The absence of newspapers at the breakfast table was singular.
It was, I determined later, the penultimate in a series of singularities at the breakfast table of 221B Baker Street.
The first had occurred four days prior.
There was a rustling, then a question.
“What do you think of French philosophy, Watson?”
I started, not at the nature of question, but at the question itself. Save for the rare interruption by a desperate client, Holmes and I breakfasted in silence, each absorbed in her own tea and reading material of choice.
Struck by the afore-mentioned singularity, I returned my cup to its saucer and gave the question due consideration. Then I lowered my paper and replied, “Favourable—provided that the philosophy does not include invasion of England.”
Holmes harrumphed and raised a smudged-ink curtain between us.
Then, casting my mind back to the curve of a certain dancer’s leg, I added, “I do appreciate a certain joie de vivre.”
With no response forthcoming, I raised my own curtain, and silence descended once more upon the jam and butter.
I did not realise at the time, of course, that this particular singularity was a mere scratch compared to the blow that was to come the following morn.
More rustling. This time, I felt quite like a flushed pheasant.
“This evening, there is some Mendelssohn on the programme of that cosy venue you favour—“
Now I was surprised and disconcerted, like that pheasant sans plumes. Within the confines of our humble lodgings, Holmes had played a bit of Lieder on her violin upon request, but we’d never ventured out together to enjoy the melodious strains of—
“You might enjoy it, with, say, a quiet dinner at your club. I’m in need of privacy in the rooms this evening.”
“You haven’t invited another blackguard like Count Sylvius in order to dupe him into coughing up a stolen gem!”
“You aren’t going to pretend to be dying, are you? You know how that upset Mrs. Hudson last time.”
She huffed. “Nothing quite so theatrical. Doctor Hooper has done me an unexpected kindness. I wish to show my appreciation. My dinner invitation has been accepted.”
Now I was so shocked that you could have served me, flushed, plucked, and cooked to golden brown, on a plate with some buttered parsnips!
Doctor M. Hooper, Doctor J. H. Watson, and Mister Sherlock Holmes were birds of a feather, as it were, but the flock was by no means cordial.
I met Doctor Hooper when she was studying medicine at what was to become our mutual alma mater. At the time, I marvelled at how, despite the many years than spanned my matriculation and hers, bright young gentlemen seemingly dedicated to shedding light on the mysteries of human anatomy were still pathologically blind to the presence of a pea-hen amongst the cocks, so to speak.
Her plumage was, however, remarkable, and I eyed her moustache with no little appreciation. It resembled a shoe brush, and was as thick and lush as my own well-oiled specimen. We exchanged a few pleasantries and, after an oblique complaint about what one had to do to get ahead in a man’s world, went our separate ways.
With Holmes, the tale was different. As head of the city’s morgue, Doctor Hooper was in possession of a commodity more precious to Holmes than all the accursed rocks of the world combined: dead bodies. The life of Sherlock Holmes was divided into Work and Science, and dead bodies were critical to both, as victims of crimes and as raw material for use in her scientific experiments.
Doctor Hooper was openly hostile to Holmes, disparaging her ‘magic tricks’ whenever we appeared in the morgue. At times, her vitriol spilled over onto me, perhaps out of proximity to her target, but also, I thought, out of a slight envy of my role as Holmes’s companion. Her fierce hatred of Holmes seemed, to my romantic storyteller’s mind, one spark away from ardent flames of passion.
And here was the proof. An unexpected kindness. One that Holmes was repaying with a private dinner, no less, which meant that said kindness must be on the order of an unprecedented magnitude. Or perhaps…
I had always thought that Holmes viewed Doctor Hooper as a means to an end, an obstacle to be circumvented with scheming and posturing and leveraging outside parties like indignant Scotland Yarders. But perhaps, I was wrong. Or perhaps her views had changed.
All this passed through my mind in an instant, and I said, “Just the club, I think.”
Of course I did not go to the club. I sequestered myself upstairs as silent and still as the dead and listened.
With each passing moment, my heart sank deeper. The conversation was amicable, even lively at times. Holmes had brought out the Montrachet, a sure sign of celebration. There was tobacco, one of the many luxuries of living this peculiar life of ours and one in which I indulged regularly, Mrs. Hudson might say to excess. I sorely wished I could have had a smoke right then, but I didn’t dare move. Holmes was playing the violin. The voices grew so soft, I could only make out one word.
I was a pile of spindly bones cast down to the dogs after the feast. The beastly word gnawed at me. It cracked me open and gobbled up my marrow.
On no occasion had Holmes ever called me John, much less Johanna, and it had never occurred to me to call her anything other than Holmes. But now, of course, the seed had been planted. It took root and sprouted immediately.
Rosalind Violet Sherlock Holmes. I would call her Sherlock.
I would call her nothing of the sort.
The voices grew louder and clearer. They were planning another assignation for the following night, and to my dismay, Holmes was actually outlining how she would surreptitiously depart Baker Street for their rendezvous without my being the wiser.
Really! Like I was some sort of dozing chaperone! I was a man—and woman—of the world!
The next morning I informed Holmes, through the barriers of our respective newspapers, that I would be spending the evening playing cards with Stamford at his club. She grunted.
I believed myself to be quite skilled in the art of deception when I met Holmes, but upon taking up residence in Baker Street, I became apprentice anew and under her tutelage acquired even more proficiency. That night I donned my best camouflage and went in search of them.
They were where I predicted: the morgue.
The scene broke my heart, for I knew it well. Holmes was the medical student with her first cadaver dissection, and Doctor Hooper was the seasoned instructor, taking her through the steps, one by one by one.
I left them to their examinations and stumbled back toward my club, and upon abandoning my disguise, devoted myself to whiskey and tobacco until dawn.
Such was my state when I was forced to contemplate a singularly naked breakfast table. Holmes appeared and sat down and proceeded as usual. I copied her movements and waited for the axe to fall.
“Watson, I wish to discuss an important matter with you.”
I sighed. She stared at me for a moment, but I motioned for her to continue. Best to get it out and be done with it. I already knew the verdict: Doctor J.H. Watson was out, and Doctor M. Hooper was in.
“It is a question of marriage.”
It was too much. My nerves were frayed raw. “Good Lord! Your marriage?!”
Holmes was going to marry Hooper! Just to get her hands on a never-ending supply of corpses? Or was it…I shuddered…a love match?
Oh, to be the soul of that flushed, plucked, devoured, and disassembled pheasant and fly far away from this most miserable of breakfast tables!
There was only one question left to ask, but it was a delicate one. Holmes and I never discussed our dual natures at any length, and I fear that in my state of agitation I was a bit more boorish than I would have been otherwise.
“Am I to be a bridesmaid or a groomsman?” I blurted.
She stared at me directly, without a slip of broadsheet or daily between us.
“Neither. You are to be, should you accept my proposal, the bride. Or the groom. Or both.”
“WHAT?! WHAT IN THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU GOING ON ABOUT?”
Now it was Holmes’s turn to be the pheasant. She got up and fluttered about the room. Her dressing gown was strewn carelessly on the sofa. She threw it off and gathered the stack of newspapers that lay beneath. She hurried back to the table and dropped the bundle between us.
“Please disregard my earlier statement. Pray, let us continue as we were…”
“Stop it! You wanted my complete attention; you’re going to bloody well deal with it! Now, first, what is the understanding between you and Hooper?”
“Last night, in the morgue? The night before, here?” I gestured to the room about us.
“Oh. That was Balzac.”
“I know the lines get blurred around here, but you were dissecting a female last night, not Honoré de Balzac.”
Holmes huffed. “He said, and I quote, ‘A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy and dissected at least one woman.’ I thought it to be pretty sound advice, and seeing as how I haven’t actually completed a full dissection of a female to-date and how, when comes to certain matters, I don’t want to leave anything to chance, I contrived to obtain access to an appropriate corpse and the aid of a learned guide.”
“Let’s leave Balzac aside for the moment. You seduced Hooper into letting you dissect a corpse!”
“You were upstairs.”
“Of course I was upstairs!”
“No, I thought of deceiving Doctor Hooper, but, as I mentioned before, it was a delicate case, so I opted to take the proverbial high road. I put the matter before him directly, and he named his price. It was he who dictated every aspect of the evening down to the imbibing of my beloved Montrachet.” She grimaced.
“You prostituted yourself for a corpse!”
“I prostituted myself for you! I’ve studied a good deal of anatomy, of course and, as of last night, I’ve dissected one woman from head to toe. So, I place myself before you.” The last bit she said very solemnly.
“You’re proposing marriage to me?”
“Yes, Watson, do keep up.”
“Is Mister Sherlock Holmes proposing marriage to Doctor J.H. Watson? Or…?”
“I am proposing to love, comfort, honour, and keep you, in sickness and in health, and forsake all others for as long as we both shall live.” She put her hand on mine. “And I am asking you if you will do the same for me.” By the last word, her voice was trembling, and I had never seen her, not at her most ill or imperilled, look so ashen.
How could she doubt my answer?
“Yes,” I said plainly and put my other hand atop hers.
“On one condition,” I added.
“That we work out the particulars after breakfast.”
She huffed. “Naturally.”
We silently distributed the papers between us, and the final words uttered before the singular became once again the blissfully quotidian were mine,