The Suspicious Wife
Author's Note: Okay, so I'm embarrassed, I went ahead and left my notes on what happens next at the end of this story when I posted it originally! (embarrassed laughter at self) So those of you who read it, consider it a preview--though, of course, I may change what happens--especially since some of you have seen it! LOL
In all of the adventures Holmes and I have had together, I have very rarely been the one a client approaches first. That, I suppose, is one of the reasons this incident will forever be ingrained on my memory; one of many reasons, the others being not so innocuous. That is all I will say of the case before I begin my tale. I know I have previously been in the habit of writing short introductions, as it were, to my recollections of our cases, but the pressing need I feel to write this story down immediately as I remember it has made me change my methods.
It started in the fall of 1898. I was out for a walk and I had strolled into a shop to procure some tobacco. As I strode out of the shop with my purchase in my pocket, a feminine voice I didn't recognize called my name.
"Dr. Watson! Is that you?"
I turned around, rather surprised. "Yes, I am Dr. Watson, madam."
"Oh thank heavens," she said with palpable relief. "My name is Lady Lorena Ridgecroft." Before I could so much as respond with a 'how do you do,' she continued. "Please do me a favor, doctor. I know you have recently sold your practice, but I would like you to take me on as a client."
"Madam?" I asked, my brows rising. The lady in front of me was only in her late twenties or early thirties but the worry lines around her eyes and mouth made her seem older. Her brown eyes, which were soft and intelligent, seemed to focus on something inward rather than on the outside world and I knew that something serious was troubling her. For her sake, I hoped it was not a lingering illness, although she did indeed have the look of a woman whose vitality was slowly being drained from her. That thought, and her kindly eyes, made me think of my Mary, and I was all the more determined to be of service to her, if I could.
"You are still the partner of Sherlock Holmes, are you not?" Her face was twisted in considerable anxiety as she asked those words and I noticed her hands clutched one another desperately.
"I am," I replied. Another person in my position might have wondered at her odd introduction and bluntness, but her evident distress troubled me and I felt eager to help her.
All of the sudden a middle-aged matron surfaced from the crowd and caught hold of the lady's arm. "My lady!" she huffed. "I nearly lost you in the crowd."
"I am terribly sorry, Tillie," Lady Ridgecroft said, but a certain look on her face told me that her statement wasn't true at all. Her previously gentle manner seemed to harden, at least toward her servant. "Dr. Watson, this is my housekeeper, Mrs. Tillie Jones. Tillie, this is my new physician."
"Your new physician?" Mrs. Jones looked aghast at the statement and fixed me with a singular glare that puzzled me. Why should she object to me?
"Yes. Dr. Watson, this may seem very forward of me, but as I am available right now, do you think you could possibly work me into your schedule at the moment?"
It is true that I am certainly less clever than Sherlock Holmes, but even I recognized at once that the lady was attempting to hide the truth from her housekeeper. As Lady Lorena Ridgecroft looked at me with her pleading brown eyes, I had little choice but to play along or to defraud the lady on a public street.
"Certainly, I have nothing scheduled at the moment. Should I escort you to my—" I paused; I no longer had a practice. "Consulting room?"
"Yes, please, it would be good of you," she replied. "Tillie, here is my purse; you may finish the shopping on your own."
"But-but, Lady," the housekeeper seemed almost frantic. "The master is expecting you soon!"
"Yes, pray tell Edward that I finally found a physician I like and that I am going to an appointment with him. I shouldn't be more than a few hours, if I stop to donate to my charity on the way home or take a look at some new arrivals in the millinery."
"Tillie." Lady Ridgecroft's voice allowed for no argument and I could tell there wasn't any affection between the two women. I thought to myself that her ruse was cleverly done; she had given herself an open time frame and I knew then that Lady Ridgecroft, though seemingly troubled, was an able, intelligent woman.
"Yes, madam." Mrs. Jones took the offered money purse and bustled away with one last glare in my direction.
"I am afraid, Lady Ridgecroft, the only 'consulting room' I have now is—"
"Oh, I don't care where it is or what it is, I need to speak with you." Although she kept admirable control of her voice, she began wringing the sash of her dress. "And Mr. Holmes."
"Then I shall get us a cab to Baker Street at once." She had certainly roused my curiosity and my sympathy as well.
After I had helped the lady from the cab and into our residence, I handed her over to Mrs. Hudson with the excuse that I wanted to forewarn my companion that we had company and that I would be back to get her momentarily. Truly, I wanted to make sure the sitting room was presentable for a lady, as I had left Holmes alone in it all day, and yes, I did want to tell Holmes the few details I had been told before I escorted Lady Ridgecroft into the room. I knew how much he liked to know the full story, as it were.
I walked into our sitting room and immediately began sitting books back on their shelves and straightening the paper at my desk.
"Holmes?" I called as I tidied up.
"About time you got home, Watson." I could tell from the way he said it that my friend was in one of his darker moods. He rapped his pipe on the table after stuffing in some tobacco to settle it.
"Hello, old chap, have you had a decent afternoon?"
"If one can call languishing the time away in utter boredom, decent." He fished around for a matchbook in his pocket.
I smiled slightly, for I knew that I had at least a partial respite from his restlessness at hand. "I may be able to help you there, Holmes; we have a client waiting."
Holmes set down his pipe and looked at me, his face a composed mask except for the slight raising of one eyebrow. "Indeed?"
I wasn't sure if he wondered at the fact that there was someone waiting or that I had said that "we" had a client. After all, it wasn't as though he actually needed my assistance on most of the cases, unless he desired my accuracy with a gun. I blushed slightly as I continued tidying the room, avoiding his direct look. "Yes."
"And has the young woman said why she requires our help?"
"No, she—" I cut myself off after I realized he had referred to our client as a she. Really, although I was quite used to his astonishing deductions, I never ceased to be impressed by his powers of observation. "How did you know? Did you hear us at the door?"
Holmes gave me a small smile. "It was not difficult. First, you left this morning for some air and exercise, and yet you returned by way of a cab. Either your old leg injury was bothering you, which I can clearly see is not the case, or someone that you thought was less hardy than yourself accompanied you. And as you are clearly tidying the mess I have made and you have left Mrs. Hudson to entertain our guest, I can safely deduce that it is a woman."
"You're quite right."
"Now on to the facts, Watson, what is it that the lady has told you?"
"Next to nothing, Holmes. She approached me on the street and told me that though she knew I recently sold my practice, she wished to have me take her on as a client. I, naturally, was surprised and she asked if I was still associated with you, Holmes, and I told her that I was. She would have said more but an older woman she introduced as her housekeeper came up to us. It was quite obvious that the lady wished to hide the truth from her and so she introduced me as her new physician."
"Interesting," Holmes murmured.
"She asked if I could possibly fit her into my schedule right at the moment and I, reluctant to expose the charade, agreed. She dismissed her housekeeper—who was rather put out—and I hired a carriage to bring us here. Other than the fact that she wishes to talk to us, I know nothing more."
"Thank you for your account, Watson, it is certainly curious. The rest, I suppose, we must learn from the lady herself."
I nodded and went at once to fetch her. As soon as Lady Lorena Ridgecroft was in the room I made the necessary introductions and at once she sat down in my arm chair and remarked that it was lovely to meet both of us and how nice a room it was and how lovely the refreshments Mrs. Hudson had served were. After what she had apparently deemed the polite necessities, she amazed me by letting out a strange statement before either I or my companion could ask her a thing.
"I do not believe that my husband is himself. That is to say, I believe the man living with me is an imposter and that—" Here her voice faltered and I saw her eyes brim with tears. "And that my own dear Edward is dead."