The Tailor of Grey Eagle Street
Clothes are some of the foremost weapons in a detective's chest of armament. Not only does a close examination of the clothing of client, possible perpetrator and victim of crime more often than not set out the steps of the dance towards solution, but those of the detective himself have many uses. The frank, yet illegal, concealment of a black silk mask; the rough workman's disguise to confer anonymity in plain sight; the careful conservation needed to render genteel penury into respectable, dependable professionalism at the outset of a career: I have employed all these, and more.
As in work, so in…well, I suppose one must not draw back from penning a mere word in a private journal when three decades of actions may as well have left it scrawled in foot high characters on our bedroom wall (amongst other locations). As in work, so in love. Utter lack of clothing has a number of cogent points to make in its defence in that context, to be sure. Yet a certain waistcoat, even now hanging in our wardrobe despite it being beyond any hope of repair, and certainly a breeder of moths, brought down my quarry like a hunting spear (though it was, I allow, something of a glancing blow) and a good sword thrust finished him.
There was a mystery involved as well, naturally.
It was the summer of the Diamond Jubilee and 221b Baker Street lay swathed, as was its habit in those days, in tobacco smoke and undefined, but not indefinable, tensions. As a matter of fact, I had identified the potential source of Dr. John Watson's personal tensions some years earlier. For my part, I had never suffered from an embarras du choix when it came to intimate partners. That selection of persons who attracted me, wished more than a moment's blind and silent release and who endured my moods and habits long enough to truly see and hear me, had been few and exclusively male. My friend, with all his natural advantages and - to the observant eye, which did not apparently include his own – double the field, had confined his conscious attentions to women. His unconscious attentions remained divided and, I perceived, had lately turned towards my own self. Of the eventuality of that happy state of affairs I had almost come to despair, but I intended to waste no time in exploiting now it had arrived.
I had…noticed him almost from the first, and he fascinates me still. He is not merely handsome: nature may arrange a man's features just so, but character, time and suffering can render them variously nondescript, repellent or glorious. His character is a happy combination of modesty, courage and steadfastness, tempered with more than a little charming indolence and constrained inquisitiveness. Time has been kind to him and had been kinder then; life, less so. I acknowledge my own part in that, even if I would not then have questioned its necessity. Either I simply loved him less well thirty years ago, or loving him so long has made me a better man now.
Indeed, both may be true.
So, concerning the afternoon of the 25th June, 1897. I had just collected a new evening suit. Funds were by this time more than sufficient for me to indulge in an embroidered waistcoat in dark burgundy silk, with matching cravat. The good doctor once applied the epithet "prim" to my habitual style of day wear, but he would own that when I dress up, I allow the aesthete in me just a little rein.
I looked – well, in strictest accuracy, I looked like the great African crane – tall and resplendent, but rangy and fierce. I had put on some scant flesh since the interlude in Cornwall, but not enough for Watson's entire satisfaction, medically speaking. Nonetheless, as I turned before the glass in clear line of sight of his desk chair, I saw that his eyes followed me over the top of his newspaper and that his knuckles had turned pale from grasping its pages rather too tightly.
"Very smart," was his sole remark as I emerged from my bedroom. He had on his warm and open face, exasperatingly innocent as he met my eyes and smiled.
No, it would not do. I was just in the instant of slipping open the lowest button to see if his gaze might slide perceptively downwards, when I stopped suddenly and put a hand to the small of my back in surprise. At once he was on his feet, worrying that I was ill or had concealed some injury from him (and I certainly had no objection to being even partially disrobed and inspected by my physician), but it was something else.
A slip of stiff paper had been painstakingly folded to fit and stitched to the reverse of the tailor's label. A little careful work with a pocket knife and I was able to hold it up by the window and read the faint, penciled message.
Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Theft of all I have in this world. Please come 13 Grey Eagle Street at earliest occasion but not as yourself. M. Acosta.
I checked my pocket watch. "Enough time to go now, I fancy, and then a day to digest what we may learn whilst our client observes his Sabbath."
"But why not come here to consult you?"
"My dear Watson, a poor tailor cannot spare half a day from his labours to go all the way across London and back by omnibus. This paper is certainly from a cutter's pattern. In addition, he did not wish to chance a third party becoming aware of my involvement. I propose a swift change of attire for us both, a speedy hansom as far as Shoreditch and on foot thereafter."
When we knocked at the door of 13, Grey Eagle Street, we appeared in the guise of two men of the middling commercial sort. This turned out to be just as well, as it was not a dwelling house but a workshop, in the shadow of a great brewery. The door was opened by a young boy, sallow and dark-eyed, fingertips callused from many hours of stitching. Behind him, only a little could be seen of the general scene within. Light entered the single large room from a row of skylights above, but scarcely a ray could reach the floor, which was crowded with work benches, stools occupied by dark, stooped forms, bolts of cloth on racks, bins of off-cuts for the rag men and scurrying youngsters taking half-made pieces between cutters and finishers.
I made myself and Watson understood to the boy as a cloth merchant's traveller and a purveyor of silk threads respectively. I trusted that Watson's medical bag might stand for a sample case. Unless he had far more means than he appeared to have, doctor's visits probably had not intruded much on our greeter's young life.
Matheus Acosta (a surname I had recognized as typical of his race and origin) was a Portuguese Jew of some five and twenty years of age, employed at finishing waistcoats (including, of course, my own). With much finger-to-lips gesturing and furtive glances over his shoulder – enough almost to draw the attention he sought to avoid – he drew us both around to the blank wall between the workshop and its looming neighbour.
"Sirs, my thanks to you both for coming and for understanding the need for such precautions as you have taken. I will be brief. I am a working man as you see, but my father, who sleeps in Abraham's bosom, was of a family of traders. They did well for a time but lost all at sea and through fire, which Providence decreed should end their prosperity. My father shortly died while I was yet an infant, my mother a few years later. I was raised by distant kin of lesser means. One thing remained to me: a clasp of Indian pearls and rubies most precious, a wedding gift from my father to my mother. When there was not enough for both table and bills, I sometimes thought of offering it up to my foster parents (who knew not of it), but it had come to me to stand in place of the true family I had lost, and I could not. And now, now sir: it is itself lost!" At this last he fought to prevent himself from wailing aloud, but his face spoke clearly of his distress.
"Merely lost, or have you evidence that it has been taken?" Not all my cases end in actual crime, but it is as well to establish at least the possibility at the outset. I confess that, but for the unique manner of consulting me, I would probably not have come. I also longed for distraction from my chief preoccupation at the time – how to set about seducing that upright specimen of English manhood, John H. Watson, physician.
"I live in a single room with my wife and little in the way of goods besides bedstead, table and some few more sticks of furniture. The jewel I kept in its own case behind a loose block of plaster in the wall, hidden by the shelves on which stand our few pots, pans and plates. I never take it anywhere and have told no-one about it. I have searched every inch of floor and wall. I can only think someone discovered its hiding place by chance… "
He rang his hands piteously and Watson sighed his sympathy beside me. Fortunately for me, his good-heartedness often blunts his critical faculties. I, however, had caught the bitter twist of Acosta's mouth when he mentioned his wife and enquired if it was possible to go to his home. Poverty and what society is pleased to call morality are not the easiest companions, and Mrs. Acosta may have had more than reason to sin.
"Sirs, I cannot take you there until near sunset. No work may be done here tomorrow and we have orders to finish." As if on cue, the boy scuttled around the corner and urgently bade Acosta return, for his employer had missed him. Having agreed to await a later hour, Watson and I had scant time, and no need, to return to Baker Street meanwhile, so repaired to the nearest ale house, for myself a chance to think, and for Watson, to chatter his adventurous wonder at our surroundings, a far cry from the smart drawing rooms of most of my clients.
"This theft seems a small matter," ventured my companion at length, "and any reward must be equally meagre…"
"I will not ask a fee. It is mere curiosity to see how the thing plays out. I may well be disappointed, and it proves only a grubby, domestic affair, but if he suspects his wife, why consult me? Why not confront her? No, Watson, do not protest that he loves her: it is plain that he does not."
"A very sad state of affairs: to live without love." His expression turned alarmingly wistful. I had better be quick, or he might be off courting another Mary Morstan. I chanced a reassuring smile and a squeeze to his shoulder as I rose to fetch another pint. I wanted to offer to assuage his loneliness in the frankest terms there and then, instead of this doling out of trifles, but it was impossible, certainly if there was any chance we might be overheard. As impossible, apparently, that he should divine my recent catalogue of unspoken offers for himself, unless by some sorcery I could gift him with my own powers of perception.
Acosta's room was as he had described it – barely large enough for two persons to live above the level of the animal. Nevertheless, it was spotlessly clean and the cooking smells as his wife laboured at a small stove over the Sabbath meal were richly savoury.
An unfortunate woman. She was not well-favoured (though neither was she precisely ugly): of medium height, straight as a slab and not slender, lank hair the colour of dull brass, as one sometimes sees in Jewesses, her face pale, her eyes close-set and squinting in the dim light. Acosta addressed her only as "wife" and in the word there was nothing of regard. He would, nonetheless, not allow me to see her alone and summoned their neighbour, a bent, half-deaf crone with, it seemed, very little English, to sit with his wife in my presence. I had despatched Watson to investigate the other inhabitants of the building.
Her name was Luisa, she was two years past twenty and had been a wife for five years. Her father was her husband's employer. No, she had not even known there was a jewel to miss. She must get on with her duties and have the meal ready before sundown. Had she reason to harm her husband? What a question!
"Save perhaps by existing at all…" I heard under her breath as she turned back to her cooking. The Sabbath dishes had been taken down from their shelf; the largest one – a cracked and carefully mended, still-splendid covered dish made in the Iberian pattern – had left a mark visible on the wallpaper where the sun had faded it around the rim. The weakness in the wall, which marked the hiding place where the jewel had lain, was apparent at its centre. She followed my gaze as I fixed it again on the dish. The break, and the mend, had occurred quite recently.
"Part of my dowry. It belonged to my mother's mother before me."
Watson reported that three households other than the two we had met inhabited the narrow, terraced house. None had ever entered the Acostas' room, or at any rate would admit to it. Sunset was fast upon us and Watson and I had no choice but to return to Baker Street. As we lingered over a late supper, I followed in my mind the twin tracks of considering the mystery and carnally appreciating my companion. The two are not as unlike as one might at first think.
First, enumerate the salient points. Those who in those days most often deemed Watson handsome, which is to say the greater part of womankind, might remark on the intense blue of his eyes, the warmth of his smile. They had not been granted the benefits of repeated exposure at short range to the strong curve of his jaw, freshly sporting a barber's close shave. Nor had they been simultaneously gorged and starved by the memory of his flushed, bare flanks rising from the plunge pool at the Turkish baths, beads and rivulets of moisture clinging to his soft skin and sparkling in the thicket of hair at his groin. As Watson himself has often pointed out, surely I have been blessed with some singular gifts.
Second, connect those points to each other in relative time and space. When Watson is eating, or when he laughs, his whole body, from jaw to loin, takes enthusiastic part in the activity. I could see the play and flex of muscle and joints in the one and imagine it in the latter, under the layers of wool and linen. I could imagine cradling the side of his face in one hand, fingers splayed along that perfect jaw whilst I trailed the other hand slowly along the lush curve of belly between hip and navel, slowly downwards until I should find my prize and his pleasure…
Third, form a coherent narrative. I would suggest to my friend that he join me in this novel and criminal enterprise. I would ask for his… yes, for his love; that is what I wanted, as far as I understood it, and myself. Then, we should see how far Watson wished to understand it, and himself.
And the case? A missing treasure, poor Jews, an unloved wife, unseeing neighbours; I suspected that it was within the fractured Acosta household that my answer lay. It could be that Luisa was simply lying, but on balance, I thought not. To steal the jewel might be some revenge for her husband's slights, but as long as he remained alive she would still have to endure them. It would not buy enough to keep her from the streets for very long if she left him, and she might well be abandoned by her people if she did so. If Acosta himself had gambled or frittered away the price of his inheritance, he had made an unnecessary performance of summoning me, for otherwise, according to his account, none would know the jewel had ever existed. The narrative spoke of habit, not affection, of outward forms and separate vessels for the observance of those forms: a Sabbath dish, broken and then mended…
Early on Sunday morning we walked amongst the reawakened sweatshops of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, then along the Mile End Road as far as the Acostas' tenement court, black with soot and the assorted grime of multiple human occupation. Luisa Acosta would not have let us in except for the presence of her mother, one Bertha Mendoza, who sat with her apron over her eyes, weeping and rocking. She shot us one fiercely suspicious glance before commencing again to lament in a loud voice that the tombs of her ancestors had been desecrated: the gate to the cemetery breached, the memorial stones broken.
Popular feeling against the Jews of London, as intense as it is irrational, even now may erupt in violence, and did so more frequently then. I could very well see why Mrs. Mendoza should rail against the wickedness of the nations and call to her God for vengeance. Nevertheless,
"For the purposes of my investigation, madam, this is all immaterial What do you know of your son-in-law's loss?"
Watson pursed his lips. His disapproval is a golden thing. He still seeks for me to be better than I am, despite the experience of so many years.
Mrs. Mendoza drew a great sigh, dried her eyes and regarded me sourly.
"His loss? What do I care for his loss? It is not enough that he is a liar and deceiver. No, he must bring some gentile to my daughter's home to look down on her poverty and to pry into corners. If I even speak to you, it is only that you be gone the sooner."
"Then certainly, let us be brief and to the point. I know that you, Mrs. Mendoza, took the missing jewel: where is it now?"
One of the little pleasures of my life is that gasp of indrawn breath in more than one throat at once. Another is to set forth that chain of inference which has led me to an inescapable conclusion.
"Who has had the opportunity to frequent this room and handle the dishes? Surely, only Mrs. Acosta and her mother. Mrs. Acosta denies knowing of the hiding place: let us say we believe her. Her mother must therefore have been here alone when the dish – her gift and surely one of her family treasures – was broken, probably when it fell off the shelf: the hiding place of the jewel being thus revealed. The motive, it appears, was not pecuniary but to punish her son-in-law, whom she has just now insulted in the strongest terms. Perhaps she would care to explain those insults, and then answer my last question to her."
The lady glowered from under thick, black brows. "All men lie and deceive so, and play women false: he is no different. It is no insult to speak the truth. He married my daughter; it was his duty to her to father children, his duty to Adonai to raise them to worship and fear Him. These five years he has lived under false pretenses. He never meant to give her children; he only waited for her to die so he could marry another, and give her the gift that should have been my daughter's. By divine mercy Luisa yet lives, despite our fears during all her girlhood, and that other is married out of his reach. So Adonai is just."
"And the jewel?" I enquired, rather more patiently than I might have done.
"I do not know where it is. Believe me or do not, it is all the same to me."
In fact, I did believe that she did not know its location– by then. For I was as certain as ever that she had taken it.
"Well, Watson, we appear to have reached an impasse in the matter. We could report our findings to Mr. Acosta, even though they may not restore his property to him. Even if I supposed it was to be found there, we lack sufficient evidence for a police search warrant for…where is it that you live, Mrs. Mendoza?"
She hesitated; then, it clearly occurred to her that I need only ask at the workshop.
"16, Princelet Street. As for him, suppose you do tell? If you think he will risk his place by accusing me… no, not he." One corner of her stern, straight mouth turned up in a sneer. Her daughter turned a wan and hopeless face towards us and she shrugged minutely.
I confess it was a considerable relief to be out of that closed and unhappy home, to rattle over cobble and tarmacadam back to our own bachelors' untidy but welcoming nest.
"How a rational man – or woman – takes such chances with their future peace of mind by entering the bonds of matrimony remains the deepest of puzzles to me," I remarked, once we had sat down to one of Mrs. Hudson's valiant Sunday lunches. I tried my best to clear my plate, one of a thousand little strategies I had devised to coax that certain look of tender concern and satisfied affection onto my friend's face.
Watson hastened to defend the worth of a happy marriage, holding out that the Acostas and Mendozas might have made as bad a hash of any number of matters as in their choice of marriage partners for themselves or their children. Even as I scoffed, and boldly proposed our life at Baker Street as a veritable model of good fellowship and domestic harmony, better than I at least could ever hope from any marriage - my friend demurred gently even as he flushed most attractively - a thought, which had been skirting the edge of my mind since meeting Mrs. Mendoza, came into sharp focus.
"What say you to a little hunting tonight?" I could not resist a sly grin as I caught him back-footed. "I fancy we may learn much if we hide ourselves in a certain cemetery off the Mile End Road. How was it that Mrs. Mendoza learned of the broken sepulchres so quickly? None would be abroad, save for worship, on the Sabbath, and word could not have reached her at Princelet Street so early this morning as to then give her time to walk from Princelet Street to her daughter's room. Surely she was there herself, and may be there again tonight."
In gathering twilight, we crouched together in what very little cover there was at the edge of the serried ranks of gravestones. They were set not upright as in a churchyard, or in a Jews' cemetery I visited once in Austria, but horizontally on the earth, like tables at a municipal banquet. As a consequence, it was difficult at first to see which of them had been violated, but careful scrutiny picked out the silhouette of a raised, broken corner and some scattered pieces of stone apparent in contrast to the lay of the grass a few ranks away and two graves in.
As we waited, Watson was forced to shift about several times to give relief to his leg, which pained him if held too long in one position. He muttered apologies as his hand, groping about for balance, landed on my calf, my elbow and, for an exquisite few seconds, my backside. I bade him think nothing of it ("or by all means think something of it, dear fellow, but pray do not apologise" teetered dangerously on the tip of my tongue), only be patient and wait for the quarry.
It was advice I was getting singularly tired of giving to myself.
There. A dark shape moved into view – Bertha Mendoza, shawl wrapped close around her head even in the warm summer night. She paused at the damaged grave, tutted loudly…then moved on without so much as stooping to touch the ground. That Watson and I were entirely in the wrong place was confirmed by the appearance of another shadowy figure against the far wall, which took only a few steps before dropping to its knees, setting down a lamp by which to search and sweeping its arms along the side of a tomb we couldn't even see. As Mrs. Mendoza spied the lamp and its owner she cried out, the figure started up and a loud quarrel erupted. As their voices rose ever higher, fragments reached us even in our hiding place.
"You dare call me thief, Moses - you who stole my hopes? That jewel was more mine than it ever was that fool Matheus', a token of what was meant to be before you and my father conspired together to deny a girl's dreams. Not that he was less a fool to believe you more worthy than Levi Acosta . You, a rabbi? Might as well make a temple from a pigsty! As for finding it, did you not think I had already searched and searched again this morning?"
"And if you had not taken into your head to hide it here, as if your father, may he rest easy, could be spited by it even now… it would not be lost now, taken by the louts and vandals to exchange for gin. Besides, foolish woman, did Acosta fight to keep you once he had the lovely Anna in his sights? No, and little wonder. Oh, Lord, why am I cursed with such a wife? What sacred law have I not kept?"
Holy matrimony, indeed.
It had already occurred to me that if my commission was to recover the jewel as much as or more than it was to discover the thief, I might indeed start in this graveyard, for a search conducted in a passion of anger or sorrow is unlikely to be very thorough. The wretched couple continued in an opened vein of mutual recrimination for some time, but at length they hurried away. Peace descended.
The necessity of coming early, as surely Mrs. Mendoza would want to return as soon as it was safe to do so, entailed the risk of being stuck in the East End at far remove from home ground. Yet the night was mild and dry and a few hours' wait, until first light allowed me to make my own search, would be no real hardship.
"Holmes, you wouldn't by any chance be intending to wait here until dawn, would you?"
Watson's tone made an audible plea to the contrary. I led the way out of the yard, onto the Mile End Road, across the street and thence into an unlit maze of courts and alleys, following my nose. Gin palace, second right; stable yard, third left; beer shop, through the archway; sugar baker, fifty yards, turn right again, into a court, fifteen steps up and knock gently at a door through which, when opened to us, the scent of French violets tentatively emerged.
They were still awake, as I knew they would be. I had first made their acquaintance on a stormy night in this very court in the autumn of 1890. Watson had been living in his own household for two years then and I may have been uncommonly receptive to overtures of friendship. That I had continued to cultivate and value that friendship, time permitting, and that it was with not one but two women to boot, spoke to their very exceptional natures.
Miss Tibbs and Miss Porter (I was never invited, not did any of us ever presume, to be on first name terms) taught at the Board School in Settles Street, one of those beacons of learning and civilization that I had once pointed out to Watson from a railway carriage. Their conversation was refreshingly free of gossip, triviality and flirtatiousness - the triple curse of polite womanhood; no doubt in part polite society's fault. I judged it safe to bring Watson here.
They were interested in science, in its theoretical rather than its applied aspects, and as well as briefly discussing the reason for our visit, we exchanged some trifles to do with Ramsay's work on the isolation of noble gases before they excused themselves as having to sleep before work the next day.
"You are both most welcome to sit out your watch here, gentlemen. There is a little tea left in the pot and cake in the tin just there. Come, Millicent." Gentle, shrewd Miss Tibbs linked her arm smartly with that of her taller, cleverer friend and led the way to their night's rest. I wonder sometimes if in every friendship there must be a leader and a follower, and whether one can ever be certain which is which from the public face.
Watson made short work of the tea and cake, as I sat in one of twin plush chairs, smoking a cigarette and examining our surroundings. The little room had scarcely changed in the seven years since I'd first set foot there, save a little more wear to everything; the inhabitants could not have afforded changing fashions even had they been interested in them.
"I must say, I'm surprised at you, Holmes."
"What is more surprising: that I have brought you to this household now, and never before, or that I am familiar here in the first place?"
"Both, in equal measure. You dislike women, on the whole; I've never even heard you speak of Miss Tibbs and Miss Porter."
"Then I shall speak of them now. They have, for a start, the great advantage of not being 'women, on the whole', but merely themselves: intelligent, sensible and hospitable as you have observed. The accident that they are female is one which I can happily ignore for the occasional pleasure of their company."
Watson shook his head indulgently, as if at an adored child who for the moment is being tiresome.
"And if one, or both, were beautiful" – which, for the record, they are not in the least, and none the worse for it – "I suppose you could happily ignore that too?"
"I should certainly do my best. Beauty – in man or woman - is a fact. But it may, or may not, be a relevant fact."
He began to chuckle, then stopped in mid-breath. He cleared his throat, and with his next words, the atmosphere in the room thickened abruptly.
"Are there beautiful men?"
Ah. We were at point, then. Not the most convenient time and place, to be sure. There had been in his voice no casual philosophical enquiry, but an echo of a great chasm into which I might fall if I did not leap onto firm ground. I waited until our gazes met, and caught. Then I leapt.
"Holmes… I am not entirely certain that I wish you to explain why you might find that a relevant fact." He did not say that he needed me to explain it.
There followed a pregnant silence for the space of a good ten minutes. He blushed and fidgeted and looked at me a dozen times with a dozen different expressions. It is an interesting thing, to watch a man wrestle with his conscience and his upbringing, with what he had long supposed his own nature; the more interesting, considering how much I had at stake on the outcome of the contest.
"It is possible," he murmured at last, "that there are certain circumstances in which I, too, might find it relevant."
I nodded. "Shall we agree that, after this case is concluded, we might…explore those circumstances?"
Watson looked startled.
"I meant," I hastened to add, "only that we might speak of them a little more plainly."
Further exploration, with any luck, to follow shortly afterwards.
He hesitated just once more, then once again agreed to follow me into danger.
Near dawn, we let ourselves out and strolled back the way we had come until we reached the gateway to the Jews' cemetery. I could see now that there was a particular concentration of damaged tombstones in one area. By standing in a certain relation to them and to the grave of Abraham Mendoza, I could calculate the path taken by the hooligan mob through the plot and the direction in which their hammer blows and hobnailed boots had cast the monumental fragments. It remained the matter of some twenty minutes' work amongst the remnants to find the ruins of Acosta's prized possession: the filigree gold setting hopelessly crushed and twisted, many of the seed pearls missing and the central ruby caked with street filth and almost out of its bed. The vandals had not been expecting to find valuables. It had been overlooked in the noise and riot, no doubt fuelled by copious amounts of strong drink.
We caught up with the tailor of Grey Eagle Street as he reached the door of his workplace and laid the whole tale before him, handing over the wreckage of his hopes. What hand-wringing; what piteous cries; what a sorry little man he was. He cursed his ill luck, his vicious mother-in-law and weak father for the destruction of his only treasure. I was about to point out that he had omitted himself, his mendacity and mental cruelty from the list, when I felt a sharp tug at my coat-sleeve and turned to see Watson energetically signaling me to hold my tongue.
I suppose he was right. Fate had passed its judgement quite sufficiently on Matheus Acosta and his relations, and needed no help from me.
"One may admire his skill, even if one abhors his character," I mused as I turned the waistcoat this way and that before the window, back at Baker Street. Watson was by the hearth, re-arranging the fire-irons for at least the fourth time.
"Holmes. Are we… going out this evening, then?"
I paused in the act of slipping the garment over my shoulders. We had spent the day thus far taking refuge in varying degrees of inanity and I was tired of it.
"I am unlikely to be dressing for dinner at two in the afternoon, Watson. I have on evening trousers and dress shirt to complement the waistcoat. The costume was bought as a set and must be worn so, to be properly appreciated." I moved across the room, donning the waistcoat and buttoning it as I went, draping myself against the mantelpiece and casting my gaze in his direction in blatant display and invitation.
As if mesmerized, Watson reached across me to pick up the cravat from the back of my armchair and hand it to me. When I grasped his wrist instead, he froze on the spot.
"The 'circumstances' of which we spoke last night: I wonder if they have ever arisen in this very house?"
He looked me squarely in the face; what he saw there must have given him courage.
"More often here than anywhere else. Lately - oh, my dear fellow- lately, every day."
A gentle pull on the wrist I held brought our bodies flush with each other. As the cravat floated out of his nerveless fingers I caught it.
"If you would be so kind?" I presented him with the silken band and he tied it loosely, clumsily. He was still close enough that I could hear the hitch as he breathed, a hitch that became a gasp when I leaned forward to whisper in his ear:
"On second thoughts, I do not think it adds anything. Take it off again, won't you?" Brushing my lips along the curve of his jaw, I went on to suggest that more than the cravat should come off, that everything should, that his costume also might be superfluous, in these particular circumstances.
"Oh, and if you could just go and lock the door?"
Having locked that sitting room door, Watson travelled further and faster during the rest of that day and night than I could have imagined in the moment he obeyed me. Once summoned to action, it seems a soldier's boldness may go far beyond the field of battle.
In that instant, as the key turned, I thought only that I did not want to be caught kissing him. I did not think that by tea-time, I might have been caught naked, spread-eagled and trembling on my bed, helpless under his hands and in his mouth, hoping to God that my cries wouldn't be heard by the whole street. I did not think that by nightfall, I should have taught him everything I knew thus far of giving and receiving sexual pleasure when one's partner is another man, and that by midnight we would have ecstatically flouted the entire law on the subject, black letter and disapproving spirit both, in our desire to possess each other comprehensively.
I did not think, as the lock clicked home, of the future, of the rest of our lives. Only in the morning, with Watson solidly, soundly asleep on my pillow, did I think of eternity and how short a time it was for such a marvel to inhabit.
Before he went off to the village this morning, Watson asked me to write down a story: any case or tale that I could recall and he had not already committed to paper. We had talked at breakfast of recall, whether it was permissible to conjure imagined detail where recall may fail. No need in this case, I recall everything perfectly. Even the desires that stirred me then come to life again, and in my old age that happens less often than we both might wish. Watson, come home quickly. We must take advantage of the circumstances. I find them to be… extremely relevant.