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Some Business of Her Own

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I remember my mother saying once that she hadn’t felt grown up until her late twenties. At the advanced age of twenty-five, eleven years an orphan and four married, I thought myself a capable independent adult and couldn’t fathom why Judith Klein Russell hadn’t felt the same. Looking back now I can only speculate that it was motherhood that somehow undermined her sense of autonomy, but that might only be my long-abandoned familial guilt still seeking its lost foothold. My childhood went over a California cliff, and I was thrown into adulthood from the car that crashed and killed my family. Being grown up was all I had left of them, the single lasting legacy when my other identities — sister, daughter — dissolved into smoke and fire and pain. Stoic self-sufficiency became the one thing that mattered until the day I almost stepped on Sherlock Holmes.

They say like calls to like, and our similarities of thought and temperament overshadowed the many shallow distinctions to be made between Holmes and me, of age, gender, and personal history. It was a long time before I stumbled across those traits as obstacles rather than mere phantoms of social niceties. Once I’d come to understand my own heart well enough to recognize that it was engaged by my head, that intellect was the font of passion in my being, I let go of the romantic notions fed to me by social convention. Of course it was some weeks before I pulled together the pieces of my heart and intellect and shivering limbs, all sending out signals at odds with the rest, and Holmes not much help in sorting the new lines of communication growing between us. Yet another exploding vehicle acted as catalyst for my transformation, and when the person I thought I’d lost that time appeared in front of me on the filthy dock, no lingering doubt stayed the hands that reached for him and held on tightly. From that moment of contact Holmes and I were well matched in this new way, the differences between us lying merely in experience rather than expectation.

However, experience is of course valuable, in this context no less than any other. I spent hours in martial arts training to develop fluency in self-defence and, when required, offensive action. And I knew Holmes would no more begrudge my experimentation with subtler somatic practices than he would deny the importance of keeping up with any of studies he assigned to me himself. I imagine he’d in fact prefer I devote time to honing the intimate knowledge of the body rather than wasting it (as he saw it) on my own calling in theological research. Not that I ever offered him the choice. This was my decision, my responsibility. My questions to answer and my own body to understand. What he observed over the years as my independent studies with other tutors progressed, he never said.

For those reasons and others, more than once in the years since I met Margery Childe I pondered what might have been if I’d met her without the burden and distraction of deceit and murder. I’d feigned indifference when my old friend Ronnie and I spoke of the women paired off in Childe's Temple, as part of the persona I played while investigating that case. But to be ruthlessly honest, I had no idea who I was at that time, with my looming financial freedom and an abruptly uncertain future with Holmes unmooring me. And then there was Margery, whose charismatic presence spoke to me on multiple levels as no one else ever had, not even Holmes. So I shook out the flag of conventional sexuality and joked with Ronnie that I felt nothing of the kind for other women, even as I couldn’t stop thinking about Margery. As it happened, my life took several decisive turns in the following weeks, allowing me to settle on what I wanted with Holmes without having to close any of those other doors I’d peeked inside.

In the spring of 1921 I resumed my studies of various sorts and for 18 months following my marriage, my projects in Oxford, with Holmes, and on my own brought many opportunities to learn. And then, for an astonishingly tumultuous two years, other forces grabbed control of the reins from summer 1923 until summer 1925. Thrown from case to case around the globe and deep into the inner workings of my own psyche, I had little chance to control my life, let alone opportunity to sustain any sort of research plan. July 1925 finally found me home again in Sussex, reunited with the manuscript on biblical wisdom Dorothy Ruskin had inadvertently separated me from almost two years before. I’d sent Holmes off to regale Watson with tales of India, Japan, and San Francisco for the week, briefly imagined them installed at their favourite Turkish baths for the duration, and put them firmly out of mind. I pushed Holmes’ motley piles to the floor and spread out on the work desk in the bright main room, sustained by Mrs. Hudson’s best efforts in the kitchen. At long last, I was reunited with my purest intellectual self and nothing would interfere.

O proud ego, foolish to tempt the fates so baldly.

I firmly ignored the knocking until Mrs. Hudson answered the door, when I looked up to confirm it was none of my concern. Standing outside was a sturdy middle-aged woman, auburn hair shot through with silver to give an overall lightening effect rather than an aging one. Her face was worn but at ease; someone who had had a hard life but was in good means now. There was a self-confidence about her that you often see in matrons with scores of grandchildren but my estimation was that this person had not raised children. Whether she’d ever borne any was another matter, not deducible on the evidence I had at the moment. I grabbed my wandering attention and firmly refocused it on my text. That woman’s business was emphatically not mine, and I should strive to keep it that way.

My traitorous ears picked up the conversation and the woman’s insistence on waiting for the gentlemen’s return. She clearly expected more than one, not merely the singular man of the house. That was puzzle enough for my weak brain, long out of condition for tackling the academic task I forced in its way, to tip over its metaphorical chair and call out to the distraction presented. I sighed in defeat and rose to join Mrs Hudson at the threshold, who introduced me to Mrs. Summer of Portsmouth, and me to her.

“Mr Holmes is away at present,” I said, no doubt repeating what Mrs. Hudson had already stated. I paused to see how she would react. Mild dismay, but no anxiety. Not a case, then.

“Do you expect them presently? I’m stopping in the village until tomorrow’s afternoon train back to Portsmouth.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t say,” which was true enough on a number of levels. The dismay became disappointment, and I felt the urge to mollify, a tendency Holmes would caution me to curb. “Would you like to leave a message? Or is there an inquiry I might be able to answer? I am his partner.”

“Partner?” She was more shocked than most, I would say, which surprised me quite a bit. “But what of Dr. Watson? Oh, no, he can’t have— But there was just a new story…”

I sighed, disappointed myself now. She was simply a fan of Watson’s literary work, which was at least a slight improvement over fans of the literary construct Sherlock Holmes who could become quite aggressive when that character did not appear. “Dr Watson was quite well, according to the letter we received from him last week. You are acquainted with him?”

“But he and Mr. Holmes are not…? They are no longer…together? As partners?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Summer, although Dr Watson’s stories are based on true experiences, they are stories, and the people behind those names are private men. I can’t really—“

“Of course, Miss Russell, I’m sure. I knew them both when I was— Well many years ago now, I met them and helped a bit, as they helped me. Dr Watson, he wrote about me, and I’ve come to… Well, I don’t quite know why I’ve come. To let them know the end of the story, my part of it, more than anything else. And so I’m a bit at a loss to learn they’re not still partners together, as they was when I met them. That’s all.”

I hadn’t kept up with Watson’s tales published in the last few years, but I imagined I’d heard account of many of the cases in other contexts. ‘Summer’ was not a name that sparked any memory of the work they’d done before I met them. “I see. Then pardon my asking, Mrs Summer, but I’m not connecting your name with the cases I know of. Might you have gone by your maiden name when you knew Dr Watson and my husband?”

“Husband?! Mr Holmes married?” This time her shock was strong enough to kick my own brain into gear and I finally comprehended the confusion that shook her. I blame the weak coffee Mrs Hudson made despite warning me there wasn’t quite enough left for a proper pot. I should have heeded her advice.

There are many things Holmes and I have never explicitly discussed, and the exact nature of the relationship begun with John Watson before I was born was one of them. Still, I can observe and deduce as well as the next detective, and in addition to theology and chemistry Oxford gave me an education in the wide reaches of human behavioural variability. I’ve long known that the bond between the old friends was forged from rare metals. Though perhaps not so rare as polite society might admit, given Mrs. Summer’s ready assumption. Other than Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, and the occasional long-term irregular, however, I’d never had opportunity to meet someone who’d known them both so long before I did, and more to the point who knew them as the partners they were then. Her certainty as to the nature of their partnership was more data than I’d received in some time. I chose to sidestep the question of marriage and address her concern for their continued amity.

“When Mr Holmes decided to retire to Sussex Downs some years ago, Dr Watson kept his medical practice in London. I assure you, their friendship is as strong as it ever was, despite the geographical distance between them. As is apparent in the good doctor’s stories.”

“And…your marriage? I’m sorry, it’s none of my business, I’m sure. It’s just that in 1902 if ever a man was not to marry, I would have said it was that Sherlock Holmes.” She eyed me with wary speculation. Her skepticism of the idea seemed to waiver between what she knew of Holmes and Watson and, I assume, the substantial age difference between Holmes and myself. Under normal circumstances, that difference could suggest certain distasteful motivations on his part. On both our parts, actually. I could only hope my demeanour was proof against some and her knowledge of Holmes against the rest of those aspersions.

I offered a half smile in acknowledgment. “And I would have said the same when I met him in 1915.” Would have, that is, if the very concept of marriage had even occurred to my fifteen-year-old self, which it had not. Thank God. Despite my curiosity about what she knew, I found I truly did not wish to discuss my husband’s marriage prospects with Mrs Summer, and even less my own partial understanding of his relationship with Watson, and rebellious concentration notwithstanding, I had my own work waiting. “So, then, Mrs Summer. Would you like to leave a message? I could forward a letter to Dr Watson for you. Or I can contact you at the inn if Mr Holmes returns before your train.”

“Yes, all right, letting them know I stopped will do, and I appreciate it if you could send word if they— if Mr. Holmes is back before the train. But the name he’d recall, that Dr Watson used in the story, was Winter. Kitty Winter. I go by Kate Summer now, but Kitty’s who I was when I helped them and they helped me.”

Now that case, and the actions of that young woman to redress the great wrongs done to her and prevent more to others, I did recall. “Mrs Summer, as I said, I am also Mr Holmes’ partner in work. I am familiar with the case you took part in, and I am honoured to make your acquaintance. I am very sure Mr Holmes and Dr Watson would be most pleased to know the end of the story, as you put it.” I closed the door in my mind on my poor neglected exegesis and opened the heavy cottage one wide. “Won’t you please come in?”

In ten minutes we were settled at the round table, tea poured and an array of edibles spread as if Mrs. Hudson had planned for this conversation weeks in advance. It took little encouragement for Mrs. Summer née Winter to share her continuation of the story Watson had published just last year.

“Porky Shinwell told me about the doctor’s stories, and after I was done with all that I read a couple. I thought a bit what it’d be like to find my story in The Strand, but I never figured it’d do. Every part of what happened was ugly in the way folks don’t talk about directly and not in the sort of magazine with Dr Watson’s stories. So after a bit I forgot about that fancy and stepped off to make my life my own again. Changed my name, with the past being past and that man crushed in the mud behind me. Porky was holding a bit of cash for me when I got out. He wouldn’t say where it come but I had my suspicions at the time and… Well, thanks to that I bought myself a train ticket out of that London Hell that’d been my whole life til then. Headed north for mill work, first flax then paper in Leeds; stayed on for munitions. After the war I was tired of being cold all the time and sick from the filling, and my friend Helen was called to Portsmouth for her mother dying. So we went down there and with a bit of money saved started a hotel in her mother’s house once she’d passed. That’s going on five years now. From Hell to Helen is what Porky said; he came to visit once after a good day with the dice… A girl or two we hired for maids come sent to us by Porky, looking for a way out of that same Hell. Anyway, in March we had guests from Chicago, and they left behind a great mess, and in there some American magazines. And one of them had the story.

“Gave me a bit of a shock when I saw what it was. Gave poor Helen a fright, the way it stole my breath. I’m not one for fainting. I’d told her all of it, years before. Couldn’t see moving forward with that box of bile hidden in my pocket. But neither of us thought to see it spelled out, my old name there, that man, the whole tale. What he’d done to me and others, right there in the open. I didn’t know it could— It was a shock, is all. And more besides, whoever it was important that started the thing, brought Mr. Holmes into it: I hadn’t known any of that part. He didn’t strike me as one who’d care much for titles, Mr. Holmes, just as Dr Watson wrote him, though he cared enough to stick with it even when that stupid girl wouldn’t shift her mind. I wonder what happened to her, sometimes. She got away. It took me a while to see past what I wanted most, but after I got to where hating Adelbert wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last at the end of the day, I was glad for my part in getting her away from him. It did a bit of good, for all it was driven by hatred and rage.

“I went to the library after finding that Collier’s, looking for more of Dr. Watson’s stories, and learned he’d retired here, Mr Holmes. I figured that meant Dr. Watson, too, or I wouldn’t have… Helen’s waiting for me at the village inn where we got a room, bit of a busman’s holiday. I wanted… I don’t exactly know. To let the two people who knew me as I was see what became of me, after. They took pains to protect me once Adelbert caught on. Respect wasn’t something I’d gotten much of from men like them. So I wanted to say my thanks, for the little that’d be worth so long after. But Dr Watson anyway remembered me since the story he wrote’s but a year old even though it all happened more’n twenty years past.”

We sat in silence for a while after she finished speaking. I could see the faint sallow tone under the healthy colour in her face, legacy of her work as a munitionette. Holmes had suggested my training with him and at Oxford (theology notwithstanding) would have greater long-term benefits to my country and my fellow beings than a more direct involvement with the war effort. I generally agreed, although on occasion I wondered about other choices I might have made then, or since, most often after receiving the semi-annual thank-you letter from Margery for my monthly donation to her mission. The last recounted the malaria doses they’d been able to dispense, and the yellow cast the disease had left on her skin. Mrs. Summer’s thoughts, however, returned to where they’d started when she learned who I was.

“You’re really Mrs. Holmes?” Her furrowed brow suggested reconciliation with the concept instead of the earlier doubt.

“I don’t use that name, but yes. We married four years ago.” I anticipated her next question. “Dr. Watson was our witness.” He offered to give me away, in fact, and then laughed at the face I made at the suggestion. Just as well, since he was red-eyed and sniffling through the whole short ceremony at the court house. He seemed genuinely pleased for us both, but there was sadness also. More for memory of his own long-dead wife, I thought, than for his past or future with Holmes. I saw only whole-hearted warmth between the two men when they clasped hands and embraced afterwards, and I was self-conscious enough of what had been between them, before, to be listening carefully for strain or regret. There was none.

Even after all these years, I struggled to describe what Watson and Holmes were to each other as I knew them. Not “grown apart”; the metaphor felt wrong. It was more of a mutual acceptance of the space opened between them. Not a disaffection or a break, not even one from the scar slashed at Reichenbach. Rather, over time, their individual lives changed shape and shifted the links and divides in their partnership so that it no longer resembled one. I suppose after all “grown apart” encapsulates that as well as any other phrase. Except what was apart was the shape of their lives, not the connection between their spirits. It was in a way a literal growing apart rather than the metaphorical one. The bounds of love and friendship remained as strong and deep as ever the romantic Watson might see fit to invoke in his stories. But they came to need other things in the course of the day-to-day, and not from each other. Watson followed wife and medicine and his pen. And Holmes sought solitude for a weary spirit unaccustomed to requiring rest and incapable of accepting it.

It was probably more true that Watson needed something Holmes could not provide than the reverse. Holmes was not quite so self-sufficient as he professed, particularly when lack of stimulation plagued him, but it wasn’t in his nature to compromise for another. Compromise himself, alter the deepest expression of his being, that is. He would no doubt happily recite a litany of compromises I supposedly forced from him in making him wait for me, insisting he eat or sleep, or proving him wrong. A difference of opinion not uncommon among married folk, or so I’m told. It occurred to me that Watson’s stories recounted much of the same negotiations from 30 years before, although with less success on the part of the narrator than I enjoyed.

When inclination or opportunity arose, Watson came to Sussex or followed Holmes to some other port of call for a case, and their easy rapport was struck in an instant. For all my judgment and less than glowing assessment of Watson’s intellectual abilities, he had a bond with my husband I could neither deny nor fully comprehend to my satisfaction. “We knew each other as young men,” was the sum total explanation I ever received from Holmes, who, I came to realize, tended to humour my judgments of Watson’s abilities rather than open a door to their past for me to enter. I would have to wait thirty years and look back to gain the vantage point Holmes and Watson shared. And even then, circumstances seemed likely to prevent me from an equivalent perspective. I would not have the shared experience of maturing in the company of a peer my own age. But given the alternative afforded to me, the peer and partner granted me now, I could not say I regretted it.

Mrs. Summer shook her head out of her own thoughts, in self-admonishment, it seemed, not to contradict my confirmation of being Holmes’ wife. “Well, I should know better’n most that people can change but ties remain. Porky’s still as close as a brother for all I never see him nowadays. And Kitty Winter then wouldn’t have paid my Helen the time of day, all caught up in her fever dreams of revenge. Your Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson gave me help in a bad time, and thinking on them later, gave me hope for my future and what I might make of it. It’s good to know they’re well and still friends, as they were.” She took her leave then, writing a short note I enclosed with my own account of her tale to go out with the morning post. I could have telephoned their lodgings in London, but I didn’t want to break my retreat just yet, or theirs. Instead I sat by the fireplace and let twilight overtake the room until Mrs. Hudson bustled in and set the lamps blazing.

Before I fell asleep that night, I was reminded of some writing I’d come across while visiting the cottage in late spring between terms my first year at Oxford. I was hunting for paper I might waste on a mathematical proof and found a scrap of scribbles in Watson’s hand. I was still secretly enjoying the stories he published of his adventures with Holmes and thought it might be work on a new one, or I would never have trespassed on what was clearly more of a personal journal entry, Uncle John’s words for himself alone. That I found the scrap tucked under Holmes’ notes for his own book on detection added a layer I chose not to parse at that time. Much later, however, if I awoke alone in our bed following restless dreams, I sometimes pictured him here early in his retirement, before I knew him, sitting by the embers that gave the only light of a moonless night, holding the scrap with both hands on his lap although it was too dark to read, listening to the waves from across the downs.

“He was a wild thing when I first met him, breathtakingly beautifully wild and lonely with the hawk’s sharp eye and a hair-trigger to soar away even as the defensive attack began. The talons of his deductions shredded the veil of my professional persona, setting me free from fetters I hadn’t realized still bound me. I don’t know what I said to calm his impulse to flee from any hint of emotional connection, but he stayed a moment, long enough for me to know I wanted to follow if ever I could. And so our adventures began, his soaring flights circling back to rest as my steady steps continued in his wake. With me, the tension ever straining his mind and sinews would briefly ease and let him breathe, and the fire consuming him abated just enough to replenish the fuel and return to bright burning. And in those moments of repose, just as when he flew ahead, we always moved together.”

By my best determination, Watson wrote that passage about the same time I learned to write, twenty-odd years ago. Who would I be to Holmes in twenty years time, Mrs. Summer’s age now? Twice as long as I’d known him to date, and it was impossible to account for what even those ten quicksilver years had given me. And Watson had known him four times my ten already. I suddenly felt younger than I had in a very long time, weighed down by both the potential of what could be and the burden of how little I must know, regardless of how wise I presumed to be from time to time. The arrogance of lamenting my own arrogance! I had to laugh at myself and be relieved I wasn’t performing this melodrama for an audience. There was no profit to this comparison, me to Watson to Holmes to any of the other people who shaped who I was and were shaped by me. The people I loved. The letter from Margery might follow one from little Jessica Simpson, thirteen years old now and thinking about becoming a scientist. In twenty years, she might cure the malaria that plagued the village where Margery worked now.

An enormous yawn split my jaw, and I rolled over to face the window. Low clouds had rolled in with sunset, and I could see only darkness this night, with a whisper of wind. The sea was quiet. I closed my eyes and imagined soaring myself, a solitary gull perhaps, or an arctic tern on a voyage from pole to pole. The fierce pull I felt to make my own way was dear to my heart, more dear perhaps than those whom I loved. Except it wasn’t a choice I had to make. There was no dichotomy here, to be myself and to love. I was sure Holmes had found the same truth, for all he’d put it some other way. Or not put it any way, at all. Watson was his wordsmith, and I was my own. We didn’t need to speak for each other.

I thought of Kitty Winter’s fierce loyalty to herself and Mrs. Summer’s worry that Watson’s and Holmes’s loyalty to each other had faltered. So many pieces to this human puzzle, and not all of them in need of solving. In a few days, I would conquer the hill my Hebrew text challenged me to climb, and Holmes would be home from London and flush with renewed camaraderie and rejuvenated spirit. A week or so after that, he’d collect Watson and the two of them would take a day trip to Portsmouth and call on Mrs. Summer, and be glad of what she’d made of her life. I might revisit the letter to Magdala and new cases would come and the bees would soar individually and as one, loyal and independent both. And in the warm summer evenings ahead, who knows what might happen next.