The alarming dip of the cab caused the horse to snort and veer sharply, and a startled, moustachioed face appeared behind the cracked glass of the side window, scowling at me. Holmes redirected his tongue’s wrath from the prostitute to the horse and, in the best tradition of London cabbies, cursed the animal soundly, imaginatively, and without a single manifest obscenity. He also more usefully snapped the horse’s head back with one clean jerk on the reins, returning its attention to the job at hand, while continuing to pull me up and shooting a parting volley of affectionate and remarkably familiar remarks at the fading Annalisa. Holmes did so like to immerse himself fully in his roles, I reflected as I wedged myself into the one-person seat already occupied by the man and his garments.
“Good evening, Holmes,” I greeted him politely.
“Good morning, Russell,” he corrected me, and shook the horse back into a trot.
“Are you on a job, Holmes?” I had known as soon as his arm reached down for me that if case it were, it did not involve the current passengers, or he should merely have waved me off.
“My dear Russell, those Americanisms of yours,” he tut-tutted. “How they do grate on the ear. ‘On a job.’ No, I am not occupied with a case, Russell, merely working at the maintenance of old skills.”
“And are you having fun?”
“‘Having fun’?” He pronounced the words with fastidious distaste and looked at me askance.
“Very well; Are you enjoying yourself?”
He raised one eyebrow at my clothes before turning back to the reins.
“I might ask the same of you, Russell.”
“Yes,” I replied. “As a matter of fact, I am enjoying myself, Holmes, very much, thank you.” And I sat back as best I could to do so.
Traffic even in the middle of London tends to die down considerably by the close of what Christians mistakenly call the Sabbath, and the streets were about as quiet now as they ever were. It was very pleasant being jolted about in a swaying seat eight feet above the insalubrious cobblestones, next to my one true friend, through the ill lit streets that echoed the horse’s hoofs and the grind of the wheels, on a night cold enough to kill the smells and keep the fog at bay, but not cold enough to damage exposed flesh and fingertips. I glanced down at my companion’s begrimed fingers where they were poised, testing the heavy leather for signs of misbehaviour from the still-fractious beast with the same sensitivity they exhibited in all their activities, from delicate chemical experiments to the tactile exploration of a clue. I was struck by a thought.
“Holmes, do you find that the cold on a clear night exacerbates your rheumatism as much as the cold of a foggy night?”
He fixed me with a dubious eye, then turned back to the job, lips no doubt pursed beneath the scarves. It was, I realised belatedly, an unconventional opening for a conversation, but surely Holmes, of all people, could not object to the eccentric.
“Russell,” he said finally, “it is very good of you to have come up from Sussex and stood on cold street corners for half the night striking up inappropriate friendships and flirting with pneumonia in order to enquire after my health, but perhaps having found me, you might proceed with your intended purpose.”
“I had no purpose,” I protested, stung. “I finished my paper more quickly than I’d thought, felt like spending the rest of the day with you rather than listening to my relations shrieking and moaning downstairs, and, when I found you missing, decided on a whim to follow you here and see if I might track you down. It was merely a whim,” I repeated firmly. Perhaps too firmly. I hastened to change the subject. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Driving a cab,” he said in a voice that told me that he was neither distracted nor deceived. “Go on, Russell, you may as well ask your question; you’ve spent seven hours in getting here. Or perhaps I ought to say, six years?”
“What on earth are you talking about?” I was very cross at the threat of having my nice evening spoilt by his sardonic, all-knowing air, though God knows, I should have been used to it by then. “I am having a holiday from the holidays. I am relaxing, following the enforced merriment of the last week. An amusing diversion, Holmes, nothing else. At least it was, until your suspicious mind let fly with its sneering intimations of omniscience. Really, Holmes, you can be very irritating at times. ”
He seemed not in the least put out by my ruffled feathers, and he arched his eyebrow and glanced sideways at me to let me know it. I put up my chin and looked in the other direction.
“So you did not ‘track me down,’ as you put it, for any express purpose, other than as an exercise in tracking?”
“And for the pleasurable exercise of freedom, yes.”
“You are lying, Russell.”
“Holmes, this is intolerable. If you wish to be rid of me, all you need do is slow down and let me jump off. You needn’t be offensive to me. I’ll go.”
“Russell, Russell,” he chided, and shook his head.
“Damn it, Holmes, what can you imagine was so urgent that I should come all the way here in order to confront you with it immediately? Which, you may have noticed, I have not done?”
“A question you finally nerved yourself up to ask, and the momentum carried you along,” he answered coolly.
“And what question might that be?” I did leave myself right open for it, but once launched in a path, it is difficult to change direction.
“I expect you came to ask me to marry you.”
I nearly fell off the back of the cab.