This Pen ~ 18 November 1896
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” Lestrade asks again, the doubt ringing clearly in his voice. He is watching me rather closely; I can feel his gaze upon the back of my neck.
Damn, damn and double damn, I think, concentrating on keeping my hands from shaking as I bandage Holmes’ shoulder.
Even in my thoughts, I will not allow myself to do what I have just done. Even though there is no way the inspector would have known previously what Holmes’ real Christian name is, there is no doubt that he knows now.
William was the name I shouted as I ran, William the name I breathed as I caught him when he fell, William the name I sighed in relief as I saw that the wound was not as deep as I had feared.
Not Holmes, but William. Damn.
“Doctor, I asked if you’re going to be –”
“Yes.” I do not look round, but keep dressing the wound. “I’ll be fine,” I say, and the forced cheerfulness of my tone rings hollow in my ears.
“You’d better go check and see how Bradstreet is getting along,” Holmes tells Lestrade. “Crimpen might not get far, but if we don’t catch him soon, the good doctor might have a few more wounds to patch up before morning.”
“Is there anything else you can think of?” Lestrade is clearly stalling. Granted, I am currently performing the slowest bandaging job I have done since I was at university. I know that my only hope of keeping my demeanour is to keep looking at that bandage, no matter what. Part of me wishes Lestrade will simply leave and never return, or, even better, burst into flames. And yet, I also desperately do not wish to be alone with Sherlock Holmes at this moment.
He is about as angry as I have ever seen him; his slate-coloured eyes blaze furiously in the glow of the single guttering streetlamp above us, here in the shadow of this secluded dockside warehouse. Holmes is avoiding my gaze as carefully as I am avoiding Lestrade’s scrutiny.
“I can only tell you, Inspector, that Crimpen has no scruples about shooting to kill, but I daresay you already knew that,” he says to Lestrade, his thin lips drawing up into a humourless smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll go back directly to Baker Street and await your telegram informing me that you have our friend in custody.”
I hear Lestrade’s steps disappear around the corner, but still I keep my gaze upon the wound.
“And just how much gauze do you intend to wrap around my shoulder, Doctor?” Holmes asks sardonically.
I take a deep breath. “Holmes, I –”
He cuts me off with an impatient gesture. “Honestly, Watson,” he sighs, “could you possibly consider keeping your emotions in check for once?”
The wearied tone in his voice pushes me over the edge. “Look, you,” I snarl. “I would find it easier to keep my emotions in check if you weren’t such a damnable blackguard.”
Holmes rolls his eyes petulantly. “Really, Watson, is such language absolutely necessary?”
“Do you have any idea how much you try my patience?”
“How much I try your patience! Who just called me a –”
“For God’s sake, Holmes! I thought you were dead!”
Holmes shoots me a superior look. “Is that any reason to lose control?” he says coolly.
“Yes, it is,” I hiss, and pull his mouth to mine furiously. He only struggles for a moment before giving in, wrapping his good arm around my waist.
A polite cough causes us to jump to our feet, and my heart pounds at my ribcage as we both spin around to find the source of the noise.
Inspector Lestrade stands just behind us, a strangely placid look upon his face. It is his expression, in fact, which transfixes us as he leans up against the lamp-post, slowly and deliberately lighting a cigarette. He silently offers the case to me, then to Holmes, which we take in turn out of sheer reflex. Lestrade hands me a packet of matches, and then looks up into the night sky, blowing a perfect smoke ring into the air. In the distance, a barge’s horn sounds out of the fog, answered by the mournful cry of a gull.
“It’s a good thing,” Inspector Lestrade says conversationally, “that Crimpen’s shot went wide.”
Neither of us seems to be able to find our voices as we gape at the professional in shocked incomprehension.
“Not that it’s any of my business, of course,” he continues with a chuckle, “but I think the good doctor is absolutely right. I’ll confess my heart jumped to my throat when I saw you fall, Mr Holmes. I can only imagine how Dr. Watson felt. I know how my Alice would feel.”
“Alice?” I echo numbly.
“My wife. Alice never complains about being married to a copper, but I know how it pains her to think that some night I might not come home. Still, she doesn’t regret marrying me, and I do my best to make sure she’ll never regret it. I’ve had to tell three women that their man wasn’t coming home to them, and that was three too many. I won’t have Alice go through that, not if I can help it.” He pulls his watch-fob out of its pocket. “I don’t believe I’ve ever shown you her picture,” he finishes, slipping the catch and handing it to me.
Everything becomes clear as I see the portrait: a handsome woman of African descent, with ebony skin and dark, mysterious eyes.
“She’s beautiful,” I murmur, handing the miniature to Holmes.
Holmes nods, silently returning the portrait to Lestrade, his expression absolutely inscrutable.
“My father,” Lestrade begins, “was an abolitionist missionary living and working among the slaves in the sugarcane fields of Jamaica. When emancipation came in ’38, my father set up a small blacksmithing business with a former slave who had saved his life. His daughter and I grew up side by side, and by the time we were fifteen, Alice and I knew we were meant for each other. We were married as soon as we came of age, with our families and friends surrounding us, all of them wishing us the joy of the occasion, and no one caring a whit that our complexions were different. Then we moved to England.” He stubs his cigarette out against the post. “British society can be cruelly intolerant,” he says darkly, his eyes glittering as he frowns down upon the pavement. “I shall not tell you the names I have heard, the comments I have ignored. I have fought hard for my position in life, gentlemen, and paid some heavy dues. I have come far, despite the prejudices of ignorant superiors. Many that know me have me down as a bit of a martinet, and so I might be, I might be. But I know that some of the men making our laws are making them with no view to justice, and I happen believe in justice above the law, if you take my meaning, and justice tempered by love, for it’s love that should bring justice, not just law.” He smiles ruefully. “Alice’s mother was one of the wisest women I’ve ever known,” he tells us wistfully, “and she used to say that that love is a unique gift from the Creator, and that we must salute it wherever we find it. To do anything else would be to turn one’s back on divinity.”
“You are a good man, Inspector Lestrade,” I say.
“You certainly can make a pretty speech, inspector,” Holmes growls. “How am I assured that you shall not hie yourself to the nearest-precinct house and procure a warrant for our arrest?”
“Honestly, Holmes!” I cry, wheeling upon him. “For someone so brilliant, you can be such a –”
Lestrade puts up both hands in a placating gesture. “Gentlemen, please. Doctor, Mr. Holmes’ question is perfectly reasonable. In fact, Mr. Holmes, this is not your first secret I’ve kept. Wilde might be breaking rocks in Reading Gaol for a year now, but the charges that put him there are nothing compared to what I know of you, Mr. William Sherlock Scott Holmes.”
Holmes says nothing, his face a granite statue, but I who know him so well can tell that he is as frightened now as he has ever been.
“I am not threatening you,” Lestrade continues solemnly. “I wish to make that perfectly clear. I might not always agree with your methods, sir, but I have never doubted your integrity. You see, I know enough to put a noose around your neck and yet I have remained silent these twenty years – and shall remain silent until I cease to draw breath. And just so you know that I am not merely putting voice to nebulous suspicions, I shall say only that the fates of Ronald McKesson, Ian Salisbury and Arthur Wending-Scott will most likely remain a mystery, as will the identity of the young student whom they so viciously assaulted before disappearing from the face of the Earth. Old Inspector Branford, God rest his soul, who taught me everything he knew, was the investigating officer. The men were, he told me, three of a gang that specialized in torturing and molesting the lowerclassmen, as well as pressing their favours on the local barmaids – and not a few of the bootblacks and telegraph-boys, as well. I understand that there was one particular student, a smart fellow, not popular, who had shown these three up in front of a professor during lecture and roused their anger to a peak. According to the inquest, on the night he disappeared, McKesson told one friend they were going to teach a certain upstart a lesson he would not soon forget.”
Holmes does not speak, his eyes do not blink. I watch closely just to assure myself that he is breathing.
“He was not their first victim, but he was their last,” Lestrade whispers. “The next weekend, an unknown person or persons caught up with them as they attended a house-party in Sussex. Whoever did the deed did it cleanly and professionally and left no trace. One moment, they were punting on the estate’s pond, the next, they were gone. No one saw anything, and no trace of them has ever been found – not, that is, by anyone who didn’t look in a certain graveyard in a nearby village, down in the crypt of a certain very old family whose descendants have fallen on poorer, but infinitely more interesting, times.”
My jaw drops open, but Holmes’ only reaction is a slight flicker of inquiry, a fractional widening of the eyes that tells me Lestrade has hit the truth. I find it suddenly hard to breathe.
“I remember Branford telling me that every once in a while, you come across a case that you’re glad to be shut of, with all due respect to the families. There weren’t many folk in Cambridge that missed those three, I can tell you that much. Whoever made those men disappear served justice in a way our laws never would have done. In short, Mr. Holmes, you have nothing to fear from me.”
Holmes stares at Lestrade for a long while, doubt and consternation clouding his expression. Lestrade returns Holmes’ gaze evenly, and his deep black eyes, so dark that one cannot see where pupil ends and iris begins, show only compassion, warmth, and sincerity.
“Holmes,” I say gently, “He will not betray us.”
Holmes eyes the professional cautiously. “You know our secret, and yet you do not think the less of us?”
Lestrade chuckles at this, shaking his head. “In fact, it only confirms my belief that the good doctor is the single most long-suffering individual in the British Empire.”
Holmes gives out a high, barking laugh. “A definite touch, Lestrade! You seem to be acquiring a sense of humour in your old age.”
Lestrade does not rise to the bait, but smiles good-naturedly at the jibe. “Well, Mr. Holmes,” says he, “if you can learn how to love, then I suppose I might be able to learn how to laugh. After all, miracles happen every day.”
When I look back at Holmes, I am not surprised to see that the self-assured mask which characterizes his public persona is carefully back in place. And yet, a gleam to the eyes shows that this smile is sincere enough as he extends a hand to the detective.
“Well, Inspector,” says he, “it has been a delightful evening, but I think we must say our good-nights now. If you come by Baker Street tomorrow morning, I shall be more than happy to fill in whatever details of the Crimpen case you still find obscure. Come, Watson,” he finishes, turning upon his heel and striding off into the foggy night.
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