Fic: "Found", Sherlock Holmes ACD Canon, Holmes/Watson, [NC-17] Pt 1

Aug 12, 2011 23:36

Title: "Found"
Author: tweedisgood
’Verse ACD canon
Summary: A sequel to: Miss Fatima’s School of the Orient. It is August 1914. As the world Holmes and Watson knew is about to be lost, some things are about to be found.
Pairing: Holmes/Watson
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: ~11,300.
Disclaimer: Not mine, rented by the day from the public domain and cleaned carefully after use.
Notes: Special beta thanks to mad_with_july. I have borrowed one detail from the BBC Radio/Bert Coules version of LAST. Unlike Watson, I have no systematic knowledge of anatomy so if you do, please close your eyes at that point. I expect Holmes did ;-)



On the last morning before the Great Conflagration of Europe, I (once more) found myself across a breakfast table from Sherlock Holmes. It was the first time in...good God, nearly five years that I had sat thus, watching him divide his attention between a scrap of bacon barely enough to challenge a knife and fork, and the farthest reaches of the Daily Chronicle.

I have written elsewhere of Holmes’ triumph over the German Von Bork, master agent and master of agents, the fruit of two years of painstaking work and personal sacrifice - adventures more fitted to the pen of Mr Buchan than mine. For those two years, he had disappeared from the world that knew him. To my regret and I must confess puzzlement, even hurt - though I never pressed, I would not make a chain of our friendship, would have him free to give only what he freely would - he had all but disappeared from my life long before that.

Oh, certainly he wrote, when the fancy took him, his letters often wrapped around a jar of honey packed in a straw-lined crate as if it were vintage Champagne - letters our cook more than once had to steam away from the sticky glass. But the invitations to stay in Sussex which we had heartily assured ourselves would come often and be instantly accepted, that day we parted at Victoria Station, had in fact been few. When I did go, he was decidedly odd company. He would flit from one topic of conversation to another, laugh too loudly, watch me constantly out of the corner of his eye but never so much as brush against my arm if he could help it. If he was ‘retired’, there seemed little ease in it. When he rolled up his sleeves to fetch more coal one frigid afternoon, I went so far as to scan his forearm surreptitiously for fresh puncture marks. He caught me, and with a ferocious scowl brandished the limb with its galaxy of ghostly, silvered scars under my nose before stalking off to “check on my hives”.

We two did not fit, any more. Once we had rubbed along together, our life a familiar, if unlikely, contraption that, for all its occasional huffing and puffing, halts and backfires, never failed to take us up and set us down again exactly where we ought to be, more or less in one piece. Now all was growing silence, fractured by the grating sound of an engine that, for all our efforts, refused to come coughing back to life. I came to think that perhaps our friendship simply could not survive the want of danger and adventure.

He would not even allow me to attend to his beestings.

Gradually, already infrequent invitations began to peter out. Eventually there was one to which I did not make the time to reply before the appointed date. After that, there were no more. I had had reasons, of course, of course: I was busy, I had my practice, my wife was...well, matters there were as I later knew them to be.

It amuses me to write this down as if for publication, as if its ultimate destination is not the fire. Before that, I will offer it as my own personal sacrifice on the altar of my own personal household god, food for his tender malice and offhand wit - he twitting me for my romantic pen, I not-so-secretly glorying in it and, always and inevitably , in him, its chief subject.

So, oh revered reader, this story concerns the former consulting detective and doubtless eminent apiarist Sherlock Holmes, and a woman: several women, in fact, a whole household of the dear creatures. Bear up, old fellow. I can see you squirming in your chair as you read and remember. You may think me cruel to rehearse your suffering - because you have suffered, and more than mere embarrassment. I do not forget that, as you do not forget. Yet remember, too, what things are clear to me now that never were before this case, what things have changed, and all to wondrousness. So you may, I trust, forgive.

The paper that morning, the third of August, 1914, was full of war and rumours of war. But Holmes passed over all that (“the inevitable is not one quarter so interesting as a near miss”) and sprang instead upon a seeming trifle in the ‘Personal’ advertisements.

“Found,” he declaimed, “in the gentlemen’s public convenience, High Street, Camden Town, a cast iron knife, a full set of ladies’ mourning dress with hairpiece and boots, and an unused First Class train ticket to Liverpool, Return. Any person who can show just claim to these items and, furthermore, explain to a fascinated finder why they were bundled together in a torn carpet bag, may claim them at the Athena Settlement, Albert Street, Camden Town. Ask for Miss McRae.”

He regarded me over the top of the page, direct and mischievous invitation winning out over a hesitancy that had hung about him still, even while we lunched at Harwich and lingered on the terrace by the sea as if five years were only a longish wait on a street corner for a cab back to Baker Street.

“Shall we? “

My feet hastened to obey him before my head reminded me of a dozen reasons why I should not. There was no longer any Baker Street, for a start, not for us. The whole house had been sold in ’05 and Mrs Hudson departed for Ramsgate. We were breakfasting (indeed staying) at my club for I, too, no longer counted London as home. I had intended to report today to the Army Medical Corps for instructions, even a posting. The military hospitals, if war came - when it came - would all too soon swell like leeches, gorging on young men’s blood. I might be useful there, more useful than as Sherlock Holmes’ sounding board and advertising copywriter. The Altamont deception had been his work alone. I was the gun-dog or the ghillie, merely picking up the pheasant he had plucked so expertly from the sky.

Holmes had not needed me two years ago or yesterday: did not need me now - for this trivium, this ‘whimsical little incident’. But yesterday - today - he wanted me to come.
There was only one answer possible for my heart.

Holmes took it into his head that we should make our way to Camden by way of the Metropolitan and Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead underground railways, though it was no real distance, perhaps thirty minutes’ brisk walk at street level. London, his London had changed so much in only a few years, and he wanted to see, to understand it all. Electric traction and internal combustion were racing ahead of steam and horsepower. Grand new buildings and sweeping avenues had torn through ancient, twisting streets and crumbling courtyards in a cloud of brick dust and Portland cement. As we hung onto our ceiling straps, standing in the swaying, crowded carriage as it slipped in and out of the darkness, I heard the future march above us, not just to war but ultimately onward into the territory of the last enemy, the one that waits for us all.

Black thoughts for an adventure, you might think. But there were few bright ones that summer. Hope fled, love dead, home no more than a word: the humiliation of seeing my young wife and my even younger partner, carried away by a passion I could not even simulate, so wedded was I to careful respectability - had, in strictest truth, always been more faithful to it than to her. Blame: what is the use of casting about for blame?

I had said not a word aloud but could not, of course, hope to hide my troubles from Holmes. He had ever professed disdain for the outward show of emotion, and more so for the idiocies those in its power were likely to commit. Yet his powers of observation remained quite as able to diagnose melancholy in a companion as they had in times past been to pick out hesitation, mendacity and fear in a suspect. Although, one might perhaps with some justice observe that the searchlight seemed to dim perceptibly, when there was a risk that it might be turned upon himself.

Come, my dear, you can scarcely deny it.

If I was ‘the same blithe boy”, then he was the fascinating, mercurial magician of old and I his eager audience. Gone now was the hesitation and distance of those strained Sussex weekends. It might have been 1895 again, save that there were new trades for Holmes to assign, sotto voce, to fellow-passengers who were not even born then: “torn fingernails, a whiff of petroleum spirit and saddle soap, a put-upon air: apprentice motor mechanic; green paint of a most particular hue rubbed into sleeves at both elbows, poor quality suit pressed with an amount of care bordering on desperation: clerk at a labour exchange” - it appeared he had not been entirely the country hermit of report.

We alighted at Camden Town Station, a veritable palace finished in glossy tile: anthracite and ivory within, oxblood without. Close by was the public convenience made mention of in the paper. Holmes carried out his usual meticulous inspection of the scene, albeit with a hand held over his nose, then beckoned me southward towards Albert Street.

Elegant rows of stuccoed townhouses lined both sides of the thoroughfare. I could imagine few locales less likely to contain any kind of ‘settlement’ , a term I associated with earnest ventures to replace gin palaces in the slums with temperance tea rooms or to teach street urchins to beat each other senseless according to Queensberry Rules rather than with chair-legs. Nevertheless, on the corner with Mornington Street there it was, boldly proclaiming its title in bold blue letters on a bottle green board in the tiny front garden: “ATHENA SETTLEMENT FOR YOUNG WOMEN; prop. Miss L McRae.”

A pert, curly-haired maid of tender years admitted us. What had been the hall of an ordinary dwelling house had been transformed into something like a hotel lobby. There were pigeonholes for letters and messages, a board with hooks for keys, which like the post shelves bore names not numbers, and a stable door arrangement in place of the entrance to what had been a drawing room. The top half of the door was fastened back; in the corner of the simply furnished office beyond, sat a woman at a typewriter. A tin ashtray with three crushed cigarette stubs lay on the desk beside her. I tapped my palm on the swell of a domed brass bell.

I pride myself, even in my old age, at having an eye for handsome looks, male or female. At first she barely showed her face, so fixed was she on making her way across the room, swaying as she walked, stooping low over a stout cane and cursing under her breath in most unwomanly language from the pain of it. But when she reached the counter and enquired of us in rather more polished terms how she might help, I was saw that Miss McRae might no longer be in the first flush of youth, but neither time nor her chronic illness had much diminished the really notable beauty she possessed. Wide brown eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a complexion of milk and peaches were framed by the startling style (to me, and then; it has become all but de rigueur for young women as I write this) of her fair hair - short as a schoolgirl’s, cut close to her nape at the back under the simplest of hats. Her dress was plain but perfectly tailored. She wore no rings, nor ornament of any kind.

I looked for Holmes to answer her. Then I looked again, and more closely. For all my practice at turning a telling phrase, I still find myself hard pressed to describe his expression at that moment. If I might take refuge in the language of the chemist - his language rather than mine - it was two parts recognition to three of utter disbelief, with a grain or two of ruthlessly suppressed panic for a catalyst, and the resulting reaction made me step back a pace. Before I could ask about it, iron control was restored and he reverted to the same smooth,mirror-surface charm, all reflection and impermeability, which I had long observed him employ in his dealings with women.

If you had ever, ever told me of your prior meeting with this particular woman without being forced into it, would you have missed out that small fact of her lovely face, Holmes? I often wonder.

“We were intrigued, Miss McRae...” - was it my imagination, or did he say her name uncertainly, as if reading a worn luggage label? - “by your advertisement in this morning’s paper. We cannot either of us claim it belongs to us, but it may be that I could shed some light on the peculiar circumstances by which those disparate items came to lie together in that carpet bag, and so aid you in locating the true owner?”

“You, sir? And why might that be?” Though he had without a doubt recognised her, there was no hint that she knew who Holmes was, or even remembered his face from their previous encounter There seemed scant harm in my introducing him - with what I have heard him call “a certain proprietorial flourish, as though I were the star act in a circus, John, and you the ringmaster”.

She knew the name, at any rate, and if she was not so inclined to awe as I (and he) might have liked, well, times had changed. She hobbled over to fetch the carpet bag, impatiently waving away my offer of help.

“And I’ve had quite enough of doctors, before you offer to look at my injury, thank you.” She must have noticed me watching her, speculating from old habit where the break or diseased bone must be that twisted her right leg so out of true. “I fell from a low wire trying to skip on it with a rope of pearls and smashed the thigh-bone six years back. They set it as well as they could, which wasn’t all that well , truth to tell, but here I still am, and grateful enough for that.”

“You trod the boards?”

“One person may have many lives, Dr Watson. One we may lose or have taken from us; yet another, perhaps, merely no longer fits.” She smiled, more to herself than to me. Not a sly smile, a tired one yet content, as far as any of us may be truly content in this world. She seemed a woman quite sufficient unto herself, to each day and to the troubles thereof.

Holmes, meanwhile, had taken the bag and studied it from every angle. From somewhere he had produced his old glass and passed it over every inch of the fabric and the clasp. Now deep into his inspection of the contents, he had apparently forgotten we were there. When Miss McRae leaned at his shoulder to ask after his progress, with a mild comment that perhaps he might care to leave enough space on the hall floor for residents to pass, he started violently and then, covering nervous haste with decisiveness, snatched up the whole cargo in his long, thin arms.

“There is such a thing as a dining room in this establishment, I suppose?” He addressed not our hostess - our client, for now - but the far end of the hallway where a green baize door led, just as he had divined, to a small room furnished with trestles and benches and made more cheerful, for but little light penetrated, by canary yellow walls and little pots of flowers on the tables.

“The bag was torn on its way to the first landing of the steps down, which is where you found it, correct? I doubted as I read your words at breakfast that even a ‘new’ woman dare venture much further in. When did you see it?”

Miss McRae let pass the remark about ‘new’ women, and the tone in which it was made, though she noted it: indubitably, she noted it. “Yesterday, just before noon. As you say, it was abandoned part way down. I waited some time for the crowd to clear, to see if it might be collected. When it was not, I thought: better one chance in a thousand that it finds its way home than nigh on certainty of theft.”

“There was a crowd? More than Sunday promenaders?” Holmes might have been expecting the carpet bag to answer him, as his attention remained fixed on it rather than turning toward Miss McRae to address her. This did not in itself seem unusual; he frequently did, and continues to do, the same to me. I had not yet comprehended the depth of the unease which her presence inspired in my friend, let alone formed an idea as to its cause - beyond the simple fact of her sex.

“Some poor man had just been taken ill in the street. A four-wheeler took him to the Middlesex. Why human vultures, parsons and newsboys must gather so and take the air away from a sick man, I’ve never understood.”

“Hmm, yes. Yes. First he bled, from the nose- see, spots of it here and here, the pattern is clear, the stains all but masked by the red of the Turkey carpet - then he stumbled, sought support, lost balance, threw up his arms from pain or seizure so that the bag pitched over the spiked railing, then he fell.”

Miss McRae nodded, more thoughtful than especially impressed by Holmes’ stage display of detection. “The railings are too high for it to be accidentally dropped over.”

Holmes looked over at me and raised an eyebrow as if to say: “clarity of thought, how refreshing”. He spread out the bag’s contents once more, this time on top of a trestle, and asked for a tape measure and a pair of tweezers “...for there is something inside the handle of this knife. It appears solid, but is not entirely so.”

The ’something’ was a scrap of used envelope, neatly printed upon in a language neither Holmes nor I recognised. Miss McRae asked if she might see. Holmes extended the paper carefully at arm’s length, its corner precisely pinched between thumb and forefinger. His mouth was a tight line, his face averted: he might have been feeding a mouse to a python. The python, digesting its morsel, spares little thought for the wariness of men; no more did she, pursing a shapely mouth as she considered the note. After a moment or two she made up her mind.

“If you will excuse me a moment, gentlemen, I believe one of my residents may serve for an interpreter. You understand, young women come to London seeking work and here find safe, economical and decent lodging. That is what this settlement exists to provide. Word has spread, even further than we hoped. One of two of the newer arrivals hail from far away indeed - one might almost say, from foreign parts.”

She hobbled away in search of enlightenment. Holmes did not even acknowledge her going. I made some feeble attempt at humour.

“Long solitude has given you no more yen than before for female company, then?”

My friend, who had been busily measuring, unlacing, scrutinising and even smelling the black boots and rifling through yards of black crepe, held himself very still for the space of several breaths. I thought he might speak, but he only sighed the smallest of sighs and bent again to his task. My burgeoning curiosity concerning his odd mood was stopped in its tracks by the bustling arrival of a little Scots biddy, fluffy and timid as a rabbit where Miss McRae was queenly and bold, despite her infirmity.

“For certain it’s the Gaelic, Miss McRae, gentlemen, for certain...oh, a moment. That’s not right, no. Unless he’s more unlettered than a farmer’s boy. No, it’s...have you asked Miss Ryan, Miss McRae? Could be the Irish, you know.”

Miss Mcleod (our first interloper) was soon joined by a friend, a brunette of fresh complexion, bright blue eyes and busy, restless fingers that twisted and creased the paper as she pored over it, her nose almost touching the script. She sorely needed spectacles, but I was not certain if it was vanity or economy that made her forgo them. She had on an aged tweed skirt, discreetly darned in several places.

“Like, yet not like,” was her verdict. ”It’s an address of sorts, I do know that, and, I think, directions.” The three ladies huddled in eager conference to speculate eagerly on the meaning of the message, the method of concealment in seeming-solid iron, and the motives for hiding it.

Before we were quite drowned in youthful and excited femininity, Holmes cleared his throat loudly and uttered a single word:

“Manx.”

“The First Class ticket to Liverpool,” he continued, as he brandished the object in question before us. “A language like, but not like, or like badly spelled, Irish or Scots Gaelic, according to Miss Mcleod and Miss Ryan. Manx is of the Celtic family of languages, but employs a distinctive orthography. Liverpool contains a large population of impoverished, rudely-educated Scots and Irish - but why commission written information from a semi-literate: furthermore, the hand is good? Liverpool also contains the offices of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. Furthermore, this knife is of the type specially fashioned to open oysters or clams. The Isle of Man is a significant exporter of shellfish.”

He did not even put on a show of not being immensely gratified by the way all eyes turned to him, filled with amazement and admiration for his skill. It fell to me, as ever, to attend to the practical details.

“You think we should go there? To Liverpool?”

“Not if it can be avoided. The trains will be full of mobilising troops and hastily returning holiday-makers. I have formed a sound hypothesis, but we will test it more frugally than that, by telegraphing the Steam Packet Company to see if they can assist with a translation. We will do so on our way to the Middlesex Hospital.”

“The Middles...? Ah, the fallen man!” cried Miss McRae. Holmes paid her another silent tribute, this time by a slight tilt of the head and another glance at me.

“The fallen man. Come, Watson.”

***************************************************

This time, we walked, Holmes striding through the streets, swinging his cane and eating up the distance with characteristic vigour. He had lost none of his allure for me with the passing of years, and now the heady pull of it was all fresh again. I choose that word - allure - quite carefully. From the very first day we met he drew me in, fascination and repulsion - his egotism, his drugs, the black moods - warring in me day by day, year by year. I kept silent, of course I kept silent. There was enough for me in watching his unique mind at work, in supporting the cause of justice, defending the defenceless. Enough, and more than enough. The rest? The pleasures I had discovered to lie, from time to time, with my own sex as well as those I had more often found in a woman’s arms? So far as I was a judge of odds which, I grant you, may not be very far, they were so long as to make any attempt at ‘the rest’ a fool’s wager.

Thus, in the relative cool of that August day, fragile with the approach of catastrophe in the air, I contented myself with basking in his wake, in the brittle affection which I knew I inspired in him, enduring as powdered diamond, both a vital talisman and a deadly danger to his sense of self. It was the only kind of personal attachment he allowed himself: as I thought then, the only kind he was capable of. We took ten minutes at the telegraph office and twenty more to Mortimer Street, where the grand Palladian facade and later accretions of the great county hospital sat crumbling on its venerable foundations. Within thirteen years the whole of it would be swept away and a new place of healing begin to rise from the rubble.

A new world too, please God.

Enquiries at the receiving room directed us, with a shock, not to the wards but to the morgue. My friend’s illustrious name was still pass-key enough to allow us to view the body of one Archibald Tierney-Porter, aged approximately fifty-five years. He had died of a cerebral haemorrhage shortly after arrival from Camden and attempts were being made to find and notify any family.

To my surprise, Holmes did not examine the dead man’s face, nor ask to see his clothes. Instead he lifted the sheet at the other end of the body, gazed narrow-eyed at each grey, naked foot and measured them in turn with Miss McRae’s sewing tape.

“Oh, Watson, just confirm one small fact for me. Mr. Tierney- Porter was a man with a skilled and meticulous barber?”

The raggedly sewn post-mortem incision did not extend so far down the face that I was unable to see that he had indeed been very closely shaved, only hours before he fell ill and died. Holmes tossed the rolled-up tape measure in the air and caught it with one hand as he turned on his heel to leave.

“Of course he was. Hard enough to impersonate a woman when one has size nine feet; a very fine shave and a veil - and the protection of the corner of a first class compartment - would certainly assist.”

“Impersonate a...?”

“Watson, you have magnificently retained your ability to mimic a goldfish at exactly the right moment, but you may close your mouth now. The boots in the carpet bag, dear boy. They were very large, much too large for a woman, unless she were a rare Amazon. Miss McRae, one must assume, was too restrained by some irrational notion of ‘decency’ to fully inspect and assess all the mourning clothes. Well, let us at least return her tape measure. I gave the Settlement as the return address for the shipping office.”

As we headed towards the exit from the morgue, the door swung open, and a young woman was ushered in by an attendant.

“Excuse us, gentlemen. This lady may be a relation of the deceased. Miss Culpepper, I have to warn you that...”

She stepped briskly forward, politely brushing aside his attempts at comfort and making no objection to Holmes’ and my presence at such a delicate time. “That the cause of death had to be established, that there may be visible evidence of the process. Yes, I understand. Please may I see?”

She stood at the head of the uncovered corpse for some time, not in a fit of weeping but solemn contemplation.

“This was my uncle,” she attested at last, speaking to no-one in particular. “I had not seen him in...oh, very many years. Our family was a house divided. And it was he who laid a hammer to its walls. I will mourn that, if I cannot mourn his passing.”

Holmes slid smoothly up to her side. He had stood, fairly quivering on the leash of propriety, his noble hound’s nose sniffing at a breeze rich with the scent of quarry, all the time she gazed on the face of the dead man. I held my breath for fear he come out with something so monumentally callous that he chased her away and laid his own hammer to the case. But having victory in sight always made my friend more likely to remember his manners.

“My condolences on the loss that you dofeel , Miss Culpepper. If you will allow me to play some part in salvaging what remains, perhaps you will consent to accompany us back to your home? There is ample time, ere we reach Albert Street, Camden, for you to tell us more of your uncle and your ‘house divided’.”

She stared at him as if he had sprouted wings.

“Culpepper is an uncommon name, and yet it is blazoned upon one of the ‘Athena’s’ post shelves. It was a shot in the twilight, if not quite the dark, and a fortuitous meeting, given what I have already deduced and what more facts may yet await us. If our friend” - he beckoned to the attendant - “will make arrangements to release the body to the undertaker there is, I think, little more for you to do here.”

Her story, unlike her surname, was only too common. Three siblings - a brother, two sisters - survived out of six children of a moderately prosperous London family. The brother wasted his few gifts, settled on no fixed occupation, fancied himself by turns an artist, an actor and a playwright and many times quarrelled violently with both parents. When his father died in the prime of life, recrimination mixed with jealousy of so-called ‘favourites’ came together in a toxic brew and killed the last remnants of fraternal and filial love.

The elder sister moved, upon her marriage, to the great port of Liverpool. Within the space of ten years the relict of that Liverpool adventure, a little girl named Agnes, returned, orphaned, to her grandmother’s house. There, she was cared for with all the feverish devotion apt to be lavished on an only grandchild. There was only a little money to spare. It provided her with a good education, and refined accomplishments, all the foundations for a solid match.

Then her grandmother fell gravely ill. From the account of her symptoms, I could well imagine the remorseless, agonizing progress of the disease: the operations, the false hopes dashed; the quack treatments resorted to; the wasting away to skin and bone inch by inch; above all the pain, pain which only increasing doses of morphine could dull. The shadow of it moved still behind Miss Culpepper’s eyes.

“We began to run short of funds; doctors will have their due. I needed to find some paid work: my aunt, lately widowed, returned home to act as nurse in my stead. I could find nothing nearby, but there was a post at a school in Chalk Farm- I have some small musical talent - and the Athena gave me refuge. Miss McRae has been the soul of kindness and hospitality. Do you gentlemen know her well?”

When I glanced at Holmes, expecting him to reply, he was staring hard at the pavement as he walked, and his jaw was set. It was left to me to explain how we had come to be entangled in this bizarre affair, and what he had deduced so far from the contents of her uncle’s carpet bag.

“Why, Dr Watson, we are quite in the middle of one of your stories!” she exclaimed. “Although I cannot fathom why Archie should do such a thing.”

“Then it is fortunate that I can,” put in Holmes, his tone dry as a ship’s biscuit. “Here we are: the temple of Athena Parthenos.” There was something harsh about the way he spoke thus of the Settlement, although I could not quite put my finger on it. Holmes was, and is, in the way of dismissing so many things (and people) with some casual, scorching epithet that I am hard-pressed to know how seriously to take any individual instance. Surely the implication that the residents of this place were all respectable, unmarried ladies ought to have been a matter for praise.

I was distracted from such thoughts - and from making a chain of them to the extent that I finally demanded Holmes explain his queer behaviour since our arrival - by the sight once more of Miss McRae’s crabbed, stiff-limbed progress from desk to office door. Blast her stubbornness!

“Madam, you may feel free to ignore my advice if that is your wish, but if I say first that it is as a fellow-sufferer I appeal to you, more than as a mere doctor, I might dare to hope you will consider it. I know what it is to live with disability, with pain as a companion, waking and sleeping. ”

She frowned for an instant then shrugged minutely.

“After a lifetime of finding so few willing to offer help, one does fall out of the habit of allowing oneself to be helped,” she allowed. “Have your say, then.”

“That stick is the wrong height both for your frame and your injury. You would do better with a longer crutch, held under the arm. Also, if resources permit, I recommend hand-made boots with an extra inch built up towards the inner edge of your right heel. Short of re-breaking and re-setting the bone - much too dangerous, I concede - those two measures are the best I can suggest. Perhaps, too, a hammam for the knotted muscles which poor posture has created. I have found it soothes even the oldest of hurts.”

She thanked me, gracious as a duchess, though no duchess I ever met never bore such a twinkling, naughty smile.

“You don’t strike me as the type to frequent the Turkish Baths, Doctor. Or does a secret sybarite hide under that respectable worsted? I have heard that a head of steam has a corrupting effect on the will, that there are corners of many bath-houses where a man may altogether lose the civilising veneer of English manhood, becoming little better than a dissipated slave to his animal nature and the unmanly vices of the Orient. Do you think that’s true?”

If this was indeed the ‘new woman’, it did not seem to me an unqualified improvement. What cunning sprite prompted me to assure her in frosty tones that Holmes, the most ascetic man of my acquaintance, had introduced me to the baths twenty years past, with no thought in mind but easing my pain?

A train of thought is not a domesticated beast. It gallops away along a track quite of its own devising before one can rein it in or direct its course. Miss McRae seemed merely to enjoy my discomfiture for a while and to picture us both, back in the old century. Then she suddenly turned with narrowed eyes to Holmes, whose face, I saw, had lost most of its colour save for a telltale smudge of crimson across each cheekbone.

“Mother Mary.”

She remembered. Worse, he knew it.

“And you.” She looked back to me, a babe in my innocence. “You’re John. You’re John. My God, of course you are.”

Well, of course I was. Anyone with the least acquaintance with my writings would know that. What of it?

“Perhaps the good Doctor would agree to autograph your new crutch, Miss McRae.”
Distance, frantic distance in his every word and a command, no, a plea in his eyes: Do Not Tell. Do Not.

She leaned back hard on her stick, considering us both with care. When she finally shook her head and muttered something about “some people shouldn’t need to be told what they don’t want to hear”, I was reminded of a ward sister I had known at Barts, when confronted with a parcel of young medical students attempting to smuggle an actress out of a window after curfew: the same combination of acid exasperation and weary acceptance.

“Holmes,” I hissed in his ear, once she had gone to answer the doorbell. “What is going on? You have met Miss McRae before, that much is obvious, but...”

“Telegram for Mr Sherlock Holmes!”

My friend snatched as eagerly at the envelope as a drowning man who has been thrown a lifebelt, tore it open and scanned the few lines, dropping a silver sixpence into the boy’s outstretched hand without looking.

“Where is Miss Culpepper?” he demanded.

That lady was duly fetched. “Mr James Loudoun, yes; I suppose that must be his office address. He is a solicitor, a confidant of my late parents and grandparents.”

“And of your uncle and aunt?” Holmes enquired.

“No. He knew my father first, my mother and grandmother through him. ”

“Therefore, a safe haven for information your grandmother did not wish her errant son to discover. Contrariwise, if a person not your aunt should present themselves as such, Mr Loudoun might be none the wiser. And if your grandmother were to die apparently intestate, your uncle would benefit where she meant to exclude him. I think we are quite at the end of this little mystery. It needs only a telegram or two to satisfy concerning the fine details.”

“The knife? The note? The Isle of Man? Fine details?” Miss McRae, who had been watching Holmes from the doorway of her office as if he was about to disappear in a puff of smoke, and she was not sure whether to be sorry or glad about the prospect.

“Miss Culpepper. Your aunt’s late husband was a Manxman - either a boat owner, or a dealer in clams and oysters?” She nodded, eyes wide. “And if we were to enquire at your grandmother’s house, we would most likely find that Mr Tierney-Porter was a recent visitor, under some pretext: a last farewell, an attempt at deathbed reconciliation. Your aunt may not even know that he took away with him her husband’s knife, in which she had stored Loudon’s address - which is in Peel, a town of that jewel of the Irish Sea - against the day she would need to find him.” One languid hand gestured in Miss McRae’s direction. “As I said: fine details.”

“When you contact him, Mr Holmes, will you warn Mr Loudoun against too much trust in his senior clerk?”

He passed the hand wearily across his brow; hanging about him was a more distinct wish that she might find her own puff of smoke.

“Indeed. I always warn against too much trust, Miss McRae: so seldom is it repaid.”

“Yet I read once that ‘Few delights can equal the mere presence of one whom we trust utterly.’”

As she answered him, her eyes lighted on me. She smiled as if viewing a fundamental principle of the universe. I smiled back, thinking of realms much smaller but no less vital: thinking of the lives of two men.

*******************************************************

“Miss Culpepper was adamant that she wished to stay at the Athena and continue to teach,” I remarked as we returned to my club, having left her a prospective heiress, and her friends a topic of conversation for at least the next week. “Miss McRae appears much liked by her ladies, despite her occasional rough manners.”

I waited for Holmes to make some comment. We walked on in silence.

“I expect she presents a more genteel face to the trustees of the Settlement.”

Motor buses hooted. Newsboys shouted: “Germany declares War on France! Sir Edward Grey to speak in the Commons!” His cane beat a steady pace on the pavement; Holmes said nothing.

“Although I wonder if she was quite candid with them about her theatrical past. That might not go down well with her employers.”

Tap, tap, tap.

“Holmes? Do you not think so?”

He broke his stride, snatched up the cane in mid strike and held it across his body as if my questions were an assault.

“Very well, since you seem incapable of dropping the subject: she has no employer. Miss McRae is both warden and owner of the Athena. She may therefore reveal, or conceal, just as much of her past as she chooses. No showy display of deduction for your eager readers, Watson: she told me herself. Now, since the case is closed, we need think of her no more.” And he set off again, at a pace that left me trotting at his heels like a puppy.

To forget the principal actors in a case, retaining only the facts and his conclusions, had always been his way; that should have been the end of it. I might even now be sitting at my desk in a discontented house in Hertfordshire, treasuring one last memory of my life as Boswell to the phenomenon that was Sherlock Holmes.

But just as he has made a special study of crime, so have I always made a special study of him, ever since that infamous list so long ago, and the idle mind is as dedicated, and devious, in its search for employment as a day labourer in midwinter. As I sat in the offices of the Royal Army Medical Corps, waiting for interview with a dozen others likewise volunteering their services, taking mental stock of my knowledge of battlefield surgery (hopelessly antiquated), post-surgical rehabilitation (adequate) and the treatment of venereal disease (regrettably up-to-date) took no more than half an hour. A puzzle began to worry at the edge of my thoughts: the puzzle of why Holmes should be ashamed - for it had been shame in his face, his movements, his voice, yes, shame and humiliation - to know Miss McRae.

Part 2

sherlock holmes, fic

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