INTERLUDES FOR THE SOLO VIOLIN III
"I apologize," he said at once, "but you didn't
seem overly fond of your staircase a few hours ago."
I think from the sensation in my cheekbones that I must have blushed,
for memory was swiftly returning to me. "Then it is I who
to apologize to you, for robbing you of your bed."
"Why should you think I object?" he inquired, one brow tilting toward
"Because you are not sleeping," I ventured sadly. "And
neither are you attempting to do so."
"Ah." He set the still-smouldering cigarette on a saucer
on his windowsill. "Perhaps I am not tired. And
am not in my bed because it impedes my seeing you in it."
There, that was the feeling--and it seemed now that only he could
produce it in me--the blissful conviction that all the world would come
right in the end so long as I was within the sight of his form and the
sound of his voice. It is all well and good to claim that I
not a naive young boy, that I in fact have loved before and have seen
too much of life, but the joy he engendered in me was impossible to
stifle. When he viewed the smile breaking across my features,
saw him laugh briefly, for I had never once heard it aloud.
"You really are an extraordinary fellow, do you know that?" he
murmured. "I don't understand you at all."
"Why do you say such a thing?"
"You are quite simply the hardest knot I have ever attempted to
unravel. One moment you are so formal I suppose you desire me
confine our relations to discussing cricket scores over sherry and
cucumber sandwiches, and the next moment you are joining me racing down
alleyways, or fronting me the price of our digs without any conceivable
motivation. It's exhausting," he finished fondly.
"You are a very formal sort yourself, you know, my dear chap."
"Yes, but I mean it. I cannot trust men on first sight, and I
cold and abrasive and deucedly arrogant. You are
you do it, you are hiding something." He appeared genuinely
puzzled, but no more than I was--for upon considering the remark, it
did seem that the majority of the times I had been the most careful in
etiquette with Holmes were the times when I was preventing myself
crushing his mouth to my own.
"You're right. And that is why you were smiling this
afternoon, is it not?" I whispered, recalling it.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Smiling--before the violin concert, and then afterwards all through
it. You did not understand me. But when John Clay
was a stranger to him and I reacted the way I did, you deduced...well,
you understood me rather better. And you determined to do
something about it."
"Bravo," he congratulated me. He walked over to my side of
bed. "You scintillate this morning. Because I was
person so close within your immediate sphere, I had no basis for
comparative analysis of your behavior--and believe me, I would not have
offended you for the world. I have inferred you treat your
friends very affectionately indeed. And I suspect you would
a stranger as well as you treat me. I was a stranger, after
when you commenced such ridiculously steadfast acts. It could
have been disastrous for me to assume your regard was in any way
"My regard was not, for that was based on our friendship, but my
desires are," I confessed, breathing in the nearness of him.
you going to kiss me at all this morning?"
I was sitting cross-legged by this time, still entirely unclothed, with
the sheet draped over one thigh. My friend climbed forward on
hand and knees, surrounding me as his mouth sought out mine, forcing me
backward while my legs straightened and my heart surged, until I was
lying on my back with my lips tangling against his, enfolded in a
beautiful crouched prison of Sherlock Holmes' limbs. Reaching
I pulled his dressing gown down from his shoulders and he shrugged out
of it obligingly, afterward leaning down again on his
It was then that I noticed that his left was marred by a tiny pinprick
Pushing his shoulders up and away from me gently, I looked into his
eyes. They were keen but glimmering slightly, an unnatural
electricity. When he noticed what was disturbing me he
and sat back, landing to my right on his tangled quilt and dressing
"It sickens you, I suppose," he surmised icily, "as a man who has
already shaken such habits off."
"No," I protested, reaching for him. "But as one who knows
the dangers, I cannot bear to see you this way."
"You will have to get used to it," he said shortly. "It is
practice I can stop. When I am without it, things are far
I wanted to point out to him that he spoke of a time before he had me,
whether I was an effective palliative or not, but the thought was so
terribly narcissistic that I remained silent. To my dismay,
laughed morbidly, another soundless chuckle that told me he had once
again seen into my mind without my speaking it.
"I did not expect this, I confess, from we two taking digs
together...did not expect you to be the man you are. I have
scores of other men, and have been many things to many people, for my
own sport or pleasure or even during very bad periods for the keeping
of me if I liked them well enough to begin with, but I have never
before been this. I have always found equilibrium a far more
difficult thing to achieve than many of my fellows, and perhaps that
has prevented my forming such attachments in the past."
"My dear fellow," I said, trying not to sound appalled, "you did not
think, when I offered to cover our rent money--"
"No," he smiled. "But if you had done, I would have found the
gesture more usual."
"And suppose I had. Would you have complied?"
"Of course I would," he shrugged, "if you had asked. However,
did not. Watson, I haven't done such a thing in years, I
you, and the sort of rakes I am talking of possess so many rooms that
having a young fellow ensconced in one means nothing to them one way or
the other, so long as they have his attention when they wish for
it. Being a kept lover is no worse than some rental
and far better than others. It suited their tastes that I be
exactly as I am, and I have never made such an arrangement with a
benefactor I didn't find alluring, if that is what troubles you, nor
serviced three mandrakes at a go as a rent boy in a rookery.
are turning quite green. If you would sleep with a man for
sensation, why not for the bed itself simultaneously?"
He was correct, and I had no right to judge him, so I steered the
conversation back on its rightful tracks. "Did the
sort you speak of first introduce you to the morphine?"
"Heavens, no. We need not speak of them further, in
But in any case, I wished you to know that you are a singular
occurrence for me. The drugs have nothing to do with you, and
take them personally would be very foolish--however, if you wish to
have nothing to do with the drugs, or with me because of them, then I
cannot answer you the way you wish me to."
"You are unwilling to make an effort?"
"I am unable to succeed. The two notions are quite different."
I stared at him, sprawled on his chaotic bedclothes bare-chested, the
man I had wanted so badly my own chest ached at the sight of
I longed to be angry at his pessimism, but I found I could
For I knew the feeling myself, and there was nothing worse in the
world. Sighing, I asked the most invasive question of my life.
"If not due to your company, why did you commence taking it?"
"Why did you commence taking it yourself?"
"I was in terrible pain," I answered.
"Well. There you are, then," he concluded absently.
In the silence that followed, I longed for him to say something
more. I knew that we had not been long acquainted, that we
grown close in such shaky starts and stops that he could not possibly
fully trust me as of yet even if he did love me, but that did not stop
my yearning to know what had cracked within him, who had fractured it,
and where that man lived so I could rip him to pieces.
told me, and I accepted it even as I thought it, that I would never
know the answer. Or if he did tell me, he would tell me in
of grey metaphor, in the sort of shadowy fables at which he was so
adept. Whatever had happened, it had been done long
Impulsively, I held out my own arm. It was scarred, as his
though the marks had accumulated over much less long a period and were
"Give me a dose of your morphine."
He pulled back from me, aghast. "No."
"Go on. Do it."
"Whatever are you playing at?" he snarled, his metallic eyes flashing.
"It is bound to happen sooner or later," I insisted. "I'll
an attack of pain and grow desperate enough to take the stuff, and it
will be at my fingertips, and the fight with be over. I may
well skip the struggle and fall back into the habit now."
"You are out of your mind," he lashed out. "Your health, your
"Will be severely compromised. I'll quickly return to high
and damage my digestive system, my cardiovascular system--I could very
likely suffer a stroke or a heart attack. Provided I fail to
overdose in the beginning, of course. If I start taking so
it becomes dangerous once more and I fear for my life, I could stop
dosing myself and go through withdrawal again--the muscle spasms, cold
sweats, the black fits of despair, the blinding pain of it. I
could easily kill myself ridding my body of the stuff. Even
survived the process, my current paranoia and depression would deepen."
"Why are you doing this to me?" he pleaded, crawling forward and taking
my face in his hands. "Please stop. You know what I
be to you--the sort of life I wish you to have. You have
stronger and stronger here, and I have watched all the while, and I--"
"Get the syringe."
"Give me the morphine, and do it now."
"I would as soon give you a syringe full of arsenic!"
Reaching up, I covered the hand cradling my jaw. "Then can
you conceive of the way I feel when you take it yourself?"
He flinched, but even as he did so he shook his head, a piece of ebony
hair falling over his brow. His grip on me tightened
if he needed some way to anchor himself and had never yet found an
object steady enough to do the job. I suddenly doubted, for
first time, whether I could ever be sufficiently strong to manage it.
"You must break yourself of this habit," I insisted. "You are
burning the candle at both ends, and the game itself is hardly worth
"You don't understand at all. It isn't a game," he
whispered. "And the candle itself is hardly a very valuable
"It is to me," I cried.
"I know, though I cannot think why. You don't even know
told you that, countless times. You didn't know that I had
men for my upkeep, and see how that affected you."
"That affected me for the identical reason this does--the thought of
keeping you safe from harm. Not to mention myself.
cannot shed the morphine--"
"I can never promise you want you want," he said shakily. His
eyes were actually tearing, and he moved in still closer to me, his
lips only a breath away from my own. His hands were still at
face, stroking the skin. "You have asked as the first favour
me the only thing I cannot grant. I cannot stop being
Holmes, my dear fellow. I wish I could, believe me.
promise you other things. I can try--if having morphine in
flat will harm you, I'll get rid of it this very night. I
nothing but good for you. There have been relatively happy
periods of my life when a ten or eleven percent solution of cocaine has
been enough. I can try that, and keep it hidden. If
it, you would never be able to find it, I promise you. If you
only could have viewed the reasons for my vices, you would take pity on
me, I know it. You said you loved me. Possibly that
effect of the moment, the aftermath of passion, an echo of something
else--if you need to take it back, I would not be at all offended,
under the circumstances. It would not even be the first time
has happened. But if you were telling me the truth--"
"I love you," I repeated, blinking back the moisture in my own
eyes. "Whoever claimed he loved you and lied is a worthless
blackguard. I love you with everything I am, and ever shall
"Then let me try," he whispered. He pressed forward and I
back to the pillows as he covered my badly used body with his own
nearly perfect one, curling against me with his head on my
"Only let me try. I shan't succeed, I warn you, but I can
the morphine and keep the rest where you shall never lay eyes on
it. I'll make every effort and pretend to be besting it,
sacrifice is enough for you save what you asked."
"Everything I have told you is true, but living with other men and
living with you are separate universes. You have been
lonely, I have seen it, but never in the same way I have. I
what another loneliness is. Loneliness while within another
his bed, his life, but never his soul, that is solitude of a different
kind. I have never been granted a position where I could
live to make someone happy. Don't send me away."
I enfolded him in my arms. I had not understood, I
realized. He was right. I had supposed that his
empathy, his ability to comprehend the woes of other men, would lead
him to abandon the habit once he knew how precious he was to
But such was not the case. If I loved all of him--his pride,
scorn, his brilliance, his gentility--I would have to love the addict
too. I could help him to fight it in every way I knew, but I
could not alter his past any more than I could erase my own.
had already finished constructing the man he was before I came to him,
and nothing would ever change that. I nestled him into me,
my hands round his back and the other resting against his svelte hip
"When have I ever been even remotely tempted to send you away?" I
murmured. "Even before I loved you, I couldn't bear to be
from you. And in any case, you are a kept man again: I need
the rent for next month, and you are about to earn us fifty pounds."
When I awoke for the second time four hours later, the cold autumn sun
was blazing through the window and my friend was gone again.
Rising, I took advantage of his absence to draw a much-needed bath and
to shave carefully, my breath catching every time my mind lit on him
and my blood humming in my fingertips. I was ravenously
and, knowing Holmes to be but a slight eater even on the best of
occasions, when I arrived downstairs in our empty sitting room I rang
at once for a hearty breakfast.
I had not been long over my plate of eggs and toast when I heard the
ringing of the downstairs bell. It could only be a client, I
supposed, for Holmes himself had a key and I had commerce with
distressingly few human beings. For an instant, I suspected
fearfully that it could be John Clay come to thrash me soundly--or
attempt it, rather--but when Mrs. Hudson appeared, she looked far more
dour than I had ever seen her, and John Clay despite his faults looks
and behaves like a gentleman.
"There's a man downstairs who claims he's business with Mr. Holmes and
will not be put off," she announced, worriedly smoothing her
apron. "I would not trouble you, Doctor, for Mr. Holmes'
are none of yours, of course, but he is most insistent, and I--in the
absence of Mr. Holmes, I wonder if you would consent to deal with the
"Mrs. Hudson, of course I will," I exclaimed, rising. "And
please, in the future, never hesitate to request such a thing."
"Thank you," she said, relieved. "Mr. Holmes seems to me
a capable enough man if you catch my meaning, and a clever one, and a
strong one, for all the airs he puts on. But I confess I'm
grateful your condition is so much improved that when this sort of
She was interrupted my the pounding of boots and the half-closed door
swinging open behind her. When the intruder stepped into the
sitting room, Mrs. Hudson grimaced with a look of outraged decency of
which I heartily approved.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," I said quietly. "If you would go
downstairs, I shall deal with this fellow."
The fellow was built like a bear, with a shiny bowler hat on his head
and a menacing grin on his face, dressed in the shabby attempt at
respectability which characterized the more affluent breed of bruisers
employed by unscrupulous moneylenders. From brown checked
trousers to badly tied cravat, he was the very image of a hired thug.
"Do state your business, sir, for as has already been made clear to
you, Sherlock Holmes is not in," I declared.
"Oh, he ain't in," the brute nodded. "I'm coming round to
believing it, but that's a right shame, that. I've not
clear cross the bridge after the money what he owes my employer just to
be told he ain't in, there's the gist of it, sir."
"He'll pay you when it suits him. Whether or not you are
inconvenienced is none of our concern."
"But you see," he said, walking on cheap factory boots further into the
room, "it is your concern, guv. I takes my responsibilities
serious like, you savvy, for we'd none of us working men keep our
billets otherwise. If he'd been here, with the notes in his
there would be an end to it and all on our merry way. Like as
you wouldn't have been no worser off even if he'd bilked us, for he'd
have taken the brunt of my temper, no two ways about that.
seeing as you're here and he ain't, as you say, you're going to have to
improve my mood all on your own."
"I don't agree."
"Oh-ho! You don't agree! Well, whether you agree or
I'll have broken a few of your bones before that scarecrow of a great
mincing toff gets back from his tailor."
"Get out," I ordered.
"Get out, he says," sneered the ruffian. "Bugger this idle
I heartily agreed with his sentiment. We held no further
discourse that late morning, for I have no patience with men who barge
into private residences and then ignore an order to depart
And as I have stated before, I may well have fled at the sound of
crackling paper, but the lessons of survival have not left my body no
matter how badly my mind rebelled against them. I fear that
displeasure at some of his phrasing, I may have been more harsh than I
intended, but the man's character had not seemed to me to be stamped
with mercy, and in any event one errs on the side of caution when
rendering street roughs unconscious.
Mrs. Hudson, the poor soul, flew through the door with an expression of
tearful horror on her face, which froze when she realized who had been
punched several times in the jaw and who had delivered the
Gasping in disbelief, she smiled at me.
"I heartily apologize, Mrs. Hudson, for any alarm I've caused you, but
this cad was growing quite intolerable. Have you any
my dragging him downstairs?"
She drew herself upright, settled her limbs into an attitude of demure
calm, and cleared her throat. "Shall I ring for the
commissionaire to help you, Doctor?"
"Thank you, my dear lady. That would be much appreciated."
I had never previously met Commissionaire Peterson, but he seemed a
good sort all round, having gone a bit wide-eyed at the sight of the
wretch on our carpet but readily assenting to assist me in getting rid
of him. In fact, we were just depositing the rogue in the
downstairs area where the vegetables were delivered when Sherlock
Holmes strode past us on the pavement. He caught our
the corner of his eye and stopped short.
"Watson, what the devil are you doing?" he cried.
"Taking out the rubbish." My shoulder ached a little, and I
stretched the arm as far back as I could manage.
"I--you--hullo, Peterson," my friend managed at last, settling on
courtesy as an escape from incoherence. "You had a part in
"No, sir." Peterson shook his head. "Carried my
of the load, but the making of it was the Doctor's doing."
"Doctor, what on God's earth are you thinking of? Who is this
I shrugged. "I have not the first notion of who he is."
"Well, then what did he want?" my friend demanded in considerable
"He wanted fifty pounds or a chance at your skin. He was most
uncivil, and I fell into an argument with him."
My friend's expression of wonder turned to one of rage when his eyes
fell on my unknown victim. "You could have been--"
"No," I interrupted firmly, "I could not have been. Not by
the likes of him."
Sherlock Holmes spent several seconds deciding whether he wanted to be
furious at me for provoking a professional bruiser, or thankful that
said bruiser still slept. Finally, he reached into his
and tossed a shilling to Commissionaire Peterson.
"My good Peterson, thank you for your willingness to assist us in a
spot of manual labour. I suggest for your health that you
fall into the bad graces of the Doctor here, for it seems an unlucky
Smiling, Peterson pocketed the coin and bid us farewell. When
were inside once more with the outer door locked and bolted, and had
crossed up the stairs and into the empty sitting room, my friend turned
back to me with a look of mixed anger, affection and pride.
"Pray confine your gallantries to occasions when I am present to
provide assistance if needed, there's a good fellow? You may
consider it henceforth, if not a rule, then a heartfelt recommendation."
He leaned down to kiss me and the assured calm I had felt when in
physical danger was replaced by a sensation of intoxicated
weightlessness. But just as quickly he broke the contact and
as if to examine the scene of the crime, looking ruefully at the
scattered spots of blood upon the carpet.
"Considering your profession, it was bound to happen sooner or later,"
I observed slyly.
"I do not dare to contradict you," he teased me. "I do not
presume to offend you in any way, now I have seen the swift and
inevitable consequences. I dare only to thank you for your
and for the other sorts of pains that the unknown ruffian downstairs
shall shortly be suffering. And I dare to say that Mrs.
upon laying eyes on her carpet--"
"She has not yet noticed them. In order to remain in her good
graces, I shall see to it myself in a moment."
"Her good graces?" Holmes repeated. "I congratulate
fear I am myself yet well out of them. Let me see to it,
done enough for one day."
So saying, he draped his frock coat over a chair and rolled up his
sleeves, disappearing into his bedroom and returning with a rag
dampened at his basin. He went to his chemical table and
out a drawer of powders, selecting one and sprinkling it over the
cloth. I had no reason to suspect otherwise, for he was a
brilliant chemist, but it seemed that my friend was a man who knew how
to remove bloodstains, not merely identify them. He promptly
knelt on the carpet and set to work with a good-natured little frown.
"Watson, I need to exchange a few words with you," he said softly.
Such statements rarely lead to any good, and when he looked up at me he
saw what I was thinking. "No, no, dear fellow, nothing like
that. But I have been out making all necessary arrangements
our criminal prevention undertaking this evening, and as I want you
with me, I must regretfully inform you that your erstwhile beau John
"Is a scoundrel and an utter villain," I agreed, so relieved that I sat
down on the settee next to my friend's domestic chores. "And
only remains for you to tell me what atrocity he is about on this
"Ah, good," he smiled, his sinewy forearm flexing at the effort of
scrubbing our carpet clean. "I had not known whether you
harboured any sympathy for him."
"I am not a bitter man, but I would be mad to spare him any regard
whatever," I sighed.
"Tell me about it," he requested, "and you need spare him
nothing. It was in Scotland, I suppose?"
"How could you know that?" I murmured in astonishment, drawing my hand
over my brow.
"I know something of John Clay, you see--the invert, murderer, thief,
smasher and forger. Watson, will you fetch me a bit more
from that pitcher? Thank you. He is, as you said, a
man just as we are, but he's at the head of his profession, and I
should rather lay my hand on him than any other criminal in
London. He's a remarkable man, is young John Clay," he
drawled. "His grandfather was a royal Duke, as you doubtless
know, he himself has been to Eton and Oxford, his brain is as cunning
as his fingers, and he has cracked several cribs in Scotland, for he
knows the country intimately. Of course, he'd a tendency to
off raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the following week."
I was not concentrating on John Clay's criminal career by then,
however. "When you said," I ventured slowly, "about his
"No, I have never experienced John Clay's cunning fingers firsthand,
but I have heard tell," he smiled. "The world of London
is hardly limitless, more's the pity, and some of them talk more than
they ought. Now, my dear fellow, I do desire to know what
place for safety's sake, but rest assured I will not force the issue if
you say the word."
"It was in 1870," I confessed. "I was eighteen, not yet
with my studies in Edinburgh. I had long before taken an
in the medical world, for my grandfather was a doctor, but I was also a
keen sportsman, and the rugby..." Here I hesitated, for to
reflect on the days when I could still consider myself a danger to the
opposing team in any sport was painful, but I pressed on.
Clay played for Eton, you see."
"We never met on the field, but that was the way we were introduced," I
recalled. "He was visiting a cousin in our form on a weeklong
spring holiday, and he seemed to develop an interest in me.
first, we talked of nothing but sport, but one night when we were
chatting alone and altogether too late in one of the abandoned
"Go on," he urged. He had largely cleaned the smaller stains
was moving on to the darker, the one which was likely engendered by my
crushing the brute's nose.
"I was not inexperienced," I coughed. "I have always been
attracted to a certain type--quick-witted, sublimely intelligent in
fact, of a refined, imperious mien, and not the sort of man you would
term a queer upon sight, for they are far too dominant and
sophisticated. Perhaps you have noticed the preference."
"I have," he owned with a wry smile, "but I fear I cannot enjoy the
comparison. Pray continue."
"You are nothing like him," I agreed readily, "for his gentility is
merely a paper facade, but what I falsely admired in him was an
imitation of the qualities you possess in truth." For
knew John Clay would prefer to have died rather than to scrub a blood
stain out of a carpet, but my seemingly blue-blooded friend made the
task look so natural that John Clay appeared a mere fraction of a
man. "In any case, that night I was willing to begin
with him, if purely as a lark. I was very careful at school,
must understand, but that does not mean that I did not..."
"Enjoy all aspects of boarding school social life," he suggested.
"Well, yes," I said, blushing. "I have been like this all my
life, you see. So that night, when he wanted intimacy of
he was very persuasive, Holmes, rather masterful even at that age, and
a dashing fellow rugby man at that--I offered him something.
enjoyed it thoroughly, as a matter of fact. But on the
night, we met again, and he wanted more. What I had been
to give him the previous day, he said, was not enough."
"I see." My friend's voice had taken on a cutting, dangerous
"No, he would not have been able to compel me into anything even had he
tried," I said rapidly. "We both returned to our rooms, he
haughtily and I reluctantly a few minutes later. But you see,
next day he privately told his cousin, along with everyone else he had
met in my entire form, that if any of them fancied a ride, I had
expressed myself more than willing to be sodded by all comers before
the holiday was out, not to mention thereafter, and that he had tasted
as much the night before, and that I liked to pretend I was being
Holmes paled within half a second, his busy hands freezing, eyes raking
over me urgently, his fine lips parting in sympathetic
When he did, and I recalled some of the brutes at school in those days,
and what the admission sounded like to my friend, I could only thank
Heaven once more for how lucky I had been in truth. I dove
to the carpet to kneel before him on the other side of the blood, for
to be a foot away on the sofa was considerably too distant--he looked
quite ghostly with alarm.
"Nothing came of it, love," I interrupted before he could ask
"That is not possible," he snapped.
"Five rather serious fistfights came of it," I admitted, "but after
word spread that a thrashing would follow close upon the heels of
hounding me, they left me alone. And I myself departed for
University of London soon after. But that is not the entire
story. Shall I go on?" I asked, for my friend's knuckles were
beginning to appear very eager to be used upon something other than a
He nodded wordlessly.
"When three days had gone by and I remained yet undefiled--or undefiled
by the likes of Clay's cousin's friends, in any event, for I was
admittedly no virgin, the cousin himself made an effort. He
chap by the name of Robert Clay, another snobbish, self-important
blackguard, and I fractured his jaw. I thought there was an
to it, but one final incident took place thereafter, and the one I
think will most interest you. The next day when I was all
in the library, thinking to avoid everyone if they would not avoid me,
Clay came in with a little flask. I stood up on my guard on
instant I saw him coming, and made a lunge for whatever he held in his
hand. He hadn't anticipated my reacting so quickly, so the
was still stoppered, but between our both grappling at it, the loosely
plugged cork fell out, and a bit of the stuff splashed across his brow."
It was not a memory to which I returned often--he had screamed, and
dropped the vial, and I had reacted rather predictably by rushing for
water and a cloth. We had soon determined that it would not
serious wound, only a painful and permanent one, and because John Clay
could not begin to fathom why my instinct had been to help him despite
his despicable intentions when he had entered that room, he never
troubled me again in spite of the fact I had forever scarred his
countenance. In fact, he left the following afternoon for
and shortly thereafter when the term ended I myself departed for
London--still every bit as confused as he had been that I had helped
the man who wanted to see me humiliated and abused. But I
forgot that terrible day, and I never shall--the idea that an object of
desire scorned would stoop to such base levels of vengeance was
horrifying to me in the first place, and the justice in his device's
reversal of victims overly perfect to seem quite real.
As for Holmes, he was too shocked by the news that it was I who had
forever altered John Clay's face to dwell on his vile
was glad of it, for I did not relish the picture of Sherlock Holmes
ever laying eyes on John Clay again.
"He wanted to destroy your greatest charm, and so he thought to throw
oil of vitriol in your face," he remarked in awe.
I confess I wilted at this, for I had expected vituperation heaped on
Clay and not whimsical references to my former assets. "I was
then, by some accounts, considered to be--"
"What an imbecile," he laughed. "As if everything else about
does not at once declare you a superior creature in every
The moment you open your lips, everyone around you stops to listen, and
when others are speaking, they seek you out to be sure you mark
them. Have you noticed Lestrade doing it? His
simply priceless. I confess from your current dangerously
striking appearance, I had assumed before the war you must have been a
being seldom seen since the days of ancient Greece, saving the fact
you're far too blond for the classical climate, my dear fellow, but
only a rank fool could have thought your beauty your foremost
attraction. Of course that shallow scrap of a soulless coward
failed to recognize you yesterday--he never once saw you in the first
There have been times in my life when I have supposed it is not
possible for me to love my friend any more ardently, and on all such
occasions I have been proven dead wrong. Leaning forward over
dark wet bloodstain, I kissed him with my hand at the back of his head
and the scant moisture in my eyes safely retreating back from whence it
had come. When I made to pull away I found I could not and so
lingered, just brushing my softened lips over his own.
"My hands are covered in another man's blood at the moment, which I
confess dampening to the escalation of ardor."
It was a poor excuse to stop kissing a fellow in spite of his obsession
with hygiene, I thought, and thus continued, only resorting to speech
when I was out of breath entirely. "You thought to escalate
it? In what fashion?"
"The main of it has to do with draping you over that footstool there,"
he replied, nodding casually at the piece of furniture as he reapplied
himself to the rapidly diminishing spot. "But in the
shall tell you of our plans so that none of this night's events can go
wrong for lack of preparation."
So he told me everything--about the Coburg branch of the City and
Suburban Bank, about the scheduled arrival of our stupid but tenacious
acquaintance, Detective Peter Jones, about his earlier meeting with the
nervy and straight-laced banking professional Mr. Merryweather, and
about the tunnel which had been constructed all the while Mr. Jabez
Wilson was copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica. I did my
level best to listen to him attentively, for he kept shooting me amused
glances from beneath his black brows--but I confess that my focus did
not fully return to me until after he had dropped the rag in the pile
to be laundered and had thoroughly washed his immaculate hands.
The independent consulting detective, calm and competent through all of
the questions put to us by Mr. Merryweather, deftly buttoned his
peajacket and selected a heavy riding crop from the hall rack before
waving the banker and Peter Jones into a waiting cab that
We two followed in the second hansom. Holmes hummed snatches
the Carmen Fantasy, leaning back in the cab with his knee resting
companionably against my own as we rattled through an endless labyrinth
of gas-lit streets.
The huge vault or cellar beneath the bank, lined with crates, was as
earth-smelling as the underground. Mr. Merryweather perched
box, Peter Jones' eyes roving with placid care over the surface of the
floor where my friend had examined the stone with his lens. I
hidden behind a crate with Holmes, my revolver cocked upon the top of
the wooden case, just before my friend shuttered the dark lantern.
"If they fire, Watson," he said to me, his features grim, "have no
compunction about shooting them down."
The words chilled my blood a little, though I could not think him
capable of murder. I convinced myself that I knew what he
to say, calling the admonition mere caution in face of a dangerous
foe--but I wondered what Merryweather and Jones must have thought of
Holmes as they waited in the darkness, our nostrils full of the smell
of hot metal from the lamp. I confess that knowledge of who
coming to us from the other end of that passage was enough to work my
nerves up to a very pitch of expectancy, for all the depression of the
cold dank air of the vault.
And what a time it seemed! From comparing notes afterwards it
but an hour and a quarter, yet it appeared to me awaiting John Clay's
approach that the night must have almost gone. My nerves were
worked up to the highest pitch of tension, but when small sounds in the
darkness began to disturb me--the shift of a boot sole, the scrape of a
trouser leg--I forced them from my mind by listening to Holmes, the
gentle and wonderfully familiar breathing of my companion.
suddenly my eyes caught on a glint of light.
At first it was but a lurid spark upon the stone pavement.
it lengthened out until it became a yellow line, and then, without any
warning or sound, a gash seemed to open and a hand appeared; a white,
almost womanly hand, sickeningly familiar to me, which felt about in
the center of the little area of light.
When--with a rending, tearing sound--one of the broad white stones
turned fully over on its side, the light of a lantern streamed out and
a perfectly clean-cut, youthful, altogether amoral face
He drew himself out with a hand on either side of the aperture until
one knee rested upon the edge. In another instant he stood at
side of the hole and was assisting his decidedly red-headed companion
"It's all clear," John Clay whispered.
But it was not all clear, for Sherlock Holmes had sprung out and seized
Clay by the collar. Clay shouted a violent alarm to his
who vanished like a rat back down the hole save for the coat-tails
Jones clutched in his hands. Jones, for his part, dropped
the tunnel after his quarry, his gun now in his hand, while Mr.
Merryweather cowered behind a wooden box. Clay jerked himself
round to grapple with Holmes, their arms straining against one another,
and in a moment unequaled for agony I found my own weapon's sights
trained on the two of them together.
Then Clay twisted out of Holmes' grasp, thrashing like a trapped
snake. And worst of all, mine was not the only
Clay thrust one of his white hands into his coat and the light flashed
upon the barrel of a revolver. In another instant I would
shot him dead with a glad heart, but Holmes' hunting crop came
viciously down on Clay's wrist and he dropped the gun with a sharp
yell, a line of blood appearing. Relentless in his desperate
desire to escape our trap, he dove once more for the underground
My friend caught his wrist, pivoting his weight in a spin to bring Clay
to his knees. And then Holmes' crop came down on the man's
The first strike would have done it, for the scoundrel gasped in
agonized shock and bowed his head. But then my friend raised
arm again, his face grim but tight with precision, and the whip fell
soundly across Clay's shoulders for the second time. I saw
coat tear, and that blow produced a cry as loud as he had keened over
his bleeding hand.
Prior to that moment I had not had time to be afraid--least of all,
afraid of Holmes. But just as my wildly reeling thoughts were
growing too much for me, Holmes tucked the weapon under his arm again
and looked scornfully down at the shivering coward he had produced with
three blows from a riding crop, however meticulously savage they had
Peter Jones reappeared, within the hole. He looked
Even if he had not seen what was taking place, surely he had heard
it. There is no sound in the world like a whip across a man's
"It's no use, John Clay," Holmes said blandly, still peering down his
long nose as Mr. Merryweather emerged, shaking.
"So I see, you brute," the villain sneered. Now he was no
being actively beaten, his head was up and his eyes flashed.
took in both me and my revolver trained on him without a hint of
recognition. "Though I fancy my pal is all right."
"He's not," Peter Jones coughed, hopping out of the hole.
"There are three men waiting for him at the door."
"Oh, indeed! You seem to have done the thing very
Clay commented, flinching. He had raised his torso entirely,
though it looked to me to be hardly worth the effort on behalf of his
infernal, despicable pride--for few chaps can appear dignified whilst
on their knees before the man who has caused them to begin bleeding
through their dinner jackets.
Jones looked at Holmes, and Holmes raised an eyebrow in
Neither spoke, for I do not believe either wished to do so.
Peter Jones pulled his handcuffs from his coat and stepped forward.
"You'll see your pal again presently," he said. "Just hold
out while I fix the derbies."
"I beg that you will not touch me with your flithy hands," Clay
shuddered as the handcuffs clattered upon his wrists. "You
not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins. Have the
goodness, also, when you address me always to say 'sir' and 'please.'"
"Allow me to put it another way," Holmes suggested frigidly, lifting
Clay's jaw with the tip of the crop. "If you do not get to
miserable feet and accompany my friend Jones here upstairs and into a
cab waiting to take you to the police station, you filthy little
wretch, I shall consider it a request for six more strokes, and less
Clay staggered to his feet. I had seen him in severe pain
but never had I seen anyone in such a towering, vicious rage.
Stumbling on his first step but turning the error into a hateful bow to
Holmes, Clay walked quietly off in the custody of the detective.
Mr. Merryweather approached us, his eyes wide and shining with
awe. I noticed that he stood closer to me, and gave my
dangerous friend a wide berth.
"Really, Mr. Holmes," he simpered, "I do not know how the bank can
thank or repay you. There is no doubt but that you have
every effort possible, physical and mental alike, in the apprehension
of this fiend."
"I have had one or two little scores of my own to settle with Mr. John
Clay," said Holmes, his eyes glinting icily. "I have been at
small expense over this matter, which I shall expect the bank to
refund, but beyond that I am amply repaid."
"What would cover your expenses, Mr. Holmes?" Mr. Merryweather desired
"Fifty pounds," he replied.
Mr. Merryweather's jaw dropped, but then he very furtively glanced at
the hunting crop. After that, he peered back at me.
remained neutral--how, I cannot fathom.
"You can take gold for your pains now, Mr. Holmes, although that can be
rather heavy," he offered with a smile. "Or a cheque
you should prefer that."
I was, I will admit it freely, in a daze as we quit the doors of the
bank. Fifty pounds in French gold now resided in my friend's
inner frock coat pocket, which was surprising enough, but that was
nothing like the cause of my utter bemusement. There are acts
which explain themselves, and other acts which demand speech.
Holmes and I had walked together in silence for several blocks away
from the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank and Mr.
Merryweather when I could stand the suspense no longer. I
my friend into an alleyway between a pair of dingy red brick
buildings. Once out of the light, he leaned into me, resting
elbows weightlessly over my shoulders with his forearms against the
rough wall. His empty hand was soon cradling my face.
"I am sorry. I would stop walking with a crop or cane
you requested it, and carry my revolver for safety instead."
object in question he had rested against the brick. It took
moment to comprehend him, and then I did know what he thought to be
wrong, and I loved him for it.
"It was not the crop. At times you dragged it along surfaces
before, but not since I asked you to stop. Holmes," I said
slowly, "those blows you delivered Clay...after he dropped the gun..."
"You are most welcome," he responded, "although I cannot gauge my
contribution to your cause as being sufficient in light of the initial
It was true, then. I could not comprehend it. I had
informed a lover of some two days' standing that John Clay had once
tried to see me abused and maimed, and that same barely established
lover had horsewhipped him for it. My heart was beginning to
pound with a sort of animal pride, for men of modern England do not
behave in such a fashion. That sort of brutal chivalry hardly
seemed possible in the early 1880s, and my face must have reflected as
much, for my friend shifted a brow at me. He stood back a
leaning against the bricks with his palms instead of his arms.
"Do you recall, dear fellow, that business with Mary Sutherland--which,
although the law could not touch James Windibank, prompted me to remark
that if the lady had a brother, he ought to lay a whip across his
I did remember, for that had been one of the most arousing sights I had
ever been privy to in a life of considerable experience, Holmes tense
with fury gripping that selfsame crop in his hand, but remained stunned
and silent nevertheless.
"Well, you didn't think I was advising a course I was not capable of
taking myself, did you?" he demanded, smiling a little. "And
worse had befallen you, Clay would have gotten far worse from me, that
I can promise."
"I--but--you are not my brother," I finished lamely.
"No," he said, drawing the word out to lengths which a single syllable
had never before dreamed possible, "I am not your brother.
although I confess slight shades of fraternal attachment in your
company, I will never be a brother to you. That does not mean
your defense is not my sole business."
"I am not--"
"Just as you proved this morning that my defense is yours," he pointed
out. He had me there, I realized.
"But Holmes, there was a policeman present--he could easily have
brought assault charges against you!"
"I am known to Peter Jones," he shrugged. "We have worked
together, and he is familiar with my character. I appreciate
concern, but I do not find the possibility of assault charges weighs
very heavily against a question of honour."
"Well," I murmured, still utterly shocked but slowly recovering, "I
suppose now that you have defended my honour--after the fact, granted,
but with much more the romantic motivation than the fraternal, as you
yourself have made clear..."
"Yes?" he queried, again giving the word far greater space than it
"I suppose that I shall have to reward you."
"I don't think--"
"In the traditional manner, of course. I believe it tends
towards the erotic."
It was nigh incomprehensible, but he actually flushed. Then
dropped his head a little with his lips parted, hovering over mine at
an angle I was beginning to recognize as the most perfect mathematical
coordinate in all the world, and he waited until my mouth raised up to
meet his--in the darkness of an alleyway, in the heart of London.
"I use every man according to his deserts," he reminded me, his eyes
glowing brighter than the gas lamps when the kiss had ended--over and
done for in our time, but glowing in my memory to this day. I
would have liked to say Eternity recalls it just as well, but such
notions do not exist. "You did tell me that such standards
too often warrant a sound whipping. You need not reward me
being who I am."
"I know. That happens to be precisely the reason I wish to
you. Apart from your sense of justice, neither are you
slave, and so I will wear you in my heart's core--indeed, in my heart
of hearts," I answered him. "I am slowly growing to know you,
see. That is why I am going to reward you."
As the hansom pulled up in front of 221 Baker Street that night, I felt
such a depth of contentment as I had never experienced in all my
days. Holmes looked quite as pleased as I did, the now barely
visible flush nevertheless brightening his face in the
I descended from the cab, and then helped him out of it.
friend paid the driver I stood on the pavement waiting for him, staring
up at the window of our sitting room, the place that now seemed in
every way my home.
"Ours," I said when Holmes returned to my elbow.
"Ours," he agreed, smiling, "although Mrs. Hudson does retain some
title to it."
We walked up to the front door, my friend's set of keys already in his
hand. "Our doorknob," he quipped, gripping it.
The hallway was darkened and unmistakably rather drab, but I did not
care in the slightest. I wiped my boots on the little brown
carpet in the foyer our landlady had left there for the
The standing clock chimed the quarter hour--soon it would be morning.
"Our clock," said I.
Holmes dropped his crop into the umbrella bin, hanging his scarf and
hat on the stand. Glancing into the dim depths of the upright
mirror, he meticulously palmed a strand of his hair back into
place. "Our mirror," he remarked, adjusting the collar of his
"Our carpet," I agreed.
"Our foyer, come to that."
I began climbing the staircase. When I reached the sitting
with him and we had locked the doors, I would kiss him as he had never
been kissed in his young life, I thought happily. I would put
soul in my mouth and give him the keeping of it, as we stumbled back to
his bedroom shedding our clothing all the while. I would
him to me like a lifeline and make him understand that nothing he could
do in all our lives could ever cause me to send him away. He
would vex me at times, I supposed, but what a small price to pay that
would be for being owned by the best man in London--and in any event,
no matter how badly we wounded one another, we would never be lonely
again save when we were apart. And rewards would
Kneeling down, I would peel away the last of his clothing and take him
in my mouth. He would make love to me with the slow,
rhythm of a concert violinist, though in my weariness I rather hoped he
may have forgotten his oath of the previous evening, for the details of
that arrangement were proving deliciously exhausting. And the
next day, provided we could keep one another from harm, we would do it
all over again, and it would be the best pairing in the history of
"Our steps," I called back. "I wonder how many there are."
"Seventeen," his voice floated up, articulate and silken. "We
have seventeen steps, my dear fellow."