A belated birthday gift to KCS, in the spirit of her "Can You Hear Me Now" series. Nothing to do with Christmas unless one counts the season in which it was written.
When the telephone call came, the shrill ringing shattered the peaceful quiet that had settled over my home that autumn dusk in 1905. At first I only scowled that confounded contraption, in no mood for conversation. Then I recalled who my probable caller was and the reason for his call, and I sprang for the 'phone.
I was correct: it was indeed Watson. But his voice was so strained and faint that I could scarcely hear him. As much as I wished it, I knew I could not blame that on a bad connection.
"Watson," I acknowledged, my own voice steady. "The calendar tells me it is the first week of September. I take it you are calling about the impending arrival of my god-child?"
"Ahh . . . yes." He sounded distracted, another bad sign.
It was time to use all the gentleness I was capable of. "Have there been complications?"
"I-I don't know."
I was stunned into silence for no more than a second or two. "What do you mean, you don't know?
"I don't know!" This bellow was followed immediately by a shaky sigh and faint thump. "I'm sorry, Holmes, I – "
"Tell me what has happened." It was the same tone I used on overwrought clients, a particular blend of sympathy and command meant to be grounding and soothing. I had not had occasion to use it since I retired but if ever I needed it, it was now.
Watson did not respond immediately but I could hear him breathing, summoning the fortitude to explain. "She is in labor upstairs. I called in another physician and he is with her now." He paused. "I have not been in to see her since he arrived."
"You were barred from the room?"
There was a second, far longer pause that I did not interrupt. Eventually Watson spoke without my prompting, bitterly. "I am too cowardly to see her."
I know for a fact Watson is not a coward. He is not immune to fear any more than the rest of humanity is, but he does not shrink from action despite it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I had a theory as to the present cause of this sudden change in behavior but I thought it best to hear it from his own lips.
"What is it you fear?" I asked, maintaining the voice of an objective reasoner. When no answer was forthcomoing I tried again. "Watson? What -- "
"That I will lose her," he whispered suddenly. "That I will lose both of them. Again."
Silently I exhaled. So it was that. Miles away in quiet cemetary, the presence of two simple headstones still exerted a pull on my friend's heart. Very likely they always would. And while I was certainly not going to begrudge his previous family their rightful place in his heart and memory, those graves were detrimentally intruding on the present. And that I could not allow. I considered my own course of action. "Does she know of your fears?"
"I shouldn't think so."
"But you did take extra pains with her care?"
"Yes, of course."
"Did she observe you doing so?"
"I . . . I don't believe she took any notice."
"Has she expressed any such fears of her own?"
" . . . no."
"You sound uncertain."
I heard a very tired sigh. "If she did, it was not to me," he admitted softly. "But she seemed emotionally uneasy when the labor began in earnest."
I steeled my resolve for what had to be said. "Whether or not she voiced them to you, I believe she was and is afraid. Moreover, by projecting your worries onto her, Watson, I regret to say you have very likely only compounded your wife's difficulty. Now she is alone with an unfamiliar physician, fearing for her life and the life of her child, while her husband remains away from her. What other conclusion is she to draw than you believe there is grave danger for them?
"Now, Watson, I have always claimed the fairer sex is your department but I tell you this: friend or no, if you continue to subject your wife to unnecessary mental anguish I will denounce you not only as a coward but as a faithless cad. If you care anything for her at all you will put aside your selfish impulses and go upstairs this instant."
There was a heavy silence in reply. Finally, just as I was second-guessing my judgement in a most terrible way, he spoke. "Thank you, Holmes."
"Call me when you have news," I answered and replaced the receiver, smiling as I did so. I thought I knew my Watson. It was gratifying to learn I still did, after so many years.
By five after midnight I could wait no longer. I still despised that infernal contraption and the hour was impossibly late but it seemed I would have to make the second telephone call myself. To my surprise, Watson himself answered, with a greeting that was more yawn than word.
"Watson. I trust your answering means there was no peril for either party?"
"Hmm? No, no, Holmes, they're both fine and resting comfortably. You have a god-son, incidentally, born just over an hour ago, with a very health pair of lungs." Judging from Watson's voice, he was grinning broadly despite his evident sleepiness. "I was going to call you back in the morning. I didn't want to risk waking you."
"It is morning now, strictly speaking. In any event, I have not yet gone to bed."
"Still keeping odd hours, are you?"
"On occasion. Particularly when the occasion is the birth of my closest friend's child and said friend is rattled beyond all comprehension."
There was so long and persistent a silence that for a moment I wondered if Watson had not actually fallen asleep standing up. "Thank you again, Holmes," he said suddenly. "I would never have summoned the nerve to go up if not for you and I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn't."
"Think nothing of it," replied I, waving aside the thanks despite the fact he could not see me do so. "You are not a coward, dear fellow; you only needed a little help to put things into perspective."
"Indeed." I heard the unmistakable sounds of a stifled yawn. "Holmes?"
"Forgive me, but I simply must hang up before I collapse from exhaustion. I shall call you tomorrow?"
"Certainly, if you wish." I could not help but feel magnanimous making this concession. It is not that I did not wish to speak to him but one could only take so much of modern inconveniences in a span of twenty-four. "Relay my congratulations to Mrs. Watson, if you would be so kind."
"I shall. Goodnight, Holmes."
"Goodnight. Wait. Watson, what name did you -- "
I was cut off by a decisive click and I replaced my own instrument with a scowl. Confound it. Now I would have to 'phone in back in eight or nine hours.
I was halfway back to my chair before I realized what Watson had done. He had very neatly ensured that I would have cause to call him back. Ruefully I shook my head. I may know him but I shall never get his limits.