AU Reichenbach. Sebastian Moran, old shikari and best shot in India, does not go to the falls unarmed.
(I sneaked behind the back of Winter in London
to write this quickly, but the next installment of that is on its way!)
The Old Campaigner
Two lines of footmarks were clearly marked along the farther end of the path, both leading away from me. There were none returning.
I followed the path curved around a bulge in the rock face, shouting my friend’s name although the sight of the Alpine-stock had left me coldly certain I would never hear any answer, and find nothing but another opening onto that cold inferno of water.
But I was wrong. Something was lying further down the path. A large, dark, crooked shape.
Holmes was stretched on his back, his limbs flung askew, and I could see at a glance that one leg was badly broken. His clothes were sodden with the spray.
It was like some horrible hallucination, and as I ran to him, careless of the narrowness of the path, the dizziness that whirled through me was almost enough to pitch me over the edge. All through that terrible breathless climb from the village I had pictured him always in mid air, always falling, and it was too plain he had
fallen, and yet here he was almost where I had left him. It was as if the fall had somehow delivered him back to the place from which he had plunged.
He must, somehow, have mounted the cliff beside us. But to imagine why or how he had done so was beyond me just then.
His pale eyes were open and fixed on the dim sky. They looked empty at first sight, but he was still breathing. In fact, he was humming – reedily and almost tunelessly, but not quite, the notes he wanted just recognisable though barely within the reach of his cracked voice. It was a Tchaikovsky piece. Not a sad tune, a triumphant one.
He blinked as I dropped to my knees beside him and said, sounding unnervingly ordinary, “Watson, you had better get away. He may return to make sure.”
Blood thinned with rainwater was running away from beneath his shoulder, over the lip of rock to join the falls. I glanced around and felt for my revolver. “Moriarty?”
“No,” said Holmes, and he smiled, damn him, wide and bright. “No, I got him, Watson. I won. He’s down there. Down there in the water. ” He gestured feebly towards the falls, as if I would not otherwise have understood. “At first I kept thinking I heard him screaming at me out of the pit, but it doesn’t sound like him any more. Listen!” He tilted his head towards the white column of water, a strange, expectant look as if he were indeed straining to hear some call above the roar.
I was already examining his shoulder. The fall had not caused the wound there - rather the wound had caused the fall. A bullet had ripped straight through him, shattering bone, and ... for a second I could only stare. It was the twin of my own old injury. The one that led me to him.
“Yes,” Holmes murmured, seeing my look. “I would have made a quite appalling soldier, Watson. But there are other battles, other kinds of war...”
“Of course there are,” I said, and swallowed. “Don’t move.”
“I had no intention of trying, I assure you,” he said dryly, and coughed. I looked anxiously for blood on his lips and saw none, but as I felt hastily over him for further punctures or breaks, he a gave a choking cry, and spasmed.
When he could speak he said, “I think I have broken more or less everything
, Doctor, can’t we leave it at that?” “Were you shot more than once?” I asked him. His pulse was sparse and fluttery under my fingers.
He shook his head.
“I’m going to try and stop the bleeding here,” I told him, my hand moving to his shoulder. “And then..." I swallowed down a swell of panic, "I told them at the hotel to send for the police. They can’t be more than half an hour behind me. We will carry you down.”
“Nonsense. You might as well try to carry down a sieveful of water.” Holmes looked, without much interest, at the wash of red coursing over the wet rock beside him. “I would be gone as soon as you lifted me over the first stone.”
“No. “ I stripped to my undershirt and heaped my coat and jacket over him, and began ripping up my shirt for bandaging. “I’ve seen men patched back together who were in far worse shape than you are.”
He ignored this. “Did you find my note?” he asked. “I worried about that.”
“No, Holmes. I don’t need a note now, do I? You can tell me whatever you wanted to say.”
He gave another cry when I began to bind his shoulder. I knew exactly how it felt, of course. “Just a few more seconds...” I said, fixing it as secure and tight as I could, and I tried to hum the Tchaikovsky piece from where he had left off as I worked.
His eyes wandered. “I’m glad I’m not down there in the pool,” he said. “I was ready for it, and... would have been quicker, but... the cold...and churning.” He blinked again and seemed to come back to himself a little. “And I don’t know I’d care to share a resting place with him forever, much as I respect the man’s talents. There’s a ledge up there. I almost made it.”
“Why? Why were you climbing up there?” I whispered. “Who shot you?”
“I thought I could... oh, it doesn’t matter what I thought. That I might get away. Lie low for a while. I’m sorry, Watson.”
“Would have sneaked off without telling you,” he said, “Seemed like the only way. But it was only ever one chance in ten, if so much. I knew Moran was still loose. He will come back... to make sure...” There was a rattle of loose stones somewhere above us. I believe it was only a chance fall – but Holmes flinched and gasped, “Please, Watson, I thought I’d made sure you would be safely away.”
I clenched my teeth. It was no time to be angry with him. But I could never quite forgive him for having let me be duped away. I can never even think very clearly about what would have happened if his plan had succeeded. If I were sitting here now, knowing nothing of Moran, believing Moriarty had carried my friend over the falls, while all the while he...
“Go on, leave me alone. Dying is really rather a private thing, you know. We have said our goodbyes already. And there is nothing you can do for me, is there?” And Holmes raised his head a little and repeated with sudden, scathing fierceness, “Is there?” I could not answer him. I was making a more systematic examination of him now, and my fingers were finding only terrible damage as they travelled over him. But he sighed, and fell relaxed again. “And I am all right as I am. Look. This place is beautiful. Watson, look at the light in the water.”
Of course I wasn’t going to look at the bloody light. “This Moran,” I said, “He is one of Moriarty’s agents, is he?”
“Oh,” Holmes said dreamily, and for a moment he might almost have been lounging on the settee, back at Baker Street; his parted lips might have been about to expel a smoke-ring towards our ceiling, but for the blue tint of those lips against the papery skin. “More than that. He is his friend. Shot me as I was trying to climb up to that ledge, he was – oh, over there. Revenge, you see.”
His pelvis was broken and he flinched again as I touched his belly. It was ominously rigid. Something within was torn, then, and slowly leaking blood. For a moment I had to look away from his face.
“Yes,” I said. “I see.”“He’ll come back,” said Holmes again.
“Let him,” I said. “I think I should like to meet him. My dear chap, you are not yourself, or you would realise that if an enemy of yours is lurking about waiting to deliver the coup de grace, repeating the fact over and over is not the way to persuade me to leave you.”
He considered that. He made an effort. “Go and get help,” he suggested.
I smiled. “Better. But help is already coming. So you will have to resign yourself to my sitting here and chatting to you for however long we have to wait. Now, don’t doze off. Moran. Tell me everything about him.”
“Why? He is a singularly unpleasant subject.” But he couldn’t quite resist the temptation, even then, to talk of his own cleverness, and so he told me a great deal of what he had learned and how he had learned it. Even then I was struck at how similar Colonel Sebastian Moran’s history was to my own.
But Holmes’s anxiety never quite left him. His eyes nervously scanned the crags above us. “And he... he’s a crack shot, Watson. Best in India.” His voice was beginning to slur.
I had laid a hand on his head and was stroking his wet hair away from his forehead with my thumb. “He’s gone, Holmes,” I said. “Don’t worry, it’s over. He won’t come near you ever again. We’re safe now.” And I bent closer until my face was just above his and promised him, “But he won’t get away. Not forever. Not from me.”
Holmes smiled up at me, fondly, eyebrows a little raised.
“Oh, you don’t think I could,” I said. The tightness in my throat was not laughter, but it was a laugh of sorts I managed to produce. “Well, if it were Moriarty, from all you’ve told me of him, I own I might be rather out of my depth. But you have taken care of him. And against an old campaigner, who will surely be lost without his brilliant friend... well, I think I’m equal to a man like that. And if you...” and suddenly I could not believe that I was talking to him this way. I said as heartily as I could, “If you don’t want me to chase him all the way to blazes you’re going to have to be a good fellow and get better, and then you can do it yourself. Though I daresay you’ll let me run after you and write it all down.”
His smile faded. “Please be careful, Watson,” he murmured. “Whatever you do. You must be careful. There’s Mary. I never wanted to be the death of you. You... ” He shuddered hard and his eyes slid shut.
“Holmes,” I said. “Keep your eyes open. Look at me.”
Holmes’ breath was just a shallow rasping now. But his eyes did open and meet mine again, widening in a bewildered, almost childlike look. He clutched suddenly for my hand and said, “Don’t go, John.”
As long as I had any hope, however faint and irrational it was, I had been afraid to move him, but I knew what the icy grip of his hand and the look in his eyes meant, and the wet soil beneath him was so cold. I lifted him into my arms and held him, curling myself around him so that he was as warm as I could make him. And I pressed my lips against his forehead, then, briefly, against his mouth.
Holmes looked up at me again with another little smile and at the same time his forehead puckered, as if he were wistful, or curious.
He was not alone. He was proud of himself. He had the victory he wanted and he had a violin concerto playing in his head. Despite his pain, I think I can even say he was happy. It has comforted me and maddened these last three years to remember that. I would never have been able to bear it – so far as I can say I have borne it – had his been a vain sacrifice. But, oh, Holmes, how dare you have been pleased with yourself. Why, with all your genius, could you not find some other way? Why didn’t you value more what drained away through my fingers on that mountainside?
* * *When I came home, my wife was ... I was about to say “an angel” but that is too glib, and does not do her justice. A lighthouse, I called her once before. That is better. A clear and steady light when sky and sea are blackest. She helped me. Not just with her love and understanding and patience – though with all those things – she hunted Moran almost as tenaciously as I did myself. She held me when I wept for my friend, and she pored over newspapers and timetables and police reports for a trace of his murderer. Once – though perhaps I should not own I let her do it – we even tracked a man who knew Moran across London together, my service revolver gripped in my wife’s small hand.
Without her work I should not be as close to Moran as I am now. I hurt Holmes when I married her, I know that, though I did not understand at first how much. But I loved them both and I know that if they both had lived they must have been good friends in the end.
And both of them bled to death in my arms. Mary’s death was worse, in the end, because though Holmes had died he had fought Moriarty and won, and she fought death to bring our child into the world, and lost.
But I have my own victory to win tonight, and I am not going to leave the world without it.
Both Holmes and my wife believed in Heaven. I never did. Or never when they knew me - I suppose I once had a very ordinary, unconsidered, schoolboy’s faith that might as well have been no faith at all, and I left it behind in Afghanistan. I wonder if either of them – or you – knew that about me? Holmes must have, I suppose, for he knew everything else, although we never spoke of it. And while I would not have lied directly to Mary about that or anything else, it was an aspect of myself I feared would give her pain and so I rather hoped I could keep it out of her sight.
But Holmes did believe. Is that not strange? That stern, clinical, empiricist’s mind, relentlessly trained on the world’s evil -– I remember him marvelling like a little child over the goodness he could see in a moss-rose. While I – who am as sentimental and gullible at my worst as you know he was despotic and unfeeling at his – I could have said to him, Holmes, the flowers are not here for us. Nothing is here for us. We are alone and must make our way as best we can.
Have you ever read Blake? A world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wild flower – who would associate Holmes, of all men, with lines like that? But he could see an ocean in a water drop and God in a rose...
Now, I cannot bear to think both he and Mary are extinguished. And so I do not think it. That is weakness rather than faith, I know. Unless you could consider it near-idolatrous faith in Holmes. He was far wiser than I. He saw so much. Whatever he saw in that flower... Maybe he was right.
If he was, I hope I may still be admitted, even though I cannot be sorry for the things I have done.
* * *
If Mary were here, then for her sake and for my friend's, I would not resort to this even now. But I cannot let such a chance slip again.
This is a confession, if you like. The stabbing on Battersea Bridge two months ago; the poisoning of Godfrey Byatt three weeks after that – they were my work. The two dead men may not have been up there on that clifftop with Moran, but they were confederates of his who certainly helped him afterwards, and they were murderers themselves. And by dawn tomorrow I shall have killed Sebastian Moran or he will have killed me.
If you had listened to me, if you had been faster, we would have had him a year and a half ago, and the hangman would have finished the work for me. This time I must be certain. I know that in law I am not an executioner but a murderer, and that I am about to attempt murder in cold blood again. But I cannot feel it. I was sent to kill terrified boys in Afghanistan, when I was a terrified boy myself. There are other battles and other kinds of war, and I cannot help but feel this is a worthier campaign.
Lestrade, I have been very angry with you for a long time, but I have been remembering better days at Baker Street – I can think of it tonight, quite without the usual pain. And I thought of you, huffing over some maniac escapade of Holmes’s and I realised I was smiling. I find I want your forgiveness, my friend, for what I have come to, so it is only fair to offer you mine. You were kind to me after both their deaths. Mr Mycroft Holmes was kind, too, and he suffers enough himself. Would you send him my regards? Tell him I am sorry I was unable, in the end, to take his advice, or accept his invitations.
If I survive, you need not look for me in London again. I admit I had an idea I might shoot myself but perhaps after all I will not. Perhaps, by tomorrow, I will have shed enough blood. I am not very clear what I shall do, and you are the last person to whom I ought to speculate about it. Though I rather think you won’t come after me, but perhaps I am wrong there.
If nightfall tomorrow finds me alive, I will leave England. I will leave my name behind with everything else. I will come to some place in foreign woods or mountains, where the quiet is as full as the roar of the falls at Reichenbach. And I will begin to walk.