My fiancée knew me as Escott, a young plumber with prospects. She was a house-maid by the name of Agatha Trent, with the attractive quality of being in the employ of Charles Augustus Milverton. Unfortunately, she was fonder of giggling over the stories in that week's gossip columns than detailing Milverton's habits to me. Over the course of many interminable evening walks, however, I did manage to gain most of the information I sought on the interior of Milverton's home, as well as an intimate knowledge of the latest music-hall actress scandal in all its gory details.
Two days after confessing my engagement to Watson, I was almost ready to proceed to the next stage of my plan. This knowledge enabled me to meet my fiancée that evening with somewhat less of a sinking feeling than usual.
She was waiting for me as always by the kitchen door of Appledore Towers. I shut my eyes as I gave her a peck on the lips, but it was impossible to convince myself that she was Watson, for she was almost a head shorter, and although she did sport something of a moustache on her upper lip, it was nothing in comparison to Watson's magnificent growth.
Besides, I did not believe anything could ever compare to the warmth of Watson's touch, the fierce urgency of his embrace -
"What's the matter, sweety?" Agatha asked, jerking me unpleasantly back to reality.
I have always been a consummate actor, and had had little difficulty convincing Agatha of my supposed regard. I had no illusions, however, that convincing her of my prosperity had not played just as important a role in my courtship, and my dubious physical charms presumably none at all. The continuing engagement, however, would have been a great deal easier were I not plagued by thoughts of Watson and by the mountains of pork-pies Agatha persuaded the cook to prepare for me.
That day, when Agatha, giggling as always, led me into the kitchen, my trial turned out to consist not of pork-pies but of Cornish pasties.
"I set aside a few special, Aggie," the cook said as we entered. "I knew you'd have your young man here this evening."
I was dismayed but not surprised to see that as ever, their idea of 'a few' differed radically from mine. Unfortunately Agatha had a healthy appetite, and was unable to accept that her young man should eat any less than she did. I began to move discreetly toward the window, on the other side of which I knew Milverton's guard dog to be tied up. He was always exceedingly appreciative of my gifts.
"The dog always makes such a lot of noise when you're here, sweety," Agatha remarked to me. "I think he likes you."
"All the same," I said firmly, "I prefer you keep him tied up, and give me free run of the garden. I like to leave over the back wall, you know."
"That's right," the cook said approvingly. "Wouldn't do for the master to see you've got your gentleman friend around, Aggie. Ah, I remember when me and Higgins was your age..." She turned away, heaving a gentle sigh.
I nibbled the corner of a pasty, for appearances' sake, and wondered what the size of Mr Higgins' girth now was. "By the way, I believe I saw him last night. Old man Milverton, I mean to say. Don't fret, he didn't see me."
"Couldn't have been him anyway," said Agatha. "He always turns in at ten-thirty, prompt."
It was one of the last pieces of information I required in order to begin to construct my plan of action, and that evening, as we strolled along the edge of Hampstead Heath, some careful probing elicited details which allowed the rest of my plan to fall into place. I was able to listen tranquilly to a description of the Princess of Wales' new tiara, while the majority of my mind was occupied in putting the finishing touches to my plan.
Fortunately Agatha never horrified me with discussions about our wedding, for she saw it as happening quite a long way in the future, when I should have 'enough money put by', as she herself put it.
I wondered idly how anyone ever withstood the torture of being married to a giggling, frivolous idiot. There were a number of women who did not fall into this category, of course. However, I did not think it would be a great deal better to have to face, across the breakfast table each morning, one of the sweet young things who always turned Watson's eye. After months of observation I knew his taste perfectly: gentle blonde girls with sweet smiles and a fragile air. One could hardly imagine anything more different to me if one tried.
He would make an excellent married man, I reflected as Agatha prattled on about the Dowager Duchess of York's garden party. I could see him already, sitting by the fire on cold winter's evenings, his children tucked up in bed, his gentle, fair-haired wife darning his socks or some such foolery, and he watching her over the top of his newspaper - rather as I caught him doing with me occasionally, in fact. I pushed that thought away, and looked sideways at Agatha. She was presumably an excellent darner of socks, but it was an attribute I was prepared to forego in a life's companion.
I saw Agatha back to the kitchen of Appledore Towers, and escaped with relief after another chaste peck on the lips. It was wonderful to be back in Baker Street, which was free from darners of socks in all their myriad forms, although it did contain an invalided army doctor who had spent the past few days drifting about the place with a dreadfully forced expression of cheer and goodwill pasted on his face.
"Good evening, Holmes. I trust you spent an enjoyable few hours with your fiancée?" he said with what he evidently intended to be a carefree smile.
I had deliberately kept him in the dark regarding the true nature of my engagement, in order to stave off any reprisals of the awkward conversations he had been initiating since my moment of weakness by London Bridge. I would be lying, in fact, if I attempted to claim that such a motivation had played no part in my sudden and rather panic-stricken decision to reveal the very existence of the betrothal. That night, however, he looked so miserable that my stomach turned over with guilt.
"Watson, I believe I should have been - rather more honest with you regarding my engagement. In fact, the other party is Milverton's housemaid."
Watson stared at me. I thought I caught a glimmer of hope in his wide, shocked eyes, though it had disappeared before I could be sure, and he attempted a smile, a polite conventional substitute for the warm grin I had grown to love.
"Well, you know I am a man who does not believe in letting societal norms stand in the way of happiness. I shall look forward to meeting her."
"I doubt you ever will, for I intend to disappear out of her life as of tonight."
His cheery smile faded into a look of bewilderment.
"I needed information." I said it reluctantly, for I knew what his reaction would be.
"But the girl, Holmes!"
I shrugged, hiding my pain at his horrified expression. "As a result of my engagement, I now know Milverton's home and habits like the palm of my hand. I do not see how else I could have obtained such information. Besides, I assure you that I have a hated rival who will step in as soon as my back is turned. There is no emotional attachment on her part."
"And on yours?" asked Watson, although as soon as he had said it he looked as though he could have bitten off his tongue.
For a moment I was dumbfounded. How could Watson possibly imagine that anyone else could hold my attention, since I had met him?
"No, of course there is not." Seeing he intended to press the subject, I said abruptly, "Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton's house tonight."
His jaw dropped, and he stared at me in naked dismay. "For Heaven's sake, Holmes, you cannot mean that! Think of the consequences should something go wrong - the detection, the arrest, your reputation lying in ruins, your career ending in disgrace - "
"In fact, not dissimilar to the consequences Mr Wright faces now. And yet he cannot burgle Milverton's house on crutches, with sight in only one bad eye. How can I not act for him, in such a case?"
I was quite unprepared for the glow of affection that appeared in Watson's face when he heard this.
"You are quite right, of course, my dear Holmes. When do we leave?"
It was my turn to be suffused by affection. Nevertheless, I could not but object.
"You are not coming, Watson. There is no reason why both of us should expose ourselves."
"Indeed I am! It was I who brought this case to you, after all. I should never forgive myself were it to be the cause of your downfall. Besides, Wright is an old friend."
He was wearing his most bullish expression, which I had only had occasion to enjoy on a handful of occasions before now. I found the word enjoy to be appropriate even in that context, for I enjoyed all of Watson's expressions.
"Very well," I said slowly. "I cannot deny that I shall appreciate your companionship."
"After all," said Watson with the hint of a smile, "I should not find it so unpleasant to be in a prison cell, were I sharing it with you."
"That won't come to pass," I said firmly, before rising to my feet, impatient to begin preparations. "I have often felt I would make a better criminal than any of those I have ever encountered, and I assure you, this operation will be planned and executed faultlessly."
I went to fetch the burgling kit by which Watson had been so shocked, some months previously, while over my shoulder I gave him instructions on making masks and dressing appropriately.
Two hours later, we were walking along the edge of Hampstead Heath, having paid off our cab some hundred yards away. A bitter wind swept wisps of fog across the heath toward us, and we were grateful for our overcoats. It occurred to me suddenly that we were following precisely the same path as did my evening walks with Agatha, though in what different and more pleasant circumstances! I glanced across at Watson. He grinned back, clearly, like myself, filled more with excitement than apprehension.
I already had a plan of action laid out clearly in my mind: I knew precisely how we would proceed from the greenhouse to the drawing room, and thence to Milverton's study, which contained the safe housing all the documents of his villainous trade. The guard-dog was tied up, thanks to Agatha, and so once over the back wall of Appledore Towers, we stole across the lawn without incident, and hid in the shadows of the house.
It was the work of a moment to cut a hole in the glass of the greenhouse door, and turn the key from the inside, although I will admit that Watson's admiring glance added a certain extra pleasure to the task.
Once inside, we found the house plunged in total darkness. After a moment's hesitation, I reached out and took Watson's hand in mine. He gave my hand a welcoming squeeze.
I lead him thus through the exotic plants and flowers of the conservatory, whose lay-out I had already memorised when I had inveigled my way into seeing it, earlier in the week. Beyond the door of the drawing-room, we were in territory where the house-maid's beau had never been allowed to penetrate, but my eyes had already grown accustomed to the darkness, and I was able to lead us without mishap to the study, Watson following trustingly behind.
The study was filled with tobacco-smoke, and I judged Milverton to have quit it some quarter of an hour previously. More unsettling, however, was the fire which still burned strongly in the grate, as though someone intended to return to the room.
I released Watson's hand, not without reluctance, and by the light of the fire I crept across the room to press my ear to the door which led to the adjacent bed-room. No sound came from within, and I concluded that Milverton must already be sound asleep. Turning back to face the room, I was delighted to see that Watson had taken the initiative of examining the door which led directly to the garden, though disquieted to learn that it was open, rather than locked and bolted as Agatha had informed me was the usual practice.
I set Watson to stand watch by the garden door, and turned to the tall, green safe we had come to open. Within moments I had laid out all my tools, and set to work.
Safe-breaking has always been a particular pleasure of mine, and I scarcely noticed the time pass as I worked away at the delicate task. Finally, the lock yielded to my ministrations, and I swung the door open, revealing an enormous pile of paper packets, shocking me by the sheer size of the villain's trade.
It was not possible to read any of their contents by the light of the fire, but before I could take out the lantern I had brought, a dull noise in the corridor outside had alerted me to the approach of some member of the household. I swung the door of the safe closed, bundled up my case of tools and dived behind the curtains of a nearby window, dragging Watson with me.
We stood as still as possible while the footsteps which I had already heard from a distance grew louder, and then the door to the room opened. We heard the sound of a match being struck, and the room was soon filled with light, as we could see through the crack between the curtains.
I craned my neck slightly to look over Watson's shoulder, and saw a short, fat man in a claret smoking-jacket, comfortably ensconced behind a desk, holding something with the air of a legal document about it and lighting a cigar. He settled down and began to read.
I had evidently completely miscalculated Milverton's movements that night, for this could not be anyone other than he. He was slowly turning the pages of his document, blowing an occasional languid ring of smoke into the air, and looking set to remain there for quite some time.
Although most of my mind was occupied by trying to find some means of escape from this horrible predicament, I was quite considerably distracted by Watson's closeness. He was slightly in front of me, his body pressed against mine as we tried to fit into the small space behind the curtains. He was rigid with tension. I found his hand again and took it, giving it a reassuring shake, and he relaxed somewhat against me.
I had only to move my hands a few inches, and bend my neck somewhat, and I would have been holding him in my arms, my lips nuzzling his neck. I was hard put to resist the temptation, but I knew I could not but do so, for I was extremely conscious of our precarious position, with Milverton only yards away, and sudden detection imminent.
Note: I've taken a lot of liberties with the Arthur Conan Doyle story featuring Charles Augustus Milverton - however, all of the hand-holding does occur in the original!
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