A YOUNG BRITISH SOLDIER
July 27, 1895
The new chemical experiment I bent over could completely overthrow my old test for blood stains that I had come up with back in '81. Unfortunately, it was anxious work and had created a precipitation that smelled rather strongly of sulfur and talcum. Watson, long-suffering fellow, had put up an immediate protest once it reached that point. My counter was that the good of humanity outweighed any temporary inconvenience. We compromised by opening nearly all the sitting room windows. It was nearly eleven and the night air was refreshingly cool after the heat of the day. To our chagrin, however, there was little breeze and the odiferous chemicals remained stubbornly in the sitting room.
I knew Watson had opted to immerse himself in a book for the evening but it wasn't until I reached a pause in the experiment that I was able to really observe him. Even after so many years, I retained a small pleasure in trying to deduce his trains of thought. I added the final agents – an equal part of oxen blood from a nearby butcher and charcoal – and allowed the solution time to react while I watched Watson at my leisure.
The book he had chosen was not a novel, as I had previously supposed. Rather, it was a well-thumbed copy of Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, which had come into his possession after the incident at Reichenbach but before my return to London last year. He had already progressed past the halfway point.
It was then that he looked up from the pages and seemed to stare at the picture of General Gordon without actually seeing it. His face darkened and became pensive, almost troubled. Most telling, he leaned back in his chair and his right hand automatically went to his left shoulder, the one that had been wounded during his army years.
Even a Scotland Yarder could have deduced his thoughts by now. Before I could comment, however, my experiment gave a sudden popping noise. I turned to see my beaker had cracked and the liquid within was rapidly flowing across my work table in a red river.
I had heard Watson jump at the sound, as had I, and while I tried to contain the damage I heard him mutter a gruff, "good night" at my back before heading for his bedroom.
Somewhat put out, I finished cleaning the mess and straightening my work area. The rags were so beyond saving afterwards that I flung them into the grate to be burned later. I recorded what exactly I had done to achieve the disaster so as to avoid repeating the same mistake. Then, finally, I applied myself to understanding Watson's uncharacteristic behavior.
It was painfully obvious what had occupied Watson's thoughts just prior to his unceremonious departure. The choice of literature, the general's picture, the old wound, his troubled features . . . war was on his mind, but why?
I thought back to our first discussion, such as it was, about Watson's service in Afghanistan. The account had been published, much abridged and heavily re-ordered by Dr. Doyle, in A Study in Scarlet but the actual events had been much more telling:
I knew that Watson would never believe the truth – that I had not been told about his time in Afghanistan – without some show of proof. Besides, it was a chance to show Watson just how much a man could know, if he only exercised his own powers of deduction. "Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardships and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Also, he limps, favoring the right leg. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and been wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan."
"But based on that criteria alone, I could just as easily have served in the Zulu War," Watson contradicted.
I was pleasantly taken aback. In a matter of minutes, Watson had gone from skepticaldisbeliever to understanding the difficulties of deductive reasoning. "It is true that an army doctor could have seen much hardship and been wounded in Africa," I acknowledged, "but I knew you had not been in the Zulu War. The last major battle was in the middle of 1879. If you had been wounded there, you would have been discharged far sooner than you were. And I knew you were only recently discharged. The most recent battles in Afghanistan – Maiwand and Kandahar -- were in late summer last year. Taking them into account, and the duration of serious illness, I'd wager you were discharged as soon as it was safe for you to travel. Then too, your clothes were barely but a few months old, and your face even now retains the touch of tropical sun. No, you were never in Africa, Doctor."
"Well, you are quite right," admitted Watson, "except that I was not in the Battle of Kandahar."
Watson hesitated. "Yes," he said, quietly, and sudden mask of reticence fell over his features. Belated, I cursed himself for an insensitive lout. Of course the memories of war would be painful, and still fresh. In an effort to lift that shadow from my flat mate's face, I turned Watson's attention to the little message Inspector Lestrade had sent me concerning the Lauriston Gardens mystery. Obeying a sudden whim, I asked Watson to come along.
Maiwand. Watson had been remembering Maiwand tonight. And this wasn't the first time I had deduced Watson's thoughts about the war. Just before entering the mystery that Watson would deem "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," I had observed his reaction to war, the preposterousness of the very idea. Watson had found a little deprecating humor in it then. That had been in August of '86 . . . the memories must come upon him suddenly now and then.
Deny it though I would, I had rather enjoyed reading the Lauriston Garden affair through Watson's point of view. And I had taken special note of the autobiographical pieces of information Watson threw out, especially the ones that happened before their fateful introduction at St. Bart's. I knew, in an abstract way, the difficulties of an army surgeon's life during combat but I had never looked into the particulars.
I crossed to the room to my bookshelf and took down the almanac. There was embarassingly little I knew about that Afghan war, even after living for over a decade with a veteran of it. The Battle of Kandahar had been fought the first of September of '80, which explained why, when Watson had contemplated war back in '86, it had not bothered him as much, since he had not participated in that particular fight. The Battle of Maiwand had been fought on July 27, 1880. I closed the almanac absently, my mind racing. Small wonder Maiwand was on Watson's mind. I snorted at my own slowness.
Exactly fifteen years ago tonight and half a world away, Watson had nearly died, his life bleeding out on foreign sands while enemy fire rang out around him. If not for Murray, Watson might have suffered the same fate as those comrades he had seen "hacked to pieces." The last must have been particularly galling: he, a doctor, sworn to heal, had been unable to help them. And of those poor wretches, how many of them had been unable to stand the psychological rigors and horrors of battle? Even the survivors must have struggled in a world seemed to have gone mad.
But what memories were haunting Watson so, and why now after fifteen years?
I returned to his chair and gathered up Kipling's poetry from the floor, where my friend had all but flung it. I didn't know at exactly what point Watson had abandoned it but I knew approximately how many pages into it he had gotten. I skimmed through the verses until a few stanzas caught my attention. I reread them and, as I put the pieces together, the breath caught in my throat. Dear God, of all the things Watson could have read tonight, this was the very worst. I went sick with the horror of it.
The clock solemnly chimed out the hour: two-thirty. Watson was undoubtedly asleep by now and I was not about to disturb him. I had decided to go to bed myself when I heard footsteps from the stairs leading to Watson's bedroom. Then the man himself appeared, dressing gown thrown over his clothes, and looking thoroughly done in.