Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus -- his three-year absence after Reichenbach Falls during which time the people of London believe him to be deceased. Holmes has faked his own death because, through his powers of ratiocination, the great detective has come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character.
This leads to serious complications for James -- for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely a work of fiction, what does that make him? And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power -- possibly named Moriarty -- that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows?
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The Fifth Heart
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Dan Simmons
All rights reserved.
In the rainy March of 1893, for reasons that no one understands (primarily because no one besides us is aware of this story), the London-based American author Henry James decided to spend his April 15 birthday in Paris and there, on or before his birthday, commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine at night.
I can tell you that James was deeply depressed that spring, but I can't tell you for a certainty why he was so depressed. Of course there had been the death in England, from breast cancer, of his sister Alice a year earlier on March 6, 1892, but Alice had been a professional invalid for decades and had welcomed the diagnosis of cancer. Death, she'd told her brother Henry, was the event to which she'd always been anticipating with the greatest enthusiasm. At least in his letters to family and friends, Henry had seemed to support her in her eagerness for an ending, down to describing how lovely her corpse had looked.
Perhaps this unchronicled depression in James was augmented by the problem of his work not selling well over the immediately preceding years: his 1886 novels The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, both influenced by Alice's slow dying and her Boston-marriage relationship with Katharine Loring, had been a major sales disappointment for all concerned, both in America and England. So by 1890 James had turned his quest for riches toward writing for the theater. Although his first melodramatic stage offering, The American, had done only moderately well, and that only in the provinces rather than in London, he'd convinced himself that the theater would turn out to be his ultimate pot of writer's gold. But already by early 1893, he was beginning to sense that this hope was both illusion and self-delusion. Just as Hollywood would beckon literary writers to their doom for more than a century to come, the English theater in the 1890's was sucking in men of letters who — like Henry James — really had no clue as to how to write a successful stage production for a popular audience.
Most biographers would understand this sudden, deep depression better if it were early spring of 1895 rather than March of 1893, since his first major London play, Guy Domville, two years hence will see him jeered and booed when he foolishly will step onto the stage to take his author's bow. Most of the paying spectators in the hall, as opposed to the many glittering ladies and gentlemen in attendance to whom James sent complimentary tickets, will have never read a novel by Henry James, most will not know he had written novels, and thus they will boo and jeer the play based on its merits alone. And Guy Domville will be a bad, bad play.
Even a year from now, after January of 1894 when his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson will throw herself to her death from a high window in Venice (possibly, some shall whisper, because Henry James had not come to stay near or with her in Venice as he'd promised), we know he will have to fight off a terrible depression tinged with real guilt.
By the end of 1909, the elderly James will fall into his deepest- depression yet — one so deep that his older (and dying from a heart condition) brother William will cross the Atlantic to literally hold Henry's hand in London. In those years, Henry James will be mourning the "disastrously low sales" and lack of profit from his 1906–1908 "New York Edition" of his works, an exhausting project to which he'd donated five years of his life rewriting the long novels and providing lengthy introductions to each piece.
But that final depression was sixteen years in our future in this March of 1893. We have no real clue as to why James was so terribly depressed that spring. Nor why he suddenly decided that suicide in Paris was his only answer.
One factor may have been the severe attack of the gout that James had suffered that cold English winter of 1892–93, cutting down on his daily walks and causing him to put on more weight. Or it could have been the simple fact that his upcoming birthday in April was his 50th: a landmark that has brought depression to stronger men than the sensitive Henry James.
We'll never know.
But we do know that the reality of that depression — and his plan for self-annihilation by drowning in the Seine on or before his April 15 birthday — is where this story begins. So, in mid-March, 1893, Henry James (he'd dropped the "Jr." sometime after his father died in 1882) wrote from London to family and friends saying that he was "taking a short leave from the daily duties of composition to celebrate spring and my own mid-century anniversary in sunlit Paris before joining my brother William and his family in Florence later in April". James had no intention of ever going to Florence.
Carrying some of his sister Alice's purloined ashes in a snuffbox, James left his tidied-up apartments in De Vere Gardens, burned some letters from Miss Woolson and from a few younger male friends, took the boat-train to Cherbourg, and arrived in the City of Light the next evening on a day darker and wetter and colder than any he'd suffered that March in chilly London.
There he settled into the Westminster Hotel on the Rue de la Paix where he'd once stayed for a month when he was writing several stories in Paris, including a favorite of his, "The Pupil". But this time, "settled in" was not the correct phrase. He had no intention of spending the weeks there until his birthday. Besides, the fares at the Westminster were too extravagant for his current budget. He did not even unpack his steamer trunk. He did not plan to spend a second night there. Or, he decided on a whim, a second full night anywhere on this earth.
After a wet, cold day walking in the Jardin de Tuileries and a dismal, lonely dinner — given his resolve, he'd made no effort to contact any of his Parisian friends or other acquaintances who might have been passing through Paris — Henry James drank a final glass of wine, tugged on his woolen overcoat, made sure that the sealed snuffbox was still in his pocket, and, with the bronze tip of his still-folded umbrella tapping on wet cobblestones, set off in the drizzle and darkness for his chosen final destination near Pont Neuf. Even at his portly gentleman's gait it was less than a ten-minute walk.
The ultimate man of the written word left no note behind.CHAPTER 2
The place James had chosen from which to leave this life was on the north side of the river less than sixty yards from the broad, well-lighted bridge of le Pont Neuf, but it was dark there below the bridge, even darker on the promontory along the lowest level of walkways where the black, cold waters of the Seine swirled around the base of moss-darkened stone. Even in the daylight, this promontory was little used. Prostitutes, James knew, sometimes frequented the place at night, but not on a cold and drizzling March night such as this; tonight they stayed close to their hotels in Pigalle or stalked their furtive patrons in the narrow lanes on either side of the glowing Boulevard Saint Germain.
By the time James had umbrella-clacked his way to the narrow esplanade promontory that he'd picked out in the daylight — it had been just as he'd remembered it from earlier trips to Paris — he could no longer see to find his way. Distant street lamps across the Seine were ornamented with ironic halos by the rain. The barges and water taxis were few this night. James found his way down the final steps to the esplanade more by feel than by sight and tapped his way slowly beyond them like a blind man with a cane. Somewhere seemingly very far above, the usually distinctly pronounced sounds of carriage wheels and horses' hooves were muffled and made more distant, almost less real, by the worsening rain and deeply puddled thoroughfares.
James could sense and hear and smell the river's imminence rather than see it in the near-total darkness. Only the rather shocking emptiness of the point of his umbrella suddenly finding empty space ahead brought him to a stop at the edge of what he knew to be the short, curved promontory. There were no steps going down to the river here, he knew: only a six- or seven-foot drop to the swirling black waters. The Seine ran fast and deep and wicked here. Now he could take one step forward into emptiness and it would be done.
James removed the small snuffbox from his inner pocket and stood running his fingers across it for a moment. The motion made him remember a squib in The Times the previous year that claimed that the Eskimaux of the Arctic made no artwork to view, but shaped certain smooth stones to enjoy by touch during their many months of northern night. This thought made James smile. He felt he had spent enough of his own months in the northern night.
When he'd purloined a few pinches of his sister's ashes the previous year — Katharine Loring waiting just outside the door at the crematorium where she'd come to claim the urn she would take back to Cambridge and the James's corner of the cemetery there — it had been with the sincere plan of spreading them at the place his younger sister had been most happy. But as the months passed, James had realized the impossibility of that idiot's mission. Where? He remembered her brittle happiness when they were both much younger and had traveled in Switzerland with their Aunt Kate, a lady as literal as Hamlet's by-the-card Grave Digger. Alice's already pronounced penchant for hysterical illnesses had receded somewhat during those weeks free from her larger family and American home — and his first thought for his fiftieth birthday was to travel to Geneva and spread her ashes where he and she had laughed and matched wits, with poor Aunt Kate understanding none of their ironic wordplay, happily teasing each other and Aunt Kate as they walked the formal gardens and lakeside promenades.
But, in the end, Geneva did not feel right to James. Alice had been play-acting her "recovery" from her destined life of invalidism during that trip, just as he had been play-acting his collusion with her brittle high spirits.
The point of land near Newport, then, where she'd built her little house and lived in apparent health and happiness for a year or so.
No. That had been her early days with Miss Loring and, James felt more grimly in every month that had passed since Alice's death, Miss Katharine P. Loring had had enough time and way with his sister. Not Newport.
So in the end he could think of no place to spread these few pitiful ashes where Alice had truly been happy. Perhaps she had glimpsed happiness, never really seized it, only during those months or years in Newport and then Cambridge, before what she called that "terrible summer" when her oldest brother William and Alice Gibbens were married on July 10, 1878. For years William, her father, her brother Harry, brothers Bob and Wilkie, and an endless succession of visitors to their homes had kept up the joke that William would marry her — Alice James. Alice had always acted irritated at the running joke, but now — after her years of self-imposed invalidism and death — Henry James realized that she'd begun to believe in that marriage to William and had been all but destroyed when he married someone else. And someone else named, with cruel irony, Alice.
As she'd once put it to Henry James, that summer of William's marriage had been when she "went down to the deep sea, and the dark waves clouded over her."
So now, this night, this final night, James decided that he would merely hold tight to the snuffbox with its remnants of Alice's ashes as he stepped forward and fell into the black water and oblivion. To do this, he knew, he would have to shut his author's imagination down: no wondering in the second it will take to step forward as to whether the water will be freezing cold or whether, as the filthy water of the Seine began to fill his lungs, his atavistic urge for survival would cause him to thrash around, try to swim to the unclimbable mossy stone of the promontory.
No, he had to think of nothing but leaving his pain behind. Empty his mind of everything — always the hardest thing he'd ever tried to do.
James moved one foot forward, beyond the edge.
And suddenly realized that a dark shape he'd taken for a post was really the outline of a man standing not two feet from him. Seeing the dim outline of the soft hat pulled low and the silent figure's aquiline profile half-hidden by the turned-up collar of a traveler's cape-coat, James could now hear the man's soft breathing.
* * *
With a stifled gasp, James took two clumsy steps backward and to the side.
"Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur. Je ne t'ai pas vu là-bas," he managed to say. It was the truth. He hadn't seen the man standing there.
"You're English," said the tall form. The man's English had a Scandinavian accent. Swedish? Norwegian? James was not sure which.
"Yes." James turned to go back up the steps and away from this spot.
At that moment a rare — for the season — Bateaux Mouches, part water taxi steamer, part tour-boat — passed by and by the sudden light from the boat's starboard lanterns, James could clearly see the tall man's face.
"Mr. Holmes," he said almost involuntarily. In his surprise he stepped backward toward the river, his left heel went over the edge, and he would have ended up in the water after all if the tall man's right arm hadn't shot out with lightning speed. Long fingers grasped James's coat front in an amazingly firm grip and with one jerk the man pulled Henry James back onto the promontory.
Back to his life.
"What name did you just call me by?" asked the man, still tightly gripping James's coat front. The Scandinavian accent was gone now. The voice was distinctly upper-class British and nothing else.
"I am sorry," stammered James. "I must have been mistaken. I apologize for intruding upon your solitude here." At that second, Henry James not only knew the identity of the tall man — despite blacker hair than when he'd met him four years earlier, fuller hair somehow, now raised to odd spikes rather than slicked back, and a thick mustache that had been lacking four years ago, combined with a nose slightly altered with actor's putty or somesuch — but also knew that the man had been on the verge of throwing himself into the Seine when James had interrupted him with his arrival in the darkness announced by the tap-tap-tap of his ferule.
Henry James felt the fool at that moment, but he was a man on whom nothing was ever lost. Once he'd seen a face and learned its name, he never forgot.
He tried to move away, but the powerful fingers still gripped the front of his coat.
"What name did you call me by?" demanded the man again. His tone was as chill as iron in winter.
"I thought you were a man I'd met named Sherlock Holmes," gasped James, wanting only to get away, wanting only to be back in his bed in the comfortable hotel on the Rue de la Paix.
"Where did we meet?" demanded the man. "Who are you?"
James answered only the second part. "My name is Henry James." In his sudden panic, he'd almost added the long-abandoned "Jr."
"James," said Mr. Sherlock Holmes. "The younger brother of the great psychologist William James. You are the American scribbler who lives in London much of the time."
Even in his intense discomfort of being held and touched by another man, James felt an even stronger resentment at being identified as being the younger brother of the "great" William James. His older brother had not even been known, outside of small, tight Harvard circles, until he'd published his The Principles of Psychology three years earlier in 1890. The book, for reasons somewhat lost on Henry, had catapulted William to international fame among intellectuals and other students of the human mind.
"Please be so kind as to release me at once," said James in as stern a tone as he could muster. His outrage at being handled made him forget that Holmes — he was certain it was Sherlock Holmes — had just saved his life. Or perhaps that salvation was another mark against this hawk-nosed Englishman.
"Tell me when we met and I shall," said Holmes, still gripping the front of James's overcoat. "My name is Jan Sigerson. I am a Norwegian explorer of some renown."
Excerpted from The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons. Copyright © 2015 Dan Simmons. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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