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Authors: Horowitz, Anthony

The house of silk

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For my old friend, Jeffrey S. Joseph

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Lee Jackson who greatly helped with the research for this book. His excellent website,www.victorianlondon.org, is a brilliant (and free) resource for anyone interested in the period. Two books that I found particularly useful wereLondon in the 19th Centuryby Jerry White andLife in Victorian Britainby Michael Paterson although I also borrowed liberally from contemporary authors including George Gissing, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Morrison and Henry Mayhew. Thanks also to the Sherlock Holmes Society who have (so far) been genial and supportive and in particular to one of their number, Dr Marina Stajic, who kindly shared her knowledge of forensic toxology with me at the House of Commons. My agent, ‘agent of the year’, Robert Kirby first suggested this book – and at Orion, Malcolm Edwards has been incredibly patient, waiting eight years for me to write it. Finally, above all, I must acknowledge the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whom I first encountered when I was sixteen and whose extraordinary creation has inspired so much of my own work. Writing this book has been a joy and my one hope is that I will have done some justice to the original.

12, 13, 14 ASH

Preface

I have often reflected upon the strange series of circumstances that led me to my long association with one of the most singular and remarkable figures of my age. If I were of a philosophical frame of mind I might wonder to what extent any one of us is in control of our own destiny, or if indeed we can ever predict the far-reaching consequences of actions which, at the time, may seem entirely trivial.

For example, it was my cousin, Arthur, who recommended me as Assistant Surgeon to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers because he thought it would be a useful experience for me and he could not possibly have foreseen that a month later I would be dispatched to Afghanistan. At that time the conflict which came to be known as the Second Anglo-Afghan War had not even commenced. And what of the Ghazi who, with a single twitch of the finger, sent a bullet hurtling into my shoulder at Maiwand? Nine hundred British and Indian souls died that day and it was doubtless his intention that I would be one of them. But his aim was awry, and although I was badly wounded, I was saved by Jack Murray, my loyal and good-hearted orderly who managed to carry me over two miles of hostile territory and back to British lines.

Murray died at Kandahar in September of that year so would never know that I was invalided home and that I then devoted several months – small tribute to his efforts on my behalf – to a somewhat wasteful existence on the fringes of London society. At the end of that time, I was seriously considering a move to the South Coast, a necessity forced on me by the stark reality of my rapidly diminishing finances. It had also been suggested to me that the sea air might be good for my health. Cheaper rooms in London would have been a more desirable alternative and I did very nearly take lodgings with a stockbroker on the Euston Road. The interview did not go well and immediately afterwards I made my decision. It would be Hastings: less convivial perhaps, than Brighton, but half the price. My personal possessions were packed. I was ready to go.

But then we come to Henry Stamford, not a close friend of mine but an acquaintance who had served as my dresser at St Bart’s. Had he not been drinking late the night before, he would not have had a headache and, but for the headache, he might not have chosen to take the day off from the chemical laboratory where he was now employed. Lingering at Piccadilly Circus, he decided to stroll up Regent Street to Arthur Liberty’s East India House to purchase a gift for his wife. It is strange to think that, had he walked the other way, he would not have bumped into me as I came out of the Criterion Bar and, as a result, I might never have met Sherlock Holmes.

For, as I have written elsewhere, it was Stamford who suggested that I might share rooms with a man whom he believed to be an analytical chemist and who worked at the same hospital as he. Stamford introduced me to Holmes who was then experimenting with a method of isolating bloodstains. The first meeting between us was odd, disconcerting, and certainly memorable … a fair indication of all that was to come.

This was the great turning point of my life. I had never had literary ambitions. Indeed, if anyone had suggested that I might be a published writer, I would have laughed at the thought. But I think I can say, in all honesty and without flattering myself, that I have become quite renowned for the way I have chronicled the adventures of the great man, and felt no small sense of honour when I was invited to speak at his memorial service at Westminster Abbey, an invitation which I respectfully declined. Holmes had often sneered at my prose style, and I could not help but feel that had I taken my place at the pulpit I would have felt him standing at my shoulder, gently mocking whatever I might say from beyond the grave.

It was always his belief that I exaggerated his talents and the extraordinary insights of his brilliant mind. He would laugh at the way I would construct my narrative so as to leave to the end a resolution which he swore he had deduced in the opening paragraphs. He accused me more than once of vulgar romanticism, and thought me no better than any Grub Street scribbler. But generally I think he was unfair. In all the time that I knew him, I never saw Holmes read a single work of fiction – with the exception, that is, of the worst items of sensational literature – and although I cannot make any great claim for my own powers of description, I am prepared to say that they did the job and that he himself could have done no better. Indeed, Holmes almost admitted as much when he finally took pen to paper and set out, in his own words, the strange case of Godfrey Emsworth. This episode was presented asThe Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, a title which in itself falls short of perfection in my view, for blanching would surely be more appropriate to an almond.

I have, as I say, received some recognition for my literary endeavours but that of course was never the point. Through the various twists of fate which I have outlined, I was the one chosen to bring the achievements of the world’s foremost consulting detective to light and presented no fewer than sixty adventures to an enthusiastic public. More valuable to me, though, was my long friendship with the man himself.

It is a year since Holmes was found at his home on the Downs, stretched out and still, that great mind for ever silenced. When I heard the news, I realised that I had lost not just my closest companion and friend but, in many ways, the very reason for my existence. Two marriages, three children, seven grandchildren, a successful career in medicine and the Order of Merit awarded to me by His Majesty King EdwardVIIin 1908 might be considered achievement enough for anyone. But not for me. I miss him to this day and sometimes, in my waking moments, I fancy that I hear them still, those familiar words: ‘The game’s afoot, Watson!’ They serve only to remind me that I will never again plunge into the darkness and swirling fog of Baker Street with my trusty service revolver in my hand. I think of Holmes, often, waiting for me on the other side of that great shadow which must come to us all, and in truth I long to join him. I am alone. My old wound plagues me to the end and as a terrible and senseless war rages on the continent, I find I no longer understand the world in which I live.

So why do I take up my pen one final time to stir up memories which might better be forgotten? Perhaps my reasons are selfish. It could be that, like so many old men with their lives behind them, I am seeking some sort of solace. The nurses who attend upon me assure me that writing is therapeutic and will prevent me from falling into the moods to which I am sometimes inclined. But there is another reason, too.

The adventures ofThe Man in the Flat CapandThe House of Silkwere, in some respects, the most sensational of Sherlock Holmes’s career but at the time it was impossible for me to tell them, for reasons that will become abundantly clear. The fact that they became inextricably tangled up, the one with the other, meant that they could not be separated. And yet it has always been my desire to set them down, to complete the Holmes canon. In this I am like a chemist in pursuit of a formula, or perhaps a collector of rare stamps who cannot take full pride in his catalogue knowing there to be two or three specimens that have evaded his grasp. I cannot prevent myself. It must be done.

It was impossible before – and I am not just referring to Holmes’s well-known aversion to publicity. No, the events which I am about to describe were simply too monstrous, too shocking to appear in print. They still are. It is no exaggeration to suggest that they would tear apart the entire fabric of society and, particularly at a time of war, this is something I cannot risk. When I am done, assuming I have the strength for the task, I will have this manuscript packed up and sent to the vaults of Cox and Co. in Charing Cross, where certain others of my private papers are stored. I will give instructions that for one hundred years, the packet must not be opened. It is impossible to imagine what the world will be like then, what advances mankind will have made, but perhaps future readers will be more inured to scandal and corruption than my own would have been. To them I bequeath one last portrait of Mr Sherlock Holmes, and a perspective that has not been seen before.

But I have wasted enough energy on my own preoccupations. I should have already opened the door of 221B Baker Street and entered the room where so many adventures began. I see it now, the glow of the lamp behind the glass and the seventeen steps beckoning me up from the street. How far away they seem, how long ago since last I was there. Yes. There he is, with pipe in hand. He turns to me. He smiles. ‘The game’s afoot …’

ONEThe Wimbledon Art Dealer

‘Influenza is unpleasant,’ Sherlock Holmes remarked, ‘but you are right in thinking that, with your wife’s help, the child will recover soon.’

‘I very much hope so,’ I replied, then stopped and gazed at him in wide-eyed astonishment. My tea had been halfway to my lips but I returned it to the table with such force that the cup and the saucer almost parted company. ‘But for Heaven’s sake, Holmes!’ I exclaimed. ‘You have taken the very thoughts from my head. I swear I have not uttered a word about the child nor his illness. You know that my wife is away – that much you might have deduced from my presence here. But I have not yet mentioned to you the reason for her absence and I am certain that there has been nothing in my behaviour that could have given you any clue.’

It was in the last days of November, the year 1890, when this exchange took place. London was in the grip of a merciless winter, the streets so cold that the very gas lamps seemed frozen solid and what little light they gave out subsumed by the endless fog. Outside, people drifted along the pavements like ghosts, with their heads bowed and their faces covered, while the growlers rattled past, their horses anxious to be home. And I was glad to be in, with a fire blazing in the hearth, the familiar smell of tobacco in the air and – for all the clutter and chaos with which my friend chose to surround himself – a sense that everything was in its right place.

I had telegraphed my intention to take up my old room and stay with Holmes for a short while, and I had been delighted to receive his acquiescence by return. My practice could manage without me. I was temporarily alone. And I had it in mind to watch over my friend until I was certain that he was fully restored to health. For Holmes had deliberately starved himself for three days and three nights, taking neither food nor water, in order to persuade a particularly cruel and vengeful adversary that he was close to death. The ruse had succeeded triumphantly, and the man was now in the capable hands of Inspector Morton of the Yard. But I was still concerned about the strain that Holmes had placed upon himself and thought it advisable to keep an eye on him until his metabolism was fully restored.

I was therefore glad to see him enjoying a large plate of scones with violet honey and cream, along with a pound cake and tea, all of which Mrs Hudson had carried in on a tray and served for the two of us. Holmes did seem to be on the mend, lying at ease in his big armchair, wearing his dressing gown and with his feet stretched out in front of the fire. He had always been of a distinctly lean and even cadaverous physique, those sharp eyes accentuated by his aquiline nose, but at least there was some colour in his skin and everything about his voice and manner pronounced him to be very much his old self.

He had greeted me warmly, and as I took my place opposite him, I felt the strange sensation that I was awakening from a dream. It was as if the last two years had never happened, that I had never met my beloved Mary, married her and moved to our home in Kensington, purchased with the proceeds of the Agra pearls. I could have still been a bachelor, living here with Holmes, sharing with him the excitement of the chase and the unravelling of yet another mystery.

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