January 27, 2008
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The Longest Night

“Being John Watson”

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by nlr alicia
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Part One: Without Words

Chapters 1-5

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Author’s Note: This is the sequel to this author’s story Seventy Minutes to London and an alternate history of the events recorded by Dr. John Watson in The Adventure of the Empty House. I hope familiarity with those works is not required… but it couldn’t hurt.

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Author’s Paroxysm of Inadequacy: There is clearly no reason to rewrite “The Adventure of the Empty House” except that I, like many others, feel that there could be more to the story than we know. This is only one interpretation and a fairly outlandish one at that. I’ll leave it to you to decide how useful it is in continuing the perpetual discussion of a fascinating tale.

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Content Warnings: Romantical slash. NC17-Rated in the last two chapters. Angst? Oh, my Lord, yes. Also substance abuse, French detectives, egregious misuse of poetry and lots and lots of trains. (Sorry about all the trains.) A tad bit of violence. No kittens at all.

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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.”

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Part One: Without Words

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Cold Light

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I regarded the syringe in my hand. It didn’t occupy my thoughts. It was merely an object. What it represented – that was the heart of the thing.

I lifted it to the light. The white gas flame shone through the liquid in the glass barrel. The solution would be transparent soon. Now it was milky white, like clouds before a winter sun.

I studied my clenched fist as I steadied it on the desk before me. I traced a single blue-violet vein from my wrist to the crook of my arm.

The action would be a simple one. Pierce the skin. Feel the needle slide home. Then spreading peace, washing all this away.

My fist relaxed. Not now. I reached for the slim black carrying case. I slotted the syringe into the velvet lining and snapped the lid shut. I would use it when I was ready, but not now.

I rose from my desk. There would be time later to take it out again. Right now I had a patient waiting. I rolled down my sleeve, shrugged into my jacket and slipped the black case into my breast pocket then I walked through the consulting-room door.

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Chapter One: Memory of Silence

It must be in the nature of man to dwell over past wrongs as he lies awake in the watches of the night. Poets have told us the hours between the turning of the calendar and the dawn of the new day are the longest of all. That is when regret holds sway, driving out all other emotions in its tyranny over the mind.

I turned to my friend. He was studying my face with a tenderness I had never known.

I swallowed hard and said, “I must talk with Mary.”

He nodded. “You will not have far to look for me,” he murmured under the din of the travelers shuffling past.

“As soon as I can,” I promised.

Holmes flashed a small smile and turned to go.

It was by no means the last conversation I had with Sherlock Holmes. In the three years that followed that moment, there were many conversations – cheerful, petty, bright, bitter. But that conversation, the one that repeated in my mind with the awful steadiness of a metronome, was the last, and only, in which we showed one another our true hearts.

“I must talk with Mary.”

“You will not have far to look for me.”

“As soon as I can.”

I hesitated. In the cold light of day, I couldn’t find the words to tell my wife that my heart, my life, belonged to someone else. Had belonged to someone else before I knew her. Before I knew it myself.

Then her time ran away like water through an open hand. Mary was sick and would never be well again. She was alone with no family but I. She was the one I had promised to keep – promised aloud and promised first.

What else could I have done, I asked the night. Mary needed me. Holmes would wait. He understood, never asking for more than I could give.

What else could I have done? “More,” the night said in answer.

“You will not have far to look for me.”

“As soon as I can.”

What was it that made him shy like a skittish colt in the face of open emotion? It may have been a shield against the endless pain brought to his doorstep. He was the last recourse for so many troubled hearts. Or maybe it was some childhood grief that could never be healed.

I would never know how much it must have cost him to offer up the key to that deep and echoing well of love inside himself. To give it to a man who would tuck it away saying, “I will use this later. There will be time.”

I never said the words, “I love you.” I never made it real. I never even came as close as I did that night as we grasped the fleeting minutes with both hands. That night I knew time was finite and brief. I forgot so soon.

“You will not have far to look for me.”

He came like a wraith in the night. Mary was away at the hot springs where so many sought refuge against time. He asked if I could come with him, and I said, yes, of course. I might have read the signs but I listened to the words – Professor Moriarty and air guns and precautions with the cab.

He went over my garden wall and met me on the train and we flew together. It was just another adventure to me. This one would end like the rest and life would resume its old track. I would know where to find him when the time was right.

He played at cheer even as he told me it was the end. Hard-hearted as I was, I didn’t really listen. And in that last moment when I left him staring into the chasm, in his final moments, instead of saying goodbye I spoke of the next time we’d meet and hurried away.

“You will not have far to look for me.”

He was gone. It was as simple and as final as that. He was gone and I was alone on a cliff side.

I held close the few things he’d left behind, packed in my bag until we would meet at the next hotel. A shaving kit, a set of collars – everyday things, new things with no real meaning.

And one thing steeped in meaning. The black leather case where he kept his syringe and small supply of drug. He used it to keep at bay whatever demons haunted his mind, but his demons, too, were gone.

I’d take out the glass syringe and think about him. Then I’d slip it back into my pocket like a talisman and go on thinking about him. He never really left my mind. The city was so much a part of him and he of it. His brother once said, “I hear of Sherlock everywhere.” How little I knew the truth of it at the time.

“You will not have far to look for me.”

“As soon as I can.”

My dear Mary was gone not long after. I held her hand and watched her go to that place where her pain would cease.

Then I plodded through the long days and lay awake in the endless night feeling time press down on me like the dark. And so it might have gone on forever, except for one thing, one small and simple thing, like a pebble tossed in a lake. It was something Stamford said.

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Chapter Two: Stamford’s Advice

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over. So in a series of kindnesses there is, at last, one which makes the heart run over.”

– James Boswell
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Mourning is a strange state. By the custom of our society, public mourning has a beginning and an end. Black crepe is worn and rules of behavior are followed. Friends come to call and are quiet and respectful. Those around you speak in lowered voices when they speak of the loved one who is gone. These things say in unspoken language “you may grieve now, you may sorrow for this length of time, you may do it quietly and with good grace, and then you will cease to grieve and return to your life and make of it what you may.”

The heart doesn’t understand rules of public mourning. It aches and sobs. One moment it is a wild, screaming thing clawing at the back of your throat for escape, to burst out on this quiet world and shake the walls with impotent fury. The next it lies still and leaden, pulling at your limbs, dragging you down with its weight as though it could pull you through foundation and earth to the still center of the world where light and love will never touch your face again.

The heart doesn’t recognize black bordered calling cards and tailored crepe. It only sees the empty place where a loved one used to stand and look into your eyes and hold your name upon their lips and breath. The heart does not know time. It only knows that forever onward life will never feel quite the same.

I did not require public mourning for Holmes. And yet, there was something like it in my home. Mary would touch my hand when the breath caught in my throat and lay her palm against my forehead and stand beside me until the throbbing ache passed. Friends came to call and would speak quietly and talk of other things.

When Mary passed many of the same faces appeared at the door of my home in Kensington and sipped their tea and filled the times when I could not speak with conversation about the normal things of life outside.

The world rolled on and the times when I couldn’t breathe or speak or think became fewer. And familiar faces still came to call and after a while we could laugh and talk in normal voices and even say their names.

So it was that evening in February of 1893, my friend Stamford and I sat in comfortable chairs on either side of my fire, smoking cigars and sipping brandy and talking of many things.

I couldn’t really call him “young Stamford” now that he was a physician and settled with a practice in his own right. But he was still the same young Stamford who took me to the laboratory at Bart’s one afternoon to meet a man named Sherlock Holmes. Little did he know how that moment would remake me.

Now Stamford’s laughing brown eyes regarded me over the rim of his glass as he flashed his familiar lopsided grin. He swirled his brandy and said, “So what are you writing these days, old man? I keep hoping you’ll be inspired by one of those seafaring novels you like so much and write one of your own.” He took a puff on his cigar and exhaled saying, “You’d be a dab hand at that kind of thing if I’m any judge. Let’s hear it, give me a taste of what’s in the works.”

“Not a thing at present,” I said, smiling. “I’m afraid there’s not much adventure to be had in the quiet life of a residential physician. As you should know, my boy.” I quirked an eyebrow at him. “Although as a dashing young bachelor your experience may be different.”

Stamford snorted. “I wouldn’t read about my life if you paid me good money to do it.” He grinned and went on, “But you’ve lived John, what’s the count – three continents? Write about those if you’ve got nothing to write about here.” He took another sip of brandy then said. “Personally I’d like to hear more about those scads of women you claim to have known over ‘many nations’ to use your phrase.”

I laughed and said, “That was a long time ago, my boy. No one’s much interested in the reminisces of an old army surgeon.”

Stamford took a long drag of his cigar and exhaled slowly. “You’re selling yourself short, John,” he said. “You always have. You’ve got an adventurous streak a mile wide. You’ve just forgotten where you left it.”

He leant forward in his chair and studied me with a quite uncustomary seriousness. “I’m going to give you some advice for free and it’s probably worth what it cost,” he said. “Shake the dust of the town off your feet. Do something for the John H. Watson we know and love. You’ve no one to please but yourself.” He grinned. “And then write it down, for heaven’s sake. I’m starved for entertainment.”

He sat back while I whittered on obligations and responsibilities. When I’d done he went on as if I hadn’t spoken.

“Personally,” he said, regarding the glowing tip of his cigar. “I like tales of dark intrigue and romance. Mistaken identity is always good, too. Throw in a ravishing damsel and you’ve got yourself a corker.” He paused and pointed his cigar in my direction. “You’ve got a sea novel in there and you know it,” he said sententiously. “Now get out there and don’t come back until it’s done.” He grinned. “Doctor’s orders, old boy. You’ve got to take those seriously.”

The conversation moved on then, but Stamford’s words kept coming back to me as winter turned to spring. I hadn’t been away from England, or far from town for that matter, for five months short of three years. And he was quite correct, I realized, when he said there was nothing holding me in London.

As a young man, travel had come second nature to me. I’d ranged over continents with no fixed destination in mind. I was not the same untested youth of those days, but I was nearly as free. I could shut up my practice for a time, maybe as long as six months if I managed my funds carefully.

Mary, rest her sweet soul, had sold off the small collection of pearls that was the only legacy of her father and the last remnants of a great treasure. I had thought the money long gone – expended for specialist care and other necessities. It was a surprise, therefore, when I’d heard our solicitor list the terms of her will. She had held a little of the money aside and marked it out for me. I was overcome by the gesture, though I couldn’t make sense of its meaning at the time.

For many months after her death I didn’t spare it a thought. I had no needs that couldn’t be met by the small sum my medical work brought in. But over time I found I was not putting the energy into growing my practice that I once did. If I kept on as I was I knew I’d eventually be forced to draw on that fund.

In truth it crossed my mind to take the balance to the track and try my luck. I discarded the plan almost immediately. Luck had never been a steady companion of mine and besides the idea planted by Stamford had begun to grow into a plan. Why not, I thought, use part of the money to travel? It would be gone one day either way. I might make some pleasant memories from it instead of just another account book.

Colleagues would be glad to take over my patients while I was gone. Mrs. Hudson, our landlady from Baker Street days, doubtless knew of someone in need of lodgings who would keep my house looking lived in.

If I had thought to calculate such things I would have known it was two months short of the third anniversary of Holmes’s death when I sat down with the banker to arrange a withdrawal of funds. But I had long since stopped measuring each day from the cliffs of Reichenbach. The significance of the date barely crossed my mind as I signed the papers.

After that it was a certainty. I told Stamford as much over lunch a few days later. He jumped to his feet there in the Adelphi dining room and clasped me by the hand.

“John, John,” he said feverishly as the other diners looked around in curiosity. “You have no idea how much good it does me to hear it. If you knew the time I’ve spent rotting myself up over– but you’re going and I’m standing here making an ass of myself, aren’t I.”

With a laugh he relinquished my hand and spared the room a rueful smile as he sat back down. The waiter who’d been waiting with discreet impassivity came forward to clear the remains of our lunch. Stamford spoke over the rattle of china.

“You’re leaving soon?” he said eagerly.

I allowed that I was thinking of leaving in a month if my plans worked out. The coffee arrived and as it was poured I told him of the arrangements I’d already made.

“Where are you going first?” he asked. “Someplace exciting, I hope.”

“First?” I said, laughing. “It’s not a Grand Tour, old boy, just a protracted holiday.” I blew carefully over the surface of my steaming cup. I took a small sip and found it was still too hot. I turned the cup in my hands as I spoke. “I thought I might go someplace with a bit of sun. Spain, perhaps, then maybe Greece.”

“Spain? Greece?” Stamford said setting down his cup. “Those spots are fine for sitting around on verandas and the like. But you can do that in Blackpool for half the price and a fraction of the trouble.”

I grinned as he went on.

“Tell me you’re going someplace with a little adventure, John,” he said earnestly. “If you want sun they’ve got piles of it down in, oh, I don’t know, Africa. Yes,” he said, his eyes brightening. ”You’ve never been to Africa have you?”

I agreed that I hadn’t and he went on with growing enthusiasm. “Well, then,” he said grinning broadly. “Add another continent to your collection. I’ve always thought Morocco had a nice ring to it. Or Mauritius. It’s fairly French but it’s got a good reputation anyway.”

“I know a couple in Mauritius, actually,” I said thoughtfully. “Violet Smith, or I should say Morton now, and her young man Cyril. I’ve wondered how they’ve been getting along since Holmes–“

“No, now I think of it, maybe Mauritius is too French after all,” Stamford interrupted setting down his cup. He stared up at the sparkling chandelier over the center table. “Marrakech. Yes, it’s got a fair number of French in it, but they don’t make much of a nuisance of themselves from what I understand. I recommend Marrakech and then maybe a spot of Algiers. And Egypt’s close by that part of the globe, isn’t it? Go be this year’s David Livingstone. Don’t stint yourself, old man.”

“Well,” I said, smiling over my cup of coffee, “Since it was your idea to start with, I suppose I’m bound to take your advice. I’ll ask my travel broker to look into Morocco at least, although I don’t know a thing about the place.”

“Excellent,” Stamford said and slapped the tabletop enthusiastically, again causing heads to turn in our direction. He lowered his voice and whispered earnestly. “You won’t regret it. You’ll have loads to do. Camels all over the place down there and very good coffee I hear.”

And we talked on, piecing together what little we knew about Marrakech between us, I mentioned that I’d read a book once called Timbouctou, Voyage au Maroc – translated from the original French, of course, for I was hopeless with the language.

“I’ll wait your book,” Stamford said, pushing his cup away. “It’ll be far more exciting.”

“I hate to disappoint you,” I said, smiling, “But I don’t think I’ll write that sea novel of yours while I’m away.”

“Well, write something, dash it,” Stamford said taking up his teaspoon and brandishing it at me. “That’s part of the cure.”

“Now, look Stamford,” I said seriously. “I’m following your advice as far as I can, but the fact is I have nothing to write and a change of scenery is not going to make much difference.”

“John, let’s get this out on the table right now,” he said as he leant forward. “You’ve got a complex. You’re buying into all that ‘latter-day Boswell’ hokum and it’s not true besides which it’s not healthy. Surely you can see that by now.”

“Really, my boy,” I said as I began to arrange the silverware in a regular order, “I’m being honest when I say, my writing days are behind me. And I’d hardly compare myself to Boswell.”

“No,” Stamford said calmly. “Because he wrote a lot more than a biography of some chap he met in a West End book shop. Have you read his stuff? Not the Life of Johnson, every school boy reads that.”

“Well, of course,” I protested. “I do read more than sea stories, you know. I enjoyed Dorando quite a bit.”

“You haven’t read his Journals, though,” Stamford said. “If you had you’d know what I mean. I read them as a lad and I’d never gone in for reading much beyond Boys Own and the occasional penny dreadful. I’ve got the old man to thank for it.” He tapped on the table to emphasize his point. “He had a set of Boswell’s Journals in his library and he flat out forbad me to read them. Naturally, I went to them like a shot. The old man was quite right. It was dashed ripping stuff and I daresay ruined me for life but there you are.”

He grinned and went on, “Boswell wasn’t the simple-minded courtier of popular legend. He was quite the devil with the ladies. Lost a fortune at the table and died of a French disease. I wouldn’t follow him that far,” he said quickly as I raised my eyebrows. “But the man lived, you’ve got to give him that. Here’s some more advice as long as you’re putty in my hands. Get a journal. A new one. Write in that and see if the knack doesn’t come back to you. That’s it,” he said, leaning back and throwing his napkin down on the table. “I’m done. I’ve used up my store of advice for the year and here it is only April.”

I smiled in spite of myself for I knew he meant well. Then with a few words of thanks on my side and exhortation on his side to consider all of his advice (putting special emphasis on the “all”) Stamford and I parted warmly.

There was no question of actually writing, of course. It was a pleasant idea, but in leaving London I’d be stepping outside the life of John Watson the former biographer.

That man lived in London. He didn’t box up his files and hand them on to colleagues, shop for luggage or study Continental railway timetables. He certainly didn’t buy a traveling suit of light linen and a pair of stout walking shoes. John Watson the biographer had no need of those things.

I did think about Stamford’s advice on buying a journal, despite my conviction that it was a waste of valuable luggage space, but as with all of his advice, it nagged at me until I decided there was no harm in purchasing one as long as it was light to carry. I could always give it away in my travels if I found someone who could use it. So I tucked the decision in the back of my mind and went on with my preparations, which were absorbing enough.

Besides the travel arrangements, which were extensive (I discovered it was still rather challenging to get to North Africa even in our technologically advanced times), I had a steady stream of well wishers stopping at my door over the next few weeks. So many, in fact, I began to suspect Stamford of taking out an advertisement. My maid, Bess, I was sure, was growing weary of answering the bell.

As the days to departure dwindled down to a few, a most welcome figure appeared in my doorway. Mrs. Hudson bustled into my sitting room in her usual efficient manner looking, as ever, like a porcelain effigy of the perfect landlady. From her perfectly coiffed steel gray chignon, to her raven’s wing shantung gown with suitably old-fashioned collar, to her sensible, polished boots, she was a fixture in time. I’d no doubt she’d look just the same in a hundred years, long after I was gone.

I welcomed her heartily and we were soon sitting on either side of the hearth, laid with fragrant laurel branches for the warm summer months, and chatting merrily. I thanked the good woman for sending her nephew Thom to me and complimented his choice of a bride for Eleanor seemed a most suitable mate for such a bright young man. I hoped they’d be happy biding in my small town house while I was gone.

“Oh, bless you, sir,” she said in her slightly Northern-inflected accent (from a few miles east of Burnley Holmes had once assured me and I had no reason to doubt it). “They’re that grateful to have such a fine place to stay while they get their feet, as you might say, in the town. Our Thom’s all at sixes and sevens what with looking for a position and Eleanor’s been round every few days asking after advice. I tell her, pet, all a man ever wants is a welcome face by the door and an ear to listen to his– but hark at me going on like the original Oracle,“ she said, and gave a little laugh. “I must be getting into my second childhood.”

I tutted. “Nonsense, Mrs. Hudson,” I said warmly, “And Eleanor couldn’t have wished for a better font of wisdom. Mary went round to take lessons at your knee a more than once as I recall.”

“That she did, sir,” the worthy lady said, studying the sheaf of laurel branches. “That she did though I had little enough of use to say to the girl when all was said and done. But,” she said, and went on in her usual brisk manner, “I’ve stopped in this morning to pass along more than the prattlings of a foolish old lady, I’ve got messages for you.”

I waited curiously as she sat up in her chair and rested her tea cup on her knee. “Old Mr. Timms in the next house but one sends his best and says, ‘Don’t eat ‘nothing over there,’ bless him I think his gout is playing up on him. Mrs. S. Brown says she’s just put up a new store of your favorite pear marmalade and hopes you’ll stop in to try it when you get home. Mrs. C. Brown says she hopes you’ll come round with lots of exciting stories, poor dear she did used to love traveling with her Mr. Brown. And young Mr. Albert Dennis says he’s been reading up on Morocco and he thinks you’ll need money for bribes, but he’s always a bit prone to worry, isn’t he.” She put a finger to her lips and said, “Now, I’m forgetting someone for certain, oh, that’s it, the Abbingdon’s are moving to Bournemouth for the sea air and they say you’re always welcome if you find yourself down that way. And, of course, you’ve got the various folks in the shops who send their warm regards so I’ll include those as a lump.”

I laughed as this litany drew to a close. “Goodness,” I said still smiling broadly. “It seems as though you’ve stopped at every door in the street to collect good wishes on my behalf.”

“Lor’ bless you, sir,” she said with an effort at looking severe that was most unconvincing. “I did nothing of the sort. Word of your holiday got round and every living one of those folk made special effort to send their best. Doctor,” she went on giving me a steady look, “You can’t help collecting friends. You’re that openhearted they take to you like bees to clover. Just you remember that.” She smiled again, the warm smile that always reminded me of my dear mother, and said, “And just you be sure to stop in at Baker Street when you get home. I’ll have a candle burning in the window for you.”

I agreed that I would plan on it and although I stopped short of promising, I hoped that by then I would be brave enough to do it.

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Chapter Three: Meaning and Saying

One of the last visitors to sit by my hearth was Mrs. Isa Whitney. She had been a good friend even before Mary’s illness and had been a godsend during it.

Bright, blond-haired, patient Kate Whitney had been widowed far too young by a husband who had, in the end, been unable to break from the grip of his addictions. She and Mary, with their separate pain, had grown quite close. Kate and I spoke warmly of Mary and of her indomitably good spirits even in those final days.

“You know, she cared a great deal that you should be happy, John,” Mrs. Whitney said, her mahogany brown eyes regarding me seriously. “More than you know.“

She took a deep breath and leant toward me as she spoke. “John, we’ve seen far into one another’s lives over the years and I must tell you one thing before you go. It’s something Mary wanted to say to you herself, but…” she hesitated, then went on resolutely. “While we were in Bath, when you left on your last adventure with Mr. Holmes, Mary told me she’d given it a great deal of thought and, more than anything, she wanted you to do what would make you happiest. But by the time she saw you again– well, it all changed so suddenly, didn’t it?” She gave me a sad smile. “I think Mary’s only regret was that she hadn’t the chance to tell you.”

I must have looked confused because she reached over, patted my knee and said gently, “You take that thought and keep it close, John. I think it will make sense to you in time.”

Those words were all she would say on the subject and so we turned to other conversation, but as she parted from me she leant forward and gave me a light kiss on the cheek. “Be happy, John,” she said, “For Mary’s sake and for your own.”

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My mind was soon so taken up with last-minute preparations I hadn’t time to ponder Kate Whitney’s conversation. One of the last tasks I’d left myself was clearing a few spaces in my bookcases for the convenience of my new tenants. I decided to leave most of the books on their shelves to give the place a more welcoming look but I expected a man of Thom’s studious bent would soon start building a library of his own.

On the last afternoon before I was to depart on my travels I was engaged in packing some of my more specialized medical texts into storage boxes when I distantly registered the sound of the front bell. Soon thereafter my maid Bess (who had insisted on staying to supervise the closing up of my household accounts before leaving to take up her new position) stepped in to announce a new guest.

“Who is it, Bess?” I asked as I straightened my shirt front in an effort to make myself presentable.

“Mr. Holmes, sir,” Bess responded in her usual efficient manner and I fear I must have blanched for her features softened and she amended, “That is, Mr. Mycroft Holmes, sir.”

I steadied my voice and answered, “Do show Mr. Holmes in, Bess, thank you.”

While I waited Bess’s return I made an effort to calm my somewhat jangled nerves. Despite my attempted show of calm, it had given me a turn to hear that name announced in both forms. It may have not been so startling to hear the first if hearing the second was not so unexpected in its own right.

Seeing Mycroft Holmes away from his habitual digs in Pall Mall was an event akin to finding a tramcar on a country lane to use his younger brother’s phrase. In fact, I had not seen Mycroft Holmes since the small, private memorial service for his brother and then only long enough to shake hands. To find him in my doorway was unprecedented.

But there was no mistake for a moment later I heard a heavy tread in the passage and the imposing figure of Mycroft Holmes loomed in the doorway. Seeing him in my familiar domestic surroundings was a bit like seeing Jove descended to Earth.

Besides being the possessor of a figure seemingly inflated in height and width to a grand scale, Mycroft Holmes had the commanding features of Plato in his prime and, according to his brother, something of the same reasoning power.

Without my Holmes as an intermediary, I felt a marked trepidation in facing this formidable personage. Bearing out my apprehension, his first utterance put me quite off balance.

“Your maid has been crying, Doctor,” he announced in his ringing voice as he paced into the room. He did not spare a glance for my furnishings and I had no doubt the action would have only confirmed some prior and passing theory as to their selection. “I’ve never found it desirable to have emotional women about the place when there’s a great deal to be done,” he went on, “They’re not much use at the best of times.”

I chose to overlook this comprehensive dismissal of the gentler sex, finding it easy enough to do after long association with his brother, but I couldn’t help but be curious and so once I’d seen his substantial frame settled in my largest club chair (the one I’d judged sturdiest) I questioned him on his statement about my maid.

“Bess seems quite herself to me,” I said. “Why do you suspect she’s been crying?”

“It is no suspicion, Doctor, mere observation,” Mycroft Holmes intoned, “She has traces of fresh powder on her nose. Face powder is not a commodity a girl in service dispenses casually, certainly not when she favors a cosmetic that is frankly beyond her means as your girl does. I hear you’re taking yourself away from our metropolis. Good. I understand travel is said to broaden the mind.”

I blinked, adjusting to this sudden shift in the course of conversation. “I had no idea you’d heard of my plans,” I said. I did not expound on the fact that it was a surprise to learn his sphere of attention, circumscribed as it was, included me in any way now that his brother no longer formed a link between us.

“I have acquaintances in the medical community, Doctor,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “Word reached me soon enough that you were planning a journey toward North Africa.” His gaze had taken on an intensity that was at odds with his languid expression. “Will you be taking the ferry from Montpelier?”

“I will be traveling overland through France,” I said carefully, for I did not wish to risk offending him if this was some deduction he had made by means unknown to me. “But I will be taking the ferry from Marseilles.”

“Ah, that’s that then,” he said, seemingly pleased by the information. “You are equipped with such requisites as the well-prepared traveler carries, I assume. Have you a reliable guidebook?”

In fact, I had acquired a seemingly comprehensive pamphlet from my travel broker some days before and said as much. He waved his hand dismissively.

“Acquire a Baedeker’s,” he all but commanded. “The latest edition has received high marks for competence. I’m sure it’s as reliable as a product of German manufacture may be.”

“I’ll take that to heart,” I said for I certainly had no reason to doubt his judgment. “I am sure I have room in my bag for another guide.”

“There’s a bookseller around the corner. Prescott’s in Runnymede Mews,” he said. “The man seems competent enough though not particularly ingratiating. He’ll no doubt be able to outfit you admirably. Mention my name. I’m sure he’ll be glad of the custom.”

And with that he heaved himself from the chair with an audible groan of protest from the strained leather upholstery. “Drop me a line if you’re in any way– hampered in your travels,” he said with a surprising hesitation in his words. “I’m not without connections abroad.”

He reached out and enveloping my hand in his gave it a perfunctory shake. “I’ll see myself out. Bon voyage.”

As his heavy footfalls faded on the stair outside I collected my thoughts. Advice from Mycroft Holmes was certainly worth considering and I had heard good reports of the Baedeker’s series of guidebooks. A trip to the bookseller’s might also net me a few more novels to stow in my kit bag as proof against delayed trains and other inconveniences. Moreover, I had yet to obtain the new journal Stamford had enjoined me to purchase.

And so, later that evening, I found myself pacing the pavement of Kensington Church Street searching for the turning to Runnymede Mews. It had been no little effort to locate on my London survey map and on reaching the spot where I had understood it be I was only marginally surprised to find the court was nowhere in evidence.

But, feeling that I had committed myself, for it was my last evening in London and I had no time to travel farther afield in search of another bookshop, I continued the search. At last I spotted a narrow door of wood planking so aged it seemed held together only by force of habit.

There was a verdigris stained plate on the door that read “r.de mews” but gave no other indication of what might be on the other side. Cautiously I pushed on the boards and found myself at the mouth of one of those ancient alleys that seemed to have been unaccountably missed by the Great Fire.

There were just three doors visible in the shadowy court. One weathered signboard read “Seamstr–“ the rest of the letters being erased by a growth of mildew. A gray-green door to the left of that had no markings at all. Opposite them across the broken pavement was a bare wood door quite as unimpressive as the others save for a new warded lock.

A low window of ancient rippled glass beside the door was covered in a thick gray haze. I assumed it at first to be city dust but as I bent to looked more closely it proved to be whitewashed from the inside. Through gaps in the swirling pattern I could make out rows of faded books lining the sunken floor.

The unpromising look of the street combined with the lack of any welcoming placard in the window had almost decided me to turn back, but before I could straighten the door was yanked inward by an unseen hand. Between the sudden movement and the tinkling peal of a shop bell I nearly toppled over. As I righted myself I heard a querulous old voice bark, “Well, are ye comin’ in or airn’t ye?”

I muttered some apology, although I wasn’t quite sure for what reason, and bent to step through the low door. I stumbled on the bowed wooden step leading down to the shop floor and threw out an arm to right myself, nearly overturning a high stack of ancient leather-bound volumes.

I steadied the tottering pile of to the accompaniment of a volley of “Tut-tuts” from my yet invisible host. My hands came away with a sticky residue of dust and it was an effort to resist the urge to wipe them on my trousers.

“I don’t know,” muttered the dry old voice, “These young men. Unstable lot. Soon as push over yer books as say how d’ye do.”

Belatedly remembering to remove my hat, I stood clutching it as I looked around in the dim light for the source of this complaint. I stepped farther into the room and at last spied the shopkeeper lurking behind a stained oak countertop.

He was engaged in fussily tidying a set of pocket-sized books, his arthritic hands protected by archivists’ gloves. A volume fell open and I glimpsed an etched color plate of a starling in flight before he snapped the book shut and squinted up at me over the rim of his scarred tortoise-shell spectacles. His eyes, though surrounded by crêpey wrinkles, were surprisingly sharp and such an arresting shade of gray that I froze with my greeting on my lips. He immediately stooped below the countertop and I heard him muttering over the sound of shuffling paper.

“Not so much sense as the good Lord gave a mackerel. Don’t know how they keep upright half the time,” he said not quite under his breath. “Staring at a feller like a hedge rabbit in a high wind–”

“Glad I found you at last,” I said, bravely attempting to stem this low volume tirade, “I was told you might be able to help me. Mr. Mycroft Holmes said I should mention his–“

I broke off at the sound of a volley of bone-rattling coughs from below the level of the counter.

“Are you all right, sir?” I asked in some concern for it seemed as if a fit of apoplexy might be in the offing. “May I get you some water?”

Abruptly the elderly man straightened to his full height, which could not have been more than five and a half feet, and barked in his dry voice, “Holmes? Holmes? Big, fat feller wit’n evil glint in his eye?”

“Well, he’s a large man,” I said uncertainly.

“Oh, yus, I know ’im,” said the old man eyeing me narrowly. “Low sort. No breedin’ a’tall. Friend of his are ye? Well, no wonder then. All right what’re come for? My time’s not so cheap I can spend it ditherin’.”

“Yes, well,” I said, blinking. “I shan’t detain you long. I was looking for a few novels – something along the lines of Stevenson or Melville.”

“Nope, what else?” he said and pursed his lips expectantly.

“Ah, a journal – a memorandum book of any kind?” I ventured.

“No empty books,” said the old man, squinting at me over his glasses, “Only full ones. This ‘ere’s a book shop in case you were wonderin’.”

“And a Baedeker’s,” I said flatly, now thoroughly ready to escape this strange little man’s company. “The latest for North Africa. I’m sure you don’t have it, so I’ll just be–”

“Why on Earth d’yer want ter go there for?” he asked.

“Ah, well,” I said, startled by this sudden show of interest in the conversation. “A friend recommended it. I wanted to go someplace with sun and–”

“What’s wrong wit’ It’ly?” he challenged. “Tha’s got sun. Bit dusty, but sunny enough.”

“Yes, Italy is nice,” I said slowly, thoroughly confounded by now. “But this friend of mine–”

“Don’t sound like much of a friend ter me,” said the old man. “Sendin’ ye ter Africa on a whim. Luxembourg, now. Tha’s sunny. If ye gets up high and don’t mind snow. But if yer going ter Luxembourg ye might as well go ter Belgium. Never had much use fer Belgians. Nah, stick wit’ It’ly. Tha’s my advice, long as yer takin’ it from every side.”

“My good, sir,” I said evenly. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your views. But I am going to Africa. Tomorrow. Do you have a Baedeker’s Guide or shall I go elsewhere?”

“Not so fast, young man,” said the bookseller with a mollifying wave of his gloved hand. “Not so fast. I got somethin’ here tha’s jus’ the thing fer ye.”

The man ducked below the counter again and I heard books thumping and shuffling below. At last he straightened with a small rust-colored book clutched in his hand.

“This ‘ere’s the book yer after,” he said and slapped the book down on the counter, stirring up a flurry of dust. “Beats that German article all ter blazes. Though much good it’ll do yer in It’ly.”

“I’m sorry, but I was looking for–” I started.

“So ye jus’ come in ter waste an old man’s time, eh?” he said, squinting fiercely over his glasses. “D’yer want the book er don’ ye?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again then abruptly advanced to the counter.

“How much?” I said tersely as I reached for my change purse. In my haste I dislodged the slim black syringe case in my breast pocket and it fell to the counter with a clatter. I muttered an apology and stuffed it back into my pocket, located my purse and shook the contents out into my hand. There was still no response from the little man so I looked up questioningly to find his eyes were fixed on my pocket.

“Sir?” I said, feeling ever more certain that I inadvertently wandered into the lair of a madman. “How much?”

The bookseller blinked and cleared his throat. “Ten an’ six,” he snapped, going back to straightening the birding guides on the corner of the counter. “An’ two fer a sack if yer wants one.”

“No, thank you,” I said, determined to be courteous, and counted out the change. He held out a gloved hand and I dropped the change into his palm. I scooped up my book for he seemed disinclined to offer it to me and said, “Thank you,” again, as politely as I could and turned to make my escape.

“Safe voyage,” said the voice behind me, with a quiet so at odds with his previous tone I looked around startled.

“We’re closed,” he barked, glaring at me over his spectacles. “Come again.” And with that he came shambling around the counter with the clear intent of locking the door no matter which side of it I was on.

I stumbled back up the wooden stair and out into the court. The door slammed behind me and I heard the tumbler lock shoot home. I found myself standing in the darkened mews, clutching my book in one hand, my hat in the other, and feeling unreasonably drained.

After a moment, I placed my hat firmly on my head and stepped forward to let myself out the door to the street. Deciding that it was the worry of preparing for prolonged travel that was playing havoc with my nerves, I resolved to go to bed early that night and finish my last-minute packing in the morning. I was so preoccupied with these thoughts I nearly ran into a man standing just outside the door.

“Pardon me,” I said quickly. “I didn’t see you there. Head in the clouds, I’m afraid.”

I smiled apologetically, but the man merely glared at me. I had the impression of hard, ice blue eyes and a bristling gray mustache, then the man grunted and brushed past me, hurrying up the street toward Notting Hill Gate.

Shaking my head in resignation, I started for home. All things considered, I mused, it seemed I was leaving London not a moment too soon.

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Four: Echoes

“It is not every man who can be exquisitely miserable, any more than exquisitely happy.”

– James Boswell
.

The morning of my departure was harrowing. After laying awake most of the night I started up to find sunlight streaming across my bedclothes. I had the instant sinking sensation of knowing that I had overslept myself by enough to thoroughly erase my planned margin.

Thanking heaven I’d had the foresight or luck to send the bulk of my luggage ahead to Victoria, I had only minutes to thrust a few remaining articles into my battered leather kit bag. Thus engaged in scurrying about my sitting room grabbing up odds and ends, my reaching hand fell on the rust-colored book I’d acquired at the cost of my nerves and temper the night before. I had dropped it unceremoniously on my desk on coming in and promptly forgotten it.

The front bell rang and I hurriedly continued my motion, stuffing the book into my bag even as I started assembling an excuse to delay the cabman who was certainly at my door. I felt a rush of relief when Bess hurried in to tell me it was not the cab, but a package. I glanced at the flat butcher-paper wrapped parcel Bess proffered and deciding I had no time to open what was certainly something easily handled later, I thanked her and dropped that, too, in my bag.

At last I paused and took a last look around my sitting room. The realization that I would be away from it for so long and on my own brought me up short. My mind began to drift back over the many events that room had seen, both minor and momentous, and I was in danger of slipping into a reverie when Bess popped through the door again.

“Oh, sir,” she said, “A boy’s just run over to say there’s been a fracas at the cabstand and the cab you reserved won’t be here on time. He’s offered to run to the corner and fetch one–”

“That’s fine, Bess,” I said, coming to myself and shrugging into my coat. “Give him a few coins and thank him for me.”

The boy earned his pennies for the cab was there in seconds. I blurted my destination to the hulking driver perched on the seat above and gave Bess a quick kiss on the cheek at which she suddenly and to my astonishment burst into tears. I patted her on the shoulder as tenderly as I could manage then vaulted into the carriage clutching my bowler and my bag. The driver whipped up his horse on the instant and we clattered away from the curb.

We made good time to Victoria despite the notorious morning traffic in that quarter and I gave the mufflered driver a handsome tip before jumping down to the street. Once in the station I had to negotiate the ticket office, ensure my cases were stowed in the luggage caravan and assure the porter who had arrived at my elbow that I did not need help with my kit bag.

I encountered another small delay as I stopped to assist an elderly French woman up the stairs to her carriage. As I strode toward the train, the lady, bent with age and muffled in yards of antique black sateen and a heavy black veil – the mark of widow’s weeds of my mother’s generation – was attempting to negotiate the narrow stairs with a carpetbag that must have contained half her worldly possessions.

Having the mastery of French typical of a boy brought up in the British public school system, which is to say very little, it took some time to help the lady find her compartment. While I paced down the car checking compartment numbers against her crumpled ticket, she kept up a steady stream of polite though unintelligible conversation in her high, thin voice. Apart from a few simple words like “gentil” and “aimable” I was at a loss to follow the burden of her conversation.

It was with great relief that I at last located her private compartment (which proved to be in the adjacent car, in fact) and left her to the small book of verse she was seemingly eager to resume. She had retrieved it from her bag on the instant I deposited it on the banquette beside her and I believe she tried to show me a passage that would better express her thoughts, but it too was in French so I smiled graciously and with many a “merci” and “de rien” I took my leave.

At last I found my own compartment, thrust my bag in on the floor, threw myself into the seat behind it and heaved a huge sigh. It was the first breath I could recall taking since waking that morning.

On the instant there was a hiss of steam, the iron wheels started to turn and the platform began to slide past my window. I glanced out and was startled to see a man jogging beside the carriage. He was apparently making a last ditch effort to catch the departing train and as the whistle sounded he put on a burst of speed, causing his hat to fly off behind him.

As he glanced after it he turned toward the window and his eyes met mine. I was taken aback to see two hard, ice blue eyes over a bristling gray mustache. Then the end of the platform hove into view and the man fell back from my sight.

I was still staring at the window when I heard a light tap on the sliding door to the passage. I looked around to find a young steward peering in the open door.

“Paper, sir?” he said, casting his eye over my startled face with a marked curiosity.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” I said distractedly as he peeled a copy of the Times off the sheaf under his arm and held it out to me. He nodded and moved off along the passage as I glanced down at the banner across the top of the front page.

Grisly Shooting Death of Hon. Ronald Adair in Park Lane. Police Baffled. I scanned the article without really taking in the words, folded the paper and, laying it on the banquette beside me for later attention, I bent and opened my kit bag with a thought to rearranging its no doubt disheveled contents.

The first thing that caught my eye was the paper-wrapped parcel that had arrived at my door not an hour before. I lifted it out and weighed the object in my hand. It was undoubtedly a book of some sort. I turned it over, but could find no marking on the brown butcher-paper.

I tugged off the piece of twine bound loosely around it and unfolded the wrapping. Resting in my hand was a slim, hand-bound volume covered in a shining black moiré fabric. I dropped the wrapper onto my bag then turned my hand so that the book fell open in my palm. It was blank from cover to cover aside from a tiny inscription on the flyleaf. Printed in a precise hand were a series of numbers:

11332
01461
10122
16133
04092
06361
17413

My first thought was that the journal had come from Stamford. He had rightly assumed I hadn’t obtained one on my own. But surely he would have included a note of some kind, I reasoned. And what could the strange set of numbers mean?

For a long moment I sat staring vacantly at the book in my hand as the array of strangenesses that had occurred to me in the last day circled in my mind. It was in that moment I determined to follow Stamford’s advice yet again. I dug through my bag then I sat back with a pen in one hand and my new journal in the other and I began to write.

.
o00o
.

The next morning I stood on the platform at Montpelier, the train’s last stop before Marseilles, and turned my face to the sun. Its light spread over the little seaside town bathing the rows of ancient white washed houses in an orange glow. Terracotta rooftops rambled down the hills toward the sea in undulating rows like marching caterpillars.

I blinked and stretched. Behind me, above the gentle chuffing of the resting train, the voices of my fellow passengers, some thick with sleep, some laughing gaily, were as pleasantly incomprehensible as birdsong. There were many languages now. By turns an English phrase or a French, German or Mohammedan word would surface above the rest. If this was Babel, I thought sleepily, it was not at all a bad place.

A pair of local freight handlers, chatting in the easy way of long companions, strolled up the winding lane to our raised platform. Each hooked a sun-browned hand over the edge and with the ease of long practice, vaulted up onto the scuffed boards. I watched them make their rambling way back toward the luggage van in their motley uniforms of slim blue trousers and cabled sweaters, one heather, one dusky blue, both darned at the elbows.

I had walked into a morning ritual that had gone on long before and would continue long after I departed and I was content to stand at the side and watch the players in their parts.

My decision to take the more circuitous route from Calais, traveling down through the west of France, skirting Spain and finally rolling along the Mediterranean coast, had been justified in full, I felt, by the pleasures of the journey.

As the train rolled south through Limoges and Bordeaux, trim fields, white-gold in their new spring growth, began to spread and ramble until they became pastures without borders that blended into ancient forests that edged meadows swathed in waves of pale blue wildflowers.

At each stop along the way I encountered rich new sights and scents. I tasted crumbling white cheese, redolent of old forest wood, on bread with crust the color of buttermilk and I stood under titian blue skies that soared to the horizon where the shining peaks of the Pyrenees blinked like crystal.

In Toulouse I’d disembarked to change trains and had whiled away the time while baggage was transferred and new passengers sorted by wandering through the neat row of shops that edged the station.

I bought a small lace bag of candied violets, the local treasure since kings had contested for the land. The shop girl, in her neat white apron, that so charmingly contrasted the oak brown hair that tumbled down her shoulders, smiled at me and my stumbling French and her black eyes shone. Somewhere in that town of white houses and pink roofs there was a boy that lived to see those eyes shine for him.

After Narbonne we rolled into the falling night and the western sky glowed sapphire long after the sun had set. I had forgotten how many stars there were. They painted the sky in sparkling brushstrokes. I drifted to sleep rocked by the steady beat of the wheels over endless tracks. It was the first time in what seemed like years that I had slept through the night and not dreamed of bare cliff sides and the roar of icy water.

Now as I stood on the platform a cool morning breeze off the sea brushed my face and I felt a sudden ache in my chest. When booking my travel I had insisted on this longer route. It hadn’t been a reasoned decision, rather an imperative of the journey. I couldn’t take the eastern route. Not yet. I couldn’t start my journey by crossing country I had last crossed sitting alone on a night train from Switzerland.

I blinked into the sun trying to wash the memory away in light, but it hung there behind my eyes. Opening the last note from Holmes across my knee, carefully smoothing the creases left by my clenched fist. Noticing the places the ink had run, probably from the spray of the falls. Once I had stood so close to the edge of the cliff I could see the churning water rushing almost under my feet. Standing there, gazing down, I had wondered what it felt like to fall.

I imagined dropping through the heavy mist. Would you have time for a final gasp of air heavy with spray? It would be useless for an instant later the breath would burst from your lungs as you crashed into the heaving water. You would choke as you struggled upward desperate for a last taste of half-frozen air, but the pitiless white water would drag at you, pulling you down toward the grinding rocks below. If you were already mercifully numbed from the cold you might feel it only as a distant ache as you were dashed against them. Would a spreading sense of peace enfold you as you gazed up at fractured sunlight? What would it be like to fall through the water until everything faded into white silence?

“M’sieur?” said a voice at my shoulder.

I blinked and looked round to find a slender young man watching me curiously from under a mop of straw-colored hair. “M’sieur?” he repeated. “Ça va?”

I gave a short, rasping laugh. “Ah, soleil – er, bright,” I said, and scrubbed at my eyes with the heel of my hand. “Dormir,“ I tried. “Moi est dormir?”

The youth smiled and patted me on the shoulder with the indulgence one would show a slightly daft uncle. “Oui,” he said. “I understand. Your French is very good.” He inclined his head toward the low-roofed inn just off the platform. “M’sieur would care for un café?”

“Merci,” I said ducking my head, “Merci, bon.”

He grinned and patted my shoulder again. “Je vous en prie,” he said, moving off toward the emptying train. “Au revoir. See you soon.”

I reached into my pocket for my handkerchief and my fingers brushed the bag of candied violets resting there. I lifted out the tiny sack and held it in my palm.

Purple blossoms daubed with sparkling sugar tumbled about in creamy lace as fine as a spider’s web. My breath escaped in something like a sigh as I admired the simple, beautiful, timeless thing, turning it over in my hand. This was why I was traveling, I reminded myself, to make new memories, not lose myself in old ones. I put the violets carefully back in my pocket then hefted my kit bag and started for the end of the platform.

.
o00o
.

Walking down hill a few minutes later I reflected that it might have been more sensible to simply stop at the pleasant track-side inn pointed out by the boy at the train.

I was not dressed to best advantage for an excursion in the town. My brown tweed traveling suit had held up well on the train and looked not much the worse for wear, but as the Mediterranean sun climbed higher I would have gladly traded it for the light linen suit packed in my luggage.

I might have saved myself the walk, I knew, if I had been more inclined to make the acquaintance of my fellow travelers. Repeated stops and changes of train had served to shuffle the mix of faces so that only a few stood out as familiar and those I knew only by sight.

I had recognized a well built, university aged fellow with a tawny complexion and a white rose in his buttonhole, no doubt just out of school and looking forward to a summer on the Continent. Two women of middle-years, the archetypal British ladies abroad, were also familiar. They sat shoulder to shoulder, bent over a guidebook, their faces shaded under wide-brimmed but practical hats.

Nearby stood a heavy-set gentleman with trim side-whiskers and a shining watch chain stretched low over the strained cloth of his waistcoat. I’d seen him in the passageway the evening before. He was chatting with a young priest who had the berries and cream complexion of an Austrian farm boy.

They were only faces to me. The last few passengers I had traded conversation with along the way had disembarked at Toulouse. I had looked for my elderly French acquaintance when we stopped at Dover, but she must have found other assistance for her compartment was empty when I arrived. Nor did I see the bewhiskered man again although I looked for him several times on the chance that he had managed to swing onto the train at the last instant.

Feeling disinclined to make general conversation, I had wondered whether I might find a quieter café around the corner with the same smell of fresh coffee and warm bread drifting through the open door. My stomach gave a decisive rumble at the thought so I selected a street and set off down the hill.

I had only to wander one street more before I found just the place. From the fluttering lace curtains above and the open door below I guessed it was one of the small family-run pensions my travel broker had described in glowing detail before I was able to convince him that Africa truly was my destination.

I stooped slightly as I stepped through the low-slung door and on removing my hat I found myself in a bright sunlit room with bare beams traversing the white ceiling. I hesitated on finding the room empty save for several washed wooden tables scattered across the floor.

A matronly woman stepped in from the next room wiping her hands on her daisy yellow apron.

“Bonjour,” I said in my stilted accent. “Comment ça va. S’il vous plait, madame. Un café son sucre et lait, et un baguette?”

“Ah, oui, ça va,” she said briskly, nodding at the nearest table. “S’il vous plait, m’sieur.”

She disappeared back through the door and I settled myself at the nearest table, listening to the sound of water splashing and the clatter of dishes.

Realizing that I had been presented with an ideal opportunity to add impressions of Montpelier to my growing travel journal (already I had filled a surprising number of pages having written in it steadily both on the train and at each stop along the way) I lay my hat on the chair beside mine and bent to open my bag.

A shadow fell across the floor and I looked up to see a man’s shape, looking hulking and oversized as it stood silhouetted in the low doorway. The illusion was belied a moment later when the man stepped into the room without ducking his head. As he moved into the sunlight I saw he was a perfect specimen of what the typical Englishman would consider a typical Frenchman.

He was short of stature but solidly built with a shape as regular as a clothes peg. As he removed his narrow-brimmed bowler I saw sandy brown hair, brilliantined to a gloss and parted precisely down the middle. His trim mustache was so neat it might have been cut with the aid of a ruler.

His searching gaze fell on me as he stepped into the room and his face transformed into a mask of pleasure. His round hazel eyes lit up and his elegantly bowed lips curled in a smile. He crossed to my table in two quick steps and had grasped my hand before I had half-risen from my seat.

“Ah, c’est merveilleux, vraiment!” he exclaimed in a voice surprisingly deep for a man of his stature. As I strained to understand his rapid address I was able to pick out a few familiar words from the torrent. I made out, “Mais c’est vrai!” and “très chanceux” then “bon” repeated several times in rapid succession. The man seemed to register my profound confusion at last for the rush of words paused.

He leaned forward, still clasping my hand in his, peered at me gravely and said, “Parlez-vous français?”

“Ah, no,” I managed, smiling in my relief. “I’m very sorry. Je suis très déso- pardonnez-moi,” I managed.

“Mais non, non mille fois, the pardon is to you,” he said, releasing my hand at last as he pressed his own to his heart. “A million times I beg you to forgive my callousness. I am so overcome with joy at this meeting. Please, I will introduce myself.”

Bending from the waist, he gave a small bow. “My name is Francois le Villard, Inspecteur Principaux of the Police Judiciaire, and I am at your service Docteur John Watson.”

I blinked in surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sure I should know you, your name is familiar, but–“

“Ah!” said the little man, clapping a hand to his brow, “My manners, bon Dieu, please accept my humble pardon. I am beside myself with the pleasure of meeting you at last. I sit, eh? We converse. Bon,” he said, dragging the chair back from the table with an audible scrape.

“Ah, yes,” I stuttered, preserving just enough presence of mind to retrieve my hat before the Inspector thumped down into the seat. He placed his neat bowler on the table, heaved a sigh and beaming, said, “Now, I begin again. Docteur, you and I we have the friend in common. If I may be so bold as to say, though I am but a student to the master. I speak of course, of the greatest detective, Monsieur Sherlock Holmes.”

.
-«oOo»-
.

Chapter Five: Mute Evidence

Some minutes later Inspector Villard and I sat at the little table, two cups of coffee cold and forgotten at our elbows and a largely intact baguette between them. The mistress of the pension has just looked in from the kitchen for the second time and disappeared again with a long-suffering shake of her head.

After a deal more of his rather scattershot approach to conversation, I had placed Inspector Villard’s name at last. I clearly recalled the occasion when Holmes had mentioned the Inspector to me for I had written of the conversation in my record of the case of the Sign of Four

“My practice has extended recently to the Continent,” said Holmes after a while, filling up his old brier-root pipe. “I was consulted last week by Francois le Villard, who, as you probably know, has come rather to the front lately in the French detective service. He has all the Celtic power of quick intuition but he is deficient in the wide range of exact knowledge which is essential to the higher developments of his art. The case was concerned with a will and possessed some features of interest. I was able to refer him to two parallel cases, the one at Riga in 1857, and the other at St. Louis in 1871, which have suggested to him the true solution. Here is the letter which I had this morning acknowledging my assistance.”

He tossed over, as he spoke, a crumpled sheet of foreign notepaper. I glanced my eyes down it, catching a profusion of notes of admiration, with stray magnifiques, coup-de-maitres and tours-de-force, all testifying to the ardent admiration of the Frenchman.

“He speaks as a pupil to his master,” said I.

“Oh, he rates my assistance too highly,” said Sherlock Holmes lightly. “He has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time. He is now translating my small works into French.”

It seemed Inspector Villard had indeed made quite a study of Holmes’s works and methods. He was particularly proud of having recently sent to press a slim volume entitled, On the Identification of Various Poisons by Their Effect on Common House Plants.

“In my humble way,” Villard said with a dip of his head, “I keep the great man’s name alive in France. We were pleased to have the grace of his presence, ah, but too little time. But how could it be enough, when he left us so much too soon.”

I found that it was strangely easy to talk of Holmes with this little man I had known only as a name. I listened to him speak of my friend and saw the light in his eyes as he told me of applying Holmes’s methods (“In my ever so clumsy way, as you must understand.”) and it was a pleasure to realize for the first time how much my friend’s gifts were still a source of good in the world beyond England. In London his was an empty space that could never be filled. To Inspector Villard, Holmes was a mentor still.

So lost was I in the Inspector’s talk that I started when I heard the train’s warning whistle sound. I was rising to my feet and in the midst of voicing my regret at having to leave his company when the little Frenchman stood and, beaming, dropped a quantity of coins noisily on the table, called a lively “merci!” to the proprietress and ushered me out the door.

“No, Docteur, no,” he exclaimed as he paced briskly at my side on the trek back up the hill to the station. “We are truly well met travelers we two,” he went on, “I also am on my way to Grenoble!”

“Oh, I’m not–“ I began, but by that time he was already striding ahead and up the stairs of the platform, advancing on the conductor with a cheerful cry of greeting.

Grenoble being the next stop past Marseilles, I decided that I would have time to correct the Inspector’s misapprehension at our next destination and, not wishing to cause delay, I moved toward my car. The tawny young man with the white rose boutonnière was lounging by the door finishing his cigarette.

He exhaled a stream of strong tobacco (I recognized it as a Punjabi blend from my long-ago days in the tea lands of India) and flicked away the tail of the cigarette as I drew near. On coming closer I realized the man was older than I had at first guessed. It may have been his insouciant manner that gave the impression of a man of university-age, but on closer view I could see his face had lost the soft edges of youth and was already set in the more fixed lines of a man approaching the end of his third decade.

“We were getting worried we’d lost you, old man,” he said with a lazy smile. “Thought you might be staying to sample the local vintage. Roman Saint-James,” he said, extending his hand and catching mine in a surprisingly strong grip.

“John Watson,” I said, “Very pleased to meet you.”

As I spoke the second whistle sounded.

Saint-James released my hand and gave a small chuckle. “Can’t keep the Frenchies waiting, can we? My crib is up this way,” he said giving a toss of his head in the direction of the engine. “I’ll see you in Marseilles. Let’s have a drink.” I said some words of agreement and with that Saint-James tipped his hat and turned toward his compartment.

I mounted toward my own cabin and turned onto the passageway. On the instant I heard a hissing burst of steam and the train gave a lurch and started forward.

“Ah, bon!” said a cheerful voice behind me and I looked over my shoulder to find Inspector Villard, his cupid’s bow mouth curled in a grin. “I have found you in time,” he said. “May I impose so far as to continue our so pleasant conversation? It would please me nothing more.”

And with a spark of surprise I realized that it would please me as well.

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“You do not go to Grenoble?” the Inspector said, his round hazel eyes growing even wider. “But you fill me with surprise, Docteur,” he said.

“I’m afraid Grenoble is not on my itinerary,” I said with a shrug of apology. “I’m leaving on a ferry for Marrakech in two days time.”

“Marrakech,” the little man said wonderingly as he stared at a point in the distance apparently lost in thought. “But nothing have I heard of-“ his eyes focused on me, “Docteur, we must discuss this frankly.” He leant toward me across the compartment and lowered his voice. “Can it be you are not here for the purpose that I am here?”

I blinked. “Inspector, I think that’s certainly true. I’m bound for a holiday in Africa and you are on your way to Grenoble.”

“Mais non, no,” he said giving a little wave of his hand. “C’est un autre– Docteur perhaps you have the curiosity, ehn?” He cocked a delicately arched eyebrow. “How it is that I know you in Montpelier?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “Now that you mention it I had thought to ask but it slipped my mind in the flow of conversation. I assumed you’d seen my picture…” I trailed off.

The explanation that had crossed my mind at the time now seemed highly implausible. I had succumbed to the fad for photographic wedding portraits before my marriage. Holmes, to my lasting regret, had never sat for a photographer. I had suggested it to him. (“For the sake of posterity, Holmes.” – “Bah. Posterity doesn’t need my face. My work says everything posterity need bother with.”)

The illustrations of us that decorated my few inadequate records of Holmes’s cases were beautifully rendered, but the illustrators, including the talented Mr. Paget, were not entirely successful. Friends had informed me that my portraits had always made me look rather vapid while I was of the view that none of the renderings of Holmes had come near to capturing the classical cut of his features and the powerful grace of his form.

My new acquaintance was shaking his head. “Ne pas– not a picture. No, it is rather more…” He pursed his lips then went on in a voice just above a whisper, “Mysterious. Ah, oui, the notorious telegram of anonymity,” he said, flashing a wry smile. “ Ah, I see you have the same surprise. How I came to Montpelier is this,” he paused for the space of a breath and went on, “I am on holiday. I visit the local gendarmerie, simply to, ehn, pass time. They say to me, ‘Ah, Inspecteur le Villard, you have come to collect your telegram which just arrived.’ I am bemused for I expect no telegram. I read and become more bemused still. Please–“ He thrust his hand into the pocket of his neat heather green jacket and withdrew a tightly folded telegraph form.

I took it from his outstretched hand, unfolded it and read:

DR JOHN WATSON ARRIVING 0710 TRAIN FROM TOULOUSE – BROWN SUIT LEATHER KIT BAG – MOST URGENT YOU LOCATE HIM – RUMORS FROM GRENOBLE CONFIRMED – CONSULT MULLERREBE – OBSERVE ALL DUE CAUTION

“This is remarkable, certainly,” I said, studying the words as if they would rearrange themselves like a cipher. “You have no idea who sent it?”

“None at all,” Villard replied, sitting back on the opposite banquette. “But I receive it and I think I must see if it is true. The hour is already a quarter past so I hurry to ask at the station. They point down the hill. I look in doors and soon I find you. C’est tout. Very mysterious, non?”

“Yes,” I said handing back the paper. “But I don’t understand the reference to Grenoble. I assure you,” I said, sitting forward with my elbows on my knees. “It was never on my itinerary.”

Villard sighed and glanced out the compartment window as a field of olive trees decked in pearly white buds fanned past in rows that faded into the distance. He puffed out a sigh.

“Our new acquaintance, I have started badly,” he said and turned to meet my gaze. “I have told you a half-truth. I am in Montpelier for my holiday, but not for Montpelier. Docteur, I hear strange stories from this town.”

Villard expelled a long sigh, looked down and clasped his hands in his lap. “I know,” he said, “I know that I presume too much to say this to you.” he looked up at me and his hazel eyes were very serious. “You, his confrére. His confidante. His intimate friend. But…”

He looked out the window at the green fields cascading past and shook his head. “After the tragedy of the loss of Monsieur Holmes, I read the reports from the Swiss gendarmerie. They are competent, yes. Complete, possibly. But there is something…”

He rhythmically tapped his fist against his knee. “I study the methods of Monsieur Holmes,” he said tightly. “I think maybe there is something overlooked. If I could have but… but I could not.”

He paused then leant forward, regarding me steadily as he went on. “After a long time, I begin to hear stories. A word here. A word there. It is the merest notion, but my curiosity – it is very strong. So I listen more. There is an interesting stranger in this place. A traveler comes and goes from that place. I collect these stories about unknown travelers. One day I hear a story from Montpelier. A man, a William Verner, came to the town. A most brilliant chemist, but no one has known of him before. He stays a time, he comes and goes… But the name. Verner. Can it be a coincidence that this is the name of relations of Monsieur Holmes? It is too much not to think of it. It is just a tiny inkling, but–” he puffed out a low sigh. “I think, Villard, you have a holiday, why not take it in Montpelier? So I come and find this strangeness of the telegram. And then I find you. I find Docteur Watson arriving on the train. How can it be coincidence? It cannot be. It cannot be.”

He gazed at me for a long moment then sat back. “But I see I have exhausted your credulity at last, my dear Docteur,” he said, flashing the ghost of a wry smile. “I apologize once more for taking your time and for deceiving you at first. Somehow I thought, when the telegram came, this might be the answer. The end of my questions.” He sighed. “But you know no more than I and doubtless I go on a fool’s errand to Grenoble. But for me there is no choice.” He paused and studied my face for reaction. “Will you, Docteur, go to Grenoble?” he asked.

Through this recitation I sat very still. In the silence that followed Villard waited with attention in every line of his frame. I took a deep breath.

“Inspector Villard,” I said with remarkable calm. “Sherlock Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. And I thank you, but,” I paused and took a long breath. “But I really have no desire to… visit Grenoble.”

I turned toward the window. The sun was climbing higher now and the low fields shone with the bright green of new growth. Here and there the last of the night’s dew glinted in the light. The sight dazzled my eyes and I blinked to clear my vision.

Villard sat silent. After I moment I sensed as much as heard him sit forward in his seat. The wheels below us continued their low and thrumming beat along the tracks.

“Docteur,” he said at last. “I am not a philosopher. I am a humble detective, but this I know. I have questions that have no answers. In my head, I know that the answers are clear. But in my heart… The heart does not listen. I have told you these things. For good, or bad I cannot say. But they are said. C’est la. Now you must go to Marrakech. And I will say, thank you for so kindly listening to the ramblings of a fool such as I.” He puffed out a breath and said, “And here we are, so soon in Marseilles. I go on to Grenoble and we must part.”

As he spoke these last words the train’s whistle sounded. The beat of the wheels slowed and there was long, high cry from the brakes. The platform slid into view outside our window.

I bent to retrieve my bag. “I thank you for your company on the journey, Inspector Villard,” I said quietly. “I am pleased to have met you at last. I wish you luck in Grenoble.”

The little man nodded, stood and held out his hand. “Docteur, it is I who has had the pleasure. I wish you bon voyage. Be well in your journey.”

I shook his hand, turned and made my way off the train, stepping from the cool of the passageway into the sun. It shone high and hot now. I set down my bag, removed my hat and ran a hand over my hair. My hand was steady.

On the sloping hillside, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, strong and unchanging down through centuries, gazed out over the town and its rows of bright houses, arrayed like colors in a paint box. Out on the sea white sails looked no bigger than bobbing sea birds on the waves.

“Doctor!” Roman Saint-James called from the front of the platform. He strode toward me with a strong, easy gait swinging a silver travel case in his hand. Reflected sunlight glared from it.

“How about that drink,” he said with a wide smile. “My hotel’s just down that way.” He cocked his head at one of the narrow stone streets.

“Thank you,” I said meeting his dark eyes. “Perhaps when I return from Grenoble.”

I turned and stepped back onto the train.

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o00o
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“May I ask,” I said, as the rocking of the train grew more pronounced on the long upward grade. “What you expect to find in Grenoble, Inspector?”

“Please,” Villard said, holding his hand to his heart and inclining his head in a small bow. “Docteur, I wish that you may call me Francois. I am on holiday.” His eyes wrinkled in a smile at this last assertion.

I nodded. “And I would be glad, Francois,” I said evenly, “If you would call me John. I too am on holiday,” I added, although I was growing ever more aware that my holiday destination was receding to the south.

We were traveling away from the sea toward the foot of the French Alps. A quick consultation of my map had showed that the ancient town of Grenoble, no more than a fraction the size of sprawling Marseilles, sat nestled in the valley formed by a horseshoe of mountains.

Villard shrugged and gave an apologetic smile. “What will I find, you wonder,” he said equably. “This I wonder also. Something. Nothing. I have heard only that this chemist of whom I told you, he made the trip to Grenoble more than one time. Does he know people there? Is the man there now? These are all questions to me.”

“So your plan then is to walk the city, looking for this Mullerrebe from the telegram?” I said incredulously.

“Plan?” said Villard and gave a small chuckle. “John, my friend, if I had a plan I would make it known to you immédiatement. But Grenoble is a very small town. It will take but a little time to walk. The sky is nice, is it not?”

I abruptly refolded the map in my hands adding new creases to the paper. “I still have many things to do in Marseilles,” I said, my voice tight with the effort of keeping it even. “I had planned to find the new Baedeker’s guide to North Africa.”

“A German book?” Villard said, his eyebrows rising. “But Marrakech is French. Why the German guide, ehn? French is better, I think.”

“Well, I have neither,” I said grimly. “I only have this.” I rummaged in my bag until I at last located the rust-colored book thrust upon me by the old bookseller in Runnymede Mews. I opened it at the break in the spine. “Heaven only knows how useful it will be. It may date back to the Moorish–”

Villard leant forward to peer upside down at the pages. “This is indeed a very strange guidebook.”

“Yes…” I murmured as I glanced through the pages. “In that it appears to be a book of French poetry.”

“May I?” said Villard.

He took the slim volume from my open hand and turned a few pages. He pursed his cupid’s bow lips. “This was given to you on the accident, you say,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Hem. Paul Verlaine. Curious.”

“Do you know of him?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Inspector said, handing the book back to me. “Paul Verlaine. A very famous French poet. Very… notorious you may say.”

“Notorious?” I said, opening the book again and scanning a few pages at random. “From the words I recognize it appears to be about romance.”

Villard nodded. “Indeed, yes, it is full of romance, without doubt. Also sadness,” he sat back in his chair and gazed up into the distance beyond the roof of our compartment. “A tragic man is Verlaine.”

“Is?” I asked. “He is still living.”

“Oh, yes.” Villard made a waggling gesture with his hand. “Still. Though many are surprised by this. He is held tight by the Green Fairy and she will not let him go.”

I considered this for a moment. “The Green Fairy,” I said, “Absinthe?”

“Oui, absinthe,” Villard said and pursed his lips in a moue of distaste. “When they mix the drink with opium, it is as a snare for rabbits with those artistes. Visions. Saints. Demons. It is no use to struggle. It holds them tight until–” He turned his hand palm up. “No more struggling.”

“Does Verlaine still write?” I asked.

“Phuff,” Villard said. “He is now just an amusement to those who were his compatriots. He no longer writes beautiful verses. These poems,” he nodded at the book on my knee. “They are from before. When love was his demon.”

Villard glanced to the window.

The mountains that had been a wavering line above the horizon had grown much larger. The nearer foothills had disengaged from the larger mass of peaks and I could make out fields of grass tipped in yellow flowers slipping down the hillsides.

We will be in Grenoble very soon,” Villard said. He gestured at the book in my hand. “I could read you one of Monsieur Verlaine’s most known poems while we sit, eh? The meaning is obscure, as is most poetry to the eyes of a humble policeman,” He flashed a small smile. “Still, the words are pleasing in the arrangement.”

I gave a little shrug and handed the book back across the compartment. “I certainly have no use for it as a guidebook,” I said wryly. “I may as well attempt to enjoy it as verse.”

“Ah, bon,” he said, flashing a little smile. He flipped through the pages, “Here. You would care to read with me?” he asked. He turned the book to hold it across the compartment between us. “You read the French. I translate the English,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “We will have a tutorial, eh?”

I smiled in return. Despite the trials of the day and the clear madness of his quest, it was difficult not to enjoy Villard’s good humor. I followed his gaze to the words.

Villard cleared his throat with a delicate cough and read:

Mystical singing-birds,
romances without words,
dear, because your eyes
the shade of skies,

Because your voice, strange
vision that will derange,
troubling the horizon
of my reason,

Because the rare perfume
of your swanlike paleness,
because the innocence
of your fragrance,

Ah, because all your being,
music so piercing,
clouds of lost angels,
tones and scents,

Has by soft cadences
with its correspondences,
lured my subtle heart, oh
let it be so!

“It is called ‘To Clymene,” he said, turning the book so I could read more closely. “But most call it by the line there.” He pointed. “’Romances sans Paroles,’ the ‘Romances without Words.”

I sat, running my eye over the line. In my youth I had never had much use for poetry beyond the martial kind that appeals to boys. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” had been a particular favorite.

After my experience of the Afghan campaign, it held rather less innocent pleasure. I could hear the sorrow in the stirring words that sang praise for brave, foolish young men. It was borne home to me that had I heard the poem before me several years before I would have found it just a rather nonsensical arrangement of phrases. Now I felt an echo in the hollows of my chest.

“It is somehow sad, is it not?” Villard said sitting back in his seat. “But poets adore to be sad. It is bread and wine to them.” He gave a little chuckle. “Where would they be without their broken hearts?”

We sat in silence for some few minutes more then Villard pointed to the window. “Ah, Grenoble,” he said. “It is very pretty for a country town.”

I followed his gesture and saw Grenoble with its several streets climbing doggedly up the looming hillsides. It gave the illusion that the town had once been high on the hills but had gradually slid down to rest in the cupped valley.

I realized, suddenly, that I had only the shoes I had worn when leaving my home the day before, having left my luggage waiting at Marseilles. I had been ill prepared to be swept off my course by a French detective on an irrational mission.

The idea that Sherlock Holmes was hiding somewhere in this quaint alpine town was patently ludicrous, yet here I was, seemingly expecting to find some trace of a man who had died nearly three years before and many miles away over the mountains.

One day, I knew, the gaping emptiness the loss of him had left in me must be lessened to no more than a passing throb of melancholy for a time that might have been. But not today. As much as my mind cried, “He is dead. You know he is. Turn back before you have to face it again,” it was just as Villard had said. My heart would not listen.

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We trudged up and down the streets of Grenoble under the looming gaze of the Fort de la Bastille for hours before I called a halt.

“Francois, my shoes are inadequate for this terrain,” I said, leaning heavily against a nymph-bedecked fountain in the central square. “We have consulted every guild in the town and no one has heard of this Monsieur Mullerrebe. The last train bound for Marseilles departs the station in thirty minutes. I’m afraid I must admit defeat.” I dabbed at the sheen of perspiration that had formed on my brow despite the freshening breeze off the mountains. “You may do as you like, of course.”

The town was one of artisans and dealers in art. After deciding the best approach was to visit the guild of painters, then the guild of metal workers, and so on down the line of craftsmen, we had exhausted the possibilities in that direction. Day was drawing down to a close and soon shops would begin putting up their shutters. It seemed futile to continue the hunt.

Villard stood a few yards away, surveying the town with narrowed eyes and his arms crossed on his chest as though it were a suspect refusing to assist his investigation.

“Mais, oui, Docteur,” he said, having apparently decided that he must apply his energy to the search rather than to translating his thoughts for me. I picked out recognizable words as best I could. “… confondu. But c’est impossible… The telegram… spécifiquement… But where is this Monsieur Mullerrebe?”

It was difficult to give up in the face of such evident determination and I could not but feel for his blighted hopes, doomed though they were from the outset. I sighed and peered down another winding street that arced away from the plaza. There was a small inn on the corner and the faint sound of merry voices raised in song drifted across the stones.

“Did Holmes ever share with you,” I mused aloud. “His conviction that the best way to gain information in a small village is to ask at the local public house? Discretely, of course. Although I recall once he nearly suffered a concussion for his trouble. It was in–”

“Docteur,” Villard interrupted, a slow smile curling his lips. “You have hit on it. You have found the answer!” He struck his forehead with the back of his hand. “My head is made of wood!”

At my expression of bewilderment he turned and grasped me by the sleeve.

“Our correspondent of the telegram,” he said, his eyes shining, “Would he so baldly say, ‘Go here, talk to this man.’ No! He says, ‘Observe all due caution,’ eh? He speaks in code!”

I continued to stare. “You mean Mullerrebe is a code word?” I ventured.

“Mais, oui,” he said, “And so simple even such a dullard as I should have realized it.” His grip on my sleeve tightened as he said, “Mullerrebe is a German name and also the German name for a French wine. Wine from a grape not so well known of the Pinot kind. It is the Meunier.” He gave a short laugh of excitement. “We must seek out Monsieur Meunier of Grenoble!”

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o00o
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It was Sherlock Holmes. It was a perfect likeness, save for the color of the wax skin. The skin was darker than the picture in my memory. It was the burnished bronze of skin that had been bared to wind and sun. My own skin had had something of that color when I returned from Afghanistan with no place to call my home.

I believe it was the color of the skin that told me. More than the words Francois murmured as he translated for the bent old sculptor with the croaking voice, though I tried my best to comprehend them as Francois rested his hand on my shoulder and bent to my ear.

My legs were still numb, I noticed distantly. When we had first walked into this workshop, this room that smelled of beeswax and wood shavings, and I had seen the face of Sherlock Holmes gazing back at me, I went cold and I stumbled. I would have fallen had not the quick action of the Inspector ensured I landed in a chair and not on the floor.

I sat staring vacantly at this wax image of my lost friend. Empty eyes looked back, focused unwaveringly on a point somewhere over my left shoulder. Eyes that were still the color of morning fog on a still mountain lake. Eyes that looked back at me from a memory full of broken stones and the cold, drifting spray of a waterfall.

Francois was saying something about a clay model, a mold. Saying it was fortunate the mold wasn’t destroyed… I lost the sense of the words again.

I stared into my friend’s face. And I knew from the bronze of his skin that he was not dead.

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o00o
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Francois le Villard was sitting beside me talking in a low, measured voice as one might speak to a child. I tried to look at him as he spoke but my gaze kept drifting back to the wax bust among the brushes and paint pots on Monsieur Meunier’s workbench.

“Your friend,” he said. “Meunier says he came here several times. He sits for the sculpting, then he goes, saying he will send for the work when it is done.”

Villard’s voice sounded tight. He was unnerved, I realized. It had been a shock for him as well to find the visage of Sherlock Holmes staring unblinkingly at the wall in an artisan’s shop in a small mountainside town in southern France. I turned to regard Villard as he spoke. His elegantly curved lips were pale.

He took a long breath and exhaled slowly before he went on. “A messenger came,” he said. “Meunier gave the first casting to this courier no more than a week before today. Meunier did not recognize the livery of the courier so we cannot trace the man. But then there was a telegram asking for a second casting, a duplicate. Meunier is to hold it here in his shop.”

Villard bent forward and touched my knee as he said, “Docteur, Meunier was told to hold it here in his shop to await Inspecteur le Villard and Docteur John Watson. We are to take it to the address here.” He offered me a small card.<

My eyes focused on his. “What is the address?” I breathed.

“It is in Paris,” he said quietly.

I licked my dry lips then sat back. Villard did the same as I planted my hands on my knees and stood.

“Inspector Villard,” I said in a voice that seemed to come from very far away. “I believe we will need to hurry if we are to make the next train for Paris.”

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~ The Story Continues in ~
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