Five hours later, cold and out of sorts, hip and shoulder cramping, I shut the door of 221B with force—not enough to be called slamming, but enough to be an exclamation mark on an exhausting and annoying afternoon.
At the top of the stairs, two women were descending, so I stood at the bottom to allow them to pass. For some reason I had not expected Holmes to entertain company, but then, I knew so little about her—why should she not have visitors?
The younger one hovered next to the older one, as if anxious to prevent the elder from falling. “She had no right to speak to you that way, Mother.”
The older lady batted the daughter’s hands away. “If she’d been a man, you would have admired her delicacy of speech.” She held up a small velvet pouch. “And anyway, she tracked it down for us, so I don’t care how she speaks.”
“I can’t believe that papa—”
“Your papa,” she said, stopping mid-stairs to scowl at her daughter, “is the male equivalent of a two-bit whore, and don’t you forget it.”
“Mother! You shouldn’t even know such a word!”
The mother resumed her tromp down the steps. “Obviously, you know the word, so why shouldn’t I? I’m sixty-three years old. I’ve earned the right to use whatever word I wish.”
The daughter caught sight of me and gasped again. “Please pardon my mother, Miss.”
“Doctor,” I corrected her. I shouldn’t have—it was pride speaking—but after all I’d gone through to earn the title, and as irritable as I was at the moment, being gracious was not at the forefront of my mind.
“So you’re going up to see her, are you, Miss Doctor?” The mother reached the bottom of the steps and studied me head to toe. “Never mind what my daughter says about her—she’s lovely. But you’ll have to keep your wits about you.”
“Mother, her name isn’t ‘Doctor.’ That’s not a surname.”
At the daughter’s mortified grimace, I choked back a laugh.
The mother barely glanced at her, too busy fastening the top button of her cape. “Of course it is, silly child. I once knew a Horace Doctor—he actually became a doctor, so everyone called him Dr. Doctor.” She chuckled and opened the front door, leaving her still-blushing daughter to trail after her. “And I knew a Miss Mann and a Mrs. Boye…”
Her words faded as the daughter closed the door, casting one last, apologetic glance over her shoulder at me.
I leaned on my cane in the entry hall, blinking, trying to comprehend the interaction I’d just witnessed. Those were not exactly the sort of people I’d have imagined as friends for my brilliant flatmate, but I supposed there was no accounting for taste. Shaking my head, I proceeded up the stairs.
When I entered the sitting room, Holmes emerged around the curtain to the study. “I’ve just rung for some tea—it should be a welcome antidote to your afternoon ordeals.”
I removed my cape and hung it on the coat stand near the sitting room door. “What do you know of my afternoon?” I limped with the cane and dropped heavily into my chair.
“You found shopping far more exhausting than you’d expected, and the obsequiousness of the clerks—which at first was pleasant—soon began to grate on your nerves.” Holmes prowled the room as she spoke, as if she were an animal in a menagerie. “You had not expected quite so many options or how self-conscious you would feel about your injuries while the shop girls assisted you in trying on clothing. You tried to limit them to two, maybe three outfits at the most, knowing that with underthings and other accessories, you would not be able to afford more than that. When they ignored your pleas, you became quite anxious until they revealed the significant discount they were offering you. That perplexed you, but I daresay it came as a welcome surprise.”
“Holmes!” I finally exclaimed when she paused for breath, “Were you there spying on me?”
“Don’t be absurd. You then arranged for the items to be delivered this afternoon, except for…” Here she eyed me again. “…a skirt and a jacket that needed minor alterations. Those should come in a few days, I expect. And then when you finally left Abernathy’s, you were compelled to walk several blocks to hire a cab, and on the way, you were accosted by an impertinent fellow. He followed you here, and you refused his advances—using your cane. And then you put him in your cab and sent him away.”
I stared at her, my mind swirling like the dark waters of the Thames.
She perched on the edge of her chair and returned my gaze with an air of expectation. “Well? Do tell me all about it.”
My jaw clicked shut, and I struggled to find my voice. “What more is there? You’ve already told it for me.”
She waved a careless hand. “I don’t know any of the details.”
A bark of laughter burst from me. “You were right about the discount—it was shockingly generous.” My eyes narrowed. “I suspect you had something to do with it—I did mention your name as you instructed.”
She shrugged, looking at the fireplace. “They feel very grateful to me for the small assistance I recently gave them.”
“Your assistance couldn’t have been so very ‘small’ given their amount of gratitude.”
“I helped them catch a thief,” she mumbled.
“What? How did that happen?”
“Time enough for my stories later. I want to hear about yours. What happened with the pest who bothered you?”
My tale could not possibly compare, but I indulged her anyway. I’d find a way to coax the Abernathy’s account from her later. “You are right that I had to walk a few blocks to find an available cab. A man blocked my way and said I seemed far too delicate to be traversing London all by myself and he would be delighted to escort me.”
Holmes snorted in a most unladylike way. “Go on.”
“Well, I told him I didn’t need an escort and to let me pass. I felt his eyes on me as I hired the cab, but I didn’t know until I reached Baker Street that he had followed me in a second cab.”
A stern shadow crossed her face, but she didn’t comment.
“He claimed to have been so concerned for my well-being that he felt obligated to follow me. By this time, I had little patience left, and I told him that I did not appreciate or welcome his concern and that he needed to leave immediately.”
“And then what?” She leaned forward again, her eyes locked on me.
“He grabbed my arm, my right one with the cane—saying something about how he had to insist as a gentleman for my protection. I warned him to release me at once.”
“But he didn’t.”
“He did not. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years about how to protect myself. I peeled his fingers back and twisted. There was a sharp crack, so I may have broken one or two. He shrieked. I don’t know if you heard that. But he was angry, and he lunged at me.”
“Yes?” It was no more than a whisper.
“So I jabbed him as hard as I could with my cane. In his delicate parts.” I gave her a wry smile. “He dropped to his knees, gasping for air, and I hauled him to his feet and deposited him in the cab I had just vacated and told the driver to take him wherever he wanted to go, once he was able to speak again. The driver, having witnessed the altercation, was only too happy to oblige and promised to provide the scoundrel a very expensive journey.”
Holmes regarded me in rapt silence a moment, then burst into applause. “Well done! Bravo!”
“I had forgotten this part of being a woman,” I said, scowling. “Such things never happen to men. And they act as if they are doing us some kind of favor with their odious attention.”
Just then, Josie brought us tea. Holmes poured. “But how did you learn to break a man’s fingers? And use your cane—”
“Holmes,” I interrupted with a cheeky grin, “if you persist in asking these questions every time I teach a man a much-needed lesson, it will be Christmas before we complete a conversation.”
Her mouth dropped open, and she froze mid-pour, mindless of the rising tide of tea in the cup. She recovered herself just as the tea overflowed and spilled onto the tray. I fought to keep a straight face as she clumsily poured a new cup.
She held it out along with a smile as soppy as the now-drenched doily on the tray. “Tea?” The word sounded almost shy.
I sipped at my tea, savoring the taste of victory while she distractedly spooned tea from the overfilled cup back into the teapot.
When she had brought the tea down to a drinkable level, she added two cubes of sugar, no cream. She drank it with no further mention of my adventures or the mess on the tray. “You should bathe tonight and have Josie rub some liniment on your shoulder.”
But even as soothing as the bath and Josie’s ministrations were, in the morning I woke to aching muscles and a fever. The head cold swiftly sank into my lungs, and I developed a deep, rattling cough and bronchitis. The new clothing arrived, but it was three days before I wore anything but the night dress and dressing gown, as I kept to my bed.
Josie and Mrs. Hudson checked in on me—Josie with tea and broth, Mrs. Hudson with some kind of spurious-looking patent cough syrup which I politely declined.
The third day, Holmes visited me, looking nervous and awkward. She handed me a letter from Stamford and then rummaged through my wardrobe, exploring my new acquisitions.
“Do they meet with your approval?” I muttered, knowing full well by now that the sarcasm would go over her head.
“I believe next time I should go with you to advise,” was her only reply. I was too tired to feel insulted, and she quickly excused herself after that.
But she left on the night stand a brand new issue of the Lancet and a novel I’d mentioned while we were moving in. I settled back against the pillows, novel in hand, unsure I’d ever understand my strange new flatmate.
Next Time: As Siân is recovering, will a familiar face cause a setback?
(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!)