The Speckled Sky: A Sherlock Holmes Memoir
Dr. John Watson
In 1892, a collection of stories was published under the sensational heading, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. It gained some measure of popularity amongst readers of that lower calibre of magazine – ‘Tit-Bits’, ‘The Illustrated Police News’ and the like – and for a brief time the exploits of that character and his Doctor assistant brought interest and excitement to train carriages and cab journeys. Yet it may not have been known to some of those who skimmed past the introductory paragraphs that these stories were written from life by Doctor Watson himself, and edited for publication by my uncle, and later myself.
His memoirs, papers and diaries came into my possession after his death, but it was only after the death of his wife, the last of his relations, that I was free to make use of them. I found him an interesting subject, despite his occasionally tedious prose, and for this reason I am assembling a collection of his unpublished writings as a curious historical addendum to those interested in the biography of a short-lived popular phenomenon. In fact, to my mind the Doctor’s autobiographies, candid and unburdened by the threat of publication as they are, make for infinitely more fascinating reading than his stories, which are more than a little fanciful in their depictions of true events.
This particular memoir comes, happily, from that same year of 1892, and requires a few words of explanation. There is a story among the collection I have named above titled ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, which Doctor Watson cites as one of the pair’s first ‘adventures’ together, a short time after their meeting in 1881. However, the evidence of the following piece of writing would suggest instead that the story was inspired by events which were far more recent at the time of its publication. It is my belief that this memoir, dated 1892, was written only very shortly after that adventure took place, as the events described would seem to match up with those in ‘The Speckled Band’. If a reader would care to test this theory, then simply read the story for yourself, stopping where the two men have settled down for the evening in a room overlooking the murderer's house. Insert this memoir at the point where three stars (***) suggest an ellipsis of time, and read the conclusion of the story afterwards. Of course, this diary is far lengthier than the story itself, so one would be forgiven for sparing oneself the time.
As to why the date was changed in the story, I could only guess it was an attempt at misdirection in case these two writings were ever found side by side. It does seem that this memoir was guarded privately, judging by the paper, several times folded, and the size of the Doctor’s handwriting. It is a particularly pained and rather embarrassed diary, and I include it here, offering no other judgement, as a fascinating example of Victorian private affairs, and the interesting position of the press, all too keen for scandal and intrigue, in relation to the individual’s need for secrecy and obscurity. There is also a mention of an incident involving a fire in the early 1880s, which at this time I cannot find any record of. If that story comes to light in the Doctor’s papers, I will include it in a further volume.
With some poetic license, I have called this memoir ‘The Speckled Sky’.
We watched the roof of the forest from our seat in front of the wide window, silently sharing the warming afternoon glow. He to the right, I to the left; sitting apart, but comfortably, to my mind. The space between us was just as still and welcoming as was the distance which separated us, up in our high window, from the house half a mile below, its wide front sedate with yellow shadows. Knowing the deadliness of that place our mood ought to have been one of action, but for the moment there could be no urgency in the quietly falling dusk. The dimming sunlight seemed to throb, and the gathering of purple clouds over the miniature house (though it stood a high and glaring manor on the ground) sealed us inside the painted village, quite apart from the anxious cities and citizens of England. Such things were vague and half-imaginary to my mind.
After almost an hour of this muted watch I had relaxed into a serene reverie, but with a glance to my right I thought perhaps that my companion’s face was not masked by any false contentment; rather his lips were downturned, and his eyes grew so deep as he bit into his pipe that I guessed his thoughts to be more distant, and far less peaceful than mine. The light seemed colder on him and his gaze, though it went in the direction of the window, fell not upon England’s virgin beauty, but searched instead his own mental horizon. It was a profound melancholy I saw in him. Perhaps he wanted reassurance that he had missed nothing which could endanger the woman whose window we had been tasked to watch. Or else he knew without a doubt that she, or all of us, were in danger, and lacked the means of disarming it. I could not tell from the surface of his unhappy face, and he was so far removed from that surface that my questioning eyes would make no mark on him.
Yet as I looked him over in my newfound unrest I indulged myself with a small laugh, for I had discovered the irony of reading so deeply the face of a man as equally observant and enigmatic as Sherlock Holmes. I could not hope to pull a thread of meaning from those eyes which, like the hawk he so closely resembled, were themselves keen and rarely blind to the smallest of apparently insignificant things. Surely there was nothing I could read in them which would reveal anything obscure or secret if he did not wish to display it.
Despite the sound of my quiet mirth Holmes did not look towards me, did not ask me what I found amusing at this critical hour – did not stir at all. I found myself watching him rather sorrowfully then, though affectionately, wishing simply that he would not torment himself with possibilities and hypotheticals until he began to curse himself for not doing more than he was able. At the same time I found it odd that he was so disturbed. I had thought when we undertook our watch that he had known, more or less, what was waiting for us, though I remained as ever in the dark. Perhaps I was too ready to trust blindly in Sherlock Holmes’ brilliance – yet to think of mistrusting him disturbed me still more to the point of purposefully flinching away from that fear.
In an effort to put myself at ease, and hoping to bring him up from his transport, I spoke at last, deliberately asserting myself into his consciousness for the first time almost since we had sat.
“You know we can only wait for the signal, Holmes.” After such a long wait my voice was flattened and hoarse, but its sound still jarred somewhat in such a mild quiet. “There’s nothing more for us to do until that comes. What can be helped by agonising over, over any details at this point? You can’t begrudge yourself a rest before the evening.”
My words seemed to make no impression on Mr Holmes, who did not so much as blink in response. Of course at this I could only sigh. I had seen him like this on many occasions, so intent on some internal debate that he would not hear me unless I shouted in his ear. Yet I allowed myself another rueful smile at the thought. This was my role, in short – a would-be voice of reason which seemed never to be heard. And if I was, my reason was more often than not dismissed as foolishness, for Holmes knew more in almost every circumstance than his outward consternation might allow. However, in this moment I was suitably contented that I could not feel resentful towards my friend whose difficulty caused me more anxiety than my own.
“You can’t fixate on the matter, Holmes – at least you shouldn’t now that you know there’s nothing more to be done. If you are worried for her safety, then –”
“Watson,” he interrupted sharply, his eyes unmoved, so that I thought in sudden dread that he was bringing my attention to the house. But when I looked back at him (the gilded house-front was unchanged), his face, and his eyes, were towards me. I closed my mouth to cover my impatience, having no choice but to wait for my friend’s better mind to reveal its thoughts. At length he continued, looking with his pipe and his heavy brow like some stern schoolmaster I had crossed. “While your educated physician’s eye can, I am sure, diagnose an uncommon ailment, or catch a fleeting glimpse of a dangerous mood in a person’s face, better than I…”
His tone and his expression softened remarkably as he grew ponderous yet again. He lacked his previous severity as he said: “I am afraid it has mistaken the reason for my silence.”
Exasperated, I watched my friend’s lips close again around his pipe, and breathing at last I sought a properly measured reply. His gaze, drifting in the direction of the hills, was significant and infinitely dark, yet even now it was no easier for me to understand its meaning.
“Holmes, I’m afraid you flatter me too much when it comes to my powers of deduction.”
“Is that irony, Watson?” said Holmes, eyes unmoved, biting his pipe. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“No, I am speaking what I believe to be the truth.” There was a queer flicker in those eyes then, as if my friend had a thought that he had perhaps spoken unkindly. In any case I carried on, my pure mood somewhat curdled. “You say I can diagnose an illness on sight, yet it is plain to me that you are – well, ill of thought.”
“Hm, a nice expression,” he interjected in a mutter around his pipe.
“And I am none the wiser as to the reason despite looking at you all the damned afternoon.”
“Not all afternoon, Watson, or you should have spoken earlier.”
“Well. In any case – it is your place to look into a person’s face and see their heart, or look at their sleeve and read their whole life’s secrets, you know. You are forever reminding me of my deficiencies as a – you know, a detective, whatever you would call yourself. I would appreciate your assistance, dear man, if your mood takes a turn down some obscure alley-way where I cannot follow.”
The brilliantly troubled man laughed harshly, with the look of one standing by the grave of a bitter enemy whose death has not brought relief. He was once again watching the window but not anything beyond it, smoke drifting meanderingly from his nostrils. There was no trace in his eyes of the thrill I had felt pounding in my chest as we first sat to await the glimpse of a light which, as of yet, was doubtless still hours away. Neither was there any humour there, or serenity, or much of anything except thought, black thought.
At last he blew out a great ghost of smoke and spoke again in his brisk, deliberate manner.
“I don’t flatter you, Watson, it is against my nature as you know.”
“And yet, despite all of my alleged diagnostic prowess, I fail to understand your distress, Holmes. What is it if not concern for our client?”
I sensed that he did not welcome my questioning – a feeling made certain when I heard his evasive reply.
“If it does not concern our client, it is not of any importance to you, Watson, I promise you. My troubles are not yours.”
“But come on, man, how can I help seeing? I can’t help but worry if you are indeed as deeply troubled as you appear. Do you think I’m heartless enough to just forget about it, simply because you order me to do so?”
I noticed a halfway glance, and something resembling disbelief in his eyes, before everything fell back to its long-held position.
“I do not think anything of the sort. I only request that you do not distract yourself from our task–”
“Our task from which you yourself have been distracted, dear fellow, and I know it can be no small thing to have stolen your attention away from the hunt. How’s that for a diagnosis? You, who live to solve mysteries such as this, would not be so despondent if indeed your heart was in it, and not elsewhere.”
I saw it plainly then, the sadness written deep into his face in familiar, aging lines. I had seen it often, and learned to dread and pity it, for when this mood struck him it would always lead him down the same black path and hold him a listless, lifeless captive for days. Looking upon his weary face I was reminded most vividly of certain patients I had seen during my medical training, inmates of a grim psychiatric asylum who had exhibited self-destructive tendencies but who had failed in their attempts. They were committed for their own protection, and when I saw them they seemed to look back at me as if through heavy rain.
It was with great anguish that I saw their hooded eyes alongside those of Sherlock Holmes. But looking into the tired face of my dearest friend I noticed there was sympathy, or understanding for my sake, in with that hopelessness as well – something in any case which urged me to come to terms with something to which Holmes had long since been resigned.
“As I say, I do not flatter your powers of reasoning.”
“Yet I’m still in the dark, Holmes.”
“No, you understand me well enough. I do not lack concern for this case, Watson, I assure you, but at present…” I thought he might for a moment have been tempted to explain, but seeing the reservation grow in his eyes, I sensed he would not be forthcoming. I supposed I could not have expected a different result from the living enigma I called my friend. Quickly he rearranged his thoughts and quite visibly, with a twitch of his head, changed direction in the course of his speech.
“But while you are right to say I am distracted – it is not in your power to alter, good Doctor though you are. It lies in my very nature.”
Lifting his gaze away from me he held himself back from further speech. Now it seemed he would not allow me to probe deeper, and although curiosity burned along with anxiety for the conclusion of his thoughts, I did not press him. I wanted to soothe his suffering rather than prolong it, and I realised that leaving him to his thoughts might cause him less pain than forcing him to reveal them to me. After several moments I looked away from him, deciding to honour his silent request. With no further choice I resumed my contemplative and somewhat half-hearted vigil over the country house, warm and dark in its seat under the sky, soon to be speckled with early stars.
“Night will be falling in another hour or so,” I said, once the quiet had taken hold and had, I hoped, brought some peace to Holmes’ mind. I was not encouraged when he did not respond, but I continued in a conversational manner: “Perhaps we ought to eat before dark? It may get very late… before anything happens.”
Holmes stared forwards, frozen, unyielding. His darkness pervaded the room and saturated even the heavy glow of the late afternoon, turning it pale and sickly – perhaps I had not noticed the time slip by.
I might have lapsed once more into silence then, if not for a small movement to my right which made me twitch my head; Holmes, having taken his pipe away from his mouth, now absently encircled his wrist with his long fingers as the pipe fumed, forgotten, in his right hand. For whatever reason I saw this innocent action as expressing his need for consolation, though he had refused it to my face. With his body drawn in upon itself like that, I saw a great shadow of solitude on him – one which had always lain on Sherlock Holmes, but which only rarely seemed to bring out his thin face and his dark eyes so much in all their comfortless existence.
In a thoughtless gesture I touched his shoulder, more to draw his attention than anything else, but he seemed to frown and twitch his head slightly at my touch. Instinctively I withdrew my hand, afraid I had hurt him somehow although I had barely grazed him with my fingertips. It was only removing my hand however that really caught his notice, for as I brought it back to my side he turned to look at me with undisguised remorse in his eyes. It looked for one suspended second as if he was imploring me to come back. But a moment later his jaw was set, and glancing away he bit into his cold pipe, stoic once more.
“I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to intrude on your inner workings, Holmes,” I said after a pause as my friend tried to smoke his pipe, long since gone out. “Just tell me to mind my business if my concern irritates you.”
“It does not. It never could. But I feel at the moment it is misguided, when we are –”
“We have nothing to think of until the light goes on in that window. I can see something in you which disturbs me greatly, and that is a far more urgent concern than the trouble we already know. It makes me wonder whether…”
Holmes set down his pipe finally on the arm of the couch, seeing to it far more closely than he seemed to be listening to me. But I knew he was not one to deliberately ignore an address, and as my words fell off he grew more still, evidently quite tense with anticipation. When I continued to say nothing he did not move much more except to fidget a little with his pipe. I found there was nothing I could say, even to the back of his head, about what I feared concerning his mind. Not only did I place little faith in my intuition when faced with Sherlock Holmes, I had no desire to torment him with my attempt at a psychiatric dissection. I didn’t know if it would be worse to be proven wrong or right. In the end I chose to respect that his troubles were his own, and I would not insist on bringing them to light if he meant to hide them so fiercely.
Yet I was surprised to hear a strangely soft, questioning voice when Holmes next spoke, with only a slight turn of his head.
“Yes, Watson? What is it you see in me?”
His tone was not guarded but quite gentle, perhaps somewhat curious – what, he might have thought, does Doctor Watson like to think he knows about me? But I wondered whether there really was anything derisive in his simple question. Reluctant though I was to coldly expose some deeply embedded hurt and examine it under an eyeglass, my concern for my friend (and a small, proud part of me which would not allow Holmes to glory in my ignorance) forced me on – for I thought that if he himself actually prompted inquiry, there must be some desire on his part to have it out in the open. Before I said anything however I quickly swallowed, as if by way of an apology.
“I – I see a great struggle. When I see your genius, and your obsessive love of your work, crippled by… whatever has you so preoccupied, I worry for your state of mind. I’ve seen you at your worst, and in my memory it has never come in the midst of the chase, never interfered with the progress of your work. Only afterwards, or at times when you have nothing else to think of. Therefore if there is something distracting you now, drawing you into silence when we are at the height of the case, then – then I feel it must dominate you entirely. That it might overcome your whole mind until you cannot –”
“You think I am so unhappy that I might consider suicide?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have been so frank –”
“But you were wondering along those lines?”
I was taken aback by Holmes’ morbid calm in the face of this dreadful daunting subject. As I fumbled for my next few words he shared with me yet another look of grim understanding which did not altogether soothe my anxiety.
“I will not lie, Watson, and say I have always been at ease in my mind. You know it would not be the truth.”
“No, I’m well aware – but surely, Holmes –”
“I will not lie, then, and say that I have never thought of it even for a moment. For some time longer than a moment. But for most of my life, I have remained confident that to live is the better option, if one has it. I do not regret being alive at this moment.”
He paused in thought, and I knew at once that his speech could not end on this happy note; the hesitation in his parted lips promised a contradictory clause.
“But there are always those times when blackness descends… thoughts of every nature swarm, influencing all sorts of evil. At those times it seems preferable –”
“I cannot allow you to go on, Holmes.” Grief strained my voice but I was determined to do my professional duty, though I found myself avoiding his grey eyes in order to carry it out. “To think of it, actually to permit such ideas – it’s not natural to think of, it’s not healthy.”
“You think there is some unnatural force inflicting these thoughts upon me?” Holmes asked with an acid taste for irony, the better perhaps to emphasise the sincerity of his emotion. “Or that it is merely a madness, I suppose, to be cured in an asylum?”
“No, never, nothing like that, nothing – of course I do not think you are mad. But it is against all reason to think in such a way, it defies logic – and you, of all people, ought to be concerned with reason above anything!”
“Reason is a great tool, Watson, but there are times when it does not see fit to cooperate. If it was enough to listen to reason and be healed of all afflictions of the mind, all unwanted thoughts and feelings, then I would gladly hear your words and be healed. But what would you have me do to rid myself of human feeling?”
It surprised me to hear Holmes talk of feeling, knowing how he often claimed invulnerability to sentimental diversions. Yet in considering this for a moment I came to feel ashamed – even disgusted – that I could allow myself to believe that my dearest friend was not human for preferring logic to sentiment. I knew probably better than anyone his susceptibility to blackness, to melancholy almost without end, yet it occurred to me that over the years I had accepted these moods as being simply one half of Holmes’s character, and the very frequency of their appearances had eventually taught me that they would always come and go quite harmlessly in their cycles. Their cause, I had thought, was just that he had nothing to occupy his genius, and without a puzzle to solve he grew restless and succumbed to inertia.
But I had given little thought to what it was that lurked behind the barrier that brought him so low the moment the hunt was over. He had spoken of a descending blackness – could it have been that this blackness was in fact never absent, but only kept at bay by the distracting allure of a new case? And if so, although we found ourselves at the height of a mystery, Holmes could nevertheless be overwhelmed by the blackness as soon as our mission turned to inaction – as it had this afternoon.
Was it inevitable that a person of his genius should be unable to function if his logic, his intelligence, were not suitably employed? Was that not an existence equally as destructive and fruitless as that of an opium addict, whose only happiness came in the form of an anaesthetizing narcotic? Either he was buzzing with some new stimulant or he was on his back, or locked away with himself, in the throes of depression because – because he could not stave it off any longer. I felt I was looking at him anew in that moment, though his hollow and withdrawing gaze was so familiar.
Each time he had pined for a new case, I had waited with the same impatience, never so concerned with the meaning of his darkness as I was with finding for him the next solution with which to cure it. Never, I realised, until now, when that darkness actually imposed itself on the climax of our case, had I considered how unfair it was to expect Sherlock Holmes to need nothing more than one of his cases to put him right for good, and over and again as a surrogate medicine. He was human, as he said, and no human was that uncomplicated. What had my old, dear friend been lacking, which might have made the periods of blackness easier? What was there that could do what even fixation on his work could not, and clear away the black cankering hole from his mind altogether? What had he ever wanted in his life besides learning, truth, fascination?
In any case it grieved me to think I had taken Holmes’s intermittent darkness so long for granted, and had somehow assumed that Holmes had born it as lightly as I did. How much had he suffered all these years as I merely grew bored with his sullenness?
“I’m truly sorry to have sounded like I wanted you to snap out of it, Holmes.” I could not disguise my remorse and in truth I did not attempt it. Indeed I feared that I could not convey the extent to which I regretted having scolded him for speaking frankly of his thoughts, especially after I had so insistently wheedled them out of him. Still, I could not see his face well enough to guess how much he was convinced by my apology. “I suppose it frightened me to hear you admit such things.”
“I am not prone to sentiment, to be sure.” Yet he said this almost sadly, and for a moment I wondered. “But in this case… it is a difficult thing to explain. Perhaps indelicate. And…” Out of some nervous compulsion he began to chew once more on the end of his pipe, though he could not possibly draw any satisfaction from it. “Suffice it to say. I am not easily cured.”
“I know, believe me, that one cannot change a feeling at the drop of a hat.” I looked to my friend in some appeal but I was not surprised to see him once more scanning some distant vista far beyond the darkening window panes. “But at the very least – all I ask, Holmes, is for you not to shut yourself away and evade all help when it is offered. What do you have to gain by silencing yourself? Trapping your darkest thoughts in your head to fester? What if – one of these days –”
But I could not voice it. I saw a future in which Holmes, alone and deprived of all comfort, heard a voice over his shoulder which told him it was preferable to die, and he could not argue – but even to imagine this far was too much to bear. Again, though this time with some difficulty, I assumed my professional demeanour.
“If only you would tell me what was so evil in your thoughts, I am sure it could not hurt you anymore than –”
“You might remember that I have not always been silent, Watson.”
This he spoke with surprising vehemence, a violent contrast to his usually soft, measured tone. Finally I induced myself to meet his eye and to my wavering unease he held mine firmly, determined that if I wanted to hear him speak, I would hear him loud and fierce. Yet I could not have exaggerated my confusion, even my indignation at Holmes’ sudden suggestion that he had in the past confided something of that nature, far more apparently than what I wanted from him now. In all honesty I was wide-eyed in my incomprehension.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I will say.” Was there really anger in his escalating volume? “As much as you might like to forget – or perhaps you have.” He looked at me in wonder. In a moment his eyes were dulled with a strange sadness. “How fortunate you are if you have!”
He turned his head to remember some fateful hour I could not even imagine. His appearance of bitter regret, his manner of maintaining some mystery as if for deliberate effect so frustrated me that I actually scoffed at him, suddenly convinced that this performance was in some way designed only to irritate me.
“Holmes, you cannot expect me to follow your complexities of thought when you give no indication what on earth it is to which you are referring. What have you spoken of in the past of such a nature that –”
“I apologise for the implication, for my – yes.” He cut his words short, and in doing so became visibly calmer, though I saw no sign of any real comfort in him. “You may not recall. If not… it is of no consequence. Suffice to say that what you suggest is of no help unless the listener is willing to share the burden.”
“Burden…?” For a moment I could not find the sound in my voice, struggling as I was to comprehend this disquieting word. “Holmes – if something is truly pressing on your thoughts, then –”
“Watson – please do me the courtesy of respecting what I have thought prudent to keep to myself. I know you wish to – ease my mind – but, as you say, you have long known me to be prone to melancholy. Why now is it any more dangerous?”
“I have just been thinking on it, Holmes, and it has struck me that I should never have been so calm in the face of your depressions. You have always been so withholding, that, well, I took it to mean you needed solitude. But I think I have long neglected you – and here is the proof. Even by my side, on the cusp of a brilliant solution over in that house, you are unhappy. It is far more dangerous now, is it not, in the midst of all this?”
“The solution is not so brilliant as you think; it will need only a first-hand confirmation of my suspicions. The mysterious speckled band… well, it is no unnatural mystery. I suppose my mind must have wandered, sitting so long in the warm.”
“And are such intrusive miseries truly never far from your mind?”
I could not look upon my companion’s face and be fooled; some bitterness, some deep, sour regret, burned quite brightly in his eyes. I could not believe it was only a vague, unnamed unhappiness which had befallen him in such a comfortable nest as this. Perhaps it was not the same depression which so often plagued him during times of inaction – perhaps something in particular had come to his mind, something which he had even suggested I ought to remember. For even with that frequent, familiar blackness, there was a sort of fever, a fury I sometimes sensed in him even at his lowest. What was there now except hopelessness, tired and sad and impossibly old?
“I cannot be certain. But at this moment… something must have stirred them.”
“Something? A memory of something?”
“I suppose… more a memory of everything.”
This I could not forgive. How did he think I could stand it, to hear him protest so meekly of his unhappiness, hinting quite maddeningly at some definite origin, and yet be expected not to enquire?
“A memory of everything. That is what you feel I ought to recall? But then I am lucky, I suppose, for not being burdened with it all. Am I not lucky? Honestly, you refuse to share the slightest particle of your ordeal, which apparently stems from everything – the whole of your life thus far – and yet out you burst suddenly that I ought to remember how on one lone and obscure subject you have not always been silent. What can I draw from that, my dear friend? I should either know your whole mind or never hope to know a fraction. And how you can think I would be able to keep up with one part of your everything, when you take every pleasure in reminding me where my mind stands in relation to yours!”
“You think – you think I take pleasure…”
In the strange emphasis of that final word which dwindled into nothingness between us, I sensed in Sherlock Holmes the first sign of a crack. He had looked at me briefly as he exclaimed, and from his expression alone he might have seemed merely scornful of my admittedly stupid accusation. It had in fact been some time since I had heard from Holmes any demonstration of my mental inferiority, though it was not as unusual for me to pick up these little slights as ammunition with which to sting him in turn. Normally he would scowl slightly, or realise that I was more irritated by his coarse manner than his (nevertheless quite true) comments regarding my detective capabilities. But when he spoke I heard something else lurking under, and I felt I had reason to doubt his appearance.
“Well – of course I do not believe you to be deliberately cruel, Holmes. But in the past you have made it your business to remind me –”
“Watson, if you seriously believe that I relish the words I have used to belittle you…” There was no hope of hiding disgust behind derision now as his mouth soured, and his brooding eyes quivered slightly in their fixation on mine. “I could never forgive myself for convincing you as such. As it is I cannot forgive myself for my words… and, for repeatedly proving myself much the worse of the two by how I have aimed them at you.”
To hear such vitriol from that reserved tongue was jarring, and infinitely more so given that it was, to my amazement, directed at himself. The strength with which he poured it out suggested great emotion that had sat building and burning, but I was certain the words themselves were spontaneous, and probably he had not meant to let them out. But more than that, I saw in his face the same weight which dragged down the corners of his mouth, the lids of his eyes, and infused his features with everything black I had already learned to fear in his moods. Could this be it, the source of his dark preoccupation – guilt I had never suspected regarding his treatment of myself? It didn’t seem overly likely. After all, it was as close to a friendly sort of teasing as I could imagine a man like Holmes capable of, existing as he did quite above and apart from anyone within or outside of his field. And I remained certain that he had alluded to something beyond my understanding when he had told me, ‘I have not always been silent.’ Really, what was that supposed to imply?
In the intervening silence I saw that Holmes had once again lapsed into solitary thought, his face a no more cheerful prospect than I had seen it all evening. Again I felt the urge to comfort him, but how many times had he already rebuffed my attempts? He would not share his unhappiness and I was tired of guessing at it. Yet disturbed even now by his stricken manner and frustrated by his continued evasion, I couched my replying words in a sort of grinning irony in an effort to bring levity to this deadly tangent – though I did not truly believe Holmes would respond in kind.
“Are you saying,” I began without warning, with a slim note of anxiety I endeavoured to suppress, “that you regret my inferiority of mind? You wish I was as brilliant as you so that you could speak the truth about me unabashedly – so that you would not have to feel the anguish of insulting me by necessity?”
Not for the first time that evening I laughed in a less than convincing tone. Though admittedly slightly annoyed by my dear friend’s obscure way of expressing himself, I had only meant to show him the ridiculous nature of his complaint, since it had long been established between us that I did not entirely take him seriously whenever he referenced my ‘strange little mind’. But in turning my eyes off the forest glare and over my right shoulder, I found Holmes staring at me grey and sick.
“You believe that I wish for a change in your character?”
“Come on, man – have you truly never said to yourself, ‘if only Watson were as brilliant as I…?’ Even after the hundredth time you have had to explain to me why these footprints could only have been made at a quarter past midnight or whatever rubbish?”
“Never, Watson.” His voice was stiff with defiance. “How could I judge you to be at fault and myself to be innocent? When I have done so little for you, and you so much for me?”
His eyes did not hold entirely steady with mine. I could not tell why but it frightened me in some way to find Holmes playing the role of the feeling, wounded soldier – what I considered my role between the two of us. And it grieved me, beyond what I could bear in the ever darkening parlour. I had wanted only to help my friend in his lonely affliction, not cause him to feel more vulnerable, more destructive still. Yet I suppose out of misplaced indignation I was stubborn in my cynicism. It was no doubt a vain hope, but I hoped nonetheless to curb this fearful debate I had initiated as long as I could convince my friend that there was nothing in our friendship, long and strange and brilliant and infuriating, that I could wish to change.
“Holmes, I am astounded that you would be so generous. I never would have thought it – you, in debt to myself?”
I felt my smile stiffen and fail as I watched my companion’s hand twitch to his mouth in agitation. Perhaps he was anticipating what he would say next – in any case whatever he was thinking gave him serious pause, and it began to concern me that I had said the thing least likely to reassure him. Yet I found myself lacking any words, any way of expressing my regret and my anxiety that he should know I had not spoken in seriousness – but I suppose in a way I had. After all, I considered myself overwhelmingly in his debt, for how many things I could not estimate. It did not matter if his mind was above mine, or if he took himself off like a cat from time to time, solitary but doubtless in his loyalty. It only mattered to me that he did not take himself off for good.
But evidently he was in no mood to strain the affection from my irony. He seemed to think a great deal during the heavy, darkening quiet, to decide on something with agonising concentration. A couple of times he almost spoke but suddenly closed his lips, and would not look my way. Eventually however he faced me, and when our eyes met (his were ever hard) I thought I could sense a surrender in him. I did not feel particularly triumphant. The short breath he took then seemed to say: ‘If you must.’
“So.” He began with some soft finality. “You are convinced of my selfishness. To you it is in my nature, the nature of our friendship, that I disregard you and belittle you. You may not think that I even consider you a friend… merely a useful counterpart.” I could not remember wanting so much to deny something that I was nevertheless helpless to disbelieve. Doubtless the conflict showed on my face, for Holmes had closed his eyes as if to steel himself, to become resigned. When he continued it was with a newly impenetrable expression, to my mind unnaturally calm, but his voice did not quite lose that awful afflicted edge.
“But you must know, Watson, that – that in spite of everything I treasure you dearly, and that… if indeed you do believe me incapable of decency, or of generosity, then you now understand why I am so distracted. You are an uncommon fellow, with an astounding character, and…” He paused, losing his voice, though I could not tell whether through overuse or emotion, or simply fearing to speak the words. “Your kindness has long impressed me. It is something I have noticed lacking in myself; something which I know you have looked for in me and missed. I believe I may have entertained you with clever tricks, but as for maintaining your respect, your –” quickly he swallowed, his throat sounding very dry, “– your love, call it what you will… I feel I have fallen vastly short of your expectations.”
Having thus far addressed only the window and the orange of the dying sun, he turned now and spoke to me directly. I could never tell how he spoke so sincerely and held himself with the stiffness and impassable expression of a postbox.
“Your friendship is a mystery to me, John Watson, as I feel I cannot have earned it. And yet you give it so consistently. Though… I sometimes suspect it may be with reluctance.”
I was too stunned for a moment to speak. Though I grappled with a few words, I could think of nothing except the shimmering stone in my friend’s eyes as he finally spat this desperate fear at my feet. This was, in a sense, the confession I had asked for, but I could not make sense of it – why, after so many years of friendship, over a decade, should he still suffer this insecurity? And I could not understand what he meant by my ‘expectations’, when I had long since given up expecting him to act as anyone but himself, eccentric and difficult as that could be. Indeed if I had wished for a different man for a friend, how easy would it have been to find a suitable person? There were thousands of ‘decent’ people, and I had known many of them, but my friend beside me was surely the brightest and the bravest of them. I wished dearly that I had the same eloquence as Sherlock Holmes so that I might make these scattered thoughts known, that I could quash his fears. However I felt that I still did not as yet fully understand his mind.
“And this is the cause of your silence?” I asked quietly at last, with nothing else to say. “You feel unworthy of my affection?”
At once my words seemed to resonate with some significance for my friend; I saw him jerk his head, almost as if he had quickly smothered an instinctive response. It was clear to me he was fighting against himself, against some overwhelming emotion, and it upset me greatly that it was I who had unwittingly provoked this in him.
“I feel…” he began, in a voice so steady I was taken aback, having been prepared for the worst. “I only feel regret that… things were not different. That I might have done more to earn your… to earn a reciprocation. To deserve it, whatever your willingness to provide it.”
Where before I had been bemused, even ready to ridicule him for thinking so little of himself, I was now once more lost and stumbling in his wake. There was still some meaning to his words that I was not following, which pained my friend merely by its allusion.
“But I don’t understand, Holmes. I am your friend, and proud to be so. What would cause you to think that I follow you reluctantly?”
Holmes then seemed to suddenly lash out with his hand at some invisible spectre and I started quite out of my seat – but it was only a flick of his wrist so as to dislodge the heavy ash from the bowl of his pipe. And when he spoke in his cool manner there was no apparent remorse or recognition of the fright he had given me, quite as if it were part of his rhetoric to shock me to silence, and submission.
“Have you not just described the imbalance in our friendship? You follow me. You feel I should always know more, do more than you, and feel less. And I look down on you from above, caring little for you other than for the company you provide. I think that to you I am something extraordinary –”
“Surely to anyone you would appear extraordinary!”
“But something inhuman to you, or half human. Half mechanical. In fact I have seen it plain in the way you write about me – yes, I read them, those funny mysteries you write. Always so beautifully balanced; the initial quandary, something quite impossible; the strange clue, or the false trail; and I, the brilliant detective, following the scent with his clever quips and the final magician’s flourish. Quite marvellous reading, but to me it only proves how little I am outside of this character you create. You do not see me as you do anyone else, and you do not think I feel what most humans do – in fact you have occasionally stated as much, particularly in relation to personal affection. You write as if I am little more than a clever machine. No, I do not blame you for it. In truth sometimes I am little more; if you see me in this way, it is my own doing. I am often selfish, disregarding others and seeking only what excites me. I have especially disregarded you, and though you continue to accompany me when I ask for you, I do not think I am your equal. In fact I do not know what I am to you, Watson. There is a great rift between us, and it is my wish – only that I had not made it so.”
At this last he was not looking at me, which I found made his astounding speech easier to hear. I felt obliged to deny what he said, to exclaim that I did not truly believe him to be any such thing, and to lay bare my heart. But perhaps clinging to a small sting of spitefulness, borne of my inability to claim falsely that I never had believed such things of him, and with my throat constricting slightly, I said instead so as not to let my profound sorrow overwhelm me:
“You are quite convinced of my own character yourself.”
“Am I wrong? I would be glad to hear it.”
“Then I will tell you that in your mistake you do us a both a disservice. I do not by any means think you to be incapable of feeling, Holmes. And this ‘rift’ – why, to whom am I closer, besides my own wife? Your character does not change that, however mechanical you may be. And my stories, Holmes, are stories! Closer to fiction than the truth. I hope I have not exaggerated your talents, but as for everything else, it is simpler to write as if Sherlock Holmes were nothing more than one of these popular literary creations you so despise. It need have no bearing on reality. All this afternoon I have sat beside you and thought, ‘how pleasant this prospect, and so this company.’ Not that I have forgotten our mission – but it is enough to sit by your side and know that I will come to no danger in your presence.
“And if my feelings on the situation are thus, what do you feel you owe to me? Why do you regret our relationship when you lose nothing by it? I am your friend because you are good, and brave, and… no, there is no way to quantify it. But you speak of me almost like a favourite dog, though you kick it sometimes in your frustration. It is true you are extraordinary, and, as you often remind me, I am not. All right, that is unfair perhaps. But what is it you wish to extract from your relationship with me, Holmes, which you do not already? You enjoy my simplicity – my thankless loyalty – but you are remorseful for having occasionally to reprimand my ignorance, since it cannot be helped? Yes, you might be better with a dog, to which you wouldn’t feel the need to apologise.”
I laughed once more, but it came out cold, and did not belie the bitterness which had arisen within me as I spoke. I cannot say where the anger came from; at once it was upon me and I wanted only to launch it at my suffering friend, whose words had frightened me with their frank truth. However, only a moment after I had closed my lips I felt shame wound me sharply, as I realised the injustice of what I had said.
“A dog, Watson.”
I almost laughed again at the absurdity of the statement, of the image I had conjured, but my breath went out of me when I looked up from my hands and saw my friend’s hard, thin face lined with the marks of tears. Each of his eyes would not seem to permit more than one or two, and by now they were drying, but even so it might have been the first time I had seen them do so in sincere emotion. Watching Holmes in my silence, I began to hear his last words echo around me, and the pain of them burnt in my throat. At last I think I understood that there was no lessening this weight, no brushing off or making light of this particular grievance, just as I could see that I had succeeded well in hurting my dearest friend.
“I – Holmes –”
“What breed might you be, I wonder? A stupid one no doubt.”
“Doctor Watson. To say that I see you as a dog is as false as my declaration that you are one.” He was angry now, and he made no attempt at supressing it in his voice – or perhaps he was proud of it. At any rate I could not look at him in my disgrace. “And if you truly cannot believe that of me then you must think far less of me than even I feared. I have known it, of course I have, but… I had hoped, you know, that you might see deeper – but I am a man of superficial sentiment, am I not? I am clever, but I am not complex. I am up or I am down, one thing or another. And I have no time for, no knowledge even of trifling sentiment. Well, John Watson, it is yours to judge whether you have in fact thought too little of me. A better man, and a far braver man, would not have allowed himself to shrink to the dimensions of a character in a serial, to be reduced to cleverness and arrogance, and indifference, merely for the sake of… hiding the rest of it.”
I could not close my mouth for fear of losing the will to speak, but no words presented themselves to my mind. There was no eluding it now, the significance and the suggestion in Holmes’ halting gaze, and in those last five words I sensed a mine of buried meaning. Finally, sitting in the last starkly pale offerings of the light, I found I did not want to uncover it.
“You need not say it, Holmes. I am – truly sorry for what I have said, for, for accusing – but I suppose it is easier than really listening. And I am sorry. I can’t say what I truly feel with such flippancy, you know. Gravity is something I cannot stomach outside of medicine.”
“Well, Doctor. I feel it is too late in the day to end it now, for our client over there and for myself. I will not bear it long if I am forced to shut it up for your sake, again, and again, and live with the knowledge that every day you will love me less and believe that I do not care a damn – that I am not even sensible of your presence beside me. And that is my doing, for the very purpose of saving you from the grief of knowing that I have loved you – gods –”
As he exclaimed he seemed to resist the temptation to leap to his feet and run through the door, but of course there was no question of his being so cowardly. Instead he held himself quite stiffly in his seat, a darker, taller mirror to myself – but where I was amazed and distraught he was queerly resolute, even as he fought himself in order to speak. I felt inclined to weep with the guilt of how I had mistreated him this evening, and how some unconscious act on my part had driven my friend to – what had he said? To reduce himself to those few worst, trivial elements – but for what purpose I still could not grasp, though the result was plain enough in my dear friend’s grief.
“What are you saying, Holmes? You have purposefully made yourself… indifferent, cold, in my eyes? Do I understand you rightly?”
“I thought – ha, ha, this is irony for you – I thought you might think less of me, Watson, if I did not. And since you do not appear to recall in the slightest what I once told you, well, it would seem that I succeeded marvellously in persuading you that I do not care for you. And I promise it was for your sake. And so, now that you quietly resent my cold superiority, know that you at least have the benefit of not being forced to revile me.”
He smiled, and in doing so he appeared utterly sickened. I watched him until he could not twist his mouth any longer, and when he lost that strength, he seemed to wilt so dramatically that I feared for a second he might collapse. But as ever he restrained his emotion, I think out of necessity as much as habit. It would not have suited his chosen demeanour, after all, to weaken before anything, and especially something as insignificant as another’s opinion of himself.
“I am almost afraid to ask, since you say you have told me in the past, but, surely – I am certain, in fact, that nothing you could say could convince me to hate you, Holmes. Unless perhaps you revealed that you yourself were the criminal mastermind behind each of your cases, and in that case a serial murderer and thief. Not to mention an accomplished and tireless liar at that.”
“It might be easier to confess to that. I do not doubt there are those who suggest that very thing to be true.”
“But I would not believe it in any case, so you could not make me hate you for it. I do not believe that anything would. If, as you say, I had cause to revile you in the past, why should I so easily forget it?”
“Watson – you who understand humanity better even than I – you must know how people can be willing to forget what they do not wish to remember. And I believe that you did not truly believe what I said at that time, and so it was no difficult task to put it out of your mind. And, Watson… I tell you I can go on, as I have, and as I am. I do not know if you could go on, however, and that is something I am not willing to risk.”
Holmes examined me then with some care, watching my face as if for some sudden change of expression, perhaps for a sign of recognition. I could not imagine what he hoped (or dreaded) to see there, and I could only show him what I felt – at that moment disbelief, pity, and an equal amount of frustration and love, regardless of everything, for my impossible friend.
“But you are looking at me with such incredulity, Watson, that I feel I will have no choice but to explain myself in every ugly particular. I cannot see that you will be satisfied until I do.”
“Holmes, I desire only to put you at ease. You are so truly pained that I cannot sit by and watch – but I could not bear to extract something from you that would cause even more grief in saying it.”
“Yet I have said it – and I cannot say it again. But it is here for you to see.”
I could see nothing however but my own familiar friend, and the same sadness as ever. Again I felt the frustration of being faced with the puzzlingly inscribed page which was the face of Sherlock Holmes, and lacking the tools with which to read it. I did not quite dare express my dilemma for fear of once again insulting my friend, but at length as I watched the significant glare fade out of Holmes’ face I grew resigned to the fact that he would willingly suffer an endless ache if it meant avoiding a moment of agony – and in the end that ache, whatever it was, would cause far more harm than the alternative. And so, steeling myself for the worst, I once again opened my thoughtless mouth for the good of my friend.
“You – you have said that you have long esteemed me – but that by some conscious or unconscious design of your own you have fostered my… resentment, towards you, so as to disguise your regard, and so stunted my own love for you. And now you feel the guilt of allowing me to believe you have never cared for me, or so I can make out. But, what, for what sake? I cannot see that, Holmes. There is no reason I can think of to disguise genuine sentiment. I suppose we have always differed on that – or, so I thought, since you have often remarked on the incompatibility of feeling and thought.”
“I believe excessive emotion impedes efficient reasoning, Watson. But that is not the same as feeling nothing at all.”
I was too intent on arguing my case to interrupt myself with another tangent, but this softly stated declaration struck me in an odd way. I almost seemed to recollect Holmes’ words – though I assured myself that it was only because I had been told I ought to remember something I could not, as well as having listened to so many words that evening which told me the same thing. Hearing it again shamed me quite as much as before, thinking how long I had gone on, satisfied that Holmes did feel less than I, less than anyone. Nevertheless, I was determined to prove that Holmes was wrong in his estimation of my love.
“I am truly sorry for my part in this, Holmes. I know it is too late – well, all I can say is I am no more perfect than anyone else, and like everyone else I have always been more interested in my own state of being than others’.”
“Modesty does not much suit you either, Doctor.”
“And irony has always fit you rather well, Holmes. But in any case – I have never believed you to be quite as cold as you make out. I do not expect outright affection. I am only a man such as you, you know, and I know one does not like to wear sentiment so openly. But I have loved you and your friendship as long as I have known you, and because of that – it does not matter that you have sometimes been self-possessed, withdrawn, rude, or… mechanical, as you say.”
“Or even belittling, insulting… or cruel.”
“Cruel?” The slight shock this word gave me forced me to hesitate. As I looked at my friend I found him lowering his head slightly, rubbing his tired eyes. With a short glance to my left I saw grey, and the faintest orange border leaking into a sky of navy ink. Within minutes it would be utter blackness. Seeing this I realised my own exhaustion, and internally chastised myself for my folly in pursuing this wearisome subject. But again I told myself it was ultimately for a good cause, and choosing to forget Holmes’ last remark I carried on into the creeping darkness.
“It does not matter when weighed against the good you have done. And not least of all the good you have done me. Had I not fallen in with you when I came back, I might have fallen off the Earth with boredom. Boredom and uselessness. And I will not forget that you have saved my life, and would have killed for me, or died for me in the past. I like to think I would have done the same. I know the days of leaping about on rooftops are behind us, but I will never have a truer friend, with such a past as ours. I could not say that I want for another. Surely that is enough to persuade you that you are invaluable to me, even if we never took on another case. So then – what do you mean by saying that you could not let me see that you have loved me, as if you could truly feign indifference towards such a weathered companion? What can be so fearful in a true friend?”
“Nothing.” The word was spoken distantly, Holmes’ thoughts somewhere else entirely. Nothing was said for a minute or more – I kept my silence with the thought that my friend did not want disturbing in whatever he was thinking, though it struck me eventually that the longer I said nothing, the more difficult it would be to continue as I felt I should. But just as I began to take a breath Holmes raised his head quite suddenly, prompting me once again to look to the window expecting a light. There was nothing; turning back to Holmes I was quite prepared to be greeted by despair. But his look was hardened and full of thought, far more like the face I saw most of the time we were together – intelligent, determined, and particularly emotionless. I remembered the words: ‘But that is not the same as feeling nothing at all.’ Uneasy, I swallowed.
“D’you know what I was thinking earlier, Watson? Looking through that window? I was looking down on a house in which a woman was not long ago murdered, and thinking how ugly everything was. I think I have reason to be cynical, doing what I do. But even so, even trying my best to forget myself, I cannot see whatever there is to be seen in that country landscape. I can only think – that beauty is irrelevant, it cannot matter to me who am concerned with yet another woman’s life, and after her, however many terrible things which will be presented to me. No matter how many heads are cut off the hydra… but I am not naïve enough to suppose that violence and cruelty could ever be eradicated, by my doing or anyone else’s. It would be counterproductive to despair because all the work I do is never enough.
“No, what I mean is… to me, there is only crime, or mystery, intrigue, something requiring a solution. There are victims and perpetrators. Clients and their questions. Consulting detectives… and I suppose the police. Most importantly, there is dishonesty, confusion. And I put my talents towards sorting it out when I come across it. In fact as you know it is no small hunger of mine to solve, and to unravel, a mystery. But – what I came to think about – was that if I have no use for useless things like the beauty outside and comfortable silences –”
“One could hardly blame you for paying little mind to such things at a time like this!”
“No, but nevertheless please allow me to express these ridiculous ideas, Watson – if, especially, I have no use for an entity such as love for another human being, without purpose or motivation or whatever the saint might have said – I have nothing, outside of my work. And I have read your stories, Watson, enough to know the truth of it. I truly do have nothing.”
“You – you speak as if your work were a mere triviality, Holmes.”
“I did not intend to. I do not regret the work I do, you know. In all honesty I do not want for much – it brings more than a small satisfaction to save a life, if I can manage it. And in any case I’m sure there’s nothing I’d be suited for so much – what with any hours I like and the additional bonus of having the chance to show off.”
“Come now, dear fellow…” My voice sounded scarcely a whisper, though it was so quiet in the darkened parlour that it felt somehow vulgar to speak at all. In fact I found myself made quite dumb with emotion as I closed my lips. And I could see the depth of feeling in my colleague’s face, though he was not prone to emotive expression. But it was in his voice, so low and lilting that in the twilight it might have put me comfortably to sleep – had his words not been tending towards a subject I feared would put me ill at ease for a long time to come.
“I am sorry. I know my taste for the ironic can be tiresome.”
“No, no, Holmes. Forgive me – I shouldn’t interrupt.”
“Watson – if you would rather I resumed our silent –”
“No, I did not mean to – no, I suppose I am getting what I wanted. But, you must know, I did not… I never intended to illicit pain in you, Holmes.”
“Of course not, Watson. I should never have imagined such a desire.”
“And yet I fear I have, in great quantities.”
“If you have, I am sure it was unintended – in any case I absolve you of the blame. I have caused myself pain in spades. Not to mention whatever you have suffered.”
“Suffered? In what respect?”
“As you have said, Watson, that which I have inflicted upon you. I mean by neglect, and disdain, and casual insults – and a show of mechanical detachment which might pain anyone. But we have been over it and over it again, and as the proverbial candle wick diminishes, the point I have had in mind ever evades us. You asked, did you not, what was occupying my mind? I cannot put it into a few words. Perhaps I cannot dilute it into any number of words at all to suit this circumstance exactly – though no doubt there is a term in German for it. But primarily I thought to myself – where was I at? – yes, ugliness, and everywhere another singular mystery.
“As I have said, the work I do is more than work is for most, it being almost the sum of my waking existence. And on the whole this suits me, and my thirst for mental occupation. But the price I have paid for my insufferable cleverness – other than becoming something of a face for marksmanship practice in the criminal world – is solitude. And I do not mean retiring to my bedroom and refusing visitors. This solitude, or to call it isolation might be better, means that even as I sit beside you… I do not really exist.”
“Holmes, what can that mean?”
“It means that – you look at me, yes, and wonder what I am thinking, or what is worrying me. What is it? Some part of the case, without a doubt. And yes, it may not be a bad assumption on this particular night, but on the other hand… You know, all that matters is that Sherlock Holmes is a great detective. It matters not to anyone – and I would not care a damn if not for you, Watson – if Sherlock Holmes lives at all, beyond that. It matters not if he has no choice but to live out endless mysteries in that same character for the rest of his life, because that is what he is and nothing more. After all, what else is he good for? And he will always come back, ready for the next – but the difficulty is that Sherlock Holmes is not a man, he is an occupation. He is a rather well-known name and a neat bag of tricks.”
“Oh, Holmes, how can it matter what they say in the weekly newspapers?”
“It does not, and I would not know what they say. But I am not speaking of the world at large. I am addressing you. And I am admitting to you that I have nothing but the character of Sherlock Holmes, and that is paltry company for the meanest of men. And I cannot retire – no, that is not the way to express it – I cannot separate myself from that occupation, because I have dedicated myself to it as a second skin. Ensuring every day for almost a decade and a half that you, my dear friend, would not mistake me for a man who – who has been warped, beyond recognition, by his love for you.”
“What – I don’t know what –”
“Have I not said it enough! Sherlock Holmes loves nothing but his cleverness. Sherlock Holmes cares nothing for the sentiment of mortals. Sherlock Holmes is a literary phenomenon, I have heard it said, a delightful invention of your own pen, and a singularly impressive character. Outside of a case, between magazine issues, he does not exist, and his knowledge of human trifles and insignificant facts of the everyday is curiously blank, for nothing can concern him but the strange properties of some chemical compound. Sherlock Holmes does not feel, he does not feel anything so awful and ridiculous and so unspeakable as love for another person –”
“But what on earth do you mean by love, Holmes, that is so terrible?”
“I mean love, Watson, love, which I feel must always be terrible because it does not think, it simply attacks. Love about which people sing and poets soliloquise, and which has bent man this way and that trying to explain it, or justify it, wipe it out completely – he has questioned his sanity, his wellbeing, his right to life, and he has long agonized over his right to stand in, in your presence at all – with the result that he has learnt to disguise it, to push it down and deny it, to hate it. And finally to cut it off from himself – from Sherlock Holmes – like a gangrenous limb – but I still feel it, you know, itching. Unbearably.
“And therefore I am a dead-eyed creature who sometimes is overcome with silence, because your presence alone is enough to cause me to remember completely how I – feel – how I so irrevocably feel – and by contrast, what I have done to absolutely ensure that you would never even think me capable of such things. And tonight, all I was thinking was that… of course it is too late even to think of, let alone… but it occurred to me it has not been worth the torture. To watch you and see myself fall a little more in your estimations each day, to see in your eyes a little less of myself, an ever more solid outline around the magnificently imaginary Sherlock Holmes. When I – do you understand me? What I mean by ‘love’, Watson – I am not about to compose a verse – but – will you not look at me? I mean –”
“I do not need to hear – you – you cannot mean that, you cannot mean anything you say –”
“Will you hear me regardless! It has gone on too damned long to be shrugged off once more. I will not hear that I am ill. I will not listen if you say I am mistaken, or that I am – disturbed, or in some way unsure of my own mind. I have long since settled it with myself, you know. I have allowed myself to love you, on the condition that I never allow myself near you, that myself and Sherlock Holmes are as, as – the snake and its empty skin. The latter only holds the shape, nothing more, but it might be mistaken for the creature itself. It is important that I say, of course, that I have never been a person of excessive sentiment, never affectionate or emotive. And I have never loved another soul. But whereas once I was quite detached from feeling, I have since become practiced at forcing it back down my own throat. Do you understand? I have choked myself on it.”
In fact I did not understand. And I felt I did not know the man to whom I was listening, in spite of my eyes and ears and every ounce of sense I possessed, as well as my eagerness for compassion. But it was more horrible still to realise that I was beginning to remember something he had once said to me, and what I had said in reply. Since then I had not troubled to think of it; I must have considered it forgotten by the world. But even so I struggled to connect this and that, then and now. And looking with some slight trepidation at Sherlock Holmes, I finally knew exactly what it meant to have looked at him for so long and seen so little – and yet there was nothing I could do to believe what he said without turning myself mad.
“I believe you have been overstressed by this case, Holmes. You are quite hysterical. And you do insist on eating so little –”
“I am tired, and I am strung as taut as an electric wire, but you will not convince me that I am suffering the symptoms of underfeeding, Doctor. I believe I have answered your question. It is your prerogative whether you accept my response.”
With that he got quite calmly to his feet, and paced slowly to the small table where he had left his tobacco. In the gloom he was less than a shadow as he lit his pipe. For a minute or more I fought with myself over the difficulty of whether I had dreamt the whole thing, the whole admission – for the air around me did not ring with terrible cries, and was so suffused with quiet and dark that it insulated the horror of it all. It did not seem horrible; it did not seem a thing at all, because I could not think in such a place, at such a time. I could only watch my friend in lingering astonishment and wonder who on earth he was impersonating.
“Oh, Watson, I apologise. Of course you ought to be in shock. I could never have wished to shock you, much less… berate you for your quite understandable –”
“I am not in shock so much as – well, I am quite – I don’t know. I can hear your words repeating themselves and they have no meaning. I cannot hear them, just noise and nonsense. I simply cannot see that they bear any relation to the truth.”
“Well. That’s just as well. How simple for you to carry on.”
Suddenly Holmes’s shoulders seemed to shake, and quickly he put a hand over his eyes. The humid air about me shattered into cold. He uttered no sound but the line of his back quivered very slightly, and it slumped in a way I barely believed possible for my eternally poised friend. Without a word in mind I felt a remarkable grief overtake me as the barrier lifted, and I saw rather than heard what he had said about holding up a shape.
“Gods,” I whispered. I felt at a great distance from the safety of the perch on the hill. Instantly I was afraid, recalling our mission and thinking at the same time about the future of things – it seemed quite desperate in every way I thought of it. “How does one go on like this?”
“I can only tell you that there is no alternative. Once you know that, things seem to take their own course.”
He was bent no longer, only one hand at his mouth with his pipe, but everything else was unmistakable in his voice. Unseen, I felt my own tears wet my cheeks. I could only feel sorrow for the man, for what he had lost and the weeping hole in his chest he had borne with a bland smile. And as for what he had told me – well, I could not tell what I felt, other than a great confusion. To believe such a thing was to set a torch to so many things I thought I had known, as a practitioner of medicine and as a friend of this unfortunate man.
Until that moment I had never pitied him, though I may have looked down on him in some way. It would seem however that every view of him was now reversed; he was not a being of lesser sensibility, yet neither could he be fully in charge of his senses. In fact I fought against an urge to feel frightened, and I could not deny that some measure of moral revulsion had crept in the instant I was forced to understand his meaning. But I was not repulsed by him because I knew him still. He was not a man of base perversions, and though he struck a hard profile I did not believe him capable of ill designs. His grief was sincere and deeply affecting. I knew it had come out of guilt, shame, resignation to an impossible existence.
Although I should perhaps have feared and hated him, I could not – and even in spite of myself I had to concede that he must know his own mind, and for that reason I could not easily disbelieve him. Though I could not understand it, I was forced to know it was the truth – and such a heavy truth that I realised had myself at its heart, my words and my image the cause of my friend’s long penitence. How could I bear that responsibility?
“I am so very sorry,” I said without much idea why. I blinked to see him better and as I did he came closer to me, standing almost between myself and the wide window into which he was looking. “But I must say you have never behaved, towards me, as if you meant to – what I mean is I have never felt you a threat. Of all the things… never a danger to me.”
“What could I have done to endanger you, Watson?” It seemed an honest question, one dragged down with the very last shreds of pride that he could muster. I had a sense however that the argument was over between us, no matter what lingered of Holmes’ anger; neither of us would dare start it up again at this late hour. Still, he continued, my unimportant remark apparently unsettling him. “Would it have been so dangerous to you for me to be honest, always?”
“Well – words alone – they can never be a danger, personally.”
“Quite sure, Doctor?”
“I am in this case. And anyway, the word ‘danger’ was at random, I didn’t quite mean it like that.”
“I’m sure you didn’t – but I think I understand the implication. Something along the lines of you becoming the victim of my indiscretion.”
“No, not – what I mean is I would never have feared it – if I must be frank I am saying that I do not believe you to be a different person entirely than that which I know, and never one to succumb to, to – base passions.”
“Besides tobacco, and cocaine. And occasionally morphine from your own provisions.”
“When, besides when I myself have administered it to you?”
“I don’t think often. I don’t think more than once since the burn.”
I found that I flinched away from the mention of that incident. All evening he had not gone further than to allude very distantly to one particular memory – surely he would not now be so spiteful as to speak of it now?
“Well – you know that I mean a different sort of vice. But you are not a degenerate – and, towards my, myself, you… you have never presented yourself as such, and so I could never have been harmed by… you.”
“Of course not, Watson, I would die first. And I suppose by degenerate you mean someone incapable of restraint.”
“I – I mean someone, a man, who confuses… you know, who, who confuses friends, and – those he takes to bed.”
“Oh, that sort of degenerate – the Ancient Greek. Or not even quite so noble as that? Merely the strange, sad creatures who are strangled in terraced houses for their pocket watches?”
“Holmes – you can’t offer them your sympathy, surely, when they have brought it on themselves in such a manner.”
“Brought what? Divine retribution? Is one man’s cruelty justified because another has been injudicious? And in any case, going to bed with someone is another thing entirely compared to taking someone against their will. To me the latter is degenerate, Watson, and I promise there is no shortage of degenerates who take their pick of women. But is that what you meant by ‘danger’? Or was the danger merely that I should make known what you would rather not know, and compromise your peaceful existence, perhaps your marriage?”
“No, not danger, I spoke without thinking. But I only sought to reassure you, since you admitted – your one great fear was that I should hate you, and I do not. I do not know if to hate you would be the rational response – in many people, yes – but I cannot hate one who has done no harm, except to himself. I only wished to convey that. Because I feel that whatever you have said, and whatever I feel towards it, your friendship with me would not have changed for the worse. And you said you had wanted to know if, had you never disguised yourself, I might have learnt to – I might have gone right on living – and you might have been spared all this. But do you want to know if I could? Do you really want to carry the knowledge that you have lived in such pain for nothing?”
“Yes, Watson. Because I am at the end of what I can carry besides. Because as it stands I may have some time left to live, during which I will be happier for knowing the truth, and – I hope, for you knowing it as well. I do not like to live with regret, and I would be glad to be rid of this, the greatest of all in my life, which has brought me – closer than anything has, to –”
His silence was as much of a reply as I needed. A waft of smoke reached my nostrils and I blew it away with watering eyes. The smell evoked so much I could not bear to think on, but particularly it brought me back to the afternoon, only hours ago, as we settled ourselves on the couch in cordial anticipation – so I had thought. I might have cursed myself.
“Having said that, I would not want you to think that you – this – has only ever been the sole cause of such thoughts in myself.”
“Holmes, how can that comfort me?”
“I mean that my nature has always been my nature. You did not change that. You may have caused me to realise much of it, but before and since it had always been the same. Up one day – the thrill of a new enigma, you know – and down the next if it occurs to me I cannot make it out, or if I can and there is nothing more to think on. Your presence actually brought me joy, you know, which wasn’t centred on myself. As well as grief – which was why it was so much more potent, actually feeling the pain of another person for them. I had never known that sort of sympathy. And as soon as I realised what it was, I was forced to pretend I could feel no such thing. I went back into myself and it was so much lonelier than I remembered. And when it was black I sometimes thought of you and felt it sting – so much so that – but I never could take my own life for my own sake, merely to save myself from misery. I suppose that’s why I might have been so willing to risk my life for yours at times.”
With that my last store of resolve was gone, and in spite of some objection from my own pride I began to weep. It was more like suffocating, only for a few moments but I could not easily regain control over myself and the gasping hole in my throat. More than that I could not see – but nevertheless I felt when Holmes approached me, apparently having noticed my collapse despite my making little sound. Realising he was standing above me I felt shame enough to bring my pitiful sobs to a stop, though I was still being blinded by sheets of tears.
“Here,” came a low, smoke-worn voice. Something brushed my shoulder and instinctively I touched it; my friend’s hand, and in it a handkerchief. For a moment without thinking why I clasped both in my hand; the other hand stiffened at my touch, and suddenly gaining a clearer mind I released it, though I took the handkerchief. I allowed it to cover my eyes, no longer leaking, as I did my best to breathe and to think – to put feeling aside and consider what there was, if anything, to be done now that history was done with.
“After tonight – I need never trouble you again, if you like.” The voice was soft but sounded far closer than I had expected; he must have sat beside me so gently I did not feel it. Yet in his voice there was a deeper desperation, even panic, in its urgency to know, than in anything he had uttered so far. Finally I raised my head and found the room much darker than ever, and Holmes only an outline beside me, with the smallest of sparks from his pipe lighting his eyes. If not for the dark he would have resembled exactly the man who had sat there that evening, gazing through the window and thinking things I could not imagine. Still I could not. Despite what he had told me I could read no more of his face – though perhaps it was simple unwillingness to apply the things he had said, mere abstract words, to the flesh and mind and heart before me.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I sniffed, swallowing once to loosen my throat. Distinctly I saw a jerk of Holmes’ head, perhaps with surprise at what I was saying. At once I thought of the moment I had touched him on the shoulder, and that peculiar twitch – my mouth fell open a little in a strangled sigh as I thought what it might have meant, a thought it rather hurt to consider. “I should never wish to abandon you like a dog, Holmes – oh – damn it, forget the dogs.”
I was relieved that Holmes did not latch onto my slip of the tongue. Indeed he had sunk quite noticeably in his mood and in his body, the glint of his eyes now almost at the level of my own. I did not doubt he had no will to argue. Suddenly I was not so relieved at the thought; his anger was less frightening to me than his apathy, knowing him as I did and recognising when he was not merely tired physically. And I did not relish this time knowing the reason.
“Oh, the window?”
“No, or I should say it at once. In any case I fear we shall wait past midnight for the light, and…” With a swift tug he seized upon his pocket watch. I was quite astounded by this sudden agility. “It is not a quarter to nine.”
“My god, it’s been longer than I thought.” With such a ready diversion into utterly meaningless conversation, I was quite prepared to pretend I had forgotten the fact that Holmes had spoken my name so as to draw my attention altogether. But it was always quite hopeless that I should fool Sherlock Holmes so foolishly, and he carried on without hearing my meek interjection.
“What I was going to say – Watson, I imagine you might have already endeavoured to scrub this evening out of your memory as much as possible. I can see why you would. And if that is your outlook I cannot hope to efface it now. But I want to convey to you my conviction, that… nothing need change in our friendship, if you are willing. Or in our partnership. If it does not offend you to work alongside me, well, I should like nothing more. My intentions are as they ever were; quite innocent.”
“Innocent? What can that mean? In what way could my professional assistance be perverted to some deviant aim?”
“If it could, I am sure I am not thinking of it. I only mean that I once asked you if you wanted to assist me in my work as a consulting detective, and I am asking again for the same reason. Your assistance has often been useful to me –”
“You are quite capable of working alone, of course.”
“No, I do not mean – your presence alone at times has been a help in itself. Your ears, your eyes, in addition to my own, and not to mention your… natural gift of putting one at one’s ease. It helps a great deal in extracting information. But you know apart from anything else that it has been a fruitful partnership, and to break it up would delight half the criminal networks of the south of England. So there is that.”
He seemed so much more like himself as he usually was that it seemed almost a deliberate defiance of my own instinct for taking the least resistant path to disbelieve the appearance. But such an appearance at this hour was quite enough evidence that he was nothing like himself, for him to make such an unlikely transformation. He did not speak in lavish praises and at all costs he avoided my eye, but nevertheless I thought I understood that he was pleading with me as only he could. I thought it was no less than a purposeful choice that he alluded nothing to my qualities outside performing in my own professional role. He seemed quite as cool and detached as Sherlock Holmes ought to be. But it was a lie that I for once saw through.
What he said sounded as if he would be willing to – as it were – change his mind, to simply stop feeling those dismal hands about his neck. It was a terribly sad thing to see, for it was yet another falsehood for my sake, and in fact he was offering me the chance to bury my head in the sand so we might both pretend as go on as ever. After breaking that façade with such a cacophony he was going back to see if he could prop it up again, without a word, requiring no mutual signal except the Englishman’s birth right, the utterly fatal maintenance of civility even as under the thin white sheet, the glass splits apart. I remembered then the strain in Holmes’ voice when he had put the question to me of whether he ought to run tonight and never look on me again. I had no doubt he would have done so if I asked. It made me quite sick to consider that if I had wanted him to go, he would have gone and he would have hung himself within a fortnight. But perhaps hearing that I wished no such thing had so relieved him that he had decided quite rashly to keep me with him by whatever means.
“I would not wish for our partnership to change, Holmes.”
“Yes, it would be a terrible waste.”
“Neither our friendship.”
“Quite. In that case –”
“But I will not have this. Ridiculous games of charades. As if I can shut my eyes on one discussion and just like that it has never occurred. I have not forgotten and I have heard enough and seen enough… that I shall never forget it.”
For once I managed to look him in the face as I spoke. A pain clasped me about the stomach but still I looked for the sake of the intractable respect I felt for the man, one which could not be effaced though I half felt that he had sat beside me just now as someone altogether different. But of course there was no difference except in how my eye coloured him. It took some resolve on my part but surely for my friend it warranted infinite courage to meet my eye, and for that I would not succumb to cowardice. I saw his hands twitching on his lap, holding tightly to his pipe. And at the same time his face was hard. To show feeling was practically death, after all.
“Well then, Doctor Watson. If your memory is sufficient – we need never uncover the matter again.”
It was not hard even in the dim to see the shape his mouth formed, but for all the physical similarities I would not have called it a smile.
“Is that what you wish? Nothing but the same?”
“It has certainly lasted.”
“No – impossible.” I shook my head as if I was quite as certain as I sounded. “It might have lasted in my ignorance but even then I cannot forgive it. To have you so often close by – a near constant companion – and know nothing of… the state, your state, of… it was wrong to have missed it, but how much worse to go along willingly with the pretence? And to allow you to admit nothing as if nothing were there –”
“By which you mean you do not wish for me to lie to you any longer.”
Was I mistaken in thinking I heard a strain in his voice then? It could hardly be blamed; I myself was exhausted beyond any outrage. Outwards he looked to be calm (though all I saw was the edge of a shadow), to be merely thinking rationally, as was his occupation. His voice however seemed to urge towards some resolution. It was a queer instinct but it was quite persistent, and here, I imagined, lay the hope of all of Holmes’ voiceless hopes. Though he said it even with some bitterness – as if I could even in madness dare to chastise him for his dishonesty, as if it were my destruction that any such falsehood had worked – I hoped with the sincerity of a belief that he would not stall himself by casting blame for any untruths, but rather forget it all and only live as best he could. Though as for that, I could not begin to see the way.
“Lie? To lie to me… I would rather you not do suppress what is in you – but for the sake of achieving health, Holmes, and sanity.”
“Then – in that case – the poison must be got out? Seek out and purge myself of whatever it is that addles my brain?”
“No, I speak of emotional sanity – I do not mean to suggest any genuine mental imbalance, but – but the best of us may be… confused, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, Doctor. The best may be greatly uncertain. But I must confess that I sense a great deal more confusion in you, dear Watson, than I myself feel at present. I believe I have given you a thorough account of what may be written on the walls of my mind. It is quite plain to me. Is that where your confusion lies, Doctor? Or… well, one may choose to disbelieve a great many truths in order to preserve the far greater truth of one’s identity.”
“Holmes, please do not misunderstand me. I believe I have heard you, at last, have I not? And you will forgive my indiscretion, but to be frank there are few decent men who would not sicken at such a thought as – as – damn it, need I utter it?”
“No, Watson, I think your stammering is far more eloquent.” This he said as hard as I ever heard him, and raising his pipe to his lips he found no further need to speak. As I watched him in my ever dawning dread I saw his eyes travel the distance between our window and the manor below, and seeing nothing of note they grew cold in their distance. With every new speech some new blockage seemed to come down in the middle of our shared seat, so that we sat quite stiff, though I could not see that either of us were the antagonist – not, at any rate, through any deliberate device.
“Holmes, I am not naming you at fault! You do not disgust me –”
“A fine encouragement, to be sure!”
“I mean only that you do not sicken me as you feared, not for any reason. It is the thing itself – the idea – but in truth there is no solidity in this idea. It is only men and the actions they perform. One cannot hate an idea. Instead one hates a great many people for the sake of an illusory thing, an intangible cloud – as if their persons can be equated with that thing. But I have known men who were feared for the sake of the faith they practiced. I myself have experienced prejudice on account of my mother’s Irish ancestry, as if such history could wholly colour one’s being. And my wife would attest to the fact that there ought to be no legitimate reason for intelligent women being denied much the same position as men in the matters of politics and social ordering.”
“I believe you have missed your calling as a women’s rights activist, Watson.”
“Please do not deliberately antagonise me, Holmes!” I stopped in the wake of this exclamation for one moment, a knot about my throat at the thought of the precipice upon which we were so delicately balanced. It might not take much to provoke my friend to tip himself over in this smallest dark of the evening. But watching him closely now I noticed nothing but the same miserable lines edging around something of a smirk. In the brief silence he smoked and he must have thought as furiously as I, though as ever there was no sign.
I looked at him so long then (perhaps only seconds, but each one fell heavy and sharply beating) that I found myself seeing again what I had seen an hour or so before, and wondering how it was that something ill still plagued him. Only when his metal eyes twitched and could not reach me did I remember fully in a sick flood – and my body shivered, and I sank into a cold chill that caught my throat and my chest so that my only relief could be to move, to stand up and walk to the window, then as far from it as I could within the soft and unlit sitting room. My companion remained, and I could not turn in the room so as to escape him, but in that moment his stillness was like an absence in itself. Yet this was relief only as long as I did not think how loathe I was to leave him there.
“You must know what will come of this, Holmes,” I said at last, once I had worked myself to the edge of what agitation I could bear. From the couch there was a soft rustling, and facing the far wall upon which the last lights were dying I caught the scent of the city in a faint haze of tobacco. Against this awful ghost I fought for some resolve. “I will not conceal it from you though you may wish me to. But you will have no relief except that which you are willing to make for yourself.” In spite of myself I turned towards him, but he was just black amongst blackness. Yet even the meanest shadow of himself stirred a great sympathy in me which effectively strangled the voice of the doctor, and left only the voice of the friend able to utter sound.
“I cannot absolve you, Holmes – if that is what you wish – for I cannot know how your mind speaks to you. But you certainly know how others will respond. Others who do not lo – know you – as I – and even I must confess my extreme confusion, and it seems I will never cease to hope for some explanation which will excuse it, as it were. You are not in your right mind, for instance – but then, how am I to know? And what if you are in your right mind? What does that say of my mind, of every apparently upstanding and unsoiled mind in this nation, which righteously abhors perversion – which declares it a crime and a blasphemy with the sort of conviction which is indistinguishable from truth?”
“The crime of which you speak is not my crime – but I think to this society the act itself alone is godly compared to the motive which one fears may dwell beneath.”
Holmes’ voice was cool, dry with smoke but quite without emotional distortion. I found myself stepping closer to him in some vague distress, wanting vainly to plead with him that he should cry, or scream, rather than turn himself cold again. But I wavered hopelessly until he had downed his pipe, and I found I could only respond in the same flattened tone.
“What motive is that?”
The breath which stole quickly from his lungs in a wisp of smoke sounded to my ears like a sigh. But if it was such a breath there was no telling what could be its single meaning.
“Desire – affection – love – you have been married ten years, Watson, I am sure you are familiar with such things.”
“Holmes – how you can speak of my marriage in the same breath as – alluding to such an act of unnatural lust, of gross perversion of – my god, man, are you quite without decency?”
“Debatable – but your response is I suppose illustrative enough as to my argument, for I see this is what decent men, such as yourself – and I attach no blame in this, Watson – what they truly fear. After all, is it not utterly opposed to decency that a man should share himself with another man in such a way –”
“I understand you perfectly well without any further explanation.”
“I am sure you do, Doctor. You are a man of the world – albeit a smaller world than you might realise. Yet is it not therefore some comfort for you to think that if such an act is committed – and I hope I will not shock you too much if I tell you that in London alone if a dozen men are arrested, there are still a dozen more choice meeting-houses for each man of which the police are entirely ignorant – if we are forced to accept therefore that such an act occurs, then for one such as yourself, how simple, how comforting to believe that it is an entirely indecent thing? That it is, if not evil, then at least a misdirected physical urge, a manifestation of a disturbed imagination – rather than potentially no more unusual or even unfeeling than the quite ordinary relations you might share with your wife?”
“Christ – Holmes – I would kindly thank you to leave my wife out of this discussion!”
“Of course – I apologise, Watson. But no offence was meant to her, or even to yourself. I believe you possess more innate sympathy than almost any – I cannot think of talking to anyone else in this way without – and you understand it is torture for me as much as you, and perhaps more, if I am not less sensible of emotional pains than you are. But you are a rare man for your charity, at least, and therefore I trust you to listen if nothing else. What I only hoped to suggest to you was the ridiculous sexual paradox facing humanity in this age. A man must be virile and potent – yet he must be damned unless he indulges in any proclivities outside of the fully chaste marital bed. And yet, my dearest Watson, if every man who has ever indulged with an unmarried woman were criminally and socially damned in the same way as the homosexual sodomite, I believe the country would be suddenly bereft of near half its populous.
“And I could only laugh if you were to insist that those adulterers were committing something innately morally decent, something entirely without base lust and perversion, because a woman is the object. You are not truly naïve, Watson, and in fact I think you are far more experienced in this capacity than you might care to admit. Indeed it is an area – for me, it is untouched in any respect, save what I have heard and seen. But you will know of what I speak when I say that the ladies who walk in London at night are not often receptacles of heavenly love.”
“Sodomy – prostitution – adultery – it is the grime, the filthiest stain on any society, and you would have it said that it is the standard by which we must judge ourselves?”
“You have said it, Watson – on any society! Such things are inextricable from society itself. To ignore it, to hold oneself up as a higher being, or to treat it as an anomalous detail, were to divorce oneself from the reality of one’s society as a whole. Such is living in ignorance – and to grant oneself the position of a righteous judge whilst remaining ignorant is cowardice itself.”
“You are a damned incurable cynic, Holmes. And from the sound of it, something of a Socialist.” I laughed grimly, utterly devoid of humour. I wished I could have occupied my hands and my mouth in some way as Holmes did with his pipe. From time to time however its smoke seemed to shiver, and Holmes would put it down as if hoping to cure the shake in his hand. Standing as I did out of his sight entirely I had no need to mask my weakening face. “But then, are you not perhaps guilty of the same kind of judgement? In your fantastic ivory tower of brilliance and genius, of health and morality – and not to mention considerable wealth?”
“I will not attempt to defend my considerable wealth, except that it might perhaps prove I am not a good Socialist. At any rate it is merely comfortable, and most of it will never be touched by me. But if I sit in an ivory tower, I assure you it was built on the bones of real men and women.”
“I feel that is something of a confused metaphor, Holmes.”
“In any case.” He took up his pipe by compulsion, but its smoke did not seem to relieve his nerves as he talked over himself, determined to tire out his tongue. “I have worked and lived amongst the poorest and stupidest and cruellest, and the most suffering and crippled and licentious. These are not always the dirty cringing beggars who shuffle over the cobbles and appear crudely drawn in newspapers as if to warn the public of a lurking epidemic. These may be very rich or very ordinary in appearance, though often you will find them in the same poor corners. But in short I have employed myself with criminals for as long as I have been free to do so. And what may be despicable in the eyes of the law is not always so simply defined in reality.”
“And so we must prostrate ourselves before these poor suffering creatures, because their only crime was to be mistaken for true sinners by us nasty, blind fools? Because corruption, and social decay, ought to be embraced because it is inevitable?”
“I would only remind you that we are not of a different species to those dragged off in carts or beaten with their own shackles. We who remain in our towers are not invulnerable to such a fate, just as sin is not a permanent state. If one believes in sin – I personally believe only in injustice. And, by extension, justice itself, though it is far simpler to identify its opposite in practice. But in very few cases is one’s whole character reducible to sin.”
“Yes, Holmes, and I have agreed with you, have I not? I abhor undue prejudices – but it is another thing to revile the worst in a society, even as one understands or offers sympathy to those individuals it infects. But sympathy must have its limit when its object is remorseless. The difference between a patient and a criminal is often only that person’s comprehension of their actions, and thus their willingness to reform themselves.”
“For many individuals I am in utter agreement, Watson. But in this particular case I feel you have mistaken what is objectively criminal for what is truly harmful. Except where one party is willing and another is not, where is the place for remorse in this? In any matter of human relations? Indeed, Watson, I myself may have misled you – for what agony I feel is solely for your sake and for my own, where I have torn myself to nothing for what seems the unworthy reason of protecting myself from your hatred and yourself from my unwanted affection. And I would not have your life upset by me for any purpose. But nevertheless, one thing I will always refuse is any obligation to reform myself for the sake of whatever might be called propriety. Indeed, I will refuse your conviction that there is anything innately wrong in the sentiment itself, whether perverted or disturbed or confused or, god help me, sinful!”
“Innately wrong – Holmes, the issue is not of abstract moral questioning, but of the tangible degradation which occurs as a result of every uninhibited desire. As, as you have told me, you have inhibited yourself to the extent that you have caused destruction to yourself, but that in exchange for preventing any harm coming to – anyone – to whom you have evidently worried you might bring harm. The trouble was your resistance to any sort of openness, even that which might have offered relief. But that kind of – well, dare I say, noble struggle, if misguided, cannot be related to those thoughtless hedonists who indulge in any and every desire – and I include those adulterers who go out to see girls and leave their wives at home. My youth might make me a hypocrite, but since I have been married I have always been faithful – and if one cannot then one simply should not marry.”
“And a miserable wife aside, what is the great social cataclysm which will result from said adultery? The pillars of society would have crumbled long ago if such were the outcome.”
“Oh come, man, do not make a shield of your own detestable pessimism.”
“I could say the same for your simpering piety! I would never have imagined you to be so determined to uphold Britain’s virtuous purity singlehandedly. You have seen many of the same slums as I, have you not? Why all of a sudden this fixation on social degradation, as if it were private licentiousness and indulgence themselves that bred poverty and pestilence? You are too wise a man to fool yourself with the old myth that the modern age has brought along with it moral decay such that our fathers would turn in their graves.”
“But can you deny that the world is a larger place than ever before? And that we have seen greater freedom in our time than perhaps in any throughout history? Does this not mean greater license?”
“I cannot possibly deny that which I have no means to disprove. But as to your latter point, I would remark firstly that each era moves itself in the minds of humans quite naturally towards social progress, and there has never been one which did not believe itself to be somehow freer or better suited to life than any which came before. I promise you our age will prove no different in history. And with such a belief comes the same paradox, time and again: Can you not see that we live in the greatest, freest and most revolutionary society that man has ever known? And therefore, do you not see the depths to which we have allowed our pitiful natures to fall, utterly without restraint, so that we are dragging ourselves ever closer to our basest origins by denying the wisdom of our peaceful ancestors? The paradox of simultaneous progress and regression – it only really suggests a permanent conflict of human ambition with human nature.”
At this he stood up in some agitation, and seemed almost to curse in a ghastly whisper. For some moments he did not move, did not appear to know whither he wished to go except that he could not bear to sit unmoving any longer. The almost total darkness about us robbed him of his face, and yet I imagined I could make out terrible anguish – though more likely I heard it in his breath.
“Secondly I might put it to you that the freedoms we hold so sacred are for many not approaching what they deserve. But it is never the quite ordinary men who write history, and I am sure that those whose existence represents the least threat to the great social order are those for whom a country’s particular freedoms seem perfectly adequate – and those men are invariably holding the pen.”
“My god, Holmes – I beg you, though I sympathise with you beyond whatever words I can offer – but I cannot idly listen to your ceaseless assertions of your own wisdom. It is as if a certain amount of experience with crime and poverty has revealed to you alone the secret truth, that men are doomed to live as blind animals forever! You are not always so pointlessly gloomy, I know you are not.”
“My only aim, Watson, is to demonstrate to you that your idea of my so-called noble struggle against my nature is purely indigestible shit.”
“Holmes! What on god’s Earth –”
“I have struggled, indeed! But if you truly feel… if you can – if that is your sole comfort in this, that I have done all I have done because I am a suffering martyr who chooses to save you above myself – saves you from the horror that is myself – if to you, that is the right course? The truly noble course, in spite of all duplicity and misery and quite selfish self-preservation, where the other were in some way criminal, tantamount to rape or violation, because one commits the unpardonable offence of bedding the wrong sex. No matter that the other is willing – is equally responsible, equally desirous – no matter that the other is a person who wants and loves just the same – but here is the snag. The love alone, such as my own, if it is not mere insanity, may be pardoned for its sexual purity, but never can it exist in such a degraded state as that of the sodomite.”
“Love – if you could know the meaning – it has no place lurking in disgusting corners and shrinking from the light! It cannot thrive – it cannot exist between hate and revulsion. And it is worthy of ridicule indeed that you could presume to associate love and – and – semi-masturbatory practices, a narcissistic expression of unsatisfied lust which finds an outlet anywhere which –”
“Then you do not believe any of it? Achilles – Alexander – Caesar – Marlowe – or perhaps the infamous Wilde, you cannot have avoided that scandal a few years ago.”
“The man’s eccentric to the point of pathological detachment – and yet he has a wife, does he not? And several children?”
“And if the boys he befriended had been girls, he may well have had many more children, and none of it proof of love, or its absence, in either case.”
“All right, Holmes. I see you are quite unshakeable on the subject. To debate with you is unwise at any time, and… well. I suppose, after all… I cannot deny that which I have no means to disprove.”
After an instant of indecision, Holmes lost strength and fell back into his seat. He was looking towards me no longer as far as I could tell, and though I supposed I had to be as obscured by the dark as he was, I only now allowed myself to bring my hands to my face in my resignation, and to slightly blot my eyes. It was surely too early in the evening to feel such exhaustion weigh down on me. Yet I thought then over what we had both said – never could I remember speaking so candidly and so urgently, as if somehow a life was at stake in all of this. But in making an effort to disengage my instinctive emotion, and my tendency to run away with my own hysteria, it became increasingly clear to me that nothing of what my friend had said ought to worry me as much as the fate of the woman in that miniature house down the hill – let alone to the point of forgetting her entirely.
As if to assuage my rising guilt I paced closer to the window, checking for the hundredth time that there was no light. Still the darkness held on its face. However, with the house apparently holding my attention, I could for a time keep my distance, and my silence, without seeming deliberately to hold aloof from Mr Holmes. Very likely he was not fooled in the least, but he gave no sign that I heard. I heard nothing from him at all, though I could see the dimmest glimmer from the end of his pipe in the glass as he inhaled. The peace and stillness outside of it was quite oppressive, so that I would have believed it to be the earliest hour in the morning which will seem endless and dead to one who cannot sleep and cannot rise out of bed for fear of never sleeping again. In such a dark a few stars seemed the brightest thing, and they were no more comfort than the light on the end of a pin.
And yet suddenly there was no urgency anywhere, nothing in my body that could channel it. I felt merely a throbbing of a new sort of guilt for which I could not account. At any rate it made me ashamed of whatever poor evidence I might have used at my friend’s expense to somehow damage his credibility, and especially that rhetorical flourish I loathed: O tempores! O mores! Oh, damn it all, for all his faults he was not wrong when he named me a hypocrite, and a falsely pious fool.
“Holmes…” At something of a loss I turned my head towards him, and found his face very dimly lit by the moon I could not see from the window. He might have been insensible, so blankly he looked out. There was not even quite the same thoughtful melancholy I had witnessed earlier – I could simply read nothing. Whatever I had been hoping to say, the traces vanished and I found myself wanting only to bring the night to a close in a manner suited to our mission. “Ought I to put on the light? I suppose they do have electric bulbs.”
“We might see the house better in darkness,” said Holmes flatly, and I had no heart at all to defy him. It seemed somehow inappropriate to bring light to the room in any case. But with that I felt myself stranded out at the edge, with nowhere I could conceivably move to without putting a crack in the very fragile ceasefire we had. Neither could I stand where I was and watch Holmes’ face without a sound – and so I endeavoured to make more for its own sake.
“When – when we reach a conclusion to this case – do you think it will be tonight?”
“Yes. I believe there to be one ready explanation, and its confirmation should be imminent.”
“All right. Well, it being – half past nine already, without any sign, I feel it shall be very late before we retire. In that case, I believe I shall not wish to go home. Mary will not worry. I believe she trusts you – well – she may occasionally resent the hours you keep, but I think she must have faith in your particular methods. Anyway – if you like I can take this room for the night, and you might, if you wish –”
“I believe I will be returning to Baker Street, whatever the hour.”
“Yes, all right. In – in that case – you do not have a lodger, do you?”
“I do not believe so. Nor do I believe you would have remained ignorant of it, considering the frequency with which you visit.”
“It is not so frequent as it was, I fear. Yet if the room is vacant –”
“They are your rooms, Watson. So I have always considered them in your absence.”
“Oh, Holmes,” I said with a soft plea, though only so loud that I might hear. I did not now doubt that he was lonely in his strange bachelor’s existence, and intolerably so. I felt a pull at my heart, and for a moment thought how glad I was for Mary, whether she was sitting up at home or in bed, perhaps reading, perhaps already asleep, knowing how she liked her early mornings. I missed her then quite unlike I had ever missed her whilst I was away for the night. And as fondly as I held the years I had spent at Baker Street I knew, with some guilt, but beyond a doubt, to which home I would rather return.
But Holmes – I had long since abandoned the possibility that he would ever marry, or even feel so inclined. He had made it clear to me in the past that matters of romance and domestic bliss did not interest him, and that it was for his work that he lived. This to me was easy enough to believe, to comprehend, not least because there could be few women alive who would have put up with him for a lifetime, and even fewer whom Holmes might see cause to admire. Indeed, I believe I sensed almost from the beginning – and of this fact I had seen evidence before this night – that Mr Holmes was personally unacquainted with and indifferent to the sexual instinct.
I was not sure that he had contradicted this when he had told me – and yet he had professed his belief that a certain sexual instinct was not incompatible with – gods, it was a love which here quite well dared scream out its name into the night, and yet I shuddered to utter it. But his point, I suppose, whether or not it did apply to his case, was that if I did hate love and desire of this sort, I ought not to make an exception for him because he was my friend, and leave no room for mercy in any other case of similar perversity. Yet it was a harrowing task to undergo, for I knew nothing of such people except those scant cases in medical journals or scandals in newspapers. I personally had met no sexual deviants during my time at the asylum, but no doubt they were there.
Even to me that did not seem wholly just. I could not recollect a single patient in that place who seemed anything but lonely, malnourished and depressed, and all the worse for being treated almost like idiots or animals rather than men and women, no matter how ill. The place was closed several years later, and I heard of some patients being released to their families, others transferred to nearby hospitals, others to prisons. There were certainly criminals within those walls, some quite remorseless rapists or thieves or murderers. But most seemed to be put in merely for their relatives’ convenience. Where did the pervert – the sodomite – the homosexual fall upon that spectrum? And what about my friend, who professed his innocence in that regard, but nevertheless counted himself a sympathiser?
I could not comprehend the sort of ‘love’ he had described, though not now because I believed him to be deluded, or more ignorant than myself on these matters, or even because I believed the matrimonial couple to be the sole vessel of true and uncorrupted love. It was only that my own prejudices told me that love could not live in the space between illicit meetings and quick, clothed liaisons, even between men and women. Moreover I had never seen this sort of love, never heard it expressed except by Plato or that Wilde character, both of whom seemed to me equally out of the reach of modern society. And yet the latter was quite as living as I, was well-educated and had made a reasonable impression on the literary world before his unceremonious ejection from it. But his scandal had been so dirtied by the footprints of every mediocre journalist that I could not expect to know the truth of it – his own truth – from the press, just as I could not know the inner truths of the mysterious ancients from their translations. Where were the living men who loved like myself – exactly as I loved and cherished my wife – but for the different sex of their love’s object?
Well. After a moment’s introspection the answer seemed quite obvious – such men, if they existed, would surely seek to conceal their true nature as much as possible from men such as myself, who would without hesitation condemn them as fiends or criminals or simply pathologically disturbed. Looking at it in that light – I breathed deeply, for I sensed myself disposed to break out in nervous tremors – gods, that light threw into relief the vastness of my ignorance. All sexual deviants, after all, might be thought debauched and depraved, if the only ones subjected to public examination were those whose behaviour made itself known by its violent perversity. Any sensible person would make as little noise about it as possible, and they, the docile many, might be rendered invisible.
But surely it could not have been the case throughout history that crowds of such men had gone unseen, uninhibited but unnoticed? If humanity had not changed its nature since tens of thousands of years past, then, by my friend’s reasoning, the sexually inverted man must always have reappeared. Yet while there existed ancient texts documenting common modern ailments and phenomena now more easily explained, I had never encountered the body of literature documenting this element of the population as anything but an aberration. Even the Classical poets and philosophers who wrote of such loves had not advocated purely male relations in place of normal marriage.
And I myself had known a man about whom rumours circulated during my time in Afghanistan. That he liked to try and seduce the youngest and greenest of the men. I do not believe I was shocked by it at the time, perhaps because I knew him to be married, and when one sees what there is to see of blood and mutilated bodies and coldness and detachment then there is little to find disturbing in the swapping of sexual favours in a place with nothing so familiar as women nearby. Although I managed to find them whenever I could, and the shame I felt in handing them coins did not outweigh my growling desire. But if I gave myself license when far from home, I had to give it to the rest of the men who fed some base hunger without resorting to rape.
We would all go back, of course – those who survived – and we would leave it behind. No matter how indulgent my pleasures in my younger years, I did not bring women off the side of the road and drop coins in their hands in England. I do not know what became of the other man – but now, could I swear that his covert trysts were not the symptom of a greater tendency, just as mine were reflective of my still deeper desire for a woman and her love? I could not quite believe it – and yet I could not justify scoffing at the idea as I had, because I did not hold all the world’s truths in the path of my own history, no matter how much I had seen of my own world.
There must have been some sound behind me to awaken my senses, for I blinked once or twice and found myself disorientated in a room much lighter than I remembered. In confusion I looked at the horizon, wondering if I could have stood so long that the dawn was now rising, but looking closer at the window I saw reflected a small flame. Turning stiffly, unaccustomed to movement after so long, I saw that Holmes had lit a lamp on the table by the couch. What light it gave did not reach so high as his mouth where he stood. He appeared taller for it. If I had planned on saying something to him of whatever my rambling thoughts had passed over, the thread was lost by now. In his austere silence he had me unravelled. But he was not a frightening figure, never that, for all his blackness. I was only somewhat in awe, and far too tired to begin again.
“Sitting in the dark is after all too depressing,” he said in a voice eaten up by smoke. I looked between his eyes and the flame – and then it hit, an unspeakable remorse, like a pestilential swarm. Remorse for however I had abused my friend in the past, for the pain I had both unwittingly and quite deliberately caused – and remorse for myself, for something I had lost in all of this. Perhaps a sort of stupid innocence, even in my advancing years, had clung to me still with some defiance and allowed me to bully my friend into silence – gods, all those dreadful days he would sit, locked away – so as to spare myself to pain of losing it. But in the end I did not care a damn except about my friend Mr Holmes. And here he was even still.
“Yes,” I agreed limply. There seemed little point in building to another climax, so I went on almost in the same breath. “Holmes – you will not need to worry in future. Nothing of… of your nature, need… I won’t make you a wall, Holmes.”
“I’m not sure I follow, Watson.”
“You won’t lie to me. I mean, I won’t want you to. It’s not worth it. Nothing of it is worth it.”
“I never lied,” Holmes said with a harsh certainty made cold by the darkness which flickered on his face. I could not know if it was true, but I was desperately weak to object in the face of such a deep well. He spoke again, half a shadow, but now he stood no taller than a man, and one who might have been almost anyone – and if that seemed a blow to me, it was only because I had never quite had him as less than a myth. “To you I never lied in words. And I do not think I will.”
“But you know what I mean. You’ll – I don’t – please, I don’t want you to spare me, or appease me, or… I’m not god, Holmes, I cannot tell ultimate truths, and I cannot presume to know whether there is any right or wrong. But as it is I don’t care. I have no other friend than you. And I don’t believe you are any less of –”
“It was the fire in the vault, you know, and the burn to my leg.”
“Y-yes,” I breathed, stopped short in the middle of a gallop. “Well… I know. I realise.”
“Eleven years ago.”
Holmes seemed almost to turn his eyes downwards, for the flame within them burst suddenly brighter. Yet despite his calm, even bored manner of speaking, he put me very ill at ease in that moment, for at times such as this, when my friend spoke shortly and calmly, I had learned to suspect a great deal that was unspoken that he tossed about in his head. Watching him, I saw that he brought a finger to his lips as he did very often when he thought deeply. He seemed such a lonely figure there, behind that little flame, that I wanted to walk towards him and put my arms about him, to assure or comfort him as I had wished earlier in the day.
But though I felt no personal repulsion from him – and never had, in spite of my shock, not against my friend whom I loved like a brother, no matter his queer, sad love for me – I hesitated because I imagined how he might draw away from me, unwilling to touch me or remain in my vicinity now the gloves were off. He had shuddered even before when I put my hand on his arm – how might he react to my embrace now that he had told me what he had? Thinking all the time that I was mistrusting him, or perhaps testing his restraint – that would be too cruel a trick, no matter the sincerity of my intentions. As it was I had to leave him quite alone, though I could not have said with certainty that it was any kindness to my friend to give him no sign of comfort, and so I did step forward, hoping at least to meet his eye.
“Would that I had burned with the papers,” he said suddenly. I did meet his eyes, very quickly, and the flame was so bright that a panic burned me – I was quite ready to snatch up the lamp in case I saw his hand move towards it, but in the moment of urgency he did not move except to reach for his pipe. It shook slightly in his hand. On my life, I could have wept again.
“I am sure you do not mean that,” I managed at last. When I looked at him, thick smoke came over his face. I was sure the room must stink of it by now, but of course I could not smell it for being so accustomed to his smoke. “You’ve done – so much good. A great deal of good. And – come, Holmes, won’t you sit down with me? You do make me nervous, standing by that fire.”
“I shan’t risk having you burn as well, Doctor. But… as you wish.” He moved around the thin little table and sat quite precisely and without ever looking at me, just as he had sat before. Gently I resumed my seat, where out of I habit turned my head towards the window, black but for the stars.
“I suppose I did burn, Doctor. I was immolated, and like the phoenix… came up anew. Yes, it is a ridiculous image, but I may borrow from the Classics if it suits my purpose. All I mean is that I underwent such a change that I could not remember the man before it. And the sole sound I made about it… you did not believe me, that was that.”
“Holmes, that isn’t –”
“Every action and every interaction I have made towards you from that point was a lie, Watson, but in word I have been truthful or silent. Eleven years. Just under a quarter of my life. But it may be the rest of my life. And I don’t think that allowing you into my confidence at last will shape those years as much as will the eleven just gone.”
“No – Holmes, I won’t have this. If… if you are capable – if you are still able to, to feel, even now, as you have, then nothing is lost to you that you cannot regain. You are not mere machinery. You are not merely the sum of your professional achievements.”
“Yet your stories suggest otherwise.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, damn them!”
In my agitation I twitched my head away, a childhood tic which I had all but eradicated save for moment of extreme anxiety. Holmes might not have noticed the significance of that subtle motion, but it was in some genuine surprise that he looked at me then (though I saw him only in the periphery of my vision), eyebrows high and eyes blank.
“No, nevermind them, John.” I twitched again, though this time I was compelled to look his way at the sound of my forename, so little used by male acquaintances. Its sound here was almost unsettlingly intimate except that it touched me for some reason to hear it so softly spoken. “And nevermind my facetiousness. As you must be aware – I will find a vent for my frustration if I can. Far too often it is you.”
“I would never write another of your cases if this complex may be attributable –”
“What complex is this, Doctor?”
“Why, yours – your belief in your own irrevocably mechanical disposition.”
“Ah. No, I feel you are confusing cause with effect. The cause being myself – the effect being myself reflected in your writings.”
“But, Holmes… in some part I must be responsible, consciously or unconsciously or indirectly, through my words, my writings, whatever it may be. And you are obviously bitter, you do put blame on me, or you want to and will not say it. But if I deserve it – won’t you tell me, put my mind at ease?”
He bent himself over (I heard his spine crack), putting the weight of his head on his hands, clasped under his chin. I saw by the gaudy candlelight how severely tired he was, hollowing out especially under his eyes. He did not close them, however. I knew he could not have fallen unconscious at such an hour unless struck so by a blow to the head, or some villain’s ether. The prospect did not seem likely in this little firelit room.
“I do not blame you,” he said in a groaning rumble. The candle almost overtook his voice. “But I did… resent you, for… not only for your ignorance. Which could not be helped, of course. Your ignorance, and your indifference.”
“I have never been indifferent –”
“Yes, Doctor, by my direction.” He cleared his throat, but something caught and he coughed into his fist, the sort of ugly cough I knew in chronic smokers. His response was to reach for his pipe once more, and I knew better than to come between him and it. “You have no argument?” He asked through the wooden stem he held in his teeth.
“By now it is pointless, Holmes.” The bitter cloud of his smoke floated and sank around us and filled me suddenly with a craving for it, though I had never had the dependence of my friend. Yet I dismissed it and settled for the fumes. “And – I suppose you are right, after all. Aren’t you?”
“Doctor, I cannot say.”
“But you have. You did.”
“Mm. All right. It may be so. But I would like your objection, Watson – I should welcome it.”
“You have refused my objection. What more is there to object against? In the way you suggest I suppose I have always been indifferent. But not through lack of empathy, Holmes – rather through misunderstanding.”
“Yes, and perhaps the misunderstanding was involuntary.” I did not rise to this challenge, remaining resolved where I could have effortlessly begun the cycling conflict anew. My companion must have known my inner deliberation – in fact I thought it marvellous that he should make such a remark without the willingness to carry on the battle, something which I had never had the stomach for, let alone the patience or the energy at this hour – but rather than goading me further he cast his eyes upwards, only briefly, but in the manner of an apology.
“I will listen as ever, Holmes. I desire your honesty above all, especially if I might come to know some way of altering, of acting –”
“So your indifference was not malice, or lack of friendly feeling, I know. But nevertheless I greatly resented the distance at which I often hailed you.”
“You – do you refer to a genuine distance? The fact that I have lived away from Baker Street with my wife?”
“No Watson, not precisely that sort of distance. But it ought to be clear that I grew bitter at the thought of your happiness, of your simplicity of arrangement. From where was I to seek contentment of that sort?”
“I suppose it is out of the question that you might take up the same domestic position?”
I heard a grim sort of chuckle out of my friend. I might have looked at him askance in my annoyance, but really there was none in me. Doubtless it was a vain question.
“Were it ever my wish – who, what poor hateful or self-hating woman would take up with the infamous automaton, and a woman-hater at that?”
“You have not been very generous in your appraisals, Holmes, but I think it comes down to fear – or scepticism, perhaps. Your logic may be: If a woman can be as great as a man, why do they allow themselves to dwell in subjugation?”
“Oh, a woman can be brilliant, she can be exceptional, she can be a wit or a bore or very stupid, very cruel, very ordinary, as well as any great or terrible man.” This he rattled off with not a little irony in his manner, yet I supposed it was due to distaste for my patronizing rather than insincerity. “Yet I have no sister, no aunt – I suppose I had a mother in some respect – but where is she to whom I could ever relate? I have been amongst men all my life – and before you begin to theorise, Doctor, remember my brother, and any number of normal boys who came up in the same way. He is – he is a case for a specialist, but I believe his interests are normal. You yourself might have been similarly deprived, I would guess, perhaps until the end of your schooldays – and of course into the army. Well, a more prolific Don Juan I have rarely known in the early years of our friendship.”
“I would thank you not to hint at such things if ever Mary is about.”
“Yes, yes, I have not forgotten the art of tact. That I practice very well – it is indiscretion and familiarity I sorely lack.”
I scoffed at him unthinkingly, quite unable to distinguish his irony from his sincerity – but just as I quieted myself and thought more seriously of the profundity of his remark, I heard his own dark sort of laugh follow my own.
“I’m sorry – I don’t mean to make light, Holmes –”
“Oh, but Watson, it is highly comical. Yes, I can very well see that. I, who am sought out by all manner of sinners – and the innocent have their vices, and their dark secrets – who makes himself quite at home with lechers and their whores and their opium – well, I have blackened my lungs and my spirit equally, perhaps, but you might say I have used a proxy. That damnable Sherlock Holmes.”
“I am led to wonder whether this newfound schizophrenia is not a convenient solution for your unwillingness to face some personal responsibility, Holmes.”
“You will make a fine psychologist yet, Doctor.”
“Well, unless you wish to convey that there is another spirit inhabiting your body, who half the time takes control and commits acts in defiance of your own will –”
“And perhaps a successful novelist! They are invariably unoriginal.”
“– then you cannot claim not to have done what you have done in your own guise and under your own influence!”
“My dear Doctor Watson – you remember the snake and his skin? I am the snake, and I am curled beneath a stone whilst my empty skin sits in the sun and gains the attention of the world.”
“A dead snakeskin cannot solve a murder, Holmes. It cannot bear the pretence of being alive.”
“All right!” He gave a sign with his hand, and drew in deeply from his pipe as if to extract courage from the dwindling smoke. “What I mean is that I live a great deal of my life in character. I end up feeling that I cannot relate to most of my actions, that they have been so deliberately contrived and schemed that they are almost an act, almost another person outside of myself. I have made clear the why. It makes one feel destabilised. Quite as if one is a stranger to oneself and must keep out of the way. Gods –” he left his pipe between his teeth and pulled at his watch chain, and his tired fingers did not fumble it. “This same discussion has gone on almost an hour. What a long drudge over so little time as ten years.”
“So little time? You are quite deranged to think it so, Holmes. Or else your senses are artificially disturbed.”
“In the mind’s mirror it all grows infinitely small.”
“Are – are you quite sober, Holmes?”
The faintest wisp of a laugh sounded out at me, and it was barely a glimmer behind the smoking flame which flapped like a moth in some small touch of air, come creeping under the window frame.
“I assure you – well, in a day I have ingested one week’s worth of tobacco smoke – but I have taken of nothing else.”
Why did that seem an end to it? I could not have said what we had discussed, what vital conclusion had been drawn from whatever it was that meant all words had found their natural end. Indeed I do not think we had decided anything, not really come to any agreement if that was what was needed – I did not know, I was blind and being led blindly. But as it was there came a moment then in which all was tired, and dimly flickering, and there was no real light but on some surfaces and over my friend’s out of place and greying hair there was a soft covering like sun that sets out over the sea. And that was all; there were no words.
Without ever knowing I was falling, I succumbed to sleep after a minute or more. Then when out of the blackness I started in an unconscious panic to look at my watch (I soon breathed, for I had been gone less than a quarter of an hour), I put down my hand from my watering eyes and found myself alone, quite unaccompanied on the sofa. I almost did not move, thinking for some reason that Holmes was somewhere behind or around, smoking and in silence, to keep to his thoughts for a time. But as I thought this I stared at the small table in its candle-lighted cloud, and in the last inches of the wick the unfaltering flame lit a great shine on Holmes’ pipe which rested beneath it. And the flame was so still – the whole room had shaken its shape before in the wavering light, but now it remained stoic on its spike.
The draught had stopped – I saw it in the corner of my eye, and even before that I had sensed a wrong presence before I had regained the ability to realise it. The curtains were drawn; there was no longer a view of the world sloping below me, and the coloured dark outside was sheered off. I breathed, and I felt something was lost. Then I remembered the entire purpose of the window and fell forwards off the sofa in an urgent endeavour to reach it, forgetting the weight of my legs under even such a short sleep, and though I jarred my wrist on the rough carpeted floor I came up again well enough to pull the curtain away – and I cried out from my throat, for Holmes himself met me from behind it, sitting up, feet and all, on the seat under the window and hitherto looking out onto dark glass.
“Oh, excellent – would you bring me my pipe?” This he said with only the mildest note of surprise. I could see and hear quite distinctly the heavy fatigue that sedated him so, and this humbled me to the extent that I prevented any further outburst from escaping me, though I might have wanted to growl at him for frightening me. When I had brought the pipe and he had taken it without tearing his eyes from his view, I permitted one timid grumble.
“It must be taxing to think as you do – for it has tired out even your limbs.”
He could not have surprised me more had he thrown up the sash and pitched himself from the window – for Holmes in a mad rush began laughing, almost too sudden for genuine mirth but no doubt sincere in volume, as his barks rattled the windows.
“Honestly, Holmes, my nerves are at an end of what they can take from you tonight!”
“Oh, Watson,” he said amidst a spray of deep-voiced laughter, “you are the only gentleman who in his infinite seriousness could perform such an exquisite parody of my old childhood nurse! How many times she might have said the same to Mycroft, and no doubt to me as well – though I suppose my brother knew her longer – but for your moustache, she was here in spirit – oh!”
“Yes, I am well-renowned as a comedian in my circles. But you’ll forgive my irritation, won’t you, if I am somewhat on edge this evening. I was concerned you had vanished, that the light had come on –”
“There has been a light – no, it started on the upper floor, moving about the rooms. Perhaps these are home to his animals – or no doubt he is a paranoid man by habit. The serial criminal who is not habitually suspicious is particularly stupid, or he is not the man who involves himself in the deed. Even then, the mastermind will exercise caution. This man… I do not think he is stupid, though he may be a brute. Heaven knows he has no higher design than keeping his degraded seat in that house… But, no, our client has given no signal.”
“And what if she will never have the chance? Say she has been – put out of the way?”
“I believe, from what I have seen and surmised, that this man is too greedy and too mean in his nature to risk a loss of his position, and the money he will gain, for the sake of doing the thing quickly. Think, Watson, how the last girl died. She might have been unhappy, but she would not have believed she was in any danger until it struck. And had her sister not heard her dying cry – the fatal clue of foul play – she might not have suspected her death was in any way unnatural. No, this is not a man given to crimes of passion. He will configure it elaborately, at least in his own mind – for the thing is very crude, really, once one is looking for signs of a plot. But it will be a calculated affair, as long as she herself gives no sign that she has smelled his conspiracy. And I do not think he would stoop to kill her for that – perhaps he would beat her, I do not know his temperament. But I am sure she is unharmed. I trust our client is too intelligent, too aware of the reality of the danger she is in, to give him cause to suspect our involvement.”
“I wish I had your confidence in deduction, Holmes.”
“Confidence implies some level of uncertainty. I have not taken my eye away from this window, Watson, and I am certain to the best of my knowledge. And I do not need confidence to convince myself of what I know. I promise you in any case that she is alive.”
I could not hope to unsettle his certainty, and as ever I was loathe to doubt it when the best substitute I could offer was my scepticism, founded on ignorance. I did not know (or believe myself to have discovered) the details of this gruesome case anywhere near as well as Holmes – my expertise was at best limited to sympathy for the victims, which might have motivated me beyond the lure of the mystery itself, but it did not lend itself to reasoning, as my friend would surely attest. In my heart I had only a hope rather than any degree of certainty, but in cases such as this I invariably gave over that responsibility to my companion, and took orders, and carried a firearm on occasion. I felt for my pocket absently, forgetting I had hung up my coat and the pistol with it. No matter – there was no need for it on this side of the glass.
Anxious not to disturb Holmes’ vigil I sat carefully on the cushioned window seat, twisting my body towards the outside, breathing very light breaths in fear of misting the pane. There, after a moment’s concentration, I saw it – the faintest of glowing auras within one of the highest windows. The apparition chilled me after so long without the least sign of life, or urgency, on the house’s face. This was our purpose, after all, but it had long since lost its reality in the fading afternoon. Gingerly I thought back to the brutal sounds that had punctured that calm. By this time I was tired enough that shame did not come – only more tiredness, with the scene itself, lapping like a tide.
“The time feels late, does it not?” I showed my weariness in my cold right hand as I held my fingers over my eyes. “It feels later than it is.”
“It always will in the country,” Holmes murmured, sounding uncharacteristically mystic to my mind. “The lights do not stay on as they do in the town; the people do not move about so. There is no life to lead after dark here except in secret; no clubs, no theatres. Does it surprise you, Doctor?”
“No, I suppose your explanation is satisfactory. But I don’t believe I would be so tired on any other night in the country, nonetheless.”
“No, not any other night. The day has been fraught… the evening, well. You know, I would not object if you were to retire for the night, if you cannot face the end.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said again, this time with only the force of a flat declaration. But my sincerity was evidently not lost.
“I would not dream of advancing alone if it was not your wish.” He had finished cleaning the bowl of his pipe and now took up a pinch of fresh leaf, filling the pipe with great, slow care, while his eyes never left the distant manor window. A few flakes adhered to his thumb and forefinger and with a swift snap they shivered to the carpet. “Not even against my better judgment.”
In that moment, as in so many, I could not make out his intention. If to have me along was against his better judgment, was it for my sake he was concerned, or the sake of the case and his prize? But without needing to accuse him of cruelty or hypocrisy I nodded in silence, and smiled dimly, and laughed without opening my lips. He knew as I knew that I could be as careless with my own life as I was protective of others’, and foolishly stubborn when there came an opportunity to prove it. This came of being a soldier – the fact that I never did fight being most of the reason for my overzealous ambition to stride into danger and mystery. And if alongside Sherlock Holmes I could not prove myself with cunning or genius, I would be stalwart to a fault in my perseverance, and would not allow myself to be persuaded out of action whatever the danger to myself. It was not at random that I had compared myself to a dog, though I conceded it was unnecessarily cruel to attribute my own insecurity to Holmes himself.
“Do not think that by this I mean I find you an inconvenience, Watson – except perhaps when the moment calls for some breach of ethics which you would not allow.”
“It is a wonder I have never written up the case of the shopgirl’s stolen letters and the surprisingly unsympathetic judge, is it not?”
“Unsympathetic towards a mishandling of methods, Watson, which were impeded only by your unwillingness to look the other away for the sake of – oh, I do love unravelling old arguments. It is of no consequence; I mean to say that there are times when I would rather that only one life were put at risk, if possible.”
“Yes, and I will ignore every word of caution on principle, Holmes. I do know what you meant.”
“One day I shall write to your wife, you know, and she will settle you in a more sensible position.”
“Oh, Mary has no fear in that respect. On the one hand she does not know the full reality of our work – but on the other, she knows I am with you. If I died in that capacity it would at least be a worthy death.”
“What I know of matrimonial compassion forces me to doubt that any death of yours would be reconcilable because it was worthy – but I assume you meant it more in irony than as genuine a sentiment.”
“I meant it to express a veiled form of affection, Holmes, and no, not entirely in seriousness. But it is true that my wife trusts you. She has asked me if I would go into medicine, full-time, and retire from detective work. Only as – only for the sake of our children, you know. But she has not suggested any such thing in the years since.”
Holmes had not looked away from the window, but I sensed a strain then which would not have allowed him to look at me had he been able. The relief and the humour had gone, and he was visibly tense in his shoulders, in his restlessly shifting hands. I could have spared him the discomfort and the guilt of bearing witness to my personal affairs (and in that moment I did not fully appreciate why broaching the subject was particularly insensitive) but it was just now forming a great knot in my chest, and for whatever reason this seemed the time to at last remove a burden of confidence from myself alone, as irrelevant and insignificant as it was.
“I’m not sure if you knew – she did carry a child, once. For… about three months. She would not tell me until she thought it must be safe, and it was the most fantastic happiness, to see her so… the next day or so she lost it, and many women would have died with it after such a perfect happiness went. But she accepted it, I believe. She accepted it as her fate and would not allow me to see her grief – I suppose because on the face of it, it was not the end of anything, since nothing had started. I didn’t want that from her but I couldn’t ask… I would have loved the child unspeakably, but I do love her and it does not matter, that was never the condition for our marrying. I believe she is happy.” With a tentative breath I looked past the glass to the forest which grew up to meet the village, falling down the hill. “But there is an absence.”
I had not dwelt on this in some time, and I found myself feeling gradually younger once more, regressing in my mind to that age in which my pretty girl of a wife would fill my day, and I would slowly sink into sleep with her and there was very little else, nothing certainly in the future which might cause us both unprecedented heartache. She was young and therefore so was I, and this made happiness inevitable. I thought of some of the stories I had written in those years, some of which had been the most sensational and popular (in the narrowest sense of the word, for their publication was only ever limited to a few of the southern counties) of my literary career. I imagined how they might have looked had they truly reflected how I experienced those cases. During those years of my life, Sherlock Holmes, though he appeared almost as the protagonist in my writing, came often as an afterthought, as an obscure character in the primary narrative which was my life lived at home with Mary. We needed nothing else. But when nothing else came – after the hope, the actual seed of something was planted – how to return?
At once I shivered, remembering Holmes’ uncanny repetition of that sentiment. Could the two be compared? If the feeling was the same – the same emptiness which yearned for itself to be reversed – then I could not justly feel that one was the worthier cause for grief. At the very least, I fought against that instinct.
“Well – sorry – sorry, you needn’t pay mind to my… Holmes, are you awake?”
“Yes, Watson. Merely resting my eyes, I’ve been straining them today.”
He was, as ever, decidedly impassive, and but for the paucity of the excuse I might not have seen the pretence. Perhaps Holmes deceived himself with it, but as thus far he had permitted no sign of his fatigue to show in any such vulgar fashion as closing his eyes, I could not imagine it was a coincidence that it overcame him at that moment.
“Perhaps… if you are overtired, I might go in your place –”
“No, that is impossible. How are you to follow my directions?”
“You know the truth of the case, do you not? You would only have to explain to me your plan of action, and I could carry it out entirely.”
“And what would be the point, Watson, of resting myself, at the culmination of a case, so that the fruits of my work can be taken from me? Is this not the essence of my vocation, to see the thing through to its solution? I do not think it is unjust to ask for that much, Watson, as solace for my humiliation.”
“For – Holmes, in what regard?”
He would not look over from his window, and moment by moment as I watched him and he blinked his eyes in tiredness, there were many images of a man, flickering, and nobody made up from them. And of course I had no need of his clarification – I asked as a sympathetic offering, to seem as if I had not keenly felt that spark of humiliation, of degradation, burn between us (nor felt myself burnt by it as well, though I could not presume to suggest I had known the extent of his pain). It was feebly done and in the last moments of sound I wavered, watching Holmes flicker and finally, his skin patched in blue and white and yellow that came coldly through the window, finally go dim, and empty his lungs, and moan.
“You are the end for me, Watson! That is all I can say. And I had not asked for anyone, had I? Had I, ever, asked for anyone!”
“You – you bade my assistance –”
“I wanted no one!” His shriek tore out of him and tears spattered down his face with it, and I was made to shiver in silence. “I could – I could not have comprehended it. My brother used to tease me, as a child, that my wife could only be a man because I would never find a woman who would live as I did, amongst filthy experiments and photographs of dissections. But the idea – of desiring anyone – if then I knew, and if even Mycroft knew, that I would never want a wife, then it was because I would not have wanted anyone. Do you understand?”
He looked at me in his anguish, and I could think of no way to communicate my understanding, and my sincere pity, other than to keep my face closed and solemn. But his faltering attempt to hold my gaze finally collapsed then into a horrible shudder, and Holmes clutched at his mouth to silence the moan which became a staggering sob, and once he had let that much go there was no stopping the almost hysterical surge. At last he covered his eyes, and only then could I find the moment to furiously brush away my own small tears. The sound was of a young boy in the truest throes of grief, and very sadly I imagined that Holmes had not showed himself so openly at least since that age. And I – I had not grown up to be proud of my emotions. It showed now, as I watched in cold terror, and thought how I would weep if I had not already spent myself tonight. But why could I not touch him, and show him the smallest gesture of comfort? That even he, in offering his handkerchief, had managed towards myself – something I had never had from any man, let alone Holmes – the machine – my creation –
“I – I tried,” he started again with a great shudder, his voice pinched high like a wail in his throat. In my stillness I could only brace against it and look away into the window. “Th-there were times when I made myself try to – experience that need –”
“There must have been some unhealthy attachment made at some age, Holmes, something –”
“Shut up, John!” Holmes spat, still hiccupping in the midst of my shock and casting dark quivering shapes on the window glass. “Be quiet where you have already proven your ignorance.”
“I – I am sorry –”
“I am not speaking to my doctor, John, but – but to…” His eyes went in agony to mine just as a stark light appeared on his frozen face. I parted my lips in the middle of a half-swallowed breath and felt the cold severely in that moment when I thought, at that instant of utter crisis, that the light had flown all the way from the manor house window, and seeing my sudden dismay even Holmes was made to look behind him as tears lined up to spill on his cheeks. But it was only one uncertain second, for Holmes had seen the door open behind me, letting in the unwelcome light.
“A draught,” he murmured, and now that there was nothing to urge us out, I could not look anywhere but on that strange face I had seen anew so many times throughout the night. His eyes were blistered and sore. But with that manic quickness which forever startled me Holmes went down from the window seat, gained over the carpet and boards and once in the doorway went out to the landing. He saw nothing, evidently, for he came back and closed the door. “Is there a window open?”
His manner, now calm and absolutely practical, astonished me. But, quite placidly, I looked behind me for a loose pane as Holmes walked about the room and (as I saw in the glass) held up the candle, testing the flow of the air. Momentarily distracted as I was I neglected to test the windows very carefully, but Holmes was now bringing the flame to the further side of the room beyond the couch, where a small chest stood under an unlighted gas lamp, and I took this as proof that he had discovered something in that direction instead. Turning from the window I saw him first put his hand up to the lamp, holding the flame far out from his body. Confused by this display I forgot for a moment all the distress of the evening, wondering in my tiredness what strange clue he had unearthed.
“There is no gas,” Holmes said at last, now moving his face a little closer to the lamp.
“How could there be when it isn’t turned on?”
“I only mean there is no leak. I wondered… but I suppose we would already be incinerated.” He swiftly brought up the candle, as if to test his theory by really attempting to catch fire to any loose gas. But there was nothing, only a flicker on the wick. He worked more quickly now, testing the perfectly smooth wall for a crack or a seam until he came to the chest, which he kicked aside unceremoniously. It proved sturdier than first supposed, however, as Holmes succeeded only in lifting one corner an inch off the ground before it fell back into its usual place. In a second attempt he placed his heel against the side of it and pushed, and after a few moments’ voiceless straining the chest reluctantly slid aside, scraping the wallpaper and groaning against the wooden floor. This did not seem to concern Holmes, but after a few more seconds he exclaimed mildly at the discovery of a sizeable hole in the fabric of the wall. I did not go to see for myself, but Holmes, in bending down almost to the floor in order to look into it, confirmed to me the solution to the mystery.
“Goes all the way to the outside,” he said in a mumble. Not a moment later the hole whistled a soft tone as wind swept through it, previously muffled by the chest, and with that Holmes wasted no time in shoving the chest back into its place. “Nothing really to be done. Undoubtedly for the gas pipe – perhaps the hole was put in before it was decided the pipe could go somewhere else.” For a moment he fiddled with the lamp before holding the flame up to light it – after a short second it lit and Holmes stood straight, and then less so, as his energy and his backbone lost that momentary purpose. The blue light hollowed his face and exploded in his eyes.
“I wonder – what is in the chest?”
I did not especially wonder but it gave an occupation to my friend’s energies, and that was some mercy after such a long and idle implosion of nerves over the course of the evening. Holmes did not look at me, but bent at the waist to pick up the lid by a corner, and flung it open against the bruised wallpaper.
“It’s – matches,” he said – sighed – through his teeth. “And dusters.”
Of all things, this might have compelled me to rise from my very heavy seat – but without a moment to linger and look Holmes let go of the lid and it dropped and closed, spitting up dust that had been trapped inside with the dusters. After, he didn’t move again for some time; from the scratched varnish on the chest to the short little flame in the lamp he looked, inscrutably. I noticed he put his hands in his trouser pockets, a peculiar habit of his during periods of thought, and quite absently I looked around for his pipe to see where he had left it. It sat just to my right, behind the folds of the tucked-away curtain, fallen over sleepily so that its densely packed bowl had spilled a few of its leaves.
In one corner of the window there was a light.
A tiny shimmering square looked out of the grim house like an eye.
“Holmes, the light!”
I raised myself to my feet, not daring to look away, but at the sound of a light wooden tap I turned my head in anxious instinct, and there was Holmes rolling down his shirt sleeves. His mouth was closed in a tight curve and his eyes were black and big and fixed on a single point, the only one in the world. Without needing to move them he took up his pipe once more and, in a flourish too quick for my sinking eyes, brought out a match and lit the bowl with a twist of his hand.
“Are you ready to run, Doctor?”
He did not turn to me, but I am sure he had the answer in his mind. I did not need to nod.
“Then come on.”
On my arm there was for a single moment a ghost’s grip, a touch I might have felt or imagined because I remembered how he once might have grasped me by the shoulder, and looked in my face, and told me which way we both would go. But I knew; he told me in his breath and his feet. And I went after him.