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Infinite Variety

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Extracts from the journal of Doctor John H. Watson:

Saturday, May 26th 1894~

For three long years, the thundering falls at Reichenbach echoed in my dreams. I did not always remember their details, but their moods coloured my mornings. Mary had been skilful at dispelling my ghosts, but when she, too, was gone, the sorrow with which I woke would run under the routine of my day until I lay my head again on my pillow and prayed that my slumbers would not return me to those rocky slopes. I am profoundly grateful that I no longer have need of such prayers and earnestly hope that I may never have need of them again.

Now, and for the past month, it has been my waking hours that seem a dream. I open my eyes in my old room and wonder whether I ever abandoned it. Was my marriage but an amorous fantasy? That harrowing day at Reichenbach but a nightmare? Or, is this return to my old haunts nothing more than a self-indulgent daydream in which I have taken refuge from my gloom?

If it is, I refuse to rouse myself from it, for it is here on Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes that I wish to dwell. Here, where his music curls up the stairs like smoke. Here, where I leave my door ajar for it. And here, where if I awake at night with a cry from a desperate scramble up a stony defile, his music can quell the roar of falling water and lull me gently into dreamless repose.

More often of late, his music heralds the day - a melodious crowing from the cock of our sitting room. I chase it down to breakfast, running ahead of the dread that music and musician will disappear before I reach them, melting away, as phantasms do, in the light of day.

So far, I have been too fast.

***

“Ah, Watson, there you are! You’ve slept the whole morning away.” Holmes set aside his violin and watched me as I circumvented the papers and periodicals strewn upon the floor. “You aren’t ill, are you?”

I shook my head, pulling my dressing gown closer about me and heading for the teapot sitting upon the table. I had not stopped to dress, such had been my haste.

The remnants of a hearty dinner covered much of the table and I was glad to see it. Holmes had been thin and drawn when he came back. The ensuing weeks had lessened the pallor of his cheeks and a bit of flesh had softened the grave lines of his face, but his eyes were not bright.

He poured me a cup of tea without asking first whether I would like one. What I would have liked was for the music to resume, but he never plays like that when I am with him. Of an evening, he sometimes plays pieces he knows are amongst my old favourites and he plays still others while he’s thinking about his cases. In these few scant weeks, he has successfully concluded two of his own and given Lestrade a hand with a third that had confounded him, but all have been concluded within the confines of London and mainly within the confines of Baker Street. Perhaps he needed a respite from tackling webs of crime so far-flung that he was required to make, like Orpheus with his lyre, a journey to the nether world to unravel them.

Is that where you learned the melodies for which I hunger?

He looked at me quizzically.

It is just as well that he cannot truly read my mind.

I took the cup he offered me and sipped. The flavour was smoky, not what I remember as Mrs Hudson’s usual fare. It was hot and sweetened just to my taste. I closed my eyes to savour it. An image I have sometimes seen in my dreams waited for me.

Smoke rose from a campfire. Tongues of flame cast wavering shadows against sheer walls of stone. Wood cracked. Sparks flew into crisp night air and changed into music. I yearned to catch those burning notes, but there were boulders hemming me in. Otherwise, I would have caught them. I would have.

I leaned forwards in my seat.

“Shall I ring for more roast or would you prefer to breakfast?” Holmes asked.

The fire disappeared and the music was lost in the clatter of carriage wheels over the cobbles outside our windows.

My eyes opened wide in consternation and I found Holmes still regarding me.

“Mr Rathbourne has offered us his box at the Lyceum tonight. Apparently, he had not fully expressed his gratitude for our recovering so many of those jewels prior to our trip to the Continent. He is most pleased that I have returned from the dead so that he can resume doing so.” Holmes nudged a bowl of grapes closer to me. “Shall we accept? Irving, Terry and company are back from a triumphant tour of North America and are playing Antony and Cleopatra to rapturous audiences, if the reviews are to be believed.”

The frescoes from the Egyptian tombs at the British Museum sprang to mind. I pictured a procession of ancient musicians accompanying the airs of Holmes’s violin. He must have missed it while he was away, but perhaps he had a substitute to wile away the hours as he waited for one of Moriarty’s cadre to fall into his traps. The notion that he could have had substitutes for me as well flitted leather-winged through my mind.

My stomach grumbled and the banks of the Nile shimmered away. “Breakfast, I think.”

Mrs Hudson’s step was audible upon the stair. Holmes went to advise her of my preferences. I took another sip of the tea. It was a different flavour from the previous day and from the day before that. Indeed, I don’t think a single pot has been the same since I took up residence again in our old lodgings. Perhaps Holmes had brought some rare supply back with him. Or, sent it on to his brother for safe-keeping. Someday, I may get over my resentment at Mycroft Holmes having been his confidante rather than me. Someday.

Holmes returned from the hall and took his seat across from me. “And the theatre?”

I studied him over the china. Although the hollows of his cheeks were not nearly so pronounced, the shadows about his eyes remained. He was not sleeping well; a fact to which the music I heard at all hours attested. He paced as he played. The music waxed and waned as he circled the room. I heard it, that was, when I did not sleep through it, assuming, of course, that he played whether I was awake to hear it or not. I frowned. I was theorising without data on that.

I set my cup down. “Yes, of course. I haven’t been to the theatre in a long while.”

“Excellent!” Holmes exclaimed and plucked one of the grapes from the bowl. “Eat, dear boy. You look pale and it will be a while before your breakfast arrives.”

The grape was such a deep purple as to be nearly black and had a sheen upon it like frost. I did not recall seeing any like it before, but Holmes has access to gardens and greenhouses that few others do. He held it closer to me and I took it from him. It was like a dark jewel that I could eat.

It is, with small gestures like this, that we nurture one another in our mutual convalescence of body and mind. We are neither of us whole, no matter what brave faces we may put on it.

***

The theatre was awash in electric light. I was not sure I preferred it to gaslight or the even kinder glow of candlelight, but it was probably safer.

Rathbourne’s box was well-situated; little of the stage would be obscured from view and at that distance the art of set and costume would be most convincing. Despite the full house, it was not too hot in the auditorium, which was a blessing. As we were not interested in mingling with the throng, we settled early into our seats.

Holmes had his flask out in a moment. The cognac was excellent as always. It is with the discernment of a chemist that he chooses his spirits. Its flavour seized my mouth and its heat glowed comfortably in my belly.

As the musicians tuned their instruments, I arranged myself in my seat so that I could watch Holmes listen to their music. I assumed that was more of an attraction for him than the play, and witnessing the effect his enjoyment of music had upon him had always been my favourite part of attending a performance in his company. I had missed that.

The prelude commenced as the curtain rose on the lavish sets for which Irving’s Lyceum was renowned. I had only had a moment to appreciate them when I heard the first familiar flurry of notes. Eyes widening, I leaned forward, elbows upon the padded edge of our box, but the melody merged into a welter of other sounds and I slumped back in my chair. I managed not to grumble aloud and, although my posture was less eager, my ears remained pricked, and as the second act unfolded, a familiar phrase riveted me. It was not, however, a musical one. Upon the stage, a Roman officer described Cleopatra to his comrade:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…

The actor continued his speech, but my memory replaced his words with those Holmes had uttered to me on the night of his remarkable reappearance. Words spoken as we peered out the dark window of that empty house upon what appeared to be Holmes's own silhouette on the shade of our sitting room. I had whispered my amazement at his ruse and he had replied, “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.”

Unlike some of his explanations that night, the details of which had been lost in my wonderment at hearing his voice again, those words had stayed fixed in my mind. His tone of joy and pride in his stratagem had struck me and I had noted them down in my journal before sleeping. I had not recognised the quote he paraphrased then, however, poor scholar that I clearly am, but in the theatre the force of its context had me gripping the arms of my chair to remain steady. Holmes had likened himself to Shakespeare's Cleopatra, this monarch who could lure emperors away from their noble and virtuous spouses to her bed and bend their warrior will to her purposes and desires. Holmes had chosen those words to describe himself to me.

I turned slightly to look at him as he sat with the light of the stage reflected on his pale visage.

Is that why you let me be called away from the Falls and went to meet your nemesis alone? You knew I would go with you anywhere. I had declared it more than once. Even into the jaws of death, if only you would let me. So, you sent me safely home to my virtuous spouse, whom I had chosen as my life's partner rather than you.

Holmes glanced towards me.

Why couldn’t I have kept you both? I sighed. It was a question that required a quieter place to think.

There had been, no doubt, more to the play, but the actors’ voices seemed far away and when I looked upon the stage, I did not see them. The lights shone on a grassy mountainside, glistening with the spray from falling water. Only the music reached me now and again when a run of notes reminded me of what Holmes played alone in our sitting room.

At the interval, he remarked that I appeared distracted, asked if I was fatigued and wished to leave. I had shaken my head, unwilling to trust my voice, and we had stayed until both Antony and Cleopatra were dead.

***

It was a silent three miles to Baker Street. From time to time, I checked the side of the hansom where Holmes lounged, staring out the window. After giving the driver our address, he had said not a word, although his hand had sometimes risen slightly from its resting place upon his thigh, fingers swaying back and forth as though he were conducting music.

Baker Street awaited us, quiet and dark except for the lamp in the hall. The mood of our carriage-ride stayed with us as we mounted the stairs. Outside the door of the sitting room, Holmes turned to me and uttered one word, “Port?”

I shook my head. “I am more tired than I realised. It's straight to bed for me, I think.” I took a step along the hall then turned back. Holmes was watching me. I nodded at him, and after an instant, he nodded in answer and I resumed the journey to my room.

But I couldn’t sleep. I found my copy of The Sign of Four and sat up in bed reading. One paragraph held me captive, and I kept re-reading it:

Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject, but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

The words were supposedly about Holmes’s frequent recourse to the cocaine bottle, but they also expressed another quandary of mine, one about which I had also made vows to myself to speak out. My head dropped against my pillows and a long, low exhalation escaped me very much resembling a moan. I had been even more diffident about that other matter than I had been about the cocaine. I had not been able to face the consequences that would likely ensue if I had drawn an erroneous conclusion from my observations, as Holmes so often chided me for doing.

So, I chose another road without so much as giving him a hint of my intentions and I recall the self-satisfaction with which I presented him with my fait accompli. I had proposed marriage to the first respectable woman who had given me any encouragement and she had accepted with alacrity. I closed the book. It was not the roaring waters of Reichenbach that should have haunted me. I should have dreamt of his long, white hand stretching up and saying, “For me, there still remains the cocaine-bottle.”

I set The Sign of Four aside and extinguished the lamp. After staring into the darkness for a long while, I went quietly to my door and opened it. There was neither light nor sound, but that Holmes was also awake I felt sure. I tip-toed back to bed, stretched out beneath the covers and waited for the music to begin.

***

Sunday, May 27th 1894 ~

The smouldering campfire had smelt of spruce wood. Between it and the cliff face, a tent had glowed briefly with the light of a lamp. When it was quenched, only the fire and the stars remained to light the solitary figure perched upon a low rock with his back to me, stirring the fire’s embers with a long staff.

I crept closer.

The heavy stick was set aside, a notebook withdrawn from a coat pocket and set open upon the stone. Something else was placed beside it which I could not clearly see, a pencil, I supposed.

I edged nearer.

The figure shifted to the side. Gloves were removed and long, pale hands were held up to the heat of the dying flames. The pencil was deftly seized and rolled between fire-warmed palms. I felt sure that he was considering what to write, but after a moment, a breath was drawn in that swelled the chest beneath the thick woollen coat and the pencil was placed between his lips. Not a pencil then, but a small pipe such as shepherds play. The piper gave breath to his pipe and its clear notes sparkled above him in the chill air. Around us, the wind rose.

In my bed, I drew the blankets up to my ears.

*** 

If I wrote the instant I awoke, I sometimes caught a glimpse of where I'd been in my dreams. For so long, they had eluded me entirely.

I threw the covers back and went to the window. From the leaden London sky, I could not tell what time it was, but my watch declared it to be nearly mid-day. I pushed my arms through the sleeves of my dressing gown as I descended the stairs. The sitting room door was ajar.

Within, Holmes was sprawled upon the settee, his violin resting upon his chest, his bow arm dangling off the side, the bow resting along the carpet. Through half-closed eyes, he watched me approach.

“Did you ever begin any of those letters you almost sent to me while you were away?” I said by way of greeting.

His eyes dropped to his violin. “Not with words, no.”

I stopped before him. “With what, then?”

His arm came up and with one long motion he drew the bow over the strings. The note was low and melancholy.

I stepped back.

At that he sat up, raising the violin to his shoulder and with averted gaze began to play. Into my chair I sank, staring at his fingers on the neck of the instrument. The room dimmed. I could smell the campfire and the damp of melting snow. Above us, the sky was full of stars.

I shivered. “You did not compose that on a violin.”

His brow furrowed as he played on. “I could not take either of you with me,” he replied, “but a wooden flute is a sturdy and portable thing.” He stood up and made his way about the room, swaying slightly as he went. “The music always brought you close.”

I sat mutely for a while, watching him move and catching a phrase here and there from the music of the play. He paused by the farthest window, gazing down into the street. His melody rose higher.

I stood. “You wrote that alone, by a campfire. Your companions had gone to sleep in their tent. How many were there?” I asked, as if that was the urgent question.

“Three,” Holmes replied, distractedly. “A guide and two porters, one of whom also cooked for us.”

I took a few steps nearer. “It’s good that you weren’t alone.”

I saw the edge of a smile. “I am often with people, Watson.” His melody climbed. “If you are not among them, I am alone.”

I leaned against the side of the settee. “When you were gone, I dreamt of searching for you at the Falls,” I said and the falling water drowned out Holmes’s playing for a moment. “I never re-lived any of our adventures nor a single hour of the many we spent in this room.” My arm swept about me, then dropped to my side. My voice dropped with it. “I had to read my stories or my notes for that.”

“When did you see the encampment and hear the flute?” Holmes asked.

“Last night,” I replied and I could see them again. I had moved close enough to put my hand on his shoulder as he played, to rub along the heavy wool and over the astrakhan collar. His hair had grown long; strands of it were entwined with the curls of the fleece. I had stood there, my hand wandering over them to the rise and fall of his notes.

“The moon rose over the mountain, silvering the rocks. Your hands gleamed as you played.”

Holmes turned from the window.

“Above us there had been a whirring sound and we had looked up as a drift of swans flew past the moon and I had wanted to sing,” I said. “I had wanted to sing to your music, but I didn’t know the words.”

Holmes walked towards me. “Do you know them now?”

***

Thursday, June 1st 1894

With every mile we travelled south from Paris, the sky grew bluer. The passing villages and vineyards basked in the afternoon sun, even the stone taking on a golden hue. Each station we approached looked like a charming place to disembark.

“You’ve been away from London for so long, I’m amazed an engagement necessitating travel would interest you,” I remarked, my eyes still on the scenery.

Holmes rustled his newspaper. “But you haven’t been away.”

I glanced from the window. Holmes tossed Journal de Genève aside and took up Gazzetta Piemontese. He looked up at me. “And the heat will do you good.”

I could not argue. My muscles relaxed further with each degree the temperature climbed. My leg was hardly troubling me at all.

“Besides, I thought you’d enjoy hearing the results of the experiments with coal-tar derivatives and vine blight on which I spent several months last winter.”

“It may be a stretch for my French.” I smiled. I did enjoy when Holmes held forth on any of the widely-ranging areas of his expertise, and I enjoyed listening to his French, which he appeared to speak without any trace of an English accent, in marked contrast to my own utterances.

“And I had a wire just before we left the hotel in Paris, confirming our tickets for the concert in Montpellier. A suite from the incidental music for Antony and Cleopatra will be on the programme,” Holmes explained.

I sat back in my seat. “You never did tell me why there were those similarities between that music and yours.”

“Ah, well, Henri will no doubt expand on that topic when we have supper with him after the concert. You two share a tendency to romanticise mundane processes, like hearing a bit of a melody and using it to write a symphony.”

“Beautiful as it was, incidental music is not a symphony,” I pointed out. “Who might be romanticising now?”

“You are correct, but Henri used the leitmotif in a symphony as well. That, however, will not be part of the programme. They are not played together because of the similarities, but I predict that in the future they will be studied together for that precise reason. It is fascinating what he did with such a simple melody.”

My eyes fixed on Holmes, the charming scenery forgotten. “In what way does he romantise his hearing of this tune?”

Holmes met my gaze. “He calls it enchanting, swears it must be the melody to an incantation. In time, we should expect him to develop it into an opera. He claims it won’t let go of him.” Holmes lowered his eyes with a smile. “I’ve told him it was inspired by the chemical formula for one of the coal-tar derivatives with which I was experimenting at the university.”

“But it wasn’t,” I persisted.

Holmes glanced up. His eyes, too, had become bluer as we journeyed south. “I think you know the answer to that.”

“I reserve my judgement on this Henri," I said, "but I agree with his assessment. The music is magical. What other explanation is there for what I’ve been able to see these last few nights?” I raised a forefinger. “I could describe the great coat you wore in the mountains down to the astrakhan on the collar.”

Holmes’s smile grew broader. “There may have been a tune I heard the herders in Tibet using to call their animals home from the slope. It was graceful.” His hand described a figure eight, or perhaps it was the sign for infinity, in the air between us. “And it always seemed to work.”

I did not take offense at being likened to a goat or a sheep because the idea that I was being called home appealed to me.

He leaned back against the carriage seat and steepled his fingers at his chin. “You can judge for yourself in a few months.”

My eyebrows went up.

“Once the lecture series is finished, we’ll go to Marsailles and take ship north. It’ll be too warm for Florence until the autumn, whereas midsummer in Norway is quite delightful. Hardly any night at all. And we will resort to the sauna if the evenings are too cool for you. You will like that.”

I nodded my head slowly as I took it in. We had not discussed our itinerary past the time in Montpellier, although there had been some passing reference to taking our time and stopping one or two places on our way back. It was just as well that I had already sold my practice to young Verner.

“Good, good. We wouldn’t want to be in Arabia or Khartoum before winter, although Persia in late autumn after Florence and Venice should be pleasant,” Holmes continued.

I inclined my head in agreement. We were heading into territory I knew.

“There may be some locations you would like to share with me in the vicinity,” Holmes added.

“Perhaps.”

“And, of course, we have to allow time for you to hear the herders in Tibet and make your own judgement about their music,” Holmes concluded.

“Of course,” I murmured. “I am as biddable as a sheep or a goat.”

“Or a yak." Holmes slid his eyes across to me. "No, a goat, I think.”

I felt a flush rising to my cheeks and steered the conversation in a different direction. “Did you happen to mention this odyssey to Mrs Hudson?”

Holmes was behind a newspaper again. “I told her we might be away for some time and paid her two years rent in advance. Despite being pleased with the economics of it, she said she would miss us if we were gone so long again.”

“She is fond of you.” I looked back out the windows. “But you gave no hint to me that we’d be gone anywhere near that long. It’s good Verner materialised as a buyer for my practice when he did.”

“Well, I had been hoping to make it a bit of a surprise for you,” Holmes said from behind the paper.

I stared at the printed pages that hid him. “Retracing your steps?”

“Not in the exact order and excluding a few unpleasant ones caused by Moriarty’s confederates, yes.”

“We could have done it all in dreams,” I murmured, realising that that was what we had begun to do.

“This will be sunnier, for the most part. There will be fresh air and exercise. You like those things.”

A whistle sounded and the train began to slow.

Holmes folded his paper and popped up to get his case from the rack above his seat. “This will be us.”

He had not turned quickly enough for me to miss the colour on his cheeks. I considered accusing him of romanticism, but I forbore. It was not anything so simply labelled, but rather one facet of his infinite variety.