The Old Complaint
"Oh, for goodness sake, Holmes," Watson said, "I told you not to come."
Or at least that's what Holmes thought Watson said. The newspaper hiding the doctor's face half-muffled his voice, although his stiff posture and clipped words made his annoyance clear enough.
The detective kept his eyes firmly fixed on the decorative camellia japonica border he was coaxing into shape with a pair of pruning shears. The camelliae were remarkable specimens; it was unusual to find them flourishing so far north, and their robust growth and generally healthy appearance was yet further evidence of the wealth and careful attention the Honorable Reginald Bywater lavished on the grounds of his ancestral estate.
More importantly, however, the decorative plant bed ran conveniently close to the bench Watson had chosen for his late-morning reading, and was therefore providing their first opportunity to speak in person--if not face to face--since the previous Friday, when Watson, in the guise of a long-lost cousin, had accompanied Miss Henrietta Arrington and her Aunt Jane on a visit to the girl's erstwhile suitor--the aforementioned Mr. Bywater.
"Don't be like that, old chap," Holmes chided, though he couldn't bring himself to put much of an edge into his voice. "When you hear what I've uncovered about Mr. Bywater, you'll be glad of the reinforcements. And the position of under-gardener is a perfect disguise. In this role I can go anywhere on the grounds unheeded—and be ready to assist you at a moment's notice."
Watson harrumphed, and rustled his paper in a disgruntled manner, but said nothing. Holmes regarded him for a long moment out of the corner of his eye and decided some placation was in order.
"I know you didn't want me to accompany you. But, whatever you may suspect, I am not here because I was pining away in London. Quite the contrary. I've only come because my research indicates that the young lady may be in considerably more danger than you feared—"
At that Watson actually lowered the newspaper.
"Indeed," he said sardonically, "I might not have your powers of deduction, but despite that unfortunate handicap, I have been able to ascertain that Bywater is the worst kind of scoundrel." Holmes could hear him snapping the newspaper into tight folds, an odd, unconscious gesture Holmes recognized as the doctor's attempt to quell impatience or irritation. "It's just that I doubt whether you'll be in a position to assist me when you are so busy clipping and digging and arranging flowers. Go home, Holmes—I have it under control."
That was tetchy, even for Watson. Surprised, Holmes allowed himself a more direct look at his friend. On closer inspection, there was something off about the doctor's demeanor as well: he was holding his shoulders high and hunched, and his face was a shade paler than usual. A faint line of pain ran between his brows.
"I say," Holmes risked straightening, the troubles of the Arringtons and Bywaters momentarily forgotten, "are you quite alright?"
"Hmmn?" Watson seemed caught off-guard by the question, "Yes, yes, of course--the sun's given me a headache, that's all."
It was a cool morning for June, and overcast besides, but Holmes held his tongue. What he'd pieced together about Bywater was certainly enough to give anyone a headache—he could only imagine the strain of spending three days in the man's company.
"I--" he started, but was cut short by the growl of the head gardener, coming up the path trailed by a young boy pushing a wheelbarrow.
"Oi!" Otis--for this was the head gardener's name--shouted at him, "that's enough lollygagging, Horton. You leave the guests alone. Mr. Bywater don't like for them to be disturbed."
"Horton?" Watson snorted derisively, "Good God, man." And with another decisive snap of his paper he disappeared again.
Casting a last worried glance at his friend, Holmes ducked his head, moved along with his shears to the next example of camellia japonica.
It was almost too easy to persuade Otis to let him tend to the plants in Bywater's elaborate hothouses, and Holmes spent a shamefully pleasant afternoon trimming and watering the dendrobium nobile and paphiopedilum amabile. Even the brief appearance of the lord of the manor himself didn't spoil his enjoyment.
On the contrary, he welcomed the opportunity to observe their adversary more closely.
Bywater was tall and strongly-built—his musculature disproportionate to what was necessary for a land-owning man of leisure, heir to several rich estates in England and Ireland. He was edging towards middle age, although his hair and mustache remained a shiny, uniform black. Courtesy of the dye bottle, Holmes was sure.
Bywater spared neither word nor glance for his newly-hired under-gardener, but lingered instead over his orchids, brushing, almost caressing, each of their fragile flowers with unexpected delicacy, an uxorious smile playing over his rough-hewn features.
He left behind him some thick scent—Rowland's macassar, Holmes deduced—that tickled the detective's nose as he reviewed the details of the situation.
Hitherto unknown elements of Watson's personal history had intruded rather unexpectedly into Holmes's consulting work a little over two weeks ago. A particularly thick envelope had arrived in the morning mail, addressed to Watson in an authoritative, but feminine hand. The doctor had seized upon it eagerly, read it through without an explanatory word of any kind, while Holmes had feigned disinterest in his friend's correspondent.
Finally, the doctor had raised his eyes and said, "I'm afraid I must leave you for a few days next month, old boy."
Holmes had frowned at the unusual announcement. "Why so?" he'd asked.
Watson had seemed slightly embarrassed, but brazened it out. "Family," he'd said curtly.
As far as Holmes knew, Watson had no living relatives, apart from some distant cousins in New Zealand. "But I thought—"
"Well, not exactly family," the doctor had amended, "My mother's dearest school friend is a woman named Jane Arrington. She never married herself, but she was very kind to us as children. And she finds herself in need of some minor assistance now."
"Financial?" Holmes had commiserated.
"No, no. Er, social, I supposed you'd say. Her orphaned niece, Henrietta, of whom she is very fond, is being courted by a man—a wealthy man—named Reginald Bywater. He's invited them to his country house a fortnight from now—presumably to seal the deal. But Miss Arrington—Aunt Jane—has had one of her 'feelings' about him. She suspects that everything is not on the up and up. I'm sure it's just her imagination, but she'd feel better for some masculine accompaniment."
"I see," Holmes had been unable to resist smirking a bit at Watson's discomfort, "you are desired as a chaperone."
"Not exactly--Aunt Jane is the chaperone. I would be—"
Watson had scowled. "I owe it to my mother's memory," he'd muttered.
Two weeks had passed, and Holmes had found that he was not as sanguine about Watson's departure as he might have wished. He had perched on edge of the bed, watching the doctor neatly stow his belongings in his small valise.
"If you'd like," Holmes had said, as if the idea had just occurred to him, "I could—"
But Watson had cut him off in a manner that was entirely too knowing for Holmes's liking, "I'm afraid not, old chap," he'd said, "arriving with one bachelor cousin in tow will be bad enough. To descend upon Bond Hill with two would be—"
"Scandalous?" Holmes had said hopefully.
"Inelegant," Watson had corrected, and carried on with his packing.
Holmes had spent the first day without Watson pretending to enjoy the unwonted space and quiet at Baker Street. He had spent the second day in the newspaper morgue, collecting all the available facts about Reginald Bywater. What he'd found had disturbed him enough to put him on the southbound evening train, where a convenient opening in the gardening staff at Bond Hill had completed his plans.
As he pruned the orchids, he thought about what his careful study of the society pages had revealed. No broken engagements, nothing that obvious. Just three separate incidents, over the past five years, in which hints were given that Bywater's attachment to a young, eligible girl had come to naught. Instead, in every instance, the girl in question had left town suddenly instead. The reasons had been different—an unexpected death in the family, a tour of the continent, a lingering illness. But in each case, the young lady had not been seen again in her regular social circles for nine months or more.
Aunt Jane's "feeling" had been accurate. Nothing good awaited Henrietta Arrington at Bond Hill.
The pride of Bywater's summer gardens was an ornate wooden gazebo, large enough to hold an entire supper party. And, since the goal of the weekend was to impress Henrietta and her aunt with his wealth, taste and largesse, their host had decreed that dinner should be taken al fresco--white linen tablecloths, silver candlesticks, plenteous servants and all.
The ostentatious display rather pleased Holmes, or at least it suited his purposes. The evening was as fine as the day had turned out to be, and it had been Otis's own idea that a few more beds might be weeded and checked in the slow twilight. It was mere coincidence that so many of those beds were near enough to the gazebo to allow the detective to eavesdrop on the diners.
The party consisted of Bywater, Henrietta, Aunt Jane, and Watson, along with Bywater's elderly mother, a dowager as deaf as she was vain, and a Mr. Wilkes--a hapless local bachelor brought in to make up the numbers.
Getting himself as close to the structure as he dared, Holmes trained his ears on the conversation. It seemed the usual society gossip; Bywater and the elder Miss Arrington lobbed anecdotes back and forth like shuttlecocks, while the other guests looked on. Henrietta, well on her way to becoming an auburn-haired beauty, was as demure as a young lady of her age and class ought to be. Bywater, sitting to her left, was assiduous in his attentions, trying to draw her out, nodding in agreement to her half-formed opinions.
Holmes began to see why Watson retained such affection for his mother's old friend. Well-upholstered, ramrod-straight and gimlet-eyed, she kept pace with Bywater, never backing down, or letting his unctuousness override her steely good manners.
But her face when she turned to her niece shone with real warmth, and Holmes could have blessed her for laying a solicitous hand on Watson's arm, presumably to ask why he hadn't touched his food.
The doctor looked, if anything, worse than he had that morning. He was flushed now, and while Holmes wasn't close enough to tell for sure, he thought a few strands of hair clung damply to his forehead. At Aunt Jane's urging, he pushed the fish around on his plate a bit more vigorously, but barely touched the next course. Instead, he kept beckoning the serving man to refill his water glass. The last rays of evening sun glinted off the liquid as it trembled in Watson's hand, and Holmes's vague unease tipped over into actual alarm. The symptoms slotted into place: he knew what was troubling Watson.
Suddenly, the doctor turned his head sharply in the direction of Henrietta and Bywater; Holmes followed the direction of his gaze. They had reached the end of the meal, and the host was holding a gaudy gilt box out to the girl, trying to tempt her with chocolates or some other sweet. Henrietta laughed and shook her head.
All seemed perfectly ordinary. Whatever had caught Watson's attention in the scene, Holmes had missed it.
It took some time, over the hearty meal dished up at the servants' table in the kitchens, and several casual bribes in the form of bowls of tobacco, but Holmes was able to extract the location of the guests' rooms without, he hoped, anyone being the wiser as to why he was interested.
His suspicions about Bywater's intentions were only confirmed when he learned that it had taken the combined efforts of the elder Miss Arrington and her handsome cousin to dissuade Bywater from lodging Henrietta in a separate wing from her relations, under the pretext of avoiding drafty rooms. But propriety had thankfully prevailed, and all three visitors were settled in adjacent rooms in the east wing of the house. The staff seemed under no illusions about their master's predilections, but were uniformly uninterested in discussing them—at least with the new under-gardener.
After what seemed like hours, Holmes was able to say his goodnights, and head off towards the ground staff's quarters in one on the estate's many outbuildings. Except that he doubled back on his tracks, hugging the shadows, and found his way to the dark corridors of the upstairs rooms of the east wing.
He didn't bother to knock when he'd located Watson's room. He tried the door handle, found it locked, and promptly set to work with his pick.
The lock was good, and it took almost twenty seconds to get the door open; the fact that Watson wasn't roused by the scrabbling at the keyhole did nothing to assuage Holmes's fears.
The room was hot and dark, illuminated only by the dull glow of the coal fire—Watson must have convinced the maids to light it despite the season. Holmes could barely make out his friend's hunched figure in the gloom. Watson had pulled a chair as close as he could to the hearth, and was leaning forward, holding his hands towards it. Even from the doorway, Holmes could see that he was shivering.
At the sound of the door opening, Watson turned, but slowly, so much more slowly than usual. He blinked, as if unsure what he was seeing, then, recognizing Holmes, started to shake his head.
But Holmes was already kneeling in front of him. He caught Watson's trembling hands between his own, chafing them as if they were cold instead of far too warm.
Watson's face was white, his eyes red-rimmed. He shook his head at Holmes, whispering "no, no, you can't be here," in strained, troubled tones.
"Shh, shh," Holmes urged, attempting to soothe, although the role did not come naturally to him, "no one saw me, no need to fret." He bent his head, caught Watson's eye, tried to steady him with his gaze. "Is it the old complaint?"
Watson stared at him for a moment, and then, clearly seeing no point in denial, nodded. It was the phrase they always used for the doctor's recurrent bouts of malaria, an affliction dating from his service in the East. For whatever reason, Watson did not like to name the disease, and Holmes played along, although he was sure that euphemisms did nothing to ameliorate the symptoms.
"Quinine?" Watson usually did not travel without it tucked into his black medicine bag, though the attacks were rare. To his relief, Watson nodded again; this trip had been no exception. Holmes could see a glass now, by the pitcher and basin on the bureau.
"Temperature?" Holmes asked, with some trepidation. The mercury thermometer lay next to the glass.
"102," Watson muttered. "And rising," he added reluctantly.
Holmes sighed. He kept hold of Watson's hands with one of his own, and pressed the other briefly to his friend's hot forehead. Rising indeed. He slid two fingers down to the pulse point under Watson's jaw, silently calculating. Much too fast. A surge of anxiety went through him, but he kept his voice even enough.
"You're in a bad way, old boy," he said, striving to convey a sangfroid he was far from feeling, "let me have them call a doctor for you."
"You can't let them see you here," Watson's voice was thin and tight.
"Well, we'll just have to pretend you called for help yourself, then," Holmes said, worry making him curt. He moved to pull the bell for a servant.
"No," Watson almost shouted, struggling to his feet. "I—look, Holmes, you were right about Bywater—Henrietta—" He started to sway alarmingly, and Holmes abandoned his mission to put a supporting hand under Watson's elbow.
"Easy now," Holmes said, lowering the doctor into the chair again, "Easy. What about Henrietta?"
Watson took a long, shuddering breath, visibly collecting the scattered pieces of his composure.
"Bywater," he said, his calm clearly a thin sheet of ice over a torrent of pain and anxiety, "he has—designs—ignoble designs—on Miss Arrington."
"Yes, I think we've established that."
"And tonight, at dinner, I saw—I thought I saw—" Watson hesitated, "I suspect he gave her some kind of tainted sweet." He laughed weakly, seeming to realize how foolish this sounded.
Holmes remembered the gaudy box of chocolates. "I saw. But she refused, did she not?"
"She took one," Watson said, "and refused a second." Ah—so that was what Watson had seen and Holmes had missed.
"But why do you think it was drugged?"
"He seemed so concerned that she take one—take a different sort than he had himself. And then, when she did, a look passed over his face like—like the look a cat gets when a mouse ventures out of its hole."
"Are you sure?"
Watson shook his head. "No," he said miserably, "that's the thing. I've been having odd fancies all day—the fever, no doubt. I--. No—I'm not sure. But I do know this," he grabbed Holmes's wrist, almost pleading in his intensity, "if Bywater thinks I'm incapacitated, even weakened, he'll take advantage, I'm sure of it."
Holmes wished he could tell Watson he was being absurd--but the scheme seemed horrifyingly plausible and correlated perfectly with the image of Bywater he'd pieced together from the papers. It was quite possible that only Watson's presence in the next room had prevented the host's advances upon Henrietta up to now. Indeed, with a predator's instinct, Bywater might even have discerned Watson's indisposition, and so chosen tonight for his plans.
"And besides, the fit will have passed by morning, doctor or no doctor," Watson continued.
Holmes frowned. He'd sat with Watson through enough of these episodes to know that he was probably right. They were violent, but almost always brief. And there was little to do but ride them out. Still, he hated to think of Watson suffering through the aches and chills in secret, far from the comforts of home. He was almost ready to put an end to his chivalrous stoicism, and summon a doctor over his protests, but the memory of Bywater's blunt fingers on the fragile orchids stopped him.
"Very well," Holmes agreed, "I won't call anyone. But I can't leave you alone like this either. You rest," he started to ease Watson out of the chair, point him towards the bed, "I'll shoulder your watchdog responsibilities for the evening."
Holmes knew from long experience that the fever made Watson acutely sensitive to touch. The doctor could barely stand the rub of the bedclothes against his skin, despite the chills wracking through him, and when Holmes, as gently as he could, drew a damp cloth across his face, he flinched away in pain.
All the detective could do was sit ineffectually on the side of the bed, Watson's fingers clawed around his wrist as if his grip on Holmes were his only tether in a buffeting storm. The doctor was hunched in himself, focused inward, on managing the ills of his body, but he wouldn't sleep, Holmes knew.
And so, although Holmes knew it was no sort of conversation for a sick man, he passed the time by telling Watson what he had pieced together from the newspapers. He doubted whether the doctor took in more than one word in ten, but he hoped his voice would provide another anchor as he navigated his way through the storm. And it was always useful to lay out the facts. Upon review, it seemed more than likely that Bywater had had recourse in drugs in his encounters with the other girls as well. The thought set Holmes's teeth on edge.
After he'd gone on in this way for almost an hour, Watson, a pro pos of nothing, said, "I was wrong, this morning," his voice very faint, but surprisingly steady. "It was-- perhaps—fortuitous—that you disregarded my injunction not to come."
"My dear boy," Holmes said, patting his hand, "fortune had nothing to do with it. And it is possible I was pining. Just a bit."
Even in his misery, this made Watson smile. Soon after, his vise-like hold on Holmes's wrist loosened. The fever was nowhere near breaking, but he was at last able to fall into an exhausted doze.
Gently, Holmes disengaged himself from Watson's hand, stood and stretched. The dim light of the fire didn't allow him to see much of the room, but what he could see was hideous. The furniture was dark, ponderous wood, the arms of the chair and the legs of the bed carved in thick, twisting patterns. The taupe wallpaper carried a pattern of crimson swirls so thick and heavy they looked as if they'd be gouged into the walls.
It made his skin crawl. Though that might have been the uncomfortable heat of the unseasonable fire. Holmes could feel sweat beading along his hairline. Behind him, Watson shifted restlessly and muttered something in his sleep. He wished passionately that they were both safe back in Baker Street.
Thinking fresh air might help, Holmes crossed to the windows, pulled back the heavy velvet drapes, careful to make sure he remained invisible behind them, and cracked the window. A waft of blessedly cool air blew into the room, instantly refreshing.
Half-hidden behind the curtains, he gazed out onto the grounds below. The moon was high and bright, casting the buildings and hedges into sharp relief. All was utterly still, the shadows unmoving on the carefully manicured lawn. Except that, as he watched, one of the shadows detached itself from the others, and glided unerringly across the lawn.
Holmes tracked the man-shaped shadow to the base of the house. It paused for a moment almost directly below the window of Watson's room, and then started to climb.
Wary of being seen, the detective pulled back from the window and pressed himself against the wall. Clearly, Watson's suspicions had been well-founded; Bywater had indeed chosen this night for his attempt on Henrietta's virtue. Listening intently, Holmes could hear the sounds of someone very strong and very sure-footed scaling the wall below, then the soft footfall as the person swung himself over the decorative ironwork outside Miss Arrington's room, and finally the subtle swoosh of a well-oiled window sliding open. The detective wondered if the servants had been instructed to leave it unlocked.
Time was of the essence now, Holmes realized, calculating his next move. He hated to leave Watson, but the cooler air seemed to have quieted him and the doctor lay in as peaceful a sleep as he was likely to get that night. Cautiously, Holmes surveyed the space between the window of the doctor's room and Henrietta's. A similar ironwork façade girded both: too small to be real balcony, and, like so much of Bywater's estate, mostly for show. Nevertheless, the intricate pattern would provide excellent handholds, and the distance between the two windows was not considerable.
Without allowing himself to think more about it, Holmes pushed the window open wider and slid through it. He paused a moment, adjusting his balance, and then leapt. There was an instant of uncertainty as he hung suspended between the two balconies, but the handholds proved as good as he had guessed, and he was able to secure himself on the other side without too much noise or difficulty.
He looked into the room. Henrietta lay on a massive bed, rosy-cheeked and lovely, as abandoned in her sleep as a child. And surely drugged. For there was no other way to explain why the presence of Reginald Bywater poised over her, his hand splayed across the alabaster skin of her throat, did not wake her.
Holmes's stomach twisted at the sight. The time for stealth and caution had most certainly passed. He calibrated his position for maximum speed and force, and launched himself at Bywater.
Whenever the detective related the story later, he would always pause at this point, and say, "and then it all descended into farce," with a dry chuckle. At the time, however, it had not seemed a laughing matter.
He hit the estate owner full-bore across the shoulders, toppling him off the bed and onto the floor, where they rolled over and over a few times like a pair of snarling dogs. Momentum and surprise gave Holmes the initial advantage, but it soon became apparent that Bywater not only outweighed him by two stone or more, but also knew how to use the extra poundage. When they came to a halt, the heavier man hauled the detective upright with an iron arm around his neck.
Somewhat startled—he was unaccustomed to being on the losing end of a fight—Holmes struck out with his hands and feet. He landed a few blows, but it was like hitting barn door, and made no difference at all to the mounting pressure on his airway. Henrietta slept on oblivious, and Holmes began to fear that the night was about to end very badly for both of them.
Then, suddenly, the door of the room swung open with a bang. Startled, both Holmes and Bywater swiveled towards it.
A nightshirt-clad Watson stood in the doorway, waxen-faced and wild-haired. A visible tremor ran through his body. But the arm leveling his service revolver at them was as steady as a brick wall.
Holmes and Bywater froze as the doctor stalked towards them, pistol cocked, eyes fixed and glassy. "Watson—" Holmes said, or rather squeaked, since he was somewhat short of air. He could not quite gauge his friend's level of awareness. It seemed just as likely Watson was replaying some scene from the Afghan wars as that he was taking in the situation before him. The unhappy possibility he might shoot them both in his delirium ran through the detective's mind.
He need not have worried.
"Unhand this man," Watson instructed Bywater, sounding like the Grim Reaper himself. Grudgingly, the larger man relinquished his grip, and Holmes sucked in a lungful of air. Watson lifted his arm and brought the butt of his revolver down on his host's head.
Bywater dropped like stone, emitting a single surprised grunt as he hit the floor.
"Much obliged, old chap," Holmes said, reaching out to brace the doctor's shoulders when it looked like he was about to follow the villain down; the heat of his fever burned through the thin fabric of his nightshirt. "You shouldn't--"
But he was interrupted by yet another voice, this one elderly, feminine and shrill.
"What is the meaning of this ruckus?" it demanded. And there, surveying the scene with the sort of horror reserved for maiden aunts finding three grown men in their nieces' bedrooms in the dead of night, was Miss Jane Arrington.
As if on cue, Henrietta chose that moment to struggle free of her drugged stupor, sit bolt upright in her bed, and scream.
Watson lifted his livid face to Holmes. "Run," he rasped--and collapsed in a dead faint next to Bywater.
Holmes hesitated. He hated to leave his companion in this condition. But he had greater confidence that Watson would receive proper medical attention now than that he would escape arrest if he were found in his under-gardener's garb in a young lady's room at midnight.
And so, without another word, he vaulted out the window, scrambled down the wall, and lost himself in the dark luxury of Reginald Bywater's pleasure grounds.
He did not go far. Concern for Watson chained him to shadows, until, at the very least, he knew that a physician had been called. This did not happen. Instead, after less than an hour, the Arrington carriage, driven by a sleepy groom, pulled up the front walk. Minutes later, a very wide awake Jane Arrington marched out the front door, pulling Henrietta by the hand. Following them was a half-conscious Watson, bundled into a dressing gown and supported between two footmen. Holmes almost started forward at the sight. The solicitous attention Aunt Jane lavished upon the doctor as they eased him into the carriage, however, assuaged his fears.
"I'll send for our things later," she called, in stenatorian tones of vast disapproval, as the vehicle pulled away.
The carriage drove slowly, perhaps in deference to the illness of one of its passengers, and by dint of a steady jog, Holmes was able to keep pace with it. Several miles later, they arrived at the village, and pulled up in front of a neat bungalow. Light flared in the windows. A short, wiry man in his shirtsleeves emerged and took charge of the situation. After everyone had been herded inside, Holmes approached closely enough to see the name on the bell. "Dr. Oliver Jones," he read with relief.
He supposed the case was over now. Bywater's villainy had been revealed, and Watson remanded into medical care. But he could not bring himself to leave. Instead, he lingered in the shadows, watched the second floor windows light up one by one, and then grow dark, until only the corner room remained aglow. Eventually, that light too was extinguished.
Still, Holmes waited out the night. The corner window lit up again once, abruptly, in the wee hours of the morning, and Holmes's chest clutched with alarm, until it just as swiftly darkened again. Restless, he prowled around the house, inspecting without paying much attention to what he saw. A tidy trellis of roses inched up the bricks under the corner room, and before he knew it, he'd calculated the distance from the top of the trellis to the outside molding of the window. Doable, he noted, quite doable.
And thus, when the first gray light of dawn started to spread over the sky, he found himself shrugging out of his jacket, and, as quietly as he could, climbing up the trellis; he endured the prick of a few thorns for his troubles, but nothing worse. At the top, he leapt, neat as a cat, to the window sill, and was relieved to discover that Dr. Jones was a believer in benefits of fresh air. The window was ajar.
He peered through; as he had surmised, it was Watson who lay supine on the narrow bed, unattended at the moment. The room around him—it must have been the doctor's spare room—was somehow both cheerful and utilitarian: simple wooden furniture; faded but clean quilts; a china basin and pitcher on the bureau in a bright blue and white pattern.
It was the work of a moment, perhaps two, and Holmes was through the window. Getting to be quite the habit, he thought ruefully.
Watson appeared profoundly asleep. He was wearing a clean white nightshirt—not his own—and Holmes was surprised to feel a pang of jealousy at the idea of other hands undressing him, seeing to his needs.
He shook his head to clear it, and forced himself to coolly observe the rise and fall of Watson's chest. To his relief, his breathing was well within the range of normal respiration.
Nevertheless, he could not resist moving closer, brushing his fingertips, the barest touch, across Watson's forehead. Cool now, though slightly clammy. The old complaint had perhaps, thankfully, run its course. Slowly, like a swimmer surfacing from deep water, the doctor opened his eyes.
Holmes held a finger to his lips, and sat next to him. Watson opened his mouth as if to speak, but coughed lightly instead. Holmes helped him take a few sips of water from the glass on the table near the bed, laid him gently back against the pillows. The doctor was almost a dead weight in his arms, pliant and boneless.
Watson seemed too exhausted even to smile, but his eyes suggested he would have, if he'd had the energy.
"You know," Watson said, each word slow and effortful, almost slurred, "I'm sure I had this dream often as a youth: the brawny gardener's lad sneaking into my room at night, climbing into my bed."
"If I'd only known," said Holmes, not bothering to control the fondness in his voice, "perhaps, once you're stronger, we'll see what we can do about that."
He laid his palm along Watson's cheek. Freed from the sensitivity of fever, the doctor leaned into the touch—a faint movement, but unmistakable--and closed his eyes.
Holmes thought he had fallen asleep again. But a few seconds later, Watson murmured, "You should have seen his face."
"Mmmm. He tried to claim he was protecting Henrietta from the incursions of a lecherous servant, but Aunt Jane was having none of it. She saw through him right off—gave him a good earful." Watson's voice strengthened as he warmed to his tale, "Quite colorful language, too. Wish we'd had her with us on the retreat from Maiwand."
"And you witnessed all this from the floor?"
Watson's lips curled a fraction of a degree. "Ah, no. I was sharing the bed with Henrietta by that point. Being plied with sal volatile like a neurasthenic schoolgirl. Some bodyguard I turned out to be."
"Nonsense," Holmes said bracingly, stifling a laugh at the image, "you were the preserver of her virtue—it was the least she could do."
In the hallway, the first early stirrings of Dr. Jones's household became audible.
"I'd best go," Holmes said regretfully, "Are you sure—"
"Yes, yes," Watson roused himself enough to pat Holmes's hand where it lay on the bedclothes. "Jones is an old India hand, as it turns out—knows just what to do. And Aunt Jane, well—you've seen her in action now. I'll meet you back in London."
"At Baker Street, then," Holmes agreed reluctantly. Despite his good humor, Watson still looked impossibly frail against Dr. Jones's starched sheets. Before he could restrain himself, Holmes dropped the briefest of kisses on his brow.
And then, for the second time that night, he exited through the upper-storey window.