Watson was up to something, even a child could see that. However, much to my shame as the foremost detective in the world, I could not deduce exactly what Watson plotting.
Such a state of affairs was understandably vexing. Yet, despite my discreet enquiries I could not gather a sufficient number of facts for them to make material sense.
For the past fortnight my normally effervescent doctor, full of cheerful greetings and muttered verdicts on the latest war developments, had turned secretive. We had an established routine when we were not in pursuit of solving a crime, a mystery or running around for the war effort, (usually at the behest of brother Mycroft).
While Watson was retired he had been involved in the last six months assisting in the training of surgeons for all branches of Britain’s military forces. Thus, I would rise ridiculously early by my standards so that we could breakfast together ere he departed for a full day, whereupon I updated my sketch books, reference books or prowled the streets of London for the latest underworld developments – occasionally picking up a useful titbit for Mycroft.
These were generally not too deeply involved tasks as I wished to be available in case Watson required my services. His old war wound had been bothering him greatly as he walked or stood for many hours, providing vital lessons and practical experience to our fledging medical doctors. By the end of the day he was grey and worn with pain which he bore silently and stalwartly, as would any good son, doctor and former soldier of the Empire.
At this juncture I would appear and lend my arm and if we were fortunate, we would engage one of the few taxis still circling London.
Now however…well. January had ushered in freezing cold days and nights, alternating between dry still days of bright sun and azure skies. The next would be grey heavens and a miserable chill that sank into one’s soul. Then the rain would come, hard and fierce upon the body and city.
The only cheer from the weather was Watson’s amusement at my ‘romanticism’ as he called it when describing the elements. I would protest, but since such pronouncements delighted my dear friend I continued in their flowery ‘romantic’ use.
Watson still chuckled and mumbled at my rants on the weather and would still greet me as I rose, wishing me a hearty good morning, but after that point his behaviour altered.
He would swallow toast, because he had already breakfasted, and would dash off claiming he was required urgently in the hospital.
I have no doubt that he was needed, for the good fellow had been an excellent doctor before retirement. Yet when these ridiculous departures had continued apace for a week, with the same odd behaviour culminating in a jam pot being transported from our table and into his Gladstone, I knew I had to take action. I would discover where he was spending his time prior to the hospital ward!
Watson had succeeded in beguiling me by ensuring that he never lingered long enough for me to gather sufficient facts as to the real reason for his rushed departures. Of course, when I collected him at the end of day I had sufficient manners not to interrogate my friend and I refrained from deducing from the cuff of his shirtsleeve or the twitch of an eye any damning evidence.
This morning however, I set my plan in motion.
“Good morning Watson,” I said cheerfully, carefully concealing any suspicion from my voice or features.
Watson glanced up startled. He had only just sat down for I had calculated my entry to coincide with the doctor’s new breakfast starts.
“Oh Holmes,” he gasped. “You gave me a fright. Why are you up so early? Are you unwell? I mean..” he trailed off flushing rather charmingly.
“Not to suggest you cannot rise early. I merely meant, that is..” Watson stumbled into his usual low voiced mumble, which he suffered from when anxious or overwhelmed by positive emotions.
The sight gave my heart a pang and my stomach twisted. I always found Watson’s low murmurs and confusion pleasurable when they were due to a surprise show of affection from myself, or a compliment, or even when he was angry at someone abusing me – whether it was my good self or another misguided soul in Watson’s opinion.
Whenever Watson fumbled due to anxiety or shame then I felt sympathetic pain and if I was the cause, the sensation of being a cad.
“Never fear Watson,” I said swiftly, cutting off his anxiety. “I do rise later normally, but I thought perhaps we could spend more of the morning together since you are not due in until midday.”
Watson served us tea with a hand that betrayed the slightest of tremors.
“Of course Holmes. I simply need to run an errand first.”
He cast his eyes away as he spoke, and if that was not calculated to quicken my blood and senses at the reason why Watson would wish to prickle my curiosity, I cannot say what else would!
“My dear Watson, perhaps I should be asking whether you are well? You have not been yourself this past fortnight.”
I casually spooned up my porridge; porridge instead of toast as our jam pot was still mysteriously missing.
Watson somehow managed not to drop his tea cup, only spilling a few drops which he dabbed from his chin and then proceed to smooth out his moustache.
“Quite well Holmes.”
Watson’s eyes were bright and wide as ever, and purposefully innocent. I smiled and Watson’s innocence actually increased. He knew I was on the scent and my man was audacious enough to rise after consuming one piece of measly buttered toast and half a cup of tea, to don his long overcoat, scarf and hat rather quickly, if stiffly, due to his pesky leg.
I rose hastily to pass Watson his walking stick and black bag. I noted how tired the leather was and silently determined to purchase a new one. Watson always fretted on the money I spent on him, but who else would I spend my resources upon?
Watson was my only friend and my own needs were few, while Mycroft would have sneered at any gift. Only Mrs Hudson benefited outside Watson and I left it to the doctor to select her gifts, when after our first Christmas I presented our Landlady with a notebook of all the criminals of the British Isles.
It was meant as a useful resource in case she should ever rent the rooms below us, but seemed to cause upset. Watson had raised his eyebrows to the heavens and proceeded to calm turbulent waters in that jovial way he possesses.
At any rate I am wandering, an affliction that Watson would gleefully point out when I next criticise his writings.
Watson took his old worn out bag and new walking stick, complete with silver wolf head – a gift from yours truly.
“Thank you Holmes.”
“You’re welcome old boy, shall I meet you as usual?”
Watson shrugged. “As long as it is not inconvenient? You are not currently on a case are you Holmes?”
Was the man baiting me? Was there a reason he could not speak freely? Displeased at the clashing emotions battering inside my normally organised skull, I attempted to pry secrets from his bright blue eyes to no avail.
“Cases tend to present themselves my dear fellow, however, I can state with authority that whatever interests me now happens to correspond to your schedule.”
Watson chose not to respond to my blatant statement. Instead he nodded and hustled off with a mumbled goodbye.
Incensed by such odd behaviour and unhappy with the maelstrom of ridiculous notions crowding my head, I pulled off my dressing gown under which I was fully clothed. In a minute I had also donned my shoes and outer-garments and was pursuing my friend who had deliberately set me on his tracks.
Out of the many conflicting scenarios playing in mind like an overdone Vaudeville play, was the dread that Watson was in a spot of bother and that in a misplaced sense of propriety, he did not wish to me pester me.
For rather unfortunately, Watson was occasionally to given to flights of fancy where he dreamed I wouldn’t drop everything to assist my dearest friend.
I had been ready to ruthlessly hunt Moriarty down if he had harmed Watson, so any trifling tribulation of Watson’s would hardly trouble me. So eager to rectify Watson’s oversight I pursued my oldest friend across London.
The other position was that Watson was not free to speak, hence his peculiar behaviour. No matter the reason I would pry out Watson’s secret this grey morning.
Freezing wet London dawdled by as Watson walked a good mile to his destination – in the opposite direction to the training hospital. The further we travelled the more profound became my concern for the truth behind Watson’s deception. The worry was pervasive, feeding off the dark musings of the fortnight and the inclement weather.
As Watson struggled on I fretted also about Watson’s leg in this damp chill. By the time he paused outside an old building with the blackout curtains still drawn, and quite obviously transformed into flats, I was walking far too close.
Watson must have noticed my presence or was so lost in the discomfort of his leg that my foolish fears had not penetrated his perceptions.
Leaning heavily on his cane Watson rang the doorbell with the hand holding his Gladstone bag. I huddled against a lamp post which was hardly poor cover, let alone, acceptable cover.
After a moment of waiting the door opened to reveal a young man who grinned widely to see Watson and even had the audacity to embrace him!
Outraged I stood upright. How dare anyone embrace Watson? He was in clear pain and required a friendly arm, (not too friendly naturally), tea and a glass of brandy – not overly enthusiastic embraces.
However, before I could demand an explanation the pair disappeared inside. Immediately I ran up the slippery steps and rang the doorbell. Watson had been obviously baiting me to follow him today so I did not fret about being unwelcome.
If this man was blackmailing Watson, or pressuring my dear kind-hearted friend, he would discover his mistake very shortly.
I heard footsteps and the same impudent fellow appeared. He was a handsome specimen, with deep blue eyes, dark hair, clean shaven and tall and lean. His hands were calloused and the scent of carbolic soap wafted off his freshly scrubbed skin, indicating that he spent so many hours in hospital wards that no wash could ever remove that sharp scent.
He broke out into another silly grin and spoke with an educated middle-class ring to his speech.
“Mr Holmes! Welcome, we have been expecting you.”
“Indeed? And who pray may you be?”
“Oh, Dr Acton. I work with Watson in the training hospital on weekends, since I can’t sign up.” He thumped his chest.
“Dodgy lungs after too many childhood illness, most noticeably pneumonia. Yet, where are my manners? It is a pleasure to meet you. Now do come in. As for how I knew who you were. Well, your picture is in the newspapers and of course, Watson did say you were dreadfully suspicious and he was sure you would have followed him. Yes, this way. Watson is through the door on your left.”
Mind reeling, I allowed myself to be ushered in and through the door into Dr Acton’s flat.
There was my dear friend, seated at the piano with flushed cheeks and a sheepish smile.
“Happy birthday Holmes!” he cried blushing. “Do you like my surprise? I hope I did not worry you too dreadfully?”
He had, but considering the number of occasions I had faked my death I could hardly object.
Thus, I stood mildly bewildered as it sank in that today was indeed my birthday! How could I have missed that it was the 6th of January?
Feeling rather stupid I finally absorbed what I my senses were attempting to notify me of. The most scrumptious scent filled the room. There was I realised, with some astonishment, a delicious pie on the tea stand beside Watson.
Apple and raspberry jam combined with pastry to cause my mouth to water and my stomach to rumble.
“So that is where our jam went.”
“A few months of squirrelling away rations and Mrs Hudson managed to cobble together this delicious pie. She dropped it off this morning when passing to visit her sister.”
Watson hesitated then mumbled softly, “You did not suspect anything? I was terribly worried I would ruin my plan.”
“None of that Watson!” I declared, striding across the carpet to fiercely seize Watson’s shoulder.
“My dear fellow, you had me completely running down the incorrect track. Instead of waiting for more factual evidence, I gathered the facts together and too early made a deduction. I concluded you were in danger.”
Oh Watson no matter how many times I ‘die’ or am proven fallible you remain faithful and my most stalwart defender…even against Sherlock Holmes.
“Indeed and all the time you were plotting a birthday feast and something else apparently?”
I raised an eyebrow at the piano.
Watson smiled wide, eyes burning bright with happiness at his masterplan working. A flush stained his cheeks as he picked up my violin from the seat next to him – the devil!
“I thought we could play together?” he asked tentatively.
“My good man,” I declared, sitting beside my dearest friend in a flourish, “I would love to.”
I removed my violin and tested the strings while Watson nodded at Dr Acton. Picking up my bow I asked the question smouldering in my heart.
“Do you know Dr Acton well, Watson? You have not mentioned him before?”
“We know each other tolerably Holmes. My apologies for not referring to him previously, but you don’t seem to like me discussing my friends overly much.”
“Can’t have you whisked away Watson,” I remarked lightly as my chest tightened.
Watson turned a confused expression to me, “Why would I leave you Holmes?”
I really did not deserve such a friend as Watson who plotted such wonderful surprises for me and succeeded in confounding me.
“No reason Watson, shall we play?”
My superlative doctor grinned and launched into a beautiful deep voiced rendition of “White Christmas”, which while climatically incorrect at least was within the Christmas season.
Listening to Watson singing was a joy for me and a too infrequent treat. I therefore indulged myself, for it was my birthday as Watson had so rightfully noted, and being carried away by the rolling tones of Watson’s voice was exactly what the doctor would (or should) order.
Dr Acton possessed not only a shrewd brain, but a delicate strain of tact, with which he used to remove himself from the immediate area. I last glimpsed him slipping into what had to be the study with a medical text and a faraway expression of a man already in the world of surgery.
Then my attentions were once more seized by Watson who had shifted his leg so it was stretched out beside mine, and was now staring at me curiously. I returned his innocent expression of earlier and picking up my bow I hovered over the strings.
Watson paused as he drew breath and the joy in his smile and gleaming eyes, creased with pain, had me exchanging a smile as I began to play. Violin and piano weaved together in a vibrant melody with Watson’s singing ringing clearly through the middle – a scarlet cord amid the tapestry.
It was transpiring to be the best birthday celebration in my life.
Thus with the tantalising scent of apple and raspberry pie teasing our senses, we plunged gladly together into the world of music where all was wonder and beauty.