ENVOI: a postscript by the Author.
For two years, his pen has been silent. His Last Bow —more a cathartic exercise than an attempt to set down record—has been his most recent publication, and it threatens to be his last. The many months between then and now have seen him lift his pen many times, always with no result worth mentioning. The words do not flow the way they used to; every phrase is a struggle, every sentence a battle, every paragraph a full-scale ground war. And John Watson would know, for he has seen many wars.
He has grown two years older, however, and with that has come a longing for some sort of finality, a postlude to everything that mattered, and even more so to everything that didn't.
Today, the first day of spring, with the gorse blooming bright and yellow on the Downs and the sky an ethereal shade of blue, he sits down at his desk and begins to compose a letter.
The friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, he writes, will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism. Aging does not sit well with Holmes, and he reminds me constantly…
The familiar bang of the front door rings through the house.
'Watson? Watson the most miraculous thing happened today,' Holmes yells from the front hall as he removes his mud stained boots. 'The smallest rain cloud formed overhead and seemed to follow me across the heather, dribbling rain the whole way, can you believe it? You know, I recall reading a monograph on the subject many—Oh, there you are." Holmes steps up from behind and places his hand on Watson's shoulder, his fingers still somewhat cold from being in the early spring chill.
'What is that you're working on?' Holmes asks, tilting his head down to glance at the papers spread across the desk. Watson quickly flips the pages over and throws a warning glance over his shoulder.
'Not until it's finished,' he says, a hint of a scold in his tone.
Holmes backs away, chuckling. 'As you wish. I saw only the first three words, anyhow—and my own name, of course.'
'Is that really all you saw?' Watson smiles and turns, elbow propped on the back of the chair, a warm smile on his face. 'I refuse to believe you.'
'My dear Watson,' Holmes says, his voice dripping with fake condescension. 'Your handwriting is barely legible at best. In fact, your penmanship puts all those ridiculous German ciphers Mycroft shoved at me to shame.'
Watson laughs. 'A good thing, then,' he says, 'That we were on the same side.'
'Oh, I still had to wade through your chicken-scratch in all those letters you sent home,' Holmes chuckles, curling up in his armchair with a small wince. The careful, nearly tentative way he says the word home makes Watson's eyes turn mim. There is an insecurity to Holmes these days, as if he is half afraid one day Watson will get up and leave all over again, the way he did six years ago, the way he has done throughout their long and terribly complex relationship.
As some of my readers may know, I reenlisted in the army as a medic, and was sent to the front in 1914. I returned from France shortly after the end of the war, anxious to depart from the damp and dispair of those wretched trenches. I shall not indulge my memory's strange desire to recall so many painful details, not here, but I will say that this conflict was far more savage than anything else I had ever experienced before. Afghanistan was graced with the cleansing power of dry, acerbic heat. France had no such blessing.
Watson gets to his feet, favoring one leg as he always does these days, and stretches languidly. 'I must go down to the post office,' he announces. 'It's been nearly a week and a half since I went last.'
'Hm.' Holmes has picked up another book, is flipping through it intently. 'Bring an umbrella, should any rogue rain clouds see fit to attack you on your journey.'
'I most certainly shall,' Watson says with a smile.
I'd never pictured the two of us living out our final years in such a manner—we have managed to settle into a type of luxerious domesticity that I have grown to cherish dearly. I read, make some small attempts at writing, as I have mentioned before, and walk about the Downs when the weather is fair.
They do possess a car, the same one that had brought Holmes to Von Bork that fateful day in August six years past. But Watson prefers to walk, to stretch his legs and test the pain, and most days, he manages to push past the ache, focus on the fine scenery and the distant hiss of the sea.
Today, he spends the walk recollecting miscellany. Holmes once told him of a term he'd picked up while undercover in America, a name the Southerners coined for the early, frigid days of spring. 'They call it a blackberry winter,' he'd explained. 'Because that is when the blackberry plants first start to bloom. A quaint little phrase. A quaint people. My vocabulary has been utterly decimated in their presence.'
It had been the morning after Holmes had finally rid his face of the monstrosity that had been that goatee. John Watson does not miss it in the slightest.
The small village comes into view; he quickens his pace, using the umbrella in his hand as a walking stick. There are small, gray clouds in the distance, miniscule but ominous in color, and drifting towards them. He hopes it will not mean rain; the weather has been so lovely of late…
The boy at the post office smiles as Watson stepped in through the door, giving him a little wave and a, 'Morning!'
'Oh, good morning, Joseph. Is there anything for us today?'
'Just one moment, doctor.'
They are local celebrities of a sort. The people tend to leave them alone, but when they do go into the village, they have a tendency to attract attention. And they are also a source of pride; newcomers and passing travelers are always told, 'You see that little bluff up there? See that little cottage up top? You'd never guess who lives there.'
And mostly they don't. But sometimes they do.
Joseph sets the mail down on the counter, three envelopes of varying thickness. A long-winded letter from Mycroft, informing Sherlock of all the details of the government that are significant and leaving out anything of real importance. A brief note from Watson's editor, asking once more if he ever plans to publish ever again. And…
Watson takes one look at the last envelope and smiles.
Holmes, of course, has his bees to keep him occupied. And when they are not enough, our saviour comes in the admittedly unexpected form of Inspector Lestrade. Holmes and I both still insist on referring to him with his title of old, even though he has constantly reminded us, in his own quiet, polite way, that it is 'Mr. Lestrade now, nothing more, nothing less.'
Holmes still tries to shroud his anticipation over the little professional's visits, often casually asking me when I return from the post office with the mail, 'Anything from London?' The crestfallen expression on his face when I reply in the negative is a sight to behold, but so is the bright smile that floods his features when I say yes.
'Anything from London?'
Watson leans his umbrella against the wall and sheds his jacket and hat, smiling. 'Perhaps,' he says, feeling cheeky. Holmes pokes his head out the sitting room to glare disconsolately.
'Do not tease, Watson, it doesn't suit you. Well?'
Watson wordlessly holds the envelope out. Holmes pounces, a small growl slipping from the back of his throat, and he breaks the seal with a flick of his forefinger before pulling out the two sheets of paper within.
'How is he, then?' Watson asks, moving past Holmes to return to the sitting room and the comfort of his armchair.
Holmes takes his time in answering, and when he does, it is monosyllabic in nature. 'Fine,' he grunts, before continuing to peruse the letter. A minute later, another word: 'Bored.' Another minute still, and Watson finds himself graced with an entire phrase. 'Oh, look here, he's arriving today on the two o' clock train.'
'Rather short notice.'
This was posted a week ago.'
'Ah.' Watson nods. They are rather lax about checking their correspondence nowadays. 'Did he give a reason?'
The paper rustles. Holmes peers over the top of the letter. 'No, I'm afraid he did not. It is possible he simply wishes to escape the smog of London.'
'Yes, I suppose so,' Watson mutters. 'And replace it with the smog of your abysmal tobacco.'
'Hush,' Holmes titters, but he is smiling—Lestrade's letters tend to have that effect on him. He carefully folds the papers back up and slips them into their envelope. 'And let us hope for the best.'
We will often drive down to the train station in town to pick Lestrade up, should he come for a visit. Holmes rather likes the car, in his own curious way—he is interested in it as an object to observe, but not command. Sitting in the passenger seat is all well and good, but if I ever suggest he take the wheel, he will throw his head back and laugh out an amused protest. I did catch him once opening the hood of the car, doubtless intent on enacting some gruesome mechanical surgery. Luckily, I stopped him before any real harm could be done.
Yet technology does not cease to fascinate him. Holmes has much hope in the future of things.
'It isn't nearly as hard as it looks, Holmes,' Watson promises. They are chugging along splendidly, the car purring amicably under Watson's direction. Holmes scoffs and folds his arms across his chest.
'It doesn't look ihard/i at all, my dear Watson,' he says. 'I simply am not interested; my brain attic has no use for such things.'
'Yet it has room for bee culture?' Watson laughs when he sees Holmes' mouth open in a display of indignation, ready to launch into a defense of his precious bees. Watson simply shakes his head. 'No, no, I was simply teasing. I do not need to hear your reasons for keeping those infernal insects around once more.'
'Eyes on the road, Watson.'
They arrive early, and wait in the car outside the train station, Holmes with his eyes shut and deep in thought. Watson simply stares at the exit with a patience that feels new to him.
Soon, the scream of a whistle rips through the air. Watson blinks, watches the steady flow of people leak from the gate, eyes peeled for the familiar slight frame and slow, sure tread.
Lestrade appears at the tail end of the crowd, with his head held high, eyes darting about. Watson sits up and gestures to him, arm extended and swaying back and forth until Lestrade sees and begins to make his way over.
'What is he wearing?' Holmes mutters.
Holmes lets out a resigned sigh and opens his eyes just as Lestrade steps up to the car, a grim expression on his face.
'MacDonald,' he says flatly. 'In his sleep. Wretched.'
Only Lestrade can greet another person in such a morbid manner. But doubtless he thinks it practical to get the news out of the way. He never was one for beating 'round the bush. He clambers into the back seat without another word, and Watson starts the car up and begins to drive back to the cottage.
No one says anything until they're out of the village. Only then does Lestrade lean back and mutter, 'What a dreadful way to go.'
Lestrade's sojourns from London were things to be both cherished and averted. The reason for this was simply that he often came solely to tell us that another one of our old acquaintences had shuffled off the mortal coil. Holmes and I began to read his intentions in his dress, looking for the habitual band of mourning on his arm. In this manner did Lestrade become our little harbinger of death. One year it was Roger Bradstreet, the next year Peter Jones, and old Lanner after him. Good men, every single one of them, all sorely missed.
He only plans to stay for the afternoon, before catching the evening train back to London, back in time for supper. Sussex is all good and well, but despite whatever he may say to the contrary, Lestrade cannot bear to be too far from the city for too long. He still is what Holmes used to be, a creature of the metropolis. But a death is something too important to be announced through channels so impersonal as a letter, a telegram, or—heaven forbid—a itelephone call./i
'How old was he?' Watson asks, just as the cottage comes into view, dark roof against a blue sky.
'MacDonald?' There's a rustle of fabric as Lestrade leans forward, elbows propped on his knees. 'Lord. I've really no idea. Must've been… nearly seventy? His wife's still alive. Did you know he had five grandchildren?'
Holmes is silent through all this—rarely does he enjoy speaking of the dead these days.
They pull up and Watson turns off the ignition, the car's rumbling replaced by the pings and clicks that come popping from under the hood. As they walk up to the house, Holmes casually asks Lestrade how London is. The city has become, in some respects, almost a guilty mistress of Holmes', one that he's given up but must still watch his old friend court.
'Oh, the city's the same as always, Mr. Holmes,' Lestrade replies, chuckling. 'A little cleaner these days, if you'd believe it. We've had nothing but rain lately, thought I'd escape it for a bit, you see… Although, from the looks of those storm clouds there…'
'And the Yard?' Holmes probes, pushing a laugh from Lestrade.
'Oh, Hopkins handles things just fine, I suppose. Although I've suggested several improvements to him now and again.'
Watson smiles to himself. Lestrade takes to retirement like a snake to the sky.
He is much the same as always, good old Lestrade. Thinner and even more somber, if such a thing is possible, still stubborn as a mule and a good deal less relenting than I when it comes to Holmes. He has politely declined every offer to go visit the hives thus far. I cannot say I wholly blame him.
'The bees are doing well, Lestrade—'
Hives or not, however, we do still engage in long, winding walks. The heath is better for little else, most days.
The wind rushes through the grass, blasts the two men full on as they watch Holmes ramble on ahead, occasionally turning to ensure he hasn't left his companions itoo/i far behind.
'Is everything alright?'
John Watson turns and looks Lestrade full in his bright, black eyes, turning the question over and over and over in his mind. Well, is everything alright? He would like to think so, yes, but where there is joy, there must also be… Well. They have had a long time to sort it out; if he hasn't figured it out by now, he probably never will.
He smiles and continues down the small slope, following the dark dot in the distance that is rapidly pulling ahead.
It's not all roses between the two, however. We've seen some glorious verbal sparring matches here in this little house of ours—their wit has only sharpened with time. Often, Holmes will lay a newspaper flat on the breakfast table, point in agony at an article, and flesh out all the grevious mistakes the police have made thus far.
'Why in God's name did you go after the stableboy?'
Lestrade has listened patiently thus far, although his eyebrows have been making a steady descent from a mildly annoyed arches to thoroughly riled slants.
'Well, he'd the same build as was consistent with whoever left the footprints, of course. And it says here he'd a motive, with no one to back up his shaky alibi.'
'But did you observe his character?' Holmes insists. Lestrade tuts and taps his active fingers on the tablecloth.
'People do lie, Mr. Holmes,' he grunts. 'You would know. You've fibbed your way around the Yard often enough.'
'Oh, people lie, yes, but their personalities rarely do. An excellent study on the human psyche has been written by a doctor in Vienna...'
At this junction, Watson thinks it best to intervene. 'Not to discredit this doctor of yours, Holmes,' he says, carefully folding the newspaper back up. 'But the inspector's train arrives in half an hour.'
Holmes arches a dark eyebrow. 'Very well,' he says, somewhat tartly. It doesn't last long, however. A smile soon floods his face and he stands, grips Lestrade's extended hand soundly, and claps the smaller man on the shoulder. 'Do tell whoever is working this case to concentrate resources on the wife's brother.'
'Hm. No one save Hopkins listens to me at the Yard these days,' Lestrade admits, reaching for his coat and hat.
'What goes around comes around,' Holmes says gravely. Lestrade snorts, slides his jacket onto his shoulders, and walks to the door, Watson following close behind.
'Coming with us, Holmes?' he asks.
'No, no, I've a good deal of case filing to do, I'm afraid. Lestrade, you've rather upset my plans for the day with this little visit of yours. I'd intended to finally finish off the 'D's.'
'My deepest apologies, Mr. Holmes.' It's almost heartfelt. One more quick handshake, and Lestrade and Watson step out into the fast-darkening evening. The air smells of rain.
Watson drives fast down to the train station, fast and silent for the simple reason that he's not too sure what to say. It's not until they're at the station gates and the car's been stopped does he turn and sigh.
'Did you go to the funeral?' he asks quietly.
'Yes.' The answer is gasped out, almost, thin and frail, a thread ready to snap. 'Yes, I did. It was horrid.'
'I'm sorry to hear that.'
Lestrade's ensuing chuckle is cold, bordering on derisive. 'Please, don't be. I should be used to it by now. My own bloody fault I let it get to me.'
Neither of them say it, but Lestrade's the last of the bunch now—the old gang, the grand troop. And John Watson can diagnose loneliness when he sees it. He reaches out and gives one of Lestrade's shoulders a faint squeeze.
'Try to come again soon.'
Lestrade opens the car door just as the high-pitched scream of a train whistle shatters the evening silence, says goodbye in the form of a polite nod and tip of the hat, then disappears through the station gates.
The goals of old age are vastly different from those of youth. As a child, there were days when I dreamed of nothing save solitude, the urge to be alone, and escape the suffocating gaze of my parents or the constant nattering of my siblings. But as time passed, the value of companionship seemed to grow exponentially. I often wonder if I didn't join the army—the first time, that is—because I wanted to disappear into a crowd and lose my own face among millions. Upon my return to London, I longed desperately for the comfort of a person with whom I could share my troubles.
Rarely has Holmes been that person. More often he has been someone better—one to take my troubles away.
I feel these days I am simply returning the favor.
Watson arrives home just as the faintest of drizzles begins to pick up. He covers the car and jogs lopingly up to the front door. Even before he steps inside, his ears can pick up the distant strain of a violin. He smiles, enters the front hall and sheds his jacket, small drops of water clinging to the fabric and brushing off on his skin as he hangs it up on the nearest hook.
'Holmes?' he calls out.
The Stradivarius sings on; Watson slowly walks into the sitting room to see Holmes standing at the window, staring out at the stormy sky, gently dragging his bow across old, old strings, strings that haven't been replaced in years. It's an aimless melody, an improvisation, meandering like a river—but always, always willing to make it to the sea.
'Is Lestrade off back to London, then?' Holmes says, pale finger wobbling expertly on the G string to produce a chilling vibrato.
'Yes.' Watson settles down in his chair—the music stops briefly as Holmes reaches out and pulls the curtains further apart, clearing up the view.
'Your lucky night, my dear Watson,' he says, turning to throw a disarming smile over his shoulder. 'I am taking requests.'
Watson chuckles. 'What an honor for me,' he says. 'Nevertheless, I must decline. Surprise me, Holmes.'
There are five seconds between words spoken and notes played, during which Holmes silently deliberates, then lifts his bow to the strings.
I don't mean for this to ever enter the public eye, not until the two of us are gone from this sphere. Some things are to be held close for as long as one is able to keep them there. I have always intended to publish all our adventures, every last one, but what is intent in the face of will? I do not intend to spend my final days reminiscing.
There are far more important tasks at hand.
It is Chopin, tonight, a nocturne that Holmes has transcribed himself. He does not play so much these days—why, Watson has never ventured to ask. But here, now, the music flows the way it always has, warm and all-enveloping.
Watson feels ready to melt, is beginning to finally allow himself to be carried off, when—
His eyes spring open in time to see Holmes drop the bow with a small grunt of surprise. A few silent moments pass, Holmes' shoulders rising and falling with each ragged breath he draws. Then he slams the Stradivarius down onto the windowsill.
'Holmes!' Watson jumps to his feet. 'What is it, what's wrong?' He places one hand on Holmes' back, reaching over with the other to make sure the violin is still intact. Holmes' face is drawn and pale; he lifts his fingers up to his eyes and stares at them in what can only be disbelief.
'Are you in pain?' Watson asks, voice quiet and low.
Holmes takes a deep breath, then pulls away. 'It is of no importance,' he says, rubbing his hands together stiffly. 'Come, let me call Martha and we will have some dinner.'
He disappears from the room. Watson bends slowly, minding his knees, and picks up the discarded bow, twirling it gently before setting it down next to the violin.
Outside, the storm has picked up, tempest roaring, wind rattling the window. Watson sighs and draws the curtains.
For one, I am determined to save Holmes from melancholy. It was the right decision, leaving London and all the trouble that city entailed. I simply must keep on proving it to him, day after day. It may sound like the task of Sisyphus, but I prefer to think of it as Herculean, for, grand as his trials were, they did come to a resolution.
He mustn't ever feel lonely inside his own head; that's the trouble. Holmes is still as brilliant as always, but his outlets are much diminished. I do my best. I hope it'll be enough.
They never retire before ten, the routine becoming ritual as the months pass. After dinner, Watson settles down on the sofa with an old book, and Holmes sprawls out on the floor, a pile of case files on either side of him, and sets to putting them all in order.
A monumental job, but he's undertaken it nevertheless. It would probably take him less time if he doesn't stop to read all of them. But he mustn't be blamed. Each folder is a window back to a different time, not so much better as one more grandiose, surreal when thought of as a memory—Did I really do this? Oh, dear, did he really say that?
'Ah!' Holmes chirps. 'Do you remember this case, Watson? Lady Rachel Drake and her vanishing mattress?'
Watson laughs from his comfortable next on the sofa. 'Oh, yes. The look on her poor husband's face when we… Yes.'
'And this one… The gruesome murder of Samuel Deer. Child's play, but Lestrade was ever so puzzled by the backwards footprints.'
Watson looks up, more than a little worried at the frantic tenor to Holmes' voice.
'And here, ah, this one, surely you recall Eva—'
'—odd little case, but very telling—'
'Holmes.' Watson rises and walks over, to kneel down on the floor beside his friend and stare him full in the eye. Holmes silences himself, briefly closes his eyes.
'Yes,' he whispers. 'Yes, I know.'
He's given his all to the persuit of justice. I wish he'd let the game go, and dedicate what time he has left wholly to himself and… if I am perfectly frank… to me. But he is who he is; I cannot be selfish.
The rain continues all night, persisting into the morning but becoming only a fine mist, making small rosettes from water droplets on the windowpanes. Holmes is always up first, up with the larks—although this morning, all the birds are doubtless huddled away, waiting.
Watson comes downstairs, still yawning, to see Holmes standing in the front hall with his overcoat and hat on, and a scarf thrown around his neck. He grins at the sight of Watson, gestures towards the door with the umbrella in his hand.
'Going out for a stroll. I'll be back for breakfast,' he announces.
'What? You can't be serious.' Watson takes the last few steps on the stair as fast as his leg will allow, darting up to Holmes and crossing his arms across his chest. 'You'll catch your death out there.'
'Nonsense, old fellow! The exercise will do me good.' He's already opened the door. Several moments later, Holmes is ambling along down the walk, umbrella opened above his regal head.
Watson sighs and quickly throws his overcoat on.
There's nothing for it but to follow.
He still engages in the oddest of whims these days, ever the eccentric. He gets up at all hours and has managed to blow several holes in the roof with some of his wilder chemical experiments. We receive books, pamphlets, monograms, from all over Britain, the Continent, even America, many of them addressed just to him. It is a prize amongst authors of the scientific world to be referenced by the great Sherlock Holmes, himself.
Of course, he's also little regard for his own well-being. I put up with it when we were both young men and could afford to miss our meals, but these days, it's become a wretched annoyance. And walks in the freezing rain, for miles and miles! I feel as if I'm talking to a brick wall sometimes.
'If you contract pneumonia, I refuse to treat you, for it'll be your own bloody fault!' Watson shouts. Holmes' only reply is a boistrous laugh, bouncing across the heath.
'Hurry up, old man!' he yells over his shoulder. They've called each other 'old men' for decades. Now that it's finally true, the tease has become more of an endearment than anything.
Watson rolls his eyes and walks a little faster, turning to gaze out across the damp and soggy heath. A beautiful place, even when wet.
There's no audible reply; Holmes is already a good piece ahead, walking along, staring up at the gray slate of a sky—pondering what? God? The molecular construction of a storm cloud? With Holmes, one never knows.
I must conclude this letter, for now, for I've said what I've meant to say. The reader may be disappointed to have found no adventure, in this old pages of foolscap, no chase through darkened alleyways or brilliant leaps of logic, but I must remind you that those are vignettes from a different time.
I did love that time; I love it still. But I cannot live in it.
And neither, dearest, beloved reader, can you.
I'll probably end up secreting this away. No matter. It will find its way to its intended audience somehow.
The rain continues, fine mist like filigree, threatening to stop every now and again but never following through.
He's paused for a moment, to watch the sharp rectangle in the distance that is Holmes drift farther and farther away, unimpeded by the cold and the wet, pushing on. There will be time later, Watson supposes, when they're drying off and warming up in their armchairs by the fire, to speak to him about the matters that have been gnawing at Watson's mind.
But for now…
The rectangle has paused and turned, is waving, and a thread of a shout is being borne up by the breeze.
Watson turns, ceases his line of thought. Yes. Later.
At the moment, Holmes is waiting.