The dream always began the same
He was walking down a grimy London street with his back to me. His neatly fitted grey overcoat was buttoned and his collar was turned up against the wind, his silk top-hat on his head. Occasionally he wore lighter clothing, but it was December, so I was dreaming what he had worn to pay the Yard a call with me the previous day. The weather in the dream likewise reflected the true conditions I saw through our window that morning before settling into a bored, melancholy horizontal S-curve on the settee, so Watson was striding through pale drifts of snow, nodding good evening through the pale windows of familiar shops and once stopping to flick a coin at a beggar girl selling brilliant scarlet ribbons.
And I was following him, as I always was.
I never knew where he was going, only that I must keep him in sight at all costs and that with my particular skills he would never see me unless I desired it. On one occasion last summer I had flown after him through the Park in August invisible as a spirit, but that afternoon I was simply well-wrapped and as deft as I am in life. The snowdrifts which had been beautiful only that morning were already caked with grime. I recognized nothing, yet I knew precisely where I was. I could hear carolers blithely mutilating I Saw Three Ships, and strangely the shaky tune followed the two of us even after we had passed the ragged band of singers and moved into a narrower passage. Under ordinary circumstances, such blaringly discordant sounds would have scraped my nerves raw, for I am extraordinarily sensitive to auditory signals. But this was a dream. So I walked on, unhindered by the cacophony, all my thoughts on my friend.
Watson, broad-shouldered and easy of step, turned down a second alleyway. I should have taken greater care with following him down such a narrow space had I been doing it in fact, but I suddenly found gravity no longer applied to my person--or rather, it had re-oriented itself--and I continued walking along the upper reaches of the corridor's wall. And now that we were hidden from all eyes, visible only to cold red brick and colder snow and coldest of all the grey firmament above us, I willed him to stop just as I always did and he paused as if I had called out his name.
"Holmes?" he said softly, turning round.
I wandered a few more paces along the wall approximately six feet above the ground until I was just above his head and then knelt with one knee to the brick. The orientation was bizarre on that occasion, but the rest was exactly the same. I said nothing. I never do.
"There you are," he said, smiling when his eyes drifted up at last. "I was looking everywhere for you."
Now we came to the part which always occurred so very naturally that I marveled at it even when I awakened in a severely compromised state--or worse still, no longer a compromised state at all. I reached my right hand out toward his perfectly sculpted face and I kissed him. As it happens, and to no one's particular surprise, the angle at which you can kiss a fellow when gravity places you on a brick wall and him on the solid earth happens to be an especially deep one. The carolers were still clanging in my ears, but astonishingly I didn't care. The only things I cared about were the soft brush of his immaculate moustache, the pulse pounding in his neck beneath my fingers, the fact that his lips were bizarrely warm for having drunk in so much of London in the dead of winter, the ache in my chest which threatened to awaken me and very often did before anything else could take place, the quiet desperation of my breathing.
The dream could go in any number of directions from this point. Only once had it ever awoken me with a muffled scream, as I discovered my lips had burned horrible searing wounds into his features. Usually the predictable took place, and I made love to him in some fashion. These fashions were wondrously varied and encompassed acts I would be reluctant to name, let alone perform in an empty public space, as we generally did in these fevered visions. Once I pulled away from his lips when I discovered there was a wedding ring in my mouth underneath my tongue, and I handed it to him. Once he drew out his service revolver at the end of the passionate act and challenged me to a duel. Twice he clapped a pair of derbies on me, to which I objected rather less than might be assumed, and told me I belonged to him now.
Once I turned him in an instant into a pillar of salt. Sodom, which looked remarkably like London, was burning around our ears. I think I awoke with actual tears in my eyes on that occasion, gasping for air.
But no such dark thing happened that late afternoon. The wind through the alley bit at me, and yet I was not cold, for nothing apart from the task of kissing John Watson existed as of that moment. The carolers stopped, thank Christ. My left hand had just gripped his collar with an animal's raw affection when the sound of a door creaking awakened me and my eyes flew open.
The light had already faded considerably from when I had curled myself up to sleep through a dreary span of daytime. John Watson was taking off his gloves, his affable, square-jawed good looks only heightened by the cold.
"Never fear," he called out, turning to face the door as he shut it. "I have paid them, so the remarkably discordant purveyors of seasonal cheer have cleared off to darken another entryway."
When he rounded the settee, his agile mouth twisted into an apologetic curve. "I'm sorry, Holmes, I didn't mean to wake you."
Watson's golden brown hair was slightly tousled from his hat, his blue eyes brighter than a lapis-hued Madonna in a church window due to the frigid weather. His lips were reddened also, and a charming flush rested along his cheekbones. Stretching my arm where it had fallen asleep beneath my head, I shifted to greet him at least in posture if not in words, yawning, thanking fair fortune with all my heart that he had not been delayed by a few minutes longer. A delightful spectacle that might have proven. I pulled my legs in as far as I could, a friendly invitation for him to sit down. Finally I raised my torso and draped an arm languidly along the back of the sofa.
He did sit, barely an inch from my knees, still smiling ruefully.
"I should not have been asleep much longer--or if I had, I should have slipped into a nightmare," I muttered tiredly. "That mortifyingly out-of-tune choir had penetrated my consciousness. I owe you an immense debt of gratitude."
"I haven't any doubt you would have performed the same heroic act for me," he grinned. "Think nothing of it."
"You risked shattered eardrums at that proximity."
"It is not my habit to flinch from danger. In any case, they were blocking our door."
Blinking, I rested my head on my hand, trying to shake off the unguarded drowsiness which is caused by falling asleep in a warm sitting room in December. That quality of innocent haze was allowing me to stare at my flat mate in what for me was naked adoration. In another man, it might well have looked like mild interest, I grant.
"Sleep well otherwise?"
Such questions do not require a response.
"I had hoped you would drop off. Between our caseload and this weather...well, you've been seeming a bit frayed of late, my dear fellow."
We fell into a companionable silence there before the fire, for he knew I was only half listening. What he did not know was precisely why.
Some of the things I want to do to that poor fellow would make a hardened sailor blush for shame, but countless others are as adolescent as they are ridiculous. I want to press my cheek against his bare collarbone and listen. I never see his hands resting idly on the breakfast table but that I long to weave my fingers into them. I want more than anything in the world to say the word John, and over and over again, in a hundred different subtleties of sound, in the mornings and in the evenings and from behind a newspaper and dressed for the opera in a hansom and utterly bare of clothing. (There are some who call me unduly arrogant, but with my capacity to understand the music of words, I am confident I could say John very well indeed.) I am a grown man, and yet I want to curl up with my head in his lap and do nothing save listen to the rain thrumming against our windows. I want it to be raining for that exact purpose. On this occasion, my hand was actually lifting in the air in the direction of his cheekbone before I caught myself and smoothed back my own hair. It was a mess, of course.
"I told Mrs. Hudson to wait dinner. I'd a late lunch at the club, and you never eat before nine in any event."
"Watson, the subject of dinner does not interest me in the slightest."
"You really ought to humour the man who just saved you from a jews-harp, a pennywhistle, and four semi-inebriated...hmm. By the sound of them, I suppose they were basset hounds, though I cannot be certain."
The things he does to the very flow of my blood cannot possibly be set down in English. I could try French, but Spanish might do better. And the not-having-him was beginning to cause me to disintegrate at a cellular level. Or so it felt.
"Yes, I shall have to reward you at once, with such a debt of honour on my conscience," I sighed, awakening a fraction more fully. "And in doing so, I think I can kill two birds with one stone, by driving the remnants of the most unholy desecration of I Saw Three Ships I have ever experienced from both our minds. In fact, there is not a moment to lose."
I stood up. I stretched. I went to the sideboard and poured two brandies, passing one to Watson and leaving the other to rest there. I knitted my fingers and turned my palms out, pulling the sleepy cords of muscle. Then I bent in the direction of my Strad case.
"Is it possible to desecrate I Saw Three Ships?" Watson wondered, sipping his brandy. "The tune is already unbearable at the best of times."
"I had assumed the same, but apparently we were theorizing in advance of the facts."
My friend laughed. I picked up my instrument, practically the inanimate extension of my literal self, and tuned it softly. The moment I had finished, I fended off an onslaught of nerves. I already knew for an irrevocable fact what I was going to play.
It was the risk of my life, and I knew that too. But I felt as if I had no choice in the matter, thrown off my guard as I was every time I set eyes on him. Things had been building to a head for months now; I was indeed frayed past my capacity to endure; and I was yet relaxed enough to risk placing my soul on the sitting room carpet and asking whether he might care to have the ownership of the blasted thing.
The other pieces simply had not been powerful enough. If Mendelssohn's Opus 64 in E Minor did not accomplish my ends, nothing could help me save admitting to an impeccable gentleman that I am the world's most practiced liar.
Watson would understand. He had to. He knew me through and through and, while his perception of music is not the wildly comprehensive sort I both glory in and suffer from, his perception of me is profound. Uncanny, at times. And beyond his perception, his appreciation of my talents would work in my favour. It had to.
I was coming further unraveled every day.
Watson's appreciation of my musical ability, as a matter of fact and while I am on the subject, adds another element of dimension to an activity I had already supposed the definition of the word sublime.
Well, that is not quite right. Sometimes music is sublime, only sometimes, and obviously sometimes it is difficult and dangerous and disturbing. At times it haunts, and at other times it caresses. I've fallen feather-lightly to sleep listening to music, for instance. Yet sometimes it wrenches me from the inside out in a fashion which seems exactly halfway between a knife wound and a sexual climax. (I've experienced the former as well as the latter, and I know of which I speak.)
Explaining this phenomenon to my peers would be, for obvious reasons, an ill-advised exercise. No one wants to hear their lover or friend or acquaintance describe music as a benevolent succubus--no, that's disgusting, it would obviously be an incubus in my case--but in any event, it would never do to tell anyone that music flows within my entire body until I'm flooded with liquid sound. It sounds quite wrong. All I can state for a definite fact is that, whereas most elements of day-to-day human experience I can keep firmly outside the walls of my inner self, music seeps straight through my pores and into my bloodstream where it has its way with me. Why this should be, I don't know. Perhaps I trust music. It was the constant companion of my childhood, after all. But that seems facile. What I mean to express is that music, be it a soaring uplift or a wrenching ode in a minor key, crawls into every single one of my crevices--the spaces between the bones of my fingers, the crannies which separate my ribs from my spine, the very hollows of my skull. Perhaps that's why I play it so well.
But here lies my point: when I am playing music alone, it possesses me utterly. When I am playing music with John Watson watching, I am somehow able to possess it.
I took a breath and tucked my fiddle under my chin.
Mendelssohn's greatest violin work begins with the most sweetly longing melody. And the consequent is hardly less throbbing than the antecedent--by the time I had twice articulated it, nearly resolving though never reaching a true completion, there wasn't any difference between me and my violin any longer. It was a phrase said to have given Mendelssohn himself no peaceful quarter, gently fragmenting the inside of his head. And I pulled it into our sitting room with my bow that early evening in December, like a spirit of the wild woods beyond London summoned to a magician's side with an ancient word.
But at this point--whereas had I been alone I would already have been seeing abstract notes in three dimensions behind my closed eyelids or tasting the mathematical pattern in a spiraling seashell or smelling salt water in eighth notes--I was still myself. And the only other thing in the world apart from the music was him. Listening to me.
My playing has been called far too many things by too many people for me to detail in full. My top notes have been decreed lambent and my low tones lush. My mind is constructed with such a love of precision that someone once called my bowing so pristine as to be almost virginal, and yet my embellishments for the same piece were termed dulcet yet perplexingly cutting. We none of us ever know what we look like when we are playing, still less how those looks affect others, but a lover who happened to be a fine operatic tenor once told me I looked like two things when I played: how he felt when singing from Rodelinda, regina de' Longobardi, or else how I myself looked in the final two breathless seconds of an orgasm. Others have proven still more creative in their descriptions: a sound which opens like an unfolding sunrise was perhaps too complimentary to be believed. The abstract of the ripely sensual makes no sense whatsoever, but what can a man expect from a Russian critic? Fully, deeply felt but demented nevertheless was one of my favourites.
That early evening, I took every single element of myself and gave them all to my friend.
I passed through tenderly held sustains of simplest perfection into brilliant washes of semiquavers. My high notes were light as gossamer, glowing like candle flames, and I seemed to be breathing through my fingers. There is a modulation into G major like rapids flowing into a lake, and, as we fell together into the shimmering water, John Watson and I, I could have sworn the notes were touching him. Merest mistlike ghost whispers on the backs of his hands, some of them, and then during the cadenza a waterfall of pure sensation from his hair down his spine. I don't think my hands have ever put as much raw courage into a sword as I did the ricochet arpeggios leading to the closing, nor have I ever in my life touched any man's body with as much passion as that music was tearing from me. And then, miracle of miracles, the final passage within the rippling coda hovered so gently through my fingertips that I may as well have left the earth behind entirely.
Save that John Watson was still here.
I stopped at the end of the first movement because if I didn't glance up and see what his face looked like in that moment, I thought the world might possibly end.
Watson likewise opened his eyes. He did not quite seem to know where he was any longer. Neither did I, for that matter.
I stared back at him. Say something.
He leaned forward with his hands clasped, his blue eyes shining, and all I could think was beautiful. So beautiful.
"My dear man, you have an incredible talent," he declared gravely. "I have never heard anything like you before in all my life. You are to be congratulated."
That was the wrong something.
And I wasn't to be congratulated at all, for I had my health and my art and my career and none of it mattered. Congratulations would be merited when I had him too. I take the crown for the greediest man alive, I don't doubt, but then I can do nothing by halves.
I set my violin back in its case with a nod. "Thank you." I looked at the clock. There was time. I could escape him yet, if only for the evening. I dove toward my bedroom.
"Holmes, where are you going?" he called out.
I slammed the door, though I honestly hadn't meant to. Then I went to change my clothing, cursing the day I met the man and cursing myself for an arrogant imbecile at the same time. After digging a little, I had everything I needed. Ivory cravat, pure silk waistcoat the colour of porcelain, sweeping black tails. I dressed very carefully and ran a comb through my dark hair. I looked...well, I looked effective for my purposes, but only if he chose to notice. Then I swept back into the room, ignoring his surprised stare, and went for my violin case.
"Holmes, where on earth are you bound dressed like that?" Watson smiled. "Buckingham Palace?"
"Out. Do not wait up for my return, dear chap."
"Is it a matter of some importance, then?" he asked, concern creeping into his tone.
"I really cannot be expected to provide detailed diagrams of my activities for no purpose other than to satisfy the idle curiosity of an indolent pensioner," I drawled as I donned my greatcoat. "Farewell, and best of luck finding another source of entertainment for the night."
The sensation a man experiences when his mouth is saying something his brain produced and his conscience finds basely horrifying is not unlike the feeling of a priceless vase slipping through one's fingers to shatter on the ground, or (as once happened to me during a winter in my childhood) breaking through a sheet of ice one thought solid as paving stones. I cannot say more about it other than to mention that it is worse than either of these, infinitely more harrowing in fact, and that every time I bring it upon myself I hope before the initial shock of pain hits me--and it hits me as squarely as it hits my target, that much I know in my bones--that it will be the last time.
It never is the last time, unfortunately. It never will be the last time, either, until the week or so before I die.
I was out the door before I could register the hurt on Watson's face. As I tripped down the stairs and into the city, I realized for the first time that my motives were more confused than even I had been aware.
I was fleeing more than him that night. I was fleeing the man I became in his company.
It was all my own fault, of course, but how to undo what had already been done some two years before? The gold sovereign on my watch chain glinted under a gas lamp against the shimmering ivory cloth. A reminder of my accursed precautions. A token of friendship, yes, but also a symbol of the heartless automaton. A coin to pay the calculating machine.
Penny for the Guy? I thought ironically, and made a sharp turn through a darkened mews.
Cabs were plentiful, but the bitter air stung my cheeks and I deserved it, so I kept walking. I strode through streets of brick and streets of granite, past the sable branches of the Park, with the rough kerbstones beneath my polished boots and my fiddle tucked under my arm. The small and private concert hall, when I reached it, was lit like a celestial Christmas tree. By small and private, I mean to write a euphemism for exclusive and opulent, and they had outdone themselves in its construction. But I ignored the white flare of candlelight beyond the marble columns at the front of the tiny palace and steered myself backside to the artists' entrance.
Two dim, bare hallways took me to a staircase, and the staircase took me to the pit. A warm, dusty, oily, ashen scent of footlights filled my nostrils. The ensemble for the evening's performance was a small one by the looks of the music stands, but I had expected that, for I knew precisely who the featured artist was to be. The musicians were still arriving singly, rubbing their fingers, having left their coats and gloves in the impossibly cramped green room upstairs. How it is possible for some of the finest opera houses and concert halls in the world to forget that musicians also appreciate open rooms and adequately stuffed furnishings is beyond me, but a truism nevertheless.
"Sherlock Holmes," a reedy voice said tragically as its owner descended the last of the steps.
"My dear Ambrose," I smiled, saluting him. "You are reprieved."
"Get out of here," Ambrose growled, adjusting his cravat as he approached me. "I need the money. I don't care what you sound like, or what you are thinking, or what you are to her, whatever you are. And I don't care where you've been all this time either, for I've seen your name often enough in the newspapers. Move along, you, before you begin to test my patience. Go on, shoo. Get away from my chair."
Ambrose Smith is a short, sniveling, oblivious, vicious-tempered, dense sort of fellow with side whiskers and hazel eyes which never, ever look at you while he is speaking. In addition, he is a brilliant violinist, although not nearly so brilliant as I am. (His clarity of articulation may be on par with mine, and his range of tone quality is admirable; however, his spontaneous immediacy is sadly lacking.) He is intensely unlikeable. But he is easily dealt with.
"Suppose they don't pay me," I mused. "Suppose they pay you, and I don't say a word. All I require of you just now, my good man, is your absence."
"You're off your head, and I've always said so."
"Here is what I propose: you spend the night at your leisure, wandering the streets of our fair city with a comely lass on your elbow or some such thing, all the while being paid to be here, with this additional pound note from me in your pocket. What do you think of it?"
Charles Hendrickson, the older but quietly sweet-faced second chair fiddle for the evening, sprung open his case while affecting not to be amused by this negotiation. But I could see in the angle of his neat blond eyebrows that it amused him considerably. It is difficult not to be fond of Charles, for he is a wonderfully decent man despite an affection for finger slides which has always left me a little baffled.
"Just because you're in love with her doesn't give you the right to order me around," Ambrose observed nastily.
Charles snorted softly when my eyebrows reached approximately the level of the exquisite crystal chandelier high above.
"Well, it doesn't," Ambrose groused. "And anyway, she's married."
"Yes, I noted and docketed that salient fact on the occasion of her wedding day," I agreed. "In person."
"Ambrose, just where have you been all these years?" Charles put in doubtfully.
"What do you mean?" Ambrose questioned.
"That's Sherlock Holmes you're speaking with. On the subject of a married woman."
I sighed, examining my fingernails idly. "The only topic which ought to be on your mind just now, Ambrose, is deciding what variety of sport you will hit upon once you have ascended those stairs and passed through the hallway and are taking your ease in the heart of London. With five pounds in your pocket. On a personal note, I can heartily recommend Bunburying, or the playing of backgammon, or any number of Greek pastimes, though on second thought perhaps you ought to think of something less...overtly social in nature."
Charles was smiling by this time at my string of filthy encoded suggestions, but Ambrose had grown a bit purple. "You think I don't know an indorser when I see one? Even if that sod has taken the back passage with half the mandrakes in Christendom--"
"My blushes, sir," I interrupted.
"--and he likely enough has done, that doesn't mean he's not obsessed with her," Ambrose hissed at Charles, thoroughly annoyed.
A new tactic was required. A far colder, not to say crueler one.
"Jealousy does not become you, my good man," I said coyly.
"Jealousy?" Ambrose spluttered. "Well, if that doesn't take the prize. Of all the--you're--"
"Yes, yes, yes, go on. What would you care to call me? I've always thought the term barber's chair quite effective for conjuring the image of a well-used piece of live furnishings. But what you'd like to say is that she won't be overjoyed to hear me playing in your stead. And I'm very much afraid, my dear Ambrose, that you can't."
Ambrose should never have brought up the subject, unfortunately. I am allowed a thousand liberties in her presence he is not, but I am not the first-chair violinist who happens to be in love with her.
"You've always been mad for her," he snapped, colouring. "Just admit it! Why else would a sane, reasonable man work for no pay?"
I satisfied myself with a roll of my eyes in lieu of response, for--knowing Ambrose's gambling woes as I did--it would have been rather uncharitable to say that the last thing I needed in the world was more money.
I ought to mention here that the same absolute secrecy I maintain about myself in police, legal, social, and professional circles is matched in an orchestra pit by the perfect candour of a man who knows he is safe from all harm. The depravities which are habitually discussed in orchestra pits the world over could whiten a weak man's hair. There is security in numbers, and in art, and in fraternity--and in any case I could never have hidden it from them completely, for I've a tendency to treat lovers as if they were pocket handkerchiefs. Prim and bigoted as he was, Ambrose was right about me. But even Ambrose Smith has his noble qualities, even apart from a first-rate attack and a flawless left-hand pizzicato; had a policeman ever asked him a question regarding my predilection for offenses against the person, he would have replied in a heartbeat that Sherlock Holmes was a madman about whom he knew nothing, and that he only desired to keep it that way.
We musicians take care of our own, and it doesn't matter a whit whether or not we like them.
"Who ever said Sherlock Holmes was a sane man?" Charles asked easily. "Or a reasonable one? And when have you ever won an argument with him, even before he took to practicing logic for a living? Now, do toss off, Ambrose, there's a good fellow. You're only wasting your own time. I'll keep your score when he's through with it, and give it back to you tomorrow."
At last, with an exceedingly disgruntled cough and several venomously muttered remarks regarding being cudgeled about by a lobcocked Mary when he was only doing his job, Ambrose made himself absent with five additional pounds in his pocket. I seated myself and leafed through his pages. They were jotted with all his personal scribblings in atrociously crude handwriting, but no matter. When I found what was to be my first effort for the evening, my heart positively skipped a single beat--a lost spasm of muscle, never born, swept away in a stately progression of notes. It was even better than I expected. Simpler, and altogether wonderful.
I cast a happy glance at Charles. He merely sniffed, although he was smiling too. "Why you are such a fool for this cantata is quite beyond me. Although I'll be the last to deny that she does it justice. I suppose that's why you're here tonight, after all this time away from us?"
"For Bach's early religious musings?" I asked innocently, pulling out my bow.
"No, I mean to say--Ambrose talks nothing but bollocks, the poor besotted wretch, but surely you're here to play for her again?"
"Blasphemy. I am here exclusively for you, Charles my darling, and your divinely rich finger vibrato."
He chuckled. "My vibrato, as you call it, belongs to Annie and Annie alone, you grossly flirtatious pinchcock."
"Charles, why must you insist upon breaking my heart each and every time I see you?" I lamented blithely. "I could butter all the buns in the world, but lacking yours--"
"If you are going to be loathsome and inexcusable, you will leave me no choice but to cause you physical harm. After I have heard you play it again, of course. To break your arm beforehand would be a ghastly waste." Charles winked at me almost imperceptibly.
We tuned briefly when we were assembled. The conductor arrived. He raised an eyebrow at me, but then he shrugged as if it made no difference to him. As indeed, it didn't, for he knew me well enough. No sane person complains of substituting an excellent violinist with a masterful one.
Applause above us, then, for she had arrived. Something about the lights shifted, or perhaps it was only my spirit stirring, and underneath the clapping of the audience above me I imagined the susurration of a silken train, the whisper of lace as she nodded and smiled and bowed. I lifted my beloved fiddle as Charles did the same, eying the the slender conductor's hands. He breathed in, his shoulders rising for our benefit, and in that instant before the music started, something within me left the earth just as it always did. I could feel us living, we two violinists, and the violist, and the cellist, could feel us about to commence something divine.
Then we began to play the title aria of Widerstehe doch der Sünde, and nothing beyond the reach of our sound existed any longer.
The chord which begins it is an uneasy dominant seventh, utterly untamed, the sound of all the guilt and present sorrow and yet-unhatched vice in the corrupted currents of this world. Then a melting cadence, a steady uplift. We set off stately and slow with the cello throbbing through all my organs. The lilting phrase of the very first measure whispered in prophecy of what was to come, a generous little melody falling into steadily repeated quarter notes, and those notes anchored us to the natural world in a perfectly straight line. Without those notes, none of the rest would make sense, but they sound like a call to a lover who lingers inches from your embrace. Afterwards we were twisting and binding, flowing and following, caressing before abandoning, inside and around each other in the most intimate act I had experienced in many months. The polished legato phrases were carrying me upward inexorably, and I felt a dazzling ache in the depths of me at the loveliness of it. Widerstehe doch der Sünde is not a difficult piece to play, in fact it is very simple, but oh how I adore it--the painful stillness of my sustains as the melody bowed under me, the playful interludes of synchronous harmony in which we all came together, the moment when I was the one soaring through the night sky above the rest, the rich pulse of the viola and the thrum of the cello, all echoing one another until I didn't know where I ended and a very young Bach strolling through Weimar with Heaven in his head began.
This account takes us exactly ten bars in--after ten bars, she began to sing, and I closed my eyes for a moment to simply breathe it.
She is a contralto, by nature as well as by profession. Where a countertenor lends an air of floating light to the piece, her voice mingles earth and satin and honey and blood. I could taste them when I heard her. The muscles of my arm sent harmonies to entangle themselves with the notes in her open throat, our sound as artful and yet elemental as a snowflake, and I think in that instant I loved her. It was a lament but not a confession, it was the meaning of symmetry matched with the continual threat of imbalance, and she was the sinner caught in the maw of the world.
Hold steadfast against sin, she was singing. The German filtered sketchily through my mind. I still haven't reached a perfect translation. Poisonous are its delights.
Never a truer word sung, of course, but when has foreknowledge stopped a genuine sinner? And I am a genuine sinner if ever one was born on God's earth. A man who is, as a wiser fellow than me once said, to double business bound, neglecting everything he ought to hold most dear.
An empty shadow. A whited sepulcher.
I knew that voice so well, and yet suddenly it was not her voice at all--she was all of us, falling to the ground torn to pieces with bloody desire, the simplicity of the melody the only thing that kept my heart from breaking. Even the fairest sort of transgression, she was saying, was an empty void.
It is the apple of Sodom...and those who are with it united shall never reach God's heavenly realm.
At least, I thought during a shimmering rest and for the five hundredth time since I had first tasted Sodom's irresistible forbidden fruit, I knew what I was in for.
I have never been ashamed of who I am, in the strictly carnal sense. It is a vice in me, doubtless, that my natural instinct is to cherish my vices and not shun them. But one pays for one's pleasures in this world, so I cannot help but think the same principle applies in the next. And I am far crueler than anyone I would ever allow to savour an eternal reward.
Her voice, richer than melted gold, sank into minor deviations as she warned us all to no avail against the designs of Satan which tarnish the glory of God. I do not believe Satan exists--even though I have seen him with my own eyes, staring back from the faces of scores of murderers and predators and turncoats. Hell exists, surely, or there is no justice in creation, but men are evil enough without diabolical otherworldly assistance. But I do believe in God, even though I have never seen Him. I believe in Him because of gifts like her voice. Strange perhaps to disbelieve in something I have seen personally while giving full credit to the invisible, but I was never given the choice of how music would make me feel. Long-held notes floating above the strings faded to piano and then grew into a rolling vibrato which pulsed out of her frame like her heartbeat. When she flitted from note to note I mirrored her in counterpoint, when she flew from branch to branch I sustained long caressing tones, and when I fell silent the others were all around me.
We repeated the theme in a darkly intricate degradation of its first clean song, rife with accidentals and the pitfalls of the everyday. And then she was singing again, and our sins were what bound us to the world. Our atrocities made us all the same.
Sin was our gravity. And music the only thing stronger.
Prayer is an exhaustive waste of my time; there is nothing honest I can say to Him of which He is not already aware. As for being dishonest and flattering while my thoughts remain below, words without thoughts never to Heaven go. But what of thoughts without words? Surely something of the purity of grace I feel when my violin translates for my spirit reaches His ears in spite of my transgressions, or whereto serves mercy? As we glided to the final phrases, it seemed almost possible.
As if I was flawed, hopelessly so, and yet somehow...intended. As if I belonged in the world.
I had pure peace for a moment, when it was over.
We moved steadily on to the next movement. But not before I caught Charles smiling at me with a wondering expression, shaking his head as he deftly turned his page.
"Say hello to your Annie for me," I whispered just before the start.
"That I shall," Charles returned. "She'll be forever sorry not to have heard you again. God knows I would have been."
I mingled backstage briefly with Charles afterwards--and with Mutton, and David, and Pitch-Pipe, and Marcello, and Ribbon, and Pierre. I felt twenty years old again, and my all too serious troubles surely belonged to someone else. The professional violinist enjoying a drink with his colleagues of many years after a fine performance surely could not have called his dearest friend an indolent pensioner mere hours before. We shared a bottle of tepid champagne and made short work of another in that dingy little room, and then I stood to my full height and lit a cigarette from my case.
"She was marvelous," Pitch-Pipe squeaked. "Tell her we said so."
"Completement, tout a fait magnifique," Pierre added, swinging his champagne glass emphatically. "Suggest to her please for me that I one day die in her lap."
"I think you've suggested that a number of times before," I observed mildly.
"Women relish repetition," Marcello boomed, opening a fresh bottle of something dubious he had produced from a bag in the corner. "Trust me. They eat repetition like caviar."
"Oui, exactement ca," Pierre agreed. "Please do so kind as to tell her again, Sherlock. I will have your debt if you make any progress for me."
"I don't suppose that Sherlock has changed his mind about allowing me to die in his lap, come to think of it?" Ribbon wondered teasingly, the bright green ribbon which harnessed his spectacles fluttering as he moved his oboe case away from Marcello's enthusiastic pouring. The liquid appeared to be gin. "Just a little death is all I ask."
"Do you mean to say you haven't already?" Mutton wondered. "That's frankly shocking."
"Ribbon, you are well aware that Tristan would have me by the bollocks within ten minutes, and I don't fancy falling afoul of a high court judge. I shall tell her you all adore her, then, shall I?" I smiled, turning to go as I donned my hat.
Cries of Yes! and For the eternity! and To our deaths! followed me as I tripped up the staircase. There was one dressing room with some style in that gilded little music box of a concert hall, and it housed the shining gem of the evening's programme. The hallway was bare enough, but the air was warmer here. There was a good fire going in her chamber, I had no doubt, for she would want to change before returning home or going out for the evening. Stopping myself from simply opening the door, I knocked.
"Do come in," she called out in response.
When I entered the prettily decorated alcove, the diva sat on a long low sofa, resplendent in sapphire taffeta, smoking a small cigarette languidly. The fire was blazing but comfortable, and it cast a warm orange wash over the perfume bottles and sprays of hothouse flowers. Her deep brown eyes darted coldly to meet mine.
"If it isn't Mr. Sherlock Holmes," she said frostily. "You have a nerve, coming here, sir."
"Mrs. Godfrey Norton," I replied, sweeping my hat off my head. "I can only reply that I desire nothing better than to make amends."
Mrs. Irene Alder Norton, upon first glance at her, is for an instant quite angelic in appearance. By angelic, of course, I do not mean innocent, but powerfully, blindingly beautiful. After that first glance, however, Irene looks like a mere mortal again, or she does to me: a lovely heart-shaped face, its freckles hidden under a hint of powder, a mind sharp as a scythe hidden in turn behind the fair face. With my predilections, I am at liberty to cherish things about her other than her face and her eggshell decolletage...and so the feature I like best is the golden flecks in the brown pool of her eyes which remind me I am in the presence of someone every bit as intelligent as I am. Her dark amber hair was pulled up into a complicated arrangement, her lips blushed with champagne and song, her determined chin at a most unwelcoming angle.
She scrutinized me in silence. The woman is exceptionally good at silence, very nearly as good as she is at sound. So a long pause, followed by, "I find that difficult to believe."
"Set any price, and I will exceed it, you have my word. Now, what have I done?"
Irene blinked in disbelief for a moment, but the warmth of my declaration must have affected her. Expertly, she raised an eyebrow.
"You've entirely disappeared for...let me see...very nearly six months," she replied, putting out the cigarette in the porcelain tray at her elbow.
"My caseload might be an effective excuse, but I know you would see through such a prevarication. As it happens, I am simply miserable and avoiding all sympathetic human contact. Because you are the most sympathetic and charming of all human contact ever recorded, I have avoided you especially. Now, do hurry up and forgive me and begin our conversation again the proper way."
I thought for several seconds that she was truly too angry to comply with my request. Then she shrugged her shoulders, cleared her throat, and turned into another person entirely. Still Irene, but the Irene I had known nearly ten years before.
"There you are!" she cried, smiling broadly as she threw a hand out towards me. "Of course I knew it was you from the very first note. Had you not come to see me, I should have been quite heartbroken."
I went to her, lifting the balletic hand and running my lips over it. "Mrs. Norton," I smiled.
"Was that better?"
She threw her arms around my neck. It was not the sort of thing I would be able to tolerate from many people, but from Irene physical contact is not merely tolerable but very comforting.
"We were always going to be famous, the two of us, and now look at you!" she laughed. "I hear of you everywhere since Dr. Watson became your chronicler."
"I'm no more famous than you are," I demurred.
"Oh, my dear boy, I am not famous at all. I am infamous, which is quite a different story. I'm tremendously proud of you, in any event, even if you have abandoned me. Tell me what I was doing all the afternoon. I made seven stops, and I want you to recite every one of them."
"Apart from your tailor, your tobacconist, and your new solicitor, I can see nothing."
Stepping away from me, Irene slid her warm hands down my arms. "Not my dressmaker?"
"No, I said your tailor," I smiled. "I don't suppose I should have noticed as quickly if you were still lying in state over there, but you aren't wearing stays."
"I could pretend my diaphragm prefers it, but by this point in my career I could probably sing from the inside of an iron maiden if it was required of me. And so I will own that you are entirely correct." Irene dropped into her dressing table chair tiredly, pulling rings off her fingers. "Would you like a drink?"
"I just have done."
"That is a very poor and not very relevant answer," she smiled. "And from the look in your eyes, I believe you are about to make the implication that I am somehow intoxicating enough without aid, and perhaps make romantic suggestions on your colleagues' behalf. Do refrain."
"Well, if you don't care for flattery any longer, what can I do for you in its stead?" I laughed.
"Help me with this, will you?" she murmured absently.
Softly, I went behind Irene's chair. I have not the slightest, smallest stirring of sexual feeling toward her, have never done toward any woman, but she admittedly brings out the feline in me: a desire to gentle, to caress. All that milky skin, on this occasion still more of it revealed by the dramatic v-cut of the back of her sapphire evening gown, a tasteful circlet of diamonds round her neck. She had wanted me to remove them, so I undid the clasp and then handed them to her. When the whole of her neck from hairline to mid-spine was exposed, I ran my fingertips down it softly. She shivered. But I didn't want to return to my seat, so I remained behind her, reaching with subtle fingers into her hair.
It took a moment, but she relaxed against the back cushion of her velvet chair, watching me in the mirror as I collected pins. One, two, three...I was methodical about it. I always am, about her hair. It is a thing of considerable beauty, after all--a great coil of auburn waves, shining like the brightest days of October, and she is justly proud of it. I confess myself something of a sensualist, whether the topic be music, or the rich salty depth of caviar, or the cut of an artfully made dinner jacket (such as the one I was wearing), and Irene's hair is no exception. I started at the crown, where her maid had swept it up into a stately arch, gathering pins amid the amber waves as if I was turning tiny keys. One strand unlocked, then another. I felt my mind beginning to clear, as if I had been already half an hour deep into Eastern meditation. She held a hand up, and I placed a small group in her palm.
"It's bad tonight, isn't it?" Irene asked me, her voice sure but gentle. "Whatever have you done?"
"Not a thing in the world," I replied. "There is nothing I am more practiced at accomplishing, in fact, than nothing."
I met her eyes in the mirror. One of her arched little brows had raised. "Are you truly planning to spend your entire life pining for someone who resides twenty yards away from your bedroom door?"
"Yes. Stated in that light, it does not sound precisely ideal, but apparently yes."
"Why apparently?" Irene can catch the subtlest of my phrases and demand I explain it, a remarkable talent. "So you did make some sort of overture?"
"Your choice of words is amusing, my dear girl, for the overture did literally take musical form. As a matter of fact, I have recently discovered that when I play my fiddle and he is in the room, I cannot stop myself declaring my body and soul his twin slaves. Unfortunately, he has not...noticed."
"Sherlock," she smiled, "not everyone can speak the violin."
"Ah, but he can, or I shouldn't love him in the first place."
A piece of her hair, on the front left side, had come entirely free in a lustrous rope. I carded my fingers through it and placed it over her shoulder. It was light as featherdown, one of the very few soft things about Irene, along with her skin and her heart. The rest is carved of alabaster. There was a complicated circle of braid to manage next, as I tried to slip the smooth little invaders away without dragging them across her scalp. I love working with my fingers--an unbreakable combination lock will do for a workday, or a delicate chemical experiment, but Irene's hair is worth a month of Sundays thinking about it. There is scarcely anything more delicious to a man with severely heightened senses than acts as simple as locating and removing a finite series of pins.
"Do you wish we had never fooled him, then?" she asked next.
There lay the crux of the matter, of course. Years before, I had come by a new flatmate.
John Watson was handsome, and though exhausted and feverish he was also wonderful. He was all the notes of my violin spun out into the perfect constellation of melody, twisting through me like a Chopin phrase. Unfortunately, I had quite sworn off the softer emotions at the time, only talking of them in concert with a gibe and a sneer. And I was also a coward who had absolutely no intention of ever falling in love with anyone ever again, let alone with the man who was beginning to be my dearest friend. So rather than trust myself not to make a mistake, I had engaged my theatrical friends in a ruse. Watson had thought he was taking part in a ruse, all right, but a ruse directed at Irene. He had been mistaken. I had retained a photograph, and a plausible story about a married woman who would haunt me for all time, and he had believed me. I would have time, I thought, to recover from the surprising fact of him, and all would be well. All was not well, as it happened.
It was easy to convince Watson I was fascinated by Irene, for I am. But only in the sense that I am fascinated by the religious music of Lassus or interested in solving bizarre salt derivatives. She is a friend and a puzzle and an artist.
Pretending she could be more than that was no harder than pretending to be a brain without a heart.
As for Irene, she had wanted to get married. She had wanted very badly to marry a charming barrister called Godfrey Norton, and she did not mind in the slightest fooling Watson while she did it, as a favour to me. I was still witness at her wedding, as she had long insisted. The bride's best man. Had I known then what I do now, I could have saved myself years of dreaming the same dream and thus laundering my own nightshirts, and Irene...well, I could have saved Irene a great deal.
I wish on occasion--very rarely, I grant--that I were less clever. The scheme had worked to perfection. The one moment I had thought our plan nearly ruined was when I laid eyes on our ridiculous friend Bartholomew in his nightmarish King-of-Bohemia getup, but Watson understands music rather better than he does fashion, bless his boundless heart. Otherwise that scarlet-lined cape...dear Heaven above, and when I think of the fur-topped boots, and the yards of trim, and the sheer amount of pomade the man had been wearing, I would dissolve into fits of laughter if I were capable of such in my current mood. I may be an invert, but Bartholomew is a pillowman.
"I could certainly find it in my heart to wish that we had never fooled him, if I supposed that I would prove any decoration to the man, but I do not."
"Are you in earnest?"
"Of course of I am. I am always in earnest. I have been since I was fourteen," I teased her, with a joke entirely too off its colour for a lady. What of that? She knew me as a reed-thin fiddle player wandering Europe, as queer then as I am today.
I found a starflower nestled in among the pins where no one could ever have glimpsed it and carefully removed the blossom. Had she been expecting a lover tonight? Godfrey was a cad and a bounder, and I had vowed to thrash the hide off him the moment he set foot in London again, but I knew him to be nowhere near the city. Never mind. If she was expecting a more useful sort of man than I happened to be, she would tell me. I tucked the flower in my buttonhole and set myself back to the solidity of the pins.
"But surely the situation is impossible," Irene argued.
"The situation may be impossible, but it's also deserved. You have no notion the sort of tortures I put that fellow through as it is, Irene."
"Some notion, perhaps, of the tortures."
"It's uncanny," I mused, drawing my nails through a newly freed lock. "I have never loved anyone like this, never, the sort of love that Baroque operas are written about, and what do I do? I torment him at every available opportunity. I am out at all hours, when I know he worries for my safety. I am abrupt with him at times--churlish, inelegant, and that is not even who I am."
"You've always barked orders at the men you admire," she observed. "That conductor in Salzburg, do you remember him? With the devastating moustache and the soulful brown eyes? You demanded he mark your entrance more clearly. I've never seen anything like it--he was very nearly dead of apoplexy ten minutes into the first rehearsal."
"But he marked my entrance more clearly, and I made it up to him afterward," I replied dryly.
She laughed gaily, and her laugh as always reminded me of how very American Irene is. It was not a polite titter meant to acknowledge the speaker, nor yet a suppressed exclamation as our decorous females tend to do, but a laugh. Irene's merriment is as much a satin-throated explosion as it is anything else, and a laugh quite infectious in nature. Nearly an enviable one--mine is as silent as the grave.
"So," she sighed when she was through, "you are an utter cad to him, out of habit if not inclination. How does he respond?"
I frowned, not only at the question but at a tangle I had discovered nestled in the depths of all that artistry atop her head. The day I hurt her taking down her hair is the day I resign the position permanently.
"He possesses various defenses. He ignores me. He laughs at me. He returns my fire, although in such a gentlemanly fashion that it always turns out he has never said anything out of turn. And finally, he fixes me with a look as if to say, 'I know you do not like to hurt me, so I am at a loss to know why you should insist upon it so frequently.'"
"That's amazing," she murmured.
"Yes, I know he is."
"No, what you just managed without training as a ladies' maid--it hurts dreadfully to take down a fashionable snarl like that, when Cecile does it."
The first time I took down Irene's hair had been on a train, a journey between Vienna and Paris on an operatic tour of La donna del lago, and a mistake had been made about sleeping cars. We were fast friends by that time, and so affected not to be sleepy at all, preferring to drink in a private sitting car and watch the lights of the towns fade and talk of music all the night through. I was twenty, Irene nineteen. We were sharing a cigarette at four in the morning when she began rubbing at her temples in exhaustion, and I simply leaned over and began taking it down. I think it was the greatest liberty I have ever taken with anyone, but she knew even then I was no threat to her. In fact, she made a point of ribbing me over the lovelorn dandies I had been abandoning from town to town, congratulating me that my approach would be unlikely to lead to any unexpected heirs fifteen years later.
"What of you?" I asked, not really desiring a new topic but aware that one was required. One cannot wax on about holding an eternal torch for a man who resides forty feet away from one's own bedroom for longer than ten minutes without feeling entirely ridiculous--and I had truly missed Irene. "Any conquests?"
"One," she said with a strangely wistful smile. "Of the Sapphic variety, for the first time in...oh, years. Is it years now? And this...this, Sherlock, will shock you immensely."
"You revealed to her the jealously guarded secret that feminine hysteria treatments could be come by more passionately than a visit to a neurologist?"
"Yes, of course I did," she smiled, "but I found myself...not begrudging, precisely, never that, but...damn it, what do I mean to say? What I wanted wasn't her, when it came down to the fact. Her attributes were never in question; barely five foot waifs of the Musetta type I find endlessly charming, particularly when she is fluent in Czech, of all the lovely happenstances in the world, but there was an inexplicable...weariness to it all. Perhaps I find I have reached a point in my life when I have very little desire to teach anyone anything."
"Admittedly, that is not what I expected you to say. I have never known you to flinch from beneficial carnal instruction."
"I was in the mood to be owned, and I wasn't," she said softly. "It wasn't her fault. Sometimes one would prefer to hand over the reins a bit."
"I am past distinguishing separate erotic moods," I admitted. "It has been over six months, after all. I would probably accept the advances of a French poodle if it were groomed deceptively enough."
"Whyever has...six months?" she asked, blankly shocked.
"Because one doesn't go out in search of a new umbrella when what one requires is a roof over one's head. Or at least, the thinking man cannot manage to stomach it."
"Do you know what I think?" She looked down at the surface of her vanity, and then back up at my ravens'-head countenance in the mirror, pale and aristocratic and now that I noticed it, terribly sad. "I think the Doctor loves you."
I was silent. Silent for too long for Irene not to smile at me.
"Why, don't you think he loves you? See the way he follows you, the sort of dangers you lead him into, and he questions none of them."
"He may well act as if he harbours some affections for me, to be sure."
"I am right, then, and your problem is solved."
"Irene, even if you were right, what the devil does that solve?" I demanded acidly. "Suppose he does not love me, and I tell him the fix I'm in. He is shocked, he thinks it over, he recovers, he offers his hand in friendship to me, and he slowly but surely leaves our home--feeling for my situation but finding it impossible to make me a positive answer, he departs, knowing my mind will ever tend toward his...charms. Heartbreaking. Suppose he does love me? Suppose he accepts my offer, knowing nothing of the sort of life I lead or the consequences it could have for him, blindly following me out of a misplaced platonic attachment?"
"The sort of life you lead?" she laughed. "It's the same life, Sherlock. Yours and his. Twenty hours a day, if not more, between the fact of your cohabiting and the fact of your remarkable gift for detection. You are only talking about the addition of four hours."
"God, but those four hours," I could not help but sigh tragically.
This provoked a long, throaty laugh. "Poor little darling."
"It happened in the very first glimpse I had of him, if you can believe it. That was why I went to you for help in the first place. He has a face that a man might die for."
She grinned. "I must admit to you, when a being of that quality appears in my view, I take notice. The first time I saw you together, I supposed your current residence a Heaven, not a Purgatory."
"It'll be Hades itself if I don't do something about it soon. Those four hours will be the death of me."
It might seem strange, our talking about such things together. A gentleman in a sordid and dangerous profession and an artistic lady of questionable background, pondering the deeper mysteries of sex. Theatrical people are of a different breed, however, and Irene and I of a still different breed from that. The first time we had such a conversation, it had been my doing. Irene had spent two full days casting her lovely almond eyes at the strapping managing director of the opera house we had landed ourselves in, without any sign of impending success. Then I had, in her full view for a lark, dropped my pocket handkerchief of all things. Once I had thanked the gentleman for its return, I joined her in the alcove stairs leading up to the fly system and the huge painted backdrops. "That, o Goddess of the Feminine," I had said, "is how it's done." She couldn't look at my pocket handkerchief for a full week without laughing, and after that we made considerable hay out of the "divvying up of spoils." I only wished the current topic were so trivial.
"Those four hours could surely be improved if you weren't acting such a callow suitor."
"I'll ruin him."
"Why should you ruin him, if you love him?"
"Because of who and what I am, and who and what he is not," I replied, smiling ruefully at her. "But I need not pretend to you that my motives for remaining silent are entirely altruistic. The other half is pure terror."
"But why should such a kindly fellow as that frighten you?"
"For the same reason," I sighed. "Because of who and what I am, and who and what he is not."
The crux of the matter was, whereas I am defenseless against the whims of music, John Watson seemed to be defenseless against me. I am his Achilles heel, whether he loves me or not. As such, knowing my own volatility as I do, I have come to see myself as something of a hazard where he is concerned. An unsheathed weapon which could easily maim a man I would die for in a heartbeat, if only he asked me. It was a neat level of hell, and if I had believed in his existence, I would have congratulated the Evil One for his creative irony.
Irene frowned, but not in disagreement. She was merely thinking. "I see the same gentility in him that you do, but I would term it strength and not weakness. His innocence is the pliable sort, I think, a kind of natural resilience against the dark. I know you to own a shadowed side, my darling, but you would never exploit him, knowing it is there."
"I already have done."
"By allowing him to see that I need him more than anything in the world. That is a heavy chain, Irene, when presented unasked-for. That's what I've done."
"I would wager that he does not see it as the great burden you do," she said in a peculiarly soft tone. "Your needing someone is...I don't know if you realize it, but for a man of your independence to need anyone is quite wonderful. I think so, at any rate."
For a moment I could think of nothing to say. Irene drew a melancholy little breath. It confused me, but I didn't want her to see it. So I reached up and tugged at a pair of ivory combs, and then my fingers were lost in a cascade of auburn, gushing in innumerable satin ripples down over her slender back. A mind like mine lives for moments such as these--when what was once a mystery, an impenetrable knot, is suddenly untied and the strands lie before you. Every separate piece visible, the origins and the ends made clear. Smiling, I handed over her combs. And even then I lingered, savouring the tactile reward in my fingertips of a problem solved.
"Irene," I ventured, "do you ever think of hell?"
"Life with Godfrey, you mean?" she answered coolly. "Not unless I see it. It has nearly faded entirely, I am happy to tell you."
"No, no," I hastened to say, drawing my fingers through the tighter waves at the nape of her neck, "not the man who resides safely distant in Marseilles and whose satisfaction I would demand on the instant he set foot in Lille and so much as glanced at a seaworthy craft." She smiled at me, a thank you, and I continued. "I mean damnation."
"What has damnation to do with a champion of justice?"
"Nothing, I suppose, but...do you never wish to be different than you are?"
"Oh," she sighed. "Yes. Yes, I do see what you mean. And yes, I...often wish that. It was cantata fifty-four that did this to your mood, wasn't it? I know how you are when Bach worms his way into your blood. Well, dearest, they do say you can ask forgiveness and all will then be quite magically well again."
The snide tilt which sprang to my lips was not directed at Irene, but at myself. "May one be pardon'd and retain the offense?" I inquired.
Irene's eye had wandered away, however, looking at nothing in the vicinity of her vanity table. Suddenly she gripped one of my hands, my right hand, and brought it palm facing outward to the side of her face before letting it slip through her fingers.
"You needn't worry about hell, Sherlock Holmes," she whispered. "Hell is living in solitary confinement. And you, my friend, are not alone."
"I've upset you," I said quickly. "We'll talk of--"
"No, let us continue to talk of you," she suggested with a laugh that was almost a groan. She let her head fall into her hands for a moment, elbows resting on the vanity, and then she rose to her feet and turn to face me. Mrs. Irene Norton, dressed as if for a ball with her hair falling helter-skelter round her shoulders. "I have no advice to beg of you in return, after all, for I know how to live my life. So let us talk of you for a while longer, and see if we make any progress."
"I find that the act is inconvenient to you," I protested in what was genuinely more concern than the parody of it.
"What might I be doing at this very moment that you are inconveniencing?" she cried, her voice shaking. "Drinking champagne at a gala? Listening to callow beaus who want to be taught how to suffer for love? Lying in my bed watching the earth revolve? Do any of those things sound preferable to you? No, let us get back to the true topic of conversation, which is you, has always been you, from the instant you arrived."
"Irene, do stop this."
She gripped me by the lapels. "Make me stop it."
In an effort to steady her, for her weight was slipping God only knows where, my hands went round her waist.
"Remind me where we left off," she demanded violently. "Oh, yes, you were in love."
"None of my deliberate doing, I assure you," I snapped, badly startled.
"I know just what you must do," she whispered through her tears. "No, don't speak, I beg of you. Grant me only that, if nothing more. You must go at once to Covent Garden--"
"Irene," I pleaded.
"Mark me!" she cried, shaking me by my dinner jacket. "You must buy three dozen hothouse roses, only the best variety, the exquisite sort we always used to tease one another over finding in our dressing rooms. Spend a fortune. That shouldn't be difficult, considering the time of year. Make certain every stem is perfect, every petal pristine. Take them home to him. When you open the door and you find him there, do not give them to him--lay them all at his feet. Spread them out a little, kneeling. When you have done that, look up at him. Don't speak at first. Then say--"
"Stop it now," I ordered, trying only to keep a steady hold of her.
"Say, 'Ask me for anything on earth.' And then--"
"Irene, why in bloody hell would you ask me to propose to John Watson in the exact same fashion that Godfrey Norton, curse him for an utter villain, proposed to you?" I demanded.
"So that some good might come of it," she gasped. "So that you don't end up like me."
When the tears fell in earnest a moment later, she did let me hold her. But not for long. After a minute had passed, she pushed me gently away and went back to her vanity table, passing a silken kerchief over her eyes. Then she folded it, looking at me once more in the mirror.
"Life is tempo, Sherlock," she said quietly. "You live it at various speeds and urgencies, and the only thing worth wishing for is that you live the right one at the right time. Look at me. I am allegretto grazioso, have been all my days, and it will never avail me a thing. I am a happy person who is unhappy by purest accident, but what of that? So be it. Now, you, on the other hand, are living vivacissimo, and con brio at that, so as not to fall apart when you stop. You have to change it, Sherlock. Change it for me if not for yourself. Join the Doctor in his cantabile, if only for interludes, and be happy with him. You think slowing down at all will drop you straight into hell, but it won't--and even if it does on occasion, he will be there with you. Tell me you will change your tempo, my darling, and that you'll do it tonight."
"I have never before even attempted such a thing," I said to her helplessly.
"Then I shall put it another way. On the next occasion you come here, Mr. Holmes, I need you to belong to him. Will you do that for me?" she whispered.
I think I stopped breathing for a moment. I hated myself for it, but I could not help it any more than an animal can control flinching away from a fire. This was wrong, in every way, and in an instant of panic, I could only ask myself how much of it was my fault.
Irene walked, swaying her perfect curves, over to a dressing screen in the corner of the room with a Japanese scene of cherry blossoms painted upon it. She was behind the barrier for two minutes, facing away from me. When she emerged, she was utterly bare.
I knew in my mind she was exquisite even as my tastes screamed otherwise. The curves of her breasts were supple with candlelight and shadow, and the gentle arc of her thighs mysterious and sweetly simple all at once. It had been literally years since I had seen the nude figure of a woman, and I was surprised by how comely she was in an abstract sense--pleasing in the most elemental way, like the fall of a French phrase or a patch of bluebells in the woods. The quality of Irene's skin is the sort you sometimes see in medieval paintings, a pale virginal translucency although Irene is no virgin. One can see that she is not. There is a nearly invisible lash scar just above the jut of her hip bone on the left hand side. She walked straight up to me and put a hand on my chest.
"Forgive me," I asked her.
She nodded. Her face was horribly expressionless. Then she smiled at me, or tried to.
"I already have," she said. "And anyway, there was nothing whatever to forgive. I am fond of everything you are, and the things you find beautiful make you Sherlock Holmes. I only grew used to your needing me, a little. That's all. A bad habit when one is alone--but you are a man who understands bad habits, and so will pardon me in turn for having missed you so while you were gone."
Irene went to a wardrobe and began pulling out pieces of men's attire. They were all tailored to fit her frame, but they hid her femininity wonderfully, and her curves were slowly hidden away from me again. A pair of drawers. An undervest, tighter than any man would wear it, hugging her torso. Black trousers, and the rounded swell of flesh entirely disappeared. A shirt of sky blue that suited the richness of her coloring beautifully, and her bosom was gone. A waistcoat, a collar, a cravat expertly tugged into place and then fixed with a pearl in the mirror. Reaching for a loose ribbon, she tied her hair back, and I wondered what George Sand must have looked like dressed very nearly as Irene was now--walking the streets of Paris thinking feverishly of Frederic Chopin, dismissing cold reason "deliberately and with a sort of frantic joy." When Irene returned to me, she stood on the tips of her booted toes and kissed me on the cheek, very much like herself again.
"Just as a temporary and frivolous measure this evening, I would pay a thousand pounds for you to be fooled by this costume," she said coyly.
I was startled into laughing, which pursed her mouth in amusement. She reached forward and plucked the starflower from my lapel. I had forgotten it was there. She tucked it behind her ear.
"Irene, will you tell me one thing, even if I don't merit the confidence?"
"Provided it is not the name of my tailor. There ought to be one man in London more dashing than you are on the streets, and I fully intend to remain that personage."
I hesitated, but I had to know. My curiosity is a living devil and I am well aware of it, a monster just as insatiable as sin itself. Sometimes I wonder what lengths I might be driven to in order to ascertain exact data, and I shudder at myself.
"Before you married him, did you love Godfrey Norton?"
Irene's warm brown eyes peered at me for a moment as if she were very far away, perhaps in another world entirely. "I love him even now. What a damnable, vile--you spoke of hell a moment ago. Well, there we have a still better definition for the word hell than solitude. If I were to see him again in the flesh, the wretched creature, I don't even know that I could--"
"But you never shall," I assured her. "See him again in the flesh, I mean to say. That is where I come in."
When she smiled that time, it dawned on me that it was the first instant she had felt truly pleased since the moment of my arrival. Or perhaps valued is a more apt word.
"Let us roam the night free as the wild forest wolves, bound only by our honours and the limits of our invention," she suggested, linking her arm with mine as I reached for my hat and she did the same. "Separately, of course. Hunters such as we two do not trail their prey in packs. Although once, when I was in Milan, I met with the most delectable trio--two young actors in a touring production of The Tempest, one with an Italian belle on his arm who didn't speak a word of English, and after sharing a bottle of brandy we--"
"Trade secrets," I admonished her with a single finger tapping my lips.
"I knew you hadn't drunk enough champagne."
When the chill of the night surrounded us and the door of the music hall's side entrance had closed, we slowed our pace as we walked toward the street beyond. The little amount of snow which had managed to fall in that narrow space was improbably white for London, a rare swath of virgin ground that sparkled in the moonlight. I caught the drape of my watch chain in my fingertips, clasping the gold sovereign, and I lifted it in the direction of Irene's eyes.
"I wouldn't wear this if I didn't truly need you, you know."
"Buy the roses and do as I say this very night," she commanded all too hoarsely when we reached the pavement. "Promise me."
"I promise," I replied.
"Then ravish him until he has forgotten all language save the word 'more,' and you've--"
"For mercy's sake, desist, my dear girl."
Bending down, I kissed her fingertips.
"Goodnight, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," she smiled as we turned in opposite directions.
The weather had turned altogether freezing as I turned back towards the main thoroughfares. I bought the three dozen roses because I had promised her, but I gave them away one by one. A lady with a foxfur hat, a gentleman with a lavender cravat, a girl in a short cape. They thought me drunk, perhaps, but I didn't care. I didn't want them in my house.
In our house.
All the time I walked, I thought it through.
I still had over a dozen blooms in my hands, having dropped several upon doorsteps to provide the occupants with pleasurable mysteries, when I heard an unmistakable sound. It was the sound of a good violinist playing a very, very bad violin.
This particular violinist was so skilled, in fact, that Schubert's unmatchable Serenade reached my ears rising and falling and entirely intact. And suddenly I was the same as the waves in the Channel far away and the arch of the bare tree branches and the white flakes which were beginning to fall from the sky, and I caught my breath when I could manage to employ any of my muscles usefully. The flute embellishments were singing in my head from memory, but before I was accosted or robbed, I managed to pull myself together and seek out the player.
He was twelve, if even that. He stood on the corner of two wide streets not far from the edge of the Park, under a gas lamp, playing a battered instrument without so much as fingerless gloves on. Only a thin coat with discernible holes under the arms. I went over to him and set the remaining roses against the wall in the snow. He stopped.
"You won't keep those long, settin' em down that way," he observed.
"You can sell them, if you like," I replied. "I don't need them."
His grime-ringed eyes squinted darkly at me. "Now, see here, Mister, I'll play another for you and gladly, but I ain't one for--"
"Nothing of the kind," I said firmly. "I only wondered if I might join you for a brief while."
The boy's eyes lit on my violin case and he granted me a wry smile. "Not too keen on home and hearth just now?"
"I cannot quite stomach the notion yet," I granted easily, pulling out my own instrument when he comprehended I meant him no harm.
"Had a row with her, did you? You oughter keep the roses, then. That says pax better than most anything."
"My da used to bring daises some summers," he shrugged. "When he still came round."
"And it worked, you say?"
"Like a charm. Before he'd had a drink, anywise," he added.
"Back to the Schubert, then," I sighed, "whilst I consider it."
I think we played for an hour, all told. Serenade is what I recall best, for that was one of the loveliest duets I have ever participated in, but we went on afterwards into Handel and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen and six or seven music hall tunes. When the boy's hat was full of money and his fingers looked blue enough to fall off, I sank down to my haunches to put my Strad back in its case.
"If you ever require a somewhat warmer occupation, I am often in need of assistance," I said, looking into his eyes. They were green. They flared with suspicion again at this remark, but I forestalled it. "To be honest, it's mainly reconnaissance work, although you could as easily call it spying. You needn't give me your name, but tell me, my good man, can you read if I write something down for you?"
"Why would I want to read something from the likes of you?" he challenged, his eyes flicking away abashedly.
Still hovering near the ground, I found a pencil stub and drew a simple sketch in my pocketbook. I tore out the page and handed it to him.
"You see the Park, where the trees are?"
He nodded reluctantly.
"And the grid of streets? In what street is that star with the three numbers writ next to it, do you suppose?"
"That's easy enough. Baker Street."
"Well, that is where I live, and my name is Sherlock Holmes." Rising, I offered him my hand. "Farewell, my good man. Thank you for your company."
I was ten steps away when he called, "You've forgot the roses."
"I haven't," I smiled. "Consider them my payment for Serenade when you sell them." I tipped my hat to him.
I was twenty further steps along when he blurted, "Cartwright!"
I stopped again. All the money was safely stowed in his pockets now, the roses in his arms a promise of considerably more, and the hat back on his small head.
"Tom," he added, coughing and then drawing his sleeve over his mouth. "Tom Cartwright."
"It is my very great pleasure to meet you, Cartwright," I announced.
And then there was no good thing to be done for him save only walking away.
I hastened my pace. There was not much left to consider by that time, and I was nearly home. Time enough, however, to wonder whether the five minutes' journey remaining was sufficient to work out the way the universe was constructed, so that I could better guess whether I might be granted my heart's desire if I asked for it prettily enough. Time enough for panic. And time enough also for an inkling of relief that it would all soon be over one way or the other, even if my life was finished. The simplicity was appealing.
Either God was merciful to cruel men, or He was not. That was all there was to it.
There are those who know me who would laugh to think I believe in God or Fate or what you will. But that is because they pay me too much attention when I speak. I may not think often about the solar system, may in fact make childish and flippant remarks about it, but nevertheless I know it is there. As for a Clockmaker, I grant I cannot see Him. But both science and art inform me daily of Him, and while I have devoted my life to the former, the latter rules my soul. There are so many things in this world which could not exist save in the presence of a benevolent Mind. The flowers. Bravery. Climax. The candour of children. These doubtless all exist for scientific reasons, as Darwin has proven, and yet from them one can easily deduce an artful Presence behind the practical value. As for art itself, there are five separate composers who have utterly convinced me there is a God, and ten more that at the very least there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Art is not necessary for life to exist, and yet it has been given to us. And how many other superfluities, how many sacred extras, can I list? Laughter. Mortality. Empathy.
Forgiveness from a loved one when a man has made an unforgivably stupid mistake.
I turned onto Baker Street, staring at the snow caked into the windowsills. So few steps remained to be taken, so very few, and yet how difficult every one of them was. I should not have been surprised if I had fallen through the pavement, I felt so heavy in my own skin. Then my key was out and a moment later I was inside.
A light shone from the upper storey through the crack below the door.
I made it as far as the banister rail before I gripped it with both hands, my brow falling to meet the newel post. I stayed like that, just breathing, for nearly two minutes, I think.
Slower. It won't hurt you.
I breathed, through my nose like a swift and silent predator, and tried harder.
I exhaled, my fingers clutching the wood with a passion.
There, see the difference? You are still here. Allegro moderato, now.
I made my mind a deliberate blank for three entire seconds before it flew back to him.
Better. Be still, be still, be still. Allegretto. Good man. Now moderato expressivo. Please. If you can only reach--
The door above me creaked open and I could see Watson silhouetted in the firelight. When he glimpsed me, his head tilted in concern automatically before it returned to a more distant attitude of lingering anger. Then he came a few steps forward, reaching out to touch the identical newel post above me. He didn't say a word.
I placed my foot on the first step. I think it was the hardest thing I've ever done. By the time I had nearly reached Watson's level, I thought I was going to explode with the severity of my nerves, but all at once he stepped down to meet me and I arrested my climb. I gripped the banister rail. We could neither of us see each other very well, in the dim spill of light from the sitting room fire. Nevertheless I could discern every particle of his being, for I had studied them all so devoutly that I would know them in the pitch dark.
"I am never going to Heaven," I told him.
Watson had been two steps above me. Now he stepped further down, and in that position he was precisely my height. Our eyes bored straight through one another, and I could feel the very breath from his lips. My friend's hand reached up to catch at my shoulder.
"My dear fellow, whatever can you mean? Are you all right?"
I shook my head and took his hand off my shoulder. Once I had it, however, I did not give it back to him. I held it with both my own, running my fingers over his palm, trying to breathe. Our bodies were very nearly touching, and I know the fabric of my waistcoat brushed his lapel.
Those four hours. I would give anything on earth for them.
"I didn't even know you believed in God, Holmes."
As it happens, evidence of His existence appears before my eyes nearly every morning, I could have said. At around nine, usually. I never mentioned it to you.
He smelled faintly of sage and the cigar he had been smoking. I would give up eternity itself for those four hours. Bach had the music that coursed through his brain, but I knew a still headier paradise than that. Bach, I fear, was not nearly so enthusiastic a sinner as am I.
"For mercy's sake, Holmes, has something terrible happened? Please say something. I never met a nobler man than you in all my life, so I can at least assure you that you are wrong to--"
"I'm not going to Heaven, my friend," I insisted though my throat seemed to be malfunctioning. "I am a rogue and a liar and a coward and--oh, countless other things. But what I meant to ask you--I think, very probably, I could have my piece of Heaven here with you. In London."
Watson stopped breathing.
"Here I could be pardoned, and yet retain the offense," I added.
He gazed back at me, perfectly still.
"I wouldn't deserve it," I continued blindly, looking down. "But Christ, how I would try."
John Watson's other hand came up to still my caressing of his fingers. He waited, for an embarrassingly long period, until I finally managed to look him in the face once more.
"You already told me that earlier this evening when you played your violin, didn't you?" he inquired.
"Yes," I whispered.
"How extraordinary," he murmured. "I thought I only heard what I wished you were saying. Forgive me."