As the cab took us away from the Holborn, I tried to get Stamford to tell me about this mystery friend of hers. It was likely one of the other students at the London School of Medicine for Women, as none of them had much time to socialize with anyone else but each other.
Curiously, Stamford refused to tell me.
Instead, she chattered on about her original purpose for venturing out today—a new circulating library not far from the Criterion. But she said she was far happier to have found me instead, and the library could certainly wait. She seemed quite cheerful and well-adjusted to life in London now that she’d been here four years. She shared a house with six other women—four fellow medical students and two nurses from the hospital—and from her account, they all were the best of friends.
I had to admit some jealousy on hearing that. It was worlds different than the loneliness my life had become. And yet, whose fault was that? I had the MD I’d so coveted and a wealth of surgical experience beyond anything most other women doctors could ever hope for. The choice had been mine, though the price far steeper than I ever imagined.
Still, a friend would be nice. I wished Murray could have been discharged with me, though how we would have continued our friendship once I returned to the feminine sphere, I had no idea. There was not a whiff of romance between us, and there never would be. I couldn’t even say I loved him like a brother. I had a brother, and I confess I didn’t love him the way I loved Murray. Murray was a friend beyond all others, but such friendship would be seen as impossible even if our paths could ever reconnect.
I had become so lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t pay attention to the neighborhood we were traveling through. Then I recognized the street: Gray’s Inn Road. The muscles along my upper back clenched. The cab slowed to a stop in front of a familiar neoclassical stone facade with its dentil-trimmed gable, and the words etched proudly beneath: Royal Free Hospital.
That this was our destination wasn’t all that surprising. But still, my mouth felt suddenly dry, and my pulse pounded against my head. “This isn’t a good idea. If anyone should see me—”
Stamford rested a gloved hand on my arm. “No one you know is likely to see you. And even if they did, they wouldn’t recognize you.” A harsh truth, but she delivered it gently.
“I’ve seen you in this guise before. And even then, it took me a few minutes to place you in my mind.”
I winced. “I look that bad, do I?”
She gave me a wry frown. “You might consider it a blessing on this particular occasion.”
I sat straighter with a bravado I didn’t quite feel. “Right you are. Very well, I survived Afghanistan. The lionesses of the Royal Free cannot deter me.”
“Hear, hear!” She tapped on the trapdoor and paid our driver. When the doors sprang open, she clambered easily from the cab without waiting for my assistance.
“That cabby now thinks I’m the worst gentleman, making you pay for our ride and disembark on your own.”
She grabbed my arm as if we were both still carefree students. “I’m a Modern Woman, haven’t you heard? Self-sufficient in every way.”
Just then, her feet slid once again on a slick patch of ice, and she nearly tumbled to the cobblestones, arms flailing.
I caught her, or rather my cane did—she managed to grab hold of it before she sprawled entirely. Fortunately, I had seen how matters were heading and had braced myself just in time, or we both would have landed most ingloriously.
“Miss Stamford.” I gave her my sternest glare, trying not to giggle. “You are a dignified MB graduate. Do attempt to behave like one.”
“Yes, Doctor.” It was the worst imitation of meekness I’d ever heard. “This way—I don’t think you were able to see the new laboratories before you left.”
She led me through the main arch, tall enough for a horse and rider to pass through back sixty years ago when the building had housed the Light Horse Guards, and into a large courtyard. Across the way, we ducked through a door, and I followed her along the broad corridors of the hospital that held so many mixed emotions for me. The air was tinged with the pungent, nearly-sweet odor of carbolic acid and other antiseptic fluids, for the hospital was a leader in germ theory and subscribed to all of Lister’s recommendations and protocols.
We passed nurses and doctors, students I didn’t recognize, patients, and as Stamford had predicted, I barely attracted notice. Perhaps in my ill-fitting clothes and with my haggard complexion, they all thought I was being admitted as a patient myself.
Leaving the bustle of the main halls behind, we mounted a stone staircase through an arched opening into a wing that looked to have been recently remodeled. I remembered then that this was the part of the hospital that had been under construction when I had been here last.
We arrived at a room labeled “Chemical Laboratory,” and Stamford reached for the door knob. “In here, probably.”
“Allow me.” I opened the door and let her precede me into the room.
It was indeed a fine chemical lab, still retaining a bit of new-construction luster in the wood cabinets lining the walls and the three long, low tables in the middle, graced with Bunsen lamps with blue flickering flames at each station and washbasins on either end.
“What a change this is from my time,” I remarked quietly to Stamford. “This room would be a joy to work in.”
“Indeed it is.” She nodded toward the far end of the room.
Following her gaze, I saw a figure wearing a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a charcoal-colored vest covered by a tan work apron. This person was hunched over a microscope surrounded by a variety of glass beakers and test tubes, crucibles and vials. Dark hair, pomaded. Clearly male, much to my disappointment. The potential flatmate must be elsewhere. I glanced at Stamford, intending to signal that we should withdraw and not disturb the man, but she was already making her way toward him.
I really had more important things to do this afternoon than socialize with Stamford’s friends, but there was no polite way to extricate myself now. Swallowing a sigh, I followed her, my cane tapping on the polished floor.
The man looked up at our approach, and his face crinkled into a bright smile. “Stamford!” He slid off his stool and strode toward us, a glass beaker with an attached nozzle in one hand. “Come, come! I’ve done it—I’ve created a reagent that can reveal hidden fingerprints. You’ll want to see this.”
He motioned to Stamford, but she stepped back, drawing his attention to me. “Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherrington Hope.”
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with more strength than I would have expected given his slight frame. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
My heart dropped to my shoes. “How on earth did you know that?” I asked, my voice hoarse. If he knew that much, what else did he know?
I couldn’t show such weakness. I stared resolutely into green-gray eyes, only a few inches above my own. Wide and framed with dark lashes, they should have been soft but instead were oddly chilly and piercing, set into a thin, angular face the color of pale brown agate. They returned my gaze, minute emotions flitting across them like the shadows of clouds on a windy day.
“Never mind,” he said at last, a note of intrigue in his quiet tone. Firm, narrow lips curved slightly, but then he broke eye contact and smiled brightly again at Stamford. “The question now is about fingerprints. I’m sure you see how significant this is.”
I found I didn’t like feeling dismissed by this intriguing man. Before Stamford could reply, I cut in. “I understand that there’s been some interest in recent years for using fingerprints as identification on documents and such, but surely there’s not much practical use for revealing hidden—”
“Practical?” His eyes flashed at me, and his voice—already high-pitched for a man—jumped several notes higher. “There couldn’t be anything more practical. Don’t you see this gives us a reliable means to track everything from who opened a door to who was at the scene of a crime? Let me show you.”
He seized the edge of my coat sleeve and nearly dragged me toward his station. I sent a wide-eyed glare over my shoulder at Stamford, but her only response was a shrug and a smirk.
Mr. Hope set the beaker he’d been holding on the table. “Give me your thumb.”
He snapped his fingers twice, looking not at me, but at the debris he was rummaging through on the table. “No need for repetition. You heard me.”
I should have been offended, but there was such an earnest intensity vibrating from him that I felt sure he was unaware of his own abruptness. When was the last time I’d had such passion for anything? Medical school? I couldn’t remember. I held out my hand to him.
Impossibly long, slender fingers, a shade deeper than his face and marred by several small cuts and burns, wrapped around mine. With his other hand, he snatched a small, black marble tile from the table. His grip was gentle but brusque as he pressed the tile to my thumb in a rolling motion. The warmth from his grasp lingered after he released me.
“Observe.” He placed the tile on a tray inside a wood cube. A hole had been cut in one side, and a rubber hose had been attached, sealed with a gasket. He closed the door of the cube and picked up the beaker he’d been holding earlier. “Imagine that I’ve found this tile at the location of a crime. I know it’s been handled, but there are no visible prints.” He unscrewed the nozzle from the beaker. “About eighteen years ago, Professor Paul-Jean Coulier showed that fingerprints can be revealed on a document using fumes from warmed iodine. But the prints begin fading almost immediately, so the only way to preserve them is by careful and prompt photography. Iodine doesn’t work on non-porous material or on older prints. So what can be done to reveal fingerprints on glass or on a door knob? Nothing—until now.”
He plucked a cotton pad from a stack on the table and stuffed it into the beaker of fluid. Almost immediately, smoke curled up from the cotton. He quickly replaced the nozzle, capturing the smoke inside, and attached the hose to the nozzle. Then he squeezed the trigger.
“The smoke isn’t the important thing,” he explained as he clamped the trigger open with a wire. “The cotton facilitates an exothermic reaction that heats the monomer compound and creates fumes. We’ll leave it to process now, shouldn’t take long, but we likely ought to open a window. I haven’t yet tested the toxicity of the fumes, but the smell is noxious enough.” As he spoke, he hurried to a window and heaved it open, his movements tight and quick, as if he were holding himself back from an explosion of energy.
Meanwhile, the cotton in the beaker looked rather singed, and I thought it would surely combust at any moment. Hope was right—the odor from the fumes was quite unpleasant.
Hope rubbed his arms, shivering against the cold breeze now swirling into the lab. I could well believe he’d be easily chilled—he was lean and slim, so much so that he looked taller than he actually was. “If this process had been invented earlier, there are hundreds of men now walking this earth who long ago would have paid the penalty for their crimes.”
“Or perhaps there would be men—and women—proven innocent of theirs,” I added, simply to be contrary.
He stopped in front of me, and the brilliance of his smile arrested me so that I could not look away if I had wanted to. “You do understand!” For one moment, he seemed to want to clasp my shoulders, but instead he brought his hands together in a sharp clap. “Criminal cases are continually hinging upon one point—who was there? My theory is that we all leave traces, no matter how minute, everywhere we go. Like the breadcrumbs of Hansel and Gretel. In the case of fingerprints, it is sweat and oil from our skin. The trouble that bedevils investigators is how to trace breadcrumbs that are nearly invisible. But now that we have the Ho—Hope method, at least some of the breadcrumbs will now be revealed!”
I wondered at his slight stammer but marked it up as the intensity of his enthusiasm. With a flourish, he opened the wooden cube and grabbed the marble tile.
He handed it to me with a smart bow. “Your fingerprint, Dr. Watson.”
And there it was in white ridged lines across the black surface of the tile. I stared at it, wonder tinged with horror flowing through me. That print—I’d left it on surfaces across the world. It was me, no matter how I was dressed. No matter what name I called myself. It proclaimed the truth in fine white lines, stripping me of my deception. I suppressed a shudder.
“When it finishes drying,” he continued, not seeming to mind my silence, “it will be durable. Nearly permanent.”
“That’s marvelous!” Stamford exclaimed, peering around me for a closer look. “Well done!”
“Thank you, my dear!” he replied with another theatrical bow.
“It’s quite impressive,” I added, rather belatedly.
He gave me a little smile, almost as if he could tell how I was feeling and didn’t blame me for it. He took the tile from me and set it down before turning off the nozzle to let the air clear.
“We actually came here on business,” Stamford said.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Hope bustled about, setting his station back in order. “You’ve brought me a potential flatmate in Dr. Watson—I’m quite intrigued.”
“What?” I yelped. This man? He was the one Stamford wanted me to meet? What in God’s name was she thinking? I couldn’t possibly—not with a…him…
Stamford slid a stool toward me with her foot, just in time for me to sink down on it. She settled on another one. “My friend here wants to take diggings, and as you were complaining you could find no one to go halves with you, I thought that I had better bring you together.”
Sherrington Hope seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground.”
“But I—” I broke off weakly. There was no way for me to say no at this point without either exposing myself or being incredibly rude. Stamford would get an earful from me about this! She must have assumed I planned to continue passing as a man. Even so, she certainly should have asked me first.
He gave me a quizzical look. “I get in the dumps at times and don’t open my mouth for days on end. Will that bother you?”
“Do you have anything against the violin?”
“Not if it’s well-played, but—”
“Excellent. I do think it’s best to be honest about one’s shortcomings with one’s potential flatmate, don’t you agree?”
Bloody hell. “Yes, but—”
“Then it’s settled. Meet me at noon tomorrow at 221B Baker Street, and we shall get everything arranged.”
While we had this one-sided conversation, he had removed his work apron and donned a morning frock and overcoat. Hat in hand, he slung a satchel over his shoulder.
“I must run—they’ve got a body in the morgue that I plan to beat with a riding crop.”
“Whatever for?” I blush to admit it was almost a shout.
“To see how long bruises will form after death, of course. Until tomorrow!” And with that, he blew from the room, taking all the air with him.
I whirled on Stamford. “How could you—”
“Oh lord,” she said, groaning at the clock on the wall. “I’ve got only a half an hour before I’m on duty. You can see yourself out, can’t you? I’m so sorry. It was lovely to see you, let me know how it all works out. Later, darling!”
And then she was gone too.
“Damn,” I muttered to the fingerprint tile. Its lines laughed at me in the empty lab. But if it knew how I was to get out of this latest scrape, it refused to tell.
Next Time: While touring the irresistibly charming 221B Baker Street, Watson tries to work up the courage to tell Mr. Hope she cannot room with him.
(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!)