“The Woman", they say he calls me. In his admittedly entertaining but somewhat embellished account in the Strand magazine of my encounter with Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson claims that the famous detective thinks of me as “eclipsing and predominating the whole of my sex”. I often used to wonder – idly, because it was not a question of great importance to me but rather a puzzle of the mind – how he thought to justify this perception, for he did not know me, and in fact, from the little that he could know, there are few men of good repute who would share his opinion. The fact as such does not bother me, does not even place a lurking doubt in my mind as it used to, for among the few is the only one whose judgment matters; but I still asked myself on which basis the most brilliant man of our age, the famous Sherlock Holmes, supposedly admired a free-spirited opera singer with a taste for revenge against her former paramour. It is not exactly the proudest moment of my personal history, as Godfrey informed me in no uncertain terms no sooner than I had confided the matter to him.
Mr Holmes attempted to trick me. Rather blatantly, I must say; perhaps he truly thought nothing of the shrewdness of women. I saw through it in an instant. That was all.
“You appear to be a celebrity, my dear,” Godfrey announced to me one fine evening after we had retired to the sitting room of our modest Parisian domicile, tossing a copy of the Strand magazine into my lap by way of explanation and nearly making me spill my wine over it in the process. I have never been in the habit of reading the Strand, and if the press has brought up my name now and then, I usually do my best to ignore it, but I must admit that this particular story captivated my attention thoroughly enough. It still does, when I think about it.
Godfrey, of course, found the affair in equal parts flattering and hilarious. “Who would have thought that our wedding would receive such an amount of attention,” he remarked. “And such a prominent witness, too. Not that he looked the part. Would you believe that he even kept your photograph?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” I remember telling him. “From what they say about him, he was the foremost logician of our times. I cannot imagine that such a man would be swayed by romantic notions. Certainly not toward a woman he hardly knew, just because she outwitted him.”
“You have no idea what beauty and a woman’s wit can do to a man, my love,” my husband replied with an unambiguously suggestive smirk, and that was the end of that topic at the time. And it was just as well, for then I believed it of no consequence, with the reports of Mr Holmes’ death in Switzerland having occupied the French press some time ago.
Reports, as it turned out around two years later, that were even more embellished than the story of my supposed intellectual victory over the detective, and I must confess that the news stirred my interest anew, for it must be a remarkable man indeed who succeeds in deluding the public as well as his friends and foes in such a manner. It was not a romantic interest, that much I wish to state from the beginning. My affections have been firmly secured by Godfrey’s easy laughter, his straightforward nature and solid reliability, and I believe he knows it, for he has not let me see any jealousy about my study of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. Yet I could not help but wonder what exactly it had been about my story that had made such a strong impression on the famous detective. I had read his adventures; I knew it was neither the first nor last time he had been outwitted by an opponent. Perhaps it truly was no more than the fact that I happen to be female, or perhaps Dr Watson had simply wished to give his stories a romantic note. Nevertheless, I wondered.
Another four years passed before I received the unexpected opportunity to shed some light on my personal little conundrum. “It is only for a week,” my husband declared when he explained to me that he had been invited by an old friend and colleague who required his assistance in a professional matter. “Royal Albert Hall, Covent Garden, dinner at the Mitre. What do you think, darling?”
“Ongoing rain, fog in the morning, bad coffee,“ I told him haughtily. “Imagine Paris in early autumn, when the trees on Montmartre are glowing yellow in the evening sun…”
“Imagine the two of us sharing an umbrella for a romantic little stroll through Hyde Park,” he returned cheerfully, “and you could pay a visit to your detective friend. He made you a celebrity after all, even if a – how did he term it? – dubious and questionable one.”
“Those were Dr Watson’s words,” I objected, but the idea was planted in my mind, and since in truth I had no objections whatsoever against seeing London again, the matter of our travel was quickly settled between us.
It was not that easy, after all, to find a reasonable objective for a social visit. I could hardly impose myself upon the household of 221b Baker Street without any sort of annunciation, claiming that I wished to find out what sort of interest its famous occupant held in my own person; yet I held little doubt that any elaborate matter I might come up with would never fool him for a second. Eventually I simply sent him a telegram, unsure as I was of my welcome, and to my surprise received a warmly worded invitation as a prompt answer. Thus I was led into the famous sitting-room that has been made unforgettable as the starting-point of so many adventures, by the equally immortalized landlady Mrs Hudson.
Dr Watson truly did have words to evoke a vivid image in his readers’ minds, I realized when I laid eyes on the tall, thin gentleman who greeted me with easy grace. Sherlock Holmes cut an impressive figure when he was not posing as a stable boy or elderly clergyman, and though he was not strikingly handsome by any conventional standards, he possessed the kind of intense presence that would surely gather the attention of any crowd as soon as he entered the room. The doctor himself was remarkably attractive, with pleasing features and an effortless natural charm, and when he shook my hand in greeting, I could see that his smile was genuine.
“Mrs Norton!” he exclaimed. “It is such an honour to meet you in person, and now I am afraid that I must be discourteous in return. I have been idling too long, and my presence is required at my club in less time than it will take me to get there.”
“Your presence…” the detective began sharply, before his companion turned towards him and placed a hand on his arm.
“I am afraid so,” he stated regretfully. “Had I not told you of the billiards competition that my friend Ackland has organized? I shall be accused of cowardice if I do not appear, and I would never be able to live it down. The date has been set for weeks, madame, and I do hope that you will excuse my departure. I assure you that you find yourself in the very best company.”
A strange thing happened then, though I did not understand it at the time. A look passed between the two men, the doctor clearly looking amused while Mr Holmes’ grey eyes were narrowed in displeasure. I had the very clear impression that the two of them were communicating without words, and after a second or two it was Holmes who relented, briefly touching his friend’s hand and assuming a politely amicable impression.
“Of course,” he remarked brightly. “How thoughtless of me. I hope you do not mind contenting yourself with my modest company, Mrs Norton.”
“By no means,” I assured him, making an effort to hide my confusion while the doctor made his exit.
“He really is a most fearsome billiards player,” Mr Holmes stated thoughtfully, his eyes lingering on the closed door for a few moments with an expression I might have called wistful in any other man. “His opponents will not stand a chance… but do sit down, Mrs Norton. The tea will be brought up shortly.”
I obliged his request, and in the resulting silence I could see his gaze glide appraisingly across my person, undoubtedly perceiving every detail and deducing more than I would be comfortable to know. I had read his stories, after all. I gifted him with my most charming smile.
“If I am allowed to venture an educated guess, I would say that you are about to tell me what I had for breakfast and whether or not I liked it,” I offered, hoping to introduce a lighter mood and break the atmosphere of slightly awkward tension the doctor had left behind.
“Continental, and you disapproved of the coffee,” he replied smoothly, but I could tell that his answering smile was quite fake. “What I am not able to deduce right now is the reason that grants me the unexpected honour of your visit.”
“Curiosity, Mr Holmes.”
His eyebrow lifted in an inquiring manner. “In regard to what?”
I had debated with myself for a while how to set out about my queries, and had come to the conclusion that, with a man like him, a more or less honest approach would likely yield the best results. The remaining question was how to convey my subject in a way that would neither offend him nor elicit his contempt.
“I was surprised and pleased to find that Dr Watson has immortalized my name in his excellent collection of adventure stories. His account of the tale was… flattering, considering that the incident itself is what I perceive of a rather embarrassing nature, and he has somewhat embellished the actual proceedings as well as the accounts of my virtues...”
The corners of his mouth quirked slightly. “Yes, he does that.”
I refrained from biting my lower lip like a girl in the first blossom of her youth. “He appears to entertain the idea that…” you kept my picture “…I have left a rather flattering impression, and I am not entirely sure that I merit it, nor can I fathom how you would have received it. Consider it a riddle I am unable to solve on my own. It is a bit vexing.”
“I see.” His eyes narrowed slightly, and he reached for his pipe as he took the seat opposite from me. “I know I am being terribly impolite, but would you mind…?”
I shook my head, and just then we were interrupted by Mrs Hudson serving the tea. It truly conveyed a very strange feeling to be sitting in this very room, being treated just like one of his clients, after having read so many stories describing the same scene.
“I do not mean to make any impudent suggestions,” I broke the silence when I began to suspect that he might not, or at least not for another hour. “I am quite content with my life as it is at present, and I would never attempt to imply that it is any different for you.”
“But the rest of the readership does,” he supplied, accurately comprehending the thinly veiled meaning of my statement.
“This is not entirely easy to explain.” I had the distinct impression that he would rather not, and the pure fact that he was making an effort was an indication that at least some of the esteem the doctor claimed him to hold me in must, in fact, exist.
“I believe that it is a matter of integrity,” he stated eventually. “You are, as I believe you are aware, quite an unusual representative of womanhood.”
“So I have been told. Not always in flattering terms, though.”
“Ah, yes, but that is precisely what I mean. You are very obviously a gifted woman, and you have the spirit and self-assurance to live according to your own ideals, to be true to yourself. I believe that this trait is to be admired.”
“Even if it makes a person stoop so low as to take petty revenge for a scorned love?”
“But you did not, eventually.”
I would have, though. I was very much determined.
“I was so furious,” I admitted, not quite certain what it was that made me confess my inner feelings to someone who was as good as a stranger to me. “He betrayed my trust, just because he figured… well, it is as you said, sir. I am an unusual representative of my sex. It is not universally respected in polite society.”
“I understand,” he returned softly, and for a very short moment I thought I could see a pained expression flitting across his face. “Possibly better than you think.”
I privately begged to differ. He might be living a bohemian life, but he was still a respected and celebrated gentleman of independent means, free to explore whatever interests might strike his fancy, free to pursue whatever way of living he might prefer, even if it included a life of bachelorhood at the side of his widowed companion.
Quite suddenly a shocking idea entered my mind.
Not universally respected in polite society.
The look of wordless understanding. The almost furtive touching of their hands. All those seemingly innocent declarations of love and adoration I remembered from Dr Watson’s stories. Dozens of tiny details instantly aligned into a coherent picture.
I recoiled at the thought, but I knew immediately that it must be the truth, and I had to fight the urge to laugh in a quite hysterical fashion. The celebrated Sherlock Holmes and his esteemed companion were practicing inverts. And here the whole world was thinking that I was the center of his unfulfilled romantic longing.
He watched me with seemingly detached interest, leaning into his armchair in a thoroughly nonchalant pose, but his right hand was clenched tightly around the stem of his pipe.
“Ah, but you really are a very remarkable person,” he stated just as calmly as though we had been discussing the recent change of weather. “I can tell that you have observed the facts and arrived at the correct conclusion. To what use do you intend to put your new-found knowledge?”
Would I, thus I understood his question, betray the pair of them to the police, or – perhaps worse – to the press? It would be the greatest scandal England had seen in decades. His reputation would be torn to shreds, his brilliant career ruined, and he and his partner would be exceedingly lucky if they escaped a sentence of prison and hard labour.
All because he had not watched his tongue in front of a stranger. Or had he? It was almost inconceivable; to have lasted this long both of them must have become masters of deception, playing their game elegantly without a single step out of line. So surely did they tread that the public would not believe anything to be amiss even if it laughed them in the face through Dr Watson’s stories.
He knew, of course, how unlikely it was that anyone would believe my accusations. Not only was I a woman, but also deemed quite disrespectable by the majority of society, living as I did the adventurous life I had chosen to live. It was a decision I had made for myself, a luxury of freedom, the repercussions of which I was prepared to endure.
A luxury, I realized, that neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dr Watson could afford. The price I had to pay was the disrespect of society and a few upturned noses at social gatherings. Theirs would be condemnation and ruin. Wouldn’t it be hypocrisy if I appointed myself as both their judge and executor?
“There is nothing I would want to put to any use,” I told him flatly. “I merely sought to solve a little conundrum that has been occupying me for a while. I believe that I have found my answer.”
“It is not what you expected.”
“It is better than I expected.”
He smiled briefly, the first true smile I saw of him, and for a second I saw a glimpse of that elegant beauty which Dr Watson utterly fails to conceal being besotted with, if one accurately understands his meaning.
“I cannot say that I am surprised, Mrs Norton. And let me state that it is nothing but the utmost respect that I carry for you. There are only very few people who can see eye to eye with me. In various regards.”
He was not a modest man, that much I knew from his stories, but I understood that he was not merely talking about intellectual prowess. We were both oddities, he and I: he, the defiantly bohemian detective who was forced to conceal what I understood not only to be unnatural urges, but the love of his life; I, the so-called “adventuress” who refused to assume the established role of a domesticated housewife, and was met with distrust and scorn. It must have been this likeness that had kindled his interest and mine in return, the recognition of a kindred spirit among the thousands of uncaring souls that pass us by every day.
Uncaring, but for the two who not only recognize us, but love us dearly for what we are.
“I think that my husband would take a liking to Dr Watson,” I remarked lightly, earning myself a hearty chuckle.
“They would have a lot to commiserate about,” he replied, and I could feel the tension leaving the room like water flowing from a barrier lake when the dam has broken. The remainder of the afternoon flew by with amicable chit-chat, and when we parted it was with the promise that we would always find a cup of tea waiting in each other’s parlor.
“What was he like?” Godfrey demanded as soon as he joined me on the settee of our hotel room later the same evening. “Not that I am curious, you know. Merely taking an interest in your life.”
“He was strange,” I replied thoughtfully. “But he made me remember that I am strange as well. Don’t look at me like that, my dear. You like strange people.”
“I am irresistibly drawn towards strange people,” he informed me. “It comes with the job.”
I smiled at that, as he always makes me smile, and leaned against him more comfortably. He reached for the evening paper when he sensed that no more information would be forthcoming, but paused shortly before opening it.
“He is not in love with you.”
No more words had to be exchanged about the subject, and I let my mind wander while my husband immersed himself in his reading. Some truths I learned that day, about the famous Sherlock Holmes, myself, and the likelihood of finding a kindred soul where one least expects it. He praised me for being true to myself, and it is not always easy; and I am still grateful, as I was that evening when I leaned my head against the shoulder of the one who will always offer it, to have at least one single person to rely on. I think that Mr Holmes may have found a bit of the same peace for himself, for he too has not only a capricious soul but also a reliable ally to support him, someone who accepts his uniqueness and proudly shows it, and them, to a world that is simply too blind to understand.
They are bold, those two, very bold, and whatever the famous detective may think, I believe that they are very much true to themselves. I cannot help but admire them with all my heart.