If'd I'd had the slightest idea how long I'd be writing this I'd never have got started... and so for many, many complicated reasons, I'm glad I didn't.
katieforsythe will know which bit is for her.
Thanks so much to everyone who's encouraged me along the way.
The Château de Beynac – Notes:
Rising high on the promontory above the Dordogne River, the Château appears impregnable, even now in its ruinous state. The village is ranked steeply against the hillside in a maze of terraces. With its sunken roads and thick town walls, the town is still so heavily braced and fortified against attacks that no longer threaten it.
Yet within are pots of geraniums and hanging wreaths of wisteria against sun-warmed, honey-coloured stone.
[Remember send postcard Mrs. H]
* * *
Last night was difficult. Though I did reduce the dosage over a period of a week before ceasing to take the drug altogether, clearly the incline was too steep and I should have continued for a while longer at ten grains. Nightmare; tremors; little actual sleep. Yet having gone without it once, I feel reluctant to take it up again, even at a low dose. I am surely past the worst of it now,
* * *
I have idled away a good deal of the afternoon I meant to spend sketching out a rough account of the Milverton case. I am keeping very irregular hours at present but I suppose there is no harm in it. I dozed off in the garden, half in the sun and half in the shade of a walnut tree, and have woken to find I have the cottage to myself. Holmes, I surmise, must have gone into Saint Léon for more wine or the smooth white cheese with walnuts from the market.
Holmes cannot see the use of writing of that extraordinary night.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “if conscience compels you to turn us both in, can’t it wait until we return home? Allow us to savour our remaining days of freedom. ”
I might have said that considering his own remarks in Lestrade’s presence (“Why, it might be a description of Watson,”` indeed!) he had little right to lecture me about discretion. Instead I said, “I shall be careful. And decades from now, perhaps the tale will have its day.”
He gave me a quick and rather startled smile. “You will have had quite enough of my profession’s peculiarities by then,” he murmured.
“I shall never have had that,” I said. And then one of those moments occurred in which we are both trapped and panicked in the inability to stop looking at each other, and it was as if I had said, I shall never have had enough of anything to do with you – which was, and is the truth.
In a kind of desperation to release us both I added at last, “Besides, I like to write for myself.”
And I find that is true too; I have begun aimlessly scribbling things down again, when for months the idea of committing any private thought or observation to paper filled me only with a dull sense of defeat. But today I cannot after all turn my pen to Milverton. What can I say of the moments of that night that are most on my mind? And what do I need with pen and ink to commemorate them?
And even that memory is possesses me less than the pleasant urgency of anticipating Holmes’ return. I wonder what time he left? If our positions were reversed I suppose he would deduce it. I feel too lazy even to try it, however – I had rather indolently sit and wait, watching this line of ink unroll across the page and asking myself when will he be back? without trying to answer.
I fear he has timed his excursion poorly for I can feel a faint warning throb in my shoulder, and beside the scent of lavender and laurel the air is heavy with approaching thunder and I have decamped inside. I should not mind a storm, to scour the tarnish off the bright Southern heat, but if my friend is unlucky he may be caught in it – Saint Léon is twenty minutes’ walk away.
He may have been grateful for a little time to himself.
Oh, God, that even here, and after everything, we should both be so frightened of each other.
I have the advantage of him. For once, I think I know more of his mind than he knows of mine. I know he has loved me a long time. I know he is afraid that all the answering desire I have shown for him will, if tested any further, vanish like a soap bubble. And then he will lose the only friend he has, and – for he will never forgive himself.
And these are not groundless fears. I am afraid I have been blighted beyond repair, or that I always was and it has merely been uncovered. I am afraid we will ruin each other, or that we already have. How can I offer or promise him anything when I can’t get such ideas out of my head? And at times I see the last remnants of the future I expected vanishing and I cannot help grieving for it.
(Yet what use have I had for the expected since I first met him?)
If neither of us dares move to accelerate our slide, nor do we do anything to arrest it. My friend, I think, does not quite understand that however often we shift to a safe, chaste distance from each other, however strictly we both behave as if touches and kisses already exchanged never happened, it is already too late to retrace our steps. And nor can we linger here on the edge for ever. He has told me nothing about his past affairs but he was very young when the last of them ended; wise as he is, I am not sure he recognises that a pair of lovers who have come as far as we have– who live in constant temptation and have nothing to keep them apart – must either separate and place very concrete obstacles between themselves, or else let themselves be swept off as if on a torrent of floodwater. And I need not remark that the first course would be painful beyond bearing when it is so clear we have no intention of taking it; if we had we would hardly have removed ourselves to an isolated cottage of amber stone in a country where even the law is grandly indifferent to anything we have done or might do.
(And I have discovered that I do not always object to breaking laws, if the cause seems worth it.)
And now I have written the word lovers quite coolly, as if it were any other word, although I know, in some room of my mind, there must be shock at it. But wherever it is I cannot find my way to it. Sometimes – now, after everything I have just written of ruin and fear – all this agonising seems simply silly, the struggle not to touch him, both futile and absurd. Why should we both work so hard to maintain that little space between us, when we have closed it already and the sky failed to fall in?
I can read French tolerably well, and I can manage a simple conversation if Holmes is not present. My friend’s fluency renders me unfortunately self-conscious: I trip over words I have known since my schooldays, my accent thickens atrociously, and the struggle to communicate seems such a waste of everyone’s time when Holmes could say whatever needs to be said so much more smoothly. Holmes finds this unsatisfactory. Therefore at unpredictable intervals I am subjected to intensive, mandatory French lessons. Yesterday afternoon he refused to answer me if spoken to in anything but that language but for the entirety of lunch and afterwards compelled me to summarise and discuss the news from Le Matin. The garden slopes down sharply to a rapid stream, icily cold but clean and bright as diamonds, and he sat beside me under the willows at its edge, correcting my mistakes with increasing impatience.
Finally he lapsed abruptly into English. “Watson,” he said, “are you being intentionally dense?”
I tried to look innocently dejected, and found it a struggle because the truth was yes, I had been deliberately confusing avoir and être for the past half-hour with the sole purpose of annoying him.
Under his suspicious gaze I soon had to give way to laughter. Holmes frowned, reached out and gave me a light, schoolmasterly cuff to the back of the head with my dictionary.
This is better. His carefulness with me touches me very much, but it troubles me too. I don’t wish to be treated like a tragic foundling out of a Dickens novel, certainly not by Holmes of all people. I am the same man I always was.
I considered pinning him down in the grass, by way of retaliation. If I had had a second glass of wine at lunch I believe I should have tried it.
“Je croyais nous étions en vacances,” I complained instead, with, I think, a rather better accent than I can usually command.
“Le travail est aussi rafraîchissant pour l'esprit que le repos!" decreed my friend imperiously, still in his character as a dictatorial teacher. “On ne gagne rien sans le travail.”
“Ou sans danger,” I said – but I retreated into timid, mumbling incoherency as I said it.
It was very hot; he had pulled off his collar that morning as soon as he returned with papers and croissants from Saint Leon, and I could see the long line of his throat slope down to the hollow shadowed within his shirt. There was a faint streak of sunburn on the crest of each cheekbone, almost precisely where the edge of the silk mask fit his face. His eyes – amused and annoyed and provoking – were the same colour as the bright stream.
There is a tiny silver scar on his jaw, about the size of a grain of rice, only visible in certain lights.
I was right about the weather; a moment ago an immense crack sounded among the clouds and rain is fairly crashing down on the garden and sparking white against the windows.
I have written briefly of that first night without chloral. I came to myself after a short, delirious struggle with visions I shall not record. I lay there for a while, trembling and trying without success to quiet my pulse. Even as I decided these symptoms indicated only that my system had received a minor shock from the too-rapid discontinuation of the drug, black thoughts rose to meet them. It is not only the memory of that awful night that torments me at such times. Sometimes, when I find myself in conversation, whether with a friend or stranger – with Lestrade, say, or Mr Burrage, or the lady with whom I chatted briefly in the tea-room at Charing Cross – I think, If you knew what has happened, and what I have done . . .
. . . and it does not matter much whether I complete the thought, whether I imagine revulsion or disbelief or embarrassed pity. A barrier transparent as glass and impermeable as marble cuts me off from my interlocutor and from all the world, and there is very little space or room to breathe on my side of it. And when I am awake late at night I start thinking of spending the rest of my life confined so.
Having learned the lesson that it is better to get up than lie passively at the mercy of such horrors, I rose, lit a candle, and went downstairs in search of some distraction. I tried to move soundlessly, but the creaking stairs of this ancient cottage betrayed me and Holmes soon discovered me pacing the floor of the sitting room. I reassured him I was not looking for the chloral bottle and I would not let him do anything for me – he cannot always be ministering to me – but I could not persuade him to leave me. So there we sat, talking of the chateau we visited and the campaigns it has witnessed; the crusades and the Hundred Years War.
Waking at dawn to discover we were clumsily entangled on the sofa and that I was half draped across him, I felt ashamed that I had kept him from his comfortable bed. And I think that was that was all I was ashamed of.
There is nothing on the other bank of the stream but trees. Yesterday, in the garden, we could have done anything we wished and no one would have seen us.
But there is no shortage of time.
It now appears to me that these idle jottings, begun without any conscious design, all gather to a quite outrageous purpose; I am apparently working myself up to the task of ambushing my friend on his return and surrendering us both, finally, to what I seem to have concluded is inevitable. Well, then. When have either of us ever shied away from danger before?
Now I can see him coming down the lane, between the poplars. He is carrying something clasped against his chest, but he is not hunching against the rain nor running from it, being evidently so drenched already that it is no longer worth trying to protect himself. It is not cold, after all.
Watson: I thought we were on holiday.
Holmes: Work is as refreshing to the spirit as repose! One gains nothing without work.
Watson: Or without danger.
(My French is more like Watson’s than Holmes’, and this is unchecked by people who actually speak it properly -- corrections welcome.)