Actions

Work Header

Number 94

Work Text:

Appearances deceive. That is, one might say, their chief function. Consider nature: how the hoverfly mimics the stripes of the wasp - prey masquerading as predator. We are told in the nursery "do not judge a book by its cover" and, learning to read, may, if we so choose, put that into practice. But we - even I, despite my friend Watson's teasing both myself and his readers to the contrary - cannot read the human mind.

In most respects, I daresay that is just as well. What a nightmare to be privy to the torrent of triviality that, judged from their speech, bathes the brain of the vast majority. What need, too, of detectives? My meat and drink has been deception, dishonesty, false pride and hypocrisy, and the crop of all of them shows no sign of failure.

Well, others may reap it now. I have laid down my sickle. I keep bees; I live apart from society's scrutiny in a house bounded only by acres of my own land, by flowers and sheep and the sea; and I am protected by the judgement of appearances.

Watson gets much of the credit for that. In his stories I am a paragon of pure reason who disdains human connection, emotion and the flesh - scarcely human or, if human, not very likeable. Candidly, I admit that last part is probably of some substance. One must make an effort to be universally likeable and I do not care to. I care for the good opinion of very few but I do care a good deal about those few. I care most of all about only one. For more than twenty years his words were my advertisement and then and after also my shield. Now Doyle is dead and Watson has no heart to write at anyone else's bidding. The oeuvre – the myth - is complete. I have even heard of a sort of correspondence club made up of gentlemen with apparently nothing better to do, devoted to speculation on the "truth" behind our exploits. As if there was only one truth to be found. As if we did not purposely hide the most important ones.

I have set pen to paper myself to repay Watson in kind - created a magician's box of mirrors to make him disappear from my own story at the point he, in fact, became its major theme. The last London case – the correspondence club seem preoccupied with dates, a futile wish for precision that will probably drive them all stark mad in the end – was neither the colourman nor the soldier, and Watson never did 'desert me for a wife'. I think he would be as like to jump off Westminster Bridge and fly as desert me - one of many honours I do not deserve.

It was a grey morning in the Spring of '03. Let us say the 10th of April, about a quarter to eleven. Fifth cigarette of the day. Or it might have been an unseasonably dry October afternoon – the 15th, I fancy. Positively a Tuesday at any rate. Make free with all these facts, gentlemen of the correspondence club. The newspapers that were spread all over the table were full of moral outrage: there had been a spate of vitriol throwing, in which the victims were all women of 'quality' – which is to say, money. So far there had been no serious physical injury but all had suffered spoiled clothing and the wreckage, in particular, of their hair. It was an affair into which I was bound to be drawn sooner or later: as he kept glancing at his watch, I suspected that Watson had a guinea or two at his club riding on the exact timing.

"Saved, as they say, by the bell, dear boy."

He jumped up and ran to the window, looking back at me with exasperated fondness, but the client had already come in and was clipping the stairs with a rapid and distinctly feminine tread. The Police, then, stood confident in their powers. A victim?

She marched into the room, plucked off her hat and stabbed a pearl hatpin back into it with some force. Violet de Merville evidently had no intention of being a victim ever again.

"I feel I should start, Mr Holmes, with an apology."

"Consider it made, Miss De Merville, the hour you freed yourself from Baron Gruner."

"The late Baron. He died, you know."

Accidentally drowned off the coast of Spain, said the official reports. Rumour whispered darker fates: incurable blindness, social and financial ruin, isolation, despair. Watson was all polite sympathy – thinking no doubt that she must feel responsible. She was ice and stone, unmoved. I thought then that should not like to do her any serious wrong, if only in the interests of my own safety.

She glanced over at the untidy nest of newspapers on which sat, like broken eggs, our empty teacups.

"There is one fact the police do not know concerning these crimes, Mr Holmes, and would not properly understand if they did. It is important that you do, if you wish to help us."

"Us?"

"I have some small resources of my own, inherited from my late mother. In the wake of last year's…misadventure, I took advice and determined to prosper by doing good. One of my investments is a shop at the east end of Oxford Street. In just a few months it has become *the* place for the woman of fashion to buy her hair for the season, for balls and parties, tours of Europe, her trousseau - a hundred occasions."

"To…buy her hair?"

She sighed, as if at a dull but winsome puppy.

"You are well known to be a bachelor, Mr Holmes – to whom the fair sex is as alien as a fire-worshipping Parsee."

As matter of fact I was pretty well acquainted with Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, but to reveal how would be a breach of professional confidence.

"It is the custom of ladies," she continued, "to supplement what nature has given them with sundry switches, rats, nets, baskets and braids – made from the shorn hair of other women – cut and plaited, dyed, bleached, curled, pinned and mounted…"

She spotted Watson unsuccessfully hiding an attempt to guess if this was presently true of herself and shook her head.

"For a special occasion, perhaps," she allowed. "Not today. Yet for some it is a near-daily indulgence. It is these who have been assaulted with prussic acid in the street and as far as I can determine, each one was a customer at the exclusive salon known only as Number 94. We settled upon that name," she added, seeing my frown, "to distinguish it from our more vulgar competitors."

She had yet to explain what on earth a lady of her breeding and accomplishments was doing 'in Trade' at all. I had the unsettling experience of being read along those lines, for she continued:

"Come with me to the shop, gentlemen. It will stand as the answer to most questions that remain."

We shared a brougham of the General's. Watson looked particularly handsome in a herringbone cutaway coat and grey flannels. What? If he can wax lyrical about the physical charms of other men in the pages of the Strand, surely I may do so concerning my own intimate friend in the privacy of a personal account, my sole confidant a surplus apis mellifera drone that is presently settled on my windowsill. By the time of that journey I had been doing it in a variety of other private places for years.

I profess no religion and never have, but there were days back then when I longed for a confessor – anyone to know my thoughts but the one man who needed to. To convict in a criminal case the evidence must be beyond reasonable doubt. Contemplation of a crime, most particularly planning a joint enterprise in breaking the law, surely needs no less?

Yet so far everything I had was circumstantial. Those breathless introductions in the stories; the unusual sympathy he extended to victims of blackmail (nine of out ten who came to us were inverts either confessed or deduced); the latitude I had observed in his reading: none of it weighed enough in the scale. None of it was worth a tenth of what a minute's honest conversation could have offered me. And all I believed I knew was that he might be interested in men as well as, undoubtedly, women. In what light he regarded myself specifically – on that subject, I veered between hope and dismissal several times a week.

Like a bird of a rare and threatened species darting out of the canopy only in fits and starts, looking always for danger yet compelled to seek a mate even against my better judgment, I wheeled and soared, plunged and hovered - but in the end alighted again and again only to a place of safety. To silence. To waiting for the right moment, when our stock of all possible moments was steadily running out. Middle age had surprised us from behind, then overtaken and raced ahead, taking with it Watson's waistline, dragging off my ability to stay awake for days on end, ruffling the hairs on our heads one by one as we slept and returning them grey in the morning - or not returning them at all.

To be faced with a shop window full of hair when ones hairbrush is in a similar state is a lesson in the ruthlessness of nature and the determination of society to cling to pretence in the face of that imperative (the parallel to my other problem is, I trust, not difficult to appreciate). Yet there it was, a herd of pretence – a flock of artifice: bundles and locks of luxuriant tresses in shades and shapes both found in the wild and shaped by the hand of man – or in this case, woman. We were set down in a side street and let in through a workshop door. Half a dozen bent backs greeted us; the workers underneath the wide windows turned their pieces this way and that, threading and stitching.

"Only repairs and finishes are done here, not the original collection or manufacture…ah, here she is, gentlemen."

She had changed her hair. No doubt for someone else's. When I last saw her, going back down to the cells after sentence, she had been a wraith, whittled to less substance than ever by incarceration, but still the Miss Kitty Winter I had first met, the very spirit of vengeance. The judge had heard, in chambers, more details of Gruner's sordid habits than I had cared to learn and decreed a mere six months without hard labour as her punishment. Knowing the Bermondsey slums she came from, Wandsworth prison was certainly not significantly worse lodgings. Watson wouldn't have it of course. A lady in distress brings out all his best – or most irrational, depending on one's point of view – instincts, and he was all set to swear that her maiming the Baron was an accident. He only backed off when I told him, quite accurately, that she had already told the police not only that Gruner deserved worse, but she wished she'd done it years ago.

"It was kind of you, Doctor, all the same," said Kitty now, calm and collected in green cotton velvet and an intricate piled hairpiece of chestnut and gold combined that added a good five inches to her height. "And kinder still of Miss Violet to set me up here when I was done. I used to do that" – she gestured to the repair battalion – "before he got his claws into me, so I knew the business well enough."

"Those who talk of 'mere money' so often have least need of it," put in her patroness. "People like Kitty know its true worth. I feel myself rather to be in her debt, so you see we balance the books fair and square between us." It was hard to credit that these were the same creatures who the year before might have been tearing each other's own hair out.

"To business, Mr Holmes," said Kitty, lifting a heavy ledger onto the counter. "We know every customer, every piece; it's all here. The first attack was a shock, I can tell you – the second a coincidence, p'raps – there's enough in London as don't think twice about doing such things - up to five, where we are now, all of them ladies we know: by God if that isn't a straight menace and has to stop!" She glared, then flushed and busied herself turning pages. Miss de Merville gamely pretended not to have noticed her language. Watson, by contrast, winced visibly but he drew out his notebook and consulted them on the particulars.

He has told the world of his pleasure to watch me at work. I tell of mine to see him, fair head (liberally salted with silver now) bent to the task, strong doctor's hands hefting the ledger, one forefinger tracing the columns with precise and delicate strokes, imagining them put to… other uses.

The end result of their labours was this: nothing to tie the victims together save hair – so to speak. No family connection, no shared social circle, not near neighbours. They had followed different advertisements in different papers and magazines (which leads were carefully noted in the ledger). Even the pieces they had bought were all different in style and colour – though each had been bought and fitted at Number 94.

"We should visit all five and interview them to see if there are connections we have not yet understood; begin to look beyond the obvious," suggested Watson, with the air of a horse pawing at the starting gate. Those who have said to him – and, one or two of the braver sort, to me - that I use him shamelessly to publicise my exploits and as a mere catcher to my acrobatic flights, do him more injustice than they do myself. He is as eager to follow me as ducklings to drop into a pond. But I preferred to keep our feet dry for a little longer.

"We have not yet exhausted the other end of the transaction, Watson. Consider motive, for one. I knew a man once so incensed by ornament that he banished it not only from his own house but from those of his tenants, his place of business and at last was caught attempting to remove a Sanderson Chinese wall-paper from the dining room of the East India Club. At which point he was smartly conveyed to a private asylum."

"Yours is manifestly not the only hair shop in London." Two million women could hardly be served by an establishment six hundred feet square. "If it is only artifice or vanity this person condemns, why not spread the venom more widely? Put every such dealer in fear, and all their customers. Something more personal is surely intended. Forgive me," for I saw Kitty anticipate my next question and grow pale, "The method may be significant."

"You mean it might be his cronies – trying to do as he was done by. " She weighed the notion and found it wanting in a span of ten seconds. "Didn't know as he had any, though. Not one true friend crossed that threshold all the time I was there – only those he kept fed and those he wanted to feed on."

Just then, we were interrupted by a sharp ring on the shop bell. A figure peering in at the join 'twixt door and display window was no customer, instead a painfully young and fresh example of uniformed constable just scraping at the minimum height and thin enough to hide behind his own whistle. Miss de Merville let him in and was about to make introductions when he cut in, full of earnest, helmet under one arm as he addressed us as if we were cadets.

"Now then ladies, gentlemen, I am charged with what we in the Force call 'making enquiries', and may ask you all, as many of you as know anything of this very dark matter of vitriol throwings, to assist me in such enquiries. Intelligence has led my Inspector to suspect that here in this very place might be the source of no little evidence." He puffed out his pigeon chest and waited for us to fall in line.

"Intelligence?" I could never resist teasing them. Watson struggled to suppress a chuckle.

"Now, sir, that's what we in the Force call what you'd say 'word on the street', 'the usual sources'. What we know, hence our 'intelligence'." He was so proud of his sliver of learning that it was almost a pity to demolish him.

Almost.

"Indeed? I should call that mere hearsay, Constable…"

He looked at me as if I had not been beaten enough as a child.

"Butterworth, sir. And you are?"

"My name is Sherlock Holmes."

"Now sir, there's really no call for that." He wagged his finger under my nose. "I wasn't born yesterday."

A matter of opinion, if ever I heard one.

"Sherlock Holmes isn't real. They're stories. Very popular, very exciting, I'm sure, yes, very well done, but this is the twentieth century. Besides all that, independent detectives aren't needed nowadays. What we in the Force call 'scientific policing' - started right here in London, sir - is the way forward. No doubt of it. Allow me to say…"

"Italy."

"Sir?"

"Signor Salvatore Ottolenghi founded La Scuola Superiore Polizia Scientifica in Rome, earlier this year. As for those stories, you'll be pleased to learn that this is Dr Watson, the author of all that popular excitement."

together with other kinds of excitement less widely appreciated

The doctor in question had kept a manfully straight face through the whole ludicrous exchange, but I had seen his fingers twitch, longing to pick up his notebook and get it all down. When he shook the little man's hand, he was all sincerity.

"John Watson at your service, constable. Always a pleasure to meet a loyal reader."

Butterworth turned between us wide-eyed, appealing to the ladies, twisting his head to look behind him - suspecting a prank, some rude initiation from colleagues even now hiding in the shadows. Four pairs of patient eyes waited for the proverbial penny to drop. In the back room, the clatter of tools and treadles had silenced and a gaggle of girls in leather aprons watched us through the hatch.

"I've made a proper fool of myself, haven't I?" he said at last, studying the badge on his helmet as he held it in front of him in both hands.

"Wherein lies the beginning of wisdom," Miss de Merville put in gently, before I could roundly agree with him.

"You are Mr Holmes." He looked me up and down and blinked. I failed to disappear in a puff of smoke.

"Correct. Make your report, constable."

"My Inspector's of the view that it's commercial jealousy – what with all the high class custom done here. I must ask you ladies, have there been any threats made, any bad blood with other establishments lately?"

Both assured him there had been none -which did not stop him opining that with ladies, well, you never knew, they wouldn't come right out and say it, you'd have to read them right to tell.

"Read 'em?" snorted Kitty. "Bobsy-boy," – she was perhaps three years his senior, but all the weary wisdom of those hard years and the harder ones before them laced her tongue with scorn – "Most likely women don't tell you outright on account they know you won't be listening when they do. There's enough trade to go round, never fear. It's a... growing market." She grinned. Butterworth smiled wanly back.

"What is the name of your Inspector?" I asked.

"Portmore, sir. I… doubt you'd know him." Which was shorthand for the plain reality that the old guard with whom I had tussled so often – Lestrade, Bradstreet, even Hopkins the rising star, who had been injured in the line of duty and forced to give it up – were going or gone. All my cases lately were private clients.

"And has he nothing more to offer than his 'opinion'?"

Solely, it transpired, the vital fact that might have saved Butterworth significant expenditure of breath. In each case the assailant, hanging back in the shadows of a side alley, had thrown the acid from some distance in a round glass vial that had shattered on impact, so that the lady's hair was first to dissolve, only then her shawl or coat. In other words, the missile had been bowled.

"What does that suggest to you, Watson?"

"A brute and a coward," he growled - then, catching my eye, subsided. "Throwing overarm."

"Indeed. As in cricket." Probably the sum total of my remaining knowledge on the subject. I had certainly taken great care to forget all the rules, in most cases before I had learned them. "A game not notably played by shop-girls."

"I must admit, we hadn't looked for a man," the constable reflected. "Puts a whole new complexion on it. Acid being what we in the Force call a woman's weapon – like poison. Wouldn't you say so, Mr Holmes?"

Appeal to authority, even mine, speaks of a flawed argument.

"A 'woman's weapon' is any weapon she chooses, as is a man's. A man's motive, now what would that be?"

Kitty probably could not help that her gaze flitted over my own ravaged hairline as she said: "Sometimes men come here, too. We don't do for them – there's other places that specialise. Still, I can't think of any that seemed even a mite put out with us, if that's the direction you're headed."

I kept silence for a good while, turning the problem inside out and back to front, looking for the shape of it: the joins the thread, the attachment point. Attachment point…

"Watson: pass me the ledger, if you please."

His gloved hand brushed mine in the act of surrender. I enjoyed the contact for that fraction of a second, as I enjoyed all such accidents. Together, since I had first recognised in myself the source of that pleasure, they might add up to as much as an hour of bliss. One cannot help but crave time – we are mortal creatures – and a year's worth would not have been enough. A lifetime would have fallen short. And yet every instant was perfect and sufficient in itself. The paradox of desire.

Back, as always, to business. What Watson calls my intuition and I, my instinct – dictionary quibbling over the same faculty, a measureless sea across which the boat of deduction strikes out for land – broke over the shore of my brain with a whisper: look for the unusual first. For the improbable

On the eighteenth turn of a page, I found it.

"What does this mean: 'Miss Pearsall: complete replacement, scalp net, no head hair to anchor'?"

Kitty peered at the entry and bit her lip, testing for a memory. Then she clapped her hands.

"She'd lost it all. Not a scrap left. She hadn't been ill, hadn't shorn it on that account, certainly hadn't…" she paused, but I well knew that Wandsworth would have had all her own hair soon after she got through the gate, and made money on it too. "Just fell out in a few days. Pretty thing, too."

The good doctor agreed he had sometimes seen it – tragedy enough for a man; calamity for a woman. The poor had no choice but to wrap up in a headscarf and brave it out. Miss Pearsall, judging from her account, had been able to take another path. She recurred here and there in the ledger, making changes, consulting on suitable hats and…there. A hairpiece for her wedding day, strong enough to hold a veil of five yards of Honiton lace.

"Cherchez l'homme." I announced. "To Somerset House, Watson. Afterwards a light lunch at Simpson's, then to our quarry!"

I tipped my hat in haste and was on the pavement hailing a cab by the time Watson had done with making our excuses. Freshly laid tarmacadam streets rumbled under our wheels and scraped beneath the horse's hooves. Stone setts were out: the motorcar was coming.

"Holmes. You really think it is as simple as that? A disgruntled husband?"

"Simple? No. Likely – yes, very likely indeed. So likely I have already staked my reputation on it."

I refused to be drawn any further, not yet. A love of theatre, of the curtain rising on the final act, was no doubt some of it but so too was the chance I saw to have that minute of frank conversation, with another man's peculiar passions for my entrée. If I was right, of course. Three reasons now to aim for that: the opportunity, Watson's usual unstinting admiration: not to mentioned, of course, to the essential pre-requisite of not being wrong.

We stood at a sloping reading-stand, heads close together, sharing breathspace, scanning the pages of the Registry of Marriages for the previous quarter.

"Here." He had spotted it first. "Catherine Anne Pearsall. Condition: spinster. Age 26; profession of father, Solicitor. Married at The Union Chapel, Islington on the 14th of May. Groom - William Henry Brace, bachelor. Age 40. Occupation, Solicitor."

"Address at time of marriage, Canonbury Grove," I finished.

Anyone familiar with our lives only from what Doyle insists his readers want to hear, would think it one long round of chases on foot through the blackest streets, tussles with hardened villains on the docks and the deductive equivalent of pulling rabbits out of a hat. In fact I have spent many more hours searching through archives, in newspaper rooms and waiting in corridors to see people who fancied themselves more important than I am.

We did not go at once to Canonbury Grove, but sat over lunch, plotting.

"If half of what I suspect is even half true, better try to find his place of employment and see him there."

"What of his wife, she may be in danger! And you still haven't told me what you do suspect."

I made several precise cuts into the last of a hot game pie to render it into digestible morsels, giving the action all my attention as I spoke.

"I should not like to be premature, nor to presume upon your territory, doctor. Yet is it not the case that man's most animal instincts may turn aside into the narrowest byways? I believe there is such a thing as a preference for certain body parts so strong as to render a man incapable if he cannot make them his fixation. Body parts such as the foot, or the nape of the neck. Or the hair."

My friend shifted in his seat and licked his lips.

"This is a very queer subject to be discussing at the table, Holmes."

I wished I could speak of even queerer ones. Was it my imagination - so unused to an airing - that despite his protest Watson was in fact distinctly interested in the idea of…byways?

"I am not describing a dissection," I returned tartly. "Merely a habit. You know of it?"

He nodded. A flush had crept up from the line of his collar to both cheeks. It made him look…not younger, but more vital, more a man who might still have those animal instincts, might flush with passion as much as from modesty. What might he look like in his crisis, spread out supine under me, shaking, panting, stark naked; or half-dressed from urgency, shirt open and missing buttons, splayed against the wall as I sucked him off like a powdered Piccadilly renter?

"Holmes?"

I jumped back to awareness and a careless apology, making light, always making light. A damned fool. I snatched up my napkin, tossed it on the table and started to get up.

"I haven't finished my chop."

"Make haste then, for we must either walk the length of Upper Street and all the chief streets between there and Highgate Hill enquiring in every solicitor's office for our man, or brave the guard dogs of the Law Society. Which to choose? Pilgrimage or siege?"

As we stepped back out onto the Strand, provisioned and paid-for, I was in the act of hailing another cab when a sharp tug on my sleeve held me back.

"Set a thief to catch a thief. One solicitor to find another. There is a brotherhood amongst them as there is in any profession. You let me publish it only a few months back – the Norwood builder…" Watson was glowing with verve, with the knowledge that he was really on to something. I could have kissed him there and then in the street.

"…And Mr John Hector McFarlane, saved from the rope by a cry of 'fire'. Watson, you have it indeed, and I know that you have his card in your pocketbook." He was already pulling it out. 'McFarlane' had written to Doyle thanking Watson for the care with which he had rendered the story but also for the tact in concealing his real name, which was printed on thick, ivory card in curlicues announcing his office to be in Essex Street, a mere quarter mile away.

We strolled arm in arm, two gentlemen. In my head, we strolled hand in hand, two criminals. Arm, hand, what difference? We were two yet one, had been from the first. What law can there be against such? One may as well command water not to flow. The true obstacle was my own cowardice.

Our former client was all eagerness to help us in return, to refrain from asking unnecessary questions even as we had given him room to speak his necessary answers. He did not know our quarry himself, but one of his older colleagues had at least heard of William Brace. He was 'on the up', as they say, courting illustrious clients of his own. There was a little more curiosity there – what need had Sherlock Holmes to do with him? – but not so much as to get in my way.

The chatter of a dozen typewriters punctuated by the occasional telephone bell told us that Warner, Holt and Pater was a firm striding with confidence into the new century. Brace had the second-best office but not yet a partnership. He did not speak of the partners with much respect, which may have been either cause or consequence of that. Yet, to start with, he tried to charm us, perhaps thinking we had brought him a lucrative case.

"I will take just the same care, gentlemen, of your client's interests as I would my own."

"Had we a client, I fear that would be his misfortune, Mr Brace - even more so hers."

He was tall, but not so tall as I, and he shrank further when we faced him as a pair, protesting that he had not the least idea what I was talking about but that he was a busy man, as he was sure were we, and if there was a purpose to our visit we had better state it.

I placed a vial of clear liquid upon the blotter. Readers of the Strand might have preferred it smashed to more dramatic effect, but his desk was a fine piece in French walnut and not at all at fault for having such an owner.

"My friend here believes you to be a monster, preying on innocent women," I said.

He blustered, laughed in our faces, called us deluded by our own fame, making up some story to go with the pantomime performance, said he had not the least idea what I meant.

"I, on the other hand have perhaps some sympathy with your position." In fact I had none, but I can act the fifth column when need be. "Women are surely not to be trusted. Creatures of guile and scheme, of persuasion and temptation, conniving together to create illusion. They think they have the better of we weak-willed men, but no. Mind will always overcome matter, so long as matter is put in its place. Mind is man, woman is matter. No-one is really hurt, after all – only a little damage here and there, only a little righteous anger, a little justified fear. What is a scrap of fabric to us, a lock of false hair?"

At the last word, he gripped the back of his chair with such strength he looked to break it and turned to me with a look of pure hatred - for he knew I was not his ally and that somehow I had guessed his secret. Those whom the world calls perverted must either bend under its shaming power or rage against it.

"You think yourself very clever, Mr Sherlock Holmes. It is no use to assure you that I did not do it, I suppose?"

"None."

"Very well. Lay on, then." All the fight went out of him in a puff, as man in the ring folds at a lucky blow to the solar plexus.

I could so easily have fallen into that trap: could have appeared before Constable Butterworth and the unknown Inspector Portmore in the guise of a fool - and an arrogant fool at that. All but for Watson, my rock and my talisman, who just as we crossed the threshold of Brace's office paused, turned in the doorway and leaned towards me.

"Norbury," he whispered in my ear.

I confess it took me a second or two to remember, to take in what he was trying to tell me. It had been too easy. Something was missing. We did not have enough evidence to lay before the authorities and Brace knew it, for he knew the law of evidence, for all that he dealt day by day in commonplace commercial disputes over contracts and interest rates. So why was he so eager to come with us and hand himself in?

We shepherded Brace back into his office and shut the door.

"Mr Brace, may I ask if you play cricket?" Watson's tone was calm but his face was full of something like horror. In a moment I was there with him, reaching toward truth and unable to stop myself from continuing as he had surely meant to:

"And did you, perhaps, teach your wife the rudiments of play?"

Head in his hands, he broke down and wept like a child. Watson patted his shoulder whilst I waited, impatient, for the truth to come calling.

"She...she did not know. My…affliction, I could not tell her and I never thought I should have to, for I could touch her hair and all would be well. It looked so perfect, so natural, so in keeping with her colouring. Emerald eyes and amber hair: my beautiful jewel. Only on the night of our wedding did she dare to expose her secret, and once I knew it, all was lost. For her sake, I tried. Many times I tried and failed. I went to doctors – a wretched humiliation to be poked and prodded and condescended to by normal men and told that I should just pull myself together. Day by day, the light in her eyes stopped being for me but was busy searching the heads of other women, looking for artifice, envying them that all they needed was to supplement nature when she had to overcome it entirely. Soft words turned to bitter railing at fate for bringing together two people so ill-matched."

He had not wanted to suspect her, he told us. He had read of the attacks and persuaded himself that someone hated the victims for quite another reason, that they were connected by something other than Number 94. But she was not naturally cruel, in fact the very opposite and, tormented by regret, she had at last confessed all to him. She had promised it would stop if only he could find a real cure, so that they might have a real marriage.

"But there is no cure. Am I right, Dr Watson?"

The good doctor could offer little hope, although he doubted aloud that 'cure' was quite the word. There were quacks a plenty, claiming to turn black into white for the right price. But he had never known real medicine to effect such a change.

"And I have vis… known many alienists," he finished.

Brace was too mired in his own misery to catch the slip, but I did. There was nothing to be done that instant however, except to ask what was to be done? Brace had begged his wife to go no further, not to blame others for their misfortune even if it proved impossible to mend it. Yet he was afraid it would not be enough.

To threaten her myself – with arrest, trial, imprisonment? I have been told it is not a very manly thing to do, not that I particularly covet that epithet above any other. Besides, her husband, with first hand evidence of her guilt, could not be compelled to testify against his own wife.

"No, Mr Holmes, I don't believe I shall," said Miss Kitty Winter, the sparkle of success making her bold. She and her patroness – and friend - had made the journey together to Canonbury and spent an entire afternoon with Mrs Brace. What transpired there I was indeed never told, save for arch hints at the secrets of womankind that I could not hope to unravel, for all my airs. I did gather that something about the both of them going together, they who had saved each other in their own hour of need, had swayed her. At any rate, the attacks stopped. Inspector Portmore gained the credit and Constable Butterworth a promotion. Officers come and go, but the ways of the Metropolitan Police stay precisely the same.

"You really supposed they were going to tell you?" wondered Watson. "Imagine it were your most intimate secrets, probed by strangers, in however worthy a cause. Surely you would – for decency's sake they would – count it the tightest of confidences forever?"

We were back at Baker Street, toasting the conclusion of the case with as much fine brandy as would serve to dampen the call of 'Norbury'. It was not that I was ungrateful for the reminder – I was truly, infinitely obliged to him. Truth may be unwelcome but be truth nonetheless. For I had come to see, a realisation of months now, that it had all become a performance, a feat of keeping up appearances. That I was not the man I had been; that more and more I jumped from clue to conclusion without the chain of reasoning being tested for strength first. I was starting to resemble the work of fiction that Butterworth thought I was.

"If you never had to worry about money ever again, Watson, what would you do?"

He stopped in the midst of swirling the glass in his fingers to warm the spirits and shot me a look of mingled surprise and speculation.

"If I'm to be honest, I don't have to worry about money ever again. You make fun of my stories but they have sold – by the hundreds of thousands. Especially once Doyle got the Americans interested. What about you? You yourself can hardly pretend you are in the game for bread and cheese anymore."

"Pretence: the very word. Why would you say I continue in my line of work, if not as a profession? Art for art's sake? Justice? Success?"

"Why not all of them?"

"Or none."

"Holmes?" He had seen my expression – unguarded, as I so seldom allowed it to be, and he was wary as a stag in August.

"This is not a theoretical discussion, is it? Not some shared daydream to while away an evening."

An unseen hand guided us both towards the hearth, to sit our accustomed chairs.

"Suppose I decided to retire?" Might as well come straight out with it.

"You would do it first and tell me afterwards." There was no heat in it, only the voice of long experience. He tossed a wave of brandy to the back of his throat and regarded me steadily over the rim of his glass. "You have and you are."

"I think so."

"My God."

He wanted to ask why and when and and what now but the questions were too many, too crowded, too dependent on one another to struggle into the open on their own.

It was just as well, as I had a vital question of my own.

"Why did you go to an alienist?"

He started so that the brandy glass nearly jumped out of his hands. He set it aside carefully and took several deep breaths to bring back some measure of calm.

"It's a very personal matter that I do not care to share. No, not even with you."

"I could deduce it."

"I doubt that."

"You are not a constitutionally nervous man, no more than I. No taint of a family distemper of the mind, no sign even of your brother's fatal intemperance, no recent shock. Your devotion to the turf is a vice, not a mania."

I left off the thought of how a man might feel even years after a deception such as Reichenbach. Watson, I could see, had not: yet he did not bring it to the table.

"Do you trust me, Watson?"

He looked very near to offended. "Have I ever given you cause to think otherwise?"

"Then can I put it another way: am I the sort of man whom you should trust?"

"Holmes, what in God's name is this? First you tell me that twenty-two years' partnership is about to come to an end; then you ask me to trust you with a confidence that is, to put it plainly, none of your business, then you suggest to me that I might do better not to."

I leaned towards him and took both his hands. We were both very still. There was something in the air and we both scented it at the same time.

Probably fear.

"Am I," I repeated slowly and deliberately, caressing his palms with my thumbs, "the sort of man whom you can trust with such a confidence? With precisely this confidence?"

Dawn spends a great deal of time and energy creeping about making ready to enlighten the world. First birdsong in the darkest hours, mist and grey shadows streaked with red, the shape of the plane tree in our yard distinguished more and more and then – nature strikes no clock, though man has tried to pin down sunrise to the minute, but morning comes and none can deny it.

"I believe," said he, returning the press of my fingers with dawning relief and morning joy, "that perhaps you are. All appearances to the contrary."

END