I finished my projects! Well, sort of. Well, I've got to the end of each of them and yes I need to go back and fix various remaining problems BUT WE'RE NOT GOING TO THINK ABOUT THAT RIGHT NOW. What matters right now is that what ELSE is finished is the penultimate chapter of this monster.
On Monday the 20th of February, 1882, I first noticed that against my intentions, despite my powers of emotional economy, I was falling in love with my friend. It was a bright, silver-edged winter day of the kind we have not seen once this year. I was alone, walking northwards over Westminster Bridge, I had not had any cocaine for over a week and yet the sky and the Thames and even the relentless details of the lives streaming past me glittered as if I had just shot home a dose of 10% solution. A junior minister recently initiated into the Freemasons, a carriage containing the Marquess of Bowmont and Cessford, whose debts are becoming serious, a solicitor just back from a weekend’s golf, a pair of journalists...
A genial, middle-aged lady (with a son in the Home Office – just been promoted? No, no: engaged – family going to dinner to celebrate) caught my eye and smiled at me – an amused, indulgent, motherly smile. I must have given that well-meaning woman a very odd look in return, not being at all accustomed to receiving such looks from anyone, let alone from strangers. Then it occurred to me that she was reacting to the broad smile I had, quite uncharacteristically, been proffering to public scrutiny for several minutes. I corrected this anomaly, and strode onward, tracing my way back through the thoughts that had occupied my walk from Lambeth Palace. With part of my mind I had been busy with the studies I had conducted at the archives into the early career of an archdeacon who was now unlikely to remain either an archdeacon or a free man for much longer. But I had also passed an elderly, medical man of scholarly mien and dress, on his way to St Thomas’s to deliver a lecture, and that had naturally set me thinking of the interesting acquaintances one can make if one has the good sense to hang about in teaching hospitals. Then again, the mere facts that the sky was blue and all London was shining and singing like a strings section and I had almost solved a case were perfectly adequate reasons to begin thinking about Watson. The case still presented one or two little tangles to be teased apart – how keenly I was looking forward to telling him I had done it! Two days before I had been in a rather self-pitying, morose state over the problem and Watson had informed me he viewed my success as inevitable, and there was really no need to make the tale of my eventual triumph more dramatic by throwing in these tragic elements beforehand. Ten days before that, our page boy had managed to scald his hand rather badly; after dousing the burn in cold water, Watson had dressed it admirably and distracted the lad from his pain by telling him stories of tigers and Maharajahs for a good forty minutes. He was growing stronger all the time, he was handsomer than ever, but that was not the half of it; the man had no idea how simply good he was, and in an hour or so I would see him again—
Ah, I thought. Damn.
For good or ill, imagination failed me there. I was only exasperated with myself – nowhere near as alarmed as I should have been. I knew in an abstract way that this was going to be painful, but I was still too buoyant to care very much.
If that day had somehow closed with my kissing Watson on Hampstead Heath, I am sure that in a trice I should have set about trying to break my incoherently-formed vow of chastity as thoroughly as possible. And if the young man I was then could have seen how now I hesitate, how I think wistfully of things as they were and ask myself if hopelessness is not after all a more peaceful condition than hope – he would have been quite dismayed and thought himself destined to turn out a very poor-spirited sort of fellow.
But he had only been sharing his home and work and life with John Watson for a year.
As it was, as I reached the north bank of the Thames, I assessed the limited options available to me. I knew, of course, that the only absolutely safe choice was to extract myself carefully from the friendship and from our rooms at Baker Street— and I was not going to do that, could not countenance it, in fact. And as I was also not about to make overtures to a man I was sure would not welcome them, my only remaining course was to pave it over and let it be, like one of London’s subterranean rivers. So that was that.
And I did that, quite successfully, for years – and even if it required more in the way of will and morphine than I had anticipated, I found the effort far from thankless. I was rewarded with so much, in fact, that after even another year I could never have risked it all without panic at what I stood to lose.
But at least I should have supposed myself the only one in significant jeopardy. But now, suppose we were to proceed any further than we have, and suppose within a month or a year it comes to pieces because we’d gambled everything for the sake of a mirage – well, I would be back to regretting Gilfoyle’s unhurried approach to murder, and as for my friend, where would he be? He does not, as he said, do well with secrets. Would he find someone to whom he could entrust his expanded collection of them?
What would it be like to love someone enough to do what he has for me, and then lose him because you made a mistake as to what kind of love it was?
Yet somehow, with all this, we have been easier together than we have been in months. Lestrade came bustling round the morning after Milverton’s death, and Watson found it scarcely less taxing to talk naturally to the man than last time, but this time because he was trying desperately hard not to laugh. I’m afraid I have even found myself ordering him to read me correspondence and making jokes at his expense in quite my old style. And he responds in his, with patience and amusement and by laying quiet satirical tripwires for me when I go too far.
And on Wednesday night he kissed me again – having lingered longer in the sitting room than usual after I gave him the chloral. And of course it could not go on for long, not with the drug pulling him away from me, and I was at once intensely frustrated, and grateful for his timing.
This is more than I ever hoped for, and not enough, and too much all at once.
If I ever look over these effusions again, surely I will be mortified. One might as well condense it all to an algebraic paradox – (X = not-X ), or transcribe Petrarch 134 – Pace non trovo, e non ò da far guerra, Temo e spero; ed ardo e son un ghiaccio – and save the time and paper.
* * *
I woke yesterday morning to the consciousness that though it was, by my standards, quite early, Watson had already left the house, and the simultaneous knowledge of why he had done so. I cursed myself and my useless, self-indulgent habits as I threw on my clothes and raced across town.
Watson was not hard to find. He was standing by the railings of the Old Bailey, smoking a cigarette and regarding the passers-by with a look of faintly sardonic detachment utterly wrong for his beautiful open face, and rage and exhaustion lurking behind it.
“Two years,” he said shortly, when he saw me.
Two years. I shall summarise the obvious points to be made about this only very briefly, as they are not easy to think of and remain calm.
1) It is not remotely adequate.
2) It is what we both expected.
3) It could be enough, under the right or wrong circumstances, to break a man’s health permanently.
4) It is exactly what I could expect to receive from a different clause of the self-same law, were my life laid bare before it, and God help us both, so could my friend now. He has kissed me three times, after all, and as of 1885 that is an offence level with the sale and violation of children.
“He saw me,” Watson added, without expression.
Among the many reasons to be furious at that moment, there was the fact that that I could only murmur his name and clasp his arm. We stood in the heart of the City and so I could not wrap myself around him, which was what I wanted to do a fraction more urgently than I wanted to make Gilfoyle choke to death on his own blood.
“He tried to smile,” Watson continued. “But he didn’t quite manage it. I am sure the sentence was no more than he expected, but perhaps when it came to it he was not quite as indifferent as he thought he would be. So I looked back at him until they took him down.”
There was just the faintest note of satisfaction in his voice, alongside the blank disgust.
We walked homewards in silence. I made a few inane suggestions. Alcohol – music. I wanted to load up the day with anything else.
“I should prefer not to mark the occasion with anything out of the ordinary,” said Watson through his teeth, striking a clod of mud out of his path with a vengeful swipe of his stick.
When we reached home he went to his desk and began working ferociously on his piece for The Young Briton, pen fairly stabbing at the paper, at such breakneck speed that the pages of neat jaunty, prose that piled beside him seemed miraculous. I remained in the room, but I left him alone until I heard a short, frustrated cry, and the thud of his hand striking the desk. He had tried to refill his pen, and either because he had jammed the eyedropper too aggressively into the pen-barrel, or because his hands had begun shaking slightly, the ink had splashed across the half-completed page.
He made no move to throw away the ruined page or begin another. He simply stopped, glaring down at the ink, breathing rapidly, otherwise horribly motionless.
“Watson,” I said, desperately. “Have you revised your views on indoor marksmanship at all?”
Watson lifted his head and stared at me in irritated incomprehension. Then he drew his hand across his face, fingertips discreetly sweeping past the inner corners of his eyes, and laughed.
“I suppose I have never given it a fair try,” he conceded. “Though I don’t think I need the practice.”
He did not, as he illustrated by taking his revolver from a drawer and effortlessly adding a neat full stop to the monogram with which I adorned our wall over Christmas. The glassware on the sideboard rattled and the smell of gunpowder, which I have always found rather pleasant, filled the room. I heard a small, startled shriek from somewhere downstairs, but Mrs Hudson, bless her, is past the point of coming running over such things.
Watson surveyed his handiwork. “I admit it has its points,” he said.
“We have as many rounds as you could require,” I urged.
I would have liked him to blast a crater into our wall, but Watson said dryly, “That was sufficient, thank you.” I think it was more the absurdity of this exercise than the violence of it that loosened a little of the tension gripping him, but he shook his head and looked at me with such amused fondness that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “You have the oddest ideas about – everything.”
I was so eager to get the day over that when it came to it I resented the business of pouring out the chloral less than usual. Watson had gone out alone during the afternoon to try again to walk himself into exhaustion, which worked to the extent that he returned speechless with longing for unconsciousness and stiff with physical pain.
When I went to his room that night, he was lying curled in the far corner of the bed, against the wall, one arm drawn up over his face. As I approached he stirred and whispered “Holmes.”
I had approached in utter silence, and I should have known from his breathing what was amiss, but I still asked, “Did I wake you?”
He shook his head, and pulled himself up on the pillows. “The chloral would have worked by now if it was going to. I’ve built up too much of a tolerance to it.” I sat down on the bed beside him and from somewhere, he dredged up a smile for me. “It’s all right. I know I mustn’t take any more of it,” he glanced at the cabinet where the little bottle had stood before the new regime displaced it to the sitting room. “You were right, though. It’s a good thing it’s not there. I might have done.”
For a moment I felt almost as helpless as I had the day I ran home from Wandsworth Prison. I skimmed my fingertips over his brow and cheek, and though his eyelids had sunk closed as he finished speaking, I felt his pulse throbbing with fierce, wakeful force under his jaw.
Certainly there is a place for logic, said my brother’s voice.
“Come on,” I commanded him, “Up.”
Watson groaned an incredulous, wordless question.
“You have established you cannot sleep. Therefore lying there is an irrational waste of time. There are any number of useful things you could be doing.”
Watson instructed me to clear out, I ignored him and hectored and bullied and before long he was stumbling down the stairs behind me. “Why am I doing as you tell me?” he wondered aloud.
“Because experience teaches you my smallest act tends to some definite purpose,” I said grandly. Watson snorted. I shepherded him to the sofa, before going to my room to collect the cover from my bed and a heavy stack of papers. I dropped first the one then the other into his lap. “There. I believe these date from the first half of 1884. First they will need to be sorted into chronological order. Then you might compile a short table of contents, and an index of the notable individuals concerned – then I will be able to transfer what is essential to my dockets.”
Watson rubbed the space between his eyes. “So your papers are not, after all, arranged according to a system too refined and esoteric for the ordinary mind to grasp, and will not be irreparably disordered by my touching them. They are, as they appear to me, simply a jumble that for two years you’ve been keeping...” he swept a finger through a fine layer of dust on the top page “...under your bed.”
Under normal circumstances, I dislike sorting my case notes and I dislike having anyone else attempt it still more. This is mostly a matter of laziness and paranoia, though here I may even confess that when a case exists only as raw memory rather than as a present challenge or an aid to future work – that is to say when it is finished but not yet neatly consigned to my indices – I find its relics slightly disturbing. However these were not normal circumstances, and that particular bundle’s alarming qualities were beginning to mellow with age.
“Under the dressing table, actually, and I have not said there was no system, only that I wish you to impose a different one.” I was fetching him writing materials and light as I spoke.
“You are not in earnest.”
“There you clutch at straws, Watson.”
“And how are you going to be employed,” he inquired sourly.
I picked up my fiddle and sat down cross-legged on the carpet. “I am going to start with Massenet, then perhaps move on to Handel, and after that – well, I shall think of something; maybe the Lieder if you are not too terribly sick of it.”
All the irritation left his face and he smiled at me. “You need not,” he murmured.
I frowned, and played through a couple of scales. Watson sighed and undid the loose string around the bundle. “It’s very kind of you, Holmes, but I doubt it will work.”
Yes it will, I resolved, though I began to play the Massenet piece rather than answer. The music and the little tasks I had set him were surely better than lying there alone in the dark among the ruins of such a day. Logically, therefore, the enterprise could be considered adequately successful even if we both stayed awake all night. But I did so want to do better than that.
‘O doux printemps’ is very melancholy but it is a very soft, lucid sort of sadness. Then I spun a number of little variations around the melody of ‘Art thou troubled’. I was seated on the floor with my back to him – for who can fall asleep with somebody staring at him? But once, as I moved on to Mendelssohn, I glanced back and saw he was reading a page more attentively than I had meant him to, with a reminiscent smile. Ah, yes, the Vittoria Borelli case, a colourful little problem concerning a Italian circus belle; no wonder if he enjoyed the memory of it. And somehow, seeing him look like that, something loosened within me, a remaining coil of tension at that bundle being opened of which I had not been aware. And then I began to improvise repetitive ripples of sound that half-hypnotised even me.
It took a long time, and I kept playing even after I heard the pencil drop to the floor behind me. Then at last I laid the violin down on the floor and rested my head on my knees, and listened to him breathing. I smiled a little at having succeeded, yet I was oddly afraid to turn again and look at him. I felt if I did, it would cost me the very last of what I had begun to lose that bright afternoon four years ago.
I thought about silk masks and masks of grey prison cotton; I thought about fog and poison and how dark and cold the Thames must be, and I wished we were out of London.
Then I wondered why I was treating an idea as a wistful pipe dream when it was in fact perfectly practicable.
* * *
At breakfast, Watson handed me one of the society papers, folded open.
“We are dismayed to observe an ominous eclipse looming in the social firmament. No new date has been set for the marriage of Walter, Earl of Dovercourt and the fascinating Lady Eva Blackwell, and if rumours are true the union’s abrupt postponement last week is set to become permanent. A member of the Earl’s Kensington coterie who favoured us with an interview laments that Lady Eva, the most beautiful debutante of the last season (whose dramatic family history will be well-remembered), has returned the ring while the Earl is to quit these shores for brighter horizons in California.”
We grinned at each other.
Good girl, I thought. It is quite likely she did not even need the little tips I gave her. The package she received was technically anonymous, but I had included a note advising if she needed to account for her sudden acquisition, she might suggest it was a present from her long-lost and contrite mother. And if she met any further demands for explanations, or was presented with any difficulties by certain persons, she might find the page torn from Watson’s notebook helpful.
We ate and read in silence for a while before I announced across my copy of The Times. “I believe we should go to the South of France.”
There was a pause while Watson tilted his head and frowned at me warily. “What is in the South of France?”
“Vineyards,” I said carelessly. “Lavender fields. Attractive villages. Decent weather. I had expected you would have heard as much.”
Watson laid down his paper in silence. He had understood me now, of course, and to my dismay he looked slightly hurt. “Holmes,” he said quietly at last. “I am not ill. I do not require a convalescence.”
“I said nothing of you. I find myself in urgent need of rest and tranquillity. I have for many years, as you have often remarked, neglected and presumed upon my constitution to the point of wilful abuse. It is very likely I am now on the brink of outright collapse. If you do not wish to accompany me to the Dordogne, I suppose I must go alone, but I cannot help but think how unfortunate it would be, if I were to suffer some crisis so far from a trustworthy English physician.” I fetched a melancholy sigh.
Watson could not keep his lips from twitching at this. Still he said, “No, for heaven’s sake. I cannot afford it.”
“Certainly you can. Lady Eva’s cheque was made out to me, but you will not dispute that you had a significant share in the work – though as remittance for jewel robbery you may find your profits disappointing.”
Watson coloured. I had already discovered that any reference to his exploits that night causes him to look down and smile to himself with mingled embarrassment and pride while a blush glows across his cheekbones. Naturally this makes me want to chatter to him about diamonds and the stealing of them non-stop, but the power to make him look like that is not to be squandered all at once.
“Well,” he said, though he was still smiling, “I’m afraid I have no intention of going anywhere.”
Considering that he had followed me to far less pleasant places than the South of France, I think I may be forgiven for not worrying very much about this assertion.
“I shall purchase two tickets tomorrow,” I said.
“You will waste half your money.”
“We shall see.”
He laughed then, despite himself. I tried to conceal how much this delighted me, then wondered why I was doing it and did my best to stop. Something about the results seemed to make Watson’s breath catch and his eyes widen for an instant. Then with deliberate casualness, he looked away.
“I am not sure you are capable of a holiday, Holmes,” he said, “Inaction, sometimes, yes, but not a holiday. When you mentioned France I expected you to say there was some international crisis brewing there requiring your attention.”
“Well there may be, in which case I had better be on hand,” I said. “And if there is, what use will I be without you?” >>Part XXI
Petrarch 134 – "Pace non trovo, e non ò da far guerra, Temo e spero; ed ardo e son un ghiaccio." In Thomas Wyatt's translation: "I find no peace, and all my war is done. I hope and fear, and burn and freeze like ice."