Read Part 1 here first.
We arrived back in London in March. Rainy London; I stood sopping wet at the stern of the passenger steamer looking upon the city. The Thames. Watery. Holmes smoked his cigarettes continuously in the fog. He didn’t seem nervous about meeting with Moriarty’s designs at all; he had assured me countless times on the voyage across the Atlantic that it would be stepping outside the abstraction of their rivalry to let the Swiss case hold any bitterness months after the fact. “Moriarty may not be a gentleman in the stodgier meanings of the word; but there is a gamesmanship about him, perhaps best demonstrated in your case with your loss at the card table, and I believe retreading over ground would be as boring to him as it is to me at present. Look upon London without anxiety, doctor, we may continue our habits of leisure and work I believe without fear of repercussions.” It armed me to hear him speak so confidently of our security as we pulled into the docks. There were birds sheltering from the weather, their shadowy forms like little children’s socks. Home again, Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster, a hansom cab; yes it was soothing. America could have itself. This was the Empire of Queen Victoria, long may she reign.
The cab took a strange turn at Haymarket, leaving the readiest passage to Baker Street and heading West away from town. I queried, “Is this a new way home? Or are we trying to see if we are being pursued, my good man?” Holmes replied, “Ah,” and ceased to speak while the carriage clip clopped through puddles and splashed mud in the face of transient passerby. London. Nothing has changed in our absence, for good or for ill. I allowed the hansom to continue on its bizarre path home but was perplexed by it all, I must confess.
Surprisingly, we left the incorporated city of London’s limits and were among the villages then with the chickens running around in the dirt streets, women carrying pales of water to and fro, men with horseshoe faces; I mean it looked like they had been fixing horses shoes for God knows how many years. I pulled my jacket closer and began to seek out the medical facilities just to get my bearings, damn it all. But these country people crowded about my personality like a cloud of irritating insects on a heath or something in the middle of spring on the southern coast of the god damn country.
Holmes goes, “Psst, witness the local constabulary in its element,” and I looked and behold a tubby bobby slathering a gob of butter onto a thick slice of bread like a schoolboy on an errand taking his leisure. He held his prize close to his chest while he went about buttering the bread, not to be glib; but there he went, munching away as we passed in the carriage. “This is an interesting sort of place.” “It is quite well to do, I can assure you,” muttered Holmes, with half-interest, gazing up at the scudding clouds that had wiped away the cumonimbulus thunderheads from the template of ozone that the queen herself bathed, rested, and ruled under, as a matter of fact.
“Time for a pipe I daresay,” was all I could think to proclaim as I saw a pregnant woman fall off the edge of a bench with her sewing going flying. “What was all that about?” asked Holmes peering at the pregnant woman who lay on her back laughing. “Rum?” I asked him. “It is said that pregnant women should not imbibe alcohol by no less an enclave than the Newtonian Society of Oxford by way of Greenwich; but they are a dubious and obtuse coterie of futurists, and one can put about as much stock in their prognostications as one may put in the ravings of any medieval prophets, soothsayers, or other frauds.” “Don’t midwives allow the suffering woman a half pint of brandy just as she enters her time?” said I, not knowing the intricate details of the birthing process; in fact, it was a subject of some controversy on the ward; a young nurse with lily white hands and bosoms like a pack of doves once berated me vociferously and trenchantly when I suggested that a half pint of brandy for a woman about to lose an inordinate amount of blood might not be well advised. Holmes, “What did she do then?” “Well she never spoke to me again!” “That is how it is with women I have found.” “What about that Irena Adler whose photograph you keep next to your bedside, old man.” “You have been searching through my things, have you? Never mentioned it before?” Holmes seemed annoyed. “She seems a beautiful specimen. I only wondered if she wounded you that you should have such little to do with the fairer sex on any particular day.” Holmes pursed his lips and the carriage stopped. A silence descended upon us then, uncomfortable is what it was. Irena Adler must have been a terrific woman. But I never again would broach the sensitive topic with my roommate. Our congress was soon to draw to an end, sadly, and I never did find out what became of him and his unrequited paramour.
“This is where we will stay while I double check on my homeless network, Lestrade, and the rest of my connections and see that the coast is clear for our return to Baker Street.” I looked up at the shabbiest, most desultory, and grotesque hotel in all of London. Apparently it was quite expensive though, but it was just hideous and offensive to me. Hairy, unkempt grass grew around. The steps looked rotted away and precarious. A strange rune was carved on the door but it was so randomly put together that it meant nothing to me; perhaps some old Anglo Saxon call sign. It was an odious shape. Anyway, we lodged on the second floor and Holmes, as was his habit, left me to my own devices only saying, “Do not leave the grounds of this hotel, John, you do so at your own peril and my own.” “Are you to tell me that I must confine myself to this extraordinary pile of rubble for the duration?” “At least for now,” he said quietly, and went into the bathroom and shut the door as I sat on the edge of the bed with a countenance.
Ten minutes later Holmes emerged from the bathroom with a mustache and grey hair. He had jowls now and spectacles and he bent over and moved with a treacherous gait. It didn’t look like Holmes at all, but some parson or other. “Nice disguise,” I said to him. “Yes?” he answered in a different accent than the one that I was used to. “Very good,” I said gloomily, looking around the dusty old room that smelled of overused linen and food left out. There was, however, a decanter of wine on the table, and I ruefully un-stoppered it and imbibed like a fallen angel who has lost the will to clamor up from the fiery lake. “You will behave yourself, John, and remain on the grounds without being so mopey. Gentlemen who scowl draw attention to themselves, particularly in such a jolly and humble neighborhood as this one is.” “Where are we?” “That doesn’t seem relevant to your duties which are only to remain on the property of this establishment and not get noticed while I do some reconnaissance on the streets.” “Yes, yes, alright then. Go about your business already, I am not at all tired, so will see about making myself useful here at the inn while you make sure it is safe; since we just traveled across the ocean I hope, I pray, that I may resume my atrophied career in medicine. Although I do feel defeated by our adventures, if you want my honest assessment of this imbroglio. You are an impressive man, Holmes; perhaps the most impressive that I have ever come across. But I am not you, nor can inhabit your mind or thoughts. And whatever symmetries that give you succor from the mysterious work that you engage in can only alleviate the suffering of existence, for my part, to the degree taken by a man who keeps up with the lead dog. Or better yet, I can only blow the horn, you will always catch the fox. And while interesting, and dangerous, exhilarating, and intriguing, there are other endeavors that I must trade off in order to complement your genius. Is it not so?”
Holmes froze and looked in the mirror at himself in costume with a concerned expression that flashed across his face quickly; it was only a moment of self-awareness. “Hmph,” grunted Holmes, making a dignified exit. I continued to enjoy the moment and the wine and hoped that it would rain more and grow even more grey and dismal and the cold air would drive the people back into their homes so that they mifht light candles by their windows and charm things up a bit.
Over the next few days, Holmes was in and out putting on various disguises and giving me reports about things that were happening in London. Again, it was all fairly boring and dismal.
There was a bookcase in the living room, and I read books until I couldn’t read another page; then I drank and smoked until even that became a chore.
Day after day passed, and Holmes would come and go but he never let on that we were going to be leaving anytime soon. Cabin fever set in after a while, so slowly I made my way out of doors and explored the boundaries of my prison; and it really did feel like I was being held for some purpose. But I knew that Holmes meant the best and that if he said it was too dangerous to venture back to Baker Street then he was probably right out. Still, what can a man do day after day in the worst inn that England has to offer?
I sat down resignedly one afternoon to document our adventures in America, and make notes of our experiences. I had written about Holmes before in various newspapers and it had brought me a little income, and at various points made us both well-recognized or a known quantity when we were on a case, particularly in the more dangerous basements or opium dens, the pickpocket alleyways, or murdering squares of England. This is where we had cache, and that is what came of my writing about Holmes for the public.
But now, after writing once more about his curious nature, I decided to try my hand at some non-fiction, writing about my war experiences and my thoughts on politics, medicine, and other subjects. Whatever I could come up with. There was a book of Sir Francis Bacon’s essays, and I delved into it wholesale and attempted to imbue my own insights with as much wit and energy as that man of Parliament had done so. Bacon was an interesting man; he constantly edited and revised his written philosophies over the course of his life so that instead of publishing all new works based upon his thoughts he just rewrote the same essays over and over until he finally fell over dead with the refined product of his mind sitting there ready for the book shoppe. Bacon was apparently awful with money, and had to keep writing and publishing to make ends meet. This despite the fact that he was a British politician at an early age. Doctors rarely fare so poorly when it comes to matters pecuniary; and what is the point of life if one is constantly harried to be brilliant; what is the depth of the thinking then? Perhaps one may make a pass at commercial fiction, but if the question is one of philosophy, I don’t think one can really force the issue. But perhaps I was wrong, and I set out to document my own first principles as Hume had done so and other great thinkers of the English isles. I began with the dirt and the sky. The elements. I took a materialistic view of existence instead of an Aristotelian one, not harping on human perception so much as what forces animated the celestial and terrestrial. “Ah,” I said out loud, “This is a good little sentence here, well-balanced tone but also that is an insightful view of the stars…”
“Who are you talking to?” said a voice. I looked up and there was a young lady with black hair standing across the room who came over and sat down across from the writing table and sighed and put her hands together, “Are you a man of learning?” she said with a comic smile. “Well, I am a physician. There was some learning involved in order to wear the white.” “I see,” she said, “and you are working on a medical document here? Or is this to be a summation of things to bring you global reputation?” Well she had me there, dead to rights, “I’m not allowed to leave this desultory inn,” I blurted out. At this she became alarmed, “How do you mean you can’t leave? You mean that you are a prisoner?” She looked like she wanted to tie the straps around my wrists and wheel me to pandemonium for my own sake, so I came up with a fast lie, “No I have just set myself a writing task and am holding myself to it before stepping out for…dinner.” I overdid it here; the game was up. “Well, it was nice to meet you anyway,” she said, and left. Her concern only ran to that of charity; she perceived I was someone whom she could rub her angel wings on, dreadful young woman, probably a graduate student of some kind. Quite lovely though.
The next morning she found me eating eggs with a tiny spoon because it was the only one I could find in the kitchen after rustling about for the pans and so forth. Holmes had brought me groceries the night before, but again had run out into the night looking for more evil to prosecute or what have you. Moriarty, Salem, the old woman with her many dishes, and the sunken ships on the northern shores were so little in my mind whenever he turned up that it was quite bothersome to even be in his presence for more than a few minutes. I believe that he sensed this, however, because he said, “Only a day or two left, Doctor Watson, and then we shall have you back amidst the throngs of London,” to which I did not reply but only turned the pages of yet another hoary novella that I had pulled off the shelf and placed on the ever increasing stack of hoary novellas on the bedside table. “Perhaps next time you should find a case at Bath, or Paris, or some other less infernal location than this insufferable inn,” I muttered under my breath after he shut the door. I was still muttering to myself that next morning, eating my eggs and toast with the sugar spoon, when the young woman came in and saw me raising a miniscule sliver of fried egg up to my mouth. She stood stock still at the scene and wrinkled her nose and opened her eyes with confusion writ large written across her face. “Oh dear god,” I said looking down at the plate and closing my eyes and sensing an imminent headache. Just then thunder boomed over the inn and it began to rain yet again. She came over and pointed at the breakfast and said, “What is that?” “Well it looks like a meal of some kind.” “Don’t be petty; I’m talking about the spoon. Why are you using a sugar spoon on those eggs? That is ridiculous to see; you must be aware of that.” Instead of answering her, I used my fingers and daintily placed the eggs on top of the toast and brought the now open faced sandwich to my lips and crunched down on it all, munching loudly and staring at her with an innocent expression, “Would you have me eat my eggs in this manner? Is this what works for you of a Tuesday?” She agreed that it was and left me in the kitchen to finish my breakfast in peace.
At long last Holmes said that it was time to leave and I packed my bags and readied to depart. It was still raining and we walked out onto the porch of the desultory inn and made ready to hail the first cab that came along. Before it did so, the young woman came outside and kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thank you for staying at The Deluxe.” It was a nice thing of her to do, I suppose.
I moved from Baker Street and opened a clinic a few blocks from the hospital. I did not take up any formal lodging but instead slept on a pile of old clothes under my desk and showered when I did rounds for the doctors on the ward as a favor to them so that they may refer one or two patients to me that they themselves could not handle, or were too peculiar diagnostically, or for any reason at all that I may augment the income on the balance sheet of my new practice; I hired an assistant who did clerical work after the first few months and when summer turned to fall I was able to finally put my head above the water and take a breath.
I had not seen Holmes since our experience at the inn, but not because I held any bad feelings towards him or grudges, only that in order to get my career back on track I had to not only be totally committed to the cause but to be seen to be committed by the other medical professionals of London. It is a feature of the field that there is a political angle to things, and I knew that one step off the narrow path could have spelled the absolute end of my prospects; then it would have been crust of bread, tin of water, soot on the lungs, death by falling hot foundry metal, or an errant hand tool through my skull on a work site. There just wasn’t any room for error; so Holmes and I were strangers for many months after our partnership at 221 had come to a conclusion.
However, when the leaves began to turn I found a free hour between patients and my assistant asked me suddenly and from out of nowhere, seemingly, “What about Mr. Sherlock Holmes? Do you two still get on? Do you speak at all?” “I have never mentioned him before in your presence,” I said. She held up an old newspaper clipping of one of my stories, “You did write this did you not?” I admitted that I had and she said she had read all of my accounts but didn’t want to bother me with her attentions on the matter because I myself had never brought it up. And besides she didn’t want to disturb the waters of my concentration while I got my feet back under me. “Why don’t you go see what he is up to?” “Why?” I asked. “Because perhaps you will re-establish a rapport with him; I hear that he is quite high up now in the government. Lots of influence,” she hinted, “Might be good for your practice here to know someone with so many rich friends.” “Perhaps,” I said. She handed me my hat and cane and shooed me out the door to make the call.
And so I found myself once more in Baker Street walking along and looking up at the buildings; the sounds of hammers, sawing, much work being done there, made me feel anonymous instead of at home. But there was also something pulling me towards 221, as if I never should have abandoned the place but instead continued on struggling against the vagaries of fate and being a Boswell alongside the detective on global adventures and through dangers thick and thin. I stood before the doorway of 221 and opened it, but I did not enter. I looked up at the window but did not see Holmes there, only the white curtains drawn against the pane. The sounds of work stopped and I crouched down on my knees looking down the hallway across the threshold of the building. For many minutes I sat thinking. Then I closed the door and walked away from Baker Street forever.