I freely admit to a growing nervousness that only increased the closer we drew to Bombay, but especially the morning we were to arrive in the largest Indian port. It was not truly due to returning to a country that held a nightmarish memory for me, for I had long since come to terms with that part of my life (during my waking hours at least), but rather that I was unaccountably nervous about meeting the man who held the distinction of being my companion's only university friend – indeed his only friend – until I had come along sixteen years ago.
I am certain that Holmes noticed my unease, as he noticed everything about me, but he was good enough to not comment on the fact; at least not until Bombay was in sight. We were standing on the deck, watching the ships and land take shape on the horizon as we began the approach.
"My dear fellow, you haven't said two words all the morning," I heard his voice as he came up behind me while I stood at the rail, looking out over the water, and I felt him clap my shoulder. "As your skin is not the greenish tinge it was during that storm the other night, I can safely rule out seasickness. Are you truly so nervous about meeting a man I myself haven't seen in twenty years?"
"A little," I admitted frankly, watching a small schooner take shape to our left.
"Well, to be brutally honest, so am I," he muttered with a hint of plaintiveness. "I mean, really, it's been so long…he could be married with six children, fat and balding for all I know."
I laughed even as he grinned at some mental picture, and felt a bit of my tension dissipate with the ease of our conversation. "You don't even know if he is married?" I asked in amusement.
"Not the slightest idea," Holmes answered cheerfully, smiling and tugging on my arm as we began to approach the port. "Come, we must get our luggage; I don't want to be the last ones off this blasted boat, and he is supposed to be waiting for us somewhere on the docks."
It took another hour before the dense, brown shoreline grew into the recognizable ports and docks of India's largest and capital city, cluttered with buildings so dense it made our own London appear spacious and comfortable. Trees and balconies hung out over the water, and everywhere one looked one was met with the chaotic, colorful sights that one could not see anywhere else in the world. It would have been an overwhelming experience to most ordinary individuals, but Holmes's eyes viewed the entire scene in only a mildly interested glance.
As for myself, I was seized by a severe bout of nostalgia. It was rather like returning to a childhood dream that has been half-forgotten. Every smell and sound assailed me with the force of a cannon blast, and I could not help but turn my head eagerly as I tried to take them all in. Details and memories that had become blurred with time came rushing sharply back. For an instant it was as though I had never left, and sixteen years of my life melted away as London became the dream and I was once again a newly invalided soldier just returned from Afghanistan.
I was startled out of this bizarre sensation of Déjà-vu as I was bumped by a burly Lascar on the docks and stumbled into Holmes, who caught my arm automatically to keep my still sea-unsteady balance. He scanned the crowd over the tops of most of the men's and ladies' heads.
"Confound it," he muttered irritably, trying to shade his eyes from the hot sun I remembered so well. "Where the devil is the man? He should not be that hard to spot, even if he has changed," he added pointedly, glancing dubiously round at the colourful and varied native costumes, mixed with the white linens and straw hats of the Europeans.
"Perhaps he can't see us," I suggested loudly over the din, smiling at the sight of a brilliantly-coloured bird fluttering over our heads toward a nearby tree. The press of bodies was quite incredible; I had completely forgotten the feeling, and combined with the heat and the thick, spice-scented air it was almost stifling.
"Yes, let us get out of this bedlam and – VICTOR!"
I winced, and several passers-by stared in amazement at hearing English being bellowed at the top of that man's formidable lungs, and before I could even open my mouth his long legs and wiry form had begun to shove through the crowd, narrowly avoiding running over a young fellow in a turban with a white, spidery monkey clinging to his shoulder. The lad scowled and swore at him in exuberant Hindi, shaking his fist.
I sighed and, moving my heaviest bag to my right arm to take the strain off my shoulder, endeavoured to follow as best I could in the direction my friend had disappeared to in the crowd. After a few moments of polite pushing, I broke through the mass of milling people and animals and saw my friend talking animatedly under the shade of an awning with a man about our age, nearly as tall as Holmes, middle-sized, dressed in a light grey suit and a equally light straw hat over a shock of thick sandy hair and a pair of clear blue eyes – Victor Trevor.
I hung back in a sudden fit of shyness, wondering how best to break into this reunion of old friends, until at last Holmes whirled about as if just remembering my presence, his face rather vexed until his eyes lit upon me. He instantly relaxed and held out a hand to me, still animated, and his face flushed.
"Watson," he called even more rapidly than was usual, and I could see from the dancing brightness of his eyes just how truly excited he was about this. "Watson, this is Victor Trevor. Trevor, my dear friend Dr. John Watson," he said with a wide smile, beckoning me closer and then laying a hand on my arm at the introductions, a gesture that did more to ease my nervousness than the Trevor fellow's quick smile and nod did.
"How are you, Doctor?" the man asked cordially, shaking my hand in a firm grip. "You'll forgive my not knowing much about you other than your name, but I'm afraid English literature rarely finds its way into this part of the world."
"That is not a bad thing," Holmes snorted in sarcasm, though his eyes twinkled with unusual good humour.
I smiled, relaxing under the honest openness of Holmes's old friend's speech and his easygoing manner. "Was he always this abhorrent of quality reading material?"
"Quite," Trevor chuckled, his smile widening as Holmes scowled in mock indignation. "You know it was his third term before I could even convince him Socrates was a person and not a childhood ailment?"
I laughed aloud at that, feeling my tension slowly seep away under the easy conversation, together with the fact that Holmes looked positively more happy than he had in weeks. I could almost forget our purpose here; a mere holiday would have been lovely as well. Holmes was right; the man's nature was certainly amiable, and the thought crossed my mind that he might have made a fine diplomat.
"But we should be getting on before it gets too hot to travel," Trevor said, glancing up at the sun. "Your luggage should have been taken to the train already, and it's just a short walk. May I take that bag from you, Doctor?"
I glanced up in surprise as he suited the action to the word. "That isn't necessary –"
"As I said, most of your stories have not made their ways here yet, Doctor, but I do own a rather dog-eared copy of A Study in Scarlet," the man replied with a quick smile. "And I'm quite certain a man never fully recovers from the sort of wound you received in service over the border, am I correct?"
My last reservations regarding the man dropped, for now at least, and I nodded with a small smile. "Not fully, no. Thank you."
"My pleasure," the fellow replied cheerfully. "Holmes, don't stare like that; you'll have every peddler accosting us before we've gone two blocks. Not to mention it's deucedly impolite."
I liked the man more every moment that went by.
It was a short walk, and despite the press we made the train in plenty of time, thanks to Trevor's direction and Holmes's lack of scruples when it came to shoving and elbowing everyone who didn't move out of his way quickly enough. The train was old, like everything else in India (seemingly everything that touched this exceedingly ancient land took on an unusual quality of age), and my friend cast a dubious glance at the slightly rickety cars but brightened visibly when we found an empty compartment, small and faded though it was.
"We should reach Darjeeling by this evening," Trevor said cheerfully, throwing our valises up into the rack and offering my friend a newspaper printed in English.
Holmes accepted the dingy and exceedingly limp paper with a nod of thanks and promptly proceeded to ignore us for the first hour of our journey, much to my discomfort. I fidgeted in my seat beside Holmes for a few minutes, engaging myself in the flow of everyday pageantry that continued as we gathered speed and left the crowded, open air platforms, into the spacious, seemingly endless agricultural area. It was a patchwork of lush, green fields, and sparse sandy furrows that refused to maintain any life save for the occasional clump of bushes and trees that grouped around various waterholes and streams.
Then I hesitantly glanced back into the compartment at Victor Trevor.
To my embarrassment, he was regarding me, or rather both myself and Holmes, with some curiosity, and raised an eyebrow when I peeked at him. I felt my face grow a bit warm, but the man merely stretched his legs out, avoiding Holmes's which were sprawled conspicuously in the aisle, and began to fan himself with his straw hat.
"So, Doctor." He broke the awkward silence after a moment. "What exactly has our friend here told you about me?"
"Mm…just the basics. How you met and so on," I replied cautiously, wanting very much to avoid the entire issue of the Gloria Scott if at all possible.
Trevor snorted a laugh and replaced his hat upon his head. "My poor little pup; he got kicked rather hard there when they met that first time," he informed me, casting a mischievous glance at the oblivious detective.
Holmes silently turned a page of his newspaper, not even flicking an eye in our direction.
Trevor smirked, lit a large fragrant cigar, and offered me one as well. I declined due to the heat, and he replaced them into his jacket pocket. "Well, you know the connection between us then, Doctor," he continued cheerfully. "While I regret the circumstances that brought about this meeting, I cannot say I'm entirely unhappy about seeing him again. So tell me, where did you come into the old misanthrope's picture, and how the devil did you stay a part of it? Was that story you printed in that Christmas Annual (1) actually the truth?"
I repressed a laugh when Holmes's grey eyes slid to their corners to glare peripherally at me, and merely summarized the salient details of our meeting for my interested audience.
When I had finished, Trevor glanced out the window at the hot sun and loosened his collar, nodding at me affably all the while. "I admire your service in the Afghan War, Doctor," he said frankly, and I warmed slightly to the honest praise. "There are military outposts dotted around the plantations, and occasionally the officers visit us; I shall have to introduce you to a few of them later in the week. Holmes, are you going to continue to be this unsociable for the entire journey, or just until we've exhausted all the possible small talk we can conjure up?" This last was aimed at my friend, whose eyes then appeared irritably over the top of the newspaper, much to my amusement, to bore a hold into the head of the unfortunate old acquaintance.
"I was merely familiarizing myself with the local news, seeing as this is not a pleasure trip despite your and Watson's chatter," he retorted, folding the paper and tossing it beside him in a small fit of petulance.
"No, I suppose not," the other sighed, folding his arms after puffing thoughtfully on his cigar. "I am rather glad the authorities have relinquished the investigation to you, though, rather than having those bumbling officials poking about at all hours. Deucedly annoying, and we can't let the little one out to play as it is due to the marauding tiger; with those inspectors about there's even less time for the poor child to be outside."
I blinked. "Marauding tiger?"
"The little one?" Holmes asked at the same time, and then glanced ruefully at me.
Trevor smiled, his face softening instinctively as he pulled out a thin wallet and flipped through the compartments. "Didn't you know? I've married, Holmes, and I've a little girl, six years old. Her name is Elizabeth, Beth we call her. Here," he added, leaning across the compartment and handing a small photograph to me.
Holmes peered over my shoulder at the picture, that of a slightly younger Trevor with a rather attractive, dark-haired woman, obviously his wife, who was holding a little one with light curls and her father's features.
"That was taken two years ago," the man said with another smile. "Helen – my wife, Holmes –"
"Yes, I had managed to deduce that," my friend drawled.
Trevor smirked. "She's the younger daughter of a retired army colonel. The old boy himself lives on a neighboring plantation, a few miles from us."
"I can't believe you are married," Holmes muttered annoyedly, sitting back in his seat as I passed the picture back to Trevor.
"Happily, and for ten years now," he replied with a wide smile at Holmes's scowling. "Still not interested in settling down with a woman, then, eh?"
"Certainly not," Holmes retorted with some heat.
"I'd like to see the woman who would put up with you, anyway," the other rambled absently, stubbing out his cigar and paying no heed to the raised eyebrows and dark glower his unsuspecting head was receiving.
I choked back a fit of rather childish sniggering and attempted to veer the conversation back on topic. "She looks like a lovely woman, and you've a beautiful girl, Mr. Trevor," I complimented sincerely.
"Thank you, Doctor. But yes, as I was saying, we can't let Beth out to play even with her ayah, due to the fact that there've been a few sightings of a renegade tiger prowling about the plantations of late," Trevor informed us, his sandy brows coming together in obvious concern. "Attacked a few odd scattered workers in the last fortnight, and not just at night either."
"Is it sick, then?" I asked, my mind recalling more than one occasion where I had either heard of or encountered the same problem while I was in the East.
"No one knows; thankfully the beast never stays round for long. Hasn't struck down anyone in the daylight, though; just in the evenings and mornings. We've had problems of the same sort before with the odd animal, but it's still deucedly annoying when the little ones are cooped up indoors all the day."
Trevor paused as the swaying train whistled a warning for a small station, and I glanced out of the window at the lush green foliage as he continued. "We've a half-hour here; have you had luncheon? And then you may commence your interrogation of me, Holmes, because I know you're going to sooner or later."
To be continued
(1) - Unlike the short stories, STUD was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual.