The House Of Silk
I have often reflected upon the strange series of circumstances that led me to my long association with one of the most singular and remarkable figures of my age. If I were of a philosophical frame of mind I might wonder to what extent any one of us is in control of our own destiny, or if indeed we can ever predict the far-reaching consequences of actions which, at the time, may seem entirely trivial.
For example, it was my cousin, Arthur, who recommended me as Assistant Surgeon to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers because he thought it would be a useful experience for me and he could not possibly have foreseen that a month later I would be dispatched to Afghanistan. At that time the conflict which came to be known as the Second Anglo-Afghan War had not even commenced. And what of the Ghazi who, with a single twitch of the finger, sent a bullet hurtling into my shoulder at Maiwand? Nine hundred British and Indian souls died that day and it was doubtless his intention that I would be one of them. But his aim was awry, and although I was badly wounded, I was saved by Jack Murray, my loyal and good-hearted orderly who managed to carry me over two miles of hostile territory and back to British lines.
Murray died at Kandahar in September of that year so would never know that I was invalided home and that I then devoted several months – small tribute to his efforts on my behalf – to a somewhat wasteful existence on the fringes of London society. At the end of that time, I was seriously considering a move to the South Coast, a necessity forced on me by the stark reality of my rapidly diminishing finances. It had also been suggested to me that the sea air might be good for my health. Cheaper rooms in London would have been a more desirable alternative and I did very nearly take lodgings with a stockbroker on the Euston Road. The interview did not go well and immediately afterwards I made my decision. It would be Hastings: less convivial perhaps, than Brighton, but half the price. My personal possessions were packed. I was ready to go.
But then we come to Henry Stamford, not a close friend of mine but an acquaintance who had served as my dresser at St Bart’s. Had he not been drinking late the night before, he would not have had a headache and, but for the headache, he might not have chosen to take the day off from the chemical laboratory where he was now employed. Lingering at Piccadilly Circus, he decided to stroll up Regent Street to Arthur Liberty’s East India House to purchase a gift for his wife. It is strange to think that, had he walked the other way, he would not have bumped into me as I came out of the Criterion Bar and, as a result, I might never have met Sherlock Holmes.
For, as I have written elsewhere, it was Stamford who suggested that I might share rooms with a man whom he believed to be an analytical chemist and who worked at the same hospital as he. Stamford introduced me to Holmes who was then experimenting with a method of isolating bloodstains. The first meeting between us was odd, disconcerting, and certainly memorable … a fair indication of all that was to come.
This was the great turning point of my life. I had never had literary ambitions. Indeed, if anyone had suggested that I might be a published writer, I would have laughed at the thought. But I think I can say, in all honesty and without flattering myself, that I have become quite renowned for the way I have chronicled the adventures of the great man, and felt no small sense of honour when I was invited to speak at his memorial service at Westminster Abbey, an invitation which I respectfully declined. Holmes had often sneered at my prose style, and I could not help but feel that had I taken my place at the pulpit I would have felt him standing at my shoulder, gently mocking whatever I might say from beyond the grave.
It was always his belief that I exaggerated his talents and the extraordinary insights of his brilliant mind. He would laugh at the way I would construct my narrative so as to leave to the end a resolution which he swore he had deduced in the opening paragraphs. He accused me more than once of vulgar romanticism, and thought me no better than any Grub Street scribbler. But generally I think he was unfair. In all the time that I knew him, I never saw Holmes read a single work of fiction – with the exception, that is, of the worst items of sensational literature – and although I cannot make any great claim
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