Springtime colds are often the most trying, I find. It hardly seems fair to succumb when the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and all the world seems joyful and free at last of winter’s bane. So it was with great reluctance that I finally admitted to myself that my persistent sniffling and constant exhaustion was more than just a passing trifle. Finally resigned, I prescribed to myself what I would for any patient of mine: a powder for the headache and low fever, plenty of liquids for the aching throat, and several days of rest. At least Holmes was off in Newcastle for a case. He would not be inconvenienced (or worse, disgusted) by my invalidish ways. Surely I could manage to rid myself of this mild illness long before his scheduled return, a fortnight hence.
So I told myself, and so I hoped. But despite my best efforts and Mrs. Hudson’s kind nurturing, my cold moved from my head down into my chest, turning into a deep, persistent cough that kept me awake at all hours. I soon found myself too exhausted to leave my room, too enervated to find entertainment in any of my books or journals, and too miserable to think of any remedy. I longed for respite, but could find no relief. Bored, sick, and wretched, I tossed restlessly in my bed.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to send for a doctor?” Mrs. Hudson asked me on the third day that found me too weak to rise from my bed for more than the basic necessities. Her brows knit with concern.
“No need,” I sighed, and barely managed to stifle yet another cough. “What fever I had has abated, and I can treat my own remaining symptoms well enough. Unfortunately, no doctor in the world can cure the common cold. The only remedy is time.”
“If you say so, Doctor.” I could tell from her frown that Mrs. Hudson did not agree with my refusal to have another doctor give me a second opinion, but thankfully she let the subject drop. I was too tired to want to argue further.
Another day dragged by, and yet another. I felt myself improving, but with lamentable slowness that all too often felt like no progress at all. I needed sleep to recover fully, but with violent coughs still unpredictably wracking my frame, a good night’s sleep was all too unlikely to occur. Nonetheless, I found myself heartily wishing I could somehow magically plunge myself into unconsciousness and not wake up until I was completely well.
I was, in fact, contemplating the dubious wisdom of taking a strong dose of poppy syrup when I heard the front door slam, and Holmes’ voice loudly summoning Mrs. Hudson. My eyes widened in surprise. Holmes was nearly a week early. I hoped this meant his case had gone unexpectedly well. The high spirits of a successful conclusion might help defray the annoyance of returning to find his fellow lodger confined to his bed, and the sitting room more resembling a sick-room. My efforts to listen further were frustrated by yet another fit of deep, chest-rattling coughs. By the time the spasm passed, I could no longer hear Holmes or Mrs. Hudson.
I half expected to see him appear at my door. Holmes does not stand on propriety, and I have rarely known a sickroom to deter him. He likes to talk over his cases with me, at least the successful ones. And to be truthful, I longed for his company. Even without the tedium of my illness, it seemed an age since I had last seen his keen, mobile features or heard his voice.
Much to my disappointment, minutes passed without any sign of my fellow-lodger. Eventually I realized that he was not going to come to my room, probably out of consideration for my health. Just before I could sink into the most unreasonable depression over his absence, I heard the first notes from his violin spiral up to my ears from the sitting-room. It was one of my favorite pieces, and it was followed by another, and yet another, played as beautifully as I have ever heard them. Holmes is a master of his instrument, but he surpassed himself that evening. I felt his presence in the room with every note, along with his concern and his caring, more clearly expressed than he would ever convey in words. Soothed by the sounds of my favorite melodies played by my dearest friend, I finally slipped into a light slumber.
When my third wire to Watson requesting his assistance went unanswered in as many days, my initial annoyance at his uncharacteristic lack of response changed to mild concern, and then to actual alarm. A single telegram might go astray. Occasionally Watson had patients that kept him from home for as much as twenty-four hours at a stretch. But three days? Three wires to his attention, with not a single word in reply?
Something was amiss. Very amiss.
I wrapped up my investigations in Newcastle with frantic haste, condensing what should have taken five more days with the proper care into a rushed, risky, and sleepless day and a half. By the middle of the second day I was on the London train, alone in my first-class compartment except for the twin spectres of worry and exhaustion. I spent the journey alternately dozing fitfully and pacing the small compartment while smoking the last of my cigarettes. I cannot say now which were worse, my half-sleeping nightmares of what might have befallen my friend, or my waking, more rational concerns.
It was almost nightfall by the time I reached Baker Street. Rarely had I been so glad to see the place, but I felt another chill finger of fear as I realized our sitting-room was dark, the gas-lamps unlit. If Watson had been at home, the lights would be burning cheerily. Where was he?
I hastily paid the hansom driver and barely remembered to snatch up my carpetbag before dashing up the steps and charging into the entryway. “Mrs. Hudson!” I bellowed.
“Good heavens, Mr. Holmes!” Mrs. Hudson scolded, emerging from her rooms. “Anyone would think there was a fire, the way you’re shouting.”
I took in her unusually snappish words, absorbing them along with her tired, somewhat rumpled appearance and the lines of visible worry around her eyes. All spoke of some unusual trouble, and I had no difficulty deducing the source. “Watson,” I gasped, feeling all my fears press in on me along with the effects of too-little rest. “Where is he?”
Mrs. Hudson blinked up at me in confusion. “In his bedroom, or so I should hope, unless your commotion has disturbed him.”
“What?” Relief warred with perplexity. What on earth was Watson doing abed at this hour? I opened my mouth to ask just that, only to freeze as a dreadful coughing noise echoed from upstairs. Even with half the house separating us, the volume and depth of the coughs made my chest ache in sympathy. “He’s ill! How bad is it? What have the doctors said?”
That horrible coughing seemed to go on endlessly, utterly distracting me from everything else. I started as Mrs. Hudson took one of my arms. “He’s on the mend, Mr. Holmes, but you look a fright. Come into my parlor and have some tea, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
A few minutes later I found myself sitting on Mrs. Hudson’s horse-hair sofa, being plied with tea and sandwiches, and feeling my concern turn to confusion. “But why did he not simply wire me back and let me know?” I wondered.
A slight flush colored Mrs. Hudson’s cheeks. “Oh, Mr. Holmes, I’m afraid that’s my fault. You see, I never gave him your telegrams.”
“You what?” I had heard her words perfectly well, but at the same time, I simply failed to comprehend what she meant by them.
Nervously, she fiddled with her own cup of tea. “I did not show your messages to him, Mr. Holmes. You know perfectly well that if I had, he would have ignored his own health and rushed to your assistance. And he was sick enough as it was, and yet he wouldn’t have me call in another doctor.” She looked up at last from her cup and saucer. “All the same, I should have thought to send you word, and for that you have my deepest apologies. I just never realized that you would – well. I was wrong, that’s all.”
That I would what? Worry? Care? Notice? I did not inquire. “I should look in on him,” I said instead, and rose to my feet.
“No, Mr. Holmes, you should let him rest. Rest is what he needs most, and he’s had precious little of it with that nasty cough keeping him awake at all hours. He needs sleep now, not to hear about your journey.”
Chagrined, I bit my lip. I had just been thinking that I might amuse Watson with the story of my latest case. “Undoubtedly you are correct.”
“And you need sleep, too, Mr. Holmes. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you look as if you haven’t slept in a week, or eaten either. The last thing the doctor needs is for you to catch ill on top of – ”
I cut her off, unable to listen anymore. “Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Hudson, but I am quite well. It has been a long day of travel, however, so I shall retire to my rooms.”
“Of course, Mr. Holmes.” She gave me an odd smile, looking simultaneously wistful and somehow fond. “Ring if you need anything. Good-night.”
The memory of that look and her words followed me upstairs. Alone in the sitting-room, I paced, my body and mind both exhausted and yet unable to rest. Thoughts and impressions whirled in my mind, half-forming into sense, only to shatter as yet another terrible cough sounded from Watson’s room. I had rushed back to London to aid him, only to find myself powerless, unable to help him in any way except by leaving him in peace. I might as well have stayed in Newcastle for all the good I could do…
I frantically scrubbed my hands through my hair and snarled at myself. I was behaving in the most ridiculous fashion, and I resolved to stop it at once. My concern had been logical. I had made the right decision in returning to London, given the data I had to hand at the time. Yes, I should have wired Mrs. Hudson directly when I became concerned, but I would remember this for the future. In the meantime, I would banish these churning emotions disrupting my thoughts and disturbing my brain. I simply had to calm myself –
Inspiration struck. I suddenly realized how I could help myself and my Watson both. I strode to the mantel and retrieved my violin from its case. It was a matter of moments to check the tuning and adjust the strings. I knew from past experience that waking or sleeping, the sound of my violin soothed my friend, particularly when I played some of his favorite songs. A sigh worked its way free of my throat as I raised the bow to play.
I stayed in the sitting room all that evening, alone, and played Watson’s favorite melodies one after the other, as perfectly as I knew how. All of them. My awareness of my fatigue and worry faded away. All that existed was my violin, my music, and my Watson, in the universe bounded in the nutshell called 221B Baker Street.