FIC: The Literary Agent's Case, NC17, H/W: Part 1/2

Jun 08, 2012 22:45

Title: The Literary Agent's Case


Rating: NC17 in parts

Pairing: H/W established relationship.

Word Count: - 9,400 all told

Disclaimer: this never happened in real life, nor in fiction until now. Real persons rendered with as much respect and honesty as I know how. Fictional ones shamelessly eroticised.

Warnings: usual late Victorian period prejudices and assumptions. Some possible unwelcome references, nothing blatant; please contact author before reading if concerned.

Summary: Arthur Conan Doyle wants to right wrongs and save a damsel in distress. He's looked at the case from every angle but failed to find the culprit. Now he really has touched bottom: he's come cap in hand to Sherlock Holmes. Worse, he's a man with a secret - which makes two of them.

Notes: huge thanks to stardust_made for helping kick the plot into shape and to mad_with_july, for making me a better writer every time. Thanks also to C, language consultant and No. 1 son's best beloved.

I do not normally permit myself to offend against sense by stating the obvious, nor do I tolerate that vice in others. Yet, I find I agree with the judgement of the public that my friend Watson has a distinct facility with words and an near-unfailing fund of human sympathy. There was a time when I wished he strove with as much effort, or possessed more natural talent, in the realm of analytical thought. Now, it strikes me as one more instance of that wise and serendipitous fate which observed that we two would fit like puzzle pieces, each lacking in just the part where the other excels so that, together, we are more useful, more effective. That our whole would not only prove greater than the sum of its parts, but that those parts would flourish and change in ways we could not have guessed, that first day at Barts.

There are certain words of his, certain sympathies, that have long sounded a fair, faint echo in the arid mountain passes of my own soul. It is an echo that has grown, with time, to make of those dry stones palaces and playgrounds by turns wondrous and fearful to me. I have found phrases on the tip of my tongue lately, that once I should have understood as little as the chant of a Hottentot. I have not said them to Watson yet, to be sure: but I sense that the hour is not far off when I may dare to.

He is patient; he waits. He has always known my limits, as I have never reached his.

At the very gateway to the garden of saying the hitherto unsayable is the case just concluded. It has given me food for thought as rich as a banquet and, in honest admittance, as unwelcome as if taken through a rubber feeding tube in a cell at Bedlam. For it was a case in every respect saturated with emotion, with passions both soft and ferocious. It was uniquely fascinating to me, as a wrecker's lamp fascinates a pilot. And its harbinger was a man with whom I shared both a mutual friend and a mutual personal dislike.

It was a late autumn evening at Baker Street. I was occupied in cross-referencing the index cards on which the notes of my analyses of grass stains lay ready to contribute to a planned monograph on the subject. Watson had laid down his novel and had taken to pacing the room rather aimlessly, stopping now and then by the windows in a show of looking down onto the street below, but hovering more often in entirely transparent anticipation by my bedroom door.

Ah, I see my error. In all the rambling account of words and feelings and souls (see how I am corrupted, dear fellow, into your habit of spicing up a tale with the promise of colour and life and neglecting the essential bones) it appears I have yet to let on to the reader that my friend and I had, after countless prevarications, confessed several weeks previously to harbouring carnal desires of an illicit, and illegal, nature and lost little time in acting upon them with each other. Statute and natural law being only intersecting and not congruent sets, we observed due caution but knew no guilt. We are both, if each in his own way, essentially practical men.

I had just opened my mouth to beg Watson to please sit down, since knowing the source of his tension did not, in fact, create any pleasant reciprocal tension in me but was instead merely annoying, as I had work to do, when he paused again by the window, looked out, and cried:

“Someone at the door, Holmes - my word, it's Doyle!”

I refrained with some effort from blaspheming. The Deity may be untouched by such things, but good manners remain.

There is no reason to suppose that anyone ought to like me. I make no effort to court friendship. What passes in this world for social intercourse drives me to distractions of boredom and frustration with the tedium of other people's lives and conversation. Watson's constancy as my companion says much more about him than it does about me.

Arthur Conan Doyle, on the other hand, seems a man fashioned to be pretty much universally liked. He is the sporty and sporting sub-type of the archetypal Englishman: intelligent without too much disconcerting originality of thought, warm-hearted, tolerant to an absolute fault of all manner of nonsense in others - this is accounted by the common herd to be an especial virtue - bluff, conservative and safe.

More than a few minutes in his company, even with Watson as balm and buffer, and I am a squirming beetle pinned to a card with no hope of escape. The comparison is not an idle one. It is clear he thinks I am the worst sort of oddity: unique, certainly, but my singularity is a consolation, not a disappointment, to him.

He peers at me. There is surely no need for that.

Nevertheless, I played the gracious host just long enough to plan my exit, to leave author and literary agent to whatever discussion Doyle felt could not wait until office hours. My hand was just on the doorknob when he shuffled and coughed.

“I beg your pardon, is not, strictly speaking, the good Doctor whom I came to see.”

Fortunately for me, it is possible to groan with one's whole body and yet not utter a sound. Turning back to the room, I caught Watson grinning like a schoolboy, though not too unkindly: he was merely making ready to observe and enjoy. His sense of humour does not improve with age.

Having fortified myself with a plug of strong shag in the cherry-wood pipe, I perched on my chair, striking a suitably gnomic and esoteric attitude. One may as well live up to expectations.

“You can very well see, then, why I can't let it go, Mr Holmes,” he said, as he finished a tale packed with indignation, chivalrous regard for womankind however gullible, more indignation and the quite justified disgust of a medical man whose profession has been betrayed by one of his own.

I could see why he wouldn't, certainly. A lady in distress, misled, defrauded of her capital by the promise of a cure for the illness that would cut her young life short before a few more years were up; Doyle, like the hero of one of his own simple-minded historical romances, riding to the rescue for the reward of the good deed alone: it might have been created specifically to appeal to him. I had considered that, with a number of other possibilities, all through his description of the steps he had already taken to try to uncover the fraudster, but in the end rejected it with the other five. There was a genuine crime here.

If he was hoping for my approval of the methods he had employed thus far, he was not so good a literary agent as to have paid close attention to the text of Watson's stories.

“It may be possible to salvage something from the shipwreck of your initial...well, I will not say 'investigation', that may assist me in clearing the matter up. The letter?”

He had had enough presence of mind to bring that, at least. Headed paper from the St. Gabriel Sanatorium, Davos, Switzerland. A lady's hand, firm at the start of the page but faltering as the writer tired within a few paragraphs. Fine droplets of moisture had sprayed onto the second page whilst it was being composed, though a handkerchief had caught most of the consumptive's uncontrolled coughing.

“A sorry tale, indeed. This Herr Docktor Paulus: I suppose he left the sanatorium without any forwarding address? Poste Restante, Berlin, hmm. A blind, no doubt. Miss Leavis had, one presumes, no cause to doubt his credentials - for you know, chronic patients become experts at quite the same rate as their doctors. I do beg both your pardons, gentlemen.”

Well, I begged Watson's pardon, at any rate.

“And the suspects you say you have put your thumbprint on: their only common link to this lady is a lunch in the Spring of '97 at which the same 'cure' was first discussed?”

Doyle confirmed it: “I remember it as well as she; mind, I thought it sounded like a lot of blether and trash. All the same, I have good reason to pay attention to such talk, as you no doubt know.”

What was it? Oh yes, his wife. Watson must have mentioned it during an evening when I was listening to the report of his last conversation with Doyle instead of, as I usually do, shovelling it out of my head faster than it came in.

“Well, I have little enough on at present, with the rounding-up and trial of the Morrison gang now past, and only the bare arithmetic of sentencing to come. It would not do to allow these idle hands to get into mischief. Pray give me the names and addresses of the parties concerned and I will see what shadowy trails are left under the impress of elephant feet created by your own enquiries. What ultimate good it may do Miss Ellen Leavis now her capital is gone, is a matter for Providence.”

I watched him try to work out how much of my little speech was for show (most of it) and how much genuine disdain for the banality of the case and the clumsiness of his presentation (also most of it). He fixed me with a damnably inquisitive, and in their way quite shrewd, pair of grey-blue eyes. Then he clapped one hand on his knee and laughed merrily, as if he had thought of the best jape ever played.

“No need for you to bother yourself chasing them over the length and breadth of England. I can bring them to you, and all at one fell stroke.”

I was about to remark that I had better warn Mrs Hudson to clear the lumber room ready to store our sitting room furniture so as to make room for the crowd of suspects, when the awful alternative struck me dumb. He wanted me to come down to Surrey, to that vulgar, country-suburban pile of his.

For the weekend.

Adventurous as his wide experience in matters amorous have made him, I should have soon shown Watson just how un-erotic it can be to have the breath choked out of him, had he not manfully managed to control himself at that moment when he, too, worked it out.

“You never tire of showing off your deductions to me, or Lestrade, or any number of clients by ones and twos. Why not to a whole houseful at one go?” he said, once he had seen Doyle off at the door with some reluctant, yet incumbent, instructions from me.

“Then I suppose you would have no objection if a brace of strapping guardsmen and Sergeant Perkins - who as an observable fact has had his eye on you for years - watched us in bed tonight? The more, the merrier.”

“Holmes! That is a disgusting image - Sergeant Perkins, are you sure?- and the situation is in no way similar.”

“You do not think so? My work - my art - is as intimate to me as anything else my body and mind might do, not an entertainment for idle bystanders. I am not a performing monkey, however much you and Doyle play organ grinders and rattle your tins.”

I regretted my words, though not soon enough: not before I had uttered them and seen his frown, heard his answer like coming thunder on a summer day - quiet only because implacable, inevitable and occupying the high ground.

“My purpose is, was always, to glorify you - when you deserve it, and often when you do not. That others wish to read my poor tales and are willing to pay me for it, that Doyle encourages me and finds publishers: these are by-products, not the end result. As for tins, I see yours full enough from it.”

I apologised very prettily, but the set of his shoulders all the rest of the evening let me know the depth of my fault. Thus I was surprised, as you might be, reader that shall never be, that he still came to me later, when it was near midnight and the house was asleep save for us two.

I might almost have suspected Mrs Hudson of pleading my case. Oh, not in words, nothing so crass; but a certain flounce of her skirts when persons were being “foolish” could be trained upon many things of which she disapproved, quarrels between tenants included. She has eyes and ears like any woman, but discretion and loyalty above the common run of her sex. She knew what happened in the night on the first floor and chose to forget it utterly by morning. Naturally, the maids would never enter a room before knocking. Yet we might still have been betrayed by a score of clues had she not shielded us, warned us fore and aft, marked our habits and boiled our bed-linens in her own copper. Not one explicit word on the subject has passed any of our lips, so I cannot say what her actual views on the matter of two men bedding each other might be: but a harmonious house is surely worth more than gold to a landlady.

There is a little gold, still, in Watson's hair. There is more in his heart, proof against the acid in mine. That he should value my work is one thing - that he should value myself, quite another, and a mystery beyond my powers. The candle flame flickered from the slight tremor in his hand as he set down the dish on the night stand.

Not still angry: Watson's temper flies up like a flare at sea and dies away as quickly. Not fear, nor conscience:if this troubled his honour, he would not have begun it at all; if he feared to be damned, would he stand by my bed thus, so...ripe, a rosy flush across throat and chest, framed by white linen? Excitement, then, and something else, underneath...

“Holmes. Stop it. I will not have you deducing your way through this as you do everything else. Close your eyes.”

A vain plea, sly and knowing in its vanity. Touch, sound, smell: the very vibration in the air are clues enough for me.. But such little games and stratagems we had begun to employ for the sake of variety in our pleasures. Spice - and honey, for there was sweetness too, even if most of it was his.

I hard the rustle of the bedclothes being lifted, felt the mattress dip and the heavy brush of one knee against my thigh as he braced and shifted and grunted beside me, giving his good leg purchase and sparing the other. For some moments he paused - making his diagnosis, I supposed. Blunt, broad fingers, pistol-trigger strong and scalpel precise, yanked at the hem on my nightshirt - had I been expecting him, I might have gone to bed bare - pulling it up with calculated roughness past my hips.

He pinned my arms before I could catch up the garment to take it right off. It was not, then, to be a night for embraces: the senses cajoled and seduced into eager compliance; the shockingly gentle delight of skin sliding against skin, prick greeting prick in merry meeting, the soft gasp of petit mort smothered by a kiss.

Instead, stark assault on every nerve capable of carrying pleasure: hands insinuating themselves between and along the insides of both thighs, pushing them apart, feeling the heft and shape of a full cock and balls, aching with blood and seed. A low stream of filthy, camp-fire talk, delivered with breathless urgency: a command to put off civility, to name things as they really are. It was not difficult to obey because my body, my mind, my soul already wanted it: to abandon thought, hesitancy, the question. Only to lie helpless under his upper lip brushing my skin, teeth nipping at my belly, his inexorable hand fondling, kneading, pumping, driving, working me into a hard-ridden lather of sweat, a shaking slave begging for my release - and he took his damn time about granting it - until at the glorious finish I stuffed a fold of the nightshirt into my mouth and bit down hard, to cut off a shout that might, that mustn't, carry all the way to Scotland Yard.

Before I could offer reciprocity, he shook his head, two fingers pressed to my lips, and guided my hand to the spreading wet stain on his own linen. Serving me, enslaving me: all was for him the same centre, the same satisfaction. I need do nothing, offer nothing; only be.

A single, dry kiss to my temple and he was gone, taking the light with him.

I lay for a while exposed, ashamed, wondering whether his diagnosis of my condition was the same as mine - a chronic and self-inflicted atrophy of the heart - and if tonight had been a remedy or only palliative. Whether I could ever be well in the way he was - could learn tenderness, and how to be wounded by another. Eventually I rolled onto my front with my face in the pillow and slept. In the early hours, I awoke to find my nightclothes righted and the covers over me. The puddled skeleton of a candle had sat on the nightstand for some time, thirty minutes or more, just in that tiny draft from the crack in the corner of one window-pane where I once forced the sash in a fit of frustration or some black mood one spring gone by. The pattern of guttered wax was characteristic.

The chair by the door had been moved, then replaced.


At breakfast, we spoke only of preparations for Surrey.

“Then, Watson, a dog cart or a trap from the station to the house - what is its name again... Underfunded?”

“Undershaw. Holmes, don't be mischievous. Doyle sank four or five thousand pounds cash into the property. After all this time, I don't expect you to sing his praises but, if you will pardon the pun, give credit where it is due. He is not short of money.”

“Not presently. He has nevertheless all the signs about him of a man worried about money, accustomed to never having quite enough for his wants - though he lives resolutely within his means. If his prosperity continues, he will grow into it, but that has not happened yet. I daresay he still accounts to his mother for every penny of income and expenditure.”

“His mother?”

“He speaks of motherhood not only with due respect but with a reverence bordering on the embarrassing. On those occasions when we do meet, he never asks after my father, whom he knows to be still living. He assumes us to be on bad terms - instead of the reality of mutual, cordial incomprehension. His own dead father too obviously shared that weakness for the bottle that was your late brother's lot. Both of you look at wine, and more so spirits, with the self-same conflicted expression. It is certainly his mother to whom he renders an account of his funds, and of his whole existence, taking the part not only of the loyal son but of the responsible paterfamilias he never had.”

I took the opportunity presented by Watson's gratifying amazement to help myself to more bacon and eggs.

“How can you be so confident in your deductions about the inner life of a man whom you take positive pains to avoid?”

“It distracts me sufficiently to observe these things whilst I am obliged by common courtesy to appear to listen to the content of what he is saying. Since you invariably attend to the latter, I am unlikely to miss anything of real importance.”


In the event, there was not enough room for all the guests invited actually to stay at Doyle's house. Colonel Sir George and Lady Treadwell took a room at the White Horse in Haslemere along with Watson and myself (singly) and two ladies (together), whose presence I had originally requested to disguise the real purpose of the gathering. Looking back, I suppose that fate, Providence, what you will, took matters into its own hands and steered one of those women deliberately into my path. She was, all unknowing, its instrument in a chastening I had long deserved and a reward that I had not.

At dinner the first evening, we were introduced to the final members of the cast. Brother and sister Robert and Amelia Porter were both thin-faced, intense types. He - a little shorter than his sibling - followed her around constantly, staring at her as a hungry man might at a hot meat pie. She dressed like one.

The last of the Davos lunch party, Mr Ormond Pierce and his much younger wife Annette, had spent their honeymoon on the slopes three years before. Their marriage thereafter had evidently continued remorselessly downhill even as they swept elegantly over the frozen surface with a smile and a wave to a crowd of admiring onlookers.

“Dearest Annie: such a peacock. Why I swear she keeps half the dressmakers and all the milliners in Kensington quite by herself.”

This, with an indulgent husband's laugh, and a look toward her sharp as a dagger dipped in poison. Her hand, laid coquettishly upon his sleeve, curved into talons.

“Dear Ormond, surely the peacock is the male bird. His hen is forced to stay drab, whilst she watches him strut and display and spend all his wealth in impressing the unworthy.”

And a lot more of the same sort of thing, scattered about the dinner like too much pepper. Doyle's sweet-natured little mouse of a wife excused herself after the main course. Doyle watched her leave, his expression twisted with pain: not so much, perhaps, at the prospect of losing her, as from another cause. The other cause, who sat directly to my left, busied herself with a napkin. Doyle wrenched the tiller of table conversation in a new, and exasperating, direction.

“So, Mr Porter, Miss Porter: how goes the Bond of Amity?”

“Well, Doctor Doyle, well. Short of funds, needless to say. As ever the unenlightened prefer to waste their substance on the things of this fleeting world. We had hoped for the backing of the Isis-Urania Temple, but fleshly people have quite taken it over. Yet we toil on. Nellie here, angel of light that she is,” - he put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her hair fondly; she shrank from it, her face like weak tea made with milk gone off - “ went all on her own to America to strengthen our chapter there and appeal to their love for the sacred cause. It is a new nation, open to new truths.”

“Full of the newly rich,” muttered the Colonel, two places to my left. I watched his mouth form the words “and stupid”. Porter didn't quite catch that part, but he heard the call to arms loud and clear.

“They have been more generous than your estimate of them, sir. Did not the Man of Galilee himself instruct his acolytes to give all away and follow?”

“The Man of Galilee, as you put it, did not have a family to provide for. Charity begins at home.”

“And suppose, Colonel, that you could give your family the greatest provision of all: hope for the future? The certain knowledge that this life is not all we have; that from beyond the Great Silence which the world calls death, well-loved voices call our names?”

Lady Treadwell, opposite me, had turned ash-pale. An almost-empty wine-glass slipped from her fingers to roll across the tablecloth. She stared at the spatter of red drops on white and shuddered. Then she covered it all with a little laugh and a charming apology for her clumsiness. Watson, at her side, set the glass to rights and charmed her in his turn until some colour returned to her face.

“I will not suppose it, for I do not believe it,” insisted the Colonel. “I have seen more death, Mr Porter, than is the lot of anyone here - except, perhaps, our two doctors and their friend Mr Holmes. I have seen not a shred of evidence that anything survives.”

“My sister is a powerful medium. If only you would come with a seeking heart, you might yet get your evidence. Why, perhaps Mr Holmes, as a well-known scientific detective, would care to supervise, to ensure fair play?”

“I would care to do no such thing.”

Doyle, somewhat to my surprise since I know him to be a dabbler in the spiritualist idiocy, came to my rescue. I suppose that the expression of 'blank horror' (Watson's phrase) on my face as I contemplate taking part in social gatherings, organised group activities or fatuous enterprises - in this case, all three at the same time - must have excited his pity.

I loathe being pitied.

“ Too serious a quest for a Friday evening, Mr Porter. Another time, perhaps. Meanwhile, none of you gentlemen has had the chance to try out the billiard table. For all the wonder and congratulations at your first sight of the rest of this fine house, I'd lay money that once you've spent the evening on the baize at Undershaw, you'll at once resign your clubs and come here every week instead!”

As the party divided, men gathering for their sport, ladies to the drawing room, I saw writ large one crucial difficulty of an investigation disguised as a house-party. A bachelor guest cannot eavesdrop on the mysteries of a female sherry party. He cannot simply seek out and strike up a personal conversation with a strange woman without all manner of unfortunate inferences being drawn. Even with a reputation for disliking women, my real motives might be guessed at by the perpetrator. Although two of the women were decoys, there solely to make up equal numbers, Miss Porter and Lady Treadwell, who were not, had barely said a word at dinner. I had, of course, read such clues as their dress and manner gave up without a struggle; but if either had a connection to the fraud, the mind-reading abilities the good Doctor credits me with had failed me so far. I really needed to talk to them.

Nevertheless, I was able to take some advantage of the transition as one group became two. Drawing into the shadow of some grand and useless piece of hall furniture, I observed a number of telling vignettes. Lady Treadwell was cornered by her husband, rather a grand piece of furniture himself, though a trifle worm-eaten by the years. At first, their strained and stilted conversation, too quiet for me to hear but rife with gestures of desperation and seemed to be yet another chapter in a tiresome serial entitled “The Inadvisability of Marriage”, co-authored by the Pierces. Yet, when she gave way to tears he shielded her from prying eyes, dried her cheeks with a gentle hand and allowed her to take respite in his arms for a moment or two before, thus fortified, returning to the fray.

I claim no absolute knowledge of brotherly love. My regard for Mycroft is, I believe, as it can only be, we being the men we are: an afternoon blend of chafing wit and profound, protective impulse, steeped in the good, strong, hot water of unashamed intellectual competition. I fervently hope that those who refer to Watson and myself as having a brothers' bond have in mind neither our actual relations nor those that appeared to be uppermost in Robert Porter's twisted mind. As his sister evaded the indecent caresses he barely tried to conceal - for by then he thought them alone in the hall - and shook him off as he begged her never to leave him, then threatened her, the shapeless front of her dress clenched in his fists, righteous anger almost betrayed me. It is not only the softer emotions which bias one's judgement. I could easily imagine Porter guilty of the fraud solely because he disgusted me.

A heavy footstep above saved us both from discovery. As the Porters fled, the master of the house stepped down onto the Turkey rug at the foot of the grand staircase. He hesitated, passed a weary hand over his face and turned just at the angle to spot me, lurking by the outer door. As our eyes met, he sighed and looked back up the stairs.

“I will not explain it, nor excuse it, Mr Holmes. You may judge me as you like. But speak with Watson before you pass sentence. He has known what it is to love, and what it means to be married. The difference between 'dear' and 'darling': ask him about that.”

There was no need to elaborate. I had not failed, as he knew I could not, to mark the significance of his reaction earlier that evening to the sight of the beautiful Miss Jean Leckie as she crossed the threshold of Undershaw, substituted at the eleventh hour for the sick companion of Mrs Brown. It was the face of a man terrified and elated, blessed and cursed by the gods with the perfect gift at the worst time. I had little doubt that the girl was his mistress, that his wife did not know, and that their proximity for the weekend threw him into a roiling torment of guilt.

Of course, one might well argue that if a man does wrong, he ought to feel guilty. One might argue that he ought to stop doing wrong. To which it might be answered that a man, or two men, probably ought not to break the law, either. So I made no reply, and we retired to the billiards room. Watson and the Colonel had not waited for us and were already giving a fine demonstration of practical problems in solid geometry and the resolution of forces. I have never seen the point of taking part myself, but as a spectator it occupies the mind for a passably entertaining hour. The mathematics of the game are quite two-thirds of the interest for me.

The rest of my interest resides in the prospect that Watson may win, for I only watch when he is playing. He is a talented cue man, and never bets on the outcome, so his nerves are always steady. Nor did he disappoint me that evening. Having held Sir George off with grace and finesse in a tight final frame, he took on the more dangerous opponent of mine host. During a tense first innings, I thought Doyle would make mincemeat of him. The grand billiard room was no mere bourgeois vanity: its owner was a formidable player.

How is it that they are, on the surface, so alike - in profession, in talents, in interests, even to a point in looks - my boy not so stout and massive, but still, an oak where I am a willow; yet, the one I dismiss as a moderately accomplished hack grown rich as a peddler of sentimental pap and patriotic ex post facto justifications, and the other...

Ah, the other. The other I would have at my back though all the world were ranged against me. The other I would sit with in silence on my last night on earth and be content. The other is Watson, and there is nothing further that need be said.

Porter, included by some philosophical fallacy amongst the men, kept on at me sotto voce throughout both games, about the seance. I swatted the irritating insect away without even hearing its buzzing most of the time. Then, distracted by an especially outrageous claim about 'spirit photographs', I missed both Watson's cannon shot for the target score and victory, and the moment he turned to me with a smile bright as electric light, inviting me to share in his triumph. Of the spectators, it was Ormond Pierce who first heartily clapped him on the back and, applauding, shook both their hands with easy sociability.

That was my place. The false bonhomie of the club man can go to blazes, but it was for me to congratulate my Watson, me to notice how he turned his back to wiped his brow - for it had been a close-run battle indeed- me to be first. I am told, by an otherwise trustworthy witness, that I positively snarled at Porter for taking me as a credulous imbecile to be persuaded by a magic lantern show, and stalked out of the room, Watson making hasty apologies behind me. I maintain that I only dismissed the mystic with a cold glance and a cutting word: his cringing back against the wall was due to his own fundamental weakness of character. As for stalking - well, I have long legs and a naturally purposeful stride. Whatever the truth, I did not doubt that he deserved it.

My friend disagreed, or at least disapproved. He looked steadfastly, silently, out of the carriage window at the pitch-black Surrey countryside the whole journey back to the inn. I once spoke of his grand gift of silence. That silence takes a number of forms: the mute sounding board from which so many insights spring back at me; the calm confidence that bears me up when all is darkness and the pit of despair; and if those, this also: the wordless, wounded punishment he deals out when I do not live up to his expectations. It is his own fault for having them, I have said so many times - pray, do not make of me an idol, Watson. Then again, if a man choose an object to be worthy of his regard, can one criticise his choice without criticising the man himself? I would allow no-one, save (through a circuitous logic that shames and saves me) myself, to blame Watson for his fidelity.

“The question of motive is uppermost in my mind,” I told him later, after a judicious cough or two on my part had brought the physician to the surface and suppressed the auditor of manners. We were closeted in his room, undressed for our respective beds and speaking softly by the light of two candles.

“That would be the money, surely?”

“If it were all, I should be very hard-placed to narrow the field. There is not a man or woman in that gathering, save our two wooden ducks, who does not anxiously count very penny and tremble in their worn-out boots at the thought of a summons from the bank manager. I need something more. It is clear to me that Lady Treadwell, for example, has lost at least one child to consumption. It might serve as a twisted sort of revenge on fate to hold out the false promise of a cure to another, but doubt she has so much canker in her soul. You know, Watson, when all is said and done, there are relatively few motives for crime - assuming the criminal is more or less in his right mind. Gain, in all its guises; hatred and vengeance; freedom from danger ; a cause. Unfortunately, there is no lack here of any and all of them.”

Watson yawned. “It's very late, and you have two more days to work it all out. Get some sleep.” He turned back the covers and climbed into his bed. There was a second pillow at its head, toward which he gave a moment's glance before occupying the first. It was very plump, very crisp, very white, a fine pillow in every respect; yet I think we were in agreement that it lacked something.

I fast from all but tobacco when I am hot on the scent; Watson knows that very well. A body starved is a brain sharpened. It was not passion that he looked for. In that moment, when he saw the pillow that lay unoccupied for form's sake, for propriety, for the law of England, he wanted only that I should stay the night.

In the moments that followed, I thought of a dozen things to say, both sharp and kind, in answer to that quiet and steadfast hope. Yet at the base of me, at the core, I wanted only to allow myself to give in.

I had just reached the door when a quiet voice pulled me out of my thoughts.

“You forgot love, Holmes.”

Love. At the heart of too many crimes: a good many wrongs, come to that. A thing I had never known, ever determined not to permit that rapacious sentiment the least purchase on my mind. Or had I failed to recognise it, because it had come not as a raging storm but instead settled gently and thoroughly as dew on the unknowing field, as easily as one might lay one's head on a certain white pillow, as wholeheartedly as one might long to, however much forbidden? Was this, then, the difference between 'dear' and 'darling'? I must remember to ask Watson.

“So I did.”


Part 2 continues here
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