Part IPart IIPart III
Part IVPart VPart VI
I crashed into our sitting room with all the delicacy of a wrecking ball. Watson had abandoned his desk and was on the settee, examining a copy of the British Medical Journal. His fingers were ink-speckled and his hair a little rumpled -- he had been wearily running his hands through it. His face was, as it has been for some time, paler than it should be. There was a raw place on his lower lip, a tiny streak of scarlet; he has been biting nervously at a patch of dry skin there. Every familiar detail of him seemed to burn me as if I were a blank sheet of paper and he were sunlight trained through a lens.
If I had formed any idea of what I would say when I saw him, it went out of my head. I said wildly, “Oh, my dear – “
It has been one of the small luxuries of our years together that I can call him dear as often as I wish, provided some suitable noun is appended. My dear chap, dear boy, dear fellow, dear Watson... At that moment, however, I could not think beyond the epithet.
Watson had looked up from his journal as I entered. Naturally he was alarmed by my precipitate arrival. He asked, “Holmes, what is wrong? Where have you been?”
I gasped, “Wandsworth.” And Watson said nothing, but he stopped breathing and such colour as he had left his face. His hands went very tight on the paper.
And next I came out with perhaps the most unforgivably stupid thing I have ever said in my life. It was this: “How could you?”
He took in a single, sharp breath as if I had struck him. Then his lips tightened bitterly and he rose, tossing the journal aside, and I suppose he would have left the room without a word if I had not rushed into his path and gripped his shoulders. Several times between Wandsworth and Baker Street my horrible imaginings of what had actually happened in Gilfoyle’s house had been interrupted by visions of that blade sliding, promptly and without fuss, into my breast. One caught me again now and I wished, fervently, that it had been fact. I stammered out, “Oh, Christ, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I mean only – I would have done anything to keep you from... I would never have wanted... it was far too dear at the price, Watson.”
At first, he stood there rigidly, not trying to force his way past me but refusing to look at me or acknowledge I was there. Then he understood what I was saying. He pushed me back a little, and then caught my forearms with such force it hurt, his fingertips boring against the bones. “How dare you say that?” he said hoarsely, staring me straight in the face now, “What do you think I should have done? It would be better if you were dead? You think I should have let him rob the world of you? What do you take me for?”
Not for the first time since leaving Wandsworth, tears rose in my eyes and I said, incoherently, “Please.” Then, aware of how much worse than useless I had been so far, I made an effort to control myself and amended, “Tell me, is there anything I can do?”
He dropped my wrists. “No,” he said flatly, “I don’t see that there is.”
“Oh God,” I said helplessly, and could no longer even attempt to keep the tears back. Watson’s gaze snagged back to my face and his expression softened a little, partly, I think, with shock. I am sure he had never seen me weep before. “Oh, God,” I said again, and meant it as a prayer, and then I closed my arms around him. As I did so the dreadful thought occurred to me ‘he will hate me to touch him’, for I felt him gasp and a kind of convulsive shudder ran through him, but the next moment he was crushing me against him with all his strength. So I grappled him even closer, handfuls of his jacket clasped tight in my fists and I felt our pulses clash; mine no quieter than his. Our foreheads came together, and I was for some seconds preoccupied with the impossible physical effort of trying, through that point of contact, to transmit whatever there might be within me that is any good.
For a moment I thought – not that this superstitious endeavour was working, exactly – but that his breathing was beginning to steady a little. My eyes had been shut. I opened them and I had just time to be freshly appalled by the despair in his. Then he kissed me.To say I froze would not be perfectly accurate. My lips did part under his, though only in a gasp for unavailable air, and my hands shifted without strength on his shoulders. But I was powerless even to think, and it was only when I felt the impact of the wall against my back that I quite understood that this was actually happening.
My tastes may be criminal, and being kissed by John Watson may, in theory, be more bliss than I ever expected in this life, but I do not care to be an instrument of self-torture. Nor am I going to prey on him when he is half out of his mind with pain.
There was, in any case quite as much panic as sweetness in that kiss for me. It was as if the embrace were plunging us both over a cliff, and even if I had not been terrified for him, I do, after all, have some instinct of self-preservation.
I turned my face a little from his. “John,” I said. “Stop.”
He stiffened and let me go. Once again he would not look at me. “Forgive me.”
The tick of the clock on the mantel beside me seemed as shockingly loud as my own disordered breath, cutting against my brain as if I had an exceptionally severe hangover. I tried, without any real success, to catch my breath and collect myself. “Well, what was that?” I inquired.
It came out, quite against any intentions I may have had, as shrill but vaguely humorous.
He gave a short, desolate laugh. “An experiment.”
“Oh? And what were the results?” My voice, I am afraid, had a certain acidity to it. God knows the man had every excuse, but he was in danger of wrecking certain intangible but carefully-wrought structures in which I have lived safely enough, like a caddis-fly in its constructed shell, these many years. I had been shocked out of weeping but I was still leaning against the wall where he had left me. My heart was beating wildly.
He did not answer, but he looked at me at last. A man might look that way at a firing squad. I was not certain what it meant, but I could not speak again. I think I knocked my head back against the wall. Stop, stop, I thought stupidly to the world around me. I felt as if the channels of events should burn out under such an overload of chaos, and afford some kind of respite.
Naturally no such thing happened, and I was recalled to myself by Watson saying. “I will look for new lodgings.”
This was probably the worst thing I could have heard. However – I should never have imagined it could be so -- I believe I am grateful he said it. It focused my mind and established clear priorities. “You will do nothing of the sort,” I snapped.
“You have all the wretchedness of London to trouble yourself with; it is quite enough without – this. I must be going mad.”
“No, you are not.” And though I may have used the phrase ‘half out of his mind’ above, I was and am perfectly clear on this. “You are shaken and distressed. It is a severe but temporary state. You are not insane. He has not done that to you.”
He let out a long, jolting breath. “Oh, Holmes, I am sorry I–”
“For God’s sake, Watson, it is absurd to save a man’s life at terrible cost to yourself and then apologise to him!”
He had wandered to the mantelpiece and began sifting nervously among the debris of papers and spent bullets there. He muttered, “I don’t... I don’t know what I should...”
“Don’t leave,” I said curtly. “Sit down.”
He looked at me, shrugged, and did as I said. For an instant he sat there stiffly, hands clenched on his knees, looking at nothing.Then quite abruptly he sank back and rested utterly motionless against the back of the sofa, his eyes shut. He murmured softly, “God.” His skin looked paler and more easily broken than I have ever seen it.
I was intensely relieved he had obeyed me, but ‘Sit down’ seemed to be about the limit of my helpful suggestions. I tried to construct something more, a solution, or at least a piece of one. There is perhaps no condition I hate more than being unable to think of anything to say.
“Holmes,” he said, opening his eyes, his voice suddenly oddly close to normal. “Please. Stop pacing about.”Until then I had not noticed I was doing so. I stopped and sat beside him. Then I rose almost at once in order to pour him a brandy. Watson stared at the glass in my hand, and then accepted it with a small hitch of half-incredulous laughter. I sat down again. After a time, while I continued to try to force some useful thought from a resistant brain, I picked up his left hand and held it between both of mine.
* * *
I was thinking then, if one can dignify the notion with the name of thought: This must be where it all stops. Not that I anticipated any external cataclysm, but I could not imagine time progressing from this point. We would be there forever, side by side and hand in hand like children, not speaking or looking at one another. All things considered that did not seem so terrible an ending.
But of course it could not be so.