London, September 1588
John Watson had endured many measuring looks in his life, but none made his shoulder blades itch as powerfully as the stare belonging to Lord Holmes, Earl of Rutland.
John knew better than to look Lord Holmes in the eye, but no matter where John looked, from the sable trim on the earl's jerkin to the ivory-handled rapier that hung at his side, he couldn't escape the aura of power and influence that emanated from the man who regarded him from behind his writing desk.
But it was the piercing gaze that seemed to take in everything, from his salt-stained boots to the stump where his right arm had been prior to England's great victory over Spain, that would have unnerved someone less accustomed to inspections than John was.
“Step into the light, Watson,” he said at last, the first words he had spoken since the footman led John into the earl's presence.
John did so unhesitatingly, and the earl made a soft noise of understanding.
“My steward tells me that you wish to join my service,” said the earl, with what sounded like deliberate blandness to John's ears.
“Aye, my lord,” said John tugging his forelock in automatic salute.
“And yet you held a warrant on the flagship of our national hero,” said the earl, his disdainful tone of voice indicating what he thought of Sir Francis Drake. “Surely he could find you suitable position.”
“Begging your lordship's pardon,” said John, “but I don't want charity. I only want to work.”
The Earl was silent for a moment, considering. “You were on the Golden Hind.”
“I started as loblolly boy on the Swan, but yes, by journey's end I was ship's surgeon on the Hind.”
“And in the course of your duties, you cared for injuries, illnesses, and all manner of invalid.”
“I treated men with ailments I know not how to describe,” said John. “And when I couldn't help them, I did what I could to make them comfortable.”
“That will do,” said the earl.
He clapped his hands twice, and a liveried servant stepped into the room. “See that Watson is fitted with new clothes and shoes. No livery, I think. It would send the wrong message to the patient.” The earl looked down his pointed nose at John, which when combined with the pointed beard on his chin gave him the look of the very devil. John resisted the urge to cross himself. “But you must be cognizant that you represent the Holmes family at all times in both your clothing and your conduct. When you've been respectably turned out, report to Mr. Stamford. He shall enumerate your duties.”
“Aye, your lordship,” said John, responding as he would to the captain of a ship, which he supposed the earl was, in a sense.
Holmes gave him a narrow smile and returned to the stack of letters on his desk.
John followed the servant from the earl's chambers and down the narrow servants’ stairs. “So, what's he like to work for, the earl?” John asked.
“You needn't concern yourself with Lord Holmes,” said the servant archly. “You're not going to be working for him. You're going to be under his brother's thumb, and good luck with that.”
Several facts slipped into place. John wasn't aware that the earl had a brother – it wasn't common knowledge, to be sure, and now he knew the identity of the invalid to which the earl had alluded in that very strange and brief interview. “You know him?”
“Of course I do,” sneered the servant. “My family has served Rutland for generations.”
“Good to know,” said John in a pacifying tone. He knew the servant's type- unimaginative, but steadfast. “What's your name, then?”
“Anders, his lordship's gentleman usher.”
“Many thanks, Anders. If I get lost, I know who I can count on for good counsel.”
Anders puffed up with pride, John was pleased to notice, and he even held the door to a large cupboard open for John and helped him select a fine linen shirt, hose, stocking, shoes, and a black woolen doublet.
After giving John a nod of approval, he picked up John's discarded clothing one piece at a time with his thumb and forefinger. “I'll just take these to be laundered,” he said, making a transparent attempt not to wrinkle his nose. “You'll be quartered with the men-at-arms near the stables. I'll have your things delivered there.”
“Much obliged,” said John. “Can you tell me how to find Mr. Stamford?”
“He'll be in the office off the entrance hall,” said Anders. He closed the cupboard door behind John and paused. “If you don't mind my saying so, Watson, you want to be careful with Master Sherlock. He's... he's not altogether well.”
“Beyond being an invalid?” asked John, who felt quite sure that Anders meant something quite different, but his meaning was obscure.
“The earl is a demanding but fair master,” said Anders, clearly torn between loyalty to the house and wanting to let John know what lay in store. “What a pity that not all masters are.”
“I see,” said John quietly, curious how much trouble one invalid could be.
John made his way back to the entrance hall, which was being cleaned. “Oi, there! Watch your step!” shouted one of the housemaids, a pretty girl with dark skin and a few wild curls that had escaped her cap. “I've just done that floor!”
“And you'll have to do it again if you can't keep a civil tongue in your head,” came a tart reply from an older woman in a white cap who John instinctively knew not to cross.
“Sorry,” said John to both the ladies. “I was just looking for Mr. Stamford.”
“John Watson!” boomed a familiar voice. The door behind the pretty maid opened, and John found his left arm being shaken nearly out of its socket with the enthusiasm of his old friend's greeting. “You got the job, then?”
“Seems so,” said John with a broad grin, drinking in Stamford's appearance. He wasn't in livery, but his velvet was slashed with the green and gold of the Holmes household. He appeared happy, hearty, and well-fed, as befitting the head steward of a distinguished household.
“God help you,” said Stamford, shaking his head. “But I'm glad. I knew you were the right man for the job. The earl told you that you'd be caring for his brother?”
“The invalid, yes,” said John.
“Invalid my eye,” said Stamford in a low voice, closing the door behind him. Stamford's office was tiny and filled with piles of ledgers. “But you'll see for yourself. Your title will be personal assistant to Master Sherlock Holmes. You're to be stationed near his quarters during the day unless he invites you in, though he will go for days without speaking, so you need to learn to judge his moods. You are to keep him supplied with whatever he demands, within reason, and I or the Controller will be able to tell you that until you've become accustomed to his ways. You're to assist in keeping his chambers from piling up with rubbish and ensure that he follows his doctor’s orders and uses the chamber pot and not the corner of the room. You will accompany him to the theatre as frequently as he wishes to go, which is usually at least once each week.”
“Sounds, ah, reasonable,” said John, clearing his throat.
“You needn't wait on him at table, of course, unless he asks you,” said Stamford, “but he rarely appears in the dining hall. One of his many eccentricities.”
“Anything else I should know before I meet him?”
Stamford gave him a measuring look. “Lord Holmes values discretion, a quality I happen to know you possess in great quantities. You could go far in his service, John. I know this was a grievous blow,” he said, gesturing to John's stump, “but even if you can't sail around the world again, the world still comes to London, especially to Lord Holmes's residence.”
John raised his eyes to meet his old friend's, apprehensive about what he would find there, and he was gratified to find no pity, merely affection.
“My thanks, old friend; to you and Lord Holmes.”
Stamford gave a rueful snort as he opened the door. “Don't thank us until you've met Master Sherlock. Sally! Take Doctor Watson to the solarium.”
“Doctor?” asked the pretty maid. “They've already got a physician, haven't they?”
“None of your cheek, lass,” said Stamford. “Watson is Master Sherlock's new personal assistant.”
“Oh? Let's hope he lasts longer than the last one.”
John raised an interrogative eyebrow at Stamford, who flushed. “Master Sherlock was in a bad way, but he's a new man since the doctor's last visit,” he said as he returned to his office.
“Which is saying that he drove the last one off in half an hour,” said Sally, sotto voce.
John managed not to snort aloud, but he couldn't hide his smile.
“We'll see if you think it's so funny in an hour's time,” said Sally, saucily, leading John to the servants’ stair.
“How long have you worked for the Holmeses?” asked John.
“Two years,” said Sally, sighing as she mounted the first flight of stairs. “I worked in Guy de Lestrade's house as a lady's maid. When his wife died and he became the gentleman in charge of Lord Holmes's horses, I came with him. Not that there's much use for a lady's maid here.”
“Lord Holmes has a wife, doesn't he?”
“Of course, but she already has a maid and she stays in Rutland with the children when his lordship is in London. Probably safer, with Lord Holmes on the Privy Council, that pit of vipers. That and she can't abide Master Sherlock. It's one thing when she can keep several wings of household between her and him, but it's another when we're all living on top of one another in town.”
“Isn't Master Sherlock married?”
Sally snorted. “No decent woman would have him,” she said. “I've never known such an ill-humoured cross-bited villain in all my days. You want to take care to give him no weapon, because he will turn it on you, mark my words. Even his words are daggers.”
John hid a smile. “Thanks for the warning.”
Sally paused before mounting the final flight of stairs. “You seem like a good sort, I'll grant,” she said. “When things don't work out with Master Sherlock, I hope you'll consider staying in Lord Holmes's service.”
“It really isn't up to me,” said John, gesturing to his stump. “There isn't a whole lot of work out there for half a man. Keeping a younger son out of trouble may be all I'm good for.”
Sally tutted and swept to the top of the stair. “Have it your way. Here we are.”
“Is that Sally?” called a deep voice from within.
“Yes, Master Sherlock,” she replied, rolling her eyes.
“This won't do. Take this message to my brother: I will not have the shrew.”
“You couldn't have me, even if you wanted to, you prating toad,” said Sally, opening the door and standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
To John's surprise, there was a laugh from within. “How fortunate,” drawled the voice, “that I have no desire to upset my balance of humours with a scratched face.”
“As if that would make matters worse,” said Sally. “I've brought your new minder. John Watson, heaven help him.”
“Well, don't just stand in the corridor,” ordered the voice. “Enter. Watson, of course. If I never see Sally again it'll be too soon.”
The solarium was a largish room with a high, sharply gabled ceiling that was flooded with light from a bank of windows. However, the airiness of the room was somewhat spoiled by being filled to overflowing with a hodgepodge of furniture, papers, books, and a host of strange objects. There was a wardrobe along one wall, and next to it a bed whose curtains were drawn on the sunny side, casting its occupant in shadow. However, no shadow could have concealed the man's pallor.
His skin had the waxy look common to invalids, and his cheekbones protruded alarmingly from his face. He was no more than five and twenty, though he appeared younger because his face was clean-shaven. The man stared at John with eyes that were as startlingly pale as his skin, but they were set off with dark lashes. His head had been shaved, presumably by the house physician to treat a deathly fever, and dark stubble was growing in. It was something of a surprise that such a powerful voice had emanated from such a frail-looking vessel.
The younger Holmes had a stare every bit as unnerving as his brother's, but rather than the silent, sustained strain on his composure to which Lord Holmes had subjected John, Master Sherlock's evaluation was over in moments.
“Aid, Revenge, or Ark Royal?”
“On which ship were you surgeon?”
“How did you- ?”
Holmes waved an elegant hand in the air. “The position of your feet tells me you spent years at sea, yet your skin is paler than a common seaman's, and your hand lacks a sailor's characteristic roughness, for all that its shape rest makes its capabilities plain. Therefore your position was in the cockpit, seeing to the wounded. What's more, you bear a grievous wound not three months old, sustained, presumably, during the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Of the ships that sustained notable casualties, only the flagship, the Revenge, and the Aid have a complement large enough to require the services of a surgeon. And so I ask: Aid, Revenge, or Ark Royal?”
“Revenge,” said John. “When you put it that way, it sounds so simple, but- “
“Why are you here?”
John frowned at the abrupt change of topic. “Because there's not much work out there for a man with one arm. Mister Stamford and I knew one another as lads, and he recommended me for-”
Master Sherlock cut him off with an impatient sound. “Why are you working at all? Revenge is Drake's ship, and if you were on it in battle, then he knew you and trusted you already. That means you were either part of his famed circumnavigation of the world, or his raid on Cadiz, either of which would have given you sufficient prize-money to retire a wealthy man, even after providing for your mother in Norfolk and paying for a tutor for your younger brother.” The pale lips parted in a wan sort of smile. “Have I got anything wrong?”
“The tutor is for my sister, not my brother,” said John, relieved that the man's gaze wasn't as all-seeing as it had first appeared. “Mum believes she'll attract a merchant husband that way.”
Master Sherlock threw his hands in the air. “Of course a woman on her own for so many years would want to spare her daughter the same fate. My brother wouldn't have erred thus,” he said, his tone sulky and resentful. “He doubtless saw your whole dull life written in your clothes. I had much less to work with, now that that fool Anders has had his way with you. There's nothing for it. I've grown dull alone in this room. Today, we go to the theatre.”
There was a snort from the hallway, and Master Sherlock shuffled in his bedclothes until two pale feet emerged from beneath the bedclothes.
“Sally! Make yourself useful and have someone bring wash water. And make sure it's hot this time!”
“And something for him to eat and drink, I think,” said John, eyeing the unnaturally slender legs that followed the feet.
“Nonsense,” said Master Sherlock. “I've broken fast already.”
“Today?” asked John.
The pale eyes narrowed in thought. “Yesterday. Or perhaps the day before. It doesn't matter. I'm not hungry.”
“Broth, if there is any,” said John to Sally. “Some bread and butter, if the bread's fresh, and small beer.”
“I tell you, I'm not—“ said Master Sherlock, but he sighed impatiently. “I will eat. But I will not do anything until you locate my blue velvet doublet with the brass buttons.”
As John dug through the piles of paper in search of the doublet, he could feel his master's gaze on his back. “You never answered my question,” he said. “Why work?”
“My earliest memories are of wishing to go to sea,” said John, opening the wardrobe. It was filled with books. “The rest of my life was spent at sea, with barely enough time spent on land to marry and have a child. I went around the world with Sir Francis, but when I came home, there was nothing left for me on land. And now, there's nothing left for me at sea. Anything is better than idleness.”
It was as much of the truth as John felt like disclosing. Master Sherlock didn't need to know that John's taste for seeing new lands had been soured by watching his betters treat their fellow men as beasts of burden. Still, Master Sherlock was regarding him with his penetrating stare once more.
“Was it ague that took your wife and child?”
John felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach, but he kept his voice light. “Ague or the bloody flux. The two swept through the village almost at the same time. I never got a clear answer as to what had carried them off.”
“Ah,” was the only response.
This was something of a relief. Those who knew his story invariably offered condolences seasoned with well-meaning phrases like, “You're still so young!” or “You could have other children.”
John's gratitude for his master's economy with sentiment was short-lived as the young man lurched to his feet and swayed alarmingly. John was at his side immediately and held out his good arm, which Master Sherlock seized.
“To the window,” he said impatiently, and John moved to obey, noting the sour smell that clung to his master's nightgown was simply that of old sweat, not the stench of illness that he knew too well from his years at sea. This suggested that Master Sherlock's recent fever was the sort that ran its course in a day or two; nothing to justify a shaven head. John had not yet met the Holmes's physician, but he already seemed to conform with John's general opinion of physicians, namely that their physic was more theatre than treatment.
Master Sherlock seemed to be regaining his balance as John guided him to the window, and soon the cold hands were splayed like pale spiders on the sill, and his nose was pressed up against the mullioned panes.
Sensing that the other man was occupied, John continued searching for the missing doublet, which he found behind a sofa that was piled high with new sheaves of paper and a lute. He laid the garment out on the bed, along with a pair of hose that smelled clean. Fortunately, it seemed as though the servants were well-accustomed to Master Sherlock's whims, and the wash water arrived steaming hot, along with fresh linen. Not that the master had noticed.
“Watson,” he said at last. “Help me to my desk.”
“The water's arrived,” said John. “If you don't use it now, it'll get cold.”
Master Sherlock sighed irritably. “Very well. Wash me while I write. But if you get water on the page, I cannot be held responsible for my actions. But for pity's sake, get me to the desk!”
John had heard stories of wealthy eccentrics, but washing a man's nether regions while he was bent over a writing desk was one of the odder things he had ever done.
“Your towelling could use some work,” said Master Sherlock, not looking up from his writing. “You've rendered this line nearly illegible.”
John glanced over his master's shoulder. He couldn't read a word, but knew what he saw was not the looping hands of a scribe. “Are you certain it was me?” he asked.
His master turned to face him with a scowl, but John could see humour dancing in his eyes.
“I need you to lift your arm now,” said John, rinsing the flannel in the basin and refreshing it with hot water from the ewer. “What are you writing?” asked John.
“The definitive work on the art of deduction,” came the reply.
“Deducting what, exactly?”
“Deducing everything,” said Master Sherlock. “Identifying a fletcher by his fingernails or the cottar by the wear of his boots; knowing the cuckold from the trim of his cloak or the candle maker by the peculiar shape of wax-burns. This is an omnibus of behaviours and marks by which you may read a man's life in his appearance and behaviour.”
John scrubbed his master's arm with a towel. “Is that all it is then, just guessing?”
“I do not guess,” said Master Sherlock, offended, offering John his other arm. “I observe, and deduce the most likely explanation for what I have observed. For example, you seemed taken aback that I knew you were a widower, but no woman would let her husband leave the house attired as poorly as you must have been in order for my brother to order you new clothes. As for ague, I'm told it's caused by unwholesome air in the fens, and your accent is that of Norfolk; hence my conclusion.”
“You amaze me,” said John. “But how did you know about my mother and my sister's tutor?”
“I deduced from your current profession and the neatness of your hair that your father was a barber. From how you style it, I estimate that he died some ten years ago. Am I correct?”
John wrung out the wash flannel and soaked it with more hot water. “You are.”
“Of course I am. Now, back to your former state of dress. Besides indicating that you are in no woman's care, it also suggests that you are not spending your fortune on yourself but on the surviving members of your family and that your mother never remarried.”
“Right,” said John, scrubbing Master Sherlock's back.
“Which means it's likely that your youngest sibling is of grammar school age, and now that you are a family of means, you are paying for your sibling to be educated.”
John shook his head in amazement. “Everything right.”
“Nearly. I failed to consider the advantages a daughter might have in being educated.”
“Still,” said John, “if you hadn't explained, I'd think it was magic.”
Master Sherlock ducked his head so that John could wash it, clearly pleased. “It's hardly miraculous.”
“It's extraordinary. Can you do that for anybody?”
John noted that his praise had a salutary effect on his master's energy as the younger man fairly dragged him to the window. “Certainly. See the man in the blue doublet with the red hose? Do you know his profession?”
“He's standing near a cart filled with baskets. He's a weaver?”
“Wrong!” said Master Sherlock triumphantly. “He's a spy, presumably for one of my brother's rivals. Note the iron-clad wheels on the cart. It's far too expensive for even a master weaver to afford. And the baskets are clearly of low quality- you can see how loose the weave is from here, which is why he has no customers, and he's been there for at least twenty minutes, far longer than any real merchant would when no customers are forthcoming. He's also studiously ignoring me, even as others begin to notice my unclothed state. See how that milkmaid blushes, and her friends also.”
John bit back a laugh, but he needn't have bothered, since Master Sherlock let out a delighted guffaw and strode to the pile of clean linen with a confident step.
“Do you believe me now?” he asked, slipping on the shirt and holding out the sleeves for John to tie.
The corner of the young man's mouth rose infinitesimally. “That's not what the others say.”
“What do they say?”
“'Get thee behind me, Satan,' usually.”
Piece by piece, the pale invalid was transformed into a semblance of a wealthy gentleman. The padded doublet and Venetian hose filled out Master Sherlock's gaunt frame.
When the food arrived, John freed a small table from the sea of paper and moved it next to Master Sherlock's writing desk. He set himself to excavating other piles of detritus while Master Sherlock ate, and discovered a velvet Italian bonnet with an enormous white plume sitting atop a human skull that would cover his master's stubbled head. A fine wool cloak with richly embroidered trim would complete the transformation, and John laid both of them out for Master Sherlock's approval.
To John's pleasant surprise, Master Sherlock emptied the bowl of broth and was wiping the bowl with the last remnants of bread.
“There,” he said, seizing a sword and scabbard from underneath his bed and donning the hat and cape John had found. “I've eaten, and I'm dressed. Let us be on our way.”
To John's gratification, there was little sign of the invalid who had nearly fallen after getting out of bed. In fact, he was going to lose Master Sherlock if he didn't pick up his own pace.
There was a carriage waiting for them in the courtyard below, and John's suspicion that this was usual behaviour for Master Sherlock was confirmed by the number of footmen present to attend to help him into the carriage and provision him with food and drink for the journey.
John caught the driver's eye- a man about his age with grey hair and warm brown eyes. Once Master Sherlock was wrapped in blankets inside the coach, John swung himself up next to the driver.
“You are John Watson, I think?” said the driver, who made a gentle gesture with the reins that somehow managed to signal the pair of horses to begin moving in unison.
“Right,” said John. “You're Guy de Lestrade, unless I miss my guess. Sally mentioned you were in charge of his lordship's horses.”
“Correct, monsieur,” said Lestrade with a grin. “You are a man who notices much.”
“Not as much as the Holmeses, apparently,” said John.
Lestrade laughed and guided the coach around the corner on to the unholy mess of Gracechurch Street. “Do not dismay, Watson. The Holmeses have had many years of practice. In time, perhaps one day we shall be able to apply their methods with some skill.”
“Oh? Are you a student of men as well as horses?” asked John.
“Exactament!” said Lestrade. “I can tell you that your father was a barber.”
“Master Sherlock already told me that today,” said John.
Lestrade's smile fell. “Is it untrue?”
“No, he was definitely a barber. Though how that’s come to be common knowledge I have no idea.”
“Lord Holmes says that nearly every ship's doctor was either a barber or related to one, since blood-letting and pulling teeth come naturally,” said Lestrade.
John smiled. “That much is true, at least of the ship’s doctors I know. I can guess that the pattern does not hold true for learned physicians.”
To John’s surprise, the easy smile on Lestrade’s face fell. “I could not say,” he said, “for I have no knowledge of physicians.”
“Lord Holmes employs one to treat Master Sherlock, doesn't he?” asked John.
“That may be,” said Lestrade shortly, “but I tell you, I do not know him.”
John sensed that he would find out no more from Lestrade, so he changed the subject back to one that Lestrade appeared to enjoy discussing. “Lord Holmes seems a fine figure of a man.”
“That he is,” said Lestrade, brightening. “But he is burdened of late by his many responsibilities.”
“His love for meddling, is more like,” came a peevish comment from within. “My brother does so enjoy having his fingers in many pies.”
“Have you already tired of spotting the spies along the road, Master Sherlock?” asked Lestrade.
“Spies don't interest me,” said Master Sherlock, pulling aside the velvet curtain on John's side of the carriage. “What will we be seeing today?”
“The Curtain is performing The Life and Death of Jack Straw today, and The Theatre has Sapho and Phao.”
“What say you, Watson? Tragedy or comedy?” asked Master Sherlock.
The last thing John wanted to see was a whole company of actors feigning death onstage. “Comedy,” he said.
Master Sherlock tutted. “Dull. No worse than Jack Straw, though.”
“Besides,” said Lestrade, “you've seen Jack Straw three times already.”
“I think it prudent to observe what sort of person enjoys such a bloody spectacle,” said Master Sherlock. “Particularly those who have chosen to see it more than once.”
“Someone like you, then?” asked John.
There was an awkward silence.
“I do not attend the theatre to watch plays,” sneered Master Sherlock. “I attend because it is one of the few places that I may research my book without having to concern myself with pointless social interaction, particularly with the sort that enjoy popular entertainment.”
“Right,” said John, ignoring Lestrade's desperate gesture for him to cease speaking. “I'll remember that.”
“See that you do,” said Master Sherlock coldly.
All three were silent as they drove out of the City and past the taverns and brothels of Shoreditch.
The Theatre was an enormous octagonal edifice surrounded by a courtyard thronging with people. There were hawkers and vendors of all sorts, groups of musicians and acrobats that performed wherever there was a break in the crowd, and there was even a man with a trained monkey that reminded John of those he saw on the far side of the world. The smell of cattle was thick in the air, as was the smell of green earth.
Lestrade manoeuvred the cart to an opening in the brick wall that separated the courtyard from the muddy street and handed John a shilling. “Be sure to request Master Sherlock's usual room in the gallery.”
“Aren't you coming in?” asked John, swinging himself down to the ground.
“I'll wait with the carriage by the horse pond,” said Lestrade. “Besides, I've seen this play already.”
“You might as well join me in the box,” said Master Sherlock impatiently. “Otherwise I'll have to sit with someone tiresome.”
Lestrade raised his eyebrows in surprise but tossed John a second shilling without comment.
John opened the carriage door and offered Master Sherlock his arm, which was accepted for precisely as long as it took him to gain his feet.
“Did you want to have a look around?” asked John.
“God, no,” said Master Sherlock, raising a handkerchief to his face. “I'll wait for you by the stage door. Obtain tickets from the gatherer by the entrance, and do be quick about it.”
Having spied a man in shoddy velvet collecting pennies by the theatre entrance, John wound his way through the crowd.
“Two seats in Sherlock Holmes's usual room,” said John, once he'd caught the man's eye.
“Is one of the seats for Sherlock Holmes?” asked the man.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” said John.
“God 'a mercy!” said the man, pressing his hand to his heart. “What unfortunate pillcock has he enticed into accompanying him?”
“Me, actually,” said John, stiffening. All right, so Master Sherlock was a bit of a bastard, but it wouldn't do for low fellows to speak about him thus.
“Apologies, good sir. Meaning no offence to your master, of course,” said the man, spreading his hands in a gesture of supplication. “It's just that Master Sherlock usually sits alone. We could seat others in the room, of course, but we'd rather take a loss on it, since nobody that shares a room with him ever sees another play here. Excepting yourself, we ardently hope.”
“I see,” said John, holding out the money rather stiffly.
“Mark well, I'll give you entrance gratis, with my compliments. Use that shilling to buy yourself an orange or two,” he said with a wink. “It'd do your master some good to have an example of someone actually enjoying himself. Give these to Bellows around the back.”
“Thanks very much,” said John, accepting two worn strips of paper from him.
“Do enjoy our humble play,” said the man with an exaggerated bow.
John sighed as the crowd swallowed him once more. Actors.
He followed the theatre around to the east, but didn't see anything resembling a door or someone called Bellows. He spotted Lestrade watering the horses by a large, muddy pond and asked where he ought to go.
“That's your way in,” said Lestrade, gesturing with his crop to a door to a building off the main amphitheatre that was guarded by an enormous man. “That's Bellows the blacksmith. He knows Master Sherlock, but be sure that you have your tickets ready to show him. And keep an eye out for the urchins. Cut-purses, all of them. They will pick you to the bone as soon as look at you.”
John nodded his thanks and wound his way past a minstrel singing a bawdy song and approached Bellows, who growled at him until John produced the tickets.
“Lestrade told you the way, I trust?” came a voice from just inside the door.
“How did you- ?” began John, but he began to laugh when a familiar dusky odour reached his nose. Apparently, he'd unwittingly stepped in horse dung.
After scraping his shoe clean to Bellows's satisfaction, John followed Master Sherlock up a creaky wooden staircase to a store-room, which held all manner of props and pieces of scenery. To John's surprise, the gatherer who had given him a free ticket had positioned himself in the store-room beside the heavy curtain that separated the store-room from the theatre.
“Master Sherlock!” he exclaimed, giving an exaggerated bow. “How delightful to see you again for the Lyly! Pray, was it Mister Burbage's Phao that enticed you to our Great O once more, or perhaps Mister Kempe as Cupid?”
“Neither,” said Master Sherlock shortly.
“Oh?” asked the gatherer, with badly feigned innocence. “Was it perhaps Mister Hoddleston as Venus or Mister Wishart as Sapho?”
John managed to turn a guffaw into a cough, but Master Sherlock stiffened.
“If you really wish to make a career of acting in order to support your wife and children and pay the debt you owe for your house in Stratford,” he said coldly, “you would do well not to practice your base humour on your betters, particularly those who patronise your troupe. And if you cannot control your idle tongue, perhaps you should return to the glove making trade your father tried to knock into your thick skull.”
If Master Sherlock's verbal assault struck anywhere near the truth, the gatherer made no sign of it as he bowed. “Base humour is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Shall I send up an orange seller for your amusement?” he asked John.
John glanced at Sherlock's pursed lips and shook his head. “We would prefer to be left alone.”
The gatherer eyed John with new interest. “Oh, would we?”
“Hang you, you brazen-faced churl!” exclaimed Master Sherlock as he swept past the impertinent fellow.
The gatherer met John's eye challengingly. He had intelligent hazel eyes and sported a pointed beard that reminded John of Lord Holmes's, but John was in no mood for games. He seized the gatherer by the doublet and slammed him against the store-room's wall.
“You've had your fun,” said John in a low voice. “But it's over now. If I see you so much as raise an eyebrow in my master's direction, by God's bones, you're going to find it difficult to speak your lines through a broken jaw. Am I understood?”
“You're made of sterner stuff than his last minder,” he said approvingly. “Let us all hope that your fortitude will last the next three hours.” He wriggled out of John's grasp and drew back the curtain, flooding the store-room with light.
When John's eyes had adjusted to the light, he saw that a gilded throne with a red velvet cushion and a wooden chair had been set up for their use.
“The cushions are also complimentary,” said the gatherer, closing a set of dark curtains around them.
John couldn't hold back a smile. At least the rogue was as generous with his hospitality was he was with his cheek.
“Our arses owe you great thanks,” said John.
The gatherer gave John a grin as he withdrew.
“What a useless fellow,” exclaimed Master Sherlock, flinging his cloak over the back of the throne.
“I liked him,” said John. “He's all sauce, but it's amusing sauce. You know him, I take it?”
“Of course I don't know him, other than as a bloody nuisance!”
“He let me in for free and gave us cushions,” said John offering his master the extra shilling, “despite knowing how you feel about plays. I can't imagine you being so polite to someone who insulted your book.”
Master Sherlock waved off the coin after a moment's pause. “He's probably someone's spy,” said he said, adjusting the red velvet pillow on the seat before lowering himself into the throne.
“Probably,” said John pacifyingly, drinking in the sight of the theatre below. It reminded him very much of an inn courtyard, though much, much bigger.
A clown was mincing about on the stage, singing to music provided by musicians positioned in the balcony overhead. The majority of the crowd milling in the pit below were not paying attention, even as they continued to be pressed forward by more people entering the theatre. The whole spectacle was overwhelming, and, in John's opinion, quite exciting.
Master Sherlock gave him a sharp glance. “This is your first time at the theatre, isn't it?”
“I've seen plays,” said John, aware that the tips of his ears were likely turning red. “The local inn had bands of players on most feast days.”
“But this is your first time at a public theatre,” said Master Sherlock.
“Aye. When does the play start?”
“It'll be at least another quarter hour until they get all the stinkards packed into the pit. God's wounds, I am terribly sorry that you should have Lyly to start with. It's absurd rot, neither mythology nor history, and actors will insist on singing and dancing, such as it is. The real musicians play in between the acts, which nearly makes the plays tolerable, but then the actors retake the stage for more posturing and shouting. I'd not be surprised if you left my service from being subjected to it.”
“I quite enjoy plays,” said John. “I'm sure I'll enjoy this one, especially from such a comfortable seat.”
Master Sherlock let out a huff of annoyance. “Enjoy the play if you must, but try not to laugh. My observations during the performance must be undisturbed.”
“You won't even know I'm here,” said John, smiling to himself. “Who are those people sitting on the stage?”
“Fools who have been parted from an additional sixpence for the privilege of being spat upon by the actors,” said Master Sherlock.
He fell into silent observation, and John seized the opportunity to drink in the scene. The scale of the event was marvellous. The inn yard where he saw his first plays held seventy men at most, but there were hundreds of people in the pit, and hundreds more in the galleries. Women with exposed bosoms pushed through the crowd selling oranges, and the din was astonishing. Master Sherlock could write ten volumes of his book from the members of this crowd alone, provided he could remember it all.
His eyes had barely travelled the perimeter of the theatre when trumpets blared from the balcony, and the crowd noise fell to an excited murmur.
A bearded man appeared onstage in a creamy doublet and dark blue hose and proceeded to give a prologue so full of absurd contradictions and wordplay that John very nearly laughed aloud. But then he remembered Master Sherlock's admonishment and limited his laughter to a silent hitch of his shoulders.
The play began properly, with a stout man in impressive whiskers introducing himself as the ferryman Phao, the romantic hero of the story, who sought the proud queen Sapho.
However, his plans were soon scuttled, no thanks to Venus, played by a tall, slender man with a proud demeanour, and her son Cupid, an amusingly ugly clown with a golden bow and quiver of arrows. By the time the lovely Sapho appeared with her ladies-in-waiting, John was all but certain that Cupid's arrows would go horribly awry, and he couldn't hold back a guffaw then they did.
Master Sherlock scowled at him, but John didn't care.
There were clever servants and terrible jokes by the ladies-in-waiting, and when the conclusion came about, namely that Sapho was to remain chaste and alone, John let out a soft noise of comprehension. He hadn't realised the play was about England's current monarch.
“Don't tell me it's taken you this long to figure out the obvious allegory,” said Master Sherlock, speaking for the first time since the play started. “Next you'll tell me you haven't spied the assassin.”
“Not everyone is as-- wait, what assassin?”
Master Sherlock sighed. “The fellow stupid enough to wear new riding boots while disguised as a farmer,” he said, gesturing to a man in blue and brown who was skulking slowly toward the rear of the pit and the stairs leading up to the gallery. “Given that he seems to be quite new at this, I'm confident that the victim's men-at-arms will thwart the attempt.”
John glanced over at the nobles in the packed galleries, which were even more crowded due to the imposing-looking men that were clearly ignoring the play so as to keep an eye on their surroundings. John felt a sudden cold feeling in his stomach.
“What if the victim left his man-at-arms with the carriage?”
“Who would be so stupid as—“ began Master Sherlock, and his mouth snapped shut as he grasped John's implication. “Don't be ridiculous. Who would wish to assassinate me?”
John managed to bite back a tart comment about most of the members of his brother's household, but instead gestured to the sword at Master Sherlock's hip. “Do you know how to use that thing?”
“Of course I do. But all of this is unnecessary, and disruptive to my work.”
“If you say so, Master Sherlock.”
“Ugh, don't call me that. It makes you sound like a servant. An insolent one, at that.”
“I am a servant,” said John.
Master Sherlock waved his hand. “Irrelevant. But if I were an assassin, I should strike at the end of the clown's final song, during the din of applause, and then make my escape among the withdrawing crowd.”
“Sounds reasonable,” said John, quietly slipping to the other side of the curtain. He didn't need to be told that Master Sherlock would prefer to have the man taken alive, so when his eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the store-room, he seized the heftiest of the brass candlesticks on a shelf along the back wall and secreted himself just inside the door behind a giant iron candelabra that was partially covered with a dust cloth.
He could make out the sound of a tabor and raucous singing voice, which was met with roars of approval from below. He tightened his knuckles around the candlestick and pressed his back against the wall.
He hadn't long to wait.
The door opened with a low creak, and the man in farmer's garb stepped into the storeroom with quick and silent tread. Master Sherlock chose this moment to give one of his spectacular rattling coughs, thus giving the assassin the opportunity to close the door behind him, which he did. He stood there against the door for several long seconds, presumably to let his eyes adjust to the dark and to listen for signs that his entrance had been marked. John could hear his quick, shallow breaths.
Finally, confident that he hadn't been noticed, he withdrew a wicked-looking dagger from a sheath hidden in his sleeve and began to creep towards the curtain that concealed Master Sherlock. Once thus positioned, he put his eye up to an opening in the curtain to see how best to strike his victim.
John took advantage of the man's pause to step forward quickly and strike the man sharply between the shoulder blades. He let out a loud cry as his dagger clattered to the ground, and John kicked it away. Master Sherlock flung open the curtains, temporarily blinding both John and the assassin.
“Now, villain!” shouted Sherlock. “I have you on the hip!”
By the time the John could see once more, he found the assassin staring down the blade of Master Sherlock's sword.
“Bind him,” Master Sherlock ordered. “Then send for Bellows.”
“Verily,” said John, relieved that his master had things well in hand. There was a quantity of golden cord coiled on a nearby table, which John used to truss the man up like a Christmas goose. When he opened the store-room door and found himself face to face with the saucy gatherer, who was slightly out of breath from running to find the source of the disruption. “Fetch Bellows, and a constable while you're at it,” said John, his voice calm. “This coward has made an attempt on my master's life.”
The man's face paled. “Has Master Sherlock been injured?”
“Not a bit,” said Master Sherlock, baring his teeth at the man in a fierce smile. As the late afternoon sunlight streamed over his master, John noted a bit colour in his cheeks, and for the first time he could see some family resemblance between Master Sherlock and his powerful elder brother.
The gatherer swallowed hard. “I'll see to it.”
“Have you anything you wish to say?” asked Master Sherlock, fixing his would-be-assassin with a cold glare.
The man, though pale and perspiring, shook his head defiantly and glared silently at his interlocutor.
“Interesting.” Master Sherlock raised his eyes to John's. “What do you make of him?”
“He's got on another set of clothes underneath,” said John. “In case you'd bled all over him. And he's probably got a horse outside, judging by the boots.”
“Very good, if obvious,” said Master Sherlock. “But hark! I hear Bellows's dainty footfalls on the stair.”
A moment later, the door burst open, and Bellows seized the assassin in his enormous hands. “Is this the false knave?” he asked.
“I am not!” shouted the assassin, speaking for the first time.
Bellows glanced at Master Sherlock. “He says he ain't.”
“That's because he's a liar as well as a villain,” said Master Sherlock. “See where his dagger lies on the floor, and he has another on his right arm.”
“Naughty fellow!” said Bellows, shaking the man forcefully. “You shall answer for your villainy!”
The gatherer, who had followed Bellows into the room, picked up the assassin's dagger. “Hold him fast, Master Bellows,” he said, placing the blade delicately on the railing. “Here's an adder's tooth, to be sure.”
To John's surprise, the blade of the knife was smeared with a whitish paste. Master Sherlock took the weapon and raised it to his face, sniffing delicately. His expression darkened.
“Sirrah,” said Master Sherlock to the gatherer, “remove the sheaths from this man's arms and sheathe this dagger carefully. You may be an ass, but I wouldn't wish a dog to come to harm by this poison.”
“Oh that all the world should hear me proclaimed thus by your lordship,” said the gatherer insouciantly, yet he did as Master Sherlock bid.
“We could have the magistrate write you down an ass, Willum,” said Bellows, chortling and forcing the assassin out the store-room door.
The gatherer snorted and followed Bellows out the door.
“Well,” said John, wiping his brow. “That was exciting.”
Master Sherlock was sitting in the golden throne once more, gazing out over the crowd with his chin resting on his fingertips. John sat down in his own chair and followed his gaze, but seeing nothing of interest, he rose and set himself to opening the curtains.
His master sat, unmoving.
John cleared his throat. “Master Sherlock- “
“I told you, don't call me that,” he said, snapping out of his reverie at last.
“What am I to call you?” asked John, who had known his share of nobles whose wanting to be friends lasted only as long as his usefulness to them. “Holmes?”
His master blinked in surprise. “Not that. 'Holmes' is my brother.”
“Well, I can't call you by your Christian name,” said John. “That'd hardly be proper.”
“May I address you by your Christian name?” asked Master Sherlock in an oddly formal way.
“You can call me Lady Bawdy Trullpunk and I'll answer to it,” said John.
Master Sherlock let out a huff of amusement. “I shall call you John, and you shall call me Sherlock. Unless you go by Jack?”
“No, Jack was my father. But if I call you-” John paused- “by your Christian name, the servants will talk.”
“What will they say? That I have bestowed an unusual honour on the man who saved my life not three hours after meeting me? Let them. Come, John. You sailed around the world. Surely you have the stomach to call a man as he bids you.”
“Very well,” said John. “But I will not abuse the privilege.”
Sherlock gave him a small smile. “I don't expect that you will. Come, John. Lestrade will be waiting.”
From the sudden hush that fell on the dining hall when his master entered it, John concluded that Sherlock didn't often join the household for meals. This suspicion was confirmed when the gentlemen attending Lord Holmes flew into something of a refined tizzy setting a place for Sherlock at his brother's right hand. Lord Holmes made no expression of surprise, he merely gestured for the ewer to assist his brother in washing his hands.
For his part, John joined the lower table, taking no small amount of pleasure in the stunned look on Anders's face.
The food, particularly compared to shipboard fare, was delicious. Fresh bread, good cheese and ale, and roasted vegetables that reminded him of his mother's. John ate with excellent appetite, and was pleased to see his master devour the small portion of the joint that had been laid on his trencher.
Lestrade, who sat across the table from John, raised his eyebrows. “Master Sherlock enjoyed the play, I take it?”
“I think he was pleasantly surprised,” said John.
At the end of the meal, John heard a soft voice in his ear.
“Lord Holmes wishes to speak with you,” said one of the serving gentlemen from the high table.
John wiped his face on his sleeve and followed the young man to his lordship's office, which felt much smaller and uncomfortably intimate when lit only with candles.
This time, John strongly suspected that Lord Holmes's attention to the papers on his desk was counterfeit, intended to establish his precedence. Unnecessary, given that Lord Holmes paid his salary. The itchy feeling the man evinced was even stronger than it had been before.
Finally, his lordship looked up from his papers. “I'm told you had an unwelcome visitor to your room at the theatre.”
“Yes, my lord,” said John, attempting to buy time as his mind was in a whirl, trying to understand why Lord Holmes was speaking to him instead of Sherlock.
“Pray, what did my brother have to say about it?”
“Not much, my lord. Merely that he was certainly not the farmer he resembled and that he had a horse.”
“What sort of horse?”
“A handsome bayclere, though deserving a better owner, or so Lestrade said,” said John.
Lord Holmes blinked, though in response to what, John didn't know.
“Describe your part in the matter.”
John did so haltingly, taking care to include only facts and not his opinions or observations. As much as he wished to speak to Lord Holmes freely, it wasn't unheard of for nobles to have blood relatives killed for some obscure rule of succession, no matter how solicitous of his brother he appeared to be.
When he had finished his account, Lord Holmes nodded.
“Doctor Watson, I thank you for the part you played in saving my brother's life. I would like very much to keep him out of harm's way, and would like to know I can count on you.”
“Of course you can,” said John, frowning.
“Then you would be willing to accept, say, an extra half-crown a month in exchange for intelligence of a more detailed nature about my brother's state of mind?”
“My lord, no,” said John. “Not that I wish to refuse your lordship anything, but I am a simple man. From what I have seen of your lordship and Master Sherlock, you would do far better to speak with him directly than to rely on my unreliable recollections. I do not desire responsibility for reports on which my master's life could depend.”
Lord Holmes looked at him sharply, and John prayed that his misdirection was credible. He could feel Lord Holmes's gaze sweep the length of his body and did his best not to fidget.
“So loyal so quickly,” murmured Lord Holmes in such a low voice that John wasn't certain he'd heard him correctly. “Thank you, Watson,” he said, nodding in dismissal.
John bowed, bewildered, and mounted the stairs up to his master's room. He found Sherlock at his writing desk, surrounded by candles.
“Did my brother offer you money to spy on me?” he asked without looking up from his work.
“He did. Half a crown each month.”
“Did you take it?”
“Of course not,” said John.
Sherlock sighed. “More's the pity. We might have shared the bounty. My allowance is barely sufficient to keep me in paper, quills, and ink.”
“I'll remember that the next time one of your enemies offers me money for intelligence,” said John.
“You see Mycroft as my enemy?” asked Sherlock mildly.
“Well, I did notice that he hasn't spoken to you about what happened, nor did you seek him out,” said John, feeling slightly wrong-footed. “And, well, we don't know who hired the assassin yet, do we?”
“For all his faults, Mycroft hasn't the stomach for such tactics,” said Sherlock. “Pride is his greatest sin, not wrath or envy.”
“That's good to know,” said John, shivering. The evening chill was seeping in through the room's numerous windows. “Is there anything you require before I withdraw?”
“Bread and butter, and some of Mrs. Hudson’s dark ale” said Sherlock. “I find my strength returning, and I wish it to stay until I finish writing today's observations.”
“I'll see to it,” said John, unfolding a blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapping it around his master's shoulders.
Sherlock didn't look up from his work, but he pulled the blanket tightly around himself as John withdrew.