Only a year or two into our friendship, I found it was not unusual for Sherlock Holmes to absent himself from Baker Street for several days at a time, while he was on a case. Nor, indeed, was it unusual for me to find him asleep upon our settee the morning after, still half-dressed in one of his spectacular disguises, in such a state of exhaustion that he had not found the strength to return to his room, and had merely crumpled down where he was.
Holmes was a strange creature, a primal, animal sort of man: his every movement had purpose in it, and he slipped between languid repose and extraordinary motion so easily, so smoothly, that I could scarcely name the moment he had made the switch. I rejoiced with the small thrill of watching him, and kept my affliction hidden; I feared bringing harm to our relationship, should I betray a deeper affection than that a dear friend feels for another. On such mornings, therefore, I would cover him with a blanket, or, sometimes, one of his extravagant dressing-gowns, and apply myself to my breakfast, waiting for the moment when the click of china and the scrape of my knife upon my toast would inevitably wake him. Then he would fall asleep again, with muttered vituperations at myself, Mrs Hudson, and the damnable sun; or he would spring to his feet, and invite me to admire him, for he had solved his case.
I could not accompany him on every case. I was then still suffering rather badly from my war injury, and was sometimes crippled by an attack of nerves, though I had kept myself proficient with a gun, and had been able to assist Holmes on several of his cases. Moreover, some of his disguises required a deft hand and a single player, and I could bring nothing of value to his task when he was not working as himself. I would be a liability, a fact that brought bitterness to my mouth.
On this April afternoon, however, I was growing increasingly worried. Holmes had been missing for four days—that was not particularly unusual, and yet I felt uneasy: he would often send word, by telegram, of his well-being, if he knew he must be absent longer than a day or two. I had received no such missive.
It was with a great deal of trepidation, therefore, that I heard a banging upon the front door—and then, as I stood from my writing-desk, heard the door open, and Mrs Hudson's shout of terror.
I do not know how quickly I managed to make my way downstairs; quicker, quite probably, than I had thought I could. I found our landlady on her knees in the foyer, and Holmes—my dear friend—lifeless upon the floor.
Horror flooded me. In a moment I was by Mrs Hudson's side, and with trembling fingers sought Holmes' pulse at his neck. I found it, uneasily, but it was sluggish and slow, and Holmes did not react; his eyes did not open, and his mouth did not moan. Blood pooled underneath him.
I ascertained quite quickly that he had suffered a stabbing injury in the lower abdomen, and lost a deal of blood. Mrs Hudson was dispatched to fetch the constabulary, while I attempted to see whether he was harmed in any other way. I had seen many such injuries while in the war, and knew—all too well!—how devastating they may prove to be. Holmes was unresponsive, and impossibly pale.
Yet I found within myself a strange sense of calm. Yes: this was a situation I knew. I was no longer on strange land; no longer, in truth, in London—nothing existed but this moment, this frail, febrile life between my hands; the life of my dearest, dearest friend, who had, in less than two years' time, become so overwhelmingly important to my life and well-being.
The constabulary was a man named Carlson, and quite strong. He and I gently, gently gathered Holmes between us, and maneuvered him up the stairs into our drawing-rooms, and then, when we felt that we could do so without bringing harm to him, into his own bedroom. There we laid him down upon the bed.
His clothing had to be cut away from his torso. He was wearing a coarse, plain coat, and underneath a shirt of rough linen, and only once we had removed both could we at last see the wound itself: it was thin, and remarkably small, and a trickle of blood poured incessantly from it. I sent Carlson to fetch bandages, rubbing alcohol, and my sewing kit, which I kept in my room; Mrs Hudson, to fetch very hot water, and a cloth, to clean it. Once they had gone, I found that to remain alone with Holmes insensate beside me was a painful predicament. He had not awoken. It was a very strange thing indeed, for Holmes always had a brightness to him, a vitality, even when he was powerfully still; now he was silent as a statue, pale as marble.
"What have you done, Holmes," I murmured, and bent over him to find that he was running a high fever—in fact he was burning hot. The wound was bleeding profusely.
There is not much to tell of the following hours. I cleaned, stitched, and bandaged the wound, as efficiently as I could—which was, in fact, quite efficiently, for I found in myself the same calm, the same certainty I had felt during my military years. Another physician was called, to be wholly certain that I forgot nothing, and confirmed my diagnosis: the wound had not become infected, but very possibly a vital organ had been grazed or nicked, for it was quite deep. There was simply no way to know. Only time would tell: time, and healing.
Holmes had not awoken.
As the light began to decline, Mrs Hudson came to ask for news, bringing a new basin of fresh hot water, and a supply of clean cloths, so that I could bathe Holmes' forehead and throat. His fever was getting higher, I thought; or was it simply that the room was becoming hotter and hotter? I myself had stripped to my shirtsleeves, and discarded my tie. I had maneuvered Holmes' lower body underneath the covers of his bed, and made up the fire in the drawing-room, as I feared he might take a chill; now I feared he might be too hot.
I had tended to hundreds of patients in the past, some of them for injuries by far graver than this; many, many of them had survived. It seemed extraordinary that there could be survivors upon the battlefield, and that Holmes might be dying in London.
Dying! The thought shook me to my core. I staggered out of the room, for a moment blind and deaf to anything that was not the terror of losing Holmes, and sank down upon the settee.
Mrs Hudson found me. I do not know how long I had been there. "Doctor Watson—"
"Forgive me," I murmured, against my hands. "I—something came over me."
"It's entirely understandable, Doctor," she said gently. "You should—perhaps—drink something. Eat something. You have not eaten since lunchtime."
It felt like an absurdity. "Yes, of course." I promised her to take a bite of whatever she had at hand, and stood up again, and returned to Holmes' room.
Evening came suddenly, as such spring twilights often do: the light went down, abruptly, and then there was smooth soft darkness. I lit the lamps. Holmes had moved a little, of his own accord, and I chose to see this as a good thing; he had frowned, very slightly, and his lips had parted. I lifted a glass to his mouth, and was glad to see that he swallowed a little water. He had not opened his eyes, but some colour was returning to his cheeks.
I watched the fog descend through the window. In the gloom I could only see the dim glow of the streetlights, and some passing forms, as though spirits in a ghostly play. Holmes' room was smaller than my own, being on the first floor; it was extremely messy, as was his habit, and it seemed extremely unfair that I could not tease him for it. I came here but little; he was the one of us with irregular sleeping habits, and he woke me far more often than I him.
He had moaned very quietly. The sound was so soft that I barely heard it. When I looked at him again, his eyes were open, but I could not tell whether he was—looking at me, or at something else entirely. "Can you hear me?" I said, softly, and he nodded, imperceptibly.
Relief was sweet and short-lived. "What has happened to you, my dear fellow?" I said—in a voice so quiet I could scarcely hear myself talk—and he winced, and attempted to raise a hand to his head.
"I'm here, Holmes." On impulse, I reached for his hand. He held it with a surprisingly firm grip, but his eyes fell shut again. "Holmes?"
He made a brief nod, but did not attempt to speak.
"You've had a nasty injury, old man."
A snort. It seemed Holmes was perfectly capable of understanding me, but less so of replying in kind. When his eyes opened again, they were glassy. His fever had not abated. I kept up a meaningless stream of talk, explaining the circumstances of his arrival on our doorstep, the kindness of constabulary Carlson, Mrs Hudson's worry for his well-being, and for mine. I attempted to deduce his whereabouts these last few days, and must have failed abysmally, for his lips curled in a slight smile. He watched me, however, with a close certainty, as though my voice was keeping him awake. I knew, with a deep certainty born less of my years of experience than of a simple gut instinct, that I must keep him awake at all costs. Sleep was beneficial, to be sure, but I was deathly afraid that he might—that some internal hemorrhage might cause him to—slip away in repose.
It was a long, strange night. Holmes was by turns brightly conscious of his surroundings and queasily unaware; at times I thought he did not see me, but something, or someone else instead, and the fury and fear I saw in his gaze in such moments shook me very badly. I was not unaccustomed to my friend's anger, for it manifested itself towards any sort of injustice in his path, any misdealing of justice. But the fear … the fear I did not understand. Did he see his attacker? Who was he looking at, in such a terrible, powerful moment?
When at last I surrendered him to sleep, it was almost midnight. I knew that, whatever had happened that I could not know, I could do nothing more. He might heal, and live; he might not; nothing I could do would change the matter in any way, apart from keeping his bandage clean and trying to get his fever to come down. Mrs Hudson relayed me at his side, while I ate, numbly, some bread and ham, and poured myself a glassful of brandy, which I badly needed. Then I thought of Lestrade—surely he knew what Holmes had been up to; I certainly remembered seeing him in our drawing-room the day before Holmes had disappeared. I resolved on sending him a telegram. He might apprise me of the facts.
Mrs Hudson emerged from Holmes' bedroom with a whisper to be quiet, for Holmes now seemed deeply asleep. She instructed me to take care of myself, shook her head at my poor attempt to eat dinner, and left me, asking that she be alerted directly if there was any change.
Having consented to this, and insisted that she should take some rest, for she could not stay up all night, I found myself at a loss for what to do. I hated to be silent by Holmes' side; together we found often many topics of conversation, many arguments to quarrel on, so that silence was only ever that comfortable quiet that two friends who have no hurry to talk could share. This silence was bitter and disagreeable.
When I returned to the bedroom, Holmes was scrunched away on his side, his cheek flat against the pillow. I had bathed him earlier, and carefully moved him into one of his clean nightgowns; but it had ridden up, and I could now see the small of his back where the bedcovers had been pushed down. He was breathing in soft, soft gasps.
His fever was still high, yet I could have sworn it burned him less than it had previously. I sat down beside him, and then, for lack of a better thing to do, began to talk.
"I've sent a telegram to Lestrade, Holmes. I hope he is not partly responsible for the state you are in, for I am quite certain I shall never forgive him—and I would dearly hate to lose my temper with the man. No: I would be quite content if I only had to be angry at you." My voice broke on the last word. I watched Holmes sleep, and then, after a long, long moment, put my head in my hands.
I did not sleep. I am quite certain that I did not. But when I looked up again Holmes' hand was resting on my head, his fingers sifting through my hair. In my shock, I did not object; nor did I, in fact, find it in any way extraordinary.
"So I made it home after all," he murmured. "I was not certain, you see." His voice was hoarse and painful, as though it had been torn to shreds. "I am very glad to see you, my boy."
"And I you," I admitted. I lifted up my head, caught his falling hand, and squeezed it quite dearly.
"Don't blame—Lestrade," he added, with a sigh. This was rather fantastic, and I laughed.
"To be sure I won't, if you'll only live to forbid me to do it."
"That … I cannot swear to," he said, still in that slow, deliberate voice, and then I could see the strain of pain in his face, and feel the heat in his body. He was feverish, febrile; that his words had been so calm had fooled me into thinking he was better. But he was not. He could not swear that he would survive. Holmes was being Holmes: he was examining the problem—the body in failure—and betting on the simplest, most evident solution. Only he would be so cavalier about death.
I wanted to be angry. I could not, however: in another hour the fever came raging back, and I had to bathe him again, and help him out of his sweat-soaked nightshirt into another. I pressed a cold compress to his forehead, neck, throat, and shoulders, and gave him water to drink in small sips, giving him my shoulder to lean on while he trembled. His tall, strong body felt breakable as glass. I knew, I knew that only the fever breaking would save him—but the fever roared through his body and showed no sign of abating, and I began to lose hope, as well, that he would live past morning.
Once, I said, half-laughing with the sort of morbid humour one feels on a deathbed: "Was it for a good cause, Holmes?"
"Oh, the very … best," he murmured. "The girl is safe now." I did not know which girl; nor did I know whether she was the one who had stabbed him, or a captor, or a brutal husband. I cared little: I only wanted to hear him speak again.
"Tell me something else," I pleaded.
He looked at me, unspeaking, for a long, long moment. "Very—well," he said softly. He was, by that point, more or less upright, resting entirely against the pillows, though his hand was still clenched in mine. "Shall I tell you … something I have never told anyone before, Watson?"
I stared at him. "Certainly, but—"
"I find—" He had to break off, and drink some water. "I find it … exasperating that, despite all my—overt—advances to you over the years—you have been so entirely oblivious that you have … you have never understood a single one of them."
I blinked, and could find nothing to say. Indeed, I did not think I had anything worthwhile to say at all. Seeing me stupefied, he laughed a short, disbelieving laugh, and would have pulled his hand away from mine, had I not held on to it like a lifeline.
"Watson—" He could not find in himself the strength to look scared. He merely looked defeated, and his head fell listlessly back upon the pillow.
"Holmes," I replied, numb. It seemed to me entirely unfair that he should confess to such lengths now, moments before, I feared, I would lose him. "You are—you are thoroughly infuriating."
"Am I?" he said, in a vague voice. Already I was losing him. In a moment he had slipped under, and only by bending low enough to hear him breathe, only by chasing his pulse under my fingers, could I be certain he yet lived.
I felt wretched. He had exerted himself to tell me something true—something truer than anything he had said to me before—and I could not find anything to say that would match the depth of feeling I had, so briefly, so wonderfully, glimpsed in him.
I woke some hours later, to sunlight streaming through the windows. Holmes' room was bathed in the light—neither I nor Mrs Hudson had drawn the curtains—and I felt, for a moment, quite comforted, before I remembered why I was there.
I sat up. I dared not to look at Holmes directly, and so I realized that his hand still lay in mine. It was cool, and wonderfully dry—and when I, shakingly, pressed my fingers to his wrist, I found that his pulse beat fast. Only then did I look up at him.
He lay half leaning against the pillows, in a position that I knew from experience was uncomfortable. His chest rose and fell, slowly, so that he looked only asleep, and no longer on the brink of death. I reached out to touch his forehead. The fever had broken.
It had broken. I could not believe it.
I called for Mrs Hudson directly. When she came, I informed her that Holmes was alive, and likely to remain so. I instructed her to make some nourishing porridge, which I didn't doubt he would throw at my head, and then excused myself, for I badly needed a change of clothing.
I made it into my bedroom, and had shut the door, before I broke down into sobs.
Holmes made it out of his bedroom two days later, much earlier than I—or any other physician—would have predicated. But he was alive and I was in love, and I knew the effects of boredom upon his extraordinary mind, and so I allowed him to take his rest upon our settee, in the way of the fire, the bookshelves, and his filing system.
Holmes had been in a mordant humour since he had awoken. Sulky and disagreeable by turns, he seemed on the fast track to slipping into a dark mood. He resented his lack of mobility, and had to take a certain amount of morphine to dull the pain in his midsection; what was more, he appeared to resent me—and though I could imagine the source of his black humour, I did not entirely know how to address it.
The case of my own feelings had been a clear one for a long time, now, for, I could admit to myself, I had been in love with Holmes since we had been flatmates six months together. I was astounded that—if indeed he felt the same, as I believed he did—he had not confronted me about it from the first. Then it came to me that perhaps, in such a particular instance, his powers of deduction had fallen short of the truth; that he could not fathom finding his sentiments returned, while he wanted to keep my friendship. How foolish, then, we must have been, to pine for one another for months, without having any reason to do so.
Nevertheless, I found myself at a loss. It was not an easy thing to come up to my dearest friend and earnestly tell him: 'I say, old chap, it appears that we have both been harbouring sentiments of a most illicit nature for the past year and a half. Fancy a go in the old barn?' No.
I would have to find another way.
So I would have, indeed, had not Holmes taken matters into his own hands.
I was in the foyer, returning from a brief errand at the chemist's, when I heard him swear black and blue at—of all things—the newspaper. I ran up the stairs accordingly, divesting myself of coat, hat, and cane, and found him half crumpled upon the settee, having caught himself upon the arm-rest in a futile attempt to rescue the Times from a fall. I laughed—a bad choice—and bent to retrieve it. When I deposited it in Holmes' hand, a jest upon my lips, he said, with a withering stare: "Thank you, Watson."
My laughter withered away. We were both holding the newspaper; in fact, we were inches apart. I had been careful to keep a certain distance between us, for I did not want to overwhelm him. Now it seemed he was intent on breaching that gap.
I let go. He dropped the Times, and grasped my wrist.
"Watson," he said—his voice was still hoarse—"we have a great many things to discuss."
"We do," I replied. "One of those matters concerns your remarkable aptitude to get yourself hurt when I am not with you."
He looked briefly abashed. "That is not what I meant." Then, sighing, he pushed himself upright, and said: "Sit."
"Watson. I believe that—in my fever state these past two days, I have made a certain … imposition upon you. I can only say that I regret it, dear fellow."
"Do you," I said, stung.
He considered me, eyes narrowing. "At least I believed that I ought. Watson—" There he reached for my hand, which I gave him gladly. The narrow stare became a disbelieving look, and then, much more slowly, something entirely different: fondness and relief melding together. He said:
"Was I wrong to think so?"
To this day, it is the sweetest thing Sherlock Holmes has said to me.
I kissed him then. I do not think I could have done anything else.
Some time later, he made a wounded sound as I exerted a little too much pressure upon his side, and then the bandages had to be changed; and then, of course, as evening was falling fast, there was little sense in remaining in the drawing-room, when Holmes' bedroom was only a step away.
As a doctor, I am, as a matter of course, under duty to take the better care of my patient as I possibly can. It is a duty I take to heart, and from which I hope never to be parted.