It has been two years, seven months, and seventeen days since I last spoke with John Watson. More precisely, and more damningly, since I allowed him to believe I was dead.
I know this because every night, I climb up the seventeen stairs into my brain-attic, move aside the beehive with its buzz of a thousand tiny wings beating together, and make another notch on the wall behind it. How did the beehive ever end up here, filling the whole room with their quiet music – and why didn't I just move it to the side once and be done with it, or make my marks a few feet to the right? Those were questions worth asking, and ones to which I had no answer.
This is no great compliment to John Watson. Of course I would remember the day, but I should remember it without needing this nightly ritual. If I insist on this nightly climb up those stairs, it should be his journals and files of our cases, or perhaps boxes full of concert-hall programs and back-issues of The Strand, that I move aside each night. But no: I am drawn to memories from the days long before I met him, memories of my childhood with Victor and Sherrinford and Mycroft, and to the roots of my certainty that I was so thoroughly honor-bound to stand against a man like Moriarty. Just when had I become so convinced?
Perhaps it's not so strange, though, that I should find my mind-attic all abuzz. When I was a child, I often visited my grandmother outside Montpellier. She had a back garden full of more varieties of flowers than I could name, and that first summer I made the trip with Mycroft, we built the best approximation of a natural beehive human hands could accomplish, and Grand-mère bought a bee-colony for us. I used to spend hours lying flat on my back behind the rose-bushes, watching as those bees flitted from flower to flower and back home again. There was something mathematical, I suppose, logical even, yet whimsical about the way they always came back again. I even learned to mimic some of their dances, and half thought myself one of them. Those bees were better friends to me than most members of my own species, and I always looked forward to telling their cousins in my mind-attic about my day.
Perhaps that explains the beehive's presence. It was comfortable, and familiar, and connected me to one of the few places before Baker Street where I truly felt at home. But the irony is not lost on me. Since when did need (much less desire) dictate how I saw reality? Even the reality of my perceptions, in my brain's attic of all places! I had told Watson – and meant it – that my brain-attic was a sort of inner sanctum, with only those things I most needed stowed away. The beehive was sentiment, an indulgence with no practical value at all, and one more destructive to that hard-earned order than nearly any other I could have chosen.
Of course, there was less need here for a well maintained brain-attic than there had been in London. Dead men were not often called upon to solve crimes. Still, that clutter in my brain-attic seemed significant.
No, not seemed; was. I am not so far gone as all that.
The old copies of the Strand are there, along with Watson's notes and drafts, in a wooden crate beside the chest of Mycroft's old school-books, Aristotle and Newton, Aquinas and Hume. Once he opened up the chest and leafed through the crate, and found the two sets mixed together, romanticized accounts of his own cases intermixed with precise descriptions of the mechanism by which our mind transcribes perception into memory. But even those books are more a mark of sentiment than objective fact. It has been long years since I've placed the slightest confidence in those philosophers' theories, but Mycroft was quite taken by them when we were in school. I'd sneak the books out of his room when he brought them home from Harrow, and read them just so I'd know what had captivated his interest, even if it was bloated nonsense. There was no denying, though, that those theories occupied a separate sphere from Watson's published accounts – even within my own personal history.. The fact that I couldn't keep even them properly separated was … disconcerting, to say the least.
Mycroft knew. Of course he did. He met me in Vienna three weeks after Watson's solitary return to London (and to his lasting credit, not three days after I informed him I was in fact still alive), bringing with him clothes and enough funds to last me for six months, along with documents establishing my first new identity and a token that would serve as sufficient introduction with any of the acquaintances he had acquired throughout the Empire. They would help me should my needs exceed his purse, and give me whatever information was to be had about Smythe and Moran, the remnants of Moriarty's old circle of friends.
I had known my brother was somewhat more than a civil servant, but even so, I was quite surprised when a little more than a year into my exile I was arrested on charges of vagrancy that were summarily dismissed before I was even called upon to swear on my assumed name in a court of law. Before that, I'd chafed at Mycroft's "advice" (hardly optional) that I only telegraph him in the most extreme need, and only then through his agents, without personal details that would identify me as the sender. Wires had been known to go stray, after all, and dead men did not communicate with the living any more than they solved crimes, certainly not by way of the Electric Telegraph Company.
All of which left me to my sensible isolation, and the questions of how I ended up there. I sat one night for hours in my mind-attic, my back against the beehive and Mycroft's rather worn copy of Aristotle's Ethica Nicomachea in hand, poring over the first book until I thought I had my answers, or at least the beginning of them. That was where it all began, really.
He'd come home from Harrow the Christmas I'd turned eight with that book packed between his school-uniforms, and when he'd caught me trying to read it (for all I couldn't tell an alpha from an epsilon at the time), he'd taken it upon himself to explain the philosophy to me. Badly, as I later came to learn, but at the time he was Mycroft, my brother, and at the manly age of fourteen I honestly believed there was no important subject of which he was ignorant. We'd walked out to the barn and he'd traced two shapes into the sawdust covering the floor. Which was the better square? The right one, obviously – but I could only say that because I knew what a square was, because the left one was longer than it was wide and a square wasn't that at all. A good square did what squares do, and well, much as a good warhorse carried its master into battle well, and likewise for a good man. You could only really know one warhorse, or square or man, was better than another because you knew what men should be aiming for, because you could point to the one thing they were supposed to do well; otherwise how could you ever hope to compare them?
Which wasn't so true after all. A charger needed to be a massive, fearless beast to carry his knight into battle, but what of the mare who carried the wounded from the field? Certainly they were both war-horses, and could both be good, but they'd be good in entirely different ways? Aristotle said as much, as it turned out, but Mycroft seemed to have missed that bit of his lessons (or perhaps his master only went into that after the holidays). Whatever the case, he had convinced me there was only the one way to be good. Only one way I could be good. I was a man of great intellect, one of the best (Aristotle notwithstanding) at seeing things as they actually were – so that was where my duty lay. To be good, I must do that well, stand by my duty to my gift, and to knowledge and the truth and above all reason, and resist those like Moriarty who would use their minds for their own selfish ends. So I had thought, once upon a time. I had been so sure that I was honor-bound to stand in Moriarty's way – and that that duty trumped all others. But if an ambulance-mare could be as good a warhorse as a charger, well, why should I be so different?
I'd groaned at that realization, in my mind-attic, and rolled my head back with such force against the beehive that I nearly turned the whole thing on its side. Pulling myself to my feet, I held one hand against the knot forming on my head, and traded the Aristotle for Watson's notes on our investigations into the Red-Headed League along with one of Grand-mère's quilts I found folded behind the crate. After soothing my bees as best I could, whispering promises to be more careful in the future, I sank back into my seat against the beehive and began reading again.
The next day, I broke Mycroft's longstanding rule against telegraphs containing personal information and asked him to send me any of Watson's more recent publications. The next week, however, I chanced upon a woman I had once sent to prison for forging her master's signature, in the marketplace not far from my hotel. It might have been mere coincidence, but the timing made me nervous and I left Constantinople that night. Mycroft's response managed to just miss me in Khartoum and Tripoli before finally reaching me in Damascus: not a wire, but a rather thick parcel envelope. Inside were four copies of recent editions of the Strand (expected) along with two pages torn from the Daily Telegraph(much less so). The Telegraph regretted to announce the passing of Mary Watson, née Morstan, after complications resulting from surgery to set a badly broken leg, after an accident involving a hansom cab at Fairbourne Road, Tottenham.
The grieving widower was described as resolute, Stoic even, but gaunt. John Watson may be many things, but slight of frame had never been one of them, and I could not imagine a single blow, no matter how grievous, reducing him to that. No, that had been a longer slide from health than could be accounted for by dear Mary's passing. It was a better fate than that I'd saved him from when I'd sent him back to Meiringen and faced Moriarty alone, but even so: what right did I have to abandon him to that lonely grief?
Yes, yes; I'd tried to escape Moriarty and had never meant to leave London at all, much less for so long. But I'd been inexcusably careless in my focus on Moriarty to the exclusion of all else. The second page Mycroft had included (and this could not be a coincidence) listed several crimes, both petty and more serious. I had believed – I still believe – that genius has a special duty to oppose its kin, but reading about those other cases, I wondered what I could have done for their victims, had I still lived in London. At least three of the newspaper accounts suggested lines of inquiry I could quite easily imagine Lestrade and Gregson overlooking.
And then there was Watson – John. I'd convinced myself that I was doing him a courtesy by leaving him to his happily ever after. There was some truth to that, I supposed; I'd once described (to myself, in my locked diary, but even so) his abandoning our shared rooms at Baker Street for his marriage-bed as the only selfish act he ever committed. It was a natural choice, a good one, and I would not begrudge him that happiness. But I am afraid I can be a rather jealous man, at least where Watson is concerned, and much as I tried, I found it difficult to share his affections, even his time, with another. My mind insisted (rightfully, I believe) that Mary was hardly my competition. Yet standing by and seeing him every few weeks – if that – wore on me after a while. It seemed kinder to remove myself from London and leave him to his marriage, for both our sakes.
As it turns out, even a great mind can play itself for a fool. The obituary proved as much. If he had abandoned me I had repaid him in kind, and I owed him better than that.
In Khartoum I'd heard a rumor that Smythe was smuggling weapons out of France and selling them to a group of rebels battling the British regulars in that region. I'd told Mycroft's agents what I knew, but with no real proof and the very real risk to my person if I pursued the matter, I'd left the situation with the local constabulary. I'd told myself that Mycroft's agents knew best, that I should leave it in their more experienced hands, but how could I really leave the matter alone? As the French say: The heart has its reasons, of which Reason knows nothing. No, I was worn thin with caution, and while I couldn't very well return to London with Smythe and Moran at liberty, neither could I stand to leave his fate in other men's hands. I would cross into France as soon as it could be arranged, and then, well. We would see what we would see.
I found my fingers itching to tell Watson immediately: that I was alive, that I was returning home to him, that I would explain everything as best I could and make it all up to him, or at least as much of the harm as could possibly be mended. It was hardly the first time I'd felt the urge to tell him, but it was the first time in some months. It was also a foolish urge, and much too soon. No, I would ready my explanations but I would keep them to myself. For now. Writing them down, even tucking the paper among my things unsent, was still too great a risk. But I'd work out what I hoped to say, I might even write it out that night, when I climbed those twenty-seven stairs to mark the latest day's passing.
And of course I must tell my bees. Their master was coming home, and they ought to know.