Part II -- PLEASE BE SURE YOU HAVE READ THIS BEFORE CONTINUING! An error on my part prevented some readers from seeing it -- many apologies.
My fist continued to beat against the door of its own accord, even after I heard the floorboards within shifting under my brother’s heavy tread.
Mycroft greeted me with a gruff exclamation of “Good God.”
I gaped at my brother as if he were the one to turn up on my doorstep in his shirtsleeves and dripping wet. I replied, “What is the time?”
I should have been able to deduce the answer, not that I am sure why I wanted to know it. You can, as they say, set your watch by Mycroft, who scarcely needs to carry a timepiece himself, so deeply are his habits engraved into his very nerves. In that first moment he was probably at least as concerned at the evident derailment of his evening as he was for his brother’s sanity, for his exact, unchanging daily rituals mean as much to him as the beckoning flash of the unexpected usually means to me.
“It is twenty to five. Sherlock, what brings you here?”
If I had arrived five minutes later he would have been at the Diogenes, where I am sure I should not have followed him. I do not know what would have happened then. As it was I had misplaced a good three hours. I began to think about that, and then gave it up. “I am not altogether sure.”
He uttered a sound that began as an exasperated growl in his throat and ended in a sharp tut on his lips, and then all but hauled me inside.
I stood there shivering in a spreading pool of rainwater, offering no account of myself, still staring at him like an imbecile.
“You look half-drowned and frozen. Get out of those clothes, for heaven’s sake, before you catch your death.”
“No, no,” I said vaguely, beginning to look around the room in continuing puzzlement at my own presence there. “I’m not staying.”
“If you think you are going anywhere in that condition, without giving me an excellent reason for it, you are gravely mistaken.”
I caught an accidental glimpse of myself in the slightly warped glass of the old French mirror. It is really too big for Mycroft’s rooms, but it was our mother’s – it used to hang in her private sitting room, in the old house. I looked, indeed, so laughably wretched I could barely face myself. I saw Mycroft’s face behind me, watching me, his lips thoughtfully pursed. He did not look it, but I knew that by now he was very worried indeed, and that certainty, arriving in the same moment that I thought of the mirror in Gilfoyle’s hall, placed me in some danger of succumbing to tears again. I covered my face and begged, “Please, Mycroft, don’t speak to me for a while.”
I felt rather than saw Mycroft continuing to examine me in silence for a moment, before he said crisply, “Very well. Let us resume in a quarter of an hour, will that suit you?”
He turned away and I folded myself up in a chair. Parts of that walk through the rain were coming back to me now; I had gone a long way, as far as the very margin of Wandsworth. I remembered standing on Chelsea Bridge, halfway across, staring down at the swollen river for a long time. “How cold and dark and foul the water must be,” Watson had written. I think that was why I turned back, even if afterwards I suppose I could not countenance the defeat, let it all blur into one demented march.
Sitting in Mycroft’s chair I sank into a kind of stupor, and the relief of temporary apathy. Still my heart pounded palpably, not so very fast, but with hard strokes, like a chisel being worked against my ribs. And though for a while I seemed to regard the question with near indifference, I remained at a loss as to how I was to bear the knowledge of how its every beat had been purchased.
Meanwhile, I could hear Mycroft moving about, occasionally sighing heartily. His sighs are frequent, scarcely less forceful than the spout of a surfacing whale, and rarely accompanied by any reason he can name. In this case, however, it was of course clear where the cause was to be found.
In one sense it would be correct to say my brother and I are not close, for we go months without seeing each other. Yet if we had nothing else we should have the attachment between speakers of a very obscure and difficult dialect, or the fellow-feeling of survivors of a shipwreck. There are also the facts that he is the one soul I have ever taken wholly for granted, that in his remote way he knows me better than anyone else, and that I think I am the only person living who really knows him at all. It is always comforting to think of him progressing along the stately circuits which I had that afternoon -- from Whitehall to Pall Mall, I can almost hear him, like a steady, quiet drum beat, as I now could hear his solid paces about the room. I scarcely need to see him for that.
Mycroft had no trouble holding his tongue for the allotted fifteen minutes, but a towel soon descended unceremoniously about my shoulders and shortly after a cup of tea and a plate of bread and butter appeared at my elbow. Mycroft, like the Doctor, is apt to worry that I am too thin, and though his perspective on the matter is surely more skewed than Watson’s, he is even harder to persuade that I understand my own needs.
I ignored the plate, but I began listlessly scrubbing at my hair with the towel, as my time ran out.
“Well then,” said Mycroft, looking down at me.
“I shall be on my way,” I announced, springing to my feet. Mycroft gave another gusty sigh and pushed me back into the chair without difficulty. He is as surprisingly strong for his weight as I am for mine. Not that I put up much resistance. In fact, once back in the chair I curled myself up again with my forehead resting on my knees. I was very anxious at the prospect of having to talk to him, but I did not want to be elsewhere. In point of fact, I did not want to be anywhere at all. Escape, therefore, held little real appeal for me, and I seemed to be rather short of energy to effect it.
Satisfied that I was staying put, Mycroft settled into the chair opposite. “Why did you not come to consult me a fortnight ago? For whatever has happened to you today, I should say you have been in some kind of trouble at least that long. Although...” he paused, and when he spoke again I could hear the complicated smile in his voice. “It is a strange trouble that has you keeping off the morphine and cocaine. My dear boy. I am glad to see it.”
It is no good visiting Mycroft if you are going to be rattled by such things, so I was not – not exactly. But I did lift my head in order to see if I could follow his chain of observations. I was a little thinner, I supposed. Furtively examining my hands, I found a slightly reddened dent just below the first joint of my right index finger. Even to me, it seems astonishing to deduce two weeks of anguish from so little, but it did show I must have been gripping the bow too tightly over many days, not a usual bad habit of mine. I was less clear how he knew about the drugs. Any normal man would have concluded from the state of me that if he were ever looking at Sherlock Holmes in a state of chemically-induced ruin, now was the time.
I looked at him and saw him reading my thoughts. He smiled sadly. “You would not allow yourself to reach such a state of extremity without resorting to something, and I am afraid that something would not usually be a fraternal visit. Besides, it leaves more traces on you, and for longer, than you suppose. The texture of your skin. Your eyes. The difference is not very easy to summarise, but it is quite distinct, I assure you.”
“Don’t be too pleased,” I said sullenly, “I shan’t be able to keep it up forever.”
He didn’t argue with me. He leaned forward towards and said softly, “Sherlock, why don’t you tell me what is wrong?”
His tone was so uncharacteristically gentle that it nearly undid what little remained of my self-control. I croaked, “I cannot.”
“It does not concern only yourself?”
I shook my head and somehow that seemed to jolt from behind my teeth words I had not known were lurking there: “I wish he had never met me.”
Then we were both silent for a long while as I became uneasily aware of what a very great deal of information I had given him in that remark.
There was clearly only one person to whom I could have been referring. And there were various ways my living arrangements with the doctor might have toppled over into disaster, and Mycroft knew it. For he knows all about me, of course. My capacity for dissimulation may be fairly well-tested, but I am not equal to committing decades to the task of keeping Mycroft Holmes from noticing his brother is a homosexual. As for the full nature of my regard for John Watson – well, it was not something I had liked to think of, but yes, I would have wagered Mycroft had always known that too. I hope I should have preserved at least a little more dignity if I were merely disappointed in love, but still, some of the more brutal possibilities might conceivably have sent me running to my brother’s door regretting the folly of ever sharing rooms with anyone. I had, however, ruled almost all such possibilities out at a stroke. I had indicated that whatever had happened, I was not the primary casualty.
“There seems to be room for differences of opinion on your degree of culpability,” Mycroft said at last. “Your friend would presumably take himself elsewhere, if he felt you had wronged him as you seem to feel it.”
I said recklessly, “He’s an idiot not to.” Mycroft’s gaze had gone remote and pale as distant cloud banks. He said in a quiet, almost expressionless murmur, “You are nearly as distraught as if your friend had just been killed, yet he is alive. Whatever has happened to him must be grave indeed, but I do not believe it is truly any of your doing, or why should he continue to tolerate your company? Yet you feel yourself accountable, so I suppose he must have been accompanying you on one of your cases, or acting for you in some other way. And then, I have not heard of you getting into any serious scrapes since that Gilfoyle matter, where I heard you took a nice knock to the head. If your friend had been seriously hurt surely I would have heard of that too...”
Mycroft’s gaze had gone remote and pale as distant cloud banks. He said in a quiet, almost expressionless murmur, “You are nearly as distraught as if your friend had just been killed, yet he is alive. Whatever has happened to him must be grave indeed, but I do not believe it is truly any of your doing, or why should he continue to tolerate your company? Yet you feel yourself accountable, so I suppose he must have been accompanying you on one of your cases, or acting for you in some other way. And then, I have not heard of you getting into any serious scrapes since that Gilfoyle matter, where I heard you took a nice knock to the head. If your friend had been seriously hurt surely I would have heard of that too...”
“Stop it,” I said. I had flinched despite myself at the phrase ‘acting for you,’ and again at Gilfoyle’s name, and I knew that must have told him even more.
But Mycroft could not be stopped. He continued to strip away the impossible:
“It was at Gilfoyle’s, then. But if he had been injured there, however much you might consider yourself to blame, why should you hesitate to tell me? And that was back in January, why should it only begin to affect you so severely in the last few weeks? No, I do not think you knew of this so long; he must have concealed it from you, which cannot have been easy. What could have been done to him that he should wish to keep secret...?”
His brow suddenly cleared, and then contracted again at once. His mouth fell slightly open.