Watson tries to live with the memory of a terrible bargain in secrecy.
Without the example of an habitual scribbler before me, it would doubtless not occur to me to take up the pen. I wish, however, to order my thoughts, and it must be done along different lines from those familiar to me, which too plainly do not avail us at all.
Indeed I very much fear that our situation calls for qualities I simply do not possess, or at least not in sufficient measure. I have little talent for friendship. John Watson, on the other hand, possesses a kind of genius for it. It is no very large statement to say I have never deserved it, for I am not sure there is a man or woman alive who would. He, of course, would make a far better companion to anyone suffering than I.
Perhaps if I imitate him in this, I shall be better able to imitate him in other things.
And already I see that it is harder than I supposed to be wholly truthful, even when one has determined to be rigorous and unsparing. What I honestly want is not to order my thoughts but to be rid of them. What I want is the pang of the needle and and the flow of any blessedly transparent substance into my blood, anything that would sluice the horror of this out of me. And far worse, it is such an easy, instinctive skip of the mind to me, to imagine offering my friend the same relief. Here, I could say. Try this. Be out of pain –- for a while. And he might accept it from me now.
I am, as far as I can see, the only source of help he has. And on learning he needs it my first instinct is to endanger him further. That, it seems, is what being loved by me looks like. As if I had not already caused him harm enough.
* * *
I had resorted to my syringe rather freely since the last case. It is only in the last ten days I have begun to feel my own energy returning to me. If I have any excuse for weeks of utter obtuseness (beyond the possibility that that thug of Gilfoyle’s knocked whatever intellect I claimed to possess out of my skull) it is that once the spark of excitement of ignited by engaging a villain like Gilfoyle and coming away alive had gone out, everything seemed very dark indeed. Watson’s mood seemed much of a piece with my own, and with the feel of the world. What was there for anyone to do but drift about this ugly, blighted town like another wisp of stained snow?
When he said as much to me, however, it sounded so unlike him I was quite shocked. He is as alive to the world’s cruelties as a kind man who has suffered much can be, but he does not denounce the whole show as meaningless. Yet that was what he came very close to doing.
“London is nothing but a cesspool and no where else is any better. Perhaps you have finally convinced me of that.”
Of course it is not as though he is some blandly self-satisfied bore who lacks the imagination or depth to be anything but content. If he were I should never have been able to tolerate him and we should not be in this fix. When I met him in the laboratory at Barts, I could see the war continuing on the inner horizon of his warm blue gaze as surely as I could see it had scorched his skin and almost broken his body. He should have had a cheerful, sprawling clan of friends and family waiting to welcome him home, and was even more alone in the world than I was.
And I liked him immediately, which is unusual enough that I should have taken it for the dangerous sign it was. Not being blind I could not fail to notice the beauty of his straight clear features and his body's wounded grace. Not being wholly ignorant of my own nature I knew I rather enjoyed the idea of a handsome soldier wandering about my rooms. I did, however, overestimate my own capacity for detachment as much as I underestimated him, when I expected my interest would not go too far. In fact I rather depended it would not. I wanted someone I could rub along with, someone who would leave me alone, and it was a pleasant extra that this someone’s face would brighten the place up a bit.
But he was – is – so quietly vivid with courage and kindness and curiosity, that I was in fact very far gone before I knew where I was. The thought that I had contaminated him with my own darkness was horrifying, and, good soul that he is, he was apologising to me for suggesting it almost at once.
* * *
I wish I had instantly set myself to discovering what troubled him, but I did not. It is true that I meant to respect his privacy, though also true that I expected to know the truth of it in the end, so I might as well have taken more direct measures at once. But I let days pass, merely observing him rather more closely and trusting the answer would soon deliver itself. The most I can say I did for him was to play his favourite pieces more often and lose myself in atonal chats with my fiddle rather less.
What I so belatedly began to see was subtle, and yet alarming. He showed no sign of being ill or in bodily pain, yet I have been reminded me of how he carried his arm when I first met him – the carefulness, the discreet effort, now extended to the whole of him.
“What happened,” I asked him at breakfast four days ago, “To your grey waistcoat and trousers?”
“I suppose they might have been salvaged after those roughs at St John’s Wood set about us,” he said evenly. “But then you bled all over them, and I had to give them up as a lost cause.”
Now, I did not expect Watson to lie to me, then or at any other time. However, if he ever did, I would have expected the attempt to be a lamentable failure. His eyebrows especially are quite endearingly honest.
Nothing in his face, his breathing or the posture of his hands altered to suggest he was telling me anything but the truth – and why should he not? And therefore, finding myself uncertain what to make of this very reasonable answer disconcerted me greatly, and I hardly know whether the idea that he might lie, or that I should not be sure he was doing it, disturbed me more. I wondered if his voice had been too steady, too unsurprised. As if he had expected me to ask and had practiced the reply.
Three nights ago I sat by the window and played Mozart to him and when I swept the last note out of the strings and looked at him I saw there was a gloss of water in his eyes.
He is readily moved by music, which is why it is a pleasure to play for him. But not usually to the point of tears, and not by that piece, which I had chosen with the aim of bringing some warmth and sunlight into our rooms as spring shows no sign of doing it for us.
I laid down the bow and violin. “Watson?”
The muscles around his eyes contracted in almost invisible effort, and the moisture was gone as if it had never been there. “It is very beautiful, that’s all,” he said softly. “It’s quite remarkable that one person should possess so many talents.”
It is delightfully easy to induce Watson to praise me, and yet I never tire of it and would usually have preened. But he looked too desperately sad for me to do anything but crouch anxiously in front of him and look into his eyes, placing my hand over his.
His hand tensed just appreciably under mine.
“What is it?” I asked. A rather uninspired attempt at investigation, but the most honest one.
“What I say,” he replied. “I was wondering how long the world would have to wait for someone like you to come along again.”
A complicated flutter occurred behind my ribs, plucking at my breath. I will not deny that part of it was pain at how perfect a statement that was. Oh, do not say things like that. Don’t make me want things I cannot have. I manage quite well; we have our patterns, I run along a groove beside you. Don’t knock me out of it.
But more to the point, I did not want him to look like that. Not like someone dying behind smoked glass. Not so raw and shuttered away from me at once. He was, in more than one way, beginning to frighten me.
It was the first time it half-occurred to me that whatever was wrong, perhaps I was having such trouble puzzling it out because it was something too terrible to see.
* * *
“Too terrible to see,” indeed. What feebleness. Let me indulge in no more such excuses.
Let me instead pause here to review and enumerate the errors I had made, as it may prove instructive. Or, if it is only painful, that is hardly unwarranted; that should not be flinched from.
Firstly – It may be pardonable that I was unable to form a very clear impression of events when suffering a concussion. But afterwards, even though I knew my judgement had been thus impaired, I failed to subject my inevitably superficial reading of the facts to even the most basic scrutiny. I never even asked myself exactly how the struggle with Gilfoyle had concluded.
Secondly – That I was thereafter so morbidly absorbed in myself, and as a result so often affected either by artificial stimulants or, though more rarely, narcotics, that I allowed abundant evidence of something gravely amiss – evidence of a most serious crime, for God’s sake – to pass by unremarked.
Thirdly – That when I was aware that the only friend I have was being eaten away from within by some profound unhappiness, instead of immediately, actively seeking new information or systematically reconsidering that I had already, I wasted time waiting for the answer to fall into my lap.
Fourthly – Although I was not conscious of this at the time, I now believe I was beginning to theorise prematurely, from the impressions whose shockingly cursory nature I have already discussed. I think I had begun to hypothesise that the Gilfoyle case was merely an exacerbating factor in my friend’s trouble, and that the true cause lay elsewhere – say in the arrival of news that for some reason he could not tell me, or in some painful event from his past (concerning, for example, a member of his family, or some aspect of his military career) whose power to hurt him had somehow been reawakened.
However to limit my mistakes to four seems excessively generous given how each one was repeated and compounded over the past seven weeks. And this is to say nothing of how I should never have allowed the situation to arise in the first place.
No case worth the name had come my way since the end of January, but I had spent as long as my pocket could stand without employment and so was compelled to address certain tedious little problems, all but one of which I was able to resolve without leaving our rooms. That last, however –a young woman had rushed round in a panic begging for help, declaring her brother was innocent of any crime, etcetera, etcetera – that did require an afternoon’s legwork down in Brixton, and also some fraternisation with the men of the Yard.
Although he had mysteriously contrived to be absent for the initial consultation with the young lady, I had assumed Watson would join me. However when I asked him to come – or rather told him to come, although I was less brusque about it than is, unfortunately, my usual way – he hesitated. He gave me a strange look -- both tense and remote -- and said, “The Yard men will be with you?”
I confirmed that they would.
He drifted over to his desk and the stack of medical journals and scattered pages of notes there. “If you won’t mind I think I shall stay. I have neglected this article too long already.”
This was not a piece directly concerned with my doings, although it had some of its roots in an outlandish murder case we had looked into last December. Partly to supplement his income and partly to keep himself from losing touch with the profession whose practice he hopes to resume, Watson sometimes turns his pen to medical subjects. This was called “Baptisia Tinctora as a Poison” and he had been tinkering with it for over a fortnight and making very little headway.
Despite this fine excuse his refusal worried me greatly, being, as it was, virtually unprecedented. But I did not press him and left, thinking that after all I could not claim the problem was likely to be a very interesting demonstration of my powers. And as it happened I had almost nothing to do except entreat young Inspector MacDonald to examine the differing colours of the sealing wax on certain documents more closely (or indeed, to examine them at all), and all was over in an hour and a half. Still, tiresome as it mostly was to me, Watson, I thought, might have found some romance in it. The young woman and her brother were quite beside themselves with relief at its conclusion.
The result was that I accompanied MacDonald back to the Yard, where I looked in on Lestrade.
“Might I look over your report of the Gilfoyle arrest?” I asked.
“Why,” he asked, bristling. “What do you think’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, Inspector, or I shouldn’t want to see it now.”
If Watson had accompanied me that day, I would not have asked. It was quite an idle idea. But I was preoccupied enough with his absence that at Iong last it did strike me that I should re-examine what information was to hand before I dismissed it as irrelevant.
Lestrade subsided, and gave an expressive shudder over the memory of Gilfoyle, “Something horrible about that man. I mean, even if I hadn’t known what he was up to, I swear, I’d have seen it. Nicely spoken as anything, and didn’t give us any trouble, but I didn’t like his face one bit.”
“Well, he gave me rather a deal of trouble,” I said, sliding my hand over the little mark remaining on my jaw.
Lestrade unconsciously rocked onto the balls of his feet so that he did not have to look up at me quite so far. This always amuses me, though there was also an ominously sanctimonious look in his little eyes. He agreed, “Yes, you may have been very clever getting him to tell about the girls. But you did come a cropper at the end, rather, Mr Holmes. It gave me quite a turn, seeing you there on the floor.”
I had the gall to be irritated with him, even though he was only incorrect in saying I had been clever, and, now I think of it, may actually have meant that he had been worried about me.
He got me the report and I wandered out of his office. In the corridor outside I read the first two lines. Neither contained Watson’s name or my own. But – I hardly know how to say it. Unless, as someone who lately had the experience of being slammed against a mirror with such force the glass breaks – I say that it was rather like that.