I stepped off the ship with wobbly legs. My 'sea legs' left something to be desired. I spent the entire trek from Galveston, Texas to London, England cooped up in my cabin, unable to venture far from the toilet. It will be worth it, I told myself, I'm getting to travel the world.
London lay before me, smoggy and bustling with life. It was already very different from small town Texas, and this was only the port.
Mrs. Hudson was there to receive me at the London pier. She broke the news to me about the change in plans in the carriage ride to Baker Street.
"I'm sorry to say Miss Keaton that I received a letter from your Uncle Ian saying that he's been called to India on short notice. He asked if you may stay with me as one of my tenants until he returns, which might not be for several months." Great. What did I expect? Things never went according to plan, not where I was concerned.
I did not really have the energy to be surprised or disappointed. My lack of sleep began to weigh heavily on me, and I attempted to tuck a long strand of brown wavy hair back into its bun.
"Oh, I'm sorry; I'd never want to be a burden to you Mrs. Hudson." I felt exhausted as I looked at her stern face. The trip across the Atlantic and the swaying of the ship had made me ill, and the jostling of the carriage did not help matters.
"Oh, not to worry dear. I have just the place for you. Your Uncle has arranged to pay for your room and board; I just have one simple task to ask of you." She tugged on her gloves, not looking me in the eye.
"Of course, I would be happy to help you in any way." I had no idea at that moment what she had planned for me.
Upon arriving at 221 B Baker Street, I noticed an odd flash coming from the upstairs window. It was like there was lightening coming from inside the room.
"Oh Mrs. Hudson! There is a strange light coming from the upstairs window! I think the room might be on fire!" My heart began to pound as I turned and tugged on her arm. She simply paid the cabby and said, "Oh no dear, that's just Mr. Holmes." She sighed deeply, as though the knowledge disturbed her, and ushered me through the door.
"Do you mean, Sherlock Holmes? The detective?" I knew who he was, he was world famous. My best friend William had always followed news about him in the papers and read stories about his exploits to me.
The entryway was small, with a parlor off to the left, and a hallway straight ahead. She led me up the stairs immediately saying, "I'll show you your room first so that you may get settled." I smelled something burning, but since Mrs. Hudson did not seem alarmed, I saw no reason as to why I should be. I heard a loud noise, but could not place what I thought it was. Mrs. Hudson did not bat an eye, so I simply followed her example. Maybe the neighbors were woodworkers or something.
We reached the first landing, and the stairs wound upward toward the third floor. "This will be your room dear," she led me in through the door on the left and I stopped abruptly.
"Mrs. Hudson, I'm afraid I don't understand. I thought you meant for me to have my own room." My stomach sank through my feet. I had only ever shared a room with my sister. The room she showed me was littered with books and papers, chairs and shelves. Writing in ink and paint covered the walls, along with hundreds of small pictures and newspaper articles. Strangely enough, there was no bed, but there was a door in the wall, presumably to the room next door. They must have been connected at one point.
"No, this will be your room. It will be lovely once we tidy up. There are a few, uh, things that have been stored here. Nothing to worry about." She stepped over stacks of boxes and books, a forced smile on her face. "We shall go today and fetch you some furniture. A fresh coat of paint and it will be as good as new." She tried to give me a reassuring smile, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Suddenly, the door to the next room swung open, and smoke came billowing through. Mrs. Hudson and I began coughing and waving our hands in the air. Thick grey smoke filled the room, blurring our vision. I stepped forward and tripped on something, tumbling to the floor. I couldn't find my bearings in this smog.
A voice emanated from the doorway, echoing, like a demon's voice from a pit, "What are you up to Nanny?" The sound of the man's voice sent shivers down my spine. We were still blinded by the smoke, and I sat crumpled on the floor, waiting for it to clear. My eyes watered and it became hard to breathe. The more I struggled, the more I became entangled in the debris.
"I see you are hard at work destroying my establishment Mr. Holmes," Mrs. Hudson coughed. Somehow, she made it to the window and opened it. I knew this because as the smoke began blowing out the newly opened window, two forms became visible. Hers, and another silhouette, presumably that of a man judging by the voice.
Once the smoke cleared somewhat and I could see the man more clearly, the first thing I noticed was how he was dressed. He wore a welder's goggles and apron; dirt and grit covered his face. I could not really discern any of his features; his entire person just looked grey.
He spoke again, "What are you doing in my study, Nanny?"
"I am showing Miss Keaton her new room."
"How can it be her room if it is my study?"
"It is your study no longer. Once you stopped paying the rent for two rooms this became open for tenants." By this time the smoke had all but cleared the room, and I got a better look at everything.
The man was shorter than my brothers were, less than six feet; and I could tell he had dark hair. Beyond that, I had no clue. I had become immersed in a sea of papers and string. Dust covered everything in a fine layer. If cleaning up the room had seemed difficult before, it was going to be nearly impossible now.
The man looked in my direction, how he could see anything through his filthy goggles was unfathomable, and stalked over to me, carefully dodging the litter covering the floor.
"I object to this intrusion. I paid the rent last month."
"With a check from Dr. Watson's bank account, that is now closed. If he didn't know you still had his checkbook, he does now." Mrs. Hudson began wafting smoke out the window with a newspaper.
I watched this exchange from the floor. The instant I began to try and get up, I disturbed the dust and the air became cloudy once again. I coughed and sputtered, clambering up despite the layers of dust and clutter. Once I had escaped from the spiders web of string, I stood wheezing, dust falling around me as though it was ash from a volcano. This man's sudden appearance was volcanic if it was anything.
"You must be Mr. Holmes," I held out my hand to shake his and he just looked at it, as though it were a disappointing result of an experiment.
"I don't," was all he said, and his disdainful stare was broken by my suddenly rapid succession of sneezes.
Mrs. Hudson continued as if he had not spoken. "You have one hour to remove your things. Anything that remains will be thrown out into the street." She strode over the junk pile, took me by the elbow, and escorted me out of the room. I looked back in time to see the man huff back into his lair, slamming the door behind him.
That was my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes.
By the time Mrs. Hudson and I had cleaned up, and returned from running our errands, all of the debris had been cleared from my room. All that remained was the dust. I had never seen so much dust in my life.
Mrs. Hudson had to call in reinforcements, and I met Maggie, the house-maid. It took the three of us three days to sweep, mop, and paint the walls. The cabinets took so long to paint; I never wanted to paint again in my lifetime. While the paint dried, I shared a room with Maggie on the third floor and learned more about her life than I knew about most people close to me. By the time the paint had dried, Mrs. Hudson and I had procured some modest furniture with my Uncle Ian's allowance, and I was allowed back in 'my' room, formally known as Mr. Holmes's study.
I moved into my room with trepidation. At any moment, I expected my neighbor to come barging in, demanding I relinquish his territory. I couldn't help the thought that I was invading his space, but Mrs. Hudson was the land-lady, and what she said went.
"Dear, he would take over the entire building if I let him."
During the time we were cleaning, I did not see him once. I felt relieved, afraid every encounter with him might be as theatrical as our 'introduction'. He seemed a bit of a recluse, and when I asked if Mrs. Hudson ever saw him leave his room, she said,
"I see the evidence of his excursions outside his room by the broken dishes and stains in the carpet. He's much like a rat, you rarely see him but you know he's there by the mess he leaves."
I wrote to my family to let them know about the change in plans, and Uncle Ian informing him of my arrival. Within the first week of living on Baker Street, I had carved out my niche in Holmes' kingdom. I soon found out I would have to defend my right to occupy this space often, and the first occurrence of his defensive attitude toward my presence happened the morning after I had 'moved in'.
As I sat down to breakfast with Mrs. Hudson, she brought up the task she had referred to on our carriage ride.
"Miss Keaton, I have a request to make of you." She kindly poured me a cup of tea, and I had a sudden feeling of dread.
"Yes Mrs. Hudson? And do please call me Catherine." I tried to sound as calm as I could. What could she possibly ask of me that would be so terrible? I was overreacting.
"As per my agreement with your Uncle, your room and board is covered by his monthly stipend, but we agreed that there are a few small tasks you could do to 'help around the house' as it were."
"Yes mam; please let me know anything I can do to help you. You've been so kind to let me stay here." A sense of foreboding settled over me. My hand shook as I placed my fork back on the plate.
"Well, Catherine," she paused, and I swallowed the lump in my throat, "Maggie and I have chores to attend to. She does the washing and cleaning, Mrs. Gosling does the cooking, I oversee the household and handle the finances. But, I have thought of a job for you."
Please let it be cleaning the toilet. Please, please please…
"I think I shall have you look after Mr. Holmes." ….what?
"I'm afraid I don't understand." I really didn't. What did she mean 'look after'? Did he need a caretaker or something? He seemed able bodied when I met him.
"Well, it's very simple really. All I need you to do is bring him his meals, mend his clothes, pick up his laundry, tidy up his room occasionally, and maybe make his tea. Nothing too strenuous, I assure you." She glanced up at me from behind her teacup. I sensed a hidden agenda, but what could I do? She was providing me with a place to stay and food. She didn't have to let me stay here, even if my Uncle paid her. She could send me back to Texas anytime she wished.
"O-of course. That should be no trouble at all. I would be delighted." Oh good lord, what had I gotten myself into? I might wish I was back in Texas when Holmes was finished with me.
"Wonderful." She spoke louder, "Mrs. Gosling, would you mind bringing in the tray?" It seemed like Mrs. Gosling was just waiting for her cue, because she immediately stepped in the room from the entrance to the kitchen with a tray of food.
"Oh, you mean, I should take him food right now?" Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I had not even had time to prepare myself; to put on armor, or fetch a gun, or anything.
"Yes, that would be most helpful." Mrs. Gosling moved to stand next to me, tray in hand. I rose from my unfinished plate, I could not eat anymore even if I tried, and took the tray from her hand. The china trembled as I took hold.
"Good luck dearie," was Mrs. Gosling's whispered blessing as I approached the stairs. The last thing I saw before I ascended was the look exchanged between the two women. It was a mix of apprehension and relief.
I took extra time climbing the stairs. I told myself it was to keep the tea from spilling. Once I reached his door, I stood there for a few moments, unsure of my next move. Should I knock? Do I just leave the tray outside the door? Do I just knock and run?
Before I had time to decide, the door was wrenched open, and Sherlock Holmes stood in front of me. At least, that is who I thought it was. I had not really gotten a good look at him during our first meeting.
"Can I help you?" He drawled, bored already and I had not even spoken. Once I finally saw him, I felt underwhelmed. He was a man of medium height, as I had first witnessed, wearing a frayed dressing gown over his shirt and trousers. His black hair was disheveled, his beard unshaven, his robe was tattered, and his feet were bare. What finally caught me were his eyes. He had large dark eyes, a straight nose, and a strong chin. I blushed without really knowing why. Probably from embarrassment, possibly from his strange appearance, more than likely it was from the way he looked at me. His gaze was unnerving, cold and calculating, taking in everything he saw.
"Um, breakfast," was my reply. I moved the tray toward him, and he drew back, appalled.
"So they've sent you into the lion's den have they? Draw the short straw?" He said it so flatly, it took me a moment to understand that he was being sarcastic.
"Um, it's my job now." Brilliant, just….brilliant.
"How am I supposed to eat it with you holding it in the hallway?" How is it that he hardly blinked?
"You could take the tray."
"Oh no. I don't." He didn't move an inch. "Obviously you've never served breakfast before."
"What do you do?" I thoroughly surprised myself with my cheek.
"I'm terribly good at slamming doors." He shut the door in my face so abruptly, I drew back. The exchange took place so quickly, I hardly had time to realize what just happened. Once I came back to my senses, I felt both offended and relieved. How dare he shut the door in my face? But it could've been so much worse… said a small voice in my head.
Unsure about what to do with the food, I contemplated leaving it in front of his door. I bent down to lay the tray on the floor, but before I could set it down, a voice called out from inside the room, "Don't bother."
I swayed, my balance upset by his sudden reaction. What, could he see through wood? How on earth did he know…?
Just leave, said the same logical voice as before. Very well. If he wanted to eat he would have to come and get it himself. I had fulfilled my duty, I had brought him his tray. The deed was done.
If our first encounter was any indication, taking him his trays would be easier than I thought. All I had to do was take it up and come back down. Our next real conversation would incur a more 'heated' reaction from me.