Chapter 1: Mr Sherlock Holmes
I have already written of my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes, but I must admit in these private memoirs that there remain many details of the first weeks and months of our acquaintance that I felt it necessary to omit from my public account. I mentioned, I think, that my time as a Doctor of Medicine in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers had brought me nothing but misfortune and disaster. That was the truth and I am guilty only of recording in too little detail what that meant. After the fateful shooting at the battle of Maiwand, I was left with a shattered bone and a damaged artery, but far worse were the wounds inflicted upon my mind. The effects of prolonged agony on the human body I was only too familiar with, having witnessed pain and suffering in Afghanistan that I had never imagined during my medical training in London. What I was not prepared for was the toll the war and my own injury would take on my mental fortitude.
After the life-or-death dash to the base in Peshawar, my physical ailments were soon mended. Aside from an unsightly scar on my shoulder where the bone shattered by the Jezail bullet had left me with an unhappily deformed clavicle and an ugly web of raised, red tissue across my chest, I had rallied physical perhaps sooner than anticipated. Yet even before the enteric fever that left me raving and insensible for months, as close to death’s door as any of the poor soldiers I had stitched back together in Candahar, I had fallen prey to a dreadful weakness of the mind. During the weeks in which my shattered flesh and bone were knitting back together, I began to suffer nightmares of a kind I had never before experienced, even during those times on the frontlines when the dying moans and screams of the men I was not able to save filled the air with horror. These dreams were so vivid as to feel like reality and to stick with me for hours after I awakened, haunting my every thought.
Again and again, I saw men with whom I had eaten and drank and laughed as we stayed up all night around the card table, cheating death, struck down before me, begging me to save them even as I knew I could not. Again and again, I watched the life drain from their eyes as I bathed their infected wounds, breathing in the small of rot and death, or heard their screams as my hacksaw rent flesh and bone in a futile effort to keep ahead of the foul gangrene that took them from me, one by one. Again and again, I felt the bullet strike my shoulder, the moment of confusion before the throbbing rhythm of pain took up its presence in my body, eliminating all else, and I relived the blackness that crept over my vision as I realised that an artery had been grazed and felt the life seeping from my veins. I would awake bathed in sweat, my mouth dry and my hands shaking, deploring my own weakness. When the fever took me, some weeks after my arrival in Peshawar, these dreams became indistinguishable from reality, and for a time I was utterly lost.
When at last I came to myself, exhausted and emaciated, I was a ghost of the blithe young Doctor Watson who had set out to Afghanistan, driven by thoughts of the men I would save. Instead, I was haunted by thoughts of the friends I had failed. The month’s journey to England on a troopship did little to improve my condition and by the time I landed at Portsmouth, not only was my physical health irretrievably ruined but I began to fear that I was to remain a ruined man forever. I have recorded for the public some few details of my first weeks in England and the featureless, anonymous hotel in the Strand where I began to while away my days and my money with meaningless distractions. What I omitted to record was the ways in which my time and money were spent, and I am ashamed even now to recall the card games and drinking and the women and men in whose bodies I found some temporary escape. Some I paid after a rare night of luck at the tables, though I had never thought to buy my lovers before the war. Others, I met at the docks or in one of several London alleyways I came to know rather too well. I was careful. I was, after all, still a doctor, although I might never practice as one again, and I had no desire to come by any unlooked for offspring, nor a missing nose.
As the weeks dragged on, these dalliances grew fewer and I spent increasing amounts of time alone, drowning my sorrows in the whisky bottle. I avoided mirrors assiduously, unable to meet the eyes of the man who stared back at me, a wasted shell of a person, scarred and broken, who I often found myself unable to recognise. Such was the state of affairs when I realised to my horror that my free spending had left me in a desperate position and that new lodgings must be sought without delay, were I to continue to afford numbing escape from the nightly terror of my dreams and to remain amid the stink and bustle of London. An enforced stay in the quiet of the countryside, I feared, might very well be the death of me.
Young Stamford, I must admit, had never much interested me at Bart’s, but I was surprised by my own relief and enthusiasm when I saw him at the Criterion Bar, where I was engaged in an attempt to dull my mind after a night in which I had not managed more than a few snatched moments of sleep. I had not until then acknowledged the toll that my lonely existence had taken upon me, but the sight of a familiar face filled me with an unreasoning joy, perhaps in part due to my gratitude that he took such care not to remark on my pitiful appearance and the earliness of the hour at which I had sought out a drink. As we rattled through the streets in a hansom, he questioned me gently as to my presence in London, noting my thin frame and brown skin but kindly omitting to mention my red eyes and hollow cheeks. When he mentioned a friend in need of a fellow to share his lodgings, over a lunch I picked at, bereft of appetite, I jumped at the chance. I preferred any means of remaining in London to the deathly silence of the countryside, though I knew at heart that I would be lucky to find a man anywhere in England willing to have me as his constant companion in my current state.
“If he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him,” I found myself saying eagerly, as soon as Stamford mentioned his acquaintance. “I should prefer having a partner to being alone.”
At the strange look Stamford gave me over his wineglass, I immediately regretted my choice of words, though I had intended them to have no hidden meaning. I had always been careful to conduct my affairs discreetly at Bart’s, yet suddenly I feared that some unsavoury rumour about my lifestyle had reached his ears.
“You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” was all he said, and I relaxed, hating the way my heart was already thumping in my chest at the least hint of danger.
Stamford’s stated misgivings about the man – his eccentric set of interests, including an enthusiasm for science and an aptitude for chemistry – seemed hardly reason enough to object to him, particularly given my own vices, and I hastened to suggest a meeting. I had already partaken of several glasses of wine by the time we made our way to the hospital, Stamford still seeming to wish to impart some obscure warning about Holmes, who he described as cold-blooded and possessed of a passion for exact knowledge. His vague objections, and his wild tale of Holmes beating subjects in the dissecting room with a stick, served only to enhance my curiosity. By the time we reached the hospital, I was so engaged in finding out more about the man that I hardly noticed the familiar sounds and smells that had plunged me into a deplorable state of anxiety on my previous visit, leaving me sweating and shaken and struggling for breath.
I will never forget the moment I first saw Holmes, bent over a table in the lofty space of the chemical laboratory. He was half-hidden by the mass of tables covered with scattered test tubes, beakers and Bunsen lamps, several lit and burning unattended, their flickering blue flames sending strange shadows leaping around the bare walls and across the high ceiling. My eyes had just fixed on his tall, thin frame, when he suddenly whirled around and began to bound towards us, clutching a test tube in one hand. I had a confused impression of great energy and a powerful, elongated body before my eyes were drawn to his face. His features were striking and unusual, fierce and somehow crow-like beneath a sweep of black hair, but it was his steely grey eyes, which met my own squarely from beneath heavy brows, that transfixed my gaze. They were alight with passion and a strange sort of burning excitement, which was explained as he raised the test tube before Stamford.
“I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else,” he exclaimed, as joyful as if his experiments had uncovered the location of some lost treasure.
Although his words were addressed to Stamford, his gaze remained fixed on me. I found that I had to look away quickly, afraid of what he might see in my eyes.
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he responded to Stamford’s introduction, looking me swiftly up and down. Although I feigned surprise, I knew immediately how he had known. I looked exactly like all the other survivors of that horrific war: wasted and haunted and pitiful. A sudden bitterness bloomed inside me at his words and for the first time in many months I felt a humiliating longing to return to my former self. I had never perhaps been as handsome as Holmes, and I was certainly not as tall, but before the war I had been a strong, healthy man with an upright bearing and passable intelligence, unmarked by scars and untroubled by shameful nightmares about events long since put behind him. I had been the kind of man who made friends easily and never struggled to find a partner when the urge struck me. That that man had died in Afghanistan had never seemed so hard to bear as it did at that moment, under Holmes’ appraising gaze.
His attention was soon diverted back to his test tube, however, and I marvelled at his eagerness as he drew me over to his table by one of my sleeves, touching me unselfconsciously and leading me with an unstudied certainty that caused me to follow him without question. He seemed to feel no pain as he pierced his finger with a long bodkin and drew off the blood needed for his experiment, but I found I was not watching the water to which he added the liquid but the way in which he sucked the lingering smear of blood off the long index finger of his left hand. To my surprise and shame, I felt a surge of liquid heat in my stomach, a swooping sensation that I had not experienced in as long as I could remember. I hastened to fix my gaze on his experiment and made some desultory remark, I scarcely remember what. All the time I feigned attention, I was busy assessing the dangers of choosing to share a living space with a man as dangerously attractive as Sherlock Holmes. Yet as I found my gaze drawn back to the excitement on his face and the way his large, scarred hands danced as he spoke, I realised I was more interested by his character than by anything that had crossed my path since the war. His eyes glittered with passion as he outlined the importance of his discovery and I confess I answered in a daze, interjecting a muttered one-word response where he seemed to require one. It was a relief when he turned his attention back to Stamford, freeing me from the intensity of his gaze, and I had a few moments to collect myself.
Only once Stamford had made the reason for our presence clear did it occur to me that Holmes had not asked. Despite my misgivings as to the wisdom of becoming entangled with the man, I must admit I felt a treacherous pleasure at the delight he seemed to take in the idea of sharing his rooms with me. His mention of strong tobacco and his habit of dabbling with chemicals in his living quarters, as well as his honest admission that he sometimes spent days in the dumps, without wishing to speak to anyone, allowed me some hope that my own habits might not prove to be as much of an obstacle as I had at first feared. His frankness made me bold and I found myself able to admit things that I would never have wished to tell Stamford – or any other man of my former acquaintance.
“I object to rows because my nerves are shaken up,” I said, “and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.”
About those other vices he could never know, but I trusted to my ability to remain discreet, should I ever wish to indulge them again in the future. About my drinking I said nothing, and I did not share the reason for my frequent night-time disturbances, but the shrewd look he gave me from those piercing grey eyes led me to believe that he had perhaps guessed at some of what I left unsaid. I could only hope that it was the nightmares he had read in my face, and not the other aspects of my character that I felt it necessary to keep hidden.
Holmes was clearly a man of scientific bent and I confess I was surprised when he mentioned that he played the violin. He laughed off my suggestion that a badly played violin was a din that should not be lived with before I had even finished expressing the thought, as though utterly certain of his own abilities, and I found myself even more intrigued by his extreme confidence, which seemed almost to border on egotism. It was with this same confidence that he declared the matter settled, without waiting for my acquiescence, and something about his certainty calmed my lingering doubts. As I shook his hand, too aware of the strength of his grip and the warmth of his calloused fingers, I was already looking forward to noon the following day, when we would meet again. It was the first time I had looked forward to anything in a very long time.
Chapter 2: 221B Baker Street
The next morning, I woke up easier in my mind than I had been for weeks, after a night of sleep disturbed only twice by nightmares. It had been some time since I had had an appointment to meet with someone and I refrained from the morning dram that had become an unhappy habit, less Holmes should smell it on me when we met. I did not wish my vices to become known to him if I could avoid it and the hours of uninterrupted sleep had left me feeling fortified, stronger than I had felt for a long time.
We met at the laboratory, where I found Holmes once again immersed in some experiment, surrounded by test tubes and liquids. It was a short ride to the address of our new lodgings, at 221B, Baker Street, and as I sat beside him in the hansom I strove to make conversation without dwelling too much on the imposing presence beside me. Despite his leanness, Holmes' height and the wiry strength of his body, evident even beneath his suit and ulster, lent him an air of suppressed power. Just as he had at our first meeting, he seemed to be humming with barely suppressed excitement, and I could only conclude that his experiments had gone well.
“What is it that you do?” I asked him, breaking the silence that had fallen between us.
“I work mostly from home,” he said – an answer that hardly left me any the wiser. “My clients may sometimes visit me at our lodgings and I trust that it will not inconvenience you to let me alone with them for some few hours now and then. I perceive that you are currently without a practice. Do you plan to return to work in the near future?”
I confess I was at a loss as to how he had known about my lack of employment, but I supposed that given my need of shared lodgings it was not too difficult a conclusion to draw. I found myself reluctant to answer him, nonetheless. The truth was that I did not believe I would ever be in a frame of mind to practice medicine again, but I little wished to reveal so much of myself to the man beside me – at least not on such early acquaintance.
“I have not yet decided,” I said eventually, noting as I did so that my answer was as evasive as the one he had given me.
I believe we were both glad to arrive quickly at our new lodgings, which I found to be comfortably furnished and altogether desirable. To my great relief, I learned that while Holmes was to take the downstairs bedroom, my own was located up a flight of narrow stairs, where any sounds I might make during my troubled nights would be unlikely to penetrate to Holmes’ ears. That very evening, I moved my few possessions from the hotel to our new home and the following day Holmes arrived with several boxes and portmanteaus in tow. Over the next few days, we began to settle into an easy rhythm. Despite his claim to work from home, I found that Holmes was often from the flat, perhaps pursuing his experiments at the laboratory. Once or twice, he returned covered with mud and sadly dishevelled, explaining only that he had taken a long walk and that his route had led him to some of the lowest portions of the city.
When he was at home, I found him easy enough to live with. He was a quiet companion and most often to be found absorbed in reading and smoking his pipe on the sofa, often with his feet up and his limbs all akimbo. His habitual air of relaxation was belied by the keen intelligence of his eyes and the quick flickers of reaction that passed across his angular features as he read from newspapers, periodicals and documents that he kept stored in several boxes stacked under a desk he had moved to beneath one of two large windows. I noticed that many of these documents were hand-written and I found my curiosity aroused, for, although I did not share Young Stamford’s seeming wariness of Holmes or disapprove of his habits, I had noticed that he seemed to have few friends – as few, almost, as myself. He had no regular callers, as far as I knew. Once every few days, however, he would ask me to vacate the sitting room so that he could meet with a client in need of his mysterious skills. Though I studied each one these visitors as carefully as I could in the moments before retreating to my own quarters or departing our lodgings to pace the streets or take refuge in a nearby bar, I could find nothing among them that explained what service Holmes was providing. On the contrary, they were a strange assortment of people from all classes of society. Wealthy gentlemen and finely dressed ladies stopped by as often as seedy looking peddlers and poorly dressed maids.
Several times, I came close to asking Holmes what his profession might be but I sensed that the question would be an unwelcome one. So grateful was I for his tact with regards to my own history and situation that I felt unable to probe too deeply into his life without invitation. Nevertheless, I found my mind was often fixated on the mystery of Holmes and his strange set of acquaintances and I passed many hours in trying to ascertain what could tie his eclectic array of clients together and how they might be linked to him.
I had already surmised that Holmes was not engaged in a study of medicine or any other systematic subject that would be fitting for a man engaged in earning a degree. Besides, he was a man of some 35 years, whose studies had surely long since concluded. Yet he had the habits of a scholar, despite his occasionally erratic interests, which veered from the medical, to the criminal, to the esoteric and obscure. He had an extensive knowledge of different kinds of tobacco – though he himself always smoked the same pungent brand, storing it, for reasons known only to himself, tucked inside the toe of a gaudy Persian slipper. He displayed a seemingly endless interest in different kinds of soil, often remarking on where I had been based on the traces of mud left on my shoes. He also betrayed an abiding interest in the little differences that make each man and woman unique, once or twice expounding at length about the minute variations of shade and texture in human hair or the unique points of difference that set aside each person’s handwriting. He even occasionally called on my own medical background to round out his own knowledge, enquiring as to the effect and efficacy of certain poisons on the human body one evening over supper, a strange line of questioning that perhaps should have unsettled me, but instead only increased my growing fascination. His attitude was that of an academic, yet his questions were those of a policeman or a criminal, and I spent hours analysing our conversations, attempting to decipher the key to his interests.
Indeed, so powerful did my curiosity become that I had to take great pains not to let him notice my growing fascination with his habits. I took to watching him subtly when I was seemingly engaged in reading, often glancing at him briefly over the newspaper as I sat in the armchair that lay across from his by the fireside. My shortcomings seemed to have escaped his notice, to my relief, and I found that I was sleeping better and drinking less than when I had lived at the hotel. Yet, to my shame, I could not rid myself of the habit of a few drams before bed, nor of the dreadful haunting nightmares. My injury, although mended, had left me stiff and lopsided, and I found that I was often in pain as the long winter nights started to draw in and the cold left me aching and slow. After catching a bad cold one afternoon while walking in the park to give Holmes time alone with one of his clients, I began to fear that my fever might return. The thought of lying raving and insensible at Baker Street, as I had at the hospital in Peshawar, unaware of the passage of time or the doctors and nurses who tended to me, filled me with horror. Though I knew that to Holmes I was nothing more than a companion with whom to share a nice suite of rooms, I could not have borne for him to see me in such a weakened and pitiable state. Happily, the scare passed, but I took pains not to venture out so much into the cold, spending more and more of my time in our lodgings by the fire.
Although my nights still passed slowly, my days had improved immeasurably since moving to Baker Street. Holmes’ company proved to be stimulating beyond my expectations. We grew closer as the weeks passed, often lingering over the breakfast or supper table engaged in conversation. During these discussions, we seldom dwelt on anything personal. Holmes seemed to enjoy hearing stories of my time studying medicine and I began to tell him anecdotes about various mishaps and misunderstandings and the antics of some of the other young doctors, which often made him smile and once or twice even caused him to laugh. This he did in perfect silence, yet his mirth shook his whole body and it began to be a goal of mine to induce it. I would spend whole nights sometimes, when the dreams were bad and sleep eluded me, running through possible stories in my head in search of one that Holmes might find amusing. For his part, he was able to speak at length and in great detail about a wide range of esoteric subjects, and although I had not formerly thought myself interested in the working of the Russian royal family or the history of a particular jewel, or many of the other eccentric topics on which Holmes chose to hold forth, he spoke with such confidence and authority and his knowledge was so extensive and exacting that I found myself riveted, no matter the topic. If the fact that my enjoyment was heightened by the way those otherworldly eyes glittered in his pale face as he spoke, and I often found myself half-hypnotised by the way his elegant hands described swooping gestures through the air in illustration of his speech, I told myself that I would be just as fascinated if he was not one of the most strange and striking men I had ever seen.
Despite our growing friendship, Holmes never asked me about my time in Afghanistan, the injury that had left me the wreck sitting before him or what I planned to do with my time now that my life as I had known it was over. I, in turn, resisted the urge to ask him the kinds of personal questions that I sensed might be unwelcome, and so we lived quite harmoniously, though much between us remained unsaid. For the most part, I managed to suppress those feelings towards him that I knew to be utterly unsuspected and unwelcome, and instead to take delight in our growing friendship, but I could not help an occasional pang when he met my muddy green eyes with his own perfect grey ones or absent-mindedly tapped his long, slender fingers on the leg of his trousers when he was deep in thought. He could often sink so deep into contemplation that he would go hours without speaking at all and I was happy enough to sit in companionable silence, enjoying his presence, whether or not he remained aware of my own.
My favourite hours at Baker Street in those early weeks were the evenings on which Holmes would take up his violin and begin to play, whiling away the hours between supper and bed with a virtuoso concert for one. In our short acquaintance, I had begun to think of Holmes as a man of rare intelligence but few emotions. Despite our growing friendship, he could be cold at times and rarely spoke either of himself or other people, instead tending to dwell on facts and formulas and history – the bedrocks of logic rather than passion. Yet when he took up his violin, he was transformed. I had not expected such a talent for music from a man of so scientific a bent, but when Holmes began to play he seemed to leave the man of reason behind him and become a creature of pure feeling. Often, when deep in thought, he would lay his violin across his knee and scrape at the strings with his bow, drawing out sustained chords that, while not unpleasant to the ear, were certainly not melodic. In the evenings, however, when he played for the pure pleasure of it, he would raise his fiddle to his chin, close his eyes and let his fingers dance over the strings.
Having questioned me as to my tastes the first time he played, he would often begin with a few of my favourite airs. As the evening went on, however, he would abandon the familiar strains of the composers we both admired and instead drift into melodies that I did not recognise. These tunes were invariably beautiful yet mournful, meandering airs that would return again and again to a simple sad refrain. After realising that he never seemed to play the same melody twice, I began to wonder if the music was of Holmes’ own composition. When he played in this manner, he would seem to lose himself utterly in the music, closing his eyes and swaying his lean frame from side to side, and I often wondered if he was aware that I was still in the room, listening to the sounds of his sorrow. These haunting songs often triggered unexpected memories. Sometimes I was plunged unexpectedly into sensations from my childhood, remembering the crisp cold air of Edinburgh in autumn or the scent of warm hay in the barn during harvest season. At other times I would be reminded of one of the few peaceful moments during my campaign, when our brigade had enjoyed snatched moments of bittersweet merriment, always with the knowledge that our laughter was stolen and that violence and death would soon return to put an end to it. Once or twice, as I stared at him unremarked, I felt tears rising in my throat and had to blink rapidly and turn to watch to fire, in case he should cease playing and open his eyes.
Holmes’ melodies lingered with me long after he put down his violin and made his way to bed and I would sometimes wake in the night to find them running through my mind. On one or two nights, I was so soothed by his music that I felt able to run the risk of attempting to sleep without the aid of a numbing agent. I longed to learn more about Holmes’ love of music but on this subject also I refrained from questioning him, ever careful to maintain the easy pattern into which we had fallen, which seemed to rely on respecting certain elements of each other’s privacy. We had found a way to live quite harmoniously in this way when I, in a moment of inexcusable pomposity, made a mistake that upset everything.
It was some weeks before the low mood that Holmes had spoken of seemed to strike him, but one morning I found that rather than breakfasting early and leaving the house on his mysterious errands, he arose late and, declining to eat, lay on the sofa in his blue dressing gown and slippers, seemingly sunk into a brown study. He answered my cheerful enquiry as to his health with a grunt and I sensed that he wished to be left to his thoughts so took myself out to one of the bars I had patronised rather less of late and availed of some help in whiling away the hours. When I returned to Baker Street, Holmes still lay upon the sofa. So dreamy was his face and so disconnected his response to my greeting that I might almost have thought he had imbibed as freely as I myself had that day, were it not for my weeks of covert study, which had revealed him to be a man of extreme temperance, fastidious in his dress and cleanliness, sparing in his intake of both food and alcohol and regular in his habits.
The next day, I found him in the same position, still sunk into a vacant abstraction that seemed utterly out of character for the energetic and driven man I had come to know. So strongly did his torpor impress itself upon me that I felt an urge to take his pulse and examine his pupils in search of evidence of some factor, internal or external, that could have contributed to such a profound change. Instead, I tore myself away. Not wishing to step out into the drab rain and cold winds of London in January, I determined to withdraw to my quarters and pass my time in reading. My reluctance to witness Holmes in this unexplained state of extreme lethargy and my pangs at his disinterest in engaging with me – or the world at large – may seem extreme, but I had not quite realised until then how central a role he had come to play in my life. My surreptitious study of him had become a strange sort of hobby in a life empty of other diversions and I had even begun to compile a small list of his eccentricities and habits in an attempt to unravel the many mysteries that surrounded him. Some of that list I shared in the public account of our early acquaintance detailed in A Study in Scarlet, but I confess there were many aspects of the details I had noticed about him that I deemed unfit for public perusal.
The exercise was intended to shed some light upon the mystery of Holmes’ profession, yet over the course of a week it had strayed further and further from this goal and I began to fear that it revealed more about myself than about Holmes. Having recorded his knowledge of various topics and executed a careful study of his daily habits, I found myself beginning to stray into more subjective territory. A second list, detailing his physical attributes, ran in this way:
- Height: two or three inches over six foot, but appears greater due to his lean frame
- Eyes: Grey, of a hue that varies depending on his mood, sometimes brilliant as brilliant as light on water, sometimes steely and shadowed, occasionally so dark they appear almost black
- Hair: deep black and very thick, with a natural wave that sweeps forward over the brow
- Hands: Slender and elegant. Scarred from chemicals and often stained with ink. Deceptively strong yet also capable of great delicacy of touch, as when he is playing his violin
Here I stopped, realising too late that what had begun as an attempt at scientific research had taken an altogether more dangerous turn. I knew that, ravaged as I was by war, I could not possibly be considered attractive by a man like Holmes. I was anyway certain that he was not an invert, although I had never heard him express any particular admiration for women, even after I had quite unselfconsciously remarked on the beauty of a well-dressed young lady who had arrived one afternoon to avail herself of Holmes’ help. I confess I had wondered if he shared my own unusual preferences, my curiosity sparked by Stamford’s unexplained reservations about living with the man, but as our acquaintance grew I was certain that his inclinations did not tend towards my own – which, after all, were deemed by respectable society to be both unnatural and unlawful. In fact, Holmes rarely expressed admiration for anyone, seeming far more preoccupied with his books and his experiments than he was with human beings.
I still feel a flush of shame when I recall the incident that finally led me to discover the nature of his work. On the fourth morning of his strange state of lethargy, I found myself sitting across from him as he picked at his breakfast. Unsettled by his uncharacteristic silence, I picked up a magazine and attempted to lose myself in reading. The article on which my eye fell, which had been marked with pencil, delved into something called “The Science of Deduction and Analysis.” A more self-important piece of writing I thought I had seldom seen. The author claimed that by a simple process of examining and analysing his surroundings he was able to deduce the most intimate personal details and private thoughts of any individual, plumbing the depths of the human mind through astute interpretation of a raised eyebrow or a clenched fist, the twitch of a muscle or the flicker of the eye. So accurate and unexpected were the results of such a study, the author claimed, that the observer would appear as a magician to the object of his deductions. Stressing the importance of pure logic in all things, he suggested that readers might train themselves in this strange art by first learning to distinguish a man’s occupation at a glance by examining some mundane aspects of his personage and clothing. This was too much for me and I began to expostulate aloud.
“What a work of fantasy! I have never read such rubbish in my life,” I cried, throwing the magazine down beside the butter. Roused from his gloom, Holmes glanced at the page, still open to the article, and then at my face.
“You do not agree with the author’s theories?”
“No doubt the man who wrote it has an enviable imagination,” I responded, “but you can hardly credit his assertion that he is able to read minds and uncover secrets with the power of his eyes alone. His theories are all very well, but I should like to see him put them into action.”
“Should you?” Holmes seemed to have woken up. For the first time in days, something of the familiar animation had come back into his face and there was a hint of colour in his cheeks. In the warm morning light, his hair looked very black and his skin very pale. He was regarding me with such a strange, calculating look that I began to feel unaccountably nervous.
“I should pay good money if he could prove that he had not invented the whole thing,” I reiterated.
“You were wounded in action in Afghanistan. Having taken a bullet to the shoulder, you made a full recovery, but you believe that your injury has not yet fully healed. Your belief causes you to become the source of your own ongoing pain, preventing you from entering back into the society of your former friends and contributing to the dark circles under your eyes,” Holmes said suddenly, fixing me with a cold, assessing stare. “You do not feel able to resume your professional duties, due to your belief that you are no longer capable of being a good doctor, even to patients whose complaints consist of a sprain or a head cold rather than a bullet to the chest or arteries severed by a bayonet. You have taken to drinking heavily every night, and occasionally in the morning, probably as a means of offsetting the mental aftereffects of combat. Despite that, you have clearly not had a drink these last 24 hours and the result –”
I cried out the word without conscious thought, hating the shame and desperation in my tone. I was almost dizzy with shock and horror. How had he discerned so much that I thought I had kept hidden from him? Quick on the heels of raw shame came a wave of anger towards the man who had allowed me to believe that I had him fooled and so to continue making a fool only of myself. I sat frozen in shock and mortification for several seconds longer, hoping that the pain I felt at Holmes' words did not show on my face as plainly as I feared it must. For one who had seen so much to have interpreted my expression should not have surprised me, and yet I hardly knew what to think when Holmes’ hawk-like face suddenly softened, and he leaned towards me as though involuntarily, clutching at my sleeve.
“My dear Watson, I am sorry,” he said, his voice gentler than I had ever heard it. “I have not been myself these last few days, as I you surely noticed. In my conceited wish to prove myself I lost sight both of good sense and the bounds of friendship. Please believe me when I say that, extraordinary as it may sound, I did not anticipate how my words would affect you.”
“I am unaffected,” I said, knowing that the lie was as clear in my voice as it doubtless was on my face.
“You would not be human were you not. It is my damnable pride that made me want to defend myself from your criticism, but it was thoughtlessly done. Please believe me when I say that I have no wish to discomfort or hurt you. I have learned from experience that to speak as I did to a friend almost always means the loss of him. I pray that in this instance you will find it in your heart to forgive me.”
“What do you mean, to defend yourself from criticism? I did not criticise you.”
“You criticised the article, as you had every right to do, and I am its author,” Holmes said. “I have a talent for observation and deduction and I felt it time to put into words some of the theories on which my work depends.”
“What work?” I asked involuntary, half aware that the conversation had taken a strange turn but relieved to leave behind the subject of my many vices.
“I am a consulting detective. I suppose I am the only one in the world – perhaps that goes some way to explaining my touchiness on the subject of my methods,” he said. “And yet the way I spoke to you was unthinkably cruel.”
I felt myself flush at his words. I had always known that to Holmes I was in all probability an object of pity, no different from the men I had tried to patch back together on the frontlines as they moaned and screamed, all traces of dignity lost to them, or those who had lain beside me in the hospital as I raved and burned with fever, their eyes dead and their bodies ruined. But to see him acknowledge my weakened state so clearly was worse even than hearing his casual identification of its many shameful manifestations.
“What on earth is a consulting detective?" I retorted, stung to sharpness. “It does not sound a very useful profession. Do you mean that you work in some part-time capacity as a private investigator? Or perhaps you investigate people’s private affairs in the hope of discovering a scandal that will pay?”
Holmes gave a strange, fleeting smile that was almost a grimace.
“You are not the first person to intimate that sticking my nose in other people's business is hardly a fitting career for a gentleman such as myself. London is full of inspectors and private detectives, but my methods are very different from theirs and I ask that you trust me when I say that there are few men I despite more thoroughly than blackmailers. When the police can make no headway on a case they sometimes come to me, and I endeavour, through my extensive knowledge of the history of crime, to help put them on the right track. At other times I have private clients – the ones for whom you have been so gracious as to vacate our living quarters these past few weeks – who come to me in search of insight or advice. I have a strange sort of intuition when it comes to the strangest misdeeds and the basest actions of my fellow man. No doubt it is down to the flaws in my own character.”
“You certainly ferreted out my own flaws and misdeeds easily enough,” I said, somewhat bitterly. “Your speech suggests that you believe yourself above rummaging through my private belongings. But if that be the case, how did you know about the drinking? I have been very carefully endeavouring not to let my lamentable habit sour our living arrangement.”
“It was nothing you did,” said Holmes. “I merely have a habit of observation that reveals certain facts about those around me, whether I will it or not. As to your drinking, I knew from the first day we met. You took out your watch when Stamford asked you for the time and it told the whole story.”
“What has my watch to do with my habit of imbibing,” I asked coldly, for it was clear that he was mocking me, though for what purpose I could not surmise.
“When you consulted it in the laboratory, I noticed the scratches around the keyhole.”
“What scratches? My watch has no scratches.” Taking it from my pocket and unfastening the chain, I flourished it at him across the table.
“My dear doctor, look here,” he said, taking it gently from my hand and pointing to the keyhole. Taking it back, I brought it close to my face and peered at it, only to perceive that there were indeed hundreds of tiny marks scratched into the metal, so small as to have gone unremarked. That Holmes had seen them at such distance and in the low light of the laboratory was astounding. I found myself thinking that he must have the sharpest eyes in England, as well as the most mercurial.
“These are surely marks from where the key has slipped when you wind it each night. Such scratches are the sign of an unsteady hand. I meant no offense by remarking on it, but it is a sign I have seen before, in more instances than one, and it is always indicative of the same thing.”
“Very clever,” I said coldly, looking away from him as I closed my watch and placed it back in my pocket. More than my remorse at damaging a watch that had been passed down to me from my father, I was filled with shame that Holmes had known all along of my deplorable dependency.
“I know what you are feeling,” said Holmes, with quiet certainty. At my look, which said quite plainly that I did not believe him, he once again took hold of my sleeve across the table, silently imploring me to listen.
“You are upset because, having given everything of yourself to a vicious and unnecessary war, you have come back to London to find that it is cold and dirty and that you are alone. You believe that the steps you have taken to make your circumstances more bearable will cause me to lose respect for you, and you do not wish to lose my regard because, poor as my company often is, I am the only friend you have. What you do not know is that I also have habits that I have kept hidden from you, and for the very same reason. And what you do not yet understand is that I will not admire you any less because you have developed mechanisms for coping with your situation. We must all find ways to survive. Although I have not been to war, I know something of the banality of evil and the underlying senselessness and cruelty of the world.”
For a moment he sounded very distant and grave and I wondered if he was trying to divert my attention by drawing me into an abstract discussion about human nature. Determined to elicit a full explanation of his extraordinary speech, I refused to be drawn.
“And what of the time you claim has elapsed since my last drink?” I said. His speech had certainly gone some way to calming my anger and I found myself unaccountably pleased by his description of himself as my friend, but I was little mollified by his vague references to his own hidden habits, which I surmised to be nothing more than a sop to excuse his unwarranted exposure of my own.
“Your hands are shaking,” he said gently. “They do that only when you have not had a drink in more than a day. Having seen your watch before we took up residence together, it did not take long to notice the symptom or to deduce its cause.”
That my hands were shaking was true, but I wondered if it was not from the toll of our conversation, rather than my lamentable dependence. I could only be thankful that Holmes had put it down to the latter. I still did not wish him to guess quite how much his good opinion mattered to me and how much the anticipated loss of it had hurt me.
“And the injury?” I said finally, convinced at last of his methods and curious, despite myself, to hear what tell-tale signs had betrayed me. “How did you know that I had taken a gunshot wound to the shoulder and what did you mean when you said that I was the cause of my own continuing pain?”
“I knew from the moment we met that you had been in Afghanistan and that you had served as a military doctor. That you had been discharged early due to injury was clear from the strain I glimpsed in your face, for, although handsome, it bears the signs of suffering. Though I saw no evidence of your injury, I noticed that you hold you left arm in a stiff fashion, as though accustomed to compensating for pain caused by movement. Clearly, then, the injury to was to that part of your anatomy and, given what I know of the conditions in Afghanistan, the most likely cause of it was a gunshot wound.”
Holmes stopped talking for a moment and pinned me with his most feline, calculating gaze. Suddenly, he took hold of the marmalade jar and, raising his arm as though about to bowl a fast ball, he flung it towards my head. He was still holding my right sleeve and, as he threw, his grip tightened like iron on my forearm. Startled more than I had been by any of the mornings’ unexpected events, and half wondering if he had gone mad, I lunged with my left hand and caught the jar just as it sailed over my shoulder towards the sofa, narrowly missing my ear.
“Holmes, what are earth do you mean by it?” I exclaimed, as I set the jar back on the table, placing it rather deliberately beyond his reach.
He gave a wicked grin.
“I have observed that you maintain an unnatural stiffness in your left arm much of the time, holding your shoulder at an awkward angle, but that when you are distracted your arm is often relaxed and your left shoulder quite as mobile as your right. Therefore, I knew that your reasons for continuing to favour it must be mental rather than physical. The residual pain you feel in the limb is the result not of your original wound but of the strain placed on your muscles by the stiff way you hold it. Given the deftness of that catch and the fact that it evidently caused you no pain, you will be obliged to acknowledge that I have cause to believe so."
“Incredible,” I breathed inadvertently.
Despite the blow to my pride and the unwelcome evidence that my careful efforts to hide my weaknesses from Holmes had failed utterly, I must confess I was impressed beyond measure by the tiny observations that had led him to develop so complete and accurate a portrait of me. I had not known myself that I moved my arm more naturally when distracted, and although it was not entirely welcome news, signifying as it did the extent to which the state of my shattered mind was responsible for my slow recovery, I was gratified to think that perhaps my injury might not be as crippling as I had previously thought.
Holmes quirked one dark eyebrow, a gesture I had had cause to notice in the past. It lent him a rakish air that I had tried and failed not be affected by.
“Incredible but unwelcome,” he said. “Do not try to convince me that I have not discomforted you with my foolish wish to demonstrate my talents, my dear fellow.”
“It is true that your observations were not entirely welcome, but if we are to be friends, as you have described us, then it is time I stopped attempting to hide my failings from you,” I responded, as warmly as I could. “I am, as you have seen, a weak man. A broken man. A man who does not have full control either of his own body or his own mind. But should you still wish to call me your friend, despite my flaws, I would be happy to take on the role.”
Holmes smile was perhaps the most brilliant I had ever seen it and for a moment I lost myself in the shapely curve of his lips.
“Have no fear, my dear friend,” he said. “Not one of the qualities that you characterise as vices has ever made me like you any the less and I’ll wager there is not a man on earth who thinks you either weak or broken, save only for you yourself.”
At that I had to turn my face away and Holmes, usually sensitive to my mood, stood up and went to file away the offending magazine among his papers.
It was a relief after the strange turn our breakfast had taken to return to a semblance of our normal routine. Holmes, I noticed, seemed to have shaken off his earlier grim mood and for the first time in several days he took himself off to dress for company instead of retreating to the sofa to lie all day in his dressing gown. When, a few minutes after his return to the sitting room, a young woman arrived at the door, I made ready to retreat to my room, but to my surprise Holmes stopped me.
“Dr Watson, would you care to lend your assistance in this interview?” he enquired.
And so I became the unofficial assistant of the world's only consulting detective.
Chapter 3: The Science of Deduction
My first case with Sherlock Holmes changed my perception of him utterly. I had already marvelled at his intelligence and observed, half in admiration and half in censure, his extreme confidence, which at times bordered on conceit. Witnessing him at the scene of a crime, however, I began to realise that for all my study of Holmes I had never before seen him at his most vital and compelling.
It was at the scene of the murder in Lauriston Gardens, which I described in such dramatic detail for the public in A Study in Scarlet, that I first saw Holmes truly in his natural element. I observed the way he executed his performance outside the house, making his leisurely way up and down the pavement, gazing around him at the rather ordinary street as though it held secrets too arcane for the rest of us to comprehend. I saw how his slow yet thorough examination, lingering over the mess of footprints on the path, irritated Inspector Gregson, who stood waiting for him with his impatience showing nakedly on his face. I could not help but feel that Holmes was enjoying his rather theatrical examination and that a small part of his object was irritate the man who had summoned him so peremptorily. Inside the house, however, all posturing ceased. Seeming almost to crackle with barely contained energy, Holmes rushed about the room, ignoring the ghastly body that dominated my own attention with its bulging eyes and twisted face, and its strange, contorted posture, which gave the dead man an almost animal-like appearance. Holmes first examined the walls, fireplace and floors of the room, and I found my gaze drawn to his rangy form as he ran gentle fingers over the stained walls and folded himself down on hands and knees to examine with minute care a corner of the room that appeared, to my untrained eyes, to be empty. At last he approached the body. Even then, his focus was on the great sprays and whorls of blood that encircled it. He seemed almost to read them, staring at them with a singular focus, his grey eyes narrowed, like a scholar striving to translate some ancient language, or a code-breaker attempting to fit a cypher to an unfamiliar pattern.
Finally, he turned the full force of his attention to the corpse whose murder he was tasked with avenging. While Gregson and Lestrade had already made their initial examinations, I can only assume that they had determined the man dead, ascertained that he had no visible injuries, searched for some means of identifying the victim and ended their investigation there. Holmes’ examination, by contrast, was extensive and startlingly intimate. I watched his dexterous fingers roam the corpse from one end to the other, squeezing limbs, pressing clammy skin, unbuttoning clothes and manipulating the corpse’s stiffening limbs. When, as a final touch, he leaned forward to smell the unfortunate man’s lips, I saw the two inspectors flinch, as though in disgust. For my part, I was fascinated. It was as if the rest of us had ceased to exist for Holmes the moment he stepped into the room. This strange process, whatever its goal, concerned only him, the body of the murdered man and the absent criminal on whose tail he was now bent. His singular focus and determination were reflected in every line of his body, in the set of his stern jaw and in his eyes, which looked almost black in the murky light and were filled with an almost feverish gleam. For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine how it would feel to be the object of that unrelenting focus and I felt myself shiver with a strange mixture of longing and fear.
I had already remarked Holmes’ reluctance to attend the case after Gregson’s imperious summons and the way in which he seemed to resent the police inspector’s high-handed manner and dismissive attitude. From my short observation of the man, it was clear that he would seize any opportunity to brand Holmes an amateur and question his methods, despite the fact that he clearly made a habit of coming to him for help. Although Holmes remarked to me that it was all one to him if the police claimed the credit for his work, provided that he was permitted the reward of solving the case, I intuited that perhaps, given how he seemed to feed on attention and admiration, he resented Gregson’s attitude more than he cared to show. As soon as his examination was over, he seemed to come to himself again. I saw him reassume the mantle of theatricality he had worn outside the building, playing upon his knowledge to impress and punish the two clueless inspectors.
I did not miss the undertone of mischief in the way Holmes responded to their overtures. When Gregson remarked on the complexity of the case, Holmes, examining his fingernails, remarked guilelessly, “Really? You find it so?”
And when Lestrade, finding a woman’s wedding ring at the scene of the crime as the body was finally removed, waved it triumphantly under Holmes’ nose, exclaiming, “This complicates matters!” I saw a brief flicker cross Holmes’ implacable face and felt certain that he was struggling to suppress a laugh. He met my eyes with a twinkle in his own that betrayed his amusement and, though I had not the insight to understand what made Lestrade’s comment so amusing to my friend, I found myself on the verge of laughter as well and had to look away quickly, less my humour betray his. With perfect mastery of his features, he turned to the excited inspector with earnest curiosity.
“Are you sure it does not make them simpler?” he asked, and watched the man’s face fall and a frown of irritation mar his brow. “I should be inclined to say that the discovery of the ring very nearly seals the solution.”
This performance, too, I found curiously attractive, though doubtless it was childish. Holmes at work was a man entirely in control of his surroundings and his audience, more powerful and alive than I had ever seen him, and I realised at once that I should have to guard my heart more firmly than ever, were I to accompany him on any more of his cases. I had always been attracted to men and women of unusual intelligence. I enjoyed the sort of verbal sparring at which Holmes excelled almost more than I did the softer interactions that came with acknowledged mutual attraction. Seeing Holmes at work, so carelessly at ease in his skin and so naturally in control of his domain, I was reminded of the one man I had loved with my whole heart, before the war had drawn me into a hell outside any he would ever experience or understand. Henry had loved me too, so I believed. He had, at least, loved the man I had been. But when I had returned, a pallid ghost, I had seen the horror in his eyes. We had met at a particular kind of gentleman's club known for its discretion where we had often met before I had left England. I had spend days in a fever of anticipation, recalling the blue of his eyes, the strength of his neck and the sound of his laugh. Our reunion, it had seemed to me, might go some way to alleviating the hollowness and despair I had felt in the early weeks of my recovery. After that first appalled look, Henry had pressed my hand and asked after my health and smiled with his lips but not with his eyes. We had made stilted conversation over a single drink and when I had taken my leave, unable to bear the way he seemed unconsciously to draw back whenever I leaned towards him, he had not pressed me to stay. I had not heard from him since. I had vowed, after that, never to love anyone in that way again. Standing there in that macabre room, beside that disfigured body and two men who would have had me up on charges had they known even a fraction of what I had felt for Henry - and what I now feared I might grow to feel for Holmes - I made a silent promise to myself that, no matter how I came to admire Holmes, mind, body and soul, I would never allow myself to love him.
The culmination of that strange and macabre case I have detailed elsewhere, but I will add here that it was the moment when I made the first big leap in understanding that allowed me to begin to truly know Holmes. Although murder had been committed, the case was far from black and white, and in the patient way he listened to Jefferson Hope’s story and the understanding written on his fine features I saw that he was moved by the man’s tale of loss and revenge. I began to realise that Holmes’ coldness stemmed from his determination to base his deductions solely on facts and to suspect that perhaps he was not incapable of feeling emotions, only unusually capable of suppressing them.
It was the article in the newspaper at the end of the case, lionising Gregson and Lestrade for solving the crime and branding Holmes an amateur who, under their instruction, “may hope in time to attain to some degree of their skill,” that pushed me to begin writing about Holmes’ work. When I suggested the idea of recording his cases, framing it as a way to bring in more clients and ensure that he attained the credit for his work, he told me simply to do as I wished, but I sensed that, despite his seeming lack of enthusiasm, the idea appealed to him. If it also provided me with an excuse to stay close beside him and gave me reason to study him without reserve, I did not allow myself to linger over it.
And so I began to accompany him on many of his cases, which I soon found were always interesting, occasionally frustrating and frequently dangerous. Once he realised that I still had my service revolver and established that I had no objections to using it, he began asking me to bring it along when he believed that a case was likely to occasion a higher than usual degree of risk. Useless as I was to him as a partner in solving puzzles, possessing as I did neither his intellect nor his instinctive talent for intuiting the motives and methods of the criminals we encountered, I took pride in my ability to protect him, as ill-fitting as that task must be for a retired doctor sickened by memories of war.
The more immersed I became in Holmes’ strange business, the more tolerable I found the times when I was left to myself, with nothing but my memories, my nightmares and my increasingly wayward fantasies. I ceased drinking in the mornings, though I still availed myself of a medicinal draft at night, for my nightmares had not ceased, although they had lessened somewhat, perhaps as a result of our mental and physical exertions, which often left me in a state of extreme exhaustion at the end of each day.
Holmes seemed happy enough for me to accompany him from morning to night, despite my few talents, and I was grateful for the diversion from my empty days but more so for the opportunity to indulge my growing obsession with him. While Holmes was observing clients, crime scenes and criminals, I was observing Holmes. That my fascination with him could escape his notice I did not allow myself to pretend for a moment, but I hoped that my project to record his cases provided enough of a reason to justify my avid attention. Holmes’ egoism, too, worked in my favour, for he seemed to take praise as his due and I could tell how much he enjoyed my frequent exclamations as he drew his cases to a theatrical close. As much as I remonstrated with myself to cease my insipid cries of “Amazing!”, “Incredible!” “Marvellous!” which only served to demonstrate how far behind him in intellect and poise I truly lagged, I could not seem to curtail the ghastly habit, and Holmes seemed to relish his ability to continually surprise and impress me with his insights. Sometimes I wondered if he deliberately engineered opportunities to stun me with his intellect, but his desire for an audience was as intrinsic to his character as his remarkable powers of observation and deduction and I was under no lasting illusion that it made any odds to him whether it was I or some other bystander who reinforced, through our unintended ignorance, the superlative power of his own mind.
Just as I edited my stories for the public, embroidering them with dramatic detail and judiciously drawing a veil over certain incidents that might prove damaging to either Holmes or myself, I also had to ready them for Holmes’ eyes. Even as I rejoiced in outlining his extraordinary talents, I took pains to minimise my own presence, afraid to share too many of my thoughts and impressions for fear that they might betray more of myself than I wished to reveal to my all-seeing friend. I wrote of Holmes’ height and his narrow frame, of his tireless energy, his attention to the smallest trifle and his genius for not only seeing but observing the world around him. I wrote of his unique method of deductive reasoning and the flair with which he solved cases too grotesque and gruesome for any other mind to master. I did not write of the way he often tapped out mysterious rhythms with his long fingers when deep in thought on a problem, as though unconsciously playing his violin. Nor did I write of his strong features, which I had come to find as compelling as they were unusual, the way his eyes turned stormy when he was on the verge of cracking a case, or the infectious joy that transformed his features when the solution finally became clear to him. I did not write of how, when he turned to me at the moment of inspiration, the solution on his lips, his eyes shone with such passion that it was all I could do not to take his angular face between my hands and kiss him. And I never wrote, nor allowed myself to think, about how much I feared that that only thing in the world capable of bringing happiness to the ruined shell of Dr John Watson was Sherlock Holmes, a man who, once he solved a problem, wrote it down neatly in one of his ledgers and never dwelt on it again.
Chapter 4: Miss Mary Morstan
Holmes and I had been living together for several months and I had accompanied him on half a dozen of his cases when an incident occurred that threatened to upset the comfortable friendship we had built. One evening, after supper, Holmes and I were sitting by the fire. I was feeling relaxed and lethargic after several glasses of wine and Holmes was fiddling with his violin, not playing but engaged in the process of changing a string. He had removed his waistcoat, collar and cuffs and rolled up his shirtsleeves, and as he fed the string through the peg and began to tighten it, I was enjoying the sight of his dextrous hands at work and admiring his delicately muscled forearms, covered with a down of fine, dark hair. I confess my thoughts had begun to wander, and I was busy trying to image what Holmes’ slender back and finely shaped chest might look like under his shirt, when I came back to myself to realise that he had abruptly ceased working on his violin and was staring at me, observing with his calculating gaze the way that my eyes were fixed on him. Startled, I coughed and looked away. From the corner of my eye, I saw him swiftly roll down his sleeves, as though disturbed by my gaze.
Until that moment, it had often crossed my mind that, given Holmes’ extraordinary perceptiveness, I ran a great risk that he would at some point recognise my deviance from the normal paths of attraction. Yet he had given no sign that he suspected me to be in any way abnormal in that regard and I had made a careful effort to express my admiration for several of the ladies we crossed paths with, in the hope of alleviating any suspicions that might form. The thought that I might have given myself away in such a simple, unguarded moment played heavily on my mind, and I soon excused myself and went up to bed, where I lay awake most of the night. I did not know what Holmes’ reaction might be were he to divine that I was an invert, but I feared that, no matter how tolerant I could hope him to be on the subject of my personal affairs, he could not be comfortable in the knowledge that I was secretly lusting after him. It was mortifying to contemplate that he might believe me to think I had a chance of attracting him, or that I might be so selfish as to attempt to draw him into a liaison that would pose nothing but danger for both of us.
I finally fell into an exhausted sleep in the early hours, only to awaken just after dawn from a horrific nightmare in which I was back at Maiwand and was caught in delicate circumstances with a soldier from my brigade. We had been court marshalled and were about to be executed when I awoke, sweating and in pain, my shoulder throbbing in a way it had not in many weeks.
At breakfast, I met Holmes’ eyes carefully, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. We made desultory conversation over our sausages and eggs. Holmes did not have a case for the first time in several weeks and he seemed listless as he pushed away most of his breakfast uneaten and made his way to the sofa, where he sat with a copy of that morning’s newspaper. I knew him to be searching for mysteries or unsolved crimes to satiate his constant need for mental stimulation, but so raw were my nerves from the previous evening’s incident that I could not help wondering if he was seeking an excuse to avoid conversing with me. I knew that by addressing the subject I could only make matters worse, and so, to occupy my mind, I took up one of my manuscripts and attempted to focus on recording our most recent case. After misspelling the same word three times and mistaking the name of our client twice, I cast it aside in frustration and turned to Holmes.
“My dear fellow, I do hope that last night I did not discomfort you,” I ejaculated.
Holmes looked up at me over the top of his newspaper. He was lounging in an attitude of total repose, his legs sprawled across the length of the sofa and crossed over at the ankle as he read. His face was blandly curious, as though he had no idea to what I was referring, but I had seen his considerable skill at acting and knew that I could not trust his expression to reflect whatever he was truly thinking.
“In what way could you have caused me any discomfort?” he enquired languidly, still holding the newspaper in front of him, as though he expected to return to it at any moment.
“When you were tuning your violin, I’m afraid I fell into a brown study and I feared that perhaps you had questioned the direction of my gaze.”
Even as I uttered the words, I knew how ridiculous they sounded.
“My dear Watson, I hardly feel I need to say it, but you may look wherever you like,” said Holmes. He sounded perfectly calm but the usual edge of humour that I had grown to expect was missing from his voice.
I felt a terrible urge to press the point but knew that I had already worsened my own situation. Holmes was not a man to turn away from a puzzle. He must now be wondering, if he had not been already, what was so important about the strange unspoken moment that had passed between us the previous evening.
At that fraught instance, there came a knock at the door. Into the room strode a lady of medium height, with fine blond hair, an upright bearing and startling blue eyes. There was something about her face that gave a suggestion of great kindness and of innate strength. She was not classically beautiful, but I found her immediately appealing – she was exactly the kind of woman I had always pictured myself one day choosing to marry, in the days before the war, when I believed that my future held a comfortable medical practice, a partner who shared my interests and a clutch of children.
I could see Holmes’ suppressed excitement at the possibility of a new case as he coaxed his client, Miss Mary Morstan, to detail the mystery that plagued her. Although the shaking of her hands gave away her extreme agitation, I was impressed by her commendable composure as she shared her tragic story, describing the death of her mother during her infancy and the mysterious disappearance of her father some years later, just as she had thought to have him finally returned to her at the end of his service in India.
Often, during interviews, I found myself more interested by Holmes’ reactions to his clients than by the clients themselves, but Miss Morstan held my attention throughout her sad tale and I felt a fierce protectiveness rise in me when, describing her father’s wish for peace and comfort, she allowed herself a single brief sob. I abandoned my notes and scrambled to pass her a fresh handkerchief, just as Holmes opened his own notebook and began demanding the precise dates of the incidents she had laid before us.
It was to me, not Holmes, that Miss Morstan turned when, at the climax of her strange tale, she opened a small box to reveal a set of the finest pearls that I had ever seen. Our hands touched as I took the box to pass it to Holmes and for a moment I wondered if I could once again be the kind of man who would think of marrying a woman like Miss Morstan. When she explained that a mysterious letter had urged her to meet that very evening with a stranger, bringing with her no more than two friends, I felt a jolt of excitement at the thought of seeing her again. But then Holmes began poring over the letter, muttering about the “irrepressible twirls” of the Ss and the distinctive Greek Es and I was overcome with a sudden wave of tenderness for him. I turned away in confusion and by the time I had composed myself Miss Morstan was taking her leave. With a final glancing look at me from under her lashes, she quit the room and I was once again alone with Holmes.
Unable to meet his eye, I stepped over to the window, where I watched Miss Morstan make her way down the street, a graceful, elegant figure with energy in her step. Behind me, I heard Holmes settle back onto the sofa and begin the familiar ritual of lighting his pipe, which he often smoked when immersed in deep thought.
“There goes a very attractive woman,” I remarked, my back still turned. I meant every word of it - and yet perhaps I might not have said it had I not been desperate to put any lingering awkwardness behind us.
“Is she? I did not observe.”
I could not help turning to see Holmes’ face. He was reclining once again on the sofa, his pipe in one hand and his notebook in the other, already running his eye over what he had written as though my remark was utterly without interest. His tone had been so dismissive that it might never have crossed his mind that he might find any other human being on earth attractive. Perhaps, I thought, he never had. He did not seem surprised by my declaration, however, and I wondered if he had already observed the intangible connection that had sprung up between myself and his client. If he had, he did not seem discomforted by it. I hated myself for wishing that he did.
“You really are an automaton,” I said, somewhat defensively. “At times I find you positively inhuman.”
He favoured me with one of his most feline and inscrutable smiles.
“It is of the first importance,” he said, “never to let emotion intercede in business. And now, my dear doctor, I am going out. I have some theories that require legwork.”
He did not invite me to join him. So abruptly dismissed, I took myself upstairs, where I began to pace my room from end to end, until, realising that I was behaving like a caged animal, I forced myself to delve into a very dense treatise on pathology, which for a time drowned out my thoughts.
By the time Holmes and I set out to meet Miss Morstan that evening, I had had time to reflect on my situation. My growing attraction to Holmes had begun to threaten the semblance of a life I had managed to build, and I determined that I had urgently to take steps to ensure that an incident of the sort that had passed between us the previous evening should not happen again. I fancied I had not misread the look in Miss Morstan’s eyes as she left the interview with Holmes and I determined that the best possible course of action for both my own and Holmes’ future happiness was to find out for sure. Though I knew myself to be a shadow of my former self – a failed doctor with a feeble mind and a feebler bank account – if Miss Morstan were indeed enamoured of me, I should be a fool to pass up the chance of seeing where our mutual interest might lead.
In the cab on the way to our mysterious meeting, Holmes leaned back against the seat, unusually disengaged. He was in an odd humour and his face looked drawn and somewhat paler than usual. I made several attempts to engage him in the conversation between myself and Miss Morstan, but he maintained his implacable silence and eventually I left him to his thoughts and the contents of his notebook, which he soon began to study with great concentration. Throughout the evening, he maintained this uncharacteristic coolness and reserve, leaving me to entertain Miss Morstan with, I confess, somewhat fanciful stories of my adventures in India and Afghanistan. I could not fail to notice that Holmes’ unusual silence provided the perfect circumstances for the two of us to grow closer. I knew, knowing Holmes as I did, that he did nothing without good reason.
Throughout our strange interview with Thaddeus Sholto, in that great menacing mausoleum of a house, I was aware of the way Miss Morstan addressed her remarks to me, seeming almost to forget that Holmes and Sholto remained in the room. I strove to serve as a comforting and reassuring presence in the strange situation in which we found ourselves, finding that my protective instincts were once again aroused by her obvious distress, and my admiration aroused by the commendable bravery with which she attempted to hide it. And yet, in the darkened grounds of Pondicherry Lodge, when she placed her hand in mine, I had to fight not to tear my fingers from her gentle grip. Holmes stood but a few feet from us and, though he had taken the lamp and was busy examining the great heaps of stone and rubbish that defiled the darkened lawns, I knew that he missed nothing. No matter how I fought it, everything in me revolted at the thought of his glimpsing us together in such an intimate position.
I silently willed her to release me, but instead she remarked aloud as to the eeriness of the house and Holmes turned towards us. He responded with some perfunctory remark, as I, my hand growing damp in hers, glued my eyes to his face. I do not remember what he said, but I remember that he was perfectly calm and that his eyes remained on her face as he spoke, never once flickering down to where our hands were joined. All I could think, as the pain of his indifference turned my stomach to lead, was that I should not be allowing Miss Morstan to believe that I was in love with her when, despite my best efforts, I could not seem to stop every fibre of my body from vibrating with mingled dread and a sort of sick excitement at the thought of what Holmes would make of our growing understanding.
By the time we returned home, I was awash with guilt over my duplicitous conduct towards Miss Morstan and more miserable than I had been in months. Holmes had said nothing to me on the long drive back, ignoring my chatter about the case as he stared out into the darkness, deep in thought. He held a cigarette cupped in one large hand and it slowly burned away in his grip, smoke wreathing between his fingers, until he started suddenly and threw it aside. His thoughts had been so fixed upon the case that I knew he had forgotten it until it burned down far enough to singe his fingers. He had evidently forgotten my presence just as completely because when the cab drew up on Baker Street, he stepped down without a word and made his way inside without once looking back.
I had not realised until that night how insidiously the hope had grown, as we spent our days and nights together, that Holmes might on some level feel as I did. But on that score, I could fool myself no longer. Inside, I excused myself almost immediately and retired to my room, where I lay awake, cursing my idiocy and my weakness. Once again, I considered the possibility that to marry Miss Morstan might save both Holmes and myself inevitable pain. But when, feverish with frustrated wanting, I finally took myself in hand, it was not to images of soft blond hair and brave blue eyes that I found my release, but to thoughts of a savage grey gaze, of rough, scarred hands twisting in my hair and of teeth biting down on the back of my neck as a taut, lean body took its pleasure above me.
It was the following evening, after breaking the news to Miss Morstan that she had not inherited a treasure – and from making plain, in the kindest and subtlest way I knew how that I was not a man in whom she should invest any romantic hopes – that I came home to find Holmes on the sofa with an empty syringe beside him and a drop of blood in the crook of his arm.
Chapter 5: A Rude Awakening
When I saw Holmes lying dazed on the sofa, his face white, his lips tinged with blue and his closed eyes underlined with great smoky half-circles of shadow, I thought he was dead. I dropped my stick with a clatter and sprang forward, crying out his name, but as I drew within reach of him, already feeling for his neck in search of a pulse, I saw his eyelids flicker and he gave a small moan.
“Watson?” he murmured, his head moving restlessly.
“I’m here,” I told him, unthinkingly taking one of his large hands in mine. “What happened? Have you been poisoned?”
He shook his head, lethargically, and at last opened his eyes, peering at me in the glow of the lamplight. His pupils were pinpricks, his breathing steady but slow, and I felt understanding roll through me like a wave, sweeping away everything I had thought I knew about Sherlock Holmes.
“Morphine,” I said flatly. “How much did you take?”
Holmes did not reply. His eyes were closed again, and he lay as though sleeping. Now that I had made the connection, however, the signs were unmistakable. I had seen morphine addicts before, doomed to remain forever dazed and lost, never having found their way back from the dreams they had escaped into to forget the pain of shattered bones and missing limbs. I had administered it myself, in Afghanistan, to the men I thought might live to see the next morning and been given it in my turn at the hospital in Peshawar, in those early days when my body was afire and I thought the flames would kill me. The heavy blanket of the drug had allowed me to survive my injuries, turning the pain from a scream to a whisper, still present but distant, waiting to pounce, like a vicious dog tied up just out of reach, slowly gnawing through his rope. But Holmes was a healthy man. I thought of all the times that I had been confounded by his sudden changes of mood, the days when he would not leave the sofa and the strange lassitude that replaced his fits of restless energy. The anger I felt caught in my throat and I almost choked on his name, swallowing convulsively even as I tried to speak.
“Ho – Holmes!”
I shook him by the shoulder, somewhat more violently than intended, and he gave a lazy, drugged smile.
“Wake up, you idiot!” my voice was shaking. “Tell me how much you took. You could have killed yourself. You still might, if you do not wake up and tell me exactly what was in that syringe.”
As I spoke, I leaned over his prone form and picked up the empty glass hypodermic. Placing it on the floor beside me, I licked my finger and wiped the drop of dried blood from the crook of his arm, where his shirtsleeve was carelessly rolled back. Without thinking, as though the blood were my own, I licked the finger clean. The taste of metal shocked me into recognition and I was momentarily glad that Holmes eyes had slid shut once again. Then, suddenly insensed, I took him by the shoulder and shook him again.
“Well diagnosed, doctor,” he said, his voice so low that I had to bring my ear close to his lips to catch his words. “It was morphine. I fear I may have miscalculated the dose. It has been a long time since I took it. I am usually content with a seven percent solution of cocaine.”
“Miscalculated. Holmes, you –”
At a loss for words, I took several deep breaths, attempting to clear my mind as I had learned to do during my time on the frontlines when panic threatened to overwhelm me. I was still a doctor, I reminded myself. Resisting the urge to keep shaking him, I placed two fingers on his cool throat. His pulse was slow but steady. The colour was already coming back into his face and his lips were no longer blue. He was only half dressed, and his shirt, open at the neck, revealed a slice of smooth, pallid skin. He looked like a waxwork rendering of himself, but he no longer resembled a corpse.
When he began struggling to sit up, I pushed him back down. Taking hold of the arm nearest to me, I carefully rolled up his sleeve. The inside of his arm was covered with scars, some old and faded, turned silvery with time, others still pink and livid against his pearly skin. Holmes was unresisting as I made my examination. He said nothing when I dropped his limb as though it had scalded me and got to my feet, but I could feel his eyes on me as I picked up the syringe from the floor and carried it over to his desk, where I let it fall with a tinkle next to his pipe.
Some time passed in silence. Unable to countenance leaving Holmes alone but too furious to sit down in my usual chair, as though this were any normal night, I remained standing by his desk. I had been so stupid. That I, a trained – if retired – doctor, had not noticed my friend’s drug use until he came close to ending his own life seemed to me even worse than the fact that he had hidden his addiction from me all these months. The man I had thought Holmes to be – bright and brilliant, composed and calculating, humorous, cynical, inspiring and inspired – was gone, and in his place was a glassy eyed addict, gambling away his unique talents, his unparalleled intellect, his vitality and his brilliance as though they were worth nothing. Some small part of me knew that my anger was irrational. No one knew better than I how easy it was to develop shameful dependencies. And yet I had turned to drink to distance myself from unbearable memories and numb myself from incessant nightmares. Holmes had, so far as I knew, no conceivable reason to play in such a cavalier fashion with his own life.
An hour or more must have passed before he stirred again and began to pull himself up into a sitting position.
“Watson?” I heard him mutter, his voice a deep rasp.
In silence, I went to the pitcher and poured him a glass of water. He took it from me gratefully and drained half of it before he spoke again. I sank down onto the floor in front of him, bewildered and incandescent with fury and knowing that I had no right to reproach him.
“My knowledge of chemistry seems to have let me down me in this instance,” he said. “I had thought that my tolerance would be higher, but I confess the morphine hit me harder than I had expected.”
“I don’t give a damn about your knowledge of chemistry,” I said, my voice tight and clipped with anger. “Holmes, why did you do it?”
“Are you so surprised?” he responded, and his voice had regained some of its usual cold precision. “You saw two nights ago what I was. You have surely known since then that this was inevitable.”
“What do you mean? How should I have known?”
“I saw you staring at the marks of the needle on my arm. Don’t tell me you have forgotten already," his tone was cutting, cold and mocking and unfamiliar. "You thought it important enough to attempt to raise it with me only yesterday morning and it had a powerful enough effect on your opinion of me to send you straight into the arms of Miss Morstan. Do I owe you my felicitations, by the way? I rather thought you might return from your outing this evening with some happy news.”
“Holmes, I did not notice the needle marks. I did not know of your dependency until I discovered you half dead just now. And I confess I cannot understand why you, of all people, would choose to poison yourself in this way.”
Holmes gave a bitter laugh, looking away from me. “You did not notice,” he muttered. “I should have known. Your lack of observational skill has hardly failed to impress itself upon me.”
Then he turned to face me again, continuing savagely: “Am I to be above such things, then? Is it to be acceptable for Dr John Watson to give up on his august career saving lives and abandoned his many friends, to waste his days following at the heels of a heartless automaton and to drown his sorrows in the whisky bottle every night, but not for a consulting detective with no friends and no lives to save to indulge in his own escape from the hideous mundanity of life?”
“Mundanity? You did this because you were bored?” I said. Then, reflexively. “And I do not ‘follow at your heels.’”
“Boredom was certainly one of the reasons,” said Holmes. “You may be content with the relentless ennui of existence, though from my observations I think that unlikely. I, however, cannot survive each crawling day in this world of violence and petty cruelty and endless, endless stupidity without a stimulus for the mind. If there is no puzzle to occupy me, I find that a dose of cocaine or morphine usually suffices. And now I think I will retire to my bed. No doubt your hypocritical objections to my lifestyle will keep until the morning. I imagine your upcoming nuptials will provide you with just the reason you are looking for to leave Baker Street and your disappointing former colleague behind you.”
“I am not engaged,” I said, through my teeth. I wanted to hit him. “You may call me a hypocrite, but our circumstances are not the same. I could have resorted to morphine – God knows, I thought of it at times. But I did not. You have no nightmares to destroy your nights and make you question your very sanity. If a dram or two of whisky is what it takes to sleep for a few hours without being haunted by death and awakened by screams, it is a safer medicine than some.”
“I do not doubt it,” said Holmes. He sounded more like his old self, but his eyes shone feverishly in his pale face. Belatedly, I perceived that he was almost as angry as I was. “You forget that I have known from the beginning of our acquaintance exactly what you suffer, and I have never questioned your methods of dealing with it. As I told you the first time we argued, nothing you do will cause me to lose my regard for you. And yet I knew from the beginning that once you came to know me better you would not wish to become any further entangled with me. So why are you not engaged?”
I could not understand why he kept coming back to the subject of my engagement, but so tangled were my thoughts, and so raw my emotions, that I let go the caution I had so carefully cultivated throughout my months of living with him.
“Because, attractive and brave and compassionate as Miss Morstan is, I cannot love her,” I said.
Holmes’ breath hitched, very slightly. His eyes were pitiless as he reached forward and ran one long finger slowly along the line of my jaw, so lightly I could barely feel it. When a shiver ran though me at his touch, his eyes blazed in triumph.
“And why is that?” he murmured. “Is there someone else who commands your regard?”
My heart was beating too quickly and my breathing was too fast. I knew that Holmes would notice – had already noticed. He noticed everything. I sat frozen, kneeling before him like a supplicant worshipping at the feet of an indifferent god. He was moving now, sliding sinuously forward off the sofa to sprawl beside me on the floor. The smile on his face was one of challenge.
“Well, Watson?” he said, his body so close to mine that I could feel the heat radiating from his skin. His arranged himself with catlike grace, one arm slung over the seat of the sofa, one leg bent upright and the other forward so that his knee almost touched mine. “Who is it that arouses your interest, if it is not the virtuous Miss Morstan?”
All his habitual coldness seemed to have turned suddenly to heat. In response, I felt my own need for him overwhelm me, burning away the walls I had so carefully constructed. He sat, still as a statue, watching me. When I lunged for him, unable to pretend any longer, I felt his lips curve into a smile of victory under my own. His shoulders were wiry and broader than they looked, taut and masculine in my grasping hands. His skin smelled like smoke and rain and his mouth had already opened to my coaxing tongue.
It was like no first kiss I had ever experienced. There was nothing tender in the way our mouths grappled with each other, his lips pressing against mine with bruising force. There was passion I had never imagined, even in my most fevered fantasies, fuelled not by love but by anger and submission and raw need. I tore at his shirt with something approaching desperation. I was already rock hard beneath the straining material of my trouser front.
Holmes pulled away from the kiss with an insistence that was almost violent. “I can see why your particular interests might make marriage to Miss Morstan a less than appealing proposition,” he said. His lips were swollen and his chest was rising and falling quickly beneath his shirt, now unbuttoned all the way down to his finely muscled stomach, but his mocking voice demonstrated that he had retained his usual iron composure.
“Yes, damn you,” I snarled, already reaching for him again. “Do you need to hear me say it? It is you that I want. You are all that I’ve wanted since the first day I met you.”
“That is very gratifying to hear,” he responded with maddening calm, evading my reach. Rising gracefully to his hands and knees, he placed one large hand in the centre of my chest and pushed me slowly backwards, until I was lying on my back on the rug. His eyes were dark as onyx in the half-light and he kept them fixed on me, examining every nuance of my expression, as he ran one hand slowly over my bulging trousers. He smirked when I gasped involuntarily, my hands fisting at my sides. He was himself again, as focused and icily controlled as he was when immersed in solving one of his most complex puzzles. And yet, at the same time, he was suddenly new to me, his face flushed with arousal, his shirt gaping open and his black hair falling forward over the high curve of his forehead.
He pushed my shirt slowly upwards, surveying the expanse of stomach he had revealed as carefully as I had often seen him examine a crime scene for footprints. I steeled myself to calm, resisting the urge to squirm beneath his gaze. Perhaps sensing the urgency of my need, he did not stop to remove my clothing but reached straight for the fastening of my trousers. When he took me in his firm grip, I let out a low moan, and his eyes slid closed for a just a moment, his pulse fluttering in his slim neck. Then he was leaning forward, slowly, teasing me, as confident in his own power as I had ever see him. When his mouth engulfed me, and I felt the first sweep of his tongue, I finally allowed myself to close my eyes. To my mortification, a few slow, deep strokes were enough to bring me to the brink and in a matter of minutes I felt myself tense all over, unable to hold back any longer. Uncannily attuned to my every move, Holmes ceased his ministrations for a moment and drew back, kneeling between my legs.
“Open your eyes,” he commanded, imperious as ever.
Only when I did so did he once again lower his head, his grey gaze fixed on me all the time, to finish what he had started. His domineering attitude only increased my arousal, God forgive me, and I marvelled at his ability to place me totally at his mercy even as he was the one servicing my needs. He was still holding my eyes with his own when I could stand it no longer and I released with a cry, treacherous pleasure coursing through my body. Holmes' rhythm did not falter as he reached forward with one long arm and placed his hand firmly over my mouth, leaving me to convulse in silence until I slumped back onto the rug.
When I finally stopped shaking, several seconds passed in silence. Holmes left his hand clamped over my mouth, continuing to subdue me as I struggled to regain some semblance of control. When at last he withdrew it, I murmured an apology.
“I hope that Mrs Hudson did not hear that,” I said, already overcome with remorse at the risk I had brought upon him.
“At this moment, Mrs Hudson interests me not in the slightest,” he said, seemingly as indifferent to the new kind of danger I had brought into our lives as he was to knife-wielding criminals and vengeful killers.
He had retained such remarkable composure that I might have doubted that he had enjoyed our encounter, were it not for the proof I could see beneath the untucked tails of his shirt, still held together by a single button. But when I sat up and reached for him, he pulled away.
“Comfortable though the rug doubtless is, I was hoping you would accompany into my bedroom,” he said. “I am not finished with you yet.”
I laughed, then, my anger forgotten for the moment. I was light-headed, almost dizzy at the turn the night had taken, and half wondered for a moment if I was dreaming.
“I don’t know how much use to you I’ll be,” I admitted ruefully.
“I have no doubt of my abilities,” he retorted. “I wager that you’ll be exactly where I want you within ten minutes. Five, if I exert myself.”
He raised one perfect eyebrow at me, already on his feet and turning away towards his bedroom door. Despite myself, I followed at his heels.
Chapter 6: The Morning After
I awoke gently, coming back to life slowly and sweetly, as I had used to do before the war. The sun was already high in the sky and I was utterly disoriented. For a moment or two I lay still, struggling to make sense of why the window was not in the right place and wondering how I had managed to pass a whole night without a nightmare. Then I registered the lean, distinctly masculine arm wrapped loosely around my abdomen. In the morning light, a smattering of fine black hair stood out starkly against the pale skin. In a moment, the events of the night came back to me and I froze, heat pooling in my stomach as I registered that I was lying naked beside my friend, who, if memory served, must be equally unclothed. No wonder I had not dreamed. We could have been asleep for no more than an hour or two, I realised, recalling that the first blush of dawn had already begun to appear behind the curtains when at last I had fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Several minutes passed as I struggled to make sense of the events of the preceding few days and how they had led me here. I was lying in Holmes’ bed, in Holmes’ arms, a place I had countless times fantasised about being, but had never dared to dream that I would one day find myself. The succession of surprises regarding Holmes’ habits, all coming in the space of a single night, had left me reeling. I was beginning to wonder if I truly knew the man at all - but I had observed him long enough to know that the fact that he was still sleeping was a minor miracle. I could only imagine that it was the aftereffects of the morphine that had dulled his senses enough to prevent him from awakening the moment I myself had stirred. He was as alert as a street cat in his normal humour, awakening from a doze at the lightest sound, though he might not stir at the sound of his own name when he was deep in thought on a case. In desperate need of some time to process what had occurred between us, I stayed as still as I could in the circle of his arm, schooling myself to take slow, even breaths, even as fragmented memories of the night’s activities began to come back to me and my pulse began to speed up. My anxiety over what might happen when Holmes awoke commingled with my growing arousal until I was unable to tell which was driving the increasingly frantic pounding of my heart.
In the darkness, driven by anger that had soon transformed into raw carnality, I had encountered a new side of Holmes for which no amount of clandestine study could have prepared me. At last, I knew the feel of his thick hair running through my fingers, had tested the way the tender skin of his neck responded to the firm pressure of my lips. He had undressed me slowly, controlling his own lust and stoking my swiftly rising need with the insistent questing press of his lips along the line of my clavicle and the gentle caress of his fingers on the frayed, ruined skin of my scars. Now I knew how it felt to command his full, undivided attention and it was as intoxicating and terrifying and arousing as I had dreamt it would be. Holmes on the trail of a criminal was mesmerising to watch, thanks to his single-minded focus, his unflagging energy and his flashes of brilliance. In bed, I now knew, he deployed all three of these qualities to devastating effect.
It was the insistent stirring of a certain portion of my anatomy that finally awoke Holmes. As I replayed our interlude in my mind, struggling to reconcile the passionate man in whose bed I had passed the night with the detached, machine-like consulting detective I had come to know over the preceding months, my physical response put an end to my attempt to remain still. The most intimate part of me began nudging insistently against the underside of his arm, leaving me with a horrible desire to laugh. I was not sure which means of awakening my friend would be more mortifying. As I attempted to ease myself into a safer position, I felt Holmes’ embrace tighten momentarily around my waist and then he released me and I heard him stirring behind me. To my shame, I found that I could not bring myself to turn and face him. I had no idea who this Holmes was and no way of knowing how he might expect me to behave around him. That the bitter fight of the previous night had fuelled our passion was beyond doubt and I had no idea whether he would awaken amorous or angry. Throughout all the hours of our ardent explorations, we had not exchanged more than a few words.
I heard his voice, husky with sleep, at the same moment I felt a cool fingertip trace a firm, slow line down my spine. My body gave an involuntary shiver.
“Fifteen minutes, Watson. I’m impressed,” my friend said, and there was a teasing note of intimacy in his voice that I had never heard before.
In all the sleepless nights I had spent indulging in fevered fantasies about Holmes – fantasies in which I indulged every lustful thought that I had ever struggled to suppress in his presence, as he drove me half wild with his unconscious elegance, his damnable pride and what I had thought was his maddening indifference to me – I had never once thought about what would happen the next morning. In a way, it was reassuring to think that even had I rehearsed it mentally a thousand times, I never would have been able to predict the first words out of his mouth.
“Fifteen minutes? I hardly think that’s very charitable. Several hours elapsed, at the least, even if we did pause in between once or twice.”
To my relief, my voice was steady and, to my own ears at least, entirely natural.
“You managed to keep up the charade that you were sleeping for fifteen minutes,” he said, and I could hear in his tone that he was suppressing an urge to laugh. “I had expected you to give the game away much sooner.”
I rolled my eyes in exasperation, grateful that he could not see my face.
“It would seem, on the contrary, that I failed to maintain the ‘charade’ for a single minute, since you have obviously been aware of what I was attempting since the moment I awakened. Which event, by the way, has occurred far too soon for my liking. Have you any idea of what time it was when you finally allowed me to sleep?”
“I did warn you I was not finished with you,” he said. “Are you going to turn around or would you prefer to continue the conversation with your back turned? Perhaps I should turn mine as well?”
“I am admiring your collection of portraits of criminals,” I prevaricated. A sudden wild joy was rising in me. “Anyone would think they were your heroes, the way you have set them to watch over you as you sleep. Are you certain that you are content being a consulting detective and do not secretly yearn to become a criminal mastermind?”
“I do seem to be experiencing some alarmingly criminal urges at the moment,” he said. “It would help me greatly to indulge them if you would turn to face me.”
Smiling despite myself, I rolled over, and was struck silent by the sight of him. Holmes lay atop the coverlet, his long limbs pale and glowing in the clear morning light. The room still lay mostly in shadow, but a single sunbeam had crept around the edge of the hastily drawn curtains, illuminating the sharp angle of Holmes’ right hip and his narrow, finely muscled chest. The fine smattering of dark hair that narrowed to a thin, beckoning line towards the base of his stomach was as black as the locks on his head, which were wildly dishevelled, standing out in all directions. A flush of dark heat ran through my body as I recalled the verve with which I had run my hands through it as we kissed, euphoric at finally being free to perform a gesture that I had itched to execute a hundred times.
It was not Holmes’ naked body that held me captive, however, but his eyes. I had admired them in many moods and in many lights, but never at such close quarters. Last night, I recalled, they had been almost black, liquid and compelling and burning with anger. In this stolen moment of calm, they were clear and bright and uniquely unguarded. My habit of cataloguing every stolen detail of Holmes’ actions and appearance awoke within me and I began swiftly to record their myriad shades – the cool lustre of water under a winter sky, the bewitching sheen of quicksilver, the raw gleam of steel. I was lost in trying to think of the right word to describe a shade of grey that was almost green – perhaps the muted velvet of a sage plant or the matte shine of an olive leaf – when Holmes began to laugh.
“My dear Watson,” he said. “Willing though I am to have you stare into my eyes, may I ask what you are doing? You look as though you are trying to solve a very difficult equation, or perhaps attempting to diagnose a rare disease.”
To my shame, I felt myself blushing. Holmes looked delighted.
“I am merely adjusting to this unexpected turn of events,” I said, a touch defensively.
“Is it unexpected?” said Holmes, smirking in a maddening way. “I rather thought that you had been anticipating an interlude of the kind we enjoyed last night for some time.”
Of course he had known. It had been an insane act of hubris ever to attempt to keep it from him. Had I not seen his methods in action, I would have suspected him to be in league with the Devil, so boundless and so frequently irritating was his knowledge of all that I seemed to do, think and feel.
“How long?” I asked, allowing my eyes to roam over him, from his swollen lips, to the bruises that I saw with a guilty thrill marred the soft skin of his thighs, corresponding to the size and shape of my hands.
“How long have I known?” he asked, stretching luxuriantly, watching where my eyes went. I had no illusions that he was enjoying my appreciative gaze. His acceptance of my admiration did not extend only to his intellectual acumen, it would seem. “That you are an invert? Since the day you moved into Baker Street. That you lusted after me? Since the first time I caught you staring at me over your newspaper. You can have no idea how your eyes look when you are aroused. They turn the most brilliant shade of green. Several times I almost gave in and let you have what you so clearly wanted.”
I had wanted to hit him the night before. Now I did so, driven not by rage and hurt but by half-delighted outrage at his arrogance. This punch was playful and unmistakably, dangerously tender. I reminded myself that Holmes missed nothing - I well knew how much he abhorred sentiment. But as I sank my fist into the firm cushion of his chest, he was laughing in his strange silent way. He grasped my forearm in an iron grip, pulling me on top of him so that our bodies collided and I found myself sprawled in his arms, our faces so close I could feel his breath on my cheek.
“Egotist,” I murmured, inches from his lips.
He smiled me, his eyes dancing.
“It cannot be egotism to state a fact that is supported by ample data. I confess I was thrown off initially by your obvious admiration for several of the women who visited us in the early days of our acquaintance, but once I studied the evidence at my disposal it was clear to me that the scope of your interest was not limited to their doubtful charms. I did not miss the way you sized up Gregson, my dear boy, as well as several of our male clients. You are commendably subtle in your attentions, but you do have a tendency to let your eyes wander to some rather revealing places. And then there was the way you stared at me when I was playing the violin – it was gratifying, certainly, but hardly subtle, you must own.”
“I own nothing of the kind,” I said, choosing not to raise the fact that I had allowed myself to stare at him so avidly only because I had thought that his eyes were closed. “And, as of last night, you can hardly claim to have been subtle about your own interests.”
“Oh really?” Holmes hands were slowly mapping the skin of my back, making it hard to concentrate. “In what way, exactly, did I lack subtlety? As I recall it, you were the one who kissed me.”
“After you goaded me into it!” I exclaimed. “And, if memory serves, it was you who invited me into your bedroom and you who undressed me.”
“Are you saying you did not wish to be undressed?” Holmes inquired silkily. “I don’t recall you objecting. In fact, I seem to remember you attempting to tear my shirt off my body. I do not know how I will ever find all the buttons.”
He was rocking against me rather insistently by this juncture, the proof that he was enjoying this game as much as I was pressing against my naked belly.
“It was you who took me in your mouth,” I said, daring him to respond. “Among other things. In fact, I believe you initiated all three of our nocturnal encounters.”
“You begged to have me inside you.”
That earned him a swift, sharp bite on the side of his neck and he let out a soft gasp. I smiled against his throat, breathing in the scent of his skin.
“You woke me for another round,” I said.
“You lost our wager,” he countered. “I told you I would need no more than five minutes.”
“That was rather impressive,” I owned, rubbing my aching centre against the narrow indent where his torso met his lean thigh. “Where on earth did you learn to –”
“I have many hidden talents, my dear Watson,” he interjected, hooking one long leg over mine and pulling me closer.
I was recalling the insistent slow push of him inside me and the ease with which he had reduced me to an incoherent, writhing mess within minutes. He had taken me slowly, learning every inch of my body with his hands and tongue, and I, in turn, had learned that he reached completion as silently as he laughed, clutching my hips in a bruising grip as he spent himself inside me. But in the darkness, I had not been able to see his expression, to study the colour of his eyes as he finally lost control.
“There is one talent of my own that I did not get a chance to display last night,” I murmured, beginning to slide slowly down the bed. Holmes’ pupils were dark, dilated with desire, and I pushed away the memory of their vacant morphine glaze as I worked my way down his torso, running my lips over lean muscle, enjoying the way he arched beneath me, seeking a firmer touch. It was my turn to tease, and I took my time, refusing to accede to the silent urging of his body as I nuzzled into the angular indentations around his pelvis. By the time I took him into my mouth, he was swollen and leaking with need and I relished the involuntary gasp he gave as I swirled my tongue around his not inconsiderable girth. Holmes may have deduced more than I had ever guessed about me, but I possessed certain skills that he could never have divined, given the nature of our friendship.
He had taken the lead so firmly the previous night that I half expected him to fight for control, but instead he sank back into the pillows with a half-strangled curse, leaving me to relish the unprecedented sensation of reducing Sherlock Holmes to incoherence. A few minutes later, when he gasped my name, it was not “Watson,” but “John,” that escaped his lips. Had my mouth not been otherwise engaged, I would have been unable to suppress a smile of triumph as he finally succumbed to me, his hands fisting in my hair as he shuddered beneath me. It was not easy to win a battle of wills with Holmes, but on this occasion, although he had had the final word, I felt the game was mine.
Chapter 7: The Affair of the Red-Headed League
It was inevitable, of course, that the glow must wear off and some form of reckoning arrive in its wake. After our morning interlude, I retired to my room, leaving Holmes in privacy while I conducted my toilet. When I descended, I found him at the breakfast table. His hair had been neatly combed, all traces of our night’s activity were hidden beneath his characteristically fastidious attire and his face was buried in the newspaper. The normality of the scene, one I had encountered dozens of times, often rising later than him as I did, aroused in me a sense of unreality. It seemed impossible that the events of the night could have transpired as I remembered them. It was only the lingering taste of him on my tongue that convinced me that I was not going mad.
Holmes glanced at me with a familiar smile as I took my seat opposite him, then returned to the newspaper as I turned my attention to my eggs, fervently grateful that Mrs Hudson was accustomed to the strange demands of his profession and the odd hours at which we often chose to dine. As Holmes read and I breakfasted, I wondered how and when to broach some of the dozens of questions running through my mind. I desperately wanted to know how long he had been an addict and how often he filled his empty hours with a shot of morphine or cocaine. Even more desperately, I wanted to know what had driven him to the anger he had displayed the previous night, whether he had truly intended me to kiss him and why, if kissing me was something he wanted, he had not done it earlier.
I had no idea how Holmes usually conducted his affairs. Until the previous night, I had seen no evidence that he had ever had any. As passionately as I had wished for the kind of intimacy we had shared, I found myself fearful about how it might affect the friendship which had grown between us, and which, as I had so recently admitted to myself, had become the main source of happiness in my life. That it had also been a source of pain I was only too aware, but the fact that I had been willing to throw it all away for a quiet life with Miss Morstan only two days ago now seemed the height of folly.
Holmes had given no indication of his feelings towards me – other than his obvious, surprising, electrifying appreciation of my battered body. Having often heard him remark on the dangers of sentiment, I had no idea whether he might wish to repeat our unorthodox activities or whether he intended to put them behind us and return to a state of amiable friendship – and I could think of no acceptable way to ask him. I was uncomfortably aware that, having expressed no sexual interest in me, despite, as I now knew, having divined my attraction to him several months ago, Holmes had chosen to escalate our relationship to a physical level only when he was heavily drugged and half crazed with anger. The thought of never being able to kiss him again was more painful than I would ever wish him to know, and yet I could not be sure that he would welcome any attempt on my part to repeat what we had shared. In addition, I could not in good conscience ignore the fact that our activities of the preceding night would be viewed by the wider world as the most repulsive form of perversion and that, should they ever be discovered, Holmes’ life would be destroyed. A detective could not attract clients if he was himself discovered to be engaging in criminal acts, particularly acts of the nature we had indulged in, and I knew that without his puzzles Holmes would never have a moment’s happiness – save, perhaps, at the tip of a needle.
All this was running through my mind as I mechanically consumed my eggs and kippers, thinking up and immediately rejecting a dozen conversational overtures that might allow me to raise the subject of our friendship – if, indeed, I could still call Holmes a friend. I was still deliberating, cursing my inability to effect even a modicum of Holmes’ innately suave and detached manner, which he maintained seemingly without effort even in the most awkward and unorthodox of circumstances, when Mrs Hudson knocked at the door to tell us that a client had arrived.
Mr Jabez Wilson was a stout man with a head of fiery red hair that blazed like a beacon in the middle of our sitting room as he stood twisting his hands and fidgeting on the very rug where Holmes had so recently driven me to a state of ecstasy. The memory of his hand on my chest as he bore me to the ground threatened to bring a flush to my cheeks and I had to glance away quickly. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the ghost of a smile flicker across Holmes’ features, but when I glanced over at him the beam of his attention was turned with its full intensity on Mr Wilson, who had taken a seat on the sofa, placing his faded top hat and worn overcoat beside him.
Holmes could not resist the urge to show off his skills, immediately startling the man with a series of personal observations somehow gleaned from a swift perusal of his personage, all listed in an airy manner designed to convey that the facts Holmes had identified were obvious and that anyone incapable of deducing them as swiftly and effortlessly as he had was little better than a half wit. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at Mr Wilson, whose face betrayed the purest shock and admiration, and had to stifle a laugh when, Holmes having explained his reasoning, the man responded in all earnestness and with a hint of relief: “Ah, now I see that it is all most evident. I thought at first you had done something clever.” Holmes shot a quelling look at me as I sat with shaking shoulders, trying to appear occupied with my notes.
The story of the Red-Headed League was the strangest yet to cross my path and I could see that Holmes was filled with glee at a mystery that promised to put his unique skills to the test. When Mr Wilson read to us the advertisement that had led him to a job with an esoteric organisation that only hired men whose locks were of a particular hue, Holmes was almost wriggling in his chair with excitement. By the time the man had finished his account of days spent transcribing entries from the encyclopaedia for a ludicrously high wage, only to be summarily dismissed from his position eight weeks later, he was laughing to himself with delight. Watching him, I felt a measure of relief wash over me. Whatever his reasons for resorting to morphine – and I felt sure it could not be ennui alone that had driven him to inject so much of the drug that he had almost ended his life – his obvious happiness in this moment was enough to reassure me that he would not be in need of any other stimulant but the mystery until the case was solved.
The combination of the night’s developments and the few hours of sleep I had snatched had left me light-headed and I can only assume that Holmes felt something of my own giddiness because when Mr Wilson showed us the curt notice informing him of the end of his employment, looking at once pompous and resentful, as puffed up and sombre as an owl, I felt the laughter I had struggled to suppress at the beginning of the interview rising up in me with volcanic force. As I exploded with a shout of mirth, I saw that Holmes was laughing too, shaking uncontrollably as a tear rolled down his face. I had never seen him so entertained. When at last he recovered himself enough to calm his angry client, who was on the verge of walking out in high dudgeon, he concluded the interview with admirable soberness. I neglected my usual rigorous note taking as I dwelt on how searingly attractive Holmes was on the rare occasions he allowed himself to lose control, a thought that soon led in a dangerous direction, given the memories that still burned so vividly in my mind.
“Well Watson, what do you make of the matter?” Holmes asked me, as soon as his client left. It occurred to me that he never failed to ask my opinion, despite the fact that my limited insight was certain to be of no use to him. Busy remembering the breathless sound of my first name on his lips, I confessed myself entirely baffled by the tale – not an abnormal state of affairs. Holmes, as confident as ever in his own abilities, retired to the sofa with his pipe, ordering me not to disturb him, and I sat fiddling with a manuscript at the table. It was a relief when, an hour or two later, he suggested we go to a concert, for Holmes always enjoyed music when he was mulling over a problem and I always took pleasure in his enjoyment.
Sitting beside Holmes in the darkened concert hall, the raw emotional power of Sarasate thrumming through my body, I was more than usually aware of his long, lean legs inches from my own and the way his shoulder pressed against mine as he lost himself in the music. As I breathed in his unique smell of fog and smoke and London evenings, a certain portion of me began to harden and it occurred to me that, should Holmes not wish to indulge further in the physical side of our relationship, spending time with him was destined to become even more torturous than it had been when I believed him to be oblivious to my lust for him.
Holmes had already developed a theory to explain the bizarre story that Mr Wilson had shared with us, I learned, when he invited me to accompany him that night on one of his mysterious errands. As he did not see fit to share with me either his theory or the intent of our outing, I spent the evening in a state of nerves as he smoked his pipe on the sofa, refusing to partake of his supper. When he asked me to bring my revolver, I knew that he anticipated a run-in of an unusually dangerous kind. I had not had a drink in nearly 24 hours and the fatigue of the sleepless night was beginning to catch up with me. After dressing warmly for the night ahead and stashing my revolver in my greatcoat, I swiftly drained a medicinal draft of whiskey to settle my nerves and ensure that I should be ready to act swiftly, should any danger arise. Thus fortified, I felt ready to face whatever new surprises the night should bring.
When I descended the narrow staircase from my bedchamber to find a stranger named Mr Merryweather and a Yard man named Jones standing in the living room, I was shocked to learn that they would be accompanying us on our venture. Suddenly certain that the inspector would divine at a glance what had passed between Holmes and I, I found myself unusually silent as Holmes took his hunting crop from the rack and urged us all out into the street, Jones making an unfortunate comment about “hunting in couples again,” as we climbed into the waiting cab.
In my retelling of the affair of the Red-Headed League for the public, I felt it necessary to make a few judicious changes, of which the inspector happily approved, though he had, I hope, no knowledge of the true reasons for my fabrication, or of what really occurred in that silent cellar. In my embroidered account, Holmes led all four of us to the vault of a bank, where we waited together for the dramatic proof of Holmes' theory. In these private memoirs, I may acknowledge that events proceeded rather differently. Holmes made a very clear and convincing case for why Jones and Merryweather would do well to remain outside Wilson’s offices in Saxe-Coburg Square, ready to collar the criminals, whom he assured them would flee the office during the night, while he descended to the cellar, accompanied by me and my revolver.
Alone in the cold cellar, lit only with the muted glow of a dark lantern, we sat across from one another on a couple of wooden crates, which, Holmes informed me, held a life-changing fortune in French gold. I set my revolver close at hand and Holmes laid his hunting crop across his knees, as though ready to spring into action at any moment, though I could not imagine what threat he expected to encounter in the damp, heavily fortified cellar. When he bade me put the screen over the lamp, I obliged with a frisson of regret, not because I feared to sit in the dark, but because I had determined to speak with him at last and I very much desired to see his face.
But in the end, I believe, it was the complete and total absence of light that gave me the courage to speak. Surrounded by velvety darkness and the hot, metallic smell of the shielded lantern, listening to the sound of our mingled breaths, I finally found the words to broach the topic that had been foremost in my mind ever since Holmes had spoken of it that morning.
“Holmes,” I ventured, into the darkness. “Have you really known for months that I desired you?”
He chuckled wryly. “Do you truly doubt it? You know my methods. Think back on our acquaintance and see if you cannot identify five instances on which you betrayed your interest. I could name fifteen, but we will begin with the lesser challenge.”
“I have no doubt of the veracity of your deductions,” I said, exasperated. “I think you'll agree that I have already expended no small energy in performing certain actions that confirm beyond a doubt that they are correct. What I wish to understand is why, having deduced my interest, you did not act upon it sooner.”
“My dear Watson,” came the calm response, “I knew that your interest in me was based on some assumptions you had made about my character that were entirely inaccurate. Forgive me if I did not wish to put at risk the comfortable arrangement we have fallen into for the sake of a short-lived affair.”
I was very glad, then, that he could not see my face. I had my answer, and Holmes would never know how much it pained me to learn that he considered all that we had shared the previous night to be nothing more than a passing interlude.
“You need have no fear on that score,” I said, my voice clipped and, I prided myself, as emotionless as Holmes' own. “I see no reason why anything need change between us. I have not forgotten that you were under the effects of a powerful narcotic when matters escalated –”
“I did not for a moment think that you would,” Holmes interrupted. “Your attitude toward my habits, although hypocritical, is not unexpected. As liberal as you appear to be in your approach to sodomy, you are still a doctor, and men of medicine are always unbearably pompous and prescriptive.”
I swallowed hard. I had known that Holmes could be both cold and cruel when the mood struck him, but he had never spoken to me in such a tone. I could not expect my voice to remain steady and I little wished him to see how deeply his words had cut me, so I chose not to respond, sitting in silence in the musty darkness, breathing fast, as I absorbed this unflattering assessment of myself and my entire profession. Some minutes elapsed before I felt ready to speak.
“A hypocrite I may be, but you can hardly claim to hold the higher ground,” I said at last. “You are the most conceited man I have ever encountered and cannot believe yourself free of hypocrisy if you hold anyone else in contempt for engaging in practices that you yourself have enjoyed, no matter how deviant you believe them to be.”
“I do not believe that I expressed any such sentiment,” he rejoined. “As to my conceit, I have never subscribed to the view that modesty is a virtue. To a logical mind, the tendency to understate one's talents is as much a departure from the truth as to exaggerate them. I have spent many years cultivating my skills in certain areas. I solve crimes because I enjoy it and because I am very, very good at it. The same can be said of my penchant for buggery.”
Before I could respond to this outrageous statement, there was a rustle of fabric in the dark and suddenly Holmes was looming behind me, his hands gripping my shoulders. He held me in a vice-like grip as he bent forward and ran his tongue down the side of my neck. His mouth was burning hot in the cold of the cellar and it paused over my pulse point, as though measuring my increasingly rapid heartbeat. I felt, more than heard, Holmes’ words as he ceased his ministrations to whisper in my ear: “Bend over the crate and do not make a sound.”
I almost refused. I had opened my mouth to tell him to go to hell when his lips closed on my earlobe and he caressed it so gently and with such wicked intent that I instantly remembered his mouth on another part of my anatomy and I felt myself harden in seconds beneath my clothes. Holmes was kissing his slow, clever way back down my neck, already sliding my coat from my shoulders, as I stood and, without a word, did as he ordered, allowing him to slip my coat off before I leant forward, bracing my forearms on the surface of the crate, my revolver lying close beside me.
My heart was beating treacherously fast in the darkness and my heightened emotions seemed to amplify every tiny aspect of Holmes' touch as he reached around me and began to undo the fastening of my trousers with one hand. The other slid through the short sensitive hairs at the nape of my neck and then wrapped itself gently around my throat, just as he reached inside my trousers and grasped the swollen evidence of my arousal firmly in his fist. Holmes' careful, implacable grip on my throat did not restrict my breathing – at least not much – but I knew the strength of those hands. To my surprise and shame, I found the delicate pressure of his fingers wrapped around my windpipe almost unbearably arousing. In his usual dictatorial manner, he silently demanded that I submit myself utterly to his control, caressing me with expert fingers as a fine layer of sweat sprang out on my brow. He hissed through his teeth as I bucked in his arms, thrusting into his fist. Then the hand with which I had been pleasuring myself was gone, leaving me aching and bereft in the dark. Holmes retained his careful grip on my throat as I felt him fumbling behind me and then something wet and smooth and cold was probing the most intimate part of me. I felt a throbbing burst of excitement as I realised it was the rounded metal handle of his hunting crop. I gasped and swore as he eased the tip of the implement inside me, feeling him smile against my cheek as he did so. Only once he had reduced me to a state of boneless incoherence did he remove the crop and replace it with one of his long, clever fingers. I fought to remain still and silent as he brought my arousal to a fever pitch. By the time he withdrew his finger and placed the tip of himself at my entrance, I was utterly lost in the feel of him, pressing my shoulders forward to increase the pressure of his hand at my throat and my hips backward as I silently begged him to take me, fighting desperately to keep my hands braced on the crate in front of me, despite the ache in my neglected member.
Both of us moaned when Holmes finally pushed inside me and then his lips were at my ear and he was whispering to me as he thrust in slow, maddening circles, gripping me tightly by the hip.
“I may be conceited, but I have already deduced that you like it,” he murmured against my ear.
“You are insufferable,” I managed to gasp.
Holmes punished me – or perhaps rewarded me – with a flurry of long, deep thrusts.
“You are aroused by it,” he murmured, his voice husky in my ear.
Unable to summon words, struggling to resist the slow, insistent push of him inside me, I shook my head.
“Admit it,” he murmured, as he reached forward and at last enveloped my aching cock in his sure grip. Lost in the feel of his hand working me in perfect time with the insistent thrust of his cock inside me, I did not reply. As my climax approached, his grip tightened almost imperceptibly around my throat, stoking the flames of my lust still higher. Utterly at his mercy, wishing that the moment might last forever, I made one final effort to fight back against his implacable will.
“Never,” I choked, and then I was shuddering in his arms and spilling over his fingers, the pulsing of my body sending him over the edge to convulse silently within me.
When we had regained our breath, he withdrew from me and I collapsed on my back onto the crate. To my surprise, Holmes lowered himself down atop me, resting his head in the curve of my shoulder. I was about to speak when I felt him shaking and realised that he was laughing.
“What is so amusing?” I demanded, beginning to laugh as well.
He hushed me quickly, pulling himself up to brace himself above me, propped on his forearms, where he could speak directly into my ear.
“You are a contrary fellow,” he whispered. “I would gladly discuss your charming defiance further, but I fear we have deviated most grievously from the plan I had set in motion. It is the greatest luck that we have not already been interrupted.”
Suddenly, I remembered the police inspector waiting for us at street level and was shocked at the risk we had taken. Holmes stood and began to rearrange his clothes in the darkness. I felt something warm and dry pressed into my hand and realised that he had handed me his handkerchief, an uncharacteristically thoughtful gesture that brought an involuntary smile to my face. I cleaned and dressed myself as swiftly as I could, wondering just how dishevelled we looked as I ran a hand through my hair, attempting to smooth it.
Holmes sat beside me on the crate, his shoulder pressed to mine, and we resumed our silent vigil. I do not know how much time passed but I found that the worries and questions that had plagued my mind all day no longer intruded on my thoughts. I was content to sit in companionable silence, listening to Holmes breathing beside me. When at last we heard a scraping sound and saw a sudden gleam of light, he was on his feet in an instant, as swift and silent as cat hunting its prey. He waited, a lithe figure caught in the slowly increasing glow like a performer in the spotlight, as a slit opened in the stone paving of the floor and a white hand began to raise a slab, pushing it upwards until it overturned with a crash.
I had leapt to my feet and stood with my revolver in my hand as Holmes waited, poised, for some signal I could not discern. We watched in silence as two figures levered themselves up from the tunnel and into the room. Only once they were standing in the cellar, surveying the crates of gold with a look of awe, did Holmes spring forward and grasp the taller of the two men by the collar. I saw the other reach for his revolver and raised mine, my hands sure and steady as I aimed, but, moving so fast that I almost missed it, Holmes lashed out with the metal end of the crop. The blow collided squarely with the thief’s wrist and he dropped his gun with a howl, as I wondered just how many uses Holmes had for his chosen weapon.
Inspector Jones was so crestfallen when we emerged from the cellar with the two men, my revolver trained on them as Holmes gripped each by the upper arm in his pincer-like fingers, that when I told him – quite untruthfully – that we had missed his presence below and suggested that, in my dramatic retelling of the tale, I write him into the scene, so as to lend the affair a more official flavour, he agreed at once.
I felt Holmes’ warm hand clasp my shoulder in silent approval as we left the inspector to process his catch and turned our steps towards Baker Street.
Chapter 8: The Theory of Dreaming
Despite all that Holmes had deduced about me, I still had some secrets from him, as I discovered one stormy night. It was a few weeks after I had kissed him and we had somehow fallen quite naturally into a new pattern. By day, everything remained much as it had before that night. Holmes and I breakfasted together, interviewed clients together, chased down criminals together and lived in a state of easy harmony that was pleasant, if not perfect. He frequently tried my patience, leaving pigs’ hooves to decay on the windowsill, stealing my surgical knife to dissect a pair of human eyeballs at our dining table and conducting chemistry experiments that filled the sitting room with clouds of toxic smoke, only to smile at me with such distracting sincerity or play his violin with such skill that I involuntarily forgave him. Holmes exercised his incredible brain, and I recorded his feats, and he treated me with the same distant courtesy that had marked the months of our friendship when I thought him unaware of the criminal effect he had on me.
By night, however, everything had changed. When Holmes caught me staring at him with hungry eyes as he stroked his bow across the strings of his violin, his gaze would darken in a way that left me melting, ready to crawl to him across the floor of Baker Street and worship him. One evening, when I acted on this previously unthinkable impulse, he demonstrated the extent of his self-control by continuing to play as I unfastened his trousers and began to stroke him. His bowing did not falter even when I took him in my mouth, his music becoming wilder and increasing its tempo as I increased mine, until finally he broke off playing with a ragged chord just before he spilled on my tongue. When I found him lounging on the sofa, wrapped in his blue dressing gown, his perfectly sculpted feet bare and a slice of his angular chest on display between the buttons of his lazily fastened shirt, I no longer had to steal covert glances at him in the looking glass above the mantlepiece or the reflective silver surface of the coffee pot, but allowed myself to feast my eyes on the sight of him, just as I knew he wished me to, until one or other of us lost patience and we collided like meteors in a shower of sparks.
Somehow, our desire continued to burn as hot and as savage as that first night. Ever aware of himself, even when he was rock hard and watching me moan as he thrust his musician’s fingers slowly into my mouth or mapped every inch of my scar tissue with his tongue, Holmes remained almost unnervingly in control of himself, orchestrating my pleasure as he ruthlessly deferred his own. His emotions, too, he kept firmly in check. Even when he was inside me, or lying spent in my arms, his skin glistening with sweat and his pulse thrumming as frantically as the wings of a moth against the glass of a lantern, I was unable to guess what he might be thinking or feeling.
Our encounters often began in the sitting room and ended in Holmes’ bed, if not on the sofa or the rug or, on one memorable occasion, atop the dining table, but I never allowed myself to fall asleep beside him after that first night. I knew that my inevitable nightmares would reveal the true state of my damaged mind to Holmes, the last person alive to whom I wished to display my weakness. The fact that he never invited me to remain made clear to me that in any case he preferred to sleep alone. I would retreat to my own bedroom, still dazed from my release, the sound of his voice echoing in my head, and inhale the scent of his skin on my hands as I drifted off to sleep. The nightmares still haunted me, but less than before, and on the occasions when Holmes had emptied my mind of all but him for a few fleeting hours, I often found that I was able to sleep more deeply and for longer than on other nights.
Holmes initiated our erotic encounters quite as often as I did, most frequently when we returned from tackling a particularly complicated or dangerous case. The high that he experienced after solving a particularly complex puzzle, he also seemed to find in danger, and once or twice when we returned to Baker Street after being held at gunpoint or engaged in a brawl, I could feel his eyes on me all the way home in the hansom. On those occasions, Holmes barely waited for me to lock the door before his clever hands were divesting me of my hat and coat, his lips pressing eager kisses into the curve of my throat. The fact that the dangers we faced had the same effect on my own libido elevated these encounters to the hellish or sublime. One night, when we returned from an unexpected tussle with an assassin armed with a kitana, I found myself so desperate for Holmes that I could even not bring myself to stitch up the shallow but lengthy gash in his back before I had slaked both our need. I pressed bruises into his skin and he kissed my split lip until it flowed red and we lost ourselves in the taste of violence as he had me on the floor, both of us smeared with sweat and our commingled blood and half-mad with desire.
I did not know if it was the war or Holmes himself that had changed me, but, to my shame, I found that I was aroused by his capacity for violence. Though he used it sparingly and always as last resort, Holmes never flinched in the face of the most desperate and depraved men, finding ruthless and uniformly effective ways to render them harmless. I had always been drawn to women in whom I sensed gentleness, attracted by their generosity, their empathy and their instinct to care for those around them. The men with whom I had had affairs, too, had tended to be open and vulnerable and fundamentally kind. Several of them - like Henry - were fellow medical men, who had followed a calling to heal rather than to harm. Yet my attraction to Holmes was only stoked by his willingness to take another man apart with his fists in the pursuit of justice. I would have paid a small fortune – had I had one – to watch him boxing or fencing, two pastimes I knew he excelled at but had never had the opportunity to witness.
His approval of my willingness to shoot a revolver in his defence, and mine at his clinical ability to wield his hunting crop, used in so many inventive ways to devastating effect, marked a new kind of passion for me. Even Holmes’ lack of empathy, though it hurt me at times, only drew me to him more powerfully. The fact that he never spoke of his feelings towards me only made more precious the power I wielded over him when his cock was hard and his eyes black with wanting me. I cherished each moan and gasp of passion, each frantic kiss, each silent climax and whispered exhalation of my name, secreting them away to dwell on when I was alone. As for his given name, I never allowed myself to say it. Were it to pass my lips, I knew he would hear everything I felt for him and I feared, were that to happen, that I should never have an opportunity to kiss him again.
This was the state of affairs when one night, after a long day at the end of a long week spent chasing down the man responsible for a grotesque and convoluted crime involving a peacock, a stolen antique Aztec sacrificial knife and a map of the London sewers, Holmes and I were caught in a torrential winter downpour and were soaked to the skin before we could hunt down a cab. Sitting in the hansom, shivering and laughing at Holmes, who had removed his hat to reveal hair plastered to his head and whose clothes were clinging to him in a rather interesting manner, I was as happy as the detective himself, who had contrived not only to catch the criminal but to present his ingenious solution to the case with a particularly theatrical flourish in front of half of Scotland Yard's finest, to the chagrin of Lestrade and two other inspectors who had been chasing entirely the wrong man for a week. Taking a rather uncharacteristic risk, I slid closer to my him in the cab, feeling the cold of wet tweed and then the warmth of his skin beneath as my leg pressed against his. Placing one of my hands discreetly between us so that it rested half on my thigh and half on his, I leaned back in my seat and sighed in contentment at the thought of a warm fire, one of Mrs Hudson's excellent suppers and a night spent celebrating another success in Holmes’ bed. I was still shivering, however, and the wound in my shoulder was aching. As the minutes passed, the exhaustion that I often experienced after one of our cases hit me suddenly and much harder than usual. Holmes glanced at me in concern as I shifted restlessly and rubbed at my shoulder through the wet fabric of my waistcoat and shirt.
“Are you in pain?” he asked, brushing his hand against mine in a fleeting caress.
“Not at all,” I said. Though Holmes had never appeared to be in any measure repelled by my disfigured clavicle and blemished skin, I was often frustrated by my ill health and wished that I might better conceal it from him. Sometimes, though I knew it to be foolish and self-indulgent, I fell into maudlin reflections on what Holmes might have thought of me before the war, when I was hale and hearty and reasonably muscular and altogether a worthier partner for a man like him.
“You are shivering,” he observed.
Only then did I notice that he wasn't.
The aching in my muscles worsened quickly on the short ride back to Baker Street and by the time we reached home I was wracked with pain, my whole body shaking as though in an ice bath as the fever started to burn through me. All thoughts of sitting by the fire, sipping on a brandy and sparring verbally with Holmes until we wound up resorting to a more physical form of communication flew from my head. Since returning to England, I had twice experienced a relapse of the enteric fever that had almost killed me in Afghanistan. The thought of Holmes seeing me in such a condition chilled my already icy blood. I was in such a hurry to get home and take myself to bed, alone, that to my mortification I tripped on my way up the stairs to our flat and Holmes lunged forward to catch me around the waist as I staggered, almost falling. By the time we reached the hallway of our flat he was eyeing me with unprecedented concern.
“My dear fellow, you look most unwell,” he said. “Can I do anything? Shall I fetch a doctor?”
“Thank you, but that is not in the least necessary,” I insisted. “I am merely tired after our recent exertions. I will retire now. A good night's rest will take care of things. I'll see you in the morning.”
As I spoke, Holmes had begun to remove my coat, as carefully as if he were aiding an invalid. I stepped out of his reach and swiftly divested myself of the garment, which seemed to weigh twice as much as usual. The thought of Holmes playing the role of nurse to my sickly patient could not be born. The moment I was free of my soaked outer layers, I turned towards the stairs, desperate to reach the safety of my bedroom where, whatever the fever wrought, I would at least be out of his sight.
“Watson,” he called, as I bid him a hurried goodnight. “Are you certain that you do not require anything? Why not lie on the sofa and I will make up the fire? I am in the mood to play. Perhaps some music might help you to relax?”
I was already making my laboured way up the narrow staircase.
“Thank you, my dear fellow, but I shall be more comfortable in my own bed,” I insisted, willing him not to press the matter.
“If you need me, do not hesitate to call me,” I heard him say to my back as I finally reached the door of my room and shut myself away from him. As I readied myself for bed, I could hear the faint strains of his violin from the sitting room and the thought that he might be playing for me brought a smile to my face, despite my pain and worry.
By midnight, thunder was rolling outside, shaking the window in its frame, and flashes of lightening were splitting the sky in two behind the curtain. The shivering had passed and my whole body was burning. The faces of the men I had failed were hovering before me, screaming and whimpering and calling out the names of their loved ones as they died alone under a blinding sun, children who had suddenly discovered they were not immortal, a thousand miles from home. The guns fired in deafening unison, a long rolling cacophony of horror, and I saw the flash and flicker of igniting powder as soldier after soldier was mown down.
Then it was my turn to beg for mercy as the doctors stared down at me, muttering behind their hands. I tried to remember where I was and realised that, of course, I was in Candahar. The young red-headed doctor who had sutured the grotesque wound on my shoulder was standing over me, speaking to a taller man whose face I could not see.
“Even if we could save him, should we?” I heard him say.
The tall, dark-haired doctor turned, and it was Holmes, the lower half of his face concealed behind a surgical mask, his pewter eyes spearing me like harpoons me where I lay immobile in my hospital bed.
“He is calling for morphine,” he said dismissively.
The red-headed doctor laughed. “He did not give it to his patients, even when they begged,” he said. “But we shall be more generous than he.”
He plunged the syringe in his hand into a bottle and I saw him fill it with an enormous dose of the clear, deadly drug – a dose that even a healthy man could not possibly survive. As he lent towards me to administer it, Holmes turned on his heel and walked away.
“Holmes,” I heard myself choke out, wanting more than anything to feel his calloused hand in mine. He did not look back or even break stride. I felt the tip of the syringe pierce my shoulder, not a needle prick but a blinding flash of pain that echoed the impact of a bullet ploughing through soft flesh and shattering bone.
“Sherlock!” I shouted. “Come back!”
I heard a soft, familiar voice murmuring and felt something cool pressed to my brow.
“Don't leave me,” I entreated.
“I am here. I will not leave you,” the gentle voice said.
Strong hands were lifting my head and then a glass of cool water was pressed to my lips. Someone was peeling my soaked pyjamas from my body and I felt the cool air on my skin. My sweat-soaked hair was pushed gently back from my forehead and replaced with a cool, damp cloth.
Then the faces of my brigade were crowding around me once again and the air was full of the hacking cough of the bone saw and the smell of blood and rot and I was calling out the names of my friends in desperation as they died one by one.
“It's a mystery,” Holmes said. He was standing beside me, looking at the body of a young soldier who had taken a bullet to the leg and died days later, as the gangrene outpaced my saw. “I deduce that his other leg is the key to the whole affair, but we shall need luck and Lestrade on our side to find it.”
All night, as my body lay in Baker Street, my mind roamed the battlefield of Maiwand, sometimes alone, sometimes with Holmes at my side. Once, he kissed me so sweetly and passionately that when he stopped I begged him to kiss me again, but he turned away in disgust, leaving me calling after him. Another time he appeared in Afghan garb. Just as I recognised the pale grey eyes in the sun-browned face, he shot me and I felt the bullet burning through my shoulder as he laughed.
Dawn was breaking when the delirium lifted, and I knew at last that I was in Baker Street. I was lying atop the bed, naked in the cold winter air, my shoulder aching and burning as it had in the weeks after my injury. When I turned my head in search of my watch, hoping that I had remembered to wind it the night before, I saw Holmes lying beside me. His eyes, as pale and brilliant as sunshine on snow, were fixed on me. I stared at him for several long seconds, believing – hoping – that I was still in the throes of the fever.
“How are you feeling, my dear doctor?” he said, and I closed my eyes in despair as I realised that he was really lying beside me. I remembered the cool cloth on my brow and understood that he had been ministering to me for hours in my delirium.
Holmes placed his hand on my forehead and I turned away from him.
“The fever has abated,” I said. “Thank you for your help but you need not feel obliged to stay. I am sorry that my illness disturbed your rest.”
“Do not apologise,” he said. “It was no hardship. The fever has broken but you must drink plenty of water. Your temperature was dangerously high.”
“I am a doctor, Holmes,” I reminded him sharply. “I am perfectly capable of prescribing fluids and bed rest for myself. I am grateful for your concern, but I confess I do not understand what you are doing in my bedroom.”
“I heard you calling for me,” he said, and I covered my face with my hands.
“I am sorry,” I said stiffly. “I was not my usual self.”
“No,” he said. “You were not.”
There was a strange tone to his voice and I found myself desperately trying to remember the roles he had played in my delirious visions, in a futile attempt to guess what I might have said in the grip of the fever. He was still watching me quietly, healthy and uncannily observant and so handsome and whole that I wanted to force him from the room.
“Please, Holmes, you may leave me now. I wish to be alone,” I said stiffly, hating myself.
“Last night you asked me to stay."
“Last night I did not know you were here!” I cried. “You saw me. When the fever takes me, I lose control of my mind, as well as my body. And it is not just the fever. Every night I dream – the most debilitating nightmares. I am haunted by the war. I cannot put it behind me, though it has been months. I never wished you to see me this way.”
“Why not?” he said mildly.
“Had you such a shameful weakness, should you wish to parade it in front of me?”
Holmes was silent, studying my face. I found that I was breathing fast, light-headed with exhaustion and dismay.
“When I was ten years old,” Holmes said at last, “my mother went to visit her sister. She was gone for several weeks. My father was a banker and spent most of his day at the office and my brother Mycroft had just left for university. I was left alone at home.”
I stared at him in amazement. He had never spoken of his family before. I had assumed that, like me, he was alone in the world.
“Even when I was ten, I was very clever,” Holmes said, sounding, for the first time, as though he were not proud of his extraordinary mind. “My father and Mycroft both told me that my mother would be back soon, but as the days passed and her return was delayed again and again I began to suspect that they were concealing something from me. My father was not himself. He had always spent time in the evenings talking to me, discussing mathematics and chemistry and setting me puzzles. Suddenly he had no time for games. He was leaving the house earlier than usual and returning later. Several times, after I was in bed, I heard strange voices downstairs and once, sneaking to the head of the stairs, I saw a man talking very seriously with my father, who handed over a large sum of money. When I asked my father who he was, he shouted at me, complaining that I asked too many questions – a habit which he had always cultivated and prized. Mycroft had been used to visiting us once a fortnight, but he stopped coming home at all and my father was a changed man. I began to watch him carefully.
“One night, he came home wearing an overcoat that was not his own. It was a warm evening and I could not imagine why he would have borrowed such a garment were it not to conceal something beneath. I had been conducting a small experiment with some of his chemicals and before he could retire to his room and change his clothes, I conspired to spill a mild acid on his sleeve. When he tore off the coat, I saw that there was fresh blood on the front of his shirt.”
Holmes swallowed. He was lying on his back in my narrow bed, staring at the ceiling, and I could not see his eyes. Silently, I reached out and took hold of his hand. He entwined his long fingers with mine.
“I followed him,” he continued at last. “One morning, when he left for work an hour earlier than usual. He walked for some time, into a part of London I did not know. Eventually, he knocked on a door and the same man I had seen let him inside. He was there for about 20 minutes. Then he came out and hailed a cab and I heard him give the address of his office. I waited outside the building. An hour or two must have passed before a man left and I was able to dash inside before the door closed behind him. I found myself in a long, narrow hallway. It smelled of sickness and laudanum – a scent I recognised from when I had broken my arm falling from a tree. I moved very quietly, listening, until I heard a familiar voice. When I pushed open the door, I found my mother, propped up in bed, talking quietly with the man I had seen on the doorstep. He was wearing the white coat of a doctor. Her face was as pale as death and she was much thinner than she had been only weeks earlier. When she saw me, she tried to sit up, calling out my name in surprise. The shout set off a coughing fit and as I ran towards her, a great gout of blood issued from her mouth and sprayed across the sheets and the front of her nightgown. She was crying when the doctor forced me from the room. It was the last time I ever saw her.”
“Holmes,” I whispered. “I am so sorry.”
I pictured a small, narrow boy with pale skin and ebony hair, facing the death of his mother alone.
“I was clever, but I did not know much about medicine. She died two days later. For a long time, after my father told me she was never coming home, I thought I had killed her,” he said, still looking at the ceiling. His hand was cool and dry in mine. “I dreamed about it for years. I would wake up shaking, screaming for her. Sometimes I dream about it still.”
He sounded as lost as the little boy he had been when he had stumbled across his dying mother. Every instinct screamed for me to say something, to comfort him, to respond to his unprecedented confession with kindness. Afraid that my voice would break were I to attempt speech, like a coward I remained silent.
“So you see,” he said at last, his voice once again as deep and melodic as it was wont to be. “I cannot agree that nightmares have anything to do with weakness. I believe them to be the natural result of a rational mind attempting to process the irrational. You are a doctor and a soldier, and you have done things and survived things that most men never dream of at all. You went to war because you believed it to be a worthy cause, a step on the road to achieving peace. You find yourself now, a war hero who no longer believes that war serves a purpose. You expected the conflict and the sacrifices it demanded to be meaningful. You found it to be senseless. You expected to preserve life. You found yourself, instead, a helpless witness to death. It is no wonder that you dream.”
He finally turned to look at me, his grey gaze very gentle. I looked away at once, knowing I had not been quick enough to hide the moisture that had risen in my eyes at his words. Then he was moving towards me and I was in his arms. Holmes tucked my head into the curve of his shoulder and tightened his arms around me and we lay quietly together. I could hear his heart beating slow and steady beneath the soft fabric of his nightgown.
“Last night, what did I say to you?” I whispered.
“You told me that you needed me,” he said, running one hand over my back.
I thought I felt his lips brush the top of my head, so lightly I might have imagined it. Perhaps it was simply his breath stirring my hair.
“Thank you for staying,” I said softly.
I felt his chest rise and fall beneath my head as he sighed.
“I would have been here from the beginning, if you had asked me,” he said.
We lay in silence, breathing in tandem, until eventually I fell asleep, my head still cushioned on his wiry chest. When I awoke, several hours later, he was gone.
Chapter 9: The Woman
I have rarely hated anyone as much as I hated the woman. I am not a man to whom hatred comes naturally. In fact, my ability to find qualities worth admiring in almost anyone was one of the things that Holmes seemed to find most intriguing about me, illogical and impractical though he professed it to be. And yet there was something about Irene Adler that disturbed me from the very first moment she crossed our paths.
It was not long after the return of my fever and our pattern of easy camaraderie, punctuated by unspoken interludes of passion, remained the state of affairs between myself and my friend when he received a most august client one bitterly cold February night. To have had the King of Bohemia standing in our humble sitting room was an occurrence that ought to have made the most striking impression on me, but I confess that I soon forgot all about our client, so thoroughly was he eclipsed by the woman who had outsmarted him. It was I who looked up Miss Irene Adler in Holmes eccentric but extensive index, a self-compiled encyclopaedia of clippings spanning a dizzying array of people, places and obscure events. She was a retired opera singer, a husky-voiced contralto, to be precise, who shared with Holmes a passion for the great German composers. The King had unwisely furnished her with photographic evidence of an affair, and now wished to retrieve it. Holmes was matter-of-fact as he advised his royal client to comply with her demands, whatever they might be, and I could see that he was not excited by the case, which presented none of the bewildering eccentricities or seemingly unfathomable mysteries for which he searched so assiduously.
The King was still lamenting his situation and the power that Miss Adler held over his upcoming nuptials.
“You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel,” he said. “She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men.”
I saw a sudden flare of interest in Holmes’ steely eyes.
When his client left, the detective sat in thought for some minutes, tapping the stem of his pipe against his shapely lips in a very distracting way, though for once, I believe, he was too preoccupied to be aware of the effect he was having on me. At last he stood up and announced that he was going to see Miss Adler. He did not invite me to join him. As I always did when he excluded me from his outings, I affected not to mind. And, as I always did, I paced the floor of our flat for an hour, wondering what he was doing and why he had not wished me to accompany him, before taking myself out to a bar. I could not bear to be left alone in the flat with nothing to occupy my mind when Holmes was out on a case. My lack of ability to tolerate enforced idleness in that respect was, as he had intimated during our fight, not so very far from his own.
When Holmes returned, not long after me, he was unusually flushed and as gleeful as I had ever seen him.
“My dear doctor,” he said, as he took off his great coat, blowing wintery air towards me from its folds. “This case promises to be far more intriguing than I had anticipated.”
“Has there been a development?” I asked, smiling at him. The whiskey I had imbibed while I waited for him was beginning to take effect and I found myself quite mesmerised by the sharp angle of his jaw in the lamplight and the line of his shoulders beneath his beautifully tailored waistcoat.
“I encountered the woman,” he responded, turning away from me and beginning to make up his pipe. “She is quite the most fascinating creature I have ever seen.”
Holmes was busy packing the bowl with his pungent tobacco and so did not see the smile curdle on my face.
“Fascinating?” I echoed. I had never heard him use the word about anything but a particularly difficult case.
“She is an enigma,” he replied dreamily, as though to himself. “I was able to learn something of her from a crowd of ostlers, who believed me to be a groom. What they told me of her habits was intriguing enough that I doffed my disguise and was able to arrange to speak to her myself as she prepared to drive out, by contriving to ask her for directions. She is gently spoken and yet I sense that she has an iron will. She will make an uncommonly interesting opponent. From the little I have seen of her, she is a woman of remarkable poise and intelligence.”
Only days earlier, Holmes had remarked that even the best women were never entirely to be trusted – an abominable sentiment but one that I felt he might equally have applied to all mankind, given his innate suspicion of the motives of everyone who crossed his path and his seeming aversion to emotional attachments of any kind. I had also taken it to mean, however, that he was attracted exclusively to men. Now I saw that I might have been mistaken.
“She sounds a rare specimen, indeed,” I replied noncommittally.
Holmes did not appear to register that I had spoken. His pipe now lit, he was curled in his chair, deep in thought, smoke coiling about his head. When he began abstractedly to loosen his waistcoat and undo the top buttons of his shirt, making ready to sink into one of the pensive fits that could occupy him for hours – sometimes all night – I left him and went up to my room. I bid him goodnight as I left the room, but he did not reply.
On a case, Holmes was often driven by a tireless, animal-like energy. I had seen him go days without sleep or food when immersed in solving a particularly difficult mystery. His compulsion to uncover the solution to each puzzle that crossed his path was enough to keep him working with a machine-like determination, but I confess that there were times when it was only my own compulsion to understand Holmes that kept me by his side when a warm dinner and a soft bed awaited me at Baker Street. Over the next two days, Holmes was relentless. He disappeared the following morning, again choosing to conduct his investigations alone, and I did not see him until that evening, when he returned in high spirits, his eyes alight with excitement.
“I see that you have had a successful day,” I observed, looking up from my papers as he came in. I had been attempting to pass the time by writing up another of his cases for The Strand, with little success.
“It was certainly a most unexpected one,” he replied. He was laughing as he proceeded to tell me how, watching outside Miss Adler’s house, he had seen her jump into a landau and make haste towards the Church of Saint Monica.
“I found her just entering its vestibule,” he explained. “It was almost noon and just as I was wondering on what pretext to follow her, a tall, dark man came rushing out and dragged me inside, where I became the sole witness to the tying up of Irene Adler and a Mr Godfrey Norton.”
“She is married?”
“So I am led to believe,” said Holmes thoughtfully. “And yet I am somewhat surprised at her choice of groom. She has a face that a man might die for, but I fancy it is her mind that makes her truly unique. If she is as clever as I believe her to be, she is among the five smartest people in London.”
I had never heard such a tone of admiration in his voice. Unworthy though it was, I began to hope most fervently that the case would be over quickly and that the beautiful Miss Adler would turn out to be far less interesting – and intelligent – than she seemed.
The following day, I awoke from a nightmare that faded from my memory on awakening, leaving me sweating and shaken. I came downstairs to find Holmes sitting on the sofa where I had left him the night before. Although I had heard him playing his violin late into the night and suspected that he had not slept, he looked as immaculate as ever, his eyes lit with their strange pale glow as he turned to me.
“Well Watson, if you do not have any pressing matters to attend to, would you care to accompany me to Briony Lodge?” he asked. “I believe it is time to see what our opponent is made of and whether we shall be able to aid our client. I could use your help in carrying out a small scheme that should yield some conclusive results.”
I was anxious for the sordid case to be finished and most curious to see the woman who had made such a strong impression on Holmes. I gladly agreed to accompany him to Miss Adler’s abode. To my surprise, he retreated to his bedroom and returned in the garb of a clergyman. I was not the first time I had seen him don a disguise and, as I had in the past, I found it in equal measures astonishing and disturbing. Holmes did not simply change his clothes, he seemed to change his entire being. He moved differently, he spoke differently. Even his face somehow conspired to look different, his features altered by expressions that I had never seen on the face of the real Holmes. Despite his lean figure and his striking features, Holmes had somehow adapted to his clergyman’s role in a way that made him seem completely sexless. Knowing him as I did, it was a profound shock to witness all his confidence and effortless grace vanish, replaced with a tentative, shambling walk and a slightly hunched posture that hid both his natural height and his innate poise. Only his eyes were unquenched, glimmering at me with veiled amusement as I gaped at him.
As we descended to the street, Holmes turned to me.
“You do not mind breaking the law?” he asked me.
“I believe you have ample evidence that I do not object to criminal activity, at least in particular circumstances,” I reminded him with a sideways look.
He favoured me with a brilliant smile that for a moment transformed him back into the compelling man I knew.
“This will require the breaking of a different set of laws,” he said in a low voice. “But it is likewise in a good cause.”
“Then I’m your man.”
He smiled again, this time to himself, and I tried not to blush as he hailed a cab, once again in voice and manner a meek and kindly clergyman.
Only when we had almost reached our destination did he inform me that I was not to confront Miss Adler with him but to wait outside as he sprung his trap. Standing outside the sitting room window, holding the plumber’s smoke-rocket he had handed me and waiting for his signal, I watched as Holmes, bleeding slightly from a blow sustained in the brawl I suspected him to have orchestrated, lay back on the sofa, and Miss Adler – now Mrs Norton – tended graciously to him.
It pained me to admit that she was indeed a remarkably beautiful woman. Her long hair was almost as dark and silky as Holmes’ own, her figure trim and upright, her eyes large and dark and very striking in her comely face. There was something magnetic about her, and yet I felt a natural abhorrence of her that I could not explain. She reminded me of a viper, sinuous and graceful and filled with hidden poison.
I watched as she brought Holmes tea and tenderly wiped the blood from his forehead with a soft cloth. I tensed when I saw her slender, feminine hand cup his angular jaw and skim the line of his high cheekbone as she ministered to him. Holmes' eyes were fixed firmly on her face. When she finished wiping away the blood and set the cloth aside, she allowed her hand to linger on at his temple as she stared back at him. Their faces were inches apart. For several long seconds, neither of them moved. The intimacy of their locked gazes took my breath away. Suddenly, Holmes made a gesture as though he were choking, raising one long arm in what I knew was a signal to me. I threw the rocket into the room, shouting “Fire!” and in the thick cloud of smoke I lost sight of both Holmes and the woman he had set himself to outsmart.
I had agreed to make my way to the corner of the street, where Holmes would re-join me. But, secure in my hiding place outside the window, I could not resist waiting for the smoke to clear. Gradually, the thick roiling cloud began to dissipate and, moving in its depths, I spied two figures standing at either end of the room, one tall and imposing, the other petite and as curvaceous as Holmes was angular. As I watched, the woman moved with the grace of a dancer through the smoke, gliding towards my friend. When she reached him, she raised herself on her tiptoes and leaned in towards him. He lowered his head to meet her and I saw their faces draw close, as though she were kissing his cheek. In a moment, his hand closed around her upper arm and drew her still closer, until their bodies were flush together. Though I had never seen it from this vantage point, I knew that the angle of his head must look just as it did he was leaning down towards me, about to capture my mouth with his own.
I stumbled back, turning away from the window, scarcely aware of my surroundings. My instinct was to hail a cab and flee to Baker Street, leaving Holmes and Miss Adler to their games. But a moment later I heard voices at the door and saw Holmes making his way down the front path. He was no longer affecting the timid walk of the clergyman but striding with all his customary confidence, his long legs eating up the ground. I heard the front door close behind him and ran to catch up, careful to remain out of sight of the window.
When I reached him, I caught at his elbow and he turned on his heel, a look of surprise washing over his face as he saw me standing behind him. The heat of his breath sent a plume of fog into the darkening air and I saw again how he’d looked bending down to her amid the swirling smoke.
“I was expecting to meet with you ahead,” he said.
“I was delayed,” I said, not meeting his eyes. “I did not want to be seen and risk upsetting your disguise.”
“Your caution is admirable, but there was no need to worry on that score, as it happens,” he said, with a strange half-laugh. “It seems that my disguise was useless from the first.”
“She recognised you?”
“She knew who I was from the moment she saw me,” he admitted, turning and beginning to walk in the direction of Baker Street. I fell into step at his side, matching my strides to his longer ones, my eyes fixed on the muddy cobbles.
“So you do not know where the picture is?”
“In that respect, I was successful. She knew that I had some plan, but she could not have guessed the nature it would take. When you cried out and she saw the smoke, she gave herself away. The photograph is behind a sliding panel above the fireplace. And yet the knowledge is useless to me. She took great delight in letting me know that she had identified me. I have scarcely ever been so surprised as I was when she whispered my name in my ear.”
He sounded almost impressed.
“You admire her,” I said, and my voice must have betrayed my agitation because he turned to me and examined my face carefully.
“She is an admirable woman.”
“She is a blackmailer, Holmes.”
I had stopped walking. We stood facing each other in the first feeble spitting of the rain, tension reverberating between us.
“She is protecting her interests,” he said. “A woman like that, when she loves, will put love above all else.”
I had never heard him defend anyone so vociferously, particularly someone he had set himself against.
“But she is a married woman,” I said, unaccountably keen to remind him of this fact.
“It would seem that she is not,” he responded. “Once she revealed that she knew who I was, she admitted that the whole marriage was a sham staged for my benefit. The man was her cousin, who agreed to play the role of the groom, and the officiant was no more a member of the clergy than I am. She had been warned about me, you see, and recognised me outside her home. When she saw me return, yesterday morning, she put her plan into action. She hoped that if I thought her happily married and no longer in need of the photograph, I would give up the case.”
I swallowed hard. “She cannot have been very pleased to see you outside her house today.”
“No,” said Holmes, thoughtfully. “And yet I do not think she was entirely surprised. I believe that our minds work in similar ways. In my place, she might well have taken a comparable approach. Now that she has her chance to anticipate me, however, it is my turn to anticipate her.”
“What do you mean?” I cried. “Surely the case is over.”
“Far from it,” he replied. “She will call on us at Baker Street tomorrow morning. She professes to believe that we can come to an arrangement.”
I did not sleep much that night. My mind kept replaying the moment when Holmes had taken hold of Miss Adler's arm, drawing her close to him as imperiously as he sometimes did me, when he was about to begin kissing me or depriving me of my clothing. She was beautiful. She was intelligent. And she was not married. I had never imaged Holmes as a family man. Marriage did not seem an institution either fitting or desirable to a man of his temperament and talents. But Miss Adler seemed to have awoken something within him, the existence of which I had never suspected.
“I believe that our minds work in similar ways,” I heard him say again in that admiring tone. Throwing off the covers, I rose and poured myself a sizeable drink. Never since the night that Holmes and I had first lain together had I been so acutely, miserably aware of my shortcomings – the ugliness of my scarred body, the weakness of my shattered psyche, my shameful habit of drinking to calm my unsteady nerves and, above all, my deplorably ordinary brain, as dull and prosaic as a hammer beside the sharpened knife of Holmes' keen intellect. Ingenuity and intelligence were, I knew, qualities that he prized above all else. Unlike Miss Adler, I possessed neither of them in great measure.
By the time the appointed hour came for the woman to pay her visit, I was glazed with exhaustion, and yet my nerves were in such a state of tension that I was almost trembling. Holmes was as calm and controlled as ever and seemed to have slept for the first time in several days. He partook of an unusually hearty breakfast and it was I who picked at my food, my appetite subdued and my stomach churning.
“What is the matter, my dear fellow?” Holmes asked me, after I abandoned my food to stride about the room.
“Nothing at all,” I said. “I am afraid I did not sleep very well last night, and I am simply anxious to see the case concluded satisfactorily. The affair seems to be becoming more tangled by the day.”
“If you are not in the right humour for detective work, you need not concern yourself with it. I do not imagine I shall need your assistance at this stage of proceedings.”
“I am sure I shall be of no help to you whatsoever. Nevertheless I shall presume to remain, if I will not be in your way,” I snapped.
Holmes glanced curiously at me but said mildly, “Of course you are most welcome to remain, I shall be glad of your presence.”
I forced myself to cease pacing. Sitting down in my usual chair, I affected an attitude of repose. Holmes wisely chose not to press me further. We passed the next few minutes in stony silence until a knock at the door signalled Miss Adler's arrival. She entered at Holmes' invitation and stood before us, straight-backed and proud, her dark eyes skipping over me and coming to rest on Holmes, raking over his angular face.
“Well, Mr Holmes,” she said, in a deep, musical voice. “I believe it is high time we were honest with one another. I have what you want. All that remains is to determine what you have that I might want in return.”
She sank gracefully onto the sofa, without waiting for an invitation, folding her delicate hands in her lap.
Holmes was watching her with the predatory interest of a cat watching a mouse.
“That depends on your ultimate goal,” he said. “I was led to believe that you wished to prevent a certain union from taking place. Is that still the case?”
Miss Adler did not respond immediately. Her confidence and self-possession reminded me unsettlingly of the man sitting beside me, but whereas in him I found the qualities compelling, in her I found them unaccountably repellent. Her eyes were wandering curiously around the room and when she saw Holmes' violin, lying on his desk where he must have placed it before retiring, she got to her feet and floated towards it. Running one finger delicately across the bridge, she turned to Holmes.
“A Stradivarius,” she observed, in the tone of a lover murmuring confidences across the pillow. “You play.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I do,” he acknowledged, watching her.
“You do so very well.”
“I believe it would bring you pleasure.”
“Perhaps we should arrange to perform a duet,” she purred.
“If we should agree on a song."
“Handel or Mendelssohn?”
“You favour Wagner.” He was not asking.
She smiled darkly at him. “My favour changes often.”
“So I see,” he remarked.
They were still staring at one another. I believe that they had entirely forgotten that I was in the room. Suddenly unable to bear it any longer, I leaned forward with a pronounced cough.
“What of the photograph?” I asked. “I believe we are here to negotiate its return.”
Miss Adler turned her dark eyes on me and I saw that they were dancing with amusement.
“You need not fear, doctor,” she said. “I have not forgotten my purpose in coming here.”
I resisted the urge to snarl at her.
“Mr Holmes,” she said, turning back to my friend. “I believe that you are empowered to negotiate on behalf of your client.”
He nodded his assent.
“In that case, please convey to him that my sentiments towards his union have changed. I no longer see fit to stand in his way. I have decided to leave London behind and relocate to the continent. To do so, I will need funds.”
“That can be arranged,” said Holmes. “My client left with me a certain sum, should such an eventuality arise.”
“Then I believe we shall have no problem in declaring the matter settled,” she said. She was still standing by the desk but now she walked towards Holmes, drawing from her garments a square envelope. "You will find the photograph inside,” she said. “I will wait while you examine it, if you wish.”
Holmes never took his eyes from her face as he accepted the proffered envelope and set it aside. Going over to his desk, he drew a small bag from the drawer and handed it to her. She smiled brilliantly at him as she made ready to quit the room.
“It was a pleasure, Mr Holmes,” she said, her hand on the doorknob. As she turned to leave, she let her eyes fall on me, sitting rigid and upright in my chair.
“Take care of him, Dr Watson,” she said, that devilish amusement still glinting in her eyes.
Only when she was gone did Holmes tear open the envelope and take the photograph in his hand. He gave a strange strangled sound, halfway between a laugh and a cough.
“What is it?”
Wordlessly, he held up the photograph. It was a portrait of the opera singer, arrayed regally in a dark evening gown, her black hair loose around her shoulders. She looked as beautiful and as proud and as dangerous as a queen from a fairy tale. The King of Bohemia was nowhere to be seen.
“It is the wrong photograph!” I exclaimed.
To my surprise, Holmes was laughing silently to himself.
“I underestimated her,” he admitted. “I did not think she would play so obvious or so risky a trick and so I did not call her bluff.”
“But what of our client?” I cried, half afraid that we should be forced to go after her and prolong the whole hideous affair.
“I will tell him that his troubles are over,” Holmes replied. “She got what she wanted, and I do not believe she will bother him now. His marriage is no longer of concern to her. She has won her freedom and retained a means to safeguard herself against any retaliation he might see fit to take.”
“Then it is over. You have succeeded.”
“I would not go so far as to call it a success,” he said, still examining her image. “I am man enough to admit when I have been beaten. I believe I will keep this photograph. It is a good likeness of her. She is quite as smart as I supposed – more so, as indeed she has proven. Still, I do not imagine that our paths will cross again.”
“How distressing for you,” I muttered as I turned away, determined to get my coat and leave Holmes alone with his memento.
“I must admit I would relish the chance to duel with her again,” he mused. “I rarely fail, and it is not a sensation I enjoy.”
“You seemed to enjoy her well enough,” I snapped, unable to prevaricate any longer. “She is just as intelligent as you, and just as cold. You are admirably suited.”
Holmes stared at me as though I had gone mad.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” he asked, his eyebrows aloft.
“Nothing is the matter with me. I only wish I had left you alone with her. Perhaps then matters might have progressed more to your satisfaction.”
I turned away, already regretting my outburst, but before I could move towards the coat rack Holmes rose from his seat and caught me tightly by the wrist, pulling me around to face him.
“Watson, do not tell me that you are jealous,” he said, and the amusement in his voice cut me more deeply than anger would have.
“Of course not,” I said, pompously. Unconvincingly.
“It would be ludicrous if you were, my dear fellow,” Holmes said, sounding softer, almost tender. “Much though I admire her brain, she has nothing that entices me. I assure you that she is not at all to my taste.”
“Ludicrous you may call it now,” I said, withdrawing my wrist from his grip. “It didn't seem that way when she was whispering sweet nothings in your ear.”
“And you were spying on us, I suppose?”
“Not spying!” To my mortification, I felt my face flush. “I was waiting to see that all went according to plan. Since you did not want me in the room with you, I had no choice but to observe from outside.”
Holmes stepped very deliberately in front of me, bringing us chest to chest. I had to tilt my head back to see his eyes. The movement brought my lips very close to his.
“My dear Watson,” he said. “It is not that I did not want you in the room. You are simply the only person I trusted enough to carry out the manoeuvre on which the success of the plan depended. Please believe me when I say that she holds no attraction for me. She is a woman, for one thing, and we are not all as flexible in that regard as you. And even if she were not, she would not tempt me when I have you by my side.”
Holmes had never spoken to me thus and I believe my surprise and happiness showed on my face because he leaned down and kissed me softly. It was not like any kiss we had shared before and it sent a rush of warmth through me, like the glow after the first sip of a fine Scotch. I had never imaged that Sherlock Holmes could kiss me so gently or with such simple affection.
When at last he pulled back, I found myself smiling at him, happier than I had been in days. The answering smile on his face almost dragged from me an expression of my powerful feelings towards him – something that, despite his unexpected declarations, I knew he would not appreciate. Instead, I turned away, taking his hand and tugging him towards his bedroom.
I have never hated anyone as much as I hated the woman. And yet, I acknowledged to myself grudgingly, as I fell back onto Holmes' bed, the detective's warm weight pressing down on top of me, her presence in our lives had worked a small miracle. Without her, I would never have known that, although I might never have Holmes' love, I had his trust. As the detective tugged off my shirt and began to kiss his way down my chest, that seemed almost as precious a gift.
Chapter 10: The Man with the Twisted Lip
Since the night that matters between Holmes and I had first escalated to a physical level, I had not seen him inject either morphine or cocaine, and I had begun to hope that his drug use was a more infrequent occurrence than the plethora of marks on his arms seemed to suggest. It helped that he had had a steady stream of clients and that, as a consequence, we had been occupied almost every day with one case or another – sometimes more than one at a time. My stories of Holmes’ remarkable methods, and his success in solving problems that had proved too complex or bizarre even for the inspectors of Scotland Yard to crack, had, to my secret chagrin, not been met with praise by Holmes. He claimed to find my style florid, my language melodramatic, my attention to important detail lacking and my depictions of both of us unrealistic and unflattering. But they had succeeded in attracting several new clients, most of whom came to him as a port of first call when they felt that something was amiss that was unlikely to be treated with much seriousness by the police.
I was his constant companion in these cases, save for the rare occasions on which, for no clear reason, he chose to investigate alone. Although his fanatical need to solve each problem put before him could sometimes cause him to stay out all night, or to leave the house before I awoke and return when I was close to retiring, he usually informed me when he planned to be absent, even on those occasions when he did not wish me to accompany him. So when Holmes disappeared one day, without a word of warning, I was quite at a loss regarding what action to take.
We had recently wrapped up a case for one of the most prominent politicians in the country and Holmes had been in high spirits, despite the fact that he had no new puzzle to solve, for the first time in several weeks. The night before, we had celebrated the end of the case by going to see a concert, where he had taken immense delight in the beautiful sound of a violin played with almost as much innate talent as he played his own. I had allowed myself to slide one hand onto his leg in the dark, a rare and risky expression of my unspoken feelings towards him, and we had ended the night with a very satisfying encounter in Holmes’ bedroom. I still bore the faint marks around my wrists from where he had restrained me for a very frustrating hour, teasing me as only he could, and the inordinately satisfying memory of how I had turned the tables on him when he finally freed me.
I awoke late the following morning to find that Holmes had already breakfasted and was making ready to go out. I saw his eyes take in my unruly hair, which I had not yet taken the time to tame, and flicker briefly to the mottled skin of my wrists. The smile that touched his lips echoed the happiness in my own heart and I had crossed the room and kissed him on his shapely lips before I could think twice about such an intimate gesture and what it might convey. Although it broke the unspoken pact we seemed to have adopted to save our illicit activities for the hours of darkness, he did not pull away and we shared a warm, lingering kiss by the door, Holmes holding his hat in one hand, about to depart. When it was over, he met my rapidly darkening eyes with a knowing look.
“I must go out for a few hours, Watson,” he said. “I trust I shall see you when I return?”
There was a note of promise in his tone that made me stir in anticipation.
“I cannot make any promises. I am a busy man,” I responded, which, to my surprise and delight, elicited the first wink I had ever seen Sherlock Holmes give.
“I will hope that luck smiles on me, then,” he said over his shoulder, as he made his way down the stairs.
All that afternoon, as I worked on recording a recent case in which Holmes had saved a woman’s life by identifying a coded message buried in a series of whistles that sounded like bird song, half my mind was on his return and the best way to properly reward him for that kiss. By supper, when he had not returned, I was a little put out. By midnight I was dismayed. It was unlike him not to send a telegram if a case had presented itself that required him to remain from home for so long a stretch. The following morning, when I rose to find his bed unslept in and no word from him, I began to be concerned. I spent the day in a fruitless effort to track him down, wiring to Lestrade and Gregson, questioning Mrs Hudson and even searching Holmes’ bedroom for clues, wishing I had even a fraction of his talent for turning data into deductions.
By the time the evening of the second day came, I was unable to focus on anything for more than a minute or two, worries about what could have become of my friend intruding into my every thought. I was drinking steadily to try to stem the flow of images – Holmes dead in the river Thames, his throat slit by one of the many criminals he had crossed over the years, Holmes kidnapped by a desperate client who would not let him free until his problem was solved, Holmes in bed with a tall, muscular young policeman – that were assaulting my mind. The last, I knew, was unfounded and unworthy, but we had never spoken of fidelity or acknowledged the unorthodox nature of our relationship aloud, and the lingering jealousy I had felt towards the lady and her impressive mental prowess had perhaps left me sensitive in certain regards.
I had just started on my third whiskey and was picturing Holmes tied up and helpless, being tortured by a villain with an array of implements worthy of a surgeon, when I heard an urgent knock at the door. Leaping to my feet, I rushed to open it, hoping to see Holmes standing without. My disappointment must have shown clearly on my face, because the young women who stood outside apologised immediately.
“Please forgive me,” she said, her agitation clear in her voice and the pallor of her face. “I am very sorry to disturb you so late, but I must speak urgently with Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
“He is from home,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “I’m afraid I do not know when he is likely to return.”
At this she turned even paler and began to sob quietly, wringing her hands in anguish. Despite my own anxiety, I was struck by her suffering and overcome with an urge to do what I could for her.
“Come inside and tell me what has happened,” I said. “I have none of Holmes’ talents as a detective but I am familiar with his methods and perhaps I may be of some small service to you.”
“Thank you, Dr Watson,” she said. “I have heard of you from Miss Morstan, who told me of the help that you and Mr Holmes were able to provide in the case of her missing father. I see now that you are just as kind as she said.”
I ushered her to the sofa and returned to my seat, hoping that the lamplight hid the flush that had stained my cheeks at the mention of Miss Morstan, whom I had so callously set aside for Holmes.
The lady, Mrs Whitney, seemed more in need of a man of action than a detective, for which I was profoundly thankful. Her husband, she explained, had tragically become addicted to opium, which drug had left him a shell of his former self. He would often spend all day in the Bar of Gold, a den in the east of the city, returning at night, dazed and twitching. When she told me that he had been missing for two days, I confess I was badly startled, but I soon realised that his situation could have no bearing on whatever had happened to Holmes. The poor woman was so distraught, and her feelings so close to my own at that moment, that I felt a powerful compulsion to aid her in whatever way I could. And so I found myself, not ten minutes later, in cab on the way to an opium den, having promised to track down her errant husband and send him home to her.
The den, which I found in a filthy alley called Upper Swandam Lane, overlooking the river to the east of London Bridge, was a vile, fume-filled pit that seemed to close around me the moment I walked inside, as blackened and malodourous as a smoke-filled lung. Lit by flickering oil lamps, it was filled with men who could hardly be called human, lying sprawled in strange, contorted poses, their eyes glazed and vacant as they lolled in thrall to their hypnotic dreams. The glow of their pipes formed a sickly constellation of red stars in the dark room and the air was thick with poison and the sound of their ranting, muttering, whispering voices. I began to make my way through the hellish room, shaking stupefied men by the shoulder as I demanded to speak to Isa Whitney, until the attendant, a Malay man whose offer of a pipe I had firmly rejected, accosted me and attempted to force me from the room.
“I will not leave unless it be with the man I have come for,” I said, adopting a posture and tone that I had not utilised since the war. “Come man, take me to Isa Whitney and I shall promise never to return to this hideous den again.”
The man grumbled but I was both taller and stronger than him and when I drew back my coat to reveal the glint of the revolver at my hip he gestured for me to follow him. Mr Whitney was slumped in a berth at the back of the long room, yellow and weak and so high that he refused to believe that two days had elapsed since he entered the space, insisting that he had seen his poor wife only that morning. I took him under the arm and bundled him towards the street, hoping that the shock of the cold air might help to restore some measure of sobriety. We were standing in the dark alleyway and I was cursing as I realised that my cab driver had not waited, when I chanced to glance up at the first floor of the building, where a single lamp burned. There was a tall, lean man standing framed in the open window and to my shock, I recognised the thick black hair, the delicate cheekbones and the strong, aquiline nose. It was Sherlock Holmes. No sooner had I recognised him than he gave a strange cry, as though of surprise or pain, and vanished from the window.
Filled with an unaccountable feeling of horror, I pushed Mr Whitney, who was beginning to regain some control of himself, towards the end of the alleyway, ordering him to take a cab and return home to his wife. Then I rushed back into the vile, fume-ridden den. The attendant again tried to stop me as I ran towards the narrow staircase I had glimpsed at the back of the room, but I hit out at him with my stick and he fell back. I heard a hoarse cry of anger as in my haste I knocked the pipe from the hand of a hunched man sprawled half out of his berth and then my feet were upon the stairs, my head swimming from the noxious fumes of the drug I had inhaled in my haste.
The staircase was long and low and, though I am not a particularly tall man – particularly in comparison to Holmes’ towering figure – I twice hit my head on the ceiling before I finally made it to the dark, narrow hallway above, with its stained floor and peeling wallpaper. There was a single wooden door at the end of the hallway, in the direction of the room where I had seen Holmes. I rapped sharply on it, crying his name, but an ominous silence came from within. The attendant was behind me, staying out of the reach of my stick but admonishing me most vigorously in a high, whining voice. As I beat once again on the door, using the handle of my stick, and called out Holmes’ name, the attendant began tugging urgently at my sleeve. There was a commotion downstairs and a stout man with a handsome face and a head of thick blond hair burst into the hallway. He began to question the attendant in a strident voice as I set aside my hat and gloves and prepared to force my way inside the locked room.
The door was stronger than it looked, and I had to throw my body against it three times before it finally gave and I tumbled into the room. It was empty. No furniture stood on the ancient boards, no curtains shielded the windows. The only objects in the room were a heap of wooden crates and a pile of rags in the corner. I ignored the blond stranger, who was firing questions at me, and set to searching the room. I had examined the unmarked crates and was about to kick out at the heap of filthy, torn fabric to see what lay beneath when I realised that there was a person half-hidden in the folds of cloth. It was an old, disfigured man, his face deeply lined and misshapen by a hideous scar that twisted his lip upwards at a dreadful angle. His hair was grey, his mouth drooping and his eyes rheumy and bloodshot – and a very familiar shade of grey. The old man must have seen my eyes widen and a name form on my lips, because he shook his head once, very slightly, Holmes’ eyes staring up at me from his wrinkled face.
I turned away in confusion and at last took note of the blond man, who was standing at my elbow, asking with increasing irritation what the problem was.
“I thought I saw a friend of mine at the window,” I answered, confused and uncertain. I knew that Holmes could not have intended his disguise to hide him from me. No matter how heavily he altered his appearance, I would know those eyes anywhere. If Holmes did not know that then he was a fool – a manifestly impossible supposition. So his disguise must be intended for someone else. Until I knew from whom he wished to disguise himself, and why he thought it necessary, I knew I must guard my speech carefully.
“You saw a friend at the window and so you forced your way inside and broke down the door?” the man said incredulously. I could not fault his suspicion.
“What business is it of yours?” I demanded, wishing he would let me alone to speak with Holmes.
“I am a police inspector,” he responded calmly. “I was passing by when I heard shouting and the sounds of a struggle. I am not currently on duty but I am happy to be of service if you will only tell me what compelled you to shout like that.”
“I thought I saw a friend I have not seen since the war,” I said, wishing, not for the first time, that I had Holmes’ talent for fabrication. “I heard him cry out and, having thought he had been killed in Afghanistan, I was much surprised to see him. I’m afraid I quite lost my head and charged in here determined to speak with him.”
The inspector, to his credit, did not betray surprise at this unlikely story. Perhaps he thought me mad. Instead, he surveyed the room, his eyes alighting for a moment on Holmes and then passing on. My wish not to betray Holmes’ disguise warred with the heady mixture of relief and anger I felt at finding him, alive and seemingly well, hiding out in an opium den for no discernible reason when I had spent two sleepless nights at Baker Street believing him incapacitated or dead. It took all my meagre acting reserves to attempt to keep my feelings from showing on my face. All the while, the attendant stood quietly, observing our conversation with wide eyes and an unreadable expression.
“Where is he, then, this fellow soldier of yours?” the inspector asked.
“He is not here,” I said, rather lamely. “And yet I could have sworn that I saw him.”
“He cannot have fled,” the mans said. “The door was locked from the inside and this old beggar hardly seems likely to have aided him in a quick escape. Besides, the only way out is the stairs and we did not pass him coming up.”
He turned to Holmes, lying as if insensible under his heap of rags, looking as haggard and withered as the addicts slowly poisoning themselves below.
“Well man,” he said, poking at Holmes’ still form with the toe of his boot. “How came you to be here, in a locked room, rather than below with the other lost souls? And what have you to say to this man who believes he saw an old friend at that very window?”
The hideous, decrepit old man who had replaced my handsome, vigorous young friend, twitched and writhed and then said, in a hoarse, muffled voice, “I know nothing about any man. No one has been in here all day until that young gentleman broke in and disturbed my rest.”
At this the attendant stepped forward, his eyes on Holmes, and took hold of me by the arm, beginning to tug me towards the door, which was hanging askew from one hinge.
“This man is a tenant of ours and has been alone here these past two days,” he said, gesturing to Holmes’ slumped form. “I don’t know who you are or what you think you saw and nor do I much care. I’ll thank you to leave and stop harassing my customers.”
“Now wait a moment,” the inspector said, to my surprise. “You’ll forgive me if I take the word of an army man over that of an opium peddler.”
He turned to me and shot me a look that I could not interpret. “If this friend of yours was really here, as you say, then there is only one place he could have gone.”
He walked swiftly to the window and looked out, into the fast-flowing, black waters of the Thames. I went to stand beside him. Lit only by the dim glow of the street lamps and the cool light of the moon, the river looked as dark and deadly as I had ever seen it. A shudder went through me at the thought of Holmes disappearing into its depths.
“I fear that your friend may have been dealt a mischief,” the inspector said, turning back to me.
“I may, perhaps, have been mistaken,” I hazarded limply.
“You do not seem the type of man to make such a mistake,” he retorted. “I am inspector Wainwright. I had better take a formal statement and then we will conduct a thorough search of the premises and interview these two men.”
He glanced at Holmes, still slumped in the corner, with overt suspicion. Holmes, seemingly unaware of his scrutiny, was as limp and glazed-looking as any of the drugged men I had seen below. It was only then that it occurred to me that perhaps his dazed air and red eyes were not part of a performance, but the real results of two days spent breathing opium in lieu of sleep, food or water.
All throughout my confused, stammering statement, in which I repeated the same fabulous tale of the miraculously vanishing man - whose name I was forced to invent via the simple means of combining the first and last names of two men who had in fact served with me in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers - Holmes lay still and expressionless. I had no way of knowing what he made of my story.
“It is clear what has happened,” Wainwright said, when I had finished my rambling statement. “Your friend must have been pushed from the window and met his death in the river between the time you witnessed his cry for aid and the moment you burst into the room.”
“But there is no one here who could have pushed him,” I objected. “I feel sure that I was simply mistaken in what I saw.”
“There is this man,” said the inspector, pointing a dramatic finger at Holmes. “He was in the room the entire time, as the locked door attests.”
“But he’s an old man,” I objected again. “Surely he would not have the strength to push a strapping young soldier from a window. My friend was not a slight fellow and he was in the prime of life.”
Wainwright leaned forward and began to tug at the pile of fabric that lay atop my friend, still partially concealing his form. What I had taken to be a pile of rags revealed itself to be a heap of men’s clothing, stained and dirty and torn but originally of fine quality.
“See here!” ejaculated the inspector triumphantly. “What beggar is in possession of such fine clothes? He has murdered your friend and cast his body from the window, keeping the clothes for himself.”
I had begun to think that the inspector was not a very smart man.
The attendant stepped forward and coughed to get the inspector’s attention.
“This old fellow is hardly likely to have caused any trouble,” he said. “He's a harmless old beggar who sometimes hands over a few shillings in exchange for a place to sleep when it's cold outside. This room was empty, so I let him have it. As to the clothes, they were here when he arrived. They are the garments that have been left behind by customers downstairs.”
Wainwright sniffed disbelievingly but did not contradict the man.
“That’s as may be, I can see no recourse but to take him down to the station for the time being,” he said.
I attempted to remonstrate with him, repeating for the third time that I feared I had been mistaken, but he would not be moved. Within a few minutes, he had forced Holmes, staggering and exhausted, to his feet, placed handcuffs around his thin wrists and led him from the building. They soon departed for the station and I was left, shocked and confused, outside the drug den, alone. The knowledge that Holmes was alive warred in my breast with worry and guilt at my own actions, which had inadvertently led to his arrest. I stood for long minutes wondering what to do. Were I to call upon the help of Lestrade, or any other inspector of our acquaintance who might be able to alley the suspicions of Wainwright, I would destroy Holmes’ disguise, and I still did not know for what reason he had adopted it or from whom he intended to hide. In the end, I could see no other path but to return to Baker Street and await the morning, when I could visit Holmes in his cell on some pretext and attempt to speak to him privately.
When I finally made it to the Bow Street station the following morning, after a night very nearly as sleepless as those I had spent when Holmes was missing, I demanded to speak to him on the pretext of questioning him about the whereabouts of my friend. I could not have gained admittance were it not for the happy chance that the two constables on duty had several times called on Holmes for help and recognised me immediately.
“Who is on duty?” I asked, dreading to hear that it was Wainwright.
“Inspector Bradstreet, Dr Watson,” responded the shorter of the two constables. “I did not know this was one of Mr Holmes’ investigations,” he continued, his eyes wide, once I had explained the purpose of my visit. “He must be busy these days if he has sent you to ask the questions instead of coming himself.”
The second constable had disappeared down a narrow passage. A moment later he returned.
“Inspector Bradstreet is tied up, but he says we are to give you fifteen minutes with the old beggar,” he said. “Tell Mr Holmes that we hope to see him down at the station soon.”
I felt a wild urge to laugh rise up inside me and had to bite the inside of my cheek quite hard to quell it.
“I am sure he would be here speaking with you if was at liberty to do so,” I said, as soberly as I could.
The constable led me down a long passage, unlocked a barred door and preceded me into a whitewashed passage lined with cells on both sides. The stench of unwashed bodies was enough to make my eyes water. Drawing back a panel, he allowed me to look through into a small cell. Holmes appeared to be sleeping on a filthy cot, still wearing his disguise. With his eyes closed, the aged, scarred face was hideous to look upon. I struggled to find any of Holmes’ fine features within it. His lean body was still encased in ragged clothes that swamped his frame and it was easy for me to perceive how he had kept the constables from recognising him. Only his hands, with their long, elegant fingers, struck at me with their familiarity, arousing a fierce sort of tenderness within me. The yellow tinge that stained the usual creamy pallor of his skin made my heart beat faster in my chest.
“The case Holmes is engaged in solving is very sensitive,” I said, tearing my eyes from his still form and turning to the constable. “I must have a few minutes alone with the prisoner so that I may report back to him on a few crucial details.”
Looking as impressed as if he were serving the wishes of royalty, the young constable backed away.
“Of course, Dr Watson,” he said. “I’ll be back for you in fifteen minutes. I hope the old fellow is useful to you. Inspector Wainwright questioned him last night but based on his mood afterwards I don’t think he got much out of him. The man looked half dead by the time I did the rounds last night and he’s barely moved since then.”
As soon as the door of the cell closed behind me, I ran to Holmes’ side. His breathing was shallow but steady and his body was radiating warmth beneath his clothes when I took one thin shoulder in my hand and shook him gently.
“Holmes, wake up,” I murmured. “Tell me what the devil is going on. What were you doing in that repugnant den and why have you allowed yourself to be arrested for a crime that we both know never took place?”
Holmes eyes, when they opened, were as brilliant as ever, no longer glazed with exhaustion or the potent effects of opium.
“My dear Watson, it is entirely thanks to you that I find myself here. For all the fiction you weave into your accounts of our cases, I expected you to tell a rather more inventive tale to the inspector.”
“I thought you were dead!” I expostulated. “You disappear for two days, with no word, and then I find you drugged and disguised in an opium den. It would take a better man than me to weave an elaborate deception under those circumstances – and I still do not know for whom the deception to which I have found myself a party is being enacted.”
“Not a better man,” he murmured. “Only a more calculating one. I am sorry that I did not send word.”
It was only when he attempted to sit up and fell back onto the bunk that I realised how weak he was.
“When did you last eat?” I asked, levering one arm under his shoulders as he dragged himself upright and propped himself against the stained wall.
“Two or three days ago, I think,” he said. “I confess my last meal escapes me. It may have been breakfast at Baker Street. Things progressed rather more quickly and dramatically than I expected. I did not mean to be away from home for so long. I would have sent you a message if I could, but it might have undermined everything. When you entered that horrendous place and forced Mr Whitney to quit it, had you any idea that you were saving a man’s life?”
“His life?” I exclaimed. “I have no doubt that the opium did him little good, but I would not go so far as to say that his life was in danger. He was in much better condition than you, in fact. Breakfast at Baker Street was more than 70 hours ago. I know you are strong but you even you cannot live on air.”
He laughed softly. The vivid scar with which he had deformed his face gave him a strange lopsided look and yet that silent laugh was all Holmes. I felt a sudden overwhelming urge to press a kiss to his twisted lips.
“Thank you, doctor, for your astute analysis,” he said. “I believe, however, that it was not the lack of food that affected me but the opium. I was forced to smoke considerably more of it than I had planned and it seems to have left me rather far from my usual self. It was not the opium that threatened My Whitney’s life, but Inspector Wainwright. I have known for some time that a London inspector was preying on the vulnerable of the city and that it was at the Bar of Gold that he hunted. I made some discreet enquiries but somehow he caught wind of my interest. By the time he wrote to me, threatening all sorts of fabricated charges if I did not let well alone, I knew almost everything about his operation. A few payments gained the loyalty of the attendant who you saw yesterday and who is quite terrified of Wainwright. It was he who told me that Whitney was to be his next victim.”
Holmes’ voice was as strong and melodic as ever, but from the way he leaned against the wall, his slumped form lacking all his usual unconscious grace, I could see that he was in far worse shape than he wished me to know.
“What did Wainwright want from Whitney?” I asked. “We must end this farce immediately and take you home to Baker Street.”
“Wainwright is a snake. He is a frequent visitor to the Bar of Gold, where he moves among the poor men who waste away their lives there, listening to their ramblings and eliciting, with a suggestion here and a question there, their secrets and sorrows and shames. Some, he blackmails simply by threatening to inform their employers or loved ones of their dependence on the drug. Others, he holds to ransom via information elicited when they were too far gone to know what they were saying. Still others, he doctors with stronger drugs, until they will pay him whatever he asks to maintain their dependence. Those who are no longer of use to him are disposed of. There is a trapdoor at the back of the building. The Bar of Gold is the vilest murder-trap on the whole riverside and Whitney was to be its next victim. He had paid what he could to Wainwright and refused to pay more. Last night was to be his final one on earth – until you came in and removed him from right under the inspector’s nose. How on earth did you know where I was and who I was protecting?”
“I did not know anything of your whereabouts or of the threat facing Whitney,” I admitted. “His wife came to Baker Street and asked me to bring him home. I have never been so shocked as I was to see you at that window. But I still do not understand why you were in disguise or why you allowed Wainwright to arrest you.”
“When I saw you enter the den, I assumed you had come in search of me,” said Holmes. “I knew that the inspector would recognise you and that there was a chance that your presence would threaten my disguise. So I withdrew to the room upstairs where you would not catch sight of me. I watched from the window as you left with Whitney but then I saw Wainwright approaching and cried out, intending to warn you. I did not think that he would attempt to harm you out in the open, but he is a ruthless man and a desperate one. It is our great luck that Wainwright chose to follow you back into the den and not to do away with Whitney while he was unguarded and out of his wits.”
“But Wainwright is still at large while you are locked up in here,” I said, forgetting for a moment how Holmes despised it when I stated the obvious. “I never thought that my story would result in your arrest.”
“Wainwright suspected something. He has researched me and therefore has surely learned of my connection to you. He did not know your game but it was clear that you did not wish him to detain me and so he did it to spite you.”
“Happily, it is easily remedied,” I said. “The constable will be back in a minute and we shall fetch Inspector Bradstreet. He will release you immediately he grasps your true identity.”
“No Watson, this is too good a chance to miss,” said Holmes, taking hold of my wrist. It was the first time he had touched me and a wave of relief went through me at the feel of him, warm and vital. “Wainwright likes to enact his schemes in the Bar of Gold. There he believes that he is safe. He has not yet realised who he arrested but he knows that I am on his trail. Before I adopted my disguise and took my place at the den, I took the precaution of spreading a rumour that I was busy with a particularly taxing case and had no time for any other concern. There are those in London who keep tabs on me – their networks have their uses, at times. Your appearance will only have served to reinforce the impression in Wainwright’s mind that I am too busy to bend my full attention upon him, since he doubtless believes that I sent you to intervene in my place – a logical assumption for a man who knows me by reputation alone. Nonetheless, he is by nature a cautious and cunning man. He will not attempt anything until he believes himself safe. If Bradstreet releases me, he will hear of it instantly and realise exactly who he arrested and what I was doing at the den. I must remain here for now. You must go to Whitney and convince him to return to the Bar of Gold tonight. Tell him the truth of our aims and enlist his help – he wishes nothing more than to be free of Wainwright’s evil influence.”
“What must we do?”
“Take him back to Swandam Lane and send him inside, alone. Wait outside. Do not let yourself be seen, for Wainwright keeps a close watch on the place. Instruct Whitney that he must speak loudly to as many of those he finds within of how an interfering doctor named Watson tried to draw him away from the place and how he has been repaid with a misfortune – his friend and colleague Sherlock Holmes has been arrested and languishes in a cell. It does not matter to whom he speaks. Someone is always listening at the Bar of Gold and there are mouths that whisper directly into Wainwright’s ear. Whitney will be safe for the first two hours, at least, for the inspector is careful in his dealings and likes his victims to have smoked several pipes before he shows his face. When he see him enter, follow him as quickly and quietly as you may. Order a pipe from the attendant – I see the horror in your eyes, my dear fellow, but you do not need to smoke it – and keep a close watch on him. He will approach Whitney and offer him a pipe. Then they will leave together by the back stairs. Do not let them out of your sight. Take your revolver but have confidence that you will not need to use it. As soon as they reach the hallway upstairs, matters will be taken care of.”
“But how?” I cried. “Who will intervene if it is not to be me and you are to remain here?”
“Do you trust me?” Holmes asked, and there was a searching look in his restless grey eyes, as though the question struck deeper than this peculiar circumstance.
I answered at once, as gravely as I ever had.
“I do,” I said, and it had the ring of a solemn declaration. “With my life.”
He smiled at me then, the urgency of the case forgotten for an instant in the face of my certainty.
“You are a better companion than I deserve,” he said quietly. “Do not think that I am unaware of it.”
Before I could respond to this startling overture, I heard the footsteps that my friend’s keen ears had no doubt already detected and I sat back swiftly, distancing myself from Holmes by several feet. By the time the young constable opened the door, we were two strangers again.
“Damn you man, I’ll have the truth from you yet,” I said to Holmes, whose face had resumed the exhausted, vacant expression of the old beggar I had found in Swandam Lane.
“Leave me,” he mumbled, turning his disfigured countenance to the wall. “I have nothing to say to you or to the police.
I stood, turning from him as though in disgust, even as all my instincts told me to return to him, to help him from the filthy cell and escort him to Baker Street, where a bath and a good meal and a pipe before the fire might begin to transform him back into the compelling, irrepressible detective whose wellbeing occupied far too many of my thoughts.
Darkness had fallen by the time I had tracked down Whitney at his home, and, with the reluctant blessing of his wife, to whom he had finally revealed all, convinced him to aid us in putting an end to his torment. Together, we returned to the hideous den from which I had plucked him not 24 hours earlier. Whitney entered, nervous but determined, a very different man from the wreck I had encountered the night before, and I wondered, not for the first time, at the transformative powers of hope on the human psyche.
I waited out of sight, in the dank shadows near the entrance, for what felt like hours. The cold seemed to cut deeper with every moment and several times I began to think that if I did not move around I should freeze to death where I stood, but eventually I heard the jingle of a horse’s bridle and the quiet sound of wheels and then Wainwright came around the corner on foot, silhouetted against the single lamp that lit the entrance of the accused den. He disappeared inside, and I waited a few minutes and then followed him, as unobtrusively as possible. Ordering a pipe from the attendant, I sat in a shadowed corner, from where I had a clear view of Whitney, slumped over his own glowing bowl of sweet-smelling poison. I hoped that the lure of the drug had not overcome my instructions to partake only of the smallest amount, smoking just so much as was necessary to avoid arousing suspicion.
I took a small puff of my own pipe, attempting to hold the fragrant, toxic smoke in my mouth and avoid drawing it into my lungs. The room was so full of fumes that I knew I could not prevent myself from suffering some effects of the opium, which was seeping into my system every time I drew breath. Such was my state of nervous tension that the time seemed to pass even more slowly than it had when I was out in the cold. Eventually, I saw a man slide into the berth beside Whitney and knew from the set of his shoulders and the shape of his head that it was Wainwright. The inspector handed Whitney a new pipe and two men talked together for a few minutes, as I, making certain that I was unobserved, set aside my own apparatus in a fever of anticipation. Then they got to their feet and made for the stairs at the rear of the long, low room. I stood up fast, my head spinning and my limbs as floppy as they sometimes were after a long night of drinking. Forcing myself to action, I moved as swiftly and silently as I could in their wake.
Whitney was unsteady on his feet and twice stumbled as they made their way up the stairs, the inspector reaching out one brawny arm to steady him. So laboured was their progress that I reached the top of the stairs only a few paces behind them. The door had been shoddily placed back on its hinges and Wainwright was just entering the room, about to pull it closed behind him, when he saw me round the top of the stairs and a stark look of fury dawned on his handsome features.
“You!” he exclaimed. “I should have known that you’d be lurking around here again, doing your master’s bidding like a trained hound. You don’t frighten me, doctor. You can tell Holmes that he had better to face me himself than to send his lackey to spy on me.”
He was advancing on me as he spoke, his stance one of barely contained aggression, and his revolver flashed in the dim lamplight as he drew it with practised speed and aimed it squarely at my chest.
“And now, doctor, I suggest you depart. You may make your report. It matters not to me. I will deal with Holmes later and I doubt that, once I have taken care of him, I will have any more trouble from you.”
“You underestimate Dr Watson, Inspector Wainwright,” a familiar voice said.
The inspector spun around in surprise as a tall, lean figure stepped out from behind the battered door behind him. He had removed his disguise and his face was once more as familiar to me as my own. Recovering more swiftly from my surprise than the inspector, I drew my revolver and pinned the malevolent man in my sights. Sputtering with rage, he slowly lowered his gun and laid it on the boards at his feet.
“I’ll have you both arrested for this,” he said, menace in every word. “If you think that the word of an amateur sleuth will be believed over that of an inspector with more than a dozen years on the force, you are a damn sight more foolish than I’ve been led to believe.”
Holmes smiled one of his most arch and feline smiles.
“Happily for myself and my friend here, I do not think it will be necessary for us to trade accusations before the law,” he said. “I know you, Wainwright. I have been studying you for longer than you know. I had my suspicions in the case of Johnson and I made certain to take certain precautions. When Broadhead disappeared, I had the confirmation I needed.”
He turned towards the room in which he had been waiting.
“Inspector Bradstreet, your assistance is needed,” he drawled.
A familiar, jovial face appeared at Holmes’ shoulder. The rotund inspector, who I had always found to be an energetic and cheerful man, making up for a lack of natural ingenuity with a tireless enthusiasm for his work, looked unusually grave. At Bradstreet’s side stood Whitney, who appeared alert and exited and remarkably steady on his feet.
Wainwright gave a growl of rage.
“Damn you,” he hissed. His face was twisted with anger and his strong hands clenched into fists at his sides. He took two heavy steps towards Holmes, only to stop as Bradstreet raised his own weapon warningly, his face furrowed with disappointment, anger and sadness.
“You have Inspector Bradstreet here to thank for your arrest,” said Holmes, as the smaller man stepped forward and produced a pair of cuffs, still with a look of sorrow on his face, as though the crimes of a fellow inspector were his personal failing. “He agreed to help me once I had removed my disguise and explained the situation, despite his charming insistence that you were in every way an exemplary adherent to and enforcer of the law. His trust in you was such that I sincerely wish I had not had to shatter it in so bald a fashion.”
“Whatever this supposed detective has accused me of, I have done nothing,” snarled Wainwright, turning to Bradstreet. “Inspector, Mr Holmes’ reputation aside, what evidence do you have that I have committed any wrongdoing? Allow me to assure you that these men have a vendetta against me, for what reason I know not, save perhaps that I prefer to work alone than with the interference of amateurs. Whatever they have told you, I am confident that it shall be easily disproven.”
Bradstreet shook his head, looking pale and sickened, and my heart went out to him.
“It is too late, Wainwright,” Holmes said softly but implacably. “I have taken the precaution of preserving the contents of the pipe you gave Whitney. I believe that a few simple tests will demonstrate that it is packed with something a trifle deadlier than opium. I must thank you for acting so promptly. My problem, you see, was that I had no way of knowing when you would move against Whitney, only that your pattern showed that it was inevitable that you would. My disguise allowed me to monitor your activities, but I could not maintain it forever. Despite the fact that you thought me to be engaged on another case, I have seen how carefully you operate and knew that it might be a matter of several days until you made your move. When Watson unwittingly goaded you into arresting me, I realised it was the perfect blind. Once you knew that I was behind bars, I was confident that you would seize the opportunity to act, safe in the knowledge that I was not at liberty to interfere and assuming, as I had not done so at once, that I would not reveal my identity to the men of Bow Street.”
“We are grateful that you took us into your confidence, Mr Holmes,” Bradstreet said heavily. “With your detailed account and the evidence you have provided I have no doubt that we shall be able to close the files on several of the disappearances you brought to our attention.”
After eliciting a promise that Whitney, as well as myself and Holmes, should present ourselves at the station in the morning to issue formal statements, the inspector led Wainwright, who was ranting and cursing, incoherent with anger, down the narrow staircase, bound for the cells where he had so recently taken Holmes. Only when the sound of their footsteps had faded did Holmes relax. As soon as he did so, he staggered and half fell against the open door. I was there in a moment, my arms around his thin frame, all skin and bone, as he slumped in exhaustion. For a moment, I forgot the presence of Whitney and the very grave dangers that faced us both if I ever I lost sight of the amiable, passionless façade we must adopt in public.
“Holmes,” I murmured, my face very close to his. “I am taking you home. You should not have come. Even with your remarkable constitution, you cannot forgo food and sleep and water for days on end.”
He smiled at me, his eyes flickering swiftly to where Whitney was standing, looking dazed with relief and seeming not to notice the intimacy of our stance. After all, I reassured myself, it betrayed no more than the concern of a doctor for his friend and patient.
“We will argue the point later,” he said softly. “A hot bath awaits me at Baker Street and I believe it takes precedence over food and sleep and even opium.”
It was several hours later that Holmes, as clean and well-fed as I had ever seen him, slid onto the sofa, where I sat staring pensively at the fire. His hair was combed straight back over his regal forehead and he was wrapped in his familiar soft blue dressing gown.
Sensing my mood, as he so often did, he placed one hand gently on the back of my neck, stroking long fingers through the soft hair that grew there.
“I am sorry,” he said quietly but with disarming honestly.
“For leaving you. I never intended to be gone so long. Whitney had never stayed so long in the den before and I could not leave him alone. I attempted to send you a message via the attendant, but it seems it never arrived.”
“It did not,” I said. And then, venturing more than I was certain I should, “I thought of you for two days straight. I was worried you had been killed.”
Holmes turned to me, letting his hand slide to my shoulder and meeting my murky green eyes with his piercing grey ones.
“I did not forget you,” he said. “I took as little as I could of the opium, for I had to remain vigilant, but try as I might it fogged my brain and left me dazed and disordered. When you appeared before my eyes in that nightmarish street, I thought I was hallucinating. But I know I did not hallucinate you breaking down a door to get to me.”
I felt myself flush at his words.
“The way you cried out, I thought you were in danger,” I said stiffly.
“Woe betide my attacker, if I had been. It is quite the experience, being rescued by an avenging war hero. Particularly one who looks like Dr John Watson. Would that we lived in medieval times. I should have loved to see you with chainmail across that broad chest and a sword in your hand, a helmet framing your jaw. Have I ever told you what this angle just here does to me?” he mused, reaching out to trail a finger from below my right ear to my chin, just above the spot where I knew he could see my pulse thrumming fast in my throat.
“I didn’t rescue you,” I protested, unwilling to be distracted, even by Holmes, in his unforgettable way. “I got you locked up.”
“I admit I had not foreseen that my scheme would involve a trip to the cells,” he smiled. “But flexibility is a necessary attribute for a consulting detective. If I recall correctly, it is a quality that both doctors and war heroes also possess.”
He had already removed my cravat and was reaching for the buttons of my shirt, stroking his fingers teasingly over the skin of my chest as he did so. Taking advantage of his languid state, I pushed him back into the cushions and opened his dressing gown, reaching for the fastening of his trousers. By the time I held his length in my hand, I had identified the ache that lay heavy in my chest, despite the growing ache in other areas that was beginning to distract me from everything but Holmes’ sure hands and his inviting mouth and the compact strength of his half-naked body. I ached because, despite how much I had fought it and no matter how assiduously I had fooled myself, I could no longer deny my true feelings. As I sank to my knees before him and watched the way his eyes slid closed as my mouth engulfed him, his long lashes casting shadows across his cheeks, I admitted to myself, at last, that I had failed. Despite my best efforts, I had fallen in love with my friend and companion. And not only would he never love me in return, I reminded myself, as his hands tightened in my hair, but I had a painful premonition that this would not be the last time that his passion for his work would cause him to leave me.
Chapter 11: The Affair of the Speckled Band
Perhaps our most gruesome and horrifying encounter with the darkness that Holmes so often pitted himself against was the affair of the speckled band. My account of the case of the Roylotts and the night that Holmes and I passed at their home in Stoke Moran summarised the essence of the case and its singularly grotesque features. There were several aspects of the events surrounding that grim adventure that made it a particularly memorable one, however, and that were by necessity expunged from the version of events that I saw fit to lay before the eyes of the public.
I woke with a start one spring morning to find Holmes fully dressed, standing over my bed. We had retired late the night before and, unaccustomed as I was to seeing him in my bedroom, I at first thought I was dreaming.
“What is it?” I slurred, half-mired in sleep. “Holmes, get into bed.”
“Inviting as that sounds, my dear fellow, I am afraid I am here to get you out of bed,” he said with amusement. “A young lady has arrived with what promises to be a most interesting problem, given the urgency of her call and the earliness of the hour.”
Reluctantly, I dragged myself from the warmth of my bed and began to dress. Holmes stood by all the while, watching me perform my toilet with a small smile on his face. Although he had by now many times seen me in a state of undress, I found that his unabashed scrutiny left me feeling exposed. I felt his eyes on my bare shoulder, with its patchwork of scar tissue, as I donned a clean shirt, and knew that, in the absence of carnal distractions, he was examining it with an unusually dispassionate disposition. I was well aware that my long-engrained soldierly habits expressed themselves in a spare, practical way of moving, the antithesis of Holmes’ intrinsic elegance. Despite his masculine presence, Holmes possesses the fluid grace of a dancer and I was acutely conscious of the contrast in our manners as I swiftly and efficiently fastened my cuffs and adjusted my watch chain.
Holmes’ undivided attention is not like that of other men. It is as powerful as the beam of a lighthouse when compared to the pale glow of the moon. Ever since I had admitted to myself that I loved him, I had tried to avoid it. I kept him at a distance, to the extent that I could without eliciting unwelcome and unanswerable questions. Twice, in the intervening weeks, I had suspected that he was high – I hoped on cocaine rather than morphine – and had chosen, rather than attempting to find out for certain, to telegraph ignorance and retreat to my bedroom on some pretext. When he bedded me, I focused, as assiduously as I was able, on the pure pleasure of the physical sensations he aroused in me, pushing all emotion from my mind. As a consequence, his sudden interest in documenting each detail of my unremarkable morning routine left me in a state of some uneasiness. By the time I was ready to descend the stairs and meet the client who waited for us below, I was dwelling, not for the first time, on how deeply unfair it was that while Holmes was unsettlingly adept at reading my thoughts, I had not the least idea of what lay behind those inscrutable grey eyes.
My attention soon focused on the case, however, as despite her admirable composure throughout the interview, it was easy to see that Miss Stoner was mired in a state of extreme terror from the moment she began her strange tale to the moment she ended it. Her strained face and her shaking hands, alongside her air of barely repressed agitation, all combined to create a powerful effect upon me. I was struck most forcefully by her case and the sinister elements of the mystery she laid before us. Perhaps my mind was particularly susceptible to strong emotion, given that I had only just awakened from a deep sleep and had been subjected to Holmes’ unsettling study as I dressed, but the grim and violent character of his stepfather and the horrifying, agonising death of her sister just two years earlier, coupled with her own presentiment of impending disaster, combined to create an echo of her own terror within my breast, the precise reason for which I would have been hard-pressed to explain.
When Holmes pushed back the lace trim on Miss Stoner’s sleeve to reveal the bruises that marred the delicate skin of her wrist, I felt a thrill of sympathy beyond that I usually experienced towards our clients. Knowing Holmes as I did, I could see that he was similarly moved, though he gave no outward sign. It was the gentleness of his touch and the softness of his voice as he remarked on the cruelty she had been subjected to at the hands of her stepfather that betrayed an uncharacteristic tenderness towards a stranger. Although I had accused him of heartlessness several times, and I well knew that to those who were not as intimate with him as I he appeared cold and mechanical, I also knew that Holmes felt things more deeply than he ever allowed himself to reveal. Insistent as he was that emotion was the antithesis of the pure, cold reasoning by which he solved his puzzles and so helped his clients, I had seen how it affected him when he failed them. When he volunteered to travel immediately to Stoke Moran, I knew that he believed the threat against Miss Stoner’s to be grave indeed. The inexplicable fear that coursed through me at that instant was not for myself, nor, I confess, for our client, but for Holmes. I had seen him brave all kinds of dangers in the course of his cases but I had a strange feeling of foreboding.
My mood was only worsened by the extraordinary appearance of Dr Roylott in our living room, just moments after his step-daughter had left it. His show of strength, when he seized up the poker from the fireside and bent it nearly in half with his gigantic hands, was enough to make a powerful impression, but it was his enormous size and malevolent expression, combined with his rabid fury, that created the impression of a dangerous wild animal caged within the body of man. I have rarely been as disappointed as I was that he left before Holmes picked up the bent poker and, demonstrating the power hidden in his sinewy arms and wiry shoulders, straightened it out again in a single quick movement. As he did so, he glanced at me, gauging my reaction, and I saw the small ripple of satisfaction that passed across his face as he registered that his performance had impressed me.
“Show off,” I murmured.
He laughed, and, still laughing, came quickly across the room and kissed me on the mouth. Moments of unguarded, straight-forward affection such as these between us were rare, particularly when Holmes was distracted by a case, and I felt my heart leap within my chest at the sensation.
Holmes spent the train journey deep in thought, withdrawn and distant, as I stared out of the window at the beauty of the English countryside, vivid with the first growth of spring, and wondered what horrors awaited us in Stoke Moran.
Holmes seemed no more or less preoccupied than usual with the case and yet after our visit to the great ugly ruin of a house and his minute examination of Miss Stoner’s room, I sensed a shift in him. We had taken a double-bedded room at the Crown Inn in the village and the grim mood that had come over him as he paced the lawns, myself and Miss Stoner like silent spectres at his side, showed no signs of lifting. Alone in the simple sitting room that adjoined our bedroom, Holmes brooded silently, his face an austere mask, far removed from the laughter and affection that had crossed his features that morning. Dusk began to fall outside the window and still he sat, unmoving, his hands steepled and his head bowed. He had not spoken for an hour or more and I was engaged in reading and attempting to banish the sense of foreboding that had only grown stronger as the day progressed when suddenly he spoke.
“Do you know, Watson,” he said, his face ghostly and indistinct in the gathering darkness. “I really have some scruples as to taking you tonight.”
“What on earth do you mean, my dear fellow? Why should I not accompany you?”
“There is a distinct element of danger."
“We have faced danger together before now,” I pointed out, as mildly as I could, for his words his struck me quite as forcibly as a blow. “If you doubt my courage, let me assure you that I am not deterred by the possibility of violence, even if it be at the formidable hands of Dr Roylott.”
“It is not your courage that I doubt."
“My abilities, then? I may not be able to straighten a poker with my bare hands, but I have my revolver and I know how to shoot it, if I must.”
“It is nothing that you lack that causes me to desire your immediate return to London,” said Holmes, a trifle impatiently. “It is a matter of concentration and efficiency. I shall think more clearly and act more swiftly if I work alone.”
Rising from the chair I had occupied by the window, I crossed to the sofa where he sat, his face set and determined.
“You have never found my presence to be a distraction before,” I said, standing in front of him so that only a foot separated us and he was required to crane upwards to meet my eyes. The unusual reversal of our heights, he forced to look up at me, me staring down at his upturned face, sent an unexpected thrill through me. I reached out and ran a finger down the sharp line of his jaw, just as he had done to me that first night. I was almost as angry with him as I had been then, and I knew that he felt it in my touch, as my finger grazed the first faint growth of stubble atop his soft skin.
“You are always a distraction,” he said. “It is just that often the benefits of your presence outweigh the negatives.”
“So I can be of no possible assistance in the case?” I pressed.
Leaning down so that our faces were on the same level, I stared into his shadowed eyes, capturing his suddenly evasive gaze
“Your presence might be invaluable,” he admitted.
“The why try to prevent it?” I cried.
In answer, he kissed me, his firm lips slamming against mine with unexpected violence. His hands were fisting in my hair and I found myself kneeling between his spread knees, gripping his shirt tightly, bunching it against the firm muscles of his back as our tongues duelled and our breathing sounded loud and urgent in the silence. Holmes moaned as I drew back, catching his lower lip between my teeth as I did so. For a moment I was staring into his eyes, wide and black with desire above flushed cheeks, and then his hand was at the back of my neck and he was kissing me again, even more urgently than before. He did not pull back, even when his hands slid round to my chest and he began to unbutton my waistcoat. As he fumbled with my buttons, he sure fingers suddenly uncertain, I ran my hands up his strong thighs, feeling the thick muscles give beneath the firm press of my fingers. Finding the bulging evidence of his arousal at their apex, I began to stoke him through his trousers, at which he pushed my waistcoat roughly off my shoulders and tore so urgently at my shirt that I felt one of the buttons fly off and heard it skitter away across the floor.
Holmes was gasping, his usual control nowhere in evidence as he pressed hot lips to my neck, his fingers fumbling with my trousers. His hair was tousled and his face almost savage as he stripped off my clothes, pausing only to kiss me with a force that left me breathless, my heart pounding and my lips tender and bruised. Soon I was kneeling before him, naked, still running teasing hands over his body, touching him only through the fabric of his clothes. Despite the strength of my desire, which urged me to strip him of his own garments and satisfy both our needs as expediently as possible, I had never before seen Holmes so lost in arousal, with all his restraint and calculation stripped away. The experience was intoxicating – almost frightening – and I found myself wanting to extend it for as long as possible.
When I at last took pity on him and ceased caressing the heavy outline of his desire through the thick material of his trousers, I slid my hand inside his garments and took his swollen member in my hand. He closed his eyes and threw his head back, the cords standing out in his neck as he hissed through his teeth. I bent my head, intending to reward him for his patience but, taking my face in both hands, he held me away from him as he stood suddenly. Extending a hand to me, he pulled me to my feet, tugging me after him into the bedroom.
It was the first time that Holmes, who was usually meticulously careful never to do anything that might arouse suspicion about the nature of our relationship, appeared to have forgotten our surroundings. He pulled me straight down onto one of the beds in the rapidly darkening room, the rough tweed of his clothes rubbing against my bare skin as he kissed me. When he began to unbutton his waistcoat, I had to remind him to close the curtains, which he did swiftly and impatiently. Returning immediately to the bed, he knelt and, in one graceful move, engulfed me in his mouth, taking me all the way to the root so suddenly that I cried out and thought for an instant that matters would be over before they had truly started. Sensing my predicament, he held still for a few moments, allowing me to adjust to the sensation, and then he began to move, bringing me almost to the brink before drawing back and rising up the bed to kiss me. Three times he repeated this exquisite torture, always ceasing his ministrations just as I felt myself on the verge of release, until I was damp with sweat and writhing with need that had crossed the line from pleasurable to painful.
Holmes was still fully clothed and the contrast between my state of naked need and his formal attire, upset only by the disarray of his dark hair, the wild glitter of his dark eyes and the unfastened opening of his trousers only heightened my lust. But when I began to roll over, ready to beg if that’s what it took to feel him inside me, he stopped me with a firm hand on my hip.
“It’s not enough,” he gasped brokenly. “I need –” He stopped. “John, I need you.”
“I want you,” I reassured him, breathless, spreading my legs as wantonly as a harlot.
“No. That’s not it," he said, suddenly angry. "I need – I want –. I am asking you to take me.”
Never by word or gesture had Holmes suggested the possibility of such an encounter. He was so natural a leader, both in and out of bed, that switching the roles into which we had so naturally fallen had never occurred to me. To my surprise, however, a dark thrill blossomed within me at the thought and I felt my member twitch with excitement. When I leaned forward to kiss him, I found that he was trembling very slightly in my arms. I wondered if I should be ashamed by the fact that his loss of control only sent a further pulse of arousal through me. Wordlessly, I began to unbutton his shirt, my eyes fixed on his until our locked gaze had held so long that it began to feel dangerous. I turned aside then, busying myself with removing his clothes. I was afraid of what, eventually, he must surely see in my eyes.
When I had stripped him, laying soft kisses on the planes of his compact chest and the bunched muscles of his arms as I did so, I pushed him back onto the bed and took him in my mouth, tasting the salty sweet evidence of his need. As I ministered to him, he took one of my hands and sucked two of my fingers into his mouth, laving them with his tongue. For a few seconds, his movements echoed mine in a sublime duet, before he guided my damp fingers where he wanted them. His eyes were closed, and I allowed myself to stare at the breath-taking angles of his face as I slowly eased a finger inside him. He waited, uncharacteristically patient, as I retrieved the small tin of Vaseline from my medical kit and sighed softly when I returned to my task, studying the rapt look on his face and enjoying his unprecedented submission as I slowly fed the fire of his need until he was biting his lip and thrusting urgently against two of my fingers and I was certain that he was ready for me.
At last, uttering an inarticulate sound of need, he rose to his knees and pressed one more hungry kiss on my lips. When I pulled away, no longer able to resist the promise of losing myself inside him, I turned him within the circle of my arms so that he was kneeling before me, his back flush with my chest. Henry, too, had usually chosen to take the more active role in our coupling and it had longer than I cared to remember since I had felt the slick heat of a man's body surrounding me. I was shaking as I grasped one of Holmes' angular hips and pressed myself against him. Sweat had dampened the fine hair at the base of his skull and a tickle ran down between his shoulder blades. A pattern of fine moles painted scattered constellations across the pale skin of his back and I could not resist bending my head to press urgent kisses to them, where they decorated the delicate knobs of his spine, as I finally slid inside him. My own gasp was lost alongside the deep moan that escaped his lips as his body opened for me.
I had taken men before, but, just as Holmes was utterly unlike other men in almost every other conceivable sense, being inside him was as different an experience as swimming in a wild sea after a lifetime spent paddling in a peaceful lake. It was not just that I loved him, for I had loved one or two others in my time, or even that he did not love me – for that, too, I had experienced. Holmes was as strange and miraculous as I was ordinary. On his knees before me, he somehow seemed to be driving our encounter more surely than I, finding control even in surrender. I closed my eyes and laid my cheek against the broad plane of his back. Even inside him, I wanted to be closer, to draw our two bodies together until we became a single entity and I could lose myself within him, body and soul, and never return to myself.
Perhaps it was inevitable that it was over quickly. A few minutes of ruthless self-control, as I listened to his quiet gasps and a smattering of urgent words uttered too quietly for me to hear, were all I could manage before the urgency of my need overtook me and I increased my speed, my strokes becoming stuttering and irregular as I approached my release. Words of affection, of love, threatened to pour from my lips and I bit down on the thick line of muscle where his shoulder met his neck as I felt him approach his own climax. I was half-aware that he was no more in control than I, a thought that only pushed me closer to the edge. Too soon, knowing that I could not last much longer, I released my clutch on his hip to take him in my hand, tugging at him urgently in time with my thrusts. He came apart almost immediately, bucking before me as his warm fluids coated my fingers. I convulsed inside him a moment later, his name spilling from my lips as I did so.
It was as I had feared – everything I felt for him was contained in that single word. The raw, strangled cry of “Sherlock” seemed to echo between us as we collapsed onto the bed, both breathless and coated with sweat. The thick smell of our spent desire hung heavy in the room.
Holmes did not speak. I had not expected him to. But he pulled me roughly to him so that my head came to rest in the angle of his shoulder and tightened one arm around me where I lay against his side.
“That was unexpected,” I muttered, half under my breath.
“Which part?” he enquired languidly, running his fingers idly through the hair on my chest. Unlike his own, which was fine and sparse, as soft as the down on a woman's legs, mine was thick and springy and redder than the hair on my head.
“All of it,” I admitted, and he laughed softly.
“I always enjoy surprising you,” he said, as though the thought had only just occurred to him.
A few minutes passed in silence as the sweat cooled on my body and the darkness gathered around us and my heart rate gradually returned to its usual pace. I could hear Holmes’ heart beating steadily under my ear, a little slower than my own.
“You will not reconsider?” he asked at last.
“Not if there is the slightest possibility that you might need me,” I said. I did not need to ask what he meant.
He sighed beneath me and reached restlessly for his shirt and I knew that our fragile moment of peace was over.
“Then we shall solve it or perish together,” he said, as he turned away to begin setting himself to rights.
What more is there to write of that awful night? Alone in Miss Stoner's bedroom, we sat in the dark, in utter silence, our ears strained for the least sound. I had only the dimmest idea of what form the crime we were to witness would take but the sense of foreboding that I had felt that morning had only increased, and my skin prickled with nerves as I sat, exposed and desperately vulnerable, in that dreadful coffin of a room. I was only feet from Holmes and yet I felt as if I were alone. I cast my mind back to the dark wait we had endured in the bank vault, an experience that, thought similar in its particulars, had never come close to matching the grim and sinister situation in which we now found ourselves.
Suddenly, after what can only have been hours but felt like weeks, I heard a clatter and the sudden strike and flare of a match. Holmes was on his feet, his face twisted with horror and disgust, striking wildly with his cane at the bell-pull beside the bed. I rushed forward, confused and terrified for his safety, but as I drew close he thrust me away from him so forcefully that I stumbled and almost fell.
“Get back!” he shouted. “Do not come near me!”
I yelped as the sharp corner of a chair dug into my hip bone, just as the match went out, plunging us back into utter, terrifying darkness.
I felt Holmes’ hand fumbling at my chest and then he was gripping me tightly, both hands clenched like iron around my upper arms.
“Did it strike you?” He asked, almost shaking me in his agitation. “Are you bitten?”
His voice was strangled and distorted with disgust and anger – it was the second time in a single day that I had seen Holmes lose his impenetrable veneer of control, and it shook me badly.
At that moment, we heard a cry of agony, a shriek of horror and anger that rose to a deafening pitch and then quickly died away.
Holmes’ grip on me did not loosen.
“John, answer me, damn you” he hissed, as though he had not heard the chilling cry.
“I am well,” I said. Then, when his grip still did not loosen. “Holmes, what was it? I could not see.”
He released me suddenly. When he struck another match, I saw that his skin was as white as paper and beads of sweat were standing out on his brow.
“Let us go and find out,” he said.
I do not wish to relive the ghastly sight of Dr Roylott’s corpse, with the snake still coiled about his forehead like a gruesome crown. Still less do I like to recall the moment the deadly serpent began sinuously to uncoil, its movements sending an instinctive chill of horror down my spine. When Holmes reached for the dog-whip on the dead man’s lap, I cried out and grabbed for his arm, certain that the loathsome creature would strike him as soon as he drew close. But he had already grasped the whip with one long arm and swiftly, expertly, he hooked it around the snake’s head and flung the creature into the safe. As soon as he had done so, I darted forward to slam the door upon it with a clang. It was only once I turned back to him that I saw that he was shaking.
Later, after the bemused village policeman had taken a statement and a weeping Miss Stoner had learned the true depths of her step-father’s evil and the tragic means by which her sister had met her death, Holmes and I returned to our room at the inn. It was near dawn and the horrors of the night had taken their toll on us both. Holmes looked pale and drawn with exhaustion. My limbs were heavy and my mind churning with fragmented memories of the night – the look of horror on Holmes’ face as he lashed at the snake with his cane, the agonised death cry of Dr Roylott, the glittering black eyes of the snake as it reared up with Holmes in its sights, the weeping woman who had found herself suddenly and brutally alone in the world.
Holmes readied himself for sleep and lay down in the undisturbed bed. I slid between the sheets of the other, from which all traces of our encounter had been carefully erased. I was so tired that my whole body was aching but I had never felt further from sleep. The image of the snake coiled around the dead man’s head rose again behind my eyes, followed by Holmes’ rictus of horror as he stared at me over the second match. I knew that if I did manage to sleep, my dreams were certain to be filled with terror. It struck me then that perhaps it would after all be best if I did not succumb to slumber. Despite Holmes’ presence during my fever and his knowledge of my nightmares, I had no wish for him to witness me in their grip for a second time. I lay still, listening. His breathing was quiet and even, but I did not think he was asleep.
“Holmes,” I ventured quietly, when several minutes had passed and I could not erase the image of his horrified face from my mind.
He gave a noncommittal hum that indicated he was awake. It was not an encouraging sound but, against my better judgement, I found myself unable to keep silent.
“Did you know what we were going to face in that room?”
Holmes sighed and I heard the bedclothes rustle as he moved. The room was dark but I intuited from the sound that he had been lying with his back to me and had turned over to face in my direction.
“I suspected,” he said quietly. “The positioning of the bell-pull, coupled with that of the vent, were highly suggestive.”
“Why did you not warn me?”
“Why did you not honour my wish that you remain behind?”
“It is not the same thing,” I said, driven to sudden anger. “My accompanying you was an attempt to ensure that you did not face a dangerous situation alone – whatever form that danger might take. Your decision to keep from me the nature of the peril only ensured that I was in no position to help you when the time came. Why allow me to accompany you at all if you intended to prevent me from being of use?”
“My dear boy, I knew that I was the better placed of the two of us to deal with that particular problem,” Holmes drawled, in the tone he used when he was unutterably bored by a client who persisted in asking questions he deemed foolish. “Had Dr Roylott rushed at us with a poker, or any other deadly implement he happened to keep near his person, your presence might indeed have been invaluable, but I did not suppose that even you would need me to explain prior to the event that a large man attempting to cave in one of our skulls might benefit from the attention of your revolver.”
“You pushed me away when I tried to be of assistance,” I said, remembering the look of anger on his face and his strangled cry not to come near him. “I realise that you are accustomed to working alone, but I am not a coward, Holmes. I do not enjoy being kept in the dark, literally or otherwise, because you think me incapable of countering any threat that cannot be repelled with a bullet. I saw your face when you struck that second match. You were afraid. I know that you would never allow fear to master you but I could have helped you, if only you had let me.”
“And what, pray, would you have done to ensure the retreat of the foul creature?” he said. “You ran towards it with no weapon on your person. I did not realise that a campaign in Afghanistan qualified you to kill snakes with your bare hands. Congratulations, doctor, your skills are more varied than I realised.”
“Do not be ridiculous. I merely wished to be of help to you – and you ensured that I was not in a position to do so. Why must you persist in shutting me out of your plans?”
“Because I did not want you there,” he snarled suddenly, as vicious as I had ever heard him. “I did not want you, and you knew I did not want you, and yet you insisted on following me. Your constant need to accompany me everywhere I go is beginning to pall, Watson.”
I swallowed hard, reflectively, and spoke without thinking.
“It did not seem that way this afternoon,” I hissed, wanting only to hurt him as badly as he had hurt me. “What was it you said? I believe your words were, ‘I need you.’”
It was a moment before he replied and when he did his voice was cool and mocking.
“I don't believe those exact words ever crossed my lips, doctor. And even if they had, surely you are a man of enough experience to know that words uttered during an interlude of that nature are not to be taken too seriously?. Even the cheapest dollymop learns how to say that she wants it and sound like she means it, if she wants her client to finish quickly and pay up in full.”
“I am not sure to whom that analogy is more insulting,” I said. To my mortification, my voice was shaking. I clenched my fists so hard that my nails scored lines into both palms, knowing that he would hear it and deduce that he had succeeded in hurting me. “However, if my interest in you is truly such an inconvenience, I shall endeavour not to inflict it on you further. Rest assured that you need not fear my presence either in you bed or at your side in future.”
When he did not answer, I could not restrain myself.
“If you wish to send me a bill for your services, you know where to find me,” I said, hating myself, hating him.
In the darkness, I heard Holmes push back to bedclothes and get to his feet. A moment later, his footsteps were followed by the quiet opening and closing of the bedroom door.
It was only after he left that I realised my whole body was shaking. Though I took deep, steady breaths, it took a long time for it to stop. I lay waiting for Holmes to return, already bitterly regretting the awful words I had flung at him, even as his own hateful insinuations echoed in my head. I did not believe that it would be possible to fall asleep. As the minutes passed, however, the events of the day began to take their toll and my eyes grew heavy even as I jolted myself repeatedly back into wakefulness, guarding against Holmes’ return and the inevitable nightmares.
I need not have worried. When I awoke, tangled in my sheets, sweating and shaking and certain that I had been screaming just moments before, the sun was high in the sky. Holmes had not returned.
Chapter 12: The Naval Treaty
During my school days I had been intimately associated with a lad named Percy Phelps, who was quite brilliant, almost – although naturally not quite – as brilliant as Holmes. He was two forms above me and although we rarely crossed paths, I soon developed a confusing fascination with him that left me daydreaming about him at all hours. I had been nursing my attachment to him for some months when he at last noticed me, and we began a short-lived but passionate affair. Although our interlude of swift and urgent experimentation was a revelation to me in many ways, and seemed to engross him equally, we had remained more discreet than many of the boys at school due to Phelps’ family connections. His uncle was Lord Holdhurst, the great conservative politician, and while some youthful indiscretions among some other of our classmates might perhaps have been met with a blind eye, he could not afford the possibility of the least hint of scandal.
For this reason, or so he led me to believe, Phelps ended our association abruptly upon his final day at school, flushed with excitement at having been granted a well-deserved scholarship at Cambridge. He was characteristically kind about it, but his leave-taking left no doubt that we had no future and I did not attempt to dissuade him. In later years, I heard that he had won a good position at the foreign office, but after leaving school he had passed from my life and I had heard nothing further from him. Nor did I ever expect to. So it was with surprise as well as some trepidation that I finished perusing a letter that had arrived one morning at Baker Street, addressed in an unfamiliar hand. In it, Phelps expressed no doubt that I would remember him, before mentioning our respective forms in a way that suggested rather the contrary. His tone was uncharacteristically dramatic as he implored me to inveigle Holmes into visiting him at his home in Woking to help him with a mysterious misfortune so severe that it had precipitated an attack of brain fever. The letter was dictated, he explained in closing, and was signed, “Your old school-fellow, Percy Phelps.”
Setting aside the natural sting that comes with the insinuation that one is a forgettable lover – for the implication that I might have forgotten him was certainly an indicator that he had, at least until his recent troubles, forgotten me – my reluctance to acknowledge his plea ran deep. Holmes and I had barely spoken since the matter of the Roylott affair, some two weeks earlier. On that hateful morning, Holmes had returned to fetch his valise long after I had awoken and made ready for the return to London. We had undertaken the train ride together in silence. It was a very different quiet to the thoughtful yet companionable one that had reigned over us on our outward journey. I could not bear to meet his eyes. He, in turn, gazed out of the window for most of the journey, as though unaware that he was not alone, but my constant, helpless awareness of his every gesture and mood prevented me from missing the tension betrayed by the set of his shoulders and the way his hand lay clenched into a fist on the seat beside him for much of the trip.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes had retired immediately to his bedroom. When he came out, he was dressed more smartly than was habitual. He left the flat immediately and did not come back until very late that night. I had already given up and retired when I heard his tread on the stairs below. Sometime later, I heard the mournful strains of his violin. I knew from the sound that attempting conversation would be futile. He was still playing when I fell into a fitful sleep and when I awoke, some hours later, drenched in sweat and shaking, my throat hoarse from shouting. If the nightmare had been as loud as I feared, he must have heard me. I lay stiffly for some minutes, listening for his tread on the stairs, but it never came. In the days since, he had spent much of his time from home, returning only sporadically to eat or sleep. I did not know if he had a case, for he had barely spoken two words to me, and I found myself loathe to begin a conversation that he so evidently wished to avoid. Prior to our bitter argument he had rarely spent time away from his books and experiments during daylight hours. Even at night, he often forewent sleep altogether or dozed fitfully on the sofa or in his chair, ready to spring into action should a case beckon. Now he spent what few hours he passed at Baker Street shut away.
Initially, I had felt an almost overwhelming urge to apologise to him for my terrible words and had hoped that he might in turn explain his own, though I knew that regret was not in his nature. As the days went by and he continued to avoid me, speaking to me coldly and only when absolutely necessary, the urge to swallow my own pride - often eclipsed byhis but by no means non-existant - in hope of some form of reconciliation faded. My anger had been justified, I reminded myself. Holmes’ solitary nature seemed such an essential part of him that I routinely steeled myself against his unwillingness to confide in me, but by refusing to divulge the threat we faced at the hands of Dr Roylott he had put us both in danger. It was plain that he perceived me to be a liability, unable to protect myself, let alone serve as a protector for him, the role I had foolishly and unspokenly assumed for myself. The thought that he had attempted to shield me from the danger by sending me away burned within me constantly, an ache in my chest that grew worse whenever I remembered his cold voice telling me that my company was beginning to pall.
Alone in my room, I allowed myself to feel the pain of his rejection, even as I clung to the thought that our argument had been a necessary one. I could not deny the torment of being so close to him, the ways my eyes were drawn to the long arch of his neck, the strength of his wiry forearms and the lines of his hard body, close enough to touch and yet unthinkably distant. And yet I made every effort to appear unaffected by our soured accord. If he did not want me to touch him, then I did not want to touch him. Yet, no matter how often I reminded myself of that fact, it did nothing to dull the steadily growing unhappiness of knowing that he no longer wanted me.
All this flashed through my mind as I stared down at Percy’s letter. I could not ask Holmes for a favour, I thought, preparing to set the pages aside, intending to burn them at a time when his keen eyes were not crawling over my back. As soon as I set it down at the side of my desk, however, I felt a tug of conscience. Phelps and I had not been intimate for long and I had not been in love with him, beyond the infatuation that accompanies first experiences of the kind we had shared, but he had always been a kind and decent boy and I had no doubt that he had grown into a kind and decent man. To refuse him help, when he had sacrificed his pride to request it, seemed a betrayal of the childish but tender connection we had shared. And, after all, I mused, perhaps the coldness of his address was as much an attempt to protect me as it was himself. He could hardly acknowledge our former regard in writing, particularly in a letter that had been dictated, and I had no knowledge of the nature of the misfortune that had beset him. Hesitantly, I drew the letter back to me again, beginning to consider how I might approach his request. When Holmes’ voice broke the silence, he was so close behind me that I jumped.
“Well, Watson, do you have something to show me?”
He was standing at my back, not close enough to read Percy’s letter but close enough to see what I held in my hands. His voice was clipped but not cold and I scanned his face carefully. As usual, not a trace of his thoughts was visible.
“It’s nothing,” I said, placing the letter back on the desk.
“Would it not be better to let me decide that, given that its contents concern me?”
At my look of surprise, he lips twitched in the tiniest suggestion of a smile.
“I can tell me by set of your shoulders,” he said.
He held out one hand, imperiously, for the letter. His fingers were just inches from my shoulder and I realised suddenly that it was the closest he had come to touching me in days. The thought sent a wave of pain through me and a joking retort died on my lips. I turned away, hiding my face from him, and found myself picking up the letter and placing it in his outstretched palm without meeting his eyes. I needed his attention to be focused on anything but me. The letter was a certain distraction.
By the time he finished reading it, I had myself under control.
“It does not tell us very much, does it?” he said, holding it loosely in his long fingers.
“It doesn’t tell me very much, but I know better than to assume that you can draw no conclusions from it.”
He glanced at me quickly from under his brows.
“The writing is of interest,” he said.
“It is not his hand.”
“Evidently. It is a woman’s writing.”
“A man’s surely,” I cried, too quickly, and felt the blood rush to my face.
Holmes arched an eyebrow.
“No, a woman’s, and one possessed of a remarkable nature."
“Perhaps the fever has left him in a weakened state that necessitates some assistance,” I observed, attempting the clinical tones of a professional.
I had half expected Holmes to refuse to travel to Woking on such abstruse summons, but to my surprise he handed back the letter and turned away, speaking to me over his shoulder as he headed to the rack for his overcoat.
“I will take the case,” he said. “It is apparent that your friend ‘Tadpole’ is in dire need of assistance. If you are ready, let us start at once for Woking.”
It was strange to see Percy Phelps again after so many years. He was lying on a sofa in a room that was furnished both as a sitting room and as a bedroom, clearly a space that had been adapted to a long convalescence. My eyes fixed immediately on his face, pale and tinged faintly yellow by long illness, his eyes limpid blue and too large in his thin face. He gave a half smile as he met my eyes and despite my shock at his appearance I found myself smiling back, suddenly reminded of the uncomplicated happiness of our former intimacy, all innocence and curiosity, free from the emotional weight and irresistible, sometimes painful pull that Holmes exerted over me.
I sensed Holmes shift beside me and hastily looked away from my old friend, fixing my eyes on Annie Harrison, his fiancée. She was undoubtedly striking, with her olive skin and dark eyes, and her steady gaze radiated a sense of strength and calm that was appealing. Unlike myself, Phelps had never, to my knowledge, taken an interest in women. For a moment I felt a flash of pity for both of them. I was rarely in a position to feel thankful for the fact that I had no living relatives but I was struck forcibly by the thought that my isolation allowed me far greater freedom than most of my countrymen, who must marry or face the suspicion, disappointment or even ruin of their families.
“Shall I leave you, Percy?” the young woman asked, but he clutched at her hand to keep her beside him and I hoped that perhaps matters were not as I suspected they must be. There was warmth in his gaze as he looked at her and, whatever the nature of their tie, I could see that he held her in high regard.
“How are you, Watson?” he said casually. “This, I presume, is your celebrated friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes?”
He turned a look of great curiosity on Holmes, who was standing near the doorway, his gaze fixed on Phelps’ pale face.
I introduced them as briefly as possible, overcome with discomfort now that the two men were face to face. I was relieved when Phelps dove immediately into an explanation of his troubles, leaving me free to take out my notebook and busy myself with my pen, effectively excusing myself from the conversation. Holmes interrupted once or twice, asking for clarification on several points, as was his habit when interviewing a client, but for the most part he sat in silence, listening to Phelps’ tale.
It was as tangled a matter as any Holmes had taken on and I found myself somewhat relieved that we had not travelled to Woking only to be faced with a problem that was unworthy of his skills. Poor Phelps was evidently drained by the time he finished recounting how an important naval treaty had mysteriously vanished from his possession and I could see that, although his attack of brain-fever had abated, he was far from well. His fiancée poured him a glass of some sort of medication and he took it gratefully, bestowing a small smile on her. I watched them for a few moments, unguardedly, as Holmes sat in silence with his eyes closed, deep in thought and apparently oblivious to his surroundings.
Eventually, he spoke, without opening his eyes.
“Did you tell anyone that you had this special task to perform?”
“Not even Miss Harrison?”
I drew in a sudden breath, expecting Phelps or his fiancée to recoil at Holmes’ insinuation. But both remained still and serene, as though unaware of what the question implied.
“No, I had not been back to Woking,” said Phelps calmly.
Holmes asked a few desultory questions about Phelps’ people at the foreign office and then lapsed once again into silence. His eyes were still closed.
Accustomed as I was to Holmes’ love of drama, I smiled to myself as I awaited his next move, certain that he would startle and amaze Phelps with his deductions and impatient to witness my old friend’s surprise at his powers of insight.
I believe I was as shocked as anyone in the room when, halfway through a characteristic comment on the inefficiency of the authorities, Holmes suddenly rose to his feet and walked to the open window, where he took hold of the drooping stalk of a wilting crimson flower.
“What a lovely thing a rose is!” he remarked dreamily, studying its brilliant petals. He lapsed into silence, staring pensively at the bloom.
My old school friend cast a curious glance at me and to my consternation I felt the colour rising to my cheeks at the question in his eyes. I attempted to look reassuring as I waited for Holmes to share his conclusions but he was still staring down at the drooping flower as he began to speak of religion. Outlined against the light from the window, his head bent and his eyes downcast, he looked oddly vulnerable. There was a hint of melancholy in his tone as he finished his rambling speech on beauty and what it promised, leaving a startled silence in its wake. I sensed Phelps’ questioning eyes on me as I stared at Holmes, who was still looking down at the flower as though it held the answer to the mystery that our client had laid before us.
It was Miss Harrison who broke the increasingly tense silence at last.
“Do you see any prospect of solving this mystery, Mr Holmes?” she said, a trifle brusquely.
To my relief, the question seemed to jar Holmes out of his meditation. Returning to himself, he began to take his leave with every assurance that he would test his theories in London and return to Woking as soon as he had completed his investigations.
“Do not allow yourself to indulge yourself in false hope, Mr Phelps. The affair is a very tangled one,” he said in parting, and I saw my old friend’s face fall, but he rallied admirably and thanked Holmes most earnestly for his help.
Joseph Harrison drove us to the station and soon we were ensconced in a private carriage on our way back to London.
Some minutes passed in silence and I wondered if we were to return to our state of cold distance but to my relief Holmes soon began speaking to me of the case.
“I suppose that man Phelps does not drink?”
“You can trust Percy’s story,” I responded quickly, and then winced.
“Percy,” he drawled pointedly, drawing the name out.
I held his gaze.
“You were lovers.”
Prevarication was useless.
“It was a long time ago,” I said.
He hummed to himself, a soft sound of surprise, as though my confirmation was unexpected.
“You are a loyal creature, Watson,” he said. “It is an admirable quality in many ways, or so I have always been told, but in this case I am afraid your lingering affection for the fellow may prove sadly misplaced.”
I huffed out a surprised laugh.
“I would not characterise it as affection, Holmes. But when I knew him at school he was an honest, upright fellow. I cannot believe that his essential nature is very much changed.”
“No. I suppose it is not,” he said thoughtfully.
He drew a cigarette from his case and lit it with a meticulous flick of his wrist. Lounging back in his seat, his long legs nearly touching mine, he took a deep draw and blew out the smoke slowly so that it wreathed about his head.
“His fiancée is an interesting woman. Of quite a different temperament than your friend. He seems to be of a most delicate disposition and his physical state is hardly more robust. He is as slender as a rake. But perhaps his slight build accentuates his frailty in the wake of his unfortunate illness.”
“He always was a delicate fellow,” I noted absently, thinking of his wan face and the signs of strain on his features and wondering if my own face had looked thus in the weeks after my fever.
“I see that what attracts you to men is not so far from what attracts you to women after all,” Holmes said, somewhat acidly. “I confess, I had assumed that your appreciation for the female form might lead you to choose a rather more substantial specimen when your impulse drew you in direction of men.”
Stung by his tone and his evident distaste for Phelps, whose depleted physical condition was, after all, not of his own volition, I responded hotly.
“There is nothing wrong with Percy, Holmes. He is simply possessed of natural human emotions. To have feelings may seem to you a womanly trait, but I can assure you that it is one that many people find admirable in a man.”
Holmes shifted in his seat, adjusting his long legs and turning his eyes to the window, telegraphing an air of disinterest.
“If it is emotion that has led him to wait nine weeks before seeking to recover the treaty I can hardly bring myself to join you in applauding it. Had he displayed more presence of mind following the theft, the treaty might have been recovered immediately. As it is, two months have passed and he is still so forlorn that he cannot pen his own correspondence and must call on the combined forces of his fiancée and his former lover to aid him in solving a problem of his own making.”
“I believe it is your aid he is seeking, not mine,” I snapped. “And he hardly dithered out of choice. He has only just recovered from his fever.”
“Precisely,” said Holmes. “Succumbing to an attack of fever was perhaps not the most admirable response in a crisis, particularly for a man who has sworn to serve queen and country.”
I schooled my features as carefully as I could but I must have betrayed some flicker of emotion because I saw Holmes glance at me and then a wave of remorse washed over his face. I looked away.
“Watson, I did not mean – ” he began.
“I know you did not,” I interrupted him stiffly.
“It is not the same thing,” he said. “The circumstances of your injury were – ”
“You need not say more,” I assured him. “I am well aware that succumbing to an attack of fever when your country needs you is not an attractive or estimable quality in a man.”
“Watson, pray excuse me, you know that I did not –”
“There is nothing to excuse,” I interrupted him, as I picked up the newspaper that lay folded on the seat beside me and hid my face behind its flimsy pages.
To my relief, he did not speak for the remainder of the journey.
I do not know whether Holmes was trying to make up for offending me or whether he wished us to move past the silence of the last two weeks and return to some semblance of our old easy companionship but that afternoon he was warmer towards me than he had been for what felt like months. When we alighted in London, I expected him to hare off on his own, leaving me to return to Baker Street. Rather than ordering me home in his characteristically peremptory fashion, however, he asked me if I would care to accompany him to Scotland Yard. Despite my anger with him, a treacherous bolt of pleasure shot through me when I realised that I was once again welcome to join him in his investigations. For a few hours, as Holmes won over the hostile Forbes in a few easy words and masterfully questioned Lord Holdhurst, I almost forgot that we were so sadly at odds.
When I bid him goodnight that evening before retiring, the first time in several days that I had done so, he answered in a soft voice and I found myself smiling as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. The following morning, however, our growing accord was shattered by a telegram. Phelps wired to ask me to proceed as swiftly as I was able to Woking, leaving Holmes in London. He gave no reason for his strange request and I was at a loss as to what to tell Holmes, who had breakfasted with more fervour than usual and was making ready to depart for the station.
“Do you have more enquiries to make in London, my dear fellow?” I eventually said, attempting a casual tone.
“Perhaps I may after speaking with Phelps,” he replied. “We shall inform him of our movements yesterday and see what he has to say and before we determine our next move.”
He spoke of us together in such easy tones that I was loathe to respond but I steeled myself and told him, somewhat haltingly, that I had been charged to make the journey to Woking alone.
He drew back at once when I waved the telegram at him and turned away towards the mantelpiece, already reaching for his pipe.
“Very well, if your friend desires to see you alone, do not let me come between you,” he said, as he folded his tall body into his chair and began to pack the bowl with coarse shag.
“I am sure it is nothing important. Perhaps he simply does not wish to draw you away from the investigation. After all, the treaty was stolen in London and it is here that the answer must lie.”
“Perhaps,” said Holmes, his face as inscrutable as the great Sphinx of Egypt.
I could not tell if he was referring to my assessment of Phelps’ intentions or to the solution to the puzzle and for a few moments I hovered awkwardly, half-words forming on my lips only to die away as I discarded them one by one. Once it became clear he had no more to say on the matter, I made ready for the journey in silence, fastening my frock coat with clumsy fingers. I bid him goodbye as I left the flat, but if he made any reply, I did not hear it.
I arrived at Phelps’ home in Woking in a far less curious state of mind than one might expect. The question of why he wanted to see me alone paled into insignificance as my thoughts tended unceasingly to Holmes throughout the hour-long train ride. That he had begun to thaw in his attitude towards me was clear but I could not help but feel that, despite his air of indifference, my decision to visit Phelps without him had placed another wedge between us.
Phelps was alone in his airless convalescent room when Harrison showed me in. He half rose when I entered, his hand outstretched towards me, and then fell back onto the sofa as though exhausted. His face seemed even more drawn and pallid than the previous day and as a medical man I felt concern stir within me at the sight of him. Harrison soon left us alone together and Phelps began to speak in a harried, distracted way of this and that, harking back to our schooldays and remarking on the current professions of some of our fellows, many of whom I had lost touch with over the years. I grew increasingly confused as his rambling recollections continued and eventually, when it seemed that he had neither the inclination to pause in his speech, nor to explain the reason for his summons, I interrupted him mid-flow.
“My dear fellow, are you quite alright?” I said, drawing closer and placing a hand on his brow. His skin was clammy to my touch but there was no trace of fever, despite his disjointed, agitated manner of speech.
“I am quite well, John,” he replied, as informally as though we were still schoolboys. “Let us take a turn around the garden. I will call Annie and ask her to sit here for a spell.”
“Why should she need to sit here if we are to take a walk? Surely it would be better if she were to accompany us? Although you say that you are quite recovered, I fear that you are still not entirely yourself,” I said, as soothingly as I was able.
He looked at me with confusion.
“But my dear chap, did Mr Holmes not show you his response to my wire?”
“I wired him this morning to inform him that a break-in had been attempted in the night. I sent it soon before I wrote to you. His response arrived not half an hour before you did. I assumed it meant that I should not expect you or he would have charged you to deliver the message in person.”
“What did Holmes say?” I queried, increasingly worried that Phelps had suffered a relapse of his fever and accompanying loss of his mental faculties.
“He told me not to leave this room unattended,” he said, searching my face. “Either Annie or I am to remain here at all times until he calls.”
A familiar feeling of excitement mixed with dismay rolled through me as I realised that once again Holmes had seen far more in the matter than he had chosen to reveal to me. I could not understand why he had not spoken to me of Phelps’ telegram, nor why he had chosen to respond by wire, rather than confiding in me. Little wishing Phelps to read my misgivings in my face, lest he determine the cause, I affected nonchalance as I drew back and turned to ring the bell.
“Then by all means let us ask Annie to remain behind,” I said, as he began to rise carefully from the sofa. “I confess Holmes’ methods are not always clear to me but I assure you that he does nothing without reason.”
Within a few minutes, Phelps had elicited a promise from his fiancée and we had made our way into the sunlight grounds. He walked slowly but steadily, leaning on my arm, and it was some minutes before we reached a small corpse of trees within sight of the house, where he sank onto an ornate, wrought iron loveseat and gestured me to sit beside him. The birds were singing in the trees above us and the smell of cut grass saturated the cool spring air, whispering that summer was on its way. A sudden feeling of optimism swept through me, but when he turned to me it died away, as swiftly as it had come. His face was haggard and he looked almost haunted. Without thinking twice, I reached for his hand. His fingers were cold and surprisingly delicate in mine, more like those of a woman than a man. Then I realised that I had grown use to the feel of Holmes hands, with their long, scarred fingers and strong square palms, and another rush of regret went through me at the way I had left him. I drew my own hand back and placed it on my knee.
“My dear doctor, thank you for coming to see me as I requested,” Phelps said in a hushed voice, drawing my attention back to my surroundings. “I am sorry to summon you with such urgency but I did not know to whom I could turn.”
“What on earth is the trouble?” I said. Without meaning to, I had lowered my own voice to match his.
“I fear that the conspiracy against me is more complicated than I was able express when I saw you and Mr Holmes yesterday. Last night, I slept without a nurse in the room for the first time. Since the fever, I sleep lightly – indeed, I cannot help it, for I fear falling back into those same endless cyclical nightmares that dogged me every hour of the night during my long weeks of illness. About two in the morning, I was aroused by a slight noise. It took me some few moments to realise that there was a man at the window. When my eyes adjusted, I realised that the face was a familiar one – it was Joseph.”
“Dear Annie’s brother, Joseph Harrison.”
“But why on earth would he attempt to break into your sick room?” I demanded. “It is preposterous. My dear fellow, are you quite sure that you were not dreaming?”
“I am sure,” he said. A faint blush of pink had risen to his sallow cheeks. “You see, Watson, all is not quite as it should me between myself and my future brother-in-law.”
It took me a few moments to process these cryptic words and then, I am sorry to recall, I gaped at him in shock.
“You cannot mean –” I began, and then checked myself. “Am I to understand that there was a certain… intimacy between you?”
“I met him in London almost a year ago,” he replied, the speed of his words betraying his agitation. “We became friends and soon began to spend a great deal of time together. He would often come to meet me at my office and we would pass the evening together at my club. Once or twice he came down to Woking to spend the weekend. He was interesting and driven and I admit I admired him, very deeply, but things are not as they once were.”
He paused and looked away towards the path we had taken from the house, as though checking that no one had thought to follow us. Taking a deep breath, he met my eyes with a look of determination that I remembered from our schooldays.
“As you know, my family is a prominent one, and I no longer have the same freedoms I did during my years at school and later, to a lesser extent, at university. I considered Joseph a dear friend and anything I may have felt beyond that I locked away deep within me. We became companions and confidants and I spoke to him often about my wish to find a wife. When he suggested that I meet his sister, I did not expect that we would forge such a powerful connection, but from the moment I met her I knew that she was extraordinary. I do not know how to explain it to you, John, except that I was fascinated by her – drawn not only to her beauty but to her intelligence and her strength. She is unlike anyone I have ever met. My admiration only grew the more I came to know her.”
He was looking at me carefully and I saw that he recognised the chord his words struck within me.
“Well, perhaps I do not need to tell you how it felt,” he said, with a warm smile. It brought a glint to his eye I had not seen since he was a much younger and less badly used man. “I hope for your sake that you have found someone who makes you feel the way that Annie does me.”
The tenderness in his voice moved me more than I expected and I reached out to pat the thin hand that lay beside mine. I was gladder than I knew how to express to find that, after all, what lay between him and his fiancée was built on genuine regard.
“I am delighted for you, my dear boy,” I said, forbearing to remark on my own circumstances. “But I am afraid I fail to see what this has to do with the treaty or your unfortunate situation.”
“I fell deeply in love with Annie but I had yet to gather up the courage to ask her if she would consent to pledge her life to me. One night, Joseph came to meet me, as he often did, and we went to my club, where we ate dinner and shared a bottle of wine. Anticipating his joyful congratulations, I told him of my intentions towards his sister. To my surprise, he turned quite pale. He seemed deeply shocked and left soon afterwards without offering me any words of advice or congratulation. That weekend, he had arranged to come down to Woking. Annie was to join us on Sunday for the day. I had determined to speak with her then. On Friday, to my relief, Joseph met me at my office as usual and we took the 9 o’clock train. We did not speak of our last meeting. At home, we opened a bottle of brandy and sat in front of the fire and began to speak idly of this and that. I was reassured to find that his humour had returned and he seemed quite himself again. Several times he topped up our glasses and eventually, after several pleasant hours, I took myself off to bed, somewhat unsteady on my feet. I awoke to find him kissing me.”
He broke off suddenly and I saw that the colour had coming into his cheeks and that he scarcely knew how to continue.
“It does not feel right to speak of it to you,” he said, just as I was about to assure him that I understood what he wished to tell me and he need not elucidate. “Suffice it to say that I had wanted him rather badly for rather a long time and I had never thought that he might return my sentiments. It pains me to confess that in the moment I quite put aside thought of the future. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realised that I had made rather a hash of things. What had happened with Joseph – though it pained me to accept it – could never happen again. When I told him, later that morning, right here in this very spot, where we would not be overheard, he said he knew as much. In fact, he told me that he had been drunk. He claimed to have no intention of attempting to repeat the experiment – for such he termed it – and begged that I would not speak of it, nor even think of it again. He became quite insistent, almost angry, and I wondered if he was ashamed of what had transpired between us. He even said that he hoped I would address myself to his sister, though I knew, of course, that I could no longer do so.”
“I am sorry,” I said, as gently as I could. Had it been only the day before that I had thought myself lucky not to face the same pressures as Phelps? I could never have conceived of just how knotty his situation was, in truth. How close I myself had come to choosing Mary Morstan, I reflected, when the person I really wanted was Holmes. Perhaps I could have been happy with her – and yet, despite the distance and the longing and the unspoken barriers that Holmes erected around himself, I realised in a flash that I did not regret my choice.
“After all, things did not turn out badly,” Phelps said. “I determined that I had forfeited any right to Annie’s heart and so strove to think no more or her – or her brother, who so evidently regretted what had passed between us. But as the months went by and Joseph continued as though nothing between us had changed, arranging more time than ever spent in the company of myself and his sister, I began to think that, after all, perhaps it was not impossible for me to have a future with Annie. It was evident that she felt as I did, you see – and there was already so much in my past that I could not tell her.”
I nodded in quiet understanding. For a man like Holmes, whose attraction was confined to his own sex, all affairs remained a closely guarded secret except with others, like myself, whose attractions tended towards the same persuasion. For men like myself and Phelps, who could choose a more open life, marrying meant keeping secrets of another kind, hiding not from the public but from the one with whom we had chosen to share our lives.
“How have matters stood between you and Joseph since your engagement?” I queried softly.
“At first he expressed great joy at the news but increasingly I wondered if perhaps he was not in truth as happy as he professed. The night the treaty went missing, as I told you and Mr Holmes yesterday, I returned to Woking in a deplorably anxious condition, nearly crippled by the shame I had brought on myself and my office. What I did not say was that I went at once to see Joseph, who was alone in his bedroom. He was horrified when I told him what had occurred and what it meant for my future. Immediately, he stated that I must call off the engagement with Annie. When I refused, he threatened to tell her the truth about what had passed between the two of us. He said that she would forgive him, for he could not help loving me, but that she would never pardon me for what I had done to him and for what I had concealed from her. Driven half-mad with fear and appalled to hear him speak of love in the same breath as he threatened everything I had come to hold dear, I flew into a rage. I swore that he could tell Annie whatever he liked but that I would deny it and reminded him that he had no proof with which to furnish her. Unfortunately, I have a rather distinctive birthmark in a rather sensitive location…”
He trailed off and looked away from me but I could well recall the feature of which he spoke, a rather charming Port-wine stain very low down on his naval, which uncannily resembled a Star of David.
“Annie has not seen it but it would be easy enough to confirm,” he said, flushing slightly. “I believe it was the knowledge that I would lose not just my career but also my closest friend and my future wife that precipitated my illness. The fever came upon me so suddenly that Joseph grew alarmed and rang the bell before our conversation was resolved. In the end, Annie and my mother decided that he should quit his bedroom, where I remained to recover. I lay insensible for nine weeks. It was Annie who cared for me, administering to me like an angel as I raved. I do not know why Joseph did not tell her. But last night, as I lay alone for the first time since our conversation, I woke to find him outside my window, engaged in attempting to break in. I do not know what he intended, but when he realised that I had seen him, he fled. I am very much afraid that he has hatched some monstrous conspiracy against me.”
He drew his account to a close and there was a moment of ringing silence before the birdsong swelled to fill it. I found that I was shivering, though I had not realised I was cold.
“Forgive me for burdening you, my friend, but I did not know whether or not I could confide these details in Mr Holmes,” he said, with a quick sideways look when I made no response to his story. “I thought that you might be able to advise me in his stead.”
The desire to help my old friend warred with my instinct to protect Holmes. It was clear that Phelps suspected an attachment between us. To confirm it would be to reveal nothing new about myself but to uncover something deeply private about Holmes. I thought quickly, aware of Phelps’ scrutiny.
“I do not believe that we need to provide Holmes with all the details of the rift between you and Mr Harrison,” I said carefully. “But he is a man whose career is built on discretion. You have my word that you can trust him with whatever you may wish to confide. I am sure that he would be interested to learn that your brother-in-law has expressed opposition to the marriage, whether or not it has any basis on the matter of the treaty. I will wire for him to join us, if you have no objection, and we will see if he cannot aid you in both matters.”
“Thank you, Dr Watson,” he said. “You may tell Mr Holmes the whole story, if you wish. If you say that I may trust him that is enough.”
This time it was he who placed his cold hand atop mine. His gratitude was conveyed in a gentle squeeze of his fingers and I turned my palm upwards and squeezed his bony hand back, grateful in turn that he had not pried into what lay between myself and the consulting detective on whom his own happiness – and the security of Britain – now depended.
I half feared that Holmes would ignore my request to take the next train down to Woking, for it was already mid-afternoon by the time I was able to send a telegram. To my relief, he sent a reply for us to expect him on the 5 o’clock train. It was a fine day and I was able to walk to the station to meet him. I was unaccountably happy to see him, so out of place in his frock coat and hat, far from the bustle and noise of London, yet so achingly familiar to me in every respect, from the sweep of his dark hair, to the way he stood on the platform, as tall and upright as a soldier, yet perfectly at his ease. As we walked slowly towards the house, I recounted Phelps’ story. Holmes listened, his brows drawn together in a frown, swinging his cane beside him so that it whipped through the long grass that lined the road like a scythe, creating a rhythmic swishing sound that accompanied the staccato beat of our footsteps.
“Most interesting,” he said, as I came to the end of my recital. We were not yet in sight of the house and I waited for him to say more, but he lapsed into silence, staring into the distance.
“Indeed,” I said at length, willing him to look at me. “What do you make of it, Holmes? Harrison’s behaviour seems most inexplicable. Why push Phelps into his sister’s arms and then try to tear him out of them? Why act as though he regretted their liaison and then speak of love? And what can he have intended by attempting to break into Phelps’ sickroom?”
“Much that appears shadowed can be easily discerned if you have a light to shine on it, Watson,” he said.
“After all, it is unlikely that Phelps’ two problems are intertwined in any more than a passing sense,” I reflected, since Holmes did not appear inclined to say more. “It is the matter of the treaty that you are here to solve. Once that is taken care of Harrison can have no more objection to the marriage and Phelps’ other problem will disappear.”
“My dear fellow, you excel yourself,” he said, suddenly invigorated. I could see in his posture that he had struck upon some fresh connection or new path of inquiry that promised to yield results. “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”
“Braggart,” I said, reflexively, my tone unmistakably soft. Holmes’ answering smile proved his thesis. Its brilliance left me momentarily breathless and quite distracted me from my attempt to determine if I had just been paid a compliment or dealt an insult. We walked the final stretch to the house in silence, a spreading warmth in my chest.
This time, Holmes’ interview with Phelps went as expected, despite the fact that it was conducted in the presence of both the Harrisons. Rather than rhapsodising about religion or flowers – two subjects that I had never known to interest Holmes in the slightest, unless they had bearing on a murder – he asked a few probing questions that elicited more detail about the attempted break in, without revealing that Phelps had recognised the perpetrator. Miss Harrison stood up to join us when Holmes suggested a turn around the garden, but he bade her sternly to remain behind, charging her not to quit the room. To my surprise, however, when Joseph Harrison expressed an intent to join us, Holmes acquiesced immediately.
Holmes led us on a slow perambulation of the house, falling into step with Harrison while Phelps, who was moving even more slowly than he had that morning, lent upon my arm for support. I saw Harrison lead Holmes over to the fence, where they stood for some time, talking earnestly. I tried to focus my attention on Phelps, who I feared might soon be in need of medical attention, were his mental strain not alleviated, but I could not help glancing frequently towards Holmes. After a few minutes, I saw that Phelps’ erstwhile lover and future brother-in-law was leaning back against the wooden rails, looking up at Holmes, who loomed over him like a Roman statue. They were standing rather close and although I could not hear what words passed between them, I saw Holmes shoulders begin to shake and realised he was laughing in his silent way. Harrison was grinning up at him and wore on his face a familiar look – one I had felt on my own countenance all too often when I was moved to hilarity by Holmes’ infectious laughter.
Phelps had noticed the direction of my gaze, for his took my hand softly in his and squeezed it wordlessly. I knew then that he had ascertained what lay between Holmes and I and that my prevarication had been useless. But in the face of his silent reassurance, I also knew that we need fear nothing from him. Holmes and Harrison began to stroll back towards us and I turned hastily towards Phelps. We were engaged in conversation about his plans for the grounds that summer when Holmes drew up soundlessly beside us. I had not realised that Phelps was still clasping my hand until he let it go. Turning to Harrison, who had also joined our small group, he took his arm and began to make his slow way back towards the house while Holmes walked swiftly over to the window of the bedroom where Annie Harrison waited. Ignoring my presence beside him entirely, he exhorted her in the strongest possible terms not to leave the room all day. To my surprise, he charged her to lock the room before retiring, remarking casually that Phelps would be returning to London with us that same evening.
It wasn’t until the three of us reached the station that I had a moment to speak with Holmes alone. To my very great shock, once we had found an empty carriage and settled Phelps comfortably, he announced that he was to remain behind in Woking.
“Watson, when you reach London you would oblige me by driving at once to Baker Street with our friend here and remaining with him until I see you again. It is fortunate that you are old school fellows, as you must have much to talk over,” he said.
I fancy that Phelps noticed nothing strange about his tone but, knowing the man as I did, I sensed that there was some strong emotion, ruthlessly suppressed, beneath his bitten-off words.
“My dear Holmes, you cannot mean to return to the house tonight?” I exclaimed, unaccountably upset at the notion. “They will not be expecting you.”
“And I hardly expect them to see me.”
He flung this cryptic phrase at me over his shoulder as he exited the carriage and in a moment he was halfway to the station exit, flying through the small crowd on his long legs as though the devil himself were behind him.
I returned to my seat and to the curious eyes of my companion in turmoil, my head filled with unworthy thoughts. I recalled Holmes laughing with Harrison and realised that I did not wish them to pass any more time together. I remembered Holmes eyes on Phelps’ hand where it gripped my own and his expressionless voice as he remarked that we must have much to talk over. Then I thought of how Harrison and Phelps’ friendship had been poisoned and it dawned on me that perhaps Holmes and I were each as foolish as the other.
It was a weary day. Phelps, sensing my distraction, tried to engage me in conversation, but his own troubles and his long illness had left him weak and out of sorts. In vain, I in turn endeavoured to interest him in tales of Afghanistan, seeking to keep his thoughts far from the missing treaty and the spectre of his former lover. His mind circled on the same well-worn tracks as he fretted over the investigation, torn between fear and hope that perhaps Holmes might yet prove the answer to his misfortunes. Once or twice, he valiantly attempted to distract me with talk of politics and social questions, while my mind tended to my own fears and my own distant hope. I do not believe that either of us slept much that night, me in my own familiar bed and Phelps in Holmes’, where I had only once dared to let myself sleep.
My relief when a hansom drew up outside shortly after eight the next morning and I heard Holmes bounding up the stairs can scarcely be described. It was all I could do to restrain myself from running to him when I saw that his face was grim and his hand wrapped in a bandage. Knowing that he would not wish me to fuss over him, I forced myself to remain standing by the fireplace. It was Phelps, reclining weakly upon the sofa, who enquired as to the wound. Holmes brushed the matter aside and I could see from his movements that the injury was not hurting him excessively, so I contented myself with the thought that I would clean and dress it myself later.
To my surprise, Holmes expressed a desire for breakfast before he would tell us how he had passed the night. I understood the ploy when Phelps raised the cover of his dish to reveal a small cylinder of paper. I was not looking at him but at Holmes, and at Phelps’ cry of surprise and relief, I saw his eyes soften. He broke into a smile when my former school friend began to dance about the room, holding the recovered treaty aloft, and was laughing by the time I managed to get him settled on the sofa with a restorative glass of brandy. Pouring another for Holmes, I pressed it into his hands, not attempting to hide the great warmth I felt for him at the obvious pleasure he took in having helped my old friend.
He took it from me gently and sipped once, depositing his glass on the table and moving to the sofa to pat Phelps gently on the shoulder with his uninjured hand.
“It was too bad to spring it on you like this, but Watson here will tell you that I never can resists a touch of the dramatic,” he said, as Phelps seized his hand and kissed it fervently, nothing but gratitude in his touch.
Holmes ate swiftly as Phelps gradually recovered from his shock, then settled in his chair and drew a cigarette from his case. His story was a familiar one, in many ways. Once again, the case had necessitated a weary night-time vigil, crouched in a rhododendron bush outside Phelps’ bedroom window. But unlike the long interlude in the bank vault, or the nightmarish wait in Stoke Moran not two weeks earlier, he had chosen to wait alone. I busied myself with the decanter, avoiding his eyes, as he recounted how he had watched as Harrison broke into the room and his struggle with the man, whom he had tackled, barehanded, in the darkness, pitting nothing but his fists against a knife. As he described how he had been dealt a cut over the knuckles, I realised that I was gripping the crystal stopper so hard that my own knuckles had turned white. Turning aside abruptly, I dropped down onto the sofa beside Phelps, who appeared to be astounded by Holmes’ tale. I could see that he had never suspected that such a streak of viciousness lay within the breast of his friend.
When Holmes explained that Harrison had fled, I knew at once that he had let it happen. I had seen his wiry strength. He would have been more than capable of subduing the smaller man once he had successfully disarmed him.
“Joseph was the thief!” Phelps cried, when Holmes finished his story, and I saw that he had turned quite white. “All that time, it was he who had taken the treaty. He knew that the papers were in the very room with me as I lay raving and insensible with fever.”
“I am afraid so,” said Holmes gently, examining his hastily wrapped bandage and so avoiding bearing witness to the moisture that had risen in Phelps’ eyes.
“Do you think that the police will apprehend him?”
“I suspect they will find the nest empty,” the consulting detective replied. He hesitated for a moment. “Since the treaty is secured and it is clear who was responsible for its theft, I thought that perhaps it would make matters simpler if the authorities – and your uncle, Lord Holdhurst – did not have the opportunity to question Harrison or to take note of any wild accusations he might care to cast upon those of his acquaintance. After all, when a man has lost his freedom, he might perhaps decide that it was worth compounding his own sentence by admitting to further criminal activity if in so doing he was able to take revenge on someone he perceived as having wronged him.”
A flush came into Phelps’ cheeks.
“Thank you, Mr Holmes. You are every bit the man that Watson assured me you were,” he said, and I coughed suddenly as the breath I had started to take caught in my lungs. Phelps continued quickly, “But I do not quite understand what drove Joseph to steal the treaty. I believed him to be my friend and I confess I was looking forward to counting him my brother-in-law.”
“I believe that his actions were driven by sentiment,” replied Holmes. “Although he professed to support your engagement to his sister, I suspect that in fact he was rather violently opposed to the match. People are not, after all, always very rational when it comes to matters of the heart, particularly when they feel that they have a prior claim. Heartbreak, I have found, often inspires a lust for revenge, and revenge is among the most common motives for any crime - second perhaps only to greed. In this instance, I believe that Harrison was fuelled by both. The treaty would be, after all, very valuable in the right hands, but I believe his primary purpose in taking it – a decision he made with very little forethought when he found it upon your desk – was to ensure that he had reason to oppose your marriage.”
Phelps seemed to mull over my friend’s words for a few seconds and then he put his face in his hands. He shoulders were shaking very slightly.
“I did not know,” he whispered between his fingers. “He said he wished never to think of it again.”
Having finished his cigarette, Holmes busied himself with his pipe. I felt a rush of affection for him as I realised how often he happened to allow his attention to be diverted just at the moment that our clients were overcome.
When Phelps had recovered sufficiently to speak, he asked his final question.
“The night before last, Joseph attempted to break into the room while he believed me to be sleeping,” he said. “Do you believe that the knife was intended only as a tool?”
“It may be so,” said Holmes gently. “Whatever his intentions, I am certainly glad that he abandoned his attempt. Mr Phelps, your friend was not the man you thought he was but his sister is a good woman. I fancy that, just as they share certain similarities in appearance, they both possess the same strong spirit and ability to love with great fervour. But while Harrison’s flaws have turned him into a ruthless and dangerous man, I do not believe his sister shares his weakness of character. She is, I believe, everything that he presents himself to be and more. She has cared for you amid the greatest misfortune of your lifetime. I believe she will continue to care for you now that that misfortune has passed.”
I realised I was staring at Holmes in a most undignified way, my mouth agape, but Phelps had risen to his feet with some effort, and crossed the room to clasp my friend’s hands.
“Thank you,” he said, softly. Then he turned to express his gratitude to me, his eyes shining in his thin face. Glowing with hope and new resolution, he reminded me of the boy I had once known and I had a sudden premonition of how he would look on his wedding day, once again healthy and happy, as he pledged himself to the woman he loved.
He took his leave of us soon afterwards and at last we were alone. Holmes, who I knew had been awake all night scaling fences, crawling around in flower beds and brawling with armed villains, looked as exasperatingly handsome as ever as he sprawled in his customary armchair with his long legs splayed across the rug.
I drew close and leaned across him to help myself to a cigarette from his case and as I did so he ran a finger down my neck and into the folds of my cravat.
“You were as brilliant as ever, my dear fellow,” I said, smiling down at him. Heady with his proximity and the promise of a truce between us, I sank down onto the rug at his feet, insinuating myself between his legs and leaning my back against the front of his chair so that his long limbs framed my shoulders. I sighed when he began to run his fingers through my hair.
“When you sent me away with Percy I feared that you believed there was something between us,” I admitted.
“My dear doctor, you cannot expect me to believe that you had not the faintest desire to discover what new skills ‘Tadpole’ has learned in the past two decades? After all, you are only human,” he teased.
“While I am sure he is an exceptionally talented man, the thought did not once cross my mind,” I said honestly. “And I cannot imagine that, even were he not engaged to a most exceptional woman, he would wish to waste his skills on an injured, retired army doctor.”
“Can you not?” said Holmes, leaning down to place a kiss on the exposed back of my neck.
“We are both much changed,” I murmured.
He hummed silkily.
“Nonetheless, I can see what drew you to him,” he said. “He is an honest and a kind man, if perhaps not an observant one. How he did not ascertain that Harrison was in love with him I cannot imagine.”
“We are not all as observant as you,” I reminded him, as he delicately began to tug loose the folds of my cravat.
“Of that I am well aware, my dear fellow. No doubt you are as unaware of the effect you had on Phelps and as he was of his own effect on Harrison.”
“Come Holmes, you must stop this. Phelps has eyes for no one but his wife to be,” I said, exasperated. My heart soared as I sensed him break into laughter behind me.
“You believe that Harrison was in love with him?” I continued, when his shaking had subsided. “Why then would he encourage the engagement to his sister?”
“Jealousy is a strange thing. Human beings, I believe, are the only creatures that often act contrary to their own interests. Harrison could not have what he wanted and so he chose to destroy not only his sister and his lover but himself into the bargain. It was a timely reminder to reign in my own suspicions regarding Phelps’ designs on a certain doctor, retired soldier and former lover.”
His fingers were caressing my jaw by this time and I tilted my head to press a kiss to his bandaged hand.
“Even if Phelps had wanted me I would have had none of it and I believe you know it,” I admonished him.
“I do not doubt it,” he replied, running the pad of his index finger across my lower lip until I let my mouth fall open and he could slip it gently inside. “But that does not mean I am not grateful that his attention is otherwise occupied, leaving you free to practice your own remarkable skills on me.”
I let his finger slide out of my mouth, caressing it with my tongue as he reluctantly withdrew it.
“Practice suggests a rehearsal,” I said, my attention still focused on his hands rather than the import of my words.
“And this is not? Would you then call it a performance?”
“Let us term it simply a duet,” I whispered. I turned my head as he shifted and leaned forward in his chair and then his warm lips were on mine. When he took me to bed, for the first time in weeks, it was slow and exploratory, an exquisite adagio that built inexorably to an allegro before reaching its climax. When it was over, I lay in his arms, my face pressed into his warm skin, and simply breathed. As he ran gentle fingers down my spine, half-asleep in the warm afternoon light, I inhaled the scent of his body into my lungs like fragrant cigarette smoke, wishing I could hold onto it forever.
Chapter 13: The Affair of the Special-Order Coffin
It was not Holmes’ fault that I ended up drugged and unconscious in a coffin, minutes away from being buried alive. It never once crossed my mind that he might consider it to be so. Granted, it was he who tasked me with investigating the disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, but it was entirely down to my own pride and impetuousness that I almost paid with my life.
It was a warm morning in late spring when events were set in motion that almost put an end to my association with Holmes forever. I was feeling particularly drained after undertaking several shifts at the practice of an old friend from Bart’s who had taken his wife to the continent for a week. I had been feeling so much stronger, as the weather improved and Holmes and I continued to indulge our twin passions for solving the crimes of others and committing criminal acts of our own, that I had eventually given in to my old university friend's urging and agreed to return temporarily to practice. I was drinking much less, sometimes going several days without imbibing at all, save for a glass or two of wine with supper or a brandy with Holmes by the fire in the evenings, and I was relieved to find that I was far more capable than I had feared of responding to the manifestly simple and repetitive needs of his patients. So far removed from the horror of the battlefield was his neat little London practice that the experience had not triggered an attack of nerves of the kind I had grown to dread in those early months after my return to England. Nor had it worsened the nightmares that still occasionally plagued me, although with less frequency than before.
Holmes had been working on a case while I was thus occupied, though he refused to share with me any details. So it came about that he suggested, being himself too busy to travel to Lausanne and track down the missing lady and given my own state of exhaustion, that a short holiday might be exactly what I needed.
“What do you say, my dear Watson?” he asked. “A few days in Lausanne, relaxing at the Hotel National and chasing up a few leads. Do you feel well enough to undertake a small solo expedition?”
Appalled at the implication that my health might be too delicate to allow me to carry out such a simple excursion, hurt at his continuing reluctance to share with me the details of the case that was keeping him too busy to accompany me and unable to tell him that the thought of a trip abroad without him by my side held less appeal than remaining at Baker Street in his presence, no matter how distracted he might be, I reluctantly acquiesced. Holmes had several times asked me to help out with his work in some small capacity – travelling ahead of him to a country town to scout out the figures who might prove relevant to a case, for example, or serving as a decoy should he need to perform some action or other unobserved – but never had he suggested anything that would require me to spend several days away from him. The disappearance of Lady Carfax did not sound all that urgent, nor did it promise to deliver the kinds of eccentric details and seemingly unsolvable mysteries that Holmes found interesting. I began to wonder if there was some other reason that he should wish me from home. I could think of no way of altering my plans once I had agreed, however, and in any case, he seemed so pleased by my willingness to go that I found myself reluctant to disappoint him.
I did not enjoy my time in Lausanne. I was lonely and bored and uncomfortably aware of my sad lack of talent for performing the job that Holmes had been born to do. I resented him for contriving to send me away from him. At the same time, I missed him more than I had thought possible. I could not forget him for a moment. I imagined his indulgent smile as I made a hash of questioning the hotel manager and the sarcastic remark I knew he would be unable to resist as I proved unable to break the silence of Jules Vibart, the lover of Lady Carfax’s maid, who steadfastly refused to answer my questions about why the long employment had so suddenly ended. I knew how swiftly Holmes would have extracted every piece of knowledge from the hotel manager, unerringly intuiting what was crucial and what useless to the case. He would have persuaded Vibart to break his silence in minutes, I was certain, thanks to the combination of implacable will and effortless charm with which he was able to earn the trust of anyone he thought worth the effort. My own stiff manner, disorderly questions and palpable inexperience as an investigator did not instil confidence, I was well aware. At the end of three days, as I jotted down the little I had learned, I pictured the look on Holmes’ face as he perused my notes at Baker Street and wished, for the umpteenth time, that I had never agreed to come. When I received a communication from Holmes, pointedly saying nothing about the little I had discovered and urging me to follow the lady to Baden in search of further information, I was disproportionately miserable. All I wanted to do was return home.
At Baden, I learned that Lady Carfax had become entangled with a couple of religious zealots, a Dr Shlessinger and his wife, and began to feel that perhaps I was making progress. I learned, with relief, that the entire party had departed for London some three weeks earlier, at last giving me reason to return to Baker Street and continue the investigation from there. When, on my arrival in Montpellier for what I hoped would be the final portion of my Continental investigation, I received a telegram from Holmes requesting a description of Dr Shlessinger’s left ear, I was equal parts exasperated and amused. The following morning, I set out to interview Lady Carfax’s former maid in good spirits, and retired that night anticipating a return to Baker Street the next day. I fell asleep fantasising about the many ways in which I might wordlessly communicate to Holmes how much I had missed him.
I awoke suddenly from a deep sleep what felt like only minutes later. I had been dreaming of Holmes, who had been looking at me with wicked eyes as he caressed me in a private train carriage, and my body had responded predictably. When I found myself engulfed by something warm and wet and achingly familiar, I thought for an instant that it was part of the dream, before jerking awake as I realised that the pleasurable sensation was all too real.
“What were you dreaming about, my dear fellow?”
The voice in the darkness, smooth and deep, could have belonged to no one but Sherlock Holmes. His innocent tone was belied by the heat of his breath ghosting over my member, which he had evidently succeeded in extracting from my nightwear with a delicacy of touch that had failed to awaken me. I was disoriented from my dream and already damp and throbbing from his attentions. In the faint glow of lamplight that leaked into the room, I could just make out the devastating angle of his cheekbones and the glint of his eyes. A moment later, he was in my arms and I was kissing him as though we had been apart for months, rather than a matter of days. Still only half sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I pulled away and addressed him with unusual frankness.
“I missed you terribly,” I said, cupping the side of his face.
“I can see that,” he replied, running one hand down my chest and taking the proof in a proprietorial grip. “Am I to assume that this means you were dreaming about me, or should I make time in my schedule tomorrow to pay some new continental acquaintance of yours a visit and mark my territory thoroughly and egregiously before we proceed with the case?”
I laughed aloud and smoothed my cheek over his, feeling the catch of the first rough growth overlaying his warm skin.
“Who else would I be dreaming of but the man who has the skills of a cat burglar and uses them to break into my hotel room and commence unspeakable acts on my person as I sleep?” I said. “My dream had just reached a particularly interesting juncture. Your timing is as impeccable as ever, my dear fellow.”
It was not until he had taken me, slowly and unusually tenderly, his nails digging into my shoulders in the dark as his climax followed fast on the heels of my own, that I thought to ask what he was doing there.
“I find that I have become rather addicted to surprising you,” he said. “Though I cannot say it's something I have ever taken particular pains to do for anyone else.”
I gave silent thanks that he had not lit the lamp and so could not see the expression on my face.
“But really, Holmes,” I insisted, when I had mastered my emotions. “I was planning to return to London tomorrow. What more is there to do in Montpellier?”
“As it happens, I have been here for several days,” he said, as casually as though we were discussing the weather. “I am afraid that – as energetic as you doubtless were in your investigation – you have succeeded admirably in collecting vast quantities of irrelevant data, and yet missed almost everything of importance. As soon as I determined I could get away from Baker Street, I thought it wise to come over myself and begin a second strand of inquiry.”
Before Holmes walked into my life, I had never met anyone on earth capable of transforming my mood from a state of near-bliss to one of blistering irritation in a matter of two sentences.
“Allow me to clarify,” I said, in the cold clipped tone I had learned from the man who was currently resting his dark head in the hollow of my shoulder, just above my rapidly beating heart. “Unsatisfied with the way I was carrying out your instructions – investigating your case, at your bequest, and on your behalf – you travelled to Montpellier and concealed yourself in some other establishment, without seeing fit to inform me that you had left Baker Street, where I was diligently wiring daily accounts of my progress?”
“It was necessary,” the infuriating man said, sounding only slightly abashed. “Believe me when I say that I did not enjoy my empty bed, knowing that you were only a few streets away, but it was imperative that I pursued a few leads unremarked. Your presence – which succeeded in raising the alarm everywhere and so attracting the attention of everyone I wished to have distracted – was invaluable.”
“I’m glad that my total incompetence has proved so fruitful,” I hissed, sliding out from under his weight and, somewhat childishly, turning my back on him. “Now return to your own room, wherever that may be, would you not? I believe I have succumbed to your manipulations enough for one week and I have an early train to catch.”
Holmes feathered the lightest of kisses on the back of my neck, perhaps anticipating the frosty reception that any more overt gesture would receive.
“John, I’m sorry,” he murmured, in an annoyingly heartfelt tone. “I did not intend to manipulate you. And you are the opposite of incompetent. In fact, without your messages I would never have begun to suspect the severity of the threat against Lady Carfax. If my suspicions are proven and we are yet in time to save her life, it will be thanks to you. Please believe me when I say that not only do I value your opinion more than that of any man I know, save perhaps for one – and he is the smartest man in London – but that I need your help. And when I say that I have missed you, too. I have been anticipating the moment when I could finally crawl into your bed for days.”
Ignoring his final words, which threatened to divert me from the several questions that were battling at the forefront of my mind, I focused, with some effort, on what I felt to be the most urgent point.
“Her life is at risk?”
“I believe it to be, yes,” he said, laying a tentative hand on my shoulder. When I did not shrug it off, he moved closer, pressing his warm, bare chest to my back and curling his legs until they fit snugly behind mine, his strong thighs cradling my own.
“Stay in Montpellier with me for one more day,” he said. “We will return to Baker Street together.”
The weight of having been once again left in the dark by the man I trusted above all others was still sitting, curdled and ugly, in my chest, but I took a deep breath and made an effort to consider the matter from as dispassionate a position as Holmes would in my place. Infuriating though his habit of concealment was, I had never known him to lie. If he said that Lady Carfax’s life was in danger, it assuredly was. If he said that he needed my help, I could only assume that he did. After all, I reasoned, he had not been forced to confess that he had been in Montpellier for days. He must have known the effect his admission would have on me.
“I will remain here tomorrow,” I said at last, in a tired voice. “And then we will see.”
“Thank you,” Holmes said softly.
He was still holding me when, much later, I finally succeeded in falling asleep, still wondering whose opinion it was that Holmes valued above mine – and how I had not known that there was any man in London smarter than the one I loved.
The following morning, Holmes and I were at breakfast when I received a telegram. “Jagged or torn,” it said. It had come from Baden.
I handed it to Holmes.
“The ear!” he exclaimed, waving his fork in excitement.
“Precisely. I had already left when I received your message, but I know that you do not ask for such details if they are not crucial to the case, even if you do not see fit to share your reasoning. I wired to the manager of the hotel there immediately.”
I knew from the look in Holmes’ eyes that he wanted to kiss me. As we were breakfasting in a rather crowded restaurant, he contented himself with flashing me his most brilliant smile and taking a bite of his sausage, eyeing me lasciviously as he did so in a way that made it very difficult not to laugh.
“Then we must return to Baker Street today,” he said. “I could not very well include the reason for my question in a wire but you shall have it now, as it is the detail on which the whole affair hinges. It proves that, as I feared, Lady Carfax has become entangled with an exceptionally dangerous couple, a fake missionary and his wife who prey on lonely ladies. If they got wind of the fact that Lady Carfax is in possession of jewellery worth a small fortune, there is little doubt that they made her their next target. They will stop at nothing to make the decision worth their while.”
“Then her life really is in danger,” I said.
“Either it hangs by a thread, or we are already too late to save it,” he responded grimly.
Despite our sense of urgency, all our enquiries in London came to nothing. By the time three days had passed, Holmes was brooding and distracted, his mood as black as it often was when he had no case at all. I, too, was usually pensive and out of sorts. I kept finding my thoughts returning to the way Holmes had concealed the details of one case from me and then hidden his presence in the same town in the service of another. Although I did not expect him to share every detail of his life and work, I could not help feeling that on occasion he treated me more like a servant than an equal, sending me forth to enact his orders and expecting me to keep him informed of my every word and action, without seeing fit to inform me of his reasons or update me on his discoveries and intentions. When Holmes received word that a piece of jewellery certainly belonging to Lady Carfax had been pawned, he regained his formidable energy in an instant, like a hunter who suddenly glimpses his lost quarry through the trees. He was determined to ferret out his prey at the pawn shop – and I was determined to be of some use. Though Holmes warned me that it would be a most uninteresting task, I insisted most forcefully – and in the face of several objections – that I be the one to wait in Bovington’s for the man masquerading as Dr Shlessinger to return.
Eventually Holmes capitulated, frustrated and slightly bemused in the face of my bullish insistence.
“If the fellow comes you will follow him home. But do not take any undue risks and do not forget that he is far more dangerous than he appears. Take no step without informing me,” were his parting words.
I nodded at him as I moved towards the door, my mind on other matters.
I awoke three days later, thick-headed and nauseated, with the worst headache of my life and the sensation of warm lips pressing against mine. Holmes knelt over me, looking emaciated and wild-eyed, repeating my name like a chant or a prayer. When I croaked out his name, he closed his eyes for a moment and I saw that his pale face was more pallid than ever. I felt so dizzy and sick that it took me several moments to realise that I was not in my bed at Baker Street, but lying on a hard surface in a strange room. To my horror, when I managed to turn my swimming head, I saw that I was lying on the floor beside an open coffin. The churning feeling of sickness in my stomach intensified and I struggled to sit up, closing my eyes in fruitless denial when I realised that the body of a lady lay within the polished wooden casket.
Holmes half lifted me until I was kneeling in front of him, slumped in his arms, barely conscious of anything except the horror of my awakening and the pain in my head. He propped me up with an arm around my shoulders. With his free hand, he gripped one of mine so tightly that I thought he would cut off the circulation. Making an effort to see through blurry eyes, I saw that his lips were moving and realised with a jolt that he was still mouthing my name, a silent litany.
“Sherlock,” I started, not knowing how I planned to continue, when Inspector Lestrade appeared suddenly over Holmes’ shoulder, placing his own arm beneath one of mine to help me to my feet and inquiring anxiously after my health. My eyes were still fixed on Holmes as he rose with me and I saw how he suddenly stilled, his face turning blank and closed.
“I'm fine,” I said reassuringly. I didn't know who I was addressing. The words came out muffled and slurred. There was an awful dry bitterness in my mouth and my tongue seemed heavy and unwieldy, too large for my mouth.
“We thought we'd lost you, Dr Watson,” said Lestrade, who was kneading my shoulder firmly, as though unaware of what his hands were doing. He glanced anxiously at Holmes, who was stony faced and unreadable.
“What happened?” I croaked as Lestrade guided me to a chair, before turning aside to call for water. It was only then that I noticed the room was full of people. I glimpsed two constables, a familiar looking couple, who stood side by side in handcuffs, fury on their faces, and a small crowd who had gathered at the open door. Suddenly I wondered exactly what they had heard and seen.
“You were knocked out. We think they used chloroform,” Lestrade said, when Holmes still said nothing. “The Shlessingers, as they're calling themselves – although Mr Holmes tells me otherwise – had scheduled a funeral for a distant relative this morning. It was a ruse intended to allow them to inter the body of Lady Carfax and of…”
He trailed off as Holmes turned sharply away, walked across the room and shut the door in the faces of the small crowd in the hallway.
Lestrade coughed and continued.
“I don't know how they managed to obtain a medical certificate – if she died of an overdose of chloroform then perhaps they were able to make it appear like heart trouble.”
It was only then, through my dizziness, that I realised who lay within the coffin, her body dwarfed within its deep sides. Holmes had returned to my side but he did not touch me. A tiny vein was throbbing at his temple and only his eyes betrayed the inner turmoil he had so effortlessly banished from his face. I heard the door open and close and someone pressed a glass of water into my hand. I drank it gratefully, looking down at the knees of my trousers, which were rumpled and stained with something I could not identify.
“They planned to bury you in the same coffin, Dr Watson,” Lestrade said somewhere above me, his voice hushed but steady. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Holmes make a brisk, abortive movement.
“The first we heard of it was when we received a complaint that a man had interrupted a funeral and attempted to destroy the coffin,” Lestrade continued steadily. “I was shocked to find that it was Mr Holmes, who had taken matters into his own hands. I may say, although we cannot condone entering private property without a police warrant, it was lucky for you that he did. I don’t mind telling you, doctor, that when I saw you in that coffin I thought we were too late. Mr Holmes here gave you artificial respiration. It took us almost half an hour to be sure that we weren’t going to lose you.”
I pictured Holmes breathing life between my slack, dry lips and shuddered. With an effort, I pushed myself upright and found that I was able to stand on my own. Swaying slightly, I realised that I did not know why I was there, looming beside the open coffin, as unsteady on my legs as a new-born foal. All I knew was that I needed to leave that room, as quickly as I was able, and that it was imperative that Holmes came with me, and that Lestrade did not.
“We'll need you to come to the Yard and give a statement,” the inspector said, as another surge of nausea threatened to turn my stomach inside out. “But given the circumstances it can wait until tomorrow,” he added hastily. “Go home and rest, Doctor Watson. I'm sure Mr Holmes will take good care of you.”
In the hansom, Holmes was still uncharacteristically silent. When I reached absently for his hand, he snatched it back as though my touch had burned him. Only then did I notice that his slender fingers were mangled and stained with blood and that his nails were torn and jagged.
“Holmes, how did you get me out of that coffin?” I murmured, with a sensation of dawning horror.
“We drew out the nails,” he responded, in the tone of someone speaking to an imbecile.
“But Holmes, your hands. Please tell me you did not try to open it without tools.”
“I felt that the imminent threat of your asphyxiation was more pressing than the need for a screwdriver,” he said cuttingly. “Though granted matters did move rather faster once we found one.”
I thought of rough metal gouging through delicate layers of epidermis, dermis and hypodermis, scarring those strong, beautiful hands, and felt another lurching burst of sickness.
“Lady Carfax,” I managed to mutter. “I was too late.”
“I am afraid so,” he said, glancing away. “Unlike you, she was dead when they placed her into the coffin.”
We lapsed into silence as I tried to piece together the preceding days, closing my eyes in an effort to ease my pounding head.
“I remember seeing Dr Shlessinger's wife come into the shop,” I said aloud at last, unable to bear the silence. “She had a set of earrings that matched the pendant. I had intended to follow her home and then return to Baker Street but she did not go home. She went to meet with an undertaker. I knew then that our time had very nearly run out. I followed her back to her house in Brixton and when she opened the door I rushed inside, determined that I would not leave without Lady Carfax. I had hoped that perhaps she was being held captive awaiting the culmination of their plans. When Shlessinger appeared, I kept him at bay with my revolver and told him I would not leave until I had searched every room. I remember him instructing his wife to call the police. And then nothing until I awoke in the coffin.”
“They drugged you,” Holmes said in a clinical tone. “Lady Carfax was already dead and he could not risk the police showing up. He determined to be rid of both of you in one move. I am certain that, given the circumstances, you did not mark the design of the coffin, but it was usually broad and deep. No doubt they had the undertaker change the order to accommodate two –”
He broke off suddenly, his voice strangled and strange. Glancing over in puzzlement, I saw that he had turned away from me and that we were already on Baker Street, almost at our door. We drew up and Holmes handed me down from the cab as distantly as a hotel doorman, watching to check that I could walk unaided before he preceded me up the stairs.
Inside, I stripped off my jacket and collapsed onto the sofa, feeling as though I had been beaten all over. I knew what that much chloroform did to the body. I was very, very lucky to be alive.
Holmes was standing by the fireplace, still in his frock coat and hat. He was staring at me as if I were a stranger.
“Come over here and sit down, my dear fellow,” I said. “I am sorry if my blunder scared you.”
“I told you not to act without informing me,” he replied icily.
“I saw no other option,” I objected. “Once I knew that they were speaking with an undertaker it became clear that every moment was precious. I thought I might still be in time to save her.”
Holmes turned away from me and methodically removed his coat and hat. Underneath, I could see that he had dressed hurriedly. His shirt was improperly buttoned, and he wore neither tie nor cravat, not even his waistcoat.
When he turned to face me again, he spoke very calmly and quietly.
“I think it would be best if you found somewhere else to live,” he said. “Now that I have so many regular clients I am no longer in need of a companion with whom to split the rent. I will give you a week or two to make alternative arrangements.”
The air left my lungs in a rush, as though he had punched me in the stomach. The pain was greater than a physical blow would have been.
“So this is how it ends,” I said, unsure if I was talking to myself or to him. “You use me and then discard me when I cease to be of interest. I suppose I have only myself to blame. You've never respected me. You treated me like a servant, issuing orders and expecting me to do your bidding. But it is none of it your fault. After all, I allowed you to do so. I should have known that a man of your talents and temperament would prize my share of the rent above my intellect and my regard.”
My voice was shaking. Even in that desperate moment, I hoped that he would think that the cause of my distress was anger, not the exquisitely painful sensation of my heart splintering into fragments, deadly shrapnel nestling inside my breast.
“I was rather under the impression that you enjoyed following orders,” he drawled, as though we were discussing nothing more serious than a newspaper article over which we happened to disagree. “You certainly never exhibited any reluctance to do as I asked.”
“I was under the mistaken impression that, despite your arrogance and your high-handedness, you considered me to be your equal – as a man, if not in intellect. I thought that I had your respect.”
“If you believe us not to have been equals it is because you are the one who creates a distinction,” Holmes spat. I saw with satisfaction that I had at last broken his unnatural calm. His face was flushed, and his hands, always so certain, betrayed a faint tremor. I looked away, unable to stomach seeing his splintered nails and his long, pale fingers torn and stained with drying blood.
“Since the day we met, I have treated you as my equal and known that you were my better,” he continued. “It is you who insisted on painting me as a hero, though what you find admirable in the inhuman thinking machine you describe in your stories, I cannot imagine. It is you who treated me like a schoolmaster or a general, someone distant to be looked to for instruction but never to be trusted with your thoughts or your feelings.”
“Why should I confide in a man who is keeping secrets even when he is inside me?” I cried, stung to the point of crudity. “What of the case that has so distracted you these last few weeks that you sent me off to Switzerland to trace Lady Carfax without you? Maybe if you had seen fit to include me, instead of keeping me in the dark, we could have worked together on this case, instead of alone. Perhaps then she would still be alive.”
It was Holmes’ turn to flinch, I saw with a savage pleasure, as my blow hit home. Then I paused, appalled, as it occurred to me that only an hour ago Holmes had ripped his hands to shreds saving my life, and now we were tearing each other apart.
“I do not speak to you of matters that you do not need to know about,” he said. “I did not tell you about Moriarty because he will never be allowed near you. Not while I am alive.”
“Who on earth is Moriarty?” I said, struck by the strange tone in which Holmes had said the name.
“He is none of your concern,” Holmes replied, with all his damnable arrogance. “He is a problem that I'm taking care of and that I will be better equipped to handle once you are no longer living at Baker Street.”
“Do not try to lay the blame for your own cold-hearted dismissal of me at someone else's door, Holmes. You wish me to leave because I have shown myself to be a liability. Had I died in that coffin –”
“You looked dead!” he shouted suddenly, cutting across my speech with such urgency that I fell silent despite myself. “You should have died. When I touched your lips with mine it was like kissing your corpse. I was trying to breathe life into you and it felt like the undoing of every touch we have ever shared. Next time maybe you won't wake up. Don't you understand what that would do –”
He broke off and I saw to my amazement that his eyes were wet, just before he dashed a hand over them, obscuring my view of his face.
“I know that I risked everything for nothing,” I said, more softly. “I know that I should have consulted you before I tried to play the hero. I am sorry that I compromised your investigation. I'm sorry I wasn't able to save Lady Carfax. But it doesn't have to mean the end of our association. I beg you Holmes, do not end everything between us over one mistake.”
“A mistake,” he said, with an incredulous laugh. “That is what you call it? I sent you to spy on a pair of murderous thieves who almost killed you. What possible reason could you have for wanting to remain here?”
“You know why I want to remain here,” I said in despair. “You know exactly why, just as you always know everything.”
The look he gave me was searching, almost desperate.
“I know that you think yourself broken, doctor. But I also know, as you do not seem to, that you are getting better. It is only a matter of time before you are yourself again and you find a nice woman, marry her and settle down to run a thriving medical practice and have healthy, happy children. I am asking you to trust me when I say that it is better for both of us if you leave now. You do not need me to distract you any longer.”
“You do not have the authority to decide what is best for me,” I heard myself say, almost as though it were someone else speaking. “I don’t stay because I need you, I stay because I am so in love with you that I cannot imagine living without you… but you already knew that.”
I turned away in despair, awaiting the biting response that I knew my words would elicit. Fixing my eyes on the embers of the fire, I willed myself to stillness. The silence seemed to last a very long time. Trying desperately not to think, my eyes hazy, I turned away from the fire when I could bear it no longer, bowing my head and gazed at my lap, at the rumpled shirt and creased trousers that had so nearly become my shroud. I half hoped that when I looked up, Holmes would have quit the room. When I felt his hand rest gently on my upper arm, I flinched. I knew that my cheeks were flushed, my eyes damp and my agony written on my face, but what more had I to hide?
When I raised my head, Holmes was kneeling beside me, his face very close to mine. He placed his free hand on the side of my neck, staring at me as intently as I had often seen him stare at a crime scene, searching for the trifle he had missed that would finally make sense of what appeared to be impossible.
“You love me?” he asked. He sounded more tentative than I had ever heard him and there was an unfamiliar expression on his face. I thought for a moment that it was dismay. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was vulnerability and to comprehend that I had shocked him more profoundly than ever before. It was only then that I understood that despite the depth of his perception, which seemed to me at times to border on omniscience, he really had not known.
“I do,” I said, letting him hear the pain and longing in my voice. “I pretended for a long time that I didn’t. First to myself and then to you. But I have loved you for months. I never thought I had succeeded in keeping it from you.”
For perhaps the first time since I had known him, Holmes seemed lost for words. His eyes raked my face, from my ears to my cheeks, then down to my jaw and my lips. I felt the weight of his gaze like a caress. But still he said nothing.
“You don’t have to respond,” I said at last. “I know how you feel about love. It is a weakness that you would never allow yourself. But I could not bear to leave without saying the words aloud. Forgive me. I will begin searching for new lodgings tomorrow. I fear that today I am not quite myself. It has been –”
I do not now recall how I intended to continue my rambling speech, for at that moment Holmes kissed me with such force that all coherent thought flew from my mind and all I was aware of was the insistent press of his tongue, the soft curl of his hair under my fingers and the rich tobacco scent of him in my nostrils.
“I am afraid that you have been a comprehensive fool, my dear chap,” he said, when at last he pulled away. “But I forgive you. So have I.”
His was smiling at me, his hair wildly dishevelled and his face glowing with what I suspected might be joy. I suspected as much because I was fairly certain that my own expression mirrored his.
“You are not angry?” I said.
He cupped one large hand around the nape of my neck and shook me once, very gently, with uncharacteristic tenderness.
“I am angry with myself for behaving in a manner that caused you to keep from me the one thing that I most wished to hear.”
“You truly did not know how I felt? I thought that you must. After all, you knew about the drinking and the nightmares and the fact that I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. How could you fail to see how I felt about you?”
“You were always so distant,” he said, sinking down to sit upon his heels and looking up at me. “You were so careful whenever we were together. I could see that there were things behind your eyes that you took pains never to say. You never stayed in my bed after our encounters – you left as soon as you reasonably could, preferring to sleep alone than in my arms. You were disgusted by my drug use and angry about my absences and hurt by my appalling manner when I lashed out at you, as I so often do. I knew that you were still recovering from your experiences in the war. Being with me is the closest thing you found in London to being a soldier – I knew that too, even if you did not. But I always assumed that once you regained your equilibrium you would leave me. When you went back to work last week, I knew that the time was close at hand.”
I must have been gaping at Holmes quite foolishly throughout his speech. Suddenly, in a flash of insight, I saw that what had been self-protection had looked to him like indifference.
“You are right,” I said.
He flinched, almost imperceptibly, and I hurried to reassure him.
“You are right that we have both been fools,” I said. “I did not sleep in your bed because I did not want you to see me in the piteous throes of my nightmares and because I feared what I might say to you in my sleep or in the moments after I awoke, when my emotions were stripped bare. I thought if you discerned the depth of my feelings you would end our association immediately. But, Holmes, I wrote dozens of stories in which you were the tall, dark, handsome hero. Despite the fact that I made you an automaton and our relationship shallow and jovial – you will admit I had little choice in the matter, given what would happen were the real nature of our association ever to be discovered – how could you doubt that a man who spent months writing you love letters was, in fact, in love with you?”
In answer he kissed me again and I lost myself in him for a few moments, intoxicated by how it felt to finally express everything I felt for him without fear.
“You see, I am not as infallible a logician as you make me out to be,” he said, when at last he pulled away, his cheeks faintly flushed in a way I could now freely acknowledge to myself that I adored. “This is exactly why it is a capital mistake to theorise before one has all the data. In this case, I may have twisted the facts to suit my theories, instead of the theories to suit the facts.”
“What were your theories?” I asked, resisting the urge to pull his lips back to mine and leave talking for later.
“From the beginning, I had assumed that your interest in me lay in the novelty of my profession and certain of my physical attributes which, for some reason, you seemed to find appealing, despite the fact that you are muscular and square-jawed and have the face of an Adonis and I am as gaunt and shadowed as a crow and look like I am in the early stages of consumption. That you were gradually becoming aware of my many flaws I knew very well – you laid them out in quite dispassionate detail in your stories.”
“My dear fellow,” I interrupted him, “I am sorry for creating a version of you that was cold and imperious and stripped of the qualities that I most admire. I can only excuse it by saying that it helped me to manage the fact that what I felt for you –”
“I know,” he said quickly. “It was not only that. I knew what you were considering when you met Miss Morstan. I assumed that it was only a matter of time before you found another such woman with whom you could foresee a future, one free from the dangers and deprivations that you will suffer should you remain with me.”
He was looking at me earnestly, his eyes full of doubt. It was an expression I saw so rarely on the face of Sherlock Holmes that I felt my heart stutter for moment. I took one of his hands and pressed it gently, careful to avoid the cuts on his fingers, which were still tacky with blood.
“I seem to have developed a taste for danger in these last few months,” I said, as lightly as I could. I raised it to my lips and kissed his knuckles. “You must allow me to clean and bandage your hands. Just as soon as I assure you that a life spent with Miss Morstan or anyone else of my acquaintance pales in comparison to the one I believe I might have with you. Why do you think I hated the woman so much?”
He gave a soft laugh.
“I told you then that the interest I had in her was no threat to you. I will not pretend that I do not admire her. But for very different reasons and in a singularly different way than I admire you. I never once felt tempted to tear off her clothes and do unspeakable things to her, for example,” he said, placing his hand rather high up my thigh. “Unlike me, you never had cause to fear that any woman would come between us.”
My heart was singing at the look in his eyes but he still had not said the words.
“So,” I prompted, “it does not appall you to learn that I would rather spend the rest of my days with you than with anyone else I can think of, female or male, client or otherwise?”
“Not in the slightest,” he said, and I believe he was teasing me, just a little.
“And why not?” I prompted patiently.
“Because I love you, too,” he said. “I have loved you for months. I never thought I had succeeded in keeping it from you.”
This time it was I who kissed him. And after that we had no need of words for quite some time.
Several hours later, after I had bathed and gently bandaged Holmes’ fingers and we had made love with an urgent tenderness that I had never imagined possible, we lay together in his bed, his head on my chest and his long legs entangled with mine.
“Sherlock,” I said lazily. “What happened at Stoke Moran?”
He moved his head against the curve of my shoulder restlessly, nuzzling his angular cheek into my skin like a cat spreading its scent.
“I was afraid I would lose you,” he said. "I could think of no way to dissuade you from accompanying me that night – your bravery is one of the qualities I most admire about you, after all. I tried, nonetheless. I could do nothing else. When you were inside me, I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out how I felt about you. It was the most exquisite encounter of my life. And then, hours later, you lunged towards a venomous snake without so much as a pair of gloves to protect you and I thought that I would have to watch you foam and choke and thrash your life away before my eyes. I had thought that if I did not tell you what danger we faced, you would not have an opportunity to try to vanquish it. When you insisted that I should have elicited your aid, I realised that you would never stop putting yourself in danger as long as you were with me. I did the only thing I could think of to protect you without sharing sentiments that I assumed would be unwelcome, and would therefore make you feel either guilty or manipulated.”
“It never occurred to me that you could feel as I did,” I said softly, running a hand through his dark hair, admiring the way it slipped through my fingers like fine silk. “I do not pretend that I have no qualities to recommend me. Before the war, in fact, I was thought rather handsome in certain circles. But you could have anyone you wanted.”
He shifted so that he was lying beside me and could look into my eyes, his face inches away on the same pillow.
“For someone who observes others so well, you have a shockingly skewed view of yourself,” he said. “Not only are you a doctor and a veteran – with a face and a body that have not ceased occupying my thoughts since the day I met you, I might add – but you seem not to realise that you are also generous and far too forgiving and that, although I am undoubtedly more observant than you – at least when it comes to solving crimes – you are a thousand times wiser than I. It did not take me long to understand that you are also one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. It is a quality I admire so much, I believe, because it is one in which I am manifestly lacking.”
“You do not lack kindness, my dear fellow,” I said, pulling his lean body still closer to mine and tilting my head so that he could press a kiss into the curve of my neck. “I don’t need to match your skills in deductive reasoning to have noticed that you care about your clients – it is obvious to me, no matter how much you try to hide it.”
“If I was a kind person, I would have leveraged your anger tonight to insist that you leave me, instead of declaring what I feel for you,” he said, his voice sombre. “I have not forgotten that I almost got you killed. It was not the first time and I fear it will not be the last.”
“You did nothing of the kind,” I expostulated, tightening my fingers in his hair. “It was I who threw myself into the path of danger – against your express instructions, in case you have forgotten – because I was unjustifiably angry with you and wished to indulge my ego. Had you not figured out where to find me, I would not be lying here with you. I would be in the ground.”
“Had I not treated you in such a cavalier fashion you would not have had cause to be angry. And that is not the only kind of danger you will face if you stay at Baker Street with me. Everyone is used to my eccentric habits and bohemian ways and I do not think that my remaining a bachelor will surprise anyone who knows me. It is different for you. Should anyone ever discover our liaison it would destroy everything you have worked for.”
“I have enjoyed ‘liaisons’ with men and women on three different continents,” I said. “I knew the risks I was taking. Had they resulted in infamy, arrest or any other unwelcome outcome, I would never have laid the blame at anyone else's door. There is no one on earth I trust to keep my secrets more than you – and should they be discovered you are the last man against whom I should ever lay the blame for allowing me to enact my own desires and pursue my own happiness. As generous as you seem to think me, I am quite a selfish fellow really. After all, I place you in just as much danger as you place me – more so, given than I do not share your talents for disguise, concealment and fabrication.”
His face grew clouded for a moment and I felt a pang as I realised that – quite naturally, given the accusations I had hurled at him only a few minutes earlier – he had interpreted my words as a criticism. But then he smiled slyly.
“On the contrary, you display a natural aptitude for all three in your stories,” he said, propping himself on one arm and leaning over to nip me lightly just below the ear. “They are all at least fifty percent fabrication, by my calculation. Sometimes I struggle to discern a word of truth in them.”
He paused and his voice grew serious again.
“Nonetheless, I fear that my talents at dissembling do not always extend to how I feel about you. I am a stupider man than you give me credit for. It took me all night to figure out what the Shlessingers planned to do with you. It was no prevarication when I told you that emotion does not aid in the art of criminal detection. Knowing that you were in danger made it almost impossible for me to think. You can have no idea how it felt to know that the only way I could save you was to use my brain and yet find myself utterly incapable of preventing myself from dwelling on what would happen if I did not save you, to the exclusion of all else. As it was, I was almost too late. When I saw you in that coffin, I was certain that I had failed you.”
“Sherlock, –” I began, desperate to save him the pain of reliving it.
“No one in that room could have failed to notice how I feel about you,” he interrupted me, almost angrily. “I knew what needed to be done but I could not stand there and pretend to feel only the concern of a friend as you breathed your last in front of me. At first I was not thinking at all, and then, when I began to be certain that you would recover, I could not bear it. The thought of telegraphing indifference as you lay there with blue lips, your chest barely moving, sickened me. I should have done it anyway. Instead I put us both in danger. I could not bring myself to call you Watson, to touch you clinically, to stand back as someone else tended to you. I could not even let go of your hand. So I cried your name like an idiot and clutched at you like a man who has just lost everything – in front of an audience of policemen and criminals. You ought to be furious with me.”
I thought of finding Holmes lying in a coffin an inch from death and my arm tightened around him convulsively.
“You brought me back to life,” I said. “We may live in a world that believes what we feel to be a perversion. I cannot help but believe otherwise, if only because the way I feel about you is the most profound thing that has ever happened to me. In my eyes it is the opposite of unsanctified. It borders on sacred. I would weather any danger rather than sacrifice it.”
It seemed all there was to be said. We lay, entangled on Holmes’ bed, in silence, as fierce joy and lingering sorrow warred in my chest. After some time, his breathing slowed and I realised that he had fallen asleep, curled around me. I kissed his forehead very softly and he stirred against me, tightening his arms around me.
“Holmes,” I whispered, very softly. “When we were in Montpellier, you mentioned one man whose opinion you valued more than my own.”
I felt the curve of his smile against my neck.
“To whom did you refer? I have been labouring under the misapprehension that you are the smartest man in London.”
“Second only to my brother, Mycroft,” he murmured.
“I have never heard you speak of him besides that one time,” I said, astonished to find that the man lived in London. I had assumed – perhaps due to my own circumstances – that Holmes's family were all dead. “Why do you never see him?”
He stirred against me and for a moment I regretted my selfishness in waking him.
“I do see him, quite often, as it happens,” he said. “I have simply avoided taking you with me. It is not that I fear the two of you will not get along. In fact, I believe Mycroft will like you very much. But he is a man who sees everything and who – when it comes to his dealings with me – conceals nothing. Were he to meet you, I knew that he would deduce immediately how I felt about you – and how you in turn, felt about me. I did not wish to endure his pity.”
“But he has no reason to pity you,” I whispered into his hair.
“In that case,” said Holmes, blinking so that his lashes brushed a caress against my cheek, “you shall meet him tomorrow.”
It was several weeks before I felt able to set the story of Lady Carfax’s disappearance down for the public. I found, in the end, that just as Holmes had been unable to feign mild distress at discovering me blue-lipped and on the verge of death, I was unable to write a scene in which he did so. Instead, I wrote Lady Carfax back to life. Rescued at the eleventh hour from an unthinkable fate, she lived to accept the love of a man who had risked everything to save her. Although much of the final tale was unquestionably fiction, it felt uncannily like the truth.
Chapter 14: By the Light of Day
The still waters of the lake shone like a mirror, reflecting the clear blue of the sky and a few scattered clouds, as soft and white as thistledown. Impulsively, I bent down and picked up a small stone, throwing it in a long arc out into the centre of the water so I could watch the sunlight glittering in ever-shifting patterns of brilliance as the ripples expanded from the point of impact. It was late summer and the air was warm and still and filled with the lazy buzzing of bees and the sound of birdsong. Holmes had removed his frock coat and draped it over the back of a small bench overlooking the water. He stood in grey pinstriped trousers, his crisp white shirt overlaid with a simple grey waistcoat that brought out the pewter colour of his eyes. He was lost in a brown study, gazing at the water from beneath the spreading boughs of an ancient oak tree. The dappled sunlight kissed his hair and accentuated the beloved angles of his face and I wished suddenly that I was a painter so that I might capture him in all his vibrant, heart-breaking perfection.
I stared at him for a long minute or two, revelling in my freedom to admire every detail of his lean form and abstracted expression without any need for concealment. At last he came to the end of whatever path his thoughts had led him down. Belatedly, he noticed the direction of my gaze. Deducing immediately the direction in which my own thoughts had tended, he turned and ran his eyes over me, slowly and deliberately, in such a mischievous yet sensual way that I felt myself beginning to stir beneath my light linen trousers. Then he smiled and without a word began to loosen his cravat, letting it fall beside him. I watched, confused, as he methodically removed his waistcoat, collar and cuffs, depositing them in a neat pile on the sun-warmed grass. To my shock, he then began to undo the buttons of his shirt.
He was still standing some ten feet away from me and I could not take my eyes off him.
“What are you doing?” I murmured. My voice came out throaty, a shade deeper than usual.
“I am removing my clothes,” he responded coolly, as he undid the final button of his shirt and drew it off, baring his wiry torso. The sunlight threw patterns like camouflage across the lean curves of his shoulders and arms. “When I have finished, I intend to remove yours.”
Even as protests rose to my lips and I glanced around reflexively, filled with a sudden fear that I'd be confronted with an unwelcome audience among the trees, I felt a flush of heat course though me. I made a valiant effort to disregard it.
“My dear Holmes, surely you cannot mean it?” I said. “Have you lost your senses? Sir Henry may have gone to London but what of his household? What if a gardener should happen by?”
We were in the grounds of a wealthy client whom Holmes had not twelve hours earlier saved from a gruesome and decidedly painful death. I had expected us to depart for London after breakfast. Only now was I beginning to see why Holmes had insisted on exploring the gardens before our departure. In the six months since I had declared myself his, in every way I knew how to be, he had ceased to intimidate or discomfort me, but he had never stopped surprising me.
“The gardener has the day off,” he said, stepping gracefully out of his trousers and undergarments in a single elegant move to stand before me naked and aroused. His pale skin was flawless, bathed in warm green light, his member flushed a dusky pink and already leaking in anticipation. I tore my eyes away from him, determined to ignore the growing bulge in my trousers that I knew belied my objections.
“What of the rest of the household?” I cried, squeezing a shout into a whisper. “What if someone from the village should sneak onto his land? It is a beautiful day – the village children might take it into their heads to take a swim in the lake. What on earth has come over you to take such a risk?”
“My dear boy, do you really think that I would take any action that I believed would put you in danger?” he said, standing as tall and proud and elegant as he had when fully clothed, his spare movements catlike and sinuous. “Sir Henry has given his entire household the day off and assured me that we have the run of the grounds. He offered me anything I might request in the way of a reward for my aid in the matter of the hound. I told him that there were certain experiments I was keen to conduct in the open air that I could not easily carry out in London. I also warned him that they might prove exceedingly dangerous and that it was imperative we not be disturbed. He readily agreed to ensure our privacy for the day. He is from home in any case, it is no hardship for him. As for the villagers, they do not yet know of the hound's death. None of them will set foot anywhere near Baskerville Hall while they believe that the animal lives.”
“I see that you have been very methodical,” I said, suppressing the foolish smile that fought to overtake my countenance at the thought that he had planned this whole outing to surprise me. “What sort of experiments do you intend to perform?”
Holmes began to pad towards me, his bare feet silent on the grass.
“I found that I had a burning desire to know what it was like to kiss you in the sunlight,” he said softly, stopping in front of me, close enough to touch. “It is an experiment that many people are able to attempt in rather less careful circumstances than us. Now that suitable conditions have been arranged, I intend to take the experiment to its logical conclusion.”
He was smiling with rare unguarded joy, so pleased with himself that my heart stuttered in my chest. Giving up on words, I reached out one hand to grasp the back of his neck and pulled his lips to mine. He kissed me with a tender hunger, pressing his naked body to my clothed one, and I revelled in the warm orange glow of sunshine behind my closed eyelids and the light whisper of the breeze on my skin as I thanked him for his unexpected gift in every movement of my lips and every stroke of my tongue against his.
He nipped my lower lip playfully as he pulled away from me, eliciting a small moan of protest, but then his long fingers were gently loosening the knot of my tie and I pushed aside the urgency that had begun to build within me, resolving to let Holmes set the pace and to relish every moment of the experiment he had gone to such lengths to arrange. It still filled me with sorrow to know that he had hidden such an essential part of himself from me for so long. I was still discovering the extent to which my lover, who I had so often dismissed as cold and mechanical, was in fact capable of unguarded warmth.
“I have always thought that sunlight suited you,” Holmes murmured, eyes on my shirt buttons. “You have never lost the bronzed look you brought back from Afghanistan. I knew the moment I saw you that you had spent time in the humid jungles of India and the dry heat of the Afghan desert. By the time you had been at Baker Street a week, I knew that every night, when you dreamed, you travelled to places most men never go, and that every time you awoke, you awoke knowing that you had looked death in the face and triumphed. When a month had passed, I knew that you had the hands of a doctor and the heart of a soldier and that you were the bravest and most honest man I had ever met. The first time I saw the sunlight turn your hair to gold and light your eyes until they seemed to glow from within, I knew I would never be free of you.”
“Do you want to be free of me?” I whispered, my heart pounding.
Then I was forced to smother a laugh as he rolled his eyes at me, wearing the expression he wore when a client asked a particularly obtuse question. He looked down at my chest, focusing on my buttons once more, but I didn’t miss the small slide that tilted one corner of his mouth as he undid the last one and pushed my shirt from my shoulders, smoothing both his hands over the planes of my chest, pausing to pinch one of my nipples between clever fingers until I gasped.
“That was the image that was in my mind the first time I stroked myself to thoughts of you,” came his baritone murmur as he dropped my shirt to the grass and beginning to unfasten my trousers. “I pictured you on a beach, your green eyes shining as you looked up at me from your knees, your lips wrapped around –”
I cut him off with a kiss that caught him mid-sentence, mindless with need. I was slowly growing accustomed to the astounding fact that Holmes truly wanted me with the same fervour as I wanted him, but he had never before admitted to having such thoughts about me. I had not known whether or not he had considered engaging in such acts before the night that I first kissed him. The thought of him taking his cock in his hand and pleasuring himself to fantasies of me on my knees as I did the same upstairs, my mind preoccupied with a very similar scenario, was painfully arousing. Drawing back, breathless and aching, I caught his face in my hands, realising suddenly that I would never forgive myself if I passed up the opportunities afforded by his uncharacteristically communicative mood.
“Don't stop. What else did you think about?” I urged, as he knelt to remove the last of my clothes, lifting my feet one by one to gently slide off my trousers and undergarments as I lent on his shoulder to steady myself. Straightening up, he pulled me towards him, cupping my rear to pull me upwards onto my toes, so that my rigid member pressed against his. With a teasing swivel of his hips, he rubbed himself against my length. I bit my lip as he ran the tip of his thumb over my crown. He licked the bead of moisture from his skin, his eyes burning, and then grasped both of us in one large hand, beginning to stroke at a leisurely pace.
“I thought about running my hand up your thigh during that concert we went to after the client in Brighton lent us his box for the night,” he murmured, increasing his pace too little. “I wondered what you would do if, in the middle of the second half, you felt me slide my palm up the inside of your thigh. Would you have objected? Shifted in your seat? Made a sound? Or would you have sat silently, obedient to my whims, growing hard beneath my touch as I stroked over your trouser front in the dark? What if I had teased you, in the middle of the crowd, until you couldn't hear the music anymore because the only thing you were aware of was my touch? Would you have held out or would you have succumbed right there, releasing in your trousers, your gasps covered by the sound of the orchestra?”
By the time he came to the end of his little speech, my eyes had closed of their own accord and I was thrusting into his hand, unsure whether my loss of control had to do with the fantasy itself or the idea of Holmes pleasuring himself to it.
“I came close to doing it,” he confided, pressing a soft kiss to my jaw, just below my ear. “It was a few weeks before the affair of the Red-Headed League and you had been staring at me over your newspaper again, with your thoughts writ plain upon your face. I had been fighting the urge to kiss you for hours by the time we went to see that Austrian violinist, Wilma Norman-Naruda. Do you remember? She played with such unbridled passion.”
I nodded against his cheek, too focused on the electric feel of him and the intoxicating sound of his voice in my ear to speak.
“I felt an overwhelming urge to touch you as you sat beside me. My hand must have hovered, on the verge of reaching for you, for a full minute before I forced myself to draw it back.”
“You should have done it,” I gasped.
“There is still time. I believe there is a performance of Wagner coming soon to Covent Garden. Perhaps I can be of assistance to someone with a private box. As a last resort, there is always Mycroft. And in the meantime I have no shortage of other fantasies that we can work on fulfilling.”
His words, combined with his touch, were threatening to end matters more precipitously than I wished. Unwilling to waste this rare and precious chance to be with him outside the well-secured confines of a locked room, I grasped him by the wrist, stilling his hand where it was still wrapped around both our lengths.
“I believe you mentioned that in your first fantasy I was on my knees?”
He closed his eyes for a long moment and I realised that he too was teetering on the edge of release.
Before he could reply, I was kissing my way down his chest, brushing my lips teasingly over the muscles of his abdomen. I paused when I drew close to my goal, teasing him with hot breath, licking down into the dip carved out by his external oblique muscles and then stilling with my mouth hovering just an inch from where he wanted me. I waited until he groaned and then allowed myself to smile, blowing warm air over him until he shivered and twitched towards me.
“John, please. I am happy for you to dictate the order of affairs, as long as whatever you wish to do, you do it right this instant.”
It was so rare to hear Holmes beg that I couldn’t resist drawing out his anticipation just a little longer. Rather than sliding my lips around his length, I lowered myself further down and took one of his testicles into my mouth, sucking lightly until he moaned. His fingers slid into my hair and tightened as I ministered to the other. Gripping my locks in both hands, he angled my head upwards so that he could see my face.
“Open your eyes,” he ordered, a slight tremor in his authoritative voice.
I did so just as I finally wrapped my lips around his member, sinking slowly down until I had taken his entire length and he was pressed against the back of my throat. He cupped one hand around my face, feeling the working of my throat and jaw, even as the other kept a firm grip on my hair, holding me in place as I pleasured him. I had enough experience of kneeling before my friend to know exactly how to please him and I used everything I had ever learned, silently expressing my gratitude, my longing and my desire for every part of him with my hands, my lips and my tongue. When I slid one finger into my mouth along with his cock and then ran it, wet and slippery, up between his buttocks to tap gently over his fundament, he began to shudder involuntarily, thrusting deeper into my mouth. As I gently pushed inside, he let out a string of expletives, choking out words I had never heard him utter and had never suspected him of knowing. I could no longer resist my own consuming need. Reaching down, I began to stroke my aching member in time with my movements, desperate for release. When Holmes saw what I was doing, he let out a low moan and drew back, freeing himself from my mouth.
“Lie down,” he ordered breathlessly, his shadow falling across me as I lowered myself onto the grass, warm and springy beneath my shoulder blades. He reached for his coat and I smiled as I saw him draw a small tin of Vaseline from the pocket, more evidence of the planning he had put into this surprise encounter. A moment later he was kissing me, insinuating slippery fingers between my cheeks as his lips devoured mine. I cried out as he sank one long finger inside me, pressing unerringly just where I needed him. Then he was drawing back, far sooner than usual, lifting me and opening me with two hands under my thighs so that he could replace his finger with the thick, insistent press of his cock.
“I’m sorry, my boy, I can’t wait,” he muttered, sending a bolt of heat through me and causing my member to twitch upwards, straining for his touch.
“Do it,” I urged him and he pushed home in a single exquisite slide, our ragged breaths combining to form a single loud gasp.
By that late summer afternoon, Holmes had taken me more times than I could count, but there in the sunlight, under the dappled shade of the oak tree, with the hay-scented breeze blowing over us and the sound of birdsong in the air, the deed felt unaccountably solemn. The act of physically joining our bodies seemed in that moment to symbolise something indescribable and profound, encapsulating a union that I already knew would shape the remainder of my life. I do not know if Holmes felt as I did or whether it was simply the novelty of our surroundings that drew out his passion to a greater extent than ever, but he was whispering broken endearments into my ear as I sank my nails into his back, muffling my own cries in the curve of his shoulder. He found his release first, biting my name into the thick muscles of my shoulder, and the sight of him experiencing his paroxysm, all control relinquished, triggered my own convulsions, though he had not touched me.
“I love you,” I choked, as I shook beneath him. I was vaguely aware of his arms tightening around me, pressing me closer to his chest. Only when I began to come back to myself, feeling the heat of my emissions cooling on my stomach between us, did I realised that I had been chanting the words over and over like a prayer.
When it was finally, inevitably over, I let the familiar mixture of relief and melancholy that so often followed the mindless pleasure of completion wash over me. I lay beneath my lover, gasping for breath, my body coated in perspiration and my heart thundering in my chest so loudly that I felt sure that he must hear it. Holmes had not detached himself from me and we lay like two survivors of a shipwreck flung onto the sand of an unknown shore, breathless and exhausted and filled with gratitude. When at last he withdrew, he paused to clean me tenderly with his handkerchief before he rolled over to lie beside me on the grass. I took his hand in mine, entwining our fingers as we lay looking up at the gently shifting canopy of leaves.
“I love you,” he murmured beside me, so low it was almost a whisper, and I squeezed his hand, too languorous to move.
So infrequently did Holmes say those words that I closed my eyes and tried to imprint every tiny detail of the moment upon my mind, from the blades of grass pressing patterns into my skin, to feel of the sun on my face, the quiet rhythm of his breath beside me and the feel of his scarred hand in mine. Since admitting the depths of his feelings for me, Holmes had never tried to deny or conceal them, but he was still the same man. At his core, I understood – as no others did, save perhaps for his brother – that he was capable of great empathy, but he was not a demonstrative man and rarely felt the need to articulate the sentiment that I often saw shining out at me from his eyes.
What I told him sometimes daily in words, relishing the freedom to utter the phrase I had choked back for so long, he told me in a thousand ways that I had no need of language to interpret. He told me every morning when he poured my coffee for me as he handed me the newspaper, open to my favourite section. He told me every time he looked at me with laughing eyes as a client sat in our sitting room open mouthed with amazement at some deduction with which he had dazzled them. He told me each time I awoke in his bed – the bed that had become ours, though no one but us could ever know it – shaking with the aftershocks of a nightmare, to find that he had silently enfolded me in his arms, and each time he quietly hummed the refrains of my favourite airs until I slipped back into sleep. He told me each time he called me “my dear fellow,” in the presence of Lestrade or Bradstreet or Gregson and I alone knew how to interpret the naked affection in his voice. He told me every time he looked at me and let me see that he felt just as I did – that he was in the presence of the most amazing man he had ever known.
Life was not perfect. Moments like these, when Holmes was mellow and satisfied in the wake of a case brought to a successful close did not last long. By tomorrow – if not sooner – he would be craving a new problem as an addict craves his pipe or his hypodermic, desperate for a puzzle to occupy his lightning-sharp, restless, occasionally torturous mind. I still had nightmares that left me with shaking limbs and wet cheeks, still fell into spells of anxiety so sudden and severe they left me gasping for breath, still reached for the bottle when life seemed too difficult to bear. Holmes still fell into black moods, still refused to speak for hours or days. He still turned to his seven percent solution and his syringe at times when the injustice and cruelty and bleak obviousness of the world overwhelmed him, though he knew that it hurt me to see him glazed and electric, thrumming with unnatural energy. But he had ceased taking morphine since two weeks after he had seen, in the tears I could not keep from my cheeks, how much it pained me to witness him indolent and lethargic in its grip, his thoughts abnormally sluggish and his body loose and pliant and halfway to death.
We were not perfect. We both knew how to throw barbs that hooked under each other’s skin and tore. We were not always happy. But we were as happy as we knew how to be – me, a crippled veteran who would never again work as a soldier or a surgeon, and him, an orphaned consulting detective with an opiate dependence, who understood one another better than most husbands ever understand their wives.
All that afternoon we spent in the grounds of Baskerville Hall, alone and free, as though what we were doing was not dangerous, as though we had no need to fear discovery and ruin, no threat of ostracism or exile or a criminal conviction followed by hard labour hanging over our heads. We swam in the cool, clear waters of the lake, washing the traces of lovemaking from our bodies, and lay to dry side by side on the grassy bank, the sun warm on our skin, talking in a low pitch and laughing as though the moment would last forever.
“So, my dear Watson,” Holmes said at last, lying naked on the grass, examining a bee that was sipping from a purple clover flower. “How will you shape this case into one of your stories? Shall you allow yourself to be the hero, for once, or will you be as bumbling and awestruck as you usually are in your alternative versions of reality?”
“You’ll admit that I can hardly record events the way they transpired,” I said, stung. “Perhaps you’ll be as dazzling and as heartless as ever and I’ll be well-meaning and oblivious and happily married to a lovely young lady who admires me for my selfless willingness to aid a friend in need of a companion with a revolver.”
He rolled over, abandoning his study of the bee to raise one dark eyebrow at me.
“And what would this wife of yours be like?” he asked.
“Perhaps she would be blond and gentle and utterly lacking in imagination,” I said, shifting closer on the grass and pushing Holmes gently onto his back so that I could lay my head on the sun-warmed expanse of his chest. “Or perhaps she would be tall and slender and grey-eyed and unfathomably brilliant. Perhaps, no matter how much I fought it, I would end up falling in love with her. I’d open a successful medical practice and she’d read to me of an evening and no one would get attacked by hellhounds, or shot at, or killed.”
Holmes laughed but there was a subtle edge of sadness to it.
“I can see you in such a role,” he said.
Startled at his tone, I rose on one elbow so that I could see his face.
“And I’d spend every moment of my life with her wishing that I was instead with Sherlock Holmes,” I said gently. “My dear fellow, I do not want that life. I do not want any other life than the one I have with you. The Watson in my stories is a poorer man than I in every respect, because he does not know the Holmes that I know.”
He closed his eyes and I kissed him softly, but when at last he looked at me I saw that there was still a shadow behind his eyes.
“They are just stories,” I whispered. “They protect us. He is not you… and I hope devoutly that I am not him.”
To my profound relief, he laughed and gripped me by the arm, pulling me on top of him.
“You possess many talents that he does not,” he said, laying one large hand across the small of my back so that I was pinned against him. I rested my weight on the right arm so that I could look down at his smiling face. “At least, I have not seen any mention of them thus far in The Strand. I am rather glad, to tell you the truth. I should not much relish half of London becoming on intimate terms with the Doctor John Watson I know.”
“And who is this Doctor John Watson?”
“He is a former soldier and occasionally practicing doctor of medicine,” said my incorrigible lover, shifting beneath me to accommodate the growing physical evidence of our intimacy. “He is handsome and he is courageous and he is capable of growing a truly spectacular moustache. He has served in India and in Afghanistan and he was once shot in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet and lived to tell the tale. He has saved lives and broken hearts on three separate continents. He knows how to handle a revolver like no man I have ever encountered. He is in love with an avowed indorser who leads him into danger and lets him get us out of it again, and he is most definitely not in want of a wife.”
Our laughter was loud enough to startle a brace of pheasants, which took off with a great whirring of wings and snapping of twigs from a nearby patch of brush, but it soon subsided, to be replaced with more intimate sounds. When we finally dressed and walked back through the trees, the taste of his release was still strong on my lips.
As we drew within sight of the hall, he surged ahead, eager to return to London. I knew he was already thinking of his experiments, of Mrs Hudson’s cooking and the familiar feel of his Stradivarius against his shoulder and evenings spent reading side by side, he immersed in an obscure reference volume or scientific tome, I in the latest adventure novel, before one or other of us rose and led the way to the bedroom.
“Do keep up, my dear fellow,” he called over his shoulder, and I sped up until I was beside him, matching his long strides, our hands almost brushing as we walked shoulder to shoulder in the sunlight.