The Case of the Burglar Who Did Not Steal
When we returned one night after one of our irregular evening strolls, Holmes halted outside the sitting-room door that was standing slightly ajar. „I closed that door when we left," he said softly.
I understood immediately. Burglars.
We hefted our respective sticks and entered, cautiously, only to find the room empty. A close inspection revealed that no one was lurking anywhere and that nothing had been stolen. Nor had anything been disturbed that we could see. Mrs. Hudson, who had noticed no intruders, denied having been in our rooms during our absence. But Holmes was adamant about the door, and I, familiar with the photographic nature of his memory, did not doubt him.
Puzzled, we spent the evening speculating, but nothing came of it, so I, at least, forgot about the incident.
A dry spell followed for Holmes as far as new cases were concerned. As had become my custom, I watched him worriedly for signs of depression during the first few days, but he appeared normal, if a bit subdued. Reassured, I finally used the opportunity to spend a few days at my practice getting reacquainted with my patients. Holmes, as was his habit during times of idleness, hardly left his bed, rising only, if at all, when I had already left, and as it happened, I did not see him at all for several consecutive days.
Then, one morning during breakfast about two weeks after the incident of the burglar who did not steal, Holmes dropped his teacup with a clatter. The cup survived, but I was alarmed. Holmes never dropped things. His spatial awareness and cat-like surety of movement forbade the very thought. Yet now that my attention had been drawn to it, I noticed a tremor to his thin fingers and the unusual care with which he moved.
"Holmes," I said, dismayed, "are you feeling all right?"
He looked at me out of eyes that were dull with the pupils noticeably dilated. "I'm... not sure, Watson," he said slowly, and I wondered how I had missed that slight slurring of his speech before.
I fairly jumped up. "Let me have a look at you," I said, walking around the table and reaching for his wrist. He made no protest, which was a symptom in itself. Normally, he hated me fussing over him.
His pulse, as I found to my consternation, was too fast and quite irregular. There was a clammy pallor to his skin, and pupil reaction was sluggish.
"What has happened, my dear friend?" I exclaimed. "You are ill! Have you been near anyone from the East End?"
He shook his head. "I have not left these rooms for days, Watson, and I have received no visitors."
"Well, how long have you been feeling ill?"
He stared at his hands. The long fingers were trembling, and he curled them into fists. "A few days. Maybe a week."
"My dear fellow! Why didn't you say anything?"
"It did not seem serious enough to warrant keeping you from your practice."
I shook my head in exasperation. "I know that you tend to ignore your physical needs, Holmes, but this is more serious than a cold. I am your friend, and your doctor! If you're ill, I need to at least know about it!"
But I was aware that berating him would not change anything, so I desisted and convinced him, with surprisingly little resistance on his part, to return to bed. A telegram to Anstruther took care of my patients, freeing me to devote all my attention to Holmes.
His symptoms were mysterious. I soon eliminated from my list of suspects the contagions currently afloat in London. I also, with a guilty conscience for even harbouring the thought, eliminated playacting on Holmes' part. He was running a low-grade fever that even he would not be able to fake. The puzzling thing was that I did not detect the swelling of lymph nodes I should expect in case of infection. His slowed reaction times and subdued reflexes hinted at some sort of nervous condition, but as he had been resting and sleeping copiously, I discounted his usual problem of nervous exhaustion following a harrowing case.
"I assure you, Watson, I have not been doing anything out of the ordinary," he vowed in that slurred way that worried me so. "But I do wish you'd find the reason, old man. I don't even feel like smoking, and that is a bit disquieting."
He was trying to make light of it, but as I looked at him, lying quietly, submitting to all my poking and prodding without so much as a murmur of token protest, I realized something extraordinary: he was afraid.
I had never seen him frightened before. Holmes was a man who, if anything, was attracted by danger. This, however, was not something against which he could pit his cunning and his incisive reasoning. He could not fight illness with the powers of his mind.
But he was not alone. He had an ally who, for once, could help him more efficiently than merely providing him with an ear and a steady aim. "Don't worry, Holmes," I said in my best bedside manner. "We'll have you back on your feet in no time."
He smiled, trusting me implicitly.
I hoped fervently that I should prove worthy of that trust.
A few short hours later, my poor friend's condition had worsened dramatically, and I still had no clue as to the nature of his illness.
His coordination of movement deteriorated rapidly to a point where he was unable to get out of bed, to use his hands for anything more complicated than making a fist, or even to force his eyes to focus. He experienced unsettling periods of little to no awareness during which he would lie with his unseeing eyes half open, moaning pitifully, clinging to my hand with a grip that was growing progressively weaker with the passing hours. He tried to hide it during his moments of lucidity, but I knew from the whiteness of his lips and the shallowness of his breathing that, on top of everything else, he was in considerable pain.
For myself, I had gone from frantically consulting my medical texts to sending for more and finally to dispatching a number of telegrams to colleagues, describing Holmes' symptoms and asking for advice. I did not dare leave his bedside, for the debilitating effect his illness had upon his mind was causing him a great deal more distress than the physical symptoms, and soon my presence seemed the only thing that could calm him.
I was forcibly reminded of the time he had faked being ill from the disease with which Culverton Smith had attempted to infect him. Then, his superb acting had convinced me he was at death's door even without my being once allowed close enough examine him. I had been in agony then. Now, I was near him constantly, and it was a hundred times worse. I could feel the excruciating spasms in his muscles beneath my soothing touch; I could hear his shuddering breaths and the moans he no longer had the strength to suppress, and worst of all, I witnessed the repeated, awful dimming of his awareness he could not prevent no matter how hard he fought it.
And fight he did. "Talk to me, my dear Watson," he begged me, hardly able to form the words by now, clutching at my hand with both of his in his effort to cling to consciousness. "Tell me something. Anything. It's all... drifting away... I need to hear your voice. I need you."
It was an enormous admission, and one that was in deadly earnest, as I found out only a few minutes later.
Mrs. Hudson called that a telegram for me had arrived. Rising to my feet to go receive it from her, I moved from my friend's side for the first time in hours. I had hardly left his chamber when he cried out, a terrible, tortured scream the likes of which I hope never to hear again, the sound of a soul in torment. I froze in my tracks, meeting Mrs. Hudson's shocked eyes in mute apology.
Then I stormed back into his room to find him staring into empty space, hands stretched out towards something only he could see. The horrible scream died down to terrified murmurs, and when I reached him and saw the hopeless expression in eyes, the tears of despair that were spilling over and wetting his cheeks, I did the first and only thing that came into my mind: I took him in my arms and held him close. Sobbing, he tried, clumsily, to hold on to me, and now I could understand the words he was whispering, over and over: "don't leave me" and my name.
I could but guess in what terrible scenario his confused mind was dwelling. "I am here," I told him, my insides twisted into a painful knot. "I haven't left you. I shall never leave you. I love you." If ever a man, at any time and place, spoke those words with all his heart and without shame, then that man was I then and there.
"Love," he choked out against my neck. "Yes."
Those two words, hardly intelligible, forced the breath from my body. Tears streamed down my own face for I was convinced now that he was dying. Too late, too late for us, and for the love that had remained unspoken for too long. I had failed him. Nothing I had done had halted the rapid deterioration of his condition. I had not even discovered yet what it was that was killing him. The only thing I could do for him now was stay here, at his side where I had always belonged, until, one way or another, he would not need me anymore.
Our inestimable Mrs. Hudson finally found the courage to disturb us. Amidst many apologies, she held the telegram out to me. She had opened it; the first and last time we had ever known her to take that sort of liberty. "Doctor!" she whispered, eyes wide with entreaty.
It was enough to galvanize me into action. Wiping my eyes with a gently freed hand, I grabbed the telegram. It was from my colleague Dr. Buchanan.
"Symptoms indicate sparteine poisoning STOP" it read. "Treat with high-dosage IV calcium chelate complex and potassium /sodium salts until symptoms abate STOP"
"Of course!" I ejaculated. "Mrs Hudson, my bag!" Poisoning! The only thing I had not considered, for how should it have been administered? - but which, of course, explained everything.
I prepared the injections, my heart light with hope. "I have it, Holmes, I have it," I kept whispering like a man possessed, although I was sure that, by now, he could no longer hear me. Then I saw the half-healed puncture wounds on Holmes' bared left arm, and I knew, in a flash of insight, how he had come by the sparteine. This was surely how my friend must feel when all the pieces of a puzzle suddenly fell into place.
But this was not the time. I found a vein, pushed the plunger home, did the same with the second injection and, placing his thin arm back upon the covers, I took his pulse and anxiously watched for signs of improvement.
Buchanan was as good as his word, for these signs were not long in coming. Only a few minutes later, Holmes' eyes opened and focused upon mine for the first time in hours, and he smiled.
"My dearest friend," I whispered, overcome. Then I did something for which even now, years later as I am writing this, I cannot bring myself to feel shame. I kissed him.
His lips softened beneath mine; his hands came up around my shoulders. I sobbed in mixed relief and rapture; his face, too, was wet with fresh tears. It was some time before we could bring ourselves to let go of each other.
"A clever endeavour, to be sure," Sherlock Holmes said much later that same day. "Lacing my cocaine with sparteine so I would slowly poison myself. It certainly has the charm of originality other attempts upon my life have sorely lacked."
We were sitting together on the settee, my friend dressed in his nightshirt and dressing gown, pale and weak, but blessedly conscious, the hand holding his pipe steady once more. "But whoever it was did not foresee your resourcefulness, dearest Watson," he went on.
"Nor your resilience." I grinned, tightening my hold around his shoulders. "Whoever it was will get his just deserts. You already have a clue as to his identity, I'll wager."
He returned my grin. "Four, in fact. Once I knew what to look for." Blowing a cloud of smoke with obvious enjoyment, he laid his head back against my shoulder.
While he recovered, he had not withdrawn from me, as I had feared he would. Quite the contrary - we were curled up together even now, reluctant to relinquish our newfound closeness. Something was happening with the two of us, and I, for one, was thoroughly happy with the direction our relationship was taking.
I was prepared to stake my wound pension upon the fact that so was he.