The writer, if he knows his craft well enough, is a sorcerer – a conjuror of truth, of fancy and of the cousin-marriage between them. The right words in the right order, that is all. Yet they can make men weep, laugh, and gasp from surprise: above all, make them keep reading to the end.
And after the end: what then?
One word appears, time and again, in all the letters of condolence from the public (friends know better, they do not write so). Immortality: that is what they say I have bestowed on Sherlock Holmes. In fact, all I did was take them, each time, to the end of a story. Even if every tale that has gone onto the streets begging with only a name to clothe it, every page torn from a pocket book and locked in its metal prison in a bank vault like bullion, even the box after box of papers from his house that I burned with the worm-eaten honeycomb frames in a frozen field, heat searing my hands but leaving my heart a frigid stone: if all those stories were told, they would not come within a mile of telling the man. He could never be crammed into the close confines of print; the ink with which he was drawn in life was too rich to flow easily through the nib onto the page.
In any case, I will write down none of them. They are dry leaves and ashes, now he is gone.
I used to understand our shared life, to speak to myself, have written to my wife, of his love for me - and mine for him, do not deny that, oh my soul – as one of the spirit. I was wrong. We had bodies; we occupied space and time, together and apart. All the table turners in London cannot restore to me the sight of a face that I shall never see again (do not speak to me of photographs: merely a vanished moment, mummified), the sound of a voice of which even the echo has fallen silent.
Cecily plays his violin now, determined little chin tucked in, even as she lives her life: in a martial and major key. She never makes the strings shriek or sigh, never draws the guts out of the instrument in ragged protest that life dares to have dull days, will not sparkle on command with a pretty problem to entrance a restless, razor mind. The cherry-wood pipe will not dispute with me; it lies compliant upon an alien mantelpiece. So many things he touched, so many even that he made, myself not excepted, are too changed by his absence to give a true account, to be the stores of memory that such relics are meant to be.
I used the last of the honey this morning.
So I came here, where you sleep without dreams underneath a yew tree in the Sussex soil, dear friend. And even here, where you must be if you are anywhere, you are not. Even if I thrust my arm shoulder-deep through grass and earth, by some miracle reached deep enough to tear through splintered wood to what remains of flesh and bone, you are long departed. The whistle blew and you went on your journey to some unknown destination, as I waved one white, slightly crumpled handkerchief from the platform.
I wish the dead to be raised incorruptible, not when the last trumpet shall sound but now, now when he is six months dead and the rest of the world wishes me to pack away my grief like an embarrassing relative sent to the country. No matter that Venus never had a share in it: that the only time I ever touched him intimately was to prepare his body for a coffin. I want him and all I have are words.
So, wordsmith: if you cannot hammer out true immortality for the man you loved, at least weave yourself a blanket to give comfort and warmth on a chill summer evening - using, perhaps, such words as you may find lying about the place.
Peace, perfect peace. If peace be the absence not only of pain, but of everything else: the eager strike of hooves against hard streets as we hared off in search of clues and confrontations amongst the teeming life of a great city; the wail of high winds howling over the South Downs and battering on the shutters of a snug little house, hot toddies and a crackling fire within.
Reunited. In heaven, so the gospel tells us, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. I doubt the fact of heaven, and in any case, I doubt even more that such a peculiar tie as ours would be spared dissolution.
Safe in the arms of Jesus. I sincerely hope not. He would find that profoundly disturbing: they were not even on speaking terms.
That much is within my power, then: to think of him and smile. Progress. Sorrow does not cease, yet inch by inch, old joy finds a foothold in sorrow's cliff and climbs. Remembering, I go on, as we all must; as, after all, I did once before. It will never be enough, but what alternative remains?
He said something of the sort himself, one late summer's day on a weekend long ago. We were both sat on a tartan rug laid out on the lawn; rather, I sat and Holmes stretched himself out full-length on his back to read, feigning deafness as he did not need to feign short-sightedness – he could have used his nose as a bookmark, pressed nearly to the page as it was.
"I said, Holmes, that I wish you would consider spectacles. Someone who did not know you might suspect you of sheer vanity on the grounds of appearance."
"Logically, then, you who know me best of all can have no such suspicions, my boy." He turned a page with one long and decidedly smug forefinger. I swatted the book's cover in lieu of a clip about the ear and laughed, an acknowledgement that as ever, he would do precisely what he wished, and any coincidence with a suggestion of mine would be quite incidental.
Privately, I had found that patient expectance was likely to be rewarded by several such coincidences. He had engaged a housekeeper whose references I had praised; planted in his garden a species of moss rose whose scent he knew entranced me – its petals lay scattered all around us on the grass, that gilded afternoon; laid in a case of the '06 Pomerol after getting my enthusiastic letter from a family holiday in Bordeaux. All after a decent interval, of course, and no doubt after eliminating the impossible alternatives.
So it was by no means unthinkable that, in time, and on select occasions, I might yet live to see eyeglasses adorn that patrician nose. In the meantime, I was privileged to watch him squint and hum his way through several passages in the little volume until with an exasperated grunt he snapped it shut and laid it upon his chest, steepling his hands under his chin. Mr Paget – either of the Mr Pagets - would have been in raptures to see and to render him so: the positive archetype of the sage of Baker Street.
Curious, I reached down to pick up the discarded work, expecting some incomprehensible treatise on German philosophy; worse, something about bees. Without opening his eyes, he pinned it firmly against his body with one elbow.
"Not without some preliminary explanation at the very least: I would not have you think I've been dishonest with you. I needed to understand. Plain reasoning proved unequal to the task. I cannot put this...this life we have, these days we have spent but still banked with interest, under a microscope. So I turned to what is supposed another wisdom. It may be a lack in myself and not the verses that they do not speak to me."
"Verses? That is a book of poetry?" I confess: if he had been studying spiritualism, I could scarcely have been more surprised.
"Worse: a book of Uranian poetry." He opened one eye and smiled up at my shocked face. "Which is why I should much prefer that you don't read it," he continued. "It came by way of several intermediaries and will not draw suspicion, never fear. Besides, to contemplate crime on the page is not necessarily to harbour it in the soul; else I – and all your readers – should be reprobates indeed."
A grubby little itch of curiosity begged to be scratched in a corner of my mind.
"Do they...allude to actual sodomy, then?"
"Thankfully, no. A good deal of mawkish, implausible and overwrought sentiment: most often, barely disguised paeans to pederasty. I cannot see you as an altar- or a choir-boy, Watson, not least because I have heard you sing. Here and there, though, was an inkling of truth, of veiled authenticity. In particular, there was one," he picked up the book again and leafed through it, "...yes, here –
"'Like this poor weed I lie beneath your feet
And watch you wander onward hand in hand
Over your heads the stars in heaven meet.
And trace about your forms a golden band.
Trample upon me, happiness complete
And crush me in this desolate brown land.
You make the barren fen so sweet, so sweet — O lovers, lovers, I can understand.' "
He spoke the words crisply, precise as a schoolmaster who hears second-hand the pains of youth but does not feel them. Yet there was a faint echo, a rheumatic ache born of old battles, old defeats before a hard-won peace.
I had not known – shame, I had not even thought, not for years, not since that moonlit confession in a borrowed room. I had the best of this bargain, I always had. That he had seemed content enough – to assume that a stroll in love's shallows was as much as he wanted, as much as he needed – had been...so help me, convenient. Just as I too often saw without observing, I had heard without comprehending: a draught of cool water in the desert was what he would have from me. In a desert, men die for lack of water.
He rose up and cut off my cry of regret with a hand laid to my lips: gentle, insistent, pressing the pain into a new shape.
"The poet does not lie. He understands, as do I. You, your wife, and your child: you are happy?"
I nodded. For we were; I was twice-blessed in my family, and I knew it.
"And you are here, now. How would it profit me that you were here more often, but had not your wife's love, your daughter's affection, were denied...vital pleasures and respites because I cannot give them to you? I admit it: sometimes I have lingered at pools on the chalk down and imagined possessing you as a spring, a well where I might quench myself whenever I liked. But the truth is that I cannot. The desert creature makes as good a home as it knows, and is as glad of water as a rainforest frog. It can simply manage on less."
He embraced me then, taking his ration with grace and gratitude.
The physical is no less necessary for want of desire, no less hallowed outside of a marriage bed. The sheathed strength of his grip girt me round about as a shield and buckler, the rise and fall of his chest as he took in the smell of sun-baked linen and living skin, breathed on me a third blessing to go with the brace I kept back at home in London.
" You know, Cecily is walking so much better. The specialist says we have worked miracles on her, and we have enough put by, with Jane's inheritance, that I can afford to work a bit less. I could come down more often."
He loosed his hold and sat back on his heels; one long, white hand passed across my brow and cradled the side of my face. At short range, his gaze was as piercing, as pinpoint accurate, as ever. He searched for any trace of pity and, finding none – only loyal love and good faith – seemed satisfied. We smiled together, content within our very particular harmony. His next words jolted me like a suburban train.
"When one door seems to stick, others may open wide. There is a possibility that I should not be here to receive you: not for a long while, at least. No, I can't say more, only that I imay /ihave been persuaded back into harness. You are not the only person who is difficult to refuse."
Mycroft, I assumed. Government work then, and at a very exalted level. I turned out to be only half-right, apparently, though I still suspect that a certain eminence grise et grasse had some hand in the whole von Bork affair.
"'After' is never guaranteed, John Watson. We are; we have been. That, we already have. Best hold on to it."
There. I never meant to tell another story about Sherlock Holmes, and here one is. I suppose that being as I am – a story-teller – I had no alternative. It is not everything, but it is what there is, oh best and wisest. A stiff breeze stirred the yew-boughs just now, and passed like a long, white hand across my brow. Perhaps, somewhere, you are listening.
Incomparable friend, I hold on.
Farewell, wherever on the wind you are.