In the year 1878 I finished my training in nursing at the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, and proceeded to work for a short time in that hospital. Wishing to travel but bereft of funds, I applied to the army for a position abroad. I was sent to India, but upon landing at Bombay I learned that the second Afghan war had broken out. I followed it into the enemy's country with many medical personnel who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I at once entered upon my duties. The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. The medical tent I was in was far too close to the lines, and while fetching water I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I might have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the courage shown by William Murray, a young soldier who threw me across a pack-horse and succeeded in bringing me to safety. He told me his name, and despite my delirium at the time I remember it. I never saw him again.
Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed to the base hospital at Peshawur. Here I rallied, until I was suddenly struck down by enteric fever. For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I came to myself and became convalescent, I was so weak and emaciated that I was sent back to England at once, now useless as a nurse. I landed a month later on Portsmouth jetty, with my health irretrievably ruined and no source of income or ability to find one.
No one should say they were lucky to have a relation die, but on my arrival in London I admit I was relieved to find that I did have a home after all: my wastrel brother Henry had recently succumbed to illness combined with drink, and our parents’ house was the one possession which he had not surrendered, nor even, thankfully, mortgaged, in his steady path downwards. It had passed to me upon his death; however, he had left me no money to keep it up, and so alarming was the state of my finances that I soon realized that I must admit a lodger in order to avoid having to sell the house, which I had some fondness for. Therefore, I cleaned out the upstairs rooms, put advertisements in all the papers I could think of, and resigned myself to the life of a landlady.
It would not have been a natural fit for me even before the war. I told myself, however, that exhausted in body and soul as I was it would be restful, though even then I knew rest was no longer what I wanted.
I received a telegram two days later – it was January 10th – requesting a visit that afternoon to look at the rooms, and confirmed it. At the ring of the bell I answered the door myself; I had only one maid.
“Miss Watson?” The man at the door was such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. He held out his hand, which was mottled with ink-stains and speckled with bits of sticking-plaster. I placed mine in his and, thankfully, rather than kissing it he shook it as he would a man’s.
“Yes,” I said. “You have come about the rooms?”
“Indeed. I am Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “How do you do?” His gaze flicked over my person, not lingering. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
“How on earth do you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Never mind,” said he, smiling. “May I have a look at the rooms?”
“Why, yes,” I said, waving him in. “But Mr. Holmes, it is not the sort of thing a man might guess.”
“You have no other lodgers, I see,” he said, preceding me up the stairs. “This door here?” He held it open for me.
“There is no space for them,” I said. “This would be the sitting room here.” It had been my parents’ bedroom. It was, at least, spacious and well lit, though the furniture, like all the rest in the house, was shabby. He examined the rooms quickly, and accepted the highest price I dared to suggest.
“I should, I believe, warn you,” he said, when I had begun to hope I might have settled my financial difficulties. “I intend to see clients here, for my work; they may be all manner of people, some of them rather queer. That will not be a problem?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you? I shall endeavour not to burn the house down. I am well trained in chemistry. And I play the violin, which my last landlady objected to most strongly. Would you mind it?”
“It depends,” I answered. “A well-played violin is a treat for the gods – a badly-played one -”
“Oh, that's all right,” he laughed. “I think we may consider the thing as settled, if you agree.”
And it was – he advanced me the first month’s rent. I was extremely relieved.