I should have been grateful.
After all, my situation was so much improved over what it might have been. Instead of being confined to the ward in some over-crowded London hospital, I was being indulged within the walls of a most fine country manor house in deepest Sussex. No one would tell me why I was being so honoured, but after some reflection I determined that Major Sholto, my recent commander in the Afghan hostilities, must have played some role. He had always treated me with respect and so kindly that on occasion I entertained the notion that he might have carried some kind of feelings for me. Not that either of us would ever have mentioned such a thing. We both, after all, were officers and gentlemen. Still, I could not help remembering his final words to me as we parted, me being carried off on a stretcher and the Major already preparing for the next encounter with the enemy. “Do not fret, Captain Watson,” he said quietly, one strong hand resting on my arm. “I shall see you set right.”
And, so now, several months later, here I was. The placard on the front of the house told the story of the previous owner, a Duke whose name meant nothing to me, but I was not terribly familiar with Debrett’s. Nevertheless, I owed him a debt of gratitude. It all stemmed from a tragedy, of course, as these things often did. The old man’s only son had perished after being wounded on one foreign battlefield or another, his death due primarily to shabby medical practice in hospital. As a consequence, the Duke determined to do what he could for injured officers in future. Because of that [and no doubt the influence of Sholto] I now had a small and pleasant room to myself, well-prepared and nutritious meals that were served in a dining room that still had its crystal chandelier and Persian rugs. Not to mention that I was being given the most solicitous and conscientious medical care.
Anyone would have been filled with gratitude.
And yet I felt nothing but despair and bitterness.
My life as a proud member of Her Majesty’s military was over. Possibly even my career as a physician had seen its end. The pain in my leg was unrelenting, not withstanding that the injury itself had actually been in my shoulder. The weakness brought about by the dreadful fevers that had almost finished the work of the bullet lingered still.
Even now it shames me to admit that there were days back then when I fervently wished for nothing more than that death had found me on the blood-stained sands of that damnable foreign place.
Such was the state of one John H. Watson on the day that I finally gave in to the chivvying of the sister on duty and left the confines of my room so that it could be tidied and aired. The hated walking stick made an annoying sound as it struck the cinder path, as if to remind me that whilst I might flee the room, the despair accompanied me, my only faithful companion.
I made my slow way through the vast back garden, attempting to amuse myself with the notion that I was actually promenading in Hyde Park, perhaps on my way to a pleasant dinner party. By the time I reached the back stone wall, I was more than ready to take a seat on the brightly painted wooden bench situated there. I took out my faithful old Meerschaum and spent some time getting a good burn going. With the familiar and comforting taste of the shag and the bright blue sky overhead, I felt myself relax just a bit and tried to set the bitterness aside for at least a moment.
I do not know how long the man had been leaning on the wall, watching me. It was not until he spoke that I was pulled from my own thoughts and turned to look at him.
And what a sight he was.
Tall, slender, with a mass of dark curls that did not seem to have ever been within reach of even a dab of pomade. His complexion was pale, although not the unhealthy pallor of my fellow patients and myself; rather it was a creamy ivory. He wore a shirt in a quite unsuitable shade of purple which suited him perfectly.
We just looked at one another.
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he said finally.
I took a moment to consider the voice more than the words and to wonder why the particular tone therein seemed to strike some secret metronome inside my chest and start it ticking. Then I took the pipe from my mouth. “As you see me sitting on the grounds of a military convalescent facility that observation required very little thought.”
He frowned at me, apparently offended that his remark had not impressed me greatly. Then one endless leg came up and over the wall, followed by the other, and he perched there. His vivid shirt and somehow vaguely alien features put me in mind of a gipsy fellow I had once encountered during a walking holiday in Wales. Or perhaps of a faerie king from a painting by Joseph Noel Paton. I paused, wondering if the powders I had been prescribed for my nerves were muddling my mind.
When I looked at him again, his eyes were examining me and I suddenly felt studied, like some unfortunate specimen under a microscope. Those eyes appeared to be an unlikely combination of silver and forest green. No doubt the brightness of the sun was deceiving me.
“Oh!” he ejaculated suddenly, sounding much like a child discovering what Father Christmas had left in his stocking. “Not just an ordinary soldier. You are also a doctor.”
I gave him a nod of approbation. “Now that was a tidy bit of deduction,” I said. “Most impressive.”
He preened for a moment and then gave a shrug that was probably supposed to be dismissive of my praise. “Elementary, really,” he said.
“Might I have the honour of knowing who has sussed me out so well?”
His shoulders straightened a little. “I am Sherlock Holmes. You might have heard of me?”
I considered the name briefly, although it was not one that would be easily forgotten once heard. Then I shook my head. “Afraid not.”
He frowned again. “I have been in the papers four times in the recent past.”
I smiled at him. He seemed perhaps only five or so years younger than I, but Holmes had not been to war. “My apologies. But I have been abroad and then…pre-occupied.”
A slight pinkness washed his sharp cheekbones, which delighted me so much more than was acceptable. “Sorry,” he mumbled. But then he perked right up again. “You know my name, so I should also know yours.”
“John Watson,” I said, holding out my hand.
He jumped lithely off the wall and came closer, so that we might politely shake hands as gentlemen should. Then he joined me on the bench.
“Should I ask why you have been in the newspapers with such regularity? Or am I better off in ignorance, in case you are a scoundrel?”
“I am a consulting detective,” he replied. “The only one in the world.”
“With the police?” It seemed unlikely; my few contacts with the gentlemen of the law had shown them to be of a much more plodding nature than Mr Holmes.
His glance was scornful. “Certainly not. When the idiots from the Yard are out of their depth, which is most always, they come to me.”
“And you solve the case for them? That sounds brilliant. You must be very clever.”
“Do you think so?”
“Of course I do. It sounds like a most interesting life.”
We sat in silence for a moment, but it was not the painful lack of conversation that so often prevailed within the lounge at the manor; instead it was merely a comfortable pause.
I spoke first. “What brings a detective out here to the wilds of Sussex? Unless it is confidential, of course.”
“Well, it is. But I will tell you.” He hesitated briefly, as if wondering why he was prepared to reveal his secrets to a stranger. I could read in his face the moment he decided that it was not important to understand the Why. “There is an embezzler on the staff of the manor.”
“Really?” I thought quickly. “Is it Norris?” I guessed, thinking of the dour night manager, whom no one cared for very much.
Holmes shook his head. “Actually, it was Norris who brought the case to me.”
After some more thought, I grinned. “Oh, I know. Of course it must be Knight, who keeps the books.”
“Very good, Watson,” he said, sounding no more patronising than was absolutely necessary. “I have been surveying the manor to discover how I might best approach.”
My pipe had long since extinguished itself. I tapped it on the end of the bench to empty the bowl before returning it to my pocket. “You might come to visit an old friend,” I suggested, with a sidewise glance at him.
After a moment, he smiled at me and the metronome’s rhythm in my chest was suddenly faster. “Oh, very good, Watson.” Then he sobered. “Knight is an unsavoury character,” he told me. “He has assaulted several people in the past when they became a threat to his schemes. It might be dangerous to assist me.”
I stood. “I might use a stick, Holmes, and be only a damaged ex-soldier,” I said. “But I hope I do not lack the courage to do the right thing. And if he is so dangerous it is a good thing I will be there.”
Holmes stood as well and stared at me. There was an odd look in his eyes, something between respect and…well, I could not really define what I was seeing there. But I did not think that I would mind seeing it again. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “I do not doubt that you would always do the right thing, Watson,” he said. “Not for a moment. And I would be proud to have you at my side in any battle.” He leapt over the wall and bent to pick up a black coat that matched his trousers, pulling it on. From one pocket he pulled a cravat and tied it on. Finally, he smoothed his hair, with very little effect. “You had best return to the manor, my dear chap. You have a visitor arriving.”
We smiled at one another and I gave him a firm nod. I turned around and walked back to the manor, moving much more quickly than I had on my earlier journey.
But still not as quickly as I moved later that same night, when I forgot the damnable stick completely and chased the villain Knight halfway across the front lawn, tackling him just before he could use his blade on Holmes’ pale throat.
When the local constabulary finally turned up, they found the world’s only consulting detective and one ex-soldier waiting on the front veranda, convulsed in highly inappropriate laughter. They frowned at us and we tried unsuccessfully to stifle our amusement.
I could not, however, stifle the fragile joy that hovered like a newly-emerged butterfly inside my heart.