When Josie had made me presentable again, I went to our sitting room where a tea tray had already been brought up for us. Holmes was settled in her chair, a book on her lap and her teacup on the small table next to her. She barely glanced at me and made no mention of what had transpired in my room, so intent was she upon her reading.
It seemed we were not going to take up the subject of my earlier tempest of emotions. Thank heavens for that. Much better to act as if I had myself well in hand rather than examine why I’d displayed the histrionics of a heroine in a gothic novel.
Stiffening my spine, I took my own chair and poured a cup. But since my companion was not in the mood for conversation, I cast around for something to similarly occupy myself. On my end table was a magazine that had been folded open to an article ambitiously titled “The Book of Life.” A pencil mark at the heading indicated Holmes had already found it.
It would do as well as anything else. I picked it up and read, sipping my tea.
How much an observant person could learn, it began, by an accurate and systemic examination of all that comes his way. It takes only a momentary expression, a twitch of muscle, a glance of eye, to fathom the innermost thoughts of any human being.
A chill came over me. If there was anything I didn’t want exposed, it was my innermost thoughts. Who was this author who dared even suggest it could be possible? Why would anyone want it to be possible? The heading told me it was the British Journal of Natural History and Culture. But the article had no byline.
I kept reading for no other reason than I wished to thoroughly rebut his offensive thesis.
For one who is trained in observation and analysis, deception is an impossibility.
Arrogant fellow, he was. In my opinion, anyone who believed so deeply in his own infallibility was already self-deceived.
But there was something about the powerful logic in the arguments, the remarkable mixture of shrewdness and absurdity that drew me on. The reasoning was close, intense, almost painfully intimate. But the deductions he reached seemed far-fetched and exaggerated.
From a drop of water, said the writer, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest perfection possible in it.
Oh, there was his convenient way out—if he were to be revealed as having been deceived or wrong, it would be the easiest thing in the world to claim that it was simply due to his not having lived long enough to attain perfection.
Now that I had found the rather obvious weakness in the author’s argument, it was starting to be an entertaining article. How many more flaws would I discover?
Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.
Could this writer be any more patronizing? It didn’t seem possible.
Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation and teaches one where to look and what to look for.
My smugness faded, overtaken by a returning sense of unease. It felt as if the author was pointing at me, shouting for his readers to look at me and uncover the truth about all my lies.
By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed.
Heart thudding, I slapped the magazine down on the table. “I never read such rubbish in my life!”
Holmes glanced up from her book. “What is it?”
“This article.” I nodded at the journal on the end table. “You marked it, so I see you’ve read it. I don’t deny it’s smartly written. But it’s incredibly irritating. Absurd.”
Her gaze traveled slowly from the magazine back to me. “How so?”
“Well now, it’s nothing more than the theory of some armchair lounger who has created all these neat little paradoxes in the seclusion of his own study, isn’t it?”
“Really?” Her face had gone blank of all expression. But there was no mistaking the challenge in that single, drawn-out word.
I needed to convince her the article was wrong. I couldn’t allow it to be right. “It’s not practical! If you clapped him down in a third class carriage on the Underground and told him to give the trades of all his fellow-travelers, I would bet a thousand to one against him.”
One brow arched. “You would lose your money.” Her tone was deadly calm, and I felt my skin prickle with goosebumps.
“Easy for you to say without proof.”
Unhurriedly, she sipped her tea and returned it to the table. Then she turned chilly eyes on me. “I wrote that article, Watson.”
I groaned, dropping my head against the back of the chair. Such a fool I was. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to insult—”
“Yes, I believe you did. There’s no sense in now retreating just because you know the identity of the author.”
“As for proof—” She waved a hand toward the whole room. “Here it is. I earn my living on it.”
Worse and worse. I should never have opened my mouth. “Mrs. Hudson gave me to believe you are supported by your family.”
“I am still building my practice. In another year or two, I will be financially independent.”
Unlike me. She would never have said it, but I felt it in my heart anyway. I massaged my forehead, trying to dispel the ache centering there. “I apologize. I spoke out of turn.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. You’re hardly the first to doubt me. You won’t be the last.”
She’d been so kind to me. The least I could do was try to make up for my faux pas. “Tell me about what you do.”
“I am a consulting detective.”
I leaned forward, blinking. “A detective? But women aren’t—” I snapped my mouth shut before more foolishness could escape.
Her lips quirked. “Women weren’t doctors either. Until they were.”
I nodded, conceding the point, and we exchanged the smallest smiles.
“I’m the only detective of my type in the world,” she continued, warmer now, “I had to invent the job, you see, in order to do it. There are lots of police detectives in London and private ones too. But when they are confused or lost—a common occurrence, I assure you—they come to me and I put them on the right scent. They lay out all the evidence before me, and because of my knowledge of the history of crime, I usually can set them straight.”
“Are all the people who come here detectives of some kind?” I thought of the old woman and her daughter. “They can’t possibly be.”
“No. Most of them are referred to me by private inquiry agencies. They all have some kind of trouble about something and want a little enlightening. I listen to their stories, they listen to my comments. And then I pocket my fee.”
“You solve crimes from our sitting room?” Of all the possible occupations I had envisioned for my flatmate, this had been nowhere on my list.
“Sometimes I have to go out. If it’s a little more complex.”
I stared at her. Should I be alarmed or entranced? I hardly knew. “But how does that work? Without you seeing the details for yourself?”
“Simple. I have a lot of special knowledge to apply to the problem.” She gestured to the magazine next to me. “Those rules of deduction that aroused such scorn from you? They are beyond practical. I couldn’t do without them.”
“Again, I do apologize,” I said softly, infusing the words with my newly-rediscovered humility. “I judged too quickly. Will you explain to me?”
She slid to the edge of her chair, hands clasped in her lap. “How did I know about Afghanistan?” The words were only above a whisper. “Ask me again, Watson.”
Her voice slid down me like the lightest touch from head to toe, leaving shivers in its wake.
“How—” The first word of the previously-forbidden question caught in my throat. I coughed and tried again. “How did you know?”
“That day in the chemical lab, you remarked to Stamford how improved the lab was. Clearly, you’d been there before. And because Stamford rarely associates with anyone outside the LSMW, I concluded you also were a doctor. A woman, as male medical students do not train at the Royal Free Hospital nor would a male doctor fraternize with female students.” The pace of her speech quickened, but her low, intimate tone never rose. “You hold yourself and walk like a soldier, though. Your male disguise is very convincing, by the way. Even I had to look twice.”
My face heated. “Thank you,” I murmured.
“With such a disguise and stance, added to plenty of historical precedent, it was plausible you had found a way to sneak into the army. Your limp and the stiffness in your left arm told me you’d been injured. Your skin had been darkened by exposure to strong sun, yet your face had the pallor of a recent illness. Those factors together spoke of military duty within the last six months. In that time, where had there been fighting fierce enough to wound a field surgeon and sun strong enough to put a tan on your skin that could withstand prolonged illness? Afghanistan.”
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her. Heat and longing spread through me. I wanted to crawl into her mind and wrap it around me, luxuriate in its richness. Her magazine article with its all-seeing gaze didn’t threaten me now. I wanted to be seen by her. Observed by her. I hungered for her deductions about me with a sharpness that was as frightening as it was thrilling.
I opened my mouth to beg her to tell me more. No. What was I doing? I had just insulted her ideas, and now I would greedily ask her to parade them for me? Besides, why would she want to make further observation of my person? I was sickly, adrift, and lately given to emotional outbursts. She was a brilliant woman of business, making a way for herself where none existed before.
This strange fascination, this growing infatuation, could only be embarrassing and repulsive to her. I could not and would not impose on her by showing it. I wrestled it down like rubbish into a bin and shoved a lid firmly on top.
She still waited for my response.
“It seems so simple,” I said, the words slightly choked and rough, “when you explain it that way.”
At last, her eyes swept down to her hands in her lap. “Yes. I suppose it does.”
Next Time: Holmes meets with Inspector Lestrade and an unpleasant guest about a series of murders of cab drivers. (You’ll need to become a Patron to find out what happens next!)
(A Study In Garnet is the first book in the Ladies of Baker Street series by Meredith Rose. It is a mostly-canon-compliant, Victorian-set, female, and queer retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m offering the first 10 chapters for free, in hopes that you will support my writing and continue enjoying the story by purchasing the book in either hardback or ebook format from my shop.
I’m posting the chapters here on my website, once a week. Enjoy, and please share with people you know who are looking for historical f/f fiction or who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories. Thanks for reading!)