Readers on several continents are familiar with my tales of my adventures with Sherlock Holmes, and some have requested a Christmas story. While this is such a tale, English law as it currently stands dictates that it shall never be published. To explain to subscribers of the Strand how I spent Christmas 1889 would be to subject myself – and more distressingly, my dearest friend – to imprisonment and disgrace. I suppose I must count myself lucky that in these enlightened times, the law restricts itself to that. I have often told Holmes that he would certainly have been burned had he lived a few centuries ago, but my recent conduct indicates that he would have company. What follows is proof.
Of course, it is not required of a Christmas story that it begin on Christmas. Just as a Christmas pudding may take six months to cure, so does this tale. It begins on the night of June 19th, 1889, when I made a most peculiar journey. Fate plucked me from the connubial surroundings of my newly established household in the West End and sent me hurtling in a cab towards the Bar of Gold, a dirty, rat-infested drug den. I was searching for Isa Whitney, whose distraught wife – a friend of Mary's – rightly guessed that he was once again lost to the pipe.
Between Ratcliff Highway in the East End of London and the docks that line the northern bank of the Thames, there is a small warren of alleys and cul-de-sacs where it's best not to set foot during the day, let alone after dark. The high street is synonymous with murder, but the adjoining alleys – well, there is no type of vice that cannot be found within. If, for example, you stand on Upper Swandam Lane on an ordinary evening, so close to the river that you can smell it, you will see men disappear furtively down dark steps that lead to an unmarked door. Beyond is a cramped, subterranean room stained brown with thick clouds of opium smoke. This cellar is furnished with a number of worn oaken berths such as one would see on a ship. Embarking "passengers" lie on these, the fateful pipe at their lips. Those who have reached their destination, the land of dreams and obsession, are more likely to be found slumped on top of each other. They lie insensible on the floor while the embers of pipes and Turkish braziers shine around them like glowworms in the dark. This, then, is the Bar of Gold.
I found three things in this optimistically named venue: the first expected, the second unlikely, and the third unthinkable. The first was the unfortunate and penitent Whitney, just rising from an opium fog of two days' duration. The second was the entirely unpenitent Sherlock Holmes. I had left him unattended for a few weeks while setting up housekeeping with my new wife, and now he was languidly reclining on a thin, red smudge of a mattress in one of the wooden berths, his abandoned pipe dangerously close to setting the whole thing alight. And the third was the smooth-faced, curly-headed young sailor who lay sprawled half on top of him, his left arm slung with shocking familiarity around my friend's slim and unresisting waist.
This is not, of course, the picture I painted in "The Man with the Twisted Lip." I said then that Holmes was disguised as an old man. In real life, he was disguised as a mariner's pillow. I submit that the latter disguise was, as far as I was concerned, much more effective. If not for Holmes' pale foot, which dangled with unmistakable insouciance off the filthy mattress, and for the familiar mole that graced its second largest toe, I would have passed him by altogether.
I had no idea what to think. I had often seen my friend looming over a human body, but never half under one. To my great relief, Holmes was not dead, as I could see his chest rising and falling in the red half-light of the brazier. Therefore the other individual must be. How else should Holmes have borne his proximity? My friend was, to my knowledge, a stranger to intimacy, and yet the position in which he and the sailor lay was nearly as intimate as any I had enjoyed since leaving bachelordom behind. Death was the obvious conclusion. And yet, this supposition of mine was an example of theorising before having all the evidence, for the apparent corpse hailed me. He had to lift his face from where it was nestled against Holmes's long, pale throat to do it.
"Oi, Peep-Eyes," said this youth. "Ye've a gob to hold a hansom, haven't ye? Come to gawp at a pretty face?"
The man's teeth were bared. But for his dirty naval uniform, he could have been a jackal defending its spot at the river when surprised mid-drink.
Holmes lazily opened one eye. His laziness was of short duration. As soon as he beheld me, he sat bolt upright, cracking his head against the ceiling of his berth and inadvertently knocking his companion to one side as he rose. The sailor, no longer confident in his ability to hold on to what was now an extraordinarily animated mount, seated himself with wounded dignity on the side of the berth.
"Good God," croaked Holmes. "What on earth are you doing in this den?"
"I might ask the same of you," I said. I must have presented a very somber visage as he blinked up at me, for I had long lectured him on the dangers of stimulants, and here he was resorting to narcotics. And yet, this disappointment was nothing compared to the realisation that Holmes, the untouchable madman who had often given me reason to consider myself the sun around which he orbited, was making himself available as a cushion to any and all visitors to the East London docks.
"Right," said the sailor, looking me up and down with undisguised contempt. "His regular gent, are you? Wondered who was keeping him like this – all flash togs and bird bones. He's a stick for dogs, he is."
"It is not my job to feed him," I announced, with some heat, for I thought of that as Mrs Hudson's job. Though speaking of Holmes in the third person, I was looking directly at him. "It's my job to watch out for him. Given that he is here, I can see that I'm doing a deplorable job of it."
"And how are you, my boy?" said Holmes, countering my heat with some ice. "I can't say I have had much watching lately. Married life keeping you well? It must be, as you've gained seven pounds."
"Damn me for a paper hat if I'm touching this," remarked the sailor, who was clearly the sanest of the three of us. "If ye need me, Antoine, you know where Old Robbie is. As for ye, ye great toff" – and here he fixed me with an unforgiving stare – "here's an idea for that square noggin of yours: dress him less and feed him more." And with that, he disappeared into the smoke generated by fifty or more opium pipes, bobbing and weaving in the cellar gloom.
"Of all th—" I began, about to say something both monstrously uncharitable and true.
"Send Isa Witney home in your cab," hissed the primary source of my frustrations, for he had deduced why I was here. "Tell him to tell Mary that you and I are going to the Cedars at Lee. We've a case."
"Perhaps you would prefer the illuminating company of Old Robbie? Though how he came by that bracing sobriquet, I do not know, as he appears to be eighteen."
"Twenty-three and a quarter," said Holmes. He gave me a queer and piercing look. "Heavens, Watson, whatever is the matter with you?"
Something about the sight of my friend in another man's arms had shaken me more than anything since my run-in with the Jezail bullet. I could not find a reason for my own perturbance, so I looked for the reason for Holmes's behavior. Perhaps berths were less expensive when shared. Unfortunately, this explanation would not hold. Holmes was virtually oblivious to matters of economy.
"Nothing," I said. "Were you cold?"
Holmes narrowed his eyes. "When?"
My friend had the syndrome described by Dr. Raynaud – he quickly lost blood flow to his hands and feet when exposed to cold, and had to take precautions to avoid it. Perhaps this is why he allowed the sailor physical contact.
"Not especially," said Holmes. "You are aware that it is June?"
"Ye-esss," I replied lamely, "but it's colder below ground."
He chuckled. "I suppose. All right, friend Watson. Are you coming to Lee or not?"
Holmes is masterful to a fault. Relieved that he had stopped taking my cross-examination of him as an opportunity to cross-examine me, I did as he said and got into a rented carriage bound for Lee. I was doing my companion a great service by getting him away from that den. I told myself this, and then I told Holmes.
"Indeed," said Holmes, a smile playing about his lips. "I am indebted to you. Your services supersede those traditionally associated with the personal physician."
"Hmph," I said, for I know when I am being flattered and take pains to avoid it. "Tell me, 'Antoine,' how did you know that I was there for Isa Whitney?"
"Not an addict."
"I beg your pardon. He most certainly is."
Holmes wriggled the fingers of his left hand as though searching for notes on a violin. "Not Whitney. You. Addiction doesn't motivate you; compassion does. That and bravery are among your few calls to action."
This earned a snort from me. I was not feeling particularly awash with that elevating sentiment, and I said as much.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, man. You didn't come out in the middle of the night for your own sensual amusement; you came out because somebody asked you to. "
I found my companion's intimation that I was incapable of sensual amusement unaccountably vexing.
"I'm no longer in the Army," I said, half-joking. "You would do well to remember that at this point in time, I am my own man."
"It is past midnight, and you are currently in a carriage on your way to darkest Lee," observed Holmes.
"Touché," I said. I looked glumly out the window at the Thames. We were crossing London Bridge, which was exactly the opposite of the way I needed to go if I wished to see Mary that night.
Observing my new mood, Holmes softened.
"You are correct in stating, however, that you are not equally responsive to any and all demands. A patient would not ask you to visit an opium den in the middle of the night; that would presume too much. You left your bed for this, or very nearly so: that suggests that someone close to you asked you to make the trip to Upper Swandam Lane. I do not think that I overstate my case by claiming that only Mary and I are close to you. I didn't ask you to come; you came to please your wife. What would your wife have wanted in a drug den? Not supplies, for like you, she is not an addict. She wanted you to collect somebody who was, and she did not want to involve the police. Therefore, the object of your search was someone Mary regarded as a friend. Kate's husband, Isa Whitney."
"When did you meet Whitney?" I said, astounded.
"At your wedding reception. He was thin and yellow and prone to twitching."
We rode on a while. Holmes praised me for my "grand gift of silence" and told me that it made me "invaluable as a companion." Having been praised for my taciturnity, I immediately did away with it.
"What is this case we are on?" I inquired. Holmes's comment on my value very nearly prompted me to ask how I compared with the as-yet-unexplained Old Robbie, whose very existence incensed me. "Were you really in that den for a case?"
Holmes looked at me in surprise. "A thousand pardons, Watson," he said. "Have you not heard of the couple who reside at the Cedars, Mr and Mrs Neville St. Clair?"
I resigned myself to playing along. "Who is St. Clair?"
"He is a well-to-do businessman."
"You overestimate me. It's not my habit to be familiar with every well-to-do businessman in Kent, any more than it is my habit to be familiar with every type of tobacco ash."
"Perhaps not, but it is your habit to be familiar with celebrated beauties, and I have heard that Mrs St. Clair is one."
"You have heard? Have you not met her?"
"Of course I have met her. She is my client. She has taken a page from Kate Whitney's book and sent me forth in search of a missing husband. It would seem that the whereabouts of wayward men is a subject much on the mind of London women this season."
This earned Holmes another snort. I was woefully familiar with the habits of wayward men: the suspicious injections, the hurling of the teapot, the playing of the Stradivarius at hours best suited to an audience of owls. Having determined what I was thinking, Holmes raised his eyebrows at me.
"Of course. And you cannot tell if she is a beauty or not. No, of course you can't." I sighed. "Holmes, I sometimes wonder why God gave you eyes."
"Do you," said Holmes. "Do you indeed." Now it was his turn to look out the window. His expression was impossible to read.
After a while, he began to tell me of the case. On Monday, Mr St. Clair, who was, by all accounts, an excellent husband and father, had gone into town somewhat earlier than usual. Before he left, he promised to bring his son home some toy bricks. A few hours later, as luck would have it, Mrs St. Clair started out on foot towards the Aberdeen Shipping Company, which was holding a parcel for her. Unfamiliar with the area, she soon found herself in Swandam Lane. She began to feel nervous, for the area was rundown and rife with masculine layabouts. These eyed her with curiosity and, in some cases, more sinister stirrings. She was looking around for a cab when she heard a shout from a second-floor window. It was Neville, her husband, gesticulating wildly at her from an upper window at the Bar of Gold. He vanished immediately thereafter, and two constables and an inspector were not able to find him again. It was clear that he had been at the Bar of Gold, as several items of his clothing and a parcel of children's bricks were found in one of the upper rooms there. These items, and a bit of blood on a windowsill, were all that remained of Mr St. Clair.
"Are there no suspects?" I asked.
"There is one," said Holmes. "Hugh Boone, a professional beggar. He has been in custody at Bow Street Police Station for four days. A hideous chap, Watson! A more orange-headed, scar-faced man you've never seen, rounded out with a limp and a twisted lip. He regularly plies his trade in Threadneedle Street, very near the Bar of Gold. Many's the time I've run into him."
I did not inquire why Holmes, who had never invited me on an investigation in the area around Upper Swandam Lane, spent so much time in this part of London. What could he have been seeking there? I could tell by the way he pursed his lips with impatience that he knew the question had occurred to me.
"Why do they suspect Boone?"
"He lodges at the Bar of Gold. St. Clair's possessions were found in his room. He was almost certainly the last man to see St. Clair alive. "
"And the police have found nothing else?"
"Ah, you're asking the right questions. They found the missing man's coat. It was not with Boone – rather, it was on the mud-flats behind the opium den. Somebody tossed it out the window. The tide covered it up at first. Do you know what was in it?"
"I haven't the foggiest."
"Pennies. 421 of them, and 270 half-pennies besides. It is as if someone were trying to weigh down the coat."
"Boone," said I. "Who but a beggar would have two pounds in small coins?"
"Two pounds, six shillings, and sixpence," said Holmes absently, for he could not leave inexactness alone. "Perhaps, Watson. Perhaps."
We reached the large, remote villa called the Cedars sometime before daybreak. A stableboy ran out and tended to us. As we walked up the gravel drive to the house, the door flew open, and there stood Mrs St. Clair. She was a dainty, blonde woman in a pink silk gown. Normally, such women spark my interest, for if I have a recognisable romantic type, that is it. Mary, for example, is small and blonde.
However, I could not get my mind off the memory of Holmes, who has neither of these features to his credit, languidly entangled with the mariner. It pains me to say it, but even in the face of an unsolved murder, it was the primary thing on my mind. Usually the case would have commanded the lion's share of my attention, but at present, it had the lamb's. I looked guiltily at him and then turned away, lest he look into my pupils and find himself laid out there in his shirtsleeves.
Despite Holmes's evidence to the contrary, Mrs St. Clair felt certain that her husband was alive. As it turned out, she had evidence of her own, for a letter in Neville's handwriting had come in the post. It was postmarked Friday, four days after his disappearance, and it told her not to worry, for all would turn out well. The letter contained Mr St. Clair's signet ring. This was all well and good, but the letter was addressed in someone else's hand.
Pacing back and forth and gesticulating at nothing, Holmes seemed to be at a loss. Something about the last five minutes had agitated him. He usually had all the focus of a finely manufactured rifle, but at the moment, he was a runaway cannon crashing about on a clipper ship. He cross-examined Mrs St. Clair with a feverish, distracted air, then bid her goodnight.
After he and I had eaten a bit of supper, Holmes leapt up from the dining room table, brandishing his napkin.
"I say, Watson," he blurted out. "We needn't sleep together if you don't wish it."
I must have looked at him quizzically, because he elaborated further.
"My room is a double-bedded one. You can sleep in a separate bed, my dear chap." Here he began to twist the napkin in his pale, fidgety hands. "Or another room! You can sleep in another room entirely. Yes. No doubt you would find those arrangements more appealing. Mrs St. Clair's given me two. Two rooms. Also two beds. That is to say, two beds in one room, and a sofa in the other."
"Holmes," I began.
"I don't need the beds. I can sleep on the sofa."
"Holmes, it really isn't …"
"What am I thinking?" Holmes balled up his napkin and flung it on the dining table, where it knocked over a glass and frightened the family cat. "Sleeping is unnecessary. I don't have to sleep. Don't worry, I can not-sleep wherever you like. I can not-sleep on the extra bed, or I can not-sleep on the sofa, or I can just not-sleep anywhere. It's no trouble."
"The double-bedded room will be fine," I said firmly.
"Oh," he said, and that was that.
I was exhausted. As soon as we got to the room, I slipped between the sheets. Holmes, however, began amassing cushions like a child bent on assembling a fort. Neither the armchairs nor the sofa were safe from his predations. He stripped them bare, raided the extra bed, made a nest on the floor with the spoils, and took off his coat.
Holmes is a handsome man. Anyone would say so: his mother, his landlady, his clergyman if he had one. As his friend, this reality had not escaped me. Paget's drawings do not do him justice. The body in the drawings is roughly correct, but the face is not Holmes's. It would be lunacy to display his real face to the multitudes. Law-abiding citizens are not the only ones who read The Strand. Suffice it to say that the only thing preventing him from being swamped with women on a regular basis is his manner, which tends towards the cold and the aloof. It is certainly not the "hawk-like nose" that I describe in my stories, as this is a fabrication, not to say a bald-faced lie.
"Who was that at the Bar of Gold?" I asked.
"Old Robbie," said Holmes, not asking which individual – the rascally-looking manager, the youth who stoked the brazier, the nearly seven-foot giant in the corner – I meant. "Really, Watson, your memory for names is appalling." He lay his coat down on the now-pillowless extra bed.
"No, I mean 'Who was he to you?' I'm not asking for his alias. He can be Saucy Jack for all I care."
"This is a very peculiar line of questioning," said Holmes, undoing the buttons of his waistcoat. "Why do you want to know?"
Holmes is the most irksome of men when he puts his mind to it, for his mind is vast and capable. I could not help but snap at him.
"Yes, why in heaven's name would I, your only friend, wish to know why you were spending your time in a notorious drug den with …" I wondered if one could say "men of ill repute." I decided one couldn't. "Men of dubious character!"
"No, why would you, a man fresh from his honeymoon, want to know whose company I kept in his absence?" Holmes's voice was tinged with melancholy. "Leave it, Watson. I believe I made a mistake by bringing you here. You will forgive me, I hope."
I knew it was folly to press on, but I did anyway. "Why did he ask if I were your 'regular gent'? Did you tell him I was?"
"Of course not! Believe me, Watson, I am under no such misapprehension."
Holmes dropped his waistcoat on top of his coat, then undid one of his shirt buttons and loosened his collar. When he turned, I gasped out loud.
"Is that a love bite?"
Putting his hand to his throat as though to cover up the offending mark, Holmes gave a sharp bark of laughter. "Love? This? No. Let's keep to the facts."
"Holmes! How can you be so cavalier? Do you realise how dangerous this is? You could be arrested! It would be the end of everything: your good name, your career …"
"Yes, yes," said Holmes, sitting down heavily on his nest of cushions. "I barely have either. Don't worry about me, Watson. There's no need. The gentlemen of Bow Street couldn't find their own backsides if Providence had endowed them with three hands."
"You won't find it so amusing if you end up imprisoned," I grumbled.
"I'm an excellent lockpick. Go to sleep, John. Please. We'll wrap up the case in the morning."
"How am I supposed to help you solve the case if I am asleep?"
"Asleep or awake, you help me think," said Holmes.
Despite myself, I soon drifted off to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed that someone stroked my hair, pressed a kiss to it, and withdrew. I would like to be able to state that I murmured "Mary" in response. I do not think I did.
When I woke, coughing, I discovered Holmes had consumed a full ounce of shag. Its remnants lived on as a thick grey haze clinging to every part of the room and its inhabitants. He was still sitting on a mound of pillows, one of which he had stolen from under my head as I slept. I could tell from his look of triumph that he had solved the case. For reasons I could not discern, he made off with Mrs St. Clair's bath sponge, carefully packing it up in his Gladstone bag before we left.
We retrieved our horse and trap from the stableboy and rode directly to Bow Street Police Station. Holmes asked to be admitted to Boone's cell, and the affable Inspector Bradstreet, who knew him, let us in. My friend applied the sponge to the sleeping beggar and turned him back into what he was: Mr Neville St. Clair, the missing gentleman. It was his habit to disguise himself as an unfortunate wretch and beg on the street corner, for he had discovered that he made an abysmal businessman but a most excellent beggar. He was in character as Hugh Boone when the police picked him up for the murder of Neville St. Clair, which is to say, himself. He kept up the ruse because he did not know how to tell his wife that he was a professional vagrant. Thanks to Holmes's intervention, he didn't have to tell her, because Bradstreet promised to hush the matter up. Once again, St. Clair was a free man.
I, however, was not. After a celebratory breakfast with Holmes at Baker Street, I returned home with a heavy heart to my wife.
Prior to my discovery of Holmes in the arms of another man, I had believed him to be entirely unmoved by matters of romance. When he had failed to show any physical interest in Irene Adler, the enchanting American opera singer, I began to think of him not merely as disinterested, but as a machine. In fact, I went so far as to call him that, both in our sitting room and in the pages of the Strand. I used the term in the context of "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen," but does any man wish to be thought of as a machine?
He did not try to correct me on the point, and I grew more careless. We met Mary during a case, and when he failed to find her attractive, I added "automaton" to my list of spoken and published insults. Worse yet, I called him "positively inhuman." Now I cringed at the thought. How my remarks must have stung him! It is to his credit that he never raised his voice against me or pointed to my own behavior as less than human, though, given my cruel and thoughtless words, he could have.
The truth is, I loved Holmes. Having taken a bullet for Her Majesty, I can say with absolute certainty that from the very outset of our association, I would have taken one for him as well. This was convenient, because later on, in the case I called "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs," I did. What was less convenient was that I did not realise the all-encompassing nature of my love for my friend until I had already pledged that love to my wife.
In my defense, I was at first under the delusion that I merely loved parts of him. That I loved his mind was never in doubt, for I appreciated it from the moment I first saw him, testing a reagent for the detection of haemoglobin at Barts. A short while later, I began to speak with affection of his "bohemian soul." He chided me for preoccupying myself with concepts for which there was no empirical evidence, but smiled as he did it. If anyone had dared ask me, as we pursued our early cases, whether my feelings for him extended into the realm of romance, I would have been livid — not merely on my account, but on Holmes's. Such love was held by church, law, and public opinion to be vile and base. How would I wish such a thing upon Holmes? I wished nothing but the best for my friend.
Now, however, I had new information about what my friend might consider "best." I had seen my supposedly untouchable genius suffering himself to be touched, and this was a genie I could not coax back into the bottle. I began to love him not only as a mind loves a mind, or a soul a soul, but as a body craves a body.
We were busy with cases for much of the rest of 1889. When we were not, visions of his corporeal self pursued me day and night. At breakfast, images of his fine, sensitive lips obscured my view of my scrambled eggs. Between consultations with patients, I would think of his lightly muscled arms. In the evenings, I would meditate upon his flat belly. By dawn, I would be considering his thighs.
In short, as the hours of the day marched on, my preoccupations followed an orderly pattern from Holmes's head down towards his feet. Imagine, then, the sweet torments to which I was subjected between evening and dawn, when he made his long, lean form available to me in dreams.
As my passion increased, I began to worry that I would give myself away — if not to Holmes, who seemed insensible to this sea change in my affections, then to Mary.
"Are you blushing?" my wife asked me, with some incredulity, one day over sausage and eggs.
"Certainly not," I replied stoutly, coming out of a reverie in which Holmes allowed me to kiss him. "I haven't the capability. No Army man does."
"No," she said, narrowing her eyes at me in a way that reminded me of Holmes's shrewdness. "I thought not."
A month after my visit to the Cedars, an article in the Sunday Times caught Mary's eye.
"Goodness!" she said. "They've arrested two men for running a brothel at 19 Cleveland Street. Why, that's only a mile from here!"
"Shocking, my dear." I was not in the least bit shocked, but Mary was a gentle creature, and I wished to observe the proprieties with her. I sipped my afternoon tea. My daily mental survey of Holmes's anatomy had reached his sternum. I had not seen it, but supposed it excellent.
"It's beyond shocking," Mary replied. "The employees were all male. Men catering to the perversions of other men! Can you imagine it?"
I very nearly decorated our fine linen tablecloth with a mist of as-yet-unswallowed Darjeeling.
"No," I lied. "They found the gentlemen in flagrante, then?" I tutted and looked severe.
Now it was Mary's turn to blush. "Thankfully, no." Her eyes darted over the newsprint. "It says they needn't catch them in the act to send them to jail now. It's that new law."
"Oh?" I said. Mary must have thought me a very dutiful husband for expressing interest in her topic of conversation.
"The Criminal Law Amendment Whatsit," she said. "Thank heavens for it. Any evidence of gross indecency between men is grounds for punishment now. Kissing, caressing, what have you. It's made arrests more common. In the old days, the police couldn't bring them in without observing them engaging in something
more … I hesitate to say it, but 'strenuous.' You know. The abominable and detestable crime against nature. Bugg—"
"That will do, my dear," I said gravely. "I will not have you profaning your lips for my edification."
"Of course, James." she murmured.
"I do wish you would call me 'John,' my angel," I said, for it was one of her idiosyncrasies that she would forget my Christian name from time to time. She nodded and promised to do better. I was glad of the change of topic. Little did she know that I could imagine at least one man catering to the pleasure of another quite vividly, and that this image formed the bedrock of my dreams.
The Cleveland Street Affair continued throughout the fall. The newspapers pointed to a number of alleged clients, including Lord Somerset, who was in charge of the Prince of Wales's stables, and the Earl of Euston. Kate Whitney lived two streets away from the decommissioned brothel, and she said that local people whispered that Prince Albert Victor had also enjoyed the charms of the young men at that address. No newspaper was foolish enough to repeat such a claim, of course, and Somerset fled the country. Euston went free, then sued for libel and won. It paid to have friends in high places.
In October 1889, Holmes asked me to travel alone to Devon in the service of a case. Needless to say, I went. There I investigated the violent death of a nobleman at the hands – or rather, the fangs – of a ghostly hound. While the ghost turned out to be a living creature with a human accomplice, this case was not without interest.
For one thing, it was during this adventure that Holmes began to bombard me with compliments until I could barely stand it. "Watson, you are a conductor of light." "Watson, my dear fellow, I am very much in your debt." "Sir Henry, there is no man who is better worth having at your side than my friend Watson when you are in a tight place." I had loved him when he was indicating to me, on a regular basis, that I was an idiot, but now it was all I could do not to throw myself at his feet. By the end of the case, I could not restrain myself from saying, within earshot of Sir Henry Baskerville, "Whatever you tell me to do I will do." Holmes gave me a startled, searching look.
For another thing, I spent a full week away from my wife and I found – o, faithless heart! – that I did not miss her. In fact, when I was not working on the case, I found myself using my free hours in Devon to compose a letter to Holmes.
Holmes often accuses me of sentimentality, but even by my standards, this letter was scandalously romantic. In it, I poured out my heart. He was my life, my light, my love. When he joined me in Devon at the end of the week, I almost gave him the letter. But what could I have offered him? The tarnished affections of a married man? Infamy and disrepute? Further opportunities for imprisonment? It may be that Old Robbie was able to keep a secret within the walls of the Bar of Gold, but Holmes has told me a hundred times that my face is an open book, and it was our habit to circulate freely amongst the constabulary. My attentions, if discovered and misconstrued by our colleagues as requited, would have meant the end of that which mattered to Holmes most: his work. If I could have been his happiness, I would have rushed at the chance, but I could only be his downfall. I kept the letter in the inner breast pocket of my coat, the one nearest my heart, and brought it with me when we returned to London, for I could not bear to throw it out.
In November, I cut myself while following Holmes over a seven-foot-tall wrought-iron fence at Kew Gardens in pursuit of botanist who had poisoned his landlady. The damage to the back of my calf was superficial, but the blood ended up seeping through the new vent in the leg of my trousers and onto the lining of my coat. After I got home, Mary asked me for the coat and trousers so that she could clean the first and dispose of the second. Fortunately, there was a loose brick in the back of the fireplace in our bedroom, and I had just enough time to secrete the folded letter behind it before Mary made off with my clothes.
Neither my wife nor I ever used the fireplace, for when I bought the house some months before in preparation for our marriage, it was clear that the bricks needed repointing before it could be used safely. It would have been an excellent place to keep the letter, had fate not intervened to provide us both with an exceedingly memorable Christmas.
On the afternoon of Dec. 23rd, 1889, I returned from dining with my old friend Stamford to discover a large, red-faced tradesman in my bedroom. To my great horror, he had just finished repairing the brickwork in the fireplace.
"Who let you in?" I demanded.
"Why, your missus." He wiped his face with his forearm. "She's the one what hired me, sir. Bit of an early Christmas present to you, if you don't mind me saying. Bill, sir." Bill was apparently his name, not a request for payment, for he stuck out his right hand. He ended up shaking the air with it, for it was grimy with mortar and he was mindful of getting it on me.
In a daze, I introduced myself.
"Did you find a piece of paper while you were working, Bill? It … it belonged to my wife's late brother, poor soul. It was found on him when he died and we hadn't the heart to toss it out."
"Ah, so that's why it affected her so," said the mason with great sympathy. "Poor lass."
"What!?" I exclaimed. "She saw it?"
"Yes sir. I was moving the brick to show her the type of thing that needed fixing, and the paper fluttered down. She picked it up straightaway."
"And did she read it?"
"Oh, yes. She must miss her brother terribly, sir, because she went chalk white about the face. It's as if his very ghost walked into the room with us." He shivered.
My blood went cold. "I see. And where is she now?"
"Left, sir. Took the letter and went."
"Not sure." Bill gave me the rueful, apologetic look of a man who has just realised that he knows as much about your wife as you do. "Out. She left my payment on the dining room table and told me she'd trust me to finish up. She seemed to be in a great hurry, sir."
"Thank you," I said. "She was right to trust you, for you have done a fine job. A great judge of character, my wife." I handed him a few extra shillings because it was Christmas, and he touched his cap with his relatively tidy forearm and left.
I could not think of where my wife had gone. She had a number of friends, so I pocketed her address book, hailed a cab, and went to each of their houses in turn, starting with Kate Whitney. No one had seen her, or in any case, no one would admit it. I begged Mary's friends to let me know if they came across any news of her.
It was late when I returned home. I went to bed, fervently hoping that I would see Mary in the morning. However, the morning of Christmas Eve revealed no sign of her. I spent the day working on my accounts in order to occupy myself. Normally, this was my least favorite thing to do, but for now, it was a blessed distraction.
An hour after darkness fell, I heard a commotion on the front step. I threw open the front door, hoping to behold my small, blonde wife, but instead I discovered a parcel of young carolers. As a fine snow fell, they sang me "Good King Wenceslaus." The song seemed in tune with my own melancholy thoughts, for it includes a section that says, "Fails my heart, I know not how – I can go no longer." At the end of the performance, I gave the children a few coppers for their trouble. As I did, the dark-haired ringleader passed me an envelope.
"Your letter, mister," he said with utmost gravity, as though he were the page in the song and I the monarch. I took the letter from him. As soon as I turned the envelope over, I stumbled backwards as if struck. The envelope was so fine that it was possible to see that the stationery within referenced "A. F. Stephenson & Son, solicitors." The address on the front was in Mary's hand.
I retreated into the house in a black cloud of misery. I was ruined. Eight years of acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes allowed me to read the letter without even opening it. The name of Stephenson was a dark one to me, for Sir Augustus Stephenson was the Director of Public Prosecutions, and he was the prosecutor in charge of the Cleveland Street Affair. It was whispered among the Bow Street police that he wanted nothing more than to see the noble clients of the brothel sent to prison, but that the prime minister had held him back. He'd always nursed a suitable dislike of "sodomites," but following the public censure he received when it became clear that the brothel's clients would get off scot-free, he was said to quiver with hatred at their very mention. Mary was well aware of Stephenson, for she'd read the newspapers with great interest since the moment the scandal broke. And now she'd gone to either a member of his family or to the great man himself with my letter to Holmes, a piece of writing that burned with lustful intent. With no aristocratic connections, and no money save what I'd poured into the house, I would make the perfect scapegoat. Prosecutors, journalists, ministers of parliament, and clergymen would all be delighted to see me go down. I was doomed.
I knew I must contact Holmes. My own downfall was certain, but if the best man I ever knew were deprived of his freedom through some fault of my own, I would never forgive myself. I placed the odious letter in my coat pocket and walked out into the snow.
A hansom dropped me off at Baker Street. Holmes bid me keep my keys when I moved out, so I let myself into the front hall. Then I ran up the seventeen steps to the first floor and banged on the door to my former home.
"John Watson!" I looked down the stairs and found Mrs Hudson peering up at me. She wiped her eyes with her apron. "We haven't seen you lately. Come and have a ginger biscuit, there's a good lad."
"No, thank you, Mrs Hudson. I must find Holmes. Is he in?"
She shook her head. "No, he's gone, and you can never tell where with that one. He's seemed a bit lonely lately, what with it being your first Christmas away. I expect he's gone to see those relatives of his in France. I told him it would do him good."
My heart sank. "Thank you, Mrs Hudson. You won't mind if I wait for him?"
"As you like," she said. I let myself in and sat down heavily in Holmes's armchair. My former landlady brought me a few biscuits. We spoke for a moment, then she asked me to excuse her for not keeping me company, as she was heading to her daughter's in Chester early the next morning. I kissed this worthy lady on the cheek and bid her goodnight.
Miserable, I poured myself a glass of brandy. It was not the good brandy given to Holmes by William Thomas, Archbishop of York; it was the appalling brandy given him by another client, Haggis Jim, Safecracker of Whitechapel. Holmes had sworn never to drink it, so I knew that he would forgive my intrusion. For an hour I sat and drank. The clock struck ten. At that point, I gave up on Holmes's speedy return, sent my prayers on his behalf in the direction of France, and headed back into the street.
As I have said, it was Christmas Eve. The snowy street was deserted. Shoppers had finished shopping. Bakers had finished baking. Carolers and landladies had gone to bed. I was ready to despair of finding a cab when one appeared. I waved it down.
"Upper Swandam Lane," I said.
"The one near the docks, sir?"
"The very same."
The driver rubbed the back of his neck with the hand that wasn't holding the reins. "I don't know, sir. It's pretty far from here, and I was about to head home. Are you sure you wouldn't rather I take you somewhere else?"
I could see that Swandam Lane's reputation had preceded it. I nodded grimly.
"I'll give you a crown now and a crown when we get there."
"Ah," said the cabman. "That will make the trip go faster, sir, and no mistake."
We rode on in silence. I knew the cabman wondered what I wanted in Swandam Lane on Christmas Eve. I wondered too. The closest that I can come to explaining it is that I wished to be closer to Holmes. A dog will lie on his missing master's coat, merely because the scent reminds him of his master. I am not so different. The Bar of Gold reminded me of my missing friend, and therefore, regardless of its shortcomings, I wished to be in it.
Here the reader may well cry out in disapprobation. Was it truly necessary to visit a godforsaken opium den in the East London slums in order to keep my friend's memory? Holmes was not only a devotee of narcotics, he was also a boxer and a lover of music. Why then, did I not rush to observe an amateur match between members of the West London Boxing Club in Maiden Lane? Why did I not go to the Opera House in Covent Garden? I answer that these pleasant venues are closed late at night on Christmas Eve. An opium den never closes. It is like the prison and the workhouse in that regard.
I must admit that it also occurred to me that opium might help to ease my misery. I had been given morphine in Afghanistan. The juice of the poppy had soothed my pain then; perhaps it would soothe it now. True, my war wound had been physical, and my current anguish was mental, but I was starting to consider that the difference between physical and mental might be very slight indeed. My separation from Holmes was like an ache, and the knowledge that I might bring public scorn upon him was like a knife to my heart.
The cabman dropped me off at the top of Upper Swandam Lane, as he dared not go any further. I handed him a crown and set out on foot for the Bar of Gold.
As I walked down the snowy lane, a tall young man appeared out from under a doorway. His chipped and jagged teeth shone in the light of the gas lamp.
"Hullo, guv," he said, in a voice that was overly pleasant. "Can you tell me the time?"
"It must be quarter to eleven," I said.
"Oh, I need more preee-cision than that," he said, grinning. "I have somewhere very important to be. Would you mind if I took a look at your pocket watch?" He pulled out a knife.
I had neither knife nor revolver on me. Slowly, I removed my silver pocket watch from my coat.
"Very nice, sir," said the ruffian. "Must have come from a lady friend, eh? 'To J.W. from S.H.' She's got fine taste, your girl. I'll keep this to reee-member her by, shall I?"
"The hell you say," I replied, and I launched myself on him in a display of fury worthy of the Northumberland Fusilliers. First I knocked the knife out of his hand, then the watch. He punched me in the nose. I gave him an upper cut to the jaw. He elbowed me in the gut. I kneed him in the groin.
"All right, mate," he said, staggering about. He put his hands up. "No harm done. Keep your watch, with my compleee-ments."
Feeling a bit woozy with the brandy and the blow to the face, I turned to retrieve my watch from a snow bank. As soon as I bent over, he gave me a hard kick to the back of the right leg, and I fell to my knees.
"You're a lot of trouble, you are," he said, panting. His mouth was so close to the back of my neck that I could smell his foul breath. He wrapped an arm around me and put his knife, which he'd apparently retrieved while I was going after my watch, to my throat. I could feel its sharpness against my skin. A trickle of blood ran out. I said my goodbyes to Holmes and Mary and prepared to go down fighting.
"Let him go," said a voice. It was Old Robbie.
"This ugly mucker?" said my adversary. "Whatever for? He's a dirty toff bastard."
"That may be," observed Robbie, "but he's Antoine's dirty toff bastard."
My rival spat once in the snow, then let go of me. I lurched forward. "Tell Antoine we're even," he said, and he returned to the shadows from whence he came.
Old Robbie picked up my pocket watch and handed it to me with a wistful air. "Been a while since Antoine's come calling. He was looking better, last I saw him. Ye've been feeding him more, I expect." He sighed heavily. "A jammy beggar you are, to have a fellow like that."
I did not bother to explain to Robbie again that my relationship with Holmes was not all he believed.
"Thank you," I said, quietly. And I watched him head up Swandam Lane towards Ratcliff Highway.
I could not go with him, as I had an appointment with an opium den. I wiped the dirty snow from my trousers and walked towards the docks. Before long, I found the unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of steps. I entered the cellar and paid the manager a few shillings for oblivion.
I lay down in a berth and began to smoke. I remembered, more or less, the words of De Quincey:
Opium, like wine, gives an expansion to the heart and the benevolent affections ... Men shake hands, swear eternal friendship, and shed tears, — no mortal knows why; and the sensual creature is clearly uppermost.
Perhaps this was why Holmes enjoyed the drug; it allowed him to cast off his cold exterior and reach out to his fellow man in ways that were barred to him when reason was uppermost. Whatever indiscretions he may have enjoyed with Old Robbie, I forgave him.
In the dim light of the brazier, I could see other men around me. Some kept their own company; some were entwined as couples; and some lay stacked like firewood on the floor. I wondered if, under the influence of the narcotic, I would soon welcome another dreamer's presence in my berth. I didn't think I would. Just as I had a specific romantic type as far as womankind was concerned, I had a specific romantic type for men. It was Holmes. If I could not have him, I would have no one.
I was on the fourth puff when a tall man hurled himself into my berth.
"I beg your pardon," I said, pushing stubbornly back against him, "but I have no interest in company."
"Watson, you imbecile, it's me," he hissed. "Christ! Whatever has become of you?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked, astonished. "You're supposed to be in France!"
He looked steadily at me. "Mrs Hudson is not my commanding officer. It pleased her to think I would go to France, so I let her think it. My dear fellow!" He began to run his hands over my face, my throat, my torso, looking for injuries and finding them. "You're in terrible shape. You must come home with me at once."
"Leave me," I said. "Let me finish this pipe."
"The pipe be damned," said Holmes, snatching it away from me. "You're drunk, your nose is bleeding, your throat is cut, and you've a tenderness …"
"... In this rib. Get out of that berth this instant."
"I cannot be seen with you," I whispered. "It's terrible, Holmes! I can bring you nothing but shame and infamy."
"Nonsense," he said.
"I've done something I cannot recover from," I moaned. "You must go, old chap. Nothing lies before me but ruin."
"Then we will face ruin together," he said. "I don't care if you've tried to blow up Parliament. Get up."
"There aren't any cabs."
"I brought one," he replied, and soon after, he was bustling me into it.
We returned to Baker Street. Holmes insisted I change out of my clothes, which had not been improved by their collision with the ruffian in the snow bank, and gave me one of his dressing gowns to wear. He insisted that I sit in his armchair, "as I perceive that, like Goldilocks, you've been in it already," and he covered me up with a blanket. Soon he had built a crackling fire to warm our toes. For one who'd had a knife to his throat earlier in the evening, I felt remarkably cosy.
"So," said Holmes, steepling his hands. "Tell me what's happened, that we may determine a way out of it."
"Mary's left me."
"I thought as much."
"I wrote a letter. A disastrous letter. Oh, why did I write it?"
Holmes stared into the fire. "No doubt it was of a compromising nature?"
"Then unless you are involved with Queen Victoria, it cannot be anywhere near as serious as you think." He sighed. "This will not be your ruin, Watson. Whatever you've done with the lady in question …"
"The object of your affections, man. Honestly, I have rarely seen your senses so deranged. How much did you drink?"
"There is no lady," I said. "I wrote it to you."
Holmes turned to face me. He appeared stunned. "I received no such letter."
"Of course you didn't receive it! I took the precaution of not sending it! Do you think I would be fool enough to let you see it?" I buried my face in my hands.
"Where is it now?" Holmes's tone was oddly gentle.
"Mary found it. She's gone to Stephenson with it. No doubt I shall be prosecuted."
"Over my dead body," said Holmes. "There are four million people in London, and I have dirt on half of them. We will not be undone by this, I promise you."
His eyes drifted over to my peacoat, which was drying out on the coatrack by the door. He walked over and plucked Mary's letter out of the left pocket. "What is this?" he asked.
"News of my destruction," I said. "And very probably yours, though you don't deserve it."
"You did not open it?"
"Why should I hurry to acquaint myself with the details of my downfall?" I asked gloomily. "Give me one last night in peace."
Holmes tore open the letter. I had not the heart to grab it from him. I slumped listlessly in his armchair while he perched on the arm of the sofa like a great bird, reading. A slow smile spread over his face.
"Good news," he said. "Marvelous news. You're saved, Watson. She doesn't seek destruction. She only seeks divorce."
"But what about Stephenson?"
"There are a great many Stephensons in London, my dear fellow. The stationery doesn't belong to the infamous prosecutor – it belongs to James Stephenson, a young solicitor she's fallen in love with."
"I often wondered why she called me 'James.' It started only a month after we were married, too."
"Now you know."
"But what of the letter I wrote you? Surely she plans to blackmail me with it."
"Apparently not. She says that she has considered the matter with great seriousness. She has decided that she will not get in the way of true love, and she expects that you will not either."
"That's all well and good," I said, "but wait a few months, and she will produce the letter in court."
"I doubt it, for it is here."
"Yes," said Holmes. "She included it in the envelope to you. She asks only that you treat her fairly in divorce court. We both recall that she received but one pearl a year from the Agra treasure. Well, she invested the proceeds in hotels and railroads, and she's put away a modest fortune. To show that there are no hard feelings, she recommends that you invest in electricity. The Deptford Power Station is apparently the next big thing."
I sprang from the armchair and ran to Holmes. "This is fantastic!" I held my hand out for the letter. Holmes dropped Mary's correspondence on the sofa, but held the billet-doux I had written him over my head.
"Ah ah," he chided. "I believe this is addressed to me."
"Holmes, give it back."
Holmes stood on the arm of the sofa with his right arm outstretched and squinted up at my letter. "What a number of physical perfections I appear to possess! You seem to be extremely taken with my pallor. I had no idea. Let me see. 'Long, sensitive fingers.' 'Firm lips.' 'Languid, dreamy eyes.'"
"Holmes, you monstrous string bean, you will return the letter to me this instant."
"Do I really have a 'gaunt figure' and a 'catlike love of personal cleanliness'? I suppose I do. What's all this about my 'long, thin form'? Not to be indelicate, but length seems to be a particular fetish of yours."
I lunged for him, but he scampered onto the back of the sofa and continued reading.
"You'll not defeat me like that, for evidently I am 'athletic.' Also 'tall.' Gracious. What a fine figure of a man I must be to command such attention."
"You are nothing of the sort," I said, frowning. "You are a cad and a beast to mock me so."
Holmes came down from his perch and threw his arms around me. "Forgive me, Watson. I am not mocking, I am exulting. You are the love of my life, and always will be."
I took advantage of the lull in the proceedings to knock him onto the sofa. He gave a holler of surprise and grappled with me, but his refusal to allow any harm to come to his letter was his undoing. I snatched it away from him, inserted my knee between his thighs, and pinned him down.
"You are shorter when lying on your back," I observed, triumphant.
"May you have many occasions to test that hypothesis," he replied. "Merry Christmas, John."
And here the first of my many dreams came true, for he allowed me to kiss him on the lips.