Doldrums and Deep Waters
Chapter One: The Proposition
Out of all my case with Mr Sherlock Holmes, one in particular causes me to shudder when I recall it. It started on a murky Monday afternoon in February , when the yellow mists that had plagued our city all winter seemed particularly malevolent, insinuating their tendrils into the houses and souls of the five million inhabitants.
Sherlock Holmes was never the most tolerant of individuals, and his natural taciturnity and impatience had not been improved by the vile weather. No fascinating criminal enterprises appeared to capture his attention; the criminal fraternity in London seemed as inclined as their law abiding counterparts to prefer sheltering from the elements to providing the premier Consulting Detective with work.
Further exacerbation of his temper was doubtless supplied by the cessation of his cocaine habit. Three months ago, in a moment of remorse brought on by his having caused me considerable trouble and anxiety as a result of extreme recklessness, which I had strongly advised against, Holmes had vowed to me he would give up his destructive habit. I had been most gratified at the time, as I had felt partly responsible for his foolish prior behaviour, and my friend had insisted on repairing for his convalescence to the coast. The impromptu holiday indeed seemed more for my benefit than his own, although the freshness of the salty, windswept air had swept the cobwebs from both of us.
We had returned to London in a better frame, and I had been confident that Holmes had left the worst of his withdrawal symptoms behind him. However, I could have cursed the spate of uninteresting, straightforward crimes, and the lack of that outré activity, that greeted us on our return. The detective was a man of his word, yet I was as aware as he was that he needed mental stimulation, and I grew increasingly concerned as he grew increasingly difficult.
Of course, it was only to be expected that I would bear the brunt of Holmes' bad humours. I believe I am as patient as the next man, and I had some sympathy for my friend's plight, yet even my usual raising of my armour was beginning to prove insufficient. Certain of his jibes left me feeling decidedly ruffled, and I feared that a falling out would be an inevitable consequence if something did not occur to alter our routine.
Bearing in mind this situation, the anticipation I felt on Mrs Hudson informing me that we had a visitor may be easily imagined. I hoped profusely that this may be a client sent to lift Holmes from his doldrums. I rose to my feet from my seat by the fireside to greet our guest.
Dr Effram Morgan was a gentleman of jovial and genial aspect. His round belly proceeded him into the room, and he shuffled towards me with the gait of a man who is plagued by some chronic musculoskeletal complaint, yet the eyes were sprightly enough, the bristling side-whiskers proud, the cheeks (and interestingly, the nose) ruddy, and the handshake firm and decisive.
"Dr Watson, I believe?"
"Yes, Sir, at your service," I replied, in some surprise, as at this stage my practice was an informal affair, consisting largely of chance-met acquaintances, and I did not receive a great many visitors.
"Delighted to meet you, Doctor, delighted. Effram Morgan, as you will already have gathered by my card." He gestured with his card case; it slipped from his fingers, spilling his calling cards over the floor.
"Blast!" Ejaculated my guest. "Do excuse me for a clumsy old fool. Gah!" He made an effort to bend his prodigious bulk floorwards, then clutched at his back. "Curse this lumbago! Could you possibly be so good as to pick up my cards? So sorry to ask it of you, but when you get to my age, dear boy, you may well understand."
"Please, think nothing of it," I answered, stooping to gather the cards, and reaching to fetch those that had disappeared beneath the furniture. "I believe I have more than a little insight into the inconveniences of a frame that will not allow me to accomplish my wishes."
"What, you?" He chuckled, richly. "You are barely more than a stripling. I imagine you refer to the exigencies of the rugby field, and the after effects."
I laughed in return. "I wish it were true, Dr Morgan, but I am afraid I was not exaggerating. I was shot twice on active service in Afghanistan, you see, and then took the enteric fever. I was wracked with it for months, and returned to England quite an invalid. My strength has largely returned to me now, but I hope I will continue to remember the frustrations others may experience."
My visitor looked quite unnecessarily mortified at this disclosure.
"My dear boy! I am so sorry! Please believe me, I did not wish to belittle your sufferings. Forgive my flippancy, about what must have been a very painful experience for you."
Rather touched, I hastened to reassure the perspiring yet good-natured gentleman.
"Please, think nothing of it, Dr Morgan. I cannot be other than flattered that my appearance now makes the idea of me being invalidish so unlikely. Will you not take a seat, and let me know what I can do for you?"
"Thank you, Doctor." He gratefully lowered his bulk into the chair opposite mine, and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. "Now, to business. May I ask if you recall young Anna Smithson?"
I smiled broadly in recognition. "I should say I do. I tended to her when she was suffering from diphtheria earlier this year. She is a delightful child."
"And you are being delightfully modest. You did not only tend to her, you quite certainly saved her life."
I spread my hands. "Any physician would have done the same."
"I am not so sure." The large man leant forward in his seat. "I have recently been in conversation with little Anna's charming mother, and she quite firmly attributes her daughter's recovery to your dedication and reassuring ways. How many times did you have to remove the membrane from her throat?"
"About fifteen." I muttered, remembering the sense of fighting against despair, the occasions where such treatments had failed.
"And we all know that, once the child begins to panic, their throat is likely to close off entirely. Mrs Smithson told me of how you kept speaking to the child, soothing her, reassuring her. She apparently stayed quite calm even when you had to remove the membranes."
"She is a particularly courageous little girl." I answered, wondering where all this was heading. Dr Morgan laughed fatly again.
"You are quite determined not to bask in your own success. You will forgive me observing that you do have a charming manner. I think my sources may be correct, and that you are exactly what I have been looking for. Perhaps I should explain more clearly.
"I have, for many years, been personal physician to a most charismatic, yet most redoubtable elderly lady, by the name of Mrs Brooker. I enjoy her company enormously, and she has been a most generous patron, yet there is no denying she can be difficult to handle. Before our association, she dismissed no fewer than eighteen private physicians, who did not meet her expectations.
"I, as you can imagine, am getting rather too long in the tooth to continue in harness. Indeed, Mrs Brooker is my only bar to a happy retirement. I have my eye on a little place near Eastbourne. But, so kind as she has been to me, I could not contemplate leaving her services without making a push to find a decent replacement. She is both declining and demanding, you see. It is a mixed blessing, tending to her. Rewarding in so many aspects, yet often exhausting. Therefore, her personal physician should be patient, caring, charming, knowledgeable, and, forgive me, not too busy, as my lady expects to be able to command attention whenever she pleases. I know you have all the above credentials. When I was, you will excuse me, researching your background, I discovered that you are the author of several insightful articles in our major journals, and, once I had displayed them to Mrs Brooker, she could not fail to be impressed."
"I take it you are offering me tenure as Mrs Brooker's next private physician?" I asked, rather drily, as the tone of Dr Morgan's narrative struck me as rather sycophantic.
"I am indeed," replied he. "Do not think of my words as mere flattery, Dr Watson." He interjected, with a sudden shrewdness of expression. "I have investigated and interviewed eight other promising young men before coming to you, and have found them wanting. I believe you are acquainted with... but I should not be commenting on the deficiencies of your acquaintances, it would be most unprofessional.
"It may strike you as an unalluring proposition, but the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages. Mrs Brooker is an extremely influential lady, with powerful friends. Her patronage could easily establish a young man such as yourself. She is open-handed, and, as she is exceedingly wealthy, one need not feel one is taking advantage of her generosity, as it is all expressed in ways that cannot possibly encumber her. If this all sounds very mercenary, one may offer solace to one's conscience when one reflects that she is such a remarkable character. If she decides she likes you, her wit and vivacity are enthralling, her intellect impressive, her conversation edifying. As she is an invalid, she derives much benefit from a good and personable relationship with her physician."
I must confess, I was tempted. Part of me was inclined to be disgusted with the man's blatant attitude of servile materialism, yet this was tempered by his frank admission of his motives, and his undeniably personable manner. What is more, my pockets were fairly frequently to let, so much so that Holmes had taken to locking my cheque-book in his desk, and there was no doubt a wealthy elderly lady could be a rich prize for a poor doctor. Furthermore, I liked cantankerous elderly ladies, and they me, upon the whole. There was a streak of pride in me, however, that disliked patronage, and would not want to be a dyspeptic autocrat's pet whipping boy. I was not certain my temper would stand peremptory and unnecessary summons, and, were I to offend this Mrs Brooker, I could find my name blacklisted.
I looked thoughtfully at my companion. "Do you require an answer immediately, Dr Morgan?"
He beamed at me. "Of course not! I am pleased you have not rejected the proposition out of hand. Many a young hothead would. I think it would only be sensible to think some more upon the matter. May I return some time next week, perhaps to arrange a meeting between you and Mrs Brooker?"
"That would be most acceptable, thank you. I shall give the matter serious consideration. In the meantime, may I offer you a drink, or a smoke?"
"I regretfully must decline." Answered he, truthfully I gather, as his eyes rested wistfully for a moment upon the tantalus upon the sideboard. "I have an engagement in Wimbledon at five o'clock, and, as you can imagine, it takes a gentleman of my stature not a little time to make a journey."
He rose from his chair with a cacophony of coughing and wheezing, and I rose with him, to see him to the door. We parted cordially, and I returned to my chair, to ponder this unexpected opportunity.
On the whole, I felt distinctly heartened. Having suffered Holmes astringent and critical barbs frustratingly often of late, it was a novel and delightful experience to hear somebody singing my praises. Quite an honour to be so singled out. I suppose I had done well with young Anna Smithson. My pride swelled, and I fell my sullen mood lifting as I absently filled my pipe from the pouch upon the mantelpiece. I grinned to myself. Even the tobacco pouch was fuller than I remembered it. Things were looking up. For a few moments, as I puffed contentedly, I felt quite euphoric.
Half an hour later, as I neared the end of my pipe, my mood had returned to its previous low ebb. There was no guarantee Mrs Brooker would take to me. Or I to her. Furthermore, I was far from certain I wished to be a spoilt, rich elderly lady's lap-dog. I could already imagine Holmes' sneering comments about it. Sighing, I filled my pipe again, feeling distinctly sorry for myself, and seeking solace in the soothing tobacco.
The door opened, and Holmes banged into the room.
"Another torpid case from the Yard, Watson. Honestly, I need my bread and butter, but it really is too much. The official forces appear to regard me as their personal servant, to clear up whatever mess they are unable to get to the bottom of themselves. This latest is a classic. A simple case of ring-fencing, that a chimpanzee could decipher, yet it has already required hours, nay days of tedious surveillance, and will require days more."
He flung himself into the chair recently vacated by my corpulent would-be benefactor, and scowled at me through the cloud of tobacco smoke for some minutes before speaking. I made no comment, preferring to leave well alone when Holmes was in a disputatious mood.
"What's the matter with you, Watson? You look like you've just been poked in the eye by a shitty stick."
I sighed. Holmes rarely employed profanities, but, when he did, it was a sure sign that his temper was even more uncertain than usual. The last of my good humour evaporated. It was going to be a long week.
Little did I know then just how difficult it was going to be.
Hm, seems our good humoured Dr Watson is feeling more than a little out of sorts. I got a bad feeling about this!