I took a last glance in the mirror—yes, my collar was quite clean. Now to open my bureau drawer (strange that my hands shook) and take out my cheque-book. Tucking it carefully in my waistcoat pocket, I closed my window and went downstairs. I took my overcoat down slowly, and stood in close deliberation over the walking sticks.
"Where are you going, Watson?" Holmes asked from behind his newspaper.
"And what will you do once you get there?"
I paused by the doorway. "I'm just…I'm just going out for a walk."
"Well I believe that. I'm only wondering where the walk will lead." He paused. "You've taken to dealing with your bills in your room, lately."
"Haven't I a right to open my papers where I like?"
"Of course." He shook out the paper, turned the page and resettled himself.
I stayed by the doorway, hand gripping the wood frame. I watched the shadows swing around slowly and listened to the clock ticking in my blood. I drew a few shallow breaths. "Just what are you getting at?"
"Can I come with you, on your walk?" He asked after a pause.
Holmes shrugged. "That's what I'm getting at."
I dropped my hand from the doorframe, feeling my fingers clench up. "Just because I want a walk by myself? Am I at your beck and call, now?"
"Easy, old fellow." He folded up the paper and lay it aside, looking at me under knit brows.
"Well—well it's hard to be easy, when you're keeping me from doing as I like. I can do as I like!"
"Watson, just a moment. Just a moment," he repeated entreatingly.
"No, I want to go for a walk and I shall do so," I replied, turning back to fumbling through our stick collection and hoping he couldn't see my quickening breath. "I don't even know how long I'll be gone, might not be a long walk."
"I heard you shut your window; the grey clouds are far off yet. You're planning to be gone at least until the rain has reached us. Don't lie to me, Watson."
I picked out an oak stick and turned it over in my hands, my back still facing him. I couldn't even see it properly, I turned it over mechanically, feeling a terrible pressure inside me, a terrible darkness. "I'm not lying."
He stepped rapidly to my side, taking hold of my shoulder. "Watson, you are lying."
I tried to shrug him off. "Will you shut up? You think it's your right to meddle in everyone's business, is that it? Let go of me! My life is my life, so stop hounding. Get out of my way, and let me leave."
His grip tightened on my arm. "You've never lied to me before."
I caught my breath, glaring at the floor, furious at the tears I felt starting to spill. "I'm not lying!"
"All right, then," Holmes said quietly, stepping back. "Go on your walk. But when you're back, I want an answer to this question."
"What—what question?" I asked, wiping at my eyes.
"How have I lost my friend?"
The stick clattered to the floor. I stooped to pick it up, but once I had bent my knees I felt too weary to straighten back up; I sank to the floor, leaning my head against the wall. A halting sigh escaped me in installments, and I closed my eyes. "I can answer your question already, Holmes. He's...he…spent himself to ruin."
"How so?" Holmes's voice came near my ear, and I felt him kneeling close by.
"He…he gambled…an awful lot."
"I see." Holmes was quiet a minute. "You know, this same fellow used to lodge with me. Quite a long time ago he asked me to lock up his cheque-book, since he liked the races a bit too much. And when he asked me to do that, I thought to myself, 'well isn't he brave to admit his weakness, and to think of a solution guarding against it.' I didn't tell him that, though. I probably should have. Anyway, two months ago he asked for the pocketbook back. I was surprised, but thought it was his right, after all, and maybe he didn't fancy races anymore. I should probably have asked him more about it, now I think on it. I only wonder why he didn't tell me about his plans, why he wanted it back."
"Because I was ashamed!" I cried out. "I was ashamed whenever I had to ask for it—like a child begging for pennies, though I know it was mine—I-I couldn't bear to see you in charge, I felt so silly and weak. And I…I am weak! I am! Because near as soon as I had it back…I don't know why I like to…I don't know why I find it so interesting and—I just do and—and I…Oh God! I hate myself! Why can't I stop? Why can't I be a normal man and keep control of my money, just be sensible! I wanted it to be secret…I was ashamed for you to know, Holmes."
"Ashamed for me to know! Ashamed for me to know! Do you know how weak a man I am? Do you even realize how easily I might be brought down? Why, Watson? Tell me why? How could you be ashamed…to tell me?"
"I don't know! I couldn't…to go back when I was trying to control my vice…and the worst is it never goes away! Not forever, anyway—Holmes, you don't like gambling! Why do I? Why? I hate it! I'm so angry—I cannot bear it. I earn my wages like an honest man and then lose it on nothing, some stupid game. There are poor people who need to be helped! There are a million better ways to spend money! I wanted to be a regular man, able to get at my pocketbook without nuisance, and I wanted to—believe that I'd squash my old habits easily, but I couldn't. I can't!"
"But don't you see, you don't have to. Just give me back the cheque-book, and I'll lock it up."
"No, Holmes, that's only proving my mind is still weak. I want to control this vice!"
"I think some vices are never under our control," Holmes said slowly. "We control them only by admitting we can't, if you understand, and asking for help. And you've proved you can do that. I know it is a nuisance, Watson--and I don't know why men have different vices. Perhaps because, if we all have the same weaknesses we'd be doomed! At least this way--you see how it's better?" He stood and held out his hand to help me up.
I got to my feet without taking the help, feeling the gnawing guilt bite again. "You don't mind helping a liar, then?" I asked quietly.
"Some moments in our lives serve as encapsulations of our character, Watson; that moment was not one of yours."
"Can you still trust me, though, now that I've lied to you? Or maybe you won't believe me anymore." My voice shook a little.
"Oh, Watson, you are the dearest man I know. Don't you understand that you can't lie? You can try, but it won't do. You're as honest as...as a mouse, or a squirrel, living quietly without harming others, don't you see? That's why it's...it's so terrible when you do try, because it doesn't fit at all." He had both hands on my shoulders now, and was looking earnestly at me. "Come, put those thoughts out of your head. Let us put the cheque-book away safely, and then, do you know, I think we should watch the clouds from the windows there. It's a relaxing pastime to do by oneself, and even better with a friend."
He had by now found the key in his left pocket, and as he held it out to me I felt as free as a cloud myself.