . ‘Holmes, Holmes, let him go now. Holmes, old fellow, let him be. The constable has him now, not that he needs a constable: I shall be seeing him in the damn hospital as well as his daughter: I swear you’ve broken his jaw. Let be now, come away, old chap, that’s right. Sergeant, Mr Holmes is known to Scotland Yard, as am I. Yes, Captain Dr John Watson. That brute has broken the girl’s arm: have her conveyed to the free ward at Barts. Here is my card to go with her. Holmes, sit DOWN. Here, little one, don’t cry: are you her sister? Molly? Do you have a mama, my lass? Only papa? Oh, I’m so sorry, pet. Take my handkerchief, there’s a good little lassie, and then you can go with your sister to the hospital, and wait there with her. Someone will be along shortly to take you to a safe place. Are there any more of you? Well get your brother too, and go with the constable there. Are you a family man, Constable, by any good chance? Excellent, here take this, and see them fed: I shall arrange for their safe keeping. Take the man too: he cannot be left like that. Free ward as well, on my card, Constable. Oh, thank God. I do not know where you have sprung from, boys, but you are welcome as the day. Billy, fetch us a cab, Mr Holmes has – no, he didn’t beat him to a bloody pulp, boy, this is not a boxing ring. Sam, go to Mrs Hudson, and tell her to send Janey in a cab to fetch these two children from Barts: God knows where she will put them for the night, but they must be housed somewhere. They have no mama, they cannot be left. Be QUIET, Holmes, do not even attempt to speak at this moment. Enough, I say.’

‘'m sorry,’ I said. My head was ringing, I could only see out of one eye, and my hand, when I wiped my chin, came away wet with blood. ‘Sorry, Watson.’

‘Quiet!’ he said again. ‘Thank you, gentlemen for coming to our assistance. I shall escort my friend home, and deal with his injuries. Sergeant, if you will call at the address on my card – here is another one for you and your colleague – I shall see the two of you rewarded for your kindness to the children. No, you can leave the man to me, but he must be cleaned up and have those ribs mended before that. Don’t cry, my little lassie, your sister will be well again soon. What is your brother’s name? Jack? Well, both of you go with the constable to the hospital and see your sister comfortable, then my Janey, and Mrs Hudson who looks after us will come and bring you home. Buy them something on the way, Constable, they look half starved. Billy, you’re an excellent lad, excellent. Come, Holmes, let me help you into the cab.’

‘'m sorry,’ I said again. ‘I don’t think I can – feel dizzy, Watson.’

‘You’re punch drunk, Holmes. Billy, bear a hand here.’

‘An’t never seen Mr ‘Olmes fight like that before, Dr Watson. Di’n’t think ‘e could, not like a right ‘un. Laid out ol’ Barker goo’ ‘n proper ‘e did, an’ ‘im twice the weight.’

Billy’s voice wavered in my head much as Watson’s stream of instructions and explanations had done. I was hauled to my feet, Watson’s solid arm around my waist and Billy’s hand under my elbow – my bruised elbow, I thought, stifling a groan.

‘Neither have I, Billy. Sounds like the man had it coming to him, from what you say. Come, Holmes, the cab is here. Lean on me, my dear, dear fellow, that’s the ticket. Let me take your weight. Billy, whom did you send to Mrs Hudson?’

‘Sent Sam to Miss ‘Udson, an’ Mags to Barts, Dr Watson. She can keep an eye on the littl’uns, make sure they’re not took away by the work’us. Good thin’ there’s allus one on us keeps an eye on yer, an’t it? You’d ‘a been right snookered wi’out. The folks round ‘ere di’n’t like Barker much, but they ‘ates swells buttin’ in even wuss. Dunno what Mr ‘Olmes were thinkin’ about, goin’ for ‘im like that. An’t none of ‘is business, what a man does to ‘is littl’uns, leastways, that’s ‘ow they look at it round ‘ere. You was lucky they di’n’t all ‘ave a go at ‘im.’

‘I know.’ Watson’s acknowledgement was a sigh. ‘But he came to my aid while I dealt with the girl, Billy. Mine was the fault in the first place. If I had not interfered . . .’

‘But you do, Doctor, thass what doctors do, an’t it? An’ Mr ‘Olmes, ‘e went at it like ‘e were spoiling fer a scrap. Las’ time I seen some’un do that, ‘e were looking fer a fight the minute ‘e walked in, an ‘e were blind drunk into th’bargain.’

‘I’m not drunk.’ It seemed very important to me that Watson knew this, but it was hard to get the words out. I was not sure he had heard me, though his arm tightened into an embrace.

‘Leastways, no ‘arm done. Mr ‘Olmes ‘as got it out of ‘is ‘ead now, an’ Barker’s ‘ad a bloody lesson, an’ I ‘spect you’ll be looking after the little’uns. So what’s the ‘arm in that? Although I dessay the bloke’d ‘ld ‘ave been better off with a job, then ‘e wu’n’t get so angry, see? You got ‘im, Doctor? ‘E’s green as sparrergrass: the jarvey wu’n’t be so ‘appy if ‘e casts up ‘is accounts in the ‘ansom.’

I was sure I could have corrected Billy’s world view, but the effort was too great. And being hauled into the cab was doing vile things to my queasy stomach.

‘I shall have to sacrifice my hat if he does.’ Watson’s tone was resigned. ‘Damn you, Holmes, could you not leave it to me to deal with the brute? All it needed was a pistol butt to the nose or collarbone, just enough to incapacitate. Thank you, Billy, I have him now. Dammit, I’ve given all my cash to that constable for the little ones. Make sure you and Sam and Mags come to Baker Street tomorrow, and I’ll see you get your fee, and some over. Good man. Drive on, cabbie.’

‘Don’t,’ I said, as we drove off, He was supporting me against him. My throbbing head rested on his sound shoulder, and his arms were around me.

‘Don’t what, Holmes?’

‘Don’t damn me. I promise I won’t vomit in your hat. I won’t do anything you don’t like. But please don’t damn me. I might already be damned: don’t make it worse.’

‘Hush,’ his hand left my shoulder and stroked down my cheek. ‘I’m not sure you’re entirely sensible, my poor Holmes. Close your eyes and rest: we shall be home directly, and then I shall bathe these wounds for you.’

‘I don’t deserve it.’ I turned my head further into his shoulder. ‘I don’t.’

‘Hush my dear,’ he repeated, and his arms tightened around me. ‘You’re upset because of this filthy business we’re embroiled in. I understand why you fought, Holmes. I have done so myself, gone in, fists flying, to heal my rage and pain. What you are feeling now, the sadness, that comes after too, because it is not right to do it, and we know it is not right. It’s done though, and cannot be undone now. I will deal with all. Let it go. Just rest, my dear, and let it go.’

‘My head feels odd. Wavering, as if I were under water.’

‘You hit it when you went down, I think. You broke his jaw when you finally laid him out – that was a sweet upper-cut - but he’s blacked your eye and split your lip for you. I shall have to look at your teeth when we get in. I saw you drop just after he did: you did well to stay the course for he was above both your weight and your reach. You were formidable, Holmes.’

‘It is because I thought he was going to hit you. Watson, if we are not there soon, I may need your hat. My stomach is most uneasy.’

‘If you close your eyes and be quiet as I bade you, my hat may yet be spared. You are the very devil for talking when I bid you be quiet.’

I remembered very little of the rest of the journey. Watson’s hat was indeed spared, but I was extremely sick in the privacy of our own home. After he had mended my bruises and cleaned my lip and eye, he helped me bathe and assisted me into bed. He stayed with me all night, waking me at intervals and asking the most ridiculous questions, I think to ensure that I was not becoming comatose. By morning, he seemed satisfied that I was on the mend, so he went off to his own room to nap, while I dozed, looked in on at intervals by Mrs Hudson.

I got up in the afternoon. By then, Watson had gone to Barts, whence he returned later having made interest with some of his Fabian friends for the safe-keeping of the children he had rescued. They were in need of it, he told me seriously, for their father was an incorrigible drunkard.

‘If he goes on as he has been, his life cannot be worth six-months purchase. But I feel sorry for the poor man: he could not manage after his wife died, took to drink, and then became harsh to his children.’ His mouth twisted. ‘It is a story I am not unfamiliar with, after all. Misery of that sort is not confined to the wealthy and educated any more than it was ever confined to the poor.’

‘I am sorry.’ I held out my hand from where I reclined on the sofa. ‘Will you sit with me, Watson? I should apologise for all the trouble I caused you, yesterday as well as last night. You have had so little rest.’

‘If it was a trouble, it was one we were in together, for I made the first move against the man. I will sit, but I do not want you reading yet, Holmes. And we must consider whether you are going to go on with this case if it is to sadden you so deeply.’

‘It was only that I had had such a black day. And it does sadden me. Man’s inhumanity to man: will it ever cease?’

‘No, in a word.’ He came to perch on the sofa, and I made room. ‘We can hold up a candle against the darkness, and that is all. But we can do it together, my dear Holmes. Now, what of this case?’

‘We must see it through.’

‘Very well then. But you must tell me if it is too much for you.’

*****

Cornwall, as we had expected, responded to the attack in the House with a writ. His libel case came to court on the second of July. Between mid-May, and that date, William O’Brien, and his compatriot, Tim Healy, wrote article after article accusing him, along with French and George Bolton, the English Crown Prosecutor for Ireland, of the vilest crimes, taunting him with his indiscretions, deriding his character – the language vitriolic and bitter. The unhappy Cornwall – by mid June, French’s feebly pressed libel case had been ruled as out of time, since he would not come to court – bore the brunt of it. He was accused of ‘felonious practices’. Of ‘detestable and abominable crimes’. Of ‘sins that should remain nameless’.

I had, as I said to Watson, no idea why the newspapers bothered to employ these circumlocutory devices: by referring to ‘the unnameable sin’ in the way they did, they effectively named it, and by July, only a child or an idiot could have been unaware that the case was to do with sodomy. Meiklejohn had not needed to fabricate evidence against any of the plaintiffs-in-prospect, however: it was there in plenty. Some witnesses he had failed to find, but all too many had succumbed to bribery, bullying and the threat of action taken against themselves. The case had grown monstrous: an entire echelon of society, covert, unsuspected by the masses, and therefore, suddenly, dangerous, was dragged into the open, and the public learned that it should be hated.

And yet, when the libel trial began,  because the ‘felonious practices’ were not named, only the circumstances in which they were carried out, the impression given was of men whose lives were spent in aimless wandering around a city of dreadful night, of men with lives that came to life only after decent men were in bed beside their wives. Cornwall, French, Kirwan – the men most aimed at – walked home together from concerts together. They walked to dinner engagements. They took cabs together before and after they walked, and in those cabs unspeakable and nameless events occurred. They rambled in parks, and through botanical gardens, where they most assuredly did not study the flowers, and into and out of clubs, theatres, hothouses and even each others’ houses like errant, ambulant suns attracting into their orbits the lesser planets of Malcolm Johnston, George Taylor, Malcolm McKiernan. Other, smaller satellites, circled them: the lowly young men of the street who sold themselves to these wanderers. There were looks, significant words, touches, embraces - a dance of small intimacies, all catalogued, investigated, expounded upon with prurient interest. Someone’s hand rested on a knee in a cab. There was an encounter under a holly tree. (Watson commented wryly that he could think of trees better suited for trysting under.) There were embraces in a dressing room. An embrace on a chair. Letters were written. (Cornwall’s letters – affectionate, pleading, amused, gently endearing – were read out in court.) Gifts of music were sent. Music. It hurt, that ‘musical’ should be turned into a term of abuse, a term synonymous with what was considered the vilest of crimes. ‘You are all musical all of you, are you not?’ commented the judge, and made it a condemnation. I touched my violin with a caressing hand: it was so dear to me, so very dear. I did not play it much at that time.

The mob delighted in the plaintiffs’ approaching downfall – for by the end of the second day it was clear that they would not succeed. The courts were packed each day. William O’Brien, swaggering into the court as if he owned it was cheered, praised, exalted. The lads whom Cornwall and Kirwan had had to do with were coerced before the judge in the mornings, reluctantly sober, and taken away at night to become inebriated in their captivity. Meiklejohn strutted and bragged. The judge made sarcastic comments, the lawyers squabbled, the jury members complained fretfully about the stink of the River Liffey flowing by their accommodation and the odious nature of the evidence to which they were forced to listen. And the newspapers in Ireland reported it all. (There were fewer column inches in England. Those wishing to use the trial to blacken England’s name had less authority over what its press reported. And what was reported in England was referred to as the ‘Dublin Affair’, making it firmly an Irish problem.)

Watson and I read the account of the libel case each night: I do not know why. I did not speak to him, nor he to me about the details. We did not discuss them. But every evening after dinner, he unfurled the newspaper and in a clipped, military, unexpressive voice, read out the day’s quota of bile from the United Irishman, and Freeman’s Journal. Every evening, I listened, comparing, with a sick fascination, those reported actions which found an echo in our own lives. Watson and I ‘rambled around for hours.’ We visited concerts together, walked home together. We traversed, at night, for the purposes of our case work, or Watson’s charities, those dreadful streets where vice ruled virtue. I played my violin to him. He sang around the house – not often, and only in an exceptionally good mood, but he sang, small snatches of North Country ballads - and I would listen, secretly, and delight in it. I had never laid my hand on his knee, never touched him with intent although we were familiar together. Watson and I had never made the beast with two backs. His mouth had never touched mine. But . . . but . . .

I was an invert, that much I knew. If I had desires, and although I had tried to suppress them, I had to own that I did have desires, then they were most certainly for men, since no woman had ever stirred my reluctant, timorous loins. Yet not ‘for men’. Nothing in the world would have tempted me to do as Cornwall had, as these men had. Nothing would have caused me to stretch out a hand to any chance passer by: it was for one man, for one man’s touch that I burned. If not he – and as the days of the trial dragged on, I saw that it could not be he, that it would never be he – then it would be no-one. I saw that I would live virgin until my death. He was my lodestone: my heart’s compass would point to no other North.

What did he think of when he read, I asked myself. What thoughts went on behind those blue eyes, shadowed now with hurt? What words lay unspoken behind that fine-cut mouth, shut now too often. He did not speak much, at that time. Only when we read the account of the last day of the trial, when Monroe, the Queen’s Counsel for poor Cornwall, made an allusion to the United Ireland article of the tenth of May which had initiated the libel case – an article in which O’Brien referred in scathing terms to Cornwall, as Damon, mourning his military Pythias, Kirwan, did Watson’s composure break. He threw down the paper, stood abruptly, and went to the window. For a while he gazed into the street, then his hand went to cover his eyes. I could not move. I dared not speak.

‘Holmes,’ he said, painfully, after a silence that had stretched out too long.

One word. I rose and went to him.

‘Watson. John.’

‘What these men did is not wrong. If there is love, and consent, it is not wrong.’

‘I do believe that.’

‘You are still Damon to me, Sherlock. My noble senator. My heart’s blood.’

‘And you my Pythias, John. My gallant soldier and fast friend. My halved heart.’

He turned then, and held out his hands to me, a pleading, hesitant gesture. I walked into his arms and they closed about my waist. My arms encircled him. His forehead was bowed to my shoulder, my cheek rested on his hair, and so we stood, silent, for a long time.

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face   Part 9

Holmes, disembarking from his transport, gazes with some distaste at the mean streets of Bushire. There is little to be seen here of the Persia of poets and princes for which he has hoped. Although the British Residency is a fine building, with two courts, and is surrounded by the principal European and British houses and places of business, most of them two-storeyed, stone built, and with airy verandahs facing the sea, the majority of the bazaar streets he traverses are narrow and filthy. A little way away, on the shore, are encampments of low tents and kapars, huts made from date sticks and leaves: the domiciles of the lower classes of the population. The port is bustling – its inadequate, shallow anchorage crowded with British steamers discharging their cargo from India via light sloops that are the only means of attaining the shore. (The inner harbour has become inaccessible because a sand bar has formed across its mouth, Holmes has been told by the captain of his rickety transport, but the Persians will not pay to dredge it. The captain is of the opinion that the British should never have ceded the port to Persia in ’57: it would have been better administered, he tells Holmes, if it were not done by the natives. Holmes disagrees. In his experience so far, the British administration is slow and ineffectual. And a native saved his life.)

Holmes has put on Sigerson again. His Urdu is fair, enough for him to pass as a Tibetan hillman in India, but neither his Arabic, nor his Farsi are good enough to appear as anyone other than a European. Better to be Sigerson than to run the risk of exposure. It may seem unwise, but if all goes according to plan, then as Sigerson he will be able to meet Moran face to face in an environment where Moran cannot touch him, and ask the questions he needs to ask. But he dare not meet the man alone. His back has healed – more or less. The scar is ugly, a lumpy, jagged gash, and one end still seeps a thin, blood-stained fluid. Intermittent fevers rack him, and his ribs stand out. If it were to come to a fight between him and Moran, he knows he would not win.

He wonders, waiting in the residency for Adelbert Talbot, the British Resident, how far this most important of Moran’s contacts in Persia will support him. Talbot may still shelter Moran for his father’s sake: Sir Augustus Moran, quondam minister to Persia was known for loyalty, sound judgement, and a sense of fair play. Had his son not come under the influence of James Moriarty, he too might have gained such a reputation. Instead, he made India too hot to hold him, and is in a fair way to do so in English society. In Persia, however he still has the entrée.

Holmes stands as Talbot, an imposing figure with a full, grey beard enters the lobby. He expected to be summoned, not to have the most important British official in Bushire come out to meet him.

‘So you’re Sigerson are yer? M’ friend Moran’s told me about yer. Said yer might be visitin’. I don’t know what y’want, but y’won’t get it here.’

It is a shockingly discourteous greeting. Holmes is surprised.

‘I am merely seeking a meeting with Colonel Moran, Your Excellency. I wished to interview him about some of his experiences in Chitral. He is an acknowledged expert. But I have found him hard to track down, I confess.’

‘Perhaps that should be a lesson to yer that he don’t want to see yer. Colonel Moran’s not told me y’re a whatever yer call y’self. Says y’re a spy for the Russians. Anyway, I’ve no time for nonsense. This Qatari business’s takin’ up all m’time at the moment.’

‘If you would allow me to present my letter of recommendation, Sir, you would see that the Colonel may be misinformed.’ Holmes tenders the official document that was delivered to him in Karachi. ‘It is signed by Lord Rosebery, by the Foreign Secretary himself, Sir. He wishes the benefit of Colonel Moran’s experience in the Afghanistan question; that is why he sent me.’

It is not quite a lie. Rosebery certainly knows of the letter. Just not of its exact wording.

‘Rosebery! Damned snob queer: m’friend Queensberry thinks he’s a cad and a rotter, messin’ around with young Drumlanrig. Only good thing the man’s ever done is tell me to deal with this business in Qatar. Anyway, yer can’t see Colonel Moran. He’s not here – gone to Shiraz. Get along with yer, I’ve no time.’

‘Sir, may I beg you to read the letter. I was charged most straitly to deliver it.’ Holmes stands tall, attempting to look authoritative. For a moment he thinks he will have to admit defeat, then Talbot’s bushy brows draw together, and he takes the letter.

‘Come with me, damn yer.’

Holmes follows him into an office strewn with stacks of papers: it is, he thinks, a monument to this man’s inability to cope with the requirements of his position. Lansdowne, the vice-regent of India, to whom Talbot is answerable, suffers from a similar inability: under his ineffectual governance the Raj is slowly sliding into chaos, with rising tension between Hindu and Muslim. Talbot opens the letter and reads. He raises his eyebrows at one point, and gives Holmes a hard stare. Holmes stares back, flint in his gaze. He has not worked for so long, and travelled so far, to be balked now. If he can meet Moran and speak to him, the man may yet be turned.

‘I’ll give yer safe conduct to Shiraz, as requested. Yer can meet Colonel Moran there, if he’s willin, but I’ll have no hand in settin’ it up. Meanwhile I’m to give yer access to the diplomatic bag for correspondence, it appears. And the telegraph. Where are yer stayin’?

‘At Bayt Safar,’ murmurs Holmes. The house of the wealthy – wealthier than the British Resident – Safar family stands only a few steps away from the Residency. Agha Muhammad Rahmin, who has succeeded to his father’s dignity relatively recently, and John Zaytun, his Christian trading partner, are expecting his visit. It is clearly something of a surprise to Talbot that ‘Sigerson’ is so well connected. ‘I have business with them. And also with Agha Muhammad Karim Sharif, the munshi. I can arrange passage to Shiraz with them, Sir, if that is easier.’

‘I have to settle this Qatari business: Moran’s information can’t wait,’ says Talbot. ‘What else d’yer want, Sigerson? Best be off t’yer merchant friends if there’s nothin’ more I can do f’yer.’

There is a sneer in his voice, and bidding him a courteous farewell, Holmes realises, as he leaves the residency, that this man has a very different opinion of the wealthy and influential merchants of the Safar and Sharif families – all of them of Persian stock, all of them educated and affiliated to the British Empire – than his predecessor, the much-lamented Colonel Sir Edward Ross. Had Ross been in office, Holmes thinks, Moran would never have gained any ascendancy here, but would have been seen for what he truly is – the unworthy son of an excellent father, and a man whose sole purpose in this volatile political arena is to work for Russian, not British advantage. Why Moran, an army officer, ever betrayed his country and threw in his lot with Moriarty, why he agreed to be Moriarty’s chief of staff in India, Afghanistan and Persia, Holmes has no idea. The man has pursued him relentlessly since Reichenbach, has sent assassins to kill him, has proved obdurate to all attempts at reason, and to what avail? For what purpose? Holmes cannot believe the man is actuated, like Iago, by motiveless malignity, but equally he cannot see a motive for such depths of treachery. In Moriarty’s case there was an obvious reason. For Moran, other than personal loyalty to Moriarty, there appears to be none. The inconsistency nags at Holmes, itching like his unhealed wound.

At Bayt Safar, Holmes presents his other letter of recommendation, and is greeted very differently: after he has been shown to his room, bathed, refreshed, and his wound treated by a concerned physician, he reclines on a divan smoking a nargileh while Muhammad Karim explains in astoundingly accurate English the problem of Sebastian Moran, and Adelbert Talbot.

‘He has persuaded His Excellency, Lieutenant Colonel Talbot that it is appropriate to intervene in the dispute between Qatar and the Sultan, Abdul Hamid. As you know, it would be in Moran’s interests for the entente between England and Turkey to fail. If they are at odds, it can only strengthen Russia’s position. The issue between Sheikh Jasim and Turkey is a purely internal one: he accepted the protection of Turkey for Qatar: he cannot now resile from it. Why then should Britain intervene?’

‘The Prime Minister himself believes it appropriate to intervene: Qatar, after all, is under British protection in the Gulf; if it were not for our warships there would be no trade, and piracy would be rife, moreover Abdul Hamid appears to have acted tyrannically. Although it is true that he lost the battle in March.’

Muhammad Karim shrugs. ‘Moran is persuasive. He has fed Talbot many plausible lies, and Talbot yearns to prove himself politically. Sir Edward’s shoes are not easily filled and Talbot has achieved little of value since he took office. He has transmitted Moran’s lies to London as they suit his purpose, and at such a distance it is not easy to discern the truth. Your Prime Minister is deceived. If he allows Lieutenant-Colonel Talbot to interfere in a minor dispute between Qatar and Turkey, he will offend both. And Turkey does not love Russia, but neither does it love England.’

‘What do you think?’ Holmes is curious. ‘What do you think of Britain’s presence here? In India, in Persia, in Afghanistan? What do you think?’

‘I think that ‘ch’i ‘hu nan hsia pei’ as the Chinese proverb goes. He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. Britain is riding the tiger of empire. If she dismounts, it will turn and rend her. To keep India as the jewel in her crown, Britain must safeguard her from Russia. Turkey, Afghanistan, Persia are all India’s guards, and so England must meddle and meddle to keep one off balance against the other. I am a part of that, Mr Sigerson, and so are you. And so is Colonel Sebastian Moran. He is a dangerous man, you know. I would not have to do with him myself.’

‘I know it. One of his assassins came near to ending me. But I must persevere: it is my duty. In Shiraz is a young man whom I believe, can help me to a meeting with him, so thither I go, like a leaf on a stream, carried resistless by the will of my political masters. Your English is excellent, by the way, and your command of idiom impressive – were you schooled there?’

‘And the poetry of your words is almost Persian. Eton.’ The munshi’s eyes darken. ‘I was schooled at Eton. It was not a happy time. Certainly of idiom – and idiots – I learned much. You are not English yourself, are you?’

‘Norwegian,’ Holmes lies. ‘But I was well tutored. How soon can you make arrangements for me to leave for Shiraz?’

‘The day after tomorrow. It will take about fourteen days, and I will see that you are properly clad. The high passes are cold at night. Now if you will excuse me, I will retire. Is there anything else I can do for you?’

‘I must retrieve my correspondence. There are telegrams, and letters in the diplomatic bag I believe, from – England’ he says, tripping over the unspoken ‘home’.

‘That has been done for you,’ Muhammad Karim stands. ‘I shall have them sent to your room, and we will meet again at the evening meal.’

‘Thank you.’ Holmes rises and bows. ‘I am grateful for your courtesy and for your hospitality.’

His host returns the bow. ‘This is an old country, Mr Sigerson. Persians have always been courteous and hospitable. Maybe in some cases too courteous, and too hospitable. We should, perhaps, have turned the great Alexander away from our gates, and retained our empire. And perhaps we should have done so with modern Alexanders also. But you, Mr Sigerson - it was your Viking ancestors who conquered the country that has conquered ours. You were more fortunate than we were.’

*****

My dear Sherlock, how very exigent you are, begins Mycroft’s letter. Can you possibly believe that I have nothing better to do than report on your erstwhile companion? Is it not enough that I have half the weight of the government on my shoulders without the added burden of Dr John Watson? I told you in my last that his wife approaches her end: he appears wholly consumed by her suffering and his, and rarely stirs from the house. However, the novel he perpetrated last year and his stories have been published to no small acclaim - not that he cares a jot for their fate. He is entirely indifferent to money or fame, it would seem.

For myself, I am constantly in attendance on my Lord Rosebery. Many questions have been asked about the conduct of our armies in India, and there has been discontent over the excess of expenditure over land revenue from the continent: (Rosebery’s recent decision vis-à-vis intervention between Turkey and Qatar can only add to the cost and exacerbate matters: I am endeavouring to ensure Talbot’s removal from office and his replacement with a man rather less under Moran’s sway.) The government appears to be completely incapable of comprehending that as the Israelites under Pharaoh failed to make bricks without straw, so the collectors of tithes and taxes in India cannot take revenue from an area that labours under adverse weather conditions and has consequently failed to produce crops upon which tithes and taxes can be levied. I tell the members of Parliament that the Empire is merely an empire: it is not God, and cannot direct the weather. Equally I tell them  - but they remain unconvinced -  that the salt tax has a direct impact on cholera in Bengal, and should be remitted – I am glad, brother, that you are not in that swampy and desolate region. To add to our troubles there are reports that the British army posts in Kachin country on the Burmese border have repelled incursions by the Chinese: if we are obliged to fight on all fronts in this way, I fear we will suffer the fate of Rome. We are over-stretched, and under-armed.

Forgive me, brother, I am much tried at the present time – not least because of Rosebery’s infatuation with young Drumlanrig, which is turning heads in social, as well as political circles. I cannot persuade him to caution. And Drumlanrig’s father, that brute, Queensberry, is loud and blustering, and therefore causes damage of the implications of which he has no conception.  One might have thought that with the Cleveland Street Affair only four years in the past, and poor Arthur Somerset’s debacle, Rosebery would be cautious, but alas, he is not. Those of us of his ilk labour under the stigma of our needs, and dare not be open. I long, I confess, for my Juventus’ company, but we do not dare to share quarters. It is too perilous. I am glad that you averted any danger from yourself and Dr Watson, although I understand what it cost you.

With regard to that, my dear brother, and in some small recompense for your absence and the many pains you have undergone, I assure you that your Doctor remains your more than devoted friend and admirer. Whatever the outcome – and no outcome is certain – I do truly believe that he holds you in the very highest affection and esteem. I am in hopes that on your return, for you will return, Sherlock - you must return, and soon - it will once more be possible for him to return to Baker Street and to your company. His status as a widower – for such he will assuredly be by then – will, I am sure, protect you from the adverse comment and suspicion that now attends men who share rooms with another fellow.

Addendum: I re-open this to enclose within it something of Watson’s writing. It may solace your heart to know yourself so beloved: it will also wring it for his grief. Do not let it derail you from our purpose, however, or I shall regret sending it.  And ask me not how it fell into my hands, but know that I take great care of your little band of street urchins, for old times sake, and for the kindness you bore to them. Mrs Hudson is also well cared for. I have paid her generously to retain your old quarters unchanged, so that they may be ready against your return. She thinks me sentimental, no doubt, which is far from the truth. I think merely of the practicalities, of course, in preparing thus.

With regard to my imbecilic infants, alas, a man must use the tools to hand. I concur with your preference for intelligent men of the country, but they do not have the entrée everywhere, and are thus debarred from some means of enquiry. Console yourself with the fact that there is a never ending supply of infants only too ready to lay down their lives in the service of Her Majesty, and that one more or less is neither here nor there, save perhaps to their parents.

Do endeavour not to encounter any more assassins yourself, Sherlock. The loss of your gifts would be a pity; the loss of your person rather more.

The estate goes on well. It is April weather with us, of course: how I envy you the blue skies of Persia.

I remain, my dear Sherlock, your affectionate brother, Mycroft.

Post Scriptum: needless to state, I will have him carefully watched for you, and intervene if necessary. Do not distress yourself unduly: my reach is long.

Holmes turns to the somewhat crumpled and dog-eared enclosure, and opens it, smoothing it mechanically before reading. Then he stops, and raises the paper to his nose. There is the faintest possible odour of tobacco – Watson’s beloved old Arcadia mix. He folds the paper into a smaller compass and holds it in cupped hands, breathing in the scent of home. Vividly present to his mind’s eye, he sees Watson at his desk, writing. His penmanship is exquisite, unlike Holmes’ own untidy scrawl, it is pointed, Italianate, regular, with a neat forward slant, and regular curves and flourishes. Watson was made, at school, to write with his right hand, but reverted to his natural left, when training as a surgeon. ‘Because I was more handy with it,’ he says, ‘and my suturing was neater. But I cannot write for too long now, not with this damn shoulder. I should have stuck to my right.’ Watson smiles at him. ‘Pass my pipe, old chap. I’m nearly done here.’

He is almost afraid to open the letter.

My dear Holmes . . .

Now he is afraid to read on.

My dear Holmes . . .

‘My dear Watson’, he whispers, closing his eyes. ‘My dear fellow.’

My dear Sherlock, I cannot. I mi . . .   Even though   I do not in the least know why I am.    Sherlock, I cannot go on like this. I wish I had understood, but I was so blind. For all that we talked, and I explained, and assured you that it did not matter in the least, for all that I offered comforting platitudes to Trevelyan, and poor young Housman, and a score of others, I still did not see.

I did not see. Holmes shivers.

I did not see, and now it is too late, for you are dead. There is nothing more to be done. There would have been nothing more to be done in any case, for I married, and one cannot cheat  so why do I torture myself like this? You are gone, and soon she will be gone. There is no hope for her; the disease is eating her from the inside out. And you are gone, bones now, tumbled in the uncaring waters.

When she is gone, there will be no-one. But it was you. It was always you, Holmes. I didn’t know. But it was always you. And you died.

“Low in thy grave with thee, happy to lie,”  Holmes, my dear Holmes.

“Since there’s no greater thing left Love to do.” I should have died then. But.

“And to live after thee is but to die, for with but half a soul, what can Life do.” My twinned soul. My Damon, my Jonathan. Sherlock. I can’t go on.

“So share thy victory, or else thy grave,” Soon. It will be soon.

“Either to rescue thee, or with thee lie.” I did not do the first. I failed. But I will do the second. When I am released. As soon as I am released. I tried, Mary. I am sorry. And perhaps, perhaps if we had, maybe if there’d been a child . . . but you never wanted – who I was. I’m sorry for that, Mary. That I wasn’t – what you thought.

“Ending that life for thee,” I should have done. I should have died then. At Reichenbach. At the falls.

“That thou didst save,” I would have died, did you know that, Holmes? I was so close. So very close that day we met. But you made me want to live, and so I did. And then . . . and then. I tried, Holmes. I thought you wanted me to go away. God knows you pushed. I should never have let myself. Even if  . . . even if.

“So Death that sundereth might bring more nigh.” Soon, Sherlock. It’s a lonely place, but I won’t be alone. Will you have waited? If I call you, will you hold out your hand? I want to see your face. I think I must have – since first I saw your face, I think I . . .

“Peace, peace, my stricken lute, thy strings are sleeping.” There will be silence there, after the sound of the waters. ‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the seas drown it.’ I can’t go on, Sherlock. You don’t want me to go on, do you? Could you have missed me? Would there be a place for me at your side still?

“Would that my heart could still its bitter weeping.”

The most bitter tears are those we dare not shed. I could not wear mourning. I could not show it. I did not mourn you as one mourns a friend, Sherlock. I mourned you as one mourns a spouse. You called me your halved heart. But you were mine, and not as the friend you meant. I was not faithful to you in life, but I will be faithful in death. Ending that life for thee, that thou didst save, so death that sundereth, might bring more nigh. Soon, Sherlock  - and forgive me. Forgive me, my dear fellow.

Holmes’ hands shake as he folds the paper.

“The most bitter tears are those we dare not shed.” he says. ‘John. Will you ever forgive me, John?’

*****

It was a dark summer, 1884. Shortly after Cornwall’s libel trial, he was arrested, as were Kirwan, French, and some others, and charged with the crime of sodomy, on the basis of evidence that had been heard in the libel trial. Kirwan and Cornwall were charged with conspiracy to procure men for immoral purposes as well. The boys to whom we had, eventually, spoken – William Clarke, and Michael McGrane, and another, Patrick Molloy - were called as witnesses. Malcolm Johnston went off to Ireland to stand as a witness as convinced of his own unassailable status as he had been when we met him. Alfred McKiernan and Graham Taylor were kept in custody ‘for their own safety’. Jack Saul was tracked down – not by Meiklejohn, but by Chief Superintendent Mallon of the Dublin Constabulary. He too, like Meiklejohn, had been under suspicion for bribing a witness, on whose evidence he had sent five men to the gallows, and one wondered whether these ‘gamekeepers’ were more venal than the ‘poachers’ they pursued. Watson was thoughtful for days after Jack’s capture. So too was I, for he was a likeable young man, and it would take a hard heart to be indifferent to his charm.

The trial was set for August, and we awaited its beginning with trepidation. I was able, with Watson’s help, to gather enough evidence of Meiklejohn’s intimidation and coercion of witnesses, blackmail of suspects, and attempts to rig the jury, to offer Mycroft at least the opportunity of stripping the prosecution’s main witness hunter of his credibility, but there was so much evidence that there were, in fact, numerous men in Ireland, just as there were in England, who committed acts with each other that were punishable by a lifetime of penal servitude, that we could not hope to stave off a trial. Public sentiment demanded it: outrage was the order of the day. Politically motivated – and justifiable - hatred of the oppressor would bring the defendants to court. But they were scapegoats for their political masters, and would be ruined for something they could no more change than they could change the colour of the hair they were born with.

And for the rest, we were truly in Limbo – a Dantean place: “non avea pianto ma’ che di sospiri, che l’aura eterna facevan tremare” where there was no lamentation save sighs which quivered on the eternal air. Life went on under this looming shadow. I pursued cases and chemistry. Watson assisted me, wrote, doctored his poor and maimed. We dined out, sat by the fire, read, smoked. We walked together, early and late. Very occasionally he would place a hand on my arm, look earnestly at me, and I would offer a brief – it was always brief – chaste embrace. Now and again I would hold out a hand to him before he retired. When he smiled at me, I would go to him and receive his kiss upon my brow. But it was done in silence, and there was no more: in this more personal Limbo, like Dante’s souls Pagan and unsaved, I lived without hope forever in desire: “che sanza speme vivemo in disio.”

I had few cases – I did not need them in truth: I had been well paid for the Meiklejohn business -  and spent my time reading, and working at my chemistry. Watson was much occupied in June and July with Lestrade’s daughter, Polly. He had not forgotten – when did he ever forget a child? – about the little girl who, in Lestrade’s words ‘did not thrive’. He visited her early and late, caring for her most tenderly, and brushing aside Lestrade’s gruff offers of payment and thanks. 

‘Is she no better?’ I asked, as he returned home one evening, looking worn and weary. ‘Hand me your wet jacket, my dear fellow and I will hang it up for you. Mrs Hudson has made lemonade: it will be here directly with some tea. Your slippers are by the fire, and here is your dressing gown and your pipe.'

‘Thank you, my dear Holmes. I meant to buy tobacco,’ he said, riffling through his pockets and taking his pouch out, ‘this is empty - but the summer rain is so heavy I simply came straight home. No, she is no better. It is tubercular disease of the hip, and that does not cure easily. Poor little girl, it is no wonder she is fretful and peevish: she is worn to a thread-paper with pain from the cold abscesses in the bone, and the hip is beginning to abduct which will add spinal problems to her woes. Lestrade is very patient and gentle with her, but of course he is not home often. I would like to get her into the Alexandra Hospital for hip disease in children, but it is so hard to get a bed. I have spoken with Howard Marsh, the Director – I know him from Barts of course, since he works there also – but they are not flush with money at the moment. A bed’s space might be found with ease, but the endowment for nursing that goes with it is another matter. She might need it for a year or more, and then a convalescent home afterwards for a few months.’

‘But she could be cured? And can it not be done at home?’

‘Many are cured, with proper treatment, but rarely at home. You have not visited Lestrade, Holmes, nor would I wish you to, for he would be embarrassed to receive you. The house is small, and there are more children than rooms. And Mrs Lestrade is pulled all ways at once with all of them, so the poor little girl sits neglected in the corner by the fire, or drags herself with a crutch from her chair to her bed. She cannot receive the care she needs at home. And as for Lestrade, I have never been more ashamed of myself in my life than when I went there. He does not live in squalor, it is true; it is clean and well-furnished, and of plain, good food there is plenty, but he has the necessities only, and small comfort. I wonder at his patience and carefulness: he certainly receives little enough reward for being an honourable and hard working man. If I could take the burden of the little one off him, I would feel I was doing him a true kindness.’

‘I did not realise he was struggling, Watson. He has been kind to me, and it is true, he is an honourable man. How much would it take to place the child in a bed, to give her a chance of a cure?’

‘A cot can be endowed for thirty pounds a year, Holmes, but one would want a little more than that so that after a year or so, the child could go to one of the convalescent homes in the country, and also so that her parents could visit her at intervals. Say forty, to be on the safe side. I have looked at my bank account, but I cannot rise to all of that at the moment.’

‘But we might try together, do you not think?’ I placed his dressing gown round his shoulders. ‘I shall perhaps discuss Lestrade’s contribution to our investigations recently with my friend in government, and see whether he can do anything. He is wealthy enough in all conscience. If he can offer us Romanée Conti and Chablis, he can certainly rise to a contribution for a bed for Lestrade’s little one - in fact I would rather that he should.’

‘You are a good man, Holmes.’ He rested his hand on my shoulder for a moment. ‘Thank you, my dear. She is so patient, poor little lassie, and I suppose I have a fellow feeling for her, being lame myself.’

‘If I have become a good man it is by living with one,’ I replied. ‘Do not call yourself lame, Watson, You are not lame. Nor infirm, nor sickly.’

‘When I am old, I shall be very lame indeed: there will come a point where this leg will deteriorate.’ He walked to the door, and opened it, ‘Oh, what would we do without you, Mrs Hudson? You come most pat upon your hour.’

‘Hmmph.’ She looked at him sharply. ‘Have you been fretting your heart out over that child of Lestrade’s again, Doctor? You cannot save them all, you know. Did she eat my chicken and rice broth that you took her?’

‘She did,’ he assured her, taking the tray she had brought in and setting it down, ‘and relished it very much. Mrs Lestrade said she had not seen her eat so well for days, and sent her thanks to you. She said you were very kind, and so you are.’

‘I pity any poor wretch with eight children and only a feckless man for support,’ she said, with what I can only describe as a snort. ‘Not that he’s a bad man, but he’s a man, when all’s said and done. It’s a crying shame the poor woman has no sister, nor her mother alive to help her out. Well, I shall have a good strong calves-foot jelly for you to take to little Polly tomorrow, a jelly with plenty of lemon and sugar in it. But I shall not give it to you unless you eat a good dinner yourself, and take a rest now.’

‘Yes, Mrs Hudson,’ he said, meekly, and I smiled, for she treated him so like a son. Their mutual adoration was a pretty thing to see: he was gentle and deferential, and she was fondly scolding. To say truth she mothered us both, although I was a poor subject for it. Watson had known a kind mother before all went to evil in his life, but I had not. I was unapt to affection: though I was grateful for Mrs Hudson’s kindness, I did not know how to return it, other than with the occasional gift of a day out, or a holiday, or money for a new bonnet or some such feminine frippery. Watson was better at it than I, as he was always with women. Perhaps he feared them less.

She left us then with the promise of dinner later, and I made haste to cosset him as much as I could, with a dash of brandy in his tea, my best tobacco in his pipe and his chair drawn up to the fire. But much later, when I had played him up the stairs to bed at the end of an evening of reading our Dumas, I whistled one of the ever-present lads to the window, and sent him off with a telegram for Mycroft. Let him put our money to good use for once, I reflected. I wanted none of the filthy stuff: let it bring happiness where it might.

‘Will you have the sour news or the sweet first?’ I asked Watson, a few days later.

 He eyed me carefully – I loved to see him trying to use my own methods on me – and then grimaced. ‘I deduce that there is more of sour than of sweet, Holmes. Perhaps I had better take my bitters first, like a good boy. Tell me what it is, old chap, for a trouble shared is a trouble halved, as the saying goes, and if it is sour news then I’ll not let you bear it alone.’

‘The sour is that the Cornwall case comes to trial tomorrow,’ I told him. ‘And it will be in all the papers. Hard things will be said, and some of them we know of. I do not like it, and neither do you, that men are being targeted through their personal lives for political gain. I am afraid of where this mob hatred may lead, Watson. I am deeply concerned.  Also sour is that the Reform bill has failed in the Lords, and the Queen has instructed Mr Gladstone that she thinks it folly to give votes to the working classes. I gather that she writes almost daily to reprove him, poor man, and to excoriate him for not replying to her letters, but that he has had his people explain to her that he has neither the time nor the eyesight to read everything he is sent. There will be no votes for women, and no universal suffrage for men. There is still hope, however: we may yet prevail upon the lords to a degree, and achieve something.’

We?’ Watson questioned me. There was a gleam in his eye despite the poor news. ‘Holmes, my dear, dear fellow, where is the thorough-going Tory squire with whom I used to share a room? He has been replaced by this very liberal chap now speaking to me, it would appear. I like him much better.’ And he smiled at me.

‘Confound it, Watson, must you take me up on every little word? Well then, I am perhaps no longer such a Tory sympathiser as I was. You have corrupted my politics dreadfully with your advocacy on behalf of the ignorant and unwashed.’

‘Better your politics than your morals,’ he said, sober again. ‘And if they are ignorant and unwashed all the more reason it should fall to those who can to educate and cleanse them. I have not forgotten Ignorance and Want hiding in the cloak of Christmas Present, my dear fellow, even if you have. But I do not believe you have. You are a kind man, Holmes, even if you would rather not appear one. Is that all your budget of news? What more is there of sour, before I receive my bon-bon at the end to take away the taste?’

‘I must go to Antwerp.’

‘Antwerp! For a case I presume.’ He was frowning now. ‘And I cannot accompany you?’

‘Now why would you deduce that?’

‘Your use of the first person singular, Holmes. Had I been invited to accompany you, you would have used the plural, my dear fellow; therefore I understand that it is a matter of some delicacy where my presence might be deleterious to the outcome.’

‘I am afraid to say that it is a matter of delicacy. I have been asked to investigate the provenance of some diamonds, by a merchant in the city who finds that he is continually being undercut in price by a new firm: Wynert and Company. I do not want to go on my own, Watson, for two reasons, the first being that I am more comfortable in your company than out of it, and the second that it means I must work without a trusted companion – something to which I have become accustomed. I regret it, but I do not see any way of you accompanying me.’

‘When do you go?’ His tone was light, but his brow was still creased. ‘Must it be soon? Imminently?’

No, in fact, time is not of the essence. I need to wait until the merchant for whom I am working is told by his Dutch colleagues that Wynert and Company is expecting another shipment through Amsterdam to Antwerp. Only then can I make enquiries.’

‘Very well: when did you last use a gun, Holmes? A pocket pistol or a revolver? I shall ensure you practice with mine, and you can take that.’

‘But it was my gift to you,’ I protested. ‘And Watson, I really cannot go to Belgium or Holland expecting to shoot my way out of trouble: one is not in the American West, but a civilised country.’

‘If there are suspect diamonds, then there will be trouble. If you go, Holmes, and without me, then my gun goes with you, and I shall see you shoot it before you go.’ His blue eyes were fierce. ‘Pray do not make me dispute this any further, Holmes. My mind is quite made up.’

I could do nothing but acquiesce: he was formidable when he put on that attitude, used that tone of voice. ‘Very well, Watson, your gun will go with me if you cannot. I am sorry, my dear fellow. But there is some sweet to mellow the bitter, you know.’

‘Is there?’ His smile was a mere ghost of its usual self. ‘Let me have it, then, for that is three bitter pills you have given me, and the last by far the most bitter.’

‘The first sweet is that the fee for this diamond investigation is princely. More than princely. There will be more than enough after we have paid our living expenses for the next half year to endow a cot at the hospital if you so choose, although I claim the right of naming it.’

‘Of course, of course, my dear Holmes,’ his smile was true now, and he caught my hand in his eagerness and shook it. ‘Of course, whatever you like. Even if it cannot be immediately, with the hope of it there, I can make shift to keep little Polly well for Lestrade until she is able to go to the hospital. I cannot thank you enough! That is indeed sweet: to know that that benefit will come makes your absence worthwhile – if not bearable.’

I released one hand from his grip to touch his shoulder. ‘There is yet one more small piece of sugar. I have prevailed upon my friend in the government to offer half of the endowment for a cot in the hospital. With that, and with what you and I can manage, we can put Lestrade’s little girl there tomorrow. But for this, I make one stipulation.’

‘Anything, Holmes!’ His voice was rough, and his eyes very bright. ‘What is it you desire me to do?’

‘I think you should name the bed for your little sister,’ I told him, gently. ‘You could call it Minnie’s Bed, if you wanted to.’

He bolted at that, clear through the drawing room, and upstairs. I closed my ears to the muffled sounds from his room: I did not fully understand why he was so overset, for I had meant to please, not dismay him, and now saw my plans in ruins. I did not go to him, for fear of upsetting him further, but instead waited patiently.

Mrs Hudson and Janey came in with our dinner. They drew the curtains, lighted the lamps and mended the fire. It was silent by then. I explained that Watson was napping upstairs, and that I would go and waken him, thanked them, and closed the door behind them. But I did not call. I waited, and dithered, and worried, and wondered, until eventually, I heard his slow step on the stair.

‘I am so sorry, Watson,’ I began, as soon as he entered the room, but he shook his head, and came towards me. He took my hands in his again, and smiled. ‘You are the kindest person I know, Holmes, the very kindest. Forgive me for being overwhelmed.’ He embraced me gently, briefly. ‘Thank you.’

‘I wondered if you were angry, because I mentioned your sister, but I see you are not. I was not wrong then, to think that it would please you?’

‘No, not wrong. It pleased me and touched my heart more than I can say, to have Minnie’s name remembered like that. I shall try to put money aside for it every year now, to remember her always. Thank you for putting the thought into my head.’

‘Then I shall share the cost with you every year,’ I said. ‘Watson, dinner has been getting cold for half an hour, but I did not wish to call you. Do you choose to eat?’

‘A glass of wine, and some bread, if there is any, nothing more,’ he replied. ‘Holmes, could we sit together and read tonight? It – it would comfort me.’

‘Dumas?’ I asked, pouring the wine for him. ‘Very gladly, my dear Watson.’

*****

The Dublin Castle cases came up for inquiry on the fifth of August, and the trials were put back until the nineteenth, while the jury attempted to decide whether James Ellis French was fit to plead, or insane. For myself, I was convinced the man was sane, but so terrified of punishment that he might as well be mad. Meanwhile I was notified that I was needed in Antwerp, and prepared myself to go.

I was accustomed to packing my own cases, but on this occasion had reckoned without Watson. He ventured into my room in the morning, as I was dusting off a valise that had last seen service some years ago, and immediately took the somewhat be-grimed cloth out of my hand.

‘Holmes, you must not wipe a valise with your nightshirt. I shall ring and ask Mrs Hudson for a duster. In fact that case had better go downstairs to be properly cleaned before you use it, or all of your linen will end up soiled. If you had ever been under Army discipline you would not make such a mull of this task, for all love. When do you catch the boat train from Liverpool Street?’

‘Tomorrow, after luncheon. By spending the night at the Great Eastern Hotel, I shall be able to take the screw steamer, Norwich, from the new Parkeston Quay very early the next morning: she travels at 14 knots, and I shall thus be in Antwerp by Thursday evening. I sincerely hope my business there will not take me above a week – indeed, I shall ensure that it does not - so I shall be back by the sixteenth, before the trial.’

‘A week! I had not thought it would be so long.’

‘It does not please me either: I do love to be home, and I cannot sleep well in a strange bed. But the fee is two hundred and fifty guineas, and I should not pass that up. We are poor men, Watson, and must shift as best we can for ourselves.’

‘Holmes, one might almost say that that is a ridiculous sum of money – for one week’s work. I am intrigued, I confess, the more so as I may not go with you. Are you able to tell me who employs you?’

‘A merchant of the name of Julius Wernher. He is, unlike most of the diamond merchants, of Protestant Lutheran stock, but he works at the present time for the Jewish firm of Porgès et Cie. He returned in the spring from the Cape, where he had been at the Kimberley diggings for fifteen months. He tells me that the diamond business has been much depressed of late years, but that just as he had hopes of bringing some order out of chaos, this new company, Wynert, has begun to undersell the established merchants, bringing in rough diamonds through Amsterdam to Antwerp, where they are cut. Of course it was used to be Antwerp, where I go, that was the centre of the trade, but its primacy was usurped in the last century by Amsterdam because most of its principal financiers reside there and have the monopoly.’

‘It promises to be a fascinating trip then – but I hope there will be no danger to you. Which reminds me, I have not yet seen you fire my pistol. Lestrade has promised me that we may use the Yard rather than annoy Mrs Hudson by shooting here, but I did not realise you would go so soon, so I have not yet set a date.’

‘I do not have time to go to the Yard, and I am sure Mrs Hudson will not object if we use the area. The women may cover their ears and squeak if they wish.’

‘Very well then, here if we must. It is of greater importance to me to know that you are competent with small arms, Holmes.’

‘Watson, I was bred in the country. I have been handling arms since I was breeched. Why do you doubt me?’

‘I do not doubt you. But I would not send a man under my command into the field without knowing him competent to defend himself; so neither will I with you, my friend. You must oblige me in this, Holmes.’

‘Am I under your command?’

He laughed. ‘I do believe that in most matters I am under yours, Holmes, since it is you who are the detective and I who follow, and merely assist, but in matters which touch on your health and your safety, then yes, I do desire that you should allow yourself to be commanded. You have a magnificent brain, my friend, but I am not convinced of its ability to take into account the needs of your body; rather you use it to compel your body in ways you should not. So I am your guardian, if you like. Fetch your coat, and let us go downstairs. My pistol is always primed, so we may simply shoot off a few rounds without delay, and then return to your packing.’

I expected Mrs Hudson to object to our using the area for target practice but she merely rolled her eyes at us in exasperated fashion and requested us to shoot away from the kitchen windows. So we descended the stair to the basement, and outside, among the kitchen bins and watched by a suspiciously plump street cat – from the level of its familiarity and fearlessness, I deduced that Janey had taken pity on it, and Mrs Hudson allowed it the run of the kitchen – we proceeded to my shooting lesson.

He criticised everything. Everything. My stance was wrong – and he used his own feet to nudge mine into a better position. He ran indoors to beg Mr Hudson for chalk, and then made me place my feet inside the chalk marks. I was in the habit of dropping my shoulder before I fired – and he moved close behind me to change the angle of my arm, placing his arm under mine. ‘Like that, Holmes. Stiffen your wrist a little, you are too loose and easy for accuracy.’

‘The pistol throws a few degrees left,’ he warned me, ‘you must correct for that when you aim, remembering that mathematically, the longer the distance of your shot, the greater the degree of divergence in the angle. It does not deviate vertically from its line, however: if you miss on a vertical scale, it will be because you yourself are inaccurate. Dropping your shoulder or your wrist will do that.’

He chalked outlines on the wall, then fetched his service revolver, and made me shoot with that, as well as the pistol, telling me to place shots precisely where he had indicated and moving my limbs like a puppet’s into the correct position when I erred.

‘If you shoot, shoot to incapacitate, not to kill,’ he told me, ‘unless you are in the last extremity, when you have my full permission to shoot where you damn well please. If you wish to be sure of your kill, in a frontal shot aim for the head, directly between the eyes. From the side, aim for the opening of the ear, from the back, the base of the skull. A shot there will penetrate the most vital areas, cause immediate loss of consciousness, and drop your quarry where he stands.’

He tapped my chest on the left side. ‘A heart shot is never sure unless you are very accurate: the clothing obscures the ribs, and one cannot be counting them for precise placement. And I consider that it is an unkind shot: it can take some seconds of pain and anxiety before your kill succumbs. If you wish merely to disable, do not waste time shooting for the leg or the knee: a wounded man seriously intent on your demise may still get off a shot to wound you in his turn. Shoot for his shooting arm: it is a large enough target that you may do enough damage to stop him. In fact, I think I shall send you with the revolver, Holmes, it is more effective, for then you may disable his other arm as well. And the revolver does not throw to the left.’

He terrified me, I have to confess, or he would have done had I truly been his enemy. God defend me from a good man wronged: he would have been merciless in defence of his own, although I could not see him as a wanton aggressor. In any case, he drilled me ruthlessly enough, so I blazed away with pistol and revolver until I was quite heated, and he expressed himself satisfied and bade me stop.

‘You would have been a pretty fair shot had you had army training,’ he commented, tossing me a handkerchief. ‘Wipe your brow and your hands, Holmes, and I shall clear up down here. Although I am afraid the wall is now looking rather pockmarked.’

I agreed, wiping my hands, that it was indeed looking rather the worse for wear, and that we had caused quite enough commotion, since one cannot fire repeated shots in a London street without causing some remark, and at one point he had had to run upstairs to speak to a concerned policeman.

‘Although I have not seen you shoot yet,’ I remarked. ‘Watson, you have not shown me what you can do.’

‘I was not the one in need of instruction.’ He looked at me quizzically. ‘Do you think me one of those men who tell others, but cannot do the thing themselves?’

‘Not at all, I merely wished for a demonstration, if you would be so kind.’

‘Then I shall show you if you would like. Wait here.’

He returned a few moments later with a playing card, which he showed me. ‘This is my party trick,’ he said, smiling slightly. ‘I was always asked to demonstrate it for the new recruits. And it came in handy for establishing my authority: the men are inclined to think little of an army doctor who is not, strictly speaking, a combatant. I have to shoot right handed now though, of course: I am no longer accurate with my left. Although we were encouraged at Netley to use either hand impartially, for just that reason, that we might be of more use.’

He affixed the card (it was the seven of hearts) to the wall, loaded his Webley, and took aim. He shot out five of the hearts down each side of the card with the revolver, then loaded and re-loaded the pistol, and shot out the remaining two pips. He was deadly accurate – the holes might have been drilled by a machine

‘Oh, very well done,’ I told him, applauding, and he turned and bowed to me with a twinkle in his eye. ‘You are an impressive shot and a gallant soldier, John Watson.’

For a moment his gaiety bubbled over in a hearty laugh, but he sobered quickly. ‘I am a soldier who will soldier no more,’ he told me. ‘I will defend myself where I must, and fight for those I love to my last breath, but I will act the aggressor no more. I am done with war, Holmes. War is vile, an insanity, an obscenity. I am a healer: I ask nothing else but to be allowed to heal.’

‘I know.’ I tucked my hand into his arm. ‘I do know, Watson. Are you now satisfied that I can defend myself too? I can fence well, and box, as you have seen, and I am skilled in singlestick and baritsu, as you know. I am not helpless.’

‘See that you are not,’ he replied, patting my hand, ‘for I do not wish to lose you. I must clear up here, Holmes, and then clean and prepare the revolver for you to take with you. Do you go upstairs, and lay out the clothing you wish to take with you, and I will show you how we pack in the Army. Mrs Hudson has cleaned your case properly, so we may use it now without fear of you soiling your linen. I would not have you appear a sloven in front of your diamond merchants and financiers.’

*****

‘Dr John Watson 221B Baker Street London stop Arrived Safely Great Eastern Harwich stop’ I wrote on the telegram form, and then paused.

What else could I have said? I had not thought I would miss Watson so much. I had only been away from him a few hours, as I had been many times before during the day, but in this instance, since I knew that our parting would extend for a week or more with the sea between us, I felt peculiarly bereft. There was an aching vacancy at my side: I realised that since we took rooms together three years ago, we had scarcely been apart. We had slept under the same roof since January 1881.

I miss you. I could not write that. One man does not write ‘I miss you’ to another.

Are you well? It was completely irrational of me to fear that some dire catastrophe had befallen him in the few hours since we parted at Liverpool Street. There was no earthly reason why in this particular five or six hours, he should have been run over by a cab, stabbed by some miscreant in the street, eaten an unkind oyster and succumbed in agony, been blown up by Fenians, contracted an inflammation of the lungs or burned down our Baker Street rooms. Yet I was consumed by anxiety lest any of those things had removed from the world the man I cherished. The man I loved, beyond any loving I thought might come to me.

I wish we were together. Oh, I was far gone: sore wounded. The blind archer’s aim was true. Watson, if he knew . . . well, he would – he would assure me that such feelings were nothing reprehensible, of course, for I had heard him assure poor Trevelyan of the very same thing. He had often stated to me that he did not consider love between men wrong. But it was very different, I thought, to comprehend these things in theory – in potentia , as it were. The actuality, the reality of a man who loved him – who wanted him - that, my dear John, I thought, that might be another matter altogether.

Do not expose yourself to unnecessary dangers. Avoid the fevered patient, walk no dark alleys at nightfall, DO NOT DIE before my return. I could write none of this.

Will Write Further With Address stop Holmes I concluded, summoned the messenger boy, and sent off my stark missive. My hotel room was comfortless: without my homely untidiness, I was an uneasy man. And what could I do here but sleep? I took my Petrarch out of my pocket, looked at it, laid it aside.

 

By three in the morning, despite lying down, I had not slept. The ferry would depart in three hours. I rose, shaved, washed, dressed. Outside it was yet dark, but the night was noisy: the work of the port does not stop for darkness.

The hotel stationery on the small bureau was of fair quality, the ink clean; there was sealing wax, and a taper. I took up my pen.

My dear Watson,

As I expected, sleep has eluded me: it occurred to me that I might therefore write you a line or two to . . .

tell you how dear you have become and how unexpected that that has been to a creature who believed he had taught himself not to care and that when you

 . . . remind you that I have already paid twenty guineas to the account of the Alexandra Hospital, and that you should not . . .

look at me in that fashion and when I see you with your eyes narrowed in laughter, and the little creases at their corners and your mouth quirked I want you to

not concern yourself in the least with money matters, but ensure that Lestrade’s little girl is immediately placed there, so you can relax your care of her and instead . . .

hold out your hand to me as you do on those too fleeting occasions when we embrace and instead of offering that chaste salute on my brow that only teases me with the promise of more I wish you would

allow yourself the opportunity to hone your craft. We have more than enough money and to spare for a while, and we have agreed for some time that your writing . . .

allow me to touch you allow me to touch you allow me to touch you and

is likely to prove a profitable source of income if only you can devote yourself more regularly to it. Do not . . .

do not turn me away John

hesitate to draw on my bank for anything else that is needed – I have left the letter of authorisation in my top left hand bureau drawer – but take good care of all our little household until my return, and

remember that I love you, and you are not to lose yourself

believe me to be, my dear Watson, your most attached and faithful friend, Sherlock Holmes.

Post scriptum: I shall write from the other side of the Channel, my dear fellow. I expect to be most vilely ill on the boat, for the wind is sharp.

*****

Dr John Watson, 221B Baker Street London stop Arrived Safely Antwerp August 7, Write To William Scott Esq. c/o de Post Quellinstraat, Antwerp stop WSSH

Sending the telegram was the first thing I did on arrival. Then at least Watson would know where to contact me.

Friday, August 8th,

My dear Watson,

I reached Antwerp yesterday and I like it very much: it is a gracious city, cleaner than our sooty metropolis, and smaller, with exquisitely beautiful buildings and a prosperous look about the inhabitants. The diamond quarter is much fallen from its old glory: it was formerly the centre of the diamond trade, but Amsterdam – whither I hope not to have to go – eclipsed it, and its merchants must now be content with cutting the smaller stones that are passed to them as roughs - which they do with remarkable skill, turning them into brilliants as fine as you have ever seen.

I have a room in a small house for the duration of my stay. It is clean, but the food is heavy and I am not accustomed to the hutsepot, or mixed stew of vegetables and meat that I was served last night. It may be well enough in in the winter, but I find the fat distasteful. My landlady expostulated volubly in Flemish at my poor appetite, and I responded to her politely in French, which she knows, but will not speak. I begged last night for a simple plate of bread and cheese, but the bread she brought me was black rye, and accompanied by fermented herring. My gorge rose at the fish, so I dined on bread alone.

I am posing as a scholar of stone – a geologist, of the new breed -  interested in acquiring diamond specimens for a private collector in the country. It will not be easy to investigate here: the society is closed, and I am not a Jew, nor would I dare to pretend to be one. I trust I am able to satisfy Mr Wernher, or I shall feel obliged to return his fee, and I do not want to do that.

Today, I sit in café after café and drink interminable cups of coffee, which does not, I confess, conduce to sound sleep. I wish I had brought my Count of Monte Cristo with me, then I might read it, as we do together. (Your French has definitely improved over the last few months, Watson, although your accent leaves something to be desired.)  I listen to the talk around me, and learn, among other things, that the entire diamond district will close down at sunset today, for the better observance of tomorrow’s Sabbath. I am unlikely to be successful in anything until Monday, I think.

I have not heard from you yet. I do trust everything is well with our little household. I shall enquire at the Post Office when I go to deliver this whether there be any telegram. I do not hope for a letter yet, of course, but perhaps I will hear from you tomorrow.

I remain, my dear Watson, as always, your most affectionate friend, Sherlock Holmes.

There was nothing awaiting me on Friday night, but on Saturday morning, when I repaired to the Post Office (which not being Jewish did not close its doors to business on that day) there was a telegram from Watson. I returned immediately to my room and opened it.

William Scott, Esq. c/o de Post Quellinstraat, Antwerp stop All Well stop Letter Follows stop Watson

Brevity, I decided, was not a quality I valued in a correspondent. I would have words with Watson about it, when I returned: it was not as if we could not afford the extra pennies for a slightly more loquacious reply. I could not haunt the Post Office all day like some forlorn revenant, and the diamond district was closed for business, so I betook myself early to the Zoological Gardens, not from any desire to see animals unnaturally caged, but because there I might walk in the shade and rest my eyes upon verdure. As it happened, it was a fortunate choice, for I fell into conversation with a young man who approached me, thinking, it was clear, that I might be in want of his services. I was not, I told him, but I was in want of some diamonds.

He pressed me further on the subject of whether I was interested in carnal relations, offering me either gender separately, or both genders together, but eventually accepted that I had not the purse for his market. On the subject of diamonds he was less forthcoming, but it was then my turn to press, and he at length revealed that if one wished to obtain diamonds cheaply, then it was possible if one knew the right names. Further enquiries, and some pecuniary inducement – oil of angels, as Shinwell Johnson would have termed it - led through several rencontres in unsavoury bordellos and some liberal bribery, to an introduction to a wizened individual of suspect cleanliness, who informed me, in extremely demotic French, that although most rough diamond came from the regulated Amsterdam market, there were, as my principal, Julius Wernher, had suspected, some channels that bypassed that city.

‘D’puis dix ans environ,’ he assured me, ‘c’est parce ’que les Nègres ont trouvé les diamants en L’Afrique du Sud: c’était tout a fait possible qu’il y a gens qui trichent leurs maîtres, vendent diamants au marché noir. Devenu de plus en plus difficile: l’année dernière, les maîtres ont décidé de déshabiller leur gens avant qu’ils quittent les mines: ‘s’ont trouver que ces bêtes ont volé, volé, volé des milliards des diamants, des mil-li-ards, mon joli petit homme. Donc, maint’nant c’n’est plus les pauvres conasses qui travaillent dans les entrailles de la terre, c’est les maîtres qui trichent. Sont devenus riches, riches, riches.’

I emerged from my meetings impoverished, filthy, and convinced that I had been bitten physically by numerous parasites of the insect order, as well as financially by parasites of the human kind. (Which former indeed proved to be the case when I stripped later to make use of the inadequate washing facilities in my room. There were many bites above my socks, and one behind my left knee.) The day was overcast and oppressive: August’s heat begging for the blessing of a storm. The detestable stew made its appearance again, but when I rejected it, at least there was a morsel of cheese – a hard, golden-yellow cheese with a black rind, not at all unpleasant – with my rye bread. I walked out after I had eaten to send a telegram to Watson. There was no letter waiting for me.

Dr John Watson 221B Baker Street London stop Be More Specific stop Spare No Cost stop Inform Fullest Details Household Particularly Yourself stop Have Not Received Letter stop Antwerp Infested Parasites Both Human And Insect stop What Is Your Medical Recommendation For Flea Bites stop WSSH

Saturday, August 9th,

My dear Watson,

I have spent the most detestable day, and if it were not for the generous fee for this case would be inclined to return home. I have, however found a clue – or a series of clues, in the course of my many meetings, and believe I may be on the way to determining what exactly is happening in the diamond market. A meeting with a gentleman of (possibly) French extraction was the point at which I began to make sense of the situation.

While the diamond trade was originally carried out in Antwerp, as I believe I mentioned, of late decades Amsterdam has the primacy: it controls and regulates what comes into Europe of the gems, sets prices, and increasingly is being run by a very few, and very rich families. The trade has hitherto  largely been in Brazilian diamonds, and since Brazil is controlled by Portugal, and the Kings of Portugal have chosen to grant the exclusive right to purchase rough diamonds to Amsterdam, Antwerp, which in reality was once the cradle of the cutting trade – it was a fifteenth century Antwerp craftsman, one Lodewyk van Bercken, who created the scaif in 1456, this being a wheel upon which, in a film of mixed olive oil and diamond dust (as I learned today) the diamond’s brilliant facets are cut – Antwerp lost its position, and was obliged to make do with what inferior roughs were allocated to it by its sister city and rival.

Of late years, however, huge diamond mines have been opened up in South America, and as Amsterdam has no monopoly over these, Antwerp is once again coming to the fore, since its supply of excellent quality roughs has been renewed.

These mines have, however, been bedevilled by losses: there has been a constant slow haemorrhage of roughs by reason of pilfering by both black and white mine workers alike. Only last year therefore, the diamond companies enforced searching houses for their workers – both white and black, although I understand that they are more lenient to the white workers (who have it in their power to withdraw their labour) than the black. The diamonds thus recovered are said to be worth about 8 per cent of the total output of the mines. However, where these diamonds go is the issue: they are not necessarily all returned by the searchers, but traded for their own profit.

You must forgive this long, and no doubt tedious exposition. If you were here or I were home, I would be able to tell you about the case, we would even now be sitting comfortably together with a glass of good burgundy, instead of this wretched beer, and I would have the benefit – a benefit which I have, perhaps, not sufficiently appreciated – of your insight and sturdy common sense. As it is, I sit here alone in a stuffy room under a lowering sky, forlorn, overheated, and bedevilled by insect bites which have swollen into painful lumps, and itch abominably. I have endeavoured to bathe them in saline solution, but it is to no avail: I expect the reaction must run its course. At least there was bread and cheese this evening.

I await your news with some anxiety, my dear Watson. Pray make haste and relieve my mind by sending the fullest details of how you do, and what has befallen you in my absence. Write minutely, for no detail, as you know, is too small to be read with eager interest by your most affectionate and faithful friend, Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday was detestably hot: the storm had not broken. Most of the Christians in the city were taking their day of rest, so although there was a subdued bustle in the diamond quarter around Hovenierstraat, it was restricted to merchants of the Jewish faith dealing with their own kinsmen. The Zoological Gardens proved no distraction either, for it swarmed with plump Belgian businessmen out for the day with their smiling wives and well-behaved children. The less savoury inhabitants of the area had vanished as if by magic in the face of this wave of respectability. The city centre was thronged with people also, including itinerant vendors of the ‘gaufre’, a sweet wafer or pastry with a curious chequered pattern embossed upon it, and the whole dusted with powdered sugar. I bought one, and retreated to my room to eat it: I really could not bring myself to devour it in the street, although it smelt extremely good, and I was very hungry. Later on I went out a second time, and purchased two more, against the possibility that the hutsepot would make its appearance again, which indeed it did. At least with the sugared wafers, and bread and cheese, I made a tolerable meal.

The telegraph office was closed.

Sunday, August 10th,

My dear John,

I am so very lonely without you. I miss your smiles, and your kind blue eyes that look at me with such trust and affection. I miss the knowledge that you are there at my side, steady and brave and compassionate. I miss your warmth when you sit close to me, and your hand on my shoulder.

My dear John, I wish we were together, and never to part any more.

Your more than attached, your most loving and devoted, Sherlock (Holmes).

I did not send it, of course. I burned it in the candle, and felt as if I were immolating a part of myself.

*****

The storm broke on Sunday night with perfect torrents of rain. I flung my window wide, and let the breeze wash out every hint of the days’ foul heat. Towards dawn I fell into an uneasy sleep, from which I roused, not refreshed, but at least more determined to make progress in my investigation. I called first at the Post Office, of course, and to my delight there was a letter endorsed to my alias in Watson’s neat, distinctive hand as well as a telegram. I took them at once to the Zoological Garden, where I found a bench that was not too damp to sit upon and read them.

I opened the telegram first, lest it be bad news.

William Scott, Esq. c/o de Post Quellinstraat stop Fullest Details In Letter stop Writing Further Letter stop Attempt To Possess Soul In Patience stop Even Telegraph Company Not Shakespeares Ariel stop If Fleas In Bed Move Lodging stop If Not Possible Purchase Keatings Powder Or Equivalent stop Do Not Scratch Bites stop Apply Calamine Lotion Ask For Zinc comma Ferric Oxide Emulsion stop If Necessary To Exterminate Larger Parasites Dispose Of Remains Prudently comma All Well Here stop Kindest Regards stop Watson

He had obviously received my third telegram. But not, it appeared, my last letter.

Sunday, August 10th,

My dear Holmes,

I shall most certainly not draw upon your bank, my dear fellow, you are not to suppose for an instant that I should do so. But I thank you for the offer all the same; you are so generous to me. I am not in very low water at the moment, for one of my little ships – quite literally a little ship for it is a sea story, a mystery of the ocean, if you like -  has come into port, and paid handsomely, although not to the rate of your diamond investigation.

I do desire that you shall not drink excessive amounts of coffee, Holmes. It is very good coffee on the continent, but it is also very strong. Of course you will not sleep if you are drinking it all day. Restrict yourself to the beverage in the morning, and at night take tea, or since you are in the country for it, a tea of the lime-flower, tilleul, I think they call it. You might bring some back with you, it is an agreeable beverage, and is both soothing and lenitive.

For the rest, we are all well here, although your presence is greatly missed, my dear fellow. Mrs Hudson has commented several times on how quiet it is without you, little Janey looks quite sober, and the Billy and the boys are wandering around so forlornly that I am obliged to concoct errands for them to run.

Thanks to your kindness, we have installed little Polly Lestrade at the hospital: she is in a corner cot in a bright, airy room. I have directed that only rest, good food, and gentle traction to the leg should be applied: she is not strong enough for excision of the joint, and I do not think it is efficacious in any case. It is a peculiarly brutal process, often applied to the children of the poor, who have no choice, but rarely resorted to by rich parents who can afford the long resting period required to manage the disease. I believe Lestrade will be your friend for life, Holmes, he is so grateful to you. He is extremely fond of the little girl: it is strange how the cade lamb in a family is often the most cherished, although weakly, and requiring twice the trouble of other, more robust children.

We have also effected a change in the Lestrade household. Janey’s brother was not happy at his place, so with Mrs Hudson’s conniving, we have conspired to place him with the Lestrades, where he may do all the rough work, fetching and carrying, chopping wood, some cleaning, and minding the children. He is an active, useful lad, and the best of it is that he is to assist Mrs Lestrade in the morning, and then later go to school, where he will receive the education in technical drawing that he wishes for. Mrs Hudson, bless her, has made it look to the Lestrades as if it is they who are doing us a favour in lodging him in return for the help. They will not be out of pocket, for we have paid over and above for his board.

As for myself, I have gone on very quietly, my dear Holmes. I am endeavouring to write, but the force is lacking at the moment. A dull, settled cloud seems to oppress my spirits: perhaps your return, which I hope will be soon, will lift it and restore them. I beg that you will take good care of yourself, so that I may welcome you home in good health, and that you will wire for me if I can be of any assistance, or of course, if you have need of me – do not hesitate: I will come to you at any cost.

I am, my dear Holmes, as always and ever, your most sincerely affectionate friend and colleague, John Watson.

I was selfishly glad to find myself missed. Surprised, but also glad. When I had referred in my letter to ‘our little household’ I had been concealing an enquiry about Watson, but reading his letter, it occurred to me that I did indeed have a little household. Not a usual household, composed as it was of a wounded and neurasthenic army surgeon, an elderly widow, a  foundling girl, and a pack of street boys, but a household, none the less, that looked to me, and missed my presence. It gave me a warm feeling about the heart, and I sat for some time on the bench reflecting upon it.

All too soon, however, I was obliged to resume my investigations in the most unsavoury streets of Antwerp – even beautiful cities, it appeared, had less than salubrious areas. On one occasion, I was obliged to take a precipitate departure through a yard full of wet washing, which slapped me disagreeably in the face, and over a fence – and when I mentioned this to my next vis-à-vis, he informed me that I had left at the right moment: I would certainly have been robbed had I stayed. On another, when my enquiries had clearly triggered suspicion, I laid my interlocutor out with an uppercut, and retreated to wider, more open streets, taking the opportunity to use the main door of a church to find shelter from my pursuers. They were damnably persistent, however, and at length I availed myself of a closed confessional box where I effected some small changes in my costume before strolling out of the side door, leaving behind, with some reluctance, a rather fine overcoat. At least the priest might offer it to some needy lamb of his flock, I reflected, since I was unlikely to be able to retrieve it.

I returned to my lodgings heated and weary, and begged water to wash in, then sat in my drawers and shirt – it was close, thundery weather again – to write to Watson. He would have to do without a telegram on this occasion, for I had not been able to stop at the Post Office.

Monday, August 11th

My dear Watson,

Finally I hear from you: you are a most desultory correspondent when a man is anxious for news of home. What an excellent business you have made of helping Lestrade, my dear chap: but it is you he should be thanking rather than me. I should never have thought of all of that, nor taken care to organise it. I must be content to have provided the money, and I shall insist that any gratitude owed is yours.

Today I am rather nearer the solution to Mr Wernher’s mystery than I was. There is an American gentleman here, going by the name of Henry Judson Raymond. I say going by the name of, since I am certain that that is not his name. I was able to observe the man closely -  at least until his colleagues discovered my presence -  and I should say that he is of Eastern European stock. His accent is American, it is true, but under it there is a hint of a more distant origin. In any case, he, and the person I saw him meet, Rosenthal Cronon, are the reason why Wynert and Company is able to undercut the market in diamonds. Cronon is what is called a ‘fence’ or a dealer in stolen goods. He is supplying Raymond with illicitly acquired diamonds.

Raymond owns that company, but not in propria persona: there is a long chain of dealers and partners, and financiers of dubious morals woven around him. I have yet to find where the diamonds come from, but I suspect that they do not, as Mr Wernher originally thought, come through Amsterdam. And if South Africa is their provenance, then Wernher is better equipped to pursue investigations there than I, for he knows the country and I do not, nor do I have any desire to venture so far afield from my own haunts. Tomorrow, I shall endeavour to find out a little more, so that I can satisfy Mr Wernher, retain my own honour in the business, and return home.

I am glad that the household goes on tolerably in my absence, but I am most grieved that you yourself are low in your spirits. I hope it is not the nightmares again, and I not there to play you into sleep. If it were possible for you to come to me I would feel all the happier for your presence – I too am a little low – but I was charged most straitly to involve no other in this matter. Indeed, I perhaps overstep my mark in telling you the details of what I do. If ever this situation arises again- which I trust, and intend, that it shall not, but occasions do arise that are unavoidable – we should perhaps devise some private cipher: then we may correspond more confidentially.

I shall endeavour to wrap this matter up tomorrow, so that I may take the steamer on Wednesday morning. If that is the case – I shall advise you by telegram, my dear fellow – you may expect me within twenty four hours after that. I shall not stay at Harwich, but get whatever means of transport I can to return to London, even if it be the milk train. One can sleep on a train as well as in a bed, and I am anxious to be in my own haunts once more.

I am, my gallant Pythias, your most sincerely attached, affectionate and faithful friend and companion, Damon.

Post Scriptum: Watson, is it correct that a sprained ankle requires only binding? I shall rest it overnight, of course, but it is a little painful, and it occurs to me that strapping it up might serve to strengthen it. And would you recommend witch hazel for bruises? I am inclined, myself, to the cold water compress, but my landlady is insisting upon proffering an unction which I can identify by smell as containing hamamelis mollis. I shall endeavour to get this letter off in the post tonight, so that you will get it in the course of the day tomorrow, and perhaps, my dear fellow, you might let me have a telegraphic response? Forgive me for not sending you a telegram today: I was too occupied by the, to be blunt, ignominious business of running away.

There was hutsepot again today. The potatoes might have been tolerable, but were tainted too much by the fat they were boiled in. Still, there is wheaten bread, since I have paid extra to have that instead of the rye.

I wish you were here, Watson.

*****

The following morning I arrived at the Post Office to find a telegram from the night before, and a letter. The telegram was indignant and to the point:

William Scott, Esq. c/o de Post Quellinstraat stop Did Not Hear From You Last Night stop Wire Immediately Upon Receipt Of This stop All Most Anxious Wellbeing comma Whereabouts comma Dammit Communicate With Me Man stop Watson

I replied immediately, for I did not wish my little household to be concerned, and then turned to the letter, which was sadly brief.

Sunday night,

My dear Holmes,

Your last was delivered very late, and I have sat up to reply to it so that I may send it tomorrow morning, and you may receive it as soon as possible.

If you have been bitten, my dear fellow, you must not scratch the bites. Infection can set in, and poison the bloodstream, especially if you are in places where there is dirt and disease – and knowing you as I do, I am morally certain that you are in such places. The itching can be relieved with a paste of bicarbonate of soda and water. In the desert I am afraid we used a more unpleasant remedy, which was to apply a little fresh urine to the bite, bicarbonate of soda being in short supply. Or oil of the lavender plant can also be efficacious if it is to be had.

If you are too hot in your room, beg an extra sheet from your landlady – God knows she will surely not begrudge you a sheet, since you seem to be eating none of the food she prepares for you, and I daresay you will be nigh on reduced to a skeleton when you return – wet it with cold water, and hang it in front of your open window. You will find it will cool the air entering, and afford you some relief from the oppressive weather.

I am sure you are progressing well with the investigation; I have the greatest confidence in your ability and intelligence, as you well know. I look forward to hearing the details from your own lips, my dear boy.

We are all going on well here, save that your absence, my dear Holmes, leaves us all feeling an intolerable void – and that can only be filled by a return which I trust will not long be delayed.

Your most affectionate friend and devoted servant, John Watson.

Post scriptum: Should you like, my dear Holmes, to spend a quiet week in the country when you return? We have not yet been out of town, you know. A sojourn in Sussex might be agreeable: what do you think?

I missed him. I missed him until my chest tightened, and my stomach felt hollow, and my heart, that intransigent organ, knifed me with every beat. I had never felt so hopelessly lonely and adrift as I did sitting there, on a damp (again) bench, with his letter in my hand. If I could have crossed the Channel on wings I would have done so in an instant. But I could not. And so I tucked his letter in my breast pocket, and continued my distasteful tasks.

I was rather more successful in my investigation on the Tuesday, and it was unnecessary to evade pursuit. This was fortunate, since I could not have run fast despite the improvised bandage I had applied to my ankle. However, although I felt I had the answer to rather more of the ‘Mystery of the Inexpensive Diamonds’ than I had had before, in another respect there was clearly more to discover.

I had been lying prone along a roof, hidden from view, and listening through an open skylight to Raymond. I did not know to whom he was talking, only that from the voices, there were three of them, and I dared not raise myself to look into the room lest anyone should catch sight of me. (It was, in fact, a testament to my opponent’s confidence that having chased off a spy the day before he did not think to post guards. He had clearly thought me nothing but a sneak thief, and therefore no threat.) He was conversing quite freely and it took me little time to determine that the diamonds were, as I had surmised, being diverted in the searching houses in South Africa from the unfortunate natives who had pilfered them from the mines. A small proportion, just enough to make all look proper, was returned to the mine owners, and the remainder was parcelled up by the searchers and shipped to Port Elizabeth, where Raymond’s men brought them back to Rosenthal Cronon, who could arrange for them to be cut and finished in Antwerp. The finished diamonds were then, it was clear, sold at a discount by Raymond’s company, Wynert, much to the chagrin and financial loss of Julius Wernher and Jules Porgès et Cie. As a scheme it was both ingenious and simple, offering little in the way of risk – for no violence was required – and much gain.

What puzzled me, however, were certain references to two other players in this nefarious little game - because they were not named, only referred to by title as ‘The Navigator’ and ‘Mr Greatman’. These appellations appeared to me to be positively ridiculous, and when Mr Raymond and his cohorts mentioned ‘the serpent sword’ ‘the spread-eagle’ the ‘star of six’ and ‘the triple stars’, I began to wonder if I were living through the pages of some penny dreadful novelette such as The Black Mask, or even one of Mr Wilkie Collins’ more fevered and melodramatic oeuvres. However they appeared so serious – and indeed, when I listened closely, so very concerned and anxious -  about these entities, that I could not dismiss their conversation entirely and so resolved to investigate further on my own account. For all I knew, these might simply be inns or taverns where illegal goods (it was quite clear that Mr Raymond was not just a diamond-dealer but a dealer in other uncustomed and illicitly traded items) were delivered, bought and sold – and yet . . . and yet I could not rid my mind of the notion that they were not.

It cost me some pain to return to the ground from the roof, for my ankle was much swollen, and I was stiff and sore with long lying in one position, but I managed to descend eventually, and limped in the direction of the Post Office. It was now about four in the afternoon, and I did not expect any post so early; however, I had resolved to inform Watson of my intention to leave Antwerp that very night. I had all the information my principal required: there was no point, therefore in staying longer.

It transpired that there was another telegram for me: Watson at his most imperious.

William Scott, Esq. c/o de Post Quellinstraat stop Telegraph Immediately Extent And Severity Of Injuries. Departing For Harwich Upon Receipt Of Your Reply Unless Fully Satisfied Your Safety stop Watson

I dashed off a quick telegram assuring him that I was in no danger, merely stiff and sore, that I would be taking the night steamer, arriving at Harwich in the morning and taking the first available train to London and that he was on no account to concern himself about me. Once I had returned to my lodgings, it was the work of only a few moments to tumble my clothing and effects into my valise, and repair to the steamer pier, where a little judicious bribery assured me of a reclining chair in a sheltered corner. I could, I knew, repose in comfort there with a couple of fairly clean blankets. And in truth I preferred that to a cabin, for enclosed in the bowels of the ship I felt so deathly sick, with the smells of oil and bilge and people, that it was torture to remain.

Despite the precaution of remaining wrapped in blankets on deck, I was in sorry case by the time dawn came and my ponderous transport sidled up to Parkeston Quay to disgorge her weight of humanity. It was all I could do to hobble off the gangplank and retrieve my valise, for my head felt disagreeably heavy and my ankle was throbbing. I stood on the Quay in the windy morning, cold and in pain, and gathering my strength for the next step.

‘Well, Holmes, I perceive that you have quite knocked yourself up in the course of this little escapade. Can you walk at all on that foot, my dear fellow?’

I turned, and there was Watson, his face pale, and sterner than usual. He waved imperiously at a porter, removed my valise from my unresisting hand, delivered it over to the man, and directed it to be carried to the Great Eastern. Without more ado, he drew my left arm over his shoulder, and supported me around the waist with his right. He was warm, and solid - so hopelessly dear and familiar and safe - and I leaned into him with a sigh of relief that I could by no means repress.

‘Bear as little of your weight on that left ankle as you may, Holmes. It is a matter of thirty steps or so to the cabs, and then we shall not need to walk to the hotel. I have taken the precaution of engaging two ground floor rooms, so you will not have to manage stairs.’

We hobbled to the cab rank in silence, and I submitted to being placed inside the vehicle. He sat beside me, and quietly put his arm around my shoulders.

‘When did you last eat, Holmes?’

‘Monday evening, I believe. When did you get my telegram?’ I enquired, rather weakly, as we drove off. He was so very stern and unsmiling.

‘Monday evening! You have been more than thirty-six hours without food: it is no wonder that you are near fainting from inanition. I received it in the early evening, and, as I had told you I would, came immediately to Harwich.’

‘You said you would come to Harwich if you received no satisfactory news.’

‘And I did not. Come, we are at the hotel. Allow me to assist you to dismount, Holmes, and we shall have you in your room in moments.’

It did indeed, seem only moments before I was seated in a high-backed wing chair before a small fire, divested of my outer clothing, collar and cuffs, and eating a plate of soup that I had not dared to refuse. He busied himself about me – Watson was always quiet in his doctoring, never any unnecessary hurry or bustle – collecting and laying out bandaging for my ankle and eventually coming to take my plate away.

‘I must have a look at that ankle,’ he said and his tone was apologetic. ‘How much walking have you done on it, Holmes?’

‘Too much,’ I admitted. I caught him by the hand. ‘Watson? I am sorry. Please do not be angry with me.’

‘There is no need to be sorry, my dear fellow. And why do you think I am angry?’

‘You were calling me ‘Holmes’. Just ‘Holmes’. Only my name. I feel as if I am at school, and in front of the headmaster.

He patted me on the shoulder. ‘My dear fellow, pray do not fret. I am not pleased you have not eaten, and I am worried about you. If you do not fuel your body, you cannot expect it to continue to run, you know. Also this ankle has been badly hurt: you must keep off it as much as possible for the next few days. But I am not angry with you, my dear man, only most grateful that I have you in my care again, alive and, I hope, not very much damaged. And I am afraid I am going to hurt you, Holmes, for you have not bandaged this foot very well at all, and it must be re-done. I must check to see there are no broken bones.’

He brought a bowl of hot water from the table, placed it on the floor in front of me and knelt. With gentle hands, he removed my shoe, sock, and bandage, and set about feeling the ankle all over. It did hurt. It was most exquisitely painful, and looked as bad as it felt, for it was all colours, red and blue and purple and grossly swollen. He was tender with me, each touch almost a caress, but he was most damnably thorough, and when eventually he pronounced that he did not think there was anything broken, I was sweating in my chair, and biting my hand to keep from crying out as I rode the crashing waves of pain. After he had washed, dried and bound the injured foot, he eased it down onto a cushion, and turned almost absent-mindedly to cleansing and drying my other foot onto which he drew a clean woollen sock before he stood up, wincing and stretching, his hands in the small of his back.

‘It will hurt badly for a while - I am so sorry, my dear. And I cannot give you laudanum, of course. I have brought tincture of willow bark, and in a moment there will be hot water so that we may make up a dose of it. Meanwhile, you may have a glass of brandy if you eat your bread.’

‘Are you not eating? Watson, I am afraid you are still not happy with me.’

There was some delay before he answered, and my heart sank further with every second that passed while he organised his medical equipment and tidied all back into his bag. His back was turned to me.

‘I have missed you quite damnably, you impossible man. The house has been quiet and lonely, and so have I. There, is your vanity satisfied?’

‘Not my vanity,’ I said. ‘But my heart, perhaps. I confess that I did not like working without you. There was no-one to keep watch for me and scold me when I was going wrong. And I could not deal with the landlady at all. Had you been there, we would have been better served, for you would have charmed her into producing meals I could actually eat. As it was I subsisted on the sparest of diets.’

‘I can see that. You have lost flesh, Holmes, even in a few days, and you have none to lose.’ He went to the door, and opened it for the waiter, ‘Thank you.’

‘Have you ordered more food?’

‘Indeed. The soup was just a preliminary. We have eggs here, and kedgeree, devilled kidneys and ham, and good bread and butter. I expect you to make a proper meal, and then you must sleep before we leave for home. If I do not think you fit by this afternoon, we will spend the night in the hotel and travel tomorrow.’

After we had eaten, he supported me while I washed and changed into the nightshirt he had brought for me and then insisted that I should go to bed, and try to sleep.

‘I won’t sleep,’ I said, when he had me settled in bed and bade me close my eyes. ‘I know that willow bark is supposed to be efficacious, but my foot feels as if it is on fire. Did you have to pull it about so much?’

He rang the bell before answering me, and gave directions for a bucket of ice and some oiled silk to be brought. ‘If I had let it heal with a broken bone, Holmes, it might have been impeded in its flexion and range of movement for the rest of your life, and in the worst case, you might have been unable to run. The ankle is a queer joint, there are many small bones – as there are in your wrist – and all of them need to be in proper relation to each other for it to function. I shall ice-pack it for you, and if you rest, and elevate the limb it will be much better in the morning. But if it is as bad as you say, then we shall be staying here tonight.’

‘I shall be bored. There is nothing to do here.’

‘But I do not know yet the minutiae of the case, my dear fellow, nor the cleverness with which you conducted it. You may amuse yourself telling me about it after you have had a nap, and I shall make notes for you. Now my dear, here is the ice, and we shall see if that makes you more comfortable.’

For the first time since he had met me off the boat that morning, he sounded like my Watson, and I felt able to breathe again. He packed my ankle in ice, and the ache diminished enough for me to sleep, which I did for several hours, rousing at intervals when he moved my foot to change the packing. Finally I woke properly at about four, and lay for a moment, collecting my scattered thoughts. The pain in my ankle had subsided to a dull throb, and my head felt clearer. Watson was at the door of the room, giving instructions in a low voice, and smiled as he turned and saw me awake.

‘That is much better, my dear Holmes, you look more like yourself now. I have called for tea and a sandwich or two, and you may sit up in bed to take them. After that, we will see if you can hobble to the chair, and you may tell me your adventures.’

‘I do feel better,’ I admitted, ‘I do not know how it is, but I am so much happier when you are looking after me, Watson. You have the gift of making your patients feel protected and cared for.’

‘It is what doctors do,’ he said, smiling at me. But for all that I did not think any doctor could have cherished and cared for me as he did. It was John himself, not Dr John Watson, who made me feel loved.

****

I spent, perforce, a quiet few days upon my return from Harwich, tied by the leg and unable to stir. I had to ask Mr Wernher to visit us in Baker Street to deliver my report to him – a report for which he was duly grateful, and expressed himself well served for the money he had expended.

‘You have saved me many times your fee in trouble,’ he said, as he came to shake me by the hand (for I was reclining on the sofa with my foot up). ‘I am most concerned by what you tell me about this Henry Judson Raymond who is behind Wynert. I must put some feelers out, and see what I can find out beyond what appears; indeed, Mr Holmes, upon your recovery, I shall be pleased to employ you again. And your colleague, Dr Watson, of course. I very much regret that I did not understand how materially he would have assisted you. As for these others, the Navigator and Mr Greatman, I have not heard of them, nor the signs and sigils you mention. We mark our gold, it is true, and our silver, but those are not marks I know. I shall have to keep a weather eye out.’

‘That is a decent man,’ I remarked to Watson, when he returned to our rooms after showing our visitor to the door. ‘An honest merchant, perhaps.’

‘Indeed,’ he replied, drawing the footstool to my feet. ‘Come, it is time to dress this ankle again, my friend. Really, Holmes, you flattered me most egregiously in your discourse: I did not know where to look for shame and embarrassment.’

‘I am resolved that if clients would employ me, then they must employ you,’ I told him, after a while. ‘A little tighter if you please, Watson. We are a partnership. If they want Holmes, they must have Watson also, and recognise his sterling worth as I do.’

‘You are a stubborn, ridiculous man,’ he scolded me, as he completed the wrapping, but I saw his blush, and the light in his eye, and thought to myself that he had been too little praised or valued in his life, if such a slight thing could affect him so. 

‘Lestrade has been asking after you,’ he commented, as he drew a sock over my new and lighter bandage. ‘I daresay he would be pleased to visit should you want him. He was mentioning a case – a curious case, that he thinks should not have had the outcome it did, and he wondered if you might be interested in solving it.’

‘I am happy to see Lestrade – thank you Watson, that is kind of you, you have a very gentle hand with injuries  - and the other sock, if you would do me that small favour – but I do not want his case.’

‘Not want his case! Holmes, are you not well? Are you feverish, in pain?’ he had completed his task and risen from the footstool but now he stooped to lay his hand against my forehead, as I closed my eyes. ‘You are not over-warm.’

‘I cannot concentrate upon anything until I know how this trial in Ireland goes, Watson. The thought of it consumes me. Angers me. I cannot settle to anything else, until I know how that will go.’

‘I did not know it weighed so heavily on you, my dear fellow.’

‘Does it not on you? It appeared to me that you shared my distress at the libel trial.’

‘I did, Holmes. I do: of course I do. And I shall continue to do so: I shudder at the brutality of the mob when faced with something they neither comprehend, nor wish to try to comprehend. Yes, it weighs heavy. But at least we are no longer involved. You have handed over the information: your government acquaintance has enough to discredit Meiklejohn and the other inspectors. There is evidence that Chance and Miley have acted outside their remit as solicitors also, evidence for intimidation of witnesses. And I promise you that Cornwall is unlikely to be sent to prison. Sodomy is difficult to prove, as I have told you, and any decent doctor will not commit himself to saying it has occurred. The witnesses have little standing, Cornwall has his rank and prestige to protect him. Whatever the truth of the matter, he is unlikely to be convicted under all of those circumstances.’

‘I do not wish to speak of it further tonight, Watson.

He rested his hand on my shoulder ‘Very well, my dear fellow, we shall not speak of it. Should you like me to assist you to retire now, or would it please you if I were to read to you for a little? Or if you were of a mind to, we could read our Dumas together and pursue poor Dantès’ adventures?’

‘Dumas,’ I had no spirit for the reading, but when we read Dumas we sat close together and I needed him near me that night, a shield against what the morning might bring. ‘Please, Watson. If you would be so kind as to fetch the book, I shall rearrange myself here and make room for you. You will sit with me, will you not?’

‘Of course, my dear, do not we always? And my French is coming along splendidly.’

‘Indeed it is. I fear you will always have the accent, Watson, but in that you are no different from any other Englishmen. Your vocabulary, on the other hand is very much better, and by reading you are acquiring the grammar and syntax. Here, sit down, and we will begin.’

But we did not read immediately. I sat for a while, staring at the page in front of me, my mind all astray, and in the end, he took the book from me, laid it down on the floor, and put his hand on my shoulder. Neither of us spoke. After a few minutes, he loosened his clasp, and I picked up the book and began to read. We were approaching the point at which Dantès had completed his repayment of the kindness of his good old master, Morel, and devoted himself to revenge - and the chapter was a very tender one, replete with descriptions of a loving and devoted family. It was not my habit to allow sentiment to overcome me when reading, yet I could not refrain from emotion when I read the touching scene between Morel and his noble son. Perhaps it was some weakness in me, but I found myself becoming more and more sensibly affected, until at last, my voice wholly suspended, I was obliged to pause.

Watson did not hesitate, but leaned over and read, ‘ “C’est bien,” dit-il, en tendant la main à Morrel, “Mourez en paix, mon père, je vivrai’.  Morrel fit un mouvement pour se jeter au genoux de son fils. Maximilien l’attira à lui, et ces deux nobles cœurs battirent un instant l’un contre l’autre . . .” Father and son embraced, and those two noble hearts beat for an instant one against the other.’

‘Thank you.’ It was all I could say.

He put the book down. ‘Holmes, may I . . .? I – I cannot see you so unhappy and not want to comfort you. There – there is so little  - kindness – so little - tenderness in – in life.’ His voice was unsteady too.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Anything you – I do not mind – whatever you – John . . . there was not as a child – in m-mine, there was none.  Mama, Papa  -  there was none.’

‘I know,’ he said. He held me gently then as if I were much younger, his arms around me in a chaste embrace. ‘I know, Sherlock. I know there was no kindness in your childhood. I can see.  I do know.’

*****

‘If it we were not seeing such animosity in the trials of these men, there is something I could almost find amusing,’ Watson remarked to me a couple of days after Wernher had visited.’

‘I find nothing amusing at the moment,’ I replied, ‘but do, pray enlighten me. Although I doubt there is anything to laugh at.’

‘Maybe not amusing but intriguing then. I spoke incautiously,’ he amended, passing me the coffee. ‘Lestrade is visiting you this afternoon, Holmes, about that case he mentioned to me.’

‘I said I did not want a case. Really, Watson, I will not have interference.’

‘You did,’ he drizzled honey on a piece of toast, and placed it on my plate. ‘But he really needs help, and you have nothing to do. Try this, will you, Holmes?’

‘It is honey: what of it?’ I enquired, ‘and why is it on my plate? That was somewhat presumptuous of you, Watson, and I tell you, I will not take any cases while these Dublin issues are in play. I cannot turn my mind to anything else.’

‘But I am sure that you can solve this little issue so simply, without even leaving your chair,’ he told me. ‘Lestrade will bring the evidence to you, and if you look at it for him, then that is all I will ask. What do you think of the honey?’

‘It is very good,’ The honey was, indeed, good - intense, herbal, almost resinous. ‘What is it? I have never had anything like this before. You are not forgiven for being a – a – an infuriating fellow, Watson.’

‘It is thyme honey, Holmes, from Hymettus. It is the ‘new Hymettus honey’ that the ancients, according to Horace, were wont to mix with old Falernian wine. I beg your pardon, my dear chap, for being infuriating.’

‘How in the world did you find Greek honey in London?’ I asked him, jolted out of my melancholy – which he had no doubt intended. He was smiling at me, too, damn him. I could not resist his smile ’And why have you given it to me?’

‘We have many Greek merchants in London, and I had occasion to treat the child of one recently for a broken leg. It was an unpleasant fracture, but I used Antonius Mathijsen’s Crimean practice of immobilising the limb in plaster of Paris bandages. It is an extension of the ancient Basrah method, which of course, you know all about. In any case, my patient’s father was one of the Ralli brothers, who with the Melas and Xenos families, conduct most of the trade in their country’s goods to England. I know of the Ralli family for they were our suppliers of borax in India – it has many medical uses, as you know - and also of gypsum. We fell into conversation about the medical trade, they expressed themselves grateful for my care, and offered me a gift when the child was discharged.’

‘They did not offer you honey of their own accord, Watson!’

He smiled. ‘No, they offered me coin, which I begged them to redirect toward one of the free beds, and I enquired tentatively about the Greek honey, thinking that they might have some for their personal use, for it cannot be found here, you are right. You have been so out of sorts lately, and I wanted to procure a small unusual pleasure for you. And perhaps I thought to turn your mind back to your bees, your busy little multitudes. The study of their ways and habits proved efficacious formerly in ridding you of your melancholy: I thought on this occasion it might also.’

‘Am I melancholy? Perhaps you are right. If so, I have no right to be, when you are so careful of me, Watson. Thank you, my dear fellow, I shall enjoy every spoonful of this, and all the more if you share it with me. Very well, then, I shall see Lestrade. And what is it that you find amusing? Or intriguing?’

‘I find it intriguing – perhaps I have changed my mind on amusing – that the Queen’s Counsel for Gustavus Cornwall is named Holmes. And the counsel for James Ellis French is a Mr David Sherlock.’

‘I am not ignorant of the fact. I do not find it amusing at all. I know nothing of these men -  Holmes is, lest you should ask, unrelated to me -  and I wish to know nothing. I simply hope that they are efficient at their tasks. Holmes is not an uncommon name, in any case. And Sherlock is of Saxon origin, and means fair-haired. It may be uncommon as a Christian name, but not as a surname. One posits many fair-haired Saxons, all named alike. It is a coincidence, obviously.’

‘Pray do not take offence, Holmes, my dear fellow. I was glad for the defendants, because if either of those gentlemen – Mr Hugh Holmes, QC, or Mr David Sherlock -  has even a fraction of your forensic acumen or acuity of thought, then their charges will surely be acquitted. I simply thought it to be a good omen for the poor defendants, if you like, as well as an amusing similarity of names.’

‘I cannot discuss it. It is presumptuous of you to even suppose a connection. It is ridiculous – you are ridiculous, Watson. A mere coincidence and you appear to attach some importance to it. I have often had occasion to chide you for your romantic flights of fancy, but really, this is beyond anything.’ 

He looked at me then. And I looked away.

‘Then we shall not discuss it at all. I am sorry I have been presumptuous as well over inviting Lestrade, Holmes, Would you like me to make some excuse for you, to say that you are not well? And then I have to go to Barts anyway, and to the Alexandra Hospital, so you may have some peace and quiet.’

‘I will see Lestrade, and I will take his case, but I resent your coercion. I will not be forced in this way: it is intolerable. I will not have it. Will you be away long?’

‘I must be away all day, my dear chap. Among other things, I have a complicated resection to undertake – a comminuted fracture that will not heal, so we must have the leg off. I do not think much of the patient’s chances, but I have promised Burns-Gibson that I will assist.’

He said no more to me, but finished his breakfast, arranged his desk, and collected oddments for his bag, before running upstairs to change his tie. He smiled at me, and told me he would leave a message with Mrs Hudson that I was not to be disturbed, and that he would send a message if he was to be late to dinner, ‘so you may dine without me, old fellow, and be comfortable, if you wish.’

He was halfway to the door before I found my voice – it was little more than a whisper.

‘Thank you for the honey, Watson. It was kind of you.’

He came back to my side, patted my shoulder and said I was his dear fellow, and I was not to mention it, for he was happy to have given me that small pleasure, and then he was gone.

I had spent the best part of a week wishing for his presence, and now I had driven him away with churlish words and short answers. I was a fool.

I berated myself all day for being a fool. Lestrade came – full of a decently expressed gratitude for what we had done for his little girl: he showed nobly at it, and I was impressed, for many men are uncomfortable with a favour done to them, and cannot be civil to someone if they consider themselves indebted. I told him that it was all Watson, and he should thank him, not me, and he laughed, and told me that Watson had said it was all me, and I was the one who should be thanked. I asked cautiously after the child, and he praised Watson again, saying that the timid little girl had no fear of him, but thought him the kindest of doctors, ‘and she has been so sorely mishandled, Mr Holmes, that she is afraid of them, of course. But she has no fear of him. And he speaks so kindly to my wife, that she is quite won over.’

‘He is a paragon indeed,’ I said, and I meant it. ‘What have you for me to do, Lestrade? I cannot run after our criminal – I am forced to be an invalid, as you see -  but I will do what I can for you, restricted as I am.’

‘Well I will be grateful if you can, and that’s a fact,’ he said to me, producing a wrapped bundle. ‘Now, Mr Holmes, it’s about this poor colleague of ours, Ned Cole, who was shot nearly two years ago. We have our suspicions of the man who did it – for Ned was taking into custody a notorious burglar and thief, one Thomas Henry Orrock, and he was shot in the struggle, d’you see – but we cannot bring it home to Orrock. We tried when it first happened – he was brought in, but we could not get an identification: there was a thick fog when the murder took place. So he was let go, and went to ground.’

‘So even if you can tie him to the crime, you must hunt for him,’ I commented, interested despite myself. ‘The trail will have gone cold, Lestrade.’

‘Not so.’ Lestrade looked triumphant. ‘Only this this year, he was sentenced for burglary, and is now in Coldbath prison, so we have him again, and I thought to clear up the murder, for it is yet unsolved. Of late I have been speaking to some men who are prepared to implicate him, but that is all hearsay, and will not stand up in court, even though he has as good as admitted it to one of them. I need one piece of evidence, Mr Holmes, just one. There were tools at the scene of the crime – chisels, and such like, for the burglary, and we have one of them which could even be said to have the word ‘rock’ on it, which is near enough the man’s name. Yet it is not exactly his name, and we cannot hang a man on an unsafe conviction even though he be a villain who shot a man unarmed and doing his duty.’

‘So circumstantial evidence shows us the man at the time and place of the murder? On what grounds? The tools? And you have them there?’

Lestrade brought me the bundle and unwrapped the tools, displaying to my view some very fine cold chisels such as I might have been proud to use myself had I had the need. ‘It is this one and a quarter inch, Mr Holmes, that has letters on it. But try as I might, I can make out nothing clearly, not even with a glass.’

‘But then you do not have my microscope.’ I rose, not without some difficulty, and limped to the table, waving aside Lestrade’s offer of help. It did not suit me to be touched by all and sundry. ‘I can manage for myself, Lestrade. Give me the chisel.’

With the naked eye, it was not easy to see anything graved into the steel, but by dint of some careful manipulation it was possible for me to pick out the letters Lestrade had mentioned, a faint and straggling R – O – C – K. done with a fine sharp tool – an awl, or a graver, but a broken one, wielded by a weak hand – a woman’s perhaps. It appeared to me that there might be some scratches – very faint scratches – to the left of the letters, but it was hard to make it out, since they were light on a light background. Tilting the chisel, or changing the angle did nothing to aid me. I spilt a little black ink on my desk, dabbed my pocket handkerchief into it, and wiped the soaked cloth across the chisel, then rubbed with a clean corner of the cloth until no trace of ink remained. If I were correct in my surmise, and if there were other letters, forcing a stain into the graved areas might provide enough contrast with the matrix to make them stand out.

It was gratifying to see that I was right, and even more gratifying to see Lestrade’s awed face when I showed him, under the most powerful magnification my apparatus could reach, the darkly lined O-R-R-O-C-K that proved the man’s ownership of the instrument. He thanked me profusely, and after some further suggestions for how he could secure a conviction, I sent him away with renewed purpose to prosecute his case. My elation after he had left was short lived, however, for I still had to wrestle with my earlier comments to Watson. They could not be solved by using a microscope.

*****

He did not return that night.

He sent a boy around with a message, saying that he was obliged to remain at the hospital, the case having taken an ill turn, and it was not until midday the following day that he arrived, weary and despondent.

‘We lost him.’ He was blunt in answer to my timid enquiry. ‘And he was a young man too, with a family depending on him. I had to tell the young wife, and she with child. I have directed her to a charity which will be able to aid her – I think she will return to the West country, where she has family – but it was a sad end. I must sleep, Holmes, I am dropping where I stand. No, do not come near me. I stink, and I am begrimed with all sorts of filth, blood, purulent matter, and other such fluids. I shall wash directly, and then I must sleep. Would you play for me, my dear friend? That will do me more good than anything.’

I played Schumann’s Dichterliebe while he bathed and clothed himself. The sweet-sad words of Heine’s poetry echoed in my head, reminding me of what I could not have. When he came back into our room, he looked directly at me.

‘I made you angry yesterday, forgive me. It was clumsy of me to draw attention to those names, and unpardonable of me to force you to take a case. I shall not do so again, nor presume upon our friendship.’

I put down my violin. ‘Say rather that it was unpardonable of me to be abrupt and unkind with you. You care for me, doctor me, think of me – and I repay you with brusque words and uncivil behaviour. It is I who should ask for forgiveness.’

‘No. No. You are clearly extremely anxious and upset about this Dublin case: you have not been yourself since it began. It would not be gentlemanly of me to ask why, or whether you have a personal interest in this - ’

‘I do not have a personal interest, I - ’

‘Hear me out, Holmes, I beg you. If you had a personal interest in it – if you knew, or knew of, or had friends in the past, or now, who were inverts, as I have had, if you had members of your family who were inverts, if, God forgive me for even trespassing upon your privacy like this, you had, in the past when you were a boy had – experiences – as so many boys do at boarding school – ’

‘I did not.’

‘I do not say you did, Holmes. I said if – if this were personal to you, then your anxiety and distress would be most comprehensible. But whether it is personal or not, whether you tell me the reason for your distress or not, whether there is any reason for your anxiety that I am allowed to know, or not, it would make no difference to my affection for you what that reason was. I am your friend, plain and simple. Were you Cornwall himself, and I your friend, my answer to any slur about you, any difficulty you were in, or any information you chose to give me would be the same as Kirwan’s when he was asked in the trial whether he would row in his friend’s boat, or that of the detective, Meiklejohn. He answered that he would sink or swim with his friend, and so he should have done, and so would any man of honour.’

‘Watson, what are you saying? Do you accuse me of Cornwall’s crime?’

‘Setting aside that I do not consider coitus a posteriori a crime, of course I do not, my dear fellow. You have said yourself that romantic entanglements are anathema to you: how much more would a physical liaison be? I am simply saying that I do not need to know why you are exceedingly anxious about this thrice-damned case, to want very much to comfort you when you are distressed by it. So I beg that you will not concern yourself with what I think of you, since it would never, under any circumstances, be anything ill, and seek for comfort when you need it.’

‘I do not need it for the reasons – you – you might suppose. I do not wish to be comforted: I am not such a weakling. Are we ever to be done with this conversation, Watson?’

‘We can be done with it now, Holmes. But for the love of God, man, do not fire up at me so. It has been like living with a – a – very porcupine these last few days: wherever I step, there are quills rattling in my direction and I fear the shot that will pierce me. I need to know nothing, I care for you a great deal, and I will freely admit to the weakness of being miserable when we are at odds. If that does not put you in a superior moral position I do not know what will.’

He waited, but I could not say anything.

'Let us be friends and kind to each other,’ he added, but yawned then, uncontrollably. ‘And now I must, I must go to bed. I have been up all night, and I am near sleeping where I stand. If I have not surfaced by dinner time, Holmes, I would be grateful if you would do me the kindness of waking me.’

He was weary, there were shadows under his eyes, and his mouth was set in a thin line. It was not the loss of a patient only that weighed on him, but my churlish words; I could see that now. But I had no idea what to say to him.

‘Would you play for me still?’ he enquired gently, after waiting for a few moments more. ‘It does help me, my dear fellow – it chases away my nightmares, and the loss of a patient does not help with those.’

I reached for my violin, that source of comfort – and then laid it aside.

‘I am sorry.’ I had to say something. ‘I don’t – I am distressed by this case, more than by others, and you are correct when you say that – that my temper is become uneven. I cannot tell you why, but, Watson it is – it is not anything that – that might cause you to shun my presence, I  - I do assure you.’

‘I am not asking you,’ he said, his voice still low and gentle. ‘I would never shun you.’

‘I know. If – if you will go to bed now, I will play the Dichterliebe for you. I know that you love the music.’

‘Thank you.’ His eyes met mine for a second, and then he turned and limped out of the room. His step halted up the stair – he stopped twice, as if waiting – and then I heard him get into bed, leaving his door open. I drew my bow across the strings . . .

Ich hab' im Traum geweinet, sang the violin, plaintively, mir träumte du lägest im Grab. Ich wachte auf, und die Träne floß noch von der Wange herab. I wept in my dreams, for I dreamed you were in your grave. I woke, and the tears still flowed.

I had to stop, and wipe my eyes then. The silence grew expectant, heavy. A waiting silence. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet, mir träumt' du verließest mich. Ich wachte auf, und ich weinte noch lange bitterlich. I wept in my dreams, for I dreamed you abandoned me. I woke, and wept long and bitterly. 

‘Sleep, Watson,’ I called up to him. ‘I shall not stop playing until you are asleep.’ I heard him rise, close his door softly, and return to bed. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet, mir träumte du wär'st mir noch gut. I swallowed hard. Ich wachte auf, und noch immer strömt meine Tränenflut. I wept in my dreams, for I dreamed you were still good to me. I woke, and even now falls my flood of tears.

Was he asleep? Would his dreams be gentle to him? Perhaps I had better stay up, to listen for him. He might need me to play for him again later.

 . . . ‘rest your cheek against my cheek,’ says the poet, Heine, for whose words Schumann wrote the music of the Dichterliebe, ‘then shall our tears flow together - and against my heart, press firmly your heart, so then together shall our flames beat. And when, into the great flame flows the stream of our tears, and when my arms hold you tight . . . I shall die of Love’s yearning.’

*****

By the end of August, Cornwall had been acquitted of the abominable crime: just as Watson had predicted, no medical man would pronounce there to be physical evidence of intercourse per anum, moreover three of them stated that it was, as a matter of fact, impossible to perform a sodomitical act in a hansom cab. (I did confess to being intrigued as to that, I must confess: theoretically I could conceive of ways in which it might be possible, and I said as much to Watson. He looked at me with an expression I can only describe as simultaneously exasperated and amused, and uttered a wish that I should desist from speculation, stating that while he had no objection to sodomy in principle or indeed in practice providing that certain hygienic precautions were taken, he could not conceive of a more uncomfortable setting than a cab for any form of amorous intercourse, whether sodomitical or not. The mention of hygienic precautions effectively removed any further desire I had to speculate, and the discussion was dropped.)

Cornwall and Martin Kirwan, his old friend, were then tried for conspiracy to procure men for immoral purposes, but the jury could not agree on its verdict, and the case was set back to October, when French, whose sanity was still in doubt, might be assessed again for fitness to stand trial. Albert de Fernandez, the surgeon major in the army was acquitted on the sodomy charge. James Pillar, an elderly man of about seventy, who changed his plea on the felony count to guilty against the advice of his lawyers, was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude – a life sentence, or rather, for him, poor man, a death sentence since he would most certainly not survive it. Two indigent, and lower class, brothel keepers, one of them blind, were sentenced to two years with hard labour for keeping a disorderly house.

‘I am glad poor Jack was not called as a witness,’ said Watson to me, when we looked at the case reports some time afterwards. ‘It appears that since the conspiracy to procure was dated from Malcolm Johnstone’s accusation about the date of August ’81, and Jack’s association with both Cornwall and Kirwan was prior to that, his evidence was not needed. But what a blackguard Malcolm Johnstone is! He accused his own cousin of felony, he was instrumental in the downfall of poor Pillar, and Fernandez, poor fellow, was certainly in love with him, or he would not have given him the gold ring. The engraved message on it tells all.’

‘He has certainly shown his true colours,’ I said. ‘You will find many an honest whore but he is not one: a man with whom indulgence in the carnal pleasures cannot be relied upon not to lead to blackmail. Of all villains I detest a blackmailer most, I think.’

‘I am in agreement with you there, Homes,’ – he stretched out his feet to the fire, for it was raining heavily and he had just returned from the hospital. I poured us both a glass of the Vin Mariani he had recently bought, and he took his from me, smiling, captured my hand and tugged me down onto the sofa next to him. ‘Come and sit by me, my dear fellow. You seem quieter of late weeks, and so saddened. I wish I could do something to cheer you.’

‘I am saddened by the inequities I see in this case.’ I moved as close to him as I dared without touching him: I had resolved that I should not allow myself to solicit any caress, no matter how slight, either by word or deed. I had nearly, I feared, given myself away as an invert by the excessive emotion I had been unable to repress over the Cornwall trial. If Watson knew me plainly for one, no matter how kind he was, he might leave me. I could not risk him leaving me.

‘I know there were inequities. It is unjust that such disparate punishments have been handed out for such similar crimes.’

‘There was evidence against Cornwall, and evidence against Kirwan: clear evidence, that they had, in fact committed sodomy. The same holds true for Fernandez.  Yet Kirwan was never tried for sodomy, Cornwall and Fernandez were acquitted of it, and it has much to do with their standing in society – particularly Kirwan’s for he is of the nobility, albeit of the Irish nobility – and their wealth. Malcolm Johnstone and the other boys will not be tried for sodomy either, because they have turned Queen’s evidence and offered immunity for prosecution, yet  they have committed it. Their names have been blackened, their way of life used to cast doubt on their testimony, and they have been called liars because they are poor and go with men for money.’

‘I do not know what to think either,’ he said. ‘I did not want these men to be convicted of what I do not think is a sin or a crime. But I did not want their acquittal to come at the expense of injustice done to people of lower standing.’

‘And it is our testimony – our investigation about Meiklejohn, and the way in which he coerced, and suborned, and flattered and bullied the witnesses into testifying -  which has procured acquittal for Cornwall and Fernandez, and blackened the names of Johnstone, and Taylor, and McKiernan and Graham. Lestrade was right when he said it was a filthy business, with politics involved.’

‘The law is an ass, my dear fellow, and in this case it has been more than an ass, it has been an unjust ass. My belief is that when Cornwall and Kirwan come to trial again in October they will be acquitted. There is no stomach for convicting them: it casts too much of a shadow on the English administration in Ireland, and although William O’Brien wants that very much to happen, I believe the English parliament will not allow it.’ He patted my shoulder, ‘Finish your Mariani wine, Holmes. I know tonic wines are not much in your line, but I am of the opinion that you need a pick-me up, and this comes highly recommended. Indeed, her Majesty the Queen is used to drink it, and so are many other persons of note. It is much endorsed.’

‘It is not distasteful to me entirely,’ I said, sipping obediently. ‘What did you say was the tonic agent in it?’

‘This particular wine is prepared by steeping the leaves of a plant called erythroxylon coca,’ he replied. ‘It is an interesting substance, and one which I have only lately been made aware of. The coca is that plant historically used by the Inca of Peru to ward off fatigue: the leaves do not travel well, but steeping them in a good red wine produces a beverage which retains their effects, and is tonic into the bargain. Coca wine is much used now to ward off or remove fatigue or lowness of spirits, just as the quinine-fortified wines and bitters that I was accustomed to take in India were used to ward off malarial fevers.’

‘And what are supposed to be the effects? I perceive very little, other than that it is bitter, and rather numbs than stimulates my palate.’

‘Perhaps you might take another small glass?’ he suggested. ‘I am in hopes that it may brighten and cheer you up, my dear fellow, for it is completely harmless by all accounts. I would be glad to find something other than the morphine with which we might safely alleviate your moods. This coca wine may be just the thing.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face Part 10

Bushire to Shiraz.

Holmes is not used to writing his thoughts down, but his mind is in such turmoil that he cannot refrain. For two years he has been unable to confide in a soul. Mycroft, despite his fraternal affection, he considers an unsafe correspondent, for in all his dealings he is actuated predominantly by amor patriae, and will always choose a course of action which benefits his country, rather than his brother. Holmes can trust him as far as ensuring Watson does not meet an untimely demise: he cannot trust him to allow sentiment to outweigh political expediency.

He left Bushire two days ago, and is now well on his way into the interior. He has been transported, courtesy of the Munshi, by boat to the dilapidated caravanserai of Shif, where muleteers will conduct him – again by courtesy of the Safar family and the Munshi – from the swamps and mud of that uninviting shore up the precipitous steeps of four kotals, narrow-cut stairways in the rock, to the more salubrious central plateau in which is set Shiraz. There is no other transport that will serve him, and after two days travel, he has already gained a new understanding of the term ‘mulish’. Clever, steady and surefooted as his mule mare is, she is also opinionated, and her bony back, padded by an inadequate saddle cloth, makes for an uncomfortable ride. Were he not saddle-sore and sea-sick, he might laugh at himself, for she is short, and his long legs dangle nearly to the ground.

(Back in Bushire, meanwhile, Talbot has disgraced himself by his interference in the argument between Turkey and Qatar, and has had to sulk and scowl his way ignominiously back to the Residence, where he is awaiting the successor Mycroft has organised. Holmes’ only satisfaction is that that he may now be less ready to listen to Sebastian Moran.)

The mare, Laleh, side-steps a little, and Holmes sways in the saddle and rights himself, one hand going to the breast of his robe where next to his heart he carries Watson’s letter. He had telegraphed, of course, to Mycroft, immediately he had received it: a terse message.

If you allow him to die, he had written, I will never forgive you.

Later that night, he writes, erasing and redrafting, on flimsy, fibrous paper that clogs the steel nib.

My dear John,

You will always be John to me now. My John. My dearest John.

I do not know how to tell you that I am not dead. That I did not die in Reichenbach’s waters and that you must not either. Please do not die, John. Wait for me: I will return.

I do not know how to tell you why I disappeared from your life, and allowed you to believe me dead. What seemed then to be both expedient and proper and just, now seems to me to be arrant cowardice, and the most condign cruelty. I was wrong, I who prided myself on my understanding. It seems to me now that never truly saw you. I never understood the nature of your affection for me. And I was blinded by my fear. I wanted you to love me, but I was afraid.

I do not know how to tell you why, in all this time I have not written to you. Several times during the last two years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret. No, let me in this at least be honest. I feared lest my more than affectionate regard for you should tempt me to some indiscretion which would betray my secret. I did not know that you too had a secret.

I do not know how I might be able to tell you my secret now: I deserve nothing from you in return for it.  I have guarded it too well, I fear.

I do not know how not to tell you my secret, John. It thunders in my breast, throbbing with my heart’s desperate hope, a vain hope that will not be repressed..  And I cannot ask now for your secret: how can I merit it, after what I have done? I barely have hope you will receive me again with friendship, after such treachery.

John, cor cordium, will you forgive me? Here beats a wayward, faulty heart as penitent as a man’s may well be. Can it be received once more, and taken to yours, to your own sheltering, wounded, loving heart? To your heart that I never understood was already mine?

John, your letter.  What have I done? For God’s sake do not die.

Holmes has made only twenty five miles in the day. When he dismounts at the palm-girdled village of Borazjun, having traversed the swamps near Shif, and the dusty, dry, salt flats along the route to the caravanserai, he is so stiff he has to hold on to Laleh’s decorated bridle and steady himself. She turns her head to nose at him gently. He feeds her a scrap of bread from his pocket, patting her velvety muzzle, and he is so low in his mind that even the sympathy of a cross-grained mule brings him near to weeping. The muleteers are a surly lot: he is well aware that if it were not that they owe allegiance to the Safars, and he is the Safars’ protégé, he would be in imminent danger of being robbed, knifed, and left to bleed out on the roadside. He hands Laleh to his least objectionable escort – a doe-eyed, strikingly beautiful boy named Dariush, after the emperor of old - and enquires where he is to go. Dariush clicks his tongue in exasperation, summons his younger brother to lead the mule away to the lines, and silently takes Holmes to bargain for one of the safer, upstairs apartments in the stone court. They go first through the market, where Holmes stops to buy flat bread, dates, salted white cheese, and two skewers of grilled mutton laced with a thick pomegranate molasses.

Washed, fed, and alone in his room, he again retrieves Watson’s letter. He carries it to the window, and looks out. The swift night darkens the distant mountains into shadows. Lamps wink white and gold across the town; voices rise from the courtyard where groups of men sit around braziers of charcoal. The air, cooler now, brings him the scent of herbs and tobacco, smoke and dung and spice. He craves his opium, to sink into its soft embrace, to forget and dream, but he does not dare to be less than alert, so he writes, writes . . .

My dear John,

I do not know how I missed that there was more to the kindness and affection you showed me. You say that you grieved me not as a friend, but as a spouse. I believed that it was only I that loved, and you that liked. My heart was fast: I could not disentangle it. And it became intolerable, John, a torment without end.

I could not. I could not show you. I dared not let you know how I wanted you. How you stirred me  – how I burned. I tried to conceal it with morphine first. I took it to quell my shameful desire: you know how ill that went. And after there was the cocaine, to my great shame.

My dear John, if I had allowed myself . . . if I had but once turned to you Perhaps – there were certain nights when I almost believed. If I had touched you in that way  – would you then have turned to me?

*****

The following morning, after passing through crowds of ferocious looking men with pistols in their belts – for the inhabitants of the town are, according to Dariush, much given to banditry, and always go armed – and cheerful, barefoot boys playing hockey on the stony ground, Holmes stops at the telegraph station before taking the road onwards to Daliki. He has made Mycroft promise to telegraph any news.

No change, is the terse message. She is holding her own. He is in constant attendance. I remain on watch. Moran was reported leaving Firuzebad three days since. Will outpace you. Sykes warned arrival imminent, and to delay Moran.

Damn Moran and all his works, thinks Holmes, as he hauls himself wearily onto Laleh. Damn Moran, and dead Moriarty, and Mycroft, and damn duty. Damn the British government, damn England, damn the world: let it perish in fire and ash, so that I have but one night, one hour, even, to hold John, to kiss his mouth, to touch lip to lip, consenting. One hour, even to hold his hand. One moment to fall once more on my knees and beg for his kindness and grace.

The road winds on, undulating in gentle curves but tending ever upwards. Just before he reaches Daliki, it crosses an improbably emerald coloured stream smelling strongly of sulphur and adorned by a bituminous scum: this is an oleiferous region, and a few years ago efforts were made to bore deep in search of petroleum springs. None were found, but the excavations and diggings still move sporadically onward, and the small telegraph rest house is crowded with miners of several nationalities – including, Holmes notes, both Russian and German. But by the time he reaches Daliki, he can do no more. His escorts are not unhappy to rest: they are paid by the day, and the more days he takes over the journey, the more they will earn.  He retreats to the cupboard-size, and extraordinarily expensive, room he has obtained, and gives himself up to miserable contemplation.

My dear John,

I read your letter again tonight. (Is it a letter? Or is it, perhaps, a confession?) The paper is soft at the corners now, and the edges are beginning to be rubbed. I have wept over it: the ink is smudged.

I have asked Dariush to procure me a small piece of silk, if such is to be had, and I shall make shift to sew it into an envelope. If this is all I am ever to have of your heart, I shall wear and cherish it lifelong next to mine. For I cannot hope that you will forgive me, John, when I have made you suffer so. The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that I will never win your forgiveness. And how could you love me again, after this? After these years, after my silence?

From Daliki, the road to Shiraz rises over fifteen hundred feet to Konar Takhteh. It leads upwards through a ravine well-watered enough, but redolent of sulphur, follows the Daliki river up a barren gorge, and crosses it by means of a fine stone bridge of six arches – a bridge guarded by a seedy-looking character with whom the muleteers exchange unsmiling insults before demanding money from Holmes to pay the unauthorised toll. Past the bridge, for a brief hour, the walking is pleasant: the area is irrigated by the tumbling waters, and green with the verdure of spring. Laleh drops to a lazy amble, occasionally putting her head down to snatch at the grass, and after more than once nearly pitching over her narrow withers, Holmes dismounts and walks for a while, allowing the beast to graze her fill. Dariush and Hamid whoop and run, springing from rock to rock, and splashing though the river shallows. When Jamshid, the lead muleteer, suggests a brief pause for luncheon, Holmes assents. There are fish rising to the fly, and before long, grilling over a makeshift fire.

Afterwards, Holmes retreats to the shade and contemplates his fellow travellers. ‘They say,’ he murmurs to himself, ‘they say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep, and Bahram, that great hunter – the wild ass stamps o’er his head, and he lies fast asleep . . .’ Jamshid raises his head at the mention of his name but returns to his contemplative pipe when Holmes makes no further move to attract his attention. Their break is a short one though, for the Kotal-i-Mallu, the ‘accursed pass’ is before them.

The path, a steep, narrow stair cut and worn into the rock is too precipitous for anything but a mule train. There are very few handholds for those ascending it on foot, but Holmes cannot, in all conscience, burden the slender-legged mule with his weight. He walks, before long reduced to a stop and start progression, breath coming short, calf muscles on fire, veins throbbing in his temples, sweat pouring from him.

If he had his cocaine, he thinks wryly, remembering his and Watson’s investigations into the drug and its extraordinary power to negate the effects of increased altitude and fatigue, he would spring up the narrow declivity like a young goat. But he has only opium and hashish, and their dreamy complacency will not serve him now: he needs the fierce energy of his seven per cent solution. (At one point, unknown to Watson, he increased it to twelve per cent, but found that the mental clarity it produced was offset too strongly by the severe tachycardia, and the depression after the drug.)

By the end of the ascent his heart labours hard, and he can barely summon the strength to walk into the caravanserai of Konar Takhteh, where he falls exhausted into the first bed he find, and sleeps both supperless and unwashed.

My dear John,

I have always loved you. I do now, with all my heart, love you. I will always love you, while breath is in me.

When – if – I return, for sometimes I think that I shall never be able to return, I dream of being able to live once again in our rooms in Baker Street. When I contemplate, now, the way we lived, I see that we were, in truth, wedded. Our deepest affections were directed solely towards each other: those on our periphery to whom we were kind, whom we allowed to share our lives, we admitted with a mutual understanding that they would never encroach upon our allegiance to each other.

Our lives were indissolubly linked, both in the material, domestic world, and in those realms of the heart and spirit where men are most themselves with a beloved companion. All that we lacked was the bodily consummation that marks the admitted marriage. I will not say that I was your wife, John, nor you mine, for we did not play those parts as do the molly boys in London’s bawdy houses. I will not say that you played the husband, for nor did I, only that in our souls, without understanding when, or how, or why, we had become espoused.

And then . . . and then we were parted, ripped asunder by circumstances, by choice, by misunderstandings. I thought it was only I who bled, John. I did not see that you too were slowly bleeding to death. I, who prided myself on my perspicacity, saw only what I wished to see.

The road from Konar Takhteh to Kamarij passes through the plain of Khisht. Weary and sad as he is, Holmes cannot but feel, the following morning, that his soul takes comfort from the extreme beauty of the plateau. Its stony soils, so dun and dry for most of the year, are clad in May’s bright raiment of flower: red poppies, larkspur, daisies, wild oats, pinks, mallows, convolvulus and a host of other species riot among the sparse fields of grain. In the distance is the glint of the Shapur river, along which he will ride. The mountains surrounding the plain are as colourful as the fields, their scenery singularly wild and grand, split by mighty fissures almost perpendicular to the plain, streaked and bedded in multi-coloured marls.

The ascent of the Kotal-i-Kamarij is almost too much for him. It rises 1,200 feet in less than a mile, and the track is so narrow that in many places an ascending and descending mule cannot pass each other. He heaves himself upwards, placing unsteady feet in narrow steps worn by the sharp little hooves of generations of mules. He has to stop twice, spots dancing and darkening before his eyes, and his breath halting. Dariush brings him water, wipes his forehead, and after a while he can go on. He rides the last couple of miles into Kamarij apologising to poor, exhausted Laleh all the way, before stopping at the telegraph rest house to pick up the latest news from home.

Moran has reached Shiraz, and is being held by Sykes against your arrival, writes Mycroft. Both John and Mary Watson have succumbed to the prevailing influenza. Her death is imminent. He is gravely ill, but is not presently considered to be in danger. I have sent the best doctors. Courage, brother. Do not fail now.

*****

We entered the year 1885 quietly, in a welcome lull after the storms of 1884. I was desperately glad to be shot of the wretched Dublin Castle Scandal, which had ended, as Watson had predicted, in the October acquittal of both Cornwall and Kirwan on charges of conspiring to procure men for immoral purposes. Cornwall attempted to have the libel trial heard again, but was set down smartly by a judge, who told him that although he had been found not guilty of sodomy, he had without a doubt been guilty of equally abhorrent practices, and should not, as the vernacular has it, chance his luck. He retired to his wife’s and brother-in law’s estates, there to lick his wounds, and nurse, if rumour were true, a syphilis of some virulence.

James Ellis French had been declared sane, and had stood his trial in December. Against him, the evidence was incontrovertible, and he was sentenced to two years hard labour. Kirwan and Fernandez were broken from the army, and their reputations ruined. Malcolm Johnstone, who in the interval between the August and the November trials had moved from place to place in Ireland under the lax supervision of Meiklejohn, drinking, gaming and whoring – he left one girl with child thus displaying a commendable lack of discrimination in his unsavoury amours – descended into a deserved obscurity along with McKiernan of the beautiful voice, Graham, Clark, and the other, lesser, actors in the farce. Jack Saul returned to London.

But the damage had been done. Not to my friendship with Watson – we went on very kindly together, in the gentlest of domesticities – but to the English government, and to the public perception of men whose primary affiliations were with other men. Society had become aware of a culture that lay beneath the world it knew and respected.

‘There have always been such men of course,’ said Mycroft to me one sharp February evening. ‘It has not been generally remarked. Now it will be, most particularly by the press.’ He turned his wineglass in his massive hand, the swirling meniscus of the burgundy catching a glint from the firelight. ‘It has always been there. If only the world would leave well alone. They do no harm to anyone, these men who love other men. Yet it is, men say, forbidden in the Bible, and the good book is sacrosanct. We must all bow to its shibboleths. And much as I respect, as one must respect, the crown, there is no denying that Her present Majesty has all the religious fervour of a very good bourgeoise housewife. Once she is offended, and prims that stubborn little mouth of hers in outrage, there is no moving her on a moral issue. She has been more than twenty years parted by death from her sainted Albert, and her sympathies with the unusual narrow year on year. She would not stand our friend, if it came to a battle.’

‘I am shocked to hear you say so.’ I was, in truth, astounded: Mycroft had never unbent so far as to offer criticism of the anointed monarch he had served with such devotion. ‘You surprise me very much, brother.’

‘My dear Sherlock, you are an observant man. You must know what and who I am. We have never spoken of it - ’

‘ – and I beg that we will continue not to speak of it, Mycroft: I can think of nothing more productive of an acute sense of gêne than to have such a conversation with my older sibling. It is as if our late unlamented parents were to endeavour to enlighten me as to the mechanics of copulation - ’

‘Really, Sherlock, I had not thought you so qualmish: very well I shall not say all that I intended. But it is not my intention to live celibate all my life, and I am concerned about the future for those of our – I say our, for you cannot deceive me, brother – of our kind. And when the monarch of this country espouses a bourgeois morality that stifles even as it censures, I will not simply stand by and allow it to happen. How is your doctor, by the way?’

‘He is himself, as he always is, and my friend.’

‘No more?’

‘Really, brother, as if I would tell you even if there were. But no. We are friends and no more. He thinks me too pure for such gross carnality, too high to stoop and too cerebral for sentimental attachments. And although he is sympathetic, he is not more than fond of me in a brotherly way.’

‘Oh, my poor Sherlock.’ I thought at first that he mocked me, but there was an honest gentleness in his voice. He was always kind to me, despite, or perhaps because of, our difference in age: had it not been for him, after all, I would have received shorter shrift than I did from our family after my disastrous time at university. ‘I am sorry.’

‘It is no matter.’ I turned the subject, not wanting further discussion of my non-existent amours. ‘You, I perceive, are in rather more promising case. That very elegant signet ring you wear was not father’s I think.’

‘It was not.’ He turned away. ‘I think – I hope – nay, I do believe – that I am about to be – singularly fortunate.’

‘Then I am glad for you, brother Mycroft. Happy.’ That was enough sentiment. ‘I must also thank you for your assistance in the matter of Lestrade’s child.’

‘You could have had more than that, Sherlock, I have told you often and often. The estate in Surrey goes well, bringing in more each year: it prospers finely. And the Cornish property fetched more than I expected. Half of all of that is yours by moral right, if not by will and legal testament.’

‘You know I will take nothing of that man’s. I would not have accepted your guineas for the child had it not been to please J – Watson. You must know.’

‘I do.’ He sighed. ‘Sherlock, I would that you would endeavour not to hate my father so much. Or our mother. They died because of what she did, it is true, but she was very ill, and – not herself.’

‘She was cruel and unyielding and wicked, and so was he. He never defended me – why should he, after all - but turned a blind eye to my misery, my loneliness and isolation. I will not talk of them, Mycroft, they are better forgotten. You know.’

‘Alas, yes. I do know. And it will always be a matter of regret to me that I was not aware of what – I might have been aware of, and that I did so little to help when you were young, and in extremity. But the money is still your right; it is still there, still waiting for you.

‘Let it wait then.’ I rose, wanting only to get away now. ‘Let it wait until it rots. I must go, brother, we are to dine at Mancini’s. I daresay you and I shall meet again soon.’

‘Perhaps with your doctor,’ he suggested, smiling gently. ‘I have still not met this man who is your dear companion, Sherlock.’

‘It is unlikely,’ I opened the door. ‘We are much occupied of late. Mycroft . . .’

‘What is it, Sherlock?’

‘You should not distress yourself. You were barely more than a child yourself, and then you were at school. It is not your fault that you did not know. I do not blame you for anything.’

‘I know, brother, but I do blame myself. Go back to your doctor now. I trust you pass a pleasant evening. And I shall endeavour to put into place those enquiries you asked for. Henry Judson,’ he shuddered delicately at the plebeian name, ‘Raymond. The Navigator, and Mr Greatman. I will not forget.’

*****

I had lied to Mycroft, of course. Watson was more than fond of me in a brotherly way. He was devoted, a comrade without price and without peer. Whatever ailed me, he cared for me tenderly, his hands gentle on fever flushed skin, or bruised bone. He quickened to my every move: did I falter, he was there. He was swift to praise and slow to blame, as no-one had ever been with me. Why was it then, that I did not put my fate in his hands? I could not tell, only that I – would not. That I was afraid.

“Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition,” ’ murmured Watson. He touched my hand, next to his on the bar of the Strangers’ Gallery which we had attended to listen to Sir William Harcourt pronounce on the late events in Devon to the assembled members. ‘Watch these men, Holmes, see how they vie with each other. “By that sin fell the angels.” And the pride of them, as they bestride the world. Yet they are no Colossi -  they would sooner reign in hell than serve in heaven. Is it the Babbacombe decision next?

‘Indeed.’ I moved my hand a little nearer to his: I wanted to clasp it and hold it in mine – madness in a public place, let alone a place of government. ‘Watson, you are in a strange, quoting humour today: not only Shakespeare but Milton; as ill-assorted a pair as you could find. We should read later, perhaps. Yes, it is our decision. I do trust that Sir William will uphold the decision that John Lee should not be hanged. To escape the scaffold by mischance three times, and then to fall at last on the word of a mere politician would be cruel. But hush, he is speaking now.’

‘I am grateful that the decision rests,’ said Watson, a little later, as we made our way down the stairs. Any man who is to be hanged and has had the noose fail thrice surely deserves a reprieve, even if he be guilty. But you, I think, have a different reason for welcoming this decision. Will you take my arm, Holmes?’ He crooked his elbow, inviting my touch.

‘I have,’ I tucked my hand in his arm. ‘I do not think that John Lee murdered Emma Keyse, for all the evidence against him. I do not think that we will ever know who did, but I know upon whom, if I were a betting man, I should place my money, and that is that exceedingly shady solicitor of his, Reginald Templar. It is clear to me that the man was involved with Keyse’s cook, he was undoubtedly present at the time of the murder, and his offering to represent Lee was suspicious in the extreme. I have expressed my doubts about the case to Lestrade, and he has made representations, but the Exeter force has not chosen to listen to us. If only it were possible to tie matter left at the scene of the crime to a particular suspect – my little haemoglobin reactant can prove that blood is human, not animal, but that is not enough in this case - if it were only possible to find a sign, or print in that blood, a unique identifying marker that spoke of one person, and one only, then how much easier would it be not to hang a man for a crime of which he is innocent. I am convinced that Lee did not kill Emma Keyse – but I cannot prove it.’

‘It distresses you, does it not?’ He placed his other hand over mine, patting it gently. ‘One of the things I most admire about you, Holmes, is your fine passion for justice. And that you never stop attempting to ensure it. I wish there were indeed a print in the blood, but I cannot see how that should be. Perhaps men in the future may find such. But if you are content with this outcome, let us return home. I have procured a most interesting monograph on the coca plant for our perusal today.’

I could not prevent my colour from rising at his warm praise: his admiration was inexpressibly sweet to me. Nor could I resist angling for more. ‘Indeed? And do you think that your German will be up to reading it, my dear Watson, or will you be relying on my prowess as a translator?’

He let out a crack of laughter. ‘I can keep nothing from you, Holmes. Yes, of course it is in German: now tell me by what deductive process you have concluded that. Is it that you are ahead of me in my search and have found an alternative source of information, or that you are employing some mysterious process of divination? I hoped to surprise you, but I see I cannot.’

We had left the House by now, and were walking – briskly, for the weather was inclement, and the sun almost setting – through St James’ Park. I leaned a little closer, seeking his warmth, the solid bulwark of his side against mine.

‘It is partly that I too have been pursuing my researches, and have discovered that many of the papers written on the subject are by Germans, but it is also that during our recent visit to Dupré you enquired whether he had any contacts in Vienna who might be able to procure you some information. You later asked me whether we possessed a German dictionary, and requested advice on the correct valediction for a letter to a colleague. Yesterday you received a flat, quarto-sized parcel with a German stamp on it which you removed hurriedly from the table when I returned from sending Billy with a message to Johnson, and secreted under the papers by your chair with an air at once anticipatory, delighted and guilty. We had been discussing the desirability of obtaining some further information about the plant, erythroxylon coca, since one cannot drink Vin Mariani forever, and some further method of testing the efficacy of the drug seems desirable. It was therefore no great deduction to assume that you had decided to pre-empt me in doing so, had obtained the information, and were planning to present me with a surprise.’

He laughed and bumped his shoulder gently against mine, sending a frisson of agreeable heat through me, despite the chilly weather.

‘But it could have been all for my use,’ he teased me, his eyes alight with affection. ‘You cannot be certain that it was not for my use, after all, Holmes. Why do you not deduce that I have squirrelled my little paper away for private perusal, and that that was the cause of my guilt?’

‘You would not.’ I pressed his arm as tenderly as I dared. ‘A more generous man never existed: you would not deprive me of an intellectual delight: it is not in you. You did exactly as I deduced you would, saved our treat for a time when my mind would be free of care to enjoy it. And of course I will translate for you, my dear Watson: we will be learning about this new wonder drug together. If what is said is true, it promises to be of unparalleled benefit to mankind. Reports abound of it curing all manner of depressions and neurasthenias, of it weaning addicts from their opium and their alcohol. Of confirmed and dedicated morphinists relinquishing their drug without a murmur, and of no harm ensuing from their use of the alkaloid derived from our plant. Muriate of cocaine! What a blessing it is proving to be to so many!’

‘I am almost sorry the plant is too tender for our climate; else it might with advantage be grown here so that we should have our own supply of the drug,’ he replied. ‘Holmes, the gutter there is overflowing, change sides with me, or you will be muddied and wet. My boots are stouter than yours. There, my dear man, that is better for you. Now take my arm again, and let us be comfortable. Alas, as it is, the price of the purified alkaloid is prohibitive to all but the rich, I regret to say.’

‘We must afford some do you not think? When so many extol its benefits, what harm can there be in trying it?’

‘The medical profession is certainly loud in its praise, although I desire that we should be at least a little cautious, my dear fellow. We have both previously suffered from morphinist tendencies; I do not want us to travel that road again. But by all verified and serious accounts, the drug does not produce a like effect. When I spoke to Dupré he was loud in the praise of a monograph published last year by a young man in Vienna, a Doctor Freud, which he possesses and has promised to lend me. Freud does not find that it produces addiction, indeed he has seen with his own eyes its efficacy in treating morphinism. And it appears that another Vienna doctor, Koller, has used a solution of cocaine to infiltrate the eye, producing an anaesthesia that allows cataract removal without pain.’

‘Is it Koller’s account you have obtained?’

‘No, that is to arrive shortly: I had to send separately for it. Mine is an account by an army doctor, Theodor Aschenbrandt, which pre-dates the work by Freud and Koller by a year or so. Dupré tells me the man experimented with giving it to soldiers on manoeuvres with some striking results. I confess, I cannot wait to read it. The world is desperately in need of an analgesic that does not have the deleterious effects of opium. As I have said to you before, I use morphine on my patients in fear and trembling, lest in removing their pain I subject them to a worse, and eternal, bondage.’

‘Then let us hurry home,’ I said to him. ‘For I have a surprise for you also.’

He laughed again, clear and merry. ‘And of course I have had no idea that you were preparing it, my dear friend. How easy I am to deceive after all! I thought myself to be so clever in obtaining this little offering for you, and all the time, you have been playing me at my own game. Yes, let us hurry home. It will be a wild night: the storm is already rising. We will be better indoors, with a fire, and our experiments and a glass of wine.’

‘And not Vin Mariani,’ I said to him. ‘I find it palls after a while: one has neither the drug unadulterated, nor a decent wine. A bottle of Beaune, I think tonight, and our gifts to each other to explore.’

*****

We did not, in fact, pursue our pharmacological researches any further that evening, for a most interesting and distressing case supervened. Upon our arrival home, we were met at the door by Mrs Hudson, who advised us that she had shown a lady into our rooms, with whom she had been awaiting our return for the last half-hour. ‘And I did not like to leave her alone, for she was labouring under some anxiety.’

‘Is she a young lady?’ enquired Watson. ‘I am sure you have done the right thing, Mrs Hudson, but I am very sorry we have inconvenienced you. Holmes, let us go instantly upstairs, and discover what is required of us.’

I did not reply, but thanked Mrs Hudson, gave orders for tea, a small cold collation and the madeira to be brought up (for the hour was now advanced) and preceded Watson up the stairs. As I entered our room, our visitor, who had been standing by the fireplace, turned to us. She was of more than middle years – I judged in her fifth decade – and dressed in the height of fashion, but with an elegance and restraint more like a French than an English woman. Her countenance expressed kindness, humour and force of character: the eyes that were assessing us as we entered were shrewd and resolute. She stepped forward at once, offering her hand very frankly in a manner that was almost masculine in its directness.

‘Mr Holmes, I do beg that you will forgive this intrusion so late in the afternoon. I am in need of advice, and your name was given to me as a man who might provide it by an old friend of Sir Robert’s. I am sure you do not know me, but I am . . .’

‘Unless I am mistaken you are Laura, Lady Sheffield, my Lady. Pray be seated: Mrs Hudson will bring tea, and then you may be comfortable. I see from your shoes that you have chosen to visit us on foot rather than use your carriage, so I take it that your husband is not aware of this visit. Whatever your need, I can assure you that both my colleague, Dr Watson, and I will treat anything you wish to say to us in the utmost confidentiality.’ I touched her outstretched hand briefly. ‘I am happy that Mrs Hudson has taken good care of you. Are you warm enough, Lady Laura?’

‘Indeed, Mr Holmes, your housekeeper has been most kind.’ She turned to Watson, who bowed over her hand with a courtly grace that became him very well. ‘You are a doctor, Sir? It could not be better. The matter about which I come to Mr Holmes is a delicate one, where a doctor’s opinion might be of use. I beg that you will do me the kindness of remaining. And as you surmise, Mr Holmes, I have come without the knowledge of my husband. He is in delicate health at the moment, and I did not wish to worry him, so I had to take what chance I could. I ask your assurance of secrecy, Sir.’

‘Granted, my Lady. But it is not about you or your husband that you wish to consult with us? Or am I mistaken? You are anxious, but it is not about yourself or Sir Robert. Do be seated, Lady Laura, and let us discuss whatever pressing matter it is that has brought you out so late, and in such weather.’

‘You are correct, Mr Holmes, it is a pressing matter.’ Our visitor sat down, removing her gloves, at which she stared with an abstracted air before placing them on the table before her. ‘And I do not quite know how to begin. It will seem to you that I am interfering in a matter which is not my concern, but I really do not know what to do. You see, I am about to be called to witness in a trial which could mean either liberty or continuing confinement in an institution for a dear young friend of mine, and I do not know in the least what to say for the best when I am asked to give my opinion.’

‘The truth, surely,’ Watson said gently, before I could answer. ‘Do I take it you mean medical confinement, Lady Laura? You speak of confinement on the grounds of insanity, perhaps?’

‘’I do, Sir. The lady in question is already not at liberty, and her husband is asking for their marriage to be dissolved on the grounds that she was insane when she married him.’

I turned to retrieve that morning’s paper. ‘Of course: the Earl of Durham’s suit against his wife is to come on in the Divorce Courts tomorrow. I am aware of it. And you are called as a witness? But what do you wish me to do in the case? I am a consulting detective, not an alienist. And, forgive me, I cannot act on the word of a friend. I have not been retained by either of the principals in this case – her guardian ad litem is her brother, is he not? I have no power here to alter any outcome.’

‘But I have been told, Mr Holmes, that you understand human nature, none better, and can reason out what may have transpired. I do not wish you to intervene directly: matters have progressed too far for that. My dear young friend, the Countess Ethel, whom I have known since she was a merry, romping little girl, has already been confined to an institution. I have seen her there, and I fear there may be nothing to be done: more wretched a change in one I knew well I have never seen. But I wish to lay the facts of the case before you, and to understand, if I may, what has led to this change. Then I may know if I can ameliorate her state, or if not, at least provide what solace and care I may in her situation. And I wish for justice for her, if nothing else. For I do not believe that she was ever insane, but has been made so by her most unfortunate marriage.’

‘Then let us consider the matter carefully, Lady Laura, and I will give you my best attention. But I am glad Dr Watson is here, for I am no medical man. Indeed, we will not do so well without him, I assure you: as a conductor of light in these travels into dark places, he is of incomparable value.’

‘Then I may lay the case before you freely?’

‘With absolute confidence.’

‘By all means: if there is anything we can shed light on, we shall be most happy to help. Mr Holmes can unravel any tangle, you know.’ Watson leaned forward and patted her hand. ‘But let us sit and be comfortable, and then when we are finished, we will ensure that you return home safely. It will not do to have you walking the streets again in this weather: your husband would never forgive us for allowing it.’

Our visitor smiled gratefully at him, and I suppressed an completely irrational flare of jealousy. He had such an easy, gentle way with women that I felt myself becoming increasingly solemn and reserved almost in reaction. My understanding of the fair sex in all its motivations and methods was not deficient, but I could not be comfortable with women. Due chivalry and courtesy -  those I could summon at will: comfort in their presence and true ease of manner failed me and, I feared, ever would.

‘Holmes, my dear fellow, come out of your brown study, and say whether you will take tea or madeira?’ I had been lost in my musings for some moments, it appeared, for a tray stood on the table, and he had already served our visitor. ‘I have recommended to Lady Laura that she should take Madeira; it is late for tea. What will you have?’

‘I need nothing. Will you tell me your story, Lady Laura? Leave nothing out, I beg you, that may be of importance. I know that the Earl of Durham was married more than two years ago now, but I have no knowledge of events subsequent to that marriage. Nor do I know anything of his unfortunate bride.’

‘Her name is Ethel. She was born Ethel Milner, and it is under that name her husband seeks an annulment, as if she were never truly married to him. But she was indeed married, for I myself was there to see it, and if she evinced no great joy in the union, why, she is a shy and reserved creature and may not a bride be shy? We though nothing of it, truly, for she appeared at all points to be as sane as you or I.’

‘And you have known her as a child? For how long? Was ever there any evidence of functional irregularity, of defect of temper; any strangeness that might lead you to consider her out of her senses? For no annulment can be given unless there is non-consummation, or an incapacity to give consent.’

‘I have known her since birth, Dr Watson, and seen her grow: she is some years older than my own children. No, there was never anything. She was, as I said to you at first, a merry thing, joyous and active  – almost what the French would term a ‘garçon manqué’ – and was used to run, and skip, play ball, or battledore and shuttlecock, and ride her pony to hounds like any other child, There was never any indication of temper, only that as she grew older, she became very shy in company, a little withdrawn.’

‘Would you say she was of normal intelligence? That she had capacity?’

‘As much as any imperfectly schooled girl can, Mr Holmes. She had an English schooling, with French, and a little German, and all the common accomplishments of girlhood. She wrote a pretty hand, and was fond of corresponding with friends; there was never anything strange in her then. She played the piano well, and until she came out into society was well-regarded as a young actress in our amateur theatricals. I have seen her give a convincing rendition of her chosen part myself. And I cannot think, no matter how these men try to convince me, that she had any seed of insanity in her. She was in every respect, a girl as other girls, if more scrupulous about the forms of religion than some.’

‘Was there an illness that might have affected the brain at any point? As she grew, had she defects of temper? I shall press you a little on this, Lady Laura. We must know the bad with the good in order to tell if there be anything that could be unkindly construed into madness.’

‘No, she was a healthy child, robust and full of spirit. She could be a little self-willed, Mr Holmes, but no more so than any other girl, and if she had a fault it was that she was perhaps over-sensitive to slight or rejection. She was a well behaved child, for all her high spirits, fond of her family, and affectionate.’

‘Very well; we see no evidence of incapacity in youth. Come to the period of the marriage then. Was Durham her first choice? If my memory serves me correctly, he was in a liaison with Lady Lonsdale for a time, and this was well known. You see I will be blunt with you. Durham was older, and of libertine tendencies before this marriage. How came he to be matched to a young and tender girl?’

She sighed and looked away, and Watson, murmuring some sympathetic anodyne, offered her a replenished glass. ‘Was it a love match? Or one of convenience?’

‘We were led to believe it was a love match. There had been rumours that Lord Burghersh had been attracted to her and she to him – she is so beautiful, you know – but it came to nothing: her brother was strongly opposed to a marriage. In any case, she and Durham courted long enough: nothing was done in haste, and both had ample time to retract, but did not choose to. I know he at times expressed some doubt as to her intelligence – and also her love for him, for as the engagement drew on, she became markedly more shy and silent. Her older sister, Mrs Gerard, who had had much to do with furthering Durham’s suit, confessed to me that she had wondered that her sister was so reticent of expressing love for him, but supposed her to be merely very reserved. I enquired if Ethel was truly willing, but I was told that she was. And when I asked her myself, she said she thought that Lord Durham was very handsome, and that she was eager to be married. I thought nothing wrong then.’

‘But she did not appear to receive his attentions with delight, or to court them? She was not caressing in her manner, or fond?’

‘She would have been afraid of appearing too forward. But she might have allowed herself a little more licence and not courted censure. I suppose you could say she was cold, in that she never seemed to wish to be close to him, or familiar in any way. I was much with them in society, so I saw this.’

‘This is not a propitious engagement you are relating to me, my Lady. In general, if a man receives so little encouragement – if there is no eye that looks to his for support or affirmation, no hand pressed tenderly and retained a little when he offers it, no blush of conscious joy that mantles a fair cheek -  he will not ply for hire there, but take his goods to another market. How came he to persist in his attentions? Did he not suspect he was not liked?’

I glanced at Watson, seeking agreement with my line of questioning, for I felt somewhat at sea with these affairs of the heart – they were not murder, after all. He smiled, met my gaze with an expression of perfect understanding, and reached out to clasp my shoulder briefly. ‘Was he stubborn or misguided?’

‘I fear Mrs Gerard was much to blame for that. I know that she told Durham her sister was silent and reserved, and sometimes shunned his company because of the strength of her love for him, which she could not express, and this perhaps strengthened his attraction to her. She was much sought after for her beauty: he thought himself fortunate to have won her hand.’

‘And yet in two years he had her placed in an institution for the insane, and is asking a court to determine that she had not the power of consent because her understanding of the contract of marriage she was entering into was flawed. I do not like what I am hearing. You present me with a young woman who after displaying normal behaviour during her youth enters into an engagement during which she rather shuns than courts the company of her betrothed, repelling advances and disliking speech with him. How came he not to suspect that the marriage was not entirely to her liking?’

‘The Earl referred to my friend as his ‘shy and silent divinity’. I imagine he supposed that after marriage her reticence would diminish and her confidence increase. They were much together, and participated in all the usual society events: no-one thought anything of it if she was reserved, but that she was keeping a proper distance. It is true that after some indications of her disliking to be with him, he asked her sister whether she was truly in love with him, but was reassured.’

‘But not by her?’

‘No, by her family.’

‘The forms of society do little service to young women: it is all ceremony and what is appropriate, rather than what is honest and true,’ observed Watson. ‘I recall our friend Carpenter saying as much, do not you, Holmes? And I suppose after a certain point, having committed himself, Durham could not draw back without dishonour. But she could have done so.’

‘I believe her to have been over-persuaded, Dr Watson. But in any case, the marriage took place. And I had no doubts of her sanity when she contracted it. She participated fully in everything that was planned, she signed the settlements with every evidence of good understanding, she was serious and respectful in her responses in the church, and appeared fully to comprehend the duties and responsibilities of marriage.’

‘And would the majority of those people who saw her before the wedding and who attended it concur with your judgement?’

‘I believe they would Mr Holmes. And I intend to make sure that they do their duty to her by testifying to that on her behalf. I will not have her name blackened in her absence. I am convinced that this derangement – for such I have seen it, and such I must think it when I now converse with her -  came upon her after her marriage, and I fear lest it was some ill treatment that caused it. That is what I wish you to help me determine. I will have justice for her, whether she is able to have her liberty or no. I would do the same for my daughter, although I would hope to God never to see a child of mine in similar case. When I think of what she was, poor child, and what she is now . . .’

Watson handed her his handkerchief, and she touched it to her eyes. For a moment we maintained a respectful silence.

‘Forgive me,’ she murmured, when she was a little recovered. ‘I find the case infinitely distressing. And I fear lest matters will arise that may – that may shame or hurt her, even if she is not there to hear them.’

‘Anything of intimate detail should certainly be heard in camera,’ I assured her. ‘If you can, Lady Laura, pray tell me of events after the marriage. When was it first suspected that the Countess was falling ill?’

‘I knew nothing of any difficulty until the early spring,’ she replied, twisting the handkerchief in her hands. ‘She wrote to me in the February after her marriage saying that she had been unwell, that there was nothing to worry about, but that she had seen Sir William Gull, and he had prescribed for her, that she suffered some digestive disturbances, and loss of appetite, but that she hoped to be better soon, and looked forward to seeing me when she returned from Cannes, where she was to go for her health.’

‘So that would have been in eighty-three. And was there nothing about her letter then that alarmed you? You thought her sane then?’

‘I thought her writing a little irregular, but she might have dashed the note off in haste. She said nothing of her husband, or of her married life. Some sentences were a little – disjointed – but it was an ordinary letter, no more.’

‘When did you see her next?’

‘It happened that I attended Lady Londesborough’s ball in the April of that year, and I was with her there again upon her return from Cannes. I have never been more shocked in my life to see the change in her. It was as if I met a completely different person to the girl I had known.’

‘Describe the change, if you please.’

‘She was – strange. She would not dance, or converse, but gazed around her wildly. She was either completely silent or laughed at nothing, and could not account for her laughter, but said she did not know why she laughed. And she was frightened – nay, terrified - there was fear in her eye, in her whole demeanour. I found it inexpressibly sad, Mr Holmes. There were members of her own family there – her married sister, Mrs Gerard among them, but she repulsed them when they remonstrated with her, and endeavoured to persuade her to act rationally, seeming to fear and dislike them also. In the end her husband compelled her to rise, and took her home in the carriage. The next I heard, she was off to the continent again, and there she remained until the September. I did not hear from her once during that period, but when I wrote to my Lord Durham on her return, and asked after her, he informed me that she was no longer living with him, but had been placed in a private establishment nearby – the Knoll – and was attended by a trained nurse. He said that she was mad, that he believed she had been mad before the marriage, and that he intended to seek an annulment.’

‘So he believed that he had been practised on, and married to a mad girl, without his knowledge? And did you believe so?’ Watson leaned forward, his eyes intent. ‘Was that your understanding of the case?’

‘No, Dr Watson, it was not. The girl I knew was as sane as you or I until her marriage. Nothing about her – and I knew her for many years – led me to believe that she was in the least deranged. All change I saw came after her marriage, and I believe that to have been the cause of it.’

‘And did you see her at the Knoll?’

‘I did. She seemed at first perfectly quiet. She was living retired, of course, in pleasant rooms, and seemed to be happy so, but she laboured under a sense that she was being punished. She said often that she had ‘done something dreadful’; that she was being punished, that her Mama would be very sorry and shocked to know of what she had done, and I had better not tell her. I replied, I recall, that her Mama loved her, and would certainly not wish to see her so sad, and she repeated that she had done something dreadful, that she had behaved ‘awfully’ and that she would be ‘sent home to Mama if she did not behave herself now.’ And at that point she seemed nothing but a child –  and a terrified, shamed child, not the merry girl I knew.’

‘Did she become distressed at this thought?’

‘Indeed. She was agitated, and began to pace the room, her fingers intertwined, and gripping each other. Then one hand moved to her bosom and she began to disarrange her dress, pulling open the buttons until I gently bade her be still and did them up for her. She repeated again that she had done something dreadful and that Jack would send her home to Mamma and begged me not to tell, that she was sorry, and would not do it again but would suffer anything he wanted. I calmed her as one would a small child, and after a while she became tranquil, and a little more rational. She closed her eyes, and I though that she had perhaps fallen asleep where she sat, but then she looked at me again and began to converse as if she had never been agitated at all. So I remained quiet, as one must, Mr Holmes, though my heart broke for her, poor child, and returned her observations with similar ones of my own. Then when I left she kissed me on the cheek and said, as if from nowhere, ‘Do you know, Aunt Laura, it is a curious thing, but the very things one has longed for most are often the most disappointing when one gets them.’ I saw that her eyes were full of tears, but I could do nothing but embrace her and leave, for it was time for her warm bath. They found the water soothed and relieved her, and I did not wish to deprive her of any solace she might find in that terrible place.’

She wiped her eyes again, and Watson patted her hand. ‘I am sure you were very distressed,’ he said. ‘I am so sorry, Lady Laura. So very sorry. It seems as if your young friend is in a state of great unhappiness, and one must compassionate with her. And you say that the doctors have pronounced her insane? It sounds to me more as if she is miserable and frightened than mad.’

‘Have you seen her since?’ I asked. Again, I exchanged a glance with Watson. He looked grim and sad, and as if I read his mind, I understood that he thought he knew what was the truth of the matter, but he shook his head just slightly, so I forbore to question him. ‘Has there been further deterioration in her behaviour that warrants Lord Durham’s ire?’

Lady Laura nodded, wiping her eyes. ‘While she was at the Knoll, she – she bit and kicked the nurse who attended on her, and became violent at her confinement, and displayed, I am given to understand, a – a lack of – of modesty in her behaviour and – and dress. She was taken from there, and spent a month with her aunt – her real aunt, for she calls me Aunt Laura merely as a courtesy title – while a place was prepared for her in Gloucester. She now resides in Barnford Asylum in Gloucestershire. She has a suite there – is maintained in all comfort. Her bodily health is better; she eats and sleeps, takes exercises and corresponds with her friends. But she is still subject to these fits where she is deluded, believing she is a great criminal, that she has done ‘something dreadful’; this is her repeated cry.’

‘Would you say she loves, or fears her husband?’

‘She seems to have no thought of going back to Lord Durham. I have seen her, when we visited, hold up her cheek for his kiss as if she were a child, show him her needlework or her book, but she seems to have no thought of ever living with him again as a wife. It is as if she is completely a child, and one labouring as quietly as she may under a punishment she believes she has deserved. It is absolute submission. Yes, perhaps it is fear. There is fear in her eye, but she makes no complaint against him, nor ever has done.’

‘Do you think her mad, Lady Laura?’

‘The doctors say she is: surely they should know? I do not know, Mr Holmes. I do not know. But I do know that she was not mad as a child, and I am certain in my own mind that she was capable of consenting to the marriage. Yet if she was capable of consent, then she will remain married to Durham, for there cannot be an annulment. There cannot be a divorce, for one cannot divorce a spouse who is insane. She is tied into a contract that cannot be broken and so is he. He can never marry again; he can never have a legitimate heir. If she was not capable of consent, then she can be freed of a marriage that has clearly become a source of terror – but freed for what? Her family will not want her, and if she must be maintained in an establishment all her days, who will pay the cost? I want her free – but if she is never sane again, what will she do? An asylum is a cruel place to end your days. And she is twenty five. Only twenty five. She could live for fifty years or more.’

There was a silence. I liked this woman, I decided. She was honest, and straightforward, in her reasoning very clear, and a good friend withal.

‘Will you watch over her if she remains in the asylum, Lady Sheffield?

‘I will, Mr Holmes, and my daughter Helen will also. There is twelve years between them, but Ethel was always kind to my little girl, and her affection is reciprocated.’

‘I am glad that you will be her protector. I must tell you that from all the evidence you have given me, if your recount is true and you have left nothing out, that I believe your young friend to have been sane, and to have consented to be married in that state. And that she has become ‘insane’ as the doctors have it, since her marriage, and that certain events in her marriage – events as yet unknown to us - have led her to this. And I believe that if others can speak to her behaviours as a child then a judge will find so also. Do you not concur, Watson? What is your opinion?’

‘I think the case more complex than you, Holmes, but that is because I am a medical man, and you are not. But for your purposes, Lady Sheffield, I do concur. I see nothing in what you have said to lead me to believe that your young friend was insane at the time of her marriage, and everything to conclude that her mind is presently distressed to the point of her being unable to care for herself, although whether it is absolute madness I cannot say without observation. You say she eats and sleeps better ‘now’; I take it that you imply that at one time she did not?’

‘When she returned from Cannes with Lord Durham, she was dreadfully thin. Haggard and gaunt, as if she had not eaten for days. Her sister said she complained of not sleeping. When Lord Durham persuaded her from the ball at which her behaviour so shocked us, she could not be induced to put on a coat against the weather, and he was forced to wrap it round her while she stood passive, and looked nowhere but wrung her hands, and flinched from him, and cried and laughed together.

‘Very well. And she did not, for example, deprive herself of food or sleep, or take inadequate care of herself as a young girl?’

‘Not in the least. She had a healthy appetite, and was fond of sweetmeats. And as I have said to you, she was an active, almost boyish, child.’

‘Then I concur with my friend, Holmes.’

Lady Laura looked at him. ‘You said earlier that you concur ‘for my purposes’ Dr Watson. Is there something that you are not saying to me?’

To my astonishment, he blushed, and looked at the floor. ‘There is, my Lady, but it is not a subject commonly discussed between men and women. I am not your doctor, nor are you my patient, in which case if it were you labouring under some difficulty, I would make bold to question you about matters relating to – to intimacy with regard to yourself, because it would be my duty to do so. But it is both unprofessional and indelicate to speculate about the marital relations that exist between a husband and a wife with whom one has, as a medical man, no professional relationship. I will only ask you again: to what extent do you think your young friend was aware of all the duties and responsibilities of marriage. I refer, I am afraid, to the probable events of the marriage night, and her role in them?’

‘I cannot say,’ she said slowly, her eyes cast down. ‘I – Dr Watson, you ask me a question I cannot answer, and I do not see how it may have a bearing on the subject. Of  course all girls – all women – are made aware of their marital duties, but it is not much discussed before. It is the task of the husband to guide his bride through the  - the w-wedding night.’

It is only that I think it likely, as a medical man,’ he said, stressing the phrase slightly, ‘I think it probable from what you have told me, that the marital relation is the root cause of the problem. To me, from a doctor’s point of view, the evidence points that way. But we must not speculate without data, as I am sure Mr Holmes would say.’

‘I would,’ I said, hastily, aware that I was blushing also. ‘I  - I really think we should not.’

‘I see.’ Lady Laura looked at him sternly, and he met her gaze without flinching, although his colour was still heightened. ‘You think my young friend was not fortunate enough to be kindly dealt with, and the derangement we have seen was subsequent to this.’

‘I am afraid I do,’ he said. ‘I think it quite possible that she was ignorant, and ill-prepared, and thereafter not gently treated. Lady Laura, I think that when this case is heard tomorrow, there will be matters that should only be heard in camera, and that if you have any  - influence -  in this matter, you should go back to the friend who sent you to us, and express any doubts or fears that you have, so that justice may be done for this unfortunate and unhappy girl.’

She wept, then, and dear Watson drew his chair next to her, and spoke soothingly, telling her how she and her daughter could help and care for their young friend, how with time, and love and patience she might come to her senses again, and that she should call upon us if there were ever anything she wished to bring to our attention. ‘Do not hesitate,’ he said, ‘for Holmes here will be happy to do anything he can for you.’

‘I have done very little,’ I said, and so I had, for although he and I had reached, I believed, the same conclusion in our deductions, the more human part of our help had been all his gentleness: he was fitted to comfort and help the other sex in a way I could not.

‘You have both been – most kind,’ she said, and I saw her compose herself with a quiet strength and deliberation. ‘And I am grateful to both of you. I suppose now that I knew. I must have known. I am not ignorant: I suspected that there was something wrong between her and Lord Durham when I saw her look at him at the ball.  But we are taught to mistrust our own feelings and intuitions and trained to seek elsewhere for answers, and so I came to you.’ Her voice wavered a little. ‘I do not suppose you are often asked to pronounce on such trivial matters as a woman’s fears, Mr Holmes.’

‘I think nothing human alien to me,’ I told her. ‘And it is not trivial by any means. But it is not I whom you should thank:  it is Dr Watson who is the more skilled of the two of us when it comes to affairs of the heart.’

‘It is at least a relief to know that there is somewhere one may take a problem and be understood,’ she said. ‘I believe I will speak to my friend Mrs Forrester about you, Sir, if you do not object to dealing with such slight, feminine troubles. Women are ill served when there is villainy: we have nothing to which we may have recourse, and no-one to whom to go and be believed.’

‘What concerns happiness is never slight,’ said Watson. He smiled at her, and I saw that she found his gentle gallantry entirely charming. ‘You are a woman of considerable strength of character, Lady Laura, and I am very sure you are formidable in battle. I do not have any doubt that you will do your best in court. I have every confidence in you.’

*****

‘The judge in Durham’s case has delivered his verdict,’ Watson remarked to me a fortnight later. ‘And has dealt sternly with both Mrs Gerard as instigator of the ill-fated marriage, and with Durham himself, I see. And the husband does not get his annulment.’

‘Indeed.’ I unfolded the paper. ‘Sir James has been severe: “he regretted to be obliged to state his opinion that Lord Durham did not, on the third night after the marriage, show that tenderness and consideration which the condition of his young bride demanded. His threat to leave her and to tell her mother of what he considered to be her waywardness was calculated in the highest degree to agitate her and disturb her nervous temperament.” The man is clearly a brute, whatever he did.’

‘On the third night, she was alarmed that her courses, to which she was not well accustomed, had come on, and she became hysterical - almost certainly because of the painful and distressing events of the two preceding nights.’ Watson told me. ‘Yes, I know you do not like to hear of it, but I am a doctor. And if you are to be a consulting detective, dealing equally with all, I cannot allow you to remain ignorant. I have heard from Lady Sheffield, who spoke to the Countess’s maid, and who is able to write to me what she will not say to you: my profession renders me almost neutral in this respect, and so there is no shame. In an attempt to stop her from crying, Durham plunged the poor child forcibly into a deep bath of cold water, from which she extricated herself and fled, screaming and naked, through a house full of servants to the garden, pursued thence by her protesting maid, and a furious husband who cried out upon her for her extreme and shameful immodesty and threatened that she should be returned home to her mother in disgrace.’

‘My God, Watson, my God, must you tell me such terrible things? Do I need to know this – this most painful and distressing detail? Can there be no decent reticence?’

‘Nihil humanum alienum a me puto,’ he reminded me. ‘Either that is true, Holmes, or it is not. You said it yourself: you think nothing human alien to you, and my dear fellow, you did not so react when I spoke to you of poor Minnie and her troubles, although that may have been your courtesy to me in my distress. And this is a criminal issue: a court case. I am aware you dislike and distrust the female sex, and I see your lack of ease with them – a lack of ease which I deduce comes from having no sister, perhaps a cold, unfeeling mother, and no kindly nurse in your childhood to teach you that they are not so alien to us after all. Yet I do not believe you can be so unfeeling as to dismiss half the human race on these grounds. Indeed, I have seen you kind to many women. You surely must admit, then that a more complete understanding of what bitter, bitter trials a woman may face can only help you in your great work of justice, my dear, my true-hearted Pythias.’

‘You speak truth, but it is nonetheless a horrible story, and I wish very much that I had not heard it. And as for women, I shall leave that sort of thing to you; you have the gift for it. Not a female we meet but is charmed by your gallantry and gentleness, my noble friend. But I cannot believe you have the temerity to deduce my past. You usurp my privilege, Damon: I am offended.’

He leaned over and twitched the paper out of my hand. ‘You strike an outraged attitude very effectively. No, you are not. You are ashamed that I have shocked you and piqued that I have turned your own methods of observation upon you, that is all. I simply see that you are shy with women, and I am sorry for it, and for its cause. And with regard to the case, you are such a pure-minded and innocent fellow that you do not like any talk that you consider gross. But it is no more gross when it is of a woman, than matters pertaining to a man’s desires and needs, Holmes, and if that poor young girl had been better cared for and educated – again, as our friend Carpenter said, we do our women no favours, treating them like delicate plants – perhaps the marital relationship would not have been a horror to her. Although Durham is a villain, and a fiend, and I would knock him down with pleasure for his unkindness and lack of sensitivity if I saw him in the street. I would never treat a woman so, not for anything. I cannot bear to think of what she must have suffered under his hands, the selfish brute.’

‘Always the “parfit gentil knight”,’ I said. ‘You should find a destrier, Watson,  and go about rescuing maidens in distress.’

‘Do not pretend to sneer at me, my dear man, it does not become you, and, moreover, it is not a reflection of your true kindness. I know you spoke to those mysterious friends you have in high places about this case, and that you have sent watchers to the asylum to ensure that all goes well there. Come, you have been sitting in that chair all morning.’ Watson grasped my hands and pulled me to my feet with such vigour that I over-balanced and landed half on his good shoulder, my nose almost buried in his neck.  ‘It is time for us to walk, and then we will finish off the translation of the Aschenbrandt and the Freud, if nothing else offers to divert you.’

‘I am anxious to finish the literature and begin our experiments,’ I said, straightening myself reluctantly. He smelt of his cologne, and salt and wool and John, and I wanted quite desperately to stay resting against him, to inhale his fragrance, classify it and store it in memory. ‘Yes, let us go out then. But I am sorry for the poor girl. So very sorry. I – did not – there is so much women suffer of which we have no understanding. What happened is – horrible in the extreme. Levity aside – and mine was not appropriate here - hers is a tragedy and one without remedy. I wish I could help her, but I fear I cannot.’

‘Nor I.’ He held out my coat for me. ‘But at least if Lady Laura has been helped to support her in her confinement, that is an advantage, and I daresay you will have this Mrs Forrester she mentioned visiting for advice also. You saw how grateful our friend Miss Stoner was over that wretched business with the snake: it would not be a bad thing if it got about that women may come to us for help. Put on your scarf and hat: this March wind is cold.’

‘My very perfect gentle knight,’ I said. But I believe I must have said it affectionately, for the smile he gave me in return was an embrace.

*****

‘How shall we begin?’ Watson asked me. He had opened the little box I had procured, and was gazing at its contents in absolute fascination. ‘How very complete this is: I never saw anything so carefully thought out. Holmes, if this drug is everything it is said to be, I can see this becoming as regular a part of the household equipment as the nursery maid’s box of senna, rhubarb powder and collodion plasters. What is in here?’

‘Well, it is a selection sent to me with their compliments by Messrs Parke, Davis and Company of Detroit. They think to send out these boxes to all who enquire about cocaine, but they are not yet on general sale – will not be until August – so I count myself fortunate to have obtained one. Take up the contents, and see.’

Watson delved into the box with careful fingers, drawing out each piece separately. ‘The syringe is of good quality.’ He frowned. ‘Although I do not like to see one in your possession.’

‘The drug is not like morphine, or so we are told,’ I reminded him. ‘Do not fear for me, Watson, I am very safe with you to guard and guide me. The camel’s hair pencils are for painting the solution onto the nasal or buccal membranes. I like the minim pipette, but I feel there should be two, and so I shall tell Parke Davis when I send them my observations. They offered me a vial to contain the cocaine muriate solution, but I told them I have those.’

‘There will usually be one in the box? Excellent.’ Watson drew out the five little capsules. ‘And each of these contains what – one grain of cocaine muriate in crystalline form?’

‘Indeed. The quantities in the capsule can be increased as desired, and I have taken the precaution of ordering some more, as well as some ready made solutions. The leaflet you see there only gives instructions for making a two per cent and a four per cent solution, but I understand that Dr Freud has experimented successfully with greater concentrations. Then we have a pot of cocaine oleate, at five per cent, for topical application in neuralgia or toothache, these little cocaine cigarettes, which are thought to be excellent in asthmatic afflictions, and the cigars.’

‘I have my doubts about the wisdom of ruining a good cigar with coca.’ Watson took up the cheroot and rolled it thoughtfully between his fingers. ‘Ah, it is the wrapper only that is tobacco: the internal structure is pure coca leaf. We have improved since the days when any leaf that was obtained in this country had already suffered greatly from the ravages of insects during transportation, that much is clear. Freud mentions that early experiments with the leaf found that after transport it had lost most of its effect. And the cigarettes are wrapped in rice paper, I see. Well, I do not suppose that they will ever replace our pipes, my dear fellow, but one must make an effort to try. You mentioned solutions; in what form do they come?’

‘In the four per cent solution, the hydrobromate, the muriate, the salicylate and the citrate. I have ordered all. And I have also ordered comparable solutions from the German company, Merck of Darmstadt. I thought we could test them scientifically against each other.’

‘I believe we should start gently: what does Freud recommend?’

‘He began with a small quantity of one per cent solution by mouth, so shall we do the same? Apparently response can vary, what works on one may be perceived differently by another, and we may need to alter our doses depending on how we react.’

‘Indeed, if you will do the honours of preparing it, my dear fellow: you are the chemist, after all.’ He smiled at me. ‘I am so happy that we have this new drug to experiment with, Holmes. You have not had a bout of your low mood for some months, but I would be very grateful to have something in the pharmacopoeia to alleviate your wretchedness. I hate to see you suffer so, and this may be just the thing for you.’

*****

I had just finished reading Mycroft’s letter when Watson arrived home, bounding up the stairs and calling for me.

‘ . . .tickets for the new show at the Savoy, my dear fellow: will you come with me? It is called the Mikado: the papers are raving about it. I know it is not serious music – not as you understand music - but do come with me, old fellow. I should be so glad of your company, and we have not been out to anything for weeks.’

‘If you wish,’ I put the letter down. ‘What time is it?’

‘After six, my dear chap: have you been sitting there musing all afternoon? I thought you were going to visit Lestrade at the Yard, or did you forget?’

‘I sent a messenger instead: I have been engaged in following up my case in Amsterdam, which I fear may not be as complete as  I had thought.’

‘The diamonds? What, have they come up again?’ He sat down on the floor at my feet. ‘Tell me more: we have time before we go out.’

‘There is nothing much to tell, only that I set in motion some enquiries into this Henry Judson Raymond, and I have been given rather more information than I bargained for. It appears that he may be rather more than a diamond broker with a flat in Piccadilly, a mansion on Clapham Common, and four hundred acres of rough shooting and a hunting box in the New Forest.’

‘What?’ Watson put his hand on my knee. ‘I thought he was some low criminal, some ordinary blackguard of the city, not a man of substance.’

‘Watson, the Prince of Wales himself has been seen in his company!’

‘That does not preclude him being an arrant knave.’ His tone was tart, and I smiled at it: there was sometimes a spice of the republican about Watson, especially when he considered the excesses of the heir to the throne. ‘Or a criminal, for all that.’

‘No, but it might mean that the man I saw was not Raymond. I must investigate further, I think. To see if I am mistaken. It is possible that I have erred, and that My – my informant is incorrect when he says that this man is not what he seems. In any case, I shall put it aside now, and come with you, but I must change first. Do you wish to sup at Romano’s afterwards? I took two of our little cocaine cigarettes after luncheon: they have effectively killed my appetite, and I shall not eat again today. But I will sit with you while you eat, if you wish. And I shall swallow a small dose now, to ward off fatigue.’

‘Oh, if you do not mean to eat, I will not press you to it,’ he replied, but I thought he regarded me a little anxiously. ‘I shall ask Mrs Hudson for a sandwich then, before we go out.’

‘Perhaps if you also take a little, we might go for a ramble after the show. If you recall, Aschenbrandt said that the muriate had an extraordinary power of staving off fatigue, which we have not yet tested. The moon is full too: I love to walk in a moonlit night.’

‘In dress shoes!’ he protested. ‘No, I thank you, I do not wish to be crippled. Are you restless tonight, Holmes? I can send the tickets to the box office for resale if you would prefer not to go. And then we can walk from here, suitably clad. Would that suit you better?’

‘Not restless as such,’ I said. ‘I simply need, I think, to be active, rather than the passive receiver of another’s actions. To tell you the truth, I do not think I could settle to music if I tried. I am sorry, Watson. I assented without thinking, and am now finding myself repent. I regret my capriciousness, my dear chap. Would you perhaps like to go with another companion?’

‘I would not dream of it, my dear fellow. It is no pleasure to me to go if you are not there to laugh at the show and criticise the music with me. We can see it another time when you are more disposed: I do not think it will close soon. But now I think of it, Lestrade is not working this evening. How would it be if we sent him and his wife instead? We might send Janey round to mind the children, and she could enjoy a comfortable coze with her brother. Yes, I shall do that, Holmes, and we shall walk. Let me call Mrs Hudson.’

He rose to his feet and pulled the bell, smiling down at me, and I wondered that he should be so good. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked him, suddenly guilt-stricken. ‘You paid for the tickets, did you not? Let me share the cost, at least, or reimburse you the whole.’

‘No need, they were a gift from a grateful patient. They were freely given, and so it is fitting they should be freely given away. Holmes, my dear man, I would infinitely sooner have your company, wherever it be. And a walk under the moon sounds delightful: I used to walk often by moonlight in the army, or to lie out, when I could, and contemplate the stars. So big and bright as they were in the still air, and that sky so velvet-black: it was a magnificent show. I would I could show you what like it was here, to feel so small, so insignificant under that immense sky, and yet to be able to name them in their myriads.’ He sighed. ‘Ah, Mrs Hudson, would it inconvenience you to send Janey to the Lestrades this evening? I have tickets for the new show at the Savoy, and wish to give them a treat. I thought Janey might sit with her brother there, and mind the children while they attend the operetta. And Mr Holmes and I are walking tonight, so perhaps just a sandwich or two for dinner?’

‘Mr Holmes has not eaten since breakfast, and he sent that away nearly untouched after you had gone. You’ll be having a meal, gentlemen, if you are off wandering, and no quibbling about it. I’ll send Janey with Billy: it’s late for her to walk alone. And she had better sleep with Lestrade’s eldest girl, and return in the morning. What a worrisome pair you are to be sure!’ But she smiled as she said it, and I did not think she was cross.

While Watson made his arrangements, and our meal was served, I slipped into my bedroom and prepared our two doses. I had pointed out to Watson that the drug should not be kept in our drawing room: I did not think either Janey or Billy would be tempted to try it, for they were honest as the day, but while we were still experimenting with how best to use it, I did not want there to be any untoward incidents. After some thought, I made the solution stronger than usual, for we had discussed testing ourselves as Aschenbrandt had, on soldiers who were over-strained, and then analysing the extent to which the differing doses alleviated fatigue. I explained this to Watson before we took it, which we did after eating. (Curiously, as I remarked to Watson, although I had rather an aversion to food than an appetite, I did not find it inconvenient to eat: it was merely unnecessary, and the food had little savour. Freud had mentioned that the drug produced a slight, cooling eructation after food, and this I certainly found.)

Within minutes after the doubled dose I felt that now familiar sense of strength and vigour imparted to my limbs: I experienced a sensation of renewed mental acuity as if I could have worked for hours, and of physical energy that drove me to the door, eager for our outing. Watson reported the same: upon taking his pulse he found it perceptibly higher than its normal rate, the heart bounding rapidly along. My pulse was also slightly elevated, he told me, and my hand hotter than its wont. My usual pallor did not change: he quickly acquired a fine rosy blush, which also went with an elevated skin temperature. The moonlight cooled our skins a little as soon as we were out of doors, but we were not uncomfortably cold despite the March breeze: the drug providing an inner warmth as it did to the original Inca in their high plains. By common, silent consent, we struck away from the more frequented streets and skirted Regent’s Park towards the privacy of Primrose Hill.

It was already dark by the time we got to the hill, and the moon rode high, chequering the ground with black and silver. My senses under the drug seemed preternaturally acute: the cry of an owl, the bark of a distant fox, fell upon my ear with an uncanny distinctness. Each moon-shadow was edged in a burning line, a tremulous fret of silver wire that vibrated like a violin string in my altered sight. The wool of Watson’s coat sleeve under my hand felt harsh, disagreeably so, and without thinking, I slid my hand down to his bare wrist, encircling it with my fingers. He stilled, and then his hand, smaller and finer boned than mine, drew from my loose grasp and clasped my hand in his, holding it strongly. I imagined the very fibres of his being melding with mine, growing together until we were indissolubly one, a conjoined creature, drifting on the wind. I moved my fingers over his hand, learning the shape of his bones and tendons. He sighed and leaned into me, and so linked, hand in hand like children, we wandered on in a silence more intimate than speech. After a while, I became aware of where he was leading me.

‘There are primroses under this beech tree,’ I whispered. There was no need to whisper: there were none to remark us, but the night demanded it. If I had been a spiritual creature I would have said it was a holy night, numinous in its beauty and strangeness ‘We came here before, and you explained the make of primroses to me. I never did take those from your lancet case, did I?’

‘I have them still,’ he said. Another, lesser, man might have sounded shamefaced, but he was matter of fact, even fond. ‘I pressed them and kept them. It is sentimental of me, no doubt, but I love to look on them.’

‘I still have those you gave me,’ I confessed. ‘In my pocket book. I do not in the least know why I kept them, but I look at them still.’

‘They have a meaning you know,’ he told me. His hand gripped mine hard.

‘Young love,’ I assented. ‘But we are neither of us very young or – or in l-love, s-so that cannot apply to us . . . of – of course . . .’

He was silent for a moment, eyes downcast, then said, low, ‘There is yet another meaning.’ He moved to face me, placing his free hand on my shoulder. ‘It is ‘I cannot live without you,’ Sherlock.’

I could not lie to him, no matter what the cost. ‘I cannot live without you, John.’

‘No, nor would I wish to without you. I have never – cared - for a man as I care for you, my dear. You are my all: this friendship sweeter, closer, more cherished than ever brother or friend.’ His tone was soft and rueful, and his eyes met mine with an affection that pierced me to the core. He raised a hand as if to touch my cheek – my eyes, closed, involuntarily, to accept the desired caress -  shivered suddenly, and then leaned forward, his head bowed to my shoulder. ‘Oh my God.’

I put my arms round him in a tentative embrace, my heart beating wildly with hope, but he moaned, and put his free hand to his head, and I realised all at once that it was not a caress he was seeking but support. His skin flushed up feverishly hot against mine, and when my fingers found his pulse, it was galloping almost faster than I could count the beats.

‘My head,’ he said faintly, and shivered again. ‘Sherlock, my head. Help me sit down, I cannot stand.’

I manoeuvred us both to the ground, supporting my back against the beech tree, and Watson against my chest, his head on my shoulder. His pulse showed no diminution in speed, and when the shifting shadows allowed me to see his face, his mouth was tight with pain, the lower lip gripped bloody beneath his teeth. There was sweat on his brow and neck, and I wiped it away with my handkerchief. Long rigors shook him; his skin burned.

‘What is it,’ I asked him, trying to remain calm. I had never seen him like this.

He breathed hard, licked his lips. ‘I don’t know. Pain in my head. I – I can feel – like a pressure, pounding. My chest -  I can’t. Just  - don’t let go.’

‘I won’t. I was terrified. ‘John, John, if this is – is this the drug? I will never forgive myself if it is. Tell me it is not the drug.’ I felt his pulse. ‘It cannot be, surely it must not be so. Your pulse is dropping, see, it is a mere temporary affliction, you will be well in a trice.’

He shook his head and then cried out with pain again. ‘No, it is the drug. Wait, I can’t speak.’

I held him for what seemed an endless time in desperate silence, while his pulse under my fingers told the battle of his heart, now full and bounding, now slow, irregular, uncertain. At times, to my horror, I felt a skip, a stutter, as if it missed a beat. His fever grew until he shook with it, then waned, leaving him pallid and grey. At length his heart settled, the wild beating slowed to a normal pace, and did not recommence and the sweat rolled copiously from his brow. When he opened his eyes, and the pale light fell on them, I saw that the pupils were huge, black and staring as if he had taken belladonna, hardly a ring of blue iris visible around them. And I could do nothing but hold him: there was no help for it. He could not be moved, I could not leave him, there was no aid to be had where we were: we must, perforce, wait out the outcome. But I vowed that he should have no more of the drug, if it were indeed the cocaine that had made him suffer so, for it appeared that though it might be panacea to many, it was poison to him.

At length he sighed and heaved a deeper breath, and moved to draw away from his reclining posture against me, but I tightened my grasp around him, and pressed him to my breast. He relaxed, his body lying loose and easy against me, and I laid my cheek softly against his hair. ‘Don’t go.’

He gave a weak laugh. ‘I cannot even if I would, my dear Sherlock. I doubt if I can even stand for a while yet. I thought - ’

‘I thought you were going to die.’ My eyes were wet, but I could not loose him to wipe them. ‘John, what was it? We took the same amount of the drug.’

‘I too thought I was going to die.’ He swallowed, and breathed hard. ‘My God, I thought my head would burst, and my heart with it. There were sparks behind my eyes, and the most dreadful ringing in my ears, high and far off. What fools we have been: it could have been you, and I helpless to save you.’

‘But it was you, and I was the one who gave you the drug. Why did it not affect me? Better if I died than you.’

‘We have already said that we cannot live one without the other. Hush.’ He paused, clearly gathering his strength, before he went on. ‘It happens sometimes that one person will have a pronounced idiosyncrasy – an intolerance – for a drug, and a dose that another may take is death to him.’ Another pause, longer, while he recovered. ‘Clearly, my system does not tolerate cocaine in anything but the minutest dose, and yours does.’

‘You must never have it again, John. Forgive me. This is my fault.’

But he was lying back against me again, and his eyes were closed. I was damnably uncomfortable, cold and stiff, sitting on wet earth, with the sharp wind nipping my ears, but I could have remained so for ever for the pleasure of holding him, despite the sorry circumstances. After a further rest, however, he stirred, and sat up slowly, wincing.

‘I could drink a river, and we have not a drop of water,’ he said, and coughed. ‘Holmes, we cannot stay all night like this. My head still hurts, but it is not as sharp as it was. Help me to rise, and give me your arm: we must make shift to stumble home again or we will both be dead of inflammation of the lungs by morning, cocaine’s vaunted powers of giving endurance notwithstanding.’

It was all he could do to walk, with my arm around his waist, and his around mine. We made but slow progress, and more than once had to sit and rest. Eventually we came into lighted streets, each glass globe wearing a quivering halo of mist. The night had turned, and the city was quiet in that dead hour before dawn.

‘I do not know if I can go any further,’ he said suddenly. He was white-lipped and sweating. ‘Holmes, can you find a cab – anything – oh God,’ and he bent over and vomited.

‘I dare not leave you, Watson. In this state you are easy prey: you might be robbed or worse.’ I handed him my handkerchief, steeling myself. ‘What, man, dismayed, and you a soldier? Do you give in so easily? Take courage and brace yourself. It is not far now, and in any case there is not a cab to be had at this hour, and none of our boys around to summon one.’

‘Brute.’ He coughed and wiped his mouth, straightened himself, shoulders braced. ‘Give me a moment.’

‘As many as you need, so only that you go on. Watson, think, it will be dawn soon. We cannot be seen in this state in the streets in daylight.’

‘You are right. Give me your arm, Holmes. No, do not embrace me. Your arm only, then I can at least pass for an accidental inebriate, rather than a complete debauchee. My head – oh, my head. Let us go.’

*****

Watson was ill for some time after the events of that night. We had arrived home just before dawn and I was about to half drag, half carry him up the stairs, when Mrs Hudson appeared with a candle. I believe she wished to remonstrate with both of us: she did not appear to have been to bed but had waited for our return, for she was fully clad. She checked herself, however when she saw the state Watson was in, and flew to heat water and prepare coffee, muttering something about it being a good thing that the rest of the household was absent. I begged for warm milk for Watson, for I felt any further stimulant would be most unwise, and made him drink it. I manhandled him into the bath and out of it, and saw him into his nightshirt and robe, but he was, by then, at the very extremity of exhaustion and did not even argue when I made him lie down in my own bed, so that he might not have to climb the stairs. After a while, I had the relief of seeing him drop into a natural sleep, his pulse returning to its regular beat, and his colour more normal. I remained with him while he slept through the day, explaining to Mrs Hudson that we had been walking and he had suddenly been taken ill. She scolded me about our irregular habits and tiresome ways for quite some time, but she hung over Watson like a fond mother while he was recovering over those few days, and cooked every delicacy she could to tempt him.

It was as well she was attentive, for after I had seen him improving, I could barely stand to be in his presence, so great was my guilt and shame. I knew him to be less accustomed to drugs than I – my constitution had withstood them for a good many years, after all, and I saw no reason why it should not continue to do so – but he had struggled with morphinism as a soldier, and it took less of the substance to have an effect on him. And yet, I had encouraged him to experiment, myself had mixed the dose that could have killed him – doubling it – doubling it on the strength of a few published papers and an assurance that it would do no harm. I could not fail to accuse myself of the most shocking and wicked negligence. As a scientist, I should have known better than not to test a colleague’s hypothesis – as a friend, I should have tendered him more highly than myself, and never increased his dose in so careless a fashion.

So while he stayed in my bed, I remained within call in the drawing room, and when he moved to the drawing room sofa, I made sure to be busy elsewhere. (I was uncovering more about Mr Henry Judson Raymond - or rather, according to the Pinkerton’s detective with whom Mycroft had placed me in contact, Mr Adam Worth, unconfessed and uncaught bank robber and thief -  with every step of my researches, every day. It seemed to me that he sat like a spider at the centre of some web: his touches were everywhere I looked, once I became aware of his peculiar modus operandi.)

I should have known better than to think that Watson would not notice my absences, however. Whatever he lacked as a detective – although he was more observant than many, to give him his due – I could not deceive him in some respects. I arrived home one evening about a week after our evil night to find him dressed, very much the soldier, and sitting at his desk, rather than reclining on the sofa in robe and slippers. I was about to make a hasty excuse, and retreat to my own room, when he raised his head from the letter he was writing and commanded me to remain. I uttered some excuse, feeling unaccountably flustered, but somehow, before I knew where I was, I was sitting in my chair by the fire, and he across from me.

I said nothing. I have never felt more like a boy before a schoolmaster. It reminded me forcibly, in fact, of that first time I had woken him from nightmare with an incautious touch, and he had commanded my attention in much the same way as he did now.

The silence dragged on between us. When I could bear it no longer I looked cautiously up – the carpet had seemed singularly worthy of study up to that point – and found his eyes on me with such a loving, gentle expression, that my own eyes became suddenly wet, a fact I hardly realised until he leaned forward and wiped an errant drop from my cheek.

‘I have quite forgiven you, you know,’ he said, his voice soft. ‘It was an error, and a grave error, but the error was mine also. I am a doctor, I know my own constitution: if you were carried away, I had a duty to be more cautious. You are not the only, or even the main, party who is responsible for what happened. Will you forgive yourself, now, and be my friend again?’

‘What manner of friend puts the man whom – his dearest – his only true friend in such danger?’ I said. ‘It was inexcusably careless of me, John. You could have died. I cannot forgive myself. I should not.’

‘But I am alive and well, and not much the worse for it,’ he said. He took my hand. ‘And if we have had rather a bitter lesson in the dangers of such things, why, that is all to the good. I was for example, considering the use of cocaine in some of my patients: I have now proved, in the best tradition of scientific experiment, that it is possible to have an dangerously idiosyncratic reaction to the drug, and I have done so at the trifling cost of a few days pain, and at no risk to anyone under my care. If Freud did not find it so, nor Koller, nor Aschenbrandt, why then they did not: perhaps no such case as mine came within their purview. I am writing to Dr Freud to detail my own experiences, so that they may now be incorporated into the body of knowledge about the drug, which is a good thing, is it not?’

I muttered, I believe, some negative comment, and he stroked my hand gently. ‘Come, Sherlock, forgive yourself, I beg you. I cannot bear it when you keep yourself removed from me in this way. It is worse than having you absent in Amsterdam to see you flinch when I address you, to have you hurry away and make excuses rather than be with me. I know you are ashamed of your mistake, but I say again, it was our mistake: we are both responsible. Or have you perhaps decided that you no longer wish for the company of a man who vomits wantonly on your shoes, and has to be dragged home like any wretched, puking drunkard?’

I looked up then, indeed, full of furiously indignant refutations of his unwarrantable levity - that he should make light of what was after all, an exceptionally serious matter! -  to find him regarding me with a face so soft, so merry, so purely loving, that my heart broke within me. I believe I tumbled to my knees at his feet, but before long he had cut short my stammered apologies, pulled me up, and we were sitting together on the sofa, while he told me I was his very foolish dear fellow, and I was not to reproach myself any further for it was as much a punishment to him to be without my company as it was to be ill, ‘so let us be kind to each other once more, Sherlock, and say that we have learned our lesson. I cannot do without you, you know, not in the least, so you must not withdraw yourself.’

I wondered as we sat on the sofa that night reading our Dumas (I had fallen into the habit of saving the book for those times when I needed to be close to him, and so, I realised now, had he) whether he understood fully how very much I could not do without him, if he knew at all how dearly I loved him, and the nature of that love. His deep and abiding affection, his strong regard and esteem, these I knew I possessed. He was tender with me, caressing in his ways, and gentle, but what would he say if I hinted – if I asked for those touches to be more – directed, more sensual. What would he do if I, in whose severe chastity he most firmly believed, of whose pure devotion to reason he had never a doubt, begged him for a more carnal caress? I closed my eyes, remembering his face in the moonlight, the open warmth of his gaze as we admitted to each other our deepest, most secret affections.

Men could be fond, I thought; men could cherish the closest of bonds. I knew that in Mycroft’s little coterie as well as elsewhere, there existed men for whom the deepest loves they had were with others of their sex, whether those be expressed in carnal form or no. Nourished at Eton and Harrow, sprung from the feverish friendships flowering in those hotbeds of Greek learning, those loves, for some, would always be stronger than the love of women. They were Greek loves, intense, romantic attachments that transcended the carnal love between man and woman. They were as different in their quality to the hurried couplings of Jack Saul and his like – but there I made myself pause. That Saul sold his favours for money did not mean he was incapable of the finer emotions, only that the circumstances, and means of his life forbade their indulgence. He had, he told me, truly believed himself ‘in love’ with Kirwan. And yet to give these loves physical expression was not only forbidden, but considered the worst of all forbidden sins.

I must have sighed, for he closed the book and laid it down.

‘Are you fretting yet, my dear friend?’

‘I cannot make light of it as you can. You did not sit for hours with your friend in your arms wondering if every breath, if every beat of his heart was to be his last. You did not feel him burn with fever.’

‘I did not.’ There was a long pause, and then he said, very softly, ‘No, I did not. Not there. Not then. But I have done so, in the army, although for no-one so dear to me as you. I have had men die in my arms, and I helpless to save them, so I do know. I have held you so – after the bombing in the Underground, during that time before you came back to yourself. I have sat by you, holding your hand, while you lay on the sofa in the depths of melancholia, seeming to wish only for death. That pain is – too familiar to me.’

‘I could do nothing to help you.’ In my agitation, I did not notice that I had gripped his sleeve until he placed his hand over mine. ‘I thought that you were dying, and I could not save you.’

‘It is the worst of all terrors, Holmes. I know. I understand.’

‘How did you – in the army, how did you not go mad with it?’

‘Well, I am of different temperament to you, my dear. And in the army I was not so deeply involved: I cared for my men, yes, but there was none I held dearer than a brother, so my pain was professional. It struck at my sense of duty, my pride, my loyalty – but not deep into my heart.  When it was you in danger, then, then it struck deep. Sometimes I feel it yet, when I look at you. As far as the other night is concerned -  I – I should not say this, perhaps, but through all those hours, while I was conscious of very little beside my pain, I knew that your arms held me. I was glad of your strength, bearing me up, sustaining me. I might not have lived, had you not been there. You saved me.’

‘I was the cause of your pain! I could have been your death!’

‘Unwittingly. Innocently. Your presence was my pain’s best remedy and my strongest tie to life. Come, let us have no more of this. I will have you forgive yourself, and take heart again. The spring and summer open before us, and we have much to plan and think for. You have your dubious diamond merchant to investigate, and I have campaigning before me.’

‘Not politics again!’ I must have sounded petulant, for he laughed and mimicked me when he replied.

‘Yes, politics again. There is a group of us engaged in trying to bring about a change to the laws regarding the age at which a young person may give consent to intercourse, and our fight is a hard one. There is considerable resistance to increasing it: doubtless because there are too many old roués in the Commons and Lords who secretly engage in prostitution. I have a meeting with Mrs Butler next week; my opinion is sought because of my work in the free wards at Barts.’

‘Must it always be to do with sexual relations with you? One would think there was nothing else of importance in the world!’

‘But it is the engine that drives humanity,’ he pointed out. ‘How many cases have we had that have turned on it? I agree that as a motivating force for crime it is maddening in its lack of intellectual stimulus for one of your cerebral genius, but for us lesser mortals it is an important part of our lives.’

‘You do not seem to find it so,’ I snapped back, and repented of my heat the moment after.

‘I am not interested in it where there is no love, my friend, and so I am resolved to wait for my coup de foudre.’

‘And what if the thunderbolt never strikes?’

‘I have your kind companionship, my dear Holmes, the affection of a more than brother, the loyalty of a comrade in arms, the delight of your intellect, and the charm of your eccentricities, which rather add to than detract from the whole. Moreover, you have taught me to speak French, frequently take me out to dinner, and regale me with the most beautiful music. What more could I desire?’

‘Now you are laughing at me!’

He placed his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a gentle embrace. ‘I am, my dear, yes. I am laughing because despite that dangerous night, I am still alive, and you have not killed yourself in one of your wretched experiments yet, and the world stretches before us full of adventures upon which we may embark together: the best of companions, together.’

I could not resist his humour, not when he smiled at me like that, My irritation melted away, and I found myself smiling in return, a weight lifting off my heart.

‘That is better,’ he said, softly, the most beautiful light in his eyes. ‘Now you are my Holmes again, and there will be no more of this bitter self-recrimination. Sit here, closer to me, and correct my French. We were with the Count and Haydée in her enchanted boudoir of rose, were we not?’

‘We were. Begin there, John. Just there, where the Comte says to her ‘car si tu m’aimes comme ton père, moi, je t’aime comme mon enfant . . .’

‘That is to say ‘if you love me like your father, I love you like my child,’ is it not? Shall I go on now?’

‘Yes, I want to hear you read it. Go to the end of Haydée’s sentence: continue!’

‘Tu te trompes, seigneur, je n’aimais point mon père comme je t’aime; mon amour pour toi est un autre amour: mon père est mort, et je ne suis pas morte, tandis que toi, si tu mourrais, je mourrais.’

‘Your accent is infinitely better, now translate: you are mistaken, my Lord . . .’

‘ “You are mistaken, my Lord. I did not at all love my father as I love you,” - is that correct?’

‘It is impeccable, Watson. I will finish it: tell me if I have translated correctly. “my love for you is another love: my father died, and I did not die; as for you, if you were to die, I would die.” So hers was a primrose love also, it would seem.’

‘She loves the Count not as a father then, but as a spouse? But he sees her only as a precious charge: alas, that he should be so blind! Will she ever be requited, or will her affections wither unreturned? You have read the book, Holmes, tell me if she will have her heart’s desire, poor beautiful Haydée.’

‘I cannot tell you the ending. No, I will not tell you the ending. You must possess your soul in patience and hope, as must all forlorn lovers.’

‘I hope he will love her in return,’ he murmured, his eyes sad. ‘I do hope he will love her as she wishes, Sherlock.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I hope he will too, John.’

Chapter Text

Since First I Saw Your Face Part 11

 

From Shapur to Shiraz, early May 1893.

Ozymandias, thinks Holmes as he enters the cavern, although he knows that Shelley wrote the poem about Ramses, and not about these ruins in Shapur. The arch is huge, the cave itself black and forbidding, and inside it, at a little distance, is the pedestal on which the statue of Shapur the king once stood. It is at least five feet high: as he approaches, he is almost at eye level with the sandalled feet – feet a yard long – and the stumps of the legs, one broken off at knee level, one higher, and the broken legs themselves in pieces. The huge torso and head have fallen to the left, breaking the right arm, although its hand still rests on a sword belt. The left arm ends in a stump below the elbow. The dead king’s face is partially buried: what remains is no ‘sneer of cold command’ but, upon the mutilated features, an expression almost of resignation.

Holmes dismisses the muleteers, bidding them wait for him outside. When they are gone, he falls to his knees, one outstretched hand resting on the broken image. The pedestal bears no inscription: if any were there, it has been effaced by the chisel of the iconoclast and the hand of time, but the message – here, as in the land of Ramses – is clear: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ No empire lasts for ever, neither do the things of man endure. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, ‘all is vanity,’ and thus ever.

For all his striving, Holmes has gained nothing. His country, his empire will come to dust as has this vanquished king’s. His service to his country - all such service – is nothing, futile acts, hollow, worthless, ephemeral. He himself is nothing, only a burning desire, an arrowed thought, a winged, impatient yearning. He wants nothing but to be where John lies gravely ill, alone and far away with no kind hand to smooth his brow, no voice to whisper hope and comfort in his ear.

“Through all those hours,” Holmes remembers him saying – it seems so many years ago now, those hours when he wondered if John would die – “while I was conscious of very little beside my pain, I knew that your arms held me. I was glad of your strength, bearing me up, sustaining me. I might not have lived, had you not been there.”

Deep melancholy overwhelms him; it is as if he falls into the abyss, mind adrift and eyes darkened. The chill air in the cave quivers; some electrical impulse -  sharp, strange, startling -  thrills through it. Wind stirs: he hears a known, well-loved, remembered voice, the voice of John Watson, speaking in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently:

Sherlock! Sherlock! Sherlock!

‘John,’ he gasps, leaping to his feet. ‘John, I am coming, wait for me. I will come to you: only wait for me. Where are you?’

There is no reply.

‘Where are you?’ he repeats.

The air dulls around him, small and close, pressing him down. With a low, mourning cry, he stumbles back to the king’s pedestal, falls before it, as if imploring the mute ruin to answer him.

‘John,’ he whispers, ‘John, speak to me. Forgive me. I will come to you.’

But although he waits on his knees before the broken king, his heart sick with apprehension and desperate with hope, there is no reply.

*****

Beautiful though the ruins of Shapur are, their beauty is lost on Holmes, who remains, during the rest of the day’s journey to Kazerun, in a state of exhausted misery. The tablets and bas-reliefs depicting the god Ormuzd, king Narses, and Shapur himself are a grand spectacle, despite being in some places grooved and worn by the flow of water. Another Holmes – a younger, more carefree Holmes - would have deduced their history from the characters depicted, but then a younger Holmes would have had Watson by his side. A younger Watson might have found stories to write in the engraved portrayal of Shapur’s victory over the Roman emperor, seeing in the prostrate figure trampled under the conqueror’s hooves the antithesis of Victoria’s empire: then, fifteen hundred years ago, the splendid East subduing the enervated and decadent West, as now the resurgent West seeks dominion over the corrupt and luxurious East. A younger Holmes and Watson might have laughed together, walked in intimate discourse among the ruins, scrambled up and down the steep paths and over the rocks, Holmes offering a hand to Watson, Watson smiling down at Holmes as he helps him in turn.

A younger Holmes and Watson . . . the older, more weary Holmes, pausing to draw painful breath after ascending the Teng-I-Chakan gorge beside a snow-cold, tumbling river, looks back on the ruins of Shapur. The reliefs on the walls of the stony amphitheatre in which it sits are no longer plainly visible, but the air of brooding majesty remains. And John’s voice – he heard John’s voice cry out for him there, clear and compelling, as if he were merely in the next room. The place will be sacred to him hereafter.

Before he turns his back to continue on his way to Kazerun, he registers a silent vow that if ever he returns, if ever John loves him, if ever they can say to each other what is in their hearts, he will return to this place, retrace his footsteps in joy with a beloved companion, and in Shiraz, that city of love and roses, find the freedom to be together far from the English law that would condemn them. If he can. If.

Kazerun is at least, when he finally reaches it, warm, with a poppy and tobacco scented breeze. He cannot bear to rest the night in the telegraph office, but bribes Dariush and Hamid to guard his repose in the Bagh-I-Nazar, Timur Mirza’s perfumed garden, where couched on a makeshift divan of striped blankets, he sleeps more soundly than he has done for weeks. The other muleteers he does not trust, but these two boys regard him with some affection for he is kinder to them than their masters are. It is clear from Dariush’s longing glances when he thinks he is unobserved and the soft smiles he offers, that he would give more if Holmes would take it, but setting aside that Holmes has never had a fondness for paederasty and Dariush is only seventeen, his heart is wedded to one man only.

In the morning he is disappointed of a message: the telegraph has failed him and his anxiety on John’s behalf remains unrelieved. Before he girds his loins, both physically and metaphorically, for the 3,700 feet of ascent to Mian Khotal, he buys Dariush and Hamid oranges, dates and tobacco, and equips them both with the stout cotton and leather shoes made in the village. They are openly amused: to be shod with the same footwear that is bought for the British army seems ludicrous to these wild lads. Holmes cannot be happy, but his heart is lightened by their laughter, and he begins his day with the small satisfaction of doing good.

My dear John

Do you remember the bee? When we were in the cottage, that time, the first time I knew truly how very kind you could be, and how, when I was sad, you understood, and cared for me as no-one had before? I have not forgotten. Sometimes I dream of a time and a place where we can be together always, caring for each other.  

Today I saw bees. I ate honey, and thought of you, and licking the sweetness from my fingers, I remembered the golden drop that once rested on your lip. If I were allowed to love you, if we consented together, if we shared in love, I would taste lip and honey together, your mouth sweeter than the honey is gold. There were bees here, John, in a valley on the way to Mian Khotal, kept by gentle nomads, the Mammasenni, who live in black goat-hair tents; their bees hived in long, baked-clay cylinders like drainpipes, and roofed over with thorns. Unveiled and straight-backed women brought us new milk and honeycomb at noontide. Honey dripped from the waxen cells as we ate, and bees flocked to the spilled drops, remaking them into new gold.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, says the Song, for thy love is better than wine. John, John, do not die. Wait for me, I will come to you.

I will, thinks Holmes. I will survive this. But in his heart, he doubts. The plain where the Mammasenni keep their flocks and hives terminates in a lake, densely fringed with reeds and thronged with wildfowl; a sportsman’s delight. Jamshid mandates a halt, although they had halted not long before, and Holmes has, perforce, to wait in an air rent with the repeated sharp crack of muskets, until the muleteers return, their belts festooned with dead fowl. He catalogues the birds in his mind, noting quite absently a melanistic form of a common duck and two peculiar widgeon, and makes a mental note to re-read, on his eventual return, what his late uncle William, author of ‘Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian’ and an ornithologist of some note, has reported about Persian fauna. The plucked and roasted birds themselves – he saves a few distinctive feathers for further identification – he declines, although the muleteers devour them with greedy pleasure.

The Khotal-I-Dokhter – the Pass of the Maiden – Holmes sees the similarity with the English word, daughter, and wonders anew at the strange links between languages so far apart  - is worse than either of the two he has ascended so far. Looking at the vain attempts to mend the stairway in the rock – attempts that have left a path that is now nothing but perilous islands of rock, with the soil eroded around the artificial paving – he dismounts and gives Laleh her head. She picks her way daintily around the treacherous reefs, and he follows her, stepping as carefully as he can. One mule, more burdened, and less sure-footed, jams a hoof between two rocks, and is freed only with difficulty. Holmes insists the animal’s wound is salved, and its leg bound before they continue. Two near-vertical stretches, both of about seven hundred feet, nearly defeat him. At the top of the second, indeed, he sits and ducks his head between his knees; the climb, his labouring heart, and the thinning air conspire to rob him of breath. Jamshid, chewing tobacco and spitting unpleasantly close to him, tells him he is a fool and should have let the mule take the load. He also expresses a strong desire to move faster, so that they can get to Mian Khotal before darkness falls, hinting of bandits, which Holmes knows are a danger, and mountain lions, which he knows are not (although it is true that boar, wolves and hyaena abound). Holmes picks himself up and struggles on: he must traverse half the path up the next pass, the Khotal-I-Pir-I-Zan, to reach the caravanserai where they rest for the night.

My dear John, cor cordium

Why have I no news of you? For two days there has been no telegraph: how can my brother torture me like this? Two, nay three, short words: Watson yet lives. Is that so much to ask? If he understood my sorrow, my grief and guilt, he would have pity.

The evening finds me in Mian Khotal, at the cost of some pains, and my poor little beast’s strength. I have bought her, and the injured mule off that wretch Jamshid, and shall make a present of them to some gentle person here. At least they may rest and heal for a while. The journey has cost me strength too, I confess. I must sleep tonight, and will take opium. How I long for our cocaine: I know your views on it, but what if it is the only thing that enables me to carry on? Do I take it, against your wishes, and return to you, or die of exhaustion in some desolate valley? The point is moot, however, for there is no cocaine to be had. No, I will, I must continue. If I can render Moran harmless, I will be able to return. I was a fool to take this task: I did so not for the joy of the chase, but only because – oh, let me confess it – because it seemed better to be away from you. We had not lived together for so long. And then, that last week in Switzerland, before Reichenbach: how bittersweet, how intolerable, the ecstasy of your presence, the agony of your distance. To be with you again was to return to a drug: an addiction I could neither slake nor subdue.

John, you. You on that last morning over coffee, sleepy-eyed and yawning, your ruffled hair, the soft stripe of bristle along your jaw-line that I indicated with a raised eyebrow and a disdainful finger, bidding you take more care in your shaving. Your rueful chuckle, your hand on my shoulder as you passed me to rectify it. The scent of your tobacco, of your flesh. Your eyes, so warmly affectionate as they met mine, your happiness – I saw it – your unfeigned joy that we were together as of old. What refined torture, what exquisite torment! I could not bear the burning, after so long - to have you, and not have you. And so my choice was made, to my then and – if John, if we are never to meet again -  to my eternal, regret and sorrow.

Stay, John. Stay till I return, even if it is only to reject me. But stay: I cannot  live if I do not know that you are alive somewhere in the world, even if you live hating me.

The climb continues. From Mian Khotal to the station at Dasht-I-Arzen is only half the distance he has traversed the preceding day, but his path lies up what can only be described as a waterless mountain torrent, with every twist, turn, and incoherent tumble of rock that that describes. His new mule is a taller, stronger beast, young, cross-grained, and with a mouth like iron: Holmes cannot steer, but must, perforce, go where he is taken. Fortunate, then, he thinks, that the mule, Balut, is exceedingly sure-footed, hauling Holmes to the top without difficulty. He dismounts to give the animal a breather, essays a gentle pat on the velvety muzzle, and barely rescues his hand as long yellow teeth clack sharply together where his fingers had been a few moments ago. Dariush raises a stick to the mule but Holmes stops him. Misery, he thinks, need not be added to misery. He tells Dariush that he will walk for a while, and hands over the reins. The Khotal once gained, there is a long slope downhill to the lake which sits in the basin of Dasht-I Arzen - which at least gives his labouring heart some relief. Wildfowl eddy and whirl about the lake, deer graze along its banks, and a fox runs by.  If he were not tormented by thoughts of John alone, distressed, dying, he might even find the place beautiful.

My dear John,

Yet again there is no news of you at the telegraph station. I have heard nothing now since Kamarij, when Mycroft informed me that your wife was near her end, and you gravely ill. I know her malady admits of no cure, so I cannot hope that she still lives for you – I know your gentle heart and I fear for you in what will be a bitter, bitter sorrow – but dare I hope that you still live even in such sorrow? It seems selfish to want you to stay – but I am a selfish man: I always wanted you to stay. I wonder if you will resent, after her death, the times you spent away from her at my behest?

I tried not to deduce your marriage, John. It seemed a betrayal of trust, more especially when the reasons for that marriage were clear to both of us. I know that you entered into it in good faith, with some affection, and a true desire to be kind to your Mary. I saw – I could not well not see -  that there were disappointments, both for you and for her, and I was sorry for both of you, but selfishly glad for myself, that your faith to me, your devotion to me, remained unspotted. It is vile that I could think so. I wish I did not, but I find I am a jealous man. At least I had enough of the dissembler in me to be courteous, but I pray you may never know the torments that racked my breast when I pictured you even sitting together over the fire as we used to sit, the stab of agony with which I heard her name fall gently from your lips.

And yet I would that she lived, if it were only to make you happy: I want no sadness for you, my dearest, my best of friends. My life, my second soul. My halved heart, dear Damon. Oh, this is insanity: I rave -  I am distracted! If I could at once transport myself to your bedside, what happiness would it be to care for you, to prove my devotion. Where is my intellect: my vaunted powers, where are they now? What use are they to me when I can do nothing for the man whom above all others I hold most dear? John, do not leave me . . .

Balut jogs steadily on – he is smooth-gaited, but Holmes feels as if his bones are being racked with each step he takes. The gentle slopes up from Dasht-I-Arzen to the plateau are far easier than the khotals, and they are beautiful: fruit trees of all types, pear, apple, plum and barberry abound. The air is fragrant with roses and hyacinths so that he rides through a veritable Eden. Before the noontide is well over, the square, white quadrilateral of the caravanserai of Khan-I-Zinian comes into sight, and the end of the day’s journey with the drawing on of dusk.

Holmes dismounts, and stands for a moment, clinging to Balut’s saddle. His bones ache, and he shivers. Dariush is arguing with Jamshid: whatever the cause of their dispute is he is victorious, and he comes to Holmes triumphant, to lead him to a room in the caravanserai. He explains, guiding Holmes’ wavering footsteps with a courteous hand under one elbow, that Holmes had very much better go to bed, that he has sent Hamid for bathing water, soup, and a herb-woman of some note, that Holmes must let himself be cared for, and that Dariush and Hamid will not allow any harm to come to him.

The herb-woman’s draught – some bitter wormwood of the mountains – is vile, but it is also soporific, and Holmes sinks into a deep sleep, only vaguely aware, as the waves drag him under, of Dariush and Hamid conversing in low tones as they unroll their pallets in a corner of the room.

When he wakes, it is to a clearer head, and, given the shorter shadows, the knowledge that he has slept into the afternoon, a fact which Hamid, left to watch him, confirms. Dariush has gone to purchase a late noon-tide meal for them: they will spend a second night in the caravanserai before embarking on the remaining thirty miles to Shiraz. To do this journey in one day requires a very early start, and so despite his weakness, Holmes insists on rising, dressing, and seeing Jamshid. He cannot win the man’s loyalty, but he can buy it, and he does, expending money on a whole lamb, the arak-like spirit that passes for good alcohol in this poor community, and excellent tobacco. Thus fortified, Jamshid and his team express themselves as happy to pass the evening feasting, on the understanding that at cock-crow they will be on the road once more.

There is no telegram at the caravanserai. Holmes bites back his pain.

Later, as they prepare once more for the night, Dariush approaches Holmes, placing a gentle hand on his sleeve. ‘John?’ he asks, timidly. ‘Who is John, whom you cried for in the night? When you dreamed?’

Holmes looks into the boy’s dark eyes, beautiful eyes, soft with affection. ‘My friend,’ he says. He will never see this lad again after Shiraz: what harm can there be in speaking of the man he loves?

‘Nur-e cheshm-e man aset,’ he admits. ‘Atashé del am. Hamsar am.’ He is the light of my eyes; the fire of my heart. My equal head.

‘Is he your lover?’ Dariush asks, searching Holmes’ face. ‘Aya eashq tust, Sigerson mirza? Nashkan delamo.’ Don’t break my heart.

‘Aw m'eshewq men aset. He is my beloved,’ Holmes tells him, hardly daring to speak the words. ‘Always and forever my only beloved. You are as kind and as beautiful as Bagoas, Dariush, my friend, but John is my Alexander and I his Hephaistion.’

The hand strokes his arm briefly, then is courteously withdrawn. ‘I see and hear and understand,’ Dariush says. He is tight-lipped – has the arrow pierced him so deep, in so short a time, wonders Holmes, bemused that his scarred, scrawny frame, his greying temples can inspire even a moderate affection – but bears his disappointment bravely. ‘But you are my Alexander, my lord. There will never be another.’

‘You are yet young,’ Holmes reminds him, grieved for his grief, and for a love he cannot and will not return. ‘There will be other lovers,’

‘No,’ Dariush’s back is straight, his air proud. ‘When you found your Alexander, did you not know? Did not the bolt strike you, when first you saw him? It is not given to all to find their lord, but when we find him, we know.’

‘I knew,’ says Holmes, ‘I could not mistake it,’ and the boy nods once before slipping from the room.

My dear John,

I have had a fever – perhaps it is yet upon me, for I find myself still unwell today. I dreamed of you last night. You stood before me smiling, your blue eyes clear and gentle. When I approached you, you held out your hand, and bade me come closer. As I moved, you reached out to me but touching your hand I found it stone, and I saw that you wore a shroud of white linen. Your lips were chill against mine, and they drew the warmth from me, until I was myself as cold as your corpse. My soul fled my body, and I knew no more, until I woke with your name on my lips, and my face wet.

John, you are the light of my eyes, the fire of my heart. Without your light I am blind; without your warmth, my spirit dies. You are my spouse, the equal partner of my soul. May I be granted only the time to tell you this, though the world end in fire and ruin.

Holmes does not walk at all the following day, but clings grimly to Balut’s saddle and endures. Dariush and Hamid ride one on either side of him, close, to support him if he wavers. After travelling some distance through the scrub land after Khan-I-Zinian, the road conducts into an upland valley, watered by a river which, from its wide, stony bed, was once of considerable volume, but is now an attenuated streamlet. Finally the track becomes broader and easier, and begins its slow descent to the Shiraz Plain. A sudden turn, and the distant cypress spires, the scattered gardens, and the bulbous cupolas of Shiraz’s mosques come into view.

The company makes a brief pause at the caravanserai of Chenar-I-Rahdar: Dariush brings Holmes mint tea, and they go on. It is a mere three farsakhs now in Persian reckoning, he tells Holmes. Nine miles, thinks Holmes and is irrationally infuriated that his brain, despite his body’s fatigue, is unable to stop itself from analysing, checking, calculating, working; a frenetic, ceaseless internal discourse on everything from the phonetic difference between the Persian name for a unit of measurement, and the Greek ‘parsec’,  to leaping thence into further categorisations of the pre-Hellenic Greek ‘phrater’ ( the sound similarity bringing it to mind), its analogies with Latin ‘frater’, Sanskrit ‘bhratr’, and English ‘brother’, and why its use in modern Greek has been occluded by the word ‘adelphos’, surely a reference to Apollo. He is exhausted by it, but the insistent chatter in his head will not stop.

He is only aware that he has voiced any of this – and more besides -  aloud when Hamid asks him if he wishes to stop at Bagh-I-Sheihk, on the western edge of Shiraz, to call at the offices of the Indo-European telegraph company, and Dariush asks him if he is expecting a telegraph message. Holmes retains enough presence of mind to assent, and when they do stop, sends the boy in to ask. He returns waving a distinctive slip of buff paper for which Holmes holds out a shaking hand. He hardly dares to look.

Sigerson, Shiraz. She died on Tuesday. It was peaceful in the end. He is out of danger: no longer in a fever, although weak. I will not let you lose him. MH.

The world spins into darkness.

*****

‘What, exactly, am I looking for?’ asked Watson. We sat in the drawing room with papers spread out on every surface. ‘Holmes, these sorry rags are replete with accounts of human misery and self-murder. What will distinguish those self-murderers we are looking for from those we are not?’

‘I do not know entirely: it is difficult to explain. You may rule out every mention of some wretched young woman who destroys herself because a man has had his way with her and she has found herself with child, for one thing, or any female who is of the impecunious classes. Any man, also, I suppose, although that is harder to determine. There are impecunious men enough of good status, in poverty because of gambling debts, or ill-made business deals. It is not that.’

‘So we are looking for men of certain classes?’

‘And women too.’

‘So persons of some birth, and breeding perhaps, and status? So they would have money and disposable assets?’

‘Yes, although members of the trading classes are also potential victims . . .’

He rolled his eyes at me. ‘I am not obdurately stupid, Holmes. You are looking for people who have money, from whom money or goods may be extorted then; who, because they have a reputation to maintain, and fear exposure for some hidden crime or ill-managed part of their lives, are the victims of a blackmailer, and have taken the ultimate course to remove the threat from their lives. You have been muttering about this for some days: deducing it is not difficult. Is this something that has come to your notice from the papers, or is it from an enquiry? Or is it to do with Meiklejohn, whom we had to deal with last year? He is an extortionist, is he not?’

‘Indeed he has been, but he is quite discredited since the Dublin Castle trials, and is lying low. I would not put it past him to operate by proxy, however, so I am grateful to you for reminding me that this might indeed be something he would know about. No, it is that I was at the Yard yesterday, talking to Lestrade while you were at Barts, and later at your interminable meeting with that unpleasant fellow Stead, and the virtuous Mrs Butler - ’

‘ – do not sneer at her, Holmes,: she is a noble woman, and it is beneath you to snipe and fleer at someone for doing good. I admit she has an air of - ’

‘ – prosy, tedious piety, admit that also, Watson - ’

‘ – very well: her conversation, although always edifying, can cause a yawn or two, but the substance is of such sense and intelligence, that one forgives her the length. In any case, pray continue, now you have vented your spleen. I believe we should take a walk this afternoon, my dear fellow to blow the cobwebs away, and might I enquire whether you are in need of a wholesome dose this evening? You are never more acerbic than when nature is recalcitrant - ’

‘ – really, Watson, how indelicate. I find myself in the best and most regular of health, thank you, now that I no longer take morphine. In any case, revenons a nos moutons. Lestrade mentioned that the force is beginning to accumulate reports of suicides that do not fit the common pattern: the wronged and desperate girl, the failed tradesman, the melancholic, the alcoholic and the lunatic. These are cases where, for no apparent reason, on occasion a young woman, perhaps on the verge of a marriage, or some few years into it; but more likely a man in good standing, a professional or army man with, to all appearances, not a care in the world, lays violent hands on themselves, and leaves no reason for their abrupt self-destruction but a scant note of apology and no clues.’

‘You intrigue and sadden me at once, Holmes,’ He looked up from his seat in the sea of tumbled paper. ‘You sadden me very much. I hate to think of some filthy leech battening upon their hapless victim, sucking the life and joy from them for what was perhaps nothing more than a small indiscretion. And it is true that men are vulnerable – we have more opportunity for misbehaviour after all – but how much more so some tender, confiding girl, betrayed perhaps by a lover, and paying a terrible price for an over-affectionate letter or ill-given lock of hair. Society is infinitely harder on the girl: one false step and she is ruined.’

‘Well that is certainly a romantic way of looking at it, my dear writer of stories. Personally, I feel sorry for anyone in the grip of a criminal, whether they be young, female and beautiful or old, ugly and male. Shall we continue to look now? I do not see, as I said, exactly what I hope to find; I only know that I will know it when I see it, and so, I believe, will you.’

We spent the rest of the morning trawling the papers, and by afternoon had come up with a handful of suicides that seemed inexplicable – one young woman of 21 or so, the second daughter of a Major in Launceston, a Mr John Shepherd, 22, of Poplar (although he was a surgeon, preparing for exams: there might have been some intellectual doubt to cause his overdose of opium). More promising were the cases of Thomas Nash, a forty-year-old Lincoln’s Inn solicitor, who blew his brains out with a revolver, and a military man of sixty-eight, Colonel Peel, also from London, who did the same. Scant pickings, but something to investigate, at least.

‘So it is a beginning,’ Watson remarked, as we strolled gently through Regent’s Park, arm in arm. ‘One hopes we have made some progress, and I have prepared a new scrap-book for you, old fellow, so we may collate the information in a tidy fashion. I do so hope you enjoy the Mikado this evening, Holmes. I am grateful that you will attend it with me: it is really not your sort of music at all.’

‘Well, if I do not like it, I shall have my revenge later this month.’ I smiled at him, ‘when you will be compelled to listen to an entire new symphony by M. Dvorak.’

‘You have promised me Wagner, as well as your impassioned Russian - ’

‘ – he is a Czech, my dear boy; do at least attempt to keep up - ’

‘Czech then, and three stirring overtures into the bargain. I shall not mind the new music very much, but be glad to be your companion, as always. Holmes, what do you think of these latest developments in Afghanistan? I confess, I have been wondering of late whether, in this pinch, I should re-enlist. This latest development at Panjdeh is not promising. I know the country; if it comes to close fighting, there will be many losses. And although I cannot fight, I can still stitch a wound or alas, take off a mangled leg. Should I go, do you think?’

‘By no means,’ I clutched his arm more tightly, a cold shiver running through me. He to enlist! To travel far away from me, court injury and death where I could not save him. ‘You cannot go, Watson -  the  - the p - poor of London need you here, to advocate for them.’ And so do I: I will die if you abandon me. ‘Let the Russians and the Afghans fight the war without you; your place is here,’ With me, with me, by my side. Close to me. ‘Surely there are other, younger men who can take up your place.’

‘But many of them have wives, families, people they need to care for,’ he pointed out. ‘I am a single man, of very little import to anyone on this planet. I have no family to miss me.’

‘I cannot see that it is your duty. And you have me. I would miss you.’ Have me, Watson. For you, I am to be had. Just take me. I wonder at my unruly mind.

‘And I you, my dearest friend, my more than brother.’ He stroked my sleeve – tenderly? Was that tenderness, in his eye, in his aspect?  ‘But how if it be my duty? Holmes, three years ago the Russian outposts on the road from the Caspian were at Krasnovodsk, and Chikishlar, seven hundred clear miles from Herat. At the beginning of the year they were at Pul-I-Khatum, an advance of five hundred and fifty miles. On the road from the Oxus, they were at Katra Kurghan, five hundred miles from Herat. In January they reached Zotaten, a mere one hundred and forty miles away. In the last month, according to the dispatches from the front, they have made new ground. At Pul-I-Khisti they are only a few miles north of the Afghan outpost and Panjdeh, and they have camps in the Zulfikar pass. I cannot describe to you the tremendous speed and determination of that advance: a man who has never travelled the country might say what of it, what of those miles, but I assure you - ’

‘Well what of them?’ I knew my tone was sharp, for he looked at me in surprise. ‘How can that concern you? You cannot stop the might of the Russian bear single-handed, Dr Watson. Stay: you can be of more use here. Attend your meetings, fight for those unfortunate women and children like the gallant knight you are.’ Please. Please Watson, for the love of God do not go back to war. If you go, you will most assuredly be killed, and then I shall die as well.

‘I shall have to consider it,’ he told me. ‘You know I do not want to go back, Holmes, my dear man, because I have told you that before. But if it were to come to all out war with Russia, then it is every man’s duty to serve as best he can. I am a doctor trained in combat injuries: although there is little enough we can do for them, better I than some raw recruit out of Netley, trembling in his boots with fear. You would not hang back yourself in the circumstances: I know that reckless courage of yours, and your brave, true heart, my Damon.’

‘I would not have you go, my Pythias.’

‘Then I shall endeavour to suit your inclination to my duty, and my obligations to your desires. In any case, it is not upon us, and may not be. For all the sabre-rattling I do not entirely think that the great powers wish for war. May we come to happier days then, and peace, at last, in our times.’

‘From your lips to God’s ears, if there be a God. Have we walked enough to suit you? These April winds are subtle, they creep up on a man before he is aware.’

‘If you ate more regularly, you would be better furnished against the cold, Holmes.’ He pulled me closer, pressing our arms together. ‘Never was there a chillier mortal than you. Yes, let us turn back.’

‘Well, I shall take a little cocaine to fortify me before we venture out this evening. The four per-cent solution is proving more efficacious than the two, and I have taken none since yesterday evening. It is a pity you cannot stomach it, Watson.’

‘I fear in my case it is most definitely contraindicated.’

Watson had tried cocaine in smaller doses on several occasions, but as each administration produced acute headache, and a pronounced (and, to say the truth, terrifying) tachycardia we had reluctantly concluded that he was one of those rare people whom the drug did not suit. I was sorry for it, since as an euphoric and stimulant I found it remarkably useful. Carefully titrating my dose throughout the week enabled me to control those periods of ennui and low mood which, strangely, seemed to have been becoming more frequent of late.

Our as-yet limited use of the drug had produced some interesting results, however. The cocaine cigarettes and cigars we had, by mutual consent, discontinued, since we both of us preferred the smell and taste of plain tobacco, and I found swallowing a dose more effective. We had both tried nasal and buccal administration, but while agreeing that these might be extremely useful where analgesia was required, the side-effects were unpleasant: it had taken Watson a good twenty minutes to stem a nose bleed that left me shaking and faint, and him liberally bespattered with my blood. We had eventually had to resort to gauze packing and ice - and the resultant mess meant I was unwilling to experiment further. I had no wish for him to see me in such undignified straits. One cannot expect a man to see one in a romantic light – and hope had not yet died that he would someday see me in such – when he is engaged in inserting folded gauze into one’s nostrils with a pair of blunt forceps. A gunshot wound, if not serious, and honourably acquired, may be productive of a declaration of affection – at least if one is to believe the romances that Watson reads. A nosebleed is plain, and prosaic, and most dreadfully lowering.

‘I prescribe a glass of sherry for you before we go out, in that case,’ I told him. ‘And I am sure I shall not find the Mikado at all disagreeable.’

*****

‘That is an interesting trio,’ said Watson, softly, his lips close to my ear. We were in the foyer of the St James’ Concert Hall, to hear Dvorak’s new symphony, and he was in fine form: smiling, dapper, most elegantly turned out – and a long way from the shabby, exhausted figure of four – good heavens was it really four – years ago.

 A week earlier, I had suffered the Mikado with as good a grace as I might – a thistledown piece, all bright trills and popular references – diverted more by watching Watson than by the action on the stage. His wholehearted enjoyment of each witty recitative, each sentimental aria was reflected in his face: transparent as glass he sighed, looked pensive, chuckled heartily, waited with bated breath for some denouement, straightened at the stirring martial movements – oh, it was a feast to me to watch. I loved to see him happy.

The last sentimental ballad – George Grossmith’s ponderously clownish Koko singing a ridiculous tale of a lovelorn bird sighing on a willow tree to the aging and unlovely Katisha – Rosina Brandram in the role was an unexpected pleasure: a fine voice, very fine indeed – brought my Watson to tears; an unashamed welling in his eyes, and a falling trace. I passed my handkerchief quickly into his hand, and he gripped mine before taking it and wiping the drops away. Looking around I saw others so affected and wondered at it: there was no real torment here to pierce the soul, but all would end happily ever after. For myself I had only winced internally at the sharp slyness with which Gilbert portrayed an unwanted woman, and wondered that Sullivan, a composer of some merit, should lend himself to such unkind frippery. Now, however, I looked forward to a musical feast, full of delectable courses, for we were not only to hear Dvorak’s long awaited new symphony, but other pieces of great interest to me.

‘There,’ Watson discreetly indicated the three men who had caught his eye. ‘I realise, now he has turned that I know of one of them, of course – alas that I do -  but not the other two. Deduce them for me, Holmes.’

I looked across the shifting crowds in the foyer – the event was crowded: royalty present in the guise of their Graces of Edinburgh, and the duchess looking a trifle more complaisant than usual – to where his trio stood in a window embrasure.

‘What is it you wish to know?’ I murmured. I touched his arm and carefully drew him with me into a more advantageous place for observation. ‘I take it that it is the military fellow that is known to you: enlighten me first as to him. For one of those men is known to me, and so I can tell you already that your army colleague keeps dangerous company.’

‘He is one Sebastian Moran,’ said Watson quietly, and as he did so, the tall colonel (for such I deduced him to be) looked up as if he had heard. He could not have done so of course: Watson’s words reached only my ear, and, moreover, he was turned away from the gentleman. ‘A colonel in the Indian army, a villain of an ugly cut, a Pandarus and an whore-monger, a practised shikari, a tenacious hunter – and a man who has made India too hot to hold him at last. And that, my dear Holmes, takes some doing: they are a lax lot out there when it comes to morals.’

‘He looks dangerous: violence sits on that front and gleams in his fierce eye. He is wary as a wild beast himself, just see how he glances around. I wonder much to see him with a man I last saw – or believed I had seen – must indeed have seen -bartering for diamonds in a dirty estaminet in Antwerp. I must learn more of Mr Henry Judson Raymond. Or Mr Adam Worth, as he is known to Pinkertons, the Yard and the Sûreté. For that is who stands with your military friend.’

‘No friend of mine, dear fellow. I abhor all that he stands for. So the second is your diamond merchant, and possible criminal, if the police are to be believed. How have they not yet exposed him if he is so much suspected: does not that stretch belief? But what of the third? The tall, thin man, with the pale face? “Yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look,” as Caesar said, “I like him not: such men are dangerous.”’

‘I do not know him. His clothing is of the finest: he is wealthy. His physiognomy is repellent: observe the great dome of the forehead, and those deeply sunken eyes. He is reptilian in aspect -  I have seen just such a motion of the head in some snake desiring to fascinate its prey, an oscillation that bewitches the unwary creature until the beast strikes. His rounded shoulders and that prim, ascetic mien indicate the scholar, but of what, I do not know. Of science? He is not a medical man, that is for certain: there is no kind and loving heart beats in his narrow breast - nor an army man, for I see no signs of it. A banker perhaps? Come away, Watson, let us observe no longer. I feel the fascination one feels with some creeping, unclean thing: a sensation of horror. I do not want to look at him any longer: let us go.’

‘Holmes, you are shivering. Come, my dear, let us find our seats. I would not have directed your attention to the man had I realised he would affect you so strongly.’

I allowed Watson to draw me away from the crowd, and to our box, where we might sit comfortably retired from the crowd. In truth, I was rather shaken: I had never experienced such a chill before in the presence of a man. In a woman’s presence, yes, a sensation of cold in the marrow. Perhaps it was a lingering remembrance of childhood. In any case I was glad to sit down beside Watson, to feel the comforting warmth of his arm and thigh against mine.

The concert was divine: the heights of emotion were reached. I was quickly lost to all save the thrill and swell of the music; I floated on a celestial sea of sound, experiencing the interwoven harmonies of strings and brass and woodwind both in their separate voices and joined in one great swell of light and colour, a breaking wave, and I riding it, a god, exulting. I only came to myself a little when Mr Lloyd sang the Preislied from Wagner’s Meistersingers. The sweet, mellow, tenor solo brought me back from my ecstasy, and becoming aware of my surrounding once more, I became aware also that Watson’s cheeks were wet, and his hand clenched where it lay on his knee. I extended my own hand, covered his, and softly, naturally, his turned to mine and held, and confided. It rested within my grasp as if it had always belonged there, and always would. My heart turned over, and I moved my thigh enough to drop our linked hands between us. It would not do to be observed, thus joined like lovers.

We stayed so until the end of the concert –  Watson released me only to applaud the orchestra and singers, turning to me with a rueful smile as he realised we had sat hand in hand through Spohr’s overture to Faust, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni, and Beethoven’s prelude to his opera, Leonora. It was a delightful concert from beginning to end, he told me, and performed in masterly fashion.

 An ill-sorted trio of musical themes, I commented to Watson as the stage emptied and the hall began to be filled with the rustle of people leaving: the bargain of a doomed man with his pursuing devil and the punishment of a villain by a ghost, followed by the triumph of wedded affection and faithful love. ‘But you enjoyed the music all the same, my dear fellow?’

‘More than I had thought I would,’ he admitted, and cleared his throat. ‘I – damn it, Holmes, it is not that I do not enjoy music. It is that it moves me sometimes unbearably – stirs that in me which I would fain -  ’

‘ – as it does me, my dear Watson. I am not impervious to the siren song of the divine Euterpe, and - ’

‘ – subdue, and I cannot sometimes – well, you saw for yourself how shamefully I was affected by it. You, when I observed you during the Dvorak, seemed as if rapt away to some aerial and heavenly plane, but I, I am afraid, am a creature of earthly clay and salt water and so must weep.’

‘It argues a very feeling heart in you,’ I rejoined. I wanted desperately to take his hand, to wander home with him thus, linked as lovers, but all I could do was take his arm. ‘Do not be ashamed of it, my dear fellow. It is a most becoming gentleness.’

We progressed on through the crowd, I so enwrapt in his presence that I scarcely noticed our surroundings, but as we gained the cool air, I was recalled to myself by his soft exclamation. Our path had brought us across that of the three men we had noticed earlier – they were again in earnest colloquy -  and the wary soldier fellow – Moran, Watson had called him - clearly recognised my companion as an army acquaintance, for he stepped forward, and made as if to speak.

Watson cut him. My gentle companion, my kind and loving friend, administered the cut direct: the sharpest and most pointed of snubs. It was a full, deliberate stare, flint-eyed, and unwavering, then a military turning away. Moran flushed a dull, ugly red, and stepped back. It was over in a second, and it was unremarked, thank God, in that bustle by any save those it affected, for it could have ruined Watson socially as well, he being of lesser rank in the army, and of less standing.

‘What was that?’ I asked him, as we turned down the street. ‘I have never seen you – I have never seen you behave so severely. What has he done?’

‘He is a taker and an user of young men and women.’ Watson replied. He was shivering - with repressed anger, not with cold. ‘And he is not above acting as procurer for others of his ilk, for the joy of that foul game, and to see innocence ruined. He is a man of dishonour, a cheat at cards, a wolvish fleecer of stray lambs; a plucker of any unwary young pigeon that falls into his hawk’s claws. I detest him. I have always detested him. We did not mess or fight together, but his reputation stank throughout the cantonments where we both served. And as a colonel, he played David to more than one Uriah, if reports are true. Certainly he was not unwilling to console his junior officers’ weeping widows.’

‘His actions are grave indeed then. But I have never seen you cut anyone, Watson.’

‘And I daresay you will not see me do so again: it is the most discourteous of acts, not to be resorted to save in extremity. Let us talk of other things than Moran, my dear Holmes, for his name tastes foul in my mouth. Sweeten it with kinder discourse, I beg you. I did not like those three, and I am sorry I drew your attention to them. I had not recognised Moran when I first spoke to you to point them out – he has aged greatly in the five or so years since I saw him – and had I done so, I would have kept silence. It was only that something in their manner as they stood together, some whiff of foul air about them, that drew my attention. They looked – well, perhaps I am imagining it – ominous, somehow. Portentous. But I am sorry for mentioning it.’

‘So am not I sorry, Watson. Moran, you say, is a villain, and Adam Worth to my certain knowledge is one as well, albeit he is clever enough to cloak it in respectability. And since birds of a feather flock together, their reptilian companion, whoever he be, must assuredly be joined with them in some infamy or other. I must set my lads to the hunt: it will not do to lag on the track of evil.’

*****

‘The government has called out the reserves.’ Watson, frowning, looked up from the newspaper as I entered the drawing room. ‘And Mr Gladstone has asked the House for a credit of eleven million pounds. War with Russia is almost upon us, Holmes.’

‘But it is not here, and may yet be averted.’ I deposited a twisted and mangled can of paint on the table with some relief. ‘Watson, I am sadly in need of your services. If you would oblige me by desisting from these gloomy prognostications and attending to my - leg, I would be eternally grateful. I fear I have quite ruined these trousers.’

He threw down the paper. ‘Holmes, what have you done now? Where have you been? I woke and you had already risen and gone out with not even a note to me. Sit down, sit down at once, and let me tend to you. I will just call for tea: I am sure you need some.’

‘I have already asked Mrs Hudson to send some up. I cannot sit down unless you cover the chair: blood and velvet do not go together.’

‘Blood! Stand and let me see. Good grief, man, what have you been about? Here is altogether too much;