It was soon after completing the case that I have elsewhere titled The Sign of Four that I began to notice a change in my closest friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Though Holmes's habits were erratic at best, after several years of rooming together and sharing the danger brought on by his remarkable cases, I prided myself that I knew his unique character as well as any man alive. Our acquaintance had gradually taken on the quality of a partnership both in life and in practice. Occasional discords were sharp, but trivial, and I often wondered at how fortunate I was to have met a man whose habits so perfectly complimented my own. Aside from our mutual affection, I need not tell my readers again that I so admired Holmes's remarkable talents as to be utterly in awe of the man, and my respect for his genius went a long way toward endearing me to Holmes, whose ego was not immune to honest regard.
The case of The Sign of Four, while not the most difficult or dangerous of my friend's career, seemed to still be taking its toll on him, long after Tonga was dead and Jonathan Small in jail. Holmes's propensity for indulging in cocaine, a habit I found dangerous if not downright self-destructive, grew considerably after the case--a misfortune that caused me particular pain, given that the matter had ended exceedingly well for me. Eagerly anticipating my marriage to Mary Morstan did little to temper, however, the concern I felt over Holmes and his seven-percent solution. Finally, on a cold and wet London afternoon nearly one week from my marriage, when Holmes's spirits seemed at their lowest ebb, I determined to confront him. Because my friend's commanding nature is not one accustomed to criticism, I crossed him seldom and then warily, but on this occasion I had a firm intent in mind.
"Holmes," I said. "We must talk."
He looked up from his desk wearily. The bags under his eyes told me that he had not rested peacefully in some days, and the thought of the damage he was doing to his constitution frightened me. As a doctor, I could not witness the destruction of any fellow human being, and as Holmes's closest confidant, I could hardly bear to look at him.
"Yes, Watson?" he said quietly. "I gather from the strength of your imperative that we must, indeed, talk. So. What are we to talk about?" His gaze listlessly returned to the notes he was making in the index of his commonplace book. I plunged in.
"You are doing yourself irreparable harm and I will not allow it."
He raised a dark and languid eyebrow at me. "Really?" he drawled. "How alarming. Remarkably, I feel fine. So I must ask you to explain yourself, to elucidate more clearly what it is you mean. How am I harming myself, and more to the point, what business is it of yours?"
His cold manner startled me. I had suffered occasional joking insult at Holmes's hands before, but he had never spoken to me so callously. I swallowed hard and continued.
"I shall address the former question first, because it is the only one worthy of your asking. In brief, you will soon suffer dire consequences if you do not eat a little, get some rest, and stop using your syringe so liberally." I paused, and then added, "As for the second question. Even if you had not named me your physician, I should hope that you consider me your friend. In either case, it is my business to protect your health."
"I see," Holmes replied. "Did it not perhaps occur to you that I am already aware of your feelings in this matter? I marvel at your willingness to repeat yourself. Have you drawn no conclusions from my refusal to follow your past advice? Cocaine is not a crutch for me; it is merely a diversion from the unpleasant machinations of a great mind sans great endeavors. Surely it is within your power to hold your peace for a week, until we are no longer rooming together and my habits can no longer offend your pedestrian sensibilities."
I am certain I looked as though I'd been slapped across the face. He must have seen that his words had stung me, for he abruptly rose from the desk and approached me as I stood, looking down at our carpet. His clear grey eyes scanned my face. "You're not angry?"
"No," I said, relieved that he seemed to have recovered himself enough to notice my chagrin at his behavior. "No, of course I'm not angry. I am worried, though," I added as he crossed to the mantel. He filled his pipe with tobacco from the Persian slipper and turned to face me. "Worried and a bit confused."
"Confused?" he murmured. Then, suddenly, "Why?"
"Really, Holmes, I should think that a master of deductive reasoning such as yourself would mark the aberrant nature of your own recent habits. I am confused because you have not yet taken another case, though several have presented themselves, because your active nature has suddenly seen fit to collapse into inactivity, and because your use of cocaine, formerly a distraction to see you through the dry periods, now seems to be a full-blown hobby."
He lit his pipe, seemed to consider my words for a moment, and then apparently reached a decision of some kind. He said, "Watson, your observation does you credit. I am indeed not myself. I suppose it now only remains to tell you why." His suave manner, always reinforced by his imposingly tall figure and elegant black attire, did little to conceal his nervous energy.
"You suppose correctly, as usual," I said dryly. I always forgave Holmes quickly for any inadvertent hurt he had done me, but I cannot deny that his remarks had put me in a terse and impatient mood.
"It concerns your marriage." The words rushed out of him as if he was afraid he'd never say them unless they were said quickly. He turned his back to me, his long right arm resting on the mantel. "I...I must admit to knowing little of these matters. My realm of experience does not extend to matrimony, nor is it ever likely to. Such an event would, indeed, prove impossible for me. With that said, however, I want you to know that our long association has produced in me a certain...interest in your affairs."
"Oh," I said. I must admit to being caught off guard by his talk of my marriage. While the two of us were as close as any two friends and business partners, Holmes had steadfastly attempted to steer all conversation away from my nuptials since his first brittle remark that he could not congratulate me. I had assumed his aversion to the topic stemmed from that strange streak of misogyny in him that ran directly contrary to his innate chivalry. Holmes's complex nature was a puzzle I never expected to fully grasp. "What about my marriage concerns you?"
"I have only one question I wish to put to you."
"By all means." Holmes had not yet looked at me, but I knew my face was reflected clearly in the glass protecting Irene Norton, nee Adler's photograph, while Holmes's countenance remained concealed.
"Do you love her, Watson?"
His voice was steady, but I could see that his hand was now clutching the mantel as if he would fall, his other hand clenched and shoved deep within the confines of his pocket. From the stillness of his back, I could not tell if he was breathing. I am afraid I stood dumbly for some moments, too distracted by Holmes's odd body language to reply to his casually stated question. Finally, I made the best answer I could.
"Yes, Holmes. I course I do. She is one of the most charming women I have ever met. Why would I ask for her hand if I did not first love her?"
Holmes remained silent and perfectly still for several seconds. Then he abruptly relaxed, whirling to face me and bestowing on me one of his most dazzlingly charming smiles, the one usually reserved for flirting with kitchen maids and coaxing information out of reticent cooks. The statement looked positively garish in the dim light of our sitting room.
"Of course you love her," he cried cheerfully, crossing to me and wringing me by the hand. "And I congratulate you, my dear fellow. I was only concerned that the danger of the case and the allure of the Agra treasure may have tinged with romance a situation you might later find more prosaic. But if you love her, as you say you do, there is nothing to stand in your way."
"Is that all, Holmes?" I asked. I was relieved that Holmes's fears had been allayed so readily, and was more than a little flattered that at least part of his problem had been centered on me. Holmes never attempted to conceal his fondness for me, but direct expressions of it were rare events.
"That is all that I wished to ask you, yes. And now you must excuse me, for I am going out."
"But Holmes," I protested. "Mrs Hudson has prepared dinner for two in half--"
"Yes. Of course. I shall have to eat it later. It so happens that I require an hour or so with Mycroft, for there is a little matter of great delicacy on which I must request his advice."
"Certainly, Holmes. Has he called you in over a question of international relations?"
"This problem, I regret to say, is entirely domestic," Holmes answered.
We said our farewells as I helped him don his overcoat. I was surprised to see him fairly sprint down our seventeen steps and nearly get run over by the cab he hailed. I turned back into our rooms and shut the door behind me. Sitting on the mantel, his unnoticed pipe sent thin tendrils of smoke up to the ceiling. I put it out for him and sat down in my usual chair to ponder the events of that afternoon. What precisely was wrong with my friend Sherlock Holmes, I knew not. But I intended to discover the truth, and discover it as soon as possible.
"Really, Sherlock," Mycroft said gruffly, though not without affection, glancing at his younger brother as the latter leaned against the armchair of the Diogenes Club Stranger's room. "For you to be so affected by this event is unlike you. Firstly, why should Watson's marriage harm anyone? Surely the woman is worthy of his regard, as you yourself said she displayed some native intellect and a great deal of courage. Therefore it cannot be your partner for whom you fear. It cannot be for Mary's sake that you detest the match either, for Watson is an admirable gentleman in every respect."
"Of course he is. That is not the point," Sherlock Holmes protested.
His appearance was dishevelled, a fact which did not escape his older brother, and it vaguely disturbed him. Mycroft knew that Sherlock was usually a man of meticulous personal habits. Despite his brusque manner, Mycroft harbored a certain protective instinct where his younger and more active brother was concerned. He was determined to discover what had so upset Sherlock that three full days of London mud rested unnoticed on his right instep. As a genius of observation, not to mention a member of the family, Mycroft knew he had not long to wait.
"What, then, is the point? Your financial situation is such that you could afford far more expansive lodgings than those you and Watson share. It is not plausible to assume you are losing a business partner, or even a biographer, for Watson will surely remain involved in your work. His writing is so exuberant at times that I wonder whether rushing madly about with you is all he lives for."
Sherlock glanced sharply at his brother, seated comfortably on half the sofa, and then murmured, "I wish you were right." Mycroft noted with concern that his brother's hands were shaking ever so slightly, and that Sherlock was attempting not to look him in the eye.
Mycroft's grey gaze narrowed. "Sit down, Sherlock," he said. "You're making me nervous. As for what you have to say, say it now, man. You came when you knew you'd find me here, promptly brought up the matter of Dr. Watson's marriage and your aversion to it, and haven't said ten words together since. Out with it. Your intent is to tell me something, and I only hope the news isn't as serious as your boots tell me it is."
Sherlock glanced at his feet and smiled faintly. "In the grand scheme of things, it isn't important at all. And yet," he said softly, taking a deep breath, "it may be the most important single event of my life." He fell to a closer inspection of his shoes and the three days worth of London mud evident thereon. "They are bad, aren't they?"
Mycroft smiled. "Yes," he said gently. "Bad enough for me to notice, although I know you well enough to tell anyway that this isn't your typical fraternal visit." He paused. "Would it be easier for you if I deduced it?"
Laughing mirthlessly, Sherlock Holmes finally sat in the armchair. "Yes, I suppose," he said. "Albeit your expertise in this field is just as elementary as mine."
It was then that Mycroft knew. Sherlock's heart beat a trifle faster when he saw the far-off look in his brother's eye, knowing his secret had been divined so quickly. Mycroft looked shaken for a moment, and then recovered his composure. He seemed as though he were weighing exactly how to broach a supremely difficult topic. Sherlock said nothing; his throat was too tightly constricted to breathe normally. Finally, seeing how white his sibling had turned, Mycroft spoke to him with honesty and simplicity.
"You're in love with him, aren't you?"
Sherlock's lips seemed to be forming words that died even as he thought them. Finally, closing his eyes and leaning his head back, he whispered, "Yes." He passed a still-shaking hand over his high forehead and brushed back a lock of black hair. Several moments had passed before he was calm enough to say, with a touch of his usual irony, "Is it that obvious?"
"Oh, Sherlock..." said his brother. "No, of course not. But...well, yes. To me. But I must admit to having been damnably slow."
Sherlock smiled bitterly, and then said, "So has Watson."
"I see," Mycroft replied. "Yes, obviously. You've cohabited for years and he remains in the dark? But perhaps this is a recent event?"
"No," said Sherlock sadly. Unable to sit still, he rose and paced across the deep red carpet. Finally, he rested against a convenient desk. "It has been some time now. Of course, I cannot blame him for not noticing at first. I did my level best to prevent its happening at all, and God only knows the struggle I had. I felt as though I were literally in Hades, pushing a tremendous boulder uphill. I never consciously gave in to it at all. Let us just say I was crushed under the weight."
"What a remarkably disturbing experience for a man of your detached nature."
"'Remarkable' hardly describes the utter chaos of my brain at this moment, Mycroft." Sherlock drew out a silver cigarette case, inscribed "From JHW to SSH; Christmas 1885," and lit a smaller alternative to his pipe. He inhaled the smoke deeply. As he seemed ready to discuss the matter further, Mycroft continued cautiously.
"I can only assume your sudden visit here was precipitated by Dr. Watson's impending nuptials. I admit to this being a problem of some weight," Mycroft said slowly. While he was accepting of his brother's revelation, and not entirely surprised by it, Mycroft was reluctant to inquire too closely. Not inclined to any close relationships himself, he had always assumed Sherlock actually was the asexual being he presented himself as. The discovery that he was wrong was not unpleasant, but it was, well, surprising. "I suppose if I am to render any assistance, I must question you further. What steps have you taken?"
Sherlock again closed his eyes briefly; his long lashes standing out starkly against the uncharacteristically extreme pallor of his face. "I have grown more and more forward as the months have passed. He accompanies me everywhere. We dine together, walk together, visit the theatre and Royal Albert Hall. Not to mention his total inclusion in all aspects of my work, however confidential the matter at hand. And yet he remains ignorant. For God's sake, Mycroft, I have lulled the man to sleep on the violin."
"Hmpf," said Mycroft. "So you feel you have exhausted all non-verbal channels of communication, bar the pen, which I would advise against."
"Mycroft, you see a tortured man before you, not a complete idiot. I pride myself that the blackmail price of such a letter would be extravagant."
Mycroft sighed. "I am relieved that the strength of your emotion has not entirely robbed you of your faculties. But surely, as risky as it may sound, is it not called for at this juncture to simply tell him? His marriage, as you are well aware, will effectively end all future opportunities to pursue this matter. I say this not to be cruel," he added seeing Sherlock again grow visibly upset, "but to impress upon you a sense of urgency."
"Urgency?" Sherlock cried. "Urgency! Why do you think I've come to you of all people? Mycroft, you may be my brother, and you are certainly possessed of the Holmes ability to see most of the facts and infer the rest, but you surely don't believe that you are an authority on matters of the heart, do you? Watson is to be married in a week's time, he has asked me to serve as best man, and out of a desperation tempered by panic I have come to you, the one person other than Watson whom I can trust not to reveal my secret or whistle for a bobby." He stopped himself abruptly, and continued. "Mycroft," he said hoarsely "I shall tell him tonight. But, should anything unfortunate occur"--he cleared his throat--"I.... Well, I wanted you to know how things stand. He loves Mary, you see," Sherlock added, his voice as much despairing as angry. "He said so."
"I see," said Mycroft. "Very well." He rose, crossed to the desk, and put his huge hand on Sherlock's slim but muscular shoulder. "I shall wait to hear from you. I agree that this is the best--the only course of action left to you." Leading Sherlock to the door, he paused. Sherlock looked at him expectantly.
"It is apparent from those tales that he loves you." Mycroft was shaken to see the suggestion of tears in his brother's eyes, but continued. "He loves you, certainly. You must simply make him see how he loves you."
Sherlock nodded, shook Mycroft's hand as though it were their last moment together, straightened his shoulders, and set off for Baker Street.
I had dozed off in my armchair when I heard Holmes's step on the landing. He opened the door and strode in, soaking wet and obviously chilled to the bone. As he started removing rain-soaked garments, I rose to my feet.
"For Heaven's sake, Holmes, let me help you. Were there no cabs to be had in this storm? You must dry off, and quickly or you shall certainly catch a chill."
He removed the last of his outer garments and stood there in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, which, while not soaked through, were exceedingly damp. Walking toward the fireplace, he ran a hand through dark hair that glistened in the yellow light. His hat was in his other white hand, and from the state of his head, it had obviously not been worn for some minutes. He tossed it on the settee.
"Watson, I have a confession to make."
"Indeed?" I said. I could not imagine what confession a self-contained gentleman like Sherlock Holmes could possibly be so distracted by as to walk the easy distance from the Diogenes Club to Baker Street in a March downpour. Seeing him hesitate, I prompted him. "You have my full attention."
"Very well," he said. He appeared to be wrestling with some inner conflict, the nature of which would soon be made clear to me. His high cheekbones were flushed and the erratic quality of his movements, so far from his usual languid grace, told me his confession would not be an easy one. Eventually he said clearly, with only a trace of fear in his voice, "I have not been entirely honest with you, I am afraid. It would have been better for us both had I been forthright from the beginning. I found, however, that my ingrained sense of privacy coupled with my fear of angering you prevented me from speaking my mind until this exceedingly tardy occasion." He sighed deeply and continued. "Watson, I have the strongest possible objection to your marriage."
At first I was so shocked that I could not even formulate the simple question, "And what objection might that be?" So hurt was I by his admission and so afraid of what he might say that I could not even think. I waited for him to continue.
Instead he walked to the side table and poured himself a generous helping of brandy, whether to fortify himself against the cold or strengthen his resolve I could not tell. I blurted, "What is it? You cannot keep me in suspense. If my relationship with Mary is somehow marred, you cannot keep it from me." There was an edge to my voice that I could not control.
He set the empty glass down and looked me straight in the eye. His eyes are and always have been remarkable. Their grey depths are at once mysterious and mesmerizing, and can glint with humor as unexpectedly as a summer storm. The intelligence which shines out of them can intimidate some, but I have always found them exciting and vaguely dangerous. The look he gave me now, however, outdid in intensity any I had previously encountered; his eyes seemed sharp as steel when he said quietly, desperately, "Watson, I appear to have fallen in love."
The room reeled momentarily, but I soon recovered my senses. "Dear God," I cried. So this was the secret that had been tormenting Holmes for weeks. My heart ached with the tragic senselessness of it. My dearest companion, the man I literally believed I would die for, had somehow fallen in love with the object of my desire, and was tortured by guilt. I could not speak for some minutes, until I realized I was wronging Holmes by my silence. I drew my breath unsteadily, saying, "Holmes, you must understand, these things happen. I can no more blame you for what you feel than Mary can."
He seemed stunned by my reaction, looking as if he had expected to be struck for his words. "I am glad to hear you say so," he whispered.
I was determined, at all costs, to act the gentleman. My friend was enormously talented, justly famous, moderately rich, and cut a striking figure of a man. I would accept Mary's decision between the two of us and hold no grudges, though I already surmised with a sickening turn of the stomach that I would surely lose in any contest against Holmes. Feeling for my friend, who still appeared recently loosed from hell, I asked, "Have you spoken with Mary?"
"No," he said quickly, "why--" And then he suddenly turned a shade paler. I could not tell if the moisture on his face was the residue of rain or of sweat. "No," he repeated, more strongly. "I have not told Mary I was in love with her. For the very simple reason that I am not, nor have I ever been in love with her." His words were deliberate, but still wracked with pain.
"I don't understand, Holmes." I crossed to my companion, who looked fainter by the second, and took him by the arm. "You said you object to my marriage because you have fallen in love."
He stared at me, smiled a heartbreakingly hopeless little smile, and said softly, "Yes."
When I realized, a moment later, what on earth he was talking about, I am afraid I could not reply immediately. His words echoed in my ears, and while they spun out of control above my head, my mind forced me to recall a million tiny gestures, a thousand suspect glances, all of which I had either stupidly misinterpreted or stubbornly ignored. Our clock chimed the hour of eight; it was dark as pitch outside, and the wind whipped against our windowpanes as if laying siege to the fire within. I wondered, insanely, whether Holmes knew his admission was criminal. Of course he did, I thought. Holmes knew everything. I was the one kept in the dark. Suddenly realizing that my hand still rested on Holmes's arm, which was frighteningly close beneath his white sleeve, I made a show of crossing to the fireplace to stoke the dying coals. I had to restore some semblance of normalcy, needing to feel that Holmes and I were flat mates, business partners, and dear God in heaven, why had I never noticed his manner around me, the way he--
"I gather from your silence that the news is not entirely welcome. I assure you that I have imagined every possible outcome of this conversation, and while one outcome in particular would be congenial to me, I am entirely prepared for the other four." Holmes's stare was feverish, but contained. Now that I understood the situation at last, he seemed calmer.
"Of course, Watson. Four. That you one, leave this house never to be seen again; two, attempt to maintain our friendship while proceeding with your marriage; three, actively cherish a newfound enmity against me; or four, follow my wishes out of a false sense of loyalty, friendship or pity."
I cleared my throat. "And the fifth option?"
"I think you can guess." I thought, not for the first time, of how strong and rich Holmes's voice was. It could command the most hardened criminals and comfort the most distraught clients. "Watson, you are not the shrewdest of men, but I credit you with more perceptiveness than most. Please," he said pleadingly, crossing toward me. "I know I've startled you and likely ruined the only friendship untainted by ambition or greed I will ever experience. You will almost certainly be disgusted by my revelation," he said, his voice rising in intensity. "And desire nothing more than for it to fade into blessed oblivion. But for mercy's sake," he cried. "Hate me, strike me, or simply walk away, but don't stand there silent. I cannot bear it."
"You will have to," I said angrily. "I haven't the faintest notion of what to say."
The room was silent for a moment. "Very well," he said more coldly. It had obviously cost him a great deal to show me so much, and his sensitive and impatient nature demanded a swift resolution, however ecstatic or agonizing. I could not yet, however, express the myriad emotions that battled for supremacy within my soul. I sighed, thinking I needed some days to sort out such a tangled conundrum, when all at once I felt a rush of sympathy for Holmes, whose feelings were so passionately sincere they took my breath away. My habitual instinct to protect this invaluable man from self-destruction must have taken over, for I reached for his hand and squeezed it. It was icy to the touch and I remembered he had only recently come in from the cold. To this day I can attribute my initial behavior to the instincts of a doctor, but I know my real motives were far, far more complex.
I cannot remember precisely how it started. Perhaps I led him to his bedroom to find a warm change of clothes. Perhaps I helped him off with his waistcoat because he seemed so dazed. It is indeed possible that the hand I ran over his forehead was meant to be comforting and nothing more. But I cannot in any honesty say that I turned away when he sat on his bed and rested his overwrought head against my chest, nor can I deny that when I turned his face up to look me in the eye, I wanted nothing more than to stare into greyness and the misty cold of crisp, clean fog reflected in his gaze. I ran my fingers through his thick, dark hair. Neither Holmes nor I know who initiated the kiss. We likely never will.
Holmes's skin quickly warmed against mine as we proceeded to disrobe beyond all bounds of decency. I can only attribute my uncharacteristic willingness to the intensity of the bond already existing between us, and the heady aftermath of having been kissed by one whose world pulses with your own heartbeat. I had seen Holmes's bare body twice before: once after I'd stripped it to tend a bullet wound which grazed his rib cage, and once when he'd just emerged from a bare knuckle boxing match in one of his many East End disguises. I thought for a moment it had never looked so strong, so graceful yet muscular before. I realized almost immediately I was wrong. It had been beautiful even then. I had seen, but I had not observed.
We were soon lying in bed together, Holmes surprising me with his skill and me shocking myself with my reciprocation. Holmes stopped me only once as our activities escalated. He rolled over so that he lay on top on me, his arms pinioning mine, his gaze inches from my face.
"Tell me," he said in a choked whisper. "Tell me it isn't pity. Swear it isn't your damned bloody kind-heartedness."
My passions were sufficiently aroused at this point to answer, "No. I swear to you it isn't." Conversation was then suspended for some few hours. I eventually exhausted myself so completely, physically and emotionally, that I drifted off to sleep, as I lay entangled with him, his head pillowed on my chest.
It is difficult for me now, looking back at irrevocable events, to relate what I did when I regained consciousness. I want to say that my night with Holmes had convinced me to stay with him forever, that our lovemaking had bound me to him as fatally as he was bound to me. I desperately want to write that I yearned for his kiss and touched him gently just to see his expression when he awoke. Such was not to be.
I was flooded with a sense of shame unlike any I had ever experienced. Not only had I slept with another man--waves of revulsion shook me at the thought--but I was betrothed. I was promised to Mary Morstan, a noble lady whose quiet grace and ingratiating strength of character would never countenance a husband who had not merely committed adultery, but homosexual adultery. I looked at Holmes, now sleeping peacefully a foot or so from me. The man I had always adored for his bravery, intellect, and love of justice, seemed in the depths of my guilt nothing but a deviant drug addict who had drawn me into his circle of depravity. I wondered how many others there had been before me, how many other men had tainted him with their attentions. My irrational anger at my own infidelity made Holmes abhorrent to me, a fallen archangel whose nocturnal cries reverberated in my ears like the laughter of devils. Madly, I thought he seduced me out of spite at my impending wedded bliss.
I could not wait until he awoke. Rising as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, I crept to the door. Looking back, I saw his chest rise and fall beneath a single sheet. Holmes was of necessity a light sleeper--his continual thwarting of the criminal element required him to be extremely alert to possible danger--but he had not slept for days, and his exertions of the night before had been strenuous. I shuddered to think of them. I fled, away from Holmes's darkness, his complexity, his imbalance. I did not see him again for some weeks.
Looking back on my life, I can easily identify the two most callous and cruel acts I ever committed. One was my hasty departure. The other was my return.