My letter to the LSMW went out with the fourth dispatch of the day. I had a response by the eighth. About four-thirty that afternoon, Mrs. Hudson brought it to my room as she had Josie occupied with other tasks. I sat at my desk and flipped it between my hands, working up the fortitude to face the contents, whatever they were.
I drew a deep breath and unfolded it. It didn’t take me long to scan the brusque, unforgiving lines, the words igniting me like sparks on spilt oil. I slammed it down on the desk and pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes, my heart racing, my breath shuddering from me. Where was my self-control? My ability to put things into perspective? I fought for that composure, but the wave of fury was too strong, and I gave up the battle with a sharp cry.
I struck the desk with both fists. Pain shot up my wrist, circling my elbow, but it made me feel a little less helpless; so I did it again and again, biting out the filthiest profanities I knew.
“Watson?” The voice barely registered. “Siân Watson!” Louder now, to my right.
A soft touch on my right arm sent me reeling the opposite direction. I nearly fell off my chair, but two hands steadied me.
“You’ll injure your shoulder again, which won’t help anything.”
I stilled, sobs catching in my throat. After a moment, the hands slid away, and I heard Holmes settle in the reading chair which she had at some point dragged over near the desk. I had no idea how long she’d been there, how much of my futile temper tantrum she’d witnessed. I slumped over the desk so she couldn’t see my face.
“What a soldier I am,” I mumbled, coughing. “Crying. Bet you can hardly believe it.”
“Actually,” she said, her voice smooth and quiet, “soldiers have the most to cry about, and it would probably do them some good to indulge in it more often.”
She spoke kindly but without much emotion, and I was grateful to her for it. I shuddered, and she set a handkerchief in front of me. She said nothing as I breathed deeply and wiped my eyes and nose.
“Thank you,” I said after several minutes.
“I didn’t…” She took a slow breath. “You’re welcome.”
When I finally looked at her, she was studying her hands that were twisting together in her lap. “I just couldn’t help hearing, and I thought—I wondered…” She glanced up. “If you might need any assistance.”
How strange—during the immediate crisis, she had sounded like nothing could ever ruffle her. But now, her discomfort seemed so great that she might flee the room. Her eyes fell to the letter on the desk.
“Read it if you like.” I shrugged, mopping my face again with the handkerchief. “There’s nothing that can be done about it, but I do appreciate you coming to me. Very kind.”
She took the letter without comment and skimmed it.
“They have no need of my services, now or in the future,” I paraphrased bitterly to her.
She met my eyes. “They didn’t want you to go for your medical degree. They wanted one of their own to be the first to be granted that degree from the University of London.”
I didn’t even bother asking how she knew, but somehow she must have seen the question in my face. A guilty shadow darkened her eyes as she handed the letter back to me.
“I admit I was curious about you, Doctor. I took the liberty of doing a small amount of research. Stamford was kind enough to inform me you had taken your degree only months after the University opened them to women. But she refused to say anything more about what followed.”
Holmes had asked Stamford about me? I didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed. She eyed me nervously, waiting for my verdict.
I supposed if I’d been in her position, I probably would have asked Stamford too. In fact, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made the same inquiry of her about Holmes.
I managed a limp smile that I hoped would be reassuring. “I earned my Medical Bachelor’s in Zurich and then continued my training in Philadelphia where my uncle has his own practice. I met Stamford there, actually. But there was—” My throat closed up, and I coughed again. “—a family emergency, and I came home. After that, I needed to stay in Britain awhile, so I decided to finish my training at the London School of Medicine for Women. They had just finalized their agreement with the Royal Free Hospital to allow their students to train there.”
“But you were always an outsider.” Her eyes were steady on me, alert, intent.
“Yes. And when the University finally resolved its debate about granting degrees to women, I was tired of waiting. I knew I could pass their exam. Knew it in my soul. But the LSMW director wanted me to wait. The men of the medical department were the only ones in the whole of the University who fought against letting women join their ranks. The entire English medical community ended up bitterly divided over the question. My director wanted us students to wait to sit the exam for a few years after the new charter was approved because she didn’t want to further anger the men. She and the board thought letting the men get used to the idea of women MDs would make it easier for us to make our way alongside them in the medical world.”
Those eyes flashed now. “You refused to wait.”
I sat straighter. “Yes. That degree was mine by right and by all the morality of the universe. My family sacrificed to pay for it, and I gave up home and country to pursue it. I deserved it, and there was no way this side of perdition that I was going to wait more years just to pacify a group of hateful, arrogant men.”
“Bravo,” Holmes murmured, regarding me with something uncomfortably close to admiration.
I swallowed and looked down at the letter. I didn’t deserve admiration. “The director and other board members did not share your approval. They told me explicitly that I was no longer welcome at the Royal Free or the LSMW. And they strongly hinted that they would make it difficult for me to set up practice anywhere in London.”
“So you went to the army.”
I nodded. “I wanted more experience. I thought that in the army, I could continue learning and do some good as well.”
When I fell silent, she waited, all awkwardness gone.
I brushed my fingers along the letter. “I’ve often wondered if I was wrong. Foolish. If I hadn’t sat the exam, I wouldn’t have gone to Netley. I wouldn’t have been shot in Afghanistan. None of my problems would exist.”
Holmes waved a careless hand. “You’d have had a different set of problems, that’s all. No good pondering what-ifs. You went after what you desired. You were bold. There’s much to admire in that.”
Right then, I didn’t quite believe her. “I was not very bold today when your visitor arrived.”
“Don’t give him another thought. I sent him away.”
The revelation jolted me in my seat. I shifted to look at her directly. “But wasn’t he one of your clients?”
She picked absently at a short, neatly-filed nail. “It was plain to me that he was an acquaintance of yours from the army. His presence disturbed you. Threatened you. Obviously, I could not work with him under those circumstances.”
“Holmes!” I rubbed a trembling hand over my face, hardly knowing whether to scold or cry again. “My god. That’s—” There were simply no words. But she was looking at me as if she thought I was going to yell at her. It would not do. I crumpled the handkerchief in my right fist and lowered my voice along with my eyes. “That was too good of you. You shouldn’t have, but I am very moved that you did.”
She didn’t speak for several seconds. At last, I glanced at her again to find her staring at me, as if my words had stunned her to silence.
“I-It-that is, it was only practical,” she stammered and wrenched her gaze away.
“It’s just one more sign, isn’t it.” I tapped my fingers on the letter, my resolve growing. “I need to get out of London.”
“Why would you say that?”
The sharp question drew my attention back to her—eyes gone wide, mouth tight, and neck outlined with tension.
I knew I must reply with delicacy. “I don’t know the exact nature of your work, but I can see it is very important to you. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I allowed my presence to hurt your business.”
She scowled. “It was one client. There will be others.”
“And at any point, someone could recognize me or find me out. There’d be a terrible scandal. You would be ruined by association.”
She leaned forward now, eyes blazing. “Do I seem to you to be the sort to care what society thinks? Rest assured, scandal could never ruin me.”
I didn’t want to argue with her, especially when I didn’t really even know what it was that I was arguing against. “London has broken my heart time and time again. I’m tired. And I am in pain—in body and spirit. What am I to do here to earn my way? As long as the LSMW is against me, and as long as I cannot afford to buy my own practice, my degree is worthless.”
She was shaking her head, but I held up a finger to show I wasn’t done. To my surprise, she closed her mouth and waited.
“I miss Wales,” I continued, my voice growing soft. “Merthyr, where I’m from, is in great need of doctors. And I miss hearing and speaking the language of my birth. I long for home. It makes more sense than remaining in a city that distinctly doesn’t want me.”
The angry light in her expression vanished. She slouched against the back of the chair, her eyes like clouds about to rain. She stared blankly across the room, and I couldn’t read her face. Her brows drew together, and she pursed her lips, nodding to herself.
Then she emerged from whatever reverie had captured her and sat forward, decisive and commanding as ever. “I have another client on his way to see me tonight. Join me.”
That was not what I’d expected. “Whatever for?”
She raised her chin. “Well, it’s certainly a better way to spend your evening than brooding about up here by yourself.”
The barbed statement was so quintessentially Holmes that I found myself grinning in spite of the difficult day. And she was right—anything was better than stewing alone in my own sad juices. “How could I possibly resist such a charming invitation?”
She almost smiled. Almost. “Wash your face. And see if Josie can repair your hair—you look frightening. I can’t afford to lose two clients in one day.”
I gave her a lazy salute. A dull flush crept up her neck into her face, and she fairly sprinted for the door.
Next Time: In our last free chapter, Siân finds out the truth of Sherlyn Holmes’ profession.
(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!)