The Longest Night
“Being John Watson”
Part Three: Chansons and Souvenirs
Chapters 14 – In Progress…
Author’s Note on the Author’s Notes: They’re all in Part One.
From “Seventy Minutes to London”
Pycroft chuckled merrily. “It goes to show my old Ma was right. She used to say, my boy, the longest night in the world’s still got a sunrise after it.”
Part Three: Chansons and Souvenirs
Chapter Twelve: Pleasure and Train
“We must take our friends as they are.”
I closed the rust-colored book of poetry upon my knee and gazed out the window at the countryside slipping past. As the train crossed a series of dusty lanes they seemed to shoot away like sparks from the steel wheels that beat along the endless track below.
Slanting late afternoon sunlight tipped the new growth pushing up through the fields. The sun would roll through the sky for a while longer on this late spring evening, but it would be dusk before the red brick station in Toulouse hove into view.
I didn’t know what I sought on this journey any more than I’d known what I sought when I left London on my way to Marrakech. Then I’d been full of anxious anticipation of a sun-baked land a continent away from the gray stone steps outside my home in Kensington.
Now I looked forward only to buying a lacework bag of candied violets from a girl with shining black eyes and oak brown hair that tumbled over her shoulders. Beyond that, the future was a closed book. But if I’d learned one thing from Francois le Villard, it was what one did in the moment that mattered most. The best one could do was take one un-impossibility at a time.
It was curious to think how similar my present condition was to the one I’d known when I’d arrived in London from Afghanistan with no fixed address, no kith or kin, no work to occupy me, no real home. Then I’d met Sherlock Holmes and everything changed.
Holmes had become my pole star long before I knew I loved him. He was the fixed point around which my life turned. The three years I’d thought him dead I’d spent adrift, wandering without rudder or mooring.
Even now, not knowing when or where I might see him again, it was an immutable fact that wherever I ranged on the map, my position would always be marked in relation to where he stood. I couldn’t begrudge him the fact. That I loved him was no more under his control than it was under mine. It was the one central un-impossibility.
The sheaf of papers on the banquet beside me slewed toward the window as the train took a lazy arcing curve. As I gathered them back toward me I glanced out at the town we skirted.
A knot of young boys were taking advantage of the few extra moments of light afforded by the late April evening to kick a scuffed red ball in the yard of a stone church. The sight flicked past the window and was gone, leaving only an image, like a tinted photograph, captured in my mind. I decided I would make note of it in my journal as yet another souvenir of this time in France.
It was strange to realize anyone browsing through my travel journal would have no way to divine the changes wrought in the gap between my first set of notes and that last. To such a reader, the events that had fallen between were invisible, as if they didn’t truly exist outside my mind. It was an odd fancy, but one that appealed to me.
After all, I thought, as I slipped the journal back into the leather kit bag at my feet, only a handful of people, Villard, Séraphie, Moran, Holmes and myself, had seen those events play out. Of them, only Villard had been with me from beginning to end.
He had been there almost the instant I’d awoken more than a week before to the smell of carbolic acid and the sight of bare whitewashed walls and known them for the indisputable signs of a hospital room. Even before conscious thought returned, I was seized by the cold grip of panic, not knowing whether Holmes was dead or alive.
When the door pushed open a moment later and I saw it was Francois le Villard who stepped into the room, sloshing most of the pitcher of water in his hand over his shoes at the sight of my open eyes staring into his, for a split second I feared the worst.
But as in so many things, Villard anticipated me. His first words were, “He is fine, my friend. Apart from a blackened eye, Monsieur Holmes is unharmed and well. But, as I guess your next question to be, he is not here. I take full blame for this fact, but I thought it for the best that your friend take himself away. As I informed Monsieur Holmes when last we met and he left me with this charming remembrance,” he indicated a purpling bruise on his jaw, “Should he choose to stay in my vicinity I would, with great joy in my heart, place him under arrest. Now I will bring more water as this is all across the floor as you can see. When I return we will talk of your other questions, oui? Bon.”
So with typical tact, Villard left me to collect my thoughts. When he returned he did his best to answer my questions, often before I could find the words to ask them. And to his credit he attempted to be fair to Holmes although it was clearly, and justifiably, a trial to him at times.
He’d explained the events of two nights before to the best of his understanding. To my sound of astonishment that I’d been unconscious for so long he had simply shrugged and remarked, “You were very tired, non?” as if it was the only explanation.
Villard’s story began from the moment, in his description, Holmes had “so stupidly and with such disdain for the good sense” rendered me unconscious. Seemingly Holmes had immediately gone to fetch the nearest gendarmes in expectation they might watch over me and send for aid while he himself made his way unimpeded to rendezvous with the man who had pledged his murder. As Villard had put it, “sadly for Monsieur Holmes’s so foolish plans, the gendarme he discovered was myself.”
Holmes, it seemed, had not predicted that Villard’s first instinct would not be to storm to the Hotel de Gaspard to determine what had become of Séraphie. As Villard explained, “I did not expect this Séraphie Bouguereau to calmly await my convenience to render her under arrest.” Villard’s only surprise, it seemed, had been that she had kept to her post so long.
So it was Holmes had encountered Villard and the small squad of men he’d stationed nearby making their way up the grass verge toward our position near the Eiffel Tower. If Holmes had been dismayed by that inconvenience he was surely livid when Villard further impeded him from making his rendezvous with Moran through the simple expedient of shouting at the top of his lungs. I could imagine Holmes’s profoundly impassive expression as Villard’s voice rang down the empty park.
If that had not been enough to encourage Moran to make a judicious retreat, surely the sight that followed, had he glimpsed it, would have given him notice that the fatal meeting would not take place that night. As Villard recalled, with a certain amount of pleasure evidenced by the twitch of his trim mustache, “Regrettably, I found it unavoidable at that time to knock Monsieur Holmes to the ground.”
It seemed that Villard had quickly decided that Holmes bore some responsibility for my state of unconsciousness, for as he said, “My belief was strong that such an injury to your head, grievous though it may be, was not to be the cause of a so sudden swooning, non? Such a circumstance had the aspect most doubtful to my mind. This combined with the so shifty manner of your friend caused me to suspect his destination and to question him mostly soundly.”
By Villard’s account the brawl lasted only long enough for the doctor to arrive and offer the judgment that I seemed in no immediate danger but should be removed to a hospital as soon as could be arranged. While the stretcher party was organized, Villard had given Holmes his ultimatum – leave or be arrested for obstructing the police in their duties and as many other charges as Villard could devise after applying sufficient time and more than sufficient will to the task.
Villard had added that, “Though it was the great disappointment to me, your friend showed such unusual wisdom as to take my advice.” He admitted it was for the best. Had he placed Holmes under arrest it would have complicated maintaining the illusion to the world at large that he was still dead.
Villard had not seen Holmes in the time since. “Although,” he added on seeing my expression, “I have the reliable information your friend has kept in contact with certain individuals in this establishment.”
He went on to say, “Your friend was at least so thoughtful as to inform me by telegram that as Inspecteur Principaux I might like to know that this Moran and the creature Séraphie were no more to be found in France.” Where they might be Holmes did not say. Nor he himself though the telegram was sent, without attempt to hide the fact, from nearby in Lyon.
As I sat in bed, digesting this information, Villard watched me silently. Most of my questions had been answered save the chief one – how it was that Holmes would betray my trust so far as to leave me insensible and unable to follow with the words “I love you” still ringing in my ears.
Villard must have seen the uncertainty in my expression. He sat forward in the cast metal chair he’d pulled up to the bed, resting his elbows on his knees. “My friend,” he said quietly, “I think perhaps there may be more that you would ask, but first I will ask one question of you and I hope that we are such friends that you will not think it too much the impertinence, non? What I would ask is, in the time when you and Monsieur Holmes were watching outside the Hotel, did Monsieur Holmes…”
Villard’s voice took on a most unaccustomed hesitancy. “John, when your friend proposed that we should take up the surveillance out of doors, as you well know, I did not think it the most sensible of strategies. But there was one outcome of this event I thought might occur to make the labor of it worthwhile. I hoped that when you and he were alone in the park, under the sight of the moon, Monsieur Holmes might find he was yet brave enough to confess to you what is in his heart.”
My astonishment must have shown clearly for Villard looked uncharacteristically apprehensive until I mustered the wit to offer some vague acknowledgement that Holmes had done exactly that.
Villard exhaled a huge sigh. “Ah, bon. Très, très bon.” His elegantly curled lips turned up in a smile. “But if only he told me perhaps I would not have hit him quite so boisterously. Although I confess that I am the smallest degree glad that I did not have this knowledge. It is yet a too fond memory. And so you said to him that this is also true for you?” he asked.
When I said that I had not for the simple reason that in the next instant Holmes had punched me in the jaw, Villard let loose a burst of throaty laughter. When he’d recovered himself he shook his head and said with mock resignation, “Ah, my friend. The fates, they have their way with you, do they not?”
When I posited with some heat that it was not the fates so much as Holmes that had knocked me unconscious, Villard grew serious.
“John, my friend,” he said, “I think there is a question we share and the evidence of it is visible to see here on my chin and also on yours. I would know why it is that Monsieur Holmes, he persists in this idea that he should behave as the lonesome wolf. Ah, I see this is indeed a question for you as well. I do not have the answer, although as you may imagine I did request it from him with some energy. Perhaps it may be that you will ask this of him when next you meet. Perhaps you will have more success. If it is so, I would hope that you might let me know of it for until the time I have this understanding, I think it will be of the utmost difficulty for me to speak to Monsieur Holmes as a friend once again and I would rather that this were not true.” He paused for a moment then flashed a smile. “But I think you may be tired after so much time since your last sleep. Now I will say goodnight and in the morning you will leave this charming room and come with me into the sunshine for I think we may go into the garden and you will teach me the difference between the mignonette and the lily, oui? Très bon.”
After Villard left, I lay watching the progression of moonlight across the white wall for a time. At last I roused myself and went to the dresser to retrieve the worn leather kit bag he had brought for me. It was still packed with my few travel conveniences, those that hadn’t been left behind in Marseilles with the balance of my luggage, but to the collection had been added those items I’d left in the Hotel de Gaspard. I’d sifted through them hoping, without confessing it even in my own thoughts, I would find some message from Holmes tucked inside.
Villard had, I was glad to see, apparently decided to dispose of my bloodstained brown tweed suit. I imagined the idea of preserving it was too much for his fastidious nature. The remaining items, the tattered bag of candied violets, the rust-colored book of poetry, and the black leather case were all present and neatly arranged.
I’d hesitated for an instant before snapping open the lid of the case. Nestled inside, as if it had never left the velvet lining, was the syringe. Villard had evidently restored it to its place. I couldn’t doubt he had recognized it for what it was. Like Séraphie, he had probably drawn certain conclusions about how it came to be there. Conclusions, I had to admit, that were probably accurate, at least in part. I set it aside, making a note to visit the dispensary and have it replenished, and picked up the rust-colored book of poetry. I knew it was my last and best hope of finding some message from Holmes.
My heart gave a lurch as a folded slip of hotel stationery fluttered out onto the bedclothes. It took only a moment to recognize the faint lingering scent of lavender and know that the message was from Séraphie. With some trepidation I unfolded the sheet and held it up to the yellow glow of the lamp.
John, I will hide this for you in the book of poetry by Verlaine in the hope that very soon you may open it to read with your Sherlock and that as you see my little note you will smile and think kindly of your Séraphie for I will be thinking of you my angel where ever I may be.
I am afraid I will not see your pretty blue eyes again for a long time and this is a great sadness to me. I will go now to meet my love. As I believe your Sherlock must have said this to you tonight it will not be as a surprise that he is the man whom you seek with the air gun that caused your poor head to be so bandaged.
This hurts my heart very much my angel yet I cannot change the way I love, as I think you well know. It is our way to love the one we must although we know it is only to end with more sadness. Still we hope, do we not?
If it could have been that I had seen your blush and your so kind smile before my love found me perhaps things would have been as different as they may be. Perhaps it is not too late to change these things. It seemed it might be true when I looked into your sweet face, but so soon ago. I am not so strong and brave as you cher but still I will do as best I can.
I will go to tell my love that Sherlock has gone away and is not to be found so it is good that we leave Paris for the present time. I do not know if I will be successful in this. My love is very fierce when he is determined and he may not listen but I will try my hardest.
Perhaps between you and I we may keep these two men, your love and mine, from harm though they would not wish it themselves. Why is it that love cannot be enough of the danger for them? You and I, we know there is peril enough in the ways of the heart to satisfy any craving of this kind.
But I cannot keep my love waiting any longer. He will do what he will if I come to him or not and I have no choice but to go though I know I am very foolish in this.
Believe I will miss your pretty blue eyes so much and will think of them often and hope that they are as full of joy as may be. Kiss your Sherlock for me. Ah, I smile even as I think of this. I would not tell him the kiss is from me cher. It will not make him kiss you in return I think.
Until the time we meet again my angel I will be forever your loving Séraphie
P.S. Give my love also to Francois. I will look forward to hearing what color he turns at this. Au revoir.
I read the note over perhaps a dozen times before tucking it carefully back into the pages of the book. I decided not to share it with Villard for a very long time.
The next day he was as good as his word and as we walked out into the sunshine, he told me reports had come from London that a telegram had been received at Scotland Yard on the morning we met in Montpelier. The telegram had given exact instructions on where to receive the original of the mannequin from Grenoble and how best to employ it as bait. The elder Moran had been duly taken into charge, “By this Inspecteur Lestrade,” Villard had read from the report. “He is French, non?”
The younger Moran was still at large and, we assumed, with Séraphie. We differed vastly in the aspect of our regret at that supposition. Where we agreed was in the belief that the only ones who knew Holmes still lived were we four. Lestrade had received only an unsigned telegram and if he had suspicions about its source he hadn’t voiced them. The few gendarmes who had seen Holmes didn’t know him by sight. It seemed his secret was safe, at least for a time.
A day later I was allowed to leave the hospital and if it had been Villard’s intention to keep me occupied in the week that followed, he had in some measure succeeded. Having secured the use of a flat a few doors down from his own for a reasonable consideration to a neighbor just leaving on an extended holiday in the mountains, Villard had seemingly endeavored to use the balance of his own holiday in keeping me company.
I was grateful for this, yet our near constant companionship could not help but raise in my mind the spectre of Villard’s feelings for me. That they were real, I couldn’t doubt. I’d been told as much by both Holmes and Séraphie, each in their way.
Still despite the resolution I had voiced to Holmes that night in the park, I had not broached the subject and as the days passed I came no closer to deciding how to do it until one night when Villard and I sat up late, talking together and enjoying the excellent brandy which was one of his few indulgences.
Earlier in the evening, feeling a rekindling of the doubts and uncertainties that had plagued me since awaking in the hospital, I had opened the black leather case, as had become my regular practice, and taken steps to keep those particular demons at bay. If it were not for that I might never have made myself speak on the subject, but as it transpired I was feeling both at my ease and garrulous.
So it was, as night drifted into morning and there was a lull in our conversation, I said in the stillness, “Francois, I have been slow to discuss one thing that may be a question between us.” He looked at me with a peculiarly blank expression and I went on more hesitantly, “I know you did your best to make Holmes understand the feelings he and I shared and I think that might have been more difficult for you even than I know. Before I leave Paris, I thought perhaps we should talk…” My voice trailed off as I searched for the right words. Villard did not wait for me to find them.
He puffed out a little sigh and leant back in his desk chair. “John, my friend,” he said quietly as he swirled the brandy in his glass. “You have been very kind not to make it known to me that I have given the advice to you many times without your asking for this and how seldom have I heeded these words of my own. This now I must change.” He took a long sip of brandy and exhaled. His hazel eyes met mine and it was a surprise to realize how rare it was of late to see them untouched by a smile. “I think the best way to do this may be to tell you something about John Watson you do not know. It is not the deduction or the theory. It is what I learn because I see. I observe. And I do these things with both my head and my heart.”
He exhaled a sigh and looked off into the distance as he said, “You, my friend, are as the most wonderful mirror. To stand with you and see one’s self in your eyes, it is like being the person one would wish to be if the world did not make it impossible. It is a feeling like being… amazing. Who would not wish to have this feeling? Who would not want to feel it always? I am no different from anyone in this. I would have the feeling of being amazing in your eyes… and more than this. I would like to know what it is to be alone in your heart, not just in your eyes.”
He sat forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees as he regarded me solemnly. “I believe you know, my friend, my heart and my head do not agree where you are concerned. In my head I know there is no chance of this. But my heart, ah, my heart is foolish and it would have you think of me as something more than your friend Francois. I do not say this to you in hopes that your heart may change, as that could not be. I only say this because I have tried to tell you truly what I think from the start…’’ He smiled. “Almost from the start of our acquaintance. And because I would hope that you would consider one thing and that is, whose eyes are those that make you know this feeling… of being so amazing? I would like very much to have you know what it is to feel this, for it is beyond compare, my friend.”
He sat back abruptly and turned to place his empty glass on the desk. “Now I think I have talked enough for tonight,” he said as he stood. “And it is time we say, bon soir. In the morning I will take you to find another too large breakfast and you will examine it with dismay. It is a thing I enjoy to see very much.” With that he succeeded in chivvying my out the door and back to my own rented room with no more discussion.
Later I lay awake long into the watches of the night. I thought about Francois, and Séraphie and all the others who had in so many ways told me they wished me to be happy. I thought of the last time I’d felt simple, uncomplicated happiness and with it came the remembrance of Mediterranean sun on my face, titian blue skies soaring overhead, and a horizon where the shining peaks of the mountains blinked like crystal. I stared up into the darkness as it faded to gray, then to white. As the first birdsong sounded outside, I knew it was time to go.
That morning Villard greeted me with the same delight he had shown every morning before. We sat nursing large cups of coffee, I on his worn settee and he straddling his desk chair, and enjoyed the sunlight streaming in through his one narrow window.
I noticed a slim monograph on his desk titled, On the Relative Rate of Consumption of Eleven Widely Used Varieties of Candle Wax by one S. Holmes. Next to it was a stack of handwritten pages. At my look of surprise, Villard gave a low chuckle.
“Yes,” he said easily. “The work continues, does it not? He is still the master.” He gave a small shrug. “And I have much to learn before I am no longer the apprentice. When you see Monsieur Holmes you may tell him that I am all in eagerness for his next monograph. I might suggest a title of On the Use of the Romantic Poetry in the Numeral Cipher although I think this may be a subject in which there is little practical interest.”
I smiled and said I hoped I would have a chance to deliver the message soon wherever I might find myself. At his look of interest I explained that I was considering where to go next.
“Not to Marrakech?” he asked, his bowed lips curling in a smile.
I shook my head, smiling. “No, not Marrakech. I might go to Spain or maybe Greece. Or I might just try again to visit Marseilles. It’s still too early to say. But first,” I said as I took another sip of coffee, “I believe I’ll stop in Toulouse and buy some candied violets.”
On the afternoon before I planned to leave Paris, Villard and I sat at a tiny ironwork table under the yellow awning that ran the length of the café The Bishop’s Cat. We sipped dark, rich coffee and watched tourists and Parisians stroll along the avenue in the shadow of Notre Dame.
Occasionally a passerby would meet my eye or cast a curious glance at the small square of sticking plaster above my ear. I would smile and they would either smile or blush depending on their temperament and continue past.
A young couple, she in suit of vanilla colored satin, he in a very modern striped coat and trousers, drifted by, entirely unaware of anything outside the circumference of one another’s gaze.
Villard chuckled and remarked, “There is one thing more I know about love, my friend.”
I smiled as I set down my cup preparing to tear off another piece of sweet brioche. “As a humble detective?”
“Just so,” he agreed equably. “What I know is love is always beautiful, even when she is the cause of pain, because this pain, it belongs to you alone. No one else may claim it.” I made no response to this for there seemed none to make and he went on, “Walk over the mountains or sit in the Lapin Agile drinking absinthe or take a ferry to Marrakech, or do as one will, the pain is with you always. And this is not such a bad thing. The pain is how you know the love is real, ehn? It is strange to me, this wish to deaden the pain of love.”
I relinquished the piece of brioche, untasted. “You mean with absinthe,” I said evenly, studying the cup in my hands.
“You may put it beside,” he went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Like a companion you can ignore. But when the, let us say the absinthe, is gone, the companion is still there beside you. So you drink more. Yet the companion does not leave. And so it goes. No one will win this waiting game. Better I think to offer the companion a drink and sit together as friends. This is my belief, though I am no philosopher.”
“Francois,” I said watching the ripples on the surface of the coffee as I turned my cup. “Have you ever considered that if you gave up being a humble detective you might take up being a humble philosopher with equal success?”
“Non,” he answered firmly. “Philosophers have not a sense of humor and dress very badly. I believe I am ready now for our lunch. Will you have one dish of cassoulet or two, my friend?” He waved to a tall waiter with neatly groomed side whiskers. “Two, I think. Bon.”
The next morning Villard took me to Gare de Montparnasse. We stood on the platform, I with my battered leather kit bag and wearing a new brown tweed suit, Villard as immaculate as the day we’d met, his light brown hair brilliantined to a gloss and heather green suit perfectly pressed. His round eyes shone as he took my hand.
“John, my friend, I will look forward to the day when we meet again.”
This time it was I who reached out and pulled him into a tight hug. When I stepped back we were both blinking in the bright morning light.
“Ah,” he said gruffly, reaching into his jacket pocket. “This I have for you. For the journey.”
He pulled out a thin sheaf of papers folded into a square. I took the packet from him and gave him a curious look.
“You will read it later,” he said, smiling. “There is time. It is a long ride to Toulouse.”
I nodded and with one more clasp of hands and promises to meet again soon, we parted. Villard’s compact form was soon swallowed up by the steady flow of hurrying travelers.
A few minutes later I was settled in my compartment with Villard’s packet of papers beside me on the leather banquette. A whistle sounded and with a chuff of steam the train jerked forward.
I could not help but look out the window as the platform began to roll past. No tall figure strode through the crowd. I had seen no bent old Frenchwoman swathed in mourning veils.
Smiling at my own foolishness, I bent to open my bag. I had packed in haste that morning, having grown fond of a leisurely cup of coffee on Villard’s threadbare settee.
The rust-colored book was on top, my journal under that. I lifted both and put them aside. Resting on my shaving kit was the black leather syringe case. I pulled it out and slotted it into its home in my breast pocket as I sat back, the bundle of papers from Villard resting on my lap. I unfolded them on my knee. On top the topmost sheet of foolscap, in a neat, curling script was written, “John, to continue your lessons in French I prepare these translations. I believe you will find them to be of some interest, if not of the greatest practicality for ordering brioche and cassoulet. Yours, Francois le Villard.”
I turned the top sheet aside and flipped through the pages. In tidy script, some dozen poems were copied out. The first was titled, Romances without Words.
The train rocked over a crossing, calling me back to the present. I glanced again at the countryside rolling past the window. The moon was visible as a pale Cheshire Cat smile on the horizon of a sky as iridescent as a butterfly’s wing. I gathered up the few items I’d arrayed across the banquet, fitting them into my pocket and my bag as appropriate, and gathered the papers beside me.
I had made some effort to match the translations from Villard to the words in the book though, as promised, Verlaine’s vocabulary was not exceptionally well adapted for general conversation. I didn’t imagine I’d learned anything that would be useful in finding a hotel room before dark, but I had found much in it of interest all the same.
Before tucking the papers away, I turned back to one poem I had read many times in the hours of the afternoon.
On the Balcony
Two forms watching the swallows in their flight.
One pale, with jet black hair; the other blonde
And pink–their flowing garments of old gold
Like vague serpents twining, cloudlike and light.
Both languorous as asphodels where bright
The sky glows with a full moon, soft and round,
Whose rays throb with emotion, deep, profound.
Thus, with arms pressing their bodies supple,
Strange couple pitying every other couple,
They dream upon the moonlight balcony.
Behind them in the room’s rich somber shade,
Enthroned in stately pomp, as in a play,
And full of perfumes, stands the bed, unmade.
Just as I reached the end, the steady rhythm of the wheels below hitched and slowed. I looked up as a sign reading Toulouse slid past the window. I rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand then bent to tuck the poems away. As I hefted my bag and stood, I glanced out at the station.
There was Holmes, standing on the platform, his improbably long legs braced as if he faced into a strong wind. Seeing him and the stiff set of his shoulders, squared above hands thrust into the pockets of his dark suit, the expectant angle of his head, the wary look in his keen gray eyes, one question, at least, was answered.
Our eyes met and I smiled. The corners of his mouth quirked in what might have been a smile. It was difficult to tell from the tight set of his jaw.
I shifted the weight of my bag in my hand and made my way out of the compartment. When I stepped onto the platform, I saw Holmes hadn’t moved. As I walked toward him, he shifted and took a step toward me on stiff legs.
“Francois told you where to find me,” I said equably.
“Yes.” His eyes kept drifting to the plaster above my ear. He cleared his throat. “Yes. He… seems to have sent several telegrams to various places. One found me through a mutual acquaintance in Lyon.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of telegraph paper. “You might find it amusing.” He said flatly as he held it out to me.
I read the text, “OUR FRIEND ARRIVING LATE TRAIN TO TOULOUSE – SUGGEST YOU NOT RETURN TO PARIS – ARREST STILL THREATENED – PARTICULARLY IF YOU FAIL TO MEET TRAIN – OBSERVE ALL DUE CAUTION.”
I nodded, hiding a smile as I shifted my bag to make way for a trio of Carmelite nuns making their way to the station gate. “Yes, that sounds very like Francois,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“Two days,” he answered. “Villard was unspecific in his timetable. Probably by design.”
I could not hide my grin at that. “Will you be in Toulouse long?”
He drew in a long breath then said, “That– I’d imagine that depends. On several things.”
“I may be here some time,” I remarked. “I haven’t yet decided where to go next. I have considerable holiday remaining.”
Holmes bit his lip. I made every effort to ignore the fact. I concentrated instead on the low chuff of the engine sounding in counterpoint to the gentle vibration coming up through the tiled floor.
“John…” he began.
I didn’t let him finish. “Holmes,” I said evenly, “I am not angry. I was, but I am not now. I am not going to knock you down, although I cannot say the thought didn’t cross my mind. I see your eye is healing nicely, by the way. Francois would be disappointed.” I went on calmly as his jaw again tightened. “I will be in Toulouse for some days. I don’t know where I am going next or when. We will see what the future brings. Right now, I am not interested in supper, sight seeing or small talk. I would like to continue our last conversation. It was interrupted as you recall. Where are you staying?”
He blinked. “Em. A small hotel near the river.”
“Which direction is the river?” I asked curiously.
He inclined his head to the right.
I nodded. “Does the room have a balcony?”
He puffed out a breath, opened his mouth and closed it again. “No,” he said at last.
“Well, we shall see if it will do.” I turned and walked toward the station gate.
After a moment’s pause, Holmes’s long stride fell into step with mine. We walked out onto the street and I turned toward him. His eyes were wide and a little startled. They caught the blue-white electric light spilling from the station door, reflecting it back as silver.
“I am very glad to see you,” I said quietly.
He cleared his throat. “I’m… very glad to hear it.”
I looked up into the blue satin sky. A bright swath of stars spilled across it, startlingly bright. Their sparkling light echoed the tingling in my skin as they lay a path for the rising moon. The pole star glinted, a diamond among sequins. “It’s a beautiful night,” I said to the sky. “I look forward to spending it with you,” I said as I linked my arm in his and turned down the hill toward the river.
Chapter Thirteen: Moon and Scars
“I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose. Besides, practice forms a man to anything.”
I stood in a dimly lit hallway between two unmarked doors and in that moment I felt the syringe case, heavy and inviting in my pocket, and wished for a few minutes of privacy. The confidence and sense of peace that had permeated my chest, seeming to radiate out in waves as I’d disembarked the Paris train, was torn at the edges. I clung to it, eking out each waning moment.
The first shards had been carved away by my rash words at the station. As Holmes and I had walked down the hill toward the river and his hotel, I’d opened a fresh gash when I’d offered, “I suppose we’ll need two rooms. After all being French will only take one so far.” Holmes had only murmured a noncommittal response and I had instantly wondered why I’d thought it was a good idea to try to be amusing.
While I’d stood on the porch outside Holmes’s hotel, waiting while he spoke with the proprietress, a passing cab had borne away more of my composure in a jangle of harness bells as had the sound of Holmes opening the scarlet door at my back, offering a tight “Third floor,” then vanishing inside before I could turn.
I’d been rescued in some small measure by the honey brown eyes of the proprietress who’d gazed at me with no evident curiosity beyond wondering who would be so impetuous as to appear at her door at that late hour in search of a vacant room. My half bow over her delicate hand had earned me a smile and a sparkle of those warm eyes, but the boon had been short lived.
Climbing the winding stairs, holding my bag tight to my chest while I tried not to scuff the pale Delft patterned fabric that lined the walls, I’d felt my first twinge of irritation with Villard. His message instructing Holmes to meet me at the train had no doubt been well meant, yet if I’d known of it I might not have fortified myself with a final dose of the drug as the train neared the station.
But surely, I thought, the end justified the means. As I’d greeted Holmes on disembarking I’d felt calm and confident. My spirits were high and untroubled by the mass of uncertainties that had dogged me since I’d awoken alone in that hospital room in Paris a fortnight before.
Doubts coursed in again assailing my confidence as waves assail a castle of sand. It was a moment I had wished for so long I couldn’t remember not wanting it and yet when it was within my reach, I could not in all conscience see it through without making Holmes understand the true situation. I resolved to tell Holmes it wasn’t the right time to “continue our last conversation” as I’d so blithely phrased it. That tomorrow I’d be in control of my own thoughts again.
As I’d neared the top landing, waging an inner battle between hope and reason, I’d heard a door close. It had felt like a reprieve.
That, too, was short-lived. As I stood irresolutely between the doors, the one on the right opened and Holmes stepped half into the hall. He didn’t speak. His face was perfectly impassive. To anyone else he would have represented a picture of calm.
Offering what I hoped was a heartening smile, I stepped past him into the room. I took in the rough outlines of the furnishings. Scattered lamps with cut crystal domes imparted a luster to the rich reds and antique golds of the furnishings. The satin fabrics seemed to glow like rubies.
I walked across to the mullioned window and gazed up at the Cheshire Cat moon, suspended under the shimmering sea of stars. Spread out before me, just beyond a near row of roofs that rose and fell like choppy surf, there was a line of spreading trees. They stood silhouetted against the rippling surface of the Garonne. The water seemed to glow from within, throwing back more illumination than the flickering starlight and silvery moon could shed.
“I had no idea we were so near the river,” I said. “It’s an amazing sight, isn’t it?” I heard the door close behind me and blinked. As I turned, I half expected to find myself alone in the room.
Holmes was leaning against the door, his arms crossed on his chest. His gray eyes regarded me steadily. The pose reminded me uncomfortably of a hotel room looking out on the Parc du Mars and I took in a breath.
“Holmes, there’s something you should know. I didn’t expect to see you here, tonight, and…” I exhaled. “It might be best if this conversation were delayed until I may have it with a clearer head.”
Holmes’s forehead creased in a frown. I saw him study my eyes for a long moment then his face went very still. Only the twitch of a muscle in his jaw betrayed any emotion. “I see.”
There was a bright brush stroke of color on his cheeks as he reached for the door latch. It turned and he stepped back. He gestured across the hall. “There are just two rooms on this floor. Your– the other room has an en suite bath.”
Heat suffused my face. I nodded and turned to retrieve my bag. When I came back to the door I stopped and waited for Holmes’s eyes to meet mine. They were distant, as if he was seeing through me to the far wall.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I wouldn’t have…”
“Yes,” he answered evenly. “Well, there’s always tomorrow, isn’t there?” As I turned and stepped into the hall, the door behind me closed with a soft click and once again I was alone.
The door across the passage was unlocked and I entered to find the room to be a near twin of the first. Leaving my belongings on a chair, I moved to the window. It faced up the hill toward the town rather than over the river.
I sat at the edge of the bed and tugged the black leather case from my pocket, turning it over in my palm. It was a simple thing, as uncomplicated as a shaving kit. Yet it was steeped in meaning. For years I’d wondered what demons clung to it as Holmes carried it about with him, taking it out from time to time as the need or the fancy struck him. When I began to carry it I’d felt the weight of those demons but I couldn’t put a name to them.
After a time my own demons usurped their place. I didn’t think they were ones Holmes would recognize, although he might know the place they were born if he could see the barren cliff side and jagged stones that still haunted my mind.
When I’d taken the drug, the first time it had been an expedient – a way to stay on my feet. After that it had been my own cowardice that kept returning me to the needle. On the very night I’d awakened in the hospital to find Holmes had left Paris I’d begun to experiment with the technique of injecting just below the skin to less dramatic, but longer-lived result. Working with dosages and admixtures until, in no time it seemed, I’d settled into a routine.
Like many others before me, each time the deleterious after effects struck I was determined to put the practice aside for good. But the enticement of release, however brief, from my doubts and uncertainties was always too sweet a siren song to resist. And when I’d discovered it could keep my nightmares of roaring white water at bay the die was cast.
Villard had tried, in his diplomatic way, to bring me around to the course of reason. During the last week of my stay in Paris he talked more and more often of absinthe and poets and subjects about which he as a “so humble detective” professed little real knowledge. In the watches of the night his careful homilies had been a frail defense.
Setting the case aside, I lay back on the bed. I left the drapes of the window parted and allowed myself to hope the next sight I might see would be the brightening sky of a clear blue morning.
The first sensation was the familiar sting of the shout that had torn from my throat. The second was a strange sensation, one I hadn’t felt since Mary’s death. Hands on my shoulders, holding them tight.
I blinked hard, clearing the white haze from my eyes. With a start of confusion I saw Holmes’s pale face before me. It was a moment before I understood I wasn’t still dreaming.
“You called out,” he said. His voice was ragged.
I nodded. I didn’t have to ask what he had heard. There was only one name that repeated in my dream. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, brushing his hand aside as I moved to wipe the perspiration from my forehead. “Did I wake you?”
“No I– No.”
Wordlessly, I shifted on the bed. He sat back and let me rise. The night air chilled my damp bedclothes as I made my way to the bath. I ran cool water in the basin and dashed it against my face. A shiver ran over my skin.
Holmes watched me from the bed as I moved to clear off the chair. I noticed he was still in his shirtsleeves and trousers though both were far from the neat picture they’d presented at the station.
“What time is it?” I asked as I sat forward, resting my forehead against my open palms.
“Half four,” he said. “Why when…” I heard the confusion in his voice.
I shook my head wearily as I moved to the window. “I can’t just turn back the clock three years, Holmes, as if none of it ever happened.” I exhaled a long breath. “And it doesn’t make it any easier to know if you had it all to do over again, you wouldn’t change a thing. Two weeks ago you proved that.”
Holmes’s voice was even as he said, “Watson, try to see reason. I explained this at the time. Earlier the same day I had very nearly caused your death. It’s ridiculous to suggest I could knowingly take that risk twice.”
After a moment, I levered myself up to my feet and moved to the end of the bed. I had apparently kicked the case off onto the floor before waking. Snapping it open, I saw the glass barrel was intact. The sound of the lid snapping shut was like a rifle shot in that still room.
I paused. “It wasn’t your risk to take,” I said at last. “It was mine. I was there by my own choice and as little as you’ll understand this, there was only one time you nearly killed me. It wasn’t in Paris. Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t think I’ll venture another attempt at sleep tonight.”
I went into the bath and closed the door behind me. A few moments later I heard the door to the passage close with a soft click.
The morning was clear and fair as the sparkling stars had promised. I sat by the window, watching sunrise turn the pink roofs for which Toulouse was famous into the semblance of frothy waves reflecting its glow. The sky deepened to pale violet then a shining Titian blue. It was a beautiful morning.
I’d heard the door across the passage open and soft steps upon the stair an hour earlier. I dressed at a leisurely pace, telling myself I wasn’t waiting to hear Holmes return, but I had listened all the same. When another hour passed and he failed to reappear I allowed myself the indulgence of finishing the fraction of solution remaining in the vial and made my way downstairs in search of breakfast.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat, but I might venture a cup of coffee and the smell of fresh brioche would be welcome. And no doubt, I thought, the proprietress would be able to direct me to a chemist if I could manage to make my request understood.
She was there in a high starched collar that didn’t suit her warm, open countenance or the charming way her auburn hair, streaked with silver as I could see in the morning light, capriciously slipped from the chignon piled high on her head to curl at her ear and the back of her neck.
After greeting me warmly, she was patient while I plumbed the depth of my meager supply of the language. Villard had tried to expand my vocabulary with limited success. We had started on several lessons with admirable intentions only to find ourselves diverted by the subject of the breeding of carriage horses or the current fashion in bonnets or Villard’s pet subject, anything having to do with the history of his fair city.
It was, I realized, an adjustment to accommodate myself to a cup of coffee without the sight of his round hazel eyes beaming merrily from across the straight back of his desk chair. Strange, I reflected, how quickly one becomes accustomed to the sight of a familiar face and how much chillier the world seems when it’s taken away.
Still, the coffee was fragrant as was the brioche and my spirits were higher as I made my way out into the cobbled street. The proprietress, named Madame Caron as I’d eventually discovered, had been helpful in answering my question when I’d used the expedient of unshipping my case and showing her the contents.
After all, I’d told myself, there was no need for embarrassment. It was a commonplace enough item. Anyone might want to avail themselves of a periodic dose of cocaine for toothache or nerves or any of the other minor complaints for which it was freely prescribed. As proof, Madame Caron had directed me toward the turning at the second corner with the same gracious smile and nod with which she’d greeted my request for coffee.
The chemist, an expatriate Englishman whose thick horn spectacles spoke of decades of peering at ingredient labels, had been delighted to meet a Londoner abroad and had kept me in conversation for many minutes about the latest news of the Queen and her court, subjects about which I was woefully under informed.
Before I left he pressed a small English language guidebook on me and even shared advice on the best times to visit the important sites of the Canal du Midi and Hôpital de la Grave, the latter of deep interest to a doctor he’d assured me, to avoid the crowds of tourists who flocked to the city in the spring, particularly at this time because of the upcoming Académie des Jeux floraux.
It was, he explained, the most ancient literary institution of the western world. Every year hopeful young troubadours flocked to the city with dreams of earning laurels for their earnest and beautiful verse.
It wasn’t a surprise Villard hadn’t forewarned me of it. More surprising would have been discovering he had some knowledge of lyric poetry competitions in the south of France. It would have been difficult to imagine a subject farther from his sphere of interest, as tightly circumscribed by the arrondisements of Paris as it was.
The chemist was, in his way, as proud of this adopted city as Villard was of Paris and I assured him I would take every opportunity to experience its delights, thanked him for his kind advice and took a winding route back to the hotel to change into a lighter suit. The weather was already turning warm and I was feeling the tendency to perspiration that came in the wake of freer indulgence than was strictly wise.
Madame Caron stopped me in the parlor to make me understand Holmes had asked after me on returning at midday and she’d informed him I’d gone in search of a chemist. That knowledge had only served to dampen my mood. By the time I made my way back up the winding stairs I was feeling at low ebb in mind and body.
Spending a considerable time refreshing my toilet and changing into my linen suit, I told myself I was simply observing the leisurely habits of the Englishman on holiday and not dawdling to any particular end. Slipping on my jacket at last I paused by the window, the black leather case in my hand.
The promise of a clear, bright spring afternoon had held although the Titian blue sky of the morning had faded and washed out to the thin color of a blue topaz. Clouds the color of dirty wool had crept in over the horizon and were making steady progress toward the river.
The effect was as if a great hand had swept across a canvas, wiping away daubs of gem colored oils to reveal a watercolor underneath. The watercolor was no less striking, but it seemed a pale imitation of the original work of art.
Turning from the window, I slotted the case into my pocket and went to my bag. The drug would wait, I knew. It would be there when I needed it. In the meantime I might as well make the most of my freedom to write in my journal and revisit the poetry of Paul Verlaine.
Madame Caron offered to pass along a message to Mr. Holmes should he return. I told her there was no need, offered a warm smile to supplement my faltering expression of gratitude then made my escape.
A short walk brought me to the Place de la Daurade. At the entrance to the park I skirted a large group of young men seated on the grass. One of their number wearing a striped suit looked up curiously as I passed then looked away as a gangly youth in a wheat-colored waistcoat stood and struck a dramatic pose.
I paused for a moment to hear his declaimed verse. Though I couldn’t understand the words they were clearly heartfelt and there was a certain innocent pleasure to be found in watching him perform for the rapturous attention of his fellows.
After a time the unconscious effort to pick out words I could recognize began to seem enervating so I walked on until I found an unoccupied bench that faced the river and the Pont Neuf. After spending several minutes admiring the slow moving water. I spread my reading material out on the boards beside me.
I took out my journal and found the narrow ribbon that bookmarked my last entry. Reading it over my descriptions of countryside and rail crossings seemed naïve and meaningless. I snapped the journal shut and dropped it on the grass at my feet. The thought of recording the previous night’s discussion, even for my own remembrance, was as patently absurd as documenting the nightmare that followed. Both were already carved into my thoughts like letters incised in the bark of a tree.
As I rubbed my eyes, trying to dispel the memories a nagging voice promised delving into the black leather case would make short work of my darkening mood. The knowledge only served to feed it.
I resolutely retrieved the rust-colored book of poetry from the bench beside me along with the sheaf of papers that were Villard’s translations. I’d had some thought of making another attempt at matching the words from English to French. Although the exercise did not much assist my pronunciation, the horrors of which had proved trying even to the profoundly patient Villard, I’d found it diverting. A working knowledge of Latin had proved to be more useful to the endeavor than I might have expected.
During my journey south, after I’d tired of the game of matching words I’d been able to enjoy the text of the poems Villard had translated and his tidy script with its precise curves was easily as pleasing as the poetry itself. Staring at the lines on the paper in my hand, divorced from any meaning, I considered how I felt about Villard’s contacting Holmes without my knowledge.
What had possessed him to send Holmes to me? I thought over the telegram Holmes had shown me. Was there, I wondered, a more tangible significance to the final words, “Observe all due caution”? I’d taken them as Villard’s wry sense of humor, but perhaps he had meant them literally.
His last intelligence on Moran’s location had intimated that the man might be in Italy. That had been days before, but perhaps Villard was simply being cautious. Had he been asking Holmes to act as my shepherd as he himself had been from our meeting in Montpellier to our parting when I’d left for the gardens at Auteuil?
Had I made a bigger fool of myself even than I’d known the night before? There were as many interpretations to Villard’s telegram as there were to the array of poems in the rust-colored book resting in my lap.
Maybe, I thought, it was as simple as a misguided impulse. Villard had more than his share of the romanticism his countrymen were famous for and no doubt he’d thought it a beautiful sacrifice to attempt to bring Holmes and I together in the ancient streets and byways of Toulouse.
Yet, not only had I voiced no desire to see Holmes again before our paths should cross in London or some unknown spot far removed, as I recalled it, I’d said I was content not to see him again for quite some time. Looking back it seemed my instinct had been the right one.
I watched the river roll past and wondered if perhaps it came down to Villard’s words about the voice of the heart and the voice of the head, “The heart does not listen to the head, but the head hears the words of the heart.” Was my heart finally so immune to the influence of my head I couldn’t recognize the truth?
Holmes had said, “There’s always tomorrow.” But what if we had finally run out of tomorrows, I wondered. How many lost nights and empty days could be added to the tally before I would finally admit to myself the time was gone.
The night before I’d recognized that I had wanted us to be together for so long I’d forgotten what it was like not to wish it. Was it the same for Holmes? For three years before his death I’d felt I held the secret of his love in my pocket. It seemed he’d let me do so, keeping it hidden away while he wandered, who knew where. After so much time, didn’t I owe it to Holmes to give him the freedom to find someone who would give back what he had to offer?
It was time to forget what might have been. It was time for me to let the past be the past. One of us had to call an end to it. There had to be a day when one of us said, “No more. There was a moment when something could have been. We’d held it between us, then let it go.”
Two weeks before I’d stood in a darkened hotel room in Paris and wondered when I might finally find the strength to take a new path. It was time to take Stamford’s advice to heart at last.
In that moment, I was decided. I bent and retrieved my journal, opened it to the last page and tore the leaf from the spine. I took the pencil from the binding and began to write.
When I’d finished, I folded the letter and tucked it into my pocket and, gathering up my belongings, started back across the park. The shadows were lengthening on the grass, but the earnest young poets were still engaged in lively discussion.
The gangly youth in the wheat-colored waistcoat looked up curiously as I approached. “Bon chance,” I murmured as I held out the rust-colored book. He took it from my hand with a near comical look of bemusement. “Ah, merci, Monsieur,” he stammered. I just smiled in response before I turned and walked away.
My train compartment was a deep sea green. Silver railings shone along the luggage rail and rimmed the modern-style casement window. The vibration coming up through the floor was a thrumming counterpoint to the bubbling voices ranging up and down the car as travelers found their companions and their seats, arranged their belongings, and prepared for departure. The warning whistle sounded and there was a last flurry of movement on the platform.
The station at Toulouse with its pretty tiled floor, so quiet the night before, thronged with porters and passengers crisscrossing paths. A woman with a posy in her hair leant up on her toes to kiss a young man in a sailor’s uniform. A nurse hurried past my window, clutching tight to the hands of two small children. A pair of nuns bustled by, followed by a young man in a striped suit I seemed to recognize from the park.
I felt a rising sense of anticipation as I watched the frenetic scene. I’d felt lighter somehow from the moment I’d turned my steps back toward the hotel. On going upstairs to pack my bag I hadn’t been relieved, nor disappointed, nor even surprised to find no evidence that Holmes had returned. I’d taken a deep breath, pushed my letter under his door and made my way back down the winding staircase.
Madame Caron had seemed surprised to find me departing so soon, but I assured her as best I could that I’d merely had a change of plan and was very pleased with her charming hotel. I paid for two nights in my room, plus a little more beside for the inconvenience of having an unexpected vacancy, and bid my farewell.
As I walked back up the hill to the station, my steps had taken me past the shop where I’d bought my bag of candied violets some two weeks before. The young woman with the oak brown hair that tumbled fetchingly over her shoulders stood behind the counter just as she had that evening and as I glanced in the window a young man, tall and straight in his workman’s clothes, turned in through the open door. The girl came round the counter with a light step to greet him and her smile on seeing his face was as radiant as the last slanting rays of sun sparkling on the river.
After a brief pause, I walked on. Perhaps, I thought, I’d find another souvenir to carry away from Montpellier or whatever destination lay beyond. If it were Spain, I might find a jar of preserved oranges to take back to Mrs. Hudson. It would look very fine in her kitchen window. Remembrance of Mrs. Hudson’s smiling face invariably brought up images of Holmes, but I resolutely pushed them aside.
Holmes would ever be in my thoughts. It was a waste of effort to deny the fact to myself. Villard had talked of finding beauty in the pain of love. The sentiment seemed hard to fathom in that moment as I waited for the train to carry me far away from any chance of the dream of love that had been my constant companion for so many years. The idea of spending the next several hours with such thoughts pressing ever more in on my mind was an unpleasant one and I decided to allow myself the luxury of a short reprieve.
I was just slotting the black leather case back into my pocket when the final whistle sounded and the engine gave a low chuff. The vibration underfoot quickened and the train started forward with a jolt. There was a burst of white steam outside the window and a tall, dark haired figure strode out of the cloud and made a leap from the platform.
I had barely time to register my astonishment when the door of my compartment slid open. Holmes stood in the passage, hatless, shirt open at the collar, flushed and panting.
“Holmes,” I managed, “What–”
“I couldn’t find you,” he breathed. “I’ve been several steps behind you all day. Ever since I came back to the hotel this morning and you were gone.” His silver gray eyes were wide and staring as they fixed on mine. “There was a time I would have known where you’d be before you knew it yourself. John…” His eyes studied mine for a long moment. He drew in a long breath. “May I sit down?”
I gave a sigh and indicated the seat across from mine. “I can’t very well throw you off the train. You may as well come with me as far as Montpellier.”
He perched on the edge of the banquette opposite me. “I hoped to convince you to come with me.”
I frowned. “Why? Where are you going?”
He regarded me steadily, his gray eyes unblinking, and said, “Meiringen.”
Chapter Fourteen: Words and Letters
The rain started as we pulled out of the station. It rattled against the window like handfuls of coins. Sagging clouds closed over the still waning sun, turning the landscape a dull pewter gray.
The carriage lamps were not yet lit. Holmes sat opposite me, half in shadow. His hands were resting on his knees, one long forefinger keeping time with the steady beat of the wheels along the tracks. My heart thudded to the same rhythm, knocking against the walls of my chest.
We sat in silence. I tried to pluck a question from the tangle in my thoughts. I’d no doubt the effort showed in my face. Holmes watched, only the flicker of his eyes betraying any interest in my reaction.
At last I fixed on the first, the simplest question, a single un-impossibility from which to hang the rest. “You’re going back to Meiringen?” I managed.
Holmes’s gaze flicked to the door of the compartment. In a smooth movement he rose and leant toward it. He tugged the curtains closed with two quick turns of his wrists.
He settled back on the banquette and met my eyes. “Yes, to meet James Moran.”
My resolve to calm discourse exploded. I gripped the edge of the seat to prevent myself from lurching forward and shaking him by the shoulders. “At the Falls?” I hissed. “Are you mad? What would possess you to do such a thing? What in God’s name makes you think I’d come along?”
Holmes waited for my tirade to subside before he murmured, “If I may take your questions one at a time.”
When I made no response except to stare he seemed to take it as assent. He leant forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“First,” he said, ticking the point off on an upraised finger. “I doubt very much we’ll lure him as far as the Falls. Villard and I are agreed, he’ll make an attempt before we reach the town if one presents itself. We will, of course, try to ensure that doesn’t happen.” He paused. “I believe I can speak for Villard on that point. Second, no. I don’t believe I’m mad, although I have recently come close. Third, it is your own advice, which is also the answer to your fourth question.”
“My advice?” I rasped.
Holmes leant back in his seat and ran his hand through his tousled hair. “In Paris. If I may paraphrase, you said if we had an opportunity to end this seemingly endless vendetta, we should. I agree.”
My jaw clenched. “Leaving aside the fact you’ve taken my words entirely out of context, how can you know Moran is going to be in Meiringen? How can you be sure?”
“Because I invited him,” Holmes said.
I squeezed my eyes shut and scrubbed my hand across my forehead. “Holmes, either my thoughts are more muddled than even I know, or this is utter nonsense.” I looked up and met his steady gaze. “Please. Explain just what the hell you’re talking about. Pick any point at which to begin. I don’t imagine it makes much difference to the logic of your story.”
He gave a small shrug. “Very well. It is a useful exercise. I’m not sure I’ve thought it through entirely myself. I only formulated the plan last night.”
“Last–” I caught myself as he gazed at me attentively, one eyebrow raised. “I’m sorry,” I said, forcing myself to sit back in my seat. “Please go on.”
He inclined his head slightly and began again. “We’ll start from this morning. You doubtless heard me go out.” He didn’t wait for my acknowledgment, but assumed the discursive pose I’d seen him adopt so often, with his fingers steepled before his chin, his eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance. “I went to the telegraph office and contacted Villard. We began a rapid correspondence. I expended some little funds getting him to the topic at hand. He was initially more concerned with your location and welfare than anything I had to say. I eventually persuaded him to find a telephone.”
Holmes paused and focused on my expression. I endeavored to keep as still as possible, willing him to go on before I could leap up and start pacing the few feet of the carriage like a caged animal. He blinked, evidently seeing something disconcerting in my wide, staring eyes.
He cleared his throat. “I explained my plan to Villard. He reacted much as you did. I used a slightly different argument. If you’ll recall, he was somewhat irate at not being made a party to my plan before.” My eyes narrowed and he went on quickly. “Yes, it was the general view. Villard and I struck a bargain this morning. He’ll allow me back into Paris if I allow him to make a real attempt at capturing Moran. We believe we can lure Moran to Meiringen if he knows I’m to be there.”
My fists balled on my knees. “This is lunacy. What’s to stop him from intercepting you en route?”
“I’ve two advantages. I left a day earlier than planned. And I’ve got you.” He hesitated. “I hope. You’re the only one who can identify him beyond doubt.”
“How can you be sure he’ll come? He must suspect a trap.”
“Oh, no doubt of it,” he said. “We hope his caution will be outweighed by his thirst for vengeance. And he’d be foolish not to take the chance. It will solidify his position as head of the criminal network.”
“Criminal network?” I said, beginning to feel a frisson of interest despite myself. “Moriarty’s?”
Holmes nodded. “I– we think he’s now the de facto head of Moriarty’s, latterly the elder Moran’s, network. Through it, we believe he’ll receive my message, just as I received Villard’s from the flurry he sent instructing me to meet you. Mine is carefully worded. It indiscreetly mentions I’ll be in Meiringen in two days’ time.”
“Giving him enough time to travel from Italy,” I said. Holmes quirked an eyebrow. “Francois said it was likely that’s where he’d gone,” I explained.
“There’s been a burst of activity in that region. It’s only a guess. He might have tracked me to Lyon.”
“But he didn’t attack you there,” I said.
“Of course not. I wasn’t trying to be found.”
Indicating the door with a tilt of my head I said, “You must believe you’re being followed now.”
“In fact, I believe you’re being followed.” My eyes widened and he went on, “Whatever thought process caused you to leave Toulouse so precipitately, even if I hadn’t been inclined to chase after you, I would have had to do so.”
An image appeared in my mind and I inhaled sharply. “I saw a man in a striped suit get on the train. I believe I saw him in the Place de la Daurade this evening.”
“That’s not too surprising,” he said. “They seem to be a nimble organization. More so even than when Moriarty was at the head. It appears they’ve sloughed off many of the more senior cadre. Would you recognize the man again?”
Thinking back, I shook my head slowly. “The suit was all I noticed.”
“That may be by design,” Holmes said. “If so, they’re as clever as I imagined. It’s easier to change a suit than to change one’s appearance. There’s ample luggage on the train for a resourceful man to draw from. If you don’t…” He hesitated. “I’ll make arrangements for your safety in Montpellier if you stop there.”
“What you say about being tracked… Is that why Francois sent the telegrams asking you to meet me in Toulouse?”
Holmes gave a slow nod. “Probably. I took it as an unexpected instance of good grace on his part. But your supposition is the more likely.” His gaze met mine and flicked away. “You and he didn’t discuss the danger? You spent considerable time together in Paris, I understand. Time for many conversations, I would think.”
“Holmes, don’t,” I said tightly. “We had this out before you so abruptly took your leave. Francois and I had a discussion and there is no misunderstanding between us.”
I thought back to the night Villard had opened his heart to me. It had been a very different conversation than any I had ever had with Holmes. I knew Francois cared for me. I believed his words. I could not, with any confidence, say the same of Holmes.
In the silence there was a sudden rap at the door. “Damn it all,” Holmes snapped. I looked at him in surprise. “No doubt it’s only the porter,” he murmured.
“Yes, entrez,” I called out, feeling myself tense.
The door opened and a middle-aged man with bristling side whiskers peered in. His porter’s cap was pulled low on his forehead.
“Billets messieurs, s’il vous plait,” he ventured blandly.
“Ah, oui,” Holmes answered quickly. He held a rapid-fire conversation with the porter while I fished in my pocket. As I offered my ticket the man drew a sheaf from his pocket. With great economy of movement he took the coins Holmes proffered and with the same hand peeled a ticket off the top of the sheaf. He held it out to Holmes and seemingly in the same movement took mine and had it stamped and returned to me in the space of a breath.
Holmes asked a question to which the porter shrugged and gave a nod of assent. Then he offered a mild, “Merci, messieurs,” and pulled the door shut.
Taking in my curious expression Holmes said, “I asked if we might expect a drinks trolley before Montpellier. You’ll need water at the least. I’d recommend a glass of wine and some bread and cheese, if you can manage it. Coffee and tea are out of the question, of course.” He studied my face. “How long until the reaction?”
I stared for a long moment, feeling myself color, before I drew in a breath and answered. “Not long. It was a small dose.”
He nodded. “That’s a mixed blessing at best.” When I blinked in surprise he went on. “We’ll be in Montpellier in less than an hour. I haven’t yet convinced you to come with me to Meiringen. Have I?” He cocked an eyebrow and I attempted a neutral expression. He flashed a humorless smile. “I thought not. I’m loath to make another attempt now. Or to have any conversation of real import judging by your words last night. Will you at least come as far as Marseilles?”
“Holmes…” I said slowly, searching for a response.
Abruptly he pushed to his feet. “Don’t answer yet. I’m going to find the trolley. Be alert if anyone else knocks.” Before I could speak he pulled open the door and stepped into the passage.
Staring at the closed door, my thoughts drifted back to that conversation with Villard and his parting words. I did not feel “amazing” in Holmes’s presence. I felt temperamental and slow witted and ashamed of my own weakness. It was becoming difficult to remember feeling any other way.
When Holmes returned I took the tumbler he offered and held it out as he poured a portion of water from a carafe. I gave a nod of thanks and sat back.
He placed the carafe on the floor by my feet and settled himself across from me. “There’s no prospect of anything more substantial before Montpellier,” he said as I turned my gaze to the window. “We may have more luck there although it’s only a brief station stop on the night route, as I recall. And I’ll have to visit the telegraph office.”
I heard him draw in a breath to say more and it crossed my mind, I could not think of a recent conversation, not since Holmes’s resurrection, between he and I that had not ended badly. There was no reason to think this one would be different.
“Holmes,” I broke in. “Perhaps it’s best if we don’t talk for a time. I– I would like to rest.” His eyes were the color of slate in the deepening shadows.
On a sudden, the electric lamps set high on the passage-side wall flickered and brightened. I turned to the window and found their blue-white glow had washed out the scene beyond to black. Holmes was watching my reflection in the glass.
I wondered if it was worth the pain to either of us to keep up the pretense we could ever be as comfortable together as we had once been. I had never thought to look with fondness on those three years between the ride home from Birmingham and Holmes’s death at Reichenbach Falls. The thought that among them resided the last companionable times he and I would ever spend together made heat start behind my eyes.
Holmes’s gaze turned away. As he studied the floor by his feet, his quick, lithe hands tapped out an arrhythmic tattoo on his knees. The thought was borne in on me, even after all that had passed between us and in spite of all my questions and confusion, I wanted to capture those hands in mine and hold them tight. I wanted to feel his skin against mine. I wanted to take him in my arms and kiss him until his breath and my breath were one and the same.
In the reflection in the window I saw his hands still. He sat back and pulled something from his pocket. It was a rust-colored book. He opened it on his knee and began to read.
I turned and stared. His eyes met mine. “It wasn’t difficult to retrieve,” he said quietly. “It’s only Paul Verlaine.” He looked back to the book and I watched in silence as he turned the page.
The train pulled into the station in Montpellier with a squeal of metal wheels. After watching for several minutes to see if I recognized the man in the striped suit and not seeing him among the crowd that exited the train, we disembarked.
Holmes, to my annoyance, insisted on escorting me to the small trackside inn that stood open to welcome visitors from the night train. The steady, soaking rain pattered on my hat and bag. I felt unconscionably irritated at seeing Holmes, neater in appearance than he had been when he boarded but still without headwear, exposed to the elements. He seemed to take no notice of the rivulets that streamed from his sodden hair as he left me at the door to the inn.
“Wait for me,” he said over the irregular thumping of the rain against the packed earth. “If I can’t convince you, I’ll help you organize a hotel.”
Before I could answer he’d turned and trotted off through the downpour in search of the telegraph office.
Despite an irrational urge to rebellion I knew could be ascribed entirely to my “reaction” as Holmes had called it, I did purchase a glass of wine and a brioche and sat with them under cover of the narrow awning that skirted the building. The surroundings presented quite a different aspect than they had on my last visit to Montpellier. The clematis that ringed the door had already begun to fade. Petals littered the ground at my feet.
The sky overhead, so bright and azure blue now hung like a greasy black curtain through which no starlight was visible. Staring out at the night I thought over all the questions I had yet to find words to express.
I wanted to know where Holmes had been for the three years he’d stood just out of sight like a ghost whose presence is always felt and never seen. I wanted to know why he had chosen the actions he had in Paris. Why he had misled the two men who were supposed to be his allies.
And I wanted to know if he’d meant what he said when he left me at the Parc du Mars, if he really did love me. If only I knew the words weren’t just an impulse or worse, an expedient, of the moment, the rest of my questions might vanish in the light of that one evanescent truth. I wondered if I still had the strength to ask.
Minutes later, as I watched Holmes jog back, his back bent against the downpour as his quick steps kicked up sprays of dirty water, I still had no answers, but I had one fresh resolve.
The train’s warning whistle sounded as he stepped under the cover of the awning. With a start of annoyance at my selfishness, I realized while I’d managed to down a large portion of the wine and a few bites of bread I hadn’t thought to provide for him.
I glanced in the door behind me and, as usual, Holmes seemed to divine my thoughts. “We may have time for a meal before boarding our next train in Marseilles.”
His eyes were fixed on my mine as I looked up. “You’ve decided not to come with me,” he said.
I drew in a long breath. “I can provide a complete description of the man I think to be Moran. Though we really have no way of knowing if Roman St. James is the same man at all.” I shook my head. “Holmes, I don’t think you need me on this journey and I’m not eager to see you risk your life again. I think it’s best if I stay here.”
His hair was plastered to his head. A rivulet of water ran down his cheek and he scrubbed at it with the back of his hand. “Villard took a special down from Paris,” he said. “He’ll meet us in Marseilles.”
“I don’t need to see Francois,” I said. “I spent two weeks with him. He’s a dear friend. I enjoy his company immensely. But I know where to find him.” Holmes drew in a breath and I cut across his words. “No. I’ve had enough of conversations that go nowhere and end in sudden leave-taking. I’ve had enough of wondering what’s going on in your mind and when I’ll see you next. I’ve had enough.”
He puffed out a breath “I agree,” he said. When I just stared he hurried on, “Give me this time and I’ll never trouble you again.” He bent forward and grasped my arm. “John, if you do nothing else for me in this life, just come as far as Marseilles.”
Droplets of water were caught in his dark lashes. When he blinked, they shone against his pale cheeks like tears.
If it was truly to be the end at last, I thought, traveling to Marseilles was, after all, a small thing to offer as a final gesture of friendship. With a sigh, I nodded my assent. His grip on my arm tightened and he gave me a tight smile. Without another word he turned and dashed up the stairs to the platform.
The second whistle sounded just as I boarded and I staggered when the train lurched forward. My temper flared and wasn’t improved as I saw the signpost for Montpellier slide past the glass pane of the door.
I made my way along the rocking passage to our compartment. When I turned in the doorway I found Holmes had shed his sodden jacket and was scrubbing his wet hair back from his face. The futility of the motion was irritating.
Shrugging out of my own damp jacket, I dropped my hat beside it and bent to my bag. I found a cotton cloth and held it out to him. He accepted it with only a second’s hesitation and set to drying his face and hands.
“It’s rather like old times, isn’t it?” he said, offering me a small smile as he held the cloth to his hair.
My temper flared again at the patently ridiculous question. “Not very much,” I said flatly. “No.”
His gaze met mine and I saw him bite his lower lip. The spark of irritation in my chest blossomed into anger.
“What does that mean?” I said, my voice sounding sharp in my ears.
He blinked. “I don’t–”
“When you chew your lip like that. In the garden, in the park, now… I don’t know what it means.
He sat up straight. “I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “I suppose…” He flashed an unconvincing smile. “I suppose I need my biographer to tell me.”
“I’m not your biographer,” I said through clenched teeth. “I’m not your flat mate, I’m not your partner and I’m obviously not your confidante. I haven’t been any of those things for some time. I’m not sure what I am to you, but I know I don’t want to be the man who follows you from death to death. Why are you doing this? Why are you determined to risk your life again?”
“Watson, I risk my life every day Moran is abroad,” he said. “The man won’t simply decide he doesn’t care if I live or die. Drawing him out into the open is the most efficient way to bring this to a close. I had hoped I’d not be doing it alone. That when it was over at long last, you’d be there.”
“Did you really expect I’d be waiting, unchanged, as though I’d been stored on a shelf until your return? I confess, for a long time that was true. Now I’m finally ready to be something other than the man you left behind. If you really think I’ll be of use, I’ll come. But,” I glanced at the curtained door. “I don’t see that further conversation is likely to improve matters between us. It might be best if I change compartments.”
Holmes’s voice was unexpectedly cool. “If you only want to drug yourself, I assure you, you may do that here. I won’t object.”
I glanced sharply at him and bit back the words that came to my lips. His face was perfectly expressionless, but a muscle twitched at the corner of his jaw. Without having to give words to the thought, I knew how much it cost him to make the offer.
And a small, startled voice inside me acknowledged he was probably right. The presence of the black leather case in the pocket of my discarded jacket felt like a beast crouched beside me. I exhaled and met his eyes. “I’ll stay. Without it.”
He set the damp cloth I hadn’t noticed was gripped tight in his hand on the seat beside him. “John,” he said quietly, “It’s a liberty, I know. And you may refuse, of course, but you always tried your best to understand. I’d like to do that for you now.” He glanced at the forearm I hadn’t realized I held tight against my midsection. “May I see?”
In a darkened hotel room in Paris, I had asked Holmes for his help. The first time the small needle had pierced my skin it had been his hand that pressed the piston home. His eyes had held mine as the drug burned through my veins.
The event had been as intimate, as invasive, as shattering as any I’d ever known. It had shaken my idea of who John Watson was and what was his place in the world. And it had felt safe because my beloved friend was there to touch my skin and gaze into my eyes and tell me, without words, that I was John Watson, his John Watson, still.
The train rocked over a crossing. Holmes’s eyes held mine. After a long moment, I reached to unfasten my cuff and rolled back my sleeve.
As I extended my arm Holmes’s fingers encircled my wrist. His touch was as light as a bird’s wing brushing my skin. A shiver ran up my arm, snatching my breath and I looked away.
Holmes didn’t make a sound nor even take a breath that I could hear in that still carriage. The only sound was the spattering rain and rhythmic beat of the wheels. I looked down.
The last time I’d felt Holmes’s touch on my arm, my skin had been clear and unblemished. Seeing the spray of pockmarks for what seemed the first time, the number was difficult to comprehend. Realization hit me with the force of a blow, I’d no idea how many times I must have indulged my desire for peace in the previous weeks.
When we’d lived together at Baker Street I’d known Holmes to use cocaine, morphine, or a mixture of the two as many as four times in a day. There was little doubt I’d at least matched that frequency.
Holmes opened his hand and rested it on my skin as if the heat of his touch might erase the wounds there. I wished that it were true.
With an effort, I found my voice. “You don’t any longer,” I murmured.
He looked up. “No. Not for some time. I found it wasn’t enough of a distraction after all.” He was so close I could count each fleck of silver in his eyes. “I won’t repeat the litany you know by heart.”
I tried a smile. “I appreciate that more than you can imagine. Although you would be fully justified. Believe me, I am not unaware of my own hypocrisy.”
His gaze returned to my arm. His fingers drifted to my inner wrist. “It’s not a question of hypocrisy. There must be more than the dreams. You could take a sleeping draught. I know that has it’s own dangers…”
“And limited efficacy. I tried many. The effects in my waking hours were insupportable. And not conducive to what little medical practice I was able to maintain.”
His trailing fingertips traced across my palm as I gently moved away. I concentrated on the weave of my linen shirt as I began to roll down my sleeve.
“This is, in some ways, the best of both worlds,” I said. “When I’m able to find the right balance I can have a peaceful sleep and waking hours when I feel…” I struggled to find words for thoughts I hadn’t allowed myself to think. “I can’t put it any better than to say it feels more like the man I used to be than I have felt in a long time. Of course, finding the right balance… It’s always moving, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and tenuous. Sometimes it shifts in the space of a look or a smile.”
“Or a memory.” I looked up and his glance flicked away.
“I wanted to stay. In Paris,” he said.
“Holmes, every action in the world does not revolve around you. Alive or dead.” I was aware it was an untruth even as I said it.
“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “I’m only sorry I wasn’t there to be a voice of reason. I would have been had not your friend Villard–”
My jaw tightened. “Inspecteur le Villard would have been well within his rights to arrest you for your behavior. You are not a law unto yourself, whether you are willing or even capable of acknowledging the fact.”
“I assure you, I do not believe that. John, I do not make my decisions on a whim.”
“Which decisions, Holmes? Your decisions three years ago, or two weeks ago, or last night when you decided to provoke a final duel with James Moran?”
His voice hardened. “As much as you seem to want to want it to be otherwise, I am just a man with the same weaknesses as any other man. I cannot foresee every outcome, but at every stage I have done what I thought was right.”
“To let me think you dead seemed right to you?” I grated, matching the steel in his voice. “Are you truly so removed from human feeling you believe that?”
“For God’s sake, John, don’t you know what that cost me? I have always been more concerned with your welfare than my own.”
I struggled to keep my voice low. “I don’t need you to look after my welfare. I managed to survive quite well for many years before I met you. I traveled. I lived. I risked my own life and sometimes even enjoyed it.”
He flashed a tight smile. “Yes, I recall some mention of your vast experience over many continents. We’re not all as worldly as the astonishing John Watson. Some of us have to make do with very little and do the best we can. I have made mistakes. I admit that. The fact that I am having this argument with you must mean it is true because if I can have lost the regard of the only man whose opinion I value–” He blinked and looked toward the window. “I can’t seem to set things right, can I? At every juncture I make it worse. My words are inadequate. My actions are wrong. My judgment is nonexistent. Won’t you tell me what I must do now, tonight, to keep you from turning away?”
“Holmes…” I exhaled a long breath. “There’s got to be an end to trying to set things right. Maybe we’ve reached it. I tried to explain that in my letter.”
His forehead creased in a frown. “Letter?”
“I left it under your door. You didn’t find it?”
“I got only as far as the parlor. Madame Caron told me you’d settled your account. She didn’t know where you’d gone. I made a guess.” He pursed his lips. “Fortunately, it was the correct one. But in the absence of your letter–” He hesitated. “Which I assume was discreet?”
I drew in a breath and thought back over my words and my state of mind when I wrote them. “I think so,” I said slowly. “Is that a danger?”
“I’ll send a telegram from Marseilles,” Holmes said. He waved me off as I drew breath to speak. “It’s no matter. Even if one of Moran’s agents finds it, he’s doubtless already fully aware of our– of my situation. The silence of dear Séraphie is hardly to be relied upon.”
The subject of Séraphie and her whereabouts was one I hadn’t wanted to broach with Villard. I took the chance to ask a question that had preyed on my mind since I’d last seen her.
“You know she’s with Moran?” I asked.
“We have no reason to think otherwise,” he said.
“If Moran is taken. What will happen to her? Will she be safe?”
“That’s a concern for you. Even now.”
“Yes, of course it is,” I answered. “Séraphie wasn’t entirely honest with me. I’ve become accustomed to that, I suppose. But she was as honest as she knew how to be. And her emotions were honest. I know that beyond doubt.” I thought how best to explain what would no doubt be unfathomable to a man who valued reason over the finer emotions. “She left me a letter that explains better than I can,” I said at last. “I know she wouldn’t mind if I showed it to you. There are no secrets in it. Not anymore.”
“Another letter,” he said evenly as I felt in my jacket for my pocket book. “You seem to have much in common.”
“Yes, I think we do,” I answered. “Although I doubt you’ll recognize how much.” I extracted the letter and caught the faint scent of lavender. I offered the carefully folded sheet of hotel stationary without a word.
Holmes held my eyes for a moment before he took it. He opened it on his knee. As I watched him read, Séraphie’s final admonition, “Kiss your Sherlock for me,” sent a pang through my chest yet again. The night she had written the letter – perhaps the very moment her pen had formed the simple words – Holmes and I had shared kisses that would shine like stars in my memory.
Now, so close to what might be our final parting, it was a certainty I would never know that joy again. Holmes was as remote from me as he had ever been. He gazed at the page long after I knew he’d taken in the words.
“I believe her, Holmes,” I said quietly. “I think she honestly wanted to protect you. She had no reason to lie about that.”
He didn’t resist as I carefully took the letter from his hands. I studied the delicately flowing text. I knew the words by heart. I had reread them many times in the fortnight I spent with Villard. I had never showed it to him.
As I folded the paper carefully, I tried to laugh. The sound was strange in that still carriage.
“She’s very straightforward, isn’t she?” I said, slipping the letter back into my pocket book. “And very informal. She couldn’t understand why I called Francois ‘ Francois’ and called her ‘Séraphie’ and called you ‘Holmes.’ She…” I glanced up as I replaced the pocket book in my jacket and my voice trailed off.
Holmes had his lower lip caught between his teeth. The instant his eyes met mine he released it. He cleared his throat. “Yes, that’s a very… What did you tell her?”
I colored. I should have known, I chided myself. I couldn’t escape so easily. He’d want to know exactly what Séraphie might have said to Moran, how much of a danger I had proved to be at last.
As certain as I was Séraphie wouldn’t have willfully said anything Moran could use against me, I knew there would be no way to convince Holmes of that. It would be just another wedge between us. And if Moran decided to add blackmail to his crimes, if he made his knowledge public, it would be an embarrassment to Holmes from which his career might never recover.
I struggled with what to say to allay his concerns and despaired as I saw the studied neutrality of his expression. I readied myself for his cool condemnation of my foolish trust in a woman whose livelihood depended on pretty deceit.
The car swayed as the track took a gentle curve. Holmes shot a glance at the window and seemed to read some cue I couldn’t see in the darkness outside.
“We’re almost to Marseilles.” He shoved up from the banquette and stepped to the door, bracing his back against it as if barring it shut. “There’s no more time. There’s never enough time. I can’t afford the luxury of reticence or fear of humiliating myself any more than I’ve done already. Not when everything hinges on the next few seconds. There’s something I must know. There’s a question I–” He gave an impatient shake of his head. “No. Not a question. In the park. Outside the hotel. I realize I didn’t give you an opportunity to respond at the time and I would like to do so now. I love you.”
His eyes were fixed on mine as I struggled for words. “You did mean it?” I managed at last.
He blinked. “Of course I did. Dear God, John, sometimes I think there’s nothing else in me but loving you. I understand I’m being very clumsy and foolish about this, but I’d think you could make allowances for the fact I lack your vast experience – or any, come to that – and say something in response. Even–” He drew in a quick breath and pressed his shoulders back against the door. “Or am I just one of the multitude who fall before you every day? I’m sure you’re only trying to be kind, but you needn’t be. I’ve gotten accustomed to the idea, believe me.”
“But everyone…” I shook my head. “How could you not know?”
“Why the devil must you keep answering my questions with questions?” he snapped. “Would I ask you if I knew the answer?”
“Holmes…” I stammered and saw him go rigid. Even the muscle in his jaw was still. He felt behind him for the door latch. It turned and he stepped back.
He didn’t look at me as he nodded at the passage. “We’ll be in Marseilles in ten minutes at most. I’ll make sure you–”
I was already on my feet. As I moved toward him, he stepped aside. I reached out and pushed the door shut. The latch closed with a soft snap. His eyes met mine. They were wide and startled.
“To paraphrase,” I breathed. “There is one thing I’d like to make perfectly clear.”
I leant forward and caught him around the shoulders and waist. As I pulled him to me, his lean muscles were as rigid as iron bars. My hand moved to his neck. His hair was still damp. It felt cool against my fingertips as I captured his lips with mine.
The heat of his mouth and the cool of his hair and the taste of his lips burned away everything but the incredible feel of him under my hands and the desire. Some distant part of my mind felt his rigid muscles relax as I pulled him closer and broke the kiss into a scattering of light kisses across his lips and cheek to the soft skin below his ear where I reveled in the scent of his skin until on a sudden I felt his hands come to my chest and push me away with insistent force. I blinked as my eyes tried to focus on his.
His lips were parted as he drew in short, quick breaths. “That’s–” His voice caught and he tried again. “That’s very nice, but… would you, please, just say the words?”
I fought back the laugh that rose in my chest and focused on the silver flecks in his eyes. “I love you,” I whispered. “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you. I have loved you since the moment I met you. I will love you after the stars stop burning in the sky. There are no words for how I love you.”
A smile lit his silver gray eyes. “Those words are not at all inadequate.”
My own smile must have been as wide if not as wonderful to see. “Are there any others you would like to hear?”
He leant forward and touched his lips to my cheek. “There is something I’ve wanted to hear again. Not words.”
I heard the lock on the door click and he turned to push me back along the aisle between the seats until we reached the window. He looped his arm around the back of my neck and with the heel of his hand he turned my head.
His kiss traced the line of my jaw to the collar of my shirt and as the rough texture of his unshaved cheek brushed my throat I exhaled a low moan.
“Yes,” he murmured. “That sound.”
Fresh fire coursed through me and my fingers found the buttons of his waistcoat. I fumbled the lower buttons free as I felt his kiss move from my throat to my jaw to my ear.
The taut muscles of his stomach jumped under my touch as my hands moved across the linen at his waist. Fighting the desire to pull him hard against me I concentrated on the feel of his damp hair against my cheek and the weave of his shirt. My fingers tightened on the sensitive muscles just below his waist and I felt his sharp intake of breath against my ear.
The train rocked over a crossing and light flashed across the sea green walls. His words were no more than breath against my skin as he murmured, “Time. There’s never enough time and I want so much. I want this. John. I want this.”
His fingers traced a line down my side and across my hip. I exhaled a ragged sigh as my hands tightened on his back. His touch, light and searching, moved to the curve at the back of my thigh and the breath caught in my throat. With the pressure of his fingertips he pulled me forward as his hips rocked in to meet mine. I knew he felt me hard against him just as I felt his desire. He drew a shuddering gasp and a tremor ran the length of his body.
With an incredible effort I forced my hands to move his waist and eased him away. His fog gray eyes were glassy and unfocused. The heat between our bodies was like a physical presence. It vibrated with the pounding of our hearts.
My voice sounded low and rasping as I whispered, “There will be time. I swear it. There will be time. We will finish with Moran and there will be nothing left but time and time and more time.”
He swallowed. “Moran.” He drew in a long breath and his eyes met mine. “God, John, will we never be through with Morans?”
I grinned in spite of myself. “I fervently hope this will be the end of them.”
The thought flashed across my treacherous mind to hope that it was Moran who would fall when we met, but I pushed it down.
Holmes exhaled a long breath. “You’re coming to Meiringen.”
“Did I ever really have a choice?”
The corner of his mouth quirked in a smile. “I like to think not, but you caused me to doubt it more than once tonight.”
The wheels hitched and a long whistle sounded. Holmes stepped back and bent to fasten his waistcoat buttons. I ran my hands through my hair and brushed at my mustache.
Neither of us looked the picture of composure, I thought, but by and large we were as presentable as two weary travelers on a night train from Toulouse might be expected to look.
I glanced out the window and saw the signpost for Marseilles glide by. Rain sparkled in the blue-white glow of electric lamplight. The iron lattice of the station slid into view and the brightly lit platform appeared.
I straightened my collar and was about to turn my attention to my cuffs when I saw a familiar shape, compact and straight as a fence post. Villard stood at the edge of the platform, scanning the cars as they sledded past. His trim mustache and round hazel eyes were a startlingly welcome sight.
His searching gaze met mine and he flashed a smile. I returned it with a nod and turned back to find Holmes regarding me steadily. He held out my jacket.
“Holmes,” I said carefully as I slipped it over my shoulders. “You’re not going to quarrel with Francois all night.”
“Not at all,” he said easily as he turned to unlatch the door. “In fact, I have never looked forward to seeing Francois le Villard more than I do at this very moment.”
He pulled the door open and stepped into the passage leaving me to stare after him. A knot formed in my stomach as I bent to retrieve my bag and move toward the door.
Between what would doubtless be fractious disputation over tactics, the need to keep my two friends from one another’s throats, and the burning desire to have Holmes right there in the carriage or at least to declare my love repeatedly and at great length, I had the uncomfortable feeling the journey to our next stop would be a very long one indeed.