The pattern of Russell’s footsteps was beyond familiar to Holmes, and he had no difficulty in recognizing her pace even when it was sullied by exhaustion and hesitant with pain. Not an injury to the lower portion of her body, for there was no irregularity indicative of a limp, only a uniform reluctance for movement. Holmes poured a generous cup of strong tea in preparation of her advent.
His apprentice arrived without any sign of bruising or other epidermal damage on her person. Her arms were taut beneath her ribs, mouth and chin fixed in that resolute scowl Holmes was so accustomed to. The set of her jaw testified to a substantial degree of bodily agony. No hint of her ailment marked the suit she wore (her father’s, dark grey and somewhat older than the attire she customarily appropriated from his closet), merely a smudge of ink on the left cuff and an abrasion on the right leg of her trousers where gorse had rubbed against the material.
Some internal upset - food poisoning, perhaps. Poisoning in its own right? A possibility, now that their affiliation was quite well-known; though if the intent was to put Russell out of commission, the poisoner clearly possessed little knowledge of her fortitude. The aftermath of a night’s revels? He rejected that conjecture, as her visage lacked the violet rings under the eyes, and she didn’t move as though her head troubled her. Her woes were restricted to her abdomen.
Wordlessly, Russell dragged out a chair opposite Holmes and sank into it, drawing her knees up to her chest. Her shoulders slumped, and her sagging neck delivered her forehead to the unfriendly surface of the table.
Holmes leant forward. He put aside his concern; her form did not suggest that her torment was so great that she could not speak, and he discarded any theory involving the malice of others.
“Your indecision on my condition is quite perplexing. Is fifty-five years reasonable for incipient senility?” Russell’s voice, muffled by the wooden surface, retained its mordant edge.
“On the contrary, I present the hypothesis that you suffer from a digestive malady, and I beg you would not attribute any shortcomings to such a trivial factor as age. Would it affront your delicate sensibilities if I were to venture the word ‘constipation?’”
Russell’s countenance emerged, as acrimonious as Holmes could have predicted, with a tinge of the foreseen embarrassment - though accompanied by an odd note of triumph.
“No, Holmes, it's not constipation. Only something much more mundane.”
Holmes tented the tips of his fingers, eyes fastened on her. “Do enlighten me.”
Russell’s head went down again with a snort. “I will not. Men are ill-suited to hear of such things.”
“My dear Russell, I am deeply pained that you would amass me with the rest of my sex.”
“Fine,” Russell bit out, her neck snapping up. “I’m not surprised that you have not deduced the answer to your question. If you demand an explanation, I will tell you: I am undergoing my menstrual period.”
There was a pause.
Two people stared at each other over the table, one as flustered as could be expected, the other self-conscious and defiant in equal measures.
“I see,” Holmes said at length. His Victorian sensibilities had never envisioned that the word ‘menstrual’ would ever be uttered in his presence, much less in that tone of voice or from the lips of a sixteen-year-old girl - even such a sixteen-year-old girl as Mary Russell.
“I’d rather you didn’t see, as a matter of fact. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Russell’s lips curled. “Indeed, Holmes, I believe that the male disinclination to possess knowledge that is traditionally considered feminine is a glaring flaw, especially when the said male is in the business of detection. Take, for instance, the application of cosmetics. It is generally viewed as firmly in the woman’s sphere. Yet you yourself have abundant expertise in that field.”
“I disagree as to the parallel. Cosmetics are essential in matters of disguise, and I have no qualms about knowledge that proves useful even if it is unusual when possessed by a man. But I cannot see any instance during which a familiarity with….feminine hygiene would be welcome.”
“Ah,” Russell countered, her eyes gleaming. “I am of the opinion that ‘feminine hygiene,’ as you insist on terming it, would, on the contrary, be of great use in a case. And as, I assume, neither one of us can imagine Mrs Hudson speaking at length on this topic to you, I’m the only person in a position to teach you.”
In later years, Russell would look back with smug satisfaction on the expression of downright mortification that at that moment had dawned on her mentor’s face.
“Er - Russell, I am content to live out the remainder of my life without - ” Russell noted with interest the flush working its way across Holmes’ face.
“Surely you can see the advantage. You wouldn’t like me to amass you with the rest of your sex in regards to menstruation, would you?” she added wickedly.
“As inconceivable as it may seem, in this situation, I would.”
“Good heavens, Holmes. I have most generously offered to educate you on a subject you would never otherwise become acquainted with, a subject that could potentially become valuable in the future. Recognizing when a woman is undergoing menses would be a significant factor in any assumptions. At the very least, it would explain bloodstains in unlikely locations. You are a scientist. A scientist such as you should not balk at mere facts of flesh. Are you going to accept my offer or not?”
Holmes sighed loudly. Color blazed in his cheeks. “Very well, Russell!”
Russell settled back into her chair. It was a singular - and most gratifying - experience to be in the instructive position of their relationship.
“A typical menstrual period lasts anywhere from three to seven days, perhaps even longer, while the uterus lining is shed. There will be days of lighter flow towards the end and the beginning.” She considered for a moment. “My own menses tends to last five days.”
Russell was rewarded with Holmes’ slight cough.
She continued, “As far as I know, abdominal cramps are universal.”
“Which is what is troubling you now.”
“Correct.” Russell glowered at nothing in particular and pulled her knees closer to herself.
“Other symptoms include nausea, aches in various areas such as the back or head, acne, and bloating. Women often experience mood fluctuations and increased irritability during and preceding menses. I don’t suppose you have noticed that before?”
Holmes raised an eyebrow, stretching languorously back in his chair. “If you are inquiring if I have noticed an increase in your tendency to be stubborn and combative, I have not. Whatever mental discomfort menstruation may cause you does not significantly alter your normal disposition.”