Part II -- PLEASE BE SURE YOU HAVE READ THIS BEFORE CONTINUING! An error on my part prevented some readers from seeing it -- many apologies.
“Don’t,” I whispered. “I haven’t any right to tell you this.”
Mycroft sat back, neatly shutting away the look of shock, and opened his snuff box. “You haven’t told me anything.”
I laughed despairingly. “It amounts to a breach of confidence to come anywhere near you.”
“My capacities are not your fault. It may possibly be your fault that you have no one else to go to, but being even less sociable than yourself I am in no position to judge.”
“There’s nothing I can do, there’s no way to make it right. You don’t understand...”
Mycroft swept specks of snuff from his waistcoat with his handkerchief. “Then had you not better tell me the whole of it? It is possible I have entirely misconstrued matters, but if not I think I have already deduced the worst of it. You know it will never go any further.”
I still do not know if I had any right to do it, but after some further hesitation I did tell him in the end. At least my brother never needs a thing to be explained at any length. In fact it shocked me that the whole business could be condensed to such a few terse sentences and a choked silence. Mycroft sat there motionless, his face turning chalk-white while I stumbled to my conclusion, dropping my head into my hands and muttering wretchedly, “I should never –”
“Never what?” demanded Mycroft abruptly, and so fiercely I started a little, “Never have been born? Never have woken after those villains attacked you? Sherlock, if you are looking for someone to agree with you that the world at large— your friend included – would be better off with you dead, you might try asking around among the inmates at Newgate or the gangs of Rotherhithe. I doubt anyone else who knows your name is likely to do it for you, and you might have ruled out your brother before you began.”
I did not say anything. I could not.
Mycroft subsided, pondering. Then, as if nothing more harrowing than a jumbled set of figures lay before him, he said, “Let us try to address the situation logically...”
I gave another wrecked laugh. “Logically! Mycroft, I congratulate you on working the thing out, I was far, far slower but I did as much myself in the end – but what then? My skills are not the equal of yours , but they have their uses when someone wants to discover exactly what horrible thing has occurred or who has committed it. But when all that remains is to make matters more bearable, I have to own myself entirely out of my depth. There is no place for logic. That is just it. ”
“What nonsense,” said Mycroft. “Certainly there is a place for logic. You are merely applying it in a very uneven manner. You seem to have concluded your ability to help will be impaired if you either distract or harm yourself with stimulants or narcotics. So far, you have proceeded with admirable sense. And yet you subject yourself, without scruple, to a variety of premeditated tortures, and you appear to be courting consumption. Do you not see the logical contradiction?”
I frowned. “I am not... that is not ... important.”
“For God’s sake, Sherlock,” exclaimed Mycroft irritably, before interrupting himself with another sigh. He brought his fingertips together and became more professorial and precise than ever.
“Let us examine a hypothetical case. A man enters a house in order to rescue two children from evil – in which laudable goal he is successful, by the way. While there, however, he is beaten unconscious and his companion subjected to a vicious assault. When the first man learns what has happened he does all he can think of, difficult as he finds it, to alleviate his friend’s distress. However let us then suppose his efforts are impeded at every turn by some third person, who enters the scene to begin whispering to the first man that he is entirely to blame, and had better have been killed. Is there anything rational or useful about this third person’s intervention, and can he be said to be serving the interests of the man’s friend? Is not the first man, in fact, rather a fool for not kicking this interloper out of his rooms and continuing about his business undisturbed?”
“A charming tale, Mycroft. ” I said impatiently, “Though it excludes a number of unpleasant yet significant details. The question of what on earth the first man can do for his friend strikes me as more pressing. ”
Mycroft paused. “Just what he has been doing, so far as I can see.”
“What do you imagine I have been doing, Mycroft? Because I’m afraid in reality playing the violin and buying tobacco is the limit of my endeavours.”
“Well. I doubt that is quite all that you have done, or your friend would probably not have relaxed so far as to show you his record of events. But yes, carry on playing the violin and buying tobacco, why not?” Mycroft glanced wryly at the untouched plate beside me. “I do not suppose I shall ever hit upon the perfect and infallible method of persuading you to eat properly, but I continue to try, for I like to think it means something to you that I make it evident I prefer you not to starve to death.”
I looked at my brother, taken aback because I never thought to hear him say that aloud, but I could not help but realise that yes, I had always known that was what he was doing -- which does not cast my habitually churlish responses to his efforts and Watson’s similar ones in any very flattering light. I still did not eat the damned bread and butter, but I did offer him a feeble and short-lived species of smile.
Mycroft asked, “Is it remotely possible you would be so severe to another man in your own case?”
Obstinate mule that I am, I muttered, “Yes,”
“Rubbish. If it were your friend? Or myself?”
I had no very good answer. I fell back on groaning, “It is not so simple.”
“I know it is not.” His eyes were as soft for a moment as I have ever seen them. “You are both going to suffer, for some time to come, no matter what either of you do. I am very sorry for it. But you cannot make his burden any lighter by heaping coals on your own head – quite the contrary. ” He folded his arms. “And if you think as highly of your friend as I believe you do, don’t call the man an idiot behind his back for choosing to associate with you. I imagine he knows his own mind, he must find your society congenial, now as before. He appears to prefer it to anyone else’s. ”
I didn’t reply. I didn’t thank my brother, or say he was right, or do anything he deserved. All I said, after sitting there in silence for some minutes longer with my eyes closed, was, “I must be back before six.”
“Then take a cab, will you? And warm up properly when you get there. “
I stood up, and made an attempt to smooth back my hair. Mycroft grimaced at the results.
“If you were not such a starveling I could at least lend you something dry to wear on the way,” he said regretfully, “but you would look even more deplorable object in my clothes than you do now.”
“Yes, well, our differences on the subject of diet are not likely to be resolved on this occasion,” I said. But then, as a kind of gesture, I picked up a piece of the bread and butter, ate it hastily and washed it down with the lukewarm tea.
I clasped Mycroft’s hand at the door and he patted my arm. We are not a demonstrative pair. I think there was more physical contact between us in the forty minutes I was there than in the last nine years combined.
* * *
I was very worried on the way home that Watson would have returned before me. Nevertheless, when the hansom stopped at Baker Street I came to myself with a start, realising that despite the dread, the jolting of the cab and the noise of the streets, I had unaccountably fallen asleep.
The house, thankfully, was empty. Inside our rooms I picked up Watson’s pages from the floor, shuffled them gingerly into order and folded them up as they had been, leaving his note to me beside them on the desk. I repaired other signs of disorder, hoping Watson would not notice the large chip in the rim of the tea-table and had not been particularly attached to the ashtray that used to stand upon the sideboard. Then, after lighting a fire, I finally changed out of my wet clothes and made myself at least moderately presentable, and settled in to wait.
There were a few letters for me. Naturally I had not paid them any attention before, and only looked at them while waiting because by quarter past six I realised I needed some distraction from the useless state of nerves I was working myself into. Only one struck me of any interest, as the envelope had apparently been addressed by an extemely anxious young woman, high-born, yet not rich, writing in secret in the dead of night. On opening it, however, I had only time to note that the name of the woman in question was Lady Eva Brackwell, when I heard the front door opening. I cast the letter aside at once.
Watson came up the stairs. I rose expectantly but he did not enter -- he was actually standing hesitating on the threshold of his own home. I could see his shadow under the door. I went and opened it.