I slept poorly that night, worrying for hours about how I would explain to Mr. Hope that I could not share lodgings with him. He had the look of one who, in spite of his confidence, expected rejection. If he was so desperate for a flatmate, he couldn’t possibly have many friends. It pained me to think that I should have to hurt anyone, but especially someone who was clearly far too brilliant to be easily loved by most people. In my experience, it was the eccentric ones who were the loneliest.
That combination of seclusion and genius drew me strongly. I never was one to find men very interesting, but I could not erase from my mind the eager glint of those dark gray eyes or the way the very air around him seemed to come alive as he moved through it.
It wasn’t even his invention of a chemical. Many before him had invented chemicals, many would after as well. No, there was something more, something I couldn’t yet name, that set him apart from any other person I’d ever met.
And to my sorrow, my deception would ensure that I would never have a chance to discover what it was.
I still had no good solution by the time the cab deposited me on a very pleasant part of Baker Street. The address Hope had given me, 221B, was emblazoned on a stately door next to a tea shop on the ground level. The house, sitting in the middle of a row, had once been quite grand. I imagined that the tea shop was a newer insertion into what most likely had been a front parlor, perhaps a music room behind. I’d rarely had cause or invitation to visit houses such as this, except for the home of the coal mine owner who had hired my father as manager back in Wales. What change of fortune had compelled the owner of such a fine house to chop it up into a shop and rooms to let?
The “B” in the address indicated that our suite would be on the first floor, likely over the tea shop. There appeared to be a second floor as well, and possibly a third or at least a garret. Odd that the address on the door only indicated the first floor suite. Perhaps the entrance for the other flats was in back. Leading with my cane, I mounted the two front steps, now clear of snow and ice, and rapped the door knocker three times.
A young housemaid opened the door at once. She took my overcoat and hat, then showed me down a wide hall that ran along and beneath a staircase on one side and the wall shared by the tea shop on the other to a comfortable reception room where Hope was already waiting.
He sprang to his feet and bounded toward me, his face alight. “Ah, Dr. Watson!” He shook my hand heartily and drew me further into the room. “You must meet our prospective landlady, Mrs. Hudson.”
The woman in question was waiting behind him, dressed in a deep, dusky burgundy poplin, gathered at the back in the smaller bustle that appeared to have come into fashion during my absence. At the introduction, she extended a graceful hand to me. “I’m delighted to meet you, Dr. Watson.” Her tone was friendly but hinted at the firmness of a woman who knows her own mind.
She appeared to be only about a decade or so older than me, and a few inches shorter, with deep brown hair pulled into a thickly-braided chignon and tightly-coiled curls framing her face. Her warm umber complexion glowed in the soft sunlight flooding the parlor.
I took her hand and pumped it enthusiastically. “The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, Mrs. Hudson,” I said, trying to remember I must approach her as a man would and not as a fellow woman.
The thought made me inwardly wince. Here was yet another interesting person that I would not be able to know, thanks to my current disguise. I began to curse the day I decided to impersonate a man.
As Mrs. Hudson and I shared some small talk, Hope’s face slowly puckered into a scowl. Mrs. Hudson cast an amused glance at him.
“It seems our friend is impatient to begin the tour,” she said, a fond note in her voice. “Shall we?”
Hope blew out an exaggerated sigh of relief and strode toward the door as if he already knew his way around. Mrs. Hudson stepped past him, giving him an admonishing glance.
“I know you’ve seen the place before,” she told him, “but this time it’s official, and you’ll allow me to make a proper presentation.”
“All right,” he said, rather like a sulky child.
She patted his arm, and I wondered at their familiarity. They must have a previous acquaintance, then. I felt an irrational flare of jealousy about that, but I kept my mouth shut and curved it in a genial smile.
Mrs. Hudson gestured to the door. “Right. This way.”
We followed her from the reception room, down the hall to the staircase. Hope hovered at my side, and when we reached the first step, he glanced at my cane.
“There are seventeen steps,” he said. “Will you be able to manage?”
If his tone had been at all condescending, I would have been offended. But as it was, he exuded a true concern bordering on anxiety, and all I wanted to do was reassure him. “There must be at least that many at my current hotel. So as long as you don’t intend to challenge me to a race, I’ll be fine.”
He grinned at that and hopped on the first stair. “Race you,” he murmured, winking.
I threw back my head and laughed, and it felt like the first genuine laugh I’d had since Maiwand. Mrs. Hudson watched the interaction silently but with a glimmer in her eye, and I noticed she set a leisurely pace up the stairs.
“The front door is used exclusively by the 221B lodgers,” she said, confirming my earlier assumption.
“Where do the other lodgers enter?” I asked.
“Oh, there are no other lodgers,” she replied, waving her hand. “The tea shop’s lease is plenty, and I wouldn’t care to have an entire houseful of people. It’s just myself and my B lodgers, plus I employ a cook, two housemaids, and a page.”
It seemed like an ideal situation, then, I realized with another pang.
The stairs opened onto a second broad hall, and before us was a door on the right and one on the left. The hall ended in a tall window graced with several palms and other houseplants on stands.
“If you’re up for it,” Mrs. Hudson said to me, “the second bedroom is upstairs, and I thought we would start there and work our way back down.”
“The exercise does me good.” It was mostly true—as long as I didn’t lead with my right leg going up, my injury gave me little trouble. It was more my left leg that grew weary of bearing the extra load.
I was relieved to hear no pity in her tone, and soon we made it up a shorter flight of stairs.
She led us down the hall toward the front of the house to a door on the right and opened it. “This is the second bedroom.”
The room was bright, airy, larger than I’d expected, with a tall window cheerfully draped. It was furnished with a comfortable single bed, a bedside table, a chest of drawers and large wardrobe, a dressing table with bench, and a washstand with a pitcher and basin. In a corner, I saw a cozy-looking reading chair and lamp, as well as a writing desk on one wall next to them. A thick rug cushioned the polished wood floor, and the walls were done up in a paper sporting entwining sage-green vines with small wild roses in pinks and peach.
I’d never seen such a lovely room, and I wanted it with a fierceness that stole my breath. But here was a possible way out of my problem—such a room surely must be too expensive for my limited funds.
Mrs. Hudson had been explaining something about the laundry schedule while I gawked at the room. When she finished, she nodded sharply and exited.
I gave one last, longing glance at the room I knew I couldn’t have and followed her back into the hall.
She pointed down the hall on the other side of the stair landing. “I put in a bath and water closet next to the bedroom, but those are for my private use only. Lodgers use the bath and WC on the first floor. My suite is across the hall, but rest assured that I have far too many things to do than snoop or monitor your comings and goings. I sleep soundly, and my previous lodgers had young children in that room, so I’m used to a certain level of noise. As long as you’re not too disruptive, I’ll have no complaints.”
And with that, she herded us back down the stairs. She showed us the WC we were to use at the back end of the hall, and then she let us look in on the large bath, complete with a heated tub and sink with a mirror.
I was beginning to feel ill—it would have been better not to come at all than have to wander through my dream abode and then leave it for good.
The first-floor bedroom was slightly smaller than the second-floor bedroom and didn’t have a writing desk. But otherwise, it was just as charming, with a wallpaper done in cream-on-cream geometric sunflowers and Grecian knots.
“Now for your sitting room,” she said, and at some point in her tour, she had switched from talking about “lodgers” to speaking as if the rooms were already ours.
It made me want to cry.
She threw open the door on the left, and I braced myself for more perfection. I was not disappointed.
Hope could contain himself no longer. He dodged around Mrs. Hudson into the warmest, homiest sitting room I had ever set foot in. “Isn’t it ideal, Watson? Can’t you just imagine relaxing here by the fire?” He patted the back of a plump armchair angled to the left of a fireplace framed with a carved wood mantle. Another armchair, charmingly mismatched, sat on the opposite side.
“Indeed, I can,” I said, sighing. Damn the man.
The fireplace was surrounded by bookshelves, empty, taunting me with the possibilities of volumes they could hold. To the right, on the front wall, were two tall windows draped elegantly in red and gold damask, and in the corner was a sofa and two more chairs arranged for pleasant conversation or reading. This room was papered in warm red with a complicated pattern of tiny squares overlaid with a riot of cherry blossoms. The woodwork glowed in deep oak, and the room was lit with a gas chandelier as well as several oil lamps. A woolen Turkish rug blanketed the floor. I imagined standing there barefoot, curling my toes into the soft pile.
Mrs. Hudson motioned to the center part of the room, left of the bookshelves, where a red velvet drape functioned as a doorway. “You have the length of the house, so I’ve had it divided into thirds. The center part here can be a library or study. If you would like to add a second desk, I think there would be room in that corner.” She walked us through this part, and indeed, it had a large desk and chair, as well as a sturdy library table and more bookshelves in addition to the conveniently desk-free corner. At the other end was yet another dividing curtain. “Through here,” she said as we followed, “is your dining area. There’s a door back here as well so that the maid can bring up meals without walking all the way through the other two areas. Your rate includes breakfast, tea, and supper. However, if you want supper, you’ll need to request it by breakfast each morning, and I do expect that if you’ve requested supper, you’ll be present and on time, out of respect for Mrs. Turner, our cook.”
“Of course,” I found myself saying. Ridiculous, since I wouldn’t ever be here to respect Mrs. Turner or her cooking.
She went on to explain that in addition to laundry and cleaning service and meals, we would be able to send Billy, the young page, on errands or have him escort visitors up to our sitting room. She also mentioned that there was a small garden in back that we should feel free to enjoy.
Then she finally named the terms of our lease, and I almost fainted dead away. Not only were they more than reasonable, they were affordable. Sharing with Mr. Hope, I could do it—at least until my pension stopped, but by then I’d have to find employment of some kind anyway. She must be good friends with Mr. Hope to be offering such a bargain.
There went my easiest excuse for saying no.
As we walked together back to the sitting room with that wonderful fireplace, for one glorious moment I considered saying yes. Having to continue passing as a man, even with the risk of getting caught, would be worth it to live here, to be able to know Mr. Hope and Mrs. Hudson. This life could be mine—if I was willing to keep living the lie.
I played out the fantasy in my mind while Mrs. Hudson and Mr. Hope discussed the particulars of the agreement.
“I’ll leave you two to talk about it and make your decision. Just come downstairs when you’re ready.” And with that, she left us alone.
Mr. Hope turned his expressive eyes on me, and the fantasy shattered like glass. I couldn’t do it. No matter how much I loved the suite, no matter how much he intrigued me. No matter how much I longed to be part of this household—I needed something real, not a fantasy. Something true. No more lies.
My heart racing, I gripped my cane so hard my hand cramped. I had to speak now and get it over with. “I’m sorry!” The words burst from me, louder than I’d intended. I continued on softer but with nervous haste. “I’m dreadfully sorry. Everything is perfect, and the terms are more generous than I’d ever dared imagine, and I want you to know it has absolutely nothing to do with either you or Mrs. Hudson or anything. But I’m afraid I simply cannot take rooms with you, Mr. Hope.”
He became unnaturally, terribly still, studying me with grave, penetrating eyes. Everything in me wanted to take back my words, but I knew I could not.
Without breaking his gaze, he shrugged off his coat and unbuttoned his waistcoat. Then he set about loosening his necktie with long, nimble fingers.
“What on earth are you doing?” If he’d stood on his head, I couldn’t have been more shocked.
He didn’t answer or look away. Once his tie was loosened, he tore off his collar and began unfastening his shirt.
“Mr. Hope! This is outrageous!” Panic surged in me, but I reminded myself that to him, I was a man, and I needed to hold my ground as a man would. “Stop it at once.”
Still, his eyes bored into me, lit by some internal glow. His hands did leave his buttons, only to plunge into his slicked-back hair, pulling.
I was alone in a room with a madman. I wondered briefly if Mrs. Hudson would think less of me if I screamed. “Mr. Hope…” But this time, it was only a soft plea.
Then I saw—his hair was coming off his head. A wig. He dropped it without care on the floor and shook out his own deep brown, glossy locks, scattering hairpins around him, until tousled waves spilled around his shoulders.
I could scarcely breathe. My brain was screaming, refusing to believe what my eyes were telling me.
He slipped the bracers off his shoulders and returned to his shirt buttons. Then he wadded handfuls of white shirt linen to untuck it from his trousers. He flung the shirt open and grabbed the knitted undershirt, dragging the neckline down in fierce exposure.
Instead of a man’s chest, all I saw were familiar rounds of cotton binding. Binding so much like my own that I felt the room tilt around me. Blood throbbed in my head, and my eyes snapped back to those gray ones that had never once looked away.
“You could”—the words struck my ears softly but with the intensity of an electrical current—“take rooms with Miss Holmes, could you not, Dr. Watson?”
Next Time: New flat, and an irrepressible, inscrutable new flatmate–what will Watson make of it all?
(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!)