"Calling Shapes, and Beckoning Shadows" [Milton, Comus]
Setting: Book canon
Rating: PG13 for implied getting-up-to-things
Genre/Warnings: mystery, h/c
Summary: see prompt
Notes: answer to the prompt: On All Hallows Eve, canon Watson is visited by the ghost of his brother. Holmes can't see him, but endeavours to confirm Harry's presence for the sake of proving Watson's sanity. Or something to that effect. Just want a freaking out Watson, holding conversations and family domestics with apparent thin air, and a quietly frantic Holmes investigating
Beta thanks to lj user=mad_with_july as ever.
Historical facts, names, places and people found herein are duly researched but I'm rather allergic to putting footnotes on fanfic. Sorry.
"This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain... No ghosts need apply." The Sussex Vampire.
I could not allow that Watson had fallen to a second madness. His involvement, his very association, with me was surely insanity enough for a lifetime.
It is difficult for me to describe adequately the sensation that passed through me, faced with the singular, shocking scene that evening, the thirty-first of October - a year and a day ago. Watson and I had been cooped up together the whole day by a noxious fog. A late burst of unseasonable good weather had retreated before a front of damp air and sudden chill, then a hellish symphony of street burners, steam generators and coal fires had done their worst. People were reported choking in the streets.
Worse, there were no cases.
Even in the first flush of an affair, however willing and inventive the spirit, the flesh can endure only so much. We had quite found its limits before dawn that morning. So, upon rising, we had attended quietly and separately to whatever little amusements occurred to us. Watson had feasted on sporting papers and taken in a regrettable adventure serial by way of dessert. For my part, I spent the day alternating between standing at my worktable testing a Duke's teak snuff box to destruction, standing sawing at my fiddle until a string snapped and…remaining standing to partake of tea and tobacco.
The air began to clear only as darkness fell. Watson excused himself to fetch a clothes brush from his room – wood ash is stickier than it has any right to be - saying shyly that he had better disturb his bedclothes while he was about it. I forbore to mention the surprising, relieving and embarrassing conversation I'd had with our landlady when she'd come up with breakfast. Watson has not yet despaired of her keeping a good opinion of him: I learned long ago that her loyalty does not, to her credit, depend upon her good opinion.
I heard his high, cold cry of horror through two closed doors and all the intervening air.
Whatever thoughts I had formed – an intruder being the least unlikely – as I took the stairs two at a time, were halted (as were my steps) by what I could hear once I reached the top landing:
"Why have you come, why now, when I am happy again after so long?" A pause, but strain as I might, I heard no answering voice. "It's too late, too late to make amends. I am sorry, so sorry. Can you not forgive me, Harry, even so? " Silence. "Harry?" More silence. "Only answer, for God's sake, answer me!"
To hell with manners: I turned the handle and rushed in, to be faced by Watson as he stood pressed against the edge of his bed. For several moments he stared straight at me, his expression etched with terror. Then he slumped to the floor and covered his eyes. There had been no intruder – Watson would have blocked the only way to the window -and there was no trace of footprints on the carpet. However, the curtains had not yet been drawn. The atmosphere was not tainted; he had not seemed drugged, and in any case what chance to administer such? A dozen other impressions slotted themselves into my working mind before a small, trembling sigh from Watson brought me sharply back to focus in the cold room. He remained crouched and silent, face averted and hidden from me by clenched fists.
I should…I should comfort him, no doubt of it. Surely that was my place now.
Physical sensation, crowding out the clamour of black thoughts, usually brings me relief, but when I bent and tried to gather him close, slipping a hand into his open shirt-neck to span his collarbone and gentle him, he grasped my wrist with his own hand and whispered:
"Not for me, my dear fellow. It does not do for me. Only give me a little time."
So we merely sat, side by side, knees drawn up and shoulders touching and, by and by, he began to tell me what had happened. A vision of his late brother had suddenly appeared across the room, and though it had spoken not a word, Watson told me that he knew well enough, by the looks and signs the thing had given, why the spirit should visit him tonight of all nights, All Hallows' Eve.
I regret to recall I did not contain my initial response to the idea that Baker Street might be haunted.
"Pah! Haven't we had enough of listening to that fool Doyle's wild imaginings, without admitting them under our own roof?" I felt Watson start, and was ashamed, but he was calm enough when he answered.
"If not that, then what? How do you account for it, Holmes?"
"As yet, I do not. But the facts are surely these. There are no spirits, no ghostly counsels, and no messages from beyond the grave. There is this world and this one only. So what may cause a man to see what cannot be? Some trick of light and shadow, a poisonous agent which acts on the mind…"
"Or simple madness."
The words from his mouth hung with quiet menace in the air, but I refused to give the notion quarter, refused to give any authority to the shivers that marred Watson's sturdy frame.
"No. It is something else. Think, man: has anything seemed out of place over the last day or two? Did you eat, wear, touch, or smell anything out of the ordinary? Where have you been, whom did you meet?"
It was not until he stifled a sob that I realized I had almost shouted my questions and taken him by the arm as if to shake the answers out of him. I dropped my hand as if burned and begged his pardon.
"Come back downstairs, my friend. We will sit and smoke and calm ourselves, then set ourselves to solve this."
He trailed down the stairs after me like a whipped cur, heavy-footed and cringing, so unlike his steady, manly self. He had mastered himself enough that his hand did not shake when I lit his cigarette, but his eyes could not yet meet mine. Once we had settled in our chairs before the fire, I began again, intending more care and less of my own habit of seeking cold reason above sympathy and understanding. After so many years' determined study to go always in the opposite direction it was, I confess, uphill work.
My own fear was how far this might wound his spirit, even if I never doubted his reason. What he once wrote, concerning my deduction of his brother's fate from his old watch, might have struck the casual reader as nothing more than an old, memorialised grief: worth chiding me over because I treated it only as a puzzle contained in an object, but not evidence of any still-bitter sorrow.
I knew better, not because I knew the details but because I knew my Watson.
"How like him was it?" I asked.
"Very like. As he was in life, before life cut him down."
Truth and loyalty on the same jury seldom reach a reliable verdict. "According to his watch, it was drink which did that."
Watson flinched, but nodded. "And yet," he ventured quietly, "may not drink, or the thrill of chance, or the chains of the clock and the silence of unclubbable men…or the needle," - here it was my turn to flinch, even as I catalogued the significant quartet of examples he had cited – "offer a troubled soul's only refuge from a life that is beyond bearing sober?"
There was nothing for it. To solve this mystery, I must pry into affairs that Watson, an open fellow who respected but did not share my own hard-schooled reticence, had so far chosen to keep from me. The surgeon needs cut and maim further before he heals.
"Touché. Yet I know why I require such refuge at times, and may hazard at my own brother's motives: but the kind-hearted, steady, eminently practical clan of Watson – whence their torment?" An unfailing trick, though perhaps an ungracious one, to induce people to say more than they might otherwise wish, by arousing their ire: Watson duly flushed and rose to my bait.
"A pack mule may kick out as well as a thoroughbred, if ill-used enough!" There was something mulish indeed about his face as he lifted his chin, and took a deep breath before making his confession. "My brother turned to drink, because for years he bore a burden I made him carry alone. Then, like an Indian fever, however hard he struggled to be free thereafter, the sickness came again and again to bring him low, and at last…well, you know the entire tale, you divined it from his watch."
Sour challenge, familial love and resolute truth struggled in the space between us as our gazes met. Combat was joined; reason must emerge victor.
I looked away first.
Watson stood up and paced on the rug, wringing his hands as he spoke, scrubbing away at his memories.
"So now, either his spirit has indeed come to reproach me, or I am falling into that same madness our mother had, who began by seeing phantoms and ended by hearing our dead father's voice bidding her cross-question them with his best lawyer's arguments. All the time I was at Netley, abroad, even meeting you and coming to live at Baker Street, my brother was shut up in a cold house in Northumberland with a lunatic who held an imaginary courtroom spellbound with her deranged eloquence. He was the elder and took responsibility. I was the one who escaped. And I never went back. I denied even their existence in my tales, lest someone try to trace them and found out our shame." He took his seat again and hung his head.
"You had a vocation to follow. You had enlisted, to serve your country. You were young…"
"Young? Not after Maiwand. No, Holmes. No excuse will serve. If I am haunted, it is only just, and if I am mad, then at least my conscience, unlike poor Harry, is not entirely dead and buried."
I could have mustered a crowd of objections to either case: some reasoned, others derived shamelessly from my own partiality, my conviction that Watson and base motives can scarcely share the same continent, let alone the same body, for very long if at all. Besides, if he had done his duty then as he now saw it, my home might not now also be his, and that…was a thing not to be borne.
"Perhaps your conscience found other ways to punish you, and you have already paid whatever debt of guilt you owe? It is said that some who play excessively at games of chance do so more to lose than win," I ventured, though he stubbornly shook his head. "It remains a fact that ghosts do not exist, and my considered opinion, which is the next best thing to a fact, that you are not mad. Therefore, accident or malice introduced some means of deceiving you as to what you saw." I clapped my hand on the arm of the settee, as if daring it to contradict me. It remained gratifyingly silent. Watson, in his turn, might as well have been speaking patiently to the hearthrug as to me:
"I have taken no medicine, eaten nothing you have not eaten, nor stirred from this room all day, and no agent I know of waits so long to take effect on the mind."
Swiftly, I crouched at his side, my fingertips tapping restlessly on his knee until he looked up. As I covertly examined his pupils, noting neither unusual dilation nor contraction, his complexion – fair, clear and hale- and his movement (fluid, bar some tension born of strong emotion), I spoke to him low and in earnest:
"I am instructed by my methods, and they tell me that we have simply not yet hit upon the truth. It will come to me; else I will hunt it down. This, you know."
There. He smiled, just a trifle.
During the rest of the evening, in default of an obvious method, I considered the question of motive. Ordinarily, Watson is even more unlikely to make an enemy than I an intimate friend. It was possible someone was aiming at me through him but if so, they should scarcely have chosen this singular form of attack. Then I recalled that Watson still occasionally acted on behalf of the Police at inquests, giving expert evidence. Two trials were coming up in the next month: a miserable little domestic poisoning - the 'victim' might have been served justice even sooner if the law bore down on marital cruelty as hard as it does on certain sorts of devotion - and a question of whether a drowned banker had first been struck dead, or only stunned. In both, Watson's professional opinion had led to capital charges being leveled; to strike at his credibility could perhaps help to undermine the case for the prosecution.
At this late hour, I could not pursue either lead, although I had ranked them in my mind, with the latter as likely to prove more profitable and pressing. I was filling my pipe again when Watson abruptly announced his intention to retire early. The night before, we had stumbled gracelessly into my room, kissing fit to devour each other and scattering garments in largesse onto the floorboards, dresser and carpet on our way to bed. Now, it was almost like the old days: the two of us tense, tentative, forever on the edge of speech, the conclusion of the day about to be another missed opportunity. As he hesitated at the door of the sitting room, no doubt reluctant to return to the scene of his vision, I stepped noiselessly behind him and, without pressing myself up against his back, leaned forward far enough to whisper in his ear:
"Lie down with me. I want nothing more tonight; only sleep next to me, my dear boy."
Without a word, he followed me to my room. There we disrobed quietly, as we might have done when alone. Cuffs and collars, ties and shirts, all were removed, coupled, and twinned in their accustomed places. It seemed to me somehow newly permanent and deliberate. Watson apparently had that same thought when he glanced at the display; he looked over at me and smiled gently.
When we were both naked, we paused. Until now, we had been busy learning each other's bodies with hands, mouths and every other part which occurred to us. This time, we simply looked. John Watson is desirable to me beyond all reason, but nothing carnal stirred in me now, and not only because of my promise to him not to take advantage. The rising ache in my throat; the fluttering in my guts; the strange lightness of spirit: I found I could not name what I felt at that instant. It was both like and utterly unlike the ecstasy of hearing wonderful music, of seeing great art, of accounts I had read of sudden religious conversion. My heart – poor, cold thing - seemed 'strangely warmed', indeed. The thought came suddenly and settled in me deeper than my bones, that there had been no-one before, and would be none after: for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Furthermore, death had damn well better not try to part us.
Watson, being more experienced than I, well knew what had struck me, and his smile blazed now in the dim room like a guiding light. He stepped up to me, ran a hand from my shoulder to my neck, pulling me down until our faces met. He planted a small kiss in the groove above my upper lip.
"It is the same with me," he said softly. "Come to bed. Do you have a spare nightshirt, by any chance? One not so long I'll trip on it?"
And so to the morning. I had lain awake most of the early hours, my companion's sleeping head a welcome weight upon my breast. His exhaustion and nervous strain had prostrated him but galvanized me. I swore not to let the day end before I had rooted out the culprit and the means with which they had wounded him.
Coffee, then to be quick and out while the streets were still full of tradesmen making their morning deliveries. I made my way to one of my refuges, a stable-yard off Mare Street in Hackney, between St Thomas' Square and the synagogue in Brenthouse Road. Sitting back in the cab, I closed my eyes and rehearsed the journey: Pentonville Road, City Road, left into Old Street, Angel, Shoreditch, Hackney Road, sharp left and strike north; alight at the Dolphin public house and walk the rest of the way.
Presently, a prosperous dealer in cooked meats by the name of Henry Shippam was heading south and further east, a Deringer concealed in his greatcoat. The dead man in the second trial had likewise had a good deal to do with the carriage of both salt beef and loaded weapons, and I was on the trail of some of his former associates. In a slaughterhouse near Stepney Green, I satisfied myself (not that I had ever seriously doubted Watson's judgment) that the accused should certainly hang. What I did not find was evidence that anyone with an interest in the outcome of the trial even knew Watson's name, let alone his address or anything of his family.
Shippam was duly banished with cold cream and deposited in a wicker basket. I travelled through a steady drizzle back to Baker Street by way of the Blackfriars offices of the Evening Standard, where I had cultivated an acquaintance – a young journalist whom I had once extricated from a scrape involving false stock market tips.
"The Collingwood case? Why yes, Mr. Holmes, I reported on it myself, as you'll doubtless recall. Bad business altogether. Twenty years they say she stood it, the drink and the beatings, before one day she served up two grains of arsenic in a treacle tart. So they say."
"No-one else in the household? Aged parents? Servants?"
He shook his head definitively. "They were near enough in the poor house by all accounts. Just a young son, Barnsfather Collingwood, about twelve or thirteen years old and the apple of his mother's eye; what's to become of him, the Lord alone knows."
"Barnsfather? Extraordinary the lengths parents will go to confer nominal distinction upon their children." Marmaduke Palmerston Smith and I exchanged consolatory expressions.
When I reached home, Watson was sitting at his desk, writing. As I approached, he covered his work hastily. I know that I have been harsh with his efforts to render my work fit for consumption by the regrettably dense yet excitable mass of the general public, but even so, this was uncharacteristically secretive behaviour. Beyond a questioning raised eyebrow, I did not try to draw him out. I meant to interview Mrs. Collingwood at Holloway gaol directly, by way of Chappell's for a new string, but first I wanted to check one or two details from press coverage of the crime, pasted into one of my index books at the time of the arrest.
"Hmm, that would explain it. The father's surname." I was speaking to myself more than to my customary audience of one, but it so happened that Watson was passing behind my chair and, glancing over my shoulder at the text, stopped short and leaned close in to see it better. A letter to The Times pleading the innocence of Charlotte Collingwood had been signed by her distressed father, Thomas Barnsfather of Newcastle.
"Holmes. That name is a local one for me – in Bedlington, where I grew up. In fact" -he screwed his face up in an effort of memory – "my brother employed a man of that name, I'm sure of it!"
At once I was all attention, asking him what had been his brother's profession (mining engineer) and what he recalled of the employee (nothing). The father it could not be – too old, too far away; but how to find a Barnsfather in London, even supposing he lived in our great city?
Prisoners on remand are still prisoners, and Mrs. Collingwood had already spent months in a damp cell deprived of sufficient light and warmth for robust health. As we talked, she swayed and shivered in her chair, arms wrapped tightly about her, as if without them she might fall in pieces to the floor. There was nothing to be done for her, nothing; better let it be, sir. Yes, her father was still alive and living still in the North. Yes, she had three brothers and two had been engineers in the mines. One was dead, the other she would not speak of despite every inducement. Clumsily, she tried to infer some deep family estrangement, which only made me more certain I must track him down.
There are mines in Kent, but none near London. I assumed that in coming south Barnsfather had sought out some other industry which could use his skills, but Kelly's Directories yielded no result: he was evidently not Master, but hired man. Images in the air, moving images that could imitate the dead: I remembered Watson's fellow medic and literary agent had tried to interest him in so-called 'spirit photography' – as far as I was concerned, evidently the grossest fraud. Yet what is a photograph but an afterimage of light, streaming through the air from subject to lens to glass plate? Had some entrepreneurial engineer found a way to send and suspend such images in mid flight, and to make them move seamlessly?
In what was now driving rain, I passed my old digs in Montague Street on my way to the Royal Photographic Society's offices. Some other poor student doubtless toiled in those musty little rooms. I could only hope he would make a like escape, and come to as safe a haven as 221b Baker Street has been to me. A haven I was determined to defend, as I mounted the grand staircase of what had once been a palatial town house and sought out the Secretary to the Society. Like me, Chapman-Jones was at heart a chemist, and eager to share with a fellow scientist the secrets of his art. I learned that he knew of experiments with motion photography being carried out by one of the Society's own Fellows.
"Acres is surely your man, Mr. Holmes, and Barnet your goal. The roads will not be kind at this time of year, I fear."
Indeed they were not, and it was well after dark when I got there, more a jumble of bones than a consulting detective. Mr. Birt Acres, FRPS turned out to be of American stock, a fussy, brittle man with greying hair and a moustache to rival Harry Wilcox. He lived in a house adjacent to a large photographic works, but had left their employ to strike out on his own.
"Barnsfather? Sure, he does some odd jobs for me. Testing the new equipment, setting up some scenes, that kind of thing."
"Your pardon, 'scenes'?"
"Like little plays; get some characters together, tell a story, two hundred frames, just a few seconds of film for the Edison 'scope. Better yet, a machine to project over distance. Moving pictures, good sir. This is the future of photographic representation, right here," Acres preened.
I managed to put together the unfamiliar phrases to make a 'scene' of my own, the dénouement of which should be the capture and confession of Barnsfather. Further questioning revealed that Acres had charged him that day with making refinements to the apparatus for taking moving pictures – some petty rivalry with another inventor adding urgency to the job – and that he was very likely still in his workshop, even at this hour. Fortunately for him, he was therefore unable to be in Baker Street tormenting Watson, and my blood had cooled as I ran, until the desire to do him violence encompassed only a broken finger or two.
Good Lord, though: it was ingenious. A simple wooden box with rotating cylinders between which a continuous strip of photographic imaging film could run, capturing moving images through a mechanised shutter. I would have asked Barnsfather to explain more of its mysteries, had I not been otherwise occupied in leaning so far over him that his back was bent near horizontal over the worktable, his nose an inch from mine.
"You have persecuted my friend Dr. Watson for doing no more than his duty. If your sister could find no better way to end her sufferings, what purpose is served by it?"
"She didn't do it! On our mother's head, she didn't. I could see no way else to make 'em doubt it, sir. And…and I was fond of Mr. Harry, sir. He didn't deserve to be left in that mess."
"Then make the case to her judge and to his brother straight, like a man."
"I don't have anything 'straight' to give the judge, sir, there's the pity of it. But I know it, all the same. I thought: dress up a chap I know who's the image of old Harry. Set up Acres' projector in the attic of the building at the back of your place. Get John Watson right rattled over a few scenes, then get 'im in the witness box. If the doctor couldn't be trusted to know a poisoning, then the jury might say it wasn't proven murder. But poisoning or no poisoning, it wasn't her."
Yet if not her crime, then surely her eternal sorrow. The end of the hope of their family, the beloved son put away and ruined for life, even if he was likely to be reprieved from the noose. However, it did not seem that Barnsfather had gone so far in his thinking, and it was not for me to take him there.
I supervised his written confession, addressed to Watson alone, there amongst the scattered nuts and bolts of his machine. The resolution of the criminal case I kept for myself. I thought Barnsfather's scheme, however technically accomplished, unlikely to succeed in the face of a positive Marsh test for arsenic, and not worth prosecution itself. Was it perversion of justice when true justice might not in any case prevail?
Bearing my gift, I returned to Baker Street in quiet but justified triumph. Watson, who from his shoes had been treading a tight circuit of Regents' Park inner circle for at least half the afternoon, sat huddled by the blazing fire in deep contemplation of that piece of writing which he had earlier concealed from me.
The confident faith in his expression as he greeted me was worth any number of passionate embraces: it was so very gratifying to be worthy of it. Nevertheless, the culprit's message did not entirely heal his wounds. The trick had set up a throbbing in his soul, as surely as winter damp did in his shoulder. True to his physician's calling, he had prescribed for his healing, and the part of him that filled the prescription was Watson the writer.
It is not for me to repeat the words he had written to his brother's shade. I held his hand as he wept and laid my head on his shoulder as we sat on the rug before the fire and consigned the sheets of paper one by one to the flames. Then we went up to his room and exorcised it with cries and sighs and hushed incantations that cannot be found in the Order of Service of any church.
How it came about that Charlotte Collingwood did not hang, that her son is yet free, and my part in it, is not a tale for All Saints' Day. Heaven knows, I am no saint, and even Watson is not an entirely good man. Yet I do not doubt that he is still much more than I deserve, and I am grateful.