After dispatching my telegram to Milverton I spent the afternoon searching through my notes and cuttings on him for some kind of leverage. I found little that was useful and a great number of these unhelpful papers ended up flung about our living room floor. I was not careless with everything, however; in anticipation of his arrival I also took the frankly paranoid step of concealing these pages of mine behind a loose flap of wallpaper in my bedroom. The drawer to Watson’s desk which held the folded document was still locked and I could not bring myself to open it, but I removed the key and put it in the Persian slipper. I was beginning ruefully to gather up some of the mess I had made when Watson came home.
He had been indoors, out of the rain, seated for some time, in more crowded conditions than one would expect of the library (a long strand of grey hair and a few wisps of cat fur been transferred from someone’s sleeve to his) . Added to that, the haggard expression and the fact that he went straight to the sideboard to pour himself a drink before taking off his coat or even speaking to me...
“Watson,” I said, “Were you at the Old Bailey today?” He nodded expressionlessly. I barely needed to see it. “Dear God,” I said, seizing hold of his arm and shoulder on horrified instinct, as if I had seen him about to be run down by a carriage. I stared at him. “How long were you there?”
“A couple of hours.”
I tightened my grip. “Don’t go there again,” I blurted out, to my own surprise.
His eyes narrowed a little. “Why should I not?” he demanded, a dangerous edge to his voice.
I became aware of how I was clutching at him, and let go. I had to let some seconds pass before I could trust myself to answer. “I should not have the courage to do such a thing myself, that is all,” I said. Watson smiled sadly, past me rather than at me and I read the thought and almost snapped at him, “Yes, courage is the correct term for it, Watson.”
He sighed and let himself drop into his armchair. “It was not exactly pleasant,” he told me, “but neither is speculating about it from a distance. He did not see I was there.”
I tried to get my breath back. “How . . . how did he look?”
Watson considered for a moment. “Tired,” he said. “Thinner. Unwell.”
Watson smiled briefly. “Quite.” But then he tightened his lips as if against nausea. I could see him remembering the worst of it; I felt another spasm of disbelief and self-disgust that it had taken me so long to understand. I passed a hand helplessly over his shoulder. “Is there anything – can I –?”
Watson looked up at me. It was an unexpected relief to see his face clear as he did so, also that he understood what I was trying to ask and was genuinely considering the question. “You could come for a walk with me.”
“Are you sure? You look done in.”
“I am,” he admitted, softly. “But not enough.”
I looked involuntarily at that wretched bottle of chloral. In an unfortunate illustration of the association of ideas, Watson initially placed it almost exactly in my morocco case’s accustomed spot. I have moved it to the bookcase. I am reminded of my syringe quite often enough without having to think of it while I am trying to administer a safe dose of poison to my friend.
“You are building up a tolerance to it,” I said, flatly.
“I shall be all right so long as I’m tired enough.” He managed another smile while I imagined what a nuit blanche after such a day would probably be like. “Anyway, you should get out too – you look ready to murder someone.”
We proceeded to the park. At least the cold air was dry and as clear as it is likely to get. Watson, despite my habit of unconsciously dragging him along at higher speed than was comfortable for him, seemed somewhat restored and refreshed. In a certain sense, the walk improved my mood too; my friend’s arm was looped through mine and I was almost unbearably grateful for that. However, though I began to feel less scattered and desperate, I did not approach calm. I was savagely glad Milverton was coming, and I am afraid I did not want him to accept Lady Eva’s terms. I wanted him to give me an excuse to do something drastic, though I hardly knew what. When we returned to find his card on the table, I was still so wound up that, in an infantile explosion of temper, I threw it on the floor.
Watson, naturally, picked it up.
“The worst man – the worst free man in London,” I said vengefully, as he read the name. And it turned out I had a good deal more to say on the subject of Milverton and I let poor Watson have it. “How,” I finished, “could one compare the ruffian who in hot blood bludgeons his mate with this man, who methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves—?”
My friend, I belatedly noticed, was watching me through this tirade with something between curiosity and concern, but at this point he glanced down into the street. “I suppose that’s his carriage,” he said.
I collected myself. “Then perhaps you would let me have the run of the sitting room for half an hour or so?”
Watson was still craning his neck in an attempt to observe Milverton descending from his carriage. “If you like,” he said, with a suggestion of a shrug. “But I am rather curious to know what a blackmailer king looks like.”
“Loathsome, by all accounts,” I said, all but bundling him out of the room, and then realised what I was doing, and stopped. “I had thought—” I began, and hesitated again, looking at him anxiously. I wanted him to stay. And I wanted him hundreds of miles away from this. I should have thought he had spent enough time looking at evil for one day.
“For God’s sake,” said Watson irritably, striding past me to collect his notebook and pencil from his desk. “Bring him on; I think I am at least up to half an hour of him.”
The knock at the door came before I could decide quite what to make of this, but I grinned at him quickly, and when Milverton oiled in and had the impertinence to question his presence, I snarled, “Dr Watson is my friend and partner,” even though I was still not sure whether the second part was true or wishful thinking.
“Very good, Mr Holmes,” Milverton simpered. He soon forgot to worry about Watson, who had settled himself in discreet silence to one side of the room. He has a rare gift of making himself so unobtrusive as to be almost invisible when he wishes it; and unless one is very cautious one does not notice how attentively he is listening. I have rather a flair for disguise, but I cannot ever camouflage myself so effectively whilst still remaining myself.
I tried to do my best by my client, as I had promised. My hand was weak, however, and I did play one card I already knew was a dud; I said Lady Eva should trust to her future husband’s generosity.
Milverton thought that an excellent joke. “You evidently do not know the Earl,” he tittered. “Oh dear me, no, I’m afraid our little friend’s quite used up all the generosity she can expect from that quarter already. But as she would set her cap at him – perhaps you’ve heard of her reasons? Has she not any diamonds she can turn into paste for such a good cause? Surely her mother did not make off with all of them.”
I studied him for an instant after this speech, considering. To hell with it, I concluded, and lunged at him.
He made to rise from the chair, and struggled hard when I forced him back into it, but I had little difficulty in pinioning him and wrenching his note-book from his pocket. But when I drew back with the book in my hand, Milverton scuttled over to the wall, snatching something from the pocket of his astrachan, and I found – as I have a number of times in the past but never before in my own home – that I had a revolver levelled at my breast.
Watson, moving with instantaneous, lethal grace, silently swept up a chair and very nearly brained him with it. I was barely in time to stop him with a look.
Milverton had not even seen how close he had come to a smashed skull. “You will be so good as to return my property,” he gasped.
It was galling, certainly, but I tossed it over. It had seemed worth tackling him over the small chance that the note-book held Lady Eva’s letters or at least, something incriminating enough to slow him down for a while, but it was not worth the kind of trouble a dead body on the floor would cause us. Watson had lowered the chair but not let go of it.
Milverton recovered quickly once he had the notebook back in his pocket, and became quite prolix in self-congratulation. I was not really listening. I continued staring foolishly at Watson, who abruptly put down the chair with a thud, shoved the door open and growled, “Out.”
Milverton blinked and chuckled and slithered away.
“Good Lord, Watson,” I said feebly, when he was gone.
Watson slammed the door shut and glowered at me; he looked, just for a moment, rather terrifying. For some time we were both silent, watching each other. He was breathing hard and so was I. The room seemed full of some volatile, blazing substance in place of air.
“Now what?” he asked at last.
“That will take some time to determine,” I said.
He cast himself heavily into his chair by the fire again, leaning back with closed eyes. His hands trembled slightly for the first minute or so.
I was not, in truth, contemplating what to do; my course was quite plain already. I was merely hesitating about leaving my friend. For half an hour we sat there, motionless and silent, finally, however, I rose and went to my room. Whatever other considerations were in play, I decided, I had a duty to my client. I had undertaken a task and I had very limited time in which to complete it. I began to work.
Disguise is one of those skills one must enjoy in order to master. This time the relief at escape from myself was far more intense than usual. Stripping off my clothes I felt how constrictive my frock coat, waistcoat and tie had been compared to the loose work clothes I donned in their place. The contours of my face already subtly adjusted with make-up, I pressed a twist of hair into the spirit gum on my chin, trimmed it carefully, and smiled with a kind of joy at the results. I decided this new creature was called Escott, and I liked him already. The life I endowed him with was so tantalisingly simple.
This accomplished, I was rather eager to get out of 221b. Escott had no business to be there. But Watson, I saw, had been watching my door anxiously and sprang up as soon as he saw me. “Holmes, where are you going?” he asked.
It felt bizarrely intimate and disconcerting to be addressed by my real name when my new persona was only minutes old; Escott seemed to blur as if Watson had run his hand over a portrait while the paint was still wet. “Hampstead, of course,” I said, lighting my pipe at the lamp.
“Don’t –” he took a cramped step towards me and then stopped as if he’d run into a barrier. His jaw clenched. “Promise you’ll be careful,” he said tightly, at last.
Come with me, I had a mad impulse to say. I scoffed at myself; I would not have permitted it even if he had wished to come. I went to the book case and pocketed the bottle of chloral; after what he had told me I was not leaving him alone with it.
“I’ll be back some time, Watson,” I said.
In a metaphysical sense I left Sherlock Holmes there with him, and Escott went out.