The Adventure of the Doctor's Dilemma
I cannot claim to be particularly proud of my behaviour during the time I am about to recount. For this reason, and because it holds no direct bearing on any case upon which Holmes or I worked, I am recording it in my private journal as a way at last to lay memories rest. I am an old man now, as is Holmes, and it is past time I let go of old ghosts and old guilt.
The new century had established itself upon the world, and with it came the feeling that it was a time for younger men than myself and Holmes. Or perhaps I was simply feeling tired after our recent adventures in France. Whatever the cause, talk of retirement had drifted more and more into my conversations with Holmes. I was aware that he had long since set his eye upon a place in Sussex. I, on the other hand, had reason to stay in London. That reason being my engagement to a charming widow, Mrs. Lydia Cunningham, some few years younger than myself.
It is here where I feel the most pangs, for in truth I failed both my friend and that lady alike.
As the cases upon which my friend consulted grew fewer, so did my visits with him grow less frequent, until at last I saw him off on the train for Sussex. We said little of consequence at the time, long years together making words unnecessary, and public environs making the ones we might prefer to use unwise.
"Good luck to you, Watson," he said, and with a final shake of that strong, slim hand I bid him farewell. The moment should have held the feelings of both ending and beginning, and yet all I felt at the time was the pang of loss.
Knowing how Holmes would have responded were he aware of my mawkish emotions, I shook off the feeling and focussed my mind on the present and the future. The present being a practice that needed tending and the future being a wedding date that needed to be set.
I had no patients that morning, and was not due anywhere until early afternoon. One might expect my first thoughts to be of the lady to whom I was engaged, or to the home which needed some additional preparations before it was fit to share with the fairer sex. This was not the case. I did return to my comfortable dwelling that morning, but found myself disinclined towards home improvement. Instead, I was drawn to my notebooks and the cases which I hoped to publish. My time in those days was divided among my writing, my medical practice, and my fiancée, and I am ashamed to confess that it was in this order that matters received my attention.
As time passed and cases were dutifully released by my publisher, I received occasional messages from Holmes. Generally these took the form of pithy telegrams, steeped in wry humour at my "romanticising" and "aggrandising". Once in a rare while, I received a letter from him that would go into greater detail of my many shortcomings as a recounter of facts. Between all these lines, I read a loneliness that echoed my own. A loneliness that in my case was only compounded, rather than alleviated, by time spent with Lydia.
It was a chilly but otherwise pleasant early spring evening when I escorted her to the Savoy Theatre for a performance of a new comic opera, A Lass of the Lees, and afterwards to a late supper before escorting her home. I was thoughtful and quiet after entertainment that ought to have left me light-hearted, and Lydia commented upon it.
"I'm sorry, my dear," I said, as the cab in which we rode rolled through the London night. "I was thinking."
"About your friend Mr. Holmes?" asked she. I admit to no surprise. She was always observant and rarely indirect. Characteristics she shared with Holmes, if not to his extreme. It was, in fact, what first caught my attention upon meeting her.
Yet I prevaricated. "Why would you think that?"
"Come, John. Do you think I didn't notice your reaction to the character of Gianni Vagario? His relief at escaping marriage and returning to his nomadic life, a happy bachelor, left you quite tickled."
"That was, I believe, the authors' intent," I quipped, but behind my light tone I felt cold.
"John, do not dissemble, please." She turned to me and though her face was in shadow, I could imagine her expression from the tone of her voice, kindly and resigned. She took my hands in her own small ones and rested them on the seat between us. "You have spent very little time with me in the months since your friend's departure, indeed less time than when he was here and you still raced off at a moment's notice to join him on one case or another. In all truth, I had hoped for quite the opposite reaction."
I began to protest my reasons: finding a buyer for my practice, the writing up of old cases, the preparations for our impeding domesticity. She raised one gloved hand, stopping my flow of half-truths with a gentle finger laid upon my lips.
"I am not a fool, John," she said, and though her tone was still kind it had now grown firm. "I care for you very much, and I believe you also care for me. But you do not love me, John. You may try to convince yourself otherwise," she went on quickly, sensing my further protestations, "but ultimately you cannot deny it." She lowered her hand then and I although I did not speak, she read my answer in my silence. "I thought as much. I cannot say I am happy. I cannot say that I do not wish your Mr. Holmes was far, far away from your thoughts, and myself close in them in his stead."
"You deserve better than I have treated you of late," I said then. "It's unfair of me to persist in that course." I, too, was no fool, although I was foolish enough until that moment to believe that I could continue to deny the truth of my feelings. I am forever grateful for Lydia's forthrightness and innate honesty.
"I think it is best that we discontinue our association after tonight. Do you agree?"
"Yes, I do. I am sorry. I hope the end of our engagement doesn't cause you any embarrassment or personal distress." I was thinking of her grown daughters and a spinster sister of her late husband's, the latter of whom I understood was a nasty-tempered woman who enjoyed nothing better than another's fall from fortune.
To my surprise, Lydia only chuckled and waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about me. I have faced worse in my life than gossip, and this calamity will only endear me to my deplorable sister-in-law, as it will give her something juicy in which to set her teeth."
We reached her home then and said our last good-byes at her doorstep.
"I wish you all the best, Lydia," I said with deepest sincerity.
The lady smiled and pressed a kiss to my cheek. "And I you, John. Good night."
I am ashamed to say it, but I awoke the next morning with a lightness of heart that I had not felt in months. Still, I had to wonder how Holmes would take the news of my changed circumstances when it reached him, as it was bound to sooner or later. Deciding that sooner and from me directly was better than any alternative, and that such news was best given in person, I dressed quickly and soon found myself on the morning train to Sussex.
I had sent word ahead of my impending visit, but not wishing to delay I did not await a return reply to my telegram. So it was with some small trepidation that I arrived at my destination, not knowing if Holmes would be there to greet me, or indeed whether he would be pleased or irked by my unscheduled visit.
With no Holmes in sight at the station platform, I asked a porter to recommend transport, and under his advisement, hired a local man to drive me out to Holmes's country home. It was my first visit, and I had little idea what to expect despite the many years we had resided together. I paid the driver and stood for a moment alone observing the place. The cottage was small and charming, white-washed exterior and green garden shockingly open and pastoral after the heavy buildings and closeness of London. The sound of Holmes's violin reached me half way up the path from the road. I passed through a small gate and approached the front door, upon which I knocked with what I hoped was surety, but which felt more than a little timid.
It wasn't until the door was flung open and I was face to face with my friend that I realised I held my breath. His expression went from glowering to glowing in the heart beat that it took for him to recognise his visitor, and in that heart beat I let out that breath and smiled.
"Watson!" he exclaimed.
"Hello, Holmes. Didn't you receive my telegram?" I was of the distinct impression he had not. And I was correct.
"No! Either the message went astray, or I was right that the local telegraph operator is far more concerned with his extramarital affair than his business," he said sharply. "Come in, my dear fellow, and as I haven't the benefit of your message, you must tell me yourself what has brought you here so unexpectedly."
He ushered me into the cottage, the interior of which I was relieved and amused to find was much more familiar than its exterior. Although the furniture was not that of 221b Baker Street, its similarity was notable. The two chairs placed by the hearth, the pipe stand and tobacco box on the mantel shelf, the writing desk in one corner, and the music stand and Holmes's violin in another.
"I've been following your accounts, as you know. You have not run out of cases to embellish, so that cannot be what triggered your visit. Sit down."
"You're right, of course." I sat by the fire, currently banked low, but offering warmth against the springtime damp. Holmes wrapped himself in his silk dressing gown and sat across from me. I was struck in that moment by an astonishing feeling of coming home to a place that I had never been. In the wake of the strange juxtaposition, I felt oddly hesitant to begin. If I did not, however, I knew he would deduce the truth soon enough and I found I was not in the mood to be deciphered. "Lydia and I have called off our engagement."
"Lydia? Ah, Mrs Cunningham!" He nodded, steepling his long fingers together. "And you wished to tell me before the news was made public."
"Yes." A silence followed that I felt compelled to break. "You know of course, that I am looking to sell my practice and retire."
"When I've accomplished the sale, I had thought of finding some new lodging. Somewhere outside of London. A quiet place, where I might finish writing up our cases in peace."
Holmes surprised me with a non sequitur. "I have taken up bee-keeping."
"You do not recall my mentioning the possibility?"
"Only vaguely and why do you bring it up now?"
"Obviously, Watson, because if you are going to live here, you must be willing to accept the company of Apis mellifera."
More of my anxiety melted away. "I was afraid you would no longer care for my close company," I admitted. The thought had tormented me for the length of the train ride. Our relationship over the years had run hot and cold and I knew my friend was forever hurt by my intimate relationships with women. There is a jealous streak in Holmes. I am fortunate that a current of forgiveness also runs through him.
"What an absurd assertion," he declared then, and amusement glittered in his pale eyes. "Quite to the contrary, in fact. I would welcome your intrusion into my domestic affairs."
"It wouldn't...cause difficulty with the local community?" It was not, after all, so many years since the imprisonment of the notable author, Oscar Wilde, and fewer years still since his self-imposed exile to France and subsequent early death. While I could not imagine Holmes or me facing anything so dire--that fellow's behaviour being much to blame for his unfortunate fate--the laws were what they were, and we had enemies enough besides. I had lived with the ever-present possibility never far from my mind. It was that which had so often driven me from him whom I most desired and into the arms of women who deserved better than my fractured affections.
"Would you care for a tour of the grounds?" he said in lieu of an answer. "It won't take long."
Indeed, it did not. The cottage was larger than our past abode, but still comfortably small. The back garden was quiet, but I was assured the apiary would be buzzing noisily as the weather warmed. Rhododendrons grew like a screen about the yard, making the out-of-doors almost as cosy as the cottage itself, and shielding it from the view of the world.
"I have no immediate neighbours," Holmes said, leading the way back indoors. "And the house is set far back from the road, as you will have noted upon your arrival."
"I see," I said. "I observe," I corrected, and Holmes smiled.
Standing there in the warm kitchen, free of the city, free of society, free of obligations, we kissed for the first time in many, many months. Again I was overcome with the feeling of coming home, this time without the odd sensation of unfamiliarity. Quite the contrary, in fact. Holmes's lips were as familiar as my own, his touch a balm to my skin.
He led me then to his bedroom, first glanced on the tuppenny tour he'd given short minutes ago, and it was there that we made love, rediscovering one another's bodies after too long spent apart. He was as thin as ever, but not painfully so. I, on the other hand, had gone a bit soft. He teased me mercilessly about it while at the same time grasping my flesh with eager hands as I, in my turn, twitted him by laying my finger upon each of his ribs, counting them as I progressed down his side.
Some hours later, I sat in the kitchen as Holmes made tea for us both.
"When must you return to London?" he asked, placing the steaming drink before me and seating himself across the small table.
"I could stall until tomorrow morning," I replied, thinking of the possibility of a night spent in his arms.
"And when will you return to me?"
"As soon as possible. There's the matter of my practice, of course. I shall have to sell it, and there's no putting a sure time-table on finding a buyer. A real buyer, Holmes!" I added, remembering the distant cousin he'd fronted to buy my practice in 1894. "But I might arrange to visit you here whenever possible in the meantime."
"An excellent plan, my dear fellow."
"Will you visit me in London in the meantime?"
"I think not."
I was momentarily stung, but he hastened to reassure me.
"If I do, it will only slow your preparations. I want you here, Watson, as soon as may be. I can better achieve that by not getting in your way in town."
A slow smile spread across my face. "In that case, my darling, I hope to dazzle you with my efficiency."
Holmes's laughter rang through the air. It was a sound that I had long cherished, and never more than in that sweet moment.
So my fate was decided, and I once more cast my lot with Holmes. I was a resident of the little cottage inside of six weeks, and I never regretted my choice. True, his bees were (and are) an occasional hazard, but no more so than the man himself. Fortunately, I learned to live with the rare sting, considering it a small price to pay for such rich and varied sweetness of our lives together.