Doldrums and Deep Waters
Chapter 14: The head with many beasts
Mrs Hudson had evidently been at pains to restore the comfort of our sitting room following its fumigation, and a merry fire crackled in the hearth. Gratefully, I moved closer to it, warming my hands, and concentrating upon the pleasant sensations and homely surroundings.
It was confusing, following my encounter with the noxious tobacco, to entirely separate my true woes from my imaginary ones, but it occurred to me, despite my concerted efforts to remain cheerful, that my situation did still merit a degree of genuine gloom. Detached from the macabre distortions of the drug, my experiences at the hospital began to return to me, and the real adversities of the situation manifested themselves. Of course, with my right mind returned to me, I would never consider so foolish and degraded a step as taking my own life, but there was no denying that, if my career had not been in ruins before, it certainly was now.
I had no doubt that Professor Beaumarris was a man of his word, of influence and of truly vindictive nature. I had no doubt that my name would be blackened and my way back to surgical practice barred. I expected that his influence might even extend to blocking my successful return to general practice – what respectable clientele could I expect if my colleagues refused to deal with me? Once the rumour got about that no surgeon worth his iodine salt would accept a referral from Dr John Watson, those who could afford to would go elsewhere. That left me with the charity institutions and those sufficiently indigent that they were in no position to demur – or, most likely, to pay my fees.
I wondered how many other rumours were now circulating about me? It was not even as if Beaumarris had been untruthful when he accused me of being under the influence of drugs. That sort of thing got around. I hoped fervently that discretion had been maintained about... I fingered the painful bruises about my throat, and shuddered. It was not only the bar from practice that perturbed me – it was the notion that colleagues, friends even, were thinking ill of me. I sighed. Vanity was not one of my overriding flaws; no man as scarred, emaciated and burned by the sun as I had been could have maintained my equilibrium if it had been, but I was not devoid of it entirely.
I would have to find alternative means to make a living. Perhaps I could turn my hand to writing? I had often threatened Holmes I would do so, and had recorded several of his cases in a form which would take very little alteration to be successful stories.
I pondered my predicament, and my options, for some little time, then gave it up in disgust with myself. I would need an interval for the dust from this case to settle. I could then look upon the problem with a clear gaze. For now, I would choose distraction. I had an unread novel I had been looking forward to beginning, and I fetched it now, successfully immersing myself in its pages, and forgetting my troubles for a while as I was transported to wild seas and distant lands.
Holmes was gone most of the day, and I was nearing the end of my novel when he returned. I heard the front door slam, and his footsteps taking the stairs two at a time. I laid my book down interestedly. He was excited about something.
He banged through the living room door in customary whirlwind fashion, and strode over to the fire with a jaunty step. Warming his coat-tails he turned his face to me.
He was smiling, and his usually pale cheeks were slightly flushed, whilst his eyes sparkled with suppressed merriment. I could not help but laugh at the sight of him.
"Holmes, what on earth has happened? You look like a child with an enormous secret, about ready to burst with news!"
He grinned at me, bobbing on the balls of his feet, his hands crammed into his trouser-pockets.
"Your deductive skills are improving immeasurably. I have indeed been busy, and have achieved a most satisfactory result to my labours, which, by the by, are intimately connected with yourself."
"To me, Holmes?" I asked, puzzled, and a little apprehensive.
"Indeed. Forgive me Watson, you may initially consider that I have intruded upon your private business shamefully, but I hope you will pardon me when you hear the end result of my endeavours."
I was by now thoroughly alarmed, and, although I did not fully grasp what was going on, had an uneasy premonition.
"I understand you had a distressing run-in with a rather unpleasant character called Beaumarris somewhat recently?" said he, suddenly but rather gently.
I gasped in shock, the sitting room receding a little, as the realisation hit me that Sherlock Holmes, the man whose admiration I prized most in the world, knew of my complete degradation. For a moment, my head was spinning too much and my breath coming too fast for me to take in my surroundings, but then, I felt him touch my arm, as he crouched upon his haunches at my feet, eyes level with mine. Humiliated, distressed, I forced myself to meet his eyes. The sympathy and contrition in his usually expressionless face suddenly made me furious.
"How dare... what right did you have..." I spluttered to a halt under the steady gaze of his grey eyes, then slumped, defeated. "I didn't want you to know", I whispered.
"Forgive me, my dear Watson", he repeated, and I was viciously pleased for a moment to see a fleeting look of distress flit across his features. "I should have considered how such a personal encounter would make you feel, rather than viewing the thing as an objective case. I really can be a very stupid fellow sometimes, you know."
The frankness and sincerity of this apology palliated much of my chagrin, and I recovered myself, grasping his hand warmly for a moment.
"Apologies for my weakness", said I, in a more normal tone of voice. "It was the most mortifying moment of my life, and I should have preferred to forget it. No doubt it is illogical to wish no further witnesses, but you know how I value your good opinion."
"You still have it, my dear fellow!" cried he, fervently. "All the more so, in fact. You really should not be mortified. The way I hear it, you agreed to assist a paradox of a man, who combines the attributes of brilliant surgeon and brutish charlatan, in an operation of most dubious provenance. You questioned the wisdom of this approach, but sensibly yielded to what should have been this man's superior knowledge. Unfortunately, the revelation that this was no such thing came at a time when it was already too late to go back, and your unfortunate patient was haemorrhaging upon the operating table. Your reprehensible so-called supervisor then left the man to die at your hands, and you acted with immense promptness, doubtless saving the life of your patient, yet putting immense strain on your already injured shoulder. You even salvaged enough of the leg that the man will manage quite well with a prosthesis.
"Following this piece of quiet heroism, Beaumarris returned, and not only suggested you should have performed a more disabling amputation, but also attempted to blame the failure of the surgery upon you. You, quite understandably, lost your temper, and upbraided the Professor for his recklessness and utter lack of concern for his patient. He retaliated to draw attention to your evidently being under the influence of some drug or other, and to your injuries, in an attempt to destroy your credibility, in a demonstration that was as cruel as it was despicable."
Holmes' eyes were not twinkling now. They were flat and cold, and his face was set in lines of furious indignation. Recovering himself, he smiled again, and asked me;
"Am I right?"
I managed to return the smile, a rather watery affair.
"You have the basic facts of your story correct, although you may have romanticised your main character slightly", I croaked in reply.
"Nonsense!" declared he, relaxed and in control once more.
"I suppose it would not be too much to ask you how you discovered this?"
"Not at all. I surmised previously, as you are aware, that you had had an interview, that it had not gone well, and that you had been coated in blood. A hospital then, and likely participating in surgery. You would not be nervous if it were a small hospital; you have performed surgery in such circumstances before. A large hospital then, of some renown.
"I had seen from the state of your shoes that you had walked quite some distance, and had taken your stick. Your limp was more pronounced also. The mud was nondescript – not University or Kings then - but plentiful. Charing Cross seemed a little far, and you might have told me if you were going to Barts, as there was a good chance I'd find out. St Thomas's was my first choice, being three point eight miles away, and I recalled you have mentioned an old army crony of yours worked there."
"Very workmanlike. And the rest?"
"The George and Dragon is the slightly less respectable of the medical student haunts. The little wretches who inhabit it are very happy to gossip in exchange for a glass or two. Not only did they tell me with relish about the scandal in the operating rooms, but they elaborated upon other favourite occasions where Professor Beaumarris' lessons have been enlivened by unexpected death or mutilation. They viewed this as excellent entertainment, and declaimed scornfully about priggish fellows such as 'West' who was apparently most indignant about the whole affair."
"The young man who assisted me in surgery", I murmured in recognition.
"An admirable young man, of your own cut, and, fortunately for him, the child of most influential parents, or Beaumarris may have had him thrown out for assisting you. I met him this afternoon, and discovered him to be wrestling with his conscience. On the one hand, he is a little too diffident to trust his own opinion, and that of an intoxicated ex-army surgeon, over one of London's most eminent specialists, but on the other, he felt that if patients' lives were being put at risk unnecessarily, he ought to speak out. Also adding to his conviction that Beaumarris was wrong was his impression of the army man, who, despite being under the influence and having difficulties with his arm, was unmistakably an excellent surgeon, and magnificent under pressure."
Here Holmes turned to smile at me, and I think I may actually have blushed.
"West was a splendid find", continued my friend. "A most diligent student. Once I explained to him my profession and the origin of your accidental substance misuse, many of his doubts vanished. He helped me, at my instigation, to compile a list of fatalities under Beaumarris' knife – he kept a logbook of all the surgeries he witnessed, for his own education.
"I then made a call upon the coroner's office, where I have had some dealings before, and they kindly allowed me to peruse their records. I was able to uncover several incidents which could be viewed as dubious with the right slant put upon it."
I realised I was staring, spellbound, at Holmes, a strange prickling running up and down my spine as his narrative progressed.
"With this most interesting information, I visited one of hospital's board of directors; a gentleman who, most heart-warmingly, believes himself to be under a debt of gratitude to me. He was effusive with delight at my visit, even more so when I told him of my purpose – he cannot stand Beaumarris; not only is the man sickeningly sycophantic towards him, but there is some dispute over a silver filigree teapot or creamer or some such thing, both men being avid and avaricious collectors of silverware. He tried to look grave and shocked, of course, but he was as transparent as that window."
"What have you done, Holmes?" I burst out, my curiousity overwhelming me. He smiled; a predatory, wolf-like baring of the teeth.
"Oh, I suggested that my board member and young West's parents meet that very afternoon to discuss matters, and we then proceeded to Beaumarris' home."
I sat up in my chair in excitement at this.
"We came ostensibly to discuss some disturbing rumours that had arisen around his practice. I gave him to believe that I might be looking into the rumours personally. At first, he was inclined to bluster, and condescend. However, I had been glowingly introduced to him as one of the foremost detectives in the land, and he had obviously heard something of my reputation. I mentioned my dealings with Inspector Lestrade, and then I gave him a little history lesson. I have told Scotland Yard many a time that any student of crime should be thoroughly versed in criminal literature. I spoke of instances where bodies have been exhumed and doctors convicted of murder. There are several interesting little scenarios; I really should relate them to you some time. I pointed out the fascinating fact that there are several parallels between his cases and those were the perpetrators have ended their lives dancing from a rope..."
He broke off suddenly, a sickened expression on his face as he realised he had been swept away by his own enthusiam, and as I instinctively raised my hand to my neck. He grimaced at me apologetically, then continued in more contained tones.
"He was truly frightened, doctor, especially when he saw the forces allied against him. Oh, they were polite enough, explaining that they were sure there were reasonable explanations, but he could see they would be glad enough to go in for the kill, and, even if nothing came of it, an investigation would leave his reputation in tatters. 'No smoke without fire' would be the general outcry. He knows that. He knows that I know that. So when we suggested to him that he set up a trust fund to help those unfortunates whose surgery has been unsuccessful, or the families of those who have died upon the operating table - not just his own patients, mind – across the whole hospital - to counter the rumours, he snatched at any opportunity to forestall further investigation. He also agreed that it was a splendid idea to start a voluntary regulatory body within the hospital whereby each surgeon must present their outcome figures to the board at each quarter. He will head it."
Holmes wolfish smile returned. "The other surgeons will loath him for it – but they will not dare stand against him, and he will not dare defy the conditions."
I shook my head wonderingly, a dazed grin of delight beginning to spread across my face.
"Holmes, that is truly fantastic. I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate knowing that man's predatory exploitation of his patients has been controlled. Thank you."
"Oh, but that's not all." Holmes got to his feet and stood by the fire again, watching my face eagerly for my reactions. "I had a little chat with him after the Wests and my board member had taken their leave. I placed a further condition upon him, which I believe will really hurt him to fulfil.
"Tomorrow morning, in front of a crowded operating theatre, Beaumarris will admit to his audience of medical students and junior doctors that he was mistaken about you. He will inform them that he inadvertently left you waiting for him in his prep room, where he had been experimenting with gaseous anaesthetics, and had carelessly left a volatile preparation simmering over a Bunsen burner. I imagine people will think him a splendid good sport, as he gives an informative lecture upon the merits of learning from one's mistakes.
"He will explain that he has realised he was mistaken in attempting to fasten a ligature around a calcified vessel – and I'm sure his audience will wonder how he had failed to realise it before. He will, in short, censure himself on a great many points. I have allowed him to disguise his humiliation within the context of turning each gaffe he has made into a teaching point, as I wish him to maintain some influence with which to compel his colleagues to monitor their practice. However, he will still hate it. And I shall be in the audience to witness it. More importantly, I shall witness him praise you to the hilt, to ensure he does you adequate justice."
Holmes smiled at my dumbfounded expression.
"Your cache will never have been higher. He will rescind his vows to block you from returning to surgery. Do not worry about your friend Fraser, either – to him, I have told the truth. He thoroughly approves of my course of action, and wished me to covey his deepest apologies for mistrusting you."
I could not speak. I had to blow my nose vigorously. Holmes chuckled, somewhere between nervously and triumphantly.
"There there, old fellow. It's not so shocking as all that, surely?"
"I do not know what to say", I managed to choke in reply, my voice thick with emotion. "I really cannot thank you enough. I do not deserve..."
"Enough!" snapped Holmes, sharply. "Do not begin to tell me you do not deserve me to make this effort on your behalf. It is the least I can do, particularly considering my appallingly frequent episodes of boorish behaviour."
I rose, rather shakily, to my feet, and, crossing to where my friend stood, wrung his hand. I then, rather impulsively, threw my arms around him in a tight embrace, and heard the characteristic little exhale of laughter as he patted my back in return. I released him quickly, my face flushed somewhat with embarrassment at my lapse of control. I was relieved to find him looking pleased and amused rather than disgusted.
"Thank you", I repeated, seriously. "It really means a great deal to me. Thank you very much indeed."
"I should be thanking you, you know," he said, with a laugh, shaking off the sentiment of the occasion. "You have been put through a great deal of discomfort, a large part of it because of me, and, in exchange, not only do I get two intriguing puzzles to lift me out of my doldrums, but my ludicrously loyal room-mate thanks me instead of turning upon his heel and finding alternative, safer accommodation."
"Safer? Dull!" I exclaimed, suddenly irrepressibly cheerful. "What man would choose safety over a life with Sherlock Holmes?"
He looked inordinately pleased with himself.
"Shall we head out for dinner, to celebrate the conclusion of the case? The Ivy Tree would not be overly taxing, and a man would not look out of place with a muffler about his neck rather than formal evening wear. Somehow, I do not fancy sitting in and having a quiet smoke."
"I wonder why?" I answered, following him out through the door.
As we walked slowly arm in arm down Baker Street, we chattered amicably, reminding me what a charming companion Holmes could be when he chose. We were seated at our table when he brought up the topic of my future.
"So. You will be returning to work as a surgeon, then?"
I could not be sure, but I thought I detected a slightly sad, wistful expression upon his face, though he spoke cheerfully enough. I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it again. I was thinking of Holmes, but I was also thinking of little Anna Smithson, her five year old face trusting as I gently scraped the diphtheria web from her throat, and the squeeze of her small hand as her breathing recovered enough to allow her to sleep.
"Do you know, it is tremendously reassuring to know that I can, but I am not so sure that I shall. Perhaps I should look into returning to harness more seriously, but I think there may be worse lives than that of a general practitioner."
Holmes looked surprised. I explained myself, slowly, thoughtfully, as I had not really decided upon my opinions until this very moment.
"Do you know, half of the students in that audience laughed and cheered at that poor man exsanguinating and my own humiliation?" I said, quietly. "These are the people I would be expected to work with if I returned to hospital medicine. There would also be heavier obligations; as an independent practitioner, I could to some extend dictate my own working hours. I will be in a much better position to set up practice now you have restored my good name. I should look about me for an opening."
"I may know several", said Holmes, and I laughed delightedly.
"Of course you do! Why should I have doubted it?"
"You are quite sure your decision is the right one?"
"Yes. My time is, after all of some importance to me."
"You spoke of the 'spider at the centre of the web', the 'head of the beast'. No doubt you will be requiring some assistance in tracking down this hydra over time? Not to mention any of the other interesting little problems that come your way. I hope you will continue to count me as your partner?"
My friend looked exultant. "A hydra is a water beast with many heads, Watson old chap, not a head with many beasts, as would be more apt. Notwithstanding, recent events have made me realise quite what the worth of a good companion in arms is. I would be honoured if you would continue to help me sift the dark waters that seep through our city." He raised his glass to me.
"To good hunting, Dr Watson!"
I copied the gesture.
"The game's afoot, Mr Holmes!"
Well, I hoped you liked it, and didn't get too bored of the long waits in between chapters.
I'm sure you've all guessed the identity of the fat spidery not-hydra-beast-thing. Despite The Final Problem, I doubt Moriarty just emerged fully formed from out of the blue.
I am trying my hand at a dark and nasty BBC Sherlock fic next (interesting to see if dark and nasty really does get a bigger audience... call it a vaguely sociopathic Sherlock-style experiment into human nature!) ... the modern era seems a challenge! But I'll be back to the gas lamps and pea-soupers before too long.
Thanks so much for all your reviews – and please, I'm like Oliver Twist here...