A Temporary Lapse in Observational Skill

Over the years, I have often been asked why Mr. Sherlock Holmes chose to retire to the country. He often expressed the conviction that crimes of a horrific nature can take place with impunity in a tranquil landscape which would never pass unobserved in London, and his dislike for the place is now well-known.

The first and most obvious answer, of course, is that my friend is the world’s foremost observer of crime, and although he often enjoys the game for the game’s sake, he also displays a community-mindedness that draws him towards the unfortunates who are most in need of his services. Since there are as many, or more, in the country as in the city– into the country we went.

Then there are his scientific interests. His lifelong desire to keep and understand bees would have been difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill within the confines of grimy London and our small flat at its centre. There are, furthermore, many experiments of a chemical and biological nature which are more easily conducted with the benefit of space and ventilation.

Finally, having acknowledged that crime is often carried out more easily in the country, there is the matter of our joint criminal career to be considered.

Our most significant criminal exploit began and ended in a single evening, with silk stockings on our faces, crouched behind Charles Augustus Milverton’s thick curtains. That night we watched his death by the hand of a more daring, though no less morally justifiable, criminal than we, before fleeing the scene in rather spectacular fashion. Although I am certain we could have made quite a career of it, we never did turn to breaking and entering or safecracking despite the tantalizing taste of the enterprise that evening.

There is, however, the matter of smaller daily crimes: crimes of a domestic nature and concerning no one but ourselves. These crimes become tiresome to conceal in the city, at close quarters with prying masses, especially when there is the expectation that they will be occurring on a permanent basis.

Even with all of the very good reasons drawing us to our quiet life in Sussex, however, in the early days of Holmes’ retirement we were in the habit of travelling into London on a regular basis. He seemed to need to check up on the city in the same way that a doting parent, having sent their son away to seek adventure or education, might anxiously await letters detailing their progeny’s successes and small, correctable failures. And even as time moved on, and we settled more fully into our roles as country gentlemen, we still made a point to take trips into the city every so often.

We had recently purchased an automobile, but it was beginning to cool on the November day when we had decided to go to London to hear the first public performance of Mr. Gustav Holst’s new symphonic work, on the subject of the seven planets surrounding our own. I am the better driver— Holmes has a tendency towards distraction on longer trips— but he could see that my old wounds were paining me with the change in the weather, and decreed that we would take the train, where I could stand and stretch at my leisure.

He was always exacting with his toilet, and I thought nothing of him taking three times as long as I did to prepare for an evening out. Thus, I did not realize until I was waiting on him to appear at the door to leave for the evening that I would be showing off a very different sort of companion than I had been expecting.

Holmes’ aptitude for disguise was always one of the great joys I found in observing his work. I have written previously– though never, I believe, outside the bounds of propriety– of his particular talent for disguising himself in female clothing. As he grew older, his appearance as such grew no less believable. If anything, his natural gauntness seemed more natural on an older lady than a younger one, and by the end of the war, the fashions among bohemian ladies had altered to such an extent that playing up one’s slight and boyish figure seemed to be– from my discreet observations– all the rage among the young women of London. The more conservative ends of that style flattered Holmes rather well, and in my admittedly biased opinion, he made an even more convincing fashion-forward older matron of the early 1920s than he ever had a well-bred debutante of the 1890s.

He had never before appeared as a woman for this particular kind of social occasion, however, and I saw him hesitate minutely when he came into view and I failed to disguise my surprise. He was wearing a skirt low enough to cover his knees, but not long enough to prevent me from noting that he had clearly adapted his shaving-kit for use on his ankles and calves. The effect was one of long limbs tapering effortlessly into the sort of shoe– I am rubbish at this sort of thing, even after all these years, and am certain they have a name even if I don’t know it– with a short, raised heel, which should cause the wearer to totter unbearably, but which Holmes navigated with aplomb. A delicate coat with soft fur trim hung down almost to the length of the end of his skirts, and the wig that he wore was only long enough to hang down about his ears, just below his hat, and matched his true head of hair in that it was jet-black but streaked with grey.

Clearly, he had purchased this ensemble recently– possibly in hopes of a case which would require such a disguise, but equally possibly for just such an occasion as this. I found myself smiling at the idea of his choosing this outfit carefully with the sole objective of being seen on my arm at the symphony while wearing it. Seeing my smile, his charming diffidence vanished, to be replaced by the supreme confidence that was as once entirely his own and, somehow, altered minutely to flawlessly suit his feminine affect.

Take my arm he did, and after a pleasant train ride we arrived at Queen’s Hall with a little time to spare before the performance began. Already it was quite crowded: the piece had been performed before, privately, to great acclaim, and the upper strata of the general public were now able and eager to see it presented to general audiences at last. The maestro, Mr. Coates, was also circulating in the lobby, and many patrons angled for an audience with him– an honour in which Holmes had no interest whatsoever, despite his love of music.

I did think that I could do with a spot of brandy, for even having taken a restful train ride into the city my thigh was aching, and without my having to say a word, Holmes started leading me over to a vendor in the corner.

It was then that I heard a voice crying, “I say! John Watson!” and the sound of heavy steps behind me.

I turned, and Holmes trailed slightly behind my movement, perfectly in character as a demure and ethereal woman. Then I realized that it was, of all people, Giles Lestrade, formerly of Scotland Yard and now– it was plain even to me– a respectable retired old gentleman. The care of the work had been erased from his face, leaving him softer and kinder-looking than I had known him as an inspector, and he positively beamed to see me. I am afraid I probably failed to conceal my surprise at running into him at a symphony concert; for all the years Holmes and I had worked with the man, he had never shown the slightest inclination towards music, or indeed any art. Even what Holmes would call the art of detection Lestrade treated more as a process. It was what made him simultaneously so valuable and, to my friend, so frustrating.

Apparently I was not subtle. “You’re surprised to see me,” he said, shaking my hand warmly. Holmes held his out, still despite a touch of arthritis a white delicate thing that could pass easily for a lady’s even when the rest of him does not match. Lestrade brushed his lips over it, and for a moment I held my breath. Holmes is virtually undetectable as a woman, I am sure of it, and I have never once worried for his safety when he goes out dressed as such for a case. If there were one person in the world besides myself who could see though him, however, it would be Giles Lestrade. Lestrade’s eyes lingered on him for a moment– no more than is polite, but certainly noticeable. Then, to my relief, he turned back to me, his smile genial and unconcerned. I supposed that I had been successful in writing myself as such a rogue that even an old acquaintance would not be surprised to find me at a social occasion with a previously unknown lady.

I acknowledged my surprise, and Lestrade looked around conspiratorially before saying, “Well, I’ll admit to you, Watson, that I’m not here purely for pleasure. Oh no, not on business, not really– only, well. You will certainly think me a doddering fool when I tell you, and overbearing to boot. It’s my nephew, James. It’s the lad’s first year in the police force, and I’m just about as proud of him as I could be. He was following the case of a blackmailer, and it led him here– apparently the scoundrel communicates his demands to victims here, during performances, where they cannot possibly make a fuss or risk public humiliation. So, well, my James is here, and I thought to myself, I’ll just pick up a ticket myself and keep an eye on him. I’d like to hear a spot of good music anyway, no reason not to. So there you have it, Watson, and do keep quiet about it, if you don’t mind.”

“I certainly will,” I laughed. “Well, I can’t say I blame you. I think all of us long for a little bit of action every so often, even if it’s through the eyes of another.”

“Oh, certainly,” said Lestrade, and his eyes sparkled as he said, “And Holmes? How is the old boy doing? Truly, I would have recommended you two to James, as this case is right up your alley– if it weren’t for the fact that he wants to bring in his blackmailer alive!” He gave a hearty guffaw at that, throwing back his head.

I felt Holmes’ fingers tighten slightly on my arm– imperceptible to the eye, but a small indication of his anxiety nonetheless. Was he anxious to hear how I would report on him? Surely not, I thought, for he trusts me implicitly with such things.

“I have seen him recently,” I said, which was an answer with the benefit of truth. “He is hard at work on a new treatise on the creation of paper tape containing random information for use in conjunction with a Vernam cipher, which he assures me would result in a perfectly unbreakable code.” This was also true, and I sensed Holmes’ small quiver of pleasure at my having remembered the particulars of this venture.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Lestrade, seeming genuinely gleeful. “Simply wonderful. You must give him my best the next time you get out to Sussex, and convince him to come into the city some time. London yearns for him, I am sure of it.” He rubbed his hands together, appearing entirely taken with the idea of Holmes holed away by himself, directing the full power of his attention upon the practical details of cryptography. “Well then– I see, Watson, that you and your charming lady were on your way for a drink, and I won’t keep you. I’ll just be skulking around in the corners, don’t mind me.” He eyes twinkled, and then he was off.

I could feel a nervous energy emanating from Holmes, and procured a drink for him as well as myself before leading us to our seats. There were a few other chairs in the box where we were seated, but they were unoccupied as of yet, and as soon as the door had closed behind us and we had seated ourselves, Holmes turned his piercing gaze on me, gripping his drink tightly and looking rather panicked. “Watson!” he murmured. “What on Earth was that?”

I hesitated out of habit before running a firm hand down his back soothingly; then I remembered that we were swathed in darkness already, and then I further remembered that Holmes was a woman for the evening, and for a man to casually touch a woman to whom he is attached in public is not so very scandalous. “What it is, my dear?” I asked, a flutter of anxiety in my belly. Perhaps I had misspoken on the subject of Holmes’ occupation, after all, and offended him in some way.

If it weren’t for the fact that he wants to bring in his blackmailer alive,” Holmes hissed, and it took me a moment of confusion to recognize that he was quoting Lestrade.

“Ah,” I said slowly. “Yes, that was… rather an odd thing to say.”

“Odd!” he exclaimed, “Watson! It was– calamitous! Or rather, I had no idea just how close we were to calamity, thirty years ago.”

I cast my mind back, and recalled the case to which Holmes referred: Milverton the blackmailer, whom, I recall, Holmes satirically suggested to Lestrade that we had been responsible for killing.

Apparently, Lestrade had not taken it as a joke.

Just as it hit me that our friend Giles Lestrade had, in his own mind, allowed us to cover up murder for thirty years, the door to the box opened and a group of patrons entered, speculating loudly about which musicians of their acquaintance were likely to be playing that evening. I glanced sideways at Holmes, who was leaning back in his seat now, instantly completely relaxed for the benefit of our new companions. I forced myself to unclench my fists and force out some small talk with Holmes as the musicians slowly filled the stage. Apparently innovations in the technology of musical instruments had once fallen within the purview of an investigation, or possibly were expected to, since my companion was able to point out a recent invention on stage: an oboe twice as long as the instrument with which audiences were already acquainted, manufactured by the French. I was able to lose myself in fascination with the large and varied force of musicians assembling onstage, until the moment that Mr. Coates appeared and the music began.

The beginning of the music was so grandiose as to actually strike fear into me– the audience burst into applause at the conclusion of the first section– but as the piece wore on, and became somewhat more esoteric, I found my thoughts wandering.

As always, they wandered first to Holmes. In truth, I am no great connoisseur of music, but I can always rely on entertainment of the highest order in the concert hall, because at any moment where I cannot find something of interest on the stage, the most fascinating creature in the world is still by my side.

As the orchestra made its way through the musical description of the solar system, I turned slightly to glance at Holmes, whose eyes were closed, though I fancied he could still feel my eyes upon him, and flushed slightly at the attention. The subject of the music called to mind my very first impressions of the man, when he had insisted that he had no use for any knowledge of the solar system. I realized that I had never asked him if he had amended this opinion, and resolved to do so after the performance.

Despite myself, my mind was then pulled to the remarkable conversation with Lestrade, and its import. The fact that Lestrade would cover up such a thing did not surprise me quite as much as it seemed to surprise Holmes. I am a loyal man, and Lestrade is also a loyal man in his own way, though his allegiance is to justice in the abstract where mine is, on a practical level, to Sherlock Holmes. In the case of Charles Augustus Milverton, our loyalties would have aligned even if we had been the blackmailer’s executioners; justice was undoubtedly done. Lestrade was clearly aware that we did not make a habit thereafter of dispatching our quarries in that fashion, so I was not surprised that he would be content to allow the matter to come to rest.

All at once, I was seized with the desire to shake Lestrade’s hand again, to look him in the eye and thank him for all he had done for my friend and I. I listened to the final few depictions of celestial bodies contentedly, startling a little when the voices of a female chorus began drifting unexpectedly from just beyond the stage, finally fading out into silence at the conclusion of the piece.

Following the concert, I led Homes as quickly as I could back out into the lobby, scanning the chattering crowd for Lestrade. I could not see him, and eventually we gave up the attempt and stepped out onto the pavement, where there seemed to be a significant commotion underway.

Holmes rushed forward towards the tangle of men and limbs on the ground. One delicate hand fluttering to his lips made it seem as though his interest was a lady’s horror of violence, and not his own insatiable and bloodthirsty curiosity. I followed him, and finally found him standing beside the very man whom we had just been seeking. Lestrade was quite excited, but was slowly calming as the struggle at the heart of the disturbance had resolved itself into a well-dressed older gentleman being shackled by two young fellows, one of whom surely was the nephew that Lestrade had come to observe.

Lestrade looked extremely pleased, as well he ought. A girl stood weeping on the pavement as the man was led away, and one constable took control of the blackmailer and led him away while the other went to comfort her– presumably the victim of tonight’s attempt.

“Very tidy,” Lestrade said, bouncing on his heels with excitement, not at all concerned that Holmes had appeared beside him and was observing the scene keenly. “Very tidy indeed. Both arresting officers within earshot of the threat, and the lady as witness to boot, as soon as she collects herself.” I managed to elbow my way through to stand beside Holmes, and Lestrade turned to us: “Well, gentlemen, I must be off– a celebratory drink is in order, I’m sure, as soon as James is finished at the station.” He seized Holmes’ hand and shook it, squeezed mine congenially, and then disappeared into the dissipating crowd.

We were in the train car, both of us staring pensively out the window at the passing countryside, before either of us spoke.

“Holmes,” I began, “it occurs to me that–”

He waved his hand to silence me. “There is really no need, my good fellow, to remind me of my embarrassing lapse in observational skill over the last several decades where our friend Lestrade is concerned.”

I could not contain a ripple of delighted laughter, however, and had to bury by mouth in my hand to conceal it. “He knew us to be hardened criminals all along,” I mused.

“As usual, his most significant conclusion was erroneous,” sniffed Holmes, “As we have murdered no-one. I will admit that some unavoidable clues may have led him to a few paltry deductions that are in fact accurate.”

It was the most I was likely to get from him on the matter. The carriage was otherwise empty, and despite a few smudges to his makeup Holmes still looked alluring enough as a woman to entirely fool everyone but myself and, apparently, Giles Lestrade. I slid over to the other side to rest my head on his shoulder and my arm around his middle, caressing his waist over the thin fabric of the dress.

I had one more topic of questioning for him: the matter of whether he had ever learned the Solar System, or if the programmatic aspect of tonight’s performance might as well have been gibberish for him. I decided to leave it for after the train’s arrival in Sussex. Then we would walk hand in hand from the station back to our cottage, that mysterious firmament overhead, our experiments and bees below, and our friends and supporters– numerous if not always recognized– in London, where they always have been.