A Beautiful Pea-Green Boat
"In retrospect, Holmes, this may not have been the best idea."
"Hindsight is always perfect, Watson. Now kindly shut up and row."
They rowed until the Lucky Marie had entirely disappeared behind endless rows of blue-green billows, rowed until they were both hunched over their oars, gasping for breath.
It was more out of instinct than any real fear of pursuit. The laughing faces hanging over the bow as they pulled away had been evidence enough that Two-Ton Charlie and his merry crew of smugglers had believed they were witnessing two people willingly incurring a death sentence, rather than a brilliant escape.
And yet the lifeboat had seemed a viable option at the time. Although that might have been because their only other choice had been voluntarily skewering themselves on the vengeful knives of a group of men who'd suddenly realized that what they'd taken for harmless swabbees were actually a famous detective and his loyal companion.
So they'd cut the ropes and let the frail craft fall into the dark water of the North Sea with a resounding and drenching thud. A few desultory shots had followed them, the bullets hissing harmlessly into the water, but no pursuers.
"We're well within the shipping lanes, old chap," Holmes assured him, as soon as they had breath to speak, "Someone will pick us up before you know it."
Watson favored him with his most disbelieving stare, already sick of the rocking boat, the harsh mid-afternoon sun glancing off the waves. It was nominally summer back in London, but you wouldn't know it out here on the open water.
"Mmm," he said, tugging at the cambric kerchief covering his head--part of their spectacularly unsuccessful disguise--and wishing like blazes he still had his hat.
"I say," Holmes said sharply, staring at the arm Watson had lifted to his head, "are you bleeding?"
"No," Watson replied—a knee-jerk response. But, in accordance with the bad luck that had been following them all day, it did turn out that the burning sensation along his forearm he'd thought caused by the snapping ropes as they'd wrangled themselves away from the ship was in fact a nasty gash, almost three inches long. There had been something of a struggle there at the end, and apparently one of the knives had struck home. His sleeve was drenched with blood.
Grimacing, Watson gingerly pulled the fabric away from the wound. The cut was severe enough that if he'd had his kit with him, he would have put in sutures; it was still bleeding sluggishly. He held his hand against it for a moment, and then, seeing no better course, plunged his arm over the side: the icy temperature would slow the bleeding, and the salt would have an antiseptic effect.
It was possible that some mental preparation would have been wise. The water was so cold it hurt and the salt burned in the cut. "Bloody hell," he yelped, and only Holmes's grip on his jacket collar kept him from toppling out of the boat.
"Steady on," Holmes said, hauling him upright, "let me."
He crouched in front of Watson, ripped a strip off the bottom of the coarse linen shirt he was wearing, and bandaged the arm tightly and efficiently. "Keep it elevated," he said, passing the injured limb back to the doctor. Watson nodded, thinking that the blood he had already lost would leave him that much more vulnerable to dehydration. He said nothing, however. Holmes's knowledge of human physiology equaled, perhaps even surpassed, his own—he would already know.
"Much obliged," Watson muttered, propping the arm up with the opposite hand.
Watson wouldn't have thought that something could be so simultaneously terrifying and boring. But a long afternoon of staring at the vast emptiness surrounding them, trying to ignore his growing hunger and thirst and the sting of his injured arm, had convinced him otherwise. For all their anxious scanning of the horizon, they could see nothing bigger than the occasional sea bird, hear nothing except the endless whoosh and crash of the waves.
They'd turned out their pockets, finding coins, keys, a few scraps of paper, one pipe (but neither tobacco nor matches), and Watson's service revolver, which he hadn't managed to fire in their brief fight.
"The next time I set myself adrift in a pitiless sea," Watson remarked, "remind me to pack a deck of cards."
"Not to mention a full bowl of tobacco," Holmes added.
Neither of them mentioned the complete lack of food or drinkable water.
A school of silvery fish swam under the bow of their tiny boat, scales glinting as they neared the surface. Watson watched them, momentarily transfixed by their sinuous patterning, their inhuman grace.
"'Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop to drink,'" Holmes mused.
"God help me, Holmes, if you start quoting poetry at me, I will toss you overboard myself," Watson told him grimly.
"Touchy, touchy," Holmes said, but desisted, returning to his silent contemplation of the sea.
Nightfall made everything worse. For a while, a half-moon lent an eerie shine to the towering waves around them, and Watson tried to recall his star charts, thinking they might attempt to row themselves in the right direction--if only they could figure out which the right direction was.
Then a slab of cloud slid across the moon with the finality of a door closing, throwing them into total darkness.
Their frail craft pitched wildly in the strengthening wind, and the rain drove into them almost horizontally, piercing Watson's thin clothes like needles. He grabbed hard at the wooden bench beneath him, instinctively hunkering down against the gale, pulling himself closer to the fragile, probably illusory, safety of the boat.
Holmes had been sitting less than two feet away, but in the sudden howling void of the storm, it was as if he had simply disappeared. Watson fought down the panicky idea that the detective had already been swept over the side. He was screaming Holmes's name before he realized he'd even opened his mouth.
Icy fingers dug into his arm, pulling him down. He followed their lead, sprawling awkwardly against the bottom of the boat, something--Holmes's arm--pressing him hard against the deck. Holmes was yelling something at him, he could feel his lips so close they grazed his ear, but such was the din of the rain, the surf, that he couldn't make out the words. Imprecations to be careful, he supposed, or other useless advice. Without warning, the boat tilted so far over that they were almost upside down. Watson's pulse pounded in his ears; his heart beat so hard he thought it might explode. But, miraculously, they remained within the narrow confines of the boat.
He had always thought the phrase "screaming timbers" merely a poetic flourish, but it turned out to be a dryly accurate description of the noise the boat's fibers made under the storm's attack. It was horrible. As was the realization that a hair's breadth of good carpentry was all that stood between them and a watery grave. Watson thought it more than likely that it would all end here and now. Still, he clung to life while he could, focusing on the weight of Holmes's body half-covering his own, the rapid rise and fall of Holmes's chest as it pressed against his back. Despite the dire nature of their situation, Watson allowed himself a tiny surge of gratitude that Holmes was still there with him.
After some endless, soul-eating span of time, the storm let up.
Watson felt as bruised and battered as if he'd gone five rounds at the Punch Bowl—with the added joy of being wet and chilled to the bone. He and Holmes scraped themselves off the bottom of the boat. By silent, mutual consent, they remained huddled together, though, sharing what little body heat they had left.
They must have slept a bit, or at least fallen into an exhausted stupor, because the next thing Watson knew, the rising sun was warming his face.
His eyelids felt raw and salt-encrusted, but he pried them open anyway. He was greeted by a world gone entirely gray. The low sky was the color of gunmetal; the sea below reflected it perfectly, as still and smooth and empty as a mirror.
Holmes was slumped against him, brows pinched in pain or distress. The detective seemed unhurt, however, so Watson eased himself away without waking him. His clothes clung to him, heavy and stiff, still damp from the storm, making it hard to move. He checked the sodden bandages on his arm--and wished he hadn't. The wound was red and angry, halfway to festering already. Though given the lack of water, infection was probably the least of their worries.
Statistics from his medical textbooks whirled through his head. A man could survive for a month without food: without water--two weeks if he were lucky. An open boat in the North Atlantic did not count as luck.
Behind him, Holmes roused himself. "Today, Watson," he said, as confident as if he were waking up in Baker St., "Someone will find us today."
It was quite possibly the most silent day Watson had ever spent in the company of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, even allowing for the time the detective's jaw had been dislocated by an irate Foreign Secretary.
But the salt air seemed to dry the words in their parched throats; and all their energy was focused on the persistently vacant horizon.
As the boat's shadow lengthened on the water, however, Holmes suddenly said, "If this goes on much longer, you must use your gun, and shoot me."
Startled from his lethargic reverie, Watson simply stared.
"It is the law of the sea," Holmes insisted with weird intensity, "You must kill me, and use my body to sustain yourself."
"I believe," Watson kept his voice deliberately light, "that in such cases, it is customary to draw lots."
"But I am offering," Holmes said, ignoring his attempt at levity, "You were on that vile ship because of me, and I cannot allow you to perish due to my miscalculation of the dangers."
"No, Holmes," Watson found himself drawn into the insane logic of the conversation, "If any shooting is to be done, it is you who must shoot me. I am the weaker party--the wound is already going bad. You must try to save yourself."
They glared at each other, having reached an impasse in their contest of self-sacrifice.
Finally, Watson shook himself free. "Holmes," he placated, "this is ridiculous. No one is going to cannibalize anyone. It's only been two days. It's not going to come to that."
Holmes held his gaze a moment longer, something wild, almost passionate in his eyes--but did not press the issue.
Watson sighed, unsettled by the exchange. It was certainly the strangest declaration of—well, he could not be sure what kind of declaration it was, or indeed, if it had been a declaration at all. Extreme thirst could cloud the mind, he knew, and it was no wonder they were finding themselves unmoored in more ways than one.
"It's not going to come to that," he murmured again.
Night fell more softly this time, stars and moon shedding a dim glow through the thin cloud cover. No rain threatened, and the temperature was probably mild even for July. Nevertheless, Watson could feel himself start to shiver as the darkness gathered--the effect of his injury, dehydration, or both. He drew his salt-stiffened jacket more tightly around him.
The boat rocked slightly as Holmes shifted closer. "Here," the detective whispered, steady hands guiding him, pulling him down so that they were both resting against the vessel's single bench.
The past thirty-six hours had left Watson wrung out, as weak as a kitten, and he found that he had neither the strength nor the will to resist as Holmes drew him closer still, until he was encircled by the detective's legs, his back resting against his chest. "There," Holmes said, settling an arm across him, "There."
Finally warm, Watson drifted into a shallow doze.
He surfaced back into consciousness sometime during the night, pulled awake by the sound of Holmes's voice. It took a while for the syllables to resolve themselves into words, for the words to cohere into sentences. He was surprised when they did--but then he was often surprised by what lurked in the vast repository of his companion's brain.
"They sailed away for a year and a day
To the land where the bong tree grows
And there in the wood a piggy-wig stood
With a ring on the end of his nose
With a ring on the end of his nose
Dear pig are you willing...."
The words trailed off, and Watson made an involuntary, wordless sound of protest. The sing-song phrases brought back the rainy days of his childhood, days when the cheerful yellow walls of his nursery had protected him from all the dangers of the world.
Holmes laughed; Watson could feel the vibrations through his own body. "You threatened to drown me for quoting the immortal words of S.T. Coleridge, but this? This you demand more of?" He chuckled again, rubbing his hand along Watson's uninjured arm. "You are a strange man, Dr. Watson. But very well, let us see what I can remember...
Dear pig are you willing, to sell for one shilling
Your ring, said the pig, I will..."
Watson slept again.
It was noticeably harder to wake the next morning. His head swam when he tried to sit up, and the fierce light made it difficult to focus on anything—shapes fracturing and blurring in the glare.
Holmes made him lie down, rigged their combined kerchiefs somehow to shield Watson's face from the sun. Watson felt oddly untethered, as if his soul were barely attached to his body, thoughts skipping across the surface of his mind without ever truly touching down. He tried to grab one at least, wrestle it into articulation.
"Holmes--," he began, startled by the wreckage of his own voice
"Yes, dear boy, what is it?" Holmes leaned over him instantly, and it was heartening to see that the detective's cracked lips, his sunburned face, could still shape themselves into a familiar expression of attentiveness.
"If I--," Watson's tongue felt swollen, unwieldy, and it was surprisingly difficult to shape the words, "If I don't—"
"Hush," Holmes said, a warning note in his voice, "Now who's being ridiculous? Save your strength, my friend--there's no need to speak."
But there was. It was suddenly the most important thing in the world. "I want you to know—That you mean—That I—" But the words wouldn't come together properly—they slid away, slippery as fish. Watson squeezed his eyes shut in frustration.
And then it was all beside the point. The boat rocked crazily as Holmes got to his feet. Watson could hear him shouting, almost jumping up and down in excitement.
The shock of potential rescue was enough to send him decisively into unconsciousness.
It was the smells he noticed first, even before he opened his eyes. He was somewhere warm, almost fetid—the odors of tobacco, wet wool and fish battling for dominance in an enclosed space.
He was lying down, lying on something reasonably soft. His head hurt as if someone had been exploding grenades behind his eyes, and his body felt heavy and weak. But he was, contrary to his expectations, alive.
He was alive, and someone was holding his hand.
Watson did open his eyes then and took in the dimly lit cabin. Holmes, for of course it was Holmes, was perched on a chair next to the bed, head bowed, fingers entwined with Watson's own.
"A fishing vessel?" Watson croaked.
Holmes's head came up abruptly. Even in the near darkness, Watson could see that his eyes were red, but then prolonged exposure to salt air could do that to a man.
The detective's lips parted as if he were about to make some exclamation, but he only said, in a voice almost as ravaged as the doctor's, "Yes. Swedish--no one aboard speaks a word of English."
"We must once again be grateful for your proficiency in the Scandinavian languages, then."
"Indeed," The corners of Holmes's mouth lifted in a ghost of his usual smirk, "Imagine their surprise." He dug the heel of his free hand into his eyes, and took another sharp breath. "Watson—" he began.
"No," Watson shook his head, despite the pain it caused him, because he thought he knew what Holmes was going to say. "No one died. No one came close to dying—despite my malingering," he squeezed Holmes's hand for emphasis. "It will all simply make a fine tale to add to our list of adventures."
"More like a nonsense rhyme," Holmes demurred, but he was smiling.
"Well," said Watson, "those are my favorite sort."