I may never have felt it so abruptly or keenly before, but the shift from delight in disguise to spiritual nausea at it is not new to me – in fact, strange as it sounds, it is one of the charms of the exercise. One takes a holiday from oneself and finds one does not, after all, wish to stay away forever. The relief that flooded me as I turned towards home at last, plucking off my goatee on the way and tossing it into a gutter, was so intense that by the time I reached our rooms I was in a curious, elevated, slightly frenzied mood that resembled happiness from some angles. After all, I had everything I needed, and I knew what I was going to do. Looked at from certain standpoints even the bleakness of this case and my own entanglements struck me as remarkably funny.
"You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?" I demanded, a little too ringingly as I strode in.
Watson’s expression at this, was, I am afraid, extremely amusing. "No, indeed!"
"You'll be interested to hear that I am engaged."
My poor friend, looking utterly bewildered, blinked and then actually began to congratulate me. I don’t know what I was thinking, confusing him so. Conscience-stricken, I hastily explained myself.
Watson’s honourable sensibilities were much dismayed and he was not as impressed as I thought he should have been by my protests that poor old Escott, had he only existed, would have been in far worse danger of having his heart broken than Agatha was.
I concluded we might as well change the subject. “I mean to burgle Milverton’s house tonight,” I told him.
Of course I knew he would be shocked, but I was unprepared for him to look quite so aghast. His breath caught, and he went pale. "For Heaven's sake, Holmes, think what you are doing.”
“I have given it every consideration,” I said, both alarmed and slightly needled.
“If Milverton catches you,” he pleaded. “Your career, your life, Holmes . . .”
“My dear fellow,” I said, beginning to feel rather guilty, but it was not as if I could turn my back on my plans or my client now. “Let us look at the matter clearly and fairly.”
Sometimes I am so very dense. I got Watson to admit it was morally justifiable. I went rattling on about how important the enterprise was, how villainous Milverton, how piteous the lady’s plight, and how much my sense of honour was bound up in it – I even pointed out that he had been willing to commit assault and battery for the cause already, and yet it truly did not occur to me what I was talking him into until he sighed and said, “Well, I don’t like it, but I suppose it must be. When do we start?”
I stared at him.
“You are not coming,” I said. This seemed quite obvious to me, from any number of perspectives. I could not think how he could be confused upon the point.
"Then you are not going,” said Watson vehemently, looking quite as dangerous as he had when brandishing that chair. Still, I had just time to flatter myself that he had no way of stopping me doing that or anything else I wished to do, before he said: “I give you my word of honour – and I never broke it in my life – that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away, unless you let me share this with you.”
I fear my mouth fell slightly open. I thought for a while. "You can't help me,” I told him, more softly now.
"How do you know that? You can't tell what may happen.” His face had turned soft and anxious again for a moment, but then it set into an absolutely implacable expression. “Anyway, my resolution is taken. Other people beside you have self-respect, and even reputations."
My first instinct was to be irritated – I am so very accustomed to getting my own way. Besides, he was making the duty of keeping him from further harm unnecessarily difficult. Now I was going to have to divert my limited time and harassed energies into somehow making him drop the idea, when of course I should have liked more than anything to have him with me.
And then it occurred to me that I could not remember when I had heard anyone say anything so wonderful.
“My dear fellow,” I said again, a little incoherently. I could have embraced him. Well, given the chance, I could have thrown myself at him and done any number of more irretrievable things, but I contented myself with making a joke about us sharing a prison cell, wincing at myself a little, and clapping his shoulder.
Watson sighed again, but this was a sigh of a particular character which I knew very well, though I had not heard it for a while. It sounds put-upon and long-suffering, and in reality is nothing of the sort. It is his usual response to being dragged into some scheme that he would not miss for anything. It is generally accompanied by a short roll of the eyes heavenwards, and followed by a slow smile. To my delight, it was so on this occasion too.
I knew I was taking him into danger. I knew that even if I succeeded the morning would bring back the grim consciousness of the kind of future that awaited the Blackwell sisters, even at the best. But at that moment all I could care about was that I was going to confound Milverton, I was at last about to test my hypothesis that I would have made a highly efficient criminal, and that Watson was coming with me.
“See here,” I said, practically levitating across the room in order to show off the neat little collection of tools in my desk drawer, “I wouldn’t dream of going on such an expedition unprepared. I have a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit.”
I couldn’t get the damn grin off my face. I must have looked a fool, though Watson’s reaction – a widening of the eyes, a clutch at his hair, and a groan of, “Oh, Christ, of course you have,” – was very satisfying.
Then we discussed disguise. “I can make a couple of masks out of black silk,” Watson volunteered.
I was too giddy with happiness at the mere prospect of his company to pay this remarkable claim the attention it deserved at the time. I think I imagined something in the order of a bag over the head with eyeholes, and, after he had disappeared to his room while I carried out my own preparations, I dismissed a vague chill at the memory of the masks of the prisoners at Wandsworth.
I did not expect the deftly constructed, rather beautiful things Watson produced within a mere forty minutes. The silk, I believe, had once been intended to reline a hat, and Watson had cut it into broad bandanas to be tied at the back of the head. The edges and the oval holes for the eyes were hastily but neatly hemmed. There were small darts on either side of the nose to accommodate the contours of the face securely and comfortably. I turned over mine thoughtfully.
“This is an unexpected and mysterious addition to your catalogue of talents, Watson,” I said.
He laughed. “What, that I can sew? It is not mysterious at all. Really, Holmes, this is no challenge to you.”
“Well, indeed, a military man must be able to patch up his uniform and a doctor, of course, must stitch up skin.”
“There you are,” he said.
“But really, this is different,” I said, examining the soft, glossy band I held. “This is next door to . . . millinery.”
“Well,” Watson said cheerfully, “if all else fails I shall have that to fall back on.”
I suppressed a small flinch; I had remembered Gilfoyle’s hideous speech about what my friend could fall back on. But it was not as hard as it might have been to put it out of my mind. Watson had not stopped smiling. “I thought it wouldn’t do to have them fraying into our eyes,” he said.
“There must be some further explanation,” I insisted. “You were the costumier of your school play. The nurses in India used to lend you their sewing to occupy you on the veranda. Your grandmother was a dressmaker and you have needlework in the blood. Come, out with the truth.”
I suppose I do not often admit to Watson that he has baffled me. He looked quite complacent. “You will have to remain mystified,” he said.
“That is not to be borne,” I protested.
“Then I await your deductions.” He held up his own mask to his face – black silk framing blue eyes and skimming across straight cheekbones – and looked at me. I hardly dare describe the effect. I just managed to look back impassively, though Heaven knows it cost me a considerable effort.
* * *
By the time we reached Hampstead, Watson’s misgivings had so thoroughly and visibly dissolved – in fact, he looked so shockingly eager to begin – that I could not resist teasing him about it: “For a man who claimed he did not like the prospect of initiation into crime, you have a decided spring in your step, Watson,” I said.
“There was no question of letting you go alone,” he replied rather crossly, and I was a little abashed. There was a pause. Glancing at him as we walked, I saw his expression grow thoughtful.
“I know I have been neglecting our work – nonsense, of course I have,” he added, as I began to protest this way of putting it. “Lately I have not felt so . . . keen to observe the criminal world from close quarters,” he admitted.
I had slowed so as to keep an anxious watch on his face. Watson noticed.
“But then you kept coming in and out at all hours in that get-up,” he said, smiling, “and I could not help but reflect that whatever you were up to, it must be much more interesting than what I was doing. Sitting indoors with a periodical and when one might be running about London in disguise began to seem intolerably dull.”
We stopped for a moment, looking at each other. I permitted myself to smile only briefly; we were near Milverton’s house now and I could not indulge in any further transports, though I glowed at his calling it ‘our work’.
“We might put our masks on here, I think,” I said.
* * *
God, when I think what might have happened -- Perhaps after all “efficient” is not the word for the kind of criminal I would make, if I were to go on choosing targets with as many enemies Milverton had. I thought I had taken a number of eventualities into account –I was prepared, despite Agatha’s account of Milverton’s regular hours, for the man to walk into the study before we were finished, and we were safely concealed behind the curtain in when the veiled stranger entered to meet him. I had only just coaxed the safe open and had not been able to close it properly in time, but I doubted Milverton would notice, and was confident that Watson and I could handle matters even if he did. I wrapped my hand around Watson’s to try and promise him as much;
I had not considered that someone might choose that night to deal with Milverton in a far more thorough and straightforward way.
I felt Watson’s jolt of shock at the first crack of the gun, and then he started forwards automatically on compassionate instinct. I loved him for it, and pulled him firmly back. There was nothing he could have done for Milverton, and justified as the murderess might be I was not having my friend jump into the path of an agitated killer. To my intense relief, he went still immediately, as if he had read my very thoughts. The woman vanished as if she had not been a human being but an avenging spirit out of Greek myth.
I ignored Milverton’s corpse and sprang over it to reach the safe. There were a few other items within besides papers– a small tin case which proved to contain bundles of hard cash, a couple of jeweller’s pouches resting on top of a stack of leather-bound notebooks. They did not concern me. I heaped the letters into the fire, armful by armful, as the house burst into life around us. Instead of creeping unseen through the dark as we had come, we had to sprint for our lives.
Watson must have been a remarkable athlete before his injuries to be capable of such speed even after them; he was only a little behind me as the servants chased us across the gardens. But our pursuers were swift too, and as I cleared the wall at the edge of the grounds, I heard a shout and the sounds of violence breaking out behind, and realised that one of them had caught him.
I started back toward the wall in utter horror, Oh, God, I thought. He’ll be arrested for murder. I had time for the most appalling visions of what I had done by bringing him there – trial and imprisonment and even the gallows – before a voice that was not my friend’s grunted in pain and there was the thud of somebody hitting the ground, and then Watson emerged over the top of the wall. He had no time to judge the landing carefully and fell headlong; I dragged him up, aware that even a sprained ankle would be disastrous now, but he seemed sound enough and we ran for the Heath.
The shock of it gave way to a sense of bitterness that I could not seem to outpace by running. I thought of the veiled woman. I admired and envied her fiercely. I will free the world of a poisonous thing. Why had I not done that, I asked myself. What had I even accomplished after all of this? I had ensured no future blackmailer would get his hands on those letters, but it was none of my doing that the immediate danger to my client was past. And now there was nothing between her and that obscene contract of a marriage and I would never really have helped her at all.
“Holmes,” called Watson, behind me.
He was flagging at last, I realised, turning back.
He stumbled up to me and took hold of my arms as if to steady him or to keep me from running onwards. “It’s all right,” he panted. “They’re not following. We’re safe. I’m sure of it.”
He was right; the heath was utterly silent around us except for the shrilling of the wind. But there was something odd in his voice, more than shock or fatigue or even pain. “Are you all right?” I asked.
The wind was scouring the wet clouds away from a half-moon. The light caught his face and I saw that his eyes were wild and shining. “God,” he gasped, and now I understood what the strange note in his voice meant. “God, that was –” He sounded as if he were about to say some word like wonderful. He laughed. “What can be wrong with me? That was cold-blooded murder we witnessed, however wicked he was, I should not...” he shook his head and gave up trying to talk himself out of exhilaration. “But what a night!”
“I thought that gardener had you,” I muttered.
“How did you know he was the gardener...? Never mind. I need to discuss something with you,” Watson said, trying without much success to look sombre. “Milverton mentioned forcing women to turn their diamonds into paste . . .” He reached into his breast pocket and drew something out -- a small velvet pouch. “Is this morally justifiable, would you say?” he whispered, and tipped a little heap of glittering stones into his hand.
For a long moment there was only the sound of our breath and the wind in the dark. “Watson!” I cried softly at last.
“I know,” he said, looking down with a humorous, self-conscious little twist of the mouth, as much like him as robbery was out of character. “I know we said we’d take nothing except what was used for an illegal purpose. But then – everything in that safe was acquired illegally. Everything in that house must have been bought with the proceeds of his trade. The jewels would only have gone to his heirs, whoever they are – and I think they’ll do well enough out of that pile already.” He reached for my hand, and clapped the stones into it. “You could try to find the original owners,” he suggested.
The jewels clinked in my palm, glinting dimly in the moonlight. I didn’t want them there; I could not think what we were to do with them. I could not make any very exact examination in that light, but they must have been prised from their settings in a number of different pieces, being of various shapes, sizes and colours. “It will be all but impossible,” I said. “The victims will have acquired convincing replicas, and will never have been able to admit the loss. If I had not burnt the letters one might have tried...”
Watson nodded. “That is what I thought. So I thought perhaps, in the circumstances, one might send them to Lady Eva, as a wedding present. Or to make use of as she saw fit, even if the wedding should happen for any reason to be delayed.”
Another silence, and then I began breathlessly to laugh.
“What do you think?” he inquired.
I could not answer him. I was thinking that it was becoming almost impossible not to kiss him. Watson laughed with me, surveying my masked face.
“You look,” he said, fondly, drawing closer to me, “like a highwayman.”
“You are the thief here,” I said. “I have come away with nothing.”
He took hold of my arms again. “Holmes,” he murmured.
His fingers on my left arm flexed subtly; his hand drifted up towards my shoulder. I glanced down and watched its progress for a moment, then closed my eyes. Several layers of fabric separated his skin from mine, yet this was enough to start me trembling. “This –” I began. “You don’t want –” another false start. I compelled myself to look at him. “This is not you—”
“Yes it is,” he said, and as if to remove literal doubt of who he was, stepped back a little and dragged off his mask, leaving his hair sweetly dishevelled. More hesitantly now, his hand lifted and came back to rest lightly on the join of my neck and jaw, then stroked up over my cheek towards the mask I still wore. I felt his fingertip slide under the edge of the silk.
And that was all I could stand. I caught hold of that hand with some notion of pushing it away, but instead I pressed my lips first against the inside of the wrist and then, dragging him to me, against his mouth.
And his lips parted for mine at once; he strained me even closer with one arm tight around my waist, the other hand at the back of my head, on the knot of the mask amid my hair. There was almost as much desperate force to the way he held me as that first time, but this time I was kissing him just as fiercely, this time his tongue skimmed with knowing skill over mine, this time I couldn’t have dreamt of telling him to stop.
I lowered my lips to the pulse racing below his jaw and whispered helplessly, “Oh, love,” against the warm skin. And he said nothing but kissed my temple through the silk, then the bare skin of my closed eyelid – and though I wanted this and more so much, it was terrifying too; I seemed to see a hundred possible outcomes and most of them were devastating to both of us – but then his lips found mine again and I could not care.
If we had been indoors, or if it had been summer, I have little doubt how things would have escalated, but as it was icy wind raked across us and we both shivered, and went still, catching our breath against each other’s faces. But we remained pressed close together for a while, grateful for the warmth.
“Let’s get home,” I murmured at last.
We walked close to one another, but no longer touching and in silence. I knew that when we finally reached home we would both be exhausted, that we would not continue from where we had left off, and nor would we speak of it, and I tried to prepare myself for awkwardness and regret and worse. But instead I seemed to feel an odd kind of normality folding around us. Well, after all how many times, after some strange or violent end to a case, had we walked homewards side by side in the middle of the night?
We mounted a rise and looked down at a darkened London; I could just see lights on the river in the far distance. Watson reached over, plucked off my mask, and folded it together with his own. “Holmes,” he said, “I never made anything of the kind before in my life. But I thought it would not be very difficult, and I was right.” He tucked them both into my breast pocket, and smiled at me. “I suppose I have a strong natural turn for this sort of thing.”