It was madness. Rank madness.
And yet I continued to don the pinstripe trousers, the crisp white shirt with impeccable cuffs, the fine silk tie and trim waistcoat. They hung a trifle more loosely on my frame than I expected but then, the past few months had not been healthy ones for me.
I had brought my shaving supplies into the study; I needed more light than my bedroom window afforded. And steadier hands than I currently possessed. I seated myself at the desk, rested my elbows upon it, set the mirror the proper distance away, and went about giving myself the closest shave I could whilst leaving my skin intact. The dye in my hair was impeccably applied; my eyes had darkened with anticipation and fear so that it was impossible to tell their color. Or so I hoped.
That accomplished, I went about applying the last few touches from the make-up kit. Then I glanced away from the mirror. I had been concentrated on the task at hand so fully that I had yet to look at my full reflection since beginning this little transformation. To be frank, I wasn't sure I had the nerve.
But it was now or never! If I did not do it now I never would. I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I burst out laughing at my apparent success for the man in the mirror laughed just as I did.
Madness, certainly. And yet it just might work.
God, please, let it work!
The price of this failure did not bear thinking about. I had sacrificed so much – everything, in fact, without exaggeration – and the thought of yet another failure in my endeavors might very well kill me.
I walked over to the window, cautiously. The wax bust with its all-too-familiar profile was resting on the nearest chair, with the turntable pedestal awaiting. Monsieur Oscar Meunier of Grenoble had done his work well. I let my fingers trail ever so lightly along the wax features. Yes, very well indeed.
I heard rather than saw Mrs. Hudson enter hesitantly with a pot of tea and some fresh biscuits. I smiled. I had shocked her badly and yet here she was, personifying the very spirit of resilience. It was enough to propel me to accept the cup she offered despite my nerves being so on edge hunger was the farthest thing from my mind.
At my insistence Mrs. Hudson sat across from me though she still looked askance at my appearance. "I can't seem to get past it, sir," she confessed with a shake of her head.
"Am I so disreputable?" I teased her gently.
"No, sir, it is respectable enough. It just gives me a turn to see you looking so." She paused and looked me almost sorrowfully. "I hope you know what you are doing."
So did I, though I did not say so. The clock on the mantle chimed the hour. I rose. "You remember your instructions?"
"Yes, sir. Turn the bust one quarter turn every fifteen minutes and keep to my knees so as not to be seen."
"Exactly." I smiled at her with a confidence I did not feel. Everything was set; every telegram sent, ever detail seen to, my revolver oiled and loaded waiting in my overcoat pocket. I only had to do my part.
I left via the back door and criss-crossed my way through byways and back streets only to return to the opposite side of Baker Street to the old Camden house. The cobwebs were unbroken and the dust undisturbed. Excellent. I was careful to step only where I would leave the fewest signs of my passing. There was no need to let my quarry know of my presence.
The capture of Colonel Sebastian Moran went exactly as planned, better than I ever could have hoped. Not only was he arrested for the murder of Adair, I was happy to add the details of Holmes's murder. I had not been able to save him at Reichenbach, when he had survived the confrontation with Moriarty only to be taken down by Moriarty's cowardly henchmen wielding an air-rifle while I looked on in horror. That failure had preyed on me ever since and not even returning to England with his body had absolved me.
It had taken three years. Three long years of planning Moran's capture, of painstakingly revisiting Holmes's methods, of spending hour after hour chiseling away my personality so as to impersonate my friend. Only then could I convince the remnants of the gang that Sherlock Holmes had not perished but in fact survived even Moran's bullet at Reichenbach. At last his death would be avenged.
I know I received some strange and almost frightened looks from Lestrade and the constable who accompanied him. Lestrade did such a violent double-take I feared for the safety of his neck.
"By heaven, Doctor," he chuckled uneasily, "you gave me a fright looking like that! Almost too good of a job, if you take my meaning."
"I take it," I smiled faintly. Far better than he knew. Or perhaps he somehow suspected that which I feared.
"Well . . . " Lestrade clapped me on the shoulder with a clear want of graceful transition. "At least it's over now."
"Indeed," I agreed but I did not feel any relief by saying it.
Mrs. Hudson greeted me with eagerly. She had already collected the incriminating bullet that had shattered the wax bust of Holmes. I could not bring myself to look at the ruin of the bust; too many wretched memories rose up when I did. Instead, I directed my attention to the bullet. It was a curious, sinister thing, a hollow-nosed revolver bullet fired from an air-gun. Such a small thing, misshapen and gleaming dully in my hand, and yet so terribly terribly deadly.
Fortunately, for the sake of my sanity, Mrs. Hudson distracted me by bringing in a basin of warm water and bath sponge. "I thought you might like this, Doctor, to wash away the makeup and such. Make you feel more like yourself."
I thanked her and did not bother to mention it would take a good many washes for my hair to return to its original hue. The makeup I had used to change my complexion and the putty additions to change the contours of my face were more easily removed. I soaked the sponge and raised it to my cheek. Then I lowered it without it so much as touching my skin.
I stared into the shaving mirror still on the study table. My eyes were still darkened with heightened emotion and the black dye in my hair did not look unnatural. I had lost so much weight during the past months that I was nearly as thin as I had been when I first returned from Afghanistan. The clothes that were styled after my late friend's tastes suited me. For the briefest moment I saw no trace of myself looking back at me from the glass.
This was the threshold, I knew. Here was the point of no return. Little by little I had lost myself to Sherlock Holmes, first in the writing of his cases and then by dabbling in matters of mystery. And now I had physically changed so as to resemble him as much as possible. I could no longer tell where Holmes ended and I began. And having gone this far, I did not know if I could return to myself. Nor, in fact, if I wanted to.
Really, who was John Watson? A failure as a soldier, a doctor without a practice, a husband without a wife, a biographer without his subject. What right had he to exist when a genius and benefactor of the human race was dead?
What harm was it, after all, if I resurrected Holmes – a changed man, perhaps, but still retaining his powerful abilities of ratiocination? I had observed and absorbed his methods; surely I could recreate his successes. Tonight proved that. Of course, I would have to adopt Holmes's name, else no one would come to me. And I should have to limit my interactions with the Yard. Or perhaps I could explain to them my plans. If I explained things clearly enough to them, surely they would understand.
Was this madness?
No. Not madness.
Simple logic. The criminals of London grow active when Sherlock Holmes was away. Therefore, he would simply have to return.
I left the sponge and basin and strode over to the mantle. I took up Holmes's – my – old grey dressing gown and donned it. Then I picked up the Stradivarius, placed it betwixt my shoulder and chin, and drew the bow lightly upon the strings.
It gave an unpleasant wail that was not entirely surprising. I was a trifle out of practice and the strings had not been tended to in three years. I should have them replaced tomorrow. In the meantime, I would enjoy being home again, secure in the knowledge that once again Mr. Sherlock Holmes was free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.