My Lady’s Chamber
<< These stories are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>
On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.
Content Warnings: Em. priest!Holmes. (It’s only a disguise.)
Okay, if you haven’t run away screaming yet you don’t have much to worry about.
When I glanced up from my penitential attitude at the whisper of cloth across the stone floor, I had to fight the urge to heave a sigh and roll my eyes toward the chapel’s ancient groined vault. Holmes had not told me what costume he would assume for his investigation at the Mosteiro de Sagrados Mistérios. If he had, I might have prepared myself for the sight of the tall priest crossing the transept.
There was no mistaking that profile with its hawklike nose and slightly upturned chin and I would have known the prominent architecture of his features even without benefit of having traced each with myriad kisses over the years.
His long, spare frame, too often masked by the many layers of modern dress was arresting in its simplicity of form. The cassock described a single unbroken line of black from his neck to his feet where only a slight sway of the heavy fabric betrayed any motion at all. So erect and still was his posture if not for that sign he might have been gliding across the stone floor. Had he been wearing a hood any observer would have been forgiven for thinking he had simply left his scythe behind.
He was, to my experienced eye, delighted with his role and playing it to the fullest. I’d no doubt he was drinking in my rapt attention to his performance although he did not glance my way. I didn’t expect him to. Had the chapel been full he could have picked me out with less effort than I might expend in recognizing my pipe among a dozen in a rack.
As it happened I shared the chapel with only two others; a pair of elderly women in gossamer shawls that made one imagine they’d inadvertently walked through a large cobweb and forgotten to dust their shoulders.
Holmes stopped and knelt at the chancel and the thought crossed my mind to hope he was making some effort to match thought to deed and wasn’t entirely preoccupied with the current location of our quarry.
From under my lashes I watched him rise and make his way with the same sure and purposeful step across the floor to a narrow door set in the wall at the end of the transept. Without the slightest hesitation he pulled the inset iron ring, opened the door, stepped through and shut it again with the thud of wood on stone.
I sat watching the door for several minutes, at a loss as to how to follow without drawing attention to my actions. On a sudden, there was a commotion in the street outside. My two fellow penitents and I wasted no time shifting to the edge of our pews, but while the women shuffled toward the door at the end of the nave, I moved as quickly and quietly as my hard soled shoes would permit.
Within seconds I was behind the door, rather pleased with my own resourcefulness. I was less than halfway down the roughhewn stone stairs before I realized I’d garner only a sardonically raised eyebrow if I crowed to Holmes about taking advantage of the kafuffle. The two elderly ladies were probably even now staring around them at a loss to understand what had caused it. A couple of fleet-footed boys would have been off around the corner long before the women gained the street.
When I reached the foot of the stairs I’d already resolved to keep my silence although, I realized as I took in my surroundings, that resolution would not have been difficult in any case.
It was an ancient chapel. That much had been clear as I sat above admiring the architecture and age-darkened wood. Had there been any doubt in my mind, the knowledge there was an ossuary under my feet would have confirmed it.
I’d seen the famous catacombs of Paris. This was very like it in miniature. The room was filled with bones. They lined every inch of the wide corridor and ranged in even rows through the deep cul-de-sacs arrayed along the length of the room.
Skulls were set like weathered field stones, eye sockets aligned, in row upon row. A course of long bones provided a base for each grim wall. A meticulously arranged series of ribs and vertebrae were set like a filigree border across the top.
There had been obvious care given to aesthetic considerations. Here and there skulls of a more bleached complexion were aligned to describe the shape of a globular cross. In each cul-de-sac a narrow stone bench was positioned for the better convenience of any who found themselves possessed of the desire to ponder the mortal mystery in the presence of its antithesis.
The only light filtered in from high narrow windows at the top of the eastward wall, evidently set at ground level judging by the grasses and hillocks of earth visible through the rippled glass. Even that diffuse glow seemed dulled by its struggle through the cool air that radiated from the stone floor, bringing with it the mingled scents of damp and calcium dust .
Fascinations contested within me as I walked down the broad center passage. I felt the attraction of the macabre that draws the living to the aspect of death. I could appreciate the artistry that had gone into constructing the sepulchral display. And I felt the natural curiosity of a surgeon as my eye was drawn by some irregularity of this orbit or that mandible betraying insult to the living tissue that had long since fallen away.
Lost in these eccentric thoughts, I nearly paced by Holmes. He was in a westward alcove a little more than half the way down the precession. In the funereal drab of his cassock I might have missed him entirely were it not for a slanting column of light from the facing window.
His head was sunk upon his breast, his arms crossed, his eyes focused on a point somewhere in the space just beyond the low stone bench before him. By his easy posture his angular shoulders might have been braced on a billiard parlor wall instead of a bank of grinning skulls.
I came to a stop and waited, knowing interruption would not be appreciated. We had roomed together for years, Holmes and I, long before we became lovers, and there were some facets of his personality that had made themselves known to me almost from our first meeting.
When he had told me “I get in the dumps at times” I had taken him at his word. I hadn’t anticipated he was liable to sink into sudden fits of near somnolent contemplation. Once, early on, I observed such a phenomenon and mistakenly assumed he might like to be taken out of whatever grim thoughts preoccupied him.
Poe’s raven might have been well advised to study at Holmes’s knee at that moment. The Plutonian look he turned upon me was enough to put me off my kippers as each one suddenly resembled a tiny death’s head on my plate.
As if in divination of these thoughts Holmes looked up suddenly and gave me a broad grin that couldn’t have been more out of keeping with the surroundings if he’d added a hearty laugh.
“You may as well take a seat, my heart. I suspect we’ve a lengthy vigil ahead of us. Our quarry will come this way eventually. We’ve only to drive him to the fate waiting in the garden beyond the far door in the form of our friend Inspector Branco.”
I allowed myself an unkind thought toward Branco, taking his ease under the laurels, listening to the woodlarks and perhaps munching on an apple from the trees that lined the walk. I shrugged the thought aside. Mordant surroundings or no, I’d rather be with Holmes than failing to make civil conversation with our self-important friend from the Policia Judiciaria.
“How can you be sure your man will come this way?” I asked.
“He’s looking for something hidden here,” Holmes answered. “Do you notice anything unusual about the quaint display directly before me?”
It was rare I was able to apply any of my store of professional knowledge to one of Holmes’s little puzzles and I never hesitated to make the most of it. I promptly turned and surveyed the wall indicated.
I cast my eye over it, clinical interest now sharply at the forefront. I had my suspicions, of course, before I turned my gaze on the unique feature, but it would have been impossible for any medical student of passing intelligence to fail to recognize the graceful orbits, narrow mandibles, and finer superciliary arches.
“A woman,” I said blandly.
“Excellent!” Holmes said, his open delight in my response negating any condescension in the word.
I continued my survey and cast a glance at the surrounding walls. “The only one in sight. Is she the sole of her sex among– I assume these are the antecedents of the brothers of the monastery?”
“Quite right,” Holmes said with a low chuckle. “You excel yourself, my dear fellow.”
“Is she what Steiger’s man is looking for?” I asked as I sat.
“Not in itself, or herself if you prefer personification. She’s something of a local celebrity. They call her the Lady of Mysteries. The only real mystery is whether she was mixed in among the rest mistakenly or by design. No one is quite sure now whether the founding brothers drew upon a charnel pit or plundered their own cemetery to feed their amusing little hobby. Ossuaries have fallen out of fashion in the recent century and no one saw fit to document the proceedings at the time. My own speculation is it would have taken a charnel to accumulate so many specimens in such uniform state of decay. Perhaps she is simply a housemaid mixed in among male plague victims. What does your professional eye tell you?”
“I confess I’m out of my depth when it comes to theorizing on that score. I confine myself to those a bit closer to the land of the living.” I bent forward to take a closer look at the poignant little specimen. “Do you see some sign of disease?”
Holmes stepped around the bench and squatted on his haunches by my feet. “No, although I’ve made some study of indicators of cause of death by examination of osteological evidence. I wrote a small monograph on the subject.”
“Yes, ‘Indicators of Cause of Death by Examination of Osteological Evidence,’” I quoted. “It was very interesting.”
That earned me quirked smile and, I noted with delight, a faint brushstroke of color across his cheekbones. As if sensing he’d betrayed his own pleasure at my words he looked away again quickly, leaving me free to enjoy that unconscious sign. I knew Holmes was as covetous as a schoolboy of having his work praised, but he was not given to blushing, any ironic statements to the contrary.
I endeavored to hide the smile in my voice as I broke the sudden silence. “Even if they are not plague victims, I don’t imagine many here would provide satisfying scope for research. Most would have succumbed to age. Apart from her company I don’t see anything remarkable in the Lady. She was perhaps twenty. European. Good teeth. No doubt well nourished so–”
My clinical disquisition was interrupted in mid-breath when Holmes reached out and plucked the skull from the wall.
My instant vision of the entire exhibit tumbling down on us, thankfully did not materialize. Whatever binding held the skulls in place seemed firm enough to stand the gap.
His gaze never left mine as he gave the skull a brisk shake. I heard a rattling that did not sound like a loose bone fragment. He grinned up at me as he held his hand below the foramen magnum. A brass key dropped into his open palm.
I shut my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Holmes, this is a bit beyond the pale, even for you.”
“So quick to cast stones, my dear boy,” he said. “I promise you I am not the architect of this odd treasure hunt.”
He proffered the key, which I took and dropped into my pocket with only a little reluctance, then he sat back cross-legged on the floor, his cassock draped over his knees.
I’d never achieved any level of comfort sitting Hindu style on the ground, sofa cushions or no, so I continued to perch on the bench at his shoulder.
His long, tapering fingers reached from the mandible almost to the crown, ably demonstrating the young woman’s small stature. He planted one elbow on his thigh as he regarded the skull in his hand.
I watched him warily. “Holmes, I hope you’re not about to start quoting Shakespeare.”
“I assume you refer to Hamlet, Act Five, Scene One.”
“Titania’s speech to Oberon didn’t spring instantly to mind, no,” I answered dryly.
I couldn’t see his expression from where I sat, but I saw the fine lines at the corner of his eye deepen and I felt a strange start of surprise on knowing that small indication meant a wry half smile. The thought that the tiniest tell of his expression was instantly recognizable was so absurdly pleasing, I nearly missed his next statement.
“The first half of the scene holds points of interest beyond the advent of Yorick’s skull.”
“It does have a way of overshadowing the rest,” I admitted. “Though there is more below the surface, so to speak.” I ran my eye over the grinning cohort around us. “The mere fact of jesting at death is a curious thing. The gravediggers so used to death they can make light of it.”
“Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness,” he quoted.
Casting my thoughts over the scene as I recalled it from numerous readings in school and after I remarked, “And there are presentiments of Hamlet’s own death when he says his bones ache to see the way the others are heaved around so casually.”
“Here’s fine revolution, and we had the trick to see’t. Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with ‘em? Mine ache to think on’t.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Shall I continue to feed you dialogue prompts or would you prefer to simply play it through?”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Watson,” he replied evenly. “However, in deference to your finer feelings, I will try to control my dramatic impulse.”
“What a welcome change that will be,” I said pleasantly, earning a caustic snort. “It’s curious, too, on the day of his own death. Hamlet uses Alexander as an illustration as he stands in the churchyard with his friend Horatio. Alexander who died grieving for Hephaestion as Horatio later threatens to die for Hamlet.”
“Shakespeare never mentions Hephaestion,” he pointed out.
“One name rather suggests the other. Alexander did make him a god,” I said, idly running my fingers through the fine hair at the back of neck. “Holmes, are you ever envious of Alexander and Hephaestion?”
“Oh, certainly,” he said, resting his head against my palm. “I’d be most amenable to being made a god.”
I snorted and pushed him gently away. “When next I find myself conquering Persia, I assure you, I’ll see to it. I’d ask you to defer the question until then.”
Holmes shifted on the floor, rising enough to slot the Lady of Mysteries back into her home in the array. “Have I ever mentioned,” he remarked, turning toward me as he settled back so that he rested his hands on my knees. “Like Alexander for Hephaestion, I am ruled by your thighs?”
“No,” I said, watching him warily as his fingers traced down my calves and up again. “And I should question your motives if you did, because,” I went on, shifting back as far as the narrow bench would allow, “If it were true I’d never permit you to leave my bed.”
He captured the backs of my knees and gazed up at me from under the veil of his eyelashes. “Appealing as the thought is,” he said as he drew my legs apart, “It would…” He kissed the inside of my knee. “Regrettably…” His kisses traveled higher up my leg. “Pose certain difficulties…” His kisses slowed as they moved dangerously close to the top of my thigh. “To my career.”
As ever, the sight of him between my legs tightened a cord within me. I curled toward him, gripping the edge of the bench. The layers of fabric binding me were rapidly becoming too snug.
“Holmes,” I tried to sound forceful and my voice came out as a throaty growl. ”I must warn you if you persist I’ll be ill equipped to offer chase when the time comes.”
He nuzzled the top of my thigh. “No little death to defy the greater?” In the dim light his dark hair seemed to merge with the line of his cassock. He appeared a shade come back for another taste of earthly temptation.
My thoughts were scattering, fleeing my grasp as he pushed in. I fought for an anchor to reason. As if in iniquitous answer there was a sound of wood scraping on stone.
“Holmes,” I managed to whisper. “The door.”
“Early. Most inconvenient,” he murmured. He rose and stood in one fluid motion, leaning over me and put his lips to my ear. “To the garden.”
I nodded even as he threw one long leg over the bench. A faint susurration of fabric was the only sound that marked his movements as he slipped across and turned sideways to the passage, taking full advantage of the deeper darkness of the wall nearer the sound of the approaching footfalls.
I pulled up my legs and pushed off the bench to drop in a crouch at his feet. We’d worked out a pattern of attack over years of cooperative effort. I’d aim for knees and waist, going for a quick tackle. He’d take any opening to put his boxing skills to use.
On sudden inspiration, I pivoted on my toes. I found the buttons at the hem of his cassock and flicked them free, revealing several inches of his trouser legs. I felt his fingers brush through my hair and glanced up to see his lips curled in a tight smile. His gray eyes shone as he turned his gaze to the passage. I felt a frisson of amusement at the realization I wasn’t entirely sure between the pleasures I could offer and the thrill of the hunt, which prospect delighted him more.
We both watched the corridor. I crouched, one hand on my knee, the other knuckles down on the chill stone floor, ready to spring. Mercifully, our man was moving with sufficient slow caution to give me time to be sure I could react with full freedom of movement. Had he not given me that respite after Holmes’s ill-advised attentions, I would have feared for our success.
Breathing as quietly as I might, though I’d never mastered Holmes’s talent for waiting with all the silence of the dead, I listened. The footfalls paused no farther away than the next alcove. There was a tremendous silence. I shot a look at Holmes and he met my eyes with a sideways glance.
My mind darted from one tactic to the next aligning action to outcome. Still there was no movement. My lungs begged to drag in one long, deep breath. I crouched and leant forward on my toes, taut as a mooring line in a storm.
At last there was a sound from the passage. It was not the one I most wanted to hear. There was another scrape of wood on stone. It was the unmistakable sound of the chapel door.
“All clear,” came a low voice not a dozen feet from us.
I felt Holmes’s hand on my shoulder. His fingers tightened then relaxed in the signal to wait for his lead. It was one of the many blessings of our working lives only once had we ever contested for the right to lead the charge. I was content to bow to his mastery in the field.
The door closed with a solid thud and there was a second voice, hoarse and low. “’’Struth, Teddy. It ain’t half morbid.”
“Quit gawping,” answered Teddy as quick footfalls sounded down the passage. “He’ll make us part of this carnival if we don’t get back before night. What’s the combination?”
“Seven down, eight across’t.”
“It’s in this batch. Ninth turn left, third wall. Holy Harry, would you stir your stumps? You count over the row, I’ll count down.”
I cocked my heels back, ready to spring. Sliding steps moved away and to the side, into the alcove nearer the chapel. I felt a moment of stark confusion before the answer broke over me.
I could all but hear Holmes struggling not to grind his teeth at the incompetence of criminals who could not successfully count to nine.
“Cheery lot, ain’t they?” said the hoarse voice. “Grinnin’ to a man.”
“Don’t be funny. Bound to be bad luck or sommat.”
“This lot’s luck ain’t likely to get much worse.”
“Give over. Count.”
The second steps joined the first. I heard a hushed “One, two…” Then Teddy said, “Wait, I gotta better idea. You check the other door.”
Holmes’s hand fell on my shoulder, this time pushing down and back. I looked up. He shook his head once then gave a loud, jaw-cracking yawn.
I stared up, frozen in place. Utter silence fell in the next alcove. Holmes held my gaze and said thickly, “Olá? Que está lá?” He gave his cassock a shake that caused the fabric to rustle. It was the only sound.
“Que está lá?” he said louder. He held my eyes a moment longer before he stepped into the passage. As I watched, wide eyed, he seemed to collapse in on himself, suddenly losing almost a foot in height. His shoulders slumped forward and his eyelids drooped.
A series of thoughts sleeted through my mind as images. I saw his plan, his actions, all that could go wrong, and his triumphant grin at the successful conclusion within the space of second. He was already shuffling to the center of the passage.
He gave another loud yawn as he drifted right, giving us both room to move if needed. I was within an ace of breaking cover, signal or no, when the hoarse voice murmured, “’Struth. ‘S a bloody bag a’yeast.”
“Ah!” Holmes said loudly, looking to his right and blinking slowly as he turned toward the pair hidden from my view.
“Você olhar para a Senhora? You seek the Lady?” His voice shifted easily from sharp Portuguese to slow, heavily accented English.
There was a breathless silence and I pictured the two thieves staring at one another, trying to assimilate this new development and work through how they were going to form a plan of action suddenly deprived of the ability to argue over tactics.
“Erm,” Teddy said slowly. “Yes. We do. Are.”
“Sim, sim,” Holmes answered. “This way. She is here.”
My eyes widened as he waved his hand at the alcove opposite mine. It was daring, foolhardy and perfectly sound all at once and of a piece with his record of last ditch gambits.
Without a backward glance, he shuffled toward the opposite wall.
Again I felt the thieves trade looks. “Boss must’a meant turn left from t’other door,” the hoarse voice whispered.
“Stow,” muttered Teddy, then louder, “Uh, sí, erm, yes, Father.” Feet moved. “Follow my lead,” Teddy hissed. “She’s over there then, is she?”
The back of a heavily built man of medium height moved into view. A jacket of faded moss green strained across his shoulders and hung rumpled to his hips.
He stepped a few paces toward Holmes before the second man appeared. Taller, he had narrower shoulders, but thick, bunched fists. A jagged red scar showed on the back of one hand.
Holmes waved again. “Here. Come. Senhora dos Mistérios.”
The steps of the pair quickened. As they reached the center of the passage, Holmes pointed down and to the right. “Lá. A Senhora. You see her. She is– Now, Watson!”
I’d already picked my line of scrimmage. I bolted forward, cutting right, before my man had time to turn.
The task was to drive him toward the door. The goal was to keep Holmes and I in one piece in the process. The second took precedence in my mind. I wouldn’t have sworn for my partner’s priorities. I heard the slap of skin on skin and a grunt from across the passage.
My opponent wasn’t much more than twenty. I caught a glimpse of baby smooth cheeks and startled, dark eyes before I pushed off with my heels. I didn’t want to grapple if it could be helped. I wanted to shoulder him toward the far door and let him run.
Across the passage there was an indrawn breath, then a curse and the rattle and skitter of something metallic hitting the floor.
My lad gave a soft ‘oof’ as my shoulder landed in his midsection but he had the quickness of youth and muscles untried by tense minutes bunched at the ready. He spun, stepping backward and I hit him with only half force.
Every fighting instinct cried out to grip him around the waist and use his own momentum to throw him sideways over my hip. I didn’t. Instead I let him step back as I staggered drunkenly forward.
Now I was between him and the outer door. If I’d hoped to give him a low enough opinion of my fighting skill to feel safe in making a dash for it, I was disappointed. He stood fixed in place and gave me a slow, feral grin.
Steiger had chosen well when he’d imported a man from home to fill a need for muscle. This lad was no East End tough who fancied himself the next Jack Sheppard. He’d clearly earned the scar on his hand as well as the one I now observed decorating his left brow.
He would neither frighten nor fall easily. I squared off to him, knees flexed and limbs loose. As I did, in the tail of my eye I glimpsed flashes of black then green accompanied by the sounds of harsh breath and scuffling feet. There was the thud of a heavy blow.
Willing my face to an emotionless mask, I forced myself to stare forward, fixing my lad with a stony gaze. As I expected, he seemed to find the effect more disconcerting than an open challenge, but he wasn’t to be undone by it. His grin faltered, yet he didn’t break for the door.
While I waited for him to make his move, my mind flicked through my options. A shout would not reach the garden. If it weren’t swallowed up by the stone wall and thick door, Branco was doubtless positioned far enough back to allow the lone man he expected an apparently clear path to freedom.
There was no question of letting my lad break for the chapel and risk him hurting a parishioner or gaining the street. I had to drive him or bring him down. I knew I could wait him out. Experience trumps youth in some arenas.
A body hit the ground to my left just as my lad surged forward at mid height. He opted for grapple and fist. It was a good tactic for landing a succession of hard body blows then a stunning crack to the jaw while the opponent’s forearms are blocking low.
I’d seen it before. I landed a piston of an upper cut just as he opened his stance for attack. I was rewarded with a look of dumb shock as his head rocketed back and he staggered away.
My triumph was short-lived as he collided with the facing bank of bones. Skulls fell like a rain of ostrich eggs, shattering on the floor. Centuries ground to powder under his boots as he stepped away from the wall. He kicked a parietal aside and squared off in a half crouch. There was a gasp of pain behind me then a sharp laugh. It wasn’t Holmes’s voice.
They say anger shouldn’t swamp reason in a fight. They are frequently wrong. The crunch of bone and a second clatter of metal behind me were both subsumed by the rushing of blood in my ears.
I let out a wordless snarl and broke forward, one forearm blocking, one fist cocked at shoulder height. Before my boy even raised his fists I’d landed a combination uppercut and roundhouse. When he staggered left I got in a second uppercut. His hands groped for the lapel of my jacket even as his eyes went glassy. I finished with a relatively gentle right tap to his jaw and he tumbled sideways. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. I didn’t stop to enjoy the effect.
I pivoted on my heel ready to launch into the next affray. Holmes turned toward me at the same instant wearing that familiar triumphant grin. Our eyes met and my rage melted away in a wave of relief.
His eyes flicked toward my fallen opponent. I looked down to find the lad curled in a litter of bone fragments.
Holmes clucked his tongue. “Dear me, Watson. Even the dead aren’t safe from you. Our Inspector Branco won’t be best pleased. You two will never become amigos at this rate. Be good enough to fetch him would you? I’ll try to tidy up a bit.”
Puffing out an exasperated sigh, I turned my gaze to the man stretched out at Holmes’s feet. Teddy was no more prepossessing from the front. He had hard features, coarsened and scarred by numberless bare-knuckled brawls.
I noted a scattering of scarlet drops across his shirtfront. As I stepped forward to see if he needed any immediate attention, three drops of blood fell on his breast.
Holmes was turning away as I reached out for his arm. My hand closed on his shoulder. He jerked away even as I saw his wince of pain and released my hold.
“It’s my own cursed fault,” he snapped peevishly as I took him by the hip and turned him carefully toward me. “I should have expected a second blade. But I ask you, what sort of idiot is it who carries a shiv in the waist of his trousers? One who is incapable of counting to nine, clearly.”
I let him continue his litany of complaint as I moved him into a shaft of dull gray light. It was welcome reassurance he wasn’t about to crumple to the ground from blood loss.
“And these things are deuced ill-adapted for close quarters combat,” he added holding out the fabric of cassock with his free hand. “I’ll thank you not to prod me like a stray sheep,” he said evenly as he watched me carefully part the torn edges of fabric at his shoulder.
“Hm,” I answered, half listening as he muttered about policemen who were deaf as posts, wretchedly uneven stone floors and blasted cassocks again.
It was a long laceration, but a shallow one. It ran along the line of his collarbone, plunging deeper at his shoulder. It was bleeding, but not freely. The drops of blood had come from the thin rivulet running down his arm.
He had a collarless linen shirt on below his vestments. It was already soaked through and useless as temporary dressing. I fished out my handkerchief, flicking through the various options in my mind. Holmes said something about bulls and china shops.
I held my handkerchief to the wound with one hand, untied my cravat with the other and added that dressing to the first. Holmes fell silent and watched curiously as I reached for the cincture at his waist and tugged it free.
As I looped it over his shoulder and under his arm, fashioning a rough bandage, he appeared to start awake from his contemplation of my actions and launched into a fresh tirade on what he would do to the man on the ground in the event of tetanus.
“Any others?” I interrupted.
“No,” he answered too quickly.
I stared at the side of his head as he studied the skull beside him with great interest. I waited holding fast to the wound with one hand while the other braced his shoulder behind.
“This man appears to have died from an acute case of shovel,” he remarked. “It may have been post mortem. I need to do additional study in that area. Yes, very well, here.”
He released his hold on the fabric at his thigh and held out his hand. There was a ragged cut across his palm. I didn’t let go of his shoulder, he’d already successfully staunched the greater part of the blood flow.
“Just keep applying pressure,” I said evenly.
“I wish you’d make up–” he began unwisely.
“Not there,” I snapped as he dropped his hand to his side. “Hold this in place, sit and don’t move until I get back with Branco.”
He pursed his lips, but obeyed. I shifted my hand to allow him to take the dressing then turned him toward the nearest bench.
I didn’t wait, but heard the rustle of fabric over the stone floor as I stepped over a piece of cranium and paced quickly toward the door.
Branco was, truly, not best pleased with me. The sentiment was returned. The overbearing manner of the Inspector had gotten my blood up on our first meeting three days before and there were no signs I might have cause to alter my original opinion that he was both arrogant and mulish.
As much as anything, he seemed annoyed that I was not overwhelmed by his aura of command. There was no doubt he was a physical match for his temperament. He was broad shouldered and well proportioned to it. With his thick black mustache and classic Mediterranean features it was not at all difficult to imagine him in the armor of a conquistador.
He certainly strode the room like one, barking out commands and sending his men scurrying in assorted directions, carting off the revived criminals, recording our statements and holding discussions with Holmes in rapid Portuguese, which I could follow with only mixed success.
I watched all this from my seat on the bench at Holmes’s side. Branco had at least had the goodness to order up a field dressing kit and I was busy wrapping Holmes’s hand. It was not an easy task at the best of times and was made still more difficult by his seemingly incessant need to use it in his discussion with Branco.
The third time he pulled it out of my grip to point over his shoulder I lost the battle with my temper. “Gentlemen! If this conversation will not wait, I will gladly give up my seat to the Inspector and see what I may do for our friends outside. Here is the gauze, here are the scissors,” I slapped each down on the bench. “I wish you luck.”
I’d already pushed up from the bench and strode several feet before Holmes said, “Watson, the Inspector was just leaving. Shall I finish this on my own?”
I clenched my jaw and turned around. Branco was regarding me from under lowered brows, his brown-black eyes darker than ever. He muttered something under his breath, at which Holmes cocked an eyebrow, then stalked toward me. He passed within inches of my shoulder. “Doctor,” he said, his guttural voice making it sound like a curse.
“Inspector,” I growled in answer.
He barked another command and his men fell over one another in their haste to exit. By the time I’d reseated myself on the bench, we were the only living denizens of the room.
Holmes watched me carefully. “You two do not appear to be warming to one another.”
“No.” I retrieved the roll of bandaging. “What did he tell the abbot?”
“That the ossuary is, regrettably, under police jurisdiction while the immediate investigation is underway. He has a man outside each door to prevent the brothers from entering and, as he said, ‘subjecting the Doctor to implements which have been gathering dust since the Inquisition.’ I don’t doubt he exaggerates.”
“Hm,” I said as I finished off the bandage and released his hand. “Sit on the floor, please.”
His lips quirked in a half smile. “Really, Watson, I don’t think now is the…”
Something in my expression caused his voice to trail off. He slipped from the bench to the floor and sat cross-legged at my feet without another word.
I shifted my seat enough to pull my knee up on the bench behind him and brace his shoulders. I readied another roll of bandaging before I bent to untie the cincture.
Holmes was silent and I glanced down. He was regarding the skull before him in the glow of the pair of lanterns Branco’s men had provided.
“You’re not too cold down there,” I said as I dropped the bloodied cincture to the ground and peeled back the rough layers of dressing.
“What? Oh. No. I wouldn’t lose sleep over those few skulls,” he said thoughtfully. “Five, I think. They’ll all be so much slurry in a few years if something isn’t done about those windows.”
I glanced up.
“They were doubtless farther from the ground when this chamber was constructed,” he went on. “Now they’re an open invitation to rats, insects and rain.”
“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away,” I said.
He looked up at me, a smile lighting his gray eyes. I paused in the process of using the scissors to widen the tear in his clothing.
“I do know the play,” I said equably.
“Yes, of course,” he answered quietly. “It’s not that.”
I was distracted by the decision of whether to let him stay in his bloodied clothing until we could return to the hotel or whether I should make a proper job of the dressing. Branco’s men had found a fresh shirt. I made my choice and bent to free the buttons at Holmes’s throat. I had unfastened his clerical collar and set it aside and was working down his chest before I realized he hadn’t completed his earlier thought.
“What were you going to say a moment ago?” I asked.
He was studying the skull again. “Ah. Something unimportant. Leave that. I’m not an invalid. I can manage a few buttons without assistance.”
He pushed my hand away and set to work on the remaining buttons of the cassock and his shirt below. Even with a bandaged hand, his long, nimble fingers made quick work of them.
He leant forward and I managed to tamp down my desire to assist as he eased the clothing from his shoulders to pool at his waist. I brushed a hand through his hair, smoothing it back. I did it almost without thinking, knowing he’d accept the gesture in preference to going out with it in its current state.
As he settled back I moved so his head rested against my leg. I stripped the old dressing from the wound. It was remarkably clean, I noted with relief. I splashed a small amount of carbolic on a cloth and offered it to him, letting him hold it to the gash while I cut strips of bandage.
His voice was only a little strained as he said, “John, are you ever envious of Alexander and Hephaestion?”
I smiled, though he didn’t look up. “No, I’ve no wish to be a god. That’s enough,” I said, taking the cloth from his hand. I set it aside and bent to apply the fresh dressing.
He glanced up and our eyes met. I exhaled a long breath.
“Yes,” I said. I pressed the cloth lightly against his shoulder. His hand came up automatically to hold it in place as I reached for the bandages. “Frequently.”
I began to unwind them across his shoulder and bent to slip the roll under his arm. He released the cloth as I snugged the first layer into place, then the second and paused in the processing of unspooling more bandage. He looked up, regarding me much as he had gazed at the vacant skull.
“Because,” I said, setting the bandage aside. “I would like to be able to do this.” I touched his the curve of his jaw lightly with my fingertips. His pulse quickened just beneath the skin, a butterfly trapped under silk, at once fragile and defiant. I bent forward, poised, and breathed, “Without guards at the doors.”
It was a tender kiss, not for any reason other than we had tasted one another’s fire. We knew the other’s scent and touch and breath and in that moment could afford the luxury of a quiet, slow, easy kiss in which everything fell away but the desire that it never end. It lingered in the space between us even as I leant away to study his upturned face.
Its lines and curves were more familiar to me than my own. I’d traced them with my eyes and lips and fingertips for years that seemed only a moment in the timeless silence of that room. His eyes, the color of a summer storm, met mine and I saw again that fine lacework of lines.
He touched the corner of my mouth. I smiled.
“Those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft,” he whispered. “But it will never be enough.”
“Speak the speech,” I said as I sat back. “I pray you.”
He grinned. “It loses something in this posture.”
“Just a moment then.” I retrieved the bandage and wrapped a third layer over and under and fastened it in place. I reached across him for the fresh shirt and dropped it in his lap. As he pulled it on I lowered my self to the floor a little apart. He watched me from under his lashes as I settled as comfortably as I might on the stone.
“You were lying about the cold,” I pointed out. On an impulse I asked, “Would you like me to fetch the Lady for you?”
“No, no,” he said easily. “She’s earned her rest today. The good brother here will serve.”
For a moment I feared he’d pluck the anonymous skull from the wall, but he only regarded it thoughtfully for the space of a long breath then spoke quietly, as if addressing it in conversation.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.
There was a long silence.
“Beautifully done,” I said earnestly.
He inclined his head. “I thank you.”
“You were rehearsing.” I nodded toward the skull in the wall. “While we sat here.”
“I thought you’d never come round to it,” he said equably. “I was afraid I’d have to suggest it myself. That would have seemed self-serving.”
“How true. Are you sure I can’t help with those buttons?”
He huffed out a breath and let his bandaged hand fall to his lap. “If you like,” he said with serene indifference. “I shouldn’t like to argue. It might spoil the delightful atmosphere of this room.”
“Yes,” I said as I fastened the last button at his throat. “You were right about the damp.”
I levered to my feet and, judging him to be just weary enough to allow it, offered my hand. The lack of even a raised eyebrow told me all I needed to know.
The discarded costume slipped to the floor as he rose. He stepped neatly out of the puddle of cloth as I tidied my makeshift surgery.
“What does the key unlock?” I asked as he snugged and smoothed his shirt into his trousers.
He glanced up. “I’ve no idea. Perhaps Inspector Branco can be of assistance there.”
I bit back my immediate retort and his lips quirked in a wry smile. “It is his country.”
“He certainly seems to believe so,” I answered as we started toward the door to the garden.
“Farewell to the Lady of Mysteries,” Holmes said when we passed her alcove. “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
“Your hypothetical housemaid might be pleased at being called Lady,” I said.
“She is smiling,” he observed mildly.
He gave a soft laugh as we reached the door. I looked back at the audience to our kiss.
“All the rest is silence, my heart,” he murmured. “My Alexander.”
He pulled the door open and we stepped out together into the darkened stage of the night.