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The Letter

Chapter One

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As we sat down to breakfast on the morning after the conclusion of the affair of the Stockbroker's Clerk - after which (the hour of our return to Town being late) I had spent the night once more in my bachelor quarters at Baker Street - Holmes picked up a letter which Mrs. Hudson had left on his plate.

"Adequate paper," he said, holding the envelope to the light, "although not particularly expensive, good ink - a broad-nibbed pen, rather prone to blotting - the pen of a woman and a regular writer. The hand is feminine, but lacks character: the standard copperplate taught at Board Schools. The writer is thus not extensively educated; and she does not write often, otherwise her hand would have more individuality. The pen is therefore the property of another. And yet she cannot be as untutored as most of her class, for both name and address are spelt correctly and properly positioned on the envelope. Her letters, too, are distinct and well-formed: a young woman of character, whatever her origins. Quite a pretty little problem, my boy."

I leaned closer to see the perplexing missive, taking it from his hand to inspect. Felt his warmth against my skin.

"Could not your curiosity be satisfied by reading the letter, Holmes?"

"Watson, have you not yet learned that more data can be obtained from a single word than from the longest epistle? The latter tells one only what the writer wished one to know; the former allows the inference of character." He took back and opened the letter anyway. Perhaps I had convinced him; probably I flattered myself. Pushing my chair back, I stood behind him to read it over his shoulder.

'Dear Mr. Holmes,

'I write in the hope that you can advise me regarding a problem. Briefly, the situation is this. My husband shared rooms before our marriage with his great friend, a man rather older than my husband. Since we were married, this attachment has persisted and has even increased: this, his closest, perhaps indeed only, friend, sees more of my husband than do I! At his call, my husband abandons both his work (which otherwise takes up a great proportion of his time, and which he much enjoys) and me to step forth: always into uncertainty, often into danger - for this friend is usually embroiled in both - but that matters nothing to him. Sometimes he does not return for days or even weeks on end! often not writing even one word to me.

'Believe me, Mr. Holmes, I am not of a jealous or a fanciful disposition. The attachment exists as I have described it. I am convinced moreover that, should it come to a choice, my husband would far sooner give up both me and his profession than this friendship. Were it not for me I know that their attachment would become more than friendship - despite my husband's being bound, more even than most of his class, by strict morality. Can you advise me, Mr. Holmes, and my husband also? I do desire my husband's happiness, or do not, at least, wish to see him made miserable by keeping to me against his wishes and inclinations. I would much prefer even divorce to such misery, on both our sides, as that would create.

'This is not my writing. My maid - an intelligent girl, sympathetic and sworn to secrecy, writes at my direction. Why? This is the greatest hint you will receive as to the identities involved: My husband knows my hand.

'Should you choose to reply, a messenger will be sent at seven o'clock to-morrow-night to take any message or letter you wish to send me.

'I remain, Mr. Holmes,

'very sincerely yours,

'M. --------------- (Mrs.)'

Holmes looked at me and I pretended to study the letter, feeling a blush travel up my cheek.

"Well, Watson," he said, "the protagonists are pretty clear, are they not?"

Could it be? "There are thousands of names beginning with 'M'," I temporised, "M... Martha, Margaret... Maisie, May... Mabel... Marguerite... M..."

"Mary," he said. He knew.

So did I.

Chapter Two

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"Your wife is an extraordinary woman," he said thoughtfully, as I left the table and gazed ashamed out of the window in considerable distress of mind, "generous and perceptive. She has seen what I imagined hidden, and is prepared to allow what I could hardly -"

"Holmes!" I cried. How could he speak so calmly? How could he be so cold?

How could I have treated my wife so? Had I not vowed to love and to cherish her until death?

"Yes, Watson?" he answered with evident surprise, "Do you not consider it a generous action? And a most intelligent method of making her plea... although several fewer hints would really have sufficed. But I have the greatest respect for your wife."

"Don't you understand?" I asked quietly, "She says that I... she says that I love you."

"Indeed," said Holmes, "which you do, and she renounces her claim upon you."

"You're so infernally calm," I began, although his coldness was making my pulse race as it always did, and the blood was rushing through me as it rarely had before, "you can't meant that there's nothing different between us, now that you know?"

"Watson, why do you persist in underestimating me? This is by no means news: subtlety is not one of your many talents. And no, there is nothing different between us... unless of course you wish there to be a change in our relationship. Sit down and have some more coffee."

"But... Mary..."

"If you want to return to your wife, then go!" He spoke dismissively, but was evidently piqued.

Mary had never stirred my blood like this. "No...," I whispered, hardly aware that I spoke. I couldn't leave this cold, beautiful, infuriating, fascinating man.

But that was a greater wrong! How could I stay to love a man? How could I have committed such sin as to love him?

"It is no sin," he said gently. He always read my mind.

"Then what is this guilt that I feel?"

"It is because you are what I happily am not: stubborn, conventional and puritanical. Perhaps that is why I love you."

Chapter Three

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I paused with my mouth half-opened to speak. "Holmes...?"

"Watson...?" he mimicked.

"You mean... you do not, you cannot mean..."

"I can and do, Watson. I thought you would have deduced that by now! in other respects your analytical powers have increased immensely. And I do not consider it sin."

I moved a little closer to him; not more than half a step. "Really?"

"Really. Since long before the Sholto case, I have been aware of feelings which friendship alone did not suffice to explain."

"And in all this time you have said nothing? You saw me be engaged, allowed me to marry and still said nothing?"

"I know you, Watson; and I knew that, whatever you yourself felt - and of that I was not entirely, although almost, certain - your sense of duty and of morality would prevent any further relationship. Unreasonable as it was, I preferred uncertainty to certain rejection. And I also feared that, if once you became aware of my feelings, our friendship would be over. I place high value on our friendship."

"But I do so as well! I would never willingly have broken our friendship. Even now, you are right: it cannot die - but neither can it become anything more, Holmes! I have treated Mary shamefully enough. To leave her would betray all I believe in."

"She has given you your freedom, Watson! Read the letter again! Here," and he thrust the letter at me, his slim finger pointing at the paragraph as he read it out to me, "I do desire my husband's happiness, or do not, at least, wish to see him made miserable by keeping to me against his wishes and inclinations. I would much prefer even divorce to such misery, on both our sides, as that would create. You need not hesitate on the count of her claim on you. And even had she not so generously granted it - and you would not throw such generosity, with all that it cost her, back into your wife's very face, Watson? - to continue as we have would be equally unfair and distasteful to her. She makes that quite plain."

His voice had risen in the middle of his speech, and his thin cheeks were flushed red with more emotion that I had ever seen him show. For myself, I felt pale as I paced the small room in great distress, trying to think. It was impossible. I could hear his soft, quick breathing, was aware of every tiny movement he made. The action I should take was clear: say goodbye and return to Mary. Ask her forgiveness and never see Holmes again. But every fibre of my being rebelled against that. I loved him.

Chapter Four

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"What would you do, Watson, if you were a bachelor?" His cool voice broke into my burning, circling thoughts. My mind was far away and I didn't think about my words, but answered in the confusion of my heart.

"Run to your arms."

"Despite thinking it wrong?" On the surface, he sounded amused; but I knew, without even wondering how I knew, that he did not really feel so.

I considered now, cheeks hot as I realised what I had said before. At last I shook my head, "I don't know. Do... Holmes, do you not think it wrong?"

"I have never loved a woman; I know I never shall. And I have never, never loved a man as I love you, Watson," he answered quietly. In all the years I had known Sherlock Holmes, I had never seen him in such earnest. His slate-grey eyes looked at the door, the window, anywhere but into mine. Holmes without his self-possession was unthinkable! That I was the cause of this loss disturbed me greatly.

And then he was rising and walking over to me, standing so close that I could hardly breathe and had to look up to see his face. Although I had always known how tall he was, in this moment I felt it to the inch in my blood and in my bones. I imagined turning my face up to him, and his leaning down. And then he would kiss me... my heart raced; the blood pounded in my veins; it was only with the greatest effort that I stood still and made myself speak.

"If only you had said something before! Oh, Holmes, things might have been so different."

"They could be still, Watson. You wife has given you the chance to change them, to choose again."

"Choose you or Mary? How can I?"

"I know it is hard, but you must choose! The decision must be yours alone, and I promise to abide by your choice. But if you choose Mrs. Watson, we must say farewell; for I could never learn again to bear it."

His closeness drove my mind away. The smell of him, part tobacco, part chemicals, part something else that sent me into the furthest circle of ecstasy, conquered all my resolution. The warmth of him was victorious over all my hesitation.

"Neither could I..." I whispered, and did what I had secretly, shamefully dreamed of. I reached up and kissed him.