by Katie

"And you are positively certain that you cannot manage it, even if Mrs. Delacorte's necklace turns up before Friday morning?" 

Sherlock Holmes, looking up at me from what appeared to be a very comfortable position, curled in a ball with his head cradled on my stomach, shook his head once more.

"I am afraid it is out of the question," he replied, drawing his dressing gown over the pale leg which had momentarily escaped its warmth.  Despite the blazing fire, his bedroom window would persist in sending minuscule cold draughts through the woodwork, and as my friend was wearing literally nothing else, I had no doubt that he was half-frozen.  "Even if I had managed to learn anything from the grocer this morning, I would still be obliged to work out why the devil the front door should have been found unlatched."

"Yes, yes, it is most peculiar.  Necklace missing from locked safe, in locked room, front door inexplicably unlocked and open.  I am just trying to ascertain whether you will ever, before both of us fade back into the primordial ashes from whence we came, have time for a holiday."

He chuckled at this pronouncement.  "You speak as if that date were fast approaching.  I am not even fifty."

"Well, I am," I sighed, "and of late I have been feeling far older.  I feel rheumatic and listless and in dire need of a respite of some kind.  Of course, this appalling weather has not helped matters."

"Dear me," he smiled.  "Let me assure you of two things.  First, I would drop all and sundry and escape to the south of France with you at once if I could manage it, but you know perfectly well that even if I had Mrs. Delacorte's necklace in my hand, Lestrade's mysterious arsonist is still at large.  And second, although I must dash back to Streatham tomorrow morning, I will meet you at the Turkish baths at three if you give the word."

"I do give the word."  I peered down at him, weary and cross and amused against my will, for he seemed, as was often the case after certain particularly vigorous physical activities, to be nearly asleep.  "Holmes, do get inside the bed and not on top of it, if you will.  You are doing my diaphragm little good."

He pretended not to have heard me, and indeed his breathing was now so regular and low that I nearly believed him asleep.

"Holmes?" I asked more softly.


"Shall I go with you to Streatham tomorrow?"

"In this weather?" he drawled.  "In your condition?  I should not advise it."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, my dear fellow.  Are you going as yourself or as that rather disturbing Ostler?"

"Ostler didn't unearth much," he yawned.  "The husband is monstrously in debt.  They have put off paying their staff for weeks at a time, but there are two new horses in the stalls.  Peculiar."

"I repeat my original question."

"As myself.  With you," he murmured.

"Then kindly get under the quilt and off my torso so that I may snatch a few hours respite."

He did so at last, in an elegant little roll.  "I could retire, you know," he quipped.

"Good heavens, no," I laughed, though the very thought of such a thing had startled me back into wakefulness.  "You will do nothing by halves, will you?  I bemoan the fact that we have not had a proper holiday in a ludicrously long period, and you can think of no better solution than retirement."

"It is, at the very least, a thorough solution," he shrugged.

"Rather in the way of killing a fly with an elephant gun."

"The fly is dead, nevertheless," he murmured.  In another moment, he was entirely asleep.

I did not give more than a fleeting moment's further thought to our desultory conversation regarding leisure and ways to come by it until that summer. It was late June to be more precise, just as the trees were beginning to regain their verdant summer cloaks, when in an unfortunate showdown with an American of that type so aptly known as "gunslingers," I was grazed in the left leg. Luckily, as I have described elsewhere, my injury was slight enough to be characterized better as trench-like depression than as an actual bullet wound, and I thanked my stars more than once that Holmes had reflexes quick enough to pistol-whip the ruffian before he could even so much as fire a third shot. If this tale, set down in my most private journal, hinged upon the harm done to my limb, it would begin and end within two lines, for the damage to my body was unextraordinary, even minute. Sherlock Holmes' reaction to the event, however, marched in direct opposition to its severity.

"All right, then," he sighed later that afternoon, when we had deposited "Killer" Evans at the Yard and I had gingerly made my way up the stairs, "into the bedroom and let us take a look at it."

"Holmes, it is nothing," I protested. "I told you before." I had been moved beyond words by the degree of concern he had expressed over my welfare, but no less was I disconcerted by it and eager to ease his ever distressingly active mind. While Sherlock Holmes was by no means a fragile individual, he did on occasion suffer from a hectic and single-minded concentration of thought, and having learned many years previous that an ounce of prevention was worth several pounds of reconstruction, I wanted nothing more than to have done with the incident for good and all.

"I need hardly tell you that the slapdash bandaging we found at Garrideb's residence is very likely to fasten itself tenaciously to your leg if we don't see to it." He had already physically steered me into his bedroom, and stood peering at me curiously. "Surely you will concur with my layman's diagnosis."

"I can take care of it myself," I stated. My friend stood, however, all six feet two inches of him, staunchly between me and the door.

"Are you belittling my talents as a medic? Simply because they were dormant heretofore is no reason to think they are not exceptional," he smiled, removing a small medical kit we had once or twice used for emergencies from its drawer. 

"Yes, you are annoyingly apt to shine brilliantly in all arenas.  Now, leave me in peace."

"Sit. Disrobe."

"My dear fellow, I assure you it is only a scratch."

He narrowed his eyes at me and crossed his arms with a rueful expression. "Whatever meager charms I possessed in my late twenties certainly seem to have fallen off sharply in the past few years."

"Why would you say such a thing?"

"Because it has never taken me half this long to get your trousers off before."

"Very amusing. I am fine," I proclaimed. "Let it be. I'll have a bath after dinner and fix it up then. Holmes, for heaven's sake, why are you looking at me like that?"

"I am just deciding whether I shall next pursue a far more direct form of argument, or a far more oblique one. Without any offense intended, you will admit, no doubt, that I am your superior in physical strength and training in unarmed combat. That would be the fastest way. But I could also attempt to get them off under false pretenses, which idea has its merits, for you would likely still be speaking to me this evening if I chose the latter course, while the former--"

"For God's sake, man, have done," I sighed, unbuckling my belt and sitting on the edge of his bed. There were very few ways of stopping Sherlock Holmes when he was wrong, let alone when he was right. I was by that period intelligent enough not to oppose him when no logical argument could be made against his will, as emotional arguments were inevitably destined for even swifter destruction at his hands. The scratch had begun to throb dully, and his notion that it would stick if not dressed properly was in every way accurate, after all.

He dropped to his knees at my side and began, with hesitant but deft fingers, to remove the coarse gauze we had used, which had indeed begun to fasten itself to the clotted blood. It was the work of three solid minutes to get it off, and by the time he had at last managed it, the gash was bleeding again.

"That looks painful," he said in a tone of mock congratulation.

"It isn't."

"My dear boy, do me the incomparable favour of not making completely asinine remarks to me just now. Of course it is painful." He cleared his throat and dipped a cloth in the basin by his bed, returning at once to his kneeling position on my left. "Why didn't you want me to see it again?" he asked quietly as he began cleaning the injury.

"Because it causes you more pain than it does me, apparently."

"Ah," he murmured.

"And because it was rather distressing for me to see you so...distressed," I added lamely. "Sherlock Holmes, after all, does not show emotion lightly."

"You mean the chap in the Strand who darts about apprehending criminals with his withering intellect?" he asked with a grim little smile. "I have read about that fellow. I would not cross the street to meet him, I am afraid."

His words shocked me nearly as much as the searing pain had that afternoon. I made an effort to catch his eye, but his grey gaze remained determinedly fixed upon his task.

"Holmes," I said softly, "you know they're only stories. They keep us safe enough to--"

"Stop," he commanded. He wrung the cloth out into a bowl he'd produced. "I know they do. You can write me down an ass, a cad, a reasoning machine, whatever you like in those tales of yours. It is utterly immaterial to me. I am very like him, after all, and I know it. I am sorry I am not less like him, for your sake. I show nothing lightly.  But where your life is concerned, do permit me to express myself rather more freely."

I stared at my companion, momentarily breathless. "My dearest, dearest fellow, a nick on the leg is not the slightest threat to my life. In any event, it was a fluke. Nothing of this sort is ever going to happen again," I added, running a hand through his black, silver-flecked hair.

"That is the truest thing you've said all day," he replied brightly. He continued to work in silence for some few minutes, then looked up at me with an expression of pleased finality. "Pass me that bandaging. There. We've patched you back together." He ran a hand over the uninjured leg, his eyes slowly changing their colour from iron to slate.

"Thank you," I said, becoming ever more aware of the warmth of his hand on my skin. "It was admirably done."

"You are welcome," he returned cordially. He tossed the damp cloth into a corner and sat back upon one heel, gently smoothing the bandaging he'd just fastened with one elegant forefinger. "I don't suppose you've any patients today, do you?"

"No, but we have--"

"Because you were right in surmising that the task I've just completed was not a wholly pleasant one for me," he interrupted. "As a matter of fact, it was one more unwelcome event in an equally disturbing day."

"I am very sorry to hear it," I said evenly, relaxing back onto my elbows with an expression of deepest sympathy. The light through the bedroom window was tracing a pattern of gently swaying leaves on the wall, on the wardrobe, and on the polished wood of the flooring.

"I was just thinking that, with your permission, of course--and I freely own that our current positioning led to the inspiration--I could treat myself to an activity which has always held a great many charms for me. Such a pastime could begin, at least, to redeem the day."

"A great many charms?" I laughed. "And always? From the moment of your birth?"

"Well, not precisely," he purred. He commenced running a hand lazily over what was beginning to be a region of great interest for me. "I suppose I did not enjoy it to its fullest extent until I was very...very...very good at it."

I could not help but laugh again, for Holmes knew perfectly well that his insistence on immodesty amused me when it did not infuriate me, and he often enough employed it for my entertainment. "What year was that, I wonder?"

"Oh, it was before your time," he said with a languid little wave. He drew his brows together in an expression of sincere concentration. "Seventy-seven or eight, perhaps, was when I perfected the process. I studied diligently, I assure you."

"I'll just bet you did," I sighed, allowing my torso to fall back flat onto the bed in a show of resignation.

"To the man of science, perfecting the necessary steps is merely a matter of diligent observation with perhaps a dash of invention thrown into the mix. But to the man with art in the blood, levels of proficiency can be reached which altogether transcend the norm."

I was shaking with laughter by this time, and I could just see through the water in my eyes that Holmes' mouth had quirked up at one corner in sympathy. "You are a savant. I only regret discretion has not allowed me to make more of your talents widely know."

"It is an undoubted pity," he drawled, tugging at my underclothes. "Fortunately, I am now devoting a monograph to the subject. It remains in its early drafts, but I believe it will prove the final word on--" He stopped, for I was by that moment laughing so vigorously that I could scarcely breathe. "My dear Watson, surely you don't find such a lofty, dare I say revered, course of study amusing?"

"No," I gasped helplessly. "But get on with it. We have a client at six, after all."

"I would like nothing better than to, as you so elegantly phrase it, 'get on with it,'" he declared. "And so I shall. But we do not have a client."

"They canceled?"

"No, I did."

I was back up on my elbows in an instant. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"Because they came to the wrong place. We are no longer in the business of throwing ourselves headlong into harm's way for complete strangers."

A thin thread of panic had begun to work its way through my veins. Sitting up fully, I leaned forward and rested my arms on my knees. "Aren't we?"

"No," he said calmly. "You are right. We require a holiday. I retired this afternoon."

"Holmes," I said, my jaw dropping of its own volition, "please tell me that is some sort of monstrous jest."

"Of course it isn't," he stated. "You were perfectly right, you know. We never leave London. I could take you round Khartoum, or Paris, or Lhasa, for heaven's sake, if not for the endless parade of misfits darkening our door. And if you are foolish enough to even think it, you need not bring up the question of money. We have more than we could possibly spend in fifty years time, and if we live to mark our centennials, you can jot down a few memoirs and replenish our coffers. I should not relish your having to support me for a change, but pride wanes in the latter years, after all."

I very much fear that, as he spoke, the growing terror in my soul was reflected faithfully in my expression. My mind flashed back to every period during which Holmes had gone without a case for longer than two weeks, to the fights, the hours of pained lethargy, the bitter gibes, and to the tiny, carefully polished syringe which was the cause of all the rest. I had spent the better part of twenty years in an effort to keep the love of my life constantly supplied with cases, and here he sat before me, his cheeks slightly flushed but his eyes set as stone, telling me that he no longer had any use for them.

"You are not retiring simply because I was grazed with an errant bullet. It is preposterous," I said flatly.

"Why should you argue against it?" he asked, seeming genuinely puzzled. "You seemed weary of it, after all."

"I am not weary of it! It is who we are. It is what we do. In any event, you are not proposing such an absurd step because either of us is weary. You are proposing it because of some morbid association with my having been attacked."

"I apologize for the prevarication," he shot back, getting to his feet as I fumbled with my clothing. He retrieved a cigarette from the bedside table. "We'll keep as we were, then. You can set it down in the Strand. The next time you are shot, I shall ignore the event and meet you for oysters at Simpson's the next evening, you--" He arrested his speech with an epithet on his lips and stood staring at me with a face suddenly devoid of all expression, which meant, I am afraid, that he was making an effort not to be exceedingly angry. It was a quirk I ought to have noticed, and would have if I had not already been so startled.

"It is wholly unfair for you to make such a unilateral decision," I insisted.

"Why? Surely you do not imagine it is your decision to make?"

"What of 'this Agency' and 'our clients?' And you are abandoning it all in the blink of an eye over an unfortunate accident?"

"Carry on without me, then," he snapped. "Open your own independent consulting detective agency, if you have so much to do with it. I look forward to your results with great interest. You must use my methods as you like--I give them to you freely. I have no doubt but that you will be every bit as successful as Lestrade, or Jones, or indeed any of the other Yard men. I must suggest you take up offices in some other locality than Baker Street, however, so as not to confuse your new clientele." Stopping himself with a visible effort, he stalked out of the room as I stumbled awkwardly to my feet and hurried after him.

The sitting room was alive with the yellow light of a late June afternoon. Holmes stood before the cold fireplace, lighting his cigarette as he scowled at nothing in particular.

"I have no intention of forming my own detective practice," I said with as much neutrality as I could muster.

"No, I know you do not. Therefore it will be informative, to say the least, to learn how you intend to carry on without me. And carry on without me you shall. I have no intention of seeing you nearly killed again."

"I was not nearly killed!" I cried out. "I have been nearly killed four times. I shall enumerate them for you. Once, at the Battle of Maiwand. Then again, at the hospital, when I developed enteric fever. Third, on the decks of the Friesland, as you will recall, having faced it yourself, and finally, while I was on holiday with you in Cornwall."

"That is very interesting," he said icily. "No, not the number of times you have nearly been killed, though I retain my right to disagree on that point. It interests me extremely that you have replaced the more innocuous 'Norbury' with a reference to radix pedis diaboli when you wish to render me irrelevant. I congratulate you on your choice--it is stirring, to say the least."

"That is not it at all," I said, horrified. "I had no intention of rendering your argument--"

"Then kindly refrain from employing the day I nearly killed you as a rhetorical device," he spat out in a devastatingly clipped growl. "Have you any idea what would have become of me, God forbid, if I had succeeded?"

"You are inventing recriminations where none exist!"

"Am I? Your choice of examples seems, at the very least, a combative stance to assume."

I had just opened my mouth to protest in even more stringent terms that he had leapt to the wrong conclusion when Mrs. Hudson, after a brief knock announcing her presence, thrust her head through the doorway.

"What time do you imagine you'll be wanting dinner?" she asked.

"Oh, come now, Mrs. Hudson," Holmes scoffed. He ground the stub of his cigarette into fragments upon the mantel. "Surely you can invent a more creative excuse than to inquire what time we'll want dinner to interrupt an extremely vocal argument."

"You are right, Mr. Holmes," she returned pleasantly. She looked from one to the other of us with an appraising eye, and then quite naturally smoothed her skirts as if she knew nothing whatever of either of us, and was disconcerted to discover two gentlemen shouting at one another in her sitting room. "I could easily do so. But seeing as you will affect not to believe me no matter what I say and the Doctor will take me at my word regardless, it hardly seems worth the effort. How does eight thirty strike you?"

"That would be ideal, Mrs. Hudson," I returned swiftly. "Many thanks." She nodded, shutting the door emphatically behind her before retracing her steps down the stairs.

I turned back to Holmes. He had collapsed into his armchair and was diligently affecting not to notice I remained in the room. Taking a deep breath, I stood before him.

"Holmes, I cannot rob you of your profession by standing foolishly in the way of a few bullets."

"There was nothing foolish about it," he said more quietly. "We knew who he was, and we knew what he was, and we were had him in our sights, and all to no avail. I cannot recall anything of the sort ever having happened before. It was the worst kind of chaos."

I sat forcefully beside him in his armchair; I was gratified to note we both could still occupy it, for while the chair had certainly not grown appreciably over the years, neither had we, and therefore a double occupancy was still barely possible even though it necessitated good terms between both inhabitants. Looking fixedly at him, I took his left hand in my own. I could see vividly, even beneath the fine cloth of his frock coat and his shirt sleeve, the scarring under his garments which marred his otherwise perfect form, and silently prayed it would never grow any worse than it already was.

"You are a consulting detective," I said. "I will not steal what is yours from you any more than you would steal what is mine."

It took an infinitely long moment, but at last he leaned back in the chair and allowed me to collapse more fully against him. "Is that what you think it is?" he asked.

"That is what it feels like, and that is why I will have none of it." I could see little save the empty fireplace and the bearskin rug from my position, but the familiarity of home was slowly rendering the day's events an improbable fantasy, no more real than Holmes' disguises, or the face we put on before the British populace.

"So you will desert me if I am no longer in active practice? I call that rather callous."

"That is equally foolish. One day, of course, when you wish to do so, you will retire. We cannot be expected to go on like this forever, after all."

"I may well be forced to, it seems. You will sever all ties if I do not maintain the glamour and excitement to which you have become accustomed."

"Your profession is not you," I returned gently. "That statement is as mad as my saying that you would no longer tolerate me if I were not a doctor."

"The parallel is not exact. You relish my work.  I have never been over-fond of doctors."

"Oh, haven't you?" I asked, glancing up at him.

"No. They have very few qualities to recommend them, after all, as they are a largely pedantic, self-satisfied lot. There are those with morbid attachments to their own corporeal bodies who think them powerful and by proxy desirable, but I have never been one of their number. I am afraid the medical profession bores me exceedingly."

"Does it?" I inquired, no longer attempting not to sound hurt.

"Yes, it does." He adjusted himself so that his arm snaked around my back. "Now, soldiers, on the other hand--soldiers interest me passionately. The gallantry, the self-sacrifice. I came across your old uniform in a dusty trunk one day and was beside myself for--"

"Please desist," I begged him. "It is settled, then. You will take on new cases."

"I suppose I could be convinced to take on...important new cases," he conceded with caution. "If and only if you insist upon it."

"I do indeed most heartily insist upon it," I replied. I could feel the fear slowly subsiding like a cold tide. Once he had backed away from a sweeping declaration, Holmes would take any case if it suited him, for importance in his mind of all the minds I had ever encountered was a relative term.

"I will take them, then," he said slowly. "But I am still surprised that you--"

"That I wish not to be the downfall of your career?" I demanded as readily as I could.

"No," he said, shaking his head dispassionately. He arose from the chair and made his way toward the bedroom. "There is something about it I cannot put my finger on. But never fear. I shall work it out in the end."

Ruefully, I watched him go. "Best of luck," I called out, annoyed that he could see through me so easily. I remained in his chair until the sun began to fade, then left our rooms for a long walk, the rawness of my newly bandaged injury chafing against my clothing like a thought half-formed, or a motive half-perceived.


Holmes refused each and every case which drifted our way for the next month, which did not surprise me as they offered few features of interest to the master of his trade. As he was engaged in a painstaking series of chemical researches, however, the gap worried me far less than it would otherwise have done. I made my rounds and scoured the papers and bided my time, hoping only that the wrongdoing of the British citizenry would not tarry too long behind the culmination of Holmes' other pursuits.

At long last, an envelope arrived which I knew from its weight and grain to be important in the widespread sense if not in Holmes' more eclectic one. I asked after its contents, but was denied so abruptly that I dared not continue. However, when a second envelope, identical to the first, arrived in its wake, I approached my friend where he sat idly running his keen eyes over the St. James Gazette and thrust the opulent missive under his nose.

"It is another appeal. Who is your correspondent with the exceptional taste in paper?"

Holmes sighed and took the letter from my hand. "A chap whose manner and affectations place him firmly in the running for the least tolerable man in London."

"He is known to you, then?"

My friend only fixed me with a guarded look. "We met at a garden party I was extremely reluctant to attend some six years ago. You recall the horrid affair hosted by Lady St. Stephens?"

"I recall that you only consented to go when you were commissioned to break up a private gambling conspiracy without undue publicity," I smiled. "This fellow was one of their number?"

"No, merely a guest. A guest and a fussy, self-important fool."

"Yes, but who is he?" I inquired with growing asperity.

For an answer, Holmes merely tore open the letter, glanced at it, and passed it to me. It was written in the elaborate hand of a fashionable society gentleman and read:

"Sir James Damery presents his compliments to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and will call upon him at 4:30 tomorrow. Sir James begs to say that the matter upon which he desires to consult Mr. Holmes is very delicate, and also very important. He trusts, therefore, that Mr. Holmes will make every effort to grant this interview, and that he will confirm it over the telephone to the Carlton Club."

"Have you confirmed it?" I asked.

He made a great show of stuffing his pipe with shag and lighting it carefully before replying, "No."

"Shall I?"

"Watson," he said testily, "Sir James Damery is a fellow who makes the business of other people his own. He arranges things. He directs them. I did not say that he was asked to do so, simply that he does. He does this because, I imagine, his own life is so lethally dull that he must mix himself up in the delicate dramas of his fellow men so as not to succumb to cardiac arrest. He is a non-smoker. He wears lavender spats. He never removes his kid-gloves. I mean 'never' in its most literal sense, for I have deduced he sleeps in them. I am possessed of tendencies toward criminal violence whenever I see him. And this is the appointment you would have me confirm."

Laughing, I replied, "You said that you would undertake new cases if they were very important."

"This is not of their number."

"Yes, it is," I said innocently. "He says so in the second sentence."

Holmes glared at me balefully, then smiled, a wistful expression spreading over his sharply aristocratic features. He waited a long moment before speaking. "Do you find the Greek 'e' or the Roman character to be more aesthetically pleasing, formally speaking?"

"I--what?" I stammered.

"You heard me perfectly clearly, my dear fellow."

"Believe it or not, I have never fully considered the question. Why?"

"I anticipate the necessity of letting off some pent-up steam after Sir James exits our rooms tomorrow, and was just thinking that the initials of our current monarch do not yet grace our walls. It has been some years since I treated myself to a spot of target practice. Since you share the sitting room, I wanted to be sure I consulted you before--"

He was denied the opportunity to continue, for I had already decided that the best course was to cover his mouth with my own. In fact, Holmes abandoned all pretense at coherent speech until slightly over an hour later that afternoon. By that time, I have no doubt, he was in no position to observe me send a confirmation via Mrs. Hudson by telegram to the Carlton Club, with the assurances that Sir James Damery along with his problem were welcome in our rooms at their earliest convenience.

"Do you smoke? Then you will excuse me if I light my pipe."

Sir James Damery may well have been everything Holmes said he would be, but the case he presented was nevertheless an extraordinary one; it hinged upon the engagement of a young lady by the name of Miss Violet De Merville to one Baron Adelbert Gruner, a man Holmes insisted was the worst sort of villain, having already murdered his first wife in cold blood while on holiday at the Splugen Pass. It became equally clear during the course of our interview that the client in whose interests Sir James was dabbling was of the highest order--so high, in fact, that Holmes' previous teasing allusion to indoor target practice flew unbidden into my mind more than once. Our task by the end of the consultation seemed clear: either convince Miss De Merville that her lover was the worst of blackguards, or somehow otherwise, within the bounds of lawfulness, prevent their union. It was not a mission I looked forward to with much hope of success as I shut our door upon the foppish Sir James.

"Well, Watson?" Holmes asked me as Sir James descended to the carriage below. "Any views?"

"I should think you had better see the young lady herself."

My companion shook his head doubtfully. "We are up against one of the worst forces of destruction in the world--that of obsessive love. She is, by Sir James' account, completely preoccupied by the rascal. Her own father cannot move her, and yet you expect me to prevail? If we believe our client, or rather his go-between, she will not hear a single word against him, she loves him so. That is, in brief, the most evil characteristic of passionate romance--the utter blindness to what is real, what is observable. If she is truly so far gone, I fear there may be nothing we can do."

"The most evil characteristic, you say--I assume among many evil characteristics? I have never heard passionate romance characterized in quite so scathing terms before." Though strongly felt, my speech as a whole was delivered far more sternly than I meant it to be, I will confess.

Holmes eyed me with an intently quizzical look. "Surely you are not making an effort to draw a correlation between the passionate romance, as I have termed it, of Baron Gruner's machinations, and our own relations?"

"It is merely disheartening to listen to you disparage romance so thoroughly and so often," I returned tiredly, seating myself in the basket chair. "More than disheartening--discouraging."

"But they are not remotely the same," he persisted, his eyes taking on a stubborn glow. "I am with you because of your observable, calculable, proven attributes. My regard is based wholly upon facts--that you are loyal, that you are courageous, that you are intelligent, that you are kind. Because it has its bedrock in established data, it is not merely unshakable, it is indisputable. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong as regards your character. Miss De Merville loves romantically--that is to say, she loves a fiction, a phantasm, and will doubtless brook no arguments to the contrary."

"I misunderstood you," I conceded, affecting not to be affected. "I love you for similarly tangible reasons. Pray continue."

"I rather fancy Shinwell Johnson might unearth something too sordid to be ignored," he mused, tapping the stem of his pipe against his temple.

"You imagine that what is already known is not bad enough?" I argued. "Why should any fresh discovery turn her from her purpose, if she is as far gone as you say?"

"Who knows, Watson?" he shrugged. "Who knows? Woman's heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male."

"There are no puzzles so abstruse that you cannot make some headway," I smiled. "It only requires the proper motivation. I trust that if you set your mind to it fully, you could work it out in a trice. That would, however, as I have already said, involve setting your mind to it fully."

Holmes favoured me with the briefest of glances. "I am going to bed," he replied distinctly, "with the devout expectation that the mystery will remain unsolved by morning." He dashed his pipe against the wall of the fireplace and scattered hot ashes upon the cold grey silt.

"I will go with you," I offered. "Simply as an effort to prevent your making any headway on the matter. But Holmes, if you will be serious for a moment--what could Shinwell Johnson unearth which could sway Miss De Merville?"

"I do not know," he replied, taking my hand to help me out of my chair. "But whatever it may be, I promise it will be morally reprehensible, socially unforgivable, and vulgar in the extreme."

Holmes was right, as was usually the case. Shinwell Johnson did indeed dig up something too sordid to be ignored, in the person of Miss Kitty Winter. She interviewed Miss De Merville in Holmes' company; the meeting proved of no avail. She then informed us of a volume which recorded, in the most base manner, the Baron's indiscretions, but falling short of armed robbery we could not think of a way of procuring the object.  Days passed without headway, as Holmes sat in his armchair lost in silent contemplation. Then came a day which, unfortunately, I will never forget for the remainder of my life. My journey back to Baker Street that wretched afternoon was longer than many of my trips to France had seemed, longer than every dark vigil I had ever spent with Holmes, longer even than the minutes I had spent praying for death rather than capture before Murray threw me over a pack horse like a sack of flour and I was granted another thirty years in the world.

I had seen the newsprint, as black as death, strewn across the cheaply manufactured paper. Having been on my way home from attending to a client at St. Bart's, I had not been in a position to receive the news more immediately. It did not say that Holmes had died; however, a pain speared my chest at that moment which had never been equaled in my lifetime, not even when I stared down into the Falls for some trace of the love I had enjoyed for a bare six months. I felt as a man would feel if one had just read one's entire property had been flooded, or better still one's husband killed in the aftereffects of a devastating fire.

It is impossible for me to recall much detail beyond the fact that our front doorstep was in dire need of cleansing when I arrived, as my stunned eyes inexplicably focused on debris for lack of a more worthy subject. I threw open the door. The surgeon was descending our stairs as I burst in upon them.

"There is no immediate danger, Dr. Watson," he said somberly. Dr. Oakshott was a kind man, with brows as grizzled as his hair and sideburns. I had met him several times under happier circumstances.

I believe I did nothing more telling than grasp the bannister for support as I breathed, "Thank you. That is blessed news indeed."

"For the city itself, not to say the nation," he added graciously.

"What has been done to him?"

"He has been attacked most ferociously, by more than one assailant. They were armed with weighted sticks, and while Mr. Holmes seems to think that having taken most of the blows on his guard was a worthy achievement, he has nevertheless sustained considerable damage. The bruising is of the utmost severity, though I do not see any signs of internal rupture. Surprising, for they appear to have kicked him a number of times once he had fallen, not to mention beaten him about the cranial region. The scalp wounds are seriously lacerated, but I have done my best to mend them."

I regarded the doctor with a look of growing panic. "You speak as if they tore him apart."

"They did their best," he conceded. "He must lie very quiet for the next few weeks. You will see to him from this point, no doubt. I have already injected morphine. You needn't concern yourself with another dose for three to four hours."

"You--I beg your pardon?" I said, my tongue tripping over the words. "You have injected morphine?"

"Indeed, yes. He is resting quieter now. All the best to him, Doctor," the famed surgeon nodded as he completed his trip down the stairs and out our front door.

Feeling fully as nauseated as if I had been a passenger on a storm-tossed ship, I proceeded to climb. I paused before his door, closing my eyes as I twisted the knob. I stole into the sickroom and viewed the light as it made its slow track down his bloody brow to his stubbornly valiant jaw. Sitting beside him, I bent my head.

"All right, Watson," he sighed. "All right, all right, all right. Don't look so scared."

"Why shouldn't I?" I asked in a formidable tone.

"Because it's not as bad as it seems," he returned with a voice which affected vainly to be jocular and only resulted in confirming his level of pain.

"Well, I can at the very least thank God for that," I replied, making no effort to hide the breaking of my voice. "Especially considering the manner in which I have brought you to this excruciating state."

"Hmm?" he asked, the monosyllabic phrase only confirming my belief that he had been beaten within an inch of his life.

"This is entirely my fault," I whispered. Now the unthinkable had happened, now that Holmes himself had been injured, and injured so far that he could not form an elegantly disdainful sentence beyond the grunting "hmm," my guilt hit me like a lead weight between the eyes.

"Explain," he managed.

"This. You. It is all my doing." I smoothed a lock of his hair back from the bandages and idly viewed the trembling in my hands.

"Watson, I know we have not had the most tranquil of liaisons over the years, but if you hired men with cudgels to thrash me, you leave me with no choice but to break it off," he rasped with one swollen brow raised ironically.

"You know what I mean. I convinced you to take this case. I forced you to take it."

He managed a silent little laugh. "I would allow you to labour under the delusion that you can force me to do anything--for my own amusement, nothing more--but it is a moot point. Your logic is fatally flawed. Convincing me to take a case and hiring "punishers," as they are called, are very different levels of culpability."

"Baron Gruner," I growled, his words shifting my emotions from grief to rage. "I will finish him. He dares to do this to you, knowing it cannot be traced back to him--well, it matters but little, for I will settle the score myself."

"You will do no such thing."

"Try and stop me," I answered, rising from my position near his bloody head.

"Watson, come back here," he commanded with something of his old imperialism.

"I will see you tonight."

"Stop this instant," he cried, making an effort to sit up. I whirled about to face him.

"Or what? What will you do?" I demanded, my overwrought emotions fixing on any available target. "Leap up and physically prevent my departure? Barricade me indoors? Keep a constant watch, completely incapacitated as you are?"

"I needn't take any such strenuous measures when a simple telegram to the Yard would more than serve," he snapped. "Come back here."

"I must do something," I replied in a voice far too dangerous to be my own.

"Yes, so you seem to think. However, when they have clapped you in irons for killing the Baron Gruner, you had better not expect any sympathetic visitors. I will be far too incensed and far too old to wait for your release."

I crossed back to him and sat, very carefully, next to him upon the bed. "Have you a plan?"

"I am working it out," he sighed. "It is in its early phases, as I have been fully conscious for approximately half an hour, and for the first twenty minutes of that period, I was a trifle distracted by agonizing pain. But there is a plan."

I looked at him skeptically as I unlaced my boots.

"A plan exists," he insisted, his voice growing steadily feebler and more exhausted.

"And you will tell me of it once it is clear to you?"

At this, his sharp eyes could not resist rolling behind half-closed, swollen lids up to the papered ceiling. "Unless you think I would do better to take Athelney Jones into my confidence instead."

I had kicked off my shoes and climbed very gingerly onto the bed beside him, he beneath the coverlet and I above it. There did not appear to be any part of him I could touch without exacerbating injury. Finally, my eyes lit upon his neck and I covered it softly with my hand. I could feel his breathing, calming now I had returned, and the echo of his pulse, thin but steady beneath my fingers.

"I cannot bear to see you like this," I murmured.

"Then leave," he returned. The remark was frank, though less ungracious than I might have expected. "I have no more desire for you to see me beaten than do you."

"You are forever playing the hero," I stated bitterly, "as if I will leave the instant you fail to prove the conquering party."

His eyes flicked over to mine coldly. "I have reason enough to act so."

"Don't," I said desperately. "Please. I know it is my doing. I wish it were me. I would give a great deal for it to be me. Holmes," I added very softly. Every fibre of my being screamed against saying it, but somehow, in the shock and the bone-deep dismay, I could not stop myself. "Did Dr. Oakshott give you morphine before I arrived?"

Holmes' eyes, which had closed partially in exhaustion, darted back at mine piercingly. "I believe he did."

"You...believe he did?"

"Yes," he said, his hoarse whisper growing more impatient by the second, "I believe so. One moment, it was a deal of work to keep quiet, and the next it was all rather more bearable than I had a right to expect."

"Have--have you any idea what dose?" I asked miserably.

"What is this?" he snarled. "What more am I to suffer? Now I am not merely to be pitied for having failed to fight off hired roughs, I am to be censured for having failed to fight off a doctor with a syringe?"

"No, of course not," I pleaded. "I merely need to know, in the event that you...require another dose."

"Capital," he said, collapsing back onto the pillows, his tone utterly glacial. I had gone too far, I knew, but could think of no way to backtrack, no excuse which would set it right. "It is one of life's little puzzles, presented to me for my edification and amusement, no doubt. The doctor who is a complete stranger would prefer I suffer minimal discomfort, while the one who has known me for over twenty years is perfectly happy to watch me--"<

"No! I did not mean it that way. I am so very worried--"

"Well, you needn't be on that front, Doctor," he interrupted. With an effort, he raised his hand and grasped the morphine bottle which had been left on his bedside table. Looking at it neutrally for a moment, he threw it in a gentle arc into the fireplace, where the tinkle of cracked glass told me its contents had been lost to us.

"I shall get some more at the chemists," I said at once.

"If you do, I promise you, I promise you most sincerely, that I will have nothing more to do with you."


"It is your choice," he snapped. "If I cannot be trusted within a mile of the substance, among other substances, we shall simply see to it they do not exist within my grasp."

"I am sorry," I said.  "I will purchase more.  I had no intention of allowing you to torture yourself."

"I am not taking it."

"If you do not allow yourself some respite, I--"

"What?" he demanded in a devastating parody of my own earlier speech.  "What will you do?  You'll tie me to the bedposts?  Strap a rag around my arm and have your way with me?  I should like to see you try it."

Some desire to calm him sent my hand toward his monstrously disheveled hair.  As if lightning had struck it, my friend, blocking my gesture with his forearm and then deftly flicking his hand around my wrist, had pinned the limb to the bedclothes.

"You win," I said after a pause.  When I met his eyes, there was absolutely no recourse left but to burst out laughing.

I could not begin to sleep that night. It seemed an act of optimistic foolishness to even attempt it. After my friend had fallen into a fitful slumber, I quit his chamber for the sitting room, promptly finding it impossible to occupy alone. The lamplight's illumination of familiar surroundings seemed all at once a sinister farce, as if in my aberrant state of mind I would have found it more reasonable that the room had suddenly reversed itself, or burned to the ground.

A hesitant knock on the door startled me into a more logical frame of mind, and when Mrs. Hudson's kindly face appeared, grief-stricken and nerve-wracked, I regained the lion's share of the medical calm which I realized I ought to have been employing all along.

"How bad is it, Doctor?" she asked.

"My dear Mrs. Hudson, it isn't at all as bad as you may think," I replied with ready confidence. "Medically speaking, it is some serious bruising and a moderate head injury. It is certainly nothing from which Holmes cannot recover, of all men."

She frowned at me, but something deep in her blue eyes looked far more like pity than censure. "Dr. Watson, I haven't the slightest grasp of the medical facts you've mastered, but I was here when he arrived, and Mr. Holmes has never before failed to reach his rooms on his own two feet. When I saw him carried up the stairs--"

"That would be the concussion," I said quickly, placing a hand upon her shoulder. "It would have been a miracle for him to have--but he is fine now. Not to say that he is well, but...he will recover."

Mrs. Hudson removed my hand from her shoulder and placed it between two of her own. "I know he will, Doctor. I know that as surely as I know my own name. But you needn't..." she hesitated. "No one in the world other than Mr. Holmes can be as affected by this as you are. And after you've been considered, I don't know but that I myself am not the next in line. That is to say, Dr. Watson, I know that it is bad. We both do. It is bad for a very important reason."
"What is that, Mrs. Hudson?" I asked quietly.
"Because nothing of the sort has ever happened before. We know nothing of such circumstances, and thus we cannot be expected to treat them lightly," she declared. "Now, Doctor--I have no desire to force a confidence, but are you quite all right?"
I have often admired Mrs. Hudson for her patience, and still more for her tolerance, but it is a pitiable confession to make that until that moment, I had never fully understood the power of her sympathy. No matter how discreet Holmes and I may have been--and we were very discreet indeed as regards physical evidence, who was to leave by what door, and all the other tiny proprieties we observed as much because it was ingrained in our sense of selves as for any other reason--she must have known why I never remarried. She must have known why Holmes could never bring himself to marry at all. I am by no means a model tenant, but it still seems fair to say that even with all Holmes put her through, it was something to know that she cared for him deeply, and something even more that she knew enough of us to inquire after me.
"No," I admitted, half attempting a smile. "I am not. In fact, I managed, beyond even my own powers of comprehension, to make matters still worse than they are. Holmes would have every right, the instant he is able, to knock me down. I hope he will not entertain the idea, but it would be well within his rights." I collapsed onto the settee and Mrs. Hudson perched demurely beside me.
"I do not believe I shall live to see any such thing happen."
"In all honesty, it might improve my spirits. Did you know he had every mind to retire before I convinced him to take this case?" Her eyes widened subtly as she shook her head. "All this horrible mess rests upon my shoulders."
"That is a very unhealthy sort of nonsense to be indulging in, Doctor," she chided gently.
"I am afraid it is all too true. Still better, I have done nothing in the last hour save insult the victim and bring about the destruction of necessary medical supplies."
Our landlady knew better than to pursue this line of conversation, and thus affected admirable disinterest. "What will you do next, then, Dr. Watson?"
I stared up at the ceiling as my growing hopelessness made it seem as if I were sinking into the floor. "I had intended to make a foray into ill-advised vengeance before Holmes persuaded me otherwise. Thus, I shall merely do what is in my power as a physician to see that he is whole again as soon as is humanly possible."
"No one could do it better," she said, rising from her seat. "I will help you in every way I can. His current client seems an important one, after all. If Mr. Holmes could not resolve the case, heaven knows what sort of creature we'll have on our hands. Shall I bring you some tea, Doctor?"
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Hudson," I replied as she made for the door, but her words had startled me once more into alertness. Despite her kind arguments and Holmes' sarcastic parries, I reflected as she descended the stairs, I was as much to blame for my friend's ghastly injuries as anyone. I was responsible for far more than simply nursing Holmes back to health, though that task, of course, was of paramount importance. If he could not solve the case in anything like a timely manner, perhaps I could make his progress for him.
It would be a relief to write that my only thoughts as I rose from the sofa were of aiding Holmes, the unsuspecting girl (whose engagement, if doubtful before, now seemed positively suicidal), and his high-born, illustrious client. But I must admit that, as I retrieved a telegraph form--for neither Shinwell Johnson nor Kitty Winter possessed a telephone--the face as I had seen it in photographs of Baron Gruner flashed into my mind, his smile slowly fading as I tore the villain limb from limb.

My plans, such as they were, formed with the ready assistance of Mr. Johnson and Miss Winter, redoubled in velocity when I realized that Holmes' recovery would by no means be a swift one. Within a week he could walk without assistance, but only so far as the sitting room and back to his bed, and frequent dizzy spells left me in numb chagrin over whether the damage to his head was perhaps more serious than Dr. Oakshott had indicated. As for his other injuries, when I first laid eyes on him unclothed the day after the attack, it required a concentrated effort to remain quiet, such was the fury which washed over me. I bit my tongue, however, and applied every salve I could think of to render black and blue flesh white again, over a far greater percentage of his wiry form than I wished to, my only comfort the thought that the Baron Gruner, as pleased as he must have been with Holmes' downfall, would never think to fear the likes of a general practitioner with a side career in biography.
Holmes, for his part, refused every offer of drugs until I could not decide whether to be beside myself at his stubbornness or grateful for his courage. Most often, the self-recrimination was so great that I did not consider him at all. Knowing that he had weaned himself from a dependence on morphine to cocaine, which carried its own heavy burden, my thoughtless concern had exacerbated an already impossible situation. I knew Holmes' tolerance of pain to be abnormally high, but obliquely having asked him to prove it every day made me the worst sort of ally. Still, my vexation could not be directed solely inward. Seeing him grimace on occasion when he imagined I was not looking soon began to convince me that the only thing in the world more trying than a morphine addict is a morphine addict who will not take morphine when it is required of him.
One evening, the night before my plans were to come to fruition and some two weeks after Holmes had been attacked, I reclined in my usual nocturnal position on the sofa reading deeply into the subject of Chinese pottery. It was impossible for me to sleep with Holmes during that period, for his injuries were not such that would be improved by my forgetting myself and locking him in an embrace as I slept, and in any event my studies did not permit me the distraction. My friend had certainly raised a brow at my proposal to take the sitting room, and had made several remarks about my returning upstairs to my own bedroom and staying there as long as I had no interest in him, but on this point the success or failure of my scheme lay and I stood in the face of his gibes unshaken. I cared for him all the more ardently during the daylight hours, which he bore with a faintly disgusted air of long-suffering, but on the subject of my own sleeping quarters he failed utterly for perhaps only the eighth or ninth time in his life.
On that night, I had just turned the page as my head nodded drowsily over the graceful lip of a delicate vase, photographed by visitors to the Imperial Palace in Beijing, when my companion made an appearance by poking his head through his bedroom door.
"You aren't asleep yet?" I asked, casually placing the book face down so that its contents were unknowable.
"It is rather too vast a bed for one person," he smiled, and then cleared his throat significantly. The bandages around his head had reduced in layers, though he still held himself like a wounded feline. "But I have already made that argument. You won't come?"
"Of course not," I replied merrily. "You will be well soon enough. I have no intention of subjecting myself to that sort of temptation. Your ribs won't stand it."
"So you say," he mused, sitting on the arm of the sofa. His brows had contracted into an arched black knot.
"What is it, my dear fellow?" I sat up and placed a hand on his leg. "You seem very troubled over something."
"I am. I don't know what you are thinking," he confessed in a neutral tone.
"What do you mean?" I queried. My heart rate gained pace rapidly as I pondered all the possible lines of interrogation which Holmes could intend to arise from that simplistic statement of the obvious.
"Only that. I cannot see your thoughts, and it troubles me."
I sat back and then forward again. "Wait a moment. Not knowing precisely what I am thinking brings about this reaction from you?"
"I have just said that it does," he replied impatiently.
"But I have hardly ever seen you look this way before."
"What has that to do with anything?"
I drew in the settling breath I knew would be necessary before I posed my next question. Living with Sherlock Holmes, let alone living with him as I did, is not an activity for the faint of heart. "My dear Holmes, are you implying that, under the general circumstances of everyday life, you can see into my mind?"
"That would be ludicrous," he scoffed. "I am no more possessed of psychic powers than I am of the ability to fly out that window. I can, however, as I have shown you before, assemble the data necessary to infer what you are thinking, and that task is made an absurdly simple one due to the fact that I know very nearly everything about you. For example," he continued, a hint of a smile brightening his features, "just now you are thinking that I do not know nearly so much about you as I may think I do, that you are not an open book, that I am the most arrogant devil in shoe leather, and that I presume a great deal upon your good nature for a man who has never spoken to you of his life before university."
"Well, I am happy to report that your troubles are over," I replied coldly. "Those were precisely my thoughts, which will no doubt bring great comfort to you."
"It doesn't," he said with deeply uncharacteristic earnestness in his usually suave tones. "I have not the faintest idea what you are doing out here, but--"
Reaching for his hand, I captured it and stared down at the still-cracked knuckles on the long fingers. "Of you," I said at once. I looked up at him. "That is what I have been thinking of, out here, all this time. You."
Smiling briefly, he accepted the statement, though his eyes remained stormy. "What are you reading?"
I held it up at once, for any hesitation on my part would surely have exposed me.
"Chinese pottery," he said slowly. "Where did you come by that?"
"At the club," I answered. "I dropped by for an hour while I was out yesterday to assure the fellows I am alive, and you are mending. Chap by the name of Green had finished with it."
Holmes took the weighty volume from my hands. "I see. He is an enthusiast in Chinese pottery, yet not enough of one to retain an expensive reference guide." I began to reply, but was saved when Holmes added quickly, "Most likely the poor fellow had no notion of the expense involved in starting a collection."
"I can see nothing wrong with your reasoning," I said with great relief. "He is rather heavy-handed when it comes to the card tables."
"Then doubtless that is it," he said, handing it back to me. "And what about you? Have you an interest in Chinese pottery?"
Swallowing, I determined that the truth was the best course. "Not in the slightest. I have just discovered as much. I thought it might while away the hours, as I have not been sleeping very well. But it is very dry indeed."
"Then you had best keep at it," Holmes suggested. "There is nothing for insomnia like a subject about which you care nothing." Standing up, he had already turned toward his bedroom when another wave of dizziness seemed to pass over him and his hand flew to the arm of the settee. I sprang to his side and had him in my arms in a moment.
"How many times has that happened today?" I asked quietly.
"Twice," he said at length. Regaining his strength slowly, his hands released their pressure although they remained on my arms. His head dropped until his brow rested against my own, but when his voice emerged, it was cold as stone. "It is not a pretty thing, is it?"
"What isn't?" I asked. I ran a hand over the back of his neck gently, but he pulled away at once and made for his door.
"Good night, Watson," he said without looking behind him. "Rest well." The door had shut before I could think of a response. I stood staring at it for ten minutes or more before returning, my heart heavy but my will set, to the sofa and the leather volume which had fallen to the floor.

The following evening at half past eight, cradling the little parcel I had obtained through Sir James Damery under one arm, I walked up the lengthy path through the grounds to his impressive estate. The breeze rustled the colourful leaves of the oak trees pleasantly enough, and the smell of mown grass drifted across the grounds in the fresh autumnal air, but I was so concentrated upon my task as to be immune to Nature's gifts. The villain's door was spotless and designed to emit an aura of genteel intimidation. Giving a card to the butler representing myself as Dr. Hill Barton, I was at once shown into a large study of sorts, the walls of which were lined with priceless vases, urns, and saucers, most of which I was gratified to note that I could identify after brief consideration.

"Dr. Barton," came a pleasantly cultured voice from across the long room, and I laid eyes on the man I would readily have horsewhipped if it had been in my power to do so. He was every bit as dashing as he was reported to be, with hair as dark as Holmes' and a powerful, active physique. Smiling, I proffered my hand.

It is the nature of the mind to forget what it no longer has use for, as Holmes himself will readily tell you, and I have by now forgotten as much about Chinese pottery as I had ever learned in the first place. The Baron and I chatted amiably on the subject for some ten minutes before he asked to see what I had brought, but I cannot now recall anything of the conversation beyond the fact that Gruner's mouth, as he spoke, revealed such cruel and amoral lines that I wondered why any woman would place herself under his power, despite his charm and acknowledged good looks.

"Very fine," he said at last, turning the blue saucer over in his nimble fingers. "Very fine indeed. I am most impressed, Dr. Barton. You will forgive my inquisitiveness, I am sure, but would it be possible for you to tell me where you obtained such an artifact?"

I shrugged carelessly. "Does it really matter? You can see that the piece is genuine, after all." I allowed myself a glance at the clock resting upon his mantelpiece. With luck, my ally had already stolen inside and retrieved the hateful book. My charade needed only to continue long enough to guarantee escape without detection.

The Baron's eyes flashed at me in a highly disconcerting manner. "I have no doubts at all about that. But suppose--I am bound to take every possibility into account--that it should prove afterward you had no right to sell it? I must confess, Dr. Barton, that the whole transaction strikes me as rather unusual."

"You can do business or not," I replied firmly. "It is all one to me. I am in no hurry to sell it, and I have every confidence that I shall soon enough find another buyer if you are not interested. I came to you because I was told you were a connoisseur." I then fell to examining a teacup lined with exquisitely wrought pink blossoms, glowing even from beneath its glass case.

"Who told you that?" the Baron asked cordially enough, but his eyes had darkened dangerously.

"Have you not written a book upon the subject?" I asked.

"I have. Have you read it?"

"No," I confessed. I looked at the clock once more. It was time to retreat, as best I could, but I would be lying if I were to say that my nerves were not already on edge, my adrenalin flowing, and that the idea of being found out and forced to confront the Baron in a more direct manner was not an equally desirable one.

"You have not read it?" he inquired in shocked tones. "But that is monstrous, Dr. Barton. In fact, it strikes me as nigh inconceivable that you would not read the only book in existence which could tell you the true value of that precious little item."

"What I have the time or the desire to read is none of your concern," I returned coldly. "I am a doctor with an extremely taxing practice. In fact, I regret to say that I must terminate this interview, as this evening I have a great many demands upon my time. If you desire to communicate with me regarding the saucer--"

"What is the game?" the Baron demanded suddenly. He was still smiling, but it was an evil smile now, the smile of a vulture who has spied a meal. "You are an emissary of Holmes."

I returned his frigid smile with one of my own. "I am."

"I thought as much!" the Baron sneered. "He sends his tools to watch upon me. You've made your way in here without leave, and, by God! you may find it harder to get out than to get in."

"There I must disagree with you," I replied, pulling out my revolver. "I have done what I came to do, and will now make my way out quietly, but I promise you, sir, that if you give me the slightest reason to shoot you, so help me God I will take pleasure in the task."

His dark eyes hardened at the sight of my weapon, but just then a crash emanating from the room behind him interrupted us. With a cry of rage, the Baron rushed from the room, and I flew after him unthinkingly.

To my utmost horror, there before the open window leading to the grounds stood Sherlock Holmes, his complexion pale but his posture fiercely determined. His eyes widened at the sight of me and the gun in my hand, but in another moment he had thrown himself through the window with the Baron, incoherent with fury, close upon his heels.

The woman's arm appeared for an instant in view. Just as quickly it disappeared as the Baron uttered a scream of agony. He fell back into the room, clawing at his face, and I saw that his features were blurring even as I watched the vitriol eat into his flesh.

I dashed toward him and had soon forced him onto the sofa. I did all that I could. I applied oil and strove to soothe the burning of his eyes and skin. It is a feature of revenge for some of us, perhaps, that the desire for it dies with its completion. I had wanted nothing more than to hurt the Baron Gruner moments before, but seeing him so abused only moved me to the same feeling of pity I experienced when treating any patient whose pain is more than they imagine they can withstand. I am no better than my fellows, and therefore it was a surprise to me that I strove so hard to relieve the man who had ordered Holmes beaten rather than immediately quitting the scene. Perhaps we are all of us kinder than we think. Perhaps it was nothing more than dumb habit. To this day, I cannot tell.

The household was quickly roused, and soon after them the Baron's physician, and the Yard. I was not detained longer than was required to tell the tale. Within an hour of my entering that hateful residence, I left it with the precious saucer once more in my grasp.

I had not quit the grounds and gotten more than two paces down the road when a familiar hand gripped my elbow and I started in surprise.

"That was the single most idiotic thing you have ever done," said Sherlock Holmes. Though his head remained bandaged and his face was drawn with anger, he walked beside me with his usual easy nonchalance.

"Surprisingly, I was about to say the same to you," I retorted coldly, glancing down at the book under his arm.

"The very idea that you could become an expert on Chinese pottery in a matter of days is laughable," he continued with an expression of utter disdain. "You may as well have become fluent in Arabic and a champion jockey into the bargain. Was that the extent of your plan? Gain an entrance and then remove the book at gunpoint?"

"Kitty Winter was meant to steal the book," I replied. "However, clearly she was with you. Was that the extent of your plan? Climb through the window with Miss Winter and walk away with the thing? You are out of your mind."

"Miss Winter was meant to provide distraction in the form of a request for money from the Baron. She has done so in the past, she assured me. I was to do the criminal part," was his frigid reply.

"She has been playing us both for the opportunity to get close to the Baron," I remarked. "A nice pair of fools she has made us. I believe what we witnessed just now was one of the more virulent consequences of passionate romance, as you have termed it. Holmes, we must get you back to bed at once."

"I am perfectly all right," he sniffed. "I am not nearly so ill as you imagined."

I stopped in my tracks. "What did you just say?"

"I am not ill," he stated slowly and bitingly.

I stared at him numbly. "The bruising was real. The cuts were real. Do you mean to tell me that each and every one of those dizzy spells--"

"The first was real," he responded. "The subsequent were not."

I am sorry to say that my right fist had him by the lapel of his jacket in an instant. "Never again. You said never again, after that wretched business with Culverton Smith--"

"Get your hands off me," he returned coolly. "I have every right to test a theory in my own home."

"A theory?" I demanded in a strained whisper. "You were testing a bloody theory?"

"It is a disconcerting thing when a public humiliation leads to the prompt disappearance of one's bedfellow," he snapped. "I needed to know how far you would--"

"You arrogant monster," I continued heedlessly. "All this time, I thought your inner ear had been damaged, or you had a cranial hemorrhage, and you were taking me in?"

"It is not as if it was difficult," he returned acidly. "The deception cost me very little effort, I assure you. Now, I will tell you one more time to get your hands off me before I do something about it myself."

"You lied to me!"

"Oh, come off it, Dr. Hill Barton," he cried, plucking a card from my waistcoat pocket. "And you have an acquaintance at the club who just happens to have given you a masterful work on Chinese pottery. If I'd had any notion you were so close to enacting this depraved stunt, I would have stolen the book last night before you'd the opportunity to wander blithely into the most dangerous study in London!" Shaking me off at last, he strode forward to the edge of the kerb and whistled stridently for a cab.

I followed him into it in silence. Not one further word did we exchange on our way back to Baker Street, so engrossed were we by our own furious thoughts. It was not until we had trudged back up our own stairs, had poured a splash of whiskey, and had seen that the fire in the sitting room was blazing efficiently, that I spoke one more.

"I abandoned you so that I might become an expert on the Ming dynasty, not because I was disgusted at seeing you ill," I ventured in a more conciliatory tone. "Your abhorrence of being bested and my sympathy at your plight are separate entities. That was not one of your more perspicacious theories."

"It was not one of your more perspicacious actions," he shot back. "What on earth put it into your head to attempt such a thing without me?"

"You were hurt. I was acting in your interests. The whole confounded mess was my doing, in the first place. Why the devil did you attempt to steal it without me, for that matter?"

He considered for a moment. "I was slightly terrified of the idea of putting you and the Baron Gruner in the same room," he said at last with a halfhearted smile.

"Yes, well...he has gotten his just desserts, and more," I replied gravely. "I have hardly ever seen anything so sickening."

Holmes fell easily onto the sofa and rubbed at the edge of the bandage wrapped round his head. "My dear fellow, we are going to have to get one thing through that head of yours, and that is that my injury is nothing like your fault. You have been behaving most irrationally, not to say outrageously, ever since it happened. You must employ a little sense."

"I don't recall your employing much in the way of sense the day I was shot in the leg," I countered. "Indeed, I recall your threatening to kill a man, and then your prompt retirement from active practice."

Holmes steepled his fingertips thoughtfully. "Which sent you into the most senseless panic I have ever known you to indulge in. Very well, then. We have both been guilty of temporary lapses of rational thought. It only remains to determine why that is so. We are far too old and too seasoned to lose our nerve over such trifles."

"It has nothing to do with nerve," I said, thinking back upon Mrs. Hudson's words. "I believe it has to do with precedence. You have never been thrashed into unconsciousness before."

"You are entirely correct. And while you have been shot before, I was lucky enough not to have witnessed it," he added seriously. "But this is all more or less self-evident. You must tell me why you were so desperate for me to accept another commission."

I stared at the carpet. It was a question he had every right to ask, and that I was under every obligation to answer, and still I could not find the words. "You thought I would lose interest in you without your triumphing over evildoers six and seven times a week. And then when you were hurt, and I was studying pottery--you must forgive me, my dear fellow. I see what it looked like now."

"Your apology is accepted, but you are evading the question," he persisted.

Sighing, I leaned forward and rested my chin in my hand. "It was not about the cases. It was about the absence of cases."

"Go on," he said slowly.

"You do yourself harm when you aren't working." I said it quickly, so that for better or for worse the words would be spoken and done with.

Holmes sat in silence for a long moment. "You are joking," he said incredulously. "All of this was about narcotics?"


My companion threw back his dark head and laughed so heartily that the sound rang through the little sitting room. "Come here," he said, removing his frock coat.

"What are you doing?" I inquired as I did as he asked. He rolled back his shirt sleeve to the elbow.

"Look at that," he directed.

"I would prefer not to," I murmured. The scars evident in the crook of his arm were a testament to countless instances of abuse.

"You, as a doctor of medicine, ought to know something of scarring," he continued. "See this mark--that was administered by the nefarious Dr. Oakshott. Observe the remainder. How many years would you hazard separate the two categories?"

"Several, if not more," I admitted.
"Then where is the problem?" he asked with a trace of amusement.
"I do not know," I confessed. "It is habit, I suppose. But nevertheless it terrifies me."

Holmes began to make an impatient gesture and arrested it, instead rolling down his sleeve methodically. "I've no other way of proving to you that particular hydra is dead save this one, and I will admit it is not a subject upon which I would readily embark. However, in the interests of domestic tranquility, I am prepared to allow you exactly one minute's candid words on the topic. Begin," he ordered.

"It was always tugging at you, under the surface," I questioned readily. "What has changed?"

He eyed me thoughtfully before reaching for his pipe, which rested upon the side table next to the sofa. "It has been the case ever since my youth that there were periods during which I felt entirely...empty. I am not implying that all of humanity does not occasionally suffer so, or that the substances were not, after a time, in themselves desirable. However, it has been some years since I have felt this way with any degree of extremity. I cannot promise you that I never will again, and I certainly do not wish you to think I shall ever sail with an entirely even keel," he added ironically. "But long years of self-reflection have ironed out the kinks to some extent. You have approximately thirty more seconds."

"If you no longer crave it, why would you not allow yourself some when you were so clearly in pain?" I added quite irrationally.

Holmes sighed deeply after lighting his pipe. "Your concern was once a cardinal feature of the ritual. However, I am no longer youthful or foolish enough to draw relief from another person's distress. Particularly yours. What?" he demanded at my look of shock. "You asked, and I have answered you as best I could. Your pained attempts to rid me of the habit are no longer necessary either. And now, I believe this interview draws to a happy close."

"Just a moment," I countered. "I've ten seconds more, I'm sure of it. Are you telling me that all those years of careful circumvention on my part--you actually enjoyed it?"

"No, not at all. But when I was young, it meant something to me that it meant something to you. What a pity--the minute has expired," he finished brightly. "That was quite enough maudlin veracity for one year." He rose and carried his glass to the sideboard.

"You are going to keep me guessing for the rest of my life, aren't you?" A heavy sadness had settled over me. I made an effort to push it away, thinking that I could count on one hand the number of times Holmes had shown me so much of his mind, and that I ought to feel grateful. But the fact that I would never, no matter how I tried, truly know him or the workings of his uniquely abstruse intellect was at that moment so devastating that I desired nothing more than for him to leave me there alone with my grief at long years of fruitless study and unreciprocated intimacy.

"Indeed, yes, for as long as I can manage it," he acknowledged with an oddly focused light in his eyes. "You love mysteries, you see."

I believe I could not quite keep my voice from catching when I asked, "What if I told you I didn't anymore?"

"I would know you are lying," he answered quietly. "But come now, enough of this. We have managed to work out the reasons behind our appallingly illogical actions of the last two months. It only remains to sort out what is to be done about it. We cannot be expected to live our lives without a moment's respite, and it is now clear that neither can we cease work for the best of reasons without offending one another."

"Then I suppose if we are to stop, we must do so for a bad reason," I stated numbly. I could not readily adjust my tone to match his light one, and considered it sufficiently courageous merely to have replied.

"There is something in that," he exclaimed. "A wholly arbitrary reason. It is an inspired notion. My dear fellow, how many more cases would you care to partake in? Twenty or thirty, perhaps?"

"What you will."

"Then I shall retire when I turn fifty, and we shan't look behind us," he declared. "Nothing simpler." He eyed me curiously. "Watson, are you going to look like this all night?"

"I cannot say. Why do you ask?" I returned apathetically.

"Because I love you, and you look low enough to sink through the floorboards," he replied with a great deal of impatience.

I could not help but stir slightly at this. Holmes made such direct declarations only once in every three to four years. "Do you?"

"Of course I do. It is an elementary principle of my universe. What do you wish me to say? That you are the sun around which I revolve?"

I looked him over carefully. His hands were in his pockets, his eyes sparkling with irritation. "That you love me is a very gratifying thing to hear," I said, smiling slightly.

He shook his head in some frustration. "You may believe it or not, just as you like."

"I do believe it," I insisted, "but I have a tendency to forget."

Shrugging, Holmes put out his pipe and stretched his arms lazily as if he were done with both the topic and the fellow participant in the conversation. "I believe the time has come for me to retire for the night."

"I shall accompany you."

"Not so fast," he contradicted me.

As I was already on my feet, I halted my movement and stood there peering in his direction disbelievingly. "Whatever do you mean?"

"I mean that there are a number of conditions to be met."

Crossing my arms, I smiled at him curiously. "What sort of conditions?"

"I have had a rather tedious time of it while you were becoming an expert in antiquities. If you wish to join me, there are one of two small tasks I may ask of you."

"I do not think I would be averse to granting any such favours," I said heartily. "Indeed, permit me to volunteer for the position."

"These favours are rather off the beaten track," he quipped, having largely recovered his good humour. "They are not the sort of thing one discusses in polite society, but I nevertheless expect you to comply. That is the first condition."

"Only the first? And pray, what is the second?"

"The second allows for considerably less effort on your part," he replied languidly. "But be warned that I have every intention of doing things to you which are expressly forbidden by the most grave mandates of British decency."

"Have you?" I queried. My pulse was beginning to quicken. "Terrible things?"

"Unforgivable things," he replied, grinning boyishly.

"Then I shall make every effort not to reveal I am enjoying it," I said seriously.

"That is undoubtedly for the best," he laughed. "I should lose all respect for you otherwise. Put that Chinese saucer in the safe, if you will, my dear fellow. I would not relish seeing it broken, and neither, I am sure, would our client." He made for his bedroom, leaving the door ajar.

I placed the little object in the safe with care and locked it away pensively. Feeling more drained than I had in years, I finished the last of my spirits, staring at my friend's open door. I had longed to be with him for agonizing days, and now that I at last was able to do so my mind lingered senselessly over matters barely understood, let alone resolved.
The train of my thoughts wandered back to the day Holmes would turn fifty. I still could not bring myself to believe that he would retire in two years time; and then, all at once I recognized yet another fear which had lurked below the surface all the while, perhaps the most telling of them all. I would never lose interest in Sherlock Holmes--there he had pinned me as surely as a butterfly to a piece of board. Yet once we had devoted ourselves to what he had once devastatingly called the dull routine of existence, would he not realize what little intrigue I myself had to offer? Would he not succumb at last, if not to drugs, then to the realization that every ounce of excitement in our lives had been provided by him and him alone? I was a sounding board, a comrade, a brother in arms as much as I was anything else. I was not myself luminous, and soon enough Holmes would know it. And knowing that, would he have any desire to see it through?

I shook my head at myself angrily. He loved me. He had just said so. I could believe it or not, as I wished. I blew out the candle on the sideboard, and lingered a moment longer as the smoke spiraled away into the darkened sitting room.