Holmes was acting oddly that spring of 1896. It took me a reprehensibly long time to recognize his behavior was out of the norm, for which I offer no excuse other than what for other men might be odd is normal for Sherlock Holmes. By then I knew and tolerated a great many of Holmes's eccentricities: his mercurial moods; his irregularities with eating and sleeping; the incessant smoking of shag tobacco, noxious chemical experiments and weird violin solos that could so easily becoming grating; his abilities to be brusque and arrogant one moment and then gentle and tactful the next; and his inherent aversion to confide in others, myself included.
It was this last characteristic of Holmes that I blame for the slowness of my observations, and my even slower questioning of his behavior. Holmes has commented previously on my "grand gift of silence" when he is engaged in heavy mental exertions. I had learned, through a series of trial and errors, when it was safe to put questions to him and when to let him be.
That spring, Holmes was in and out of Baker Street at all hours, in all manner of disguises. Telegraphs arrived constantly, until I came to know a few delivery boys by name. Sections of the newspapers vanished into his possession before I had a chance to read them. Clearly he was deep in an investigation and yet he spoke not one word to me about it. I have long ceased to take offense at Holmes's secretive nature and instead focused my energy on trying to deduce what had arrested his attention.
I had not observed any client come to call, nor yet any official from the Yard. Therefore, the case was one Holmes had stumbled upon himself. Clearly it had "points of interest" or else Holmes would never have undertaken it. Finally, I suspected there was a healthy amount of danger involved. Lately Holmes had taken to cleaning and reloading his pistol every couple of days.
He feared there might be some danger, by association, for me as well. By the middle of May I had caught sight of an Irregular or two tailing me. I had not asked them to stop, for the boys made honest livings in Holmes's service. But there had been that one occasion when I could not resist…
"'Ere now! Leggo o' me!" the lad had squawked, ramming a bony elbow into my side as I caught his arm in the dimly lit street.
"Alfie, what on earth!"
"Oi, 's yew, Doctor! Whatcha wanna frighten a bloke loike tha' for?"
Two indignant green eyes glared at mine before the boy hopped backward as if afraid of me. I sighed – this was the third time this week I had caught one of them at this.
"Alfie, you –"
"Please, Doctor, 'tweren't my idea ta follow yew!" he pleaded, his gaze reminiscent of a puppy begging for a treat.
No, I was sure it was not his idea. Why in the world was Holmes behaving in such a manner? I shook my head, looking back at the Irregular, who was scuffing the toe of a ragged shoe on the pavement, no doubt thinking he had failed in his tailing job and would have to report so to Holmes. I sighed once more.
"Alfie, when you report to Mr. Holmes tonight, will you do something for me?"
" 'Course, Doctor."
"Tell Mr. Holmes that I am aware of you and the other boys' presence and I am curious to know why he is having me shadowed everywhere I go, eh?"
Alfie gulped, and I raised my eyebrows meaningfully.
"Yes, sir," he said in a subdued voice.
I turned and began walking again, glancing back a moment later to see that the lad had once again taken up his post and was doggedly following me wherever I should go. If Alfie did relay my message to Holmes, I was unaware of it. Certainly I saw no signs of it from Holmes himself.
That Holmes had put his Irregulars to the task of following me was unusual in and of itself. More unusual yet was his behavior regarding me by the end of May. He began accompanying me on the simplest of outings and errands, often asking me to take along my revolver. On those occasions where we parted company, he would scrutinize my appearance from head to toe when I arrived back. More telling, he offered none of his usual (correct) deductions on where I had been or what I had done. Only a brief smile and a curt nod of his head indicated he had observed anything at all.
In hindsight, I was inexcusably dull-witted. At the time, however, I found his behavior reminiscent of the time when Moriarty and his gang were hot on Holmes's heels. The caution leaving Baker Street, the lack of time for everyday deductions, his unspoken need to keep me near – I believed they spoke of great personal danger to Holmes. Still he said nothing and I worried in silence, prepared to, at the moment he spoke, spring into action. It had been only two years since the Adair murder and Holmes's resurrection; I could not bear to lose him again so soon.
My patience was growing thin with anxiety by early June. Over the breakfast table, as we perused the morning edition of the Times, I was on the verge of asking him about his case. My queries were stopped before they started when Holmes gave a sudden cry of horror.
"What is it?" I demanded, able to take no more of this.
It was as if my words had caused an iron mask to drop over his features. The brief glimpse of roiling emotion on his face disappeared instantly. "A murder has been done. A man is dead," Holmes said flatly. He crumpled up that section of newspaper and took it with him as he left the table.
"Was he your client?" I enquired, though I strongly suspected the answer would be to the negative.
Holmes hesitated a moment before flinging himself into his chair and casting the newspaper page into the fire. It had been chilly the previous night and it was still cool this morning, despite the time of year. "Yes, you might call him that."
"Then he did engage you on this case?" Perhaps I had been mistaken in my belief that no client had come to Baker Street, or perhaps the case had come by mail.
"His involvement is no longer in question!" Holmes snapped. "He is dead. I failed to prevent his murder."
I understood, or thought I did. Failure had never sat well with Holmes; the death of a client cut him deeper than any other, though such occurrences were thankfully few and far between. His anger was not directed at me but at his own inability to protect the man who had sought Holmes out for help.
"Can you not avenge his death and bring his killer to justice?" I asked, trying to bring his attention to more proactive measures than moping in his chair.
Holmes glared at me with rather unwarranted annoyance. "Yes, Watson, that is my immediate goal. Heaven knows I did nothing to prevent this tragedy; why should I not tidy up after my own mess?" he snarled and sprang up towards his pipe on the mantle, his back to me. His movements were jerky with anger as he filled his pipe and lit it. He inhaled once upon it, exhaled slowly, and turned back to me.
"Watson," said he, his voice surprisingly gentle, "I must apologize. You have shown a patience with me lately that surpasses your usual. For that, I am grateful. But I must ask you to continue to not put questions to me. My own questions about this matter are trying enough to answer."
"You know I am happy to be of service to you in any way I can."
"Yes, I know. I know that very well, dear fellow, believe me. But in this matter you would be of the most use if you stayed out of it altogether."
"Is it the danger, then?" The idea that Holmes would exclude me from a case based on that was preposterous but then, he had been so erratic over the past few weeks I no longer knew what to think.
"There is danger enough," he admitted, resuming his pipe, "but it is not that. I need a man I can trust to keep guard at Baker Street, and I trust you as I trust no other man."
I found myself utterly taken aback by his words and the warmth in which they were uttered. Holmes is one of the least demonstrative men in the whole of England and any show of sentiment from him is rarer than malachite.
"Of course, Holmes," said I, once I was sure of my voice. "If I can be of help by staying at Baker Street then I will do so. But do you expect danger to arrive on our doorstep?"
"I expect nothing," he replied, "but to plan for the worst ensures preparedness for any outcome. Hullo! You see, Watson, how quickly plans can change. We have a new client come to call."
Holmes had turned his attention to the window and when I peered through it, I caught the glimpse of a white-haired gentleman disappearing through our front door. "Do you think it wise to take on a new case if your current one is of such magnitude?"
My friend merely shrugged his shoulders. "His case may be an entertaining diversion. Then again, I am under no obligation to accept it should it prove commonplace."
Mrs. Hudson entered, bearing the gentleman's card. "Dr. Ernest Ives," she announced.
"Ives!" I exclaimed in shock. A thousand memories came back to me with hurricane force.
"You know this name?" Holmes asked me, with surprise of his own. Before I could answer, however, the man himself entered the room.