The first I heard of it was when Headmistress Martin asked me to cover some of Miss Cameron’s mathematics classes for the last week before half term.
“I am afraid we will have to cancel your private German classes if you do, Miss Hunter, but you, at least, are organized all term,” she said. The German classes were for the small number of motivated girls that requested them; I could easily assign them some reading and take it up after the break.
“But what has happened to Miss Cameron?” I asked.
“She’s received distressing family news,” said Miss Martin. “She is in shock, and staying with her siblings.”
The headmistress would tell me no more, out of respect for Alice’s privacy, and I did not press. Instead I visited Alice as soon as I could. “I’m so sorry I didn't tell you,” she kept saying. We were rather good friends. “I just – I had to leave at once -”
“It’s all right,” I told her. “Do not worry about that.” I patted her hand and pushed a strand of her blonde hair out of her eyes, and she rubbed at her face with her handkerchief and tried to pull herself upright.
“But what will we do?” she asked, not melodramatically but practically. “Robert is only sixteen, and must leave his job now. And Marianne – what can have happened to Marianne?”
I had no answers. Alice Cameron had been supporting her much younger siblings since before I had joined the staff of the school. It had been a good arrangement so long as the next oldest, Marianne, had been home to take care of them more personally. But now Marianne had vanished, with nothing more than a note saying, Please don’t worry about me. I shall be fine. The police were looking for her, but with little dispatch – she was of age, and parentless, and had, they thought, clearly left of her own accord, though Alice could not believe that.
All I could do was make Alice tea and ensure that she did not neglect to eat. The schedule was sorted out, more or less, and classes ended without too much difficulty. Alice managed to teach some of her lessons, with a face like death.
I visited her the first day of half term, and her brother Robert took the three younger children out so we might talk. I wanted to cheer her; she should not wear herself out with worry. But I could not suggest anything of the sort – she would only shake her head and start fretting again. Instead I made her tell me all that had happened, though I could not shed much light on the matter.
“She told me nothing,” she said. “I heard nothing, none of the children did. We simply woke up the next morning and she was gone. She took a bag, all her clothes and things, it looks like she wished to go, but if that was so why wouldn’t she have told us, Violet? There’s no way for us to contact her, no information at all – surely she wouldn’t have given us so little!”
I never know what to say at such times, and I had not known Marianne Cameron well enough to say what she would or would not do. I could only nod, and pour tea, and let her talk until she felt at least a little better.
“I know I shouldn’t dwell on it so, Violet, but I can do nothing,” she said at last. “I have been to the police three times, and they say they are looking now but I can’t believe them. But there isn’t anything else I can do.”
Her tone reminded me of my own concerns in another situation, when the police would have been useless but I needed advice. An idea began to form in my head. “There is something,” I said.
“What?” she gasped, hope in her eyes. I felt almost guilty for calling up the emotion when I was not sure my idea had merit, but I told her anyway.
“You can consult Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” I told her.
“Sherlock Holmes?” she said. “The man in the papers? But surely I could not afford it. And it is so small he will not take it. Kings consult him.”
“He might,” I said. “I consulted him once, before I started at Miss Martin’s. It was a very small thing, or so I thought at the start, not nearly so serious as yours. We might at least ask.”
“Do you truly think he might help?” she asked.
“We should try,” I said. I could not look at the hope in her face without trying to do something. “We can send a telegram.”
“Not a telegram,” said Alice. “I couldn't bear waiting and not hearing anything.”
“But then we should have to go in person,” I said.
She hesitated. Then she said, with a little despair in her tone, “If she has not come home yet on her own, she likely won't. I'll ask Miss Martin and Robert to keep a watch, of course, but I know better than to hope, Violet.”
“Oh, Alice,” I said. “It may not be so bad. You must see Mr. Holmes.”
She nodded, lips pressed together. “You must come with me,” she said. “Classes are over. Please.”
I blinked. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I will.”
“Thank you so much, Violet,” she said, taking my hand and gazing at me earnestly. “I should never have the courage to go on my own.”
I blushed a little. Alice is very attractive when she looks at one like that. It was nothing serious I felt, not for her – I knew she was quite normal, and in fact dreamed of a marriage to someone who could support her siblings and prevent her from ever needing to teach again. But I can’t control my reactions, not always.
And so we did. I had no family of my own, and otherwise would likely have remained at the school for the holiday. I had enough savings to rent a room in London, so we should manage for the time – hopefully only a few nights – that we might have to stay. Alice placed her trust in Robert for the care of their siblings. I have never seen another boy of sixteen so responsible, but then my experience of the species is largely limited to the privileged brothers of my pupils in my days as a governess.
On the train Alice could not sit still, and she paced back and forth before me, drawing the attention of the other passengers. At last I pulled her to the seat next to mine and placed my arm about her shoulders. She was worrying herself to no purpose, and I could think of no distraction that would truly cover the dire thoughts she must be having, but at least she should not have to face them alone.
All that was visible of the city as we entered was the backs of houses and factories. Alice, who had never been to London, observed them with little interest between her bouts of worry. When we arrived at the station she stared at the masses of people before biting her lip and turning to me. “Where do we go?” she said.
“We can walk, I believe.” I guided her out of the station to the street. I knew London well enough from when I had lived there, and so we did not have to spend our little money on cabs or even omnibuses. I didn’t want to take Alice on an omnibus, as distressed as she was – we had attracted notice even on the train.
It was not so far, and I recognized the streets soon enough. However, when we reached 221B Baker Street we were met by the housekeeper, who told us firmly that Mr. Holmes was not there.
“When will he be back?” I asked, seeing that Alice looked horrified.
“I’m afraid I don’t know, miss. These cases of his – it might be a day, it might be a month.”
“Oh no,” said Alice.
“Dr. Watson,” I said quickly. “Is he in?”
She raised her eyebrows, and might have recognized me then. “Bless you, miss, Dr. Watson doesn’t live here anymore. Hasn’t for over a year.”
“Then where is he now?” I asked.
The housekeeper’s eyes flicked back and forth between my companion, with her pale wretched face, and myself, no doubt looking quite unfemininely determined. At last she said, “He has a practice near Paddington Station. But don’t you go bothering him outside of his office hours.” She gave us his address, however, and I thanked her and pulled Alice away.
It was not so very far away, though city walking is never easy on one’s feet. We came in a little time to a small, neat brick house with a brass plate next to the door announcing that we were in the right place. I knocked with rather more courage than I felt – I remembered the doctor, but there was no particular reason he would remember me, especially if he was no longer working with Sherlock Holmes.
The door was opened by a blonde woman about my age, with a sweet but angular face. She didn’t look at all like a servant, though she smiled and said, “Yes?”
“We’re here to see Dr. Watson,” I said.
“The doctor’s out, I’m afraid. Dr. Anstruther, next door, will see you.” She began to close the door, and I put out my hand.
“It’s not a medical matter,” I said. “We were hoping that the doctor would be able to get a message to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, or at least know where he is.”
“Oh,” she said, startled. “Well, John does know where he is, because he’s with him. They’re both in Kent, but I’m afraid it’s a very urgent matter, and I don’t know when they will be back. Even if I sent a message, I think the case will take priority.”
“Oh no,” said Alice, worn down by the grind of too much rejection. “Oh no, oh no, oh no...”
I turned to her in worry. She was chalk white, and her hands were tightly fisted in her skirt. She had dropped her bag. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “Alice,” but she did not look at me.
“Oh dear,” said the woman at the door. “Why don’t you come in so she can sit down?”
“Thank you very much,” I said, wrapping my arm around Alice’s shoulders. “Come in, Alice. Just walk this way.”
The woman – she must, I thought, be the lady of the house – lent a hand, and together we got Alice settled in an armchair, and our hostess rang for tea.
“You are Mrs. Watson?” I asked absently, chafing Alice’s hand between my own.
“Yes,” said our hostess. “It is the parlourmaid’s afternoon off, you see. Alice,” she said, catching my friend by the shoulders. “I need you to breathe for me. Inhale, now.”
Slowly we managed between us to get Alice only gasping a little instead of still and staring in shock. About then the cook brought the tea and cold water Mrs. Watson had ordered and these helped more. At last, shaking slightly, Alice leaned back in her chair and said, “I am so sorry.”
“No need,” said Mrs. Watson. “Truly, I know you could not help it. But it was a good instinct to look for the doctor when you could not find Mr. Holmes. How did you think of it? No one else has come here for that reason, that I know of.”
“Violet thought of it,” said Alice.
“I consulted Mr. Holmes some years ago,” I explained. Mrs. Watson raised her eyebrows in interest, and I said, “Oh, I am so sorry. I am Violet Hunter, and this is Miss Alice Cameron.”
“Mary Watson,” she said. “What were you consulting him for? My husband has told me of some of their cases together.”
“I was thinking of taking a position as a governess, but my employer made a rather strange request. It turned out I was right in being concerned, but I had no suspicion of how right until Mr. Holmes cleared it up.”
“I hope you were not harmed?” she said.
“No. It was my employer’s daughter, you see – she looked like me, and he wished to make it seem from a distance that I was her, when in fact he had imprisoned her in her room.”
I felt I was rather muddling the explanation, but Mrs. Watson said, “Oh! I think John told me of that case. There was a dog, wasn’t there?”
“Yes. I remembered the doctor because he was the one who shot the beast, and because he was so kind.”
“He is,” she said, smiling. “I was a governess before my marriage, you know. I was quite glad I had managed to find a position in the city, with an employer I was fond of.”
“That is lucky,” said Alice. “I am so glad to be at a school, and able to stay near my siblings and to have some freedom from dependency on a single family.”
“It is hard to find a good position,” said Mrs. Watson. “After my father’s death I was left quite alone in the city.”
“And you can never truly know anything about a family before you are all at once asked to live in their midst,” I said. That was rather how I felt about husbands as well, though I did not say it.
“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Watson. Then she turned to Alice. “Why have you come for Mr. Holmes, then? Is it something at the school?”
“No,” said Alice, “it’s my sister. She’s gone. She left, and there was a note, but it said so little, and she told us nothing, and I have no idea where she is.”
“Oh, my dear. I wish I could help you,” said Mrs. Watson. “I will wire them, if you wish. But if this current problem of his is not finished, Mr. Holmes will not return. I know it; I’ve tried to summon John back before.”
“What shall we do?” said Alice, wilting, though she did not return to her earlier panic.
“We could engage a room and wait,” I said. “I know of a ladies’ boarding house nearby. We can stay until the end of half term at least; we will manage.”
There was a ring on the bell. “Do excuse me,” said Mrs. Watson. “Good heavens, we aren’t this popular during John’s office hours.”
She rose to answer the door. There was a murmured conversation. Alice stared at the fire and said nothing.
Mrs. Watson reentered holding a telegram and glowing. “John and Mr. Holmes are finished with the case,” she said. “They shall return tomorrow morning.”
“Oh!” said Alice, smiling for the first time since we had arrived in London.
“You see, it will likely all go well,” I said. “We should go to a boarding house, then.”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Watson. “It is only one night. You can stay in the guest room.”
“Oh, we can’t,” said Alice and I, more or less simultaneously.
“I won't hear of anything else,” said Mrs. Watson. We could not convince her otherwise, and therefore we had dinner with her as well. She was charming and intelligent, and we naturally had a great deal in common from our similar lives. She clearly paid attention to news and science and her husband’s work, and a teacher must have at least an idea of such things, and so she and I managed to keep Alice’s mind off her distress. I wondered, though, at Mrs. Watson’s eagerness to talk – if her husband was often absent, perhaps she was starved for conversation, and had few friends -
I stopped that line of thought at once. I knew better.
After dinner we talked further, and failed to interest Alice in games or much other entertainment. At last Mrs. Watson told her how she herself had consulted Mr. Holmes, and I did as well, and we more or less convinced her that she had nothing to be afraid of.
It grew late quicker than I had expected. Mrs. Watson rose as soon as Alice appeared tired, and showed us the spare room – a little small, but with large windows, and spotlessly clean. “Will you be retiring now as well, Miss Hunter?” she asked, and I nodded.
“It was a long journey, and I hope she will come with me in the morning,” said Alice.
“Yes,” Mrs. Watson said. “You are very close.”
It seemed almost like she might mean more than she was saying, and I hesitated in answering. Alice, with no such considerations, said, “Very close, for such a short time.”
“We’ve only known each other since I started at Miss Martin’s,” I said. “But I hate to see her unhappy.”
“Of course,” she said. “Good night, then.”
“Good night.” Mrs. Watson held my gaze after I spoke for a little longer, before turning, as if she wanted to say something but did not know what. I did not speak, but I smiled, and let her look away first.
And so Mrs. Watson went to her empty bed and Alice and I to the spare room. Alice fell into sleep almost at once, and I curled up with my back to her, listening to her breathing, and the servants retiring, and the sounds of London outside the window. I did not sleep for a long time, thinking of the house, with its five women all – so far as I knew – separate and alone, each in her own way.