As the cab crept its way slowly along the snow-narrowed street, I reviewed my strategy for the next few hours with the same deliberation I’d use in preparing for a complicated surgery. Other than securing affordable lodging to free me from the hotel, the primary thing keeping me from returning to life as a woman was that I had no women’s clothing.
Fixing this wasn’t so simple as just going to one of the large department stores that had become popular over the last five years and selecting a new wardrobe of ready-made clothing. How would I, dressed as a man, justify such a purchase? If I were wealthy and powerful, perhaps the shop assistants would assume I had recently acquired a mistress and was showing my generosity. But dressed as I was right now, no one would believe I could support a wife, much less a mistress. My detailed interest in and knowledge of women’s clothing would be immediately suspect.
Even if I could find a way to manage such a purchase, there was the problem of fit. I had no idea what my measurements were now, after my injury and long illness. But I couldn’t be measured—by either the gentlemen’s department or the ladies’—without exposing my deception.
Not that passing as a man was illegal, per se, but I’d be the subject of ridicule in the papers, and it would take only days for the army to discover my secret. My reputation, male or female, would be ruined, and my pension—such as it was—would be halted.
So there was the conundrum: in order to purchase women’s clothing, I needed to be dressed as a woman.
I’d had ten days to ponder the question, and my only plan was weak. But I’d seen patients die from an abscessed tooth or survive double amputations. Sometimes strong determination was enough to overcome a weak plan.
In spite of the growing popularity of ready-made clothing, there was still a market for drapers who did custom work. I just didn’t know which of them would be discreet enough for me to trust with my secret. But the American Bar at the Criterion Hotel drew men of means, and men who aspired to means. Men who oftentimes had secrets of their own.
It was an informal setting where I should be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger without causing offense. I had concocted a story about being new to town and having a dependent sister with a deformity that caused her to be shy about getting fitted for clothing. If I could find a few sympathetic ears to pour my tale into, perhaps I could get recommendations of drapers or dressmakers that I could trust.
My other option, if I came across the right sort of man, would be to simply acknowledge my wish to dress as a woman. Murray had told me the Criterion was a gathering place for the sort of men who might enjoy those kind of pursuits, but I doubted my ability to either identify them or gain their trust in such a brief amount of time.
At the Criterion, I paid my driver through the little trapdoor in the roof. He pulled the lever that released the half-doors covering my legs. I carefully exited the cab, and sent him on his way. Head burrowed into the collar of my overcoat, I trudged through the slush beginning to form at the edges of the snow piles to the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
A woman dressed in navy, face partially hidden by a fur-trimmed bonnet and scarf, passed by me. At my elbow, she slipped on a patch of ice. I twisted to grab her, my cane clattering to the pavement.
“Steady, there,” I said, holding her arm firmly until she regained her balance. “All right now?”
“Thank you, sir.” The muffled voice was soft, American, and it triggered in me a swirl of memories.
I stepped back, instinctively turning away. Head bowed, I lifted my hat. “Ma’am.” I stooped to retrieve my cane, feeling her brown eyes still on me. As I straightened, the usual deep pain zinged through my right hip and groin, reminding me again of the price my adventures in folly had exacted.
I gave the woman another polite nod and continued toward the hotel entrance, my limp heavier than it had been a moment before. Inside, I made my way to the bar and took a seat at a small table. Setting my hat aside and unbuttoning my overcoat, I scanned the room, looking for men who seemed approachable. The bar was not crowded at this time of morning, though more would be arriving as noon approached. Years ago, a setting like this would have felt odd and uncomfortable to me, being the only woman in a room full of men. But medical school and then the army had cured me of that, and the only time I even noticed it was when I stopped to marvel at how mundane it had become—on my side, at least.
“Excuse me, sir,” a young voice said at my side. “Are you Dr. Watson?”
I startled and turned to see a server boy next to me. How he knew my name was a mystery to me. “Yes?”
He nodded. “There’s a woman what would like to speak to you in the lobby. Sent me to fetch you directly.”
Strange. The only woman of my immediate acquaintance I could think of was Mrs. Chepston, but I hadn’t informed her I would be at the Criterion. “Thank you.” I gave the lad a few coins for his work.
He beamed and walked me all the way to the bar’s entrance. “There she is, sir,” he said, pointing at the very same woman whom I had aided only minutes ago.
I thanked him again and crossed the atrium as quickly as I could. She had loosened the scarf around her face, and as I drew near, recognition jolted through me.
“Maude Stamford!” I exclaimed, shifting my cane to my left hand so that I could hold out my right hand to her. “I’m incredibly sorry that I didn’t recognize you outside.”
She took my hand in both of her fur-trimmed gloved ones, pumping it enthusiastically. “Imagine my surprise to see my rescuing angel was my old friend Watson. I had no idea you’d returned to London.”
“I was delighted to assist you, Dr. Stamford.”
“Still ‘Miss,’ I’m afraid. But I took my MB a year ago.”
“Well done! You’ll earn your MD so quickly, those boys who fought against letting the University grant us degrees will still be crying to their mothers.”
“Us, Dr. Watson?” Stamford hissed, eyes wide and flicking from side to side, seeing who may have overheard me.
I could have slapped myself for making such a foolish slip—I should have said “you,” as in women. As in the sex I was currently pretending not to be. But no one was paying us the least mind, so I made a silly little grimace and offered her my left arm. “Care for tea, Miss Stamford?”
“Of course.” She took my arm, casting a curious glance at the cane.
She was nearly my height, but her figure was far more voluptuous. She was round and soft, and I was more aware than ever how gaunt and ill I must seem. Balancing her and my cane made walking more awkward than usual, but I did my best.
“However,” she continued as I hailed a cab in front of the hotel, “I doubt I shall have as easy a time with my MD exam as you did. I still don’t know how you managed it.” She lowered her voice. “Even the men often take it more than once, and yet you sailed through as if it were nothing more than a lark. We’re all still talking about it when our professors aren’t within hearing.”
I waved aside the compliment, though it warmed my heart. “I had excellent training in Zurich and of course in Philadelphia and London after that.”
But I didn’t want to hear more of her accolades, especially on that painful subject. I did, however, wish to find out where she was lodging and if there might be room for me, and an ache in my belly told me it was nearly noon. I drew a breath, bracing myself for the expense of my next suggestion. It couldn’t be helped. When a woman needed food and information, such things came at a price. “Instead of tea, luncheon at the Holborn?”
When she nodded, I gave direction to the driver and helped Stamford into the cab before taking my seat beside her.
We talked of nothing of consequence on our way to the Holborn. It seemed unreal to be sitting next to her, hearing her speak of the Royal Free Hospital and the London School of Medicine for Women, the same teachers, many of the same students. Even before I took my degree, I’d been an outsider there, a newcomer who had flitted through their halls for only a year when the hospital first agreed to allow women to train there. Then I’d defied them, upended their careful plans, and vanished to a place and persona so different, it might as well have been an entirely separate world.
I felt curiously apart from myself, almost as if I was observing these two young people from the rump of the horse ahead of us. The mental image made me smile, and Stamford asked what I was thinking about.
“Lunch,” I replied, knowing it would make her laugh.
I’d met Stamford in Philadelphia, thanks to my uncle Tomas, who was a doctor and lecturer at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Stamford had just started her medical training there, while my aim was to further my education by working at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia—one of the few hospitals in existence at the time willing to train women doctors. Stamford always reminded me of a younger sibling—not close enough to be a true friend, but somehow we always ended up together. And when tragedy forced me to return to Britain, she eventually followed and was the only person beyond Uncle Ian and Murray who knew I’d joined the army.
At the Holborn, we ordered a moderate meal, 2s 6d, and Stamford leaned forward, her brown eyes gently scolding. “You should have told me straight away the very day you returned to London.”
“I didn’t know if you’d want to see me after all the trouble I caused.”
She laughed lightly, dimples forming in her cheeks. “Nonsense! Though I can’t help wondering why you came back after such an unpleasant departure.”
“Ah London!” I said, affecting a worldly air, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained. Where else would I go?”
“You’re not a lounger or idler.” She frowned at me, but her eyes twinkled. Then she grew more somber. “What did happen? You’re as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut. Except your face—you’ve been ill.”
“After I finished training at Netley, I was attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. They made me an Assistant Surgeon.”
I laughed. “Don’t be. I would have had to serve years to be promoted to Surgeon. It’s based on seniority and what openings come available. I was a newcomer so would have had to wait my turn.”
“What was your rank?”
“Didn’t have one. The Medical Department doesn’t assign rank. We’re all just surgeons.”
“Hardly seems fair. Did you have a uniform?”
“Oh yes. But I was heartily glad to see the end of it.”
“Where did you go?”
I couldn’t suppress another chuckle. “Quite the interrogation, isn’t it.”
Her creamy skin flushed pink, and it contrasted beautifully with her smooth, brown hair parted in the middle and pinned back into a tidy roll.“I’m sorry. For the last two years, I’ve been wondering what became of you and if you were well. It seems like divine providence that we should literally run into each other today.”
It occurred to me then that my view of her as a sort of younger sister was perhaps shared by her as well. Always wanting to tag along, always worried of being excluded, always knowing that eventually she’d be left behind. It was an all-too familiar feeling for me. I had not meant to make her feel that way too. “I didn’t think it would be wise to write to you. I’m sorry.”
She was a picture of health, so pretty that my heart ached.
“I understand. I’m just thankful to see you alive and well.”
Alive, yes. Well was probably overstating things, but she could already see that. “I was intended to serve in India, but once I arrived, my superiors decided that the Berkshires were in greater need of surgeons, so I ended up in Afghanistan.”
She gasped. “We heard of the fierce fighting there.”
Our food arrived, and for a few minutes, we were distracted by eating. But soon I continued my story. “I was shot during the Battle of Maiwand.”
Her gaze snapped from meal to me. “Shot? How does a surgeon get shot?”
“Gathering the wounded off the battle field.”
“I’m sorry. What were your injuries?”
Usually, I would never discuss something so gruesome while eating, but Stamford’s medical studies had given her a strong constitution, and so I continued, keeping my voice low so as not to disturb other patrons. “I was trying to reach a fallen soldier, and the terrain was sloped and rocky. I had twisted and bent down to examine him without slipping, and a jezail bullet struck my left shoulder. It shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. Another tore up my right hip and lower abdomen. I should have bled out, but Murray, my orderly, threw me over a pack horse and brought me back to the British lines.”
“My goodness, how terrifying!”
“I thought I was going to die,” I said by way of agreement. “They sent me to the base in Peshawar, and I was on my way to recovery when I came down with enteric fever. By then, I think the rest of the medical staff thought I would die too.”
“But you didn’t.” She smiled brightly.
Her optimism warmed me and made my heart ache. It had been so long since I’d felt that same sense of confidence that all would be right in the world. “The medical board decided I was unfit for service and sent me back to England. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so here I am.”
“What about your uncle—the one who helped you get into the army?”
“Ian. I wrote to him countless times once I returned to Netley, but I never had a response. When I was discharged, I came to London to find out why. It turns out that while I was sick in Peshawar, he died in a carriage accident.”
Tears gathered in her soft, brown eyes. “You’ve had so much trouble and heartache. I’m more sorry than I can say.”
My throat tightened, and I coughed slightly. “I’m both Welsh and Scottish—we tend to be survivors.”
“You do your ancestors credit, I’m sure.” There was an awkward pause as the heaviness of the discussion settled on us. But then she lifted her chin. “So what are you up to now?”
“I’m looking for lodgings, I am,” I answered. “Trying to solve the problem of whether it’s possible to get comfortable rooms for a reasonable price.”
She stared at me a moment, her head tilting slightly to the right, a thousand unreadable thoughts passing across her face. “That’s a strange thing,” she said, finally. “You are the second person today that has used that expression to me.”
“And who was the first?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed, as if she were pondering a different question, one of great importance.
At her continued silence, I hurried on eagerly. “Whoever it is, I’d be grateful to be introduced.” It was an impulsive remark—I, of all people, had no business contemplating sharing rooms with a total stranger. But Stamford would never have brought it up if that wasn’t what she had in mind. And she would know better than anyone else what kind of woman might be a suitable flatmate for one such as I.
“I don’t know,” she said, slowly. “You might not want—”
“Yes, please. Introduce me.” Suddenly the hope that I’d sensed in the city this morning landed on my shoulder like some kind of blessing.
Stamford’s face brightened as if she’d reached a decision. “Very well. If you insist.”
Next Week: Stamford introduces Watson to a potential flatmate. WHO COULD IT POSSIBLY BE???
(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!)