The Malingering Detective

My Watson is not in the habit of leaving unfinished manuscripts lying about. Oh, to be sure, not every scrap of his scribbling that I find tucked underneath my commonplace-book is destined for the public eye. On the contrary, the majority of the good doctor’s prolific writing is for my eyes alone. I am never quite sure whether his private output is in apology or in thanks for the unlimited license I grant him to– depending on one’s perspective– either slander or deify me in the public press.

It must be said, however, that in almost all occasions when the public is grossly misled over details of either our private life or our work, it is nearly always the case that I have behaved quite foolishly, and Watson is attempting to soothe my pride. Since I cannot attempt to set the record straight on these instances without appearing as foolish as I am, I might as well accept the further indignity of admitting that he is nearly always successful.

There are, of course, some instances where he intends to do the opposite. When my kindly, patient, positively diabolical Watson needs to remind me that, though I am quite the master of him when we are on the trail of a criminal, I am not so accomplished an actor within the walls of 221b Baker Street as I would like to imagine.

The manuscript to which I am now referring lies innocently on my desk, reproaching me for my hubris. I will write the shameful truth of it, then, if for no other reason than it will make him laugh.

It was late in the autumn, and the air was just beginning to transition into a winter’s chill, when Mrs. Hudson brought in a young man to our sitting-room. It was two years shy of a decade that the doctor and I had been sharing lodgings, but only recently that we had begun to share considerably more than the laws of the land permit. The evening was cold and dark, and I was ready to suggest that we retire when a lad entered who had recently been working at the docks.

He was clearly embarrassed to be interrupting a quiet, domestic scene in a stranger’s home, but distressed enough to put aside his hesitations. Haltingly at first, and then more confidently after encouragement by both myself and my friend, Victor Savage told his tale. He was indeed a dock worker, a sailor having arrived recently from China with the goal of experiencing fully the great cesspool that is London. His ancestry was curious, being the son of a Chinese mother and a Scottish planter. His father had a brother engaged in the same business, who after an outbreak of disease on his Sumatran plantation, acquired an affinity for research into tropical diseases and travelled extensively in search of specimens for his collection.

The uncle’s name– since Watson does occasionally deign to sprinkle some truth into his tales– was Culverton Smith, and it was this fellow about whom Savage wished to consult us. Since embarking on a youthful adventure to London, Savage had recently learned that he had been orphaned in his absence– both parents struck down by unusual diseases– and Savage now set to inherit a substantial tract of fertile land owned by his mother’s ancestors.

This would have been disturbing enough, until he reached into his pocket and gingerly removed a small box, treating the heavy ivory as if it were the most fragile glass as he set it on the table before me.

“I dared not open it,” he said, gripping my arm tightly, and I could feel the chill of the evening and his own tenuous situation settling in his bones and causing his hand to shake. “Not with my parents both in the ground on the other side of the world, and knowing Culverton Smith as I do.”

I peered at it sideways, holding the thing as carefully as Savage, and indeed, a spring was visible curled up underneath the leavy lid. Doubtless it would accost the man who opened it with an exotic and unpleasant death.

I need not elaborate, to the assiduous reader of the Strand, the plan that we laid. The broad strokes of Watson’s account are accurate; but in place of the malingering detective, it was the young Victor Savage who called for his uncle’s presence in his tiny, filthy room near the East End docks.

Which room, unfortunately, was far too small to admit even one hidden witness; let alone the trio of myself, Watson, and the Yard’s young Inspector Morton, a very energetic fellow who was still inexperienced enough to be enthusiastic, and not merely resigned, about working with me.

There was no question of asking poor Morton to crouch in the bushes outside the window to Savage’s room; he was a respectable young man, and in any case needed to be positioned to make a quick entrance in the event that Smith decided to make a more direct attempt on Savage’s life. But of course, once I had determined that I would position myself so, there was no question of Watson abandoning me. Thus we found ourselves pressed flat against a cold brick wall, surrounded by shrubbery and darkness, as we waited for Culverton Smith to respond to his nephew’s summons.

It is in situations such as these that I have occasion to remember even more clearly– as if I could forget during our normal waking hours– that my companion is a soldier as much as he is a doctor. Watson has an extraordinary capacity for seemingly effortless stillness. It was all I could do do try to keep my limbs from shaking with aborted energy as my eyes strained through the darkness to make him out; the line of his jaw set with determination, his strong fingers resting lightly on his service-revolver, his blue eyes alert yet relaxed. He seemed not to mind, or even to feel, the chill that was sinking into me bone-deep. Perhaps he could not feel it, in truth; he does like to worry at me for being excessively thin.

Whatever the reason, it was agony to sit waiting for Culverton Smith to reveal himself. By the time the affair was wrapped up, with Smith in custody and Savage quite healthy and on his way to looking much healthier once he had the chance to remove from his face the various substances which I had applied to him to achieve the effect of a dying man, I was fairly trembling with cold and exertion.

Of course, this was nothing new for me. I habitually work myself to the point of exhaustion while on a case, and and am never the worse for it after a good meal and an evening’s rest. My good doctor, however, quite takes to heart his self-appointed charge of my care and keeping. I was bundled into a hansom immediately, Watson shaking his head over my pathetic state. I was about to brush off the excess of his attentions when his coat descended around my shoulders, and his arm with it, rubbing vigorously along my shoulders in an effort to warm me up.

Well. I would be very foolish indeed to refuse that sort of attention. In fact, I relished it; Watson is the very soul of discretion, and does not often put his hands on me in public. In the guise of a suffering man, however, it was perfectly acceptable for him to do so. Therefore I leaned into him, affecting a little cough. The cough, of course, began as a pretense but then caught in my chest and turned real, and I was reduced to hacking away in a very undignified manner. I emerged from the fit to find myself curled up into Watson’s lap, my face very nearly between his thighs, and his hand having slipped further down my back. It was not an unpleasant position at all, and I elected to stay there for the remainder of the cab ride back to Baker Street.

By the time we emerged into the darkness in front of our own home, I was beginning to warm to my role. Watson resumed his fussing the moment we entered the flat, calling for Mrs. Hudson to draw a warm bath despite the late hour. He then efficiently removed all of my clothing and guided me into the hot water, his strong hands authoritative on my shoulders. He gathered up the warm water in a cup and poured it over every inch of me, and every time I experimentally reached for the cup or the cloth myself, he pushed me back with exactly the sort of firm hand that he knows I am incapable of resisting in our private life (except, of course, on those occasions when my resistance is temporary, and indicates that I desire a firmer hand still.)

By the time he had manhandled me into my nightclothes and was tucking me into our bed before attending to his own toilet, I was beginning to feel rather guilty. I was really not so weak as he seemed to think I was, after all, and I knew that I must be worrying him terribly. I resolved to put aside my pleasant hysterics.

“Watson,” I said, turning on my side to watch him at the water-basin, “Don’t worry yourself over me. I’m quite alright.”

Watson just grunted and raised his eyebrows, and a delightful thought occurred to me: there was, at this point, nothing that I could say or do that would convince him that I was well. If I appeared to be ill, he would believe me; if I insisted I was well, he would take it as evidence that I was really much sicker than I was willing to let on.

It was entirely out of my control. Who could blame me, then, for giving in to the inevitable?

By the time the doctor climbed into the bed, I found myself shivering again. Not entirely voluntary, you understand, and yet certainly not resisting the pull of the slight chill that remained underneath my skin.
“Gracious,” he muttered when he slipped in underneath the bedclothes and felt the evidence of my dramatics. “Holmes, you ridiculous creature. Next time you will wait in the cab with the official force.” He knew, of course, that I would do no such thing, but he still enjoys imagining that it is within his power to command me on such occasions. I said nothing, but burrowed backwards into his warm golden skin. I have often thought that the sun itself reflects more strongly on John Watson than on other men. Either that or he carries around a piece of it with him– perhaps it made its way inside him on the plains of Afghanistan.

When I woke the next morning, it was to Watson bustling about the bedroom with the tea set, and eventually prevailing upon me to allow him to apply a plaster to my chest. I lay back, my arms spayed out carelessly, and rasped, “My darling, that’s really not necessary. I assure you I am perfectly fine.” The effect was heightened by the small coughing fit which came on easily as soon as I finished my sentence.

My performance worked splendidly, and continued to work for the ensuing two days. Watson remained at home as much as he could, and made attempts to force morsels of food into me, his sternness as gratifying as the food itself. By the time he seemed to be expecting my illness to subside, I really was feeling quite wonderfully relaxed.

I was certain that he, too, was blindly pleased with my convalescence. Watson is an accomplished doctor, and doubtless I was pulling him away from patients who needed his services much more than I. But I am– as he has noted publically– a selfish and vain man. And he is a singularly devoted one.

And I had enough vain faith in my acting abilities, and his devotion, that I was surprised to find a short manuscript lying on my desk, two days after he had returned to his practice, with the ominous title of The Dying Detective.

The Sherlock Holmes who walks the pages of the Strand is always a thoughtless, arrogant, infuriating prick. I would hardly believe that anyone were capable of loving such a man, were it not for the clear evidence, in the same paragraphs detailing his follies, that someone does. Someone apparently much more perceptive than I give him credit for.

“Can you ask, my dear Watson? Says the version of me who has just sprung up from pretending to be on death’s door. Do you imagine that I have no respect for your medical talents? Could I fancy that your astute judgment would pass a dying man who, however weak, had no rise of pulse or temperature? At four yards, I could deceive you.”

Oh dear.

Well, I must confess myself quite vanquished. Not only for my doctor to have seen through me so thoroughly, but for the great detective himself to have overlooked that he attended me not out of worry, but out of the same kind of loving, if amused, enthusiasm with which he devotes himself to absolutely everything that it crosses my mind to ask of him.

So there you are, my dearest: a full confession in narrative form, as you like them best. It remains only for your humble servant to ask your forgiveness for my deception; and also ask that you come to the bedroom with all haste upon concluding your reading of this document, for I am feeling quite poorly and require the attention of a doctor.