The Day of Holmes' Return
It has always been my intent, in enumerating the many adventures embarked upon and great skill displayed by Sherlock Holmes, to leave myself out of the published accounts as thoroughly as may be, fearing that my own mediocre deductive powers would be of no interest to the reader. Then too, it has on occasion been necessary to alter facts in order to protect my friend, or his clients, or his allies - for example, a completely accurate description of his appearance may prove dangerous in the hands of London's more vicious set of criminal, and indeed the astute reader may already have discovered that no agent of The Scotland Yard actually possesses the name "Lestrade".
Thus I trust readers will now forgive me if, as they peruse this account, some inconsistencies are revealed between it and the "official", published version of events, originally appearing under the title, "The Adventure of the Empty House".
And if they cannot forgive, perhaps they will at least try to understand that, by all indications leading up to these events, 1894 seemed destined to be a truly miserable year for me.
Mary was dead.
After returning from the disastrous affair at Reichenbach Falls, I had done my best to settle into a life that did not have Sherlock Holmes in it, and in this regard Mary was my solace and my constant companion. Over the next two years, our circle of acquaintances gradually expanded, and my medical practice expanded as well, until our financial means seemed fit enough to permit us to have children. It was our greatest delight then, in the summer of 1893, to discover that Mary had indeed conceived. We expected to be graced with a son or daughter, most likely by early April, and set about making preparations accordingly.
It was not to be.
By my calculations, Mary had been burdened for only six months when, on one of the coldest nights of the year, she took to her bed, feeling ill. Shortly after midnight her labor pains began. I did my best to remain calm for her sake, but she could not help but be terrified, for she knew as well as I that the labor had come upon her much too soon. Attempts to slow the process were useless; Mary's blood pressure was dangerously high, and shortly before dawn, she fell into an epileptic fit, and died in my arms, as I wept and kissed her hair.
As did the babe, a daughter, some minutes later. It was too soon; she was the size of a kitten, could not have weighed more than two pounds, her lungs not yet developed to withstand life outside the womb. She never stood a chance.
I named her for her grandmother, Alice, and buried her in the same grave as her mother.
By March our little house in Kensington was a vastly different place than it had been. I had let most of the servants go, for there was no point in keeping them; Mary's parents had collected most of her things, saving only a few items I kept in my possession for the sake of her memory - a cameo brooch she had liked to wear, a photograph we'd had taken on our anniversary. Invitations to dine dwindled to nothing, and as I released patients from my care, I made no effort to procure new clients. Indeed I had sold much of the furniture and was considering finding another place to live when the Adair murder took place.
As tragic as the death was, in a way I welcomed it; perhaps that is hideous, but it is true all the same, and for two reasons.
Firstly, as a way of remembering Holmes I had taken to following some of the more serious cases to appear in London's newspapers, attempting in my own way to apply the arts of detection to the evidence. I had only indifferent success to be sure, but my long association with Holmes had left me with a keen interest in crime; my mediocre efforts were my only remaining connection to the friend I had lost.
Secondly, the Adair murder occurred in precisely the week that we had expected our child to enter the world, if all had gone well. The phrase, "this should have been the week" went round and round in my head -
This should have been the week Alice was born.
This should have been the week when Mary cried out from childbed, not in terror but in triumph.
This should have been the week our entire household celebrated, and all our circle of acquaintances.
This should have been the week in which we would delight every year for the rest of our lives.
- till studying the evidence and going round to the site of the murder became a welcome distraction.
Unfortunately, as welcome a distraction as it may have been, it was also singularly ineffective. Here was I, believing that I might somehow mourn one death by investigating another; naturally all I succeeded in doing was feeling even more keenly the depth of the loss London had suffered - I had suffered - when my friend Holmes vanished over the falls.
Eventually I realized that I was only really succeeding in increasing by one the number of bystanders and gawkers outside the Adair house, and gave it up as a bad job. Stumbling into the elderly bookseller as I turned to go only reinforced my sense of uselessness and time wasted.
This should have been the week...
I went back to the house which once had been my home. Up the steps, into the foyer, where I dragged my coat from my shoulders; I was unutterably weary, having slept poorly for the past three months and worse still in these past few days. Then past the sitting room, where Charles had set a meal for which, as usual, I had no stomach; then, finally into the quiet of my consulting room. I sat at my desk with one hand resting limply across its surface, and the other pressed across my eyes.
This should have been the week -
I could not have been there five minutes when Charles announced a visitor. It was the elderly bookseller I had jostled in the street, come to thank me for picking up his books. A trifle, I said to him. He was a neighbor, he claimed, and perhaps I might want a title or two to fill that empy space on my shelves?
I turned, just glancing at the spot he indicated, and when I turned back, I looked upon a ghost.
The lamplight flickered across his face. He stood there smiling, enjoying my shock.
"None other," said he.
I came round my desk to grip him by the sleeve. No doubt I was gaping like an imbecile, filling my eyes with the sight of him. He still wore the seedy clothing, but he'd placed the wig and books he'd used for the rest of his disguise on my table. His arm was thin and sinewy under my grip; his face thinner and keener than I remembered, but it was here. He was here. Real.
"How?" I asked. "How did you survive a fall into that dreadful chasm?"
He sat down at "It was no great difficulty," he said, "for the very simple reason that I never fell in."
"You never - ?"
He sat down and stretched his legs out before him, quite as nonchalant as if we had endured no great separation these past three years. I struggled to regather my wits, while his voice - so famliar, so dear, so desperately missed - flowed over me. He described his fight with Moriarty over the falls, how they grappled, how he slipped out of Moriarty's grip as they teetered at the very precipice, and the villain's tumble to his death.
And then... and then he said the unthinkable.
"The instant that the Professor had disappeared, it struck me what a really extraordinarily lucky chance Fate had placed in my way."
All my breath left me in a rush.
The net he had placed to trap Moriarty and all his network of criminals had let slip only four men, Moriarty among them; but the remaining three would no doubt desire the greater vengeance upon Holmes once they learned that their leader was dead. So Holmes, in a fit of what I can only call diabolical inspiration, thinking to draw these remaining men out, chose to let the world believe -
let me believe -
that he had perished as well.
"At last I reached a ledge several feet deep and covered with soft green moss, where I could lie unseen, in the most perfect comfort."
My heart had begun to pound fiercely within my breast.
"There I was stretched, when you, my dear Watson, and all your following were investigating in the most sympathetic and inefficient manner the circumstances of my death."
I found my mouth had grown quite dry, and swallowed hard before I could speak.
"You mean to say, you watched us?"
"Until you all had formed your inevitable and erroneous conclusions, yes. I watched until you departed and I was left alone."
I was on my feet, with no recollection of having stood.
"Until you were left alone?"
"Quite so, old friend. Although as it turned out, Moriarty had-"
Holmes stood slowly, a look of mild confusion on his face.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You mocking, selfish bastard," I spat. "You watched us? Watched me? Did you not see how frantic we became as we searched for some sign, any indication at all, that you might still be alive? That you might need our help, that we might be in a position to provide it?"
"And yet, you chose not to reveal yourself to us. You chose." I launched myself at him, swinging my fists as hard as I could. "You chose!"
Holmes backed away from me in amazement. He struck no blows of his own, only blocking mine, but this only served to infuriate me further.
"Did it amuse you to watch us bumble about?" I cried. "Did you find our grief an entertainment after your exertions?"
"Good God, Watson, of course n-"
"You walked away from all of us! Carved a hole in London - that has not been filled these three years - and you sit there and claim we left you - then to come back - today - of all days - this should have been the week-!"
Then one of my blows landed. If I had been thinking more clearly I should have been surprised indeed, given Holmes' superior fighting skills; then again, if I had been thinking at all I should not have been attacking my dearest friend in all the world. As it happened, my fist connected with his jaw and sent him stumbling into the bookshelf nearest my study door.
We froze, staring at one another.
"You could not possibly understand," I panted, "nor care in the least, what it means to suffer such a loss." My hands shook, and the roaring in my ears was louder than ever. "Get out. Never come back."
His face became a complete blank. On any other man I should have said that he no longer cared a whit what happened between us, but I'd known Sherlock Holmes for a long time. My words had cut him to the quick, yet in that moment all I could think was, Good.
He stood upright in my doorway, smoothing the ragged coat his "bookseller" persona wore. I watched him silently, feeling the trembling in my hands spread to every limb.
He cleared his throat. "If - if you're sure..."
"Show yourself out," I replied. "It would hardly be the first time, now, would it?"
He shut his eyes, his entire face tight. Then he turned and stepped through the doorway.
I made as if to turn away as well, but I was struck suddenly by an immense fatigue. The roaring in my ears grew till it seemed as if I were standing again at the top of the waterfall, and the room seemed to spin.
Something struck me on the shoulder and face; I had barely time to realize that it was the floor before everything went dim.
When my sight returned, I found myself stretched upon the floor of my study, my collars undone. Holmes knelt beside me, one hand supporting my head while the other pressed a flask to my lips; I could taste brandy on my tongue and feel it burning in my otherwise empty stomach.
"Take it away," I said. I tried to jerk my head away, but I was still dizzy and the movement was feeble. I struggled to sit up; Holmes shifted until he could brace my weight with is own wiry strength. "What are you doing here - came back, did you?"
"In truth, I never left," he replied. "I had only just reached the entry to your foyer when I heard you collapse." I felt him sigh. "I am sorry."
"For such deceit, I should say so." I slouched forward and ran a hand through my hair; I recall that my hands still trembled lightly, but now it was the palsy of exhaustion rather than rage.
"I was not refering to that, although I owe you a thousand apologies in that regard as well. No, I meant that it struck me when first I laid eyes upon you this afternoon that you seemed ill-used and weary; had I any notion you were in such a poor state I should have been much less melodramatic in revealing myself to you."
"I'm not so ill as all that," I replied. "Nothing ails me physically that could not be cured with a proper night's sleep and a good meal." Despite my claim, however, I needed his help to stand, and leaned on him heavily as he led us both to the padded armchairs where our conversation had begun.
"Then perhaps you can tell me," he said, "why you haven't permitted yourself those remedies."
"No doubt you've glanced at my shoes, or the fit of my collars, or some such and determined everything about my current state of affairs." I shrugged, and looked into his eyes. "You tell me."
"You are about to quit your lodgings," he mused. "And the house in no way resembles the home of a man and his wife, yet you've kept at least one memento of her." He nodded at our portrait, still hanging on the wall near my desk. "You and she have parted ways, but not by choice. You've eaten and slept poorly for some time now, I'd wager; which makes you either a lovesick young swain pining over rejection... or a widower."
I closed my eyes. "Three months ago," I said hoarsely.
His only reply at first was to reach across the table and grip my hand tightly in his. Then he said, tentatively, "There is one thing I do not quite understand. Earlier you said that this should have been the week - but the week for what, I cannot guess."
I shuddered. "Mary died in childbirth, Holmes. She and the babe. It was too soon; we expected - that is to say-" but I could not finish.
"If all had gone well, you expected to become a father sometime this week."
I covered my face with one hand, the other still firmly in Holmes' grasp.
"Dear Watson." I heard him shift in his chair, then in an instant I felt both his hands upon my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see him kneeling before my chair, his expression utterly solemn. "My deepest condolences, my friend. And my further apologies; to have intruded upon your grief in such a fashion - it is inexcusable."
"I had finally grown accustomed to the idea that you were gone," I said. "To have you back - it is a shock - a welcome one, to be sure, but to have you return in this precise week... I almost believed that Fate was attempting to offer me a trade."
He smiled sadly. "Then Fate is a crooked merchant indeed, wouldn't you say?"
I shook my head at him, but I couldn't help returning his smile. "It would explain why you have such unholy luck, perhaps."
"By heaven, I have missed you, Watson."
"And I you, old friend. Truly."
"I do have one question, however," I said. We had moved to the sitting room, where Holmes was devouring most of the fruit, scones, and jam that Charles had set out for me (it should be a welcome change to him, in any case, that it was being eaten at all), while I contented myself with tea and buttered toast. It was the most I'd had appetite for in more than a week. "Why, Holmes? Why did you deceive us? It was a cruelty to endure, I assure you."
"I told you," he said, wiping his mouth and reaching for an orange. "Moriarty and his men sought my death; if they believed I already was dead, then they would be more likely to relax their vigil, make mistakes, and then I should have them."
Though his voice pretended to nonchalance, his hands told a different story, as he began peeling the orange with quick, vicious yanks, ripping the skin away in dozens of tiny pieces. "I also expected that I would have a respite, time to plan my next attack on their organization, but Moriarty had set a watch upon the cliff, the better to enact his revenge without being disturbed. After he fell to his own death, and I completed my climb up the cliff face, this guard revealed himself by the simple expedient of hurling boulders at my hiding place. I was forced to climb back down, and I can tell you, Watson, that I am not at all certain I could have done it in cold blood. In fact, I did slip, and it was only luck that I landed upon the path, bloodied and bruised - "
"But that is exactly what I mean, Holmes." My hand tightened on my teacup; I set it down quickly, lest I shatter it. "You thought to conceal yourself from Moriarty's organization, yet having failed to do so, you still did not come and seek my assistance." I pressed my lips together tightly, taking a deep breath before going on. "Holmes - my good man - whatever were you thinking?"
He ran a finger along his bottom lip, and did not meet my eyes. "Though you may not believe it, Watson, I also sought to protect you. If you also believed I had met my end, then the three men who yet remained at large would see no point in pursuing you. I should have succeeded in drawing their fire, if you will."
"First and foremost, you idiot, I have never shied from danger where your cases were concerned and would not have done so then, either. The choice of whether or not to follow you ought to have been mine, as it had always been, but you took that choice from me. Did you not think I was capable of keeping your secret? Not even when your life was at stake?"
At this, to my surprise, Holmes smiled delightedly. "What you are really asking is whether or not I believed could trust you - and the answer to that is yes, implicitly. I always have, with only one exception."
I sat up straight in my chair. "I assure you, whatever you claim this exception to be, you have but to name it and I will rectify it."
But Holmes only chuckled. "My dear Watson. You are an eminently capable doctor, a talented author, and not half bad as an investigator. You are respected by everyone, and honest to a fault - in fact, the fault is precisely that you make an abysmal liar." He pointed at me with a slice of orange. "And I would not have you any other way, so do not think of trying to rectify what is, in point of fact, a rare virtue."
"What has my honesty to do with anything?" I said, now thoroughly vexed.
"Oh come," he said, "you already know this. I have used your honesty on numerous occasions; how many times have I put on a disguise, and not told you what I was about, and permitted you to be fooled for some little while during a case? What you believe, everyone in your acquaintance will believe as well, and so at need I can make them believe whatever I wish."
"Yes, I recall your tactic only too well; and if there was the slightest chance I might have forgotten it, your elderly bookseller has brought the memory back rather forcefully." For once, he had the grace to look abashed. "But that still does not explain why you did not reveal yourself to me - once you saw my account in the newspapers, you could have wired a message, that very day - but to wait three years, Holmes!"
"And what if I had wired you, Watson - would you have been content with that?" He leaned forward, piercing me with his hawklike gaze. "Would you, my dearest friend, truly have suffered yourself to remain here, going about your business, knowing in your bones that you could have helped me if only you were by my side? You may never have breathed a word of my whereabouts, nor even of my existence, but your every action would have betrayed it, however much you might have wished otherwise." He reached toward me, and to my astonishment I read agony upon his face, saw it in the line of his arm and the tension of his posture. "I cannot tell you how many times I wished to write to you; but I could not - I dared not!"
He held my gaze for along moment, pleading for me to understand, I realized, with every fiber of his being. I shook my head in disbelief - not that he should want my forgiveness, but to see it in his ordinarily cold, haughty features - and he turned his face away.
Idiot, I thought. Damn him for being right, of course, but did he really despair of restoring our friendship? I supposed I should settle the matter for him, then.
"You," I accused him, "have no sense of scale." He opened his eyes and once again I could read what was in his heart as clearly as if he were a child. This time I saw surprise, mingling with hope. "Disguising your features for a few hours on a case, and feigning your own death for three years, are not at all alike, whatever you may say about the matter. But you're here now, and in that ridiculous getup besides, so I suppose you've run your quarry to ground and want my help in flushing him out; am I right?"
"I," he stammered (stammered! Holmes!), "that is to say, yes. Correct on all counts, my good man. I," He cleared his throat. "I don't suppose you would be - willing? To accompany me?"
I sighed. In the many years of our acquaintance, I had developed the most put-upon, martyred expression the world may ever have seen, employed only when Holmes was about to ask me to follow him on some maddening adventure; it had never fooled him for an instant then, and to witness the sudden delight upon his features, it did not fool him now.
Much later that night, when I finally returned home, I noticed that Holmes had left behind one of the little books he'd been carrying while in disguise. It was closed with a buckle, like a schoolboy's primer, and bore no title on its cover. When I opened it, curious as to its contents, the entire volume came apart and spread its pages across my desk. They were packets - nearly a hundred of them, at a guess - neatly folded into bundles of a few pages each. The pages on top were yellowed and visibly aged compared to those on the bottom, and bore handwriting as familiar to me as my own.
They were letters, I realized; letters written and never sent, only gathered up into this little bundle and carefully kept against the day when they might safely be delivered. I picked up the first one.
"My dearest Watson," it began.
It was dated two days after his disappearance at Reichenbach Falls.