Dr. John Watson was not altogether happy.
He hadn’t been, in fact, for some time – not since he’d been wounded and shipped back to London three months previous. Yanked from the one place in the world where he felt useful, where his presence meant something. Where people needed him.
He shifted in his seat, grimacing in pain as the car bounced along a road that could only generously be called maintained. He’d been met at the train station in Yorkshire more than an hour ago, and had barely had time to stretch his sore muscles and try to work the stiffness out of his leg and shoulder before he was being ushered into a car by a grey-suited driver, impatient to deliver him to his new assignment.
His assignment – not back in France at the field hospital scarce miles from the front. Not where people – soldiers bleeding out their lives on foreign soil – counted on him for a second chance. No – to his new assignment as resident physician at an Englishman’s private manor.
Resident physician at what was, for all intents and purposes, a convalescent home for odds and ends of the British elite.
He turned the phrase over in his mind, finding it lacking on so many levels. He wasn’t a physician. He was a military doctor – a field surgeon – putting Britain’s young men back together, staving off death for them so they could fight another day.
He frowned, staring at the hand clenched in his lap.
John Watson’s glory days of saving soldiers while the earth rumbled beneath his feet were over.
He should be happy. Relieved. He knew quite a few field surgeons who’d have jumped at the chance to abandon their posts for a boring assignment like this one. He, however, would just as soon return to his former post.
Would just as soon have back the use of his arm.
And since he was asking for the impossible, he’d take back his old life in London. His fledgling practice. His tiny flat. His clever, beautiful wife.
He flexed his left hand – his dominant one – and tried to make a fist. He could barely press his fingers against the palm of his hand. Wielding a scalpel would be impossible.
The sun had set and twilight lingered, the first stars just beginning to poke through in a sky wide and clear, when the car finally pulled off the main road and stopped before a pair of tall wrought iron gates. The driver beeped his horn twice and they waited – the driver not too patiently – until someone appeared to open the gates. The driver drove on without a thank you or a wave, and John glanced over to see the gateman staring at him with unabashed curiosity.
Gateman was another generous statement. The man was dressed like a gardener, far too old to serve, and had a weathered look about him, as if he’d spent more time in the sun than indoors. John had the feeling that he watched the car until it was out of sight down the drive, and the feeling of being watched did little to calm his increasingly jumpy nerves.
The estate – for estate it was – belonged to a man of some standing in the British government, or so John had been told. He’d had very little information, actually, only that he was being given an assignment of indeterminate length as the resident physician at the estate of Mr. Mycroft Holmes in Yorkshire, where he would, in addition, serve at Mr. Holmes’ personal physician. That Mr. Holmes was “of extreme importance” to the British government, despite his lack of rank or title, and that his inability to perform surgery with his injured arm would not interfere – in the least – with his ability to attend to Mr. Holmes and his convalescent “guests” at the estate.
It was all very odd, and more than a bit mysterious.
However, Captain John Watson was accustomed to following orders.
Even orders to leave his uniforms behind and wear civilian clothing, despite how unusual the request. Two packed suitcases had been delivered to his quarters the night before.
Suits – in grey, navy and black –all in the more simple, less adorned wartime style. No vest, pocket flaps or trouser cuffs. Plain white shirts – six of them. Ties in solids and stripes. Black shoes and socks.
An assortment of more casual shirts and trousers, vests and pants, pajamas and dressing gowns.
Hats to match each suit and two more, less formal, for every day outdoor use.
Swim shorts – three sets.
And despite the simplicity of style and colour, every piece was well-cut and well-made, tailored to fit his shorter than average stature.
He was wearing the grey suit now, and despite his initial misgivings about the apparent formality of his new environment, he’d hardly noticed the lack of his familiar uniform, nor did he miss it. If he were completely honest with himself, he felt less of a farce these days in civilian clothes.
The farce, he thought grimly as a rambling old manor rose into sight, was that he was expected to care for injured convalescents when he wasn’t much more than one of the same himself.
The car pulled up into the circle before the entrance and John let his gaze sweep over the stately old building, the bushes and hedges that were trimmed but not manicured. The manor was not neglected – but from the exterior, at least, John had the idea that the garden staff was doing just enough to keep up appearances.
Garden crew. That was it, wasn’t it? These days, resources were scarce. Nearly every able-bodied man who could was fighting the Germans. Old men and children, wives and daughters – those were the garden crews, the at-home work force, these days.
The driver opened his door, pulling him out of his musings.
“This is it, Dr. Watson.”
He was brusque – professional, but not friendly. Probably accustomed to chauffeuring Holmes and his high-placed friends and family. He waited for John to extract himself from the vehicle and right himself with his cane, not attempting to help him, then followed him to the door, carrying the two suitcases.
“There you are at last.” The woman who opened the door looked past John and addressed the chauffeur. “Simon – Mr. Holmes would like you to take Dr. Watson’s bags to the Westminster Suite in the west wing.” She stepped back as Simon dutifully headed off with the suitcases, then her gaze rested at last on John.
She seemed pleasant enough, John thought. Brown hair flecked with grey and done up in a loose bun. Dark grey dress with the barest hint of white trim at the wrists and collar. Sturdy shoes. Apron tied about the waist, drooping slightly on one side. She looked as if she’d made it to the tail end of a very long day and was gathering up strength to deal with the newcomer, all the while maintaining a positive attitude.
Wartime, John thought. Wartime changed everyone and everything.
The woman, apparently finished with her scrutiny of John’s person, pushed the door closed behind him.
“Come in then, come in. We’ve been expecting you, Dr. Watson. Mr. Holmes will be leaving in the car that brought you, but I’m told he wants a word with you before he goes. He’s gone more than he’s here, isn’t he, so you’ll need your orders – we do hope you last longer than the last one – two weeks. Two weeks! It’s as if they find this wholesome ountry air an imposition! Now come along – I’m to take you to up to Mr. Holmes straight away. You’ll be wanting tea so I’ll have Annie bring it up. I’m Mrs. Hudson, by the way, and just to be clear, I’m not the housekeeper. My late husband was the grounds manager here – and Mr. Holmes kept me on to keep things going while he’s away, you know.”
“Of course – right.” John nodded awkwardly, following behind the woman as she started down the passageway to the left.
“Two flights of stairs, Dr. Watson.” Mrs. Hudson gamely marched ahead of him, stopping at the bottom of a wide stairway leading up into darkness. “We keep the lights down, of course.” She lowered her voice. “I know you can manage it – your leg isn’t really injured now, is it?”
By great force of will, John kept his mouth from falling open. He cleared his throat, realising that an ugly or angry retort would accomplish nothing – everything she knew about him must have come from Mycroft Holmes, and everything he knew came from John’s private military records. Records, he noted, that apparently weren’t very private at all. No one seeing him going about with limp and cane would assume he was simply imagining an injury.
“He’s very hopeful – almost optimistic,” Mrs. Hudson continued as she climbed the stairs and he struggled to keep up. There might be no logical medical reason for the pain and weakness in his leg but he felt it as keenly as the bullet in his shoulder. “This time, he hand-picked you, didn’t he? Colonel Littleton was here himself just two weeks ago with the dossiers – I did the serving myself, though don’t you forget I’m not a servant here – and I hope I don’t offend you when I tell you that the colonel thought you might not be up to the job what with your injuries and limitations. But Mr. Holmes – Mr. Holmes, he thought otherwise.”
John quickly filed away this new information. Holmes, apparently, was a man to be watched – and not necessarily trusted.
“This last doctor – the one that only lasted two weeks – what made him leave?” John struggled up the second long flight of stairs as Mrs. Hudson slowed her pace and walked alongside him instead of in front of him.
“Dr. Chandler? Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know.”
She became suddenly, uncharacteristically, quiet at that point, and John had the idea that she knew quite a bit more about Dr. Chandler’s departure than she was letting on.
“But that’s when Mr. Holmes had the idea to find an army doctor,” she said, brightly. “And here you are.”
She had stopped in front of a closed door – the third one in a long corridor full of dark paneling, somber portraits and solid oak doors. She turned to face him and he stood at attention as she studied him more carefully than she had before.
“Mr. Holmes is – well, he’s rather abrupt. He doesn’t waste words, and he has certain expectations of all of the staff. He doesn’t spend much time here, so we’re left alone to go about our business most of the time.” She lowered her voice and glanced down the passageway. “We need a doctor here, Dr. Watson. Don’t let Mr. Holmes scare you away.”
John smiled wryly. What Mrs. Hudson failed to understand was that, despite the civilian clothes, he was an officer in the British Army and this was his assignment. Complaining about conditions here would get him nowhere – he might be the only man in the King’s service who actually preferred the impossible conditions of a field hospital to solid stone walls two hundred years old and regular hot meals. Abandoning his post would leave him AWOL and eventually court-martialed or worse.
And John Watson didn’t willingly abandon anything.
He pushed thoughts of another life away and affected the look that had become his daily mask – a look of dutiful attention, focus on the other, complete detachment from himself.
“I’m sure I’ll get along just fine here, Mrs. Hudson,” he said. He lowered his voice, and leaned in conspiratorially. “I don’t scare easily,” he whispered, giving her the kind of reassuring smile he might have given his mother.
The smile, however, as much as it seemed to reassure Mrs. Hudson, did not seem to work on Mycroft Holmes.
John had barely made a dent in the generous plate of sandwiches the girl had brought in when Holmes entered the room through the same door John had used and silently made his way to the sideboard, where he poured a drink, then sat down in a leather chair opposite the settee where John was seated.
Holmes didn’t say anything for a long time, preferring, apparently, to study John with the same bland look on his face John so often wore himself these days. Pretending that John was of so little real interest to him that he might disappear from this spot in an eye’s blink and Mycroft Holmes would hardly notice.
“There are, currently, four persons convalescing here at the manor. Three were injured in action and the fourth is a civilian. Their medical files are waiting for you in your rooms. You will be responsible for their daily medical needs and for overseeing their treatment. We have a resident aide – Miss Molly Hooper – charged with their physical exercise regimes and spa therapy. You are free to direct her to alter the prescribed treatments as you see fit, based on the progress of each patient.”
He looked intently at John as he spoke, and if he blinked even once, John missed it. The man didn’t bother with social niceties he obviously didn’t feel. No “we’re so happy to have you here, Dr. Watson.” No “If there is anything at all I can do to make your stay more pleasant, please let me know.” Not even a “Welcome to Rosethorne Manor.”
Rosethorne – he’d raised an eyebrow at the name when he’d first read his orders. It wasn’t exactly a welcoming name in an area that boasted the kind of raw, natural beauty that made a person believe in a nameless, faceless God.
For his part, John willed himself to hold the other man’s gaze and tried very hard not to blink. He failed, however, when Holmes let a self-satisfied smile flit across his face and continued.
“You are to avail yourself of Miss Hooper’s services as well. And that, Dr. Watson, is an order.”
With an unnecessary flare, he extracted an envelope from his inside breast pocket and held it out to John. Despite his initial flinch, John managed to keep the stoic look on his face as he accepted the envelope, extracted a single sheet of paper and scanned it.
Orders indeed. Medical orders passed down by his superior – they apparently weren’t giving up on him as a surgeon yet. He returned the document to the envelope and handed it back to Holmes, acknowledging his understanding with a silent nod. They could have him squeeze balls and pick up marbles full time from now until the end of this interminable war and he still would be useless in the operating theater. He was a doctor for Christ’s sake – he understood what physical therapy could and couldn’t do.
“You will have full access to the grounds, as well as to the patient and medical facilities and the swimming pool. In your explorations of the property, if you encounter a locked door, be assured that it is locked for a reason. I have been informed of your proclivity to wander at night – when your … dreams … keep you awake.”
Only a man accustomed to scrutinising an adversary would have noticed the slight tightening of John’s jaw. Mycroft Holmes noticed.
“My rooms…?” John led, letting Holmes take it for what he would – question, statement, barely veiled request to leave his company.
“Are removed from the others,” Holmes said neatly. “We’ve put you in the west wing – the staff sleep on the third floor of the east wing.” He paused. “Your psychiatrist has prescribed fresh air and long walks, Dr. Watson. You will find opportunities for both in abundance at the manor. Neither myself nor any of the residents or staff are here to be your minders – your recovery, so to speak, is completely up to you.”
John had been in the service far too long to feel betrayed by what most would consider a breach of confidence. Holmes was a civilian, after all, high-placed or not, and obviously knew even more about John’s injuries – physical and traumatic – than he’d so far revealed to John. He wondered who else besides Mrs. Hudson knew.
“Thank you.” John was careful to look Holmes in the eye as he spoke. He was all-too-familiar with power plays.
“Mrs. Hudson serves as a matron with the patients. She isn’t formally trained, but is well-liked and quite able to see to their needs and to interpret medical orders. She will tell you she is not their nurse – don’t believe her.” There was a trace of humour in that last statement, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
“I will be leaving shortly and may be gone as long as a month. I remain in contact with my key staff while I’m away and they will appraise me of any important developments.”
John nodded. Of course. Don’t let the mice play while the cat was away. “I’m quite sure all will be in order from my end,” he said.
“As am I,” said Holmes. He stood then, and walked to the window, where he gazed out into the darkness for some time while John stared at his back, for all appearances patiently waiting.
“There is one more thing,” Holmes began, almost as an afterthought. “Another resident here. You aren’t likely to cross paths – he’s an invalid and has his own caretaker. But if there is a true medical emergency, you may be called upon to assist.”
John wondered why the subject of this man had only now come up, but shrugged. He didn’t think an occasional consult would be out of his realm of expertise, and frankly, was thankful there was someone else employed to tend to the man’s daily needs. “I’d be happy to offer the same to the other members of your household as well,” he said.
“Of course you would,” snapped Holmes, narrowing his eyes. “You are the resident physician – not the private doctor for our four convalescents.” He leveled his gaze at John, then turned and sighed. His mood had turned, John noted, since he’d brought up the subject of this additional patient at Rosethorne.
“Mrs. Hudson will show you your quarters and introduce you to the staff and the patients.”
“I’ll treat this assignment as seriously as any other,” John said as Mrs. Hudson, who’d likely been hovering about in the corridor, opened the door. “And I trust you know I never abandon a post or sleep on the job.”
“Of course I do, Dr. Watson.” The man was staring at him now, staring through him, John thought. Seeing parts of him he’d rather keep under wraps. He picked up his scotch and downed the remainder with a practiced swallow, then set the glass back on the sideboard and stared out the window again. “I hand-picked you, after all.”
He seemed to be talking to the night, to someone hovering about in the air before him, and not to John at all.
Mrs. Hudson touched his arm. “Come, Dr. Watson. I’m sure you’d like to clean up a bit before dinner. It’s fish tonight.”
He glanced back at Mycroft Holmes as he followed Mrs. Hudson from the room. The man remained at the window, staring out into the dark, his profile sharp in the lamplight. He didn’t look altogether healthy, and John wondered what weight he was carrying, and what part he was playing in this endless war.
He wondered if he’d be here at Rosethorne long enough to find out.
“It’s too late for a formal tour so we’ll save that for tomorrow. I’ll have Annie fetch you for breakfast at seven thirty. You will be awake by then, won’t you? I wouldn’t want the girls to be frightened if they have to wake you and find you in one of your fits.”
“Mrs. Hudson – I have nightmares - not fits.” He spoke calmly, wondering why Holmes had seen fit to share such details with this particular woman, and who else in the household was in on the secret.
“Nightmares with thrashing,” she said sagely. “You broke a nurse’s nose.”
John stopped in his tracks, watching as Mrs. Hudson walked ahead until she realized he wasn’t following her. He took the time to take several deep breaths, pushing the air out more vigorously than he should. He might be totally powerless in regards to where he was assigned and the responsibilities given him, but he did not have to tolerate such a blatant violation of his privacy.
By the time Mrs. Hudson turned around, he’d managed to regain some semblance of control.
“Mrs. Hudson,” he began.
He must have looked less in control than he thought because she brought her hand to her face and muttered “Oh dear.”
“May I ask – please – just exactly who told you that last bit of information?”
“I – I read it.” She seemed to be quite flustered. “No one told me. I saw – I mean – I was cleaning, and Mr. Holmes had left it – your file. On the desk. It was open, and I took a peek. I – I couldn’t help myself. Do forgive me, Dr. Watson. It wasn’t right – please don’t tell Mr. Holmes. I … I don’t know what I’d do – where I’d go….”
John didn’t comment as she fumbled through the explanation. She was afraid – of that he was sure – but she wasn’t blushing and didn’t seem at all embarrassed to have been caught out. The fear came from another place, and it made him wary, and curious.
“Mrs. Hudson – please. I understand. Just – no more, alright? And if you haven’t already, no word to the other staff, please. We all like to start in new places with a clean slate, and I’m hoping to have a smooth go of it here.”
Her relief was obvious as she smiled back at him. “Of course. Not a word. We all have our pasts, don’t we?” she said enigmatically.
They didn’t speak much after that, and when John was safely delivered to his comfortable and spacious quarters, he divested himself of coat and shoes and sat on the edge of the bed, then let himself fall back and stared at the ceiling.
Mrs. Hudson was lying.
She’d made a point of telling him she wasn’t the housekeeper and didn’t do the cleaning at Rosethorne Manor.
She hadn’t stumbled upon that file accidentally.
There was something else at play here – something curious.
Something that might take his mind, for a time a least, from the dreariness and hopelessness of his future as a disabled army doctor.
He fell asleep that evening after a plain but hearty meal, and his restless dreams of dark halls and shadowed faces and whispers in the night were nearly as disturbing as his usual nightmares of struggling to keep his grip on a bloody scalpel as soldier after soldier bled out his life beneath John’s clumsy fingers.