I have stated elsewhere in this
series of incoherent memoirs
I first took lodgings with Sherlock Holmes, I was not a well man due to
the physical trauma I had sustained in Afghanistan. This was
true, and yet not the whole of it. A number of factors led to
weakened condition, the gravest of which were my severe wounding at
Maiwand followed by a near-deadly encounter with enteric fever after my
rescue had been effected, but these twin blows were not the only
assailants upon the state of my health by the time I returned to
London. I wished very often that they had been.
For the sad fact was that my nerves were quite shattered. I was able to mask the affliction the majority of the time, or at least I convinced myself that no one around me thought that anything aside from a ruined constitution was amiss. However, it was very difficult for me during that period to discern between what was urgent and what was nonessential. The sound of clattering carriages, a constant din in London, almost undid me in the beginning. The slightest scrape of a cane across pavement recalled the sound of bones being sawed apart, often enough by me, and would send me striding away as if the very hounds of hell pursued me. I was singularly well-equipped to deal with large events, however--a band of three ruffians, thinking me an easy target, set upon me in the dark one night not long after I arrived in the great metropolis friendless and unheralded, and I believe I sent all three of them to hospital.
I was never a vain man before the war--indeed, I hardly ever gave my own looks any consideration whatsoever. After the war, however, I had the most peculiar sensation that I was staring at my own ghost when I saw my reflection. The image was pale, weary, grieved, and quite repulsive to me, and in a very short while I had convinced myself that no man would ever want me in the most intimate fashion again. My visage looked precisely like the ruined veterans I had been tending before my own downfall, and I had certainly not lusted after any of those poor fellows when I had been myself sound. I had heartily pitied them, in fact. I had pitied their fragmented bodies and their haunted eyes, the little sounds of pent-up agony they made when they supposed no one was near them, and now that I had been shattered in my turn, I could not countenance subjecting hale men to the sight of me. My reflection seemed a mere premonition of my own corpse. I had never before been at a loss for physical company, but--expecting rejection at every turn--I shunned other men of my kind like the plague.
When I lived alone, the issues of which I speak were not serious ones. The only damage I did to anyone was to myself. But then I found I was draining my wound pension at an alarming rate, and--fearing the addition of stark poverty would not enhance my already Spartan existence--complained to my acquaintance Stamford about it.
"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive," the stranger said. Of course I had been in Afghanistan, I thought with a tolerant smile--what other nation could so utterly wreck a fellow?
The man to whom Stamford had introduced me, young and energized and aglow with the light of scientific discovery, was preternaturally stunning. Everything about him was heightened. He was not tall--he was very tall. He was very pale, his hair very dark. There was nothing about him that was not very. He was very masterful, very intelligent, and very, very handsome. His name was Sherlock Holmes, and we were moving into a flat in Baker Street together within the week.
"Shall I carry that for you?" he asked on the staircase, when a massive valise packed with surgical journals seemed to be getting the best of me.
"I can manage it myself," I smiled.
"Doubtless," he agreed, as distantly polite as a Peer. "And yet, then again, you needn't."
"You are not obliged to assist me, I assure you."
"Doctor, I am not so financially solvent at the moment that I can afford to lose half the rent should you tumble down the stairs and perish buried in an avalanche of medical texts. I am not a physician, after all. I should be forced to read through them thoroughly for instructions on how best to patch you back together, and by the time I reached your lifeless form, it would be quite too late."
He sounded satirical, but I had already discerned that a cool courtesy lurked behind his incisive statements. He had a pleasant knack for mocking his own financial difficulties as if daring anyone else to do the same, so I did not feel the need to take his tone personally. And in any event, he had already taken the bag away from me. It was the first occasion when I noticed that Sherlock Holmes is a man who does precisely what he wants.
I have been asked on many occasions how it is that I manage to live with him without being driven to distraction. In those early days, the explanation was quite simple: he was as much an obsessive fascination as he was a flat mate, and in addition my own temper was kept firmly under control because I'd no notion of whether the things which vexed me were rational.
It was all very well that his stepping on the documents he'd strewn underfoot brought flashes to my mind of the crackling of distant, horrible gunfire, but I said nothing because to complain of such a thing would have convinced me I was mad. Indoor target practice itself, on the other hand, I found laughably eccentric. He obligingly cleared my teacup from a side table back to the tray one afternoon and I fought the urge to strike him, for there was yet half an inch of strong brown liquid at the bottom and I could not seem to convince myself that good English tea brewed with clean water was no longer a rare commodity. And yet his filling the sitting room with the toxic fumes of his pipe during all-night meditative sessions was nothing if not profoundly endearing.
So very many of the things he said and did were profoundly endearing. I made extensive lists about the poor fellow, only one of which I have shared with the public. I admired nearly everything about him; I even admired his shatteringly quick temper and his high-born air of total superiority, for I had always been hopelessly attracted to such men. In those broken days following the war, I did not wish to make any decisions or set any rules. The Jefferson Hope case, along with all the other adventures we shared in the beginning, revealed in a profound manner that I did not have to--the simple solution was to follow Sherlock Holmes.
I grew closer to the best and wisest man I have ever known by huge leaps rather than small steps. I soon discerned that he was cold when he wished to be and quite charming on other occasions, and that he was remarkably adept at suiting his biting humour to the circumstances. He seemed, quite frankly, to like me, for he was a man who liked to be followed. I liked him heartily in return and lusted after him from the quiet of my upstairs room, but I could not easily determine whether he was queer or merely celibate--and the infrequent glimpses I caught of myself from time to time assured me that even if he were aroused by men, he would certainly not be aroused by me.
The leaps of which I speak--the singular events which drew us exponentially closer each time they took place--shared a common theme which I find somewhat whimsical to this very day. They finally culminated during the business over The Red-Headed League, but on each separate occasion, my friend was playing his violin.
The first great shift began in an argument, shortly after we resolved the case I recorded under the title A Study in Scarlet. I had slept very badly the night before--not due to any residual effects of the mystery, which had been altogether sublime in its drama, but because I had been dreaming quite assiduously of Afghanistan. After I had startled myself into wakefulness seven and eight times, my mood began to suffer for it. When I collapsed exhausted into my armchair in the sitting room at eleven the next morning, I was relieved Holmes was present and grateful for the company.
He lifted an eyebrow in greeting. He was half-dressed, playing scales expertly in his dressing gown. My eyes fell shut as I listened, completely spent by what felt like a night of vigourous work. Then he ceased and reached for a cloth. His bow wasn't to his liking, apparently, for he began running the scrap and a piece of rosin over the surface of the strings.
Perhaps it was the bitter night I had spent and perhaps it would have happened inevitably, but the sound was identical to the soft sloughing of a cutlass through flesh I had once heard very frequently. I held out against its effects for thirty or forty seconds.
"Will you stop doing that?" I thundered at him.
I have scarcely ever startled Sherlock Holmes, but that was one of the instances, to be sure. He retained the Stradivarius bow but dropped the cloth, staring at me with his striking grey eyes wide for one or two seconds before they narrowed suddenly.
I was already scarlet with shame. "My dear fellow, I am terribly sorry," I gasped. "I don't know what came over me. Excuse me--I've made quite a fool enough of myself for one morning. Go on with what you were doing and do please forgive me."
The end of the bow hit my shoulder softly as I stood up. "Sit," he commanded.
I did, hiding my face in my hands as I rubbed my heavy eyelids.
"You are lying," he mused thoughtfully.
I looked up at him, shocked. "Of course I am not! I am truly ashamed of myself--"
"No, not that part, Doctor," he said gently. "You said you didn't know what came over you. But you do know what took place, and it pains you more than the outburst itself."
I sighed, adjusting my dressing gown. The fact that he was right did not excuse the remark's invasive overtones--on the contrary.
"I do not wish to pry," he continued, sitting down in his armchair, "but you are welcome to tell me about it."
Holmes crossed his legs in his typically sophisticated manner, looking for all the world like the young heir apparent of the manor recently awakened following a debauched night at the tables. He often looked so, the more pristinely clean and yet disheveled and world-weary the better, and I cannot describe the rousing effect it produced in me. I thought to myself that he was the last person I would wish to confide in on the subject in all the world, and suddenly he laughed.
"Do you mind if I tell you what you were thinking just now, my dear fellow?" he inquired, steepling his fingertips.
"Holmes," I argued tiredly, "you are very clever, and you just solved an incredibly complex affair. I think I have made it clear to you that I remain profoundly impressed by your marvelous faculty. But you cannot read my mind."
Under normal circumstances when I made such statements he smirked, but this time he did not. "You were thinking," he replied with a strangely quiet conviction, "that you know no one in London and that you have lost many of the people in whom you would normally store your confidences--and because I am a civilian and rather an arrogant devil, you concluded that you would prefer to suffer in silence rather than risk losing the regard of the one person who daily might be called your friend. I know what you were thinking because I haven't any friends either, and were our situations reversed, I should hide whatever secret we are speaking of away in the darkest corner of my brain for fear you would find it repellent. But I have the advantage of you in this case, Doctor, because I am aware of what you are thinking as well as what I am thinking--and I shan't find it repellent, whatever it is. I know you well enough to swear that you are perfectly safe."
It was mortifying, but tears had sprung into my eyes during this little speech. Thinking perhaps he would not notice them if I ignored them myself, I made no move to dash them away. "It sounds like a cutlass," I whispered. I could still see the blood pouring from the slashes, see my own hands failing to do any good, recall the almost taste-like smell of raw flesh hanging in the air.
He blinked, cocking his elegant head. "My bow?"
"When you rub the rosin over it. Like a cutlass passing through soft tissue."
My new friend's fine lips parted slowly. "Watson, I am so terribly sorry."
"Please do not be. It's my wretched mind making the connection, after all."
"Your mind is far from wretched. It's first-rate, actually."
"It used to be rather good," I admitted. "Now, however, it has degenerated considerably and plays cruel tricks on me."
My flat mate stared at me for a few moments, hesitating. "I loathe the smell of strong pine resin."
This was confusing. "Really? Why?"
Holmes glanced into the fireplace, placing a finger over his lips introspectively as he drew up one of his knees. "Because when I was a boy, I went out riding one day and was thrown from my favorite mare when it fell into a ditch obscured by dead bracken. My face landed next to the branch which softened my fall. When I awoke, my arm was badly broken and my horse was screaming. I had to walk three miles back to the house listening to the poor creature, for I hadn't any gun."
"That's horrifying," I said hoarsely.
"Hardly worse than cutlasses," he demurred with some care. Then he smiled at me. He did not smile often, and it was a stirring sight to say the least.
"My dear chap," I ventured, "I am truly sorry such a thing ever happened to you, but I confess I am grateful you told me. I was beginning to feel I was going mad. I hereby swear to you we shall forgo any and all Christmas decorations in this flat, forever and ever amen, for as long as we two reside together."
"You're far too kind, but I won't say no." Then my friend's arched brows knitted together. "Doctor, am I correct in surmising that this has happened before, but that on the other occasions you were somehow able to mask your distress?"
I merely sighed again, but he took it as a yes. He rose from his armchair and crossed to me, leaning down with avid intent in his gaze.
"If it happens again, whether it's violin bows or whistles or spoons hitting china, you must tell me," he said. He offered me his hand. "I cannot cease if I am unaware I'm disturbing you."
I shook his hand, marveling at the course my morning had taken. First of all, Sherlock Holmes was apparently as alone in the world as I was. Second, I was touching his hand. His hands are works of art. They are slim, subtle, breathtakingly agile, everything a hand ought to be. I let go of it reluctantly.
"Now," he mused, picking up his bow again along with the violin, "where was I?"
He did not return to the scales but rather played a series of charming pieces, seemingly simple country airs that filled our sitting room with light and comfort. I felt myself growing drowsier as he continued, moving into introspective minor keys as he keened sad, gentle waltzes and ancient gypsy melodies. I could almost have imagined, if such a notion had not been so obviously absurd, that he was playing them for me. But whatever the reason for his playing them, I realized three things before I fell sound asleep in my armchair that morning: one, that Sherlock Holmes was not the distant mechanism I had once considered him. He was far too musical and far too sensitive to believe so any longer. Two, where before I had only found him fascinating and irresistibly attractive, I was beginning to find him necessary for the continuance of my daily life. And three, if I was not very careful, I would find myself falling in love with him--and that, I decided, would be far too painful a precipice to tumble over. I would guard against it accordingly.
Some two weeks later, after a visit to the Park and a stop at a pub for a pint of ale, I returned to our home just as night had fallen to find Sherlock Holmes sitting in the bow window, gazing down at the passersby. I had already noted on several occasions that he may have been a darkly humourous man, but he was also a very sad one at times, for what might begin as abstraction had more than once grown into as black a depression as I had ever seen. For my own--sound, as you will later see--reasons, I suspected drugs to be the cause of the resulting torpor if not the initial melancholy, but I had never before been presented with proof. That night I was given as ironclad a proof as is possible.
The curtains were half-drawn so he could not be seen from below. He had pulled up his left sleeve entirely, and sat staring at a mass of dinted pockmarks, a small hypodermic syringe in his right hand. When I entered, he looked up at me, and then he resumed examining his arm as I approached him.
"Curious, is it not," said he, "that with all the diversions and intrigues of this city, I should find it so unbearable at times?"
"Do you truly suppose it the city itself?" I asked cautiously. Just as tentatively, I sat across from him in the window seat and crossed my legs. He drew one of his own limbs up and perched in the corner languidly to make room for me--possibly because I had determined with all my might neither to look at the syringe, nor to look at him, nor yet his ghastly arm, with any other expression than my neutral usual.
"Perhaps it isn't the city's doing," he agreed slowly. His eyes returned to the dingy horses and nameless pedestrians below us. "Perhaps it is the citizenry."
"The complexity of its masses troubles you?"
"Not the complexity," he smiled. "I think you know I enjoy complexity extremely. The pettiness of them, the greed, the grasping, the mindless mediocrity, the perversion and the evil, the fact that they're all of them separately alone."
This was worse than even his usual briefly poetic rants. "I'd come to imagine that you enjoyed solitude. As for the rest of it, your description seems far too dark a portrait--and in any case I cannot picture you in the countryside at all," I confessed. He was such a metropolitan creature that to think of him in a straw hat and a linen suit was nearly impossible, still less a bowler and country tweeds.
"In the countryside, they are worse, I can promise you," he replied grimly.
"Is that so?"
"Yes. In the countryside, the evils of which I speak go unchecked."
"Holmes, is something the matter?"
"If there were in fact anything amiss beyond this wretched daily farce of a world, what would it be to you?" he replied tonelessly.
"I do not wish to pry," I quoted him, "but you are welcome to tell me about it."
This provoked a small smile, if only because I had recalled the phrase. I had been granted a boon with that smile, and I only hoped that the concession might lead to something more. He bent his bare left arm and began balancing the syringe thoughtfully between the fingertips of both his hands. "I had a client today."
It was not an explanation, for generally clients delighted him like a schoolboy on a holiday and my flat-mate--in spite of his excellent tailoring--was poor as a churchmouse, so I remained silent. I had no intention of falling into the trap of congratulating him over coming by more much-needed recognition and consulting fees. If the client had to do with his current mood, the event could not have been a positive one. He said nothing more for several minutes, but when I had waited patiently through that time in soundless sympathy, he spoke again, his silky voice quite numb.
"The client was a woman, and of very limited means. She desired me to frame her husband for a crime, or several crimes if I preferred. She offered her complete assistance in planting any evidence I might require to convince a British jury, and added that I could certainly enhance my career by helping her, for I could choose any open high-profile case I desired and solve it, naming her husband the culprit. In addition to the fame she wished to bring me by framing her spouse, she promised me five pounds. Five pounds. I cannot bear to speculate over how she came by such a sum. Have you any notion what five pounds means to someone in her straights, Watson?"
"I don't," I admitted, "though it sounds to me a king's ransom. I am sorry a woman of such low char--"
"The reason she desired me to arrest her husband and take him away," my friend whispered, "is for what he was doing to their children."
I stared back at him, unable to form any words. He had not looked at me once during this gruesome story, his noble, spiritual face fixed determinedly on the syringe, or his thin, scarred arm, or the street below us, as his brows contracted further and further all the while and his pale face grew paler. Sherlock Holmes had given me the impression upon first meeting him that nothing could shake his seamless self-confidence, nor his chilly reserve--and yet here he was, looking ill at the thought of innocent strangers suffering, as if it were his responsibility to prevent all such events. I had more than once noted that he seemed to believe the city of London his kingdom, and its citizens--once they had appealed to him for help--his concern alone.
"My dear friend," I murmured when I had the breath to speak, "I am sorrier than I can say that such people exist. If you will permit me, even apart from that inexpressible sorrow, I am sorry you were so affected."
He did look at me then, glancing up with a glint of surprise within the stormy grey orbs.
"I think you should know, having told me what's troubling you, that I do not share in your poor opinion of London's population," I added firmly. He looked fierce of a sudden, but I would not be put off. "You are right to be disturbed by the hellish sickness in some of our neighbours, but such worthless men have their counterparts--their foes, their opposites. You are one of them. I consider myself privileged to have grown to know it, Holmes--to have grown to know you."
I could see his breath stop. He put a hand to his eyes, his loose white sleeve falling, and I turned away for a moment so that whatever he needed to hide, he would have sufficient time to recover himself. I did not fault him for being proud. In fact, I ardently respected him for it and had done from the very first day I met him. When his slippered foot nudged my leg, I returned my attention to him, and to him entirely.
"What will you do?" I inquired.
"Oh, Watson," he said ruefully, staring at me with over bright eyes and a very disconcerting purse to his lips.
"What have you done already?" I demanded to know in a rush of fear.
"I gave her fifty pounds," he said, jaggedly laughing. "It was enough for her to send the three little ones to their aunt in Sussex and feed them for a year or two, perhaps even more. I saw them off on the train an hour ago."
"Holmes," I said, shocked into practicality, "you don't have fifty pounds."
"I know," he exclaimed, and then he laughed again, without any joy in the soundless convulsion. "I would have been better served to have done as she asked and taken her five pounds, for God knows I need it. I borrowed the sum. From a rather unsavoury type, I might add, for I haven't any collat--"
"Holmes, I don't have fifty pounds either!"
"Well, naturally you haven't. When have you ever indicated, by expenditure or spoken word or choice of housing arrangement, that you did?"
"Holmes," I said for the third time, "what are we going to do?"
He seemed to forget about the syringe in his hand for a moment as he leaned toward me and gestured with the thing. His eyes were glinting sharper than the point of the tiny needle. "Why on earth did you just say we? Did you somehow mesmerically plant the idea in my head? Because if you had, I should of course grant you a share of culpability, but as things stand you will not be affected."
"I seem to be out half the rent money, after all."
"I am to blame for this preposterous act! What has half the rent to do with you?" he cried, thrown off his balance and thoroughly exasperated. "I shall find half the rent for next month somewhere, and then promptly leave, so that you can share the flat with someone intelligent enough to be able to pay you. Throw me out on the streets, and your problem is immediately resolved. It isn't as if I don't know how to...manage."
"Quite apart from the fact it is your name on the lease, do not dare suggest to me again that I would agree to such measures," I returned harshly, terrified at the thought of life at Baker Street--life in London--without my new friend Sherlock Holmes in it. I would have preferred any economy to his absence. "This is where you live. We will think of something."
"We will think of something together. I cannot yet return to active practice, for I may do someone harm, but in every way I can, I shall help you. I should think very shabbily of myself otherwise, for you helped me to afford this flat every bit as much as the converse is true. Between us, we will manage."
It was as if I were speaking in a foreign tongue, for he could not for the life of him seem to believe me. His black brows were raised, his mouth open as if to ask me what the devil I meant by vowing something so asinine when the blame was his, and in truth I expected him to fire away at me. But in the end, all he did was to close his lips again with a beautiful expression of affection on his regal face. I had never seen such a look from him, and it sent my pulse racing. It was at once innocently heartfelt and the opposite--probing, scrutinizing, even suspicious--as if he wished to know more of why I would act the way I did.
"I have nothing to offer you in recompense," he said, his voice almost shy behind its clipped suavity. "Those such as I do possess--"
"Yes, there is something I want of you," I answered.
He pulled his head back a little, opening his lips in surprise. But then he lost his train of thought, for that was the instant I looked at the syringe.
"You want some of my morphine?"
"I want you to put it away."
I could have supposed his brow would darken, and it did, as he frowned at my clumsy, barging, inept intrusion into his personal affairs. I would be lying to say he did not scowl back at me for a moment. But after a brief period of consideration, he rose to his feet with a shrug and set the needle in a case, returning it to one of the desk drawers.
"You are offering to share new heights of poverty with me, and in return you merely desire me to abstain from a dose of morphine?" he inquired as he turned round to face me again, his countenance warming even as its confusion reappeared.
"Yes," I smiled. "And now, you shall join me in a celebration."
He leaned back against our desk, crossing his arms in severe disapproval. "What could even a man of your imagination consider worth celebrating today? I have bartered my future, and you could well be dragged down with me if you continue this eccentric and frankly unfounded loyalty. What, pray, are we to celebrate?"
"The arrival of three children in Sussex."
I had not meant to cause such a thing, but he turned around once more and hid his face from me, whatever vulnerable expression I had produced lost for all time. Then he justified the gesture by walking casually to the sideboard and pouring us two glasses of claret with perfectly steady, marvelously graceful hands. I drew a deep breath, reminded keenly of the last occasion I was head over heels in love with a man. I insisted to myself that the feeling had been entirely dissimilar. This was admiration, regard, companionship when I'd had none previously.
"To you, John Watson," Holmes said on his return, passing me a glass and lifting his own in my direction. His lips were quirked at one side, a habit I had studied assiduously. "To your talents, in hopes they bring us some badly needed luck."
It was the most peculiar thing. When our glasses touched, they rested against one another for a moment, unlike any toast I had ever seen.
"To you, Sherlock Holmes," I replied, "in hopes your skills on the fiddle are very, very valuable."
He laughed in his charmingly silent way, setting his wine on a table and picking up the instrument and his bow. He picked at the strings in a staccato major scale.
"If you desire me to earn fifty pounds on the violin alone, I had better commence practicing."
Amid talk and wine and silences and a great deal of masked worry, my friend played the violin for me that night. I think it was the only way he could bring himself to consider the situation in any way celebratory. He played sporadically for hours, to an audience of one crippled ex-Army medic. It was the second occasion of importance on which he had done so.
We neither of us knew to whom we could appeal for the money; when I asked whether my flat mate had any kin who might be willing to lend him the sum, he only smiled darkly and replied that any kin of his he was capable of finding were as poor as he was. When it came time for the rent to be paid to Mrs. Hudson a few days later, I sat at our shared desk with my chequebook and inscribed the full amount myself. The action left a distressing paucity of funds in my account.
"You are either a saint or a lunatic," my friend observed, leaning over me.
"You will repay me next month," I demurred, ignoring his expression of incredulity. "I trust you."
"Yes, so much I have gathered, but you have absolutely no reason for doing so," he muttered.
"You are against the practice of trusting your fellow men without pedigreed evidence of their quality?"
"Everyone in their right mind feels the same," he pointed out curtly. "And in particular, everyone in London. I use every man according to his deserts."
"That isn't true. You use them much better. I have seen you. Use every man according to his deserts, and who should 'scape whipping? In any case, I am beginning to grow rather anxious. Do you really mean to say you don't trust me, then?" I teased him.
Blinking, he smiled slightly. He pulled the cheque from my fingers. "Of course I trust you," he murmured lazily, tapping the paper against the desktop with significance. "But you see, I have ample reason for doing so at my fingertips--and you do not."
I may well have trusted him, however senselessly, but I did not have the income to repeat the gesture. Candidly, I told him so. But at the very least Sherlock Holmes was a man with a livelihood, even if it was a fledgling one, and my weakness rendered my own income fixed. Cases, he determined, were what we needed. We needed a great many cases, in fact, or else one very lucrative one from a very wealthy client. And so Sherlock Holmes and I commenced taking whatever cases were presented to us, on occasion two and three at a time.
I had been at an initial loss over the reason Holmes invited me along on his thrilling expeditions at all, until I knew him well enough to sense that he was a born showman who would much prefer to execute a trick before an audience than in a vacuum. And even apart from my sincere admiration, I made myself of practical use to our cause: I took notes, to begin with. I intended to compile them into stories one day, with his permission, but I would never have dreamed of telling him so.
"What are you doing?" he asked me one afternoon, balefully scrutinizing the blank book in my left hand and the pen in my right. We stood on the edge of a village station platform awaiting the train back to King's Cross.
"Memorializing you," I said seriously.
"Memorializing my groundbreaking methods of consulting train timetables?" he scoffed, for he so happened to be very put out that afternoon by the snickering jeers of the official police, and I think he desired someone else to jeer at. "I say, Watson, for a man of your travels, you are easily awed."
"I am actually recording what Mrs. Beardsley said about the servants' usual hours for retiring lest we need them later."
"Oh," he said. Then after a bit more thought, "The more you recover, Doctor, the more visible grows your hidden strain of pawky humour. I see that I must learn to guard myself."
"No, don't," he smiled. "I shall shoulder the task of growing used to it."
But I was more than his recorder. I was an additional pair of eyes and ears, and a witness of excellent character should any situation ever come down to Holmes' word against his natural prey's. And one cold, wet night that October, I was the man whose revolver prevented his being strangled in an alleyway near Covent Garden.
That case (though of interest to a botanist for the way in which Sherlock Holmes determined one of the flower girls was using her wares to convey coded messages to a sinister figure known only as the Blood Man) is not the subject of this narrative, although I will perhaps one day set it down for its dramatic value alone. Suffice it to say we had been out in the frigid atmosphere for so long already that afterward--when it became as much water as air, with the wind whipping the rain into our faces and down our collars--I was likely already compromised. Thus, by the time we had finished delivering our final report at the Yard, both soaked to the bone while I tried not to shiver visibly, Holmes--the terrifying red mark round his neck now faded nearly back to white--was beginning to regard me worriedly.
"I shall find us a cab," he assured me with his usual air of complete control, leaving me under a sheltered stone outcropping on the threshold of the Yard. "Do not dream of moving, Doctor."
However much I desired to put a brave face on it, I had not actually dreamed of moving at all. He promptly came back with a hansom and leaped out to help me into it, fixing me with an accusatory glare which I recognized all too easily as restrained apprehension.
"You said nothing," he growled. "Nevertheless, I ought to have supposed such weather would--"
"You cannot truly be lamenting my presence here this evening, can you?" I demanded, trying to sit far enough away from him that he would not note my inability to hide my troubles. It was, I admit, the opposite approach to my typical behavior sharing cabs with him.
"Of course not," he retorted, "only that your sole reward for heroics is my gratitude and your discomfort."
"My reward is your continued existence, not your gratitude."
He cast a sharp look in my direction. My own eyes at once shifted away. When he peered at people like that, he seemed dangerous, like a hawk lingering over a rich autumnal field who has spied something small and helpless and is determining what to do with it. I had not grown used to the expression, and it appeared I would continue failing in that mission.
"In any case, it is probably only a slight relapse," I added. I tried to say it comfortingly, but I was fast losing shades of tone. "It was bound to have happened sooner or later--in my experience of treating veterans, sooner. I was lucky to have been recovering so well at all."
"Luck has nothing to do with it," he snapped. "You ought to have been under far better care."
"Really? By whom?" As soon as the words escaped me, I was ashamed of them. "You mean well, Holmes, and I do not wish to sound churlish, but you make too much of a trifle."
"You haven't the slightest notion of my character despite months of regrettable enforced proximity if you suppose that to be true. Perhaps you are even less keenly observant than I had at first calculated. Believe me," my friend replied severely, "I know a trifle when I see it."
I told him I was fine, which he did not believe, for it was a lie. When we arrived back at Baker Street, I quickly drew myself a hot bath and hid from my friend. He was the very image of health, a man who enjoyed strength and knew the glorious subtleties of power, and he simply could not see me this way. In Afghanistan, I had been utterly robbed of any control, chanting my worst secrets to my hazy audience while losing any fluids they gave me within minutes, and I was horrified at the thought such nightmares might happen again.
My shoulder, blasted with a splintering bullet and terribly scarred, ached as I never thought it could. I stepped into the bath. At first, I thought the hot water may have forestalled the fever, but soon enough I knew I was wrong. I dried myself off as best I could, threw on a gown, and equipped myself with a glass of water, calling down to Holmes from the top of my stairs that I was retiring for the night, and that I would see him at breakfast.
Trembling, I donned a nightshirt and collapsed into bed. I tried to stay under the quilt, but the torment soon became impossible. It was at once humid and burning simultaneously in my little attic room, an atmosphere I equated not with Afghanistan but with India. Minute by minute, it seemed, the pain grew worse. And to my dismay, nearly an hour after falling curled on my side upon the linens, my door swung open.
He had not knocked--I could not see him very well, but by his grim looks, he did not seem to care about the breach of courtesy. He was wearing only his trousers and shirtsleeves, his feet quite bare, his hair damp and glistening a little, obviously having just bathed. Apparently he had been readying himself for bed when he hit upon the unfortunate whim of checking on me. He held a glass in one hand, and a thin tallow candle in the other, which he lifted upon entering the room so as to get a better look at me. I knew all too well that his view was not an encouraging one, for even without seeing myself, I felt pale as death.
"This is my fault," he said.
"Of course it isn't."
I tried as hard as I could to control the tremors, the aches, the ghastly feeling that all my bones were about to snap themselves in half. It was to no avail, of course. Sherlock Holmes set his candle and the second water glass on my table. He was sitting on my bed a moment later, a cool hand resting on my shaking back.
"You ought to steer clear of me," I murmured. "It is a fever, after all."
"Nonsense. And I thought you suggested it was a relapse."
"Then it is a variety of fever that a man with a hearty constitution needn't fear, surely." When he saw my grimacing reaction to this remark, he frowned. "I did not mean to imply--"
"No, you're right. I'm in wretched condition. There's no use denying it."
I realized just then that no one had touched me like this in months. The pure humanity of the contact took my breath away. It was ridiculous how comforting one hand on my back felt, at the same time that I hoped fervently he did not find me an emaciated and sniveling nuisance. I would not complain, I determined. Complaints would be the end of me. If it came down to throwing myself out the window or carping on my symptoms for his royal sympathy, I would launch myself through the glass. Sherlock Holmes, of all people, would never see me complain.
"This shivering cannot be good for your shoulder. I can get something from your bag."
"Nothing to be done," I gasped. "I developed a wretched morphine dependency overseas."
"Is that true?"
"Why would I lie about such a terrible thing?"
It was true, and in another moment he knew it. I had not meant to tell him under such circumstances; however, we do not always choose the moments when we must bestow our confidences. His hand on my back stiffened slightly, and then gripped me still more tenderly than before.
"Well, I refuse to believe that means there is nothing to be done," he said stubbornly. "We shall be systematic about this. Tell me, what is the worst of it?"
"The shoulder," I admitted at length. It had been a sincerely put question, and I would have been rude not to answer him. "The rest is bearable because it is temporary. I know the shoulder is not."
"Watson," he said softly, "might I try something?"
I rolled onto my back and the flawless hand that had been gently rubbing my spine somehow unselfconsciously landed on my chest, and the bare part at that, within the open neck of my badly buttoned nightshirt. It could not possibly mean anything, I reasoned--I was in considerable distress, after all. Holmes was only very dimly lit by his single candle but none the less devastating for that, still smelling of lavender soap, his eyes full of concern as I looked at him quizzically.
"Try what?" I managed.
"You're crooked, you see. No, no," he protested, "let me explain, please. I do not mean to say your body is asymmetrical--"
"Which of course would be perfectly true," I snapped.
"The fever is making you delusional," he said sternly. "What I mean is that your pain is lopsided, and British medicine, to my knowledge, does not account for such problems. Eastern medicine--"
"What can you possibly know about medicine of any sort?"
"Only what I've learned from studying anatomy and systems of energy through the art of self-defense, I grant," he replied patiently. "But I know a great deal about certain Chinese and Japanese practices, and I think one of them could ease your pain. Only half the problem is your wounded shoulder, from what I can tell, and the other half is overcompensation from the undamaged side."
"Is there no part of me functioning properly?" I muttered bitterly.
"Your conversational skills seem scintillating as usual." He smiled, an oddly wistful expression.
"What exactly are you proposing, Holmes?"
"To put you back in balance. I know how it sounds to a medical man, but please let me try. I vow not to hurt you."
I sighed, and then shivered, and then coughed. Nothing could be worse than a sleepless night, the sheer fact of knowing I would watch dawn rise that morning. And if agreeing to Sherlock Holmes' demands meant his hand would stay on my skin a bit longer, then even supposing he worsened my condition it would be worthwhile. "What do you want me to do?"
"Just lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides, my dear chap, and I'll try to work out where the trouble is."
I was too miserable, I freely admit it, to consider the risks involved in such an operation. I obeyed, throwing the coverlet aside entirely and resting my head on the mattress. My friend knelt on the bed beside me, placing his hands on my back--the uninjured side, as he had indicated.
The feeling of nimble, strong fingers exploring the hollows of my musculature was at first only soothing. His very presence was soothing, for I had thought myself through for good and all with lonely nights aching with fever, and it had been devastating to learn I was wrong. When he moved to my other side, where the spreading bullet had wreaked havoc upon my scapula, he was even gentler, testing threads of muscle the way he tested the threads of hypotheses, smoothly and methodically. For ten minutes he mapped the cords of sinew, pressing gently when something intrigued him, until at last he seemed to have found his answer.
"Ha," he said quietly. Then, "Hmm."
"What is it?"
"I believe I've found the crux of the matter."
"I'll be only too glad if you have."
"Dear fellow," he added, "I've no wish to worsen your fever, but may I move this?"
He was tugging subtly at my nightshirt. Of course he was. I reached behind me with my good arm for the linen below the collar and gripped it myself. To hesitate was to admit perversion.
"By all means."
I think my voice sounded as natural as any violently sick man's would as I jerked the fabric upwards, pulling my head free and leaving the garment on my arms as I bared my own back for him, but my heart was pounding furiously as I settled myself again. What had I done? I yearned after him badly enough when he merely looked at my face. How precisely was I to manage the knowledge that I was prone on my own bed with him looking at considerably more?
He made not a sound, but placed those damnable fingers on my skin, pulling and pushing and kneading at the side which had not been ravaged by war. Merely the feeling of air on my feverish back and thighs was pleasurable, as was the pressure of his hands, but none of them were innocent pleasures, for the same accursed mind which told me crackling paper was gunfire had decided to tell me that as pleasant as Holmes' palms were on my back, I preferred them in a lower location entirely.
I would have cut him short before I found myself in serious trouble, but then I realized that something he had done was actually working. He was destroying a knot on my uninjured side I had not been aware of in the slightest, and the relieved strain traveled quickly throughout my upper back. The lessening of pain soon lost its primacy, however, as glorious as it was, in the face of my inevitable arousal.
Some of it was sense memory, I grant, and some of it must have been fever, and still more my own innately lustful urges. But there was never a doubt in my brain that the main of it was who he was, and what he was growing to mean to me.
I could not stop picturing our silhouettes if my life had depended on it, and still less could I stop visualizing what he himself was seeing. It became all I could do not to thrust myself into the mattress. Strangely, as my passion grew, I never thought of the many times I had been in the identical position before the war, sharing mutual lust with an urbane university student or a strapping young soldier--the images were all hypothetical, all him. My mind was absent of dead friends and full of his hands wandering, his long fingers searching, the many filthy uses of tallow candles, the thought of what his wiry torso was like beneath his clothing, the very few trouser buttons that stood between me and his smooth flesh. The fact that I had not been loved since combat likely made it all the worse, but I was not missing the absent. I was missing a warmth I had never possessed.
My breathing had hastened. Panicked, I deliberately slowed it again. God in Heaven, what was I playing at? It was lunacy to yearn after a perfect being, one who could have any man or woman he desired. I prayed he would attribute my heart rate to tension, my flush to fever, my light sheen of sweat to my ruined health. I was in such a state, I never noticed he had stopped until I felt the fabric of the quilt lightly cover me once more and he lay back on the sheets beside me, resting his head on his forearm, his face turned openly toward mine.
"Have I done any good?" he inquired.
He had, indeed. As well as a great deal more harm.
If someone had asked after my dearest desire at that moment, I would have wished that my only friend could have found something alluring in me, some hidden attraction, that he could have felt the slightest trace of longing when looking at a once-virile man lying bare before him. And that on the instant he felt that twinge of lust, he'd have driven the fever out of me by swinging his lean, supple leg round and physically pounding me through the bed, resting his fine brow against the back of my neck as he watched himself doing it. Perhaps there was a glimmer of hope after all, for surely he could have managed nearly as well without exposing my skin?
"I haven't felt this way in months," I said truthfully.
He smiled, an oddly innocent expression. "I'm delighted to hear that. I'd only hoped I could ease your burden a little."
He did not want me, then. Or perhaps he did not want anyone. No, surely the first explanation was simplest, and I could hardly blame him, for I had not wanted the crippled men I failed to heal either. From the battle plains to that very night, nothing had changed my opinion on that count: I wanted a civilian who looked like a lord, after all. Doubtless he wanted a king who looked like a cavalry man. I would put a brave face on it. I am not a coward, and neither do I wallow in self-pity.
"What's wrong?" he asked kindly.
I shook my head against the sheet. "I'm exhausted, that's all," I whispered.
"Of course you are." He propped himself up on his elbow. "Once again, I am sorry for my part in it. I'll leave you. Is there anything else which might help you to rest?"
You, in my bed, with your arms round my waist. Nothing more--unless you'd wish for more. And if you did, everything I am would be yours. You could have any part of me, freely and a thousand times.
"I'm all right," I said. "Thank you a thousand times, my dear fellow."
"That's far too many, is it not?"
"Perhaps. But I meant it sincerely."
"That is what puzzles me. I have already said to you that I use men according to their deserts. By that rubric, you will never have cause to thank me a thousand times, for what you receive will be no better than what you deserve. And you ought not to be suffering like this, my boy." It was a beautiful little speech. He said it softly, fondly--chastely, I thought. He rose from the bed and collected his candle, opening the door.
"Holmes," I called. "Will you do something for me?"
He lingered in the doorway. "Anything you ask, Doctor."
"When you get downstairs," I inquired, "before you retire, will you play your violin?"
There were so many requests I wished to make. But of those many, that was the only true one I could voice. Reaching out, I touched the place on the linens where his hair had left a little damp spot, feeling the moisture with my fingers.
When I took my loneliness in my own hand that night, it was to a beautiful tuneless melody drifting from below stairs. I did not love him, I insisted to myself as I increased my rhythm. I did not love him because I could not. I could see him playing through my floor as if I was in the room with him, could see his polished violin tucked under his masculine chin, imagined going to him naked and giving myself to him--I would take the instrument from his hands, set it on the sofa, and then kneel on the carpet. I would run both my hands over his clean white feet, lifting one of them, feeling the slender bones beneath the arched instep. I would set my hungry lips just against the very top of the curve. There would be faint lines of finely branching blue there and I would taste them, more gently than a whisper. I would have fathomed all the exquisite tendons and sinews of his foot with my mouth before setting it down again. He would run the string side of the bow over my lips, my shoulders, my thighs, playing me like his Stradivarius. Then he would kneel behind me and wrap his arms around my chest, still holding the bow. I imagined him striking me with it, hard and swift, to leave a mark that meant I was his. I imagined belonging to him and him alone.
This is all I'll have, I thought as I stiffened suddenly and buried my face in the pillow, convulsing. And it's enough. Thank God I did not love him, for there are limits to my capacity for pain. I would simply wait until I stopped feeling as if I did.