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by astolat

"My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence."—Sherlock Holmes, "The Red-Headed League"

The newspaper in Lisbon came at eight and went to Godfrey first, before he should leave for his office. "My wife is that treasure who does not require entertainment at the breakfast table," he liked to say of her to his friends; it would have been a little more accurate to say, Irene did not require the sort of entertainment she was likely to get out of Godfrey at the breakfast table, which did not very well meet the name.

She would have liked to take a section of the paper, but while Godfrey naturally obliged any such request, he would interrupt her in asking for pages back, that he might finish those items begun earlier. It was easier in the end to be patient, to let Godfrey keep the pages in neat order, and spend her own breakfast in contemplation of her day and the small square of garden their cottage boasted. Her mornings when he had gone did not lack leisure.

"Sherlock Holmes is dead," he told her, before the maid had brought out the eggs, "at Reichenbach Falls."

She made expressions of dismay and shock, and when he had gone she read the story over three times: a bare paragraph describing the famous detective lost, a criminal mastermind claiming a final victim, his old companion left behind to give the report.

It was not much, but somehow she did not like to leave the paper on the table to be swept away; instead she carried it into the bedroom and put it into her bureau, and went outside to tend the roses. In twenty minutes she came in again and read it once more, and then went out to the front stoop.

The street boys knew her, courtesy of a ball returned after a broken window without more than a calm request they should aim away from her house in future, and were happy to take a few pennies to fan out into the town for news for her. An hour brought her a slightly worn copy of The Strand with Dr. Watson's voice thick as old treacle on the page, full of studied melodrama and real grief.

At breakfast the next morning, she read it over yet again while Godfrey read a fresh newspaper, full of different news.

There was no reason it ought to have cut up her peace. She had not seen the man in two years and then had known him not at all: that he had once invaded her house in guise to rob her was not much foundation for affection, except what one might feel, she supposed, for a satisfying opponent one has bested. The story—of course she had read it—the story had been very flattering, but she had enough of admirers to discount the value of another, even one who put her photograph above emeralds. And in any case, he was dead.

The magazine went into the drawer with the newspaper, however.

Her mornings were of a settled round these days: what little management the little house needed, the garden, a handful of calls received and returned. If her marriage had not made her wholly respectable, it had made her sufficiently so to permit her neighbors to excuse an acquaintance which so satisfyingly allowed them to partake of just the least bit of notoriety, indirectly; to mention in whispers, at assemblies and balls, yes, that is her, the famous—

Irene tried not to think so of them, the kind and stupid ladies who came visiting; and ordinarily she did not. She could not begrudge anyone a little excitement at so little expense to her, and they were kind: when she had been ill, last year—so wretchedly inadequate a word for that hollowed-out experience, tears standing in her eyes because she would not, would not let them run, not in front of the businesslike doctor speaking to Godfrey over her head, telling him prosaically they must be cautious, warning against another attempt too soon, while he washed his hands of the blood—

They had been really kind then, beyond polite expressions of sympathy: food appearing in those first few days when she could think not at all, and clean linen; Mrs. Lydgate and Mrs. Darrow coming by in the mornings with embroidery, sitting in perfect silence for hours while the window-squares of sun tracked a pathway across the sitting room. They had asked her to sing, a week later on, and when she had stopped halfway through Una voce poco fa, drooping over the pianoforte, they had taken up without a word a conversation about their unreliable maidservants, until she had mastered herself.

So she could not despise them anymore, because the kindness was real, as all the crowned glories had proven not to be; she knew better now, or thought she knew, how to value the things of the world. But that week she found herself freshly impatient; she did not attend to the conversation in Mrs. Wessex's drawing room, until someone said to her, a little cautiously, "But you knew him, my dear, didn't you?"

"No," she said, "no more than the hare knows the hound."

"Well, it's a pity," Mrs. Ballou said, in her comfortably stolid way, without ever looking up from her knitting. "I'm sure I don't know what he was about, though, letting that dreadful man throw him off a mountain instead of calling the police, like a sensible man."

"Yes," Irene said, and taking her leave very abruptly went outside and stood in the street, half-angry and half-amused with herself, to be so schooled by a fat old dowager. Of course he was not dead.

Her sense of humor won out in the end, and she laughed on the doorstep and went home to throw out the papers. There was an end of it, she told herself; it was the inherent absurdity of the story which had gnawed at her.

John Watson believed his own story, she was sure. He was, she thought, very much like Godfrey: the sort of man who would think it—not romantic, but rather quite ordinary pro patria mori, even if there were convenient alternatives to be had for the cost of a little reasoning. The sort of man who would trust in what a friend told him, unquestioningly, because even to puzzle would be faintly disloyal. Easy to fool such a man, and more than a little cruel to do so.

"Is something distressing you, my dear?" Godfrey asked, and she realized she was drumming her fingertips upon the writing table, while her correspondance went unanswered.

"I am only out of sorts," she said. "This wretched heat!" This was not very just: it was only the beginning of June.

Two days later she took a train to Paris: alone, but for her maid. "If you would not mind waiting a week, I could tie up my affairs tolerably well," Godfrey said.

"You are very good, but in a week, I dare say the fit will have passed, and I will not want to go anywhere," Irene said. "Besides, I know you could not leave things in a state such as would leave you with an easy mind. No, I will fly away to Paris and repair my plumage, see some disreputable old friends and my very respectable singing-master, and come back just as soon as you have begun to miss me properly."

"Then you should have to turn around as soon as you had set foot out of the door," he said, gallantly.

She could be cruel too; perhaps that was what interested her.

In Paris she left her maid behind in the hotel and put on male clothing. She went to the Opera, to the Symphony, and studied the faces of the orchestra through a glass. Paris was a shot at a venture, but either here or Vienna was most likely, and Paris was nearer Geneva. On the fourth night she went to the Opéra-Comique, and the third violinist was a man with a narrow face, cheeks sallow and nose hawklike, who studied his music with more fierce concentration than a professional ought to have required.

The next morning through an acquaintance she presented herself to the director as Madame Richards from America, and sang only well enough to be placed in the chorus and considered a possible understudy for Rosette in Manon. In rehearsals the next morning she watched his shoulders. He did not turn from the music at all, but when she sang, one of fifteen voices, his head tilted a little, searching.

He was waiting for her when she came out of the stage door that evening, standing lean and straight beyond the waiting gaggle of boys holding flowers for the chorus girls. He was just out of the circle of lamplight, the brim of his top hat casting his face into shadow. She paused on the stairs, ignoring the handful of small bouquets offered to her consequence by those who, lacking some other object of affections, were considering whether to settle themselves upon her.

She smiled down at them and said, "Gentlemen, you are in my way," and they let her through, not without a few looks after her, some a little surprised. But Mademoiselle Parnaud was directly behind her, so there were no eyes upon them by the time Irene reached him.

"I have been insufficiently cautious, I find," he said, and offered her his arm. They walked away together towards the Rue de Richelieu.

"I hope you do not have much cause for concern," she said. "If your nemesis indeed ended at the bottom of the Falls?"

"Yes," he said. "After I shot him, of course."

They had dinner in a small anonymous cafe, sitting on the sidewalk with the noise of conversation and carriages around them. "Some of his lieutenants have escaped the net," he said, waving an impatient hand, long-fingered and pale, "but they are not of his caliber. They are all watching Watson."

"I suppose," she said thoughtfully, "that you will find that an excellent excuse to give him."

He looked at her sharply.

"It is not always easy to be adored," she said.

"No," he said. Then his mouth twisted a little, in wry amusement. "The only thing worse, of course—"

She nodded. She had learned that lesson from her prince, with his jewels and his exclamations of surprise. He had never imagined she would take his engagement so badly. He had thought she was a woman of the world. He had thought she understood, and she had understood, just then, that she had been loved only as a flower, set upon the mantel in a vase, temporary, to be discarded with the cloudy water a few days later.

Even in that first moment, she had not regretted him in his person, not even on the rawest level, his broad shoulders, his strong mouth. All her anger, red-hot, was to have been so cheaply held, so easily cast off. His weakness, not hers; but she had chosen him, after all.

She had taught him to regret her, though, and after that she had forgiven herself the mistake: she had been only a girl then, not yet twenty, and after all she had learned quickly. Only to be adored was, in the end, nothing; to be adored by someone worthy, everything. And oh, Godfrey was worthy, and she loved him; it was only something wild and errant in her soul that could not quite reconcile itself to the necessary sacrifice of liberty, though she knew she could not have him without it.

"How did you learn?" she asked, abruptly. "What taught you—?"

"He married," Holmes said.

No need to ask who he meant, of course. "I encouraged it," he added. "I wished that he were not necessary to me, and so I convinced myself he was not; that I would do better for solitude." He smiled, that wry look again. "I have had more than enough leisure since to contemplate the irony of having successfully deceived myself, who could scarcely be led astray by the most dedicated attempts of all the criminals in London."

She did not ask him, of course, but there was a weary regret in his face that made her quite certain they had never been lovers. He had thought of it, and rejected it, likely in defense of that same independence: Watson would have crossed that Rubicon for him, but he would never have left, afterwards. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer—some bitterness there, in Watson's words; he knew he had been refused, whether consciously or not. She had never before had the least cause to be grateful to that injustice which had made the sacrifice of her own virtue her own easiest road to independence, but at least she had never been tempted, afterwards, to think herself free of such needs.

His room would have been untidy, but for the lack of possessions; no letters, no photographs, only a scattering of sheets of music on the windowsill and the dresser, and pieces of rosin for his bow left on the writing desk.

He was inexpert enough to confirm her suspicions, and taken aback by his own responses: a strange wrenched look on his face afterwards. She laughed at him softly, a greater kindness than pity, because he shook off the expression and came back into her almost fiercely.

Reputation had given her a dozen lovers, but in truth he was only the third to pass her bedroom door, and so very different from the others: thin and restless, and once he grew a little more sure of his ground, wholly without hesitation. It was splendid to feel she did not need to comfort or reassure, or indeed make any pretense whatsoever; she could interest herself only in her own pleasure, and in the freshness of the experience.

She liked the hard planes of him, and the skilfulness of his hands, and his intensity: something almost of a fever running beneath his skin, which left a flush beneath the sharp-edged cheekbones.

In the morning she wrote Godfrey a letter from the writing desk, while Holmes slept on in the wreckage of the bed behind her, pale light through the window on his skin and the tangled white sheets; it was raining.

Paris is wet and beautiful in the spring as always, she wrote, and I am glad that I came, but my darling, what is best is to know I have you to come home to, when I like the city have been watered at my roots. I feel myself again as I have not since last year. I am ready to be incautious again.

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