I’ve mentioned in my previous writings that there are incidents that I’m unable to write about without exposing secrets which could harm other people. The case I have set out to describe here is one of these, and possibly the most important to keep private as the persons who would be most harmed by it becoming public knowledge are Holmes and myself. Not just our reputations, but also our freedom is at stake, and yet I cannot keep myself from putting it down in words, if only because that might make it seem more real.
Holmes would no doubt be strongly disapproving that I’m taking the risk of setting this down on paper but he’s not here tonight, he's out somewhere in the dark, chasing after a murderer, and I find that just running the memories through my mind is no longer enough.
It all started on a quiet evening in our sitting room. I was settled in my chair, reading the latest copy of the Lancet with a glass of brandy at my elbow, whilst Holmes smoked his pipe, leaning on the mantelpiece and frowning slightly to himself. He’d taken on a new case that afternoon, the disappearance of a young gentleman, and it was clear that the details were running through his mind.
Lady Colleton had employed Holmes to find her missing son, Mr Francis Colleton, and I'd accompanied him to speak to her earlier that day. She’d come across as a woman of great self-possession, detailing the circumstances of her son’s last known movements in an even tone and only giving away her emotion with a faint trembling of her hands. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have spotted even that if Holmes hadn’t mentioned it to me later.
After speaking with her, we called on Mr Edward Hawthorne, who was not only a close acquaintance of Francis Colleton’s but also shared rooms with him. He’d been the last person to see Colleton as he left their rooms for an evening walk five days before. He’d been more obviously distraught, fiddling with his watch chain whilst he spoke with us and cutting his eyes away from Holmes’s stern gaze.
“Do you remember when you spoke to me about tact, and keeping quiet about some of the details I deduce about people?” Holmes asked suddenly into the companionable silence we'd cultivated in our sitting room.
I blinked and looked up. “Why, yes, Holmes,” I said, remembering back a few years to a case that had involved a young scullery maid. Holmes had deduced something rather compromising about her family from her shoes and dropped it into casual conversation, mortifying her, and I’d been rather outspoken on the way back to Baker Street on the subject of common courtesies.
Holmes nodded and took a long puff on his pipe, seemingly in no hurry with the conversation. I could feel myself frowning, though. What did a conversation about respecting people’s privacy have to do with the case?
“Has it ever occurred to you that, given the way I have trained my mind to draw conclusions from every scrap of observational evidence, I must know many things about those close to me that are, usually, considered to be intensely personal?”
My frown increased. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Holmes, taking in another long breath from his pipe, “I could tell you things about the bedroom activities of Lestrade and his wife, for example, that would make you blush as red as the carpet.”
I felt my cheeks begin to bloom without him even clarifying the statement. “Holmes!” I uttered, scandalised.
Holmes ignored me. “I have cultivated the habit of acting as if such information did not exist, however I find myself needing to acknowledge a piece of such information in order to continue this case.”
“About Lestrade?” I asked, confused.
Holmes let out a long breath. “No. Not at all.” He tapped the ash out of his pipe into the fire, then immediately began to refill it. “Although I have done my best to become knowledgeable about every aspect of society and this city, there are some areas that I have not yet had the time to delve into. One of these areas is crucial to this case, so I find myself faced with two choices. Either I waste valuable time researching this subject, time during which Francis Colleton might disappear forever, or I ask someone who already has the knowledge to help me.”
I shook my head. It had been a long day and Holmes’s circulatory speech was not making things clearer to me. “What are you trying to say?” I asked, hoping for a straight answer.
Holmes waited until his pipe was refilled and relit, during which time I nearly lost patience and went back to my journal. “Watson,” he said, after drawing in the first puff. “You’re a sodomite.”
I started, the journal slipping out of my hands and my eyes automatically darting to the doorway of the sitting room, even as I internally cursed for giving myself away so obviously.
“Everyone else in the house has long gone to bed,” said Holmes reassuringly. “There’s no one here but us, my dear Watson, and after this I promise I will continue to pretend to know nothing, but I must get some answers to a couple of questions, or we may be too late for Francis Colleton.”
“But what on earth could have given you such an idea about me?” I blustered. I had rather an uncomfortable feeling that I already knew, but I couldn’t help hoping that he was just guessing; completely out of character though it would have been.
Holmes raised one eyebrow. “Do you really want me to list everything I observed that first led me to this deduction four years ago, or all the things that have since confirmed it?”
I shook my head, then bent it forward so that I was no longer meeting Holmes’s eyes. “Good God, man,” I exclaimed. Four years?
And if he knew that, then surely it was an easy step to deduce my other, even darker secret? After all, if you know that a certain man is an invert, surely it doesn't take a brain of Holmes's power to realise that the man's oft-professed admiration and respect for his closest friend is less than completely platonic?
Holmes finally left his place at the mantelpiece, going over to the bar and pouring me a large glass of brandy. I accepted it gratefully.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t consider how much of a shock this must come as to you.”
“You could have found an easier way of mentioning it,” I said numbly.
“I’m not sure I could have,” he replied with an elegant shrug, and then returned to his position at the mantelpiece. “I really just want to ask you a couple of questions for the case, and then we can both forget the whole thing.”
“The case?” I asked, taking a generous swallow of brandy. “What on earth could such a subject have to do with the case?” Forgetting the whole thing sounded good to me, but I wasn't sure it would be possible. Holmes had declared he was well-practised at ignoring such personal information, but I was not.
“Ah,” said Holmes. “Did you not notice? Hawthorne, at least, shares your proclivities, and it is my current hypothesis that Colleton does also.”
“Hawthorne?” I repeated, trying to remember what signs might have given him away. “I didn't notice anything.”
Holmes tipped his head to one side, regarding me with a bemused air. “That does not completely surprise me,” he said. “He took great pains to keep it hidden during our interview, but it was clear to me within the first minute of meeting him.”
I blinked. “How?” I asked, no doubt sounding like a simpleton. “Surely you're not going to tell me you deduced it from the colour of his cuffs or the dirt on his shoes?”
Holmes allowed his amusement to pull his mouth into a tiny smile. It was a small comfort to me that he was treating me exactly as he always had – but, then, the one having to adjust to a new dimension to our friendship was me, not him. He'd known for years, I reminded myself.
“Not at all, Watson. It was the way he took several long seconds to take in your figure with obvious admiration when we first entered the room and then pulled his gaze away hastily, as if caught doing something wrong.”
I was shocked. Hawthorne had looked at me in that manner, and I hadn't noticed? My confusion must have shown on my face, because Holmes's smile grew.
“You receive such looks more often than I think you are aware,” he said. “From both men and women.”
That made me flush slightly and I fixed my eyes on the fire in an effort to regain my composure. It wasn't easy – even with that information pushed to one side, the knowledge that Holmes knew about my sexual deviance, and had for years, was still making my pulse race. It was clear from his manner that he had no intention of turning me in to the police or revealing my secret, but that didn't mean there would be no repercussions from this conversation. The easy friendship and camaraderie that Holmes and I had always shared could easily be damaged by this.
And yet, it was already too late to avoid that. I suppressed a sigh and looked up, hoping I looked calmer than I felt. “Very well. What did you want to know?”
Holmes asked me a lot of questions that night, most of them about the places in London where a gentleman such as myself might find a welcome and how the society of such places conducted themselves, but also some on the nature of such feelings and the motivations behind them.
“Popular opinion would have me believe that such things are merely sexual in nature,” Holmes said, still resting by the mantelpiece. He'd not stirred during the course of our conversation, except to keep puffing away at his pipe, for which I was grateful. It gave the illusion of distance between us, of this being an interview rather than a tête-a-tête between close friends, making it easier for me to reveal such private things. “But I suspect that's not true. There's an emotional element as well, surely? One that is similar to that between a man and a woman?”
“Indeed,” I agreed. “I have known pairs of men who were, to each other, as intimate as if they'd been married for many years.”
Holmes nodded slowly. “Such relationships continue in the usual way, I suppose,” he mused. “Desire to spend time together, gifts exchanged and declarations of affection?”
“They can do,” I said. “Usually the more overtly romantic gestures are curtailed or transformed, in deference to the tastes of those involved.”
“Such as substituting watch chains instead of jewellery,” said Holmes musingly, and I remembered how Hawthorne had played with his watch chain.
“You think Colleton and Hawthorne share such a relationship?” I asked.
Holmes nodded. “Their apartment showed signs of intimacy that goes beyond most bachelors who share rooms. And they argued before Colleton left that day, with such vehemence as to make it most likely that it was between lovers rather than friends.”
I was surprised, as I often am by my friend's pronouncements. “But how on earth can you know that?”
“Simple,” declared Holmes. “There was guilt and regret in Hawthorne's manner which, combined with the signs of something made of glass containing a dark liquid – likely a brandy glass – having been thrown against the eastern wall of their sitting room and then hastily cleared up, made the deduction simple. All that remains to be discovered is what the argument was about, and whether it had any bearing on Colleton's subsequent disappearance.”
“You don't suspect Hawthorne, surely?” I asked. He had seemed like a nice enough young man to me, without any signs of subterfuge or malice, but I'd been deceived by criminals before.
Holmes waved that idea away with one languid hand. “No, not at all. But that does not mean that he isn't hiding something that could throw light on this case.” He was silent for a long few moments, staring into the distance.
I glanced at the clock and was surprised to see how late it had become. “Do you have any other questions, Holmes, or can I retire to bed?”
Holmes glanced at the clock himself and quirked an eyebrow, clearly as surprised by the passage of time as I had been. “No, no, that's all for now.”
I nodded and stood, putting aside my neglected Lancet, then turned to head for my room. Just before I reached the door, Holmes spoke again. “And thank you, dear boy. I appreciate that you would not usually wish to speak about such a subject.”
I spared him a quick smile. “Don't mention it. As long as I don't wake up to Inspector Lestrade and a set of handcuffs, that is.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Lestrade would probably rather enjoy that,” he said with a wicked smirk.
“Holmes!” I exclaimed, horrified. How was I going to face Lestrade next time we met?
He waved away my outrage. “Besides, Mrs Hudson would be greatly put out. It would be cruel to leave her with me as her only tenant.”
“That's certainly true,” I acknowledged. “Without me to talk her around, she might well decide to evict you the next time one of your experiments shatters the windows.”
Holmes scowled. “That was a calculated risk,” he said. I suppressed my reaction to that, and turned back towards my bedroom.
“I may need more information on this subject before the case is closed,” he added before I could leave, “ but I promise that the morning after it is completed, I will never mention it again.”
I managed a smile. “I appreciate that, Holmes,” I said, and then escaped from his presence.
I hadn't let myself fully feel the emotional impact of Holmes's revelation whilst in the same room as him, not when I was very well aware of how easily he could read my thoughts and emotions from my face. When I got up to my room, I sank down on my bed and put my head in my hands, taking a long breath. He'd known. All these years, and my second most tightly-wrapped secret was no secret at all.
It was quite a blow, and yet I wondered how I ever thought I could have kept it from him to start with. He could tell the life history of a stranger just by glancing at them – of course he'd know everything about the man whom he shared so much of his life with. I tried to comfort myself with the truth that, if he hadn't had any reaction to the information so far, he was unlikely to now, but that wasn't enough to prevent me from spending the night in a state of anxiety that allowed me very little sleep.
The next morning Holmes was already gone by the time I made my way down for breakfast. I didn't hear from him until that evening, when a boy delivered a telegram that instructed me to meet Holmes on a street whose name I recognised with a prickling sense of inevitability. He also instructed me to bring one of his cravats and a jacket suitable to be worn in polite society, which I dutifully fetched from his room before getting a cab. Finding a jacket that didn't have either blood, mud, or unidentifiable chemical stains on it took rather longer than I'd been expecting.
The street was mainly deserted when I paid off the driver and let the cab go, and I glanced both ways down it, wondering which way I should go. A hand suddenly grabbed my elbow and I had to refrain from letting out a cry of surprise. I spun around to find a dishevelled-looking labourer dressed in a long coat that had seen better days.
“Calm yourself, Watson,” he said in Holmes's voice and then tugged me down a narrow alleyway. “Are those my clothes?” he asked, taking the bag from me without waiting for an answer. “Capital.” He stripped off his long coat, revealing a clean shirt and a pair of trousers underneath that looked out of place on a labourer, but which suited the jacket perfectly.
“Did you need me for more than a delivery boy,” I asked as he effected his change, “or should I go find another cab?”
“I've spent the day trailing after our Mr Hawthorne,” he said. “He led me on a less-than-interesting trail around London, but I think the game might finally be afoot. He went into the building on the corner there fifteen minutes ago.”
I glanced at the building, which thus far I had been avoiding looking at. “I know it,” I revealed in resigned voice. “It's a kind of private gentlemen's club.”
He gave me a bright-eyed look. “Ah, I suspected as much, but your knowing it is more than I could have hoped. You can let me know if there's some special code in order to gain admittance.” He'd managed to completely transform himself from casual labourer to gentleman and once he'd stuffed the old coat into the bag, he abandoned them both in the shadows of the alley.
“It's one of the more exclusive ones,” I said. “They don't let strangers in – I'll have to come with you.”
Holmes's eyebrows rose at that. “I did not mean to inconvenience you like that,” he said, which made me laugh.
“Last week you made me wait for four hours, crouched behind a crate at the docks in the freezing cold, without ever worrying about my convenience, but the idea of obliging me to go into a club, one I have frequented often enough for my own pleasure...that you baulk at.”
Holmes smiled back. “Well, I needed your revolver with me at the docks, but I do not foresee too much danger here.”
“You should,” I told him frankly. “They keep a number of stout menservants and if they suspect you are not one of them, they will assume you are either a blackmailer or with the police, and deal with you as such.”
Holmes nodded. “Understood,” he said. “But if I enter with one of their own, someone they know...?”
“Then they will suppose you're merely new to the scene,” I said frankly, with a sigh. “They'll assume that we're...that you're a new acquaintance of mine, interested in meeting others of a similar bent.”
“That would give me the occasion to ask questions without being out of place,” said Holmes consideringly.
“Yes, but, Holmes...you'll have to appear to be... intimate with me,” I said, not sure how to phrase it. True, the members of the club were still gentlemen and grand shows of passion were considered vulgar, but if there was no sign of closeness between us, they'd suspect something amiss.
“I understand,” said Holmes. “I think I can affect some small amount of affection for you, my dear Watson,” he added, sounding amused.
I gave up. “Just try not to offend anyone.”
He widened his eyes in an effort to look innocent. “Watson! As if I'd ever offend anyone! I'm the soul of courtesy.”
I laughed again, unable to stop myself. In the time I'd known Holmes, he'd managed to offend just about everyone he knew, one way or another. He smiled, clearly pleased to have pulled the reaction from me, and held out his arm theatrically.
“Now, shall we, old friend?”
I took his arm, but kept him from walking over to the club just yet. “I realise this is probably unnecessary to tell you, but there's an extremely strict code of secrecy about this place and those who frequent it. Taking you in there...I'm trusting you with the reputations and liberty of everyone inside.”
He gave me an unreadable look and I wondered if I'd insulted him. “I will not breathe a word,” he replied. “I just need information on Hawthorne's activities, everything else is irrelevant. You must have realised by now that I do not agree with Her Majesty's Government about the importance of prosecuting people for acts committed in private. It serves only to waste time and money that would be better spent on combating real crime.”
I let it go at that and crossed the road with him, arm-in-arm, hoping this charade would not end badly.
A man I knew, Reynolds, was on the door that night and he let me in with a short bow. “Dr Watson,” he said in greeting. “It's been a while since we've seen you here, sir.”
“I've been busy,” I answered shortly, ignoring the quick glance Holmes threw at me. “This is my good friend, Mr Geoffrey Shipford.” 'Sherlock Holmes' was a name that was far too well known to be given in that place.
Reynolds nodded, eyeing Holmes carefully. “And you'll vouch for him, sir?” he asked me.
I nodded. “Of course.”
Reynolds allowed himself a smile. “Then I'm pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said to Holmes, and showed us through into the main rooms of the club.
It was laid out as a series of rather large rooms, sofas and tables scattered around and arranged so that there was a combination of private nooks as well as larger, more sociable areas. Behind the more public rooms was a maze of corridors linking a series of smaller rooms, intended for the more private moments between men.
Holmes looked around with obvious interest, playing the inexperienced gentleman with as much skill as he did any of his other personae. We wandered through the rooms as if I was showing him around, trying not to look obvious while hunting for Hawthorne. Holmes kept his arm in mine the whole way, not an unusual gesture between us but somehow it felt like so much more in these circumstances, when I knew exactly what the men who glanced at us assumed from it. Pretending to be something I wanted to be in truth made my skin tingle and I had to work hard to present a normal demeanour to Holmes. If he hadn't managed to deduce my true feelings for him yet, I didn't want to give him any clues.
I saw several faces I recognised as we strolled through and I nodded politely at them, trying to ignore their unsubtle glances at Holmes. It was too much to hope that Holmes hadn't noticed them – the man notices everything, after all – and I wondered what he was thinking; if the signs that I was known here, and known in a such a way as to make a strange man on my arm garner congratulatory looks from my acquaintances, would drive him to re-evaluate allowing a deviant such close access to his life. If I got found out, after all, it would cast Holmes in a very bad light.
“Ah,” said Holmes in a quiet voice, interrupting my thoughts. “There's our quarry.” He gestured with his eyes towards a booth at the back of the room that we were currently in, where Hawthorne could be seen sitting with a couple of other men. Holmes took my hand rather than my arm and pulled me partially out of sight behind a large palm, standing close to me as if we were exchanging intimacies. “We shall observe him from here,” he said softly.
I nodded, trying to push down the emotions that our position had caused to rise up in my chest. “I don't know either of the men he's with,” I offered, hoping that focussing on the case would keep my mind from torturing itself with Holmes's proximity and the way his hand stayed on mine, fingers barely brushing my skin. I wasn't entirely successful.
“They are familiar with both Hawthorne and this club,” said Holmes after a few minutes of observation. “I'd wager they're friends of his. Possibly of Colleton's as well.”
Before I could reply, a voice spoke behind me. “John! It is you! Where have you been hiding yourself these last few months?”
I turned to see Samuel Morris bearing down on us with a welcoming smile and I experienced a surge of irritation at the interruption and vexation at the nature of it. Of all people, it would be Morris.
“Good evening, Morris,” I greeted him. “Good to see you again.” We shook hands, and it did not escape my notice that his fingers lingered on mine rather longer than is customary.
We'd been very close for a few months, before my habit of missing appointments because Holmes had dragged me off somewhere had frustrated Morris enough to call an end to it. Still, we'd parted on friendly terms and I ordinarily would have been pleased to see him again, if I was at the club under normal circumstances. With Holmes by my side, however, I just felt horribly awkward about seeing him, especially given his penchant for bringing up uncomfortable topics.
“This is Geoffrey Shipford,” I introduced. “Mr Samuel Morris.”
Morris held out his hand to Holmes. “Good to meet you,” he said. “You're new to these parts, I take it?”
Holmes took his hand and gave him the excited smile of someone experiencing something for the first time. “Indeed,” he said. “I take it you're an old hand, so to speak?”
Morris gave a modest shrug. “I've been around a few years.”
“And for how many of those years have you known John?” Holmes asked probingly. I started at his using my Christian name, something he very rarely did, then realised that it was well within character for a lover, as was the interrogation of Morris. That didn't stop me feeling very unsettled though – there was something possessive about the way Holmes had said it, something that had sent a thrill I didn't want to acknowledge over my skin.
“Oh, a couple,” said Morris, looking amused at what he no doubt considered to be jealousy. “On and off. We don't see much of each other now, though.” He glanced over at me quickly, then back at Holmes with a look that said I wasn't going to like what he said next. “I wish you rather better luck than I had at distracting his attention from chasing after criminals.”
There was a movement over by the table Hawthorne and his friends occupied and Holmes's attention was arrested, to my considerable relief. I glared at Morris, aware that his attitude was no doubt justified by my distracted behaviour when we had been intimate, but none-the-less irked that it had been aired in front of Holmes. The less Holmes knew about how often I'd had to send my apologies to a man after being completely diverted by him and one of his cases, the less likely he was to divine anything I didn't want him to about my feelings for him.
“Unfortunately, criminals don't tend to wait on my leisure,” I retorted.
“I say,” said Holmes, cutting in before Morris could respond with more than a wry smile and affecting an air of naivety that jarred with my knowledge of him. “Do either of you know that gentleman there? I rather fancy I recognise his face from somewhere, but I can't quite place it.”
I glanced over. A well-dressed man was standing over Hawthorne's table, scowling, while Hawthorne said something that looked forceful to him.
“I don't know him,” I admitted. The man hissed something at Hawthorne and Hawthorne stood up, advancing on him as he replied.
“His name is Clarence Bertram,” said Morris. “He's spent rather a lot of time here in the last few months.” He gave Holmes a hard look. “It's customary not to acknowledge time spent here outside of the club, though.”
Holmes nodded, watching the argument as it got more heated. “Of course, of course. I say, they're really going at it. Lover's tiff, do you suppose?”
Morris snorted. “Hardly. They share a mutual acquaintance, one whom Mr Hawthorne was more successful with.”
Holmes's eyebrows raised and he looked back over at the altercation. “How interesting,” he breathed.
Morris cleared his throat. “I can see Sir Ronald over there, I've been meaning to catch up with him. It's been good to see you, old boy,” he said to me. “I hope to see you around again some time, so that we can properly catch up.”
“Yes, of course,” I said, shaking his hand and trying to keep my irritation at his manner out of my voice.
“And it was good to meet you,” Morris said to Holmes, who pulled his eyes away from Hawthorne just long enough to dispense with the usual courtesies. “I wish you luck with John. He could do with someone who can drag him out into polite society once in a while, rather than waiting at the leisure of criminals.”
I glared at him but Holmes just gave him a smug smile and said, “I will do my very best.” I was struck by just how ably he played the part of a man in love, and who believed himself to be loved in return. For a split second, my mind conjured the fantasy of our current charade being true, and I had to forcefully stifle it. When Morris finally left, I let out a long sigh of relief.
“So that's the kind of man you go after,” said Holmes, watching him go.
“I don't have a 'kind',” I responded snappishly, then calmed myself. “I'm sorry about subjecting you to that conversation,” I added.
Holmes shrugged, turning back to where Hawthorne and Bertram were gesticulated at each other. “Nonsense. I enjoyed the insight I gained.”
Bertram abruptly broke away from the argument and headed out of the room. Hawthorne followed him down a corridor into the labyrinth of back rooms and Holmes tapped my arm.
“Here we go,” he said excitedly. “Try not to get spotted.”
He took off after the pair with me close on his heels. The corridors were still mainly deserted this early in the evening and we could hear the voices of the men we were trailing, if not the words. Hawthorne sounded furious with an edge of desperation, while Bertram was clearly trying to get away by cutting him dead with every word he uttered.
Their footsteps stopped abruptly in a corridor that I knew led to the back door of the club. Holmes and I kept back around the corner from them, where we couldn't see but could at least hear a little better. Bertram hissed something malignant at Hawthorne, who let out a frustrated breath and then spoke loudly enough for us to make out what he was saying.
“Threatening my reputation will only get you so far,” he said. “I will risk everything for him, if need be. You have twenty-four hours, then I'll tell the detectives everything I know, and damn the consequences.”
His footsteps sounded again, heading away, and then the back door opened and shut firmly. Bertram swore viciously, then could be heard turning on his heel and heading back towards us.
“Quick!” hissed Holmes, pushing me back down the corridor, then off down a side passage. There was only one door in it, leading to a private room that I had visited once or twice.
“Into the room,” said Holmes as Bertram continued towards us. “He mustn't see us!”
We hurried into the room and Holmes pulled the door almost shut, watching through the crack. “Damnit,” he hissed. “He's turned down this way.”
“This is the only room down here,” I realised. “He must be coming here.”
Holmes nodded, turning away from the door and looking around the room. It was furnished as most of the back rooms of the club were, as a comfortable private sitting room with a bar in the corner and an overly generous sofa. There was a heavy emphasis on rich red fabrics, from the carpet to the velvet curtain that was hung along one wall, and the result was a sense of stifling claustrophobia, although that might just have been caused by situation we found ourselves in.
“Sit down and pretend we're in conversation,” suggested Holmes.
“Conversation is not what these rooms are used for,” I pointed out reluctantly. “It will look suspicious if that is all we are doing.”
Holmes stared at me for a long moment and I could hear Bertram's footsteps almost at the door. We had to act quickly, or risk being discovered.
Or, at least, that's what I told myself as I stepped close to Holmes and embraced him. The truth was that I'd been half-hoping for, half-terrified by the prospect of just such a situation arising since we'd entered the club.
“Relax,” I hissed into Holmes's ear as he tensed at my proximity. “This needs to look natural.”
Holmes forced himself to relax just as the door started to swing open, and I took my chance and landed a kiss on Holmes's mouth, pressing my lips against his and clutching at his shoulders. I'd be lying if I said I didn't take a moment to pretend that it was a real kiss, between two men who share an affection for each other, or if I claimed not to have catalogued every aspect of it and committed it firmly to memory so that I could replay it later, when I was alone.
Holmes neither startled nor tensed again, and even managed to bring himself to put his hands on my waist, displaying his usual knack for acting a role, even one he had no real experience with. I wished, fervently, for the moment to last forever, but we were interrupted all too soon.
“Oh!” exclaimed Bertram. “I'm sorry!”
I pulled away from Holmes and fixed him with the agitated expression of a man who'd been interrupted in the midst of romantic activities. “You didn't think to knock?” I asked.
“Of course,” flustered Bertram. “I'm so sorry. I'll, uh, I'll come back when you two are finished.” He left hurriedly, closing the door behind him.
I stepped back from Holmes and cleared my throat. “I don't think he suspected anything.”
Holmes was standing stock still, eyes fixed on the wall behind me, for all the manner as if he'd gone into one of his deductive reveries. I couldn't stop myself from glancing at his lips, those lips I had finally tasted. They'd been warm, and a lot softer than I would have guessed.
“I'm sorry,” I offered, worried that I had taken a liberty that Holmes would hold against me. “It just seemed the easiest way to...”
Holmes snapped out of his daze. “Of course,” he said. “It's fine.” His hand wandered to his upper lip, to where my moustache must have brushed his skin. “But if these rooms are for such activities, to be enjoyed by two men,” or more, I thought, but didn't break his train of thought, “then why was Bertram coming here alone?”
I felt my eyes widen in realisation. “Indeed! And why did he say he'd come back later? Surely there are other available rooms?”
“Precisely!” said Holmes, growing excited. He started to pace the room. “There must be something here, some reason he needed this room in particular...”
“Morris said he visited the club a lot. He must be very familiar with these rooms,” I remembered.
Holmes stopped his pacing in front of the red curtain. He pulled it aside to reveal nothing more than an empty stretch of panelling. “Why hang a curtain over a wall?” he asked out loud.
“Perhaps to create the illusion of the room having a window?” I offered. He waved the suggestion aside as if it was ridiculous.
“There must be something,” he said, running his hands over the panels. “Something... maybe... perhaps here?” He touched something that made a sharp click, and a moment later part of the wall swung silently open.
“By Jove!” I exclaimed. “A secret passage!”
Holmes gave me a triumphant look. “I wager we'll find our Mr Colleton through it,” he said. “Come on!”
He ducked into the passage and I followed, as I always do. The passage bent sharply left, then went down a long, steep flight of stairs, right into a shadowy cellar. It was set up as a rough bedroom; an old trestle bed in the corner and a rickety table by one wall, covered with the remains of a meal. Sitting on the bed was Francis Colleton.
“Oh! Thank God!” he exclaimed at the sight of us. “Please tell me you’re here to rescue me.”
“Indeed we are,” said Holmes smoothly. “My name is Sherlock Holmes and this is my partner, Dr Watson.”
“God bless you both for finding me,” said Colleton emotionally.
We took him out of the room and back up into the club’s private room, where he sat down on the sofa with a sigh of relief. “I half-thought I'd never leave that room alive,” he said.
I fetched him a brandy, which he gratefully drank. “What exactly happened?” I asked.
“Surely that’s obvious, Watson,” said Holmes.
I bristled at his tone. “Well, clearly Clarence Bertram is the villain here, but what I can’t understand is why?”
“He said he did it because he loves me,” said Colleton, sounding miserable.
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “And love is shutting someone up in a cellar?”
Colleton shook his head. “No, not at all. I'm not sure he really knows love.” He took a deep breath, trying to pull together some semblance of composure. “Let me tell you - we first met several years ago and became very close.” He glanced sharply up at us, as if suddenly aware of how far he'd crossed the line. “You are aware of this club's nature?”
Holmes waved that away. “Of course. Don't have any qualms about being honest about every detail with us. There's only one crime we're interested in here.”
Colleton nodded and continued his tale. “We were going to share rooms, but his aunt became ill, and he had to go and stay with her in Manchester. He was gone a long time – forever, we thought. I met Edward and we...he's very different to Clarence. We moved in together. Then Clarence’s aunt died, and he moved back.” He stopped and took another gulp of brandy. “He wanted to... rekindle our relationship, but I told him I couldn’t. He was upset. He asked me to meet him here, for dinner, and I thought I could talk to him and explain.”
“Hawthorne didn’t agree,” said Holmes, tapping his finger on his chin.
Colleton looked up with a frown. “No. How did you know that?”
“You argued,” said Holmes, ignoring the question in favour of shooting a self-satisfied look at me. “A glass was thrown at the wall.”
“I should have listened to him,” admitted Colleton. “Clarence drugged my wine and locked me up down there. He said it was just until I saw reason and loved him again.” He drained the glass. “As if I have anything other than anger towards him now, after this.” He set the glass to one side, took another collecting breath and stood up resolutely. “I’m okay now,” he said. “I’d like to go home to Edward.”
I frowned. “But what about Bertram? Shouldn’t we call the police?”
Holmes shook his head. “Watson, think. How can we report this without everyone being arrested for sexual deviancy and this club shut down?” He had a point, and as I was still puzzling through the logistics and trying to work out if there was some cover story that would allow everyone to keep their reputations - save Bertram, of course - the door swung open, and the subject of our discussion stood there before us. He looked very surprised to see us all, turning white as a sheet.
“Francis!” he exclaimed.
Colleton glared at him for a long moment, then strode across the room and punched him soundly in the face, taking him completely by surprise. Bertram stumbled backwards, clutching at his face, while Colleton, clearly not used to physical violence, shook his hand in reaction to the pain and shock of the blow.
“Francis!” repeated Bertram. “Please...I was coming to let you go. I'm so sorry, I should never...”
“No,” interrupted Colleton harshly. “You shouldn't have. You've made a bad mistake – I've been in London a lot longer than you, I know far more people in our corner of society. Once word spreads of your behaviour, even the rentboys by the docks will refuse you.”
Bertram gaped. “Francis...” he snivelled, rather pathetically.
Colleton ignored him, turning to me and Holmes instead. “I'm going to ask Reynolds to call me a cab.” He hesitated, and beneath the mask of anger and confidence he was projecting, I could see the natural reaction to having been kept a prisoner rising up in him - a nervousness and insecurity that I had seen before, both in Afghanistan and on Holmes's cases. “I hope you will both come with me.” It was a clearly a plea not to be left alone, even if he was not aware of it himself.
I nodded immediately. “Of course,” I said. “Mr Hawthorne will likely be back at your rooms by now.”
“Yes,” said Colleton, his face lightening. “Edward. Of course.” He smiled at us and left the room without another look at Bertram.
Bertram looked miserable, blood dripping sluggishly from his nose. “I didn't mean for it to go like this,” he said. “I just...I didn't know what else to do!”
“That's no excuse for criminal behaviour,” said Holmes harshly. “I would dearly like to see you punished properly by the law, but circumstances forbid that. I shall merely add to Mr Colleton's statement, then, that I know a great deal of people in London, from all walks of life, and that if I hear one word about you being anything less than the perfect gentleman in all areas of your life, you will find yourself in an extremely serious situation indeed.”
We left him in that room looking dumbstruck, and joined Mr Colleton at the front entrance, where he had secured a cab and was telling Reynolds all about Bertram, just as he had said he would.
“This is a respectable club,” said Reynolds as we joined them. “We don't want that sort here – you can rest assured that he won't be welcome here again, Mr Colleton.”
“You'll find him in the room with the red curtain,” said Holmes.
Reynolds nodded. “I'll send a couple of the lads to throw him out. They'll enjoy that.” He gave us a slightly nasty grin and we departed for the cab.
The ride was silent. Colleton was clearly still shaken and looking forward to being at home again with his partner. I was rather looking forward to the same thing – after tonight, after all, Holmes had promised to 'forget' all about my deviant nature. We could put this behind us and continue as we had been – the greatest of friends, with nothing suspect or indecent between us. I remembered the feel of Holmes's hand on mine and wished, suddenly and fervently, that we could be more, that I could go home as Colleton was, to a man who'd embrace me and love me as I wanted him to.
I cleared my throat unnecessarily and turned to stare out of the window at the passing streets, hoping to rid myself of the surge of emotion, but I merely managed to push it back into the dark corner of my mind where it had already been living for longer than I cared to admit.
“Francis!” he exclaimed happily. “Thank God!”
“Edward!” replied Colleton and he strode forward until he was standing only a few inches from Hawthorne. They didn't touch but the look they shared said far more than an embrace ever could have. I looked away, embarrassed to be in the room for what should have been a private moment. Holmes just stared at them as if trying to read all their secrets.
“I'm sorry about those things I said before,” said Hawthorne in a rush.
Colleton laughed. “I was about to say the same thing,” he said, his hand moving up as if to touch Hawthorne before he arrested the motion.
Holmes cleared his throat. “If everything is as it should be,” he said. “I do believe our work here is complete.”
Colleton finally tore his eyes away from Hawthorne. “Of course,” he said. “Thank you so much for everything.”
“Thank your mother,” Holmes advised. “She was the one who had the great insight to hire me.”
The cab was still waiting for us downstairs and Holmes instructed it to Baker Street before sitting back with a sigh. We rode in silence again, a condition I was more than happy to allow to continue. I was already thinking longingly of my room, of being able to shut the door on the revelations and emotional trials of the last twenty-four hours.
“Samuel Morris was an interesting man,” Holmes suddenly said and I startled, pulled from my thoughts.
“Indeed,” I said, hoping that the tone of my voice would forbid Holmes from continuing.
Holmes has never been one for retreating from an uncomfortable subject. “A bit high-handed for my tastes,” he said, “but I can see why you like him. He is respectable, tolerably handsome, and a literary man. You must have been able to share conversation with him on subjects that I am not particularly interested in.”
I sighed, turning to Holmes and noting the glint in his eye. He was all set to pursue this, it seemed. “I'm not even going to ask how you knew that about him,” I said. “He's spent several years working on a biography of Lord Nelson, although I'm not sure how close to ever finishing it he is.”
“Ah! So he has a penchant for military heroes!” exclaimed Holmes. “No wonder that he was interested in you.”
I scowled. “I'm no hero,” I said. Heroes are the ones who manage to make it out of battle unscathed, without nightmares that still rock them on occasion, even years later.
“Nonsense,” said Holmes dismissively. “Of course you are.” He was clearly uninterested in following that line of conversation though, one that might have led away from my romantic past into less difficult topics, such as battlefields and war wounds. “How many of your other conquests had a literary bent? I'd imagine that a good conversation is just as important to you as physical attributes.”
“Conquests?!” I repeated. “I'm not some society beauty, Holmes!”
Holmes waved that away. “I'm not aware of the correct terminology, I'm afraid.”
“We're not talking about this,” I said firmly. “You said that after the case...”
“Actually,” interrupted Holmes mildly. “I said that the morning after the case I'd forget it. I have until tomorrow.”
“And I have the right not to answer any asinine questions,” I said, now thoroughly irritated.
“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, cajoling me. “Let me have my curiosity satisfied – you know I can't bear to be in ignorance.”
“You shall have to bear it,” I said firmly and wouldn't let him say another word on the subject. I still had some self-respect left, after all, and telling Holmes about my often-disappointing romantic entanglements wouldn't leave it intact.
I retreated to my room as soon as we were back at Baker Street, leaving Holmes to settle into his chair with a pipe. He gave all the signs of being there the whole night and I left him to it. Cases where the villain got away without punishment always left him despondent and I was in no mood to coax him out of it. Instead, I sat up in my room pretending that I was reading my novel, but really letting my mind linger over every moment when Holmes's hand had brushed mine as a lover's might, and most especially on the kiss we had shared.
When I eventually set aside the book and extinguished the lamp, I had turned only a handful of pages. I settled down into bed, hoping that the morning would bring some relief from the worries that haunted me, and a return to our normal friendship.
“What is it?” I asked. “Has something happened?” When Holmes woke me unexpectedly in the night, it usually signified a breakthrough on a case, or an urgent summons for medical assistance.
“Nothing tangible,” said Holmes. He was still fully dressed, although his cuffs and collar were missing, and I could smell pipesmoke lingering strongly on his clothes. He’d clearly been in the sitting room all this time. “I merely wanted to ask a favour.”
“And it couldn’t wait until morning?” I asked, exasperated. “What time is it?”
“Just gone four,” said Holmes, setting his candle down on my bedside table. “Dawn is in an hour and a half, and I must ask this before then.”
“Holmes,” I growled. “If this is more of your curiosity about my personal dealings...”
“It’s not,” he said quickly. He was talking fast and his hand was unsteady on the blanket, leading me to wonder if he’d indulged in more vices than just tobacco. “It’s about my personal dealings, but I’ll need to reference yours, and then ask for a great favour – more than a friend really should ask, but you always let me get away with such things, so I’m hoping this will be no different.”
I shook my head, trying to understand what he was talking about. “Holmes, I’ve just woken up,” I said tiredly. “What are you talking about?”
He let out a long breath. “Watson, the events of the past day have had me contemplating parts of myself that I usually disregard – indeed, which for many years I have stifled completely.” He sounded like he was settling into a long speech, so I sat back against my pillows and attempted to pay attention and not to think longingly of sleep.
“You have known, I suppose, for a long while that you preferred men to women?” he asked.
The dark made it easier for me to answer. “Since I was at university,” I confessed quietly.
He nodded. “I have never focussed my deductive abilities on my own libido – I realised at a young age that it was not as pressing for me as for other men and so I merely ignored it. I’ve never felt an interest in women, or men, and I devoted my energies to my career instead.” I already knew most of this, or had guessed it. I wondered where he was headed and if he’d get there before the dawn.
Holmes paused, dipping his head to look at the floor rather than my face. “This case, though, has made me re-evaluate my disinterest in such matters.”
“What?” I interjected. “What do you mean?”
“I’d like to ask for your assistance, Watson,” he said, ignoring the question, “with an experiment.”
“What experiment?” I asked, now thoroughly confused. “You know I’m always available to help you with your scientific endeavours.”
“Ah,” said Holmes. “Excellent.” He was silent for a long moment, still staring at the floor, then he glanced up with a bright, hard look in his eyes. “It’s a simple enough experiment – all I need from you is a kiss.”
I was astounded. “A kiss?!” I repeated. “Holmes!”
“I can understand if you refuse,” he said quickly. “It is a terrible imposition, and there’s no villain on our trail to excuse it, but it would be of great service to me.”
I regarded him for a long moment, trying to tell myself that I was going to think about this logically instead of letting my desire to feel Holmes’s lips against mine again rule me. One kiss in the name of a case was one thing; another one, in the dark of the night when all things seem possible, could well ruin the balance of our friendship. But, then, how could I say no when Holmes was looking at me like that, needing me for whatever reason?
“Well, if it’s that important,” I conceded, feeling weak and hating myself for it, but I was unable to deny myself the chance.
His face relaxed and a smile hovered around the edges of his mouth. “I knew I could rely on you, my dear Watson.”
I sat up, closer to him, and for a moment it was awkward, both of us waiting for the other to move. Holmes let out an exasperated sigh and put his hand on my neck, pulling me in close and pressing his lips against mine. My hesitance dissolved and I reached out for him, holding on to Holmes’s sleeve as if he was going to disappear like his phantom had so often in my dreams. I had no idea what Holmes was hoping to gain from this experiment, or whether it would require a deeper kiss than just our mouths pressed together, so I took a chance and coaxed him into opening his lips, tasting the rough tobacco and strong brandy that Holmes had spent the night consuming.
Holmes made a low, guttural noise, gripping tighter at my neck, and then abruptly broke away, breathing heavily. I leant back against my pillows, pushing down the instinct to reach for Holmes again. Holmes sat very still for a long moment, staring at nothing as his brain worked through whatever he’d been looking for with his experiment.
“Did that provide you with the results you expected?” I asked, hoping for an explanation but not relying on it. Holmes could keep his secrets very close to his chest when he wanted to.
“Expected?” he mused. “Not really. Hoped for, perhaps, although that's not strictly true either.” He turned to face me again, fixing me with a determined look. “I'm not sure of the correct etiquette here, especially not between two men, but I believe the next step I should take is to announce my intention to woo you, Watson.”
I stared at him, completely taken aback and not sure how to react. “Is this some kind of game?” I asked eventually.
Holmes glared at me. “Most certainly not,” he said. “It seems you are the only person I've yet met who can raise a certain kind of feelings in me, and I do not intend to waste that.”
“This could ruin our friendship,” I said weakly, a loud voice in my mind demanding to know why I wasn't just jumping at the suggestion, grabbing at what I'd wanted for longer than I'd care to admit with both hands.
“I cannot believe that either of us will let that happen,” said Holmes in a voice that gave no doubt as to how important this was to him. He groped through the bedcovers until he found my hand, and then held it with a grip so strong that it hurt. “Watson, you let me wake you up in the middle of the night and ramble to you about things that most men keep private, even though I know you treasure sleep far more highly than I do, and then you kissed me as if...as if you felt something for me that is far stronger than friendship, on what any other man would have pointed out was an extremely flimsy pretext. From this I deduce that a change in our status would be welcome to you. Why are you arguing with me on this?”
I didn't have a real answer for him – perversity, maybe, or perhaps that I had so long accustomed myself to wanting him in vain that the sudden change in circumstances had left me reeling and unable to react with anything other than an automatic response. I clung to his hand as tightly as he was holding mine.
“Because I'm still half-asleep?” I suggested, trying out a smile at Holmes, who returned it warmly.
“Then perhaps I should endeavour to wake you up properly,” he said, tugging at my hand until I sat forward again. He kissed me with all the thoroughness he brought to the other subjects which fascinated him and I gave in to the feeling of being the centre of his attention. It seemed to me that this might well be another of my dreams, more vivid than most but still likely to disappear in the cold light of dawn, and so I should take every opportunity I was given before that occurred. This time when we pulled apart from each other, I stayed as close to him as I wished, my forehead resting against his.
“I think I'm awake enough now,” I said in half-whisper.
“That's good news,” he replied, his hand still warmly cupped around the back of my neck. “Then there remains only one last thing – I fear I shall have to break a promise to you, my dear Watson. Dawn is fast approaching, and I have no intention of forgetting this.”
I laughed. “I think I can release you from that promise, old friend,” I said. “It no longer seems entirely relevant.”
He kissed me again and I pulled him down with me to the bed, and neither of us noticed when dawn came, so caught up we were in each other.
It has been several months since then, months filled with further experiments that almost all turned out as well as the first, and I still feel as if I am sitting on my bed in the dark of the early morning, not sure if I'm dreaming or not. Setting this down in writing, detailing the steps that led to that moment has not helped as much as I'd hoped it would, making it seem like an idle fantasy I'm scribbling while Holmes is out and I have a few spare hours, pages that will be tossed into the fire as worthless drivel when he returns.
I suppose the most I can hope for is that the dream continues as it has done, without suddenly diverting into a nightmare, and that it is a very long time before I am compelled to wake up.