JANUARY 7, 1881: LONDON, ENGLAND
The bill lay on the side table, innocuous black ink on white paper. The piece of paper itself was quite small and its message was straightforward and simplistic.
Watson could hardly bring himself to look at it.
He knew the excessive freedom of his current life was doing him no favors. Lack of responsibilities and structure had allowed the lazy, bohemian streak in his nature to run wild. He could have sought out other discharged soldiers but he knew from previous experience how depressing and predictable the conversation would become. Had he been persistent enough he could have entered the social circle of medical students and the like that occupied St. Bart's. However, his failed attempts to find some sort of occupation there (or indeed, at any hospital) was an embarrassing and embittering wall he did not feel up to breeching.
Instead, he had fallen into company with idlers and loungers who were as free as air as he. Watson found himself gravitating towards pubs and races: the latter for a small bit of excitement and challenge in an otherwise drab existence; the former for its company, such as it was, and the chance to forget himself and current circumstances.
Neither vice had come to dominate his time . . . yet. Nevertheless, Watson could feel the pull of temptation. How easy it would be to have one more brandy, to bet on one more race. . .
Just one more, just one more time, the nightmares were far less frequent when he had something to occupy his time, what harm would it do, just once more, one more time
It had to stop and soon. There was always a reckoning at the end and that reckoning had come at last. Since early December Watson had been staying at a private hotel in the Strand, a rather good one but one whose prices were substantial. Add to that his recent predilection for the horses and bar company, and it was apparent the four pounds, six a week would not be enough for Watson to continue living this way. That bill, that accursed bill on the side table, confirmed it. He would have enough to pay it off in full by next week – thank goodness for small blessings – but now he needed a new course of action.
Seeking a more neutral atmosphere in which to think, Watson made his way to the Criterion Bar. It was just after the usual luncheon crowds departed and the establishment was relatively empty. He waved off the offer of a menu and commenced to solve his dilemma.
His first option was to leave London, abandon the idea of city life in general. The temptations of a degenerate life would be far fewer and would be cause for his fixed income to stretch further. Watson knew he could hunt up his relatives in Scotland but was loath to do so. It smacked too much of living on charity . . . and despite its drawbacks, he was developing a taste for independent life. Besides which, he was growing fond of the noisy, dirty, bustling city that had been home for a month.
So, London it was! Obviously he would have to leave the hotel as soon as possible, though making sure he paid that wretched bill in full. Turn over a new leaf for the new year, as it were. Watson knew he would eventually have to give up the late nights in the bars and the gambling but first things first. A new residence was the primary concern.
It was about a minute later that there was a light tap on his shoulder. Expecting to see an impatient barkeep, Watson was thoroughly taken aback by the young man with medium brown hair and light brown eyes.
"John Watson, I thought it was you!" Gerald Stamford(33) exclaimed. "But I confess you are one of the last people I expected to see in London!" He seemed delighted at both his correct guess and at seeing the doctor.
Watson found himself smiling broadly in return. Though Stamford had been only a dresser, they had been friendly acquaintances at Bart's. At any rate, Stamford was the first person he knew and recognized in England since Colonel Hayter. "It's good to see you again," Watson said in complete sincerity. Then, since it was nearly one, he added an invitation to lunch at the Holborn, a place he knew from experience served good food at moderate prices. Stamford accepted but insisted on hailing a cab.
Once within, Watson asked Stamford about himself. "Are you still at Bart's?"
"Oh, yes," was the reply. "Professor's assistant but slowly making my way up the academic ladder, as it were. But you! Last I heard, you were applying for Netley's course in army surgery and that was almost three years ago. Whatever have you been doing with yourself, Watson? You are as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut." (34)
Watson leaned back in the cab and gave a small, rueful laugh. "Well, I did go to Netley for the course you mentioned. Joined up upon graduation in '79, and was attached to a regiment that ended up in Afghanistan. The long and the short of it is that I was shot, twice, during the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar, and then contracted enteric fever a month later. And now I'm here."
"Poor devil!" Stamford exclaimed as the cab reached its destination. "What are you up to now?"
"Looking for lodgings," Watson bluntly replied. "Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price."
"That's a strange thing," remarked Stamford, faintly amused. "You are the second man today that has used the expression to me."
"And who was the first?"
The pair was escorted to a table and once seated, Stamford answered, "A fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital. He was bemoaning himself this morning because he could not get someone to go halves with him in some nice rooms which he had found, and which were too much for his purse."
Here at last was the opportunity Watson had been unconsciously waiting for! "By Jove, if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone," he added, suddenly aware of how very true his last statement was.
However, Stamford looked a trifle uneasy at the unexpected show of enthusiasm. "You don't know Sherlock Holmes yet," he said over his wine-glass. "Perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion."
At this point, however, Watson was willing to room with just about anyone. How bad could the fellow be, anyway?
(33) We are never given the Christian name of "young Stamford" in STUDY IN SCARLET. I just went through a bunch of names until I found one that seemed OK.
(34) Yup, direct quote from STUDY. There's lot of them from here on out.