Document, found at the bottom of a suitcase under the bed of Mr John H. Watson,. Ph.D.
It is close to certain that I will never publish this story, yet I found I had to write it down, if only to unburden my heart. The reason for this is the plain fact that it was one of the rare cases in which my good friend was lured into a trap, and almost did not get out of it alive. Due to this reason, I have also never put a title to it; were I urged to do so, however, I would call it the Case of the Cabin in the Woods. Despite that fact, rumour has it that in certain criminal circles it goes by the name of the Earl King Case, although I have no idea where this name derived from.
The Earl King Case
It was the horse's steady rhythm that kept me awake, the balanced movement of its warm limbs beneath us, and its reassuring snorts every now and then. I could but hope that it knew where we were going. We were travelling in the black of the night, somewhere in an unfamiliar forest, with no lights whatsoever and the uneasy sensation in the back of my neck that our enemy could still be somewhere near us, possibly hiding in the undergrowth, waiting for us. I knew, however, that this was not the case, as I had left the scoundrels well secured, of course, with the help of their own ropes and chains, and until Scotland Yard would take them to some place better suited for criminals than a lonely cabin in the woods, they would surely remain there.
I should have known better than to transport my dear friend the way I was doing right now, on horseback, and what is more, on the back a single horse that was not originally built for riding purposes, but I had found that I could not leave him back there, the state he was in, and after the carriage broke an axle, we had no other choice. Holmes had first insisted on riding behind me, but the injuries had exhausted him to such a degree that he could hardly hold onto my back. It was then that I realized how urgent our situation was, and I acted accordingly: I positioned him in front of me, as if he was a child, and holding the reins with one hand, I made sure with the other that he would not fall off.
Now we were riding through the thicket, with twigs scratching our faces here and there, my suffering friend in front of me, and I holding onto the reins as well as onto him, hoping for my own dear life that he would not slip down in a drowsy moment, and that he would survive the night. Holmes' body, emaciated after three days without food and water as well as by the hideous things they had done to him, was limp and felt disturbingly frail in my arms, almost insubstantial, and had I not felt him shiver, I would have feared that he was indeed dying.
Pushing those unjustified fears aside, I rode on, functioning like a good soldier, trying to keep my eyes on the narrow path, even though I did not see it, and to focus my thoughts on the one aim: to get out of this forest alive, and fast. While my gaze was fixed on some spot between the horse's ears, my memory spun out in front of my mind's eye to the happenings that lay behind us. Once more, I watched myself reading the fateful letter, and disobeying Holmes' order to stay out of it, and then…
Upon remembering, I could feel my eyes growing hot, and I involuntarily fastened my grip around my friend's waist, making him groan and immediately regretting having done so. But it was true: not only was I worried for my friend, I was also furious that he got himself into such a disastrous situation. It had been one of the rare occasions when he had been caught by the enemy, and I could barely envisage what they had done to him to make his suffering last longer. True, I was the one who saved him out of that cabin, but it had taken me so long to find it that I cursed myself more than once for my lack of talents in that regard, and right now, Holmes was so far from getting better, and we were so far away from the next town that I doubted I had actually come in time to save him.
I could not recall the exact sequence of the things I did to get him out of there, nor could I be sure whether I had caused any collateral damage. All I knew was, that they were utterly taken by surprise, I saw my friend hanging by his arms in the middle of the cabin, I saw the blood on his legs, and then something snapped inside of me. When the red haze lifted once more, they were either groaning or merely lifeless, all four of them, and I bound them up, not caring if they were still alive or not. Then I wrapped Holmes in a blanket I found there, and carried him to the coach. The axle broke shortly after we had started, the incident causing the gas light to break, and I had to unhitch the horse and use it as a crude means of transportation for both of us.
While the sturdy horse was making its way through the night, I heard my friend stir and whimper softly. Again, I pressed him against me as if he was a child, yet more carefully than the last time, and without thinking I pressed my lips upon his temple. "Hush, my friend," I whispered. "All is well, and we will soon be home."
His voice was weak, yet he managed to utter some words. Only then did I realize that he must be feverish, because the things he said did not make any sense to me. "The ghost," he said. "The ghost, in the trees, Watson, right behind you. Oh God, he is reaching out for me."
I immediately turned my head in the direction, but all I could see was a wisp of fog, and I told him so. This, however, did not have the desired effect. "But do you not hear him?" Holmes uttered, and moaned again.
This time, I shivered. There was a sudden rush of wind, and for a moment it did sound like a whisper of some sort, but of course I knew that a forest is always alive, always whispering with the breeze playing in the twigs and leaves and bushes. Knowing about the fragile state of my friend's mind, though, I merely held on to him and spurred the horse on. Now, Holmes started to weep. It was a silent crying, but I could feel his tears soaking through my shirt, and I heard his voice, ever so feeble, talking to me.
"I can feel his hands on me," he said. "His hands are so cold, they want to do me harm. Can you not hear him?"
Was I merely worried before, I now became seriously concerned. Again, I reassured my good friend that there was only the wind playing in the branches, and every now and then a leaf would graze his face, no more. In spite of my own words, though, I felt a strange fear seize me, and I urged the horse to go faster, while at the same trying to keep it from trotting. And again, Holmes' voice rang out, this time slightly louder, and strangely shrill. "He said he liked the touch of my skin," he said. "He said he liked the way I look. I was so helpless, and you were so far away… He said it was my fault, for the way I looked, and that I would come to like it, but I did not like it, and then he did it in spite of that, he said I would get used to it…"
The cascade of words transformed into an indistinguishable mumbling, while my friend was trembling all over. I could make no sense of the things he said, and I put it down to the perturbing kind of injuries and the oncoming fever that Holmes was confabulating. "But I am here now," I answered. "All will be fine." And I dearly hoped it would be.
After a while, Holmes lifted his head to look at me, and this time his voice was still weak, yet clear enough. "John," he said. "John, he hurt me so. The shame, the shame."
"Hush," I replied. "Your wounds will heal, and no one will know."
"Yes, I know," was his muffled answer. "They healed before." After that, there was only a silent sobbing.
It seemed to take forever until we finally reached a dwelling, and in fact, it must have taken us hours to get there, for trotting was definitely out of the question. Fortunately, the landlord and landlady were reasonable and kind people, and as soon as they realized the miserable state my good friend was in, they were extremely supportive. The landlady herself prepared hot water in huge amounts, and without asking she also added some herbs that would soothe the pain. I was unspeakably grateful for her female intuition as well as her natural decency that were both needed for the special kind of injuries the rogues had inflicted.
When I was finally sitting by the side of the huge bed in which my friend was lying, still feverish but sound asleep, at last, I found time enough to mull upon the things he had said. I myself felt sufficiently drowsy, and yet sleep would not come. Quite the opposite, I could still feel the aftermath of my frenzy, and the fragile state in which my friend remained kept me from falling asleep.
'The shame,' he had said. Well, this was absolutely fathomable, and I rather doubt it that any gentleman would have felt differently, had the same ill-treatment been done to him. But it was something else that finally caught my attention. He had also told me that his wounds had healed before. This was peculiar, as he had only been in the cabin for three days, and there was, I daresay, hardly a possibility for the freshly inflicted wounds to heal that fast, taking into account that they were, for lack of a better expression, refreshed on a regular basis.
Recalling this and the wounds I had seen and treated only a short time before, the whole awfulness of the situation took hold of me. My mind spun, the images swirled in front of me, and suddenly I knew for sure that all this, or something of the like, had happened to my friend before. And he never told me. But, of course he had never told me about it. 'The shame, the shame…' I also knew that, had something similar happened to me, the mere mentioning of a hint in that direction would never have passed my lips, not even towards my best friend.
But when did it occur? I could not recall having seen him in such a state, and even though he used to be away for days, I was convinced that it would not have escaped me, should such a thing have come to pass, if only by the expression of his eyes. I could be a complete failure with regard to detective work, but in medical matters I could be very astute. And then I also recalled the shrill voice in which he had uttered the words, so very much unlike his own, and to my horror I recognized it as the voice of a child.
On an impulse, I rose and walked to the window in order to let in some fresh air, and while I was standing there, I was overwhelmed by a number of emotions, all at once, so that I remained looking out into the night until I would calm down. The air was still crisp, and the first grey of morning showed in the sky. I filled my lungs with the cool breeze, hoping to thus clear my body from the disconcerting reflections that were quite literally about to shake it. It had happened to him when he was a child. I could not bring myself to visualize what that meant to my good friend. The outrageous significance and the grave consequences of such a wicked deed suddenly showed all the things I had learned about Holmes in quite a different light, and at the same time they all utterly made sense. Deeply stirred, I shook my head in sympathy.
Holmes' voice, still feeble, yet recognizable, rang out from the bed. I was by his side in a second, and without thinking took his hand into mine. "My dear friend," he said. "I perceive that you have come to the right conclusions." He hushed me with a glance before I could utter a word of protest, and I exhaled without speaking, and instead forced a grim smile. After a moment, he went on. "I gather that it had to happen eventually, for you to find out about my past." He drew a trembling breath. "But who should be more worthy of sharing this truth with, but you, my dear Watson." Again, he had to take a breath. "I cannot make any promises," he finally said. "But I think I will tell you all about it, some time in the future. However, you must be patient with me."
Upon this, I bowed towards him and grazed his brow with my lips and rested my cheek on his temple. At that moment, this kind of unusual intimacy did not in the least feel awkward or inadequate, but strangely appropriate. "But of course I will be," I said into his hair. "Whatever patience and time it will take, my friend."
We departed after noon in a comfortable coach, and arrived in London well after midnight. The good-bye between us and our lovely hosts was almost as if we were parting from relatives, and we reassured our deepest friendship. This, of course, was based especially upon the peculiar kind of injuries my friend had had to suffer, and all the delicacy and tactfulness these required, and which our hosts had proved to excel at. They as well as the whole incident will not be forgotten.
It took Holmes many years until he was finally able to tell me about his unlucky childhood. That, however, is quite another story.