I’m placing this sealed manuscript with my solicitors on instructions that it be published at least seventy years after my demise, when all the principals are long dead and any rumour has passed into family legend. I trust that one day this tale will be welcomed among the rest.
If I return often in these annals to the days before my marriage to Mary Morstan, it is only because Sherlock Holmes and I spent so much time in company then. In 1887, Holmes was thirty-three and I thirty-five, and we seemed at the height of our powers. No problem was too obscure for me to attend along with him. In many ways, despite the strains on health and sanity, I look upon those days as the golden age: long nights prowling outside an abbey, waiting for a murderer to emerge in nun’s habit; grey afternoons watching the world stream past outside our train while we chewed over the case or enjoyed the companionable silence only two intimates can share. Whether we brooded over separate projects in the parlour or ran through fields in fear of someone’s life; whether Holmes filled the air with violin music or I, the minds of distant readers with the magic of his work, there seemed one great song between us.
Without a practice of my own, I’d rise in my dressing gown when Mrs Hudson brought our breakfast, and share the morning papers with Holmes. Even without a case, there were times when he hardly slept. I’d wish him good night and leave him brooding over the fire, then walk out yawning in the morning to find him staring into the street, waiting only my waking to play the violin. I’d trained myself to sleep through the stench of all but the most explosive chemical experiments.
“Anything on the fire this morning, Holmes?”
He didn’t turn from his contemplation of Baker Street. The medley of voices, the rattling percussion of hooves and carriage wheels, and the cymbal-like crashes of coal chutes all registered in a higher key as the threat of rain induced a more hurried tempo. I took the chair opposite his dirty dishes and tucked into my kedgeree. The haddock was tender and well-seasoned. Atop a stack of books, a telegram waited for me.
“Situation grave at Leidstone Manor near Reigate, Surrey. Your presence great personal favour. Forrester.”
“Forrester,” I mused. “The inspector we met in the affair of the Reigate squires?” Five months before, in April, I had convinced Holmes to leave the poisoned city air for some needed rest in the country. To his delight, theft and murder had broken into his vacation. The young officer in charge had been duly appreciative of Holmes’s talents.
“The very same.”
“What do you suppose it is?”
“I understand that Sir Hugh Syms-Caton has been ailing for sometime.”
“Syms-Caton. Why do I know that name?”
Holmes held up a slim volume that had been concealed between his body and the window. His finger still marked a page, but I could read the impress of gold upon the cover: Songs of Earth and Heaven by Catherine Syms-Caton.
“Now I remember. Sir Hugh’s niece writes poems; her brother writes adventures. What is his name–”
Holmes gestured to the table, watching me with the faintest smile. He said, “I took the liberty of running out to the bookstore on the corner while you slept.”
I hefted one of the books stacked beneath the telegram. The Squire of All or Nothing by Aubrey Syms-Caton. “Seems to promise a good sword fight to while away a fall afternoon. So, what’ll it be, Holmes? A duel upon the downs?”
“Hardly that, Watson,” he replied, and slipped into his coat. He tipped the brim of his hat toward me. “But a doctor’s services might be in order.”
My army training and Holmes’s austere habits made packing the work of a moment. I grabbed my valise and doctor’s bag. Holmes scooped up the books as we hastened out the door.
On the train, we passed the books back and forth. “Not bad, Watson,” Holmes commented as he handed me the slimmer volume. I’d got a fair way into one of the novels – murder, unjust imprisonment, and a case of mistaken identity – but I set it aside to see what had impressed my critical friend. The poems’ raw power clawed through the smooth veneer of form and sentiment. “Whoever inspired these is a lucky man.”
Holmes said thoughtfully, “There is something caged – something furious and helpless here that cries out and beats the bars.”
Inspector Forrester met us at the station with a brougham bearing Sir Hugh’s arms. A sober young man, Forrester looked smart in his inspector’s uniform, but concern had etched grooves in his narrow face. His wide brown eyes lingered, considering everything. A thick but precisely trimmed moustache paralleled a solemn mouth.
He said, “Thank you for coming, Mr Holmes. Dr Watson. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”
Holmes and I shared a bench inside the brougham. Holmes said, “Pray tell us the trouble, Inspector.”
Though he sat with the sun in his eyes, Forrester’s keen face clouded. “When their father died fifteen years ago, Sir Hugh took on the role for his niece and nephew. Now he lies at death’s door –” His eyes shifted to me. “I’m glad you’re here, Doctor. It seldom hurts to have a second opinion, especially when all other hope is gone.”
I nodded, murmured “Of course.” But Holmes said shrewdly, “I take it there’s some trouble getting in to see him.”
“Not yet. But there might be. There are these manuscripts, you see –” His gaze slid to the woodlands rushing past. “Having unpublished manuscripts stolen is a terrible thing for any writer. But these manuscripts, sir – these manuscripts –”
“A little unusual, are they?”
Forrester said, “They don’t want their uncle’s last thoughts to be marred by – this situation. They’re concerned about the shock when his health is so delicate. They’re also afraid that in a moment of anger he might shut them out, and they’d lose their last hours with him.”
“You lost your own father early, Mr Forrester,” Holmes observed gently.
Forrester nodded, the underlying sadness rising to his face. “The day after the manuscripts vanished, they received an anonymous letter warning them that unless they comply with certain demands, their uncle will be shown the manuscripts.”
“And the conditions?”
Forrester growled, “Aubrey is to renounce his claims and leave the country. He and Kate must urge their uncle to adopt another heir. They’re to say their farewells and leave for his holdings in America.”
“What, both of them?” I exclaimed.
Holmes mused, “The sister must not inherit either. There’s someone else.”
“There’s a rumour that Sir Hugh has an unacknowledged son.”
Holmes stared out the window as the fields rolled past. I asked, “Could Sir Hugh’s wife be interested in the matter? Without children, she may worry she’ll lose her home when he dies.”
Forrester said, “If Lady Hilda’s aim were to disinherit her nephew, I don’t see how it could suit her purpose to withhold the manuscripts at all.”
I asked, “They’re that bad, then?”
Forrester said, “There are others who might be injured as well.”
Afternoon gilded the fields. I drank deep of country air. The great house stood atop a sloping lawn, facing the early afternoon sun. Forrester said, “My mother and I would be honoured if you’d stay with us tonight. The manor might be more comfortable, but with Sir Hugh’s health, it would be best not to strain the household further.”
I said, “I’m sure we’ll be quite comfortable. Thank you.”
We’d scarcely entered the house when two golden youths stepped into the entry hall, their curly-haired beauty shining like Apollo and Athena in the misty interior light. Forrester introduced us, then said, “I must return to my duties. Aubrey, Kate, I’ll leave you with your guests. Mr Holmes, Dr Watson, I’ll call for you at dinner time.” He nodded and left.
“We’re very pleased to meet you,” said Kate. Shadows lurked beneath her red-rimmed eyes and hollowed cheeks, but she made an effort to smile.
Aubrey bore the same marks of weariness, but his hectic energy demanded some object. “Come upstairs with us, Mr Holmes. It all begins and ends there.” He hit the stairs running.
“Pray excuse my brother,” murmured Kate. “He’s anxious to resolve this – there’s nothing else we can do to help Uncle.”
“Understandable,” said Holmes. His eyes brightened with the challenge. His long legs took the stairs two at a time, leaving Kate and myself to bring up the rear.
On the second floor, we entered a study lined with large, glassfronted cabinets filled with books and keepsakes. The wide oak desk stood with its left edge toward the window. Facing it, a smaller table held a typewriter, its keys shining with daily use. A brace of armchairs stood before two tall secretaries with a lamp between.
Kate locked the door behind us and settled behind the big desk. Aubrey perched by the typewriter, his wild curls bobbing as he showed off with a rapid burst on the machine. Kate set her elbows on the desk. “This is Uncle Hugh’s private study,” she said. “He’s let us use it since I was nine and Aubrey eight. We used to sit at those secretaries, completing our schooling while he worked. We seldom spoke, but we enjoyed being industrious together.”
“When we got older,” Aubrey said, “we learned that Uncle Hugh didn’t conduct his affairs here so much as he sought refuge. This was the place where he came to read romances –”
“– or write funny lyrics,” Kate said. “He’d slip them into our books to mark our lessons.”
“For a while there, Uncle Hugh and I had a poetry war going on,” Aubrey said. “We’d leave poems on top of important papers or hidden in drawers, composed in the most stately and serious manner. The trick was to break the other’s composure. We’d read them and go about our business, but if one of us laughed, or grinned, or shed a tear –”
Kate said, “Of course, I enjoyed it immensely. But I laughed so much they gave up surprising me. I’d get the one who wrote it chuckling, and that was a forfeit. So while they attacked their poetry with all the gravity of war, I sat in my corner of Uncle’s big desk, gazing out the window at my own dreams – and jotting them down.”
“It sounds like your writing is something of a family tradition,” I said. “Your uncle must be very proud of you.”
“Oh, he is!” Kate caught her breath. “When Uncle took to his bed, he asked us to keep writing for him. Every day, we come in here and –” She hung her head.
Aubrey said quietly, “We try to carry on. He likes to hear our work as we write it. It’s one of the fi rst things he asks – it seems to keep him going. But it isn’t easy, Mr Holmes.”
Kate said, “That’s why we’re so sick about the theft. We’ve lost work that represents time we could have spent with our uncle, even if it was his wish. If that time was wasted –”
Holmes stood, stretching his lanky frame. “Where did you keep the manuscripts? Looked up in this room?”
Kate said, “The typescripts are kept in the secretary behind Dr Watson, where we can get to them easily. The manuscripts are locked in the safe above the fi replace.”
Holmes rounded on Aubrey. “With so much at stake, you still think it’s worthwhile to lie to me?”
Aubrey blanched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Holmes off ered a wintry smile. “Do you think I don’t already know your secrets? Your sister’s romances are no doubt far more popular under your name than they would ever be under hers. As for your poetry, I’ve no doubt the man you love is well-placed, and neither one of you can bear the scandal.”
Kate gave a small cry. Aubrey stood with clenched fists, but Holmes continued relentlessly. “You take great pains to hide the holographs, yet the typescripts are kept in an obvious location, and the work itself is published for anyone to read. Typewriting may be a modern fad, but it’s more frequently done by those who must earn their wages. I asked myself why it was so important that the handwriting be hidden. If you’d stolen another’s work, the demands would include acknowledgement or restitution – even if the author wanted revenge as well. But if you were each the author of the other’s work, the secrecy would certainly be justified. It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a woman to study fencing; but the poetry published under Catherine Syms-Caton’s name is erotically charged, and clearly written to a man. Since the manuscripts are so dangerous, why did you retain them?”
Aubrey said, his cheeks flaming, “We wanted to keep proof of our true authorship.”
“Pride,” Holmes muttered and bent over the typewriter, pulling the paper from the platen. “Has anyone ever seen you at work, other than your uncle? How did you explain this machine?”
Aubrey stood aside to give Holmes room. “Edmund had just learned, so we asked him to teach us. Since we’re writers, I don’t think he found the request unusual.”
“Edmund Percivale, Uncle’s secretary. He’s our friend. He’s only a year older than I am – Katie’s age. Really, we’re more like cousins.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows. He asked Kate for the anonymous letter and examined it. “How was this delivered?”
She said, “We found it sealed and lying in the middle of the desk when we got back from visiting Uncle yesterday afternoon. We tried asking around without making too much fuss, but no one would admit to putting it there.”
“Does your aunt ever use this study?”
“She has her morning room and the library. Why should she?”
“And has she ever spoken with you about your inheritance?”
Aubrey said thoughtfully, “Not directly. But – once or twice she’s made pointed comments about people who won’t produce heirs, and the line coming to an end. I always thought – she made me so angry, I thought she was criticizing Uncle Hugh –”
They looked at each other, dismay in Kate’s face, panic in Aubrey’s.
I said, “If there was a son out there, who would it be?”
Aubrey said, “That’s easy. Edmund. He’s always been treated more like family. He idolizes Uncle, and he works hard. But he sleeps on the third floor with us. He dines with us. Uncle called him up from the village when he turned eighteen, on no recommendation whatsoever. It’s always been something of a mystery. Edmund himself doesn’t know who his parents are. He lived with poor cousins until an unknown benefactor sent him away to school.”
Holmes muttered, “If a man needs an heir, he doesn’t usually deny his own blood.” Then he looked up from the pages. “Do you realize this note was typed on your own machine?”
“That’s not possible.” Aubrey frowned.
“The relative position of the letters is distinctive. Do you always lock this room?”
Kate said, “Uncle taught us.”
“Who has a key?”
“Uncle, Aubrey, and me. There aren’t any others. The fires are only lit or the carpets brushed when one of us is here. Uncle taught us that was the price for privacy.”
“And who,” asked Holmes, “has access to your uncle’s key since he’s taken to his bed?”
Kate was silent. Aubrey said, “Anyone who’s been in the room while he slept. He keeps his most important keys on a chain around his neck. He won’t be parted from them.”
Holmes said, “I’ll need to speak to your uncle. I don’t think it’s wise to advertise our purpose.”
Katie rose. “I have the perfect excuse. He loves the chronicles of your adventures. We invited the pair of you to cheer him up.”
On our way out, we glanced into the secretary’s office, but he was absent. Aubrey offered to retrieve him, saying, “He’s probably seeing to something about the estate.”
In Sir Hugh’s sitting room, we waited while Lady Hilda helped the nurse bathe him and change his clothes and dressings. As we sat there, I murmured to Kate, “The poems – from a woman, the tone borders on the scandalous. Didn’t you worry what your uncle would think?”
“A bit. I didn’t tell him at first. One day Aunt Hilda found a copy. She was outraged. She said a proper lady wouldn’t read them, let alone write them. Uncle Hugh looked stern. He asked me about the young man in the poems. I told him we’d broken things off. I was on tenterhooks – he could have demanded I marry. Uncle said, ‘Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk.’ Then he grinned. ‘Better to write about it and have your revenge, eh?’ He seemed quite pleased that I was following in Aubrey’s footsteps. He said, ‘Some parents don’t expect much from a girl except to love her. But these are brilliant, Katie, really. If a little unexpected.’”
At last Lady Hilda emerged, frowning at us until Kate introduced the great detective and his Boswell. She thawed a bit, greeting us and nodding in distracted fashion before she carried off an armful of stained and foul-smelling bedclothes, accompanied by an older woman similarly laden, whose upturned nose and sharp blue eyes spoke of the pert, birdlike girl still holding her own within the soft roundness years had provided.
We followed Kate into the room. The smell was stronger here, seeping into everything – the heavy, sweet-sour odour of impending death. Amid piles of pillows, a narrow face poked like a fi n, sharpened to a lustre by his illness. He formed an unnaturally long, bony ridge amid lumps of cushioning. Kate smoothed white hair whose long strands swirled across his pate, then cradled his withered hand in hers. “Uncle dear, we’ve brought someone to see you. Just think! It’s Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr Watson!”
Sir Hugh wet his lips. The jutting chin wobbled. Past all the gathered phlegm, his croak was diffi cult to hear. “I’m honoured to meet you, gentlemen. Your exploits have brightened many a dark night.” He reached out a trembling hand. Holmes shook it. He turned his watering eyes to me with a pained smile while I pressed his hand. “Since I’ve been ill, we’ve read your stories again and again. Excellently done, gentlemen – and excellently told. I don’t suppose you’d act out your own parts in one of my favourites?” He cast a mischievous look at Kate. “My niece can stand in for everyone else.”
I turned a look of amusement on Holmes. I could already hear the disgusted comment he’d make later about being forced to play the buffoon in one of my exaggerated dramas. But for Sir Hugh’s sake, he acquiesced with surprising gentleness. We dramatized favourite scenes from “The Speckled Band.” Sir Hugh choked with delight. Kate and I held him upright and repositioned the pillows so he could breathe more easily. The tumour was well advanced and had already begun to seep through the new dressings.
When we’d settled him, Holmes asked, “Miss Syms-Caton, would you leave us for a time?” She nodded, taking the current nurse. I heard the inner and outer doors close. Sir Hugh said, “Now, gentlemen, tell me the truth. I may be an invalid, but I’m not a fool.”
“Your friend Bob Forrester called us here,” said Holmes.
“He’s a good lad, Bob, a good lad. I always thought so.”
“There’s a plot afoot against your nephew – your niece, too, as it happens. An anonymous party threatens to discredit them to you if they don’t bid you farewell and quit the country.”
Sir Hugh cried thickly, “I won’t hear a word against Kate or Aubrey! What scoundrel –” he groaned and gritted yellow teeth, flopping like a landed fish as his body strove to slough off pain.
He panted. “What villain dares impugn those children while I’m trapped here like this!”
I said, “Someone interested in the inheritance, most likely.” I eased him back onto the pillows.
Holmes said, “Should you see or hear anything to alarm you, I would ask that you remain calm. Watson and I will handle everything. Accept nothing on face value. Time is too short to let anything separate you from your family.” Sir Hugh said harshly, “I’m not a fickle man. I love those children, and they’re all I have left of my dead brother. Nothing could make me abandon them.”
Holmes said, “Admirable sentiments, sir. Has someone been urging you otherwise?”
Mouth wide, Sir Hugh strained for breath. His torso twitched as though he fought to keep his inflating lungs from pressing the tumour. His face darkened to puce. I hurried to the washbasin steaming near the fire. Holmes stood back as I brought the steam and applied damp, warm cloths to loosen his chest. When Sir Hugh’s face faded to pink, Holmes said, “There’s speculation that you have a child in some other quarter.”
Sir Hugh growled, “People gossip when there isn’t a direct line. I inherited from my uncle, sir. I expect these children to do the same.”
“Please be frank, Sir Hugh. I must have the truth. Have you a son?”
Sir Hugh shook his head sharply.
“Has there been talk of adoption?”
I thought Holmes must mean the practice by which a childless man adopts a poor relative, bringing the young man up in his household under his name. But Sir Hugh closed his eyes. He whispered, “My wife, sir. You must understand. My wife is bitterly disappointed. But if I were to adopt, it might jeopardize Aubrey and Kate’s position, and I can’t allow that.”
I heard a muffled knock, and the outer door opened. Holmes watched Sir Hugh intently, as if reading a story in the lines of his pain-wracked face. What utter control that man possessed, to speak so rationally in the midst of agony. The inner door opened, and Aubrey stepped in, followed by a slight young man whose fine bones took strength from the resolution in his face. His wispy auburn hair hung round his head in a cloud of curls held back by a ribbon at the nape.
Sir Hugh looked straight at my friend and said, “I’m a dying man, Mr Holmes. I must entrust you with the lives of those I love. Please find a way to do right by them.” His glance fell on each of the boys.
“I’ll do everything in my power.”
Sir Hugh whispered, “You’re a discerning man. It won’t take you long to understand. But when you do – please don’t reveal the secret. That is another’s choice to make.”
Holmes bowed to him deeply.
Aubrey took his uncle’s hand. His companion, the skinny, ethereal youth I assumed was Edmund, drifted to the foot of the bed, where he watched the dying man with an expression of such love and pity I wondered that he, too, was not at Sir Hugh’s side. His big green eyes gleamed, yet no tears fell. He stood steadfast and solitary, his hands clasped before him as if they would not move until Sir Hugh gave them orders.
Aubrey said breathlessly, “I’m here, Uncle. I’ve brought Edmund. He was overseeing the estate, as you asked him.”
“That’s fine, Aubrey, fine. You are both good boys. I wonder sometimes – whether I did right by keeping you here. You should have gone off to school like Edmund.”
Aubrey said forcefully, “We’ve had the best education we could wish for, here by your side! Your library alone, Uncle – there’s more to learn here than shut up in university walls!”
Sir Hugh struggled with shallow breaths, watching his nephew closely. “But is it enough? Can you fi nd happiness here, with such limited horizons?” His brow furrowed.
“Yes, Uncle! If only I could tell you –”
They’d left the doors open. A dark shape slid between us and the window, and Lady Hilda stood at the foot of the bed with Edmund. She scowled at Holmes and Aubrey, the glare sharpening her delicate features and flashing green eyes. She looked like a furious bee. But her voice was gentle when she spoke to Sir Hugh. “That’s enough visiting for now, Hugh. You need your rest. Have you any orders for Edmund before we go?”
His voice drifted like a ghost. “No.”
She hustled us out, a tiny hand each on the shoulders of Edmund and Aubrey. Next to Lady Hilda, the secretary looked a full-grown man. Sir Hugh’s voice wavered behind us, “I want you to help these men however you can!”
In the antechamber, Lady Hilda said, “You must understand, Mr Holmes. His health is so delicate. I know it’s selfish to want him to continue when he’s in such pain, but we can’t – even a few hours –” She drew a shaky breath. “You’ll come back, won’t you? In the morning, perhaps.”
“Certainly, madam. I know the vigil must be exhausting. It must be a great strain to watch your husband suffering so, and keep up your spirits for his sake. I understand he was something of a writer himself, particularly in his younger days?”
Her face lit up. Forty hadn’t touched her auburn hair, though the worry-lines in her face said she was older. Her slim, graceful nose and delicate mouth were beautiful, but worry and grief had been scraping her cheeks from within. “Yes, he had a slim volume printed – a beautiful fable. The critics said it was too serious for children and too frivolous for adults.”
“I understand your niece and nephew are quite talented. Have they ever asked your opinion on their drafts?”
Her face shifted subtly. That shadow might have been exhaustion.
Holmes smiled and waved toward me. “Watson, here – when we’re home, he reads me his day’s labours, and when a case separates us, he copies out portions of the manuscript and sends them to me by post. Do you know who might have commented on Aubrey and Kate’s work?”
Her eyes narrowed. She said brusquely, “I need to get back in to him.”
“One more question, madam. Family history is a hobby of mine. I always make a point of getting the basic facts about the lineage of the halls I visit for my scrapbook. Perhaps you could point me to some documents in the library that would help me while away a few hours?”
“Ask Mr Percivale,” she said. “I haven’t time for such things.”
Holmes clapped a hand to his head. “Dear me! I almost forgot. We meant to autograph something for Sir Hugh – clippings of the fictional and journalistic accounts of one of our cases – I have them here somewhere –” Holmes fumbled in his pocket. Papers spilled out, notes and letters and the aforementioned clippings scattering over the floor. Near the top I recognized a sample poem Aubrey had given Holmes, untitled, unsigned.
She moved slowly, as if she recognized the ruse; but training is strong, and she knelt to help him gather the pages. For a moment, as she bent over, I caught the gleam of a pendant dangling from within her petticoats, its porcelain surface marked by heraldic paint. As she straightened, she tucked it quickly out of sight. Aubrey’s poem sat on top of the stack she handed Holmes. Three wet spots glistened on the page.
She said, “I can’t help you, Mr Holmes.” The inner door closed softly behind her.
We stepped into the hall. Holmes folded the papers and arranged them in his pocket. He mused, “There was something disingenuous about her tears.”
“Really, Holmes! Allow the woman her grief!”
“She saw the poem, Watson. There was recognition in her eyes. Yet she didn’t ask what I was doing with it. She clearly has something to hide.”
“And she just as clearly loves her husband. I don’t think a woman who feels that way would set about ruining his final hours.”
“Tut tut, Watson. Your outrage does you credit. But I warrant we’ll see the truth before another day is out. Time draws short for Sir Hugh. Our thief will have to act.”
Edmund and Aubrey stood up the hall, heads close as they confabulated. They glanced up with anxious eyes we approached. “Is everything well, Mr Holmes?” Edmund asked.
“Not yet, Mr Percivale. But we’ll do what we can. Is there somewhere we might talk?”
The young man led us back toward Sir Hugh’s study, then opened a door just beyond it. He walked toward the desk, then paused to put on a pair of spectacles. When he turned, the window at his back, his rusty hair floated like dust in the light. The gold-rimmed specs made his green eyes larger and more luminous. “Sir Hugh asked me to help. I’ll tell you everything I know,” he said softly. Aubrey frowned at Edmund.
Holmes said abruptly, “Please leave us now, Mr Syms-Caton.”
“Mr Holmes, there are questions I might –”
“Go, if you have any desire for us to solve this case.”
I watched with interest as Aubrey’s shoulders sank and he slunk out of the room.
Edmund visibly relaxed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I imagine this has something to do with the letters, doesn’t it?”
Holmes said smoothly, “What do you have to tell us?”
Edmund said, “I know a lot of what goes on around here. I have to, especially with Sir Hugh so sick. I know that Kate and Aubrey are dreadfully worried about something. They’re the ones who called you in, aren’t they?”
Holmes inclined his head.
“Well, what could it be, except the letters? I’ve been carrying them back and forth for two years. I’ve told no one. But I’m not the only one who knows. One evening I had to wait to go out. The rain was so thick I couldn’t see, and I didn’t want to risk the lightning. I put the letter in my room and was reading in the library. When it got late without the rain letting up, I went to bed. Lady Hilda was waiting in my room. She had the letter open on her knee. She must have noticed Aubrey and me exchanging them and got curious. She asked me to explain myself. When I stood mute, she said, ‘You’ll tell me or lose your place. How long has this been going on?’ The way she looked at me – I guess she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting and thought the letter was meant for me. Aubrey never addresses or signs those letters. Sometimes he lets me read them –” Edmund looked down at a stack of papers. “He’s asked my advice about the poems a few times. They’re really good – I would have been honoured if Kate had written them, and they were mine. But I was happy to cover for him, Mr Holmes. It lifted my heart to see two people so in love. You can imagine what it means to me. I lived so much of my life without anyone to care, until I entered Sir Hugh’s employ and gained the approval of the fi nest man on earth.” He looked up at Holmes and sighed. “Lady Hilda threatened to tell Sir Hugh, who’s as close to a father as I ever had. I didn’t tell her who it was, but I told her enough to convince her the letter was meant for someone else. She’s never mentioned it again. She’s even been kind to me, in her way.”
Holmes said, “You speak of Sir Hugh as a father. Have you ever wondered if that might be true?”
“You’re talking about the rumour? I admit, I had my hopes. From the time I was twelve, I had a mysterious benefactor. As soon as my education was complete, Sir Hugh asked me to work for him. From his interest in me and some of the things he said, I was convinced he’d been the one to support me all those years, though he’s never admitted it. He’s always been affectionate toward me – he treats me almost like a member of the family. When I heard the rumour, I couldn’t help but wonder.”
“You realize,” Holmes said gently, “that he doesn’t have a son.”
“I knew it,” he said simply.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“I know he cares about me. I feel as much his protégé as his secretary. I love the man. The rest doesn’t matter. Sir Hugh saw something of value in me and nurtured it. He had confidence in me.” He met our eyes frankly. “Let me be clear, gentlemen. He has given me all I need to stand tall in this life. I’ll serve him faithfully until the end, and after that I’ll live up to his memory as best I can. But to know he’s not my biological father – it doesn’t change anything. It just confirms that the mutual respect we share is by choice, not blood.”
“Yet there seems to be a mystery about you still, Edmund Percivale.”
The small man shrugged. “Life’s a mystery. I don’t mind.”
The rest of that afternoon and early evening we prowled the great house, unlocking doors, tracing hidden passageways, and mapping communicating rooms, such as Edmund Percivale’s office and Sir Hugh’s study, whose access was natural for employer and employee. We questioned the rest of the household, including Sir Hugh’s nurses, and pinned down schedules and locations for everyone, even Aubrey and Kate. Most people were anxious to help. Their worry made it clear how much they cared about Sir Hugh. Forrester returned at six o’clock. He collected Aubrey and Kate and took us out to the back garden. His mouth was a firm line beneath the trim moustache, his expression one of careful neutrality as he reached into his pocket. “This was on the tray when I entered the hall.”
Aubrey took the envelope. With Kate leaning over one shoulder, he read aloud, “You’ve failed your uncle and yourselves. Your presence here cannot be tolerated. Say farewell by this time tomorrow or Sir Hugh shall know the truth.”
Aubrey passed the letter to Holmes. “What are we going to do?”
“Holmes,” I ventured, “perhaps it would be best if one of us stayed tonight. I could keep an eye out for the thief, watch for further notes –”
“There won’t be any further notes, Watson,” Holmes said.
“Whoever wrote that is eager for the battle to commence. This is a shot across the bow.”
“But, Holmes! If that’s the case, you and I should be on hand, ready to defend –”
“Calm yourself, Watson. We’ll be where we need to be when the time comes. In the meantime, it would be extremely rude to refuse Mrs Forrester’s hospitality at the last minute.”
Holmes stood, taking up his walking stick. Forrester parted from Aubrey and Kate with an extra word of caution. Sir Hugh’s brougham carried us quickly down the hill and through the wood, around the bend to a cottage near the village road. At the door stood a woman in blue gingham, a crocheted kerchief covering grey hair. I recognized her as the nurse who’d assisted Lady Hilda with the bedding.
“Good evening Doctor, Mr Holmes,” she greeted us. She packed us into a warm dining room, cramped but bright, its pastel green walls loaded with shelves of keepsakes. Our hostess served a hearty meal with cajoling good humour, saying, “As soon as I heard that the famous Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were coming, I’d hear nothing but that you stay with us!” The homey way she bustled over our meal reminded me of Mrs Hudson, but there was a sharp gleam in her eyes beneath the country warmth. She waved aside my praise of the beefsteak and kidney pie; she hushed my accolades for her cinnamon apples. In retaliation, Forrester described how much she did up at the manor. When she’d lost her husband, she’d started as nursemaid for the young Syms-Catons, then continued as a general companion and help to Lady Hilda.
Thinking to please her, I said, “Your son seems quite the favourite at Leidstone Manor.”
After an evening of smiles, her acerbic tone surprised me. “He’s fraternizing with his betters, and that never led to any good.”
When she retired, Holmes retrieved his briar pipe and we moved into the parlour. Forrester lit the lamps and built up the fire against September’s chill. From the mantelpiece, he pulled down a battered wooden ship’s case that held two gin bottles. He poured for three.
“She’s been a good mother,” he said. “She always stood by me, always found a way to keep us afloat, and never complained. Did you know my father shipped under Aubrey’s? James Forrester was third mate to Captain Robert Syms-Caton, Sir Hugh’s younger brother – my namesake. When the ship went down, Sir Hugh offered my mother a position so we could keep the cottage. He even let her bring me along to play with Aubrey and Kate.”
Holmes sat with his back to the fire, his shadowed face further obscured by steepled fingers. “How long have you and Aubrey been lovers?”
Forrester started. “How did you –”
I exclaimed, “I thought it was Edmund! That talk of a third party seemed contrived.”
Holmes waved his hand impatiently. “Aubrey leads a fairly secluded life. You’re among his few friends. He’s very concerned with preserving his lover’s reputation, and the threat to your career is greater. But most telling is the care you take to appear disinterested toward him, even though you’re close to the family. Your eyes seek him when you think no one’s looking.”
Forrester leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I knew you’d understand. Your adamant bachelorhood – your views on women – it struck me, sir, that in addition to your prodigious talents, you’d be sympathetic to our cause.” He settled back with a sigh. “To answer your question, we were like brothers as boys, despite the difference in station and the four years between us. Once I entered police training, I had little time, and we seldom saw each other. But when I made inspector, Sir Hugh invited me up to the manor to celebrate. Suddenly things were different. It’s as though we’ve loved each other all our lives, but only realized it two years ago.”
“It must be difficult to keep the secret. Particularly when neither of you lives alone.”
Forrester smiled. “Oh, we find ways to meet. And our letters are safe enough.” He spoke softly into the crackling fire. “Edmund has been a godsend to just about everyone in that house. He dotes on Sir Hugh, and he’s been a good friend to Aubrey and Kate. And to me.”
Holmes said, “Have you ever known any of your mail to go astray?”
A startled look touched his face, before his features hardened behind the moustache. “Only once, for a few hours. The letter appeared early the next morning.”
“Was it raining? Mr Percivale mentioned a night he couldn’t get through.”
“No. I don’t expect letters in foul weather.”
Holmes sat quietly and waited. I watched the inspector’s face change in the flickering light. Several times his glance strayed toward the stairs. At last Forrester said, “I’m all she has left, and I’m away so much of the time with my duties. I joined the police as soon as I qualified. She’s had to do it all herself.”
It must be hard for any man to speak against his mother, particularly when she’s been his sole support. I said, “One letter. That’s not so much to weigh against a lifetime of sacrifice.” Holmes said ironically, “One letter has been enough to break empires.”
Forrester said heavily, “That’s all right. I took my lesson when we met before, Mr Holmes. One note, treacherously written by father and son. Enough to cost a man his life. But my mother thinks Edmund Percivale wrote those letters, if she thinks of them at all.” When Holmes said nothing, Forrester continued angrily, “Very well. Even if it’s as you say, she might disapprove, but she’s not going to publicize my – oddity.” His mouth twisted. “Can you imagine?
She’s worked her whole life to get me here.” He gestured toward the uniform coat hanging by the door with its inspector’s pips. “Besides, even granting she knows it’s Aubrey – what interest does she have in advancing Sir Hugh’s mythical son?”
“True,” Holmes conceded, but there was that gleam in his eye.
“Well, I’m all in,” I declared. “If you wouldn’t mind lighting the way up to my room?”
“I’m afraid it’s Mr Holmes’s room, too. It’s a small house.”
Holmes observed, “I’m sorry to oust you from your bed, Forrester.”
He shrugged. “I’ve plenty of blankets, and the fire’s warm enough.”
The room was comfortable, but small. We sat side by side on the bed to remove shoes and socks. Stripped to union suits and wrapped in blankets, we discussed the case while my mind ran along another track. Down by the fire, Forrester had made an assumption that Holmes did not refute. Of course, Holmes did not always take pains to correct people, smiling to himself while they led themselves toward a confession. But I’d wondered myself. The concept of two men throwing their lots together was not a novel one for me. In army service, far from home and family, I’d seen men forge bonds far stronger than the marriage bed. Once back in the confines of civilization, their position was much more difficult. I murmured, “Society certainly has given them a heavy burden to bear.”
Beside me, Holmes sighed.
Darkness makes some things easier. But this was still dangerous territory. Despite his ability to charm women, Holmes referred to them as my department, praise I’d been content to live up to. Combined with this, my defence of women in response to his outrageous criticisms might have led him to the wrong conclusion. Life with Holmes precluded all other relationships. We were a duo, inseparable in deed and the public mind. Our brotherhood had been a sweetness to me in the wilderness of London, to which I’d returned an orphan and a stranger. His friendship was dear to me beyond all others, but was I prepared to go through life otherwise alone? Holmes had done so, up till now. Thinking of the solitary violinist, I realized that facing such loneliness night after night must take the greatest kind of courage. I said, “A lesser man might have given in and married for companionship, or form. A good marriage is so often necessary to advancement, in any circle. And his mother no doubt wants grandchildren, since he’s her only heir.”
Holmes said nothing. Perhaps he read no farther than my commentary on the case. It was his job to gather clues and make deductions; I surmised the emotional framework for the principal actors. Holmes’s decisions sometimes derived from my commentary, though he seldom acknowledged the debt. This silence seemed endemic to his nature, beyond his ability to overcome. A life companion would simply make peace with this and leave Holmes his privacy.
My heart beat fast for what I might lose. I tempered my sentiments at the last. “I’d never think less of a friend who walked such a hard path. I’d only admire him more.”
He didn’t answer.
“Well, good night, old fellow,” I said at last, and rolled over to face the wall.
My troubled sleep broke not with dawn but with Holmes’s hand on my shoulder and his familiar whisper, “Quickly, Watson!” I struggled to clear my brain, but already I was dressing swiftly. We crept down the dark stairs by the fire’s banked glow, then hastened after the gleam of a lantern in the woods. The moon dappled a narrow path, broken and indistinct, the occasional stone visible through fallen leaves. We stayed well back, hesitant lest the unfamiliar ground betray us.
At this distance, it was hard to distinguish the cloaked figure. Had Mrs Forrester hidden the manuscripts in the wood? I caught my breath as I glimpsed a structure ahead, half-hidden in the trees. The lantern disappeared. Drawing close, we found a faint glow through the ground-level windows of a decrepit house that might once have been a summer retreat. The path ended at its door – a gaping hole jagged with roof timbers. On either side, the forest pressed so close there was no passing the sagging frame.
Soft voices floated up, just loud enough to recognize as men. No matter how we crouched, the windows revealed only the flickering light upon the farther wall. The occupants must have positioned themselves cleverly under the windows. Then the moans began, and I started back with a burning face.
Holmes laid a hand on my arm, halting me before I made some inadvertent noise. Carefully, we edged away. The sound of youthful laughter rose from that dank cellar. I shivered. Holmes led me back to the house. We remained silent up to the room. Mrs Forrester had opened her door a crack, no doubt to catch what heat remained from the main chimney as the house grew colder. We did the same, and I lay staring into the darkness under sheets grown cold with our absence. I woke with the sun in my face and Holmes already out on the prowl.
After I finished breakfast, I walked up the winding lane to Leidstone Manor. I found Holmes in the library, Burke’s open on the table as he perused handwritten records of family genealogy. Near lunchtime, Edmund found us there. One look at his face, and I grabbed my doctor’s bag. We hurried to Sir Hugh’s side. There we found at last what we’d been looking for. Scattered about the bed and floor lay sheets covered with handwriting. One poem was crumpled in Sir Hugh’s hand as he shook, his eyes clenched tight. Tears trickled down his face and he groaned terribly, as if the knowledge had finally shattered the self-control that had held him together for so long.
While I hurried to do what I could, Holmes bent and retrieved a torn brown wrapper from under the bed. “Postmarked in Reigate. No return address,” he muttered, while I soothed the fevered man. Edmund must have gone for Kate next. She rushed in, knelt beside Sir Hugh, and held his hand. His breathing caught, so laboured it seemed impossible to continue. They whispered to each other. At last he croaked, “Where’s Aubrey, my dear? Is my boy coming to see me?”
“Yes, Uncle dear,” she said, laying her cheek on his hand and closing her eyes.
Lady Hilda rushed into the room, accompanied by Sir Hugh’s regular doctor. “Please leave,” she said to us, her eyes hard. Holmes and I gathered up the pages while she stared as though she detested us. But she made no move to stop us. Too many people rushed in and out, bringing hot water, bandages, brandy, ointments, wood for the fi re, and a hundred other useless things. From the hall, we heard Lady Hilda scream above the clamour, “He knows his uncle is dying, and it’s his choice to go gallivanting! That coward can’t even face him and apologize! If he ever does show up, you can tell your worthless brother to stay out!”
Kate ran out, tears streaming down her face. Holmes handed her the manuscripts. “Put these somewhere safe this time,” he said quietly. I wondered at his lack of tact, but the task seemed to steady her. She nodded, gulping down her tears, and hurried up the stairs. Edmund emerged from Sir Hugh’s rooms as Kate disappeared, his face pinched as he watched her go. “What can I do?” he muttered distractedly. “Lady Hilda wants me to stay with him, but Kate –”
“He’s asking for her brother. Help us look,” Holmes said.
We hunted high and low. Kate rejoined us and we prowled the passages, opening hidden doors and calling through cellars and gardens. Kate got more panicked by the minute, until Edmund volunteered to go to Forrester’s. We returned to the hall, and Kate sat with her uncle while Holmes and I conducted a different search – one that supposed the young man might be incapable of answering us.
We met Forrester outside Sir Hugh’s bedroom. Kate took one look at him and blanched. “Isn’t Aubrey with you? Uncle’s calling for him – he could die any minute!” She thrust a fist in her mouth, but the keening poured out anyway, higher and louder until Forrester gripped her shoulders. “Pull yourself together, there’s a brave girl.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find him.”
Edmund muttered, “I don’t suppose he’s out looking for you? Your mother brought him a note this morning.”
I saw it – the moment when the spark caught in Holmes’s eyes.
“I’ve been a fool, Watson!” He turned to Forrester. “What about that summer house? Is there a way in from this side of the wood?”
A dawning horror spread through Forrester’s brown eyes. He left the house at a run. Holmes ordered Kate and Edmund to stay with Sir Hugh.
We dodged through the woods, following a broken trail whose few discernible stones looked like the white flags we’d seen last night. We twisted among thick trees and slipped down steps cut into the hillside. We stopped at a retaining wall that blocked off a stone ditch, holding the hill back from the ruined house.
We dropped quietly into the ditch. A faint moan drifted through the broken wall. I peered through the gap. Inside the cellar, a woman spat on a prone figure. Amid the blood and dirt, I almost failed to recognize his golden curls.
As I crouched beside the hole in the wall, my hand knocked loose a fragment of masonry. In the dim interior, Mrs Forrester frowned and raised a pocket revolver. “Dr Watson. Why aren’t you up at the house with Sir Hugh?”
Forrester stood facing me, hidden on the other side of the gap.
Behind me, Holmes’s breath was soft upon my neck.
She already had me dead to rights, and Aubrey needed help. My right arm was hidden behind the gap, but she could shoot me before I’d cleared the wall to fi re. I lifted one finger from the wall and curled it, pointing toward my hip. Holmes gently pulled the revolver from my pocket. I edged into the room, my hands in the air, the doctor’s bag hanging from the thumb of my open palm. “Let me have a look at him, Mrs Forrester. He’s hurt.”
“I know that,” she snapped, the gun following me. “Stand clear, Doctor.”
“Let me help Aubrey. Please. His uncle is asking for him, and there isn’t much time.”
“No! This poof stays right where he is! I haven’t decided what to do with him yet.” She kicked his side. Aubrey grunted breathlessly, as if there wasn’t much left in him. In that moment of distraction, I hurled my bag at her face. She reached up instinctively and I ducked low, tackling her.
We went down. Behind me, Forrester howled, “Mother!” In the scuffle, a shot rang out, and the building groaned above us. Plaster rained down and the ceiling rippled, as though that small missile had been the breath that knocked a house of cards. As I reached for the gun, she brought it down on my head. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard a familiar roar – my old service revolver, followed by more hail from the ceiling and an ominous series of cracks and groans. Holmes’s voice rang cold and clear: “I would advise you to drop the revolver, Mrs Forrester.”
Mrs Forrester cried out in indignation as her son battered her hand against the fl oor until she dropped the gun. She punched and bit as he strove to pin her arms. It took both of us to get his Hiatt cuffs on her. By then the old house crashed like the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A timber vaulted to the floor and I looked around wildly. Holmes had Aubrey’s head in his lap, wrapping his handkerchief around it.
“I’ve got her,” Forrester grunted. “See to Aubrey.”
I joined Holmes. Aubrey’s eyes fluttered. I checked him over quickly. The head wound was the worst, but he had a broken arm and a few cracked ribs as well. Behind us, a desk dropped through the ceiling, its heavy crash shooting splinters. Holmes and I carried Aubrey while Forrester wrestled his mother out into the ditch.
Holmes scaled the wall and helped lift Aubrey onto the grass, then did the same for Meg Forrester, holding her grimly by the arms while she writhed and tried to knock him into the ditch. Forrester and I climbed out and reclaimed our charges. The three of us navigated the steep stone steps up the hillside. We paused to look back as the roar rose to a crescendo with the thunder of weakened walls following the floor and pulling down more roof. At last the house settled into itself with a clatter and cloud of dust.
Forrester bent over Aubrey. Tears tracked his stern face. He groaned, “Mother, what have you done?”
She said, “I can’t believe I ever felt sorry for him – an orphan! You were as straight and true as your father until Aubrey Syms-Caton got his hands on you! I knew something was wrong when you’d say, ‘It’s late, Mother, why don’t you go to bed?’ – but it was half the night before you came upstairs, and you with work in the morning!”
Tears wet her rugged cheeks as she stood over Forrester’s bent form. “You were all I had, boy! Everything! My hope and joy, the only remnant left of your father! If you don’t have children, I’ll lose you both!”
Holmes said, “That was a handy revolver, Mrs Forrester. Belgian, if I’m not mistaken.”
She turned to him with pride, despite his tight grip on her arm. “My husband bought that for me on one of his voyages.” Her voice quavered. “He wanted me to be able to protect our family while he was gone.”
Forrester took Aubrey’s shoulders now, and Holmes propelled Mrs Forrester up the lane. “So you lured Aubrey here with a forged note.”
“I’ve saved every message my boy ever wrote me. The look of his writing has been graven on my heart since he was a little lad.”
“You timed your ruse perfectly.”
“With all the commotion up at the hall, I thought no one would miss him! Not till I’d done with him.”
Forrester said heavily, “What did you intend to do with him?” His deep voice sounded so tired.
She said evasively, “Once I’d captured him, there were endless possibilities. He’d poisoned my only son and broken my heart in that place. I fi gured if he met his end there, it would have been what he’d call ‘poetic justice,’” she finished with heavy sarcasm. Holmes said, “When did you mail the packet, Mrs Forrester?”
“As soon as I left yesterday afternoon – when you arrived! We knew time was short with Sir Hugh, and we couldn’t keep the papers at the hall, with you prowling around. I wanted to keep my eye on you, but that meant they weren’t safe at home either. What better place than Sir Hugh’s lap!”
“So you never intended to let the young Syms-Catons follow your instructions.”
She snorted and turned her head. “That wasn’t my idea.”
“Who is your confederate? It may go easier if you tell us now,” Holmes urged.
She laughed scornfully. “When I finally read one of those letters Bob’s always getting, I thought Edmund Percivale was behind it.
I confronted Lady Hilda and demanded she dismiss him for corrupting my boy. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted proof. When I showed her the letter, she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting. I told her she had to send him away or I’d tell Sir Hugh. Naturally she didn’t want anyone disturbing her husband in his precarious state. It was her idea to steal the manuscripts and type those notes. She had plenty of opportunities while Aubrey and Kate sat with their uncle. She said they’d do anything for love of him, and we’d both be satisfied. But that very night – even before you got here, Mr Holmes – Aubrey was seducing my boy, while his uncle lay at death’s door. Even the loss of his precious poems didn’t stop him. I knew then that no matter what Lady Hilda said, he’d never leave.”
When we reached the hall, Forrester sent one of Sir Hugh’s grooms to the police station for offi cers and a wagon. While I revived Aubrey and cleaned him up, explaining the situation, Forrester locked his mother in the pantry with a footman to guard the door. On the second floor, we propped Aubrey in one of his uncle’s Bath chairs. Forrester wheeled him into the inner chamber past a procession of local families, villagers, and servants who’d come to express their fondness for Sir Hugh. Lady Hilda must have sent out word soon after he collapsed. Sir Hugh gasped for breath, sometimes managing to murmur their names or squeeze their hands, sometimes simply acknowledging their sentiments with his eyes.
They parted for Aubrey. Tears stood on Sir Hugh’s cheeks as Forrester wheeled him to the bed. Aubrey bowed over his uncle’s hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Uncle. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I never meant to deceive you, but I didn’t think you’d understand. I’ve been so worried it would do you more harm than good–” His voice broke. Sir Hugh reached out one trembling, featherweight hand to touch his hair, light as a leaf, his blessing. I caught my breath. Sir Hugh’s trembling lips formed the words, “I love you, son.” His eyes moved from Aubrey to Forrester. “Take care of my boy,” he whispered. Lady Hilda had been standing at the foot of the bed with her hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “My darling, won’t you please consider Edmund’s future, before it’s too late?”
Sir Hugh sent a faint smile to Kate where she stood by Edmund’s side. Out of sight of Lady Hilda, they were holding hands. Sir Hugh murmured, “I think Kate has something to say about that, don’t you, Katie?” Kate blushed, and the quick glance she exchanged with Edmund showed they’d been fond of each other for some time. When at last Lady Hilda stepped out of the room, Holmes took her aside. “Your grandmother’s name was Percivale, was it not? Pray, don’t deny it. I recognized the arms on your pendant, and it’s quite clear in the family files.”
She nodded stiffly, her hands knotting in front of her.
Holmes said, “I’m not here to expose your connection. I promised
Sir Hugh I wouldn’t even tell Edmund. He said there was only one person who had the right to divulge that secret, and I agree. However, I advise that you do so quickly, before he loses his chance to talk to Sir Hugh without any confusion about his parentage. He looks up to your husband as to a father. I believe it would mean a lot to him to know where he stands.”
Under the strain, she looked ill and old. “Hugh wouldn’t adopt my boy unless I told, and I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me. I thought adoption would provide us a new beginning – a chance to have a valid family connection without ever having to admit my sin. But Hugh feared it would displace his brother’s children,” she finished with a trace of bitterness.
“You must forget that now. Some things are more important than pride.”
She nodded quickly, as if afraid her resolution would run away from her if she didn’t act at once. We watched as she told Edmund. Hope rose up through his face like the sun. As he listened, he unconsciously straightened. Then he rushed back in to Sir Hugh, his face glowing.
We stayed for the funeral. In the end, Aubrey and Kate decided not to press charges against Lady Hilda for the theft. The secret was still more important than punishment. But Forrester had glumly followed justice to the letter with regard to the attempt on Aubrey’s life. He said he had all the more reason to remain staunch to the law, now that his own mother had crossed that unforgivable line. Despite their grief and anger toward one another, he knew his mother wouldn’t divulge her reasons: Mrs Forrester wouldn’t publicly besmirch her son’s name even to hurt Aubrey Syms-Caton.
We were glad to get back to Baker Street and rest. Holmes sighed wearily, leaning back in his armchair. “I’m so utterly sick of secrets, Watson.” He laid his head on the back of the chair and shut his eyes while the calabash smouldered in his hand. I fumbled for the words that might finally air the truth between us. I’m not sure I would have been able to speak if Holmes had his eyes on me in that moment. “Holmes, that night at Forrester’s house – what he thought about you – is it true?”
Without opening his eyes, Holmes said, “Does it matter? I can’t allow love to interfere with the pure science of reason. Having a friend like you is as close as I dare come.”
I knew how much he hated to make a false step. For Holmes to even raise a point, he must already be certain of the answer. I had to be clear. “I’m touched, Holmes. Believe me. Your friendship means more than I can say. But I’m not sure I can live this way forever. I’m the sort of man who needs a companion of the heart, not just the mind.”
“I’ll say this only once, my dear Watson. If there were anyone, it would be you. I’ve never found a better companion. Probably I never shall. But there are barriers that I cannot cross. I must bend my entire self to my will, to maintain absolute control.” In a rare gesture of affection, he touched my hand. “If this were a battlefield, I would give my life for yours. But I do not expect you to give up your life to share the loneliness of mine. Go out into the world, Watson, and find the love you need.”
There was such sadness in his eyes, such intensity. We both knew it, then – soon I would leave, so that we might continue as friends. Already I saw these moments with the painful pinch of something fleeting. In the very moment that I recognized our golden age, I knew that it was over. I told myself I was only setting aside those hopes which might have hampered our accord. Now that we had got such questions out of the way, we could concentrate on our partnership, professional and friendly. But I always wondered what mansions might have waited for us down that hidden lane.