Fic: Exemplar, PG [Holmes/Watson]

Feb 03, 2011 21:39


(Being a rejected draft of part of chapter 2, “Observation: Persons and their Affect”, part of the unfinished magnum opus “The Whole Science of Detection”, discovered amongst the papers of the late Sherlock Holmes)

Author: tweedisgood

Setting: what do you think? ACD all the way, folks.

Word Count: ~4,000

Rating: PG for implications of the case

Holmes/Watson, implied slash unless you have a very pure mind.

Extremely loosely based on a prompt by amymccabe on watsons_woes ”The case has been solved and the kidnapped baby found. Now all Holmes and Watson need to do is return the infant to his mother. With a baby in his arms, Watson reflects on what he could have had if his wife and son didn't die in childbirth. “

My fabulous beta mad_with_july gets the credit for radical but absolutely necessary surgery on this one. Ouch, that hurt. Apologies for any accidental Orientalism, not my intention.


Observation, as applied to criminal investigation, encompasses more than the close inspection of the inanimate - a crime scene, a corpse or a document. It involves the assembly and interpretation of the widest possible range of relevant clues to a given person’s history, habits, recent movements (see Chapter 3: Observation: Persons and their Physical Appearance), and emotional state.

It is vital to include all these elements. Those readers who take too literally Dr. Watson’s heavily fictionalised and selective accounts of this author’s career might suppose I consider the last item irrelevant to the science of detection. Not so: the risk lies in elevating any one aspect above the others, in allowing expressed - or indeed hidden - emotion to prejudice one’s assessment of the rest of the evidence. Just as it is vital to be able to tell from patterns of speech or involuntary movements when someone is concealing all or part of the truth (see Chapter 4: ‘Interviewing Witnesses’) so, too, there are unmistakable physical signs of, say, agitation, remorse or genuine loss which may assist in evaluating a story, a person, and the true relation of one to the other.

I use as an example, indeed an exemplar in this respect, my erstwhile colleague and enduring companion. He is given to strong expressions of emotion and possesses such honesty and openness of character that he may be read like a book. I propose (with his permission) to go through an individual case step by step and demonstrate at each point how his feelings were apparent to me through physical signs.

This case was brought to me in the summer of 1894, some two months after my return to London following a three-year absence. It has not hitherto been committed to print because the client (now deceased), specifically forbade it whilst he lived. Besides, the solution to the crime and apprehension of the culprit was perfectly trivial, featuring no elaborate disguises, midnight cab chases, dropping of famous names, nor any other sensational details beloved of the reading public.

Mr Joshua Hetherington (a pseudonym, although it is possible to identify the case to which I refer, as it was reported in the papers at the time) visited my rooms at Baker Street without appointment one evening. Watson, still having rooms in Kensington at that time, had come at about seven at my invitation to share my supper. Hetherington arrived, taking the stairs two at a time, shortly afterwards.

That Watson was both hungry and out of sorts at the interruption was clear from his momentary glance at the table (laid for a meal) and a vigorous sideways twitch of his moustache: involuntary movements around the mouth may indicate an attempt to forestall speech which guilt or (as in this instance) good manners wish to avoid. He snapped open his notebook rather than merely slipping a finger between the pages to find his place, though once the nature of the enquiry was plain, hunger and annoyance were swiftly forgotten.

It was a straightforward enough, though very urgent, commission. Hetherington’s four-month-old daughter had been snatched in broad daylight from St James’ Park not three hours before. The nurse was distracted by the pretended attentions of a handsome soldier and when she turned back to the perambulator, the infant was gone. She was the fruit of Hetherington’s old age - his only child, and the heir to his considerable fortune. Further enquiries identified the chief beneficiary of her disappearance or death: our client’s younger brother, who before the child’s birth had fully expected to inherit and enjoy a comfortable retirement, despite a life spent drifting from situation to situation, settling at few and prospering at none.

“Whatever I thought of him, blood is blood, Mr Holmes,” said Hetherington. “I would not have disowned him but for Margaret May.” He clasped his hands tightly in front of him as if to hold onto the child now, too late.

All my attention thus far had been centred on gathering sufficient evidence to pursue the case as efficiently as possible. The sudden sharp intake of breath from the good Doctor interrupted my train of thought and I turned to ask him what was surprising about Hetherington’s sentiment. Yet when I did, there was neither the characteristic lift of both brows nor the straightening of posture which betray surprise. His mouth had contracted to a line and his eyes were downcast, an expression associated rather with sorrow or pain.

I noted this fact, but in the presence of our client could not draw Watson out as to its cause. That my friend’s distress troubled me would, I hoped, be evident enough from the way I hurried Hetherington out of the door with assurances that I would certainly find the child and the kidnapper, alive or dead, and returned at once to the sitting room to tend to him.

I had miscalculated. Watson had taken on the livid hue and lowering scowl of the very angry, but sober gentleman (angry working men, or men of any class who are far gone in drink, typically lunge towards one and raise their fists - women rage and scream and paradoxically, may shed tears). He proceeded to berate me in sharp tones and harsh words as insensitive, cold and heartless, for holding before an anxious father the prospect that his little child might be dead. In vain I protested that surely Hetherington must already harbour that dreadful thought in his mind and that speaking of it, or not, could make no difference.

If Watson has any grave fault, it is his stubbornness in holding onto illogical opinions even when he has been shown their folly. Stubbornness is typified by a closed, long faced expression termed with some accuracy ‘mulish’ - for that animal, when crossed, avoids the eye of the muleteer, sets its head to the side and goes its own way, encouragement or punishment equally futile.

As we went out into the streets of London to find first Mr. Caleb Hetherington, my companion had descended into that mood familiar to exasperated parents and longsuffering landladies alike: sulking. The lower lip is thrust out, the chin tucked into the chest and conversation is meagre or absent. In the circumstances it was fortunate that, finding the junior brother at home and in a state so reeking of guilt, fear and remorse that the taint of it all but clung to our clothes as we departed the house with him in tow, we were soon in need of Watson’s excellent aim and staunch military courage. The requirement for some decisive action frequently restores a sulker to a more positive frame of mind.

The ruffians which the younger Hetherington had hired to snatch the child, remove her to the countryside in some distant county and there see that she be brought up in obscurity and never see her real parents again, had hatched a scheme of their own which Watson rightly, and with heat, condemned as “vile”. They meant (my own stomach still turns for thinking of it) to sell her for a high price to a certain house where she would, while still of tender years, be trained to service male customers in ways which the reader may perhaps divine but which I would prefer not to name.

When a man crosses the line between bluster over relatively trivial matters and unfeigned rage, and the rage of justified, righteous anger at that, his face is transformed. It is pale instead of livid; the features are set like stone and the normal sense of self-preservation is set aside in favour of the burning desire to put right wrongs.

The archangel Michael, it is said, is the field commander of the army of light against darkness, good against evil. If an avenging angel can be a mature, yet still strikingly handsome gentleman in a summer suit and brown bowler hat, armed not with flaming sword but an army-issue Enfield Mark I, then the villains were surely blessed with a holy visitation that evening.

Swift, well-placed bullets to the thigh crippled the two men who stood on guard at the outwardly respectable, but utterly corrupt, premises in a smart street in Chelsea. I tied them up tight as the prodigal brother cowered in the corner and whimpered how he would never have dealt with them had he known what sort of men they were. Watson strode over and made to strike him with the butt of his pistol but I judged the wretch better left intact to face a brother’s wrath unmitigated by pity.

“Your other skills are more sorely needed, Doctor. Find the infant and see to her.”

He encountered little resistance as he penetrated the depths of the house; it was a matter of minutes ere he returned with a gurgling bundle in his arms. Laying the child atop a small table in the hallway, he checked her over most tenderly and thoroughly and with a deep sigh of relief (and a visible relaxation of the shoulders) pronounced her sound and unharmed.

I seized Caleb Hetherington by the collar and marched him into the street where I lost no time in summoning a policeman and a four wheeler to take the miscreants away. Our client lived some distance away in Holborn. During the journey there, I watched Watson as he cradled the baby in his arms, talking to her in that peculiar fashion one may observe in parents, grandparents and maiden aunts: adopting a musical lilt, pausing between phrases as if actually conversing with the infant (an irrational fancy, but nevertheless effective) and smiling at it in a charming, if somewhat foolish, manner. Should the need arise in the course of an investigation this, I am reliably informed, serves to reassure and calm babies who are too young to distinguish parent from stranger.

My companion seemed quite practised in the art or at any rate fell into it so naturally that I became conscious of a sudden gap opening up between us. I am a lifelong bachelor and the notion of parenthood is as alien to me as a railway journey would be to a fish. The few children I have known with any regularity (or irregularity, if one may be permitted a private jest) have been street-Arabs far older than their years, hardened by hardship and neglect. I treat them as comrades and agents, not children, as any who know of them by Watson’s reports will understand.

Watson, however, had been married, and quite recently sadly widowed; it occurred to me that he might yet marry again and found a family. From the evidence before me, he would be a devoted father, his children fortunate indeed. So many children are abandoned or become stunted by physical fear or cold silence: there can scarcely be enough good upbringings to compensate. I tried to convey, without words, some dutiful social encouragement of that sort as we rattled along but the axle must have been out of true or the cobbles uneven: all I could summon was a wan smile over the roiling in my guts like seasickness, and I knew all the blood had drained from a face which is already pale enough.

Yet when Watson happened to look up at me from a rapt absorption with his charge, he did not seem to notice any of this. Preoccupation - a condition induced by persistent thoughts, whether pleasant or unpleasant - renders the gaze unfocused, the brows drawn together. The lips move to sound a name or a place, tremble or are drawn in by the top teeth.

“Quite the picture of fatherly solicitude, my dear fellow: perhaps fate is trying to tell you something,” I ventured. I had intended my tone of voice to be warm; instead, it sounded strained and facetious. Pulled from his reverie, Watson stared at me as if only then registering my presence. With a shock, I watched him start to cry - great, welling tears coursing down his face - and saw that he was making a supreme effort, so as not to disturb little Margaret May, to restrain himself from sobbing aloud.

I was at a loss to understand, to help. “Whatever is the matter? Are you hurt? Should I take the child?” At this he clutched her to him more closely, shaking his head, murmuring:

“I’m sorry, Holmes, I’m sorry, I’ll be all right, I’ll be all right soon.”

By the time we drew up to Hetherington’s town house, Watson’s tears had dried, yet to my eyes he appeared so very far from ‘all right’ that I rested a hand on his shoulder to guide him to the front door and left it there as we were admitted to general rejoicing. ‘Stricken’ was the only word for his state - wounded indeed, but in spirit rather than flesh.

The nurse had to exert a little polite force, I noticed, to induce the Doctor to let her take the baby from his arms and off to the nursery to reunite her with a happy mother. He dropped like a lead weight into a chair as I was surrounded by the household’s congratulatory greetings and I had to all but fight them off to reach him. I manhandled him out of the house, away from the frank curiosity of the servants, signing to Hetherington my acknowledgement of his thanks, the waiver of any professional fee and my wishes for long life, health and happiness for all, with a single motion of my cane.

Watson I took to a small public house of my acquaintance that lies off Lamb’s Conduit Street and sat him in front of a glass of porter in a secluded corner. At this late hour we were the only customers.

Grief shows itself in an affect that is flat and stale as often as it is sharp and fresh, producing a blank exhaustion rather than contorting the features in an outward display of loss. Watson sipped listlessly at his drink and stared unseeing into the middle distance, into his past.

“If she’d had another name, I could have stood it, I think,” he said, low and quiet, and in that moment I understood.


“My daughter? Last year, September. We had been disappointed before and she was born early and never thrived. Mary lost all heart afterwards. She stopped fighting her own illness - not that fighting would have saved her, any more than medicine, or a change of air or any of the hundred false promises we doctors” - he all but spat the word - “make once consumption takes hold. By Christmas it was all over.”

I had heard from another of the second loss, but had never invited Watson to speak of it, never for an instant considered there might be more. I had grasped at the fresh blank slate presented me, as if Miss Mary Morstan, that is, Mrs. Watson, had simply been scrubbed clean off, and all that was written on it from now on should be my name and my deeds alone.

“I have been a poor friend, I fear,” I began. Watson did not attempt to contradict me. The enormity of my self-centeredness abruptly slapped me hard in the face; I felt my face grow warm as if from a real blow. We sat in silence for some time.

“You must think me unmanly to weep so over another man’s child, over my own after all this time,” Watson ventured at last.

“On the contrary, I should think you unmanly not to do so. ‘Positively inhuman’, even.” The deliberate echo of his taunt at my disdain for emotion as the enemy of reason, conjured a fleeting smile, but true grief is not so easily diverted, particularly when it is a stream with many sources.

“Yet you would say, and truly, that it cannot alter the facts: Margaret and Mary cannot return to me, even if I wept an ocean for them. Nature would not allow it to be otherwise.” He looked at me over the rim of his glass as he drained it to the dregs. His eyes were leaden and unyielding, his mouth a grim twist around the lip of the vessel. An arrow of accusation flew across the table to lodge itself in my breast.

“Three years ago at Reichenbach, I wept for you, too; I know now, you watched me as I did it. Tears could not bring you back either, although nature had no hand in that.”

“You might have saved your tears, dear boy. I fear you wasted them on an unworthy object.”

Irritation that I egotistically presumed, still, to better judgement, might even have been covertly fishing for praise, turned his reply gruff and curt.

“They were my tears. The estimate of worth was likewise mine to make. The day you unbend so far as to weep, Holmes - which I fully believe shall not be this side of Judgement Day - you may be sure, I will do you the favour of allowing you to weigh the magnitude of your own loss.”

I owed him this debt: to strip the skin from over it and lay my heart before him, or at least - not one whit the easier task - to speak a truth I had always before cut down ere it grew to sprout words.

“There is, near the end of the Great Silk Road, close by the way into Tibet, a range of mountains called by its inhabitants Bam-i-Duniah, the Roof of the World. The Alps are dwarves beside them. In a goatherd’s hovel under the first snows of winter, beside a brazier that scorched the paper as I unfolded it: that was the first time I sat down to write to you. I could convey the adventure of my escape, of my travels since, like one of the heroes of your yellow-backed novels. I thought of you reading it by your own fireside, Reichenbach long put behind you, smiling at your wife and asking: ‘can you believe, my dear, what Holmes has done now?’ and I tossed the paper into the fire.

“The second time, I was in a monastery in Lhasa, months later. The followers of Buddha seek there a peace that begins when a man is honest with himself and others. I intended to beg your pardon for deceiving you; pray that, by the grace of whatever Providence arranged our first meeting in the lab at Barts, we should meet again, one day when it was safe. Then from time to time, as you were free, you might care to take some interest in my work again. I would wish you joy in your happy English home, and not reach for the morocco case to fill the silence between the sounds of your footstep on the stair. Honesty and peace? Rumours I had heard once. I made a calligraphic of my own name on the square of cloth they gave me for paper and tied it to a line of votive flags to be flayed by the wind.

“The third time was in Persia, perhaps eighteen months ago. I lay recovering in a room of the great caravanserai at Keraj, having fallen very ill on the journey; by the time we could rest my life was nearly despaired of. A doctor of herbs tended me. He was Russian by birth, a fair European Russian, but had adopted the local faith and manners. As for me, I had nearly forgotten what it was to wear trousers, to speak my own tongue, to lift a sash window on a London fog; to be anything other than the part I must play to perfection if I was to reach Mecca.

“He knew I was not a Moslem once his servants had stripped me for bathing, but he did not remark upon it nor permit them to betray me. It was of quite another disguise that he wished to rid me. He told me he could well see how long I had worn it, and why, but that I could never be whole all the while I clung to it, and if I valued reason as much as I claimed, I had better face an evident fact about my own nature and a manifest truth about the last ten years of my life.

“I asked for pen and ink and began, actually began to put down words, my hand racing over the page as if it belonged to another, as if my disguise was the truth after all. When I saw what I had done, what words were there - stiff with self-pity and wretched with longing for you whom I had deserted - I tore it to panicked shreds. To face squarely what I wanted, had once wanted for myself was one thing; I could never let you see it. For you to know after so long that I was alive, but that it was thus with me: I had rather you supposed me dead.

“It was then I wept, over the ruins of that last letter: for what had been, for what might have been, for what I could not write to you and had never said. There was no-one to marvel or to scoff at my tears, no-one who knew me even the merest fraction well enough to say: ‘Sherlock Holmes would do, or not do, this, would be glad or in torment, would want something or nothing.’”

To estimate which predominates amongst mixed emotions in a conflicted soul is no simple calculation. For a moment, Watson seemed just as likely to assault me, embrace me, or check my forehead for fever. Then he reached out and laid his hand in mine where it rested palm up on the table: mute, seeking, begging. His expression was stern but kind, and his eyes were the colour of an English sky in summer, on a day five years before which he will not remember and I will not forget.

“And there you left it, did you? For another year and more. Holmes, I do believe that your abysmal failure to deduce my likely feelings on the subject of which you speak in such an infernally roundabout way, should top any fresh list I might care to make of your limitations. Margaret and Mary I have dreamed of, often: I do not imagine or wish that will stop. You - you defy all dreaming. You are a great portfolio of facts from queer to sublime. You might have credited me with being able to grasp one or more of those facts. In short, you might have asked me what I felt, and then I might have told you. If we go back to Baker Street tonight, I might still. Come along,” and he tugged on my sleeve until I rose and followed him home.

Editorial note:
The ms breaks off here. It was found with other rejected material, the pages scored across with long, decisive penstrokes. Written in the margin of the final page in a different hand was the following “Holmes: what is this? The egregious, indeed dangerous, personal digression beginning at page six renders this quite unfit for inclusion in a textbook. I leave aside the whole matter of your tactless exposure of my personal pain, however long ago it was and however accurate your observations, agreement to which I most certainly would NOT have given. This will have to be done again. “

sherlock holmes, fic

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