I had thought I would not write here again. Cases have endings of sorts, but this – I see there will be no finishing point that I do not impose myself, and I must give it up some time, must I not? There are moments, events that look like endings on the page, even feel like it before they slide past into something else. Yet after what has occurred – I must do something. I wrote when I began that I wished to order my thoughts, and catalogue my errors. And surely I have again made more than one dangerous mistake. I had better prepare myself to see it that way. And if I do not feel it yet –
I am descending into mere babble. I must begin again.
* * *
Each morning, there in the the Times, is the column headlined Central Criminal Court, and each morning one must decide whether or not one is going to read it. I watch Watson silently judge that it is all out of our hands and there is no point in distressing himself by looking at the page. Then ten minutes later he will decide this is cowardly and absurd and that he had better read the thing at once and get it over with. He proceeds to do this with the most impressive self-possession, though naturally his lips compress and his breathing changes. Sometimes he will pass me the paper afterwards, or quietly summarise what it says.
“It seems to be going badly enough for him,” he said quietly to me on Thursday morning, and I looked from his closed eyes, to his hand spread on the tablecloth as if to anchor himself here in our familiar rooms by its texture. He exhaled. “Well, it’ll be over soon now,” he murmured, as much to himself as to me.
But it will not be over, will it?
I read the column in my turn. It engrages me if Gilfoyle appears to have got the better of any exchange, even if there is a part of me that would rejoice were he acquitted, for then I should have my chance at him.
We are ten days into a stingy, grudging April, bleak as November except for a few bright days last week. The new leaves are stiff and reluctant on the trees in Regent’s Park, the grass in the mornings still brittle with frost. Three clients have come to me with problems; a landlord pursuing absconded debtors, a gentleman pining sadly for a missing greyhound, and a blackmailed bride. Watson did not attend any of these interviews, politely excusing himself to his room for the first two and leaving the house entirely some hours before the third, mentioning a trip to the library. As I ushered Lady Eva into the sitting room a number of points struck me about his absence:
Firstly, that although I usually impress upon clients that they may, indeed must, speak as freely before Watson as to myself, Lady Eva was so wracked with nerves, so terrified of her troubles becoming common knowledge, that it was in this case perhaps as well not to have to go to the effort of convincing her.
Secondly,that it appeared I no longer had a partner. Besides handling some of the correspondence, Watson had taken no part in any case of mine since that awful night in January. Why on earth should he?
I attempted to quell a foolish rush of loneliness. So I would not be dragging him into harm’s way any more, I told myself –well, so much the better. I had managed alone before he came, and it was miraculous indeed that I still had his company and friendship at all. To chafe at having to take my own notes and fight off my own assailants in future was surely petty in the extreme.
However, while I struggled for this proper perspective on a return to solitary practice, I made no effort at all to argue myself out of a new attack of rage at Gilfoyle. And that led me to my third thought: I had a sudden and awful suspicion where Watson was.
I did not, of course, allow these reflections to keep me from paying due attention to my client, who had remained deaf to my invitation to take a seat and stood there staring blankly before her, her teeth clenched, screwing one of her kid gloves into a ball between her hands.
“I can’t stay long. I only hope no one saw me coming here. I’m supposed to be shopping for wedding favours,” she said in a disjointed, mechanical fashion.
“Pray sit down, my lady,” I urged her, for the second time.
To have to address her so felt slightly ridiculous. Eva Blackwell is twenty-one, but does not look it. She is tall but with that childish, thin-skinned cast of beauty that rarely lasts long and is the more poignant for it; a slim, wispy girl with pale curls and huge, slightly protuberant blue eyes. Already desperation and sleeplessness had begun whittle away at the fresh softness of her features, and her lips were dragged into a harsh, taut line. Nevertheless, without the contextual evidence of coiffeur and clothes, one might guess her age at about fourteen. She is engaged to the Earl of Dovercourt, who is twenty years her senior.
“I would advise you to confide in your fiance,” I said. “Mr Milverton’s power over you would be entirely dispelled. And unless you are misleading me about the content of your letters to Mr Talbot or the date at which you sent them...”
“No! I told you – it was all over, two years ago. I had no idea the letters still existed. He promised he’d burn them.”
“Then they document a mere flirtation, well before your engagement with the Earl.”
“I cannot believe I was so stupid,” she moaned.
“You are by no means the only victim whose trust has been abused,” I said. “But while Mr Talbot has betrayed you, you have betrayed nobody. You have not wronged the Earl, and he can reproach you with nothing worse than youthful imprudence. Surely, if he were to know your trouble, his one wish would be to protect you.” I paused. “If he loves you.”
She hesitated. “He says he does,” she said in a tired, blank tone.
“Yet you have no confidence in him.”
Indignation flashed across her face for a moment, but she could not sustain it. She slumped in the chair and with a tight little smile agreed, “No.”
I did not ask her why not, only waited, and as I expected, she soon went on. “Walter has been a bachelor for a long time,” she said, carefully flattening expression out of her voice. “He was in no hurry to marry. He has seen a great deal of the world, but he had always intended, eventually, to marry a woman who had not. An innocent young girl whom he could guide and... and mould to suit him. Someone close to his own rank, of course, but with no real experience of life, someone very modest and reserved and... well. Pure.”
With that childlike little face she certainly looked the part. But there was something nauseating about this dreary recitation, and I was beginning to think that in wrecking this marriage, Milverton might actually be committing an inadvertent good deed.
“I have to marry him,” she said grimly, as if I had spoken this thought, and looked, for a moment, entirely adult.
“Forgive me for saying so, Lady Eva, but you sound, if determined, not exactly enthusiastic.”
She winced. “Do you know anything about my family?” she asked in a low voice.
Of course I did. The Blackwell divorce case occurred when I was about Lady Eva’s present age, before I had yet cultivated a professional interest in celebrity gossip and aristocratic scandals. Indeed, at that time of my life, my state of mind had rather precluded much interest in anything. Yet when marchionesses elope with French naval officers, one has to be stone dead not to hear about it.
“My father never got over it, I suppose,” said Lady Eva, dully. “He died eighteen months ago. My brother likes to blame my mother for that too. And my sister...”
She reached into her reticule and produced a small photograph in an oval frame. It showed two girls in white dresses, conventionally posed in a sisterly embrace: a beringletted, adolescent Lady Eva with her arm around the shoulders of a wary, secretive-looking child of perhaps eleven, who peered unsmilingly at the camera from behind dark hair and pressed against her sister’s side.
“That’s the only picture I have of Claudia,” said Lady Eva. “She’s in Earlswood Hospital.” And although I knew what the name of that institution signified, she elaborated in a voice suddenly hoarse with incredulous rage: “She’s in Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots. She has been there for three years. I have been able to do nothing.”
Furious tears sprang into her eyes, and she started up and walked about the room.
“Claudia is not an idiot,” she said thickly, “She was so clever – oh, God, not was, she is, I am sure she still is. But Milverton knows about her - he told me – I had to hear it from him – about a month ago she tried to... hurt herself.” She looked sharply at me, “She is not mad any more than she is an idiot,” she inisted, as if I were claiming otherwise. “Or she was not until they sent her away, and if she is mad now it is not her fault.”
“Lady Eva,” I said, “Do you mean it is for your sister’s sake that you have engaged yourself to the Earl?”
“Yes,” she said, fiercely, quite past pretending that any of the love involved in this transaction was for her fiance. “I have to, I have to get her out of that place. I would do anything. ”
I had already been angry, before she had even begun to speak. Of course I had been angry for weeks. Now I felt it quiver along my bloodstream, frightening and heady and sickening all at once, like one drink too many. It was becoming clear that even if I could free her from Milverton’s grip, she would remain in a snare from which I could not release her. I was sick of London and all its hard bargains. I was so very sick of problems I could not solve.
“Then, I suppose, your fiance has agreed that after the wedding, you may take charge of your sister’s care,” I supplied.
She nodded. “You must understand,” she said when she was a little calmer. “Claudia never much resembled any of the rest of the family. And not long after that photograph was taken, she began to have – fits. They were not so bad at first, but my father began... well, I suppose he had thought as much for a long time, but he began to say openly there had never been anything like that in his family, and my brother and I were healthy enough so... my mother must have left him a little cuckoo in the nest to remember her by.”
She was scrabbling in the reticule – whose contents seemed schoolgirlishly untidy – for a handkerchief. I handed her one from the box I have been compelled to keep for such occasions – weeping clients are no rare occurrence. “And her condition deteriorated,” I said.
“Yes. The fits became more frequent – and she would behave strangely for a while before and after, she wouldn’t know what was happening or understand what you said to her. It always passed, and she would be herself again, but then when she was fifteen, she had a very bad attack, and ... there were people visiting, she came into the dining room and she wasn’t ... properly dressed. And so father put her in that place, and my brother and his wife see no reason she shouldn’t stay there. It is killing her, I knew that even before I heard what she’d done to herself last month. I have only three thousand pounds of my own, I cannot make a home for us both on that. My brother wouldn’t let her be released into my care even if I could. So you see I need help. And more money.”
She stopped crying quite suddenly, and her face went empty again.
“So there it is,” she said. “I have told you what kind of wife Walter wants. You may imagine that there is already some doubt a girl from a family like mine qualifies. His mother is still living – she does not approve of his marrying a Blackwell at all. He would not see the letters as you do, Mr Holmes, he would see them as evidence I should make the same kind of wife as my mother did.”
We were both silent for some time, I weighing various possibilities and she staring in vacant misery at the carpet.
“Mr Milverton has given you ten days to respond?” I asked at last. She nodded. “It may take me a little time to arrive at a solution...”
“Solution...?” she repeated blankly, lifting her eyes to meet mine, then sighed. “No, no. I am sorry, Mr Holmes, for bringing you a problem that must hardly be worth your time – there’s no mystery for you, is there? And there’s no time for you to do anything clever. I just didn’t know where else to go. Tell him I’ll pay him, as much as I possibly can, but I don’t have what he’s asking for – if I did, I’d give it to him. He doesn’t seem to understand that. Perhaps you can make him understand. That’s why I came to you.”
The prospect of sending Milverton away merely slightly disappointed in his profits, so this heroic child could sell herself undisturbed, was not very inviting. “I will do what I can,” I said. And inwardly I made a bargain of my own. I would attempt, in all sincerity, to do as she directed. But if that failed, as I already expected it would, I would count myself free to take whatever measures I liked.