Part IPart IIPart III
Part IVPart VPart VIPart VIIAt length Watson asked, “How did you find out?”
I told him, though doubtless not very lucidly, about Lestrade’s report, and the clock, and then stopped, realising I had no idea how to tell him about what had followed. I could not possibly repeat to him what Gilfoyle had said.
“You went to Wandsworth. You saw Gilfoyle.” I could hear him forcing himself not to avoid the name. “And he told you the rest. Yes. He would probably find that an interesting thing to do.”
“I shall kill him,” I said, involuntarily, bowing my head over our joined hands and staring down at them.
Watson looked at me with a brief, lopsided smile. “I have had similar ideas myself,” he said. “However they don’t seem particularly practical.” He took a breath and, to my regret, drew his hand away. He sat up, and began visibly reassembling himself. He asked carefully, his voice tense but even, “Does anyone else know?”
I shook my head, and whispered, “Do you wish to tell me any more than I know already?”
He got to his feet. “I must try and forget about it,” he said flatly, his back to me. “So must you.” He drained the rest of the brandy quickly, refilled his glass and found a second one for me.
I took the drink, discovering I wanted it badly, and did not answer this at once. After making such a bad beginning I did not want to contradict him, provided he did not return to such insane topics as leaving. And there have been episodes in my own life I have striven, if not precisely to forget, then to push to the very periphery of my vision.
It was at this point, while the alcohol began to smooth its way into my bloodstream and I considered the practicality of forgetting, that I first thought of the contents of my morocco case. And once I had thought of it it tugged at me with a stronger than usual promise of comfort, and not only for myself. I turned my eyes sharply from the mantelpiece where it rested, recoiling from myself.
“Watson,” I said, slowly, “Of course I will not try to compel any further confidence from you. I will be directed entirely by your wishes. I only ask that you do not try to force anything upon yourself either. If it would ever be a relief to speak to me of anything – if silence is ever a burden, then please, do not try to subject yourself to it.”
He was still on his feet, standing turned half away from me, but watching me sidelong.
“I know you never meant me to learn this,” I said. “And I regret very much that I was so... clumsy in revealing that I had. But I cannot be sorry that I do know. I wish to God I had known it before. “
He faced me again, with an impatient flex of the shoulders as if struggling against an invisible, tight-drawn net, and asked, “Why? What good is it for you to be dragged into this too?”
I said, “I wish you had not been alone with it all this time.”
Watson’s lips parted on an intaken breath; his eyes went wide, and then blinked hard against tears that had not appeared in all the turmoil that had gone before. He turned away with his hand to his face, but only for an instant. He managed again to smile at me.
“You are so kind,” he said, an absurd thing to call me for at last approaching the minimum standard of decent behaviour. “But no, I can’t talk of it. How could I?” I stayed silent, in case he should, after all, find a way. But he exhaled heavily and said, “Might we ... change the subject?”
I had to contain a throb of panic which seemed to be trying to shake me apart from within; all I could think was how unfitted I was for this. I did not see how we could hold an ordinary conversation, or how we could do anything else, come to that. But I had said I would do as he wanted. And time had not stopped as I had fancied it should, the minutes went on and we would have to go with them. So I said, thinly, “Well. What have you been doing today?”
He dropped into what is usually my armchair. “I still haven’t finished this bloody baptisia article.”
“No? What is the trouble?”
“Oh, the substance of it is done. It is rather the connecting passages, the structure... I am afraid you are right that I do not always order my ideas as meticulously as I should before I begin something. I have ... found it difficult to concentrate.” For a moment his eyes seemed to empty, but he gathered himself again quickly. “I never could have believed I should be hacking away at such a simple thing so long.”
“May I see it?” I suggested.
He sighed. “Where it is at all coherent, I’m afraid you’ll find it very dry.”
“My dear fellow,” I said, finding it was after all becoming easier, and indeed, how should a discussion of poisons with my closest friend be difficult? “The principles and methods of toxicology have been a delight to me since I was at my mother’s knee.”
“You must have been a very disquieting child, Holmes.”
Somehow we passed about an hour sitting on either side of the fire talking about the ghastly havoc the juice of a little American flower may wreak upon the human body if administered in sufficient quantities. I read his draft of the article and suggested he reverse the order of two sections and omit one of the passages that was giving him such trouble altogether.
I was conscious of him watching me while I turned his pages, and looked up once to see an odd, nervous, contemplative look just leaving his face. As if something had occurred to him, but he had then dismissed it.
He leaned over my shoulder to look at his own work and murmured, “-All things are poison and nothing is without poison.”
“What?” I said, unnerved.
“Paracelsus,” he said. “One of my old lecturers at university was very fond of quoting that. I can’t give it to you in the original German. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison, that was the rest of it. Baptisia can be used to treat enteric fever, you know.”
Mrs Hudson brought in supper, and looked anxiously at us both. She is a commendably unmeddlesome woman, but inconveniently kind-hearted and despite our joint efforts to appear as usual I suppose we neither of us quite succeeded, and she had probably been alarmed earlier by the sound of me racing up the stairs as if the devil were after me. She asked if all was well and we answered, in muted unison, “Yes.”
He ate less than usual, but more than I did. Afterwards he went back to his desk and began to work again, and I reached tentatively for my violin and asked, “Is there anything you would like to hear tonight?”
“No,” said Watson blankly. Feeling slightly shattered by that, I nodded and put down the bow, but he shook his head, “I meant, I can’t think of any specific piece at present. Not that I don’t want you to play.”
I tried Haydn. I wanted something in which peace and radiance and order still shone untouched. But my fingers stuttered on the strings and the music died in an ignominious squawk after the first few bars. I shook my head, uttered a grunt of confusion and apology and tried again. This time I got a little further, but stopped before I ran into the emptiness looming ahead of me where the cadenza should have been. I let the violin dangle from my hand as I turned away to face the windows, considerably shaken to find that I could not, for the life of me, remember how to play a piece I have known for eighteen years.
I turned back to find Watson looking at me, tense and questioning. “It’s nothing,” I said, and I set the violin under my chin again and started playing without thinking, without any conscious choice. For a while the wounded cries that came from the strings seemed not of my making at all, the sound seemed pouring into the room and into my skull from somewhere else, burning away language, everything, even the name of the music. It was perhaps half a minute before I was even able to say to myself – Bach. Partita in D minor.
What are you thinking? I reproached myself, though I could not have stopped. Playing such a tormented piece at such a time. But anguish was all I could get from the violin that night. The most I could do was coax the sadness in it towards calmer, softer regions: Mendelssohn, which I know he loves. Gluck’s mélodie from Orphée et Eurydice.
When I looked at Watson, I found he had stopped working, moved soundlessly back to the settee and put his head down on his arm, like an overtired schoolboy, his eyes shut.
He went to his room an hour earlier than usual, more for the sake of solitude than anything else, I must assume, for I am sure he cannot be sleeping well. I felt reluctant to let him out of my sight, which I suppose is stupid. He is a grown man, and the author of all this is not, at least, a continued threat to either of us. But I cannot stop myself dreading... I hardly know what. Being needed and being absent.
Alone, with neither Watson nor the violin to distract me, I became even more painfully aware of the syringe. It would not matter very much if I took a dose of cocaine, I thought. A temporary respite from the wretched consciousness of my shortcomings was not so much to ask. It might still be in my system the next morning, when I next saw Watson, but its effects would have dissipated; I should be myself, for whatever use that was, so where was the harm in it?
And I would be wanting more, even more intensely than I did already.
I acted before I could think about it too hard. I packed up my morocco case in brown paper and took it downstairs to Mrs. Hudson, disturbing the poor woman in her dressing gown as she too was about to retire for the night. I’m afraid I was more imperious than apologetic. I handed her the little parcel and told her it was crucial she kept it somewhere safe. Without quite saying so, I gave her the impression it was the lynchpin of some case.
I could have poured out the bottles and smashed the syringe, and I did not. I felt that unless I knew it was there if I needed it I should go out directly the shops were open and buy more.
I have no illusions I shall be able to stay away from the stuff for good. In fact, were I to start making grandiose promises of forswearing chemical consolation from this day forth I should quite terrify myself. It would even seem – perverse as I admit this would surely appear to anyone else – an admission of defeat, like accepting my friend will be in the shadow of what has happened forever. But for now, it will not do for me to be in any way impaired, either by the drugs themselves or by the reaction that follows when the relief has faded.
Of course, having put the needle beyond my reach, I wanted it even more keenly. But I am capable of doing without it, for quite long periods, if I have a problem worth working on. God knows I had one now, though I already knew this was not a case, and that such powers as I have, belatedly as I had begun to employ them, would be of no further use.
So, restless and purposeless, I paced the room, flexing my hands, constructing wild schemes for revenge upon Gilfoyle, trying not to remember the heat of Watson’s lips on mine, and contemplating creeping downstairs to pick Mrs Hudson’s lock and secretly retrieve my syringe. Then, looking across the room at Watson’s abandoned sheets of manuscript, I thought of his absorption when he writes of people rather than of poisons, and it occurred to me that there was one way of occupying myself that could, at least, do no harm. Or none beyond the pain of forcing myself to face the errors I have listed – and the notion of punishing myself was not wholly unwelcome.
So I sat down at his desk, stole a quantity of his foolscap, and I commenced writing this record, or confession, or whatever it is.
* * *
I went to bed some time after two. I did sleep, though not very well. I dreamt I was searching for something through the mud and slush of London, (the wet cobbles at Whitechapel melting eerily into the dirty sands at St Katharine’s Dock at low tide), but my vision was obscured by the coarse cloth mask over my face.
I had made a sequence of mistakes. Watson and I were watching each other through the partition in the visiting room at Wandsworth, and I did not know which side of it was which. He was as monochrome as a photograph, as if his skin and hair had been coated in grey paint. He said, sadly, “Poison.”