February 29, 2008
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The Musgrave Gambit

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“In Search of the Secret Smile”
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by nlr alicia
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<< This story is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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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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Setting: A companion piece to this author’s In Canidae Veritas. This story is an extra scene set after the close of events described by Doctor Watson in his chronicle The Musgrave Ritual.

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Content Warnings: Slashy intentions. Domestic angst. One dead stoat.

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“And that’s the story of the Musgrave Ritual, Watson. They have the crown down at Hurlstone — though they had some legal bother and a considerable sum to pay before they were allowed to retain it. I am sure that if you mentioned my name they would be happy to show it to you. Of the woman nothing was ever heard, and the probability is that she got away out of England and carried herself and the memory of her crime to some land beyond the seas.”

His tale complete, Holmes sat back with an air of quiet triumph as a smile curled the corners of his expressive mouth.

It was a rare and special joy to kiss him when he wore that private smile, as much for the sensation of the kiss as for the elation of being near enough to glimpse its fleeting passage. Capturing his lips before that smile could fade was one of my dearest pursuits.

In this instance, seated as I was across the hearthrug with that tin box of old case notes between us, rugger training or no, I knew I wouldn’t be able to vault the space and claim my prize before the private smile turned to that slightly skeptical look of alarm he wore on those occasions when I displayed my affection with too sudden and forthright enthusiasm.

I opted, instead, for heartfelt praise. “Wonderful. Truly. That was worth years of coy hints and allusion.”

My delight was genuine. As many times as I’d exhorted him to give me details of those cases, both past and present, I was not privy to, he was still frustratingly reticent.

I was pleased with the bargain we’d struck a few weeks previous whereby he would provide me with one new story every month. I’d hit on the idea after he’d related the tale of the ill-fated cruise of The Gloria Scott to such great effect (and exhilarating denouement).

He had yet to tell me what would be entailed in my half of the bargain. I had made several generous suggestions. (His dry response, “I believe in order to be reciprocal it must be an activity at which you’re not naturally gifted,” had encouraged me to demonstrate said gifts, leading to a very diverting afternoon.)

As I considered the many benefits of mutual give and take that curling smile of his continued to taunt me from its hiding place.

“You enjoyed the story then,” he said, his eyes shining as he rose from his chair and turned to the table and the assortment of memorabilia arrayed there as though for a museum case.

“Oh, enormously,” I agreed. “It was an enthralling tale and very well told. May I see the evidence again?”

He looked strangely wary at this request, I thought, but he swept the small set of objects into the palm of his hand and came back to his chair by the fire. As he reseated himself, he bent to arrange the souvenirs of the Musgrave affair on the lid of the tin case. One by one he placed the objects in a line, concluding with the three rusty discs of metal which clinked against the tin lid.

“Wonderful,” I said again. “It’s really too bad you still owe me a new story. You’ll be hard put to top this tale.” I leant toward the box to study the collection.

“I beg your pardon,” Holmes said with a marked stiffness. I looked up in surprise.

He was studying me with unalloyed skepticism. “I can’t have heard you correctly,” he said. “It sounded just as if you said you’re still owed the telling of a new story this month.”

“Well, naturally,” I said, sitting back. “This one doesn’t count.”

He crossed his arms on his chest. “And why ever not, may I ask? It was a story.”

“Certainly. And a very fine one,” I reiterated.

“It was one you hadn’t heard before.”

“True.”

“I related it to you in the interval between the first dates of two successive months.”

“Granted,” I said, graciously ignoring the fact that that was hardly to be avoided.

“And, as per your directive, it did not conclude with the words, ‘I still get letters from him occasionally’,” he noted with some asperity. “Therefore, I fail to see why this ‘very fine’ story, as you say, should not be counted.”

“In the normal run of things it certainly would,” I said equably. “It was so satisfying it might count for two. Alas, it was not a story so much as a gambit or, dare I say, ploy.”

“A ploy.”

“Yes,” I said, ignoring his pointed stare. “A ploy. One calculated to deflect my attention from the deplorable state of our sitting room floor.”

He pursed his lips. “Really, Doctor, this is unworthy of you. You are taking advantage of our arrangement and, though I’m loathe to say it, behaving quite churlishly.”

“Churlishly, forsooth,” I said with an unwise smile of amusement.

“Indeed,” he said icily. “Here you sit fingering the mementos of a tale you admit was well told. A tale I offered in good faith. What do you do? You question my motives. Do I question this monthly toll on my nerves? No. Do I demand that you reciprocate by playing me a monthly violin concerto? No. Although I submit that the balance would be a fair one.”

His tone had taken on a dangerous undercurrent of righteous indignation, but I’d found through hard experience it was inadvisable to back down at such a juncture. It was more likely to prolong an argument than defuse it as he usually became insufferably smug as a result, which always made my temper flare again.

“And very wise you are, too,” I said evenly, “For any protests to the contrary, your hearing is exceptional. I don’t think even you are so bloody-minded as to stand such an outrage against music for more than the time it would take to leap across the room and rip the instrument from my hands. But,” I went on as he drew breath for what was no doubt a devastating retort, “I have offered to reciprocate, as you well know, and the offer stands. Meanwhile, I stand firm in my hope of a new story.”

“But why?” he said. “You seem to labor under the illusion that I’m your personal Scheherazade. Month in, month out, you demand I provide you with entertainment worthy of a master storyteller, which I patently am not.” It was his turn to cut me off before I could protest that he exaggerated my expectation and that it had only been two months. He went on, “I sometimes think you contrived this scheme for the sole purpose of deflating my ego.”

“Steady on, Holmes,” I managed to protest. “That’s unfair. I only suggested it because you’re so abominably tight-lipped about these things. And it’s not that much of a burden, surely.” I gestured at the box, a third-filled with the memorabilia of cases past. “You have a wealth of inspiration.”

He barked a laugh. “These?” he said. “Doctor, the next time I spend days pawing through mundane tales of brooches misplaced behind wardrobes and nursery mischief such as this,” he waved a hand at the Musgrave mementos, “In fruitless search for a story worth the telling, I shall call you in so you may watch what you call ‘inspiration’ in action.”

It was my turn for raised eyebrows. “Here,” I interjected. “What do you mean by ‘nursery mischief such as this’?”

“Oh, Watson, really.” He threw himself back in his chair with an audible thump. “Surely you can’t credit… I beg you not to add insult to injury by attempting to humor me. Human credulity will only stretch so far.”

I openly stared at him. “Do you mean to say,” I said slowly, “You invented the entire tale?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course, I did. Musgrave only called me from some misguided belief, passed down through generations of genetically challenged forbearers, that there was some great treasure hidden in the Manor grounds. He found the riddle and that bobbin and string under a chesterfield in the box room and thought he’d struck riches at last.” He waved a hand at the objects. “My conjecture was that some long-departed tutor assembled this little puzzle to capitalize on his young charges being similarly obsessed. This tutor used the treasure hunt motif as a way of teaching some few particulars of trigonometry or other dubiously useful lesson now lost to time.” He stared into the distance. “Although I will admit the skull found at the scene of the treasure trove added a touch of romance. Without it I doubt those young pupils would have thought the test worth the prize of three Roman coins you might find on any given afternoon in the gutter at Bath.” Throughout this dissertation his ire had visibly dissipated in light of the countering enjoyment of recalling the case, no matter how commonplace to his mind. “It was difficult to tell whether it had been a fox or a stoat,” he went on. “No doubt it was already timeworn when the tutor hid it under the gorse bush where I found it. Insects and weather had since had their way with it. I should have saved a tooth,” he said thoughtfully. “It might have proved an interesting exercise in determining how quickly bone may decompose when exposed to the elements. I should make note of that.”

“Yes, I’d like to hear more about your future experiments in osteological decay,” I lied. “But first, if you’ll indulge me… the butler, Brunton?”

He sniffed. “A septuagenarian with a gamey leg.”

“The fiery-tempered Welsh maid?”

“Hardly likely to fit through a standard bedroom window.“

“And the Musgrave scion himself. The dandy about town, cutting a dash in the country?”

“A rather peaky young man with horn spectacles and a pronounced overbite.”

“Wonderful,” I said breathlessly.

His eyebrow quirked. “You keep using that expression, Doctor. Are you quite sure you know what it means?”

I grinned. “Without doubt,” I said. “And I mean it in every sense. Your story of the fantastical events at Musgrave Manor was wonderful. Your skill at spinning an enthralling tale is wonderful. My incredible good fortune at being able to take advantage of this untapped skill in one of the world’s most amazingly accomplished men is wonderful. And you are wonderful. I offer my profoundest apologies. What can I do to make amends for my churlish behavior?”

I was delighted to see him fight down a smile.

“I shall have to give that due consideration,” he said. “I spent several evenings working out the details of the story.”

“Dazzling,” I interposed.

“I was particularly pleased with the storm-blasted elm.”

“Riveting.”

“The mossy strong box was a nice touch, I thought.”

“Masterful,” I agreed. “Just the right air of verisimilitude. And I can’t say enough about the blood-suffused face of the corpse.”

“I thought you’d like that,” he said and inclined his head graciously. “I may have been too strident in my protests a moment ago. It is rather rewarding to see that look of rapt attention on your face.” He cleared his throat. “It’s an… interesting experience to be your personal Scheherazade of an evening.”

“You,” I said seriously, “Are more enthralling than a thousand and one Scheherazades. I’d be very grateful if you’d tell the same story again for as many months as you like. I’m sure I’ll gain more from each telling.”

“You really enjoyed it then?” he said.

This time I was ready. When the small, private smile curled the corners of his expressive mouth I dove across the space between us, tin box be damned, scattering the remnants of that long-gone Musgrave tutor’s efforts to the four winds.

The kiss I claimed was quite worth the barked shin I received en route and the same can be said for the many we shared as I took full advantage of my position by pinning him firmly to his chair for an extended duration.

For my part, I chose to entirely abandon the question of whether or not Holmes had timed the advent of his tin box to avoid the demand for housekeeping he must have deduced was coming from my heavy sighs as I stepped over mounds of yellowing paper for several days beforehand.

At any rate it quickly became a moot point as we moved from the chair to the floor and by stages around the room. My repeated and forthright displays of enthusiasm wound up costing us a lamp and a set of brandy snifters in rapid succession and the subsequent cleaning up effectively dispensed with a large quantity of outdated correspondences almost entirely by accident.

As to my reciprocation for our bargain, Holmes has yet to tell me what he requires in return. In the interim I continue to apply my natural gifts to the problem. It is a very satisfying arrangement and wonderful in every sense of the word.

fin.

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