Valhalla (val-hal-la) N. 1. The place where the brave went after death to feast, drink from their enemies' skulls, be waited upon by luscious maidens and just generally live the Old Norse equivalent of The Good After-Life. Thus,
2. A paradise where the Truly Worthy are allowed to do that which will make them happiest.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson belong, as they always have, to the estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: the only paltry claim I can lay to them is the many long, cold winter mornings I have spent in their esteemed company. Elizabeth is my own.
Of the life and death -- or perhaps one should say deaths -- of Sherlock Holmes, much has been written, most notably by the late Doctor John H. Watson. Through the editorial services of his friend, Doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. Watson made the many exploits of his friend known throughout the world. True, new cases have from time to time come to light, yet Doctor Watson's tales remain the absolute canonical reference on the subject of Sherlock Holmes.
I find it most bitterly ironic, then, that the Doctor himself died in relative obscurity, and that so little interest has been shown in the life of a man who was (if not a deductive genius) still as much an adventurer as Mr. Holmes. Apart from works on his relationship with Holmes, (including several works of such an indecent and slanderous nature that the good Doctor himself would surely turn in his grave upon learning of them) next to nothing has been written about Watson. In death, as in life, he has been relegated to a place in the shadow of Holmes' bright genius.
It is this I would seek, in my own small way, to rectify.
It was in late July of 1937 that I (a recent graduate of the course for nurses at the University of London Medical School) took a position as a private live-in nurse. It was pure luck that I came by it, for the local hospitals had no openings available and such a private position would usually have gone to a much more experienced nurse. However, through the sister of a friend of mine I received word of the job before it was advertised, applied, and was accepted. I was elated at the good fortune, and even more elated when I found that my patient would be none other than Doctor John Watson himself. Sherlock Holmes was, as he remains, a household word; and the thought of being so close to his aging chronicler was pure joy for an avid reader such as myself.
After the death of his second wife, Doctor Watson had returned to his old lodgings at Baker Street, and it was there he lived until the end of his life. The rooms were furnished much as they had been described in the stories; there on the mantelpiece of the sitting-room was the Persian slipper filled with long-stale tobacco and the jackknife pinning down a stack of bills long past due; and though good Queen Victoria had long since passed on, the wall of the same room still had V.R. -- for "Victoria Regina" -- done in bullet-holes (either the rooms had stood untenanted during the years of the Doctor's marriage, or else the landlady had been too tight-fisted to have the wall replastered). And one cannot imagine my utter delight in learning that the room I would occupy had once been the bedroom of Sherlock Holmes. As Miss Hudson escorted me through the rooms, I pinched my right elbow black-and-blue -- convinced I was dreaming.
My joy at my surroundings, however, was far overshadowed by meeting the Doctor himself. At ninety, John Watson had still the bright eyes and jovial manner that had charmed the young ladies of Victorian England. He still had a full head of silver hair and a neatly-trimmed moustache, and though thin with age and bent over a cane, Doctor Watson carried himself with dignity. He nodded approvingly when I told him my credentials.
"University of London. Fine school." He said in a voice which was clear, but strained with age. "My alma mater, you know. From there I went to the course for Army surgeons at Netley, and from there, of course, to Maiwand. This," He tapped his leg gently, apparently referring to his trouble walking, "Started at Maiwand with a jezail bullet, though of course the rheumatism has hurried things along a bit. As soon as I was well enough to travel, I returned to London. . . ." He paused and blinked. "Ah. Getting carried away again, wasn't I?" He chuckled and patted my arm.
"My dear, I'm afraid you'll have to get used to it. This old head is so full of stories, they often spill out of their own accord. But come!" He led the way, shakily, to the sitting room. "We'll have some tea, and I'll hear something more about you!"
Despite his bright manner and apparent health, Doctor Watson was not a well man. The rheumatism he had mentioned was in its advanced stages, and though some days were better than others he was often confined to his chair for long stretches of time. A mild case of pneumonia the previous year had weakened his respiratory system. In addition to this, the Doctor had lived a long life -- and some of it had been lived hard.
Still, my duties were fairly light, and I believe that more than medical care the Doctor had desired companionship. He had been an active man -- his narratives bore ample proof of that -- and even in his advancing age, enforced idleness was not something he enjoyed. Talking with me offered a way to pass the long stretches of time that were the Doctor's days.
Our days settled into a comfortable pattern. Rising late in the morning, I would help him dress and (if he needed the assistance) would help him into the sitting room. There we would breakfast, and I would read him the morning Times (his eyesight was not what it had been, he said). Occasionally we would have a visitor -- three times in my stay at Baker Street shy, stammering young callers entered, with battered copies of the Adventures or the Memoirs clutched to their chests. Doctor Watson exchanged a few minutes of pleasant, friendly conversation with each of them, signed the books in his shaky hand, and wished them well as they stammered their thanks and exited. Then he smiled at me.
"Ah! What would Holmes ever think?" Then he would gesture back at the Times. "Where were you, my dear?"
Often some item in the papers or some passerby glimpsed through the street window would draw the Doctor's attention to one case or another he had assisted Holmes with, and he would relate it -- while I listened with rapt attention.
Oh, the stories I heard in that sitting-room! The written adventures of Sherlock Holmes accounted for only the merest fraction of the Detective's lengthy career -- and while I occasionally heard those stories retold, for the most part the Doctor related to me tales no-one had ever read or heard of. There was the blood-chilling account of the murder of Agatha Dryer, late of Lincolnshire; the riddle of the Athenian vase; and the odd, humorous tale of the Casablanca vulture -- to name but a few. Oftentimes the Doctor's memory would fail him, and he would repeat a story he had already told -- but I could not bring myself to care.
In hearing these tales I came to know better the men I had read so much about. Doctor Watson's eyes shone with the memories of his younger days; I seemed to see the younger him, strong and stubborn, with his revolver always close at hand in times of peril. I felt with him the thrill of the chase, his sorrow over his first wife's death, his wonder at Holmes' extraordinary gifts. Holmes, too, sprung to life, until I often felt as if the Detective himself were seated with us in the room, curled in an unobtrusive spot; or else pacing in front of the long-unused chemistry set in one corner, or leafing impatiently through the leather-bound books upon the shelves. I would find myself turning quickly around, as if I could catch him in the act of sneaking up behind me. Holmes, though he had been long dead, was a Presence in those rooms.
Illness was a presence as well. That Autumn proved to be a cold one, and damp (as Autumn in England almost always is). The Doctor's joints pained him, and he took to staying in bed. Our conversations continued -- I, seated in the wingback chair at his bedside; he, propped up in bed. He looked with great approval upon my plans to someday be an Army nurse, and one day wrote and signed a letter of recommendation for me. He handed it to me with some pride.
"That shall get you in at Netley. A better program you could not find."
I replied, with a surge of fierce loyalty, that I would not leave him, not even for Netley. He nodded, patted my hand, and replied with a sigh,
"Yes, dear Elizabeth. But of course I shall not be around forever." He grew meditative. "I've lived as long as I wished to." Then, in a voice so small I almost couldn't catch it, he added
Pneumonia came lurking back in November. Doctor Watson, with some vehemence, stated that he did not wish to go to Hospital; but I insisted so strongly that finally he gave in. A week's stay did him little good, and finally the presiding physician called me into his office.
"We can do nothing for him." He sighed. "Best to take him home . . . and wait."
And so we did, returning to a Baker Street festooned with Christmas decorations. The Doctor, sick as he was, motioned for me to wait on the doorstep. He looked with a sigh on the cars parked along the curbs, at the many thousand signs of the modern age. Then he shook his head.
"I miss the lamplighters, sometimes. Theirs was an underappreciated profession. And the cab-drivers, as well." A long pause. "I should pay dearly to see a hansom waiting here again."
And I knew he was thinking, not just of a hansom cab, but of a lanky man in a deerstalker cap waiting impatiently for his Boswell to come down and join him.
I nearly wept.
He grew steadily worse as the next two weeks wore away. His breathing grew shallow, his cough worsened, he ran a low fever that would not go away. Our conversations grew quiet, punctuated by long stretches of half-dozing silence. There were no more stories -- he had not the strength. The end was rapidly approaching.
It came on a clear evening in mid-December, a night so cold it might have come straight out of the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Frost clouded the windowpanes of the Doctor's room. His breathing was labored, as of course it had been for a month; the dim bedside lamp seemed hardly enough light to beat back the night I felt encroaching.
The Doctor had sent for Miss Hudson earlier in the evening, and she had entered with a knowing glance in my direction. She had done the Doctor's housekeeping and cooking for years, and knew as well as I did, if not better, what was coming. The Doctor took her hand.
"My dear Mrs. Hudson. . . . You have been . . . so patient . . . these many years . . . Even when Holmes . . . shot the sitting-room wall . . ." He coughed, took a shaky breath. "I thank you, dear lady."
Miss Hudson brushed away a tear. "And I thank you, Doctor. For . . . everything. . . ." The fact that he had confused her with her long-dead mother didn't seem to matter. "You'll excuse me. . . ." And she rushed, tearfully, out of the room.
So only I remained to keep vigil as the twilight wore away into nighttime. It was seven o'clock when the Doctor stirred and reached for my hand. His hand was papery, warm and dry in my own. He smiled.
"My dear Elizabeth . . ." A pause for breath. "You still have your letter? . . . For . . . Netley?" I nodded.
"Good." He blinked sleepily and smiled. "You have been to me . . . as he was . . . the best . . . and the truest . . . of friends." He drew my hand to his lips and kissed it -- a gesture so gentlemanly and Victorian my heart could barely stand it.
He released my hand and let his head fall back against the pillow. "Thank you, my dear."
Doctor Watson lapsed then into a silent doze from which I was almost certain he would never again stir. I was prepared for him to slip away sometime in the night -- but instead, after almost an hour, his eyes flew open. He propped himself up on frail arms and looked towards the door.
He would not let me ease him back into bed. My startled murmurings that Holmes wasn't there fell on deaf ears. The doctor's breath was rapid, his face flushed. His blue eyes followed the invisible figure into the room, shining with a clarity I hadn't seen since the day he'd spoken of the lamplighters.
"Yes, Holmes, of course I am ready for anything you need me for . . ." A pause as if he were listening. "I see. And you have no clues? . . . Not yet. Of course not."
I sat, transfixed at this one-sided conversation. My nurse's training had taught me that an individual suffering for hallucinations could not be humored, that he must be shaken out of them -- and yet. . . .
I have already mentioned that Sherlock Holmes was an unseen presence in the rooms at Baker Street, and (though I am a rational person, and not given to flights of fancy) I would have sworn that the Detective now stood in the room. If before his presence had been a lurking, half-felt one, at that moment it revealed itself full-force. I could almost hear the unspoken questions to which Doctor Watson was responding.
"My revolver is in my pocket, Holmes." The Doctor said eagerly. "Shall we be gone long? . . ." His brow furrowed. "I see, yes." For the first time since 'Holmes' had entered, the Doctor turned to me.
"There is no telling when we'll return. Quite a long, long time." He said, as if explaining to me the reason he couldn't keep an appointment. Then his eyebrows shot up and he addressed the room. "But, Holmes, my practice!" Again he turned to me. "What about my practice?"
For the first time I found my voice. "You . . . sold it, Doctor. You don't remember?"
His brow furrowed in concentration, then smoothed itself out. He laughed. "Of course! Of course I sold it. Of course." He smiled, leaned wearily back in bed. "That's quite settled then. Have you a hansom waiting?" The smile widened, grew dreamy. "Then . . . we'll be off! . . . and no telling . . . when we'll be back, either . . . Oh, the game's afoot, Holmes! . . . The game's . . . afoot. . . ." He took a deep breath and then looked at me.
"You'll tell Mrs. Hudson . . . not to wait supper on us?"
Something in those blue eyes was already gone. I choked back my tears and nodded. "I'll tell her."
The Doctor blinked once, slowly, and let out the rest of his breath with a sigh.
And followed his friend into the Last Great Adventure, into a world where hansoms would always travel the streets and the lamplighters still plied their trade, where age meant nothing and the greatest mysteries of all still waited to be solved.
"If there is a Valhalla for superhuman sleuths and their all-to-human compatriots, it will allow them freedom at night to catch the racing hansom cab in the mustard fog and provide them a cozy cluttered place by day to feast upon cold pheasant and tales from the tin box. If the detective should suffer overmuch from the artistic temperament, and his fellow lodger should dwell overlong on the fairness of a wrist . . . so much the better, for us and them."
-- Loren D. Estleman, from the Introduction to Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volumes I and II