Watson tries to live with the memory of a terrible bargain in secrecy.
- rape. Reference to child prostitution. Violence.
Work in progress.Part IPart II
I have not written directly of what happened during the Gilfoyle case and I do not know if I should, or can, but
Perhaps if I can get it onto the page it will no longer
For twenty minutes now I have sat here, having made the decision to set it down but quite unable to start. If this were any other case how would I
Enough of this. Write it.
* * *
It is true that the matter that led us to Gilfoyle’s house at the end of January had not presented any particular challenge to my friend’s unique abilities, but it was a bleak enough business. Since the Eliza Armstrong scandal last summer and the subsequent Amendment in Parliament, profiteers from the traffic of women and children have had life rather harder than was once the case. Even without Holmes’ help, Scotland Yard would surely soon have succeeded in connecting Pelham Gilfoyle’s fortune to that hideous industry. He was involved not only in the London vice trade but in the export of English girls to the continent and in the import of wretched human cargo of both sexes from as far as China. Our part in the matter was primarily to trace the whereabouts of a pair of specific children. That, the police could not have done in time. By the next day it would have been too late, the girls would have been sold, and violated, and vanished abroad, and it might have been impossible to recover them.
In a case in which perhaps every detail cuts and stings, it is disheartening to have to note that if the children in question had not been daughters of the middle class, we should probably never even have heard of them.
We had had only a few days to achieve what should properly have been the work of weeks or months – convince Gilfoyle to trust us. In those few days I had I learned of such things as underground rooms in which men could enjoy the screams of very young girls without fear of anyone else hearing them. I had seen children who had been on the streets for years before they even reached puberty.
I was already desperate for the business to be over and already aware that there were many for whom it never would be, no matter what we achieved that night.
Mr. Gilfoyle had a large villa built in the Palladian style in St. John’s Wood, set back from the road at the end of a short drive. His wealth gleamed from its every surface like an oil.
Gilfoyle received us in his study, about nine in the evening, and he impressed me throughout the disgusting interview as a man afflicted by the most soul-deep apathy I have ever seen in my life. He spoke in a listless, spiritless drawl, and sat slouched, barely stirring in his armchair. He was perhaps forty-five years old, still youthfully slender, sandy-haired, and pallid. His face might once have been handsome, but the slack lines of lassitude and dreary contempt drained any possible remaining beauty out of it. Not that it was now an ugly face. It was a kind of absence. He discussed the prostitution of two little girls as if it were the most commonplace and tedious thing in the world.
I had relatively little part in the conversation. As I said, I have no special gift for acting. (Oh God – did something in my face give us away?). Holmes had thought it would be more credible if I were acknowledged as a doctor, one of those – I can still hardly believe there are such men – who will attest to girls’ virginity before they are handed over to their ruin. Holmes, meanwhile, thoroughly disguised and dipping in and out of French, presented himself to Gilfoyle as a fellow-dealer in human flesh, who wanted to buy the two missing girls out from under the noses of their intended purchaser for the use of clients in Paris. Holmes had succeeded in winkling all the information we needed out of him in barely three quarters of an hour, and the shared thrill of triumph that I know went through us both seemed to wash us clean of the horror of the pretence.
As we left the villa, Holmes shuddered and muttered to me, “After that, Watson, I am not sure if I want a drink or a bath or an emetic more urgently. Where’s Lestrade?”
It was beginning to snow again. We made it as far as the gates.
I do not know what went wrong. The procuress who had claimed so fervently she was done with Gilfoyle and wanted him stopped– possibly she had, after all, betrayed us. Or perhaps Gilfoyle simply repented the folly of trusting two near-strangers only on her word. It no longer matters.
There were six men, some of them armed with cudgels. We are both good fighters in our way and I think we gave them as hard a time of containing us as anyone could, but the odds were too much for us to hold out for ever. And in truth, we did not think then that we were fighting for our lives. The crimes Gilfoyle had financed and thrived on were repulsive, but he was not a killer – not even by proxy, as far as we knew. And the police were coming.
So we were dragged back inside the house. Holmes’ wig and glasses had been torn away. We looked at each other. Holmes smiled. To one who knew him as I did it was certainly a rather shaken, apprehensive smile, but it was enough that I could smile in return.
Gilfoyle was standing in the hall, his form reflected in the shining marble under his feet. His hands shook faintly and there was a little colour in his pale cheeks. And yet, his eyes were still lustreless, and his face scarcely more animated than it had been before. It was as if whatever shock or rage he might have felt worked on his body only and on some higher level, he barely cared.
He said coldly, “It’s all up with us, I suppose. You are Sherlock Holmes. And I imagine the police must be on their way.”
“You are correct,” said Holmes, rakishly nonchalant between the two roughs who held him. He would probably have thrust his hands in his pockets if his arms had been free. “What shall we spend the time talking of?”
Oh, Holmes. At the time I was silently angry with you, for goading him when quiet and compliance might have been safer. But now I think nothing would have saved us from what followed, and I am glad you were so undaunted. So much yourself.
Gilfoyle turned away with slight shrug. “How long will I be breaking stones, then? I buy and sell, and nobody cared until six months ago. But I haven’t murdered anyone, Mr. Holmes. They don’t hang men like me.”
“Your fellow prisoners will be delighted to have such a paragon among them,” Holmes said.
Pelham Gilfoyle turned his empty face back towards Holmes, and glanced down at the open jack-knife in his hand. He said, with a sort of dull curiosity, “Maybe I should prefer to hang.”
* * *
Holmes is dangerous even restrained and unarmed, and Gilfoyle approached him too slowly. Holmes managed to arch up against the men that held him and kick out at the hand that held the knife. And as it spun from Gilfoyle’s grasp, Holmes stamped back against shins and knees; twisted, snakelike, and was somehow free. He jabbed a sharp punch into one man’s stomach, kicked viciously at the groin of a second. But counting Gilfoyle it was now four to one, and as Holmes tried to strike at the throat of an attacker, another of them slammed a heavy blow against the side of his face.
If we had been out in the open I think Holmes might have recovered from that, for a while, at least. But as it was the blow sent him reeling off balance, and before he could right himself his head struck back against a mirror on the wall with force enough to crack the glass.
After that explosion of force and motion, the silence as he dropped was terrible.
One of them turned him onto his back with a kick. And Gilfoyle had retrieved his knife. He knelt beside Holmes, staring down at him.
Of course, I had not merely been standing by and watching during all of this. I had been straining and elbowing and shouting for them to stop. I had been uselessly calling my friend’s name.
Gilfoyle looked at me, for the first time since we had been forced back into the house. It was little more than an irritable glance. And he turned back to Holmes and made a first, exploratory cut into his face.
Until then I was not even sure my friend was still alive. But he was not so far gone as not to feel that. He gasped and spasmed, and jerked away from the blade, his hands rising and then falling back. Gilfoyle laid a hand on his forehead, as if checking for fever, and leant his weight down to hold him still. He replaced the knife, this time against Holmes’ throat.
And for an instant I found more desperate strength than seemed my own; I kicked and wrenched my way out of the men’s grasp and lunged across the room. I seized Gilfoyle’s arm and knocked him sideways. Gilfoyle met my eyes again and stared at me in a sort of bafflement before his thugs caught hold of me again and hauled me away from him. He made an impatient gesture and I realised with horror that his men were dragging me from the room this time. I had thought it would be bad enough to have to watch, but to be forced away and know he was dying without me was beyond anything I could possibly bear and I cried out to Gilfoyle, “Please
They half-carried me through a door and onto the servants’ staircase, running from the attics to the cellars. They threw me down a flight of steps to a lower landing and I was bruised, I suppose, but I hardly felt it yet. I rose and stumbled up the steps towards the door again although I was sure it must be locked – worse, that it must already be too late –
But then Gilfoyle came through it, alone. He still had the knife in his hand. He saw me look at it.
“You are safe enough,” he said drearily. “He is the one who has ruined me. I don’t know why you came with him. You should not have come. But you are just one of his pawns, are you not?”
As far as I could tell, there was no more blood on the blade than there had been before. His thugs were still out there with their cudgels in the room where Holmes lay, but Gilfoyle had seemed to want the experience of killing Holmes himself. So there must be hope they would not finish the job without him.
Time was on my side, not his, I thought. If I could only keep him in here for a while. And despite what he had said he was staring at me with more fixed and keen attention than he’d seemed capable of before.
I tried to steady my breath. “A man like you must have connections.” I said, spreading my hands in what I hoped was a conciliatory gesture, “Even if you do go to prison, I’m sure you won’t be there very long, and...”
He was still staring at my face, but he seemed not to have heard. “When I was younger,” he said, softly, as if to himself. “I wanted to try everything. I wanted to do anything that was new to me. But it all runs out so fast, you realise, and almost at once there is nothing new at all.”
I began to think he was actually insane. “You cannot really want to die,” I said, “not just for the sake of – not for the mere pleasure of taking a life?”
life,” Gilfoyle murmured, remotely, glancing back towards the door. “Sherlock Holmes. That would be something.”
“Don’t, please,” I began, and swallowed, feeling that already I’d gone wrong.
The strange detached attention in that slack face was on me again. He asked, “What would you do to stop me?”
Some wild promise I would help him escape rose to my lips, and at that moment I would indeed have given him his freedom if I could. But my throat closed around the words and I couldn’t get them out. He was right, he was trapped. Even if I could somehow have spirited him beyond the reach of Scotland Yard that night, there was Holmes. And alive, Holmes would never have let him go.
I whispered, “What do you want?”
He did not answer me. So I stammered out something. Whatever you want. Anything.
Something of that sort. Perhaps I had not realised it yet, but we were already past the point where it mattered what either of us said.
His posture shifted, indefinably, and his gaze at me sharpened, his lips parted to show the teeth. I can’t read whole pages of thoughts from a face as Holmes can, yet I have ordinary instinct enough to know what I saw in that look. It was predatory, and yet I believe it was not exactly lust. Or at least, it was very little like even the greediest gaze I have seen a man direct at a pretty woman. It was interest
, the horrible stirring a half-atrophied desire for novelty – the novelty, I suppose, of seeing what I would do. It was almost the same look he had worn when he bent over Holmes with the knife. As if he were saying to himself only, Now what this will be like?
He said – I cannot convey how calmly and casually he said – “Show me.”
Things seemed to blur and quiver around me for a moment then I said, absurdly, “You cannot be suggesting...”
A weak, wavering parody of a good English gentleman’s scandalised bluster.
He didn’t answer. He merely waited.
I thought of the people we had seen on our recent journeys through London’s shadow-life. Shivering children. Bruised women somehow managing to smile and flutter in doorways. Wraith-thin, dead-eyed young men. What they must live through, night after night.
If they could ...
I forced myself up the last few steps towards him. I laid my hands weakly on his chest but they shook stupidly and I said, “I can’t.”
He actually smiled for the first time and made a little scoffing sound. He shrugged and drew away.
I seized his wrist and pulled him back.
We were both silent after that. I unbuckled him, reached inside. This is not so bad, I told myself. This is nothing.
Sometimes he directed me by a light, impatient pressure on the back of my head, or by taking hold of my hands and repositioning them. He unbuttoned his shirt as I worked my hand up and down, and pressed my face down against his chest. I kissed him there. Through most of the rest of it I could try to pretend – oh, that I was either conducting or undergoing some unpleasant medical procedure, or that I was not even there. But that was impossible when I was required to touch him with my lips.
His tongue pushed heavily against mine once, otherwise his mouth was almost inert against my own. The skin of his breast and belly were oddly cool. And later, kneeling at his feet, trying not to gag, I looked up at his face sometimes and his greenish eyes stayed open, watching me closely, without a flicker of anything in them.
I even wished he would go ahead and take what he wanted from me, rather than compel me to act out this parody of lovemaking.
And there is something else, and unless I confess it here I suppose it has been pointless to have written so much –
How can I say it – I had to think of something to make it possible, I could hardly pretend it was a woman’s body under my hands and mouth. I thought of my friend lying out there – so that I should not lose sight of why I must continue, you see – but that is not all. I thought, if this were Holmes –
Did Gilfoyle see that in me, from the beginning? Is that why -?
Finally his breathing came quicker; his hands, so sluggish at first, gripped at me hard. Then he pushed me away a little and pulled my coat from my shoulders, dragged at the waist of my trousers.
When at last he pressed me back onto the staircase, even while I seemed to empty away from my incredulous body, I felt a distant relief that at least I had nothing more to do with this, only to wait it out.
The breath seemed crushed out of me between his weight and the hard edges of the tiled steps beneath me. I no longer thought of Holmes, or of the ghastly parade of London’s outcasts. I thought of Afghanistan. Men screaming past the belts or sticks wedged between their teeth when we had no ether to give them. The rhythm of a surgical saw working in and out of flesh.
* * *
For some time after he left me I simply lay where I was. My mind screamed at me that someone would certainly find me there if I did not hurry and that I did not know whether Holmes was alive or dead, yet I could not seem to persuade myself to move.
But then I did get up, wincing, and pulled my clothes to rights as quickly as I could.
I believe the police found Gilfoyle waiting quietly at the gates, and that he gave them no trouble at all.
I crept back into the hall. The doors were wide open and the room was freezing, and it was empty now except for Holmes. He was still so horribly motionless, and his long slender body looked unbearably vulnerable sprawled there on the hard floor. I crouched, and felt over his head carefully for cracks. There were none, but his skull felt fragile as porcelain in my hands, under the silky hair and hot blood. One would hardly believe so much could be contained within.
His eyes stirred under the lids, but they did not open. Tears filled my own eyes suddenly and I had to draw my sleeve across them.
I hadn’t put my coat back on so I draped it over him. I think it was only a few minutes that I knelt there alone with him, trying to staunch the bleeding with a wadded handkerchief. “Lestrade,” I said, without looking up. “The two girls. They’re at the Vine inn by St Katharine’s Dock. They’ll be out to Ostend on the next tide. The ship is called The Rosina.”
The little inspector bent over Holmes an anxious hiss. “He’s been in the wars this time. Had we better get him to hospital?”
“I can’t tell. I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems. “ I rubbed at my face again. God, I was tired. “Let’s just get him out of here.”
Perhaps the cold air helped, for outside Holmes suddenly groaned and then announced indistinctly, “I’m fine,” and struggled until the men carrying him had to set him on his feet. “I’m fine
,” he repeated, sounding vaguely aggrieved, when I slung one of his arms over my shoulder to keep him upright.
He was not fine, not yet. His face was ghastly with blood, he was what you might call punch-drunk; and he was beginning to tremble hard with cold. But the concussion, and the intoxication of danger passed combined to make him almost euphoric. He stared about with dazed triumph, then probed gingerly at the wound on his face.
“He thought he would make a name for himself as my killer,” he surmised.
Holmes detached himself from me and grinned at me glassily. “I believe you saved my life.”
“Yes,” I whispered.
He laid one hand on his breast and made me an entirely ill-advised little bow. At once he swayed and I had to catch him again. “A thousand thanks, Watson.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
* * *
It has been a mistake to carry on with these pages so long. There were times when I felt such a sick need to tell someone what had happened, and I thought writing might ease it – but now I think dwelling on the matter is morbid, and has done me more harm than good. I must try to brace up and forget, and there is an end to it.
1 In 1885, after weeks working undercover, W.T Stead published a harrowing series of articles on the child prostitution industry. To prove his claims that children were being bought and sold into sexual slavery and that society and the law connived at it, he concluded his investigation by buying a 13-year-old virgin himself for £5 – Eliza Armstrong. Pretty much all the details in this story about child prostitution (clients enjoying their victims’ screams in sound-proof rooms and doctors confirming virginity, for example) are taken from his exposé, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”.
The resulting scandal prompted Parliament finally to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which had been languishing for years. This introduced a range of legal protections for potential victims, including raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 and making it an offence to procure girls for prostitution by drugs, intimidation, fraud or abduction. Reporting and investigation of these crimes rose sharply.
The same Act extended existing sodomy laws to criminalise any kind of sexual contact between men. Ten years later, it was the downfall of Oscar Wilde.