A/N: Thanks also to tapd0g!
After being appalled at the insinuations contained in the column that Langdale Pike had written, I jumped to my feet and tossed The Star aside, making my way quickly to the door.
"Watson, my dear fellow, there really is no need," Holmes called after me, stopping me in my tracks. I have no doubt it took him no effort at all to deduce that I was on my way to find Langdale Pike and give the scoundrel a piece of my mind for writing such drivel about not only Holmes, but a young woman we both had a great deal of respect for. "It will only amuse him if he gets a reaction out of me, or even one from you; it could actually make things worse if you go storming into his lair."
"Lair indeed; a fair term for where that snake bides his time!" I huffed indignantly. "You mean it could be worse than implying that you…that you…you've had relations with poor Lydia in the morgue?"
"I assume that you say 'poor Lydia' because Pike is besmirching her reputation, and not because it is I who have supposedly had, as you so delicately put it, Doctor, relations with the fair naturalist?"
For a moment I didn't quite know what to say to Holmes's seemingly insulted tone, and I stammered an inadequate attempt at making amends for causing him offence.
"No! I mean yes! I mean yes, 'poor Lydia' because of Pike, and not because of you having relations with her."
Holmes let one eyebrow lift in his otherwise stony expression, and I panicked a little.
"Not that you've had relations with Lydia; of course you haven't," I added awkwardly. "Lydia would never be the type to have had relations with you." I smiled in a rather tenuous fashion, and then realised what I had just said when Holmes's second eyebrow climbed to meet the first.
"I mean because she's rather proper," I tried clarifying, sputtering along ineffectively, and finding little encouragement in the expression Holmes now wore.
"Not that you aren't!" I hastily added, trying to backtrack. "I can't think of anyone who can be more proper than you when you're inclined to. You're quite the impressive English gentleman, Holmes. In fact, if Lydia weren't so proper, she probably would have relations with you."
By this point, Sherlock Holmes had tipped his head slightly and regarded me with a quizzical and unsure look.
"I mean, if you were so inclined.
"Erm, discreetly of course, so as not to seem to be having relations improperly…
"That is to say, so as not to seem to be inappropriately having relations, because I'm sure you can have them properly…
"I say, Holmes," I went on with a fair measure of desperation, "might we change the subject altogether?"
"You mean rather than you going on about how Miss Hastings would only have relations with me if she weren't a proper lady, and there would still be some question as to whether or not I would know just what I was doing?"
I winced and nodded at the same time.
"Yes, I quite think so," he replied shortly.
I was feeling relieved until I saw the corners of Holmes's mouth twitch.
"You've been toying with me!" I said with an ineffectual air of indignation, for my grin was as broad as Holmes's was by that point.
"I'm afraid I couldn't pass up the chance to see you dig yourself into a hole, old man," Holmes replied cheerfully. "I have to be able to find some shred of amusement in this whole ordeal."
"That was the very word that Lydia used last night," I reminded him. "It seems as though this contest might be a bit of one for her as well, thanks to Pike's column."
"As gallant as your concerns are for the fair maiden, Watson, I daresay that our Miss Hastings is made of sturdier stuff than would allow her to be bothered by some nonsense in a gossip column," Holmes responded, now shuffling through the rest of the papers and looking for something to pique his interest. "I shall make it a point to have a word with Pike, and have him send her an apology for falsifying whom the flowers were from. He can do me that small favour at least; he seems already to be having a fair amount of amusement at my expense and I suspect it will continue."
"No doubt," I said, thoroughly in agreement. "Anything of interest in the papers?"
Holmes shook his head. "Merely an announcement concerning the date next week which our slippery friend Renfield will appear in police-court; nothing else."
The next morning I arose to the slightly pungent smell of cabbage cooking, yet I was surprised to discover that no sign of anything reminiscent of bubble and squeak appeared at our breakfast table. Assuming that Mrs. Hudson had got an early start on Sunday dinner, I likewise found it odd later that afternoon that still the same smell wafted up the stairs, and still the vegetable was yet to be seen. The smell of after-dinner tobacco filled our sitting room, obscuring any remnants of cabbage, and I had completely forgotten about the incident until the next morning, when I awoke once more to the same odour permeating all of 221 Baker Street. Apparently Holmes had noticed the smell as well.
"What is that woman cooking?" he asked as he sat down across from me and poured himself coffee. My only answer was a shrug, and he scowled. "I do wish Mrs. Hudson would dispense with preparing whatever involves so much cabbage; I simply cannot abide the smell!"
It was not the first time I had heard Sherlock Holmes voice a complaint about the vegetable he apparently found offensive, and of course, it was a sentiment Mrs. Hudson was well used to hearing expressed by my companion. The next morning, the third upon which the strong scent of boiling cabbage penetrated the upper rooms of the house, it suddenly occurred to me that the reason Mrs. Hudson had been cooking cabbage for three straight days had nothing whatsoever to do with feeding us, but indeed must have been a subtle but smelly step toward retaliation for the previously delivered spider.
The perspicacious detective that I lived with had apparently arrived at the very same conclusion, and he flung his bedroom door open, stepped into the sitting room in his nightshirt, took one sniff, and strode determinedly to the landing outside our door.
"Mrs. Hudson!" he bellowed down the stairs, and when a reply was obviously pointedly being withheld, he called loudly down again. "Boil all the cabbage in London if you like; it shall not disturb me one bit!"
With that he shut the door rather sharply, and sank back against it.
"I am being accosted from all quarters," he said softly, clearly with the air of one who is being wrongly persecuted.
"I'm still on your side, old man," I said encouragingly. "Sit down and have some breakfast."
Holmes leaned off the door and headed briskly for his room. "Thank you, no. I have business in quite less odiferous surrounds," he called back over his shoulder. "Nothing whatsoever against your company, my dear Watson," he said when emerging from his room dressed, some short while later, "but this morning I shall find it less distasteful to breakfast at the St. James's Street club than here in this mephitic fog. Good morning!"
Holmes, his hat, and his walking stick were gone in an instant, and a moment later I heard the front door close below.
I knew the precise moment he returned, many hours later, for as soon as the front door opened, I could hear him growl something unintelligible upon walking into an invisible yet persistent sulphurous cloud of vegetal origin. The smell of cabbage does not generally annoy me, but I must admit that by the end of three solid days of smelling nothing else, even I was beginning to find Mrs. Hudson's choice of weapons more than a bit tiresome.
Holmes threw open the door to the sitting room where I was reading, and smoking my favourite brand of cigar in an attempt to overpower the smell suffusing the entire house. After doing likewise and filling his pipe with the strongest shag tobacco he had, Holmes seated himself across from me and spoke.
"You will be glad of the news I bring you, Watson," he said between enthusiastic puffs meant to surround him with a protective barrier of pipe smoke. "I have had a serious talk with Langdale Pike, and he has agreed to send a note of apology this very afternoon to our dear Miss Hastings."
"In return for what?" I asked with some suspicion. There was always a price for Pike's cooperation.
Holmes smoked energetically for another long moment to reinforce his defences, as did I, and then he finally answered.
"In return for my agreement to not interfere with his reporting on the rest of the proceedings of the contest."
"But he could say anything!" I protested.
"And no doubt he shall," Holmes agreed.
"But doesn't that bother you?"
"I would think so! Already he has more than hinted at a most intimate relationship between Lydia and yourself –he had the nerve to say she flung herself passionately into your arms, when in truth all she did was embrace you briefly in an affectionate yet chaste manner."
"Merely a matter of perspective, Watson, and the livelier perspective will certainly sell more newspapers," Holmes replied philosophically. "At the end of six weeks, the gossip-eager public will have moved on to reading about some other dubious affair or scandalous relationship, and I shall return to the mundane task of working out my usual queer little problems."
"Mundane, indeed!" I scoffed, for I had yet to encounter much that was mundane in the business of Sherlock Holmes. I hadn't a chance to comment further, for at that moment there was a brief knock at our door, and looking for all the world as though nothing were amiss in the least, Mrs. Hudson carried in a note.
"I have a message for you, Doctor," she said pleasantly, coming to give me the paper she held in her hand. Both she and Holmes acted precisely as they would have if I had been the only other person in the room.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," I said as normally as I could manage, and I opened the note as she left as casually as she could. The message contained within concerned a long-term patient of mine who had retired to the country for his health, and a request for me to attend him for a persistent and somewhat alarming cough that had developed rather acutely.
"By the look on your face, Watson, I would say that you are about to gather up your medical bag and your stethoscope and hail yourself a quick cab," Holmes ventured from the haze of pipe smoke surrounding his chair. "At least you have an excuse to escape this dreadful funk."
"I wish it were only that," I replied, tossing the remains of my cigar into the fire and heading for my room. "A patient of mine in Sussex has taken a turn for the worse, and I must go to him."
"Sussex!" Holmes exclaimed.
"Yes, flatteringly but unfortunately, he retains more confidence in my opinion than his local village physician," I said with a sigh. "I must pack a bag; no doubt I will be gone at least one night."
"No doubt," Holmes replied, refilling his pipe and looking rather thoughtful as I left to gather my things.
When I poked my head back into the sitting room to say my goodbye to Holmes, I found him tinkering with the pegs of the Stradivarius, apparently in anticipation of playing.
"There is a cab waiting for you downstairs," he said, looking up briefly from his task. "Safe journey, Watson; I hope your patient fares well."
"Thank you, Holmes," I said appreciatively as he returned his attention to the violin, tucking it under his chin and drawing the bow briefly across the strings. I cringed involuntarily at the wretched noise that uncharacteristically emanated from the instrument when in his hands. "I say, Holmes," I said just before heading down the stairs, "that thing sounds woefully out of tune."
"Does it?" he asked, receiving a vigorous nod on my part, but it seemed to me that I may have perceived the slightest hint of mischief in his query before I left.
When I arrived home, two days later, I was quite relieved to not encounter a wall of cabbage fumes when I unlocked the front door. What I did encounter, almost immediately after I closed the door behind me, was a harried-appearing Mrs. Hudson, who grabbed desperately at my sleeve.
"Dr. Watson, thank God you're back!" she gasped.
"Mrs. Hudson, are you quite alright?" I asked with some concern, for she looked as though she hadn't slept in some time. "You look exhausted; are you ill?"
"No, but I've not had more than a wink of sleep since you left!" she replied unhappily. "It's Mr. Holmes and that miserable violin!"
"Yes! He's been playing it at all hours for two days! I can hardly stand it!"
"Mrs. Hudson," I said, trying to be calm and reasonable with her, "Mr. Holmes always plays the violin at odd hours; that's nothing new. Surely you're accustomed to it by now."
"When it's in tune!" she cried emphatically.
It suddenly occurred to me what Holmes had done. His turn at retaliation, going one better than filling the house with cabbage fumes, was to fill Baker Street with the worst, off-tune, discordant and grating violin music that he possibly could muster, for two days. As if to prove my theory right, there came from above us the most strident and vexacious variation on a theme of Paganini that the mind could possibly conjure up, and I suddenly felt a great deal of sympathy for my poor landlady. I had to admit that Holmes was definitely scoring more points thus far in the somewhat childish contention between my two housemates.
"I shall take care of this immediately," I assured Mrs. Hudson. "Go and get some rest."
I held up a copy of the Evening Standard to demonstrate that I had a suitable distraction for Holmes that would very likely put an end to his playing, at least the current off-tune version anyway.
Upon my entering the sitting room, Holmes ceased playing and greeted me cordially, setting down the violin upon his desk without the slightest hint of anything amiss in his manner; it was as if he had just been enjoying himself by indulging in a cadenza at the end of a favourite piece, and not actually attempting to duplicate the mating call of the banshee with the poor Stradivarius.
"And how is your patient?" he asked casually, looking over his collection of pipes upon the mantelpiece and trying to decide which was his preference at that moment.
"My patient is fine," I replied sternly, "but I daresay Mrs. Hudson is not."
"Oh?" Holmes asked innocently as he made his selection and began filling it with tobacco. "Why wouldn't she be?"
"Nevermind that; you know very well why she is quite exhausted at the moment," I scolded him lightly. "You know, she does actually have the ability to toss you out."
Holmes gave me a brief sour look as if I had just spoiled his fun, and dropped into his chair. "Very well, I shall only play in tune as best I can from this point forward."
"And I should say only during daylight hours for at least the next three weeks," I added firmly.
Holmes's gaze had drifted to the paper I carried, and it was clear that the topic of violin torture had instantly become a thing of the past. "They've announced the next selection?" he asked, now seeming somewhat hesitant.
"Yes. Shall I read the article to you?" I asked, folding open the paper to the newest announcement. Holmes merely nodded.
Once again, there had been submissions from a Miss One, a Miss Two, and a Miss Three, but it was clearly Miss Three's essay that stood out from the others, and was the one announced as the winner. It was once more contained in Rutherford's column for the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time around. (Holmes and I had each missed it for the obvious reason that we had each been preoccupied with our own endeavours for the previous forty-eight hours.)
[I submit this essay with the hopes that it may persuade readers that I should be selected as the next fortunate woman to have the honour to accompany Mr. Sherlock Holmes for an evening. While I am sure that English women are accustomed to hearing about the efforts of Mr. Holmes to make the city of London a safer place for them, I must assure them that his impressive reputation has not gone unnoticed, nor unappreciated outside of England. Women of the continent such as myself only wish we had such a gallant gentleman who endeavoured so tirelessly to make our own cities safe. I had first been apprehensive about leaving my home and coming to London, but when I realised that I would be staying in the very city where Mr. Holmes resides, my mind was put at ease. I should like very much to have the opportunity to meet him, and to discuss what it is that makes him so successful at his occupation. I think I should return home the better for having met him, and with a more optimistic outlook on life, knowing such a man truly exists.]
I laid the paper down across my lap. "Well, if that isn't a boost to your ego, I don't know what is."
"According to you, quite often in fact, my dear doctor," Holmes returned drily, "my ego needs no bolstering."
"Well, certainly nobody told that to Miss Three!" I laughed aloud, as did Holmes at my comment.
"I have to admit, Watson, that I am somewhat relieved to hear the essay."
"Why is that?"
"It seems as though my next companion is a well-spoken lady who has an appreciation for my art; I rather think the second week should go smoothly, don't you?"
"I don't see why not," I replied, and we each opened a newspaper to seek out that which might interest us most.