During my long and rewarding association with the world's first and foremost consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, I have published many accounts of his exploits, desiring to share the extraordinary events that I was privy to while working with the extraordinary man whom I was privileged to call friend. In many instances I was obliged to keep certain details back, or to obscure the identity of certain personages entirely, in order to render these accounts publishable; still others will languish in my dispatch-box with this one, till there will be none left who recall London by gaslamp, till Sherlock Holmes is but a name and not a living, breathing man and Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. is all but forgotten. And though it be self-indulgent, foolish, the romantic extravagance or a romantic old man, I cannot help but desire to put into a few words the account of the one case, of which I would never dream of breathing a word to a living soul under any circumstances, in which I was able to not only aid and comfort my friend, but to beat him at his own game, besides. It is my hope that a time will come when it is seen that truly, there is nothing shameful in it; if such may never be, at least a time may come when no one remains to blush for it.
It was October of 1894, several months having passed since Holmes's astonishing and gratifying return to the world of the living, and already I had quite settled in and even begun to take the carefree bachelor life of 221B for granted. Holmes had already breakfasted and gone before I had got out of bed, just like old times; I was leafing through the papers over a leisurely scone when he returned, whistling cheerily.
"Come, Watson! There never was such a glorious day, and you could use the fresh air. Let us have a good ramble through London before the opera tonight."
Holmes's enthusiasm was as infectious as ever, and I noted with a physician's approving eye that he had never looked fitter, with a bit of color in his thin cheeks and a shine to his steely grey eyes.
"Certainly, Holmes," I said, briskly sweeping the papers away as I rose. "I shall be but a moment," I added, as he began to twitch impatiently towards the door. He had very nearly swept me out of it when I caught sight of the heavy cream envelope nestled precariously among the effects on the mantle. "Oh! I had forgotten. A man called for you while you were out."
"Did he leave a card?" Holmes inquired, indifferently.
"No, and he made no mention of his name, either. He did leave this." I extended the envelope to him.
"Well, this may be promising, Watson. Already, this man presents me with mysteries. He has only to keep it up and we may have a pretty little problem on our hands." He eyed the envelope critically for a moment before he broke the heavy splash of red sealing-wax.
The change that was effected in him as he examined the contents was total. It was as though someone had sapped the life from him, drained him like a pint of bitter, leaving him little more than an empty shell. For a moment I thought he would pitch forward, and reached out an arm to steady him; he caught himself and jerked away from me as though he had been burnt, crumbling the letter in his jacket pocket.
"What is it, Holmes?" I cried. "Is it bad news? Tell me what the matter is."
"It's nothing," said Holmes. Never, I am certain, had a less convincing lie been uttered. "I don't believe I shall have that walk after all." Without another word, he shut himself up in his bedroom, and no amount of rapping, nor any other inducement that I attempted, succeeded in provoking any response. Not even the promise of Wagner was sufficient to tempt him from his chamber.
I am no great master of the art of deduction, but it seemed to me that, ponder as I might, there was only one conclusion to be drawn from this dramatic turn of events. A strange caller, who had shown no outward symptom of being plagued by any sort of trouble--in fact, as I reflected back upon the incident, it seemed to me that he had favored me with an knowing smirk as he parted--whose brief note was capable of producing such a remarkable negative effect? What else might he be? The only thing that gave me pause was that I could scarcely imagine Holmes, the very epitome of cold, passionless logic, a man who never looked upon the fairer sex save as a scientist regards an interesting specimen, managing to place himself in any sort of unguarded situation which could possibly result in this spectacular blackmail; but then, Holmes's past was to me as a book whose pages I had sampled only briefly, and if there is any time when a man's judgment is liable to be overruled by his passions, it is in his youth.
I paced the sitting-room. No one knew better than Holmes how pernicious and vile a blackmailer is, or how completely they have the upper hand with regards to their victims, who have no tolerable alternative under the law. I only wished that the man were standing before me again at that instant, in order that I might wring his neck. For hours I racked my brain for any clue to who he might have been or where he might have lived--Holmes would have known in an instant, based on the manufacture of his paper and the dirt on his trouser-cuffs, of course, but even when I made every effort to apply Holmes's methods the world was frustratingly mute, and I had not paid sufficient attention to the cut of his jacket or the color of his tie to draw any conclusions from them, anyway. At last I despaired of doing anything until the following morning, and, after meticulously cleaning my old service-revolver, retired to my bed, where I dozed fretfully and dreamlessly until morning.
When I arose it was still dark and Holmes was still in his chamber and still awake, if the light visible beneath his door was any indication. I hurried about the plan that I had formulated the night before. First, I shaved off my moustache, nicking myself slightly in the process, and put on a shabby old overcoat, a muffler, which I wrapped about myself as though it were rather colder than it was outside, and a bowler, which I tipped low over my face. I studied the effect in the glass approvingly; Holmes should not have been fooled for an instant, of course, and if I was forced to follow him to wherever he was keeping his appointment with his blackmailer, the chances of my success were slim indeed. I thought it more likely, however, that the blackmailer intended to pay another call upon Holmes today, in which case I hoped that I might well pass unnoticed as I followed this man, whoever he was, back to whatever vile den from which he came. I admit, I had no clear idea of what I should do then, but I was seething with a white-hot fury that banished all self-doubt. Pocketing my revolver and Holmes's set of pick-locks, I slipped out into the dim, swirling mists of the early morning.
It was a stroke of luck for me in plotting this mad scheme that Camden House opposite our quarters still stood empty, and a greater one still that it was shut up with such a flimsy lock that even I, applying the principles that Holmes, with his infinitely cleverer fingers, had demonstrated for me, was able to force it open. Having established myself there and no one the wiser, I steeled myself for a long, dreary watch without even my friend to keep me company during the silent hours. The sun rose high in the sky; Baker Street came alive, bustling with activity; still I waited. Finally, at half-past two by my watch, I saw my quarry approach. If the sheer force of loathing that I directed towards that rather colorless little man could have had any effect on him, he should have dropped dead that very instant.
I had planned to stay where I was until he left again, but now that my moment had arrived, I felt quite reckless, and I hoped that I might satisfy my burning curiosity. I quit my bolthole across the street and slipped unobtrusively through my own front door, moving as silently as I could manage and pressing my ear up against the inner door that led to our quarters.
"An absurd sum," I heard Holmes snap, like a broken violin-string. "You can see for yourself that I lead a modest, almost bohemian life. I have little family and fewer friends. Whatever can have possessed you to think that I could give you twenty thousand pounds?"
"You underestimate yourself, Mr. Holmes." I strained to hear this quieter voice, but I could make out the words without any great difficulty. "After all, you have rendered invaluable services to many of the most prominent men in Europe. I have no doubt that you could raise that amount whilst scarcely lifting your little finger. Of course, you know that the money is the least of my concerns. I have a number of prospects whom I might touch for as much, or more."
"Yes, what I want from you is rather different."
"What is it?" Holmes demanded at last. I could hear that he was gritting his teeth.
"It's quite a bit of work, you know, seizing control of the great slimy underbelly of London. You have made my job considerably simpler by eliminating so many of the late lamented professor's lieutenants, of course, but there's hardly any purpose in seizing control of his operation if that places me square in the sights of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to find these letters."
"Where did you find them?"
"Tucked inside a calculus text, of all the innocent objects. I had a hunch, of course, that acquiring much of Moriarty's estate at auction would be useful to me, but I had not hoped for an opportunity like this. I wonder that he did nothing with them himself while he was alive. All those messy attempts to kill you--that last one at Reichenbach was particularly ill-advised--when he might have rendered you as useless as a buzzing fly at any moment."
"Perhaps he had forgotten. As I had."
"From the sound of it, one imagines it was a rather memorable interlude. I should think that anyone would find it impossible to forget."
Another moment of silence, then Holmes spat, "What do you want, then?"
"It's very simple, Mr. Holmes. I want your cooperation. I want you to abstain from interfering with my operatives. I want you to tip me off to what Scotland Yard is thinking, and help me stay one step ahead of them. All very subtle, of course; you'll be more use to me that way, but I want your loyalties to be only mine."
Another silence, and then: "Do we have an agreement?"
"Understood," Holmes gritted. Blood pounded in my ears. "But there is something that you should understand as well. So long as those letters are in your possession, you may be safe from me, but it behooves you to be extraordinarily wary, for if you destroy my life in this way, I swear to you that I will find you and kill you, for I shall no longer have anything to lose."
"Oh, I intend to be enormously circumspect, Mr. Holmes. I assure you that no one, not even you, will be able to touch me."
I could not hear what he said next, for he murmured so low, but I heard Holmes's response--a low, animal growl and an explosive crash. Unable to restrain myself any longer, I burst through the door.
"Holmes! You've killed him!" I cried. The man was sprawled on the sitting-room floor, and Holmes was standing over him. His long, sensitive fingers quivered as he stooped to feel for the pulse.
"No, Watson. He lives yet, God damn his eyes." He looked up at me, naked horror in his countenance. "What are you doing here?"
"Did you honestly believe I had not guessed the nature of your troubles?" I cried. I drew out my revolver. "Shall I shoot him now, or take him elsewhere first? I will defer to your judgment, as no one's experience in detection is the equal of yours."
"Do not shoot him at all!" With a single swift movement he had disarmed me. "I would not have you dirty your hands with his blood for anything." He paced a few awkward steps back and forth.
"What shall I do, then?"
"I don't know. I hadn't meant to get so carried away. Not that he is likely to try to run me in for assault, but I doubt that he will be best pleased when he comes to."
We both stared at the prone form tangled awkwardly on the floor. There was no blood, and incongruously, his face had the air of innocent, peaceful repose. Holmes stooped and began to rifle his pockets, and I knelt beside him.
"What are you looking for?"
"Any sort of clue, Watson. I have been intolerably blind. I did not even realize that this man existed, much less what his ambitions were." He examined the man's possessions, which seemed innocent enough: the wallet, the handkerchiefs, the label inside his topper. If he made any brilliant deductions from these objects, however, I was not aware of it, for he soon cast them aside in despair, burying his face in his hands. Awkwardly, I placed an arm about his thin shoulders, and he twitched, but did not pull away.
"What did you overhear, Watson?" he inquired at last, his voice muffled by his palms.
I strove at once to place him at ease. "Why, nothing that I did not already suspect, Holmes. This blackguard has found some sort of hold over you that he wishes to exploit to his own nefarious ends, something he gained from that fiend Moriarty. I should have killed him at once had you not taken my revolver from me," I added, and Holmes actually laughed, a low, bitter chuckle.
"Good old Watson," he said, stealing a sideways glance at me, "No man ever had a better friend, I assure you."
"I only wish there were something more I could do."
Holmes rose briskly to his feet after another moment's silence, and I followed him. "As this is my only chance, I must seize it, although it is not a promising one," he said, "I have only his London address, and it may very well be that he has nothing incriminating there--indeed, that would be the wisest course, and if he really has it in him to become another Napoleon of crime, he is wise--but it is worth a try." He rummaged among the shelves until he found a pair of handcuffs. "If I might ask you to keep an eye on him, I should be gone for a space of two hours at the most."
"Of course, Holmes," I said, helping him to prop the awkward bulk against the settee and click the handcuffs into place. "What shall I do if he comes to?"
"Knock him out again," said Holmes, ruthlessly. "Now, where the devil are my lock-picks?"
I started guiltily and surrendered the small black case to him without a word.
"Well, well, well. I won't ask you what you were doing in possession of something so clearly illegal," Holmes said, smiling a bit tightly at his own quip. "I shall return soon, Watson," he added, as he slipped out the door.
For some time I sat beside the limp and vulnerable figure of that loathsome man, my mind racing as endlessly and as fruitlessly as a greyhound forever chasing the same rabbit around the same course, always several strides away. Lacking any more constructive means to pass the time as I anxiously awaited Holmes's return, I began perusing the man's effects, which had been left on the floor beside me. For some time I stared at them, seeing even less in them than Holmes had, if such were possible. I was staring fixedly at one item in particular--a card belonging to a photographer, the print swimming before my eyes--when I was struck by a thought. It hardly deserved to be termed a deduction, for even if my life had depended upon it I could not have explained it in the clear, logical way in which Holmes always demonstrated that his wild surmises were in fact the only possible conclusion that a reasonable man could come to, and yet I was utterly certain that my instinct would prove true. It was the work of a moment to ensure, using a small amount of chloroform, that my prisoner would give no trouble whilst I was out, and I departed.
I arrived back at Baker Street a bare minute or two before Holmes did, and it was clear from the abjection of his shoulders that he had had no success in his endeavors. "As I suspected, Watson. I was able to gain access to the premises with no difficulty, but I found nothing that might convict the man of a misdemeanor." He sank into a chair and uttered a low, hollow groan of despair.
Although it was unspeakably cruel of me, I hope that I may be forgiven my brief moment of triumph. "Surely if you leave him to his own devices, he will convict himself, sooner or later," I said innocently.
Holmes stared at me as though I were the most abject idiot. To be sure, such was the part that I was momentarily playing. "He will destroy me, Watson," he said. "I am afraid that I have not your goodness, to sacrifice myself so wholly to the public good."
I turned to the fireplace, where my heap of fine ash was rapidly cooling, in order to hide my face. "There were three letters, I believe?"
Holmes stared at me. Incredulity battled with hope upon his countenance. "Yes," he said at last, "Yes, I believe there were three."
"I have burnt them," I announced, with no small amount of triumph. "The plates that were made of them have been smashed, and the reproductions that were printed from them have been burnt as well. True, the photographer may attempt to give you some trouble, but he has no proof of anything he says, whereas I expect that his unsavory connections will be readily demonstrated. In short, you have nothing to fear."
Holmes gaped with astonishment. "My dear fellow," he said at last. His voice was thick with emotion. "My dearest Watson, how shall I ever repay you? How did you ever manage it? I am quite unworthy of all this."
"Nonsense, Holmes," said I, clapping him on the shoulder.
"I may take it then that you did not read the letters?" he asked, averting his eyes.
"Certainly not," I said stoutly, "I don't care how many skeletons you may have in your closet. It is quite immaterial to me."
Holmes shook his head. "I think you deserve to know what manner of creature I am," he said. "After all, had I not attempted to conceal the sorry truth from you, none of this should have happened," he continued over my protests. He very carefully avoided meeting my eyes as he spoke. "You see, those three letters comprised a correspondence with James Moriarty--he was not a professor then, although surely his brilliance ought to have been evident to all. He tutored me, at Mycroft's arrangement, in mathematics."
Now it was once again my turn to be astonished. I had certainly not expected this revelation of a personal connection with the criminal mastermind who was now some years dead, nor did I know what to make of it. Certainly I had not the slightest anticipation of what Holmes revealed next.
"I was sixteen then, and Moriarty was a great deal younger as well. The life he chose afterwards aged him considerably; he was once a rather handsome man. I think..." Holmes closed his eyes before he continued, "I think that if you had perused my clandestine youthful correspondence you should have found it very...sprightly."
I was too obtuse to get his meaning at first, but suddenly a number of things I felt I ought to have realized long before suddenly became very clear.
"Well, what of that?" I said, keeping my voice carefully light. "Many a man has made a disastrous first attempt only to find happiness in his second one."
Holmes leapt to his feet.
"Watson, you cannot mean--"
"Don't tell me what I cannot mean." I retorted. "You have underestimated me long enough, Holmes."
And as for what came after--well, I admit, I blush even now to recall it. Suffice it to say that matters between us, although certainly never conventional, were arranged to our mutual satisfaction.