I neither moved nor spoke, but I was very alert indeed.
Watson looked away from me with immediate anxiety and odd remorse. “I am so much in the habit of writing these days,” he explained. “And I imagined it might... help me.”
“And did it?” I asked.
“Not noticeably,” he said, managing a rueful smile.
“Because it was an incomplete exercise without a reader?”
He closed his eyes, and didn’t answer me at once. At last he murmured, “I never intended it to be read.”
“But if there had been someone you could have trusted with it...?”
“Much of it is not at all fair to you.” That, if anything, only heightened the urgency of the need to see it, but I could not help but tense to think that here at last, behind what he called unfairness, lay the censure my failings had deserved all along...
Watson, rather remarkably, contrived to detect this line of thought without so much as looking at me. “It is not that,” he said, firmly, turning to me again. “I have never blamed you for it, Holmes -- not for any part of it. You must not imagine that. But afterwards I was so afraid you would find it out – and yet the longer you did not, the more I was in suspense, and it made me irritable at times.”
“If that is your idea of being unfair to me -!”
He kept glancing between my face and his own hands, one of which was now curled into a fist and drumming out a tense rhythm on his knee. “It would not make pleasant reading,” he said at last, very softly.
“I don’t mind that.”
“Of course you would mind it,” he said, and fell silent again, teeth clenched and breath locked with the effort of a soundless struggle with himself.
I cannot bear this, I thought, I cannot watch you work so hard alone. “It would be a relief to you if I read it,” I said, “if you were not the only one who knew it all.”
“I’m not the only one,” he muttered grimly, and I began to feel ill. “Holmes, I don’t know.”
“You think it would. The fact that everything you have said against it concerns me argues as much. You would not need to trouble yourself with misplaced scruples about me unless you were weighing them against some possible benefit.”
By now I was leaning forward and was watching his features carefully. I suppose the scrutiny must have been rather too pointed, for he put up a deflecting hand, though he smiled at me from behind it. “Holmes.”
I compelled myself to settle back in the chair.
“I don’t know,” Watson repeated. “Not now, in any case. I couldn’t sit here and watch you reading it, and you must not heap any more strain upon yourself tonight. Let it be for now, please.”
“Very well,” I said, frustrated both at not being able to see the thing immediately and with myself for interrogating the poor man so.
“I should not have told you. Now you will be thinking about it all evening and you have had your nerves worked up enough on my account tonight already.”
“My nerves are fairly proof,” I said, stoutly enough, I think.
And they will have to be, for I believe I shall need to get more out of them. Still, the faint nausea did not recede, and though my hands had stopped trembling visibly I could still feel a subdued shivering continuing somewhere in my core.
The violin still lay on my knees and after a while I began to scrape at it, not melodies for the doctor this time but little plumes of sound for myself. I know these improvisations are not beautiful to anyone but me, except in an occasional, fragmented sense, and I have not allowed myself the relief of them for over a fortnight. Watson continued to smoke in patient silence beside me, and I was sorry not to be able to offer him anything better, not even to be able to make it up to him with a single canzonetta afterwards, but if I was going to sit there like a civilised person and a friend and not break into several rusted pieces of a defunct machine, then I was going to have to dose myself with something.
* * *
I wonder where he wrote the document, and where it is now. Probably not in his desk– even had it been locked in a drawer he must have dreaded I would somehow chance upon it. In his bedroom, then – the bedside table or in the chest of drawers. I can almost feel it there, like an open window letting in the cold air.
Wherever it is it cannot be much above thirty feet from where I sit.
I make it sound as if I am plotting to search out the manuscript and read it whether he wishes me to or no. I am not quite so wicked. But it is not easy to sit still, much less sleep, knowing oneself in the presence of such a thing.
* * *
I knew before he told me that he had made his decision.
While continuing my attempts to offer what meagre and unobtrusive comfort I could, I had tried for two days to distract myself from the proximity of the document on the one hand and my syringe on the other by pouring energy into vengeful loathing of my Hampstead blackmailer. That was not so very difficult, for the man strikes me as much more repulsive than a number of hot-blooded murderers I have had to do with in my career. And he is a murderer too, in a moral sense, if not a legal one -- I know of at least three suicides and one death from brain-fever he should have on his non-existent conscience.
I may have had no choice but to endure my suspense while Watson had the power to end or protract it as he chose, but he has been quite as agitated over this as I have. Perhaps ‘agitated’ is not the right word – I mean to say it has been leaching away his strength and left him even more obviously worn out than before. There have been no more flashes of anger with me. I could wish there had been. Instead, whenever he looked at me I could see him weighing possible consequences, some of them evidently disastrous. I did not know how to say, nothing will happen, I will never think of you differently, nothing you can have written could change me. Now I write them down those words seem perfectly simple. Perhaps it is just as well they were beyond my reach at the time ,for as it turns out they would not have been altogether true.
Amidst all this, the confession I made to him the other day seemed to have sunk nearly without trace. After so many years of secrecy, it is almost unnerving. Uneasy as he has been, he does not place himself at any uncharacteristic distance from me, or avoid touching me, or exhibit any symptom of squeamishness or pity that I had dreaded only a few degrees less than the possibility he would walk out and be done with it. There have been times where I suspect he was thinking of it, for I know what Watson looks like when he is curious about me. And if I had to speculate on the content of his thoughts I would say he was wondering exactly what I got up to when I was younger, and with whom, and whether the account I gave him of my reasons for choosing abstinence was complete. And that is all. It would be an extraordinary relief in other circumstances, but our situation does not quite allow for that.
Then on Thursday morning a telegram came for him. He looked at it, and then at me, and then deep into nothingness. And though he did not say anything then, I knew the die was cast, because for a little while, the tension left him.
He dodged off to his room, leaving the telegram on the breakfast table, so I read it. It was nothing momentous, merely an invitation from an Edwin Harcourt Burrage to call at the offices of The Young Briton the following day.
“Holmes,” he said after supper that evening, “I’ll have to go over to Mayfair tomorrow.” And if I had not already known that his absence would mean the delivery of his account into my hands, I would have had to be very dull not to guess it then. Watson looked as harrowed up as if he were telling me he would be spending the next day on trial for murder.
“Mr Burrage needs a series on various careers. You know, something edifying to put between all the pirate stories, so they can keep claiming it’s all about encouraging boys to make something of themselves. I’m not sure with my history I have any business persuading impressionable youths to become either soldiers or doctors or amateur crime-fighters, but I could probably hammer something out. Anyway, if I can agree something with Burrage then I might go on to the library to make a start there, and I must go to the bank, and ...”
“You’ll be out most of the day,” I finished for him.
“Well, until six or seven,” he said, breathlessly. “Will you be busy?” I shook my head and he tried to smile at me. “I suppose once I told you, this became inevitable.
I could actually see the fabric of his shirtfront jolting softly with his heartbeat. I wondered how either of us was was to endure the wait, and murmured, “Watson, I could take it away somewhere now, where you would not have to watch me.”
But he shook his head. “I would prefer to have something to do, in the meantime,” he said. “And in any case – Holmes, if I am knowingly going to put you through worse than I have already, I would rather you were not out in some alley in the dark at the time.”
I said a number of inadequate things but soon after he escaped again to his room and did not re-emerge.
I hardly know what I did with the rest of the night. I drank, wrote, smoked, roamed about the house and read over old cases, and some time around dawn I pitched unawares into sleep.
When I woke, sprawled across my bed in my clothes with no memory of how I came there, it was very late in the morning, and Watson was nowhere in the house. I determined that first, and then remembered what I had been waiting for, and leapt up and flung open the door to see if it had happened.
Yes, on my desk – a small sheaf of papers, neatly folded.
I seized it immediately and a sheet of notepaper, smaller than the other pages, fell out.
“My dear Holmes, [it said] we both know the following must give you pain, and your kindness in taking it upon yourself is one I fear I do wrong to accept. I would like to offer a way back, to say you are under no obligation to continue, &c. But I think that any such gesture would be a cowardly service to my own feelings rather than an honest attempt to spare yours. For I know you will, of course, read on.
Please, then, believe that things are better with me now than when I began to write this account of my thoughts, and time will, I suppose, do more for me still. I have not read these pages over and so they must stand as they are, and there are things within that I do not know what to think of or how to explain. But whatever else you think as you read, you must remember how very much worse it could have been. We are fortunate, all things considered, to have got away with our lives. As for what did happen, you know G. has been the cause of far more protracted and irremediable suffering to many others. Remember those two girls, and what would be happening to them at this moment, were it not for you. We shall never know, my friend, how many lives you have delivered from ruin or undeserved disgrace or death. I hope you know it remains my honour to help you.
I read this hastily and put it aside, somehow at once very touched and almost irritated in my impatience to know the whole of it at last. ‘Yes, yes, dear fellow’, I might have answered him, ‘you are goodness itself; I already love you for it hopelessly. Further proofs of the fact, however astonishing, are not merely superflous but more than I am equipped to bear at present. To the purpose, now.’
I turned to the main document.
* * *
I shall not say much about it.
He had given up writing some weeks ago, I understood, and his letter said he had not read it again - but there was one new addition to the text, made at the same time as he wrote that letter to me, in the same ink – a single penstroke. He had underlined the words I have nothing to regret.
I had intended to read every word of it; but I found this was like intending to hold heated iron in my hands without flinching – not a project destined to be completely successful. Sometimes I could not keep my eyes from wincing away from the page. I had to stop for a while when I came to the section concerning the death of a housemaid called Phyllis Mackey, and ran into his bedroom to find the little bottle of chloral there. When I came back I am afraid that at times I had difficulty even keeping my eyes clear enough to read for more than a line or two at a stretch. I tried, when I reached the end, to calm myself sufficiently to make a second pass through to catch whatever I had missed. I had to conclude in the end that this would not be possible.
It was indeed as well that the doctor was absent, for I could not have borne any witnesses to the state I was in by the time I decided I was, in more than one sense, finished.
I was on my knees on the living room floor. The pages were scattered around me. I couldn’t bring myself to touch them again. So I left them there and went downstairs.
Cocaine would not be adequate. Cocaine means clarity, confidence, and a beguiling sheen to the surfaces of the commonplace -- none of those things could have touched me and in any case what I wanted was erasure. And there was a bottle of morphine only a floor below me.
I reached the bottom of the steps, and stood staring at Mrs Hudson’s door for I don’t know how long. I was not conscious of any moral struggle, any indecision – I was merely baffled that it was taking me so long to do what I had come there for. Go to the door, knock, and demand back my property.
And then I did move, grasping the newel post at the foot of the stairs and propelling myself around it, and then striding out through the front door. I cannot credit any rational thought for making me do it. It was raining heavily, though this did not immediately engage my attention. I had not even a frock-coat over the clothes I had slept in, and I was drenched by the time I reached the end of the street, but this did not matter because I was going back to Wandsworth and this time, somehow, I was getting inside that cell. I was as happy to hang for what I meant to do there as Gilfoyle could possibly have been for killing me, curse him for leaving the task unfinished. I meant it. I ploughed through the icy rain, gasping for breath, with no other thought in my head.
Or almost no other thought. I know some part of my mind pointed out to me that what I was planning was both insane and unforgivable; that to allow the doctor to return and find me absent, -- permanently, if my attempt came to anything -- was the worst thing I could do to him. But that thought seemed to have nothing to do with the freezing, scarcely human creature I was now. It belonged to a man I had no more business trying to pretend to be.
It was a surprise, therefore, to find after some indeterminate rain-lashed sweep of time that I was indoors, and not in any part of Wandsworth Prison but in a certain residence of Pall Mall, and already in the act of banging on my brother’s door.