Work Header

The Second Smartest Man in London

Chapter Text

I have already written of my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes, but I must admit in these private memoirs that there remain many details of the first weeks and months of our acquaintance that I felt it necessary to omit from my public account. I mentioned, I think, that my time as a Doctor of Medicine in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers had brought me nothing but misfortune and disaster. That was the truth and I am guilty only of recording in too little detail what that meant. After the fateful shooting at the battle of Maiwand, I was left with a shattered bone and a damaged artery, but far worse were the wounds inflicted upon my mind. The effects of prolonged agony on the human body I was only too familiar with, having witnessed pain and suffering in Afghanistan that I had never imagined during my medical training in London. What I was not prepared for was the toll the war and my own injury would take on my mental fortitude.

After the life-or-death dash to the base in Peshawar, my physical ailments were soon mended. Aside from an unsightly scar on my shoulder where the bone shattered by the Jezail bullet had left me with an unhappily deformed clavicle and an ugly web of raised, red tissue across my chest, I had rallied physical perhaps sooner than anticipated. Yet even before the enteric fever that left me raving and insensible for months, as close to death’s door as any of the poor soldiers I had stitched back together in Candahar, I had fallen prey to a dreadful weakness of the mind. During the weeks in which my shattered flesh and bone were knitting back together, I began to suffer nightmares of a kind I had never before experienced, even during those times on the frontlines when the dying moans and screams of the men I was not able to save filled the air with horror. These dreams were so vivid as to feel like reality and to stick with me for hours after I awakened, haunting my every thought.

Again and again, I saw men with whom I had eaten and drank and laughed as we stayed up all night around the card table, cheating death, struck down before me, begging me to save them even as I knew I could not. Again and again, I watched the life drain from their eyes as I bathed their infected wounds, breathing in the small of rot and death, or heard their screams as my hacksaw rent flesh and bone in a futile effort to keep ahead of the foul gangrene that took them from me, one by one. Again and again, I felt the bullet strike my shoulder, the moment of confusion before the throbbing rhythm of pain took up its presence in my body, eliminating all else, and I relived the blackness that crept over my vision as I realised that an artery had been grazed and felt the life seeping from my veins. I would awake bathed in sweat, my mouth dry and my hands shaking, deploring my own weakness. When the fever took me, some weeks after my arrival in Peshawar, these dreams became indistinguishable from reality, and for a time I was utterly lost.

When at last I came to myself, exhausted and emaciated, I was a ghost of the blithe young Doctor Watson who had set out to Afghanistan, driven by thoughts of the men I would save. Instead, I was haunted by thoughts of the friends I had failed. The month’s journey to England on a troopship did little to improve my condition and by the time I landed at Portsmouth, not only was my physical health irretrievably ruined but I began to fear that I was to remain a ruined man forever. I have recorded for the public some few details of my first weeks in England and the featureless, anonymous hotel in the Strand where I began to while away my days and my money with meaningless distractions. What I omitted to record was the ways in which my time and money were spent, and I am ashamed even now to recall the card games and drinking and the women and men in whose bodies I found some temporary escape. Some I paid after a rare night of luck at the tables, though I had never thought to buy my lovers before the war. Others, I met at the docks or in one of several London alleyways I came to know rather too well. I was careful. I was, after all, still a doctor, although I might never practice as one again, and I had no desire to come by any unlooked for offspring, nor a missing nose. 

As the weeks dragged on, these dalliances grew fewer and I spent increasing amounts of time alone, drowning my sorrows in the whisky bottle. I avoided mirrors assiduously, unable to meet the eyes of the man who stared back at me, a wasted shell of a person, scarred and broken, who I often found myself unable to recognise. Such was the state of affairs when I realised to my horror that my free spending had left me in a desperate position and that new lodgings must be sought without delay, were I to continue to afford numbing escape from the nightly terror of my dreams and to remain amid the stink and bustle of London. An enforced stay in the quiet of the countryside, I feared, might very well be the death of me.

Young Stamford, I must admit, had never much interested me at Bart’s, but I was surprised by my own relief and enthusiasm when I saw him at the Criterion Bar, where I was engaged in an attempt to dull my mind after a night in which I had not managed more than a few snatched moments of sleep. I had not until then acknowledged the toll that my lonely existence had taken upon me, but the sight of a familiar face filled me with an unreasoning joy, perhaps in part due to my gratitude that he took such care not to remark on my pitiful appearance and the earliness of the hour at which I had sought out a drink. As we rattled through the streets in a hansom, he questioned me gently as to my presence in London, noting my thin frame and brown skin but kindly omitting to mention my red eyes and hollow cheeks. When he mentioned a friend in need of a fellow to share his lodgings, over a lunch I picked at, bereft of appetite, I jumped at the chance. I preferred any means of remaining in London to the deathly silence of the countryside, though I knew at heart that I would be lucky to find a man anywhere in England willing to have me as his constant companion in my current state.

“If he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him,” I found myself saying eagerly, as soon as Stamford mentioned his acquaintance. “I should prefer having a partner to being alone.”

At the strange look Stamford gave me over his wineglass, I immediately regretted my choice of words, though I had intended them to have no hidden meaning. I had always been careful to conduct my affairs discreetly at Bart’s, yet suddenly I feared that some unsavoury rumour about my lifestyle had reached his ears.

“You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” was all he said, and I relaxed, hating the way my heart was already thumping in my chest at the least hint of danger.

Stamford’s stated misgivings about the man – his eccentric set of interests, including an enthusiasm for science and an aptitude for chemistry – seemed hardly reason enough to object to him, particularly given my own vices, and I hastened to suggest a meeting. I had already partaken of several glasses of wine by the time we made our way to the hospital, Stamford still seeming to wish to impart some obscure warning about Holmes, who he described as cold-blooded and possessed of a passion for exact knowledge. His vague objections, and his wild tale of Holmes beating subjects in the dissecting room with a stick, served only to enhance my curiosity. By the time we reached the hospital, I was so engaged in finding out more about the man that I hardly noticed the familiar sounds and smells that had plunged me into a deplorable state of anxiety on my previous visit, leaving me sweating and shaken and struggling for breath.

I will never forget the moment I first saw Holmes, bent over a table in the lofty space of the chemical laboratory. He was half-hidden by the mass of tables covered with scattered test tubes, beakers and Bunsen lamps, several lit and burning unattended, their flickering blue flames sending strange shadows leaping around the bare walls and across the high ceiling. My eyes had just fixed on his tall, thin frame, when he suddenly whirled around and began to bound towards us, clutching a test tube in one hand. I had a confused impression of great energy and a powerful, elongated body before my eyes were drawn to his face. His features were striking and unusual, fierce and somehow crow-like beneath a sweep of black hair, but it was his steely grey eyes, which met my own squarely from beneath heavy brows, that transfixed my gaze. They were alight with passion and a strange sort of burning excitement, which was explained as he raised the test tube before Stamford.

“I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else,” he exclaimed, as joyful as if his experiments had uncovered the location of some lost treasure.

Although his words were addressed to Stamford, his gaze remained fixed on me. I found that I had to look away quickly, afraid of what he might see in my eyes.

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he responded to Stamford’s introduction, looking me swiftly up and down. Although I feigned surprise, I knew immediately how he had known. I looked exactly like all the other survivors of that horrific war: wasted and haunted and pitiful. A sudden bitterness bloomed inside me at his words and for the first time in many months I felt a humiliating longing to return to my former self. I had never perhaps been as handsome as Holmes, and I was certainly not as tall, but before the war I had been a strong, healthy man with an upright bearing and passable intelligence, unmarked by scars and untroubled by shameful nightmares about events long since put behind him. I had been the kind of man who made friends easily and never struggled to find a partner when the urge struck me. That that man had died in Afghanistan had never seemed so hard to bear as it did at that moment, under Holmes’ appraising gaze.

His attention was soon diverted back to his test tube, however, and I marvelled at his eagerness as he drew me over to his table by one of my sleeves, touching me unselfconsciously and leading me with an unstudied certainty that caused me to follow him without question. He seemed to feel no pain as he pierced his finger with a long bodkin and drew off the blood needed for his experiment, but I found I was not watching the water to which he added the liquid but the way in which he sucked the lingering smear of blood off the long index finger of his left hand. To my surprise and shame, I felt a surge of liquid heat in my stomach, a swooping sensation that I had not experienced in as long as I could remember. I hastened to fix my gaze on his experiment and made some desultory remark, I scarcely remember what. All the time I feigned attention, I was busy assessing the dangers of choosing to share a living space with a man as dangerously attractive as Sherlock Holmes. Yet as I found my gaze drawn back to the excitement on his face and the way his large, scarred hands danced as he spoke, I realised I was more interested by his character than by anything that had crossed my path since the war. His eyes glittered with passion as he outlined the importance of his discovery and I confess I answered in a daze, interjecting a muttered one-word response where he seemed to require one. It was a relief when he turned his attention back to Stamford, freeing me from the intensity of his gaze, and I had a few moments to collect myself.

Only once Stamford had made the reason for our presence clear did it occur to me that Holmes had not asked. Despite my misgivings as to the wisdom of becoming entangled with the man, I must admit I felt a treacherous pleasure at the delight he seemed to take in the idea of sharing his rooms with me. His mention of strong tobacco and his habit of dabbling with chemicals in his living quarters, as well as his honest admission that he sometimes spent days in the dumps, without wishing to speak to anyone, allowed me some hope that my own habits might not prove to be as much of an obstacle as I had at first feared. His frankness made me bold and I found myself able to admit things that I would never have wished to tell Stamford – or any other man of my former acquaintance.

“I object to rows because my nerves are shaken up,” I said, “and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.”

About those other vices he could never know, but I trusted to my ability to remain discreet, should I ever wish to indulge them again in the future. About my drinking I said nothing, and I did not share the reason for my frequent night-time disturbances, but the shrewd look he gave me from those piercing grey eyes led me to believe that he had perhaps guessed at some of what I left unsaid. I could only hope that it was the nightmares he had read in my face, and not the other aspects of my character that I felt it necessary to keep hidden.

Holmes was clearly a man of scientific bent and I confess I was surprised when he mentioned that he played the violin. He laughed off my suggestion that a badly played violin was a din that should not be lived with before I had even finished expressing the thought, as though utterly certain of his own abilities, and I found myself even more intrigued by his extreme confidence, which seemed almost to border on egotism. It was with this same confidence that he declared the matter settled, without waiting for my acquiescence, and something about his certainty calmed my lingering doubts. As I shook his hand, too aware of the strength of his grip and the warmth of his calloused fingers, I was already looking forward to noon the following day, when we would meet again. It was the first time I had looked forward to anything in a very long time.