After three days in bed, I felt better enough to lie around our rooms as one of the “loungers and idlers” I’d described to Stamford. But a deep, nagging cough remained, sapping my already-compromised strength. It all would have been dreadfully dull, except for Miss Holmes.
I could not come down to breakfast without coming across a new medical journal or some kind of interesting-looking book. Most appeared unread, though sometimes a scrap of paper marked a particularly intriguing article. I could not get Holmes to admit that she was providing my reading material, but I couldn’t imagine that Mrs. Hudson would be going to that kind of expense or effort for a mere lodger. All of it was so uncannily suited to my tastes and interests, I found myself hurrying out of bed in the morning in spite of my lethargy, just to see what would await me next.
Even more fascinating to me, though, was the study I undertook of my flatmate herself. She was a woman of contradictions. She left me reading materials in much the same way as a cat drops its kill at the feet of the owner it wishes to please, yet when I tried to thank her or simply engage her in conversation, she answered abruptly or not at all. She didn’t inquire after my health yet made sure there was a blanket draped over my chair. And she kept the fire stoked with the vigilance of Prometheus himself.
She hardly spoke to me during those days—utterly engrossed in her own studies or finding new ways to torture her violin. Eerie whines would explode into screeches, and I at last understood why she’d listed it as a fault. What was the purpose for such noise when she could play so beautifully?
A variety of odd people paid call on her, not every day, but maybe two or three in a week. I finally came to the conclusion that these were not friends but clients of some kind. However, with my cough and general air of malaise, I felt it better to take myself off to my room when they arrived, so I never knew what sort of business Holmes had with them.
About four weeks into our acquaintance, I was weary of coughing and had a small burst of inspiration to send Josie to an apothecary for a tin of the new Vaseline. My uncle had introduced me to it in Philadelphia, and it had since traveled across the Atlantic. My idea was that it would create the perfect base for a camphor and menthol liniment that would provide soothing vapors for my nasal passages and lungs—far superior to the blistering mustard plasters my mother had inflicted on me as a child.
I was pleased with my modest experiment—before bed, I heated my chest with flannels soaked in hot water until my skin flamed dark pink. Then I smeared the vapored Vaseline across the heated area and covered it with a cloth to protect my nightdress from the greasy jelly. The vapors calmed my cough somewhat and made sleeping much easier. I didn’t care for the smell, but the Vaseline left my skin soft in the morning. I resolved I would use my concoction with patients once I had them.
Holmes had never heard of Vaseline before then. When I showed it to her, she was instantly taken with it and asked if she might borrow a bit of the portion I wasn’t using for my remedy. I was happy to share with her.
For the next week, I never knew where I would find it or what she had done to it. She heated it to see if it would reconstitute when it cooled. She tested its insulating properties by coating one hand with it, fastening thermometers to both hands, and then plunging them into a bucket of ice water to measure how long she could endure the pain with the uncoated hand versus the coated one.
She used a syringe to squirt it into the locks to see if it made it easier to pick the lock without being heard. Mrs. Hudson nearly lost her temper when all the locks gummed up, and she had to have a locksmith come out and take them apart to clean them.
At last, Holmes smeared it on her violin bow to test the static coefficient of the Vaseline. The result was a total silencing of her instrument, which I teased her was a vast improvement over the previous day’s caterwauling. She had to replace the bow and all the strings, but she seemed happy with whatever conclusions she had reached.
I, however, was not so happy the morning I realized she had used up the entire rest of the tin.
“You,” I told her, my tone far sharper than I’d ever used with her to that point, “asked for a ‘bit’—I’ll remember for next time what that word means to you. You’ll also have to explain to Josie why you are sending her out again so soon for another tin.”
She stared for a moment, then tipped her chin up and swept regally from the sitting room to the study, leaving the now-empty tin on the end table by the sofa.
I stomped upstairs to my room, jabbing my cane into the stair runner as I went.
As my temper cooled, I began to feel ashamed for my pettiness. It rankled that she hadn’t even apologized. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t have spoken so harshly. It was only a tin of Vaseline.
Seated at my desk, I tried to put the ridiculous row aside. I was restless and ill-tempered from being confined for so long, that was all. The enforced rest and Mrs. Turner’s cooking had put me in that indefinable space between “much better” and “not quite back to normal.” I needed to start looking ahead. Just two days ago, I’d hired a courier to retrieve my second quarterly pension payment from the army, since I could hardly show up at the army’s payment office dressed as a woman. Only one more payment remained, and I could feel the days slipping away. It was time to secure my future.
Thus resolved, I swallowed my pride and wrote a conciliatory letter to the director of the London School of Medicine for Women, offering my services as a lecturer in trauma and wound care. I avoided exact mention of how I’d received my experience, but I knew it was unlikely that they had any other instructors qualified in those areas who would be willing to teach women students. With any luck, my offer would be tempting enough for the director and her board to move beyond our previous quarrel.
Writing the letter took longer than I expected. When I finished, the clock in my room showed just past eleven, and the late morning sun had all but abandoned my windowsill. I addressed the letter and was just leaving my room when Josie stopped me.
“For you,” she said, holding out a brand new tin of Vaseline.
“Thank you, Josie.” I returned to my room to place the tin on my desk. “I am sorry you had to go through extra trouble for it.”
“It wasn’t me that did it. Miss Holmes went out and bought it herself.” Her eyes sparkled, and she was doing a poor job of holding back laughter. “Along with twenty-three other tins of the stuff.”
“No!” I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or groan. “What are we to do with two dozen tins of Vaseline? Is she planning more experiments?”
“I couldn’t say. But I don’t think so. She told me it was all for you to do with as you please. I put the others in the medicinal chest in the kitchen, if that’s all right with you.”
I shook my head. “Yes, thank you. I suppose the entire household can make use of it—please help yourselves. What on earth possessed her to buy so many?”
Josie shrugged. “It looks like penance, if you ask me.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I would have been happy with a simple apology.”
But I think we both knew that for some people, there was nothing simple at all about the words “I’m sorry.”
I remembered the letter in my hand. “Would you post this for me, please? Or send Billy.”
“Of course.” She took the letter, and we parted.
I ambled down to the sitting room, hoping to find Holmes. She wouldn’t want my thanks, but I’d give it anyway.
I opened the door to find that she had another guest—a bear of a man whose broad back was to me when I entered the room.
“I beg your pardon—I didn’t know you had a visitor.”
I started to retreat, but Holmes bustled toward me, her expression animated as if we had never had a cross moment.
“Lieutenant Craddock, meet my friend and fellow lodger, Dr. Watson.”
His name shot like a bullet into my chest. Surely not…
He turned, and my worst fears were confirmed. At once, I heard the battlefield, smelled the blood and stench of bodies. I felt the sting of sand and burn of sun.
I blinked, trying to clear the dreadful visions. My throat closed up, and my head throbbed with sudden pain. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said a bit breathlessly, holding out my hand. “However, I’m intruding, so—”
“Dr. Watson. A woman! Well, this is certainly a surprise. What are these modern times coming to?” He laughed heartily and shook my hand, studying my face. “I knew a Dr. Watson in the army. Fine fellow. You resemble him.”
I shoved aside the panic and tried to keep my voice steady. “Yes, I believe that may be a cousin of mine.”
“What are the chances, eh? Whatever happened to the fellow? Last I heard, he’d been shot.”
“It’s my understanding that he survived and is recovering.” My limbs were trembling. I needed to leave before I lost control of myself completely.
“Good to hear. What a family resemblance there is—quite remarkable.”
The room went a little dark. I had to escape. Now. “I apologize, but I need to…that is, I’ve been ill, and I’m not feeling well. If you’ll excuse me.”
I fled, nearly tripping over the threshold without waiting for his response. I closed the door and leaned against the wall, gasping for air and clenching my fists. What was wrong with me? I knew it would happen someday. Knew I would eventually come face to face with someone from the army who might recognize me. I just hadn’t expected it so soon. And I hadn’t expected to respond with the skittishness of a frightened wood mouse.
Over the door transom, Holmes’s cool, clear tones floated down to me.
“Poor Watson. She has been my flatmate for…at least six years. And in spite of her medical training, the only patient she has had is herself. She’s dreadfully sickly, mostly an invalid. Rarely leaves her room. She spends her days writing terrible poetry and copious entries in her diary. So tragic, really. But you didn’t come here to discuss my reclusive friend. Shall we?”
I crept away from the door, shaking, marveling at the astonishing lie that Holmes had just told on my behalf.
I managed to make it to my room before I fell apart, sobbing on my bed and hating myself for giving in to such a display of emotion. I’d been a fool to think resuming my life as a woman would allow me a fresh start. Bleak fear descended on me like the chill of a desert night. As irrational as I knew it was, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was doomed to be always dodging and running from my past. And someday, I’d have nowhere to hide.
Next Time: When Siân receives devastating news, Holmes proves to be an unlikely source of comfort.
(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!)