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Two Shoes for a Hat

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The first time I ever set eyes on Mr. Sherlock Holmes he was being shoved head-first out of a fourth-floor window. I was passing by St. Bart’s that night, heading toward my hotel and wishing for a better supper than I could afford. Cautious of ice patches after the recent frost, I had my eyes fixed on the pavement. The wind carried his hat across the empty avenue and deposited it at my feet, precise as a parcel delivery. It was indisputably an act of God, as Holmes was too stubborn to shout for help and I was too exhausted to have lifted my head, otherwise.

It took me a minute to spot the hat’s owner and half as long again to stop hollering threats at the brute defenestrating him. Seeing that words were useless, I looked around for something to throw. My first shoe glanced off the thug’s shoulder, but my second struck him full across the face. Holmes wriggled from his broken grip and felled him with a well-placed kick. There followed some further action inside the room – was it an anatomy lab? – which I could not see from my vantage point below. The altercation ended with a resounding crash.

Within moments Holmes re-emerged through the window and climbed down the hospital’s brickwork façade, agile as a monkey. He crossed the street and presented his hand to me as I stood on the corner in my stocking feet. We shook courteously and – upon my side, at least – with an air of unreality. The street lamp cast a small spotlight, appropriately theatrical.

“Well timed,” he congratulated me. Releasing my hand, he rooted around in his overcoat and pulled my recovered shoes from its inner pockets. Silently, I handed him his hat. He dusted it until I straightened, reshod, then slapped it atop his mess of brown hair. “Are you in the habit of rescuing strangers, then?”

His gaze held a glint of approval buried under layers of distraction. He was not ungrateful. But he had the look of a man who had dangled from innumerable windows at the hands of innumerable thugs, and I suspected this incident did not rate among his most memorable.

“I’m merely partial to aggressive forms of barter,” I answered, straight-faced. It seemed a shame to let such an oddity pass by without making the least impression on him. “Two shoes for a hat – a fair trade.”

The bloom of surprise in his eyes as he laughed is one I have never forgotten. “Good Lord,” he said. “Who are you, and where have you been?”

He answered his own questions far faster than I could, deducing everything from Afghanistan, to my wounds, to my finances – all of it tactless, invasive, and brilliant. My name, however, he could not get. “Nothing more than a concerned citizen, sir,” I demurred, nodding farewell. In the months since Maiwand, I had become expert at making an organized retreat whenever fleeting social interactions threatened to solidify.

“I am Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” he called after me. “The consulting detective!”

He did not follow, but continued to converse until I drifted out of earshot. Montague Street, he seemed to be saying. Scotland Yard, violin. Possibly something about oysters overrunning the earth? As I turned onto Newgate the wind carried one last salvo to me, clear as a bell. “Haemoglobin, my dear fellow! Haemoglobin!”

Something told me I had not seen the last of him.

Within a week, he broke into my hotel. I was out walking Gladstone at the time, but returned to find Holmes stretched across the settee in my small suite, his lock-picks carelessly strewn across the table.

“No,” I said.

He blinked. Paused. Took a breath to speak.

“No.” I scooped up his ring of burglary tools and tucked them in his jacket pocket, seized his arm in a polite but inarguable grip, and conducted him to the door. Gladstone nipped at his heels. He regarded me with pleased bafflement throughout, but made no argument.

“Find a mutual acquaintance between us and introduce yourself like a gentleman,” I told him. “I don’t doubt it’s within your power.”

He looked tempted to plaster himself to the door rather than admit defeat, but with a deep breath he conquered the impulse. “You are right,” he nodded. “That is better.”

“Begin as you mean to go on,” I advised.

“Quite so. You’ll forgive me.” He bowed and withdrew.

“For future reference, I do not cultivate the acquaintance of anyone who breaks into my rooms,” I called down the corridor.

“We shall see,” he returned cheerfully.

I probably should have been concerned that managing him had so far proved instinctive enough to bypass thought. Possibly making a bid for his attention, on a whim, had not been my wisest choice. But my days were divided between boredom and pain, and this wild hare partook of neither. I could ask no more of him than that.

Late the following Thursday, Stamford practically leapt from the woodwork at the Criterion when I stopped in for a drink. Drawn back to his table, I observed an empty tray and saucers, three well-thumbed medical journals, and a fountain pen. The poor man had evidently been manning this post since teatime, probably on Holmes’s orders. I hoped he had bargained for a sizable favour in return.

“Awfully pleased to see you, Watson,” he said, and I believed it. “It feels like ages since we last had a drink together.”

It had been eighteen months. He and some other classmates had come out to Netley for toasts and well-wishes the week before I shipped out. There had been an element of forced cheer about it. When I entered on my army training the summer after our graduation, we had not been at war, but three months later Afghanistan was all the papers talked about. None of us had expected that I would be sent abroad so soon. My school friends – all of whom had chosen to pursue their careers or further studies in the city – were out of place in the barracks, but they’d gamely tried to match my jubilance. We’d read poems aloud, hadn’t we? I’d been half-drunk, but I seemed to recall play-galloping around the room whilst robbing the London stage of a luminous rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech.

Of all the ignorant tom-foolery. It embarrassed me to encounter anyone who’d known me then.

But I had asked for this, hadn’t I? I’d asked for a conventional introduction. So I listened politely to Stamford’s anecdotes and made encouraging noises as he confided his plans to propose to his sweetheart. I spoke calmly, even charmingly, of my travels through India and the Punjab. I made him laugh with stories about my mess-mates and my most entertaining missteps as a novice officer, and said nothing at all about the defeat, or the shooting, or the fever. With frustrated courtesy, I waited for him to mention Holmes.

“Not to pry, old man, but it can’t be easy making ends meet in London on an army pension.”

“No, indeed,” I confessed. “But I have no leads on any decent digs, and couldn’t make the rent on my own even if I had.”

“Couldn’t you find a fellow to go halves with you?” His eyes shifted ever so slightly. “That is to say…”

Good God.

“…I know a chap…”

Surely not.

“…who was telling me just the other day that he’d found a cosy set of rooms on Baker Street. He’s looking to split the cost. He told me he’d be much obliged if I could introduce him to any old school friends who might meet his stringent criteria.”

Stamford’s smile edged toward a brighter grin, and I realised Holmes probably hadn’t had to bribe him to participate in this farce after all. There wasn’t a drop of cruelty in Stamford, but he had a relish for the foibles of his neighbors that reminded me of nothing so much as an Austen heroine. Possibly I should never have told him so. “He said in particular that he was looking for a fellow who was trained to treat combat injuries, cognizant of household poisons, untroubled by anatomical relics, and soldierly in his standards of cleanliness. I’m sure the city is lousy with such chaps, but somehow I thought of you first.”

The chair to my left drew back with a loud scrape as a bizarre figure in a bright red false beard deposited himself at our table. “You’ve trimmed the meat out of it, Stamford,” he chided. “You’re too diplomatic by half. I’m also looking for a fellow lodger with a regrettable gambling habit who knows his way around a gun, makes a point of rescuing strangers, darns his own socks, and is at this moment repenting of polite pretenses.”

“Dr. John Watson,” Stamford said with a flourish, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”

I stared at Holmes, Holmes stared at me, and Stamford stared at the both of us.

“The gambling dig was uncalled for,” I said, finally.

“Nonsense. Criticism is only uncalled for if it is inaccurate or one-sided, and that was neither. On my side, I ingest a variety of questionable substances, bareknuckle box, set fires, insult police, and constantly exude a level of genius that is almost universally mistaken for either madness or chicanery.”

“You’re also terrible at disguises.” I reached over and pulled off his beard with a single tug.

“My disguises are thoroughly effective and based on psychological factors too abstruse for the layman to grasp.”

I borrowed Stamford’s pen and scribbled psychology – nil on the back of a napkin.

“The point,” Holmes continued, “is that it’s just as well for two gentlemen to know the worst of each other before they begin to live together.”

“I asked for an introduction. I did not propose, nor will I accept, a room share.”

“You are living in a hotel. The only way you could get less for your money in London would be to live in a cab. You ought to be begging for a room share.”

I sat back, sighed, and pressed the heels of my palms against my eyes.

“Just let me show you the place,” Holmes said quietly. “It’s a nice suite, I give you my word. Look at it before you decide.”

For the first time, he seemed earnest. Why that should have carried weight with me I cannot say, but it did. So I joined him in bidding Stamford goodbye, and then we walked to Baker Street through the drizzle and gathering fog.

The landlady greeted me kindly when we arrived, though she gave Holmes no more than a strained smile. She directed us upstairs, giving us free rein to inspect the rooms. The first floor sitting room was lovely; fully furnished, with wide windows and a fire blazing in the grate. My shoulder and leg, stiff even at the best of times, ached sharply at the transition from the cold outdoors to the heated parlour. I moved to the window farthest from the fire, stumbling slightly, and looked out onto the street until I could fully command my countenance. Holmes affected not to notice, which was very decent of him. Once I turned back to face the room I spied a dog basket near the hearth.

“Did you bring that in, Holmes? For Gladstone?”

“Of course. I dropped it off this morning. My invitation to share rooms extends to you both.”

I regarded him curiously. “But why? Surely you could find almost anyone to share a place like this with you? Why not someone you know better?”

Holmes struck a match on the heel of his shoe and lit a cigarette. He settled into one of the armchairs before the fire and puffed contemplatively.

“It’s rare to find someone who reacts to crime, or to me, the way you do,” he said at last. “I’d like to know you better.”

“I’m not sure you’re likely to find me at my best.”

“You feel…ashamed,” he observed. “About the war?”

“I’m proud of my service,” I said firmly. “I don’t regret what I did in the field. But my attitude and expectations beforehand were sheer idiocy. That’s all there is to it. It’s never easy to realise you’ve been a fool.”

I felt sure that most of the people who knew me before the war would have told me that I was no fool. Holmes did not tell me anything of the kind. He allowed my confession to rest unanswered while he smoked, but he was clearly turning it over in his mind.

“Dr. Watson, first let me say that I respect your candor. You are just returned from a scene of tragedy and disaster, it’s only natural that the mistakes of the past should loom large in your mind’s eye. For myself, I find it better to direct my concerns to the future. If you will pardon both the egotism and the change of subject, then may I ask – would living with a genius make you feel foolish?”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it would at times.”

His brow creased. “Would that make you unhappy?”

“I hope not. I have no aspirations to legendary intellect, my pride never took that direction. But I had terrible ambitions for honor and glory, I’m afraid. Being back in London reminds me of the confidence I used to feel when I lived here. I’m not sorry to have lost it, for it was undeserved, but in its absence my life seems…rather grey.”

“Perhaps I can offer you a trade, then,” Holmes said. “In place of your old foolishness, why not try a new and less common variety of heroics, in my company? In time, I think you may feel the better for it.”

To own the truth, I felt the better for it already. Perhaps he read as much in my face.

“Will you stay, then?”

For answer, I settled in the armchair opposite him. Adjusted now to the warmth of the room, I could appreciate the cheery fireside.

Holmes rubbed his hands together in triumph and dashed off to find his fiddle. I heard the door to his bedroom open, and a moment later a drowsy Gladstone emerged and trotted over to greet me.

“Really, Holmes?” I sighed. “You kidnapped my dog?”

“Consider it aggressive barter.” I groaned, but he continued unperturbed. “I’m swapping you a fine set of rooms in exchange, remember. I don’t see that you have any grounds for complaint. Now take the little beast up to your new room and get yourself settled.”

I walked up the stairs and, for the first time in ages, found it easy to make myself at home.