Actions

Work Header

something free, something in chains

Chapter Text

 

 

of whom are you a prisoner?

should I tear them asunder?

should I steal their thunder?

I would do that for you

The Jezabels - Prisoner

 

 

 

Holmes welcomes the disorder of a new case. It is with such disorder that he fends off despair. The answer, the arrest, the resolution: these things sometimes bring satisfaction, but more often bring a grey, paralyzing torpor. It is when he’s occupied by a new problem that he feels unfettered by his mind.   

Holmes suspects that Russell merely endures the silent watchful hours of surveillance. To her it is a necessary tedium. Holmes cannot fault her for this. He knows that she does not know that there is a different sort of tedium, the tedium of melancholy, and so he forgives her this small impatience.

 

 

In the three years that Holmes spent lost to London and lost to himself, he spent six months in Paris investigating a lieutenant in the Sûreté nationale he believed—correctly, as it turned out—to be working as an executioner-for-hire. He spent uncountable near-stupefied hours watching the man, all the while compiling an exhaustive mental monograph of the mess he left back in London: of the pride he harboured in his heart; of the filthy black thing he lived with, a malaria of the spirit; of the way he had hurt and deceived Watson. Holmes knows that without this small distraction of the policeman, this supposed tedium of sour alleyways and misty early mornings and silent watchfulness, he would have destroyed himself.

 

 

“Veronica asked if there might be something I could do for her fiancé Miles. He has a drug habit. Any suggestions?”

Russell’s friend Veronica is really asking if there is anything Sherlock Holmes can do for her fiancé. Holmes has known since the Hilary term of Russell’s second year at Oxford that she and Veronica Beaconsfield are intimate. More than anything, it is the tone Russell uses when she speaks of her, as if she is daring him to accuse her of evasion; it reminds Holmes of his younger self.

Beaconsfield’s fiancé has become addicted to heroin. Russell wants him to help this young man. He feels a flush rise to his face, and he rises and dashes his still-burning pipe into the fire to conceal his lack of self-control. He is angry at himself. He has deceived her.

“Nothing can be done.”

“He seems to have been a good man, before the trenches.”

“Most of them were.” 

“And if he were your son? Would you not want someone to try?”

She has misread his guilt as the echo of a misdeed from the past. Holmes feels bleak despair at the inevitability of it all: his son inherited not only his eyes and his perfect pitch, but his lunacy; countless young men, trench fodder to an indifferent empire, find that the only balm for their pain is the oblivion of morphia or cocaine or drink. Dear, dear Russell: she clearly has no idea just how deep the claws go. There is a vial of morphine buried in the bottom of a tin of stale coffee at the back of the cupboard. It nags at him.

“That was unworthy of you, Russell.”

There is a thick silence. Before she can apologise, Holmes rises to his feet and sweeps out of the room in one energetic movement, gathering up his jacket and coat without checking that his note-case is in the pocket, and it is owing to this foolish, impetuous gesture that he ends up walking the six miles to Victoria Station, smoking furiously, to buy a second-class ticket back to Eastbourne with the change in his pocket. He thinks of his son. He feels lower than he has in months. The next time he sees Russell, he briskly accepts her apology and changes the subject. It would not do for her to be too concerned.

 

 

Holmes helps this young man rid himself of the physical addiction. It is a long and tiring process, and like all long and tiring processes it makes Holmes wish he had cocaine (it has been 25 months; two years exactly since he used an opium derivative). In the train back to London Holmes briefly outlines for Fitzwarren (sitting numb and stupid) the psychological hold of the drug. Bright eyed and shaking from lack of sleep, Holmes once worked his way through the catalogue of the British Medical Journal at the library of the University of London, searching for articles concerning treatment for addiction. He does not tell Miles Fitzwarren that the odds are against him.

In early 1913, thousands of miles from home, in the accents and clothes of another, Holmes approached a man in a grimy Chicago saloon and asked him in that ridiculous transparent shorthand of drug users if he was willing to part with some, bringing to an idiotic end a long period of (relative) sobriety. Laudanum and morphine followed not far behind. His drug use by mid-1915 was rather more than a casual affair; he has shed himself of the physical addiction twice since then, once in Watson’s care and once in an anonymous Brighton hotel room. The secrecy is almost as corrosive to the spirit as the poison itself. No, he does not tell Miles Fitzwarren these things: if he is lucky, he will never need to know.

 

 

Russell has been circumspectly investigating a church called the New Temple in God. Until Russell discovered that several women associated with the church have altered their wills before dying suspiciously similar deaths (including Delia Laird, who drowned in the bathtub), Holmes considered the case to be drearily commonplace. If this case is just an excuse for Russell to distract herself from the fact of her twenty-first birthday and the attainment of her majority, so be it. Holmes is perfectly prepared to accept that Laird’s death was suicide. Suicide is common enough. Yet, there are tantalizing aspects to it, all the same.

Holmes drinks six pints of excellent bitter in a pub two doors down from the sullen redbrick boarding house where Delia Laird died, ostensibly by her own hand. He smokes an impressive amount of cheap cigarettes and manages to exchange words with most of the regulars on his frequent trips to and from the privy.

He learns—interspersed with a supplementary catalogue of the illnesses, affairs, and petty crimes of a square mile of London—that Delia Laird was widely regarded to be an “odd sort”. She stopped by the pub occasionally on her way home, drinking  gin and tonic in demure silence. The oddness could be parsed simply as an effect of her class and politics; perhaps she was a lesbian.

Holmes finds Russell’s interest in this bizarre charismatic church understandable only in an intellectual way. He swore off churchgoing the year his father died, being no longer obliged to pay lip service to the sterile Protestant God of his father, a father who dominated the family with sweeping rages and black despondency. Holmes could never decide whether his father actually believed or whether he just wanted to play the patriarch in front of the whole parish on Sunday. No matter. He was nineteen then, a sworn non-believer since early adolescence. He has attended any number of funerals, and he was the best man at Watson’s wedding. Other than that he has not stepped foot in a church.

 Holmes exits the smoky dimness of the pub, the unsteadiness in his step not entirely feigned. The smell of the pie seller at the corner of the street could only charitably be described as unappetising, but the last meal he can remember clearly is yesterday’s dinner, and Holmes did not live to middle-age by being incautious, so he sits and eats a simply dreadful beef pie and smokes a pipe. A low note of caution is ringing at the back of his mind, but it will not resolve itself into words. He resolves to send a coded wire to Russell in Oxford at the soonest opportunity, even though she is immersed in preparations for her viva voce. Something simple which will sharpen her protective instincts, remind her that the lacunae in the case could easily be concealing potential danger.

 

 

Walking to the bolt-hole he calls the Storage Room, Holmes drinks in London in the gloaming. A snatch of Rachmaninov through the open door of a bookshop on the Camberwell Road. A blank-faced limestone house where he once sat in the front room, sweating and morphine-sick, to tell a good woman that her husband was dead. A flower seller in Lambeth lifts his hat to him while offering an overpriced and dirty-looking silk rose to one half of a courting couple (two typists: discreet, but not enough for Holmes).

Later he will grudgingly admit to himself that it was a neat thing. Halfway across the street, about twenty yards from the street entrance of his bolt-hole, he hears a shrill whistle come from his right. He turns his head involuntarily toward the source of the noise, and then there is a dull pain on the left side of his skull, and after that he remembers nothing.

When Holmes comes to he finds himself sitting on cold cobblestones in the greasy darkness of a laneway. His head pounds abominably. There are dark figures around him, boots and serge trousers. He lets his head pound with another heartbeat and then he rises halfway to his feet and knocks one of them down before there are arms on his biceps, legs on his chest, the knuckle-crack sound of the hammer drawing back on a revolver. Be still now, he warns himself. His head rings with a tone very much like the tenor note of the Great Bell at St Mary-le-Bow. Black spots flutter like ash in his vision.

"He's a quick one."

Holmes attempts through the noise of the concussion to discern whether he was followed or whether they had the bolt-hole. It is impossible to draw a conclusion. A face comes into view. A ridiculous false beard, a bowler hat, the smell of French brilliantine and Turkish cigarettes.

His heart beats in his chest. He remembers, of course, that the man in Palestine smoked Turkish cigarettes, he cannot help but remember, he sees everything , but he takes that memory and shreds it down to nothing because he cannot afford to remember now, even though he cannot afford to forget.

“I read those books when I was a kid,” the man says, and then there is the butt of the revolver in his ear, his sleeve being pushed up roughly, the sting of a needle. Holmes breathes once, then swallows, his mouth dry. He never did send that wire. He wonders if they know he's had a few—

 

 

If one defines being imprisoned as being forcibly deprived of one’s liberty and confined, then it has happened to Holmes three times. There was a hand he couldn't see holding a revolver to the back of his head, Holmes falling down on his knees in the labyrinth of streets where the tarts and the rent boys did their business down in Whitechapel. There was a shameful, shivering, filthy, hungover night in a police cell. There was the hook in the ceiling, a man expert with a cigarette, a philosopher of pain.

There was another prison, the prison he made for himself. That one was the worst; it was as tall and as wide as everything.

A stone cell twenty feet by sixty. The ceiling is less than six feet tall; he can stand only by crouching. No suspenders, no shirt or vest, no shoes, no coat. A wine cellar. Panic rises within him until he feels it clamp down on his throat, and he goes deep within himself then and tries desperately to think of something that will take him away, and the thing that finally does it is the last few bars of the first movement of Beethoven’s 9 th Symphony. The man who composed this was deaf , he whispered to Watson, next to him in the dimness of the St. James Hall.  

 

 

Three bolts draw back before the door opens. Five men. In the oppressive darkness the light sets a cold bolt of pain through his skull. They get him down against the wall, eventually, but not before one of them has a broken jaw. The one whose orders the others follow takes a revolver from the pocket of his sports jacket, then, and places it casually against Holmes’ cheek. Holmes can smell the cleaning solvent. The man jerks his head—in this light Holmes can tell that his eyes are either green or hazel—and the other men leave. Holmes feels the flesh on his arms crawl. He loathes firearms; he had reason to loathe them before his cheeks needed a razor.

Casually, experimentally, the man lets the gun trail down Holmes’ chest and stomach. Beer on his breath: it’s probably after lunchtime. Holmes concentrates on keeping his breath even. The man uses the revolver to trace the shape of Holmes’ cock through his trousers, then, and lets it sit there, heavy.

Holmes knows the same way he knows that this man was born poor but made himself rich, this man wearing French brilliantine, who smokes Turkish cigarettes; he knows that he found Holmes’ note-case, that he scrounged through the banknotes and found the jotted note from Watson that ends with “love, John”.

“Tie off and inject yourself. I know you know how to do it. If you’re not interested in doing that, I’ll get the boys back in here and we’ll have a nice old party.”

Yorkshire born, London educated. Holmes takes the tourniquet and puts it around his left biceps. His hands know what they’re doing. He wonders if he could get the gun away in time. He wonders if this man is mad enough to pull the trigger.

“Who knew the great Sherlock Holmes was a faggot,” the man says, his eyes steady.

It gives Holmes a savage joy to know that he feels no shame within himself, only black rage. An entirely dreary man with very little imagination; Holmes would like to do more than break his jaw.

“You would be surprised who knew,” Holmes says. “Or perhaps not.”

The revolver strikes him across the face. The back of Holmes’ head hits the wall. His every sense is engulfed in a dull susurration which seems to radiate out from himself, filling the room. He feels the man probe for the vein with expert fingers. Holmes is very conscious of the scar in his elbow. There is a slight sting. When the man pushes the syringe home, he knows immediately that it is heroin. After that, he is nothing.  

The man returns after no more than five hours, and they repeat the entire performance: the struggle, the imprecations of his manhood. Holmes can endure this; it reminds him of school, and far worse things have happened to him since that ignorant and debased place was finished with him. No, what becomes difficult is scrupulously maintaining the pretense of refusal.

 

 

He dreams while he is awake. He dreams of he and Watson young in London, he dreams of coming back to Watson out of love, even though he knew he should stay away; he dreams of his mother singing to him in French; he dreams of playing a tedious, unimaginative Ruy Lopez with Moriarty; he dreams of Russell walking toward him across the downs, a damaged child with a heart hardened to flint by pain, and he knows that she is unaware that she prevented his death; somewhere in the midst of all these jumbled images, as there often is when he dreams, there is his mother lying on her side, her head a corona of blood, the scream of the maid an endless hysterical high C. When he’s lucid, he never stops thinking of what he’ll do to them if they let him get his hands on them.

 

...

 

A swift movement with the straightrazor. After that his left hand won’t work; his fingers slippery with blood. In an act of self-preservation he cannot explain, he fashions a clumsy tourniquet from an old shirt. He makes it as far as the landing before his legs go out from under him. It is twelve years after Moriarty and nine years after he returned to London. He believes with all his heart that there is nothing left.

He would like to remember nothing else of this whole ignominious episode, except he does: he remembers Watson, dear Watson, crying without shame, like a child. In the first whole memory he has of the hospital, he is sitting on the bed in a blank room, smelling his own stale fever-sweat, while a brisk man in a crisp shirt asks him questions he refuses, in increasingly strident tones, to answer.

The next day, Mycroft comes and takes him away, to a quiet villa in the Scottish countryside, and because Holmes knows he won’t be able to answer any of their questions either—in an act of cruelty that still pricks at his conscience—he tells Mycroft about the maid with the high C scream, about the way that it seems to echo within him on the long nights. Mycroft wraps his arms around his bulk and sits motionless for many minutes.

Mycroft then informs him in a voice which would sound firm to anybody else that it has become increasingly clear that a dependence on cocaine and morphia has affected his ability to think clearly, that he is no longer in any state of mind which could be called rational or sane, and that he is destroying himself. It is clear to Holmes that Mycroft is embarrassed, although the reason for the embarrassment goes carefully unremarked. They have not spoken of their mother in years.

 Mycroft also leaves carefully unremarked the fact of Holmes’ continuing intimacy with Watson. (“I do not know what you see in him,” Mycroft had remarked the first time they met. “He seems so dreadfully common.” Ah, Holmes thought, that is where you are mistaken; this man is anything but common.)

 Holmes says nothing; he thinks, as he does often, of the waters at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. In the end, he does Mycroft’s bidding; he stays in Scotland. He does not return to the drugs. When he gets back to London—to Watson, who treats him with such gentle concern that he can scarcely bear it—he finds that he still cannot sleep at night. He moves to Sussex and declares himself retired at forty-two. Six months after that, he returns to the chemist on the Marylebone Road.

 

...

 

What their endgame is, Holmes doesn’t know. Presumably they have ready access to the drug and know that it makes for remarkably complacent prisoners; thanks to Watson and Doyle (that superstitious fool, who now spends much of his time arguing for the existence of fairies ), they probably believe themselves to have a genius escape artist on their hands. He wishes desperately for tobacco; that desire is far worse than hunger.

 Thanks to Watson and Doyle, they must also know of his weakness for narcotics. Watson made it sound like a hobby. It was actually an infirmity, a shameful thing which tore a hole at the centre of his friendship with Watson and reduced his relationship with his brother to a cold politeness which took years to thaw. Holmes suddenly regrets, for no reason that he can rationally determine, that he ever  reacted to Watson’s stories with such asperity. They were written with love.

When he realises that his body has come to crave the drug, he weeps. He knows exactly what he has lost. He’s thinking of a violin concerto he first heard in Oxford half a lifetime ago, in a room streaming with early morning light, when through the clammy stones he hears the hollow echo of a gunshot. He rises to his feet, his thighs shaking with the effort of standing half-bent, ready to do his best to overpower the person who comes to the door, but the person who comes to the door is Russell.

Chapter Text

In this decaying Georgian mansion in Essex, Holmes stands motionless at the window. When she brings him a shirt and vest from one of the bedrooms, he recoils slightly, as if he is smelling something distasteful. The room she took them from smelled only of cigarettes and hair oil, typical masculine scents. Russell places them on a chair in the bathroom and draws a bath, the briskness of her manner foreign to herself.

Holmes is still shirtless, and in the pale morning light there are shadows under his collarbones. He looks to Russell to have lost about ten pounds. He is smoking one of Lestrade’s cigarettes as if it gives him life.

“These men make accusations against you,” Russell says, her voice carefully soft. “They state that you came here voluntarily, that you injected yourself with this drug.”

She cannot bring herself to say the name, heroin . It is simply an acetylated form of morphine. She knows that Holmes rid himself of his attachment to it and others years ago. She knows that it has legitimate medical uses, as an analgesic and an antitussive. Yet she cannot bring herself to say the name.

“Russell,” Holmes says, speaking not to her but to whatever he sees in the window, “I wonder if there is a small velvet case of a dark colour in the effects of the man who—the man who kept me here.”

He is shivering. It is a mild day.

“There is,” Russell says, her voice carefully even. She looks at the white pitted scars on his shoulders. The word torture flits involuntarily across her mind.

“If you were to look for it, Russell, and bring it here, I would be very grateful.”

He speaks this last slowly, in French, and so it takes Russell a good twenty seconds to understand what he is saying. She cannot stand to hear the thin sliver of desperation in his voice, so she fetches the velvet case, telling herself that she is doing nothing wrong, that this is the most acceptable solution to the problem, and he goes into the bathroom with it and locks the door. When he emerges he is clean, and notwithstanding the fact that he is barefoot, gaunt, and wearing the clothes of a much shorter man, he looks his usual self. He gives a statement to the police inspector, his eyes hard, his words precise and biting, and then they leave.

 

 

He is silent in the Q's car all the way back to London. That is not unusual. He picks at dinner, but that is not unusual either. He smokes Mr Q’s cigarettes. Mycroft telephones; Holmes has Russell pretend that he is sleeping. Russell spends an hour finding a pair of size 11 shoes. Holmes seems largely indifferent to the question of his footwear. Walking toward the train in the clamorous dimness of Victoria Station, his eyes are narrow.

On the platform, he puts a hand on her elbow. She turns her face to him, seeing as she didn’t before his wild searching eyes, the dark smudges beneath them.  Perhaps she didn’t see these things before because he would not let them show.

"Russell, I need... I need cigarettes."

In the sudden quiet of the first class compartment, she puts a cardboard package of cheapish cigarettes in his hand, a box of matches. It takes him two attempts to get the match lit. The train pulls away with a jerk, and Holmes sits and smokes in that active way which is peculiar to him.

 Russell is so tired she feels light-headed. Even at university, she could not forgo a night’s sleep without feeling this dreadful, anxious befuddlement. Her bad shoulder is aching abominably, too; she resolves that she will take an aspirin immediately they arrive back at Holmes’ cottage, and attempts to push the matter to the back of her mind.

"How do you feel?"

"I feel unspeakably ashamed," Holmes says, and then he crosses his arms and turns to the window.

Russell knows then that there will be no more discussion, not for at least twenty miles of suburban sprawl and countryside, so she lets her eyes drift shut.

She wakes up an hour later, still feeling dreadfully fatigued, to find Holmes in very much the same position, pale, shivering slightly, as if it were bitter midwinter outside. Five miles out of Eastbourne, he looks feverish. He smokes continuously. Of course, Russell thinks. She feels such a fool.

"You went into the bathroom looking sick and came out steady and clean. You'd done your hair. You dosed yourself before the interview with the police."

“Yes, Russell. And?”

 “And you are now in withdrawal, are you not?

 Holmes says nothing. He looks the way he does when he is thinking on a minor problem.

 "You think me dishonest? Would you trust a man who appeared before you like this and told you he had been kidnapped and held against his will?"

 Russell thinks on how efficiently he bathed and drugged himself, how together he seemed when he came out. She wishes she could keep the distaste from her voice.

"Why is the reaction so advanced? You were there for less than two weeks."

"Where there is ...memory, the habit dies hard.”

Memory ?”

“It has been two years."

"You... You used this drug? In the last two years?"

“I… I used the drug casually until early 1919.”

There is a long silence. Russell has never known Holmes to do anything casually.

"You admit this to me freely. How am I to believe that you did not use this drug casually up until--"

"I wouldn’t lie to you, Russell.”

“It seems to me, Holmes, that you were perfectly capable of lying to me for five years.”

Russell is so angry and bewildered that she gets up and stalks down the corridor to the lavatory. She stands with the water running, listening to the train creak around her, and she cries a little. She curses Holmes as a liar and a hypocrite. She thinks of a blank white hospital bed, then, a brisk American hand and a hypodermic syringe, of the mysterious flu-like illness she suffered when the treatment was withdrawn, in the blank terrible days after her family died.  

When she gets back, his face is shining with sweat. He taps the ash from his cigarette compulsively and stares at the floor. At this angle she can see the bruises on his face a little better. It looks Russell to have been either the butt of a gun or a cudgel. He is lucky it didn’t break the cheekbone.

“If you were not sober, you would not have helped Miles Fitzwarren.” Russell doesn’t phrase this as a question. Holmes runs a trembling hand down across his face. It is very uncharacteristic for him to admit, even wordlessly, any pain; he must be in agony.

Some time later, Holmes speaks into the creaking silence.

 "I never thanked you for finding me. Thank you, Russell. You have outdone yourself."

"It was your cigarette case," Russell says. "One of them pawned it. He gave a false name, and Lestrade didn’t think to question the shopkeeper any further, the fool. By the time I got to him all he could remember was that the man who pawned it might have been from Essex. It took me half a day to find a stationmaster who remembered a crowd of drunken Londoners off a train from London, one of them too intoxicated to walk. After that I simply had to quarter the countryside to find the house.”

 It was not really simple, of course. It took everything she had to do it alone. Holmes says nothing. The pupils of his eyes are black in a thin ring of grey. He does not look himself. If he were himself, he would not let this blank recitation of her investigation go unremarked; he would need detail.

 

...

 

In the car, Holmes half-smokes three cigarettes, his right leg bouncing almost imperceptibly. When they get to the cottage, he disappears upstairs for close to an hour. When he comes downstairs, he is dressed in his own clothes, his hands steady, his hair carefully brilliantined. He makes a brisk telephone call to Scotland Yard, then hangs up and reports the results to Russell in a blank voice: “The house was let six months ago to a man called Calvin Franich. The estate agent is in Chelmsford.”

 He sits by the fire smoking a pipe, gaunt and exhausted. He goes for a walk amongst the beehives in the gloaming and comes back with pupils like pinpoints in a sea of cold grey. He picks at Mrs. Hudson’s curried chicken. During this time he speaks perhaps fifty words to Russell.

 After dinner he disappears upstairs again. Russell has a disconcerting conversation with Mrs. Hudson in which she is not certain who is comforting who. The whole house is silent. When Russell goes upstairs, much later, the door of Holmes’ bedroom is ajar. She pushes it open, slightly, and sees that he is sleeping face down with his arms outstretched, as if he fell there. She goes to lie down in the spare room, and sleep takes her almost immediately, and she does not dream.  

She wakes with a start just after dawn. There is a cup of coffee steaming on the nightstand, and Holmes is standing at the window.

 “Come, Russell,” he says. “There is no time to waste.”

 They go to London, then. In the train compartment, Holmes seems to vibrate with a strange energy. He moves his legs compulsively, stretching them out as much as is possible in the close confines of the car, then bringing one up against his chest.  But Russell says nothing. She supposes later that it is because she did not care to see.

 

...

 

They run Marjorie Childe to ground in a warehouse in Greenwich. Holmes presses a revolver into Russell’s hand in the thick darkness. When the voice of Marjorie’s husband rings through the building, he stiffens almost imperceptibly. Then they’re off and running in the maze of streets around the gasworks. Russell is a hundred yards behind, hampered by her poor night vision, when she hears a gunshot, a series of muffled shouts.

 Holmes emerges from a laneway cradling a broken bone in his hand, Claude Franklin’s blood on his shirt, filthy and bruised, his teeth gleaming in the dark. Russell puts her arms around him and pulls his head to hers, and he’s about to say something when she presses her lips to his, her heart beating in her ears. They reel drunkenly apart from each other, then, and trudge silently up the street, and speak of other things.

 

...

 

She puts her hand into his overcoat pocket looking for a fountain pen and finds, instead, a bag from a chemist on the Marylebone Road. With trembling hands, she draws out two small glass bottles, sees the labels: POISON / HEROIN HYDROCHLORIDE / ⅙ GRAIN. 100 hypodermic tablets / ½ grain / COCAINE HYDROCHLORIDE .

Holmes is sitting by the fire in pyjama bottoms and dressing gown, an unread newspaper in his handst. Russell sweeps into the room, takes a deep breath to steady herself so he does not have to feel the full force of her rage, even though she wants him to, and dangles the paper bag in front of him.

“Holmes,” she says, working to keep her voice steady. “You are barely eating. I have not seen you sleep in days. If you lie to me now, I promise you that I will leave for Oxford. I will wash my hands of-- of this. Of you. Have you resumed your drug use?”

With a sleepy, sardonic smile on his face—it is utterly infuriating—he says “I wouldn’t wish to lie to you, Russell.”

Russell telephones for Watson.

 

 

After dinner, Holmes retires upstairs. Russell can hear the creak of the floorboards as he moves from his study to the bedroom.

 “He will be back down shortly, no doubt,” Watson says, his tone quite conversational. “Your suspicions are correct, Mary.”

 “Are you certain?”

 “Yes,” he says, simply,  and Russell supposes her confusion shows on her face, because Watson strokes his moustache with one of his soap-scrubbed doctor’s hands and says “I knew immediately I walked in the door. It is his eyes.”

 

...

 

When Holmes is out on one of his endless walks, they take apart the cottage from top to bottom. Russell is in the study checking the pockets and pouches of the assorted disguises hanging on the coat-rack when Watson stands silently in the doorway for a moment, then goes to the desk.

“I have checked that,” Mary says. “There was no— there was nothing.”

Watson bends down, looking horribly stiff and drained, and pulls a revolver out from the underside of the desk drawer. He pulls the magazine out, shakes the bullets into his trouser pocket, then sets the revolver in the pocket of his jacket.

“The next ten days will be very difficult,” Watson says. “I would not blame you if you left for Oxford, Mary.”

There’s something brittle in his voice. Russell realises remotely that he is embarrassed. She stays. She does it out of love for Holmes and Watson both; she does it because she blames herself.

 

 

Watson bears the brunt of the rage. Holmes curses him in four languages. But later, when the sickness comes, Watson is the only one Holmes will let help him. Once, Watson sends Russell to the doctor in the village, with a note stating that Sherlock Holmes is taken ill with fever, requesting a bottle of sterile saline for fluid management. Russell is glad for the distraction she is afforded by misleading this gentle country practitioner.

Russell watches Holmes through the long hours of the night, when Watson sleeps. She has come to understand without ever discussing it with Watson that Holmes is not to be left alone. Russell has no stomach for her academic work; she sits in the wicker chair in the corner of Holmes’ bedroom and reads Mrs. Hudson’s Wilkie Collins books. Holmes sleeps sometimes. Most nights he paces back and forth, the floorboards creaking like bones. In time, in the long empty hours she fills with noun declensions and remembered scraps of scripture, Russell comes to know that Holmes has sat in this chair and watched others sleep, as she knows he has watched her sleep, and she thinks of all the times she has woken up to find him at the end of a sleepless night, and then she thinks of the dull blankness she sees in his eyes sometimes, watching the dawn brighten the window with his knees drawn to his chest.

 

...

 

On the afternoon of the ninth day, Holmes dresses slowly and comes down the stairs. He lies on the settee. He is not really there. In the kitchen, Mrs. Hudson sniffs stiffly. There is the hiss of spring onion hitting a hot pan. It is a bleak January day; the sun has almost set. Holmes stares at the fire. Russell and Watson sit at the table and converse in low tones, speaking of inconsequential things—a story he is writing, the paper Russell just delivered—and their gaiety does not really seem forced.

Much later in the evening, Holmes clears his throat self-consciously, as if he is testing his voice. He is lying back on the settee with a cigarette between his fingers.

“Tell me how your viva voce went, Russell. Up in Oxford.”

It takes Russell a full ten seconds to realise what he is talking about. She has not thought of her academic work at all in days, apart from the brief snatches of prose which always flit around in her head when she is writing something. Russell thinks of the sheets of notepaper paper slightly damp in her hands as she faced her audience, all those neat rows of subfusc settling down into silence, looking for a tall gaunt figure at the back of the room.

“Lively,” she says evenly. “It is a shame you were not there, Holmes.”

“I was planning on wearing my gown,” Holmes says, “I’m sorry that I missed it.”

It makes Russell ill to realise that Holmes was lying there in that cellar at the exact moment that she was cursing him for his absence. The gown is an obscure joke very in keeping with his sense of humour; he never went back after being rusticated in his second year.   

“Given the circumstances,” Russell says, “I can excuse your absence, Holmes.”

By way of an answer, Holmes says, “I should like a bath. I feel dreadful.”

Holmes goes to stand up, then, but when he rises to his feet he wavers for a second, his face blank, and then Russell is there, his left arm across her back, alarm twisting at her stomach. Holmes goes to pull away, the foolish man, as if he had not just been about to faint.

“Oh, Holmes, let me help you.”

They walk through the quiet house—Watson’s stertorous snores emanating from behind the bedroom door—and into the bathroom, where Holmes lowers himself gratefully onto a chair piled with discarded garments, pushing the clothing to the floor. The water heater is burning; Russell starts the hot water running. She realises with a completely undramatic suddenness that she wants him, that she has wanted him for some time. It is like hunger.

Holmes makes a small noise, and she turns around to see that he has kicked off his shoes and pulled his shirt and pullover off, his suspenders down, and is now going about the clearly laborious job of taking his trousers off while in a sitting position. His eyes are dull. Russell takes her spectacles off and carefully uses a handtowel to mop the steam off the lenses, with some small success.

“We both know we have left a conversation unfinished, Holmes. I will assume you have left it to me to define the terms of our partnership. Why don’t you consider it the first decision of my majority that our intimacy continue?”

Holmes nods to himself as if a question has been answered. She helps him into the bath, then goes downstairs to make a cup of tea. Mrs. Hudson, conspiring to make Holmes put on weight, has baked a pound of dense little biscuits sweetened with honey. Holmes demolishes a small plate of them and drinks the tea gratefully.

“I am as weak as a kitten, Russell.” Having enjoyed lifelong robust physical health, Holmes always sounds a little surprised when he is unwell.

“Your strength will return. If you eat.” Russell wishes that it had been she that they took. Marjorie Childe is in prison; they think Claude Franklin may live to see the trial. For this, Russell does not care if he lives or dies.  

 

...

 

Watson has taken pains to describe Holmes’ face with careful inaccuracy, but describes little else of his physiognomy other than his height and his thinness. Russell finds this very interesting. Clothed, if he carefully stoops to approximate something approaching average height, Holmes’ appearance can be unremarkable. Unclothed, Russell thinks him one of the most beautiful men she has ever encountered. Other than the fading needle marks—and the scar he is ashamed of—his skin is flawless. Without the scars, he could almost be made of marble. Russell supposes this beauty, like the other thing, is something she and Watson alone now share.

Holmes’ private self can be almost frighteningly intense. Russell knows that she and Watson more than anyone also have the knowledge of the other Holmes, the Holmes of the rages and the sleepless nights and the wild irrational energies, and of this Holmes, who seems so diminished it is as if he has withdrawn into himself out of some pain of life. Holmes generally refers to it obliquely: it is black and ennui and reaction .

“Are you in over your head yet, Russell?”

Russell opens her mouth to speak, but before she does, Holmes goes on.

“I am ashamed of this. I am sorry. I was very young and very alone and insufferably arrogant when I started, and I did not value my own life very highly. I had no family save Mycroft, and I couldn’t burden him with my problems.”

“An orphan,” Russell says, feeling a little lightheaded. His mother died when he was eleven; his father when he was up at Oxford.

“I suppose so,” Holmes says, “Although I didn’t think of myself as such. Of course your circumstances were far different.”

As far as Russell can see, the main difference between them is that Russell had Holmes, and Holmes had no one. There is little else to say.