We stepped out the front door of Camden House into the brisk night air of Baker Street, its open clearness quite soothing after the closeness of that old house. I took a deep breath and started across the street, Watson close on my heels.
On the steps of 221b, I stopped and looked back at him. In the dim street light, I could not tell if his eyes were sparkling with excitement or glistening with unshed tears. My hand on the doorknob, I stopped and turned as he came up beside me on the steps.
"Ready, Watson?" I asked, as I had earlier in the evening when we left his house.
"Ready, Holmes!" he was fairly bouncing with excitement.
I placed my hand on the doorknob and was about to open it –
When our dear landlady yanked it open with such force that I nearly fell into the hall. I heard Watson's rather undignified snicker behind me as I stumbled against the wall just inside the door.
"Mind that last step, Holmes, it's rather a long one," he said, throwing a congratulatory look at my – soon to be our, I hoped – smug landlady. I scowled, but only in jest – nothing could bring a frown to my face at this moment!
"Dr. Watson, it's so good to see you, Sir!" she was saying effusively.
Watson, ever the gentlemen, removed his hat and bowed. "You are looking as beautiful as ever, Mrs. Hudson. Even after the shock I am sure Mr. Holmes gave you earlier today?"
I elbowed Watson warningly. Mrs. Hudson glared at me for a moment, and then turned back with a sweet and innocent expression to my friend.
"Shall we close the door, Mrs. Hudson?" I asked in exasperation.
With a sniff, the good lady did so, and we were left alone in the hall. I hung my coat and hat on the rack and then took Watson's as well. We looked at each other for a moment at the foot of the steps.
"After you, Mr. Holmes," he said, his tone teasing.
"Thank you, Dr. Watson," I replied, keeping a straight face with difficulty – had our lives always been this much pure fun? Or had I really changed my cold, aloof attitude with time?
That was a philosophical question for another day. A rainy or foggy London day with no case to solve. For now, I was perfectly happy to be treading those – how many? Seventeen? – steps with my dearest friend, back up to the sitting room that was the heart of so many memories for both of us.
We reached the top within moments.
"Seventeen," I heard Watson mutter behind me.
"You know, I should have had one of them taken out if I'd known you were going to count them," said I jestingly, leading the way past my bedroom door to the closed one leading to our sitting room.
We paused at the door, and I looked at him. "How long?" I asked.
His eyes clouded over for a moment, and he thought.
"May 15 of '91," he whispered at last, "one week after I returned to England. Mrs. Hudson wanted to have some kind of private memorial service since there was no public one, and she asked that I perform it. I have not been inside the house since that day."
"Well, my dear fellow," I gently said, "shall we?"
He nodded, the sorrow in his eyes turning to something akin to deep excitement.
I flung open the door, and we stood for a moment in silence in the doorway, taking in the scene before us.
Mrs. Hudson had lit a fire, which was very welcome now, considering the draught coming in from the broken window, and the room was filled with its cheery glow. It was probably nearly a minute before either of us moved.
Then from behind us, we heard Mrs. Hudson.
"Mr. Holmes, if you please! You are cluttering up the hall!"
Like two shamefaced schoolboys, we stumbled into the room and got out of the good woman's way – she was carrying a tray containing a steaming teapot and two cups.
Setting it down on the table, she turned with a disdainful sniff and left, shutting the door behind her.
I stared at the closed door. Was my memory failing me, or had she changed as well? I heard Watson laugh a few feet away.
" 'Mr. Holmes, if you please! You are cluttering up the hall!' " he chortled.
"I say, Watson, was she always like that?"
"Yes, my dear fellow" he assured me, "you were just too self-centred to notice it before now."
I turned and looked at him, and his face assumed that innocent what-did-I-say expression.
I smiled ruefully and turned my attention to the large hole in my poor likeness near the window. Watson and I discussed the gun, which I had brought along with me from the street, and I showed him how it worked. He was sighting it at the painting over the fireplace when Mrs. Hudson returned.
"Doctor! Not in the house!" she screeched, "I still have not found a way to disguise Mr. Holmes's handiwork on the far wall!"
We both flushed with embarrassment, and Watson hastily put the gun down on my desk. I repressed a snicker at Mrs. Hudson's vehemence and quickly hid my face by looking for the bullet, which I assumed had hit the wall by the door somewhere.
Mrs. Hudson looked at the unused teapot, rolled her eyes, poured two cups of tea and left them, taking the rest of the dishes with her. I was fumbling around the sideboard when she dug the tray into my back.
"Yes, Mrs. Hudson? I really cannot find that bullet, Watson, I know it must be here somewhere –"
"A word, if you please?" I turned around and she without warning handed me the tray of dishes. Startled, I took it, and the good lady fished round in her pocket for a moment and produced the elusive piece of lead.
"Here it is – I picked it up off the carpet."
"Mrs. Hudson, you are becoming quite indispensable," I said, without a shred of sarcasm. I opened the door for the woman and then shut it behind her.
I showed it to Watson and explained how the air gun could fire a soft revolver bullet, making it impossible to trace it to a rifle of that sort.
"You seem to know a good deal about the gun, Holmes," he said, "Is this the one you said you were afraid of when you closed my shutters that evening before we left London?"
"The same, Watson. You see how accurate it can be, especially when aimed by the Professor's trusted Chief of Staff. Make a long arm, Watson, and toss me my book of M's, would you?"
He turned to the cabinet behind me, selected the volume, and handed it to me. I showed him the page where I had written beside Moran's name, The second most dangerous man in London.
We discussed the Adair murder, and I was inordinately pleased to learn that Watson's opinion as to the motive for the murder matched my own in every respect. We were interrupted in our discussion by the arrival of our landlady.
This time, it was not tea she carried, but three glasses of champagne. Watson and I looked at each other and grinned. Then he walked round the couch and I jumped on it to meet the good lady.
As we shared the toast, celebrating my return to life and return to home, I felt that the evening could not get better.
After we had thanked the good woman and she had gone to bed at long last, I looked at the clock when it struck midnight. Watson sprawled out comfortably on the couch, put his hands behind his head, and looked at me.
"No, I confess to being more wide awake than I have been in a long time," I replied, my nerves still running high after the long day and trying evening, pleasant though most of the events had been.
Watson put his feet up over the arm of the sofa – how Mrs. Hudson would be annoyed if she knew! – and studied me thoughtfully.
"So, Holmes, what was Tibet like? Is it as beautiful as Switzerland?"
I sat down cross-legged in my chair and began to detail some of my travels to him. For several hours we talked of anything and everything – my Hiatus, Tibet, Mecca, Egypt, Moran, VonHerder, past cases – we had three years of conversation to make up for!
Eventually, around three in the morning, I began to sort out some of the files and books I had brought back with me from my travels and, to Watson's surprise, I actually put them away in the correct places.
When he thought I was safely engaged in organizing, I saw him take his journal out of his pocket and begin scribbling in it once again. Smiling, I let him get so engrossed in his writing that he noticed nothing else, and then I crept up behind him to sneak a look at what he was writing.
Perhaps I really have changed in three years, and I am not as subtle as I used to be, for he heard me and snapped the volume shut before I could see more than a few words.
"Oh, come now, Watson, let me see it," I teased.
"No!" he held it out of my reach.
"Be a sport, old chap!"
"No," he laughed, swatting my hand away as if I were a pesky insect. I finally laughed with him and gave up the attempt, going back to my tidying up.
It was about a half hour later when a small thump drew my attention away from my records of Lhassa, and I looked back in Watson's direction.
The journal had fallen from his hands to the floor, and he was sound asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
Poor fellow, he had to be even more tired than I was, after such a nerve-wracking day. That, added to his poor health, made it a miracle that he had remained alert even this long. His adrenaline must, as I could feel mine beginning to do, have faded rapidly after the denouement of the case tonight.
I went to my room to retrieve a blanket, for the fire was dying and the room was growing chilly. Spreading it over Watson gently so as not to waken him, I picked up the journal and was about to lay it on the table when my curiosity overcame me and, I am rather ashamed to say, I peeked.
Only at the last page; I am not so heartless a fellow as to read the entire private thoughts of the man sleeping before me. He had come as far in his narrative to our arrival back at Baker Street.
As I lie here on this old familiar sofa, I am reminded of just how badly I have missed all this – this house, this room, and the figure of the man organizing files across the room from me. I still find it hard to believe that this is reality – it sounds so much like one of my own "ridiculously romantic" memoirs.
I dearly hope that Holmes wants me to return to Baker Street to live, for I am rather loathe to remain in my empty house for much longer. What I shall do with my practice, I have no idea. But I do hope that I may move back in as soon as possible, for I know that this is and always will be home to me, for as long –
Here there was a long scratch in the paper, and it took no deduction to see that was the juncture where he had given up trying to fight sleep.
A mischievous feeling overcame me, and I strode to my desk, hoping Mrs. Hudson would have thought to replace the three-year-old ink in the inkwell. Not so. I found a dull, old pencil, however, and wrote an addendum at the bottom of that page in my dear friend's journal.
At the risk of spouting quotations to a man of letters, my dear Watson, I should like to remind you of what George Moore has said, 'A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.'
I should be very glad if you could find it suitable to return to Baker Street at your earliest possible convenience, my dear chap, because when I came home this afternoon, I found one important thing missing that I dreadfully need. Please do make it soon.
And forgive me for peeking; I simply could not resist the urge.
Some things simply do not change with time.