Author's Note: This is a sequel and a tribute to Jackie's wonderful "Lessons in Blue". It came from re-reading her work while watching Jeremy Brett in "The Final Problem". Definitely a dangerous mix.
Encounter at Reichenbach
by "An Oxford Punter"
Holmes had been silent for quite some time now, a silence having little to do, I suspected, with the strenuousness of our climb. Though some thirty years had passed since he last trekked this particular mountain path, he still possessed the energy and resilient constitution of a man--or woman, in my case--far younger, and I did not fear that he would not physically be able to complete what had become for us a most singular pilgrimage.
No, it was undoubtedly our location rather than our activity which prompted his brooding withdrawal. Ordinarily such a thing would not have troubled me; though we had been married for less than two weeks, I had known him long enough and hence well enough by then to understand both his silences and his reasons for them.
The complete reticence within which he now wrapped himself however did, I confess, disturb me somewhat for I could not help but feel that I was in part its cause. Hiking easily behind him through the cool, pristine beauty of the rugged Swiss countryside, I studied his straight back and the determined stab of his alpine walking stick into the rocky soil and wondered for the first time if I had not made a serious mistake in suggesting this journey. It had been the impulse of a moment, borne of my knowledge that the area held a certain significance for him, being as it was the location of a rather notorious portion of his past--a location I now wished to return to with him, and in so doing perhaps create a new set of memories to replace the old.
But I had not considered how it would affect him to relive those old memories in the process of enlightening me about them. The completion of our business at the embassy on behalf of Holmes' brother Mycroft had left us free to travel where we wished until it was time to return to Sussex and resume our normal lives, or what was to become our normal life together; the opportunity seemed ideal. Indeed, I thought perhaps that if we did not do so now I would never be granted another chance, for he had been openly reluctant to agree to it from the plan's inception. He wanted to return home directly from the embassy and thus avoid it altogether in fact, but upon being advised by his brother that our continued absence from both London and Sussex would be prudent if we did not wish to find ourselves in the midst of the journalistic fervor caused by our involvement with the Margery Childe case and our own elopement, he at last abandoned all hope with as much good grace as he could muster (which wasn't much), and we came down together into the narrow Hasli Valley from Interlaken to discover in its fertile folds Meiringen, strung like a solitary jewel on the silver ribbon of the Aare river.
He had been untroubled there in Meiringen, or so it seemed. A fire in 1891 had swept away most of the quaint cottages he and Dr. Watson had seen when first they traveled this way, he told me, but those long-ago dwellings had now become a modern if somewhat small community composed of fine hotels and fashionable chalets, rather on the order of a resort for the wealthy or the convalescing. The Englisher Hof was no more--I gathered it also succumbed, a victim of the flames--but where it had stood was an equally comfortable establishment run by none other than Peter Steiler the younger, son of the man who had first greeted Holmes thirty years before. We passed several comfortable days roaming the clean, colorful streets while we waited for the weather to clear enough to venture further afield and at last, much to his chagrin, came a day perfect for our purposes. We therefore set out into the surrounding hillsides, bound for a particular site along the route to the village of Rosenlaui.
Even then he seemed unconcerned, if somewhat resigned, about our journey. It was only now as we drew near our destination that his attitude changed. Why he had not voiced his misgivings earlier I had no way of knowing; perhaps he thought up until that point such old ghosts no longer held sway over him. But I knew the power of the uneasy dead upon the living and was determined to give him one last chance to change his mind.
"We could simply bypass it, you know," I remarked to that unyielding, grey-clad back before me. "From what you tell me, it is not necessary to see the one to arrive at the other. Or you could go on and I could join you at Rosenlaui."
"My dear Russell, my absence will hardly achieve the desired result of your little outing, will it?" He did not deign to turn and address me.
"But I thought--oh, never mind." I changed the topic. "Did you ever get to Rosenlaui in 1891?"
"I skirted it in the darkness on my way out of Switzerland," he replied, which meant of course when he was literally afoot and running from Moran. "Is it necessary to your purpose that we do even that again? It was difficult enough when I was thirty but I daresay I could manage it, though it will hardly be the same without the dash of excitement Colonel Moran's murderous pursuit gave me to spur me on. Still--"
"That will hardly be necessary," I said with asperity. "If you did not want to come here, Holmes, you only had to say so. Flaying me with your sarcasm will not improve the situation."
"One must take one's entertainment where one can find it, Russell. You have chosen to compel me to relive an experience which altogether was something less than salutary. I therefore feel no qualms whatsoever about subjecting you--" He stopped suddenly and stood listening.
"What is it?" I asked. And then I heard it, like the distant growl of some tremendous beast.
The falls of Reichenbach.
Holmes had collected himself and begun to move forward again and I was forced to hurry in order to catch up. The sound grew in strength and intensity as we approached until it seemed to define the very world of my senses and I felt its force in the air around us. The view ahead both brightened and dimmed paradoxically, and as the trees thinned I began to glimpse shimmering silver beyond and knew this undeniably to be the author of that full-throated roar. When the path divided, Holmes took the branch leading us closer rather than farther away and paused beside a boulder looming on our right, but my attention was captured by the sight which greeted my eyes.
I had of course read Dr. Watson's account of the events surrounding Holmes' last visit to these falls and thought I understood sufficiently the magnitude and power of this place apart from the sinister role it played in his past.
But I had not. This was not a site to have visited on mere whim. Far above my head water that still held the chill of the ice and snow it had lately been surged between serrated outcroppings of rock which looked for all the world like the teeth of a carnivore growing out of the softer tissue of the earth itself. It fell a very long way in a dazzling, dizzying cascade, overwhelming in its beauty and in its potential destructiveness.
Drawn in spite of myself, I started forward and then paused when I noticed he did not follow. "Aren't you--"
"I prefer to remain here," he remarked, "having already seen the view."
"Of course." Cautiously, for the ground was moist and the footing less than assured, I edged forward along the path to the very brink of the precipice and looked down. A cold, moisture-laden breeze dewed my every exposed surface within minutes and made me shiver, as much from awe and repugnance as from the coolness of the mist itself. The sound of that endlessly falling water rose up to me in an inhuman snarl almost of defiance and I had to forcibly restrain myself from putting my hands up to cover my ears. Hours spent here must, I knew, inevitably drive me mad.
"What a frightful place," I murmured aloud though I knew he could not hear me. I imagined myself standing here as he had, with certain death yawning at his feet and at his back the inexorable hatred of a man bent on his destruction even at the cost of his own life. I imagined what it must have been like to have Moriarty come at him, to feel the arms of his enemy wrap themselves around him and find himself teetering on this crumbling edge.
Did he have time to be frightened for himself thirty years ago when he stood here? Had it even occurred to him to be frightened? Somehow I thought not, but in many ways and even after the passing of six years this man was still the deepest, most impenetrable mystery I had ever encountered.
And what had it been like for him to have climbed up these glistening rocks and concealed himself afterwards with Moriarty's death shriek still ringing in his ears?
Turning, I surveyed the nearly sheer wall at our backs. "Where were you hidden?" I had to raise my voice to be heard.
"There." He pointed with his stick to a massive shelf of rock jutting out from the soil far above our heads. There was a shadowy recess beneath it, large enough for one man to secrete himself and look down upon the drama that must inevitably be allowed to play itself out below. I pictured myself standing here as perhaps Uncle John did afterwards, winded and stricken at what he thought had occurred. I imagined his pain, his grief at the loss of his friend while he had been conveniently--and futilely--occupied elsewhere.
"It must have been very difficult to have allowed him to go through the sorrow of thinking you were dead," I remarked quietly.
"It was." His eyes were on the falls. "I think of all the cruelties I have inflicted upon him in all the years of our acquaintance, that was by far the worst."
"I'm sure Uncle John would feel somewhat differently, were he available to ask. Your actions here allowed you to return in relative safety eventually and thereby insure that your friendship with him would continue. If you had not done what you did, Moran would have continued to pursue you until he killed either you or Uncle John or both."
He nodded broodingly. "Still, the price was nearly too high, even for all that."
"For all of us." Going to where he stood, I put my arms around him and laid my face against his coat front. Beneath my ear I heard the beating of his heart, reassuringly steady. He could have died in this horrible, beautiful place; a single misstep in his battle with Moriarty, one lucky chance for the professor and it could just as easily have been his own death cry echoing up from the chasm. And I would never have met him, never loved and married him. How different would I have been then, and how diminished.
"I am sorry, husband," I said aloud. "I thought to come here with you and banish whatever evil memories you still harbored of Reichenbach. But there are some places, I think, and some memories that deserve their evil. It is not what I imagined it would be." I glanced at the falls over my shoulder. "I had no idea--"
"I know." His arms around me were comforting. "That was why I agreed to come. Because you did not know, but perhaps ought to."
"For your sake?" I glanced up at him, surprised by such an admission. "Because it was an important part of your past?"
"No, for your sake, because it was an important part of what has now become your past." He indicated the falls with a nod. "You had a right to see this. It was the genesis of your own encounter with a Moriarty."
"So it was." We were quiet for a time, each remembering those encounters so narrowly escaped.
"Sometimes in my sleep," he said at last, softly, "I am the one who falls. I fall for what seems like forever with that sound, like an angry shout in my ears, so loud I can't even hear my own scream above it." It was as much as I was ever likely to get of what the experience meant to him, more than he would have given to anyone else, and I understood better than anyone else what the admission had cost him. "I thought there would never be anything that could induce me to stand here again." The smile in his voice when next he spoke brought an answering one to my own lips. "I did not foresee you, however. Your influence over me, Russell, has ever been one of the most dangerous things I have found about you."
"Negligible though it is. Well, I have seen enough," I said, wanting nothing more now than to be somewhere, anywhere else. I stepped away from him. "Shall we go?"
"Indeed." We turned away together from the falls and retraced out steps along the narrow path. I walked beside him in thought-filled silence, considerably chastened; after this I had contemplated going on with him to Montenegro as he had before, to the place where he encountered, loved, and lost Irene Adler.
Montenegro, where his dead son had been conceived.
What madness had possessed me to suggest this to him? How would I have reacted if he proposed we spend our honeymoon visiting the California precipice where my family had died?
"What of the other part of our journey?" I asked quietly. "We were going on from here to a place nearly as significant to you as this."
"For somewhat different reasons." He walked for several minutes in silence, his lips pursed consideringly. "I had not realized, I suppose, that you might be curious about my life before you entered it. So much of it seems to have been laid bare by Watson that I forget sometimes there were things of which he was completely unaware." He paused. "Such as Montenegro."
"But I am not Watson," I remarked.
"So I observed." He shot me an amused glance and then was silent again. "My memories of Montenegro, while possessing their own particular ability to give me pause, are generally of a more...temperate nature than the ones lurking here," he said at last. "I found a measure of contentment there once; perhaps it is a fitting thing after all to return to it with you now. In its own way, what began there also has some significance, for without Montenegro I am not certain I would have been able to recognize in you what I had waited for so long without even knowing that I waited. Montenegro taught me--"
"It happened here, you know." The feminine voice ahead of us brought us up short; two elderly ladies, Americans by their clothes and accents, were standing with their heads bent together over what appeared to be a guidebook. "I'm sure of it. I asked Herr Grunhold where it was and he told me to follow this path and we would come to it." She indicated a spot on what was evidently a map. "He said if we followed this track--" Glancing up to match the map to their location, she noticed us and smiled. " Oh, hello there! Excuse me, do you know this area at all? Perhaps you could help us."
Holmes inclined his head, gracious but remote. "I regret that it has been many years since I was here last, but I am nonetheless somewhat familiar with the region. How may I assist you?"
She approached him, guidebook in hand and her companion in tow. "I was wondering if this is really the Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes fought Professor Moriarty."
The look on Holmes' face was a thing beyond price. I wished I could have told this enthusiastic American tourist that she had done what few others had and truly startled the world's first and most famous private consulting detective into utter speechlessness.
"Well, surely you've heard of it," she went on, mistaking his silence for ignorance. "Everyone thought he was dead for three years, even Dr. Watson. Is this truly the place?" She turned to her friend. "There certainly can't be another like it."
"Indeed." Holmes had found both his voice and his composure. He cleared his throat. "The path we are currently on terminates at the falls. Follow it and you will be there."
"Really?" She glanced past him as if she expected the falls to materialize in front of her. "How wonderful! Thank you so much for your help, Mr.--"
"Sigerson," Holmes supplied easily, ignoring my muffled snort of laughter.
"Mr. Sigerson." She turned to me. "I suppose you'll think I'm horribly foolish, but when I heard our holiday was going to take us to this part of Switzerland, I just had to come out here and see if I could find the place. You see, we've read every one of Dr. Watson's marvelous stories as soon as they appear in McClure's, haven't we Addie? Thrilling, each one of them, so full of danger and mystery and adventure. Imagine how we felt when we read the doctor's account of his friend's death at these very falls." She waved one hand in the general direction of the location mentioned. "We grieved with Dr. Watson, we positively did, to have lost his friend in so horrible and tragic a fashion. And then to discover that Mr. Holmes wasn't dead at all, but hunting Colonel Moran as he had been hunted!" Her sigh was one of undiluted happiness. "You're far too young to remember the stir it all caused, of course, but I imagine your friend Mr. Sigerson--" She glanced about for him. "Oh dear. It looks as if he's gone on without you."
"That's all right." I mastered my amusement. "I know where to find him. Tell me, do you happen to know who he was? Did you recognize him?"
"Why no, should I? Is he someone famous?" She glanced at her companion, who shook her head to indicate she had not recognized him either. "Do tell me, who was he? I could have sworn he said his name was Sigerson--"
"It has been," I agreed, smiling, "but he is perhaps better known by another name."
And, bending close, I whispered it in her unsuspecting ear.