One Out Of a Thousand Apologies

The evening after Colonel Moran’s final effort, Sherlock Holmes and I sat in the sitting-room of 221b Baker Street in strained silence.

He explained the case of Ronald Adair to me, and I nodded, and attempted to come up with some expression of interest in it. I had none. I was not interested in Ronald Adair’s death in the slightest.

I was interested in Sherlock Holmes’ death, but after that mystery had been put to rest, I found myself once again lapsed into silence.

It is not a very easy thing to say to a man, I love you, and at the present moment I want nothing more than to never see you again.

It wouldn’t have been entirely truthful, in any case. I did want to see him again. That was just the thing. I wanted to see him again every day for the rest of my life.

Instead I forced out, “Holmes, you look dreadful.”

It was true. In my narrative of his return, I may have left out a few salient details of his appearance. It is accurate to say that, at the moment when I turned to look back at my bookshelf and then returned my gaze to Holmes, he transformed entirely from the decrepit bookseller into, recognizably, Sherlock Holmes. I have written that he was even thinner than usual, and paler. I did not write that his usual attention to hygiene had considerably lapsed; in addition to a general sort of unwashedness that was familiar to me from the War, he was sporting several days’ worth of unkempt facial hair, which was very far from his usual custom. Furthermore, the sleek black of the hair on his head, which he used to master every day with a pomade whose smell I would recognize anywhere, had been allowed to grow out. It turned out– and it is a measure of how very much I loved him that I made note of this, and found it charming, even as I was still livid with him– that when allowed to grow long, and untouched by a comb or product, Holmes’ hair transforms itself into a positive rampage of black curls.

He slumped back over the settee. In truth, he was beginning to seem rather as miserable with the situation as I felt. “I have not been at leisure to attend to my appearance for quite a while.”

I hesitated. In the few years before Holmes’ ostensible death, I had occasionally performed the office of barber for him, and him for me. It was more pleasant to entrust the task to a fellow you knew intimately– and if the act had a tendency to lead to other kinds of intimacy, so be it. I fancied myself at least decent in the performance of the task.

I watched him, trying to tease out from his expression whether such attention would be welcome. Then I realized that I did not particularly care. If Holmes objected to something I was doing, he would have no hesitation in saying so. The sight of him unkempt was making me queasy, and the atmosphere of inaction in the sitting room was becoming quite stifling.

I stood up, and fetched a pair of scissors from my gladstone bag. Then I opened the door to the bedroom which had originally been Holmes’, and in the few years before his disappearance had frequently seemed to belong to both of us. Mrs. Hudson, perhaps in addition to performing her office of moving the dummy around at regular intervals, had clearly anticipated this need as well, and the wash-basin was filled with clean, cold water. I moved a plan wooden chair in front of the basin, facing away from it, and called, “Holmes, come here.”

There was a quiet moment in which I thought he might not obey me, and then a rustling of fabric as he appeared in the doorway. He looked around the room. Holmes is not outwardly a sentimental man– and yet I alone, or perhaps along with Mycroft Holmes, am aware that the reason he prevents his emotions from playing out on his features is due to a surplus, not an absence, of feeling. He is easy to read, in such moments, and I could see that the sight of me, awaiting him in his room, was affecting him greatly.

“Sit,” I said, and found that a gentleness had entered my tone that I had not intended.

He sat, and I draped a cloth around his shoulders. I stared down at Holmes’ hair, suddenly realizing that I had never really seen it in its natural state. The proliferation of untamed black curls softened his entire countenance, making him appear much closer to the sensual bohemian that I knew him to be.

Still– it was not my Holmes who peered out from under them, and of course he could not go out in respectable society looking like that. I ran my fingers through it, evaluating the best plan of attack. It was thick and caught in my fingers, and I had a moment of regret that I would not be afforded the opportunity to take hold of him by the curls on his head while I took him– at least not unless I acted quickly, and the air between us was still thick with unsaid confessions and apologies. We would not fall into bed together quite so easily as that.

Instead, I wet my fingers in the basin, and ran them over his head to wet his hair. All the while, Holmes was leaning farther and farther back in the chair, pressing into my fingers as they ran over his scalp. His eyes were closed, so I had the opportunity to observe his face while remaining myself unobserved. In addition to the greyish pallor to his skin, I could see lines of worry and sorrow that had not been present the last time I saw him. He was frowning slightly at first, but his face gradually smoothed as I worked my hands over him, and by the time the assembly of curls had flattened into a sodden sheet, he looked as peaceful as I have ever known him.

He twitched slightly at the stark sound of the first cut of the scissors, but I forced myself to continue on– one cannot back out, once one has begun such an endeavor. It occurred to me that I could have arranged the cheval-glass in the corner such that he could watch his hair being restored to its usual shape as it happened, and make corrections if he felt it was necessary, but when I peered around to see his face, his eyes were closed, and he seemed quite unconcerned.

It was the work of a quarter-hour to carefully tame Holmes’ hair into my best recollection of his preference. I did not ask his permission before continuing on to lather his face with a small cake of shaving-soap, and his eyes remained peacefully closed as I sharpened the razor and came around his front to begin shaving him.

It was hardly believable, that a mere day ago I would have sworn this man was dead at the bottom of a chasm, and now I was carefully tracing the pale lines of his face. I forced myself to put aside my emotion, so as to prevent my hands from shaking as i drew the blade close to his throat.

Finally, I washed the remnants of the lather from his face and stepped back. He heard it, and his eyes opened.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Well,” I responded, “thank you for your confidence in me.”

I meant it only in reference to his allowing me to alter his appearance– at least, that was how I meant it the moment before it emerged from my lips. It rung out tinged with bitterness, however, and in the moment where Holmes’ face twisted with pain, I could not truly claim that I hadn’t meant to rebuke him.

He was silent for a moment, and I went to turn the dusty cheval-glass so that he could see himself. He stared at his reflection, now once more close-cropped, clean-shaven and every inch the detective of Baker Street.

I returned to my position behind him and watched his reflection as well, so that I saw what he saw; a man who looked to have aged much more than the mere three years that had elapsed. His eyes met mine though the intermediary of the mirror, and he held them.

“Watson, he said, “I have no excuse to offer for my conduct. I deserve all of your disapprobation– if past incidents are anything to go by, I probably deserve more than you have available to give. If I can say anything to elucidate the train of thought that led me to the decision to avoid contact with you, it would be that my success in the venture that you helped bring to a close today was far from assured. You had already mourned me once. I did not wish for you to have to do so a second time.”

I was still standing near him, near enough to tentatively reach out and place my hands on his head again. I leaned against him, thinking. I have always had complete faith in Holmes, and have occasionally chafed at the incidents where he appeared to have less than the same in me. It had not occurred to me, however, that Holmes’ reluctance to tell me that he was alive was not due to a lack of confidence in me; it was due to a lack of confidence in himself.

I felt suddenly quite dizzy with relief– almost as much so as when he first appeared, but tinged more with love than with shock. To think that I had believed him lost, all while he believed the same thing– and for him to then return to me. I steadied myself with my hands on his shoulders, and leaned down so that my brow rested on his damp hair. “I will mourn you as many times as you require of me,” I whispered to him, “because I would do anything for you, Holmes. I very much hope, however, that the final tally is only once more.”

“Once?” He questioned. “Would your preference not be to avoid the experience entirely?”

I shook my head, so that he could feel it against the top of his skull. “I plan on adoring you well into old age, and I could not leave this earth quite so peacefully if I knew that I was abandoning you to grief in my absence.”

“My dear fellow,” he murmured, “But what if I told you I felt the same?”

I looked up and back into the mirror, so that i could take in the adoring and adored face of my detective. “In that case,” i said, “I would say that it’s a good thing we have so many intervening years to discuss the matter.”