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Luck Or Something Like It

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The City of London exists for the sake and to the praise of money. The populace come to it looking for luck, for love, for a change, for acclaim, and find a chance at them all. But the chance costs money, and the city has flourished around the exchange—money, for life. So many fail to make the first and lose the latter, and the city goes on with its eternal trade in souls, careless of them all.

I had come to London for my chance like the rest, but I had always had money at home, and wasn’t heedful of it. Even on finding myself a poor student buried in the bowels of the city, living on the smallest stipend, supping on porridge and sausages, I had known that if it came to it Mycroft would not actually let me starve. Over the years I did fret a bit at the bareness of my lodgings. Among the many things that had made me glad to meet John Watson, I’d been delighted to go halves on better rooms, with heat and light enough in them. But I’d had no doubt of getting up in the world, sooner or later.

Watson hadn’t had any such certainty, which became apparent by degrees. At first I found myself baffled by him. True, he had confided that he’d been almost out of resources when I met him, and I knew his pension was a pittance. But I hadn’t considered that his poverty might be less a moment’s exigence and more a dogged fact. I hadn’t considered much at all, in fact, except that he was lovely, thin and tired and worn as he was, and seemed drawn to me, as I was captivated by him—his bright smile, his ready interest. I liked him very much. I wanted to know more of him.

I did think his behaviour strange sometimes. Even after we’d settled in, and taken the measure of one another’s worst habits, and seen one another in our stocking-feet, he seemed embarrassed to ask me what I did for work—a delicacy of manners, on his part, past my understanding. Nor would he admit that he had nothing extra to spend beyond his share of the rent. I didn’t guess he was actually penniless till he’d refused my fourth proposal of an evening out in favor of another of Mrs. Hudson's plentiful but quite unremarkable suppers. And how he ate those suppers! As though he’d never had such food before, and might never again. He grew agitated when I refused to come to the table, or came only to pick at my plateful, and sip at the coffee, and satisfy myself with bread and butter. 

“You’ll be hungry in an hour,” he complained, some weeks after the first of these arguments. 

“If I am, there are apples in the pantry,” I answered, growing more intrigued when he flushed up irritably and tutted at me.

“You are careless of yourself,” was all he said, though, and promptly buried his feelings in the roast. I was careless, with the incautious joy of a young man who had always had his strength, so I had no real rejoinder; but I wondered very much what troubled him about me.

His sleep was still broken then by pains and terrors, and he often came down still exhausted, well on in the morning. I never ate more than an egg, and so breakfast depended upon him: we generally took it at an hour more befitting a gentleman’s lunch.

Two mornings after he’d sold his first story about me, he emerged with a different shape to his weariness. He had a dirty smudge on his face, as though he’d rubbed his brow with an inky hand, and the stiff set of his shoulders suggested he’d sat up for hours rather than tossing about in bed. Clearly, he’d been working over another story, an occupational improvement over the nightmares. “You shouldn’t write so late,” I offered anyway, hoping (I admit) to impress him with my acuity. “Not while you’re still recovering your facility for sleep.”

But he only looked up blank-faced from his plate and said shortly, “I wasn’t.”

“But—” I had thought I’d understood. I looked bewildered round the room. His writing desk was, in point of fact, untouched from its arrangement the evening before; and then I saw his overshoes left by the door, still damp.

“Watson, were you out? All night? Without me?” I hadn’t meant to say that last, but he didn’t seem to think it unusual; only pinched up his lips and answered nothing. “But—why?”

“I was out playing the tables,” he said, finally. “I didn’t think you’d like it. I didn’t mean to stay at it so long.”

“Playing? At what?”

“Cards.” Blunt misery in his voice—I heard it, and suddenly I saw the facts fitting themselves together.

“With the money from the Strand?”

He shrugged.

“But—your coat. You were going to buy a new one. Yours is really past salvation. And your books—you wanted books.” He’d been delighted over that money, the first cheque from something more than his ridiculous pension. He’d been glittering with pride, overflowing with plans for it, as pleased as if it had been ten times the sum it was.

“And if I’d won, I could have gotten all that and more. It’s bad luck, is all. Comes to everyone.”

“Not if you don’t go gambling all you’ve got!”

“Holmes!” A spark of genuine anger from him.

“I’m sorry.” I subsided, a little ashamed, and considered. I was right in my facts, of course, but wrong in my approach. We sat in silence for some minutes while he ate and I nursed my cup of morning tea.

“Naturally, you wouldn’t find a simple game like mine interesting,” he said at last. “But I know you like to chance your luck, sometimes. You’ll hazard your whole case on a guess if the answer matters enough.”

“For a look at the truth I will, yes. But some truths require a gamble to be discovered. Money doesn’t. Money can be come by in more reasonable ways.”

He scoffed at that, and stood, looking down at me, with a discomfiting expression. “Money can be lost any number of ways, too, or haven’t you ever come to the end of yours? Have you always been so sure of it?”

He waited a moment and then nodded at my silence. I found myself looking at his stiff back, as he seated himself at his desk, with a finality indicating there was nothing further to be said. I thought I had better allow that to be true.

So things continued. We lived together, and worked together more and more: I found it brightened him up, and that brightened me up. The black moods I’d always been prone to lost half their force under the influence of his attention; my hardest cases came clear twice as quickly with him near. And then he went on writing about us, which was flattering to my feelings as well as to his pocketbook, for the stories kept on selling. He began to be able to go out with me for a little music and a drink, now and again. He began to look at me longer, and to sit nearer to me in the evenings; and I thought we were making headway. I thought we could be happy.

So I overlooked the signs that perhaps he was not quite so settled as I. He seemed shy sometimes at my invitations, but I persisted; I’d spent years in London in my own solitary company, and I had a hundred things to show him. I brought him to the best booksellers, and the music halls, and the coffeehouses; the boxing rings where I beat off ennui and kept my fighting hand in; the dockyards where the spices came in from India and Siam—where the sailors in the taverns welcomed him, with his limp and his soldier’s posture, and asked where he’d been, and nodded their respect: offered in return wild stories of their adventures, to which he listened hungrily. He began to sleep better; he laughed at whatever nonsense I could find to entertain him, and smiled at my showing off, and seemed less weary. I wanted company, and he needed it; I thought we were in sympathy.

And then, emerging out of a long day’s mostly-fruitless work, I looked about to see him curled up in my armchair in the day's last light. He was reading, beautifully intent. I wanted more of him.

"Come to dinner with me," I said. I confess I wasn't asking; I was sure of him. I was already anticipating the pleasure, turning about for my hat.

"Oh, no. Not tonight."

I turned back in surprise. He appeared a little regretful, but without a shade of yielding. I spoke without thinking.

“Is it the expense? Have you been at the tables again?” 

“Holmes.” A warning in his tone. I’d thought we were past being mannerly together, but it appeared I’d thought wrong.

“I can pay your way, then. Just give me your company.”

“Don’t, Holmes.” 

“Don’t—what?” He sounded as though I’d insulted him, and I couldn’t understand it.

“Don’t pity me. Respect me so far, at least.”

“Respect you! Watson, I think the world of you.”

“You—” He stammered, blinked at me. “Well, that’s very—that’s kind of you, Holmes.”

I had his attention: I pressed my advantage. “Why gamble away what you’ve worked for, though?”

“Why trouble yourself what I do with my money?”

He was giving not an inch. Could I confess now that I troubled myself with everything about him? Would he permit me that? “I don’t like what I don’t understand. You’re a reasonable man. Don’t you have enough now?”

“Now, yes, but—all this—” (he gestured to the room, and me with it)— “it isn’t mine by rights, is it? It’s luck, that’s all. I was wounded the same as the rest who died in the mountains. I shouldn’t have made it out. And when I did, I should never have found you; I had no connections here, nothing to fall back on. I’ve gone hungry before—I know how to do that, at least. I should be living in privation like every other soldier past his strength.” I opened my mouth to protest that, but he shook his head at me. “Since by some chance, instead, I interested you, and found a living here, and recovered as I have—still any chance could take it all away. Why not test my luck now, and see what’s coming to me?”

I hated seeing him sitting quiescent in our own home, saying such things to me quite calmly, as though I would agree with him! “It wasn’t luck, Watson. It was you—your courage, your decency. You did right by your orderly, and in retreat he saved you. You were good enough to Stamford that he thought to bring you to me. You have made yourself my friend. I found you by chance, but I won’t lose you by one.” I was perilously near committing myself, and I couldn’t find it in me to regret it. “Can you believe that, at least—that whatever you may lose, you’ll have me?”

“Will I?” Spoken so softly, it meant something more. He looked at me as though he wanted to know—he looked—

“You have me,” I repeated. I could not resist drawing near to him, holding my hands out to him, pleading as I rarely would. “As far as it depends on me. I should like to keep you with me. Will you allow me?”

“Allow you!” Indignation in the words, and—hope. He stood and met my approach with such an expression. “Allow you, my dear fellow?”

“I wouldn’t presume—”

“Oh, you’ll always presume, and I’ll always let you.” Then his voice caught, as I caught his hands; and he laughed at me, and kissed me.

Any lover can imagine what followed. Till then I had been neither lover nor beloved, and was quite unprepared; but I had faith enough in John Watson. Whenever I have need of him, he proves himself; and I think I offered enough in return to put all thought of luck and the loss of it out of his mind. 

I, however, found my own mind returning to the thought, after the first fever of joy had subsided to a steady warmth, amidst unrepeatable nonsense of the sentimental kind and more kisses. I at last gathered rationality enough to ask, “You’ve gone hungry before?”

“You’re thinking of that now?”

He was tucked beneath my arm, and I couldn’t see his face; but I said to the top of his head, “I never really stop thinking; you may as well know it now.”

“Oh, I’d suspected.” He pulled back and looked up at me then, all rosy and golden in the firelight, and all unconscious of himself. “Yes, I worked for my later schooling. There was little left over for food, but I paid my way honestly. My father had debts, and after they were settled we hadn’t much left. I’ve never had a place I haven’t worked for.” 

I remembered his care for my pride at the start, how he’d asked me no questions, and asked him none of mine. Only, “I hope you don’t plan to work for this one,” I ventured. “I won’t be earned. You’ll have to take me on faith.”

That won me a smile, and he kissed my shoulder and let me pull him nearer, and I was glad. 

The bright morning following, when I’d gotten myself downstairs at last, and in some semblance of my normal order, or disorder, he came to the table with his cheque-book in his hand. He laid it down in front of me.

“Lock it up, will you?” he said, softly. “Keep hold of the key. I’ll tell you if I need it.” And he laughed at the look on my face. “It’s all right, Holmes. I want to stop pressing my luck, and have a little hope.”

“High time for that,” I found the breath to say, in the light of his happiness. If ever I knew what it was to be fortunate, I knew it then. If I meet with no other luck in the world than I have in John Watson, I will have had enough.