Part IPart IIPart III
Part IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IX
We have spoken of it. The trial and – other matters. Remarkably enough, that is not what concerns me most at present. I am preoccupied with the existence of a certain document –
But let me take events in their proper order.
Five days have passed since I wrote here last. We have limped along together as best we can. At times the course runs a little smoother and I start to hope nothing lost is irretrievable. But it takes so little, or nothing, to jar us out of balance. I disturb him with my clumsiness or summon the very shadows I am afraid to see in his eyes by trying to make sure they are not there. We each sink into silence and cannot help each other out of it, and I want the relief of my syringe so badly that I almost cannot remember why I am trying to go without.
And I have had to accept that I cannot be foisting my bungling attentions on Watson every minute – my failure to find new work is only worrying and exasperating him. And yet even were there a client with an appropriate task for me, I would continue to doubt my ability to dispatch it well. There is one matter which is perfectly simple and plain, and yet does interest me. There is a man in Hampstead whose prosperity rests on a trade almost as poisonous as Gilfoyle’s and even harder for the law to touch. As a student of logic, I have no business contemplating it, but, as a student of crime...
For now I content myself and placate my friend with reviewing newspaper clippings and copies of certain letters - researches that may or may not come to anything. But the idea of striding off the path of the fence the law into justice’s wilder, fiercer regions, attracts me more than perhaps it should.
If I do anything, I must certainly do it alone.
* * *
On Tuesday evening Lestrade looked in on us. It was the first time Watson had seen him since the night of our disastrous sortie at Gilfoyle’s house, and the first time I had seen him in the knowledge of what his late arrival on had cost my friend.
Oh, but tempting as it is to load off some portion of guilt onto his unknowing shoulders, it is not Lestrade’s fault. Still we were not at our most welcoming. Watson, whether because the unfortunate little rodent’s face prompted too vivid a memory or because of the fear Lestrade too might eventually nose out what happened, tensed sharply at the sight of him. Then he made himself smile in greeting, deliberately loosened each taut muscle and began devoting a great deal of energy to trying to seem calm and at ease. But the effort left him with little conversation.
And meanwhile I was resenting Lestrade for every ounce of the strain I could sense dragging at my friend, and this soon set me considering the various other contingencies that would have spared him all this. If Lestrade had arrived earlier; if I had gone there alone; if Gilfoyle had been faster with the knife...
Lestrade was fussing about a spate of burglaries in Lambeth, but I think that was only a pretext.
“I don’t suppose you’re ever going to tell me why you turned white as a sheet and went tearing off when I gave you that report on Gilfoyle?” he asked.
Watson’s face went carefully blank while his hands twitched with the flinch he was trying to suppress.
“Something had occurred to me. It came to nothing,” I said, in the most supercilious way possible, as if he was stupid for asking. Not only did I mean to scare Lestrade off that subject, I had some hopes of driving him out of the house altogether.
Unhappily this had the effect of making Watson feel someone should make up for my rudeness, and he summoned an additional effort on top of that I knew he was making already and began a bluff, cheerful imitation of himself that seemed to me so patently artificial I felt surprised even Lestrade did not see through it.
But then, considering the puzzled glance back at us when at last he took his leave, perhaps he did.
I thought Watson might be relieved, as I was, when Lestrade had gone, but instead he stood for a while looking down at the street, with an expression of subdued frustration.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that, old chap,” I said.
“Through what? An ordinary conversation with our friend?” He sounded irritable, but there was a flat tone to his voice that told me his annoyance was, regrettably, more with himself than with me.
“It was not entirely ordinary,” I said. Watson had even managed some humourous remarks about the battered state I had been in when we left Gilfoyle’s.
“No,” muttered Watson. “Nothing is.” Then, adding something about getting to the tobacconists’ before it closed despite the fact that I have almost enough supplies to open a tobacconists myself, he went out and did not come back for three hours.
In doing so he proved his point, for ordinarily a gentleman can leave his rooms for a few hours without his fellow-lodger becoming half-convinced he must be dead in a gutter. I came very close to rushing out and commencing a panicked search for him, and if he had been another half hour I think I should have done it. It was less the the thought that I was probably being foolish than the fear I might regret being absent on his return that kept me in place so long.
I had involuntarily constructed a number of theories as to what might be happening and many of these scenarios ended with him returning, if at all, staggering drunk or beaten or robbed. But when, with a flood of relief I did hear his footsteps on the stairs, his pace told me he was merely tired and moving with the stiffness that comes when the cold wears at his old wounds. And when he came through the door I saw that, if he had been drinking,he was still some way short of being drunk.
“Yes, yes, I have been along Mortimer Street, and through Soho, and to the Embankment,” he said impatiently, noticing the movement of my eyes across his shoes and clothes, “and nothing has happened.” He cast himself into his chair and began to knead, grimacing, at his shoulder. He went on talking with a curious mixture of bitterness and resigned humour, “I went to a tavern on Wells Street; and on Greek Street a woman made a suggestion to me I which I intended to accept, but I did not, in fact, do so. The rest of the time I have been walking with no particular purpose in mind. I needed a change of air, that is all.”
I was still dazed with the relief of seeing him safe, but I was slightly taken aback too, because while I cannot imagine that in all his experience of women money has never changed hands, he does not speak about it. At least not to his apparently sexless friend.
But then, I had urged him to talk. And it is not very difficult to see what an abortive encounter with a prostitute had to do with preceding events, how he might have hoped it would function as a kind of exorcism. Wincing, I could see in it the converse of his ‘experiment’ with me.
“Don’t worry so much,” he added more softly, “There are people in London having a far worse time of it tonight.”
“You are thinking of the woman you met,” I said, trying to sound understanding yet dispassionate, though dispassionate was the last thing I felt.
He rubbed wearily at his face before before propping his chin on one hand, staring into the fire. “I went as far as accompanying her part of the way back to her rooms,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been the first time, you know. But then I thought – she was quite likely forced into it at the beginning. What she must think of the men who make use of her.”
“You gave her the money anyway,” I said. “Or perhaps rather more than she would have asked.”
Watson turned to me with a startled laugh. “Can you see through overcoats and weigh a man’s wallet, now, Holmes?” he asked. For a moment his face showed nothing but unclouded merriment and I was stupidly transfixed. “What on earth gave that away?”
“Nothing. It is the sort of thing you would do.”
He sighed. “Heaven knows who will end up pocketing most of it.” He let his gaze sink into the embers of the fire again, fatigue welling back. “Holmes,” he said. “I suppose by now you would have heard if they wanted you to testify at the trial?”
“I think they have enough without me,” I said. “You certainly will not have to.” I will do whatever I must ensure this is so. I went and sat opposite him. “I imagine we would both prefer not have to see him. Not without a revolver or a horsewhip in hand, at any rate.”
He said distantly, “Cowardly, isn’t it?”
“No. Or at least not in your case. To see him in such a setting, yet not be able to accuse him of his crime...”
Watson flinched, and he said stiffly, “I certainly would not want it discussed in public.”
“I know,” I said. I wish I could tell him he need not fear discovery, that no one who knew would alter their of view of him one whit, unless it were to wonder at his altruism. No sane or decent person would, but unfortunately that is not the same thing. Instead I said, “Watson, I hope the point is obvious to you, but it bears mentioning that you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Have I not?” He looked up me suddenly. “I kissed you.”
For a few seconds I was powerless to do anything but stare at him and think how can you simply say that? He said it so straightforwardly, although I can only think it must have taken immense courage. “You did,” I agreed, at last.
“What must you have thought?”
“I thought, as I believe I said at the time, that you were very distressed.”
There was a pause. “Only that?”
“Yes. Think no more of it.”
Watson’s voice dropped so low I could barely hear him. “You were not disgusted.”
“Of course I was not, what do you think I am?”
And there was a salient question. As soon as I had voiced the words they seemed to beat in the air so that it was difficult even to breathe: What did he think I was?
I could not understand at the time how the conversation had taken such a turn, but if I had not been so agitated during the hours he was absent, if this matter had not been weighing on my mind for so many days, I think I would have been able to steer it onto some new course. But as it was when he merely repeated my name, I gasped, “What do you want – what are you asking me? Whether I have anything in common with – with –?”
I am not so bold as Watson; I could not bring myself to say Gilfoyle’s name.
“No!” he said, horrified. “Of course there is nothing – Holmes. Are you all right?”
He had risen from his chair and was about to place his hand on my arm. I twitched away from him and said,“No.”
I attempted to smile, probably with ghastly results, and continued a little too loudly, “No, I never have been, according to the conventional view. I shall be interested to know whether you share it.”
I rose and dodged past him as Watson said, “My dear chap, please – don’t upset yourself, I never meant to –”
So I had some chance of stopping there, and yet I wanted none of it. Whatever the consequences now, I wanted what I had just said to be irrevocable, and to be forced to plunge on, agonising as it was I could not bear the prospect of trying to struggle my way back. I said, “No, you should know this.”
However I got no further for a little while. I was now wandering restlessly about the room with my violin and bow in my hands, though I am not sure exactly when or why I picked them up.
“Watson,” I murmured at last, without looking him. “You know I have never wanted to marry, never felt any desire for women at all. Perhaps you have never reflected what that was like, when I was young. Or supposed that I did try to feel something of that sort. It was never any use. One cannot force such feelings into existence – or out of it, come to that. For I have loved, a handful of times. When I was at school. And then at university. And there was someone for a while – older than me – a year after that.” Briefly I turned back and looked at him and asked, “Do you understand what I mean by this?”
I found myself the subject of a disconcertingly intent blue gaze. He said, after a second, “I think I do.”
“Well, then. No, it is not very likely I would be disgusted by a kiss which, as I have said, I do not regard as anything but an expression of ... of turmoil you should never have had to bear. The question is rather whether you are disgusted by—” My voice failed me; I could not quite say ‘by me’, when it came to it. Instead I said, “You might like to know that not for almost a decade have I done anything about it.”
Watson’s eyes widened at that, in apparent incredulity. I gestured impatiently with the bow. “It was not a moral decision. You may as well know that too. It was made on purely pragmatic grounds. I am quite arrogant enough to decide I know better than the law and the church and – oh, everyone. Years ago I did decide that I had never harmed anybody and was done with shame over what was beyond my power to alter. However, given the career I had chosen, and given my temperament, I also concluded it would be... safer, in a number of ways, if I were to keep such feelings entirely in check. Especially since that was much more easily within my power than it would be for most men. When the world can bear to contemplate men of my kind, it imagines we must all be insatiable monsters, but really, to me it has been no great sacrifice at all, Watson.”
Towards the end of this I had a slightly unreal sense of speaking from a false position, even though I was not lying. I know what it was now; I was speaking in the role of myself as I was five years ago, before I met him.
I added quietly, ”Though I will not pretend I have never wished my character were formed differently. In many other respects, not only in this.”
At that the expression in his eyes, which I had tentatively identified as strong but surprisingly neutral curiosity, thawed into what was plainly compassion. I turned away to avoid looking at it for very long, and said, “There. The information is yours to do with as you like, and act on as you feel you must.”
He said swiftly, before I had time to wait in dread for his answer, “You don’t imagine I would do anything with it that would harm you. I never would have, whenever you told me.”
I uttered a ridiculous, wobbling little laugh. “You make it sound a foregone conclusion I would ever have told you.”
Watson came over to me, so that I had little choice but to face him. I saw him look down at my hands – the left, holding the violin, was somewhat steadied by the weight, the other was trembling badly. “I hope you would have,” he said at last. “Some time.”
I exhaled and let out an involuntary little sound on the breath.
“Do you want a drink?” Watson said.
“I want something stronger, but I will refrain for now,” I said. His eyes turned to the corner of the mantelpiece where the Morocco case usually rests, then, surprised, back to me. “You had not noticed its absence before?”
“I can be very slow,” he said softly. “Oh, Holmes.”