I awoke from an uneasy slumber to the gentle touch of cool fingers brushing my hair back from my fevered brow. On opening my blurry eyes, the austere profile of my friend Sherlock Holmes slowly came into focus.
"Sorry for waking you, Watson," he said softly. "You were making the most dreadful moaning sounds, and I did not wish to give anyone the impression that someone was abusing your helpless body in here. There are altogether too many rumours to this general effect floating about already."
His voice washed over me like a warm, calming wave. While my mind returned to full wakefulness, I studied his mischievous grey eyes, thinking, not for the first time, how beautiful they were, and how gentle they were capable of appearing on occasions such as these, quite devoid of the steely glint that so characterised my friend whenever he was working.
"I was having a frightful dream," I finally said, my voice sounding weak to my own ears. "It involved Mycroft and bagpipes that had come to life. Lestrade was in it as well." I fell silent, trying to remember, but the details were already fading from my memory like dew in the sunshine. "There was more to it. I am certainly grateful that you woke me."
He smiled quizzically, no doubt trying to imagine how bagpipes, even animated, might possibly be frightening for an old campaigner like me, but he let the subject drop. "How are you feeling?"
"A trifle better, I think. Ready to leave bed, in any case."
"Hm. Since you happen to quote what I said, almost verbatim, when I was laid up sick a few weeks ago, allow me to use the words you used then against you now: If I find you outside of bed before tomorrow evening, I shall be forced employ some form of corporal punishment."
I struggled to sit up, ignoring the residual weakness of my limbs, and he obligingly arranged the pillow behind my back for me to lean against. "I did not mean those words, and you know it."
"Well, I do mean them. Everyone knows that doctors are the worst of patients; therefore, special measures need to be taken for them. Besides, Mrs. Hudson went to great lengths to stress that she would not be averse to exacting some sort of revenge upon me if I failed to keep you in bed. One does not argue with the woman who fixes one's meals, Watson."
So it was two against one, then. I conceded defeat. Against Holmes, by himself, I might have stood a chance. After all, he was in love with me. Mrs. Hudson, however, was an unyielding opponent. "I must have been asleep for hours," I changed the subject. "What have you been up to? Have I missed anything?"
He smiled again, and stood up from where he had been sitting upon the side of my bed. "Observe. Deduce. You know my methods." He extended his hands to his sides and turned around slowly, offering himself for inspection.
I looked at him. How could I not, when so blatantly invited to do so? And, oh, I observed plenty. I observed the way his trousers hugged his lean, muscular thighs and emphasized his slim hips and the bulge between his legs; how his waistcoat drew the eye to his tapered waist and arch of his ribs and pectoral muscles, how the dressing gown hid the toned leanness of his arms while pointing out his delicate wrists and long, white fingers. I stared at his throat and pulse point, at his strong, angular features and merrily glinting grey eyes.
What I utterly failed to observe were clues as to his doings.
"Well?" Holmes interrupted my undisguised admiration. "How have I spent the past hour?"
I sighed. "I can see nothing, apart from the fact that you spent the past hour clothed, for you are wearing the same collar as you did when I saw you last, and you invariably don a fresh one when you change. You did not play your violin, or I should have heard you. There were no visitors, or I should have heard the door-bell. Neither were there any telegrams, for the same reason. You do not smell like you conducted any chemical experiments, so that is out, too. I'd have to kiss you to find out if you've eaten or smoked, but that is contra-indicated at present."
"More's the pity," he interjected sadly.
"You're still wearing your dressing gown, so you haven't been out. There are no stains or specks of any sort upon your clothes that might give me a hint, not that I'd be able to deduce anything from them if I did. Frankly, I have no idea what I am supposed to see."
He placed his hand upon his breast. "Oh, my dear Watson, you certainly make me proud. Your grasp of my method is nothing short of unerring. You are also quite correct in what I did not do, if unsuccessful on the whole. Of course, you have completely overlooked all the clues my left index finger holds."
I stared at the finger in question but could see nothing beyond a slight reddening.
Holmes took pity upon me. "Very well, I'll give you a hint. It involves a needle."
I could not help but feel a sharp pang of disappointment. "Holmes."
He shook his head, sitting back down upon my bed. "You're jumping to conclusions. How often have I told you to be certain of your facts before you draw your inferences? A needle does not equal a syringe, dear chap."
"Well, thank God. But, a needle? What sort of needle?"
"An ordinary sewing needle and a rather long bit of thread, both borrowed from Mrs. Hudson, together with four white buttons. As I am somewhat unpractised, I pricked myself once with the needle, hence the obvious clue you missed."
"Have you been sewing?"
His smile answered me.
I was amazed. I had no idea that something like that might be among his talents. "What in God's name for?"
"I've been darning socks," he said with a perfectly straight face. "Well, darning is not the precise technical term. Let us say I improved upon them. Those I had at my disposal were in a condition quite unsuitable for their purpose, which is cheering up my friend, who was moaning dreadfully in his sickbed."
By now, I was totally lost. "What are you talking about, Holmes?"
In lieu of an answer, he whipped out his hand that he had been hiding behind his back. It was now encased in brown fabric, the two white buttons on top of it immediately recognizable as eyes. "I told you he wouldn't get it," Inspector Lestrade's perfectly imitated voice issued from it while the sock's "mouth" opened and closed in time to the words.
Holmes' other hand, encased in a green sock with eyes, joined the first. "No, I said he wouldn't get it," said Inspector Gregson, immediately recognizable.
I stared at the incongruous spectacle of Sherlock Holmes with socks upon his hands, a wide grin upon my face.
"You're again stealing my credit, Gregson," the Lestrade sock complained, "just like you did in the Wingate murder case. You're always stealing my credit." The sock pulled a tragic face that found its perfect mirror image in Holmes' expression.
"I never took nothin'," the Gregson sock countered with the official's familiar mulish tone of voice. "Not credit, at any rate. But I did take notice of something that you, my esteemed colleague, clearly missed, and not for the first time, I might add."
The Lestrade sock's "face" contorted into an expression that looked remarkably like anger while Holmes' disguised voice supplied the words. "And what, pray tell, should that be?"
The Gregson sock pranced up and down and I was obliged to hold back surprised laughter. Holmes, with his unparalleled attention to detail, was imitating both Scotland Yard officials in a way that was almost uncanny while working out the comical aspects with careful exaggeration. "Well," Gregson's voice drawled, "you do remember our mutual - let's, in the absence of a better word, call him friend -, Mr. Sherlock Holmes?"
The Lestrade sock pulled an indescribable face. "Only if I absolutely have to."
The Gregson sock sighed deeply. "I know what you mean."
For a beat or two, both socks appeared to look at me, nodding slightly as if at the tragedy of it all.
"Anyway," 'Gregson' resumed, "he's not the one I am on about. The less said about him, the better. Between you and me, Lestrade, that man is one ugly rake. And that nose."
The Lestrade sock nodded wisely. "Not my type at all. Unlike his friend."
Then 'Lestrade' turned to 'Gregson'. "Then you did notice. I must say, I'm amazed, Gregson. It seems that you attained your rank on some merit after all."
'Gregson' nodded. "Certainly. All merit in my case. The Commissioner isn't my type, I'll have you know, though I shouldn't put any arse-kissing beyond you, Lestrade."
"Holmes!" I interjected. By now, I had to fight dreadfully not to crack up with pearls of laughter.
But he ignored me, concentrating as he was upon the socks upon his hands. "See, Gregson," the "Lestrade" sock complained, "this is just the sort of unprofessional behaviour that is so deplorable about you – accusing your colleague, who has never done you any harm, of kissing that particular arse. I do have eyes, Gregson, and the shrewd perception of a Scotland Yarder that is quite impossible to deceive. And I did notice that a more shapeless and less appetizing posterior never did grace my retina."
'Gregson' was nodding in agreement. "Can't contradict you there, Lestrade. Sorry about the allegation, old chap. It was cruel and uncalled for. Can you forgive me?"
The two socks looked at each other with their white button-eyes, then the brown one's expression seemed to soften. I have no idea how Holmes did it.
"Don't worry," the Lestrade sock said softly. "I still love you, Gregson."
I chortled. "Stop it, Holmes," I cried, even though I wanted him to do nothing of the kind.
"Yes, yes," 'Gregson' harrumphed, "never mind that now. We were talking about something else. An arse of a different kind."
"Indeed we were," the Lestrade sock concurred. "Very different from the Commissioner's behind, for certain."
"Better tailor, for one thing."
"One with an eye for shape."
"And the emphasizing of same."
My friend sailed through this rapid-fire exchange and the changing of voices and hands involved with such ease that I began to ponder, as I did often when he gave rein to his artistic talents, that he had missed his life's calling. I had certainly seen professional performers in theatre stalls with less sense of timing or ear for the nuances of voices.
These musing were interrupted when both socks turned to "look" at me again, and I realized I still had not heard the punch line.
"You'd never notice it for his ugly friend always stealing the limelight," the Gregson sock said. "But there is no deceiving us in the force."
The Lestrade sock puffed out its "chest". "Well, I noticed it when I first met the chap, of course, with or without any limelight. It took you quite a while longer, Gregson, if you don't mind my mentioning it."
"Oh, rubbish," the Gregson sock demurred. "When you first met him, you were busy being defensive about female names written in blood, if I remember correctly. You never noticed a blessed thing about a certain doctor's posterior."
With that, the Lestrade sock took hold of the sea novel that was lying upon my nightstand and repeatedly whacked the Gregson sock with it to shouts of "Did! Did! Did!" And then Holmes mimed them both running off screaming.
So was I very nearly by that point.
The door, slightly ajar, was pushed fully open, and Mrs. Hudson stuck her head in. "Are you gentlemen quite all right?" she asked, all motherly concern.
Holmes, blushing to the roots of his hair, hastily whipped the socks off his hands and turned to her, hands hidden behind his back. "Perfectly all right, Mrs. Hudson, thank you." His voice implied very clearly that he'd rather see her back than her front at this time.
This unwitting Vaudeville act so close upon the heels of Holmes' performance was too much for me. I curled up upon my side, muffling my laughter.
Mrs. Hudson shook her head, muttering about grown men and their boyish entertainments. Then she turned to me. "Well, I must admit you're looking a little perkier than earlier today, Doctor. So whatever he's been doing to you, it seems to do you good." There was an unvoiced "for a change" hanging in the air for a moment.
I had somewhat recovered by then. "I'm much better, Mrs. Hudson. In fact, I –"
"You'll have your chicken soup in here, Doctor, so pray don't even think about leaving bed."
Holmes, behind her, had put one of the socks back upon his hand and was opening and closing its "mouth" in time to Mrs. Hudson's words, obliging me to keep a straight face – a losing battle.
"I shall prepare it presently," our landlady went on, oblivious to the continuing pantomime but eyeing me suspiciously. "You two can go on playing until then."
She sailed out, an unuttered "And do wash your hands before coming to the table, boys!" following her out.
Holmes and I looked at one another and cracked up laughing.
"Well, one thing is certain," I said when we had returned to some semblance of composure. "When I next go to sleep, I'll dream of talking socks."
He smiled. "Which is an improvement over animated bagpipes, I think."
"I have no idea where that came from."
There was a pause. Holmes rolled up the socks and put them into his pocket.
"Thank you," I said. "For going to all this trouble merely to cheer me up."
"Oh, think nothing of it, old fellow," he replied airily. "It was for myself as much as for you. I could not take your infernal groaning any more. I was trying to concentrate upon my monograph, and the sounds of a man dying upstairs are quite distracting when writing about South American poisons. I hope there will be no more of that today."
"You may depend upon it."