A good friend is a connection to life - a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world. ~Lois Wyse
I have been guilty in the past of laying before the public in these scattered chronicles those cases which afforded my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes the greatest avenue in which to ply his powers as the city's foremost private consulting detective; or those problems which, though simple enough in their analysis and solution, are wont to arrest the reader's attention by sheer peculiarity or viciousness.
The drama which I am about to raise the curtain upon here falls into neither category. Rather this particular case was memorable for both Holmes and me by virtue not only of its somewhat subtle personal nature and its connections with the past, but also by the fact that it began as a mere desperate move upon my part to forcibly wrest my friend from the clutches of that infernal cocaine with which he fought a perpetual battle.
This drama commenced, then, in the early summer of the year 1897; though to be entirely accurate, indications of an approaching storm had been hovering round our Baker Street rooms for some time before the squall finally broke.
Sherlock Holmes was, as I may have before stated in one of these memoirs, a very busy man in the years immediately following his return to life and the London he so loved. Despite his efforts to restrain the press and the people from declaring his return a miracle and the story of the decade, word did get out one way or another; and for months our humble sitting room was swamped in a veritable tidal wave of clients – young and old, humble and noble, British or otherwise, hundred of curious and desperate men and women, and even a few children, passed our threshold for the express purpose of gaining the aid of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
My friend, of course, was in his element; figuratively drowning in a sea of work was the equivalent of Paradise for him, and I have never known him to be happier than he was those first two golden years just after his return to both my life and his old haunts.
But nothing good, as the old adage says, can last forever, and gradually the novelty of his reappearance began to dwindle and fade, until the winter of 1896 through early 1897 came and went and brought a considerably declining number of clients to our door. Granted, our work was still more challenging, more frequent, and occasionally more important than it ever had been before his disappearance in 1891; but still, coming after such an onslaught, disconsolation, discontent, and finally depression were as sure to ensue over my friend as the fog was every morning over London.
There were times of respite and relief; the business of the Brackenstall family at the Abbey Grange springs to mind in that doldrums era as well as the perplexing case of the stolen Underground locomotive, the near-fatal conclusion of which still can cause me to shudder upon remembrance of it – but between and around these scattered cases of note lay periods of deep darkness in our rooms, of storms both inside and out, and I grew to dread those times with a greater aversion than I ever had before.
I had discovered to my dismay, that Holmes's three-year absence had not driven the desire for that infernal cocaine from his mind and body as I had hoped it had. He rarely used the syringe and its deadly contents those first two years, for indeed the drug was merely an escape for his infinite mind in a finite world, a solace against what he regarded as a fate worse than death. He had no reason to even consider his artificial stimulation when the world was ringing with his name as it was those first two years.
But unfortunately when the work began to falter and fail, so did his resolve; and by the time of which I speak, mid-June of 1897, my friend had sunk to such a low state that as a medical man, much less as the consultant's closest friend and confidante, I became very seriously alarmed for his health.
Our trip to Cornwall in March and April of that year had been something of a dubious non-success, and while my friend's physical well-being was restored to its normal state his mind reverted after the case of the Tregennis family back to its frantically rapid self-destruction; and in the absence of any problem upon which to work his deductive magic when we returned to London, he relapsed into one of those murky fits I so dreaded and indeed feared, for his sake more than my own.
This dejected state was due partly to ennui, naturally; from our return in April until June we had only three cases of any note, only one of which lasted for longer than two days. I imagine the atmosphere in London that spring and early summer also bore upon my friend's disposition; for when he was not working his moods tended to mirror the weather, and it was most ghastly that year, all thunderstorms and rain and sleet and only a few days of sunshine until well into July.
I have been called a patient man, by Holmes himself among others, but even I have my limits, and it seemed my fellow-lodger was doing his utmost to stretch and break beyond them that month. His deliberate disregard for my medical concern; his refusal to budge beyond his bed for days at a time, even a week and a half at one point; and his intentional flaunting of his vice in my presence all combined to wear my nerves daily to a parchment-thin edge.
By the second week of June, nearly three weeks had crawled by and brought with them nothing but rain and gloom and occasional bursts of thunder, both inside and out of the flat. Sherlock Holmes had spent the last five days on the sofa in the sitting room. He coolly refused to leave when I wanted to have a fellow medico over for tea, declined all food except the odd cup of tea or coffee and an occasional biscuit when his drug-induced appetite suppression would fade, and no longer even had the grace to wait until I had gone out of a morning to indulge in his deadly habit.
The dark circles usually present under his eyes in his pale face now stood out starkly brilliant, his lethargy grew rather than fading as the days passed, and he ignored his personal appearance completely despite his love of sharp dress and immaculate grooming. In these instances I knew from personal experience that nothing I could say or do short of a physical blow (and possibly not even then, for I had never tested the theory further than shaking him) would recall his spirit from its black cloud, and so I made no effort to even attempt the Sisyphean task.
On the sixth afternoon Holmes swore colourfully at my suggestion of some music and tossed his Stradivarius against the hearthstones, hard enough to snap the bridge of the instrument in half, and showed absolutely no reaction to his most important possession being manhandled and damaged. I bit my tongue, quite hard, and wordlessly picked up the broken violin, setting it in the hall for Mrs. Hudson to send to the repair shop later in the day. Even still, I dared not speak for fear I should set him off into another unproductive argument as I had done in the past.
When, however, as I returned to the room and strode toward my writing desk, he yawned and laconically asked me to 'pass him the Moroccan case, there's a good chap', I could remain silent no longer.
"I will do no such thing, nor ever shall, and you know exactly why!" I breathed through my nose slowly, attempting to keep my fury with his callousness under sufficient control.
The detective sighed tolerantly. "You are angry, Doctor."
"I am furious, Holmes," I retorted, my fists clenching at my sides. "How many times must I tell you what damage you are causing to yourself before you believe me?"
"I do believe you," he replied instantly, swinging his legs lazily off the couch and around in front of him. With infuriating slowness he tamped tobacco down into his nearby pipe – the third of the last hour – and lit it, puffing slowly and looking at me over its smouldering bowl. "However, belief does not constitute an ability to act on said belief. My mind must be occupied, Doctor, else I shall lose it utterly."
"And if you continue this, you may find yourself one day to be entirely without it," I decried through a tightly clenched jaw.
"Life is full of little gambles," he remarked with undue cheerfulness, waving off every argument and concern I had with one royal wave of a twitching hand. "I shall take the risk in the interests of staving off madness due to inactivity as long as is possible."
"Holmes…" I firmly forced back down the urge to strangle the man here and now, taking a long breath before speaking again. Holmes merely raised an eyebrow at me before languidly lifting a four-day-old Echo and placing the pages between us.
"I have refused to allow you to enter alone countless dens in and out of this city due to the danger involved," I began slowly, coldly enunciating the words despite the fact that he refused to allow me sight of his face. "I would not permit you to willingly put yourself into danger of death or permanent harm if it was within my power to aid you. I have vowed to die in the attempt before I would allow some criminal to harm you."
"Quite true, Doctor, and I do appreciate your concern for my well-being," he drawled from behind the paper. "Are you wishing my recognition for the feat?"
"No." I moved beyond the sofa toward the hat-rack and removed my coat and bowler in an air of resigned finality. Still there came no response to my words or actions from the lethargic figure upon the sofa. "I am merely pointing out that if I would not allow any outside influence to destroy or harm you, then you cannot expect me to remain in these rooms to watch you willingly accomplish the same end upon yourself. Do not expect me back before nightfall, if then." My shoulders slumped in angry defeat even as my voice shook ever so slightly; though I doubt he noticed either.
"Do remember your umbrella, Watson – it is pouring buckets out there," he called cheerily after me.
I shut the door with even more force than I had used in opening it, barely cast a worried Mrs. Hudson a second glance, and stalked out into the rain of a disgusting June evening, heedless of where I went or what I did.
When I finally was forced to stop walking and seat myself on a wet bench under the shelter of a spreading elm tree, it was not due to chill or damp for I was still too quietly angry to feel either, but out of sheer inability to walk much farther on my bad leg; the weather played havoc with my old wounds just as it did with Holmes's temperament.
To make the entire matter seem worse than it was, I had run out of ideas and methods to work at bringing my friend out of the depressive blank despondency he had fallen into – one so deep that I was beginning to fear he might never find his way back again. Helplessness is, I believe, one of the most troubling of emotions, due to its ability to drive one's self mad over uncertainty and despair.
I had found the hard way that nothing, not even my influence, was enough to bring Holmes out of the sort of fit that now consumed him. The only thing that seemed to alleviate the gnawing pain he obviously felt in the absence of mental stimulation was his work, and in that area I could do absolutely nothing short of committing a crime myself, which was of course out of the question.
The cold reality of my helplessness coursed over me so suddenly that at once it seemed every spark of warmth had vanished from my body, leaving a numbing chill behind. At the same instant, the Big Ben clock tower over by the Houses of Parliament began to toll the hours, up to seven booming bells that echoed like more melodious thunderclaps across the rain-swept city. I had walked all the way to Westminster in my mental aberration; it was of no wonder my leg ached.
With the sound of the bells and the realisation of my location, my thoughts naturally turned from Parliament to Pall Mall, and in a sudden flash of desperation I decided to take an immense gamble. Holmes would no doubt absolutely murder me if he were to discover my actions, but his health was of more importance than his regard for me at the moment. It was seven now; I had forty minutes, to the second, to catch his brother before he left the Diogenes Club at precisely twenty minutes to eight.
I was on Regent Circus and so did not have far to go. Within a quarter of an hour I was shown dripping into the lavish Strangers' Room of the Diogenes Club by a footman who looked quite askance at my damp outerwear, primly informing me that he would see if Mr. Mycroft Holmes could be troubled to speak to me.
I nearly laughed (for I did not know what the man could be doing other than studiously avoiding speaking to anyone) but could not quite summon the amusement under the circumstances. I remained, standing uncomfortable and stiff, close to the massive fire, and leant on the mantel to take the pressure off my right leg. After some five or six minutes the door opened to reveal the footman showing in the familiar figure of the elder of the Holmes brothers.
Since the affair of the Bruce-Partington plans in November of '95, I had only seen Mycroft Holmes three times, and all of them in the company of his younger brother and only for brief moments. Never had I sought the man out on my own or even held a prolonged conversation with him, much less over a sensitive subject.
No doubt similar thoughts were passing through his own superiour mind even as he scanned my appearance with no visible reaction, but the man made no remark as to my untimely and unannounced arrival.
"Doctor Watson," he greeted me cordially enough, as I hastily removed my gloves to shake his hand. "Do take off those wet things and pray be seated. Peters, some tea would be appreciated."
The footman bowed obsequiously and exited, leaving us alone. I shrugged awkwardly out of my coat and limped the three steps to the chair the older man had indicated. Even though Mycroft was only five years my senior, the exaggerated distance in intellects and personalities between us made him rather intimidating to me and for a moment I merely concentrated on not staring as he lowered himself ponderously into the largest chair, one opposite me, and sat back with his fingertips together, scrutinising my appearance from head to foot.
I became uncomfortably aware that I was becoming the subject of a Holmesian deductive exercise and steeled myself mentally for the deluge of observation to come.
To my surprise, I found that I was to be subjected to nothing of the kind; rather than detailing a long string of deductions the elder Holmes went straight to the heart of the matter, which I had no doubt he could tell from my manner and appearance, together with my showing up in his private club sans his younger brother. I did not ask for explanations of his deductions, nor did he offer them, which further served as a relief to my nerves.
"I see that you are worried about my brother, Doctor," the man spoke calmly, reaching for the teapot the footman was placing on the nearby table. The little man bowed and exited, and Mycroft glanced back at me. "Am I correct? Do you take milk or sugar?"
"Milk, please. And…yes, I am somewhat beyond worried by this point, Mr. Holmes," I sighed, gratefully accepting the cup from his enormous hand.
"What has the young idiot gone and done now? I do apologise about the inferiour quality of the tea, Doctor," Mycroft Holmes rumbled in his displeasure, though I was not at all finicky as long as the brew was hot. "We've had quite a scare lately in these parts with some of the best Darjeeling companies. The stuff is being contaminated in shipment or storage somehow and half the district has been down at one point or another from toxicity; and this substitution is rather disgusting in my opinion. But do go on, sir."
I took a longer sip, feeling the warmth from the steaming, fragrant brew slowly banishing the chill in my bones, and then continued. "It is not what he has done, Mr. Holmes, but rather what he hasn't," said I disconsolately. "I freely admit to fearing for his…" I stopped, hesitant to voice private matters even to my friend's family without his knowledge.
"Not his health, else you would not have hesitated with the wording," Mycroft reasoned placidly, adding another lump of sugar to his drink with an expression of distaste. He took an experimental sip and looked at me over the cup's rim. "His sanity, then?"
I was not surprised at his perception and yet I winced instinctively.
"My apologies," the elder Holmes said reassuringly. "Has he been at that infernal habit of his again?"
"We…have not had a case for three weeks," I cautiously ventured an oblique agreement, receiving an exasperated eyeroll and as dark a scowl as I had ever seen on the portly man's unflappable countenance. "Mr. Holmes, I assure you that I have attempted everything within my power –"
"Doctor Watson, pray cease to blame yourself for my brother's vices." The china rattled with the reverberation of the man's growl. "When he is in such a mood as you are so pointedly not describing to me, nothing short of attempted murder to his person will move him an inch against his will."
I sighed and leant back, nodding in relief that he realised the situation without my having to divulge personal details.
Mycroft drained his teacup and eyed the teapot indecisively before shaking his head and setting the cup down, turning his full attentions to me.
"You have my sympathies, Doctor, and if I were able to give him a sound thrashing, and believed it would do him any good, you have my promise that I would do so. Unfortunately, we both know by now there is really nothing possible to be done."
My countenance must have showed my abject disappointment as my last hope flew away and disappeared as the steam was from the dregs of my nearly empty teacup, for the older man's massive forehead wrinkled in pensive concern.
"You did come here for my help, I take it, in dealing with my brother," he stated the sentence as fact, not a question, for it was no very great deduction. I nodded, and a slit of a frown appeared in his lower face. "What exactly were you hoping I could do for you, Doctor? Directness is always the best policy when one needs a job accomplished, so pray proceed."
I fidgeted with my empty cup until I realised I was doing so, and hastily set the thing down on the tray; well I knew the impatience both Holmeses had with slower minds and I had no desire to irritate the man with my vacillating.
"Mr. Holmes, your brother has not told me much about you," I ventured nervously, resisting the urge to squirm under that penetrating gaze.
"Communication never was one of Sherlock's strong suits, yes, quite. More tea?"
"No, thank you." I shook my head, for my stomach was in enough knots as it was, but the older man helped himself to a liberal amount of sugar and poured a bit of the brew on top of the whole mess.
"I do not blame you, for it is perfectly beastly stuff; I daresay it would take the finish off this table were I to spill some of it. But do go on, Doctor."
"But Holmes did tell me that in essence you are the British government," I said slowly, lowering my voice.
The elder Holmes choked on his next sip. "He did, did he?"
"Yes, he did." I eyed the man's face for signs of displeasure but saw none, merely surprise. "Mr. Holmes, we both know that nothing in the world is going to get your brother out of this…"
"Quite…that he is in, other than the arrival of some problem to arrest his attention and bring his spirit back from wherever in all heaven or hell it went." I rubbed my temples in an absent effort to push back the pounding there. "Obviously I am not able to bring any problem to his attention, but you…"
"You think I can, is that it? Yes, Peters," the man drawled, looking at the footman who had appeared magically before us. "Do find us something to drink that tastes slightly less like turpentine, there's a good fellow?" He turned back to me with a look of disgruntled testiness. "My apologies, Doctor. Where were we?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but he waved me off with one flipper-like hand. "Yes, yes. You wish me to give him something to do, is that it? What makes you think I have the power to employ him as an agent?"
I stared blankly at the man, and he raised an eyebrow at my confusion. "Actually, Mr. Holmes, I was merely thinking something along the lines of that Greek Interpreter business, what was it…ten years ago? When you merely handed over a problem to him that you could not be bothered to investigate," I hazarded. "But…do you have that power?" A sudden ray of hope had sprung up to pierce the black of helplessness, and I fairly sprang at it.
Mycroft Holmes chuckled in a ripple of rueful consternation. "I should not have leapt to conclusions about you or what my brother has seen fit to tell you, Doctor. Hmm."
I remained silent, awaiting a verdict as the man's watery eyes contracted into two light grey pinpoints, boring a hole into whatever his gaze had fixed upon as he thought, only occasionally sending me a glance that made me unaccountably want to fidget in my chair like a boy of ten at church prayer. I was acutely aware of the crackling embers in the fire, and the ticking of the single clock upon the mantel. An omnibus's bell rang outside the large window, and a group of children ran by, laughing as they hurried home before darkness grew too thick to be safely about.
Finally Mycroft Holmes stretched himself lazily and stood, looking at me as I hastily followed the gesture, somewhat awkwardly due to my bad leg.
"I shall take care of matters with my brother, Doctor, so you may cease to waste your pity upon him," he rumbled decisively, helping himself to a liberal pinch of snuff with the studious, placid air of a man who has made a decision and knows how to carry it out.
I cannot convey how much peace and confidence the simple answer imparted to me, for coming from that man it was as good as a binding, legal contract. In one instant I felt as if a ten-stone weight had been lifted from my shoulders, my hands washed clean of the responsibility that had to be laid in blame somewhere.
"I…cannot thank you enough, Mr. Holmes," I answered with a less firm voice than I should have liked.
"I could say the same, Doctor," the man replied soberly. "For were it not for your watchful eye my brother would in all probability not even be alive to be causing such a mess. Ah, Peters. Put the tea down and then call this gentleman a four-wheeler, if you please, and pay the driver in advance for Baker Street?"
"You're not coming back with me, surely?" I gasped, aghast, for I knew full well what Holmes's incensed reaction would be to my returning with his older brother for a parental chat.
"No, no, no, Doctor," Mycroft drawled in amusement. "I am to leave here in exactly three and one-half minutes, and I've a mountain of paperwork to do when once I arrive home. Besides, my brother is a holy terror when his will is crossed and I've no desire nor intention that he shall ever find out you came to me today."
"Then…" I struggled into my coat, blinking puzzledly at the older man.
"Doctor, if you will pardon a simple observation, you appear to have rather over-reached your ambulatory limitations for the night. And it is absolutely sopping wet out-of-doors, and those hansoms can splash a man as thoroughly as if he had walked the entire way."
I was touched by the gesture and the unusual concern, but I could not accept the favour, not in good conscience, and I said as much. I received for my pains the most formidable scowl I have ever seen upon a man, and a quite stern reprimand on the propriety of accepting a gift in the spirit it is given, giving up one's foolish pride when an offer is made to help, etc., etc.
I gulped dryly, as Mycroft finished and stepped back so that he was no longer towering over me, and felt for all the world as if I had just been thoroughly chastened by my own, now deceased, elder brother. Strangely enough, the feeling gave me a deal of amusement and security, and it was with gratitude that I finally gave a genuine smile and thanked the man for his time, his generosity, and for his help to be given in the future.
After all, I reflected as I sat dry and fairly comfortable in the four-wheeler rattling through the city back to Baker Street, who knew better how to draw a Holmes out of his depressive lethargy, than another – more brilliant and far more lethargic – Holmes?
To be continued.