A.N I am seriously hoping I might be able to post the next bit later tonight. And I hope so, because I've been looking forward to it for ages. But then I've been all "TODAY is going to be the day!" for WEEKS now, so... to be going on with, while I cook/ wash up, anyway:
Edit:Soooo close! But I'm passing out here. And I owe a lot of replies to comments, too. A demain!
For several days I enjoyed being Escott; I fled gratefully into him early each morning and only relinquished him late and reluctantly at night. That first night I made a cursory reconaissance of Appledore Towers then steered him into the nearest pub – the Spaniards Inn, on the edge of the Heath. Escott fell easily into companionable conversation with whoever happened to sit beside him, sang cheerfully along with the jolly patrons of the Spaniards when a regular at the piano led them in a round of ‘Champagne Charlie.’
Good for any game at night, my boys,
Good for any game at night, my boys,
Who'll come and join me in a spree?
The instrument needed tuning and Escott, being equipped with my nerves and senses, may have had his teeth set on edge every time the pianist played what was supposed to be D7. Nevertheless, he was happy. He was ready to like everyone he met, and accordingly was liked by everyone – with the exception of young William Parkes, the coachman who had spent the last six months failing to propose to Milverton’s housemaid. I really was extraordinarily lucky – I had not only located most of Appledore Towers’ staff, I had caught this couple bickering fiercely in a corner, quite unconscious for the moment that anyone else was in the room. I had to wait mere minutes until the girl rose to her feet, tossed her head, and stalked away, and then I had little more to do than to step into her path. I provided her with a glass of gin, and the opportunity she had been dying for to make Parkes properly jealous.
Perhaps my conduct to that young woman may not be above censure, but I still consider ours was, for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“I should see you safe home,” I murmured in her ear, a few hours later, while Parkes glared daggers at me across the room. “Don’t want to get you in trouble with the master – keeping you out at all hours.”
She laughed scornfully. “Don’t you worry about him. He sleeps like the dead.”
“Really? He’s not going to be ringing the bell for you to fluff his pillows for him?”
“No. Out like a light at half-past ten. Always. He don’t get up till ten in the morning, neither.”
“Well that’s handy, anyhow,” I said, which was no less than the truth. “You can meet me tomorrow night.”
“Oh yeah?” She grinned at me.
I put my arm round her – I would have had to in any case, for she was shivering a little in the wind from the heath. I chuckled sourly. “I can’t stand these lazy toffs. All that time on their hands, and what do they do with it?”
“Huh,” said Agatha bitterly. “Tell that to my Wi – you should tell Parkes that. He’d go, ‘oh no, Aggie, it’s not for us to pass judgement on Mr Milverton! Oh Aggie, you should be more respectful.’ Like I don’t get enough of having to be that all day.”
“Slavedriver, is he?” I asked sympathetically.
“Oh, well, I’ve been worse places, I suppose. But he makes my skin crawl, if you want to know. With that horrible smile of his. And all that money and he don’t pay as well as he could, either – just spends it all cluttering the place up with his old gewgaws that need dusting every ten minutes, and all those stinking foreign flowers. And where does he get it all from, I’d like to know? All them people traipsing through his study at all hours whispering and trying not to let anyone get a good look at ‘em. I reckon he’s shady somehow.”
That was enough for one evening. I knew I must, that night and each subsequent one, spend at least an hour back at Baker Street. I returned about a quarter to midnight after that first expedition to find a worried and rather indignant Watson waiting for me.
“There’s nothing worth telling yet,” I said, pouring the chloral into the measuring glass and holding it up to the light.
Watson sighed, and examined the ceiling. “Will you explain one thing to me?”
I looked at him warily. I dislike talking of my plans when they are still new and may have to be changed.
“Why are you doing this? No – not all that,” he said, gesturing at the remains of Escott. “I’m sure you have your reasons. And God knows I want that man stopped. But this marriage, Holmes. Lady Eva. Is it really likely Dovercourt would abandon her over these letters?”
He grimaced in sheer incomprehension, and shook his head, “I cannot – I would never ...” he murmured before words failed him altogether.
“You would never treat someone you loved so?” I tipped a trickle of chloral from the glass back into the bottle. “Of course you wouldn’t.”
“Neither would you,” he replied.
I was at once touched and slightly unsettled. Either he had spoken so thoughtlessly as to forget just why I was never likely to be in a position to jilt a girl at the altar, or he actually meant to compliment me on how he supposed I would behave with a man. Both interpretations were disconcerting and I decided to leave the remark alone. “Well, you may draw your own conclusions about the Earl,” I said.
“He does not love her. He cannot. Holmes, is it worth rescuing such a marriage? Is it even right?”
“My dear fellow, you know as well as I what would happen if he broke off the engagement. The assumption would be that he had discovered something disgraceful about her, and she would, duly, be disgraced. Doubly so if he let the existence of the letters get about. Their actual contents would not matter.”
“Yes, but if she were to break it off?”
“Still rather a blot on her copy-book,” I said, avoiding his eyes.
Watson looked impatient. “Yes, there would be a fuss, I suppose, but she’s very young; it would blow over in time. Is that not preferable to tying herself for life to a man who has so little regard for her? Is she really so besotted she does not care what he thinks of her?”
I hesitated, sighed, and told him Lady Eva’s reasons. There was a pause. His face closed. “Is there nothing else to be done?” he asked.
“What could I do?” I cried despite myself, all the rage and defeat I’d escaped as Escott catching up with me at once. “Interrupt them at the altar with a pistol? Abduct the girl from the asylum? What should I do with her if I could? Lady Eva is perfectly correct; to help her sister, she needs funds she does not have. Lord Dovercourt has promised her that much. I can clear her path for her, perhaps, but I cannot work miracles! I cannot produce her a home or a fortune out of the air!”
There was a longer silence. “Poor girls,” Watson said shortly, before draining the glass of chloral.
This evening ritual is vastly preferable to the alternatives; nevertheless I detest it. I am – it scarcely needs saying – obsessively careful in measuring the stuff out. I will gladly exasperate my friend for minutes at a time refusing to hand it over until I am perfectly satisfied the level in the glass is not a hair above where it should be. At this dose, high as it is, it should not cause him any sudden harm (I am vigilant for signs of more gradual poisoning). Yet it is such a wretchedly unpredictable substance. I have conducted furtive researches into its properties and only confirmed what I thought I remembered from my studies of poisons in general: that there are cases of reckless insomniacs swallowing sixty or eighty or even a hundred grains without any apparent ill effects, and then there are others who have been killed by only a very little more than the quantity I nightly hand to my friend and watch him swallow down.
Half an hour after he has retired and then again twenty minutes after that, I look in on him. I try to execute this task as dispassionately as possible. I have been known to barge into his room early in the morning in order to drag him off to a promising crime scene, but the act of creeping in to study a sleeper without waking him is quite different; even knowing I have permission to enter I feel a sinister, intruding presence, a burglar or a ghoul from a children’s tale. So I go no closer than two paces from the bed; I try, absurd as it must sound, to observe him without seeing him, to count the number of breaths to a minute without noticing if his hands are drawn into fists and his jaw clenched, or if his eyes are flickering under the lids. For he is usually restless, even under the soft weight of the drug. And if, as only occasionally happens, he is still and relaxed, and then I try not to be aware of the loveliness of his face in the candlelight.
* * *
In the morning, he appeared unexpectedly early and caught me in my bedroom, finishing my preparations for the day’s campaign. I had arranged to meet Aggie in the evening, but I wanted to spend some time beforehand simply observing the house and its comings and goings through a pair of field-glasses, and the rest of the day talking to local tradesmen. I wanted to locate the conservatory that Agatha’s talk of “foreign flowers” suggested – I had been unable to see it from the road.
“There’s something else,” Watson said. “I remembered something.”
He held out a small pocketbook. I glanced at it and recoiled a little when I realised it was one he had used during our preliminary investigations of the Gilfoyle case.
“Mrs Jameson’s house. The one with the... room, below street level...”
“I remember it, ” I said impatiently, though I should have preferred not to. It was the particularly nightmarish brothel at which Phyllis Mackey’s employer had been a patron.
The notebook was open at hastily jotted list, linking the pseudonyms of regular clients of the brothel with what we believed to be their real names, in case we should need them.
“ ‘Bertie’ = thos. ellory kensington?”
“ ‘Jack Bright’ = donald ware?”
“ ‘Mr Meadows’ = henry ingram, highgate?”
“ ‘Mr W’ = walter earl dovercourt?”
I stopped in the act of dragging on Escott’s jacket and sagged back into my chair. “I wish you hadn’t shown me that,” I groaned after a moment.
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “I thought it was important.”
“It is an altogether commonplace situation,” I said dully. “Mrs Jameson specialised in virgins, he may not even have any diseases. He may prove an exemplary husband.”
“Holmes,” said Watson, softly, almost apologetically. “Lady Eva’s sister – how old is she? ”
I stared at him. That Watson should have come up with a more bleakly convincing interpretation of the facts than had yet occurred to me was depressing enough in itself. I put my head into my hands. “I can’t –” I began, and broke off helplessly. “I have – I must get back the letters. I don’t know what else. I have very little time, Watson. I can’t stay.”
Perhaps one might advise Lady Eva to house her sister elsewhere, I said to myself as I hurried off along Baker Street. At least the girl will be alive, at least they will both have a chance. There is only so much I can do.
It took much longer than it had the night before for Escott to settle comfortingly over me, but it did happen eventually.
* * *
Mostly, Agatha and I talked about Parkes. I believe she was rather hoping he would fight me for her.
Agatha was not especially pretty, but she had a certain mutinous vivacity – I could see why Parkes liked her; I could believe that Escott would tolerate her inability to stop talking about another man. It is strange how I could, for a while, really feel Escott’s pleasure in her company -- even while a bored, distressed and anxious Sherlock Holmes engineered the conversation around a strict ratio of subjects. Three things about Parkes, one about Escott’s life, ambitions and feelings, and one about Milverton’s habits.
“I mean if he can’t make up his mind to ask me, why shouldn’t I do what I like?” she said, on my last evening with her. She had already comfirmed for me that the conservatory opened onto a drawing room, from which a passage led to the study and bedroom, so I was allowing her her pet subject again as a reward.
I caught her hand and swung it. “Well, then, you’ll have to marry me instead,” I said easily.
She looked up at me, mischievous and sad at once. “Why not?” she agreed, and giggled. She lifted her face expectantly, so I bent my head and kissed her.
To my surprise, for I had not expected to be affected at all, this had the unfortunate effect of killing poor Escott dead. Not that it was a physically unpleasant sensation. It was merely unspeakably empty, and the contrast between lives was suddenly too sharp. I thought, as I had been trying so hard not to, of Watson’s kiss, and of everything I had done without for so long. It was a very irritating development, really, for I found the abrupt loneliness of it impervious to reason and it significantly impaired my ability to act. I wanted terribly to get away from poor Aggie and home to Watson as fast as possible.