FIC: To A Doctor's Wife
Pairings: H/W, asexual but not aromantic Holmes; married!Watson
Word count: 4, 253
Rating: PG tops
Book Canon (insofar as one can pinpoint it)
Summary: a letter to a doctor's wife, like it says on the tin
Disclaimer: Sir ACD roolz. I write so slowly that if I made money on this I'd be below minimum wage.
Warnings: character death
Notes: ACD doesn't do consistent Universe creation. I have made the following assumptions: Watson did marry again after Mary, in or around late 1902; Holmes and Watson read what each other wrote long, long before it appeared in The Strand.
Beta thanks to mad_with_july and to blackletter for additional advice. Any remaining faults are mine.
January 6, 1928
My dearest Jane,
Please forgive my poor handwriting. My fingers tremble and the pen jumps about so in my grasp: I have only the light from a candle and a lingering hearth fire. Modern life was never allowed much purchase in this household.
You will, I think, realise that I must tell you its brightest light is snuffed out. No mistake, no deception this time. Would that No, I would not for the world wish him more suffering. He is gone and I remain, and must bear it as I did long ago. Perhaps those things given twice are of most value? If they must then be taken twice, we can scarce make much complaint: for assuredly this pearl – this friend, this man - was worth the price, twice over and more.
I left you in haste and with few words, too soon after that unctuous little clergyman distressed you so with his veiled insinuations, dripping euphemistic poison into the ears of our friends and neighbours in your own sitting room, congratulating you for having rescued and kept me from "that evil influence as harmful to the soul as to the body" these five and twenty years. To have to explain to you myself in halting words what he meant - to see your anger and pain that such might have anything to do with our life together: you may perhaps more easily see why I dropped the outward practice of religion before I ever met Sherlock Holmes. There is no charity in offering what is neither needed nor true.
It is for truth's sake I set this down; for truth and for your need of it. For my need also, to keep watch tonight, until in the morning they take him. I must start, as my departed friend would doubtless deplore, with the end of the tale. Gossips and whisperers may consider it safe enough now to make free with their prying and speculation - that Holmes offended against nature, against common morals or the law in his private relations. Smaller minds have tried before to cut him down to their own size: but just as I have sought in my public writings to show his true stature, here too he must be just as he was – the most singular soul I think the world has ever, or will ever know.
And he loved me. Until his last breath, he loved me. As you have loved me, Jane. And as best I could, I answered his love.
There, it is said. I know you will not cry out, not fall fainting. Perhaps you will not even be very surprised – you know all of me, present and past. I shall tell you how it was with him, with us, and you must judge whether I have been faithless or guilty only of a sin of omission. Our promise always to be frank with each other has been both freedom and bond, and I have cherished it– but there are secrets which do not belong to one person only.
It began Who knows when it began? I say rather that I came to a strange but in its way wondrous understanding with Holmes in the early summer of 1903, a time you and I remember well for our own most happy reasons. It was not a case whose details I could ever have put before my readers, no matter how well-disguised the participants. In any event, we had scarce been out of London two days before Holmes divined it all. In private conference with the lady of the house, he confirmed his suspicions that her husband's death was accidental (or rather misadventure), not murder as her stepson had feared when he first approached Holmes with a request to travel to his family seat on the Yorkshire coast.
We sat together amongst the dunes on the deserted beach below the cliffs on which the old place perched, tottering on the edge of dissolution. We watched the late tide wash in as the sun began to set behind us. There was something of the expected air of the triumphant detective about my friend, but I saw that a contemplative and introspective mood had also seized him. This often occurred when a case seemed to touch on some fundamental facet of human nature or the criminal strain or, more rarely, if it called to something in Holmes himself. He smoked a whole cigarette quickly, in a distracted manner, and threw the stub far out onto the sand. A lick of wave snatched at it, gave it back for an instant, then covered it and sucked it under, retreating and advancing all at once. Holmes' glance likewise flicked towards me and away several times. He lit another cigarette.
Had I only waited and not spoken, perhaps he would have kept silent too. But it had been some months since we had been partners as of old, and I was curious to hear him lay out once more that chain of reasoning and inference at which I had marvelled so often.
"Not murder after all then, Holmes?"
He shook his head slightly and sighed wearily. "A pointless self-sacrifice on the twin altars of bad counsel and irrational sentiment." The last word was said with less contempt than he usually reserved for it but his distaste was still evident. My own puzzlement must have been equally so. He paused, appearing to consider whether to speak of what had passed between him and Mrs Turvey.
I hastened to assure him that I would never put the case into print except he gave me permission, or if Mrs Turvey had forbidden him to share the details with me.
"She has not specifically done so," Holmes averred. "Although it is possible she trusts too much to some presumed delicacy on my part. The facts are simple enough. The late Mr Turvey slowly poisoned himself by the continual use of adulterated, dubious and very costly substances purporting to endow him with capacity in the marital bed. You will have observed," he continued serenely, putting up a hand to quiet my started exclamation, "that the course of her husband's decline dates from a few months after their marriage: there was neither discord nor the prospect of riches as a motive for her – indeed our client could hardly bring himself to see her in the light of a suspect. Mrs Turvey is scarcely older than her stepson: that is to say, her stepson de facto and de jure, if not ex natura. It was clear to me soon after arriving here, from a comparison of living man and painted portraits of mother and 'sire' that he was no more Turvey senior's son than you or I. The most likely candidate for that distinction is surely the Reverend Percival of Holy Cross church, whose service we attended this morning and who has held the office of perpetual curate there for more than thirty years. His appearance, his peculiar – and shared – adverse reactions to certain foods, his manner as he spoke about the young man: all were highly suggestive. His youthful service in India and China – his odd fixation upon Holy Matrimony as a pattern for the blissful union of God and the soul… together with a tigerskin rug, claws and teeth all drawn: the case all but marched up to me, saluted, and reported for inspection."
Holmes folded his arms and turned to me, an eyebrow raised in expectation of praise due. I confess, however, that once again I had failed to divine the pattern in the weft and warp of his logic.
Holmes gave a dry chuckle. "Aye, 'father', indeed. I deduced from the trace odour of incense about the hangings in Turvey's bedroom and the drapes of the library that a churchman of High persuasion had been a frequent visitor of his. Meeting the cleric in question over tea and seed-cake gave me the key to the rest. Whether he meant well or ill, or perhaps sought to expiate his long-ago guilt at cuckolding his friend, I believe he encouraged Turvey in his fruitless, and ultimately fatal, quest for potency." He shook his head ruefully. "The worst of it is: he need not have taken the trouble. Mrs Turvey would not have considered his condition an impediment; quite the contrary. She declared herself to be most contented even as they were, and distraught that he had not confided in her."
"Holmes, it may be that she might say that to you, for the appearance of womanly modesty, but surely a marriage without… that crucial element, is no marriage at all," I demurred.
"It is commonly supposed so." He adopted an expository pose, his long hands gesturing to emphasis his argument. "Convention dictates that this is deemed 'friendship', that is called love, and the difference between them the slapping of flesh against flesh."
I felt bound to protest this as a bloodless and unsocial point of view.
"Well, you know I take scant interest in such things. Doubtless you, the much-married medical man, are the expert here."
Beneath his bantering tone something else lurked. I knew my marrying a second time had pleased him even less than the first: in his own first attempt to present a case for publication, he had charged me openly with desertion and selfishness.
"You know I regret that I did not inform you beforehand that I intended..."
He waved my apology away. "I am aware that some haste was required in the matter."
I blushed to the roots of my hair and gave thanks for the gathering dark. I had not yet told him directly. "How…?"
"I happened to pass by your establishment early in the New Year. Doctor Alexander Ferguson, the well-known obstetrician, was just leaving by the side door. He is not a friend or acquaintance of yours. The side door leads to your house, not your consulting rooms, so it was evidently a domestic, not a professional consultation. Taken together with what I later learned to be the actual date of your nuptials, the conclusion was inescapable. Watson, I do not pass judgment. You acted entirely in accord with your nature: honourable, but rash and unconsidered. Let us hope you do not come to regret indulging your appetites so."
I was stung by guilt, and no little indignation that he had so casually divined our secret, yet not thought it worth mentioning until now.
"It was love, Holmes, not appetite. It was, and is, joyful and delightful beyond words, and I pity Mrs Turvey for being denied it, however bravely she has borne her lot. I pity you too, for turning away from it all these years. I do not think it is only for your work's sake. I think you are afraid to love and be loved, so you hide yourself in clever puzzles and pretend them sufficient!"
He turned his face abruptly to the sea. The waves were near to the high water mark, yet pulled back even as they reached their height. I watched them and I watched Holmes, how he again contrived several times to look over at me and away in quick succession. It came to me that if I dared speak of such things I must play the part of the moon – just now appearing as daylight dimmed – to draw him in, but softly. We had known each other more than twenty years and my fascination with his complex and covert nature had not dimmed. Yet what I knew of him was his to grant. I never assumed it my right because of our long intimacy.
I put a hand on his arm and he flinched. "Forgive me, dear fellow," I murmured. "I am rash, just as you say. I only wish you could know this happiness. Surely it is not too late to seek it. You spoke lately of laying aside your work…"
Holmes shrugged. "Had I been a costermonger, I should have been in like case." He drew a long breath. "Just as there are those who long to unite with the opposite sex, and those fewer who yearn for their own, so too there are some whom nature has formed entirely without desire. Shared sympathy, tender embraces, the all-sufficient companion, a peaceful evening smo- sitting by the fire when the day's toil is done: are they worthless, for want of an hour's wrestling on a bed?"
He had never spoken of such things without scorn before, and now he was reflective, almost reverent. I felt myself on treacherous ground. When I had thought of the matter at all, which was seldom, I had supposed Holmes to be a sexual innocent. Now that my pique had cooled, I did not want him to suppose I thought less of him for it.
"Can you be certain that this is truly your own nature without, ah, having made an attempt?" I ventured, fearing an angry, or worse, a distressed reply.
Instead, he laughed shortly. "When a thing is recommended so often and so heartily, the most confident man may suspect his tastes the fruit of ignorance of the world rather than knowledge of self. The experiment was a failure, of course."
"My dear chap!" Sympathy for what I imagined must be his shame coloured my exclamation, but he shook his head.
"You mistake my meaning. All was, mechanically, as it should be. Yet at the supreme moment, all I could think of was how it could not compare with the first time I heard the Pulchra es of the Vespers of 1610. I have found other pieces yet more sublime since, of course. I was very young."
"I hope at least that the lady dealt with you kindly." I could only imagine the reception had he candidly confided his relative estimate of sublimity after the act: it would have been like him to do it.
"'Lady'? Ah, Watson," he chided gently. "The parfait gentil knight."
Naturally, he would have purchased his 'experiment'. A woman of breeding would scarce have consented to what he had, knowing him, proposed without any pretence of courtship. My mind shied away from the coldness of it. I could not help but think that some feeling might have helped his case, had he not spurned that alongside the rest. But I remembered his many protestations on the irrationality of love and said nothing.
All at once, Holmes sprang to his feet. "Come, Watson, we had best try the cliff path before we must rely on moonlight alone." And he was striding ahead of me, the years falling away as he jumped nimbly from shifting dunes to stiff banks of sea-grass.
There were few usable guest rooms in the house, which was sadly decayed from its past glories. We bunked together in a narrow space under the eaves. A single casement without drapes faced the door and our bed was tucked away to one side. I took the side against the wall. As I leaned over Holmes to pinch out the candle, as he had made as if to lie down to sleep without doing so, I felt him tremble against my arm, though the night was warm.
I fell asleep quickly, to tangled dreams of the sea and of ships tossed on it, passing in the night and finding no safe harbour. It was still night when I woke with a start. Holmes was awake, staring at the opposite wall – I do not think he had slept at all - his knees drawn up and his chin resting on clasped hands above them. Moonlight streamed in through the open window, sharpening his features and turning his eyes and the encroaching grey in his hair to quicksilver.
The words were out of my mouth before I knew it.
"Holmes. Your experiment was not with a woman, was it?"
"And your vision of bliss without desire did not refer to Mr and Mrs Turvey."
"It did not."
His left hand had dropped to lie on the coverlet beside me and I covered it lightly with my own. Hesitantly he spread his fingers and allowed them to interlace with mine. Swallowing two or three times, he looked at me.
Oh, Jane, his face.
"Dear fellow, tell me. Whatever it is, tell me all."
He made as if to speak, stopped, and began again, only to say:
"I had rehearsed this so many times; yet now I come to it, the words fly away. Perhaps it is best to -" and he gently placed his free hand against the side of my face, stroking the corner of my lower lip with his thumb. I sat mesmerised by his expression, in which pain and longing had transmuted to something so near worship that I caught my breath.
We slipped into each others' arms as easily as a door closes upon a secret meeting. The plane of his cheek rested against mine, smooth, cool, seeking warmth. His hands stroked my neck and hair in little, nervous movements as he murmured his confession into my ear.
"A friend, long ago, once professed love for me, and persuaded me that if only I would dare to experience physical pleasure and the little death at his hands, I would come also to love him. When I did not, he turned away from me and friend and lover both were lost. For years I supposed him right – that I was as impervious to love as to desire. No-one I saw provoked me to lust, and no-one I knew inspired me to devotion. Then I met a worn, thin fellow with suffering eyes and a nature sweet and patient as summer, and I knew friendship again. A rational friendship, I told myself over the years: forged in circumstance, strengthened by shared work and danger and the good qualities – how many they are - that he possessed, brought only to me and put entirely at my disposal. Last year, I took an option on a property in Sussex, that when the current tenant passes away – which must be soon – I should retire there. I thought how to propose to my friend that he come with me: and suddenly, every thought was love. Every breath was longing. Every step was only to bring you near and keep you by me always. And by the time I knew it, it was too late. John…"
My name was his prayer, and his god had forsaken him.
He did not weep, only sighed and keened so faintly, as I held and gently rocked him, that it might have been a breeze singing through the casement. He buried his face in my shoulder and kissed my face, neck and throat like a loving child; like a virgin sweetheart. Like nothing on this earth, and my eyes and my heart filled. I suppose I should have stopped him out of loyalty to you, but I am not so cruel, I hope.
At length, he drew away himself, deliberately composing his features back to their habitual mask of sharp intelligence and preternatural calm.
"You belong to another. I have no claim."
I do not know what possessed me, but I drew the coverlet aside and invited him with a glance to at least lie close for the rest of the night. He smiled a small, sad smile and put the bedclothes back in their place.
"A thirsty man in a desert needs a draft of cool water; but I would not drown, Watson. I would not drown."
The further pity of it was, once upon a time I might have been in the place of his former friend, and he knew it. I told you once how he casually remarked to my astonished self how it pained him that I held so little regard for his deductive skills that I supposed he could not as easily detect on my skin the scent of Turkish cheroots favoured by guardsmen as the gardenias cultivated by a young widow. Had not you and I met, could I have agreed to his proposal? Had he expected faithfulness with it, that I should abandon the flesh for the spirit – well, you know better than any how hard that would have been for me.
Perhaps he was not wholly unjust to write of me as he did. I have been selfish but, perchance, a necessary selfishness.
On the morrow we travelled back to London: he to Baker Street, I home to you. We worked on one or two other cases before the old tenant of this place went to her maker and Holmes took up residence as he had planned.
You know, when I walked Cecily down the aisle to meet her husband, how proud I was that she limped only slightly, the fruit of hours and weeks and years of casts and manipulations and straightening boots – not to mention her lion heart, always falling only to get up again: our own little soldier, braver ever than her father was.
Holmes I could see only when opportunity, and a busy practice, allowed. You always encouraged me to visit him, remarking that even he must be in want of company that did not have wings and a sting.
Over these many years – more than he and I spent living in the same home – I thought perhaps he would eventually cease to feel for me as he had before. I do not think my heart could have lived on such short commons. Yet at some point in every weekend, usually as we sat together of an evening and as of old, he would ask with unmistakable meaning for a draft of cool water and I would move over so that we could sit or lie entwined on the huge day bed which dominated the little sitting room. Whenever I left this place to go back to town we would not shake hands but embrace as tenderly as he wished, before with straight back and firm step he turned to his doorway and I toward mine.
Tell me if I should regret it, or if I have wronged you. I cannot find it in me to believe either case. To me, it seemed little enough to give him: to you, perhaps much: but you have a loving, not a jealous heart.
Yesterday, when I fled here upon receiving a telegram from his housekeeper that he, very unwell for some weeks, had entered a sharp decline and was not likely to see the week out, I met the local physician at the door.
"Ah, doctor. He has been asking for you. The end is very near: normally the patient would be past the need for hydration at this stage, but he complains of thirst. See if you can persuade him to drink a little – he refuses anything from my hands, even drugs to ease his way. I must away to another case, forgive me."
I am long past the age when I could take stairs two at a time even with my marred leg dragging me down, but I was at the door to Holmes' room before the doctor's footsteps reached the gate. I listened to the shallow, sterterous breathing, the hitch of pain every time he drew air into his battered lungs. Some infection had taken hold and medicine had nothing with which to fight it. Where his frame had been slender, wiry and graceful it was now only gaunt and grey against the white linens, but as he turned to me when I knelt beside him, his eyes and his smile, though dimmed, held the same shining welcome as ever they had.
"You came. I'm glad of it. John…."
"Hush, Sherlock: no need for words." He indulged me the use of his given name only when we were closest, and then rarely, but there was no more time now to measure against occasion. My only care was not to cause him more pain: I had to lie nearly full length to cradle his body, one arm lightly around his waist and my face turned to his thin shoulder. So we remained as the sky darkened and the moon shone through the casement, the sound of the sea advancing and withdrawing: I spoke of all he had meant to me, or tried to, for there was no more time to measure that either.
No-one disturbed us. Once Martha spoke from the other side of the closed door, but she knew better than to enter without instruction. There was nothing Holmes needed that was not in that room. I say this not to boast but because, between coughs that shook and nearly broke him and brought me close to tears, he told me so.
When exactly he passed from this world, I could not tell. Some men have such a strong imprint on life that it echoes beyond their physical being and I do not think you could find a person in England to argue that Sherlock Holmes was not of that number.
So that is my tale, dearest. Give me a few more days and I will be home. I will bring the violin, he wanted Cecily to have it – years ago I told him of her gift for music and he congratulated me on my prescience in naming her.
The rest is in my heart, and if you wish me to speak of it, none but you deserve to hear.
Your affectionate husband,