Part II -- PLEASE BE SURE YOU HAVE READ THIS BEFORE CONTINUING! An error on my part prevented some readers from seeing it -- many apologies.
Watson started a little and for a second or two we stood there in the doorway looking at each other, both immobile and silent. The rain had eased since I made my way home, but his coat was wet nevertheless, beads of water glittering on the darkened wool.
“Come on,” I said, standing out of his way. “Loitering’s a bad habit, dear fellow.”
He came in without taking his eyes from my face. I meant to say more to him at once, but speech – breath itself – caught oddly in my chest. Evidently my attempts to disguise the character of the day I had spent were not sufficient, for Watson placed a cold hand on my wrist looking pained and guilty and began, “I should not have –”
I dragged in air as if surfacing from deep underwater, “Yes, you should,” I said. “Thank you for allowing me to read it. Please do not tell me you regret it. You are the best and bravest man alive, and the truest friend – but I already knew that. I wish it had never been put to such a demonstration.”
Watson looked away for a moment as his face twisted and his hands flexed, but as the spasm released I thought a little of the tension flowed away with it. He went and picked up the sheaf of papers, shut it quickly in one of the drawers of his desk, and turned the key on it. “It can’t have been easy to read.”
“Easier than to have lived through it,” I said, following him into the room. He had missed the letter to me. I laid my hand on it. “Thank you for this too.”
Watson glanced at it. He gave me a small smile, and an almost sheepish shrug.
I swallowed. “Watson,” I said, and was dismayed to see the line of his mouth tighten with apprehension again. “The part about the chloral, and the bridge.”
Watson blinked, as if he had expected some other line of interrogation. “Oh,” he said, softly. Then, “I already told you in the letter –it is better with me now.”
“Is it?” I asked, trying to read the answer in his face. This time he didn’t try to evade my inspection of his features, but stood offering me back wide, candid blue eyes that seemed full of nothing but summer. The sheer earnest sweetness of that look transfigured him for a moment; he looked younger, and far less hurt, than he had ever truly been in all our acquaintance. And this served to tell me only that he was perfectly sincere in wanting to reassure me, not that he was genuinely safe. I demanded, “What dose to you take?”
“Usually forty grains.”
I tried not to let myself grimace. “That is rather the high end of enough, is it not?” I said. “Do you measure it carefully? In the light? At the same time each evening?”
“Yes! Well, not always at the same time, no, but I was never seriously intending...”
“Tell me what immediate steps should be taken in case of chloral poisoning.”
His eyes went even wider with surprise and alarm. “Holmes, I won’t. I promise. I’ve already told you. It was something I merely – wondered about, involuntarily. Not a considered thing.”
“You would have wondered about it more than once,” I said. “When was the most recent occasion?”
“I... I don’t know. But I have always dismissed it as soon as it occurred to me. You must believe me.”
“I do,” I said. “Of course I believe you. But you would hardly have started at so high a dose. Lesser quantities have ceased to work, so you have had to resort to more. These thoughts are dangerous, even without the intent to act on them. There are cases that the coroner must rule either suicide or accident but which are in truth something between. Suppose, for example, that with such thoughts as yours in the back of the mind, one takes a dose of a drug when too exhausted to concentrate or remember how much one has taken already, or when one does not much care what happens and the prospect of release seems well worth the risk...”
I stopped, realising Watson was watching my face quite as intently as I had studied his, frowning. “Corpses don’t tell of their thoughts,” he said. “How can even you know of them?”
I looked past him at a spot on the wall. “I was twenty-two, it was morphine and scopolamine, it was all rather unpleasant, this is not relevant,” I said rapidly, as his lips parted and his face paled. “Except as an illustration of what is to be avoided.”
Watson stared at me, still looking stricken.
“Ten years ago,” I reminded him. “You are in danger now.”
“I am not in danger,” he said, starting to become exasperated but then checking himself. He looked down. “I can’t stop taking it now. When I can’t sleep...”
“I have not asked you to stop taking it,” I said. “I don’t ask. I would have no right at all. And the last thing I want is for you to be unable to sleep. I only want you to be safe.”
Watson, it appeared, could not decide whether to be moved or annoyed or to go on worrying about the misadventures of my youth. He sighed. “A single chloral overdose produces profound sleep, accompanied by stertorous breathing. Sometimes there is also a lowered temperature. Usually the patient may be partially roused, though he will not be coherent. One should administer an emetic, and afterwards very strong coffee, and do all one can to keep him awake; make him walk about the room if he can. Meanwhile, in cases of chronic poisoning, the first dangerous symptom is a rash, rather similar to scarlatina. You should tell the patient to stop using the drug at once, and summon a doctor. There. Perhaps you will be able to save someone’s life with that information some day. But not mine, because I am not going to need it. Listen, in future I will take the dose in here, in front of you -- you can measure it out yourself, if you wish.”
“I do wish it,” I said. “How will I... how may I ascertain the symptoms you describe have not developed...?”
Watson grimaced. “I suppose you would have to look in on me after I’d taken it,” he said. “Oh, very well, but Holmes, for the tenth time, I do know what I’m doing; I am not going to die of it.”
“No, indeed, I give you my word, you are not.”
Watson met my eyes, looking rather arrested by this. Then he smiled. “Well,” he said, with a blandly indulgent air that half-reassured and half-exasperated me, for he might have been promising an aunt he would wear a muffler on rainy days. “That’s all right then.”
He went over to the fire to stoke it, and I could not help but venture, “Could you try a dose of say, thirty...?”
About five seconds passed before he looked at me. “It is curious to find myself on this end of a conversation about dosage,” he said. He was smiling again, but it faded rapidly. “No. Not yet. Even as it is, it takes a long time to work.”
I could not argue with him. I nodded.
“I knew reading the thing would distress you,” Watson murmured. “I didn’t imagine that part of it would... strike you so much.”
“It was the most important part,” I said, and suddenly I was so boundlessly tired I could no longer hide it from myself. I sat down in the middle of the settee, finding I could not remain on my feet. Watson came and sat beside me.
“There was nothing you could have done,” he told me.
I whispered, “I could have left you behind.”
“I chose to be there. And if I had not, you would now be dead. And you will not ever suggest to me again that that would have been a better outcome.”
I will try not to. I do not know how I am ever to stop thinking it, but he wishes me to, and my brother is right, as he so usually is, so I must make the effort. Possibly writing it here may reinforce the resolution.
“You have just said, these are dangerous thoughts,” Watson continued to urge me.
I nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. I am so sorry, my friend, about all of it –”
“You told me I was never to say that to you,” Watson pointed out. “I am not in any danger of coming to believe you are happy about what happened, Holmes. It doesn’t need saying.” He sighed and added quietly, “We are both still here.”
Well, if he was included in the observation, it was easy enough to endorse it. I breathed, “Yes, thank God,” and placed my arm round him. I meant it only to be a quick clasp, but his hand caught mine where it hung over his shoulder, holding it in place. So then I turned, kneeling up on the settee to close my other arm about him too, and I dropped a kiss onto his hair before I could think to stop myself. And then, with my head bowed over his, I seemed to forget about moving.
“Holmes,” murmured Watson, after a while. “You are exhausted. Did you eat anything today?”
I had just been thinking that I could live perfectly well on the subtle scent of his skin and hair indefinitely. English is regrettably imprecise about smell, French scarcely any better. The best one can say is that beneath the odour of tobacco and the thyme-and-cedar fragrance of soap, his own scent does not really resemble that of fresh coffee, yet has some warm quality that reminds me of it.
“Yes, actually,” I muttered, feeling a wash of shame that I had let myself get into a state that made any demands on his concern. Reading a short document and running back and forth across town surely should not be so very taxing, but there it was, and hearing my condition named seemed only to deepen it. I was exhausted, so much so that even the effort of replying appeared to drain me of the necessary energy to keep my eyes open.
Watson made a little sound of affection and vague amusement, and pulled me round so that I was resting half across him, my head on the arm of the settee. I was aware that I should be thinking about this, I should be wondering whether either of us had the slightest idea what he was doing. However I was not capable of thinking about it, and, more or less lying in my friend’s arms, I was rather glad it was so.
His left hand was on my chest, under its weight I could feel my own pulse; I think he had placed it there deliberately, so that he could feel it too.
Almost under his breath, as if unsure I was still awake, he asked, “Did you read it all?”
I opened my eyes and turned my head away a little. “Nearly. There were certain passages... which...”
I could not help but tense as I thought of it, and I could feel the muscles of his arms and torso stiffening at the same time.
I knew which passage had to be on his mind. And it was true I had only managed to read it in the most glancing fashion – but I had read enough to see my own name and understand why it was there. I cannot say what I thought at the time; I was rather past what one could call thinking at all. My considered view had to be that it was natural enough for anyone, forced to such a pass, to prefer to think of a friend, rather than...
I cannot write about it. Yet what I had already said remained true. It was not the most important part of the account.
So I covered his hand with mine and murmured, “Anything that made it easier, my dear Watson, nothing else matters.”
I knew I could not explain it to him any more than that. Answers were not mine to give.
We were silent for a minute or so, before I managed to prise up my eyelids again and look at him.
“Are you really ...getting on better?”
He thought about it for a while, then said quietly. “I don’t do well with secrets.”
I could feel the chill from outside gradually thawing out of his hand, and I remember thinking vaguely about the fact that my heartbeat was supplying some of the warmth passing into his fingers, and that there was a decent use for the thing.
It is an embarrassing admission, but it seems that after that I again fell asleep.
* * *
I would be very interested to know how long we remained like that, but I do not. At some point Watson managed to extricate himself without waking me, and it was half past nine when I awoke, and only then because he was gently shaking my shoulder.
“You must eat some supper,” he said. “And then go to bed. And, well, there’s our arrangement about this.”
He was holding the little bottle of chloral.