I had entered our rooms at 221B Baker Street one day in the May of 1889, with the sole and express intent of communicating my pleasure at the morning's coquettishly invigorating Spring sunshine to my dear friend and companion, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. By way of fate's contrary nature, however, I was instead encumbered with the alarming sight of a dishevelled gentleman, sat upon the sofa, who was now twisting his neck around at such an impossible angle to peer at me through a pair of wide-rimmed and disreputable spectacles. Surprised as I was, I stood at the threshold for several seconds debating whether or not to take one further step inside the room and towards the reclining figure.
"Good morning, sir," said I, finally. "I do not believe that I have had the pleasure?"
"I believe it exceedingly likely that you have," countered the stranger, nodding amiably towards me. His voice was gruff and low, his head was a chaos of dark grey curls; his face a tumult of unshaven whiskers. I observed with censorious disapproval that a bright crimson cravat was tied around his throat. The gentleman was otherwise mutely dressed in charcoal grey. I started at the sight of a pair of mustard-yellow boots insinuating forth from the hems of his trouser legs. Was the fellow colour-blind?
"I am Doctor Watson," I persisted, and offered my hand in greeting. To my surprise the gentleman did not rise to accept my handshake. He waved it away, and chuckled.
"I know who you are, Doctor," said he. "For we have met before, you know."
"We have?" I narrowed my eyes suspiciously, and edged around Mustard-Boots to reach the fireplace, whereupon I took up my unfinished pipe from my breakfast smoke of that morning. "Forgive me, sir, but I am unable to place you within my memory. Would you do me the honour of refreshing it?"
The fellow stood, then, and clapped his hands together in amusement.
"Watson," said he, his voice now entirely altered and recognisable, "you really are quite the biggest blithering idiot - and yet I remain unaccountably fond of you regardless."
"Holmes!" I exclaimed. I staggered back. I believe I would have tipped untidily across the armchair at my back had my friend not grabbed my arm in time to save me. We wobbled for a brief moment. I pulled myself free in an irritation.
"It is really too bad," I scolded, as Holmes chuckled away to himself, quite ignoring my temper. "Why must you play these infernal games of dress-up and not warn me when you are about to do so? It makes me appear a... wait one moment! I am not a blithering idiot! Holmes!"
My friend chuckled all the harder. He grasped his trouser legs and hoisted them a few inches to parade his shocking footwear before me. "Aren't they delicious?" he sang, not expecting an answer. He plucked at his cravat. "Isn't it outrageous?"
I sucked and blew a plume of ships' in his direction. "Who are you supposed to be, anyhow?" I asked, determined to sulk, still. "Besides a chap with appalling manners and an abysmal sense of fashion?"
"I am a Mr. Bradford Ainsworth, Esq., Dealer in Rare Antiquities," Holmes replied, enunciating each word with care. "It is for a case," he added, eyeing me. "A murder!" he embellished, dramatically. I rolled my eyes; I fear that he saw me do so. "A juicy one," he finished, hopefully. "Really, Watson, you could show a speck more excitement. I thought you would be thrilled." A moue of disappointment tweaked at his lower lip.
"I am too annoyed to be thrilled," said I, sitting down now and pluming tobacco smoke around me as a futile barrier against my friend's verbal deluge. "And those boots are ridiculous, Holmes. Surely no self-respecting antiques dealer would ever dream of wearing such a pair."
"Mr. Bradford Ainsworth would," said Holmes, sniffing. "And I am he. I must go out now, for an hour or two. Do please wait for me here, my dear fellow, for I should like to discuss the case with you upon my return. That is, if your mood has mellowed and your jib is not as gruff."
"You may find my jib quite as you left it," I retorted to his disappearing back, as he clattered down the stairs and out into the street without another word save for a departing wave and a wink. Sighing, I picked up the newspaper and attempted to focus upon the morning's headlines. I drank two cups of tea, smoked a further pipe, and wrote four letters before Holmes returned shortly before luncheon. By now I was curious enough to have forgotten my annoyance, and enquired eagerly as to his progress of the day thus far. He launched his angular limbs sideways into the chair opposite to mine, and smiled wickedly.
"Ah, Watson," said he, "I have had a time of it. Quite satisfactory! And yet, the case remains open. For I have come up against an obstacle - this splendid disguise notwithstanding. Still, all can and will be resolved."
"Ah-hmm," I replied, non-committally. "What appears to be at issue, my dear chap?"
"The fact that I am not a woman," said Sherlock Holmes. He sounded put-out by his own admission.
I blinked, fairly used to my friend's eccentricities as I was by now. "Indeed you are not," I agreed. "But why should you wish to be upon this occasion?"
"I find that I must infiltrate a coven of gossips who litter the doorsteps of their respective houses along the Moreton Road. For they see all who pass by, and hear every word uttered along that bleak stretch of tarmacadam. Ah, Watson, I fear it is essential that I create and don my most exquisite disguise to date, in order to obtain the information that I require regarding this murder."
"Holmes," I said patiently, "you are over six feet in height, your jaw is firm, your nose is quite pronounced -" (I observed at this juncture that my friend had flinched, but he remained silent) "- and you are in every way, very much and most definitely of the male persuasion. How do you propose to create so convincing a make-up as to pass yourself off as the female variety?"
"That is the problem, my dear fellow," said he. "I am the very worst at applying lipstick. I shudder unreservedly at false fingernails. I tremble, terrified, at the idea of staggering around in heels. I –"
"Yes, yes, thank you, I understand the premise," I interjected, fairly aghast at the vision that Holmes's descriptive was conjuring up before me. "Um, well then. I suppose that practice will make perfect?"
"Goodness me, I was not intending on practicing," replied Holmes, "this is business, not pleasure, after all. I will require your assistance, I am very much afraid, my dear Watson."
"No buts," said he, dismissively, vanishing now into his bedroom, shedding grey wig and whiskers as he went. He thrust his head out from the doorway a second later. "Do come this way, dear boy, and stop standing on ceremony like a lost bowling skittle."
I crossed the room slowly, as a man – or a bowling skittle – who has utterly lost all hope. I peered hesitantly into Holmes's room. My friend was sitting at his dressing table, already unbuttoned to the waist and dipping into a pot of cold cream that he might remove the worst of his antique dealer's disguise. He reached into a drawer to his right, rummaged, and brought out a small case which he then tossed to me. I caught it awkwardly, and stared sadly down.
"Ladies' make up," I intoned, dully. "When did you purchase this, Holmes?"
"Oh, months ago," said he, brightly, "for just such an occasion as this. I tried some of the items out, but as I said, with a varying degree of success. How do women cope with applying that nonsense to their faces each and every day? No wonder most of them are twittering lunatics. It must send them quite deranged."
"Holmes," I interrupted, before he might embark on one of his unsettling tangents, "what makes you believe that I would be any more skilled at applying a lipstick?"
"Well, you're good at things like that," said Holmes. "Look, I bought a dress, too!" And he flicked open his wardrobe door to reveal a dark blue ankle-length ensemble. "And shoes," he said, less enthusiastically, pointing to a pair of low-heeled boots, unmistakably a lady's all the same. "And a wig." He gesticulated at a false black mane, tressed up into an elegant bun with a great many pins.
"How did you find shoes large enough..."
"I had them made especially," he replied. "Now do please come closer to the mirror, Watson, and help me with my face."
I shuffled forward to sit on a high-stool by the table, and investigated the contents of the make-up bag.
By a process of elimination and trial and error we negotiated our way through the packets and bottles. Holmes puffed and dabbed with powders and rouges; I assisted with the more intricate details, stoically ignoring his whines of protest and dismay. The Holmes I was so comfortingly familiar with gradually receded, leaving in its wake the shimmering vision which sat before me now, pouting into the dressing table mirror with an almost childlike displeasure.
"This is horrid," said Holmes. "I do not at all enjoy being a woman."
"You make a rather convincing one, all the same, now that the ghastly stuff is on you," I replied, in an attempt to comfort my friend. "Lipstick now, my dear fellow, and do try to keep your mouth still."
I painstakingly applied the red, in small swipes and dibs, until Holmes's lips shone lustrously with their new hue. One last dib, then I rested my elbow upon the table and regarded my work. Holmes blinked at his reflection.
"Quite beautiful," I said, only half in jest.
"Be quiet," said Holmes, "this is worse than a water-torture. Hand me my dress."
I fastened my friend into his blue dress, and helped him with his boots and wig. He stood, and shook himself down.
"I am thankful that these heels are low," said he, "for I have no wish to fly arse-over-elbow across an inappropriately raised paving stone. I had best set off for Moreton Road, now, Watson. Oh, will you please stop looking at me like that?"
I was transfixed, half in admiration, half in horror. "Would you wish for me to accompany –"
"No, I do not wish," Holmes replied, picking up his skirts and whisking out of the room in a loud froufrou. "I shall be hailing a cab, spending as little time as necessary at the location, and returning here within the hour, god willing."
"But your voice -"
"Can be raised quite sufficiently for me to pass as female," said he, demonstrating so in a high, quavering timbre. "I have many talents to my elbow, Watson, not all of which you see fit to fully appreciate."
The doorbell rang below. I froze, stricken. I glanced across to Holmes, who was apparently quite unconcerned. He tipped a handful of coins into a small purse, and adjusted his sleeves.
"Holmes!" I hissed. "I think we have a visitor!"
"You have a visitor, my dear fellow," said he. "For I am now Miss Amelia Foxmere and I shall be leaving these rooms in just a few seconds, if I can just locate my – ah, here it is."
"But - !"
"Shush!" said Miss Amelia, as she sashayed towards the door, flinging it wide open – for us both to come face-to-face with a huffing Inspector Gregson.
"Those stairs of yours don't get any easier," the Inspector gasped. "Oh! I do beg your pardon. I did not know you had company, Doctor. Excuse me, Miss."
"That is quite all right," tinkled Miss Amelia. "I was just on my way out. You are free to take your liberty with the good Doctor here. I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is absent at present, though. Alas!"
She raised her gloved hand, then, and proffered it to the dazed Inspector Gregson. He stared at it, nonplussed, as though it were an errant herring. Miss Amelia wiggled her fingers. Gregson took them, lifted them to his lips and planted a delicate kiss upon them.
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss - ?" he flustered.
"Amelia," simpered my incorrigible friend. "Always a delight, Inspector Gregson. Always a delight."
And with that she stepped around the Inspector and clipped down the stairs at a swifter pace than befitted a lady of her breeding. Gregson had swivelled his head to watch her depart, but he turned it back around to me now, his eyebrows raised almost into his hairline.
"A friend of yours?" he enquired.
"You could say that," I chuckled. "She seemed quite taken with you, Gregson."
"A most charming lady," replied the Inspector. "Most charming, indeed. But I wonder how she knew me? Remind me as to her name again, Doctor?"
"Better, perhaps, that she remain an enigma," said I, firmly. "Now, do please be good enough to inform me regarding the nature of your visit, and I shall be most certain to pass the details on to Mr. Holmes when she – ah! When he returns. Ha! Yes. This way, Gregson."