As recorded by Dr John H. Watson, MD, 1890; due to poiltical sensitivites and questions of “public readiness”, censored and amended by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891. The unaltered version appears here for the first time.
To Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman: I seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipsed and predominated the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for the one who styled herself La Dernière. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer, excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner, to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely-adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. Yet there was but one woman to him, and like Holmes himself, she is no longer believed to reside in this world.
I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own happiness was sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street buried among old books and nameless alchemical toxins. He was still, as ever, deeply attracted by the study of crime, and occupied his immense faculties in clearing up those mysteries which had been abandoned as either hopeless or incomprehensibly arcane by the official police. From time to time I heard some vague account of his doings, either from those few members of society who spoke of such things, or in the more obscure publications of the Fitzrovia manuscripters: his solution to the affair of the golem-child of Prague, his intervention in the grotesque tragedy of the Clear Island Kraken, and most recently the mission which had seen him enter the gates of Shambhala itself at the behest of no less a personage than the Empress Dowager of the Manchu. Beyond these signs of his activity, and those more mundane cases shared by readers of the daily press, I knew little of my former friend and companion.
One night – it was the twentieth of March, 1888 – I was returning from a journey to a patient, when I found myself within a stone's throw of number 221b. It strikes me now that Baker Street was not on my planned route at all, as though providence itself had seen fit to draw me there, determined that the events about to take place should have a witness. As I passed the well-remembered door, then associated in my mind with both the grim aftermath of the Horror in Scarlet and the great joy of my own wooing, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers. His rooms were brilliantly lit, and even as I looked up, I saw his tall, spare figure pass twice in a dark silhouette against the blind. He was pacing the room swiftly, eagerly, with his head sunk upon his chest and his hands clasped behind him. To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story. He was at work. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.
Holmes, when under the noxious influence of cocaine, had been a distressing spectacle. I had often been given cause to recall Goya's remarkable etching “The Sleep of Reason”: the figure of the artist, the very image of enlightenment man, slumped over his desk as bestial apparitions erupted from his sleeping mind. I had long suspected that Holmes' obsession with crime, often in its most macabre aspects, was in some manner an attempt to analyse his own inner monstrosities as though they were specimens in a laboratory dish. He had certainly relished the possibility of granting his numerous chemical experiments a life and will of their own, to have them leave the realm of mere intellect and become “science in the flesh”. On one occasion, having briefly abandoned his usual solution for a concoction of cocaine and hangman's mandrake, he had succeeded. The thing that had been born of Holmes' intellect was no less terrible than one of Goya's night-terrors, yet had not vanished with the light of day.
These thoughts in mind, I rang the bell, and was shown up to the chamber which had formerly been in part my own.
His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion.
'Wedlock suits you,' he remarked. 'I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.'
'Seven!' I answered.
'Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. Although I doubt your fellows in the medical profession would approve that you have taken such an interest in the methodology of Dr al-Khalid. Or rather, the former Dr al-Khalid, given his recent drumming-out.'
My decision to visit Holmes had been so sudden that I had not given thought to my appearance, or else I would have realised that no secret could remain unexposed for long before that clinical gaze. 'His logic is perfectly sound,' I blustered, rather too defensively. 'A cancer is merely a cell which has lost the ability to die, and which passes on its unfortunate breed of immortality to its neighbours. It follows that it should be treated as one would treat any undead organism.'
'Ha! My Watson, turned necromancer.'
There was a distinctly unwholesome giggling from the direction of his workbench, where so many of his experiments had lived out that brief existence between the test-tube and the gutter. There was nothing to see; the source of the noise remained hidden behind the acid-stained books and poison-fogged specimen jars, as was its habit. I had learned to ignore it during my last few days in Baker Street, and I ignored it now.
'Carcino-exorcism is not necromancy,' I protested. 'And al-Khalid's treatment at the hands of the Royal College has been quite inexcusable. In any case, his techniques are hardly any more unorthodox than your own researches.'
'Quite right. Forgive me, Watson. But when a man enters my rooms with ears which still bear traces of the wax that prevents him hearing the glossolalia, with the odour of one who has made sure his clothes are washed with lime to overcome the smell of beggar's tallow, and with a chain on his breast that feigns to be a pocket-watch but can only be attached to a scrying-stone, I can hardly ignore the obvious conclusion.'
His manner was so matter-of-fact that despite my discomfort, I could not help but laugh. 'My dear Holmes,' said I, 'you would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. Or recruited by the Prince's Coven, had you been born but a few decades earlier. When I hear you give your reasons, the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself. Though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours.'
'Exactly so,' he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. 'You see, but you do not observe. By-the-way, since you are interested in these little problems, and since you have been good enough to chronicle one or two of my more unworldly experiences, you may be interested in this.'
He threw over a sheet of curiously smooth, curiously brittle note-paper which had been lying open upon the table. It caught the light in a most distinctive fashion.
'It came after the last post,' said he. 'Please, read it.'
The note was undated, and without either signature or address. There was a single fold across the page, so exact that I was reminded more of sculpted marble than of paper.
There will call upon you to-night, said the note, at a quarter's turning before the scorpion hour, a presence who desires to consult you upon a matter of the deepest moment. Your blood and reputation are such that we believe you may be entrusted with matters of an importance beyond this demesne. Be in your chamber at that hour, and do not think it amiss if our appearance is not consistent.
'This is indeed a mystery,' I remarked. 'What do you imagine it means?'
'I have little data as yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. But the note itself. What do you deduce from it?'
I carefully examined the writing, and the paper upon which it was written.
'Whoever wrote it was presumably well to do,' I remarked, endeavoring to imitate my companion's processes. 'Such paper could not be bought cheaply. It is peculiarly stiff, and yet remarkably fine. I feel it might snap in two if I were to fold it again.'
'Peculiar: that is the very word,' said Holmes. 'It is not paper at all. Hold it up to the light.'
I did so, and saw markings woven into its texture that I could not immediately identify. At first I took them to be the letters of a monogram, yet such designs could hardly have been drawn by the hand of man. Vein-like patterns sworled and forked into their neighbours, often branching into smaller, finer patterns buried deeper in the note.
'What do you make of that?' asked Holmes.
'It reminds me of... of a wing. The wing of some splendid insect. A dragonfly or suchlike.'
'Your entomology leaves much to be desired. However, your instinct serves you well. The loftier the family, the more elaborate the parchment. The Pasargardae of ancient Persia would inisist on writing their personal correspondence on nothing less perfect than the skin of a eunuch. Ateas of Scythia is said to have demanded the hide of a griffin when penning his treaty with the Macedonians. Needless to say, he was disappointed.'
'Then this is skin?'
'Carapace. A fetish of one particular ruling class. Not on this side of the Grey, either.'
It took a moment or two for me to realise the import of this. 'It was made in Gloriana,' I said.
'Precisely. And the individual who wrote this note hails from one of those royal lines which has been historically well-disposed towards more, shall we say, plebian races such as our own. Do you note the unusual idiom? Your blood and reputation, as if the author has difficulty separating my own activities from those of my forebears. Another quirk of the upper classes, one might say, although in this case I believe he finds our somewhat parochial view of identity to be quite troublesome. There are other indicators, of course. A familiarity with clocks, but a reluctance to use numbers when describing “a quarter to eight”; the wearyingly indistinct usage of “demesne”; the concern that his appearance may disturb us, yet the inability to explain this in terms that might be at all comprehensible. And the simple fact that this message arrives in the form of a note, rather than some cryptic romantic token, tells us that “him” and not “her” is accurate in this case.
'It only remains, therefore, to discover what is wanted by this faerie nobleman who writes on the shed husks of his maidservants and is so uncomfortable when communicating with those whose help he clearly requires. And here he comes, if I am not mistaken, to resolve all our doubts.'
As he spoke, there was the sharp sound of horses' hoofs and grating wheels against the curb, followed by a pull at the bell. Holmes whistled.
'A pair, by the sound,' said he. 'Yes,' he continued, glancing out of the window. 'A nice little brougham and a pair of beauties. Bright silver manes, and quite identical. Revealing in of itself, wouldn't you agree?'
'I think that I had better go, Holmes.'
'Not a bit, Doctor. I am lost without my Boswell. Sit down in that armchair, and give us your best attention.'
A slow and heavy step, which had been heard upon the stairs and in the passage, paused immediately outside the door. Then there was a loud and authoritative tap. A glass beaker tipped over on the workbench, as the creature that lurked there retreated even further behind the books and apparatus, determined to remain unseen.
'Come in!' said Holmes.
A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules. His dress was rich, a strange, careless richness which would be looked upon as akin to bad taste, were it not for the impression that it seemed more a primal ancestor of royal splendour than an example of it. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the silver fur-lined cloak thrown over his shoulders was secured at the neck with a brooch of a single emerald beryl. Boots which extended halfway up his calves, trimmed at the tops with the same rich silver fur, completed the picture of an opulence born as much of the wilderness as of civilisation, as though this individual had created his apparel by trapping, killing, and flaying wild wolves and unwary aristocrats alike. His face revealed him to be a man of powerful character, with features suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy, yet it was hard to pinpoint any single memorable feature. I had no difficulty in believing that this was a messenger from those entities whose names were never spoken in polite circles, and were euphemistically referred to by Britain's political class only as “the Neighbours”.
'You had our note?' the figure asked, with the accent of one who considers human speech to be beneath his contempt while still remaining incapable of its mastery. He looked from one to the other of us, as if unsure whether we might be the same person.
'This is my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson,' explained Holmes, 'who is occasionally good enough to help me in my cases. Tell me, how should you like to be addressed?'
'You may address us as a Knight-Visible of the Grey Riding of Gloriana. I understand that this gentleman, your other, is a man of honour and discretion? If not, I should prefer to communicate with you alone.'
I rose to go, but Holmes caught me by the wrist and pushed me back into my chair. 'It is both, or none,' said he. 'You may say before Watson anything which you may say to me.'
The “Knight-Visible” considered this. 'He is to you as an idiospex? The eye that looks forever in on itself?'
Holmes threw back his head. 'Ha! I had never considered that. But yes, you may treat him as such.'
I blushed, unsure of the full meaning of this. The visitor merely nodded his huge head. 'Then we must begin,' said he, 'by binding you to absolute secrecy for two years. At the end of that time, all those involved will be bound to their paths. At present it is of such weight that it may have an influence upon both our peoples.'
'Two years,' mused Holmes, 'in our world, or in yours?'
The guest hesitated. 'In yours. Of course.'
'Then I promise,' said Holmes.
'You will excuse the manner of our arrival,' continued our curious visitor. 'Every precaution must be taken. The nature of this matter, what in your circles would be called scandal, has the potential to compromise one of the reigning lines of Gloriana.'
'I was aware of that,' said Holmes drily, settling himself down in his armchair and closing his eyes.
The figure stared with some apparent surprise at the languid, lounging figure of the man who had no doubt been depicted to him as the most incisive reasoner of the human realm. Holmes slowly reopened his eyes and looked impatiently at his gigantic client.
'If Your Hyperial Majesty would condescend to state your case,' he remarked, 'I should be better able to advise you.'
I would not have believed that those broad shoulders, those straining muscles that seemed so ill-fitting even on this giant of a being, could have become any more inflated. I felt a singular change in the atmosphere of the room, as though some terrible pressure had been introduced that might rupture the blood vessels of man and beast alike. There was a nervous whimpering from behind the apparatus on the workbench, though I could barely hear it for the throbbing in my ears. Even Holmes, I could see, struggled to keep his usual composure as the rooms around us began to burst at the seams. Or that is how it occurred to me.
When the moment passed, I could have sworn that my senses had been distorted by the experience, for it seemed at first that our visitor was withering before my eyes; then, perhaps, that he had suddenly moved further away. I even considered the possibility that I was on the verge of passing out, and that he was merely shrinking in my vision as I passed into blackness. None of these things was the case, however. Just as I had seen the proud, upstanding soldiers of the Fifth Northumberland become exhausted, homesick young men in the blink of an eye – once their commanding officer had turned his back – so it was that Holmes' guest had relaxed everything about his manner, until almost nothing human remained. His appearance was, in itself, unaltered. He had merely ceased to pretend to be a creature of mortal clay.
It was the first time I had seen one of the Gentlemen of the Grey, at least at close quarters. I understood at once how they had earned their name: it was not a matter of their colouring, but simply that they were neither as luminous as flesh nor as intangible as the spectres so convincingly photographed by Holmes' namesakes in America. They existed on an eternal and somehow frustrating boundary. I had the impression of looking at a figure in the far distance, half-visible in the twilight despite standing within three feet of my chair. Even his clothing, garish moments before, had become a mystery of far-off and indistinct details. I felt a curious melancholy, as one might feel after losing something that had previously only been half-noticed.
'You are correct,' he announced. 'Why should we attempt to conceal it?'
'Why, indeed?' murmured Holmes. 'Your Majesty had not spoken before I was aware that I was addressing Lord-Natural and Lord-Politic Belselene, Apparent of the Grey Riding, King-in-Substance of Gloriana.'
'But you can understand,' said this curious princeling, passing his hand over a translucent forehead, 'you can understand that we are not accustomed to doing such business in our own person. We have come unseen via the Rowan Road for the purpose of consulting you -'
'Then, pray consult,' said Holmes, shutting his eyes once more.
Lord Belselene did not seem to know how to begin. It was not so much that the position was unfamiliar to him, more that he had never been taught to explain himself in any crude mortal tongue. Holmes prompted him.
'The facts,' said he.
'The... facts are briefly these. We have moved among men a great deal. Some years ago, during an exploration of Europe, we made the acquaintance of the adventuress who chooses to be called La Dernière. The name is no doubt familiar to you.'
'Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,' muttered Holmes, without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men, things, and phenomena, so that it was difficult to name a subject on which he could not at once furnish information.
'Her full name?' I queried.
'We cannot say,' replied Belselene.
'You never asked her name?'
'Of course not,' said Holmes, before the King-in-Substance could respond. 'Any more than I asked His Majesty for his name. That would be impolite. Her appellation should be all we require, however.'
Indeed it was. I found her biography sandwiched in between that of a visionary nun of St Tarcairtean and that of a British staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the Deep Leviathans of the Atlantic.
'Let me see,' said Holmes. 'Hmm. Name, not known. Year of birth, not known. Rumoured to have been raised by the Medici, also said to have been a mistress of Bonaparte... bah! Speculation and self-aggrandisement. Wait: the second Bonaparte. Feasible, then, if less impressive. Her mode of speech and “unearthly” pale skin – unearthly, indeed! – is thought to indicate a Celtic rather than a Mediterranean background. Undoubtedly older than her appearance, and undoubtedly more cunning, giving rise to the florid soubriquet “Daughter of Anguish”. Daughter of Anguish...? Ah, I see: after her celebrated role in Tristran and Isolde. Ha-ha! A princess for Your Majesty, then.'
'Her blood is not noble,' chided Lord Belselene.
'Of course not. La Dernière, suggestive of “she who is last”. Always last on the bill, at least. First came to the public notice in the season of 1883. La Scala, no less! Prima donna Imperial Opera d'Amoret, retired from operatic stage to the surprise of many, et cetera et cetera. Living in London... quite so. Your Majesty, as I understand, became entangled with this person of indeterminate age, inclinations, and background, wrote her some compromising letters, and is now desirous of getting those letters back.'
'This is true. But how –'
'Was there a secret marriage?'
'No legal papers or certificates? No trysting-contract with your people? Nothing signed in blood or silver?'
'Then I fail to follow your Majesty. If this person should produce her letters for blackmailing or other purposes, how is she to prove their authenticity?'
'There is the writing.'
'Pooh, pooh! Forgery.'
'Written on the scryb-shell unique to our Riding.'
'We were both in the photograph.'
Belselene hesitated. Such a thing had clearly not occurred to him. 'This is possible?'
'Of course. Two photographic images, when juxtaposed and photographed again, can present the most convincing of illusions.'
I nodded in agreement. I knew from experience how such trickery had been used to deceive the world as to the truth of the war in Afghanistan, thanks to the machinations of the “negative terror” Giphantie. I recalled also that despite its official suppression in Europe, many had questioned the image of the distinguished Frederick Burnham standing over the carcass of a Pterodactylus gigas in the wastes of Arizona. 'Your Majesty has little to fear,' I offered. 'If a young woman produces a photograph of herself consorting with faeries, it will be treated with some scepticism.'
'Quite,' said Holmes. 'Belief in Your Majesty's esteemed line remains a rarity in the cities of Europe, if not among more rural folk. Especially since our Neighbours consent to be photographed so rarely. I believe you have a taboo regarding such matters? That to possess the image of a Gentleman of the Grey is to hold power over that individual? Though I would suggest this is far more true of human beings than of the fay. No, this last-of-all-women will require further evidence if she wishes to convince more than a few romantics.'
Belselene did not appear reassured. It was clear there was some other matter that he was even now reluctant to address.
'There is the question of the child,' he said, at length.
'Oh, dear! That is very bad. Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion.'
'We were mad. Insane. Under a Glamour.'
'But it is more usual, is it not, for your kind's young to be exchanged with those of humanity, rather than sired directly on a mortal mother?'
Belselene stiffened. I saw that he was once again attempting to pull himself into a more robustly human figure, as he was suddenly made aware of his own formlessness. 'Our relationship with the temporal world is not strong. Our children must root themselves in the mortal course of time if they are to prosper. Otherwise they are... no. We do not know the words in your language.'
'Dream-like,' Holmes suggested. 'If they wish to move in a world of men, they need to be witnessed by men. To exist without being experienced is barely to exist at all.'
'You understand. It is more common for them to be seeded in the crib than in the womb, it is true. However...'
'You were in love.'
'As we said. It was her Glamour.'
'The child must be recovered.'
'We have tried and failed.'
'Your line is noted for its acumen in bargaining. You must convince this broodmare adventuress to pass the child into your keeping.'
'The birth was last Mabontide. It has been near half a year's turning. She will not listen.'
'Then you must take it from the cradle. Your speciality, surely.'
'Five attempts have been made. Twice she has been waylaid by Knights-Unbidden. They tell us she is protected. She paints herself with words of denial and wears charms of cold iron. Next they followed her from her residence. She chooses to travel by railway engine, an anathema to us. The Knights created a distraction on the steps of the hall, and took the child from its machine in the few moments when it was separated from her.'
'Ah! The unusual incident at World's End Station. A child missing from a runaway perambulator. The mother missing soon after, making no plea to the authorities. I noted it in the press.'
'But it was not our child. It was mortal. She must have feared that she would be waylaid. She left her home with a false prize.'
'A changeling. The lady chooses to play you at your own game, then. You said five attempts?'
'Twice her house was ransacked by burglars in our employ. Mortal men, immune to her charms.'
'Singular men indeed.'
'Immune to her iron charms. Neither man returned to us. We found one of them in a den of human intoxications. He refused to speak of what had taken place within her home. We regret that in our anger, we punished his silence. Silence shall follow him everywhere, now.'
Holmes laughed. 'It is quite a pretty little problem,' said he.
'What happened to the baby?' I asked. 'The one you took from World's End?'
Belselene said nothing, not out of shame, but out of incomprehension. I doubt it had ever occurred to him to ask. I averted my gaze, somewhat embarrassed.
'And what does La Dernière propose to do with your child?' Holmes asked.
'We are about to be married.'
'So I have heard.'
'To the Lady-Inviolate Melastaria, second daughter of the Bright Riding. You may know the strict principles of her family. They refuse to consort with mortality. They believe the royal presence may become tainted even through association with the worldly. They wish to remain, as you say, “dream-like”. Unfleshed. We are already treated with suspicion for our travels on your side of the Grey. If they knew of an affair, the Bright would view us as -'
Belselene bowed his head. 'The adventuress wishes to destroy us. She has already begun to tear at our connection to this world. Now she hopes to cut our bond to the nobility of Gloriana.'
'She would go that far?'
'She will do it. You do not know her, but she has a soul of cold iron. She has the face of a divinity, and the Glamour of a Circe. Rather than we should marry another, there are no lengths to which she would not go.'
'She has not yet revealed the child's existence?'
'No. Our Knights believe she will announce it to both the Court and English society on the day the betrothal is publicly proclaimed. That will be at the next hollow.'
'Hollow...? Ah. Tuesday. Oh, then we have some time yet,' said Holmes with a yawn. 'That is very fortunate, as I have one or two matters of importance to look into just at present. Your Majesty will, of course, stay in London for the present?'
'You will find us at the Causeway. We shall be on the thirteenth floor.'
'Then, as to recompense?'
Belselene unfastened the blackness of his cloak. What I took to be a leather bag emerged from its folds, though whether he had been carrying it all the time or whether his clothing had summoned it on a whim, I could not say for certain. He laid the bag on the table.
'Geldstones,' he said. 'Not yet hatched. They will suffice for whatever currency you should require. Though they are more comfortable as gems than your British paper -'
Holmes waved the matter aside. He scribbled a receipt upon a sheet of his note-book and handed it to his new client.
'And Mademoiselle's address?' he asked.
'Is Morrigane Lodge. On the Serpentine Avenue.'
'Then, good-night, your Majesty, and I trust that we shall soon have some good news for you.'
Belselene hesitated, and I sensed some surprise in his manner, as though he felt that an endeavour so critical should begin with a ritual far more precise. But then he nodded, and clicked his heels rather formally, perhaps imagining that this was what all gentlemen did in such a situation. With no further word, he turned to the door.
'Holmes!' I exclaimed, as we heard the wheels of the royal brougham roll away down the street. 'Can it really be proper to take this... man's commission? He wishes to engage you in the abduction of a child!'
'No mere child,' noted Holmes, as though it were no more than an abstract problem. 'A creature whose very presence in this world is of dubious benefit. And whose fate may shape the lives of generations to come, human or otherwise.'
Again, that ghastly sniggering from the workbench. This time I failed to keep my resolve, and shot it an angry glance. I caught the glint of a bestial and phlegm-hued eye amidst the clutter, a leering grin beneath a blood-caked snout. Then the homunculus was gone, retreating from my sight. I attempted to fix my attention on the matter in hand.
'But even so, Holmes! To take a newborn from its mother...'
'Who, in turn, wishes to take it from its own birthright. Oh, Watson! This “final woman” is not simply an adventuress, but a cunning manipulatrix and quite possibly a daughter of one of the Sisterhoods. Even you must see that if a woman of such a disposition becomes the mother of a faerie half-born, she does so for a distinct purpose. She has chosen to become a broodmare to royalty. The first, I believe, since the wedding of the Virgin Queen herself.'
'There is hardly any comparison,' I mumbled.
'Nevertheless. Our King-in-Substance may be supremely uninterested in human politics, but I doubt the same can be said for his errant sweetheart. You are familiar, I take it, with the activites of Mrs Besant?'
Indeed I was, for Annie Besant was already a figure of both admiration and contempt in London society. It had been little more than four months since the Trafalgar Square debacle dubbed “Bloody Sunday”, in which she had been such a pivotal figure. A fierce propononent of independence for Ireland, she had been raised neither in that beleagured country nor in the Catholic faith, but later became a Theosophist: a member of that curious group whose founder had lately completed a new philosophical model of the universe, in which the fay were an evolutionary step between humanity and godhood. Mrs Besant had been particularly quick to compare the Irish nationalists of our own age with the heroes of The Book of Invasions, whose destinies were bound with those of Lord Belselene's people. For such radicals, freedom from the mortal and freedom from imperial power were a single cause.
I began to understand the import of this case, though as Holmes had intimated, I doubted that his new client would appreciate the impact of the faerie-child's existence on the affairs of men. The Theosophists were known to have an interest in acquiring evidence of “the Neighbours” that could be presented to all humanity, not merely the ruling few to whom the Gentlemen of the Grey had formally revealed themselves, and I wondered now whether their motives might not have been wholly academic. A half-breed child would be more than evidence enough, and should the truth regarding the foundation of Gloriana also become widely-known – at least, beyond those hints dropped by Spenser in The Faerie Queen – then the British monarchy itself would face a most troubling situation.
'Take heart from this,' concluded Holmes. 'The child is a child of the Grey Riding. It will have a wisdom beyond its years. There is, as I recall, an old custom in the more rustic parts of our nation: that when a newborn is suspected of being a changeling, it will be suspended over a blazing fire. Whereas a human child will simply cry out in alarm, the faerie will reveal its true nature in order to escape. Some have been said to shed their skins, or even release poisoned spurs to protect themselves from the mob. You see, Watson, even an infant of Gloriana has a talent for self-preservation. Do not suppose that it will allow any person to bring it to harm, least of all ourselves.
'Now, I bid you good-night. I have a great deal to prepare before the morning. If you will be good enough to call to-morrow afternoon at three o'clock, I should be happy to chat this little matter over with you further.'
The homunculus underlined these words with a hiss, its calloused, fungal tongue briefly visible as a reflection in the glass of a bell-jar. Holmes himself seemed oblivious to its rudeness. Departing, I wondered if it would now emerge from its hiding-place; perhaps to wrap its long, matted body around its creator's neck as a sign of its affection, or lie curled in his lap like a Pekingese.
Only later, when attempting to recall the vital details of the case, did I realise how quick Holmes had been to supply Lord Belselene with English words to describe the faerie condition: the notion that without exposure to the mortal, a child of the Grey would be merely “dream-like”. This once again led me to ponder the nature of Holmes' own dreams, and his manifold attempts to give them a form that could be inspected beneath a microscope. Later still I would question him on this subject, though I did my best to pass it off as a joke. I queried whether he himself might prefer to be “fleshless”, an abstract quantity, like an equation or theory rather than a being weighed down by human frailties.
His reply was typically opaque: 'I believe such a thing to be greatly overrated.'
But all this was in the future. The following day, I was at Baker Street at three o'clock precisely, to find that Holmes had not yet returned. The landlady informed me that he had left shortly after eight in the morning. I sat down beside the fire, with the intention of awaiting him, however long he might be. I was both attracted to and profoundly disturbed by this inquiry, which seemed surrounded by some awful form of fascination, a “Glamour” much like those woven by La Dernière's sort. But aside from the nature of the investigation, there was something in my friend's masterly grasp of a situation which made it a pleasure – even a duty – to study his system of work, and to follow the quick, subtle methods by which he disentangled the most inextricable mysteries. I felt, as never before, that to be witness and chronicler of these events was a greater purpose even than my calling to the medical profession.
It was close upon four before the door opened, and a drunken-looking groom slouched into the room, ill-kempt and with an inflamed face. Accustomed as I was to my friend's amazing powers in the use of disguises, I could see nothing in the man's features that resembled those of the great detective, until he made a gesture at his throat and touched a simple ornament that hung around his neck. At once, Holmes stood before me. As with the noble Gentleman of the Grey who had revealed himself in this room the previous evening, nothing about his appearance had changed, save for the way I myself perceived it. I began to wonder why I had identified the figure as a groom at all, when neither his dress nor any aspect of his persona marked him out as one who worked in stable, other than a certain ruddiness of the skin that could have been due to stiff exercise as much as alcoholism. Where, I wondered, was that innate groom-ness that had so taken me in? And would Holmes himself, as a master of the closely-observed detail rather than the passing glance, have been fooled by the same simple charm?
'When in Rome,' said he. 'Or rather, when employed by Romans.' With that, he stretched out his legs in front of the fire and laughed heartily for some minutes.
'It is quite too funny,' he explained, eventually. 'I am sure you could never guess how I employed my morning, or what I ended by doing.'
'I imagine watching the habits, and perhaps the house, of La Dernière.'
'The orphanage. Yes.'
'Quite. Make yourself comfortable, Watson. This should be a grand story for your collection.
'I left Baker Street a little after eight this morning, in the character of a groom out of work. There is a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry among horsy men. Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know. I soon found Morrigane Lodge. It is a bijou villa, with a garden at the back, but built out in front right up to the road. Two stories. Large sitting-room on the right side, with long windows almost to the floor. All of them barred with iron. The sound from within was of far more interest than the building itself, but I shall come to that. I concluded that a ground-plan of the establishment might be of use, but I shall come to that, also.
'I lounged down the street and found, as I expected, that there was a mews in a lane which runs down by one wall of the garden. I lent the ostlers a hand in rubbing down their horses, and received in exchange twopence, a glass of half-and-half, two fills of shag tobacco, and as much information as I could desire about La Dernière, to say nothing of half a dozen other people in the neighbourhood in whom I was not in the least interested.
'Oh, she has turned all the men's heads down in that part. She is the most attractive thing under a bonnet this side of the Grey Country. So say the Serpentine-mews, to a man. There is the small matter of her sole imperfection, yet they described even that with a detail that bordered upon the salacious. She lives quietly, sings at concerts with a voice that knows tragedy beyond her apparent years, drives out at five every day, and returns at seven sharp for dinner. Seldom goes out at other times, except when she sings. Charitable, too. She would have to be, to take in so many children.
'Children! And none of them over a year in age, so they say. She has turned her home into a foundling hospital. “Briony House”, as the building was known for many years, is now the benevolent instituion of Morrigane Lodge. The locals are quite amazed by her dedication, and wonder how she possibly finds the time and strength to care for so many mewling infants. I had not approached beyond the gypsy-gate, and had heard only an overture of what awaits within, but those who have visited say that the caterwauling would be enough to drive a lesser woman to Pandaemonium. Every room a nursery, the walls lined with cradles, the windows barred “for the little ones' protection”. Twenty children, or fifty, or perhaps a hundred; estimates vary. What they can say with some certainty is that all this began not more than six months ago, when she first blessed the parish with her presence. Since that time, La Dernière has collected foundlings as most women of her class collect evening gowns. Anyone would think that the urge to dedicate her life to these unfortunates came upon her in a moment of revelation. Naturally, nobody has given any thought as to the source of the children. Nor questioned her plans for them.
'She has only one male visitor, but sees a good deal of him. He is dark, handsome, and dashing, and never calls less than once a day. His name is Cullen, of the Inner Temple. I recognised their descriptions of his mark of office: he is a member of the Advocacy of the Tuatha Dé, a secretive bunch within the legal community who know rather more than they should about a great many things. Suffice to say that the Foreign Office has made at least one botched attempt to infiltrate their little group. Their politics are of the most dangerous sort, and have been quite vocal in their support of the Inghinidhe na Scáthach.
'This Cullen was evidently an important factor in the matter. He was a lawyer. That sounded ominous. Was she his client, his friend, his mistress? If the former, he must surely have advised her on the consequences of raising a half-blood child in the midst of London. Was he a co-conspirator, then? Or the architect of this entire murky affair?
'I was still balancing the matter in my mind when a hansom cab drove up to the Lodge, and a gentleman sprang out. He was handsome, dark, aquiline, and moustached, evidently the man of whom I had heard. The decorative pin in his collar, bearing the emblem of a severed arm in silver, confirmed his membership of the Advocacy. He appeared to be in a great hurry, shouted to the cabman to wait, and brushed past the maid who opened the door with the air of a man who was thoroughly at home. The noise from within, Watson! A cacophony of gurgling, shrieking, and whooping. Little wonder that the natives considered the woman such a saint.
'Cullen was in the house about half an hour, and I drew close enough to catch glimpses of him in the windows of the sitting-room, pacing up and down, talking excitedly, and waving his arms. Of her I could see nothing. Presently he emerged, looking even more flurried than before. As he stepped up to the cab, he pulled a silver watch from his pocket and looked at it earnestly.
'Away they went, and I was just wondering whether I should follow when up the lane came a neat little landau, the coachman with his coat only half-buttoned, and his tie under his ear. It hadn't pulled up before she shot out of the hall door and into it. I only caught a glimpse of her at the moment, but she was a most striking woman, with a face that a man might die for. She had a single imperfection, as I had been told: a scar, or rather two scars, forming a small cross immediately above her right eye. There was no doubt that this had been inflicted deliberately, and in childhood. You may be aware that certain Sisterhoods are known to mark promising candidates in such a way. You may also be aware that in other climes, especially beautiful or gifted children are intentionally made imperfect with cuts or tattoos, to prevent them attracting the attentions of supernatural agencies. If that was true in her case, it seems somewhat ironic in light of her recent activities. But it would be unwise to speculate without further investigation into her background.
'More interestingly, there was a bundle clutched to her chest, wrapped in silvered cloth. It made no sound, however.
'”The Church of St Gráinne,” she cried, “and half a sovereign if you reach it in twenty minutes.”
'This was quite too good to lose, Watson. I was just balancing whether I should run for it, or whether I should perch behind her landau, when a cab came through the street. The driver looked twice at such a shabby fare, but I jumped in before he could object. “The Church of St Gráinne,” said I, “and half a sovereign if you reach it in twenty minutes.” It was twenty-five minutes to twelve, and of course, it was clear enough what was in the wind.
'You will note the choice of church, I hope. Gráinne is an Irish Catholic saint, which is hardly surprising, given what little we have learned of our quarry. But some have questioned, in modern times, whether this Gráinne ever converted to Christianity at all. The tales only describe her visionary nature, and the metamorphosis which overcame her after her revelations of a “land of light and grace”. Naturally, the prostheletisers of the Catholic church chose to interpret this as a sign that she had witnessed Heaven, if only to rid themselves of what they believed to be a troublesome local superstition. The church of Rome has always been sensitive to such matters, especially since the reign of the Virgin Queen.
'As for the church at Marylebone, it has only borne St Gráinne's name for these last two years. The priest, it seems, had some unfortunate encounter with the Neighbours. He has lately begun to refer to God only as “Man's God”, convinced that our Grey friends cannot possibly have been created by the same hand or redeemed by the same Christ. There has been talk of excommunication, though of course, the Vatican remains unable to acknowledge the existence of either Gloriana or its inhabitants. So it would be surprising if La Dernière's choice of this particular church were not significant.
'My cabby drove fast. I don't think I ever drove faster, but the others were there before us. I paid the man and hurried into the church. There was not a soul there save the two whom I had followed and the priest, who seemed to be expostulating with them. He appeared most anxious not about their intrusion, but about the presence of the child. I snuck up the side aisle like any other idler who has dropped into a church. Suddenly, to my surprise, the three at the altar faced round to me, and Cullen came running as hard as he could in my direction.
'”Thank the Maiden,” he cried. “You'll do. Come! Come! Only three minutes, or the perihelion will have passed.”
'I was half-dragged up to the altar, and soon found myself mumbling the responses that were whispered in my ear, vouching for things of which I knew nothing, and generally assisting in the secure tying-up of La Dernière, nameless spinster, to Mr Cullen, bachelor of dubious intent. It was all done in an instant, and there was the gentleman thanking me on the one side and the lady on the other, while the priest leered at me in front. It seems that there had been some informality about their license, that the priest absolutely refused to marry them without an adult witness of some sort, and that my lucky appearance saved the bridegroom from having to sally out into the streets in search of a best man. The bride gave me a sovereign, and in future I mean to use it as a totem, in memory of the occasion.
'The most curious point of all, however, was the behaviour of the child. Quite the opposite of its adoptive siblings, it had remained deathly silent throughout procedings, so much so that I had begun to wonder if it were a mere prop to distract any of our client's Knights-What-Have-You. But at the very moment that the priest declared the happy couple man and wife, it began to bawl in a most offputting fashion. Much to the satisfaction of the woman, I might add.
'At the church door, they separated: he driving back to the Temple, she to her own lair. “I shall take Leanná home now,” she said as she left him. “I shall drive out at five, as usual.” Leanná, then! But was this the child who had made these endeavours so necessary, or was it one of the myriad others in her care? I noted that she hesitated before she spoke the name, and concluded that she was not overly familiar with it.
'I heard no more. They drove away, and I went off about my own business. You will pardon my late return, Watson. I made a stop at the Rolls, to consult the records of birth. Given the information available to me, I was by no means certain that it would render any clue at all, but it seemed a worthwhile effort. And it paid off. What do you suppose I found?'
'I cannot begin to guess,' I said.
'The birth record of one Leanná Cullen. Born to Mr and Mrs Cullen, in the third week of September, 1887.'
'What! And you say they were married this very afternoon?'
'Curious, indeed. Curious, also, that there was no precise date. That the exact identities of the parents were also obscured. If the document is a forgery, it is a particularly poor one. You may note that the third week of September is Mabontide. The date, so we are told, of the birth of Lord Belselene's child.'
I could make neither head nor tail of this. 'Then what are your plans now?'
'Some cold beef and a glass of beer,' answered Holmes, ringing the bell. 'I have been too busy to think of food, and I am likely to be busier still this evening. By the way, Doctor, I shall want your cooperation.'
'I am at your disposal,' said I. Despite my discomfort at the thought of separating mother from child, Holmes' story had convinced me that events at Morrigane Lodge were no less alarming than he had supposed.
'You don't mind breaking the law?'
'It has never stopped me before.'
'I was sure that I might rely on you.'
When the landlady brought in the tray, it contained not only the promised beer and beef but a small dish of what I took to be offal. The smell from this unusual delicacy was such that I at first wondered if it had begun to rot, but since Mrs Turner was most strict in her organisation of the larder at number 221b, I assumed that it was some exotic foreign fare which Holmes had discovered in his recent Eastern excursions. Only when he took a strand of the unhealthy-looking matter between his fingers, and dropped it down the front of his shirt, did I realise that it was not meant for human consumption.
A blunted set of jaws emerged from beneath the fabric, and vanished with the offal between its incisors. The awful sound of snorting and chewing eminated from the homunculus' hiding-place within Holmes' clothing, close to his own heart. He continued to supply it with tidbits from the dish.
'You took that thing out with you?' I asked. I had never known the homunculus leave Baker Street before.
'Of course. How else was I to obtain a ground-plan of the Lodge? Even an East End orphan is not so adept at gaining entrance through an open drain or an unshuttered window. And his senses are exceptional. That was, after all, my intent when I created him.'
'That is not what you said at the time,' I said, remembering his disappointment when the beast had first climbed out of its preserving-jar. I regretted it at once, for the sounds of snuffling immediately ceased, and I could imagine how the foul creature's fur was bristling against my friend's skin.
'He was an experiment, Watson. Any fool can produce a simple human likeness. Even my illustrious ancestor achieved it, and we know how ham-fisted he could be in such matters. No, friend Werekind was intended to be a wholly new form of life. Life as a scientific instrument, rather than an accident of nature. We cannot blame him if he happens to be less comely than many. At the very least, I would have to consider him my second-greatest accomplishment in the Hermetic sciences.'
The homunculus began to make a pathetic mewing sound. I wondered if this was genuine sadness on its part, or merely a sickening bid for sympathy. I knew that Holmes, with his love of all things Germanic, had named it “Werekind” after the old tongue for “man-child”: perhaps it was the crude and shrunken similarity to the human form that bothered me so greatly. It reminded me of my own mortal nature, far more so than I had ever chosen to admit. The Queen herself had confessed to a similar disquiet on seeing one of the first Bornean apes to be brought to London, though I remain mystified as to why I should have been more troubled by a mere experiment than by living proof of natural selection.
'Now,' said Holmes, as he turned on the more appetising fare that his landlady had provided, 'I must discuss it while I eat, for I have not much time. It is nearly five now. Our Last Woman, now Madame, returns from her drive at seven. We must be at the Lodge to meet her.'
'And what then?'
'You must leave that to me. I have already arranged what is to occur. There is only one point on which I must insist. You must not interfere, come what may. You understand?'
'I am to be neutral?'
'There will probably be some small unpleasantness. Do not join in it. It will end in my being conveyed into the house. Four or five minutes afterwards, the sitting-room window will open. You are to station yourself close to that open window.'
'You are to watch me, for I will be visible to you.'
'And when I raise my hand – so – you will throw into the room what I give you to throw. You quite follow me?'
'That is excellent. I think, perhaps, it is time to prepare for the new role I have to play.'
He disappeared into his bedroom, and returned after a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded clergyman, one of those decent yet ever-bewildered souls who – confronted with the uncertain spiritual mood of our age, and all its monstrosities – chooses to make no great show of his denomination, but will politely listen to any philosophical proposition in the knowledge that some God or other must surely settle the affair before long. This time I was determined to concentrate on the details of the disguise, to ensure that I was not under the influence of some fay trickery. Sure enough, all the articles were correct. His broad black hat, baggy trousers, and white tie were all in place, while his sympathetic smile and general look of peering, benevolent curiosity were such as Mr John Hare alone could have equalled. I recalled what the King-in-Substance had told us about La Dernière, and her many defences against his kind. For all that Holmes had said about “when in Rome”, I wondered if any illusion would be possible within those walls.
Thankfully, the clothing was close-fitting enough to leave no place on his person where the homunculus might hide. It had no doubt retreated into one of its nests behind the skirting.
'Harmlessly Protestant,' Holmes declared, with a voice and a manner that were not quite his own. 'Rather more likely to win her trust than one of her own sort, I believe.'
It was a quarter past six when we left Baker Street, and it still wanted ten minutes to the hour when we found ourselves in Serpentine Avenue. It was already dusk, and the lamps were just being lighted as we paced in front of Morrigane Lodge, waiting for the coming of its mistress. The house was just as I had pictured it from Holmes' description, but the locality appeared to be less private than I had expected. On the contrary, for a small street in a quiet neighbourhood, it was remarkably animated. There was a group of shabby-looking men smoking and laughing in a corner, an itinerant lovescry with his tarot-wheel, two guardsmen flirting with a nurse-girl, and several well-dressed young gents who lounged up and down with cigars in their mouths.
Even from beyond the gate, I could hear the appalling noise from within the house, surely too many children for any domestic staff to quieten. For the first time, I thought to ask whether the “orphange” was recognised as such by the capital's authorities, and whether any official body had examined the treatment of its young residents at the hands of this “Daughter of Anguish” who had never even revealed her true identity.
'So many,' said I, shaking my head. 'What possible purpose could she have for them?'
'Really, Watson,' replied Holmes. 'Surely her need for these poor wretches is the clearest part of this whole business.'
'It is not clear to me.'
'Consider. When Belselene's agents accosted his erstwhile paramour at World's End Station, she was carrying a decoy. A perfectly normal child, no doubt to gauge whether any of the Grey Gentlemen would attempt to seize her true offspring. Those agents are incapable of entering her home, which is protected by charms, iron bars, and suchlike. Therefore, it would be obvious even to the most irrational woman that Belselene would rely on human burglars to steal the child.'
'We know that he did.'
'And they failed. Why?'
I suddenly realised his point. 'They couldn't be sure which was the right child.'
'They could not, as you say, be sure. A faerie would be able to recognise one of its own; a mortal man, never. Remember what His Majesty told us, that one of the burglars refused to speak of what had taken place within the house. We were led to assume that our sinister enchantress had put the man under some dark Glamour. Whereas I would suggest that he had merely become confused, then embarrassed. Not only had he failed in his mission, he had found himself surrounded by a large number of screaming children. We might imagine him taking flight from such a situation, and he would hardly wish to relate the experience to his somewhat intimidating employer. We should not allow the presence of the supranormal in this case to distract us from simple human truths. Likewise, the children within that house have been assembled not for some satanic ritual purpose, but simply as a blind.'
'And a good one,' I said. 'How will even you know which child is Belselene's? Is there perhaps some divination?'
'I rather fancy that no form of “divination” will work beyond that threshhold. But I hear the rumble of wheels. It is her carriage. Now, carry out my orders to the letter.'
As he spoke, the gleam of a carriage's side-lights came round the curve of the avenue. It was a smart little landau, which rattled up to the door of the Lodge. As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by a second loafer who had rushed up with the same intention. A fierce quarrel broke out, which was increased by the two guardsmen, who took sides with one of the loungers; and by the lovescry, who was equally hot upon the other side. A blow was struck, and in an instant the lady who had stepped from the carriage was the centre of a little knot of flushed and struggling men, who thrashed savagely at each other with their fists and sticks.
Holmes, the benevolent clergyman, dashed into the crowd with the apparent intention of protecting the lady. But just as he reached her, he gave a cry and dropped to the ground, the blood running freely down his face. At his fall, the guardsmen took to their heels in one direction and the loungers in the other, while a number of better-dressed people crowded in to help the lady and to attend to the injured man. La Dernière, as I will still call her, had hurried up the steps; but still she stood at the top, her figure outlined against the lights of the hall, looking back into the street.
It was my first sight of her face. What I had been told was true: her beauty was as great as that of the mythical “wild Irish maid” who had inspired Wagner's Daughter of Anguish, yet my attention was drawn to that imperfection, the cross of scars upon her brow. Curiously, this had the effect of making her appear more mesmerising still, granting her the look of some Heavenly being that had been forced to suffer the brutal carnality of Earth. I found myself ashamed at the thought.
'Is the poor gentleman much hurt?' she called out.
'The poor bugger's dead,' cried a voice.
'No, no, there's life in him!' shouted another. 'But he'll be gone before you can get him to hospital.'
'He's a brave one,' said a woman. 'They would've had the lady's purse and watch if it hadn't been for him.'
'He can't lie in the street. May we bring him in, marm?'
'Surely. Bring him into the sitting-room. This way, please.'
Slowly and solemnly he was borne into Morrigane Lodge and laid out in the principal room, while I observed the proceedings from my post by the window. The lamps had been lit, but the shutters had not been drawn, so between the bars I could see Holmes as he lay upon the couch. I cannot say whether he was seized with compunction at that moment for the part he was playing, but I know that I never felt more heartily ashamed of myself in my life than when I saw the divine creature against whom I was conspiring, or the grace with which she waited upon the injured stranger. Holmes himself seemed nothing less than foolish, in his aspect as a doddering old man of the cloth, surrounded on all sides by cribs in which hungry infants wailed and gargled. And yet I hardened my heart, and took his package from beneath my ulster. After all, I told myself, we are not injuring her. We are but preventing her from injuring others, perhaps even beginning a civil war between the creeds of men and the houses of the fay.
Holmes had sat up upon the couch, and I saw him motion like a man who is in need of air. A maid rushed across and threw open the window. At the same instant, I saw him raise his hand, and at the signal I tossed the package into the room.
There was a flash of light, a crack of gunpowder. Within moments, thick clouds of smoke curled through the room and out of the open window. Without a thought, I found my lips forming the cry of 'fire!'. The word had no sooner left my tongue than the whole crowd of spectators – gentlemen, ostlers, and servant-maids alike – joined in a general shriek of alarm. I caught a glimpse of rushing figures within the house, and a moment later the distinct silhouette of Holmes, darting across the room towards the exit.
Slipping through the shouting crowd, I made my way to the corner of the street, and after a few moments found my friend's arm in mine. It was little comfort; the intensified wailing and coughing of the orphans within the house was greatly disturbing to me.
'Holmes!' I protested. 'You had me start a fire! In an orphanage, for goodness' sake!'
'Calm yourself, Doctor,' said he, his manner no longer that of a humble churchman. 'Mere fireworks. An ordinary plumbers' smoke-rocket, with a little sulphur and caduceus venom to put some fire in the dragon's lungs. Even her enchantments can't halt the processes of chemistry. But see!'
He dug his fingers into my arm, and gestured back towards the house with his free hand. There, a new shape had emerged from the smoke, and was beating itself against the barred windows. As we watched, the glass shattered, and the shape slipped out into the air like some dreadful, writhing sea-creature.
I had never before seen such an apparition. That it was of the Grey, I knew at once: it had the same quality that had so impressed me in Lord Belselene, the appearance of something that could only exist on a far horizon, even as it whorled through the air towards us. Yet His Majesty, I knew, had spent so long in the company of our own kind that he would always bear some trace of our humanity. The thing that escaped from the orphanage was an infant of its kind, free of all mortal inclinations. It thrashed and screamed, its form defined only by a dark and shrieking energy, a presence that left me with an impression of a furious and all-devouring mouth. It was the essence of a newborn child, as unrestrained by flesh as it was by gravity. It was a force of nature born of Gloriana, yet revealed by fire.
No sooner had it revealed itself than the uproar around us became a howl of terror. I swore I heard the screaming of men as well as women, and for one appalling moment I felt that I should join them, as the faerie child picked Holmes out of the crowd and widened its maw as though to consume him.
I felt his grip tighten yet further. I could almost have believed that in this one moment, he doubted both his judgement and his own intellect.
But the apparition came no closer. Even as it made to lunge for my friend, I saw that its tail – if tail it was – remained within the house. Its form was becoming stretched and distorted, and no matter how violently it attempted to pull itself free of the building, it could not reach us. Even so, I felt Holmes take a step backwards as it attempted to free itself.
Moments later, it gave up its struggle. There was one final, frustrated shriek from the gulf of its throat before the horror receded, its mass contracting until it was drawn back through the window and vanished into the smoke.
When I looked at Holmes, I saw that he was surprised. Although he had no doubt intended to force the child to reveal itself, he had perhaps not expected the ferocity of the creature in its natal form. He had certainly not expected its sudden return to the smoking house.
'Of course!' he cried. 'Watson, I have been a fool!'
Most of those who had born witness to the scene had now fled. Within the house, there was the hurried movement of servants, but no further sign of the terrible child. I could discern a female outline in the clearing smoke, standing close to the shattered window, I believe clutching something precious to her chest. I knew then that La Dernière was watching us; that she had seen Holmes for what he truly was.
His arm still on mine, Holmes pulled me away, not risking a backward glance as we departed the Avenue. He walked swiftly and in silence for some few minutes, until we had turned down one of the quiet streets which lead towards the Edgeware Road.
'You did it very nicely, Doctor,' he remarked, with unnerving calm. 'Nothing could have been better. All is well.'
'But the child -'
'Has revealed itself.'
'And how does that help us?'
'Our quest is practically finished. I must wire to Belselene without delay.'
I slept at Baker Street that night, in the room which had once been my own, though now I found it in far greater disarray and with an unexpected surfeit of preserved arachnids. There was a scratching at my door during the early hours, which ended whenever I left the bed to investigate. The homunculus had played such games with me in the past, before I had left these lodgings. For all Holmes' protestations about its pliable and experimental nature, it often displayed the behaviour of a spoilt sibling, resentful of any who might separate it from its “parent”. I did my best not to wonder if, for my part, I had a similar difficulty; if my great dislike of the brute was a form of jealousy. As Holmes himself had pointed out at the time, it was fortunate indeed that I had met my future wife so soon after the creature's awful genesis. We could not have spent much longer under the same roof.
As usual, the homunculus was nowhere to be seen come light of day. Holmes and I were already engaged upon our morning toast and coffee when the King-in-Substance burst into the room. I am not at all sure that I detected any actual movement, yet the door suddenly found itself open and a gargantuan presence suddenly found itself in our midst.
'You have recovered the child?' said he, with a voice that might have burst open the walls.
'I have not.'
'But you have hopes?'
'I have hopes that it will no longer be of importance.'
I am not altogether sure who was most taken aback, myself or Lord Belselene. His Majesty's most humane features were gone in an instant, replaced by a form of wrath that required no countenance at all.
'We have explained to you the import of this matter,' he warned. 'If you should betray us -'
'Firstly, you should know this,' Holmes cut in. 'Your mare is married.'
Instantly, the rage was gone, replaced by mere incomprehension. 'Married... to whom?'
'An Anglo-Irish lawyer.'
'But she cannot love him.'
'I believe it may be a marriage of convenience. Either way, it is hardly of relevance. Of more interest is that against all convention, she took a child with her to the wedding, much to the alarm of the priest. Indeed, she insisted on involving the child in the ceremony, as much as she could.'
Belselene remained silent for a moment, as though attempting to compare human custom with his own before reaching a conclusion. 'Our child?'
'I believe so. Let me ask you this, Your Majesty. When a faerie newborn attaches itself to a mortal family, what effect does it have on the environment around it? The palpable, physical environment?'
'The world will be... changed, to some degree,' said Belselene, choosing his words with obvious care.
'Details will become warped? Facts distorted?'
'A form of protection. It draws the mortal world around itself.'
'Like a babe in a blanket.'
'As you say.'
'Very good. Then I tell you that there is a birth certificate for this child, which bears the name of your former lover and her husband. I do not believe that this certificate existed before yesterday. More exactly, I believe it came into existence at the very moment they were pronounced man and wife. The wedding-ritual is of particular significance to your people, of course.'
Belselene hardly needed to reply. His own kingdom, that borderland of the human world and the other, had only become a possibility when a monarch of England had forsaken the future of her own bloodline to seal a pact with faerie nobility. Without that marriage, his people might still have been the haunters of burial-mounds rather than great cities; and perhaps human beings would still believe themselves alone in this universe.
'The child created evidence of its own history,' Holmes continued. 'I very much doubt it was conscious of doing so. I would hazard that this distortion of the mortal world is an instinctive process, like the changing of a chameleon's colour. But the ritual bound it within a human family, and from that moment, it was as if it had always existed within that family. Even though the certificate contradicts the facts as we know.them, and fails to state its proper date of birth. I would even hazard, though I cannot say for certain, that the child chose its own name in that moment.
'Last night, Watson and I attempted to draw out the child. We tricked it – her, I should say, since you have a daughter rather than a son – into believing that her life was in peril. She reacted most violently.'
'That is only natural,' exclaimed Belselene. 'The fruit of Gloriana's nobility would never allow itself to come to harm -'
'Yes, yes. When she emerged, I feared she might tear us limb from limb. I feared I had underestimated her power. And yet, some force reined her in. She was compelled to return to the house, and one assumes to her mortal form. The reason is clear to me now. She is already rooted in her human life. She is constrained by the limitations of mortality. The false fire shocked her into revealing her true face – or her original, natal face, I should say – but she could not maintain it for long. She is bound to a human bloodline, and now must abide by its laws.
'So you see, Your Majesty. Your fears prove to be groundless. You believe La Dernière, now Mrs Cullen, wishes to ruin you by revealing the child's parentage. I believe she wants nothing of the sort. She has done everything possible to surpress Leanná's faerie nature. Perhaps that was even a secondary reason for surrounding her with other human infants, to encourage her to develop as a mortal being in mortal flesh. The mother wishes her daughter to have a human identity. Everything she has done has been to this end.'
Belselene did not speak for some time. As he stood in the solid, familiar environment of Holmes' study, he once again appeared to drift away into the distance and then return, all without moving an inch.
'We should speak with her,' he eventually declared.
'Very well,' said Holmes. 'Shall we take your brougham?'
But there was to be no confrontation between the former lovers, as Holmes had perhaps anticipated. It was clear, as soon as we arrived at the so-called orphange in Serpentine Avenue, that much had changed since the events of the previous night. Unsurprisingly, there were fewer people to be seen by the light of day: tales of the horror in the Lodge had clearly spread, and though the people of London may be fascinated by the scene of any humdrum murder, they will tend to stay far away from those places that have been marked by the Grey. The shattered window, the one remaining trace of the evening's events, seemed merely sad in the gaze of the sun. Most noticeable of all, there was the silence. Not a single child's cry could be heard from within those walls.
The door of the Lodge was open, and an elderly woman stood upon the steps, a pair of pince-nez perched on her nose and a molly-cap pulled obstinately down over her forehead. She watched us with a sardonic eye as we stepped from the brougham.
'Mr Sherlock Holmes, I believe?' said she.
'I am Mr. Holmes,' answered my companion.
'Hmph! My mistress told me you were likely to call. She departed with her husband this morning.'
'She is leaving London?'
'London. England. This realm.' The woman squinted at Lord Belselene in a particularly ill-natured fashion. 'She shan't be seen among menfolk again. Or his folk, neither.'
'And the child?' rumbled Belselene.
'We shall see.' Holmes pushed past the servant and headed into the drawing-room, followed by the King-in-Substance and myself. The furniture was scattered about in every direction, with open drawers and empty cots on all sides. I did not ask, until much later, how the mistress of this supposed orphange had scattered so many children in so short a time. Despite Holmes' assurances to the contrary, this brew of witchcraft and child abduction had stirred memories of the most terrible childhood tales, and I believe I was afraid to know the truth.
On the sill beneath the broken window, where I had tossed the smoke-rocket into the room, there was a photograph and a letter. The photograph depicted both La Dernière and Lord Belselene: both naked, both in obvious ecstacy. Holmes and I had both pooh-pooh'd the impact that such a portrait could have, but now I had cause to regret it. There was no possibility that this image could have been faked, not even had the villainous Giphantie himself had a hand in its creation. The camera had captured His Majesty in his most primal aspect, not in the rigid pose of a man, but as a force that imbued every inch of the frame with a sense of immortal presence. La Dernière was caught up in the embrace of this formless passion, enveloped by him, her face lit by an inner radiance that I could never have imagined in a human being. I did not turn to note Belselene's reaction. The photographer had captured a moment of intimacy that was not in any way sexual, yet ventured far beyond the carnal. I had no wish to see His Majesty adopt an expression of human shame at seeing himself so exposed.
The letter was superscribed: Sherlock Holmes, Esq. To be left till called for. My friend tore it open, and we all three read it together.
My Dear Mr Sherlock Holmes,
You really did it very well. Until my daughter revealed herself, I had not a suspicion. I had been warned against you months ago, of course. I had been told that if My Lord employed a cat's-paw then it would certainly be you. I have spent some time within the Grey, and your exploits are much-discussed among the nobles of Gloriana, as are those of your famed ancestor. Perhaps it is in the nature of your bloodline that you should forever be involved in the affairs of the Ridings. The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Grey can choose to bind themselves to one fate or another, but we are so often constrained by the circumstances of our birth.
I, myself, was presumed to be the last of my blood. You have no doubt deduced from the scarring on my brow that I was born into a line of no little notoriety, whose matriarchs have for generations consorted with the subtle powers of more than one demesne. The women of the Mórrigna, for all that society has slandered them as whores, adventuresses, or worse, have held great influence these past centuries; yet our many sacrifices have weakened our blood, just as our practices have left us tainted by poison, by self-enervation, and even by madness. With every generation, that taint has been greater, the defects more pronounced. I was the first “perfect” child for perhaps a century, yet it was clear from the age of eleven that no man would ever be able to sire a child on me. It is a difficult thing, to know from your coming of age that you are the end of your kind. I was always La Dernière, she-who-will-be-last.
Yet your client, My splendid Lord, provided me with hope. It was for this reason alone that I chose to pursue him. The seed of the fay is not subject to the curses of my bloodline, since the rules of birth and death are very different for the children of Gloriana. I am sure My Lord never considered the possibility that far from believing myself to be his broodmare, I believed him to be my stud. Do not mistake me: I held him in the greatest affection. Yet the happiness I felt in his presence was not joy at our intimacies, but at the knowledge that he would provide me with a daughter to continue the legacy of the Mórrigan lodge.
I have no further interest in the Grey Court, and despite My Lord's obvious concern, I have no desire to meddle in its affairs. I could not risk his anger by telling him so, yet now my child has begun to shed her faerie heritage, I may safely remove her from the world of men without fear that her otherworldly aspect might become dominant. My own ancestors, infamous as they may have been, were quite human. I do not wish my daughter to be anything else.
Mr Holmes: I am, I think, more aware of your family's history than My Lord. I know it was your predecessor who brokered the first great trysting-contract between man and fay. I know that he, more than any other, can be called the founder of Gloriana. I cannot help but ask whether that knowledge, and the call of your heritage, will have overshadowed this affair. Did it occur to you, I wonder, that these events were never destined to be so momentous? Did it occur to you that my desires were not those of a queen in waiting, but merely a woman?
I hope that it did. If so, then you will know that My Lord has no further reason to set his hounds upon me, whether invisible or simply ingenious. I trust that you will tell him so, and I leave him with the photograph in which I feel the truth of my feelings is most plain before the lens.
Very truly yours, Mrs M. Cullen;
La Dernière no longer.
I looked to Belselene. For all that we had read, there was no sign of anger in him.
'Such a woman,' he said. 'Did we not tell you? Would she not have made an admirable Lady-Politic, had she been on our level?'
'From what I have seen of the lady, she seems indeed to be on a very different level to Your Majesty,' Holmes told him. 'I am sorry that I have not been able to bring your business to a more successful conclusion.'
'On the contrary. Nothing could be more successful. We know that the child is no longer a threat to our position; it is barely a child of our blood at all. It may even be dead within a human lifetime.'
'I am glad to hear your Majesty say so,' said Holmes, coldly.
'Then we are immensely indebted to you. Pray tell us in what way we can reward you. The letter suggests that your ancestor was the Glorious Virgin's astrologer-page, is this true? He left many bequests to us after his passing. Perhaps the return of some heirloom -'
'Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly.'
'You have but to name it.'
Belselene stared at him in silence. I thought, in that endless moment, that the request might have caused some unimaginable offence.
'The image is... improper, by the mores your world,' said the King-in-Substance. 'But, no! We are to marry the daughter of the Bright Riding. If our Houses are to be joined, then we should concern ourselves with mortality no longer. After all, is it not mortality which has caused this... scandal? Yes; yes, you may have the photograph. What should we care, if men see us as we truly are? It is as you said: such taboos are for humanity's breed, not for ours.' Even as he spoke, I could see his frame relaxing, giving up its long-held insistence on appearing to be of base flesh. Before long, he had no distinct form at all, and I could plainly see the likeness to the fire-born child which had burst from this very room the night before.
'I thank your Majesty,' said Holmes. 'Then there is no more to be done in the matter. I have the honour to wish you a very good-morning.'
Holmes only hesitated once as he departed the grounds of Morrigane Lodge, when he paused by the gypsy-gate and looked back over his shoulder. Lord Belselene was climbing into his carriage, while his two horses – identical in every detail – chomped at the air and shook their bright silver manes. But Holmes was paying them no heed. Instead, he was looking towards the doorstep, where the elderly housekeeper watched us from behind her pince-nez. I saw her make a curious motion with one hand, perhaps unconsciously. Then she was gone, vanished into the empty house.
I returned with Holmes to Baker Street before heading back to my own household. He celebrated the solution of this “pretty little problem” with a pipe, rather than anything more damaging to his health or reason; while I at once began to make notes, knowing that after the span of two years, it would be my task to publish at least some of the details of this remarkable business.
'I was right on one point,' said I. 'It would have been wrong to take the child from the parent.'
'Indeed it would,' agreed Holmes. 'An admirable thing, is it not?'
'A mother's love for her daughter?'
Holmes laughed. 'Doctor, you really must learn to distinguish between the human sentiment known as “love” and the human reality of “need”. La Dernière carried the burden of being the last of her kind. Without a child, her existence would have been as dream-like as any faerie's. The daughter was, if you will, evidence of her life's work.'
'Evidence! Is that all?'
'You find that strange? Then consider me. I reason. I theorise. I am, as you yourself have noted, a creature of intellect. But without some witness to its effect, does that intellect even exist? Do I, myself, even exist?'
'You are, even as I speak, making notes. You, Doctor – you, with your tireless recording of my cases, however over-ripe the language –'
'Thank you,' I huffed.
'You are witness to my method. The new Mrs Cullen created life in order to prove the nature of her existence, and this is what I find so admirable. I did much the same myself.'
I remembered the third presence in these rooms. Happily, I could hear no sign of its proximity. 'You don't mean that dreadful homunculus?'
He made to reply, and I was sure he intended to answer in the negative, as though there were some other gross creation of which I was not aware. Then he apparently thought better of it.
'That particular homunculus is my lapdog,' he said, rather quietly. 'He hunts. He scouts the terrain on my behalf. He sniffs out clues. But I need someone to record the what, not just assist me in the where. Someone to act as a yardstick of humanity, by which I may measure the importance of my work. You are my What-Son. Just as he is my Where-Kind.'
I snorted. 'I can hardly say I appreciate the comparison,' I said.
Holmes did not speak for a few moments. He contemplated his pipe.
'Quite right,' said he. 'Quite right. I should not make you question yourself. My ever-faithful Doctor.'
Even now, I am unsure what Holmes sought to prove by likening me to his own noxious experiments in the creation of life. It was not intended as criticism, I feel certain of that; I remain convinced there was some deeper meaning which I still fail to grasp, though occasionally his words return to me in dreams, never quite assembling themselves into a thing of absolute sense. I mention it only because, reflecting on this affair now that two years have passed and Holmes is no longer among the living, I am struck by certain points that surely cannot have escaped his attention.
I recall the words of the elderly housekeeper at the Lodge, her assertion that the woman who had once been La Dernière had retired altogether from the world of men. Yet the letter Holmes had received spoke of a proud female heritage, of a much-maligned Sisterhood whose very nature was to walk quietly among us. Then there was the motion the housekeeper had made on the step. It had been an instinctive wave of the hand, as though to disguise something. Had she worn an ornament at her throat, of the kind that Holmes himself had worn when taking on the aspect of a groom? I had not noticed any such item, but then, I had not thought to look. And the cap she wore, pulled so tightly over her brow. Did it perhaps conceal a mark so distinctive that no Glamour could disguise it?
If so, then we may conclude that Mrs Cullen never departed from our world at all; and if that should be the case, then Holmes must have been aware of it even as we walked away from Serpentine Avenue. She may have had no designs on any of the thrones of Gloriana, yet I can well believe the housekeeper's claim to have been a final deception, a method by which the lady might calm the fears of His Majesty while still playing some part in the world's affairs. Was this was the reason for my friend's brooding words at Baker Street? To throw all into doubt, so that when writing this tale in later years, I might see the flaw in its conclusion?
As for Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, there could only be one possible reason for his assisting her in this subterfuge. She was, I think, the only example of her gender with whom he ever felt any kinship. She had found a means to prove herself more than merely an element of chance in a universe of chaos; she had succeeded in giving form to her own will, by using life itself as something akin to a scientific instrument. In Holmes' mind, her former title had taken on a new aptness, for the lady once known as La Dernière had proved herself to be the omega of all females. And when he spoke of her, or when he referred to her astonishing photograph, it was always under the honourable title of the woman.