[Creative Writing – a Sherlock Holmes short story]
I have been neglecting my own writing – at least when it comes to the area of creative writing – for quite a while, being too busy with the commissioned writing for my clients. So, in order to get back into that particular saddle again, I have dug this up from my archives – a short story, one of the first I have ever written in (my non-native language) English. That as such was – and still is – a challenge in itself. The second challenge was trying to find the right tone, since the original Sherlock Holmes stories are a product of the Victorian and later Edwardian times.
I could of course claim that I wrote it for the sake of these relatively technical challenges – but I guess I mainly did it in order to entertain my inner nerd. 🙂
So, this is my take on one of my favorite ACD stories (The Empty House) and what might have happened afterwards…
All of a sudden I am wide awake… panting… sweating. I keep having those disturbing dreams, almost got used to them during the last three years without my friend, but full of doubts, loneliness and fear.
The night is pitch black, and it takes an eternity to adjust my eyes better to the darkness and to realize where I am: This, at last, is Baker Street! I am home!
Utterly relieved I try to steady my breathing and fumble for some matches to light a candle. It is only now that I notice I am not lying in my bed, but on the couch in the sitting room, where I must have eventually dozed off, after sitting up with my dear, sorely missed Watson for hours.
After the arrest of Colonel Moran, after returning together to our old rooms, neither Watson nor I had had the heart to go to sleep. None of us had wanted this day to end, this wonderful golden day of reunion… almost of resurrection, if one wants to put it that way. And it is true, I have not felt so alive for… well… a lifetime. And during these last hours, thank God, I did have the opportunity to see life somehow returning to the features of my best, my only friend.
It had been a shock, indeed, to see my Watson thus much altered by obvious grief, undoubtedly caused by the double loss of friend and wife. And I had been stupid enough to shock the poor man another time by my unnecessarily theatrical return into the world of the living. This must have been the first time in his life this solid rock of a character had surrendered himself to a faint.
But then – how his face, his whole person had been illuminated by sheer joy. I will never forget this look, as long as I shall live. A shadow of his smile, like an echo, had remained on his face the whole rest of the day…
…even while ambushing the bloody Moran.
…even when I had to admit to him that during the time of my disappearance I had to confide in my brother Mycroft, while keeping him, Watson, in the dark.
…even when he forgave me right away, pushing the undeniable hurt aside to focus on the joy of being together again.
After capturing Moran, we had – quite naturally, it seems – headed back to Baker Street, settled down in the sitting room we had shared for so many years and indulged in the simple fact of togetherness. It had been a most peculiar state, spellbound, detached from time and reality, and neither of us had wanted to break this spell by such a trivial action as saying good-night.
Nevertheless, I must have fallen asleep eventually… the strains and hardships of the last days finally taking their toll.
But now I am wide awake.
And something is wrong.
Yes, something is wrong, indeed: I am, once again, alone.
Where is Watson? His armchair is empty. For a moment, a flash of frantic panic rushes through my mind, and I have to force myself to think logically again. That is the problem with emotions, they too often interfere with proper judgement!
Damn idiot!, I curse myself. What did you expect? You know very well that he is not in the habit of sleeping outside of a halfway decent bed! Finding me asleep, he must have retired to his old bedroom to lay down for the remains of the night.
Luckily those trains of thoughts still run swiftly enough, so that I my sudden anxiety does not last very long… but I have to convince myself, nevertheless. I have to see with my own eyes that he is really there.
So I put the blanket aside with which he – always the good doctor – must have covered my sleeping body to keep it warm. I take the light and approach the door to the guest room. It has never really been a guest room, of course, but he had started to call his former bedroom that way after having moved out from Baker Street to live with his wife. Needless to mention that it had always been his room and that I would have never permitted anyone else except him to spend the night there!
I open the door as gingerly as possible, reminding myself that the man does need his sleep to recover. All I need is to see his face on the pillow, and I shall be at ease, withdraw to the sitting room again and contemplate the fact that I am such a lucky man!
But the bed is empty.
He is not there!
It is all I can do not to start screaming! I hasten back into the sitting room, and still it is vacant and looks strangely deserted.
What has happened? Where the deuce can he be? I drop down on the couch.
I remember the look on his face, the tone of his voice. I remember his smile that has given me all this desperately needed reassurance during the last hours. A smile that was saying: Everything will be all right!
And I had clung to that smile, ignoring my observations of the unsufficiently veiled question in his eyes.
Those eyes that were asking: WHY?
I know, I had given him some kind of answer. I had given him a reason for my not letting him know earlier that I was alive. And by telling him about this reason I had not told him a lie.
But I had not told him the whole truth, either.
I pull myself together and examine my surroundings. Watson had taken the time to cover me with a blanket, he had even taken off my shoes and placed them accurately on the floor under the couch, where it was most unlikely that I might stumble over them in the dark. On the small table beside my seat he had even placed a fresh glass of water for me.
So, this has my old chap Watson written all over it, a methodical and caring and kind man. It does clearly not seem as if he had left me there in an agitated mood, let alone anger. I open the door that leads to the staircase, and there is his overcoat, still hanging on his usual hook at the wardrobe. This alludes to him being still around, somewhere.
Now, these perceptions should have a calming effect, shouldn’t they?
The problem is, I am anything but calm!
Suddenly, there is a low, strange noise, and it’s got me wincing and jumping to my feet in even heightened alarm! I feel my heart pounding heavily in my chest…
There it is once more!
And now I understand what had been the cause for my waking up so suddenly…
I instantly abandon reasoning and clear thinking and rush into the direction where the source of these sounds is to be found.
I push the door open (it had only been ajar) – and there he is! He is shivering badly, he is groaning, he is in tears… he is asleep!
Normally, this would raise a few questions: For example, why he had chosen MY bedroom for his intended rest, given the fact that Mrs. Hudson had made sure that everything (including his bed) had been prepared for him to spend the night…
…and why he was still wearing his suit and shoes, lying in a quite uncomfortable position, only halfway on the coverlet, head on the pillow, with his legs still outside the bed.
While I have to assume that he had obviously only intended to stay a short while in the room and must have fallen asleep there rather involuntarily, I have no time for idle deductions that would further prevent me from stopping him… crying…!
Oh, dear God!
I have never ever seen my friend shedding tears. I have been with him in all kinds of moods, but I have surely never seen him crying. Years ago, I would have considered such a sight uttlerly abhorrent. The imposition of having to deal with a person so far beyond self-control…!
Anyway, there is only one thing that bothers me now: That my Watson could secretly suffer that much! That there might be something in his mind haunting him so badly!
If it is somehow in my power to help him, I have to do that right away! What’s pride now to me, what’s self-control, what’s the benefit of a mind being all brains?
“Watson! Watson, old fellow!”
He is stirring, but still seems in the jaws of a nightmare, helpless and beyond my reach…
I remember the soothing effect of his smile and the unspoken promise: Everything is going to be all right…
“It’s all right, Watson. You hear me? It’s all right, wake up. JOHN!”
I am kneeling beside the bed now, throwing my arms around his shoulders, calling him by his name. I have never felt so much fear in my life, not even at the Reichenbach Falls!
It is with a sob and a start that he suddenly opens his eyes. The candle light only illuminates the room dimly, but I can see more than just a trace of embarrassment on his face. Anyway, what’s embarrassment in a moment like this!
He is still panting, not uttering a single word. Then I feel his arms around me, though it is less a hug than a vicelike grip! I can feel a heart pounding, and I am not sure whether it is his or mine.
Gradually, slowly, his breathing becomes more calm and steady. And I know that there is something for me to do right now, before these strange moments are over.
“I am having those dreams, you know”, I say slowly, as he finally loosens his firm grip on me and sinks back against the pillow. His eyes are following my every move, as I bend to his feet to take off his shoes.
“No, old chap”, I say, as he starts to protest. “Let me at least return this favour. And pray, make yourself a bit more comfortable, will you? It is time for your mind and body to have a little rest.”
I undo his tie and open his collar; I lift his feet to position them on the mattress; I take the blanket and cover him up to his chin. Numerous times he has rendered those services to me, especially during my darker hours, when I had been weak, vulnerable, sick and tired. Now it is my turn.
“I’m sorry, Holmes”, he finally says, his voice sounding a little hoarse. “I must have mistaken the room…”
“That’s all right”, I assure him and try my best to smile. I know very well that he is not telling the truth, that he has come here absolutely on purpose. By means that have not much to do with logic and deductions I understand that he had chosen my bedroom to be able to feel himself closer to me. Maybe he had just wanted to sit here for a while before retiring for the night. I know these things, because I would have done the same.
I clear my throat and point to an armchair in the corner. “Would you mind to bear my company for a couple of additional minutes?” I am now setting sail for a long overdue conversation. “It is actually a little bit lonely out there.”
“Please, go on”, he replies, trying a half-smile. “Just make yourself at home.”
“You are indeed obliging, doctor”, I retort, as I understand that he is obviously trying to lighten the mood. I pull the chair close to the bed, make myself as comfortable as the situation allows and just behold his face for a while. I would have never believed that I could miss the man, any man, so much!
He returns my glance. “You… are having dreams?”, he finally ventures.
“Oh, yes.” This is not going to be easy for me, but I owe him the truth.
“Every single night. I am crouching down in my hideout at the Reichenbach Falls, and I am watching you coming to look for me. You are examining the surroundings, you are calling my name, you are finally finding and reading my letter. You are so very near. I want to stand up and open my mouth to make you notice me. But I am unable to make the slightest move. I want to shout, but I cannot produce any sound. You are finally going away, and I cannot reach you. You are out of sight. I am falling. I am falling down the Falls.”
I am suddenly finding it hard to steady my voice. At some point I must have closed my eyes, because as I now look up, I see his eyes fixed on me with an intense and utterly amazed gaze.
I decide I’d better continue talking as long as I still dare to do so. After a few deep breaths I take (figuratively spoken) the plunge into the dephts of openness.
“My brother Mycroft…”, I begin, slowly, measuring every word. “I have already told you about the way he is leading his life. Secluded. Without much contact to the public. The impersonated enigma. Few people know about the relation between him and me. Remember how long it had taken even you to find out that I have a brother.
Now, when I understood the urgency for me to obtain the funds for my exile, I contacted him. He had the means to provide for me – not only regarding the money, but also regarding the logistics. After all, he has the British Government behind him. I also thought his lifestyle and his position might render – per definitionem – some sort of protection against any possible schemes of Moriarty’s henchmen, should they find out that I was still alive. So I wrote to him instead of you.”
Watson is watching me. He does not interrupt me, but he has started to look more at ease, much more himself.
“When you accompanied me to Switzerland, three years ago”, I continue, “I soon began to scent the danger that surrounded us. And I knew I was not the only target person, meanwhile. By bringing you along, I had endangered your life severely, and I almost could not endure this thought. On our way to the Falls, when this presumed messenger came to lure you away from me, I did not doubt for a minute, that this had been Moriarty’s work. And I was more than glad to get you out of the line of fire.
You know what happened, then. I decided to dissappear. From my hidden place at the Falls I watched you… and, believe me, it had been the hardest thing I had ever done and I’ll ever do to let you go away without any sign that I was still alive. Not very much unlike my dream – the difference being the fact that maybe my body would have allowed me to call out for you… but not my conscience! By that time I had promised myself that I would not let you become a target person for Moriarty’s men. I know you would not have let me go on my own if you knew I was alive. So I had you rather believing me dead than being in any further danger on my behalf.”
He has closed his eyes now, wiping his face with his right hand. I anxiously hope that when he will look at me again, I will be able to read from his features, that he has not only forgiven me – but that he now also understands me. Otherwise I should see myself liable to dip in even deeper emotional waters – and that would be something quite outside my ususal range of experience.
“You know”, he says at length. “I believe there is a reason why Professor Moriarty had taken care to separate us before attacking you.” His voice sounds pensive now, but the tension seems finally gone, and so I feel relaxing myself a little.
“What do you mean?”
“Because he knew very well, that together we are stronger than separated.”
It is a simple statement, and I am glad beyond words that his expression and his tone do not contain a reproach.
“You are right”, I reply. “And I have learned that the hard way.”
He looks at me, then nods. “I am sure you did… but I must tell you, Holmes, as your friend and doctor, that you should really try to get yourself some sleep now.”
Ah! To hear this familiar admonition again, coming from his own mouth! Marvellous!
“Whatever the good doctor says”, I agree. “But you – do you feel allright?”
“Oh, I am fine”, he assures me. “After a few hours of additional sleep, a good breakfast and some strong coffee in the morning I will be almost as new. The rest can be discussed later.”
There suddenly seems to be some new tension. “The rest?”
“Yes.” He is hesitating. “Actually, I wish to consult you.”
This surely gets my by surprise! Obviously I should really drop the thought of him being always so predictable.
“The thing is, I could need your advice on some financial affairs. Nothing to worry about, but I would be interested in your opinion.”
Predictable? Watson? What a strange idea!
“Of course”, is all I can say.
And if I am not totally mistaken, I have just perceived a very slight and very quick grin on his face. He pulls the blanket a bit higher, exhales and adds, contentedly: “’Night, Holmes.”
“Good night, old boy.” How often have I envied him his ability to fall asleep thus easily… I am rising from my seat. Then: “Oh – Watson?”
“Would you mind me sitting here another moment before heeding doctor’s orders?”
“Not in the least.”
“Thank you.” I settle back, and it is only now I realise that he had not told me anything about his dream. Maybe he will, someday. But I think it is not that important anymore, as I have reason to hope his dreams now will change for the better…
It is, once again, a new day.
Within 24 hours, my world has once again been turned upside down, and this time for the better. Now, like after the rain, the air is somehow fresh and clean.
It is still hard to believe he’s back!
And knowing him, it is still hard to believe we have actually had this particular conversation last night! I would have never believed that he would grant me such an insight into his very soul. But then again, I would have also never believed to see him again, alive!
What a strange night this has been! My inner eye is showing me once again the nightmare that had haunted me, and I can see myself gripping my friend’s hand and trying to save him from falling into that deadly abyss. And I can hear him laughing madly, while simply letting go and dissapearing into the dephts…
I have heard a lot about this Professor Freud in Vienna and his theories about the meaning of dreams. Somehow I wonder what he might say regarding our nightmares… but, anyway, these are to be bygones, now!
My opening the curtains reveals a foggy London morning gradually turning into a sunny one. And a glance into Holmes’ full-length mirror reveals a doctor with a slightly battered appearance. It’s been a long time since I’ve last slept in my clothes, and I have not even brought a clean shirt to change.
So I at least take off my waistcoat and the crumpled shirt and help myself to some water to freshen up. I can not help but exclaiming at the cold water, but now that my mind has been revived, the washing does the same to my body. While I am trying to tidy my hair a bit, I suddenly hear a familiar sound, and my hands stop in midair…
I am sure that in my whole life I have never before been so deeply touched by a simple piece of music! How I had longed to hear this special sound again! During the last three years I had often tried to soothe myself by visiting a violin concert, like we two had done it so often in the past, while being together. It had never been the same, though, and while listening to some of the greatest virtuosos of the century I had only been painfully aware of missing the strange scraping and the improvisations Holmes had used to strain my patience with. This time, it is not an improvisation. It is my friend greeting me with one of my favourite melodies!
I find myself unable to move until the last note is finished.
Then I hear footsteps approaching and a knock on the door.
“Watson? Are you getting dressed?”
I look back into the mirror, making a face. “Well, sort of!”
The door opens a few inches, and his slender hand appears, holding a familiar piece of cloth: my old dressing gown!
“Look, what Mrs. Hudson has preserved in your old room”, he says, laying it over the chair. “This might do for breakfast, don’t you think? And speaking of breakfast: The good Lady has already confronted me with threats of the most serious kind in case I should not consent to eating something nourishing this morning. So, if you’d join me at the table to protect me if neccessary, I would be very much obliged.”
And with this, the door is closed again, and I hear him briskly walking away, humming a tune.
Suddenly I am feeling hungry, and with a grin I take on the dressing gown. It might not be the sort of proper attire he is used from his regular clients, but it has just come to my mind again that I had announced to consult him this morning for advice. Well, and this is precisely what I am going to do now!
The sun has come out just in time to cheerfully lighten the sitting room, and the mood of my friend seems to reflect something of that brightness. He is sitting at the carefully laid out table and has obviously just entered into a conversation with Mrs. Hudson, who is serving breakfast. Having put down various plates and bowls, she remains standing there and looks at him intently.
“Mrs. Hudson?” He acknowledges my presence with a wave of his hand and then again devotes his attention to his housekeeper.
“I have been missing the opportunity to preparing your breakfast for about three years, now. Therefore, as I have already mentioned, I really should expect you to eat it today!” Her fond and concerned gaze belies her rigid tone, and it suddenly dawns on me that I have not been the only one to mourn over Holmes.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hudson.”
“Oh! Good morning, Doctor! It is so nice to have you both again together at this table!”
“And I enjoy this opportunity at least as much as you do!”, I assure her with a wink, as she is pouring out the coffee.
She gives me a smile – but the expression freezes on her face as she suddenly notices her old and new tenant’s strange behaviour:
Holmes has tasted the coffee and slightly nodded his approval. So far, this is nothing new. But now he is actually shovelling scrambled eggs and bacon onto his plate. “Would you please be so kind to pass me the bread basket, Watson?”
It is all Mrs. Hudson and I can do to watch him open-mouthed, and Holmes returns our gaze with the most innocent expression on his face.
“It’s all right, really”, he assures us. “I am just starving, that’s all.”
“Well, in that case…”, I reply, handing him the toast and watching a forkful of real food dissapearing between his lips.
“Thank you, old chap. Mrs. Hudson, you have surpassed yourself! That leads me to high hopes regarding lunch!”
She throws him a sceptical look but can not help smiling. “I shall see to that”, she says and leaves, not without a final contented glance on the scenery.
I keep watching him for another minute, while he is enjoying his breakfast, then I slowly begin to eat myself. I notice that the morning paper is lying unread on the table. “Do you want me to look it up for you?”, I ask.
But he shakes his head. “A bit later, if you don’t mind. I have had enough work last night… I mean, with that Moran”, he kind of hastily adds.
“Sure.” I am, by the way, pleased to find that Holmes’s praises on Mrs. Hudson’s cooking had been no exaggeration. “Have you slept well?”
“Well, yes!” A slight smile. “No further strange dreams for a change. I have, anyway, found it neccessary to use your bedroom for the rest of the night. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, by no means! I mean, these are your rooms, after all.”
There is a distinctive frown on his face, as he slightly shrugs his shoulders, without further reply. And I guess this is a good time to pursue my… consultation.
“You know”, I begin, carefully chosing the words I have been thinking upon during the night. “About that advice I was going to ask you for…”
He helps himself to a second cup of coffee. “Yes?”
“It is more or less a financial matter.”
“I am not really an expert on pecunia, but if you value my opinion…?”
“Oh, yes. You see, I am seriously contemplating on giving up the house.”
Now I have his full attention!
“You want to move out, there?”
“Yes. After all, it is far too big for a single person alone. And, to be honest with you, the surgery had not been that profitable during the last years. I should very much prefer to find myself some nice appartments, and maybe even someone to go halves with.”
He stares at me. “Now, this is indeed a coincidence…” He is sipping his coffee, his eyes still on my face. “Let me ask you something: Would you mind a pipe smoking companion who has an interest in doing chemical experiments?”
“No, not at all.”
“And how about violin playing? Would that annoy you?”
I can’t hide a grin, as I am very well remembering our little cross examination ages ago, when our common aquaintance Stamford had first introduced us. “That depends on the player”, I say accordingly. “I consider a well-played violin a treat for the gods.”
Now he is laughing, for a moment looking not much older than in those former days. “Well, then that’s settled!” he states and raises his cup.
I assume the custom of clinking glasses has always been confined to… well, glasses, containing champagne and the likes of it. Coffee cups might generally be considered far less appropriate for such a ceremonial action. But then again – who cares?
“Welcome home, my friend!” he says.
“Ditto, Holmes. Ditto!”
– The End –
(…and a new beginning…)