A Most Civilised Evening
Two gentlemen emerged from the landau and paused for a moment in the snow before entering Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Both men wore warm coats over their evening dress, but there seemed no reason why they continued to linger on the pavement rather than immediately entering into the restaurant. Finally, the taller of the two bent just slightly and said something to his companion, who seemed to chuckle softly in response. Then he put a hand on the other man’s elbow and guided him towards the door.
“Shall we have a match before dining?” Holmes asked, his tone more serious than the expression in his eyes.
Watson shook his head. “Oddly, I find that I am not in the mood for ritual humiliation this evening,” he replied as they both halted to watch an apparently rather heated game of chess in progress. The players—one a plump, red-faced man who made a move very quickly and his opponent, a thin ginger with a splattering of freckles, who was only frowning over the board—seemed oblivious to the small group of men watching them play.
After a moment, Holmes and Watson once again followed the maitre d’ as he lead them to a table in a quiet corner of the room. It was not until they were seated and had been handed menus to peruse that Holmes responded to what Watson had said. His voice was low. “An interesting subject, that, in fact.”
Watson, already engrossed in the lengthy list of starters, spoke absently. “Chess?”
“No, ritual humiliation. I believe that I will start with the smoked mackerel and watercress salad.”
It took a moment before his words seemed to reach Watson, who then looked at him quickly. “Really, Holmes? Is that how we intend to begin this evening?”
Holmes glanced at him, frowning. “Have you something against smoked mackerel? I feel sure that we have previously eaten it at some point.”
Watson leaned across the table a bit. “Not the mackerel, you madman. The—“ His voice dropped to a whisper. “—ritual humiliation.”
Holmes smiled faintly. “I think a bottle of the Folle Blanche, if that suits.”
Watson just nodded. Wine was not his forte and Holmes always chose well. Once the order had been placed for the wine, the mackerel and Watson’s choice of starter [fish cake with wilted spinach and poached egg] they both relaxed a little. Which, of course, was when Holmes returned to the subject at hand. “Every society has its own rituals for humiliating those whom it deems unworthy or guilty of some offence.”
Watson was increasingly glad that their table was rather isolated from the others.
“I do find it interesting, my dear Watson, that you apparently thought immediately of the subject in terms of something sexual.”
Watson cleared his throat. “I have travelled in the East and spent considerable time in the military,” he said. “Very little that men get up to surprises me, Holmes.”
There was a pause in their conversation as the wine was delivered and some poured for Holmes’ approval. He tasted it and nodded. When the sommelier had filled both glasses and departed, Holmes lifted his drink to propose a toast. Watson mimicked the action. “To friendship,” Holmes said. “To companionship.”
“To us,” Watson added.
For a moment, neither man remembered to click their glasses together, too caught up in just gazing at one another.
“To us,” Holmes echoed softly and they drank.
Their starters arrived and the next few moments were devoted solely to eating.
As he was finishing the last of his mackerel, Holmes spoke again. “I suppose that you had your fair share of…adventures while you were in foreign parts. As soldiers apparently do.”
There were anguished groans from the group still gathered around the chess players. Holmes and Watson both glanced around briefly, then returned to their conversation.
Watson thought for a moment. “Not as many adventures as one might think. Although probably more than I should have had.”
Holmes eyed him. “Ah, yes, the fact that you are a man of medicine made you more cautious than others.”
Watson grimaced. “I have seen the effects of syphilis—” The word was a whisper; despite their secluded position, they were, after all, in public and people were dining. “—too many times to take foolish chances.” He did not quite meet Holmes’ gaze. “I am quite free of any disease.”
Holmes gave a soft chuckle. “My dear Watson, I never thought otherwise.”
The waiter returned to clear the plates and take their orders for the main course. Holmes chose the lamb and Watson the beef. After the young man was gone again, Holmes refilled both their glasses. “I suppose some reciprocity is expected.”
“I only want to hear whatever you wish to tell me.”
Holmes stared into his wine as if the words he wanted might come floating to the top. When no such thing happened, he sighed and took a quick swallow. “I have not indulged in such activities since my days at university. And even then…nothing of what happened left me open to any disease.” He finally raised his eyes and met Watson’s gaze. “Feel quite free to pass judgement.”
Watson shook his head. “Why would I do that? Have I ever judged you harshly for anything?”
“Save over my ignorance about the universe, you have not.”
That remark seemed to lighten the mood a bit and they both smiled.
“Have you taken note of the rather stout gentleman in the ghastly yellow waistcoat who is sitting catty-corner from us?” was what Holmes said next.
“Not until now,” Watson said. “My goodness, it really is a ghastly waistcoat, isn’t it?”
Holmes gave a smirk. “Yes. But possibly more pertinent is the fact that he is a German spy.”
Watson twisted around to look at the man again. “I suppose you can tell that by his right thumb? Or the particular trim of his moustache?”
“Well, both of those things might have given me a clue. But I know primarily because of the fact that I saw his likeness in one of my brother’s files.”
Now Watson looked serious. All Queen and Country. “Should we send a message to Mycroft?”
“Watson, my brother probably already knows what Mueller had for dinner. But he does not know that I can get into his locked desk drawer and I would prefer that he remain ignorant on that point.”
Watson shook his head. “You are incorrigible, Holmes.”
Before Holmes could respond, a large silver-domed trolley was pushed to the table. Their meat was cut and the sides of roasted potatoes, savoy cabbage and Yorkshire pudding [for Watson] were delivered.
Holmes ladled mint sauce onto his plate. “Might I assume that you do not seriously object to my alleged incorrigibility?”
Watson poked at his Yorkshire pudding. “On the contrary, I consider it to be one of your better qualities.”
“Well, I thought it best to check.” Holmes leaned across the table as if to reach for the crystal salt cellar, but really it seemed that he wanted to whisper to Watson and be absolutely certain that no one else could hear. “After all, prospective inamoratos should know the worst about each other.” He sat back, looking briefly smug.
Watson stared at him, a rising flush overtaking his face.
Abruptly, Holmes looked stricken. His voice was raspy when he said, “Have I completely misread the situation?”
After one more moment, Watson gave a bark of laughter and shook his head. “How often does Sherlock Holmes misunderstand anything?”
Holmes was carefully cutting into his lamb. “I acknowledge that there are some areas of life in which I have no real experience.”
“There is no misunderstanding. I have thought that perhaps I was being too subtle.”
For just a moment, they smiled at one another.
“Mr Holmes!” The booming voice came from a large man in a badly-fitting frock coat as he approached their table. “Oh, I see that you do not recall me, sir.”
Watson could see the change that came over his friend as he became the public version of Sherlock Holmes. Austere. A brilliant creature of thought and logic. And Watson realised once again how fortunate he was to be allowed past that Holmes, to see the heart that lay inside.
“Of course I recall you, Sir Whitney. And how is your daughter doing these days? Fully recovered from her unpleasant experience, I trust?”
“Oh, blooming, Mr Holmes, thanks to you. Married to a rising young barrister whom I expect will be taking a seat in the Commons before too long. And in a few months I will be a grandfather.”
Holmes only nodded; he took little interest in the aftermath of his cases.
Watson was finishing his meal.
After a few more forgettable comments, Whitney bid Holmes farewell and left them.
Holmes picked up his knife and fork again. “You were in Edinburgh for the funeral of your former professor,” he commented. “The case was not worth mentioning.”
“Nothing I need to include in my scribblings then?”
“Definitely not.” Holmes drained his glass. “What happens next?”
“A pudding?” Watson suggested brightly. “I fancy some sticky toffee and custard. And a coffee, I think.”
“You are quite ridiculous sometimes, Watson.” Holmes summoned the waiter and they ordered coffee, brandy and two puddings.
As they waited, Watson folded his hands on top of the table. “I have had a few romances,” he said. “But they were never…physical in any respect beyond a few chaste kisses. I have had sex, but never with anyone I cared about.”
“All of that was with women, I assume.” Holmes seemed to be watching a couple sitting across the room.
Watson followed his gaze, but could see nothing remarkable about them. Of course, it would not surprise him to learn that the man was a serial poisoner or the woman a smuggler of Egyptian treasures. “Yes,” he said belatedly. “All with women. I likewise assume that your experiences at university were not.”
Holmes nodded. “Are we a pair of idiots, Watson?”
“I think we are a pair of geniuses to have ended up here.”
Sticky toffees, coffee and brandies were delivered and the waiter vanished again. He was really a very good waiter.
“I have always known that I am an invert,” Holmes commented. He licked custard from his spoon.
“I have always been…curious,” Watson admitted. “As I said, spending years primarily in the company of men, one sees many things.” He took a drink of the coffee. “Much of what I saw were simply base physical needs being satisfied. But on occasion…I seemed to see more genuine feelings.”
Holmes seemed unduly interested in the last of his sticky toffee. “Feelings…yes. We have not discussed that subject yet. If the physical aspects of it all are unfamiliar to me, I am even less…cognisant with the emotions involved.”
Watson chuckled. “Nonsense.”
Holmes cocked a brow at him.
“Do you really believe that we would be sitting here talking about these things if we both did not see the feelings that are between us?”
“Well,” Holmes said. “Perhaps I see them. That does not necessarily mean that I understand them.”
Watson smiled at him. “No one understands love, Holmes.”
They both silently acknowledged this first use of that word. In that same silence they finished the pudding and the coffee. The waiter cleared everything away but the brandy. A quieter mood had taken over Simpson’s now that the chess players had departed.
“My brother says that you will never betray me,” Holmes said finally.
“Your brother is a wise man.”
Holmes gave an inelegant snort, then said, “He also pointed out the risks involved.”
Watson sobered. “Do you remember what you said out on the pavement earlier this evening?”
“Of course. I asked if you were ready for our dinner at Simpson’s. And that it might be dangerous,”
Now Watson smiled again. “And here I am.”
“Here you are.”
They finished the brandy in further silence, Watson paid for the meal, and they bundled back into their coats before stepping out into the cold December night. The carriage had returned right on time and in only a moment, they were settled inside, making good use of the lap blanket provided.
Under the cover of the blanket, Watson’s hand reached out until it touched Holmes’ and their fingers intertwined. The silence that had started in the restaurant lasted all the way back to Baker Street.
Once they had arrived, Holmes paid the fare. Watson unlocked the door, then stepped aside to let Holmes enter first. Then he followed the man up the stairs to 221B.