The Action of the Tiger
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility.
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect:
- William Shakespeare, in King Henry V
I stood with my back to the doorway, facing Colonel Sebastian Moran across the twelve-foot space of my bedroom. Nearly point-blank range – I would never stand a chance.
But at least Holmes would. I knew the police and he would make it up here after the shot had been fired and would finally put the tiger back in that cage where he belonged.
The man himself was regarding me strangely, in that feline fashion that had so unnerved me from the moment I saw him for the first time. Even back at the Adair inquest, something about the man had bothered me. Then when we arrested him in Camden House, his malicious nature did more than just bother me – his obvious hatred for both Holmes and myself struck me as being unnatural.
I had not learned of Professor Moriarty's bargain with Holmes at the Falls until last winter. No wonder Moran and Holmes had so hated each other.
And I had been the unwitting cause of all the drama, all the careful planning and pursuit. It had been because of me. It had been my fault that Holmes had been condemned to wander the earth as a fugitive for three years after surviving the struggle with the late Professor Moriarty.
It seemed only fitting that I now try to make retribution for being the cause of that sordid affair eight years ago. And that thought gave me the courage to face Moran without flinching.
I had no regrets, only a wish that I had been able to say goodbye to Holmes and do something to spare him the pain I knew he would be feeling soon.
How well I knew that pain! Facing this man in this my bedroom, I knew exactly what Holmes had been feeling all those years ago at the Reichenbach Falls. Soon he would be knowing how I felt upon my return there.
All this takes time to write, but everything flashed through my mind in a matter of split-seconds. Moran looked at me with the very devil in his yellowish eyes.
"What are your thoughts, Doctor?"
The question startled me, coming from the most dangerous man in London. Then I realized he was merely taunting me. A cruel, sick jest, its only purpose being to give the cat amusement before it pounces upon the mouse. I did not rise to the bait.
Lifting my chin determinedly, I stared the man down, saying nothing.
For a moment, his deep hatred, eight years in the making, seemed to burn into my very soul. I shall never forget the absolute, deep rage I saw in those baleful eyes until the day I die.
Moran was the very embodiment of hatred and bitterness, and I was deeply, wholeheartedly glad he was venting his revenge on me and not on Sherlock Holmes.
He slowly, deliberately brought that pistol up to point it at my heart.
I forced myself not to flinch, not willing to give him any more satisfaction than he had already. He cocked the weapon, and his eyes flashed with the culmination of eight years of hatred and anger. And I knew with a certainty that my next moments would be my last.
But Providence evidently had other plans.
As Moran's finger tightened on the trigger, my bedroom door flew open behind me and I was paralyzed with horror to hear Holmes's voice.
"Watson, Lestrade and Gregson are downstairs, and I told them about – dear God!"
It was a prayer, not an oath, as he saw the horrible scene taking place within my bedroom.
Knowing we were both out of time, I took the only chance I knew either of us had and launched myself desperately at Moran, hoping to distract his attention away from Holmes.
The gun the man held went off, and his aim, as ever, was true; I felt a sharp pain in my chest as it struck home – but as I fell to the floor in shock, my dazed mind even then somehow realized something was not right. I knew what a bullet wound felt like, and this was not the feeling.
But as I fell, I heard a sound that shall haunt me for the rest of my days.
Sherlock Holmes, shouting my name in a frantic paroxysm of terror. Even now the remembrance turns my stomach and sometimes still pays a spectral visit to my nightmares.
Now I know what he felt, listening to my cries after I had returned to Reichenbach in '91 to find him gone, I thought forever. The awfulness of those sounds I hope no one else shall ever have to endure.
I was gasping for air, the entire breath knocked out of my lungs, unable to move much or see clearly due to lack of oxygen, but I remember hearing a pounding of feet on the stairs, a voice shouting "Shoot to kill, Lestrade!" and several ensuing gunshots.
Then dead, dead silence.
And then a voice, merely a hoarse whisper, somewhere close above my head.
"Dear God, no! Please!"
Simultaneously with hearing the words, I finally got a long breath and welcome oxygen rushed through my deprived lungs and body. Gasping and coughing slightly, my vision finally cleared, and I saw the dreadful scene before me.
Lestrade and Gregson were standing in the doorway, guns drawn, horrified expressions on their faces. Colonel Sebastian Moran was face down on the floor of my bedroom, obviously quite dead.
But Sherlock Holmes was kneeling beside me on the floor, eyes closed, his lips moving as if in prayer. He was shaking all over, and had it been anyone else I should have sworn I saw tears roll down his thin face.
I dismissed the thought along with the confusion in my mind, however, as I realized what had happened.
"Holmes?" I gasped, my voice still breathless due to the sharp aching pain in my chest.
He started violently and opened his eyes, staring at me in fearful shock.
"Watson? Lie still, old chap. Lestrade, call Sir Leslie Oakshott, immediately!"
"Watson, I said to lie still!"
"Will you be quiet for a minute?" I gasped in exasperation, rolling over onto my elbow, "look!"
I reached somewhat shakily into my inside coat pocket, where I had hurriedly stuffed that journal I had come up the stairs after. It had remained there all through that dreadful interview, and it had saved my life – by stopping the bullet from Moran's gun.
I put it into the shell-shocked detective's trembling hands, and he stared at it for a long, long minute, saying nothing.
I took the opportunity to manage sitting up with an effort, and I moved closer to him, wincing from the pain in my chest. I was going to have quite a nasty bruise as a relic of this little adventure.
"Holmes, it's all right," I assured him after a moment.
He looked once more at the journal, tracing the outline of the bullet with a trembling finger, and then he placed it carefully in his pocket.
"I shall never again twit you about your scribbling, Watson," he said in a low voice.
Then, and only then, did he turn to me. In the dim light from my one lamp, I could not tell if his eyes were twinkling with joy to find me unhurt or glistening with unshed tears over what might have been.
Either way, he gave me no time to think about it, offering me his hand and gently helping me stand to my feet. I was still rather dazed by the whole affair, and my chest was beginning to hurt as if I'd been run over by an omnibus.
After I had been helped up, I leaned heavily on Holmes's arm, answering in the affirmative his near-panicked questions about my being all right. In the midst of my trying to calm his shot nerves down somewhat, Lestrade awkwardly cleared his throat.
Holmes and I both looked at the Yarders, who were still standing there, obviously somewhat embarrassed.
"My apologies, gentlemen," I said, breathing heavily, trying to remember my manners since Holmes obviously was in no frame of mind to, "And thank you for taking care of Moran for us."
Gregson's jaw dropped, and Lestrade elbowed him.
"I'm – glad to see you're all right, Doctor," the latter said, his voice showing genuine relief for me, "when we heard that commotion from upstairs – well, I for one thought we were too late."
I glanced down at the motionless figure of Sebastian Moran, finally at rest on the floor of my room, and shivered.
Holmes's hand tightened protectively on my arm.
I had to admit, I felt no remorse for the fact that the man was now dead. He and his late master had done their best to make my life and the life of my dearest friend a veritable living hell for a good many years. Thank God that last tendril of that most malignant influence was gone from our lives, for good this time.
"What the devil made you come up here, Holmes?" I asked.
"The mud on the stairs, Watson," he sighed, "when Lestrade and Gregson came by to check on us and relieve the guards outside, the thought struck me that perhaps one of us had merely left it on the stairs on our way out. I checked my own footwear and saw nothing, but I came up to check yours."
"And thank God you did, Mr. Holmes," Gregson interjected. "Now, gentlemen, we'll get this villain out of here. Lestrade, run down and fetch the constable on the beat. Have him send for a wagon from the Yard."
The ferret-faced man glared at his colleague. "You fetch him!" he replied in annoyance.
"I am giving the orders here, Lestrade. Now scarper!"
Holmes and I both broke into a badly needed laugh. Now that the danger to us was over and their common enemy and purpose dead, these two were at each other's throats once more, just as in the olden days.
I winced as the motion of hearty laughter shook my damaged ribcage.
"Let's get you out of this room, Watson," Holmes said gently, steering me toward the door.
Within a half-hour, Moran's body was removed to the morgue, and after thanking the Yarders for their care and helpfulness, I found myself lying once more on the couch in our sitting room for the second time that week. And once more, Holmes was driving me absolutely out of my mind with his fussing.
"Holmes, will you be still, for heaven's sake!" I expostulated, my head hurting from trying to follow his rapid pacing around the room.
He whirled to face me.
"Why in the world did you not give me an indication that something was wrong, Watson?" he demanded, face flushed with either anger or worry, I did not know which.
"Because I didn't want you walking through that door and stopping a bullet!"
For the second time that day, I saw the man's composure crumble once again. Collapsing into the chair beside me, he put his head in his hands miserably.
"Holmes, what's the matter? Moran is dead, and all is well again," I said gently.
He looked up at me.
"Don't you ever, and I mean ever, dare do something like that again, Watson," he whispered intensely.
"I don't plan on making facing mad gunmen in my bedroom a regular habit, Holmes," I said, trying to lighten that almost frightening mood he was in.
"This is not a joking matter, Watson!" he snapped.
"Perhaps not, my dear fellow, but neither should it be cause for the funk you are in," I replied pointedly.
But I did understand why he was reacting like this. It was a delayed reaction from what had happened upstairs. He had been frightened so very badly that he was an absolute emotional wreck.
And that was so disconcerting and so unusual that it made both of us quite on edge.
"I need a drink, Holmes," I said emphatically, starting to rise.
"Lie still, Watson! I shall get it," he snapped.
"You have a perfectly dreadful bedside manner, Holmes!" I shot after his retreating back.
He turned with a snort to look at me, and I raised my eyebrows.
"Well, you do!" I exclaimed lamely.
I was thrilled beyond measure to see him then laugh out loud for the first time since this dreadful business first started.
Then I joined him, a good deal of my tension washing away with the feeling.
He poured two stiff drinks and returned to his seat, handing me one glass. After we had sat for a few minutes in silence, I heard him chuckle softly.
"Three people equal one tiger," he repeated the proverb I had mentioned yesterday – was it only yesterday?
"What about it?"
"Just that you, my dear fellow, faced the tiger all by yourself, when you specifically told me there was safety in numbers and that you would not leave me!"
"Yes, well -" I began, somewhat embarrassed.
He stopped my spluttering with an upraised hand.
"To give you a quotation of my own, Watson, I believe those lines from the bard's King Henry V perfectly describe your qualities, my dear chap.
'In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility.
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:'
I am not sure which of you reminds me more of that magnificent creature, Watson. Moran may have had the claws, but you undoubtedly possess the heart."
And with that, Sherlock Holmes left me lying, entirely speechless, on the couch. As he picked up his violin and plucked one of the strings, I leaned back with a wide smile, putting my hands behind my head.
And once again, all was right in our little world.
Until the next time, I supposed.
Finis! Thanks for reading - please review!