First chapter of four. The others are already written, so you won't have to wait too long for an update!
Disclaimer: the characters don't belong to me...
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Were I setting down this tale for public consumption, I would say that the case of the Kent Arsonist began with an unexpected visitor at breakfast time, in the middle of April 1882. For my own part, however, the most important aspect of the affair had its roots in a conversation I had somewhat earlier that morning.
I was lying on my side in bed, my weight on my sound shoulder, facing the curtained window. I knew that without, a bright and promising spring day was just beginning, and it would have been pleasant in the extreme to throw open the curtains and fill the room with warmth and sunlight. It would not have been a very sensible idea, however, given the amount of windows there were in the opposite façade, and given the fact that Sherlock Holmes was lying in the bed behind me.
I was feeling rather melancholy that morning, despite the breath of spring in the air. My fit had begun the previous night, after we had tired each other out, and Holmes lay with his head on my shoulder, his long, thin form curled up around me. I should have been filled with contentment, but The Phrase had weighed particularly heavily on my mind.
For three long months It had been buzzing around in my head and threatening to escape from my mouth at any moment. I love you, I thought as he hovered over me, his sinewy arms flexing and his mouth descending onto mine. I love you, I thought as we lay entangled in sheets and each other, slowly regaining our breath. It's a good thing I love you, I thought when I found a suspicious blue powder in my tooth mug. It's because I love you, I thought as Holmes wondered aloud how I endured his midnight mistreatment of his violin.
But even to say: I love to wake up and find you beside me, seemed a little too overtly sentimental for his tastes.
Holmes startled me by speaking out loud, when I had supposed him asleep. "You are rather quiet this morning, my dear Watson... and I am frightfully bored. I haven't had a case in two weeks." His fingers began to move gently over the small of my back. "However, the inactivity has not made me lose my touch to such an extent that I cannot deduce your unhappiness from the set of your shoulders. What are you thinking about, my dear fellow?"
I stiffened, rather panicked, and said the first thing that came into my head. "Strawberry jam."
His fingers stopped moving. I knew he didn't need to see my face to know that I was lying. He said nothing, however, and we lay there for another few minutes in uncomfortable silence, before Holmes suddenly leapt out of bed. "I believe I shall go and see whether my oxalic acid has crystallised overnight."
When I descended to the sitting room a few minutes later, after a detour to my own bedroom to don a dressing gown, Holmes was bending over his workbench, frowning into a beaker. He scratched around inside it a few times with a glass rod, before setting it aside with an irritated tut.
Mrs Hudson was already in the room too, bearing tea, eggs, porridge, toast and the strawberry jam which had inspired my ill-chosen lie.
"It's the start of a beautiful day, Dr. Watson," she beamed at me. "Spring has come early this year, I would say."
I managed to muster up a cheerful smile in response, and sat down to the breakfast table. As Mrs. Hudson left, and I sprinkled sugar in my porridge, Holmes came to join me. He seemed abstracted, and I hoped he was thinking of dissolution and filtration rather than my unfortunate answer to his question.
"I was thinking of going to the opera this evening," I said tentatively. "It is Apollo et Hyacinthus, with Cairns."
"Cairns? The man has no soul," he said without looking up from his fastidious de-shelling of an egg. "I am sure he does not understand a word of what he sings, so I do not particularly desire to hear him sing in Latin. Si vis amari, ama, he could sing, as if it were Five herring for sixpence." He looked up at me and proclaimed: "Amor meus amplior quam verba est. That is how he should sing, with depth and passion."
I laughed, because the image had flashed into my head of the portly opera-singer in question appearing on stage in his dressing gown with toast in one hand and an egg spoon in the other. Holmes seemed rather put out, for some reason.
"In any case," he went on, "I have no intention of sitting through an opera where a completely spurious female character has intruded into the love story, simply because social conventions could not countenance Ovid's original intentions." He picked up one of the newspapers which Billy had already brought. "I intend to devote my evening to a study of crystallisation conditions."
I finished my breakfast in silence, hoping devoutly that my idiocy had not set Holmes off into the start of one of his dark moods. I hated to see him suffer, but I will admit there was a certain amount of selfishness in my hope as well. At the best of times, Holmes seemed cold and emotionless to me, but when he had descended into a cocaine-ridden state of languor, I didn't even have the palliative of his physical attentions.
When I had eaten my fill, I took my tea and went to stand over my desk, glancing through some case notes I had been writing up the previous evening.
"Perhaps I shall stay in tonight after all," I said, half to myself. "After all, I have several passages which I have been wanting to write up for a few days now."
I didn't think Holmes was even listening, I thought he was brooding over his newspaper. But to my surprise, I suddenly felt his hands at either side of my waist, and his breath on the back of my neck.
"Don't let me dampen your day, my dear man. If you truly wish to hear this imbecile sing - "
"Indeed, no. It was merely an idle thought."
I had turned my head slightly to speak to him, and so he was able to brush my cheek with his lips.
"In that case - " he said softly, turning me round to face him squarely.
At just that moment, we heard Mrs. Hudson's tread on the stairs, and flew apart, Holmes crossing to the other side of the breakfast table and picking up a newspaper he had laid down there, and I sitting down to pour another cup of tea. Our landlady had a fine, deliberate, thumping tread. Sometimes, in my more imaginative moments, I imagined it had become distinctly louder and more deliberate since Holmes and I began locking the sitting-room door and retiring to bed early, three months previously.
She paused in the doorway. "There's a young lady downstairs asking to see you, Mr. Holmes."
"Good heavens, what an unsociable hour to call!" I could not help exclaiming.
"Do send her up, Mrs Hudson, please," said Holmes, already disappearing into his room to dress.
By the time our visitor was ushered in, a few minutes later, we were both dressed and reasonably respectable. To say the same of her would have been a travesty, for she was a thousand times more than respectably dressed. Indeed, she was clothed in what I assumed was the very heights of the latest female fashion.
Her voice, when she spoke, betrayed her wealth and education as much as her attire did.
"I do apologise for calling on you at such an early hour, Mr. Holmes," she said after introducing herself as a Beatrice Trent-Smith. "But the fact is, I must return to Kent before midday, or my father will notice my absence. He was away from home yesterday, you see. He does not know that I have come to London."
I was not surprised to hear that she still lived under her father's roof, for she could scarcely have been more than twenty years old, and I did not need Holmes's skill for detection to note that she wore no wedding band.
"Perhaps you had better recount your problem to us with all possible speed," said Holmes.
I suspected from the state of Miss Trent-Smith's eyes that she had been crying recently, but she remained perfectly composed as she related her tale.
"My fiancé has been accused of a most spiteful crime, Mr Holmes, and all of my family are ranged against him except myself. Perhaps I should explain that my father is an extremely well-to-do man, and our family one of the oldest in the county, while my fiancé - well, his father was in trade, as a matter of fact. He himself is training to be an accountant."
She shot a quick glance at us as she spoke, but if she thought we would be shocked by this not very serious social disparity, she rather mistook the circles in which Holmes and I moved. Moreover we both worked for a living ourselves, after all.
She went on: " Well, this didn't please my parents at all, of course, but they nevertheless smiled upon - that is to say, I finally persuaded them to permit the match. You cannot believe how happy we were, Mr Holmes! We were to be married in April, until this - this terrible event befell us."
Holmes stirred a little, restlessly. I supposed, rather wistfully, that all this talk of love and happiness grated on his nerves.
"Yes, perhaps you could precise the actual nature of this crime for us, Miss Trent-Smith?" he said, a little tartly.
She went on with her story. "It happened two nights ago. One block of the stables was burned to the ground, killing my father's favourite hunter. The head stable-boy swears he saw my fiancé slipping into the stable-yard just a few minutes before the fire was detected."
"There is no chance that the fire could have begun accidentally?"
"It appears from the ruins that someone had strewn oil about the floor. And with the stable-boy's testimony, everyone is convinced of my Edward's guilt." With all her composure, she was unable to keep a bitter edge out of her voice. "He was already held in low regard by the entire family. And unfortunately he had had somewhat of an altercation with my father earlier that evening."
"He protests his innocence, of course?"
For the first time, she lost a little of her poise. "He says he remembers very little of the whole night. He had been - unfortunately he had been drinking with one of my cousins. But it could not possibly have been him. He would never do anything so cruel and spiteful! It is completely contrary to his nature."
"And is it in his nature to become so much the worse for wear that he cannot remember his actions?"
Miss Trevor-Smith coloured even further, but her gaze remained steady. "Not in the least. He swears it has never happened before. But he was not unnaturally upset by the confrontation with my father, and I suppose..." Her voice trailed away. "I beg of you, Mr Holmes, do not judge him as my father has. The man I love is incapable of the slightest cruel deed. I am convinced of his innocence, and our future happiness hangs upon your intervention."
He held up his hand, presumably not wanting to endure any more of this romantic drivel. "I have already made up my mind to accept the case, Miss Trent-Smith."
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We had the compartment to ourselves on the train journey down to Kent, giving me the liberty to sit beside Holmes and rest my head on his shoulder without fear of ending the day in gaol.
"You are out-of-sorts today, my dear Watson," he said, running his fingers through my hair, something of which he never seemed to tire.
"It is nothing," I said. "I got out of bed on the wrong side, that is all."
He turned further towards me, running a finger softly down one side of my face. It was the softest, gentlest touch imaginable. Holmes could be incredibly tender, when he wished; physically tender, that is to say. Unfortunately he had scarcely said anything more tender than 'my dear fellow' to me, however much I wished it otherwise.
Now he was tilting my head back, to plant a series of kisses along my other cheek.
"How pleasant to be in daylight," he murmured, before lowering his lips to mine.
I knew precisely what he meant. To kiss in daylight was a luxury we rarely had. Always, there were the curtains, the shutters, the cover of darkness. But in the train, with the door to the corridor curtained, and orchards and hop-gardens flashing past the window, we were momentarily safe from the constant fear of observation.
Holmes drew back for a moment, and gazed at me with the strangest expression, as if he were about to devour me. "You were made to be seen in the sunlight, Watson," he said softly, his hand in my hair again. "You glow golden."
It was at times like these that I could imagine he actually loved me. But I knew that was a dangerous path to allow my mind to take, for only disappointment lay at the end of it. Some portion of my thoughts must have shown in my face, for his brows came swiftly together in a scowl.
"Good Lord, Watson, what is the matter with you today?"
"I am sorry, Holmes. I'm thinking melancholy thoughts, that is all."
He withdrew from me, still frowning, and took his watch from his pocket in a rather pointed movement.
"We should arrive in less than ten minutes. Let us hope that Miss Trent-Smith has managed to escape her father and meet us at the station."
He seemed to want to put the conversation on a more professional plane, and so I risked a question on that topic. "Do you really think the young man is innocent, Holmes?" I asked. "After all, we only have the lady's extremely biased testimony to go on."
"Sometimes love gives rose-tinted glasses, as the saying goes," Holmes said slowly. "But sometimes that object of love is entirely deserving of it." He wasn't looking at me, but at his watch, as he spoke. For one wild second I thought he was speaking about me. Then I told myself it was only my own wishes whispering to me, and perhaps my own vanity, and forced myself to laugh.
"How strange to hear you talk of love, Holmes."
"Indeed," he said dryly, standing up to take down his suitcase from the rack. "I perceive we are arriving."