Story: Auld Reekie (Part 5 of 5)
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Holmes remained silent for the first part of our coach journey back to Edinburgh, although his gaze returned often to rest upon me. His face was less tense than earlier in the day, its sharp lines somewhat softened. After some time he spoke up:
"The idea does go against the grain somewhat, Watson, but I find I cannot let you go blindly into danger tonight, without knowing precisely why."
This statement left me taken aback. Surely he did not mean to suggest that he intended to deviate from his habitual and time-honoured practice, and lay out the logical path of his deductions for me before the denouement of the case! His next words nonetheless confirmed this theory.
He brought his mouth to the level of my ear to murmur them. "It is not without some sacrifice on my part, I must point out, for the expression on your face upon hearing a carefully constructed string of my deductions is almost as dear to me as that which you wear in the heights of passion - and the latter, you know, is dearer to me than sight itself."
While I was regaining my breath after this statement, Holmes went on in a more business-like tone, although I could see that he was smiling fondly at the flush in my cheeks.
"Let us hope, nonetheless, that you will yet manage to find some measure of the usual thrill in hearing the facts recounted now, before they are quite confirmed or the story complete." He leant back in the coach-seat, his sharp chin resting on the tips of his joined fingers. "It's quite a tangled web, in fact, but I was first put on the right trail by the spate of burglaries in the neighbourhood, all evidently committed by someone possessing a key to each house – "
"Or who was a lockpick," I put in.
"No, no, Watson, he had a key. I first discovered proof of this in my investigation at your friends' home. The key in their kitchen still bore traces of the oiliness left by the wax used to take a copy of it. Someone was gaining access in a legitimate fashion to each of the houses, managing to take a wax impression of the house-key, and returning in the night for a more nefarious purpose. The question remained: how did he gain access in the first place? The explanation rapidly became evident: the neighbourhood is of recent build, and therefore carpet fitters, cabinet makers and the like often have occasion to call."
He smiled fondly. "I see things are beginning to become clear to you, my dear. I presume you now understand why I said that the profession of the man from Windmyre Close was the key to the matter?"
"But the Gordons haven't had any new furniture recently, have they?"
"No, the burglary at the Gordons' was a little different - and it was that fact which led to the death of the unfortunate young man in their hallway. The difference at the Gordons, you see, was that they have in their employ Margaret Donnelly, who was already being used by Brodie as an intermediate between himself and the locksmith who cast the keys - we saw her take the wax impression of a key at the end of that meeting in the kirkyard, in fact. Now for some unknown reason - perhaps business was a little slack - Brodie decided that Margaret Donnelly's employers would also prove a profitable target, and ordered her to procure for him a copy of their house-key."
"And she was a willing participant in all this?"
"On the contrary! He has a strong hold over her, forcing her to cooperate. Up until this point she had acquiesced to all his orders, but this time she was unwilling to, out of a sense of loyalty to her employers. She hoped, somewhat naively, to scare Brodie off by having someone lie in wait for him on the night he broke into the Gordons. That someone was her young gentleman, a respectable if not very successful plumber by the name of Lochie. Brodie was spooked, indeed, but he did not run away. He shot Lochie."
"How horrible! But I don't quite understand. She knows who killed her young man, and kept her silence - and even went on helping his murderer?"
"He has a very strong hold over her, as I said. You see, he knows her secret. She has a child."
I looked up sharply. "Out of wedlock, you mean."
"Yes. I had already guessed as much when Brodie referred to the child in the kirkyard. It is apparently almost a year old now. With her stout figure it was not difficult to conceal her condition from her employers, and when the child was born her sister came up from their village to take care of it. Donnelly supports her and the child in abject poverty on her wages. You can readily comprehend what a disaster it would be for all three of them, were her employers to learn of her supposedly immoral behaviour; they would dismiss her instantly from her position. I expect you can see why her mother's instinct is taking precedence over her desire for revenge on the man who killed her young suitor, although she has shed a great number of tears over him."
"He's - not the father?"
Holmes shook his head. "I did not pry into details, or try to deduce them. I do have some common decency, you know. But apparently young Lochie the plumber was aware of her family situation, and was hoping to marry her all the same, as soon as he had gained a sound financial standing himself." He shifted in his seat. "I think you can understand now why I am anxious to bring Brodie to justice without Miss Donnelly having to testify, or be involved in any way."
Although I agreed, I said cautiously: "Even though she was an accessory to so many crimes?"
"All arising from one foolish mistake which ruined her life, and which has already punished her a thousand times over. I think you and I can readily comprehend the mental suffering of someone who lives in constant fear of drawing the harsh condemnation of our so moral society. I didn't put it to the police in quite those terms, of course."
He paused, scowling, and I knew he was brooding again on the risk we ourselves ran.
My mind was filled rather with the details I had just heard of the case. "Isn't there a risk that Brodie will divulge her secret anyway when he knows he was betrayed by her?"
Holmes shrugged. "There is no reason why he ever should know. It seems that he has an entire network composed of people like Margaret Donnelly, from whom he forces collaboration by means of threatening the disclosure of their darkest secret. It could have been any of them, or none. Indeed, the object of our plan for tonight is to capture him without necessitating the testimony of any of his victims. In any case, I already have the police's assurances that they won't prosecute Donnelly or indeed bring her into the trial at all, in gratitude for her cooperation. And being seduced out of wedlock, unlike other supposedly immoral acts, is not a criminal one. There is no reason that the story should ever reach the Gordons' ears."
At this point the coach came to a halt at the Haymarket. We climbed down, and walked slowly back to the Gordons, Holmes' arm in mine. I knew that the risk I would take that night weighed as heavily on his mind as on mine - indeed probably more so - and I tried to entertain him by recounting the stories of some of the recent popular literary works to come out of Edinburgh. This gave him the opportunity to scoff at tales of cut-throat pirates and Robin Hood's merry men, and thus we both passed a very agreeable half an hour.
It was not until that night, when we were installed with two stout policemen in our hiding place in one of Edinburgh's most luxurious town-houses, that Holmes made an oblique reference to our earlier conversation.
"Thank you with all my heart, Watson," he murmured in my ear.
"For taking me to the Firth of Forth," he said obliquely, ever mindful of our two companions, "instead of leaving me alone as I deserved."
"Don't be ridiculous, old chap."
I felt him briefly and silently grip my arm in the dark, before we all settled in for the wait, the atmosphere fraught with tension.
Fortunately for the state of all our nerves, Brodie soon made an appearance. He recognised me the moment I stepped out of the shadows into the beam of his lantern, but he did not seem in the slightest bit ruffled. Instead he aimed coldly with the pistol which was already in his hand, and it was all I could do to dive out of the way in time, the bullet missing me by a hair's breadth. Holmes and the police then leapt on him from behind, and all was confusion and noise for a minute, a chaos of grotesque shadows cast by the lantern which was tossed from side to side in the fight.
Finally the man was subdued, and I felt Holmes clasp my shoulder in the darkness.
"Not a scratch."
At this point someone lit the gas-lamps in the room, plunging us into light, and Holmes let go of my arm.
Now we could finally look into the face of the burglar, extortioner and murderer. He was a mild-faced, middle-aged man, slightly overweight, and it was easy to see how he passed in daytime for a respectable cabinet-maker and guildhall member. Only his cold hard eyes spoke of the depths of depravity which lay behind that innocuous mask.
The owners of the house had dared to venture onto the scene by this time, and we thanked them for their cooperation and apologised for disarranging their library and disturbing their sleep, while the police marched Brodie away.
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We were obliged to remain in Scotland in order to testify at the trial, and by the time we finally set foot in Baker Street, it was over a week since we had first left.
I retired directly to my room, for I had slept poorly on the sleeper, one of our fellow passengers being a very noisy snorer.
When I descended to the sitting room a few hours later, Holmes was curled up in his armchair, a book lying abandoned in his lap. He had obviously intended to read, but been overcome by sleep.
I stood at the foot of the stairs, savouring the sight of him. His long gaunt face was relaxed in sleep as it never was in waking, his ever-active hands still, his body at peace. I was simply glad that we were both here together in Baker Street, notwithstanding the nightmares previously evoked in me by Holmes' panic-stricken words as I lay abed in Edinburgh.
We had not had a great deal of opportunity to speak alone since the night of Brodie's final burglary, what with the business of the trial, and all the social events the Gordons had wanted to hold or drag us to, in the euphoria of having the origin of the corpse in their hallway explained. I had enjoyed seeing old friends and acquaintances, of course, but I felt all the while the tension of a long-overdue conversation with Holmes ahead.
He stirred, and his eyes flickered open. His face lit into a smile upon seeing me. "Won't you come and sit a while, Watson?"
I did not join him in his armchair, but sat in my own chair opposite, on the other side of the fireplace.
Holmes filled and lit his pipe, his gaze returning often to my face as his nimble fingers went about their work. I met it each time with a smile.
On most evenings, he would have stretched out his long legs before the fire, the picture of ease. Tonight, however, he was sitting upright, his entire posture filled with tension. Finally he spoke up, his words emerging slowly. "If ever again, God forbid, you should chance to be injured in the course of an investigation, I hope I shall manage to behave with a little more restraint." He swallowed, a hint of nervousness in the action. "That is, if you will ever agree to accompany me again."
I knew that was the closest I would ever get to an apology.
I was simply glad to know that he had managed to find some kind of equilibrium in his mind over the past week, and that his ever-present paranoia would not spell the end of the happiest period in both our lives. I hastened to reassure him that the overture of peace was heartily accepted.
"I know we will never be free from fear, Holmes," I added. "But I am quite determined not to give you up, so it is a damned good thing you don't intend to try."
He relaxed, and sat back in his chair, stretching out his long, lean legs. "Sometimes I dream that we could be free, one day," he said in a lighter tone. "When we have grown so old and frail that we can no longer run around after the dregs of the underworld, perhaps we shall retire to the depths of the countryside, and live quite alone, without even a housekeeper - no one at all to disturb us. You will write, and I shall - watch birds or grow prize watermelons or some such thing, and we shall spend days and nights on end together, without the slightest fear of discovery."
I was grinning, enjoying the rather incredible image of Holmes tending to something as boring as watermelons. "Do you really think that's very likely, my dear fellow?"
He stiffened. "I'm sorry, I should not have assumed - how presumptuous of me. Do forgive me, Watson."
I saw he had misunderstood me, and hastened to reassure him. "No, no! I did not mean to suggest that the future you described was unlikely in its entirety - or unappealing."
However..., I thought suddenly, an oft-suppressed fear coming unbidden into my head. I told myself that if this were a night for revelations, then now was the time to speak up, and did so in a rush, before I could lose my nerve. "However, sometimes - sometimes I fear that this cannot last forever - that you will tire of me. After all, I am a very ordinary man, and you - why, my dear fellow, you are Sherlock Holmes!"
He made an impatient noise in his throat. "Yes indeed, I am Sherlock Holmes, as you so dramatically exclaim - surely the most heedless, unintentionally cruel man you have ever known. Why, from day to day I live in dread of the possibility that one of my thoughtless comments or actions will drive you out the door. I did not even dare to hope that we would last as long as we have, in fact."
In the pause that followed, we both digested the other's words.
Taking a deep breath, I said slowly: "You must promise not to laugh when I manage to write thrilling and romanticised adventure stories of your trials and tribulations with your marrows."
He understood the vow of commitment behind the light-hearted words, and his eyes gleamed.
"I shall look forward to it," he said simply.
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Later that night, I was pleased to discover that Holmes had not lapsed into his usual post-case languidness, but was rather in high spirits. Indeed I had occasion to be thankful for the nap I had taken earlier in the day, for otherwise I should surely have collapsed in exhaustion, such exertions did he put me through.
After, I closed my eyes and stretched out luxuriously, enjoying the warmth of the bed and Holmes' favourite past-time of running his fingernails gently over my chest. After some time his fingers descended to my stomach, and their movement became slower and more exploratory. Indeed, he almost seemed to be poking and prodding me in a thoughtful, clinical fashion, reminding me that my stomach was already showing the signs of a year of peacetime living and abundant London fare.
I opened one eye to give him a baleful look. "Holmes, I swear, if you are thinking that you are looking forward to years of correlating my ale consumption with my growing waistline - "
His fingers stopped moving, in a distinctly guilty fashion, and I took this as sufficient proof to justify a retaliatory leap at him. However he had been prepared, and instead of dealing some well-earned retribution with the feather-filled bolster, I found myself flat on my back, my arms pinned down and Holmes stretched at full length over me, his face the picture of feigned innocence.
"But Watson, it is such a golden opportunity for a long-term study! Why, I could take repeated measurements over - four or five decades at least! You cannot deny this contribution to the advancement of knowledge."
Instead of the explosion of ire he was trying teasingly to provoke, I found myself grinning foolishly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Really, you agree? I was chaffing you, you know."
"No, no, I was merely thinking - four or five decades together."
Soon he too was grinning foolishly. "We're only just beginning, you and I," he said in a voice tinged with awe. Then his expression segued into into something much more earthy. "That will be an awful lot of sleepless nights," he added in his lowest voice, lowering himself down onto me and capturing my mouth with his.
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Inspired by the true tale of Deacon Brodie, an Edinburgh cabinet-maker and respectable city councillor by day and thief by night, who was eventually hanged on his own gallows, about a hundred years before the time of Holmes and Watson.
Auld Reekie is a nickname for Edinburgh, by the way.
In this chapter, Holmes is scoffing at books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, both of whom were born in Edinburgh. So was Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, but luckily Holmes doesn't know that!