Prologue: 11 November 1921
The three men stood silently before the war memorial. Holmes, bearing the results of his activities, still classified, leaned heavily on his stick. Watson’s face was etched with the horrors he had seen even behind the battle lines. Only Hopkins appeared unscathed, until Holmes took him by the arm to lead him gently away; he had been blinded in action.
Chapter 1: A New Posting
It was in the late spring of 1918 when I was sent to assist at a home for the recuperation of officers on the South Downs. By that time in the war I felt I was the one who could do with a chance to recuperate, and indeed I could have resigned, saying my age was precluding me from continuing to serve, but I knew how desperately short-staffed the medical services were, and while I could still stand on my feet I was determined to play my part. I suspected Mycroft Holmes had had a hand in my reallocation for it turned out this was, so far as is possible in such circumstances, a comfortable post. There were other reasons too why I saw his hand at work.
I arrived in the early evening and was shown to my room, which was small, but provided the true luxury of being for me alone. In my last posting I had shared a room with another doctor and it was not unknown to return to find one of my colleagues asleep in my bed, too exhausted to make the journey to their own lodgings. In those circumstances I would prod them until they took the blankets and slept on the floor. I would then sleep on the bed under my coat. A younger man might have resigned himself to sleeping on the floor, but such days are well past for me.
The morning after my arrival, I was conducted around the home and had my duties explained to me. They were much lighter than I had been used to, for which I was grateful. Of course, should an emergency occur, I would do all I could to assist, but otherwise I did not see the requirements as being too taxing.
After lunch I was told an old friend of mine was currently a patient. I was surprised, since I was not aware of any of my long-time acquaintances being in the home. Certainly, all the patients I had seen so far were men at least twenty years younger than I – hardly surprising for these were men who had been serving on the front line.
I was led by a nurse down a corridor I had not been shown in the morning. Instead of wards of eight to ten men these appeared to be individual rooms. I had expressed surprise at the small size of the wards and had been told these were dictated by the structure of the house. The sister gave the impression she believed the architect had designed it with the sole purpose of inconveniencing her.
The nurse knocked quietly on one of the doors and then showed me in. Inside I saw a thin man sitting on a chair and staring fixedly out of the window.
At first, I could not understand why I had been taken to see this particular patient. He was painfully thin, and had clearly suffered considerable physical deprivation to have left him in this condition. His hands were in his lap, the dark veins standing out against the pale skin, which looked cracked and worn. I wondered what had brought the man to this physical state and indeed, what his mental state must be that he was apparently isolated from his fellow patients.
I took a step nearer, and something about the angle of the head and the poise of the body, like that of a bird of prey, alert for every movement in the undergrowth, stirred vague memories. I looked more closely. We had not seen each other for three years, and then had only shared brief encounters, and indeed he had changed more in those years than I would have expected, but when you have lived with someone for a significant part of your life, recognition is still possible.
“Holmes,” I exclaimed.
To see him alive, even though in poor physical health, was something I had come to doubt I would ever do again.
He turned at the sound of my voice, but made no other response. My heart plummeted. Had something so traumatised him he no longer recognised me?
“He does not speak,” the nurse said.
“May I stay?” I asked. “I am not due to be anywhere else at the moment.”
“Of course,” she replied. Turning to Holmes she said, “I shall be back later, Mr Holmes.”
I sat on the bed and regarded my old friend. It occurred to me I could have followed the nurse and asked her for further details, but it was unlikely, even if she knew anything, that she would share such matters with me, since that would be a doctor’s role.
I soon became aware Holmes was inspecting me. I sat quietly, careful not to make any sudden movements which might startle him. His behaviour did not resemble that of those I had previously met who had shell-shock, but I reasoned I could not go too far wrong if I remained still and calm. Fleetingly I wondered whether his actions might have been adopted for a case, but even for Holmes that seemed extreme, so I decided I would continue to respond on the assumption the ailment was genuine. I could see no outward sign of physical injury which might prevent speech, and at this stage a full examination did not seem appropriate.
Finally, apparently satisfied, Holmes smiled and held out his hand. I took it and shook it warmly.
I wondered how to proceed and said tentatively, “Would you like to hear something of what I’ve been doing these past months?”
He gave a small nod and I could see a slight spark in his eyes. I did not bore him with my day to day activities, but instead described some of the characters I had met and some of the little mysteries which had occurred. It was almost like the old times, for I could tell from the twitches in his face when he wished to know more, and when he thought I was exaggerating. Too soon I realised I would have to leave and I stood up, explaining I had work to do. He looked up and raised his eyebrows.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, and was pleased to see him smile in acknowledgement.
I made my way to where the main wards were. I was on the roster to do the evening ward round and having met the nurse who would accompany me I set off at speed, glancing at the patients in the beds on either side as I hurried to the end of the ward.
The nurse called out, “Doctor Watson, please slow down.”
I turned in surprise, my days of outpacing a nurse being well past.
“If you are happy for me to sign off the patients on your behalf, doctor, I will do so,” she said, “but please give me time to complete the charts.”
I stopped and returned to the beginning of the ward. “I am so sorry,” I said. “I have not yet become accustomed to the procedures here.” I smiled sadly. “Where I have come from, there was only time to stop for those who needed urgent assistance.”
She nodded, although I am not sure she believed I wished to change my behaviour.
I picked up the first chart, “So, let us begin again. Captain Hawkins, your notes state your wounds are mending nicely, but you continue to find having them dressed somewhat distressing. I realise this is reminding you of the circumstances in which you sustained your injuries, but may I suggest you try to think of what you will be able to do once they have healed sufficiently for you to go outside.”
We continued in this vein. At one point I whispered to the nurse that she let me know if I was taking too long in my round, for I did not wish to fall foul of the matron at this stage. She assured me she would do so, and added that Matron cared for her patients; she just wasn’t as fond of the doctors and nurses.
I was coming to the end of my round, and I was aware of the sounds of supper approaching. This was the point at which I needed to have finished, but, with only had one more ward to visit, I was confident I would still have time to see all my patients.
I picked up the chart at the first bed and glanced at the name – Captain Stanley Hopkins. Seeing the name gave me a start, as did seeing the man lying in the bed, his eyes bandaged. It was hard to reconcile the enthusiastic police inspector we had welcomed into 221B, with the person in front of me, so pale and quiet. There had been times in the past year when I saw patients whose wounds have turned my stomach, and yet I have managed to remain professional. But the sight of a former friend with such life-changing injuries almost reduced me to unprofessional tears. I forced myself to control my emotions and spoke briefly to him. He did not seem to recognise my voice, which was hardly surprising; he would not have expected me to be standing by his bedside.
After I had finished my round I spoke to the matron. “Is there any hope Captain Hopkins will recover his sight?”
“None whatsoever. He is completely blind.”
“Then, can the bandages be removed?”
“He becomes distressed when they are taken off. “
“But even so, if he does not need them …”
“He is much calmer when they are in place. We therefore replace them once his face has been washed.”
As the doctor, I could overrule her, but I did not feel this would be helpful. So I said instead, “I have some free hours tomorrow morning, would you object if I were to talk to your patient and see if we can make some progress in this matter?”
“You are the doctor, sir, you may do as you see fit. However, if you can tell me the time you will be coming I will prepare him for your visit. He finds it difficult when people appear at his bedside unexpectedly and can get agitated if he has not been forewarned.”
“Thank you, Matron. Shall we say half past ten?”
I wished her good night and went in search of my own supper. After supper I returned to my room and turned over in my mind the events of the day. I still found it hard to reconcile the Holmes in the hospital room with the man I had known so well. It was not so much the physical change which had befallen him, although that was worrying enough, but the change in the inner man. It was true, there had been glimpses of the Holmes I had known, but the ease in his manner had been replaced by something very distant and circumspect.
I thought too of Hopkins, and permitted myself a few tears in the privacy of my own room. Holmes and I were both old men, coming towards the end of our natural lives, war or no war, but Hopkins, like so many others, should have had many years before him, and now he was lying still and sightless in a hospital bed.
Looking back I suppose I should have registered greater surprise at meeting two of my old companions on the same afternoon, but by that stage in the war I think many of us just accepted whatever fate threw our way, without questioning it too much.
I ensured I was at the entrance to Hopkins’ ward promptly at half past ten the following morning. Matron nodded to me and accompanied me to his bed.
“Captain Hopkins, this is the doctor I told you would be coming to talk to you,” she said.
Then turning to me she added, “You may go outdoors, but the captain is to be back in the ward and ready for his dinner by midday.”
I placed a hand on his arm and said, “Would you like to go outside? The sun is out and I gather there are some suitable benches we can sit on.”
I had wondered whether he would now recognise my voice, but he gave no indication he had. I thought it would be better to delay telling him who I was until we were alone together and so was hopeful he would agree to go out.
“Thank you,” he answered quietly. “Matron said we might be able to go out. She has put a dressing gown on the bottom of the bed.”
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, feeling with his feet for his slippers. Carefully I moved them so they touched his feet. He put them on and then stood up.
“I have your dressing gown,” I said.
He held out an arm and I helped him into it. I heard one of the nurses tutting and realised I was supposed to let Hopkins find the dressing gown and put it on himself.
I gave her an apologetic look and made a mental note for the next occasion.
Hopkins took my arm and I guided him down the ward and towards the outside door. At first he seemed quite confident and then he started to slow down. I guessed this was because he was no longer as sure of the way. I made a point of describing the doorway and the step we had to cross and ensured we moved at his pace, rather than my own.
Once outside I saw the nearest bench and turned us towards it. We made our way slowly along the path. I still found it difficult to reconcile the enthusiastic police inspector who would stride ahead of us, with the man gripping my arm and doing little more than shuffle forward. We reached the seat and I encouraged Hopkins to sit down.
I did not believe it would be right to continue withholding from him who I was. He would find out soon enough and I would much rather he learnt the truth from me, rather than someone else. Accordingly, I began rather hesitantly to say, “Captain Hopkins, I am Dr John Watson, who you used to know …”
I got no further before he exclaimed, “Dr Watson, is it truly you? Matron mentioned your name to me this morning, but I had convinced myself it was another Dr Watson. I am so pleased to …”
He halted abruptly, it being only too obvious he had been about to say “see you.”
I grasped his hand and shook it warmly, hoping to show by touch my sentiments at seeing him. Indeed, I was not sure I could trust myself to speak and was to that extent relieved his condition meant he could not see the tears which were running down my face.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then Hopkins said, “I thought I recognised your voice last night, but I had heard it so often in my …”
Again he paused, this time searching for the right word. I understood – nightmare seemed too tame a word for the brain’s activities following traumatic injury.
“Shall we just say ‘head’?” I suggested.
“Yes,” he replied, and seemed to relax a little. “I am sure you can understand.”
“Only too well, my dear fellow.” I thought it best not to ask anything too probing at this stage and settled on the conversational, “Have you been here long?”
“Only a few days. I was expecting to be sent to a hospital specifically for the blind, but ended up here in a general convalescent home.”
Mycroft, I thought, though I said nothing.
Then I realised he had not seemed particularly upset at the knowledge he was going to a hospital for the blind and decided to risk my next question.
“You know you are permanently blind?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Even though I’m still getting used to the idea. It’s strange, because at the same time in some way I knew immediately I would never see again.”
I had to ask, “But the bandage?”
“Yes, they’ve been very good to me here. Far kinder than I suspect the nurses in the other hospital would have been.” He paused, searching for the right words. “With the bandage on I find I can accept my situation. When it’s removed I try hard to see, because it’s so very important that I do so.”
He began to shake and I hastened to take his hand. I stood up and placed myself between him and the sun. I wasn’t sure whether he could still tell light from darkness, but he would certainly notice the coolness on his face as I blocked the sunlight.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m here. You’re quite safe.”
Slowly his breathing returned to normal. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was not behaviour becoming of an officer.”
“My dear Hopkins,” I replied. “If the last three years have taught me nothing else, it’s that there is little point treating the physical injury when the mental one is just as bad. There will come a time when your bandages can be removed and you will no longer be straining to see. And I shall do my bit to bring this about.”
I helped him back to the ward and left him to the ministrations of a cheerful nurse, who said, “Right, Captain Hopkins. Let’s go and wash your hands and see if we can splash a little less water than yesterday.”
I went in search of Matron, but learnt she had been called to another patient who had taken a turn for the worse. Seeing the Padre enter the side ward, I left a message to say I would speak to her later.
On my way for my own dinner I was told there was post for me. When I collected it I recognised the handwriting on the envelope as Mycroft’s and therefore put the letter in my pocket to read later. The conversation during the meal was enlightening. I learnt the hospital not only provided treatment, but aimed to begin the process of rehabilitation of the patients. This was very encouraging to me, for my previous posting had primarily concentrated on little more than prevention of the deterioration of the patient, and, as can be imagined, even this was not always achieved.
Once I had eaten I returned to my room to read my letter. It was less than a page in length, and from the way the words practically ran into each other, written in haste. One did not need to be a member of the Holmes family to spot how Mycroft’s meticulous handwriting had changed since the beginning of the war. Indeed, I suspected the current misfortune regarding his brother had placed an even greater strain on the man. Were I his doctor, I would have been concerned regarding Mycroft’s own health.
My Dear Watson,
I am delighted you have accepted your reallocation. I admit to playing a part in it, for I am sure you would not believe me were I to deny it. Even if I did not have a personal reason for wishing you there, I am confident it will prove an ideal post for you.
I imagine you will have many questions about my brother’s situation. I can at least assure you his malaise is genuine. He has been examined by the best practitioners, who cannot provide any physical reason for his lack of speech, but to date no-one has been able to explain the cause. Indeed, he seems to become distressed when in the presence of strangers for long, so it has been impossible to ascertain any of the facts.
He initially stayed with me in London upon his return. He would sit with me of an evening, but if another were to call he would instantly retreat to his own room. On two occasions, when a previous acquaintance tried to persuade him to stay he almost reacted with violence. However he did not seem upset by the presence of either my housekeeper or the part-time nurse I employed to assist him. He also posed no threat to me, so I am confident he will accept you.
I arranged for Sherlock to be sent to the nursing home, where the quiet of the countryside may help to quiet the spirit within him. If no more can be done for him, as soon as the war ends I will myself retire to the nearby country, where he will be able to live with me in comparative peace. To such ends I have already begun to make enquiries about a suitable property.
In the meantime, since my presence in London remains of a level of importance, I hope you will be able to provide some assistance, or at least a familiar face in what must have become a very frightening world in my brother’s mind.
And in case you are wondering, it is no coincidence Captain Hopkins is also there. He, too, is in need of a friendly voice, and I am sure you will not begrudge him one.
I read the letter through twice and then put it in the drawer. It gave me little further explanation of Holmes’ condition, although I was relieved to know Mycroft too had considered the possibility of some subterfuge, before ruling it out. As for the final paragraph, I was already intending to provide Hopkins with a friendly voice and accordingly set out to call on the Matron before I went to see Holmes.
When I arrived, Matron was sitting in her office, glaring at something one of the doctors had written. I was not sure whether it was the handwriting or the content which was annoying her; probably both. I coughed to announce my arrival and she looked up briefly. “Dr Watson, what can I do for you?”
“I was hoping to work with Captain Hopkins to enable him to remove his eye bandages without any distress,” I began. “I have time to myself in the mornings, which I thought I could make use of.”
She transferred her glare from her paperwork to me. “Dr Watson, we are under instruction to have helped all the patients in that ward to dress themselves in time for dinner. This morning I deemed it more important Captain Hopkins have the opportunity to spend the time with you. I do not have sufficient nursing staff to ensure he is ready in time for you each morning, nor do I think it right for my nurses to single him out for special attention.”
I was rather taken aback by her response, although I could understand her position. “Maybe I could assist in some way,” I said hesitantly. I have known doctors issue counter-demands of matrons in the past, I have never known it to end well.
“Of course, if you wish to assist the Captain in getting himself dressed, this would be quite acceptable, and would relieve my staff slightly at the same time.”
I felt somewhat uncertain. “I am not sure I would know how to do so.”
She looked me up and down critically. “Well, doctor, you appear to have managed to dress yourself correctly this morning. I cannot see why you should have any problems.”
A younger man might have blushed. I merely shrugged my shoulders and acknowledged the correctness of her observation. “I am afraid I may not be able to come much before half past ten, as I have agreed to assist in two of the other wards earlier in the morning.”
“Yes, I understand you will be working with some of our amputees whose wounds are failing to heal as they should.”
My suspicions were that in some of the cases the patient himself was in some way responsible for aggravating the wound. I was hoping that by talking to the patients I might be able to assist their mental state and thus their physical state. I did not intend to say anything of that nature to Matron, so instead said, “I believe I may have some experiences which will be of assistance.”
I could see from her expression she understood without my needing to say anything more. Instead she said, “I shall tell Captain Hopkins to expect you after half past ten, and that you have volunteered to help him to dress.”
The smile she gave me as I departed did much to boost my own mental state. Here was someone who did indeed care greatly for her patients and would not stand in the way of those who were also seeking to help them.