The Adventure of
The Lieutenant's Wife
James H. Watson M.D.
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This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues in this book are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
It began in early November of ’89. London was shrouded in a veil of fog and freezing mist. It was the kind of day a body must do anything to artificially brighten the gloom that envelops. But neither the turning up of the gas lamps nor the putting of coal on the fire could cut through the depression that descended upon me that morning.
With Mary gone to tend to a sick aunt and no patients scheduled until mid-day, I sat alone with my thoughts, filling the time by chronicling the latest case I had worked on with Sherlock Holmes. The damp weather made my old leg wound ache and left me yearning to move about. But my mind kept coming back to a nagging concern. It had been more than two weeks since the ghastly events upon the moors, and my friend had not once summoned me to join him on a case. This bothered me. Not because I missed the thrill of the chase, but because I was well aware of the dangers long periods of inactivity posed for the great man. After several failed attempts to start my account of the frightening hellhound, I decided to pay a visit to Holmes at the rooms we had shared until my marriage the previous spring. So I grabbed my coat, hat, and cane, and then left the warm confines of my house to brave the brisk chill. I hailed a Hansom cab and, within the half-hour, I found myself standing in front of 221 Baker Street.
Before I reached the stoop, the affable landlady opened the door. “Oh, Doctor Watson!” she exclaimed, registering some pleasure at seeing me at her door.
“Is he in?” I inquired.
A troubled look clouded Mrs. Hudson’s face. “Why, he hasn’t stirred from those rooms since you returned from the country, Doctor. I’m worried. He won’t let me in to tidy up, and I have to leave his meals at the foot of his door. Too often the service goes untouched, Doctor—much too often.”
“It’s nothing,” I explained, “He must be absorbed in some new case or another.”
“No, Doctor, no one has come or gone since your last visit. And he’s stopped his playing.” She raised an eyebrow as if to say, “And you know what that means.”
“Indeed.” I feared my concerns were justified. I knew how mercurial Holmes’ moods were, alternating between weeks of intense activity when he was immersed in one of his baffling cases, and periods of blackness brought on by the lack of challenge to his powers of logic and deduction. During these dismal periods, he would indulge himself with eccentric chemical experiments and somber improvisations on the violin. On the rare occasions these activities could not divert him, he would resort to the use of a dangerous seven-percent solution, that he found “so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind” that its secondary action was a matter of small moment.
I ascended the stairs and tapped the door lightly with the knob of my cane. “It’s me, Holmes.”
“Please. I am in ill humour today and I won’t see anyone. Good-day, Doctor.”
“I just want to visit,” I said.
After receiving no answer, I tried to pique his interest. “I would like to go over some notes on the Baskerville case with you.”
“I’m sure your notes are more than thorough, Watson.” He sounded weary, almost dreamy. “I have no reason to think otherwise.”
“Then come with me to lunch, Holmes. I have no patients until this afternoon…”
“I have no patience for idle chatter at the moment, I assure you. So, once again I say to you, good-day, Doctor.”
With this, I returned home. My mind, however, was not on my afternoon rounds for, as I treated my patients, I kept thinking about Holmes and his worrisome state of depression. I wished that there were a doctor who could cure ailments of the mind. Perhaps the “talking cure” I had recently heard about could ease Holmes’ bouts with depression and eliminate the temptation to use chemical stimulation. It helped with hysteria—could it also work with depression? But this “talking cure” was not an accepted treatment. Besides, it could take months, even years, to be effective. I was afraid that my friend would come to harm much sooner than that.
That night, I secluded myself in my study and pored over my journals. I re-examined the adventures I had shared with this master of deduction, hoping I could deduce a way to lure him from the brink of self-destruction. After some hours, I found myself again going over a list of his attributes and limits I had set to paper early in our relationship:
|SHERLOCK Holmes–his limits|
|1.||Knowledge of Literature.–Nil.|
|2.||" " Philosophy.–Nil.|
|Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.|
|6.||Knowledge of Geology.–Practical, but limited.|
|Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their color and consistency in what part of London he had received them.|
|7.||Knowledge of Chemistry.–Profound.|
|8.||" " Anatomy.–Accurate, but unsystematic.|
|9.||Knowledge of Sensational Literature.–Immense.|
|He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.|
|10.||Plays the violin well.|
|11.||Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.|
|12.||Has a good practical knowledge of British law.|
I hoped that the answer to easing Holmes’ bouts of depression lay in this list. Could I get him to apply his considerable talents to the study of some areas of weakness? I explored several possibilities and discounted them all–his mind was too practical. What need had he for classic literature, astronomy, or philosophy?
Only one thing could drag my friend from the depths of his mental stagnation: a new puzzle to solve!
It was two days later that I paid another visit to Holmes. The morning rays of the sun sliced through the dingy gray overcast, leaving glistening shafts of light in the misty air. As I rounded the comer onto Baker Street, a single, thin shaft struck the upstairs window of 221 B. An instant later, it faded into nothingness.
Mrs. Hudson admitted me. I gave her a questioning look, and she shook her head in a sad response. I paused a moment at the foot of the stairs, gazing at the door at the top. Then I withdrew my watch from my waistcoat pocket and glanced at the time. Taking a deep breath, and exhaling slowly, I scaled the steps. At the top, on the floor by the door, sat a tray that had gone untouched. I listened for an instant to see if I could hear any signs of activity; I heard none.
I knocked again.
“Holmes. Holmes. It’s Watson, Holmes!”
Still no answer. Fearing the worst, I went to the rail and called for Mrs. Hudson to bring a key.
“No need for a key, Watson,” mumbled a voice that was unfamiliar to my ears. “It is unlocked.”
I stopped Mrs. Hudson just as she started up to me. A faint sign of relief came to her face. I turned, and advanced on the door. Hesitantly, I reached for the knob, grasped it, and gave it a slow twist. As I stepped over the tray and entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the smell of burned chemicals. I left the door open behind me, hoping to dissipate the foul odor.
The room was dark, but it would temporarily glow as the spots of sunlight ran their course over the drawn shades. In this half-light I could make out Holmes’ elbow resting on the arm of a large wingback chair, which was angled toward the fire of barely glowing embers.
“Have a seat, old man,” Holmes said mechanically.
I proceeded toward a second chair set closer to the window. As I crossed behind Holmes, I noticed the small wooden box lying open atop the stand next to the chair. Its contents, a vial of the dreadful solution and a syringe, lay next to it. I tried to suppress the feelings of disgust and pity that filled my mind, yet I was heartened by the fact of my friend’s deep depression. He had not yet given in to the desire for chemical stimulation. If he had, he would have been unusually animated and talkative. Indeed, I would most likely not have found him in his room.
We sat in silence for some minutes as I observed Holmes. For his part, Holmes made no attempt to converse. He sat staring blankly at the dying embers. My hand rose to my waistcoat pocket and my fingers played nervously with the watch.
“I’ve committed poor Hatherley’s story to paper,” I said, trying to draw Holmes into idle conversation. He gave no signs that he had heard. “I’m calling it The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”
This at lease elicited a snort of disapproval.
“The publisher seemed to like it,” I said defensively.
“Your publisher is a git then, isn’t he?” Only rarely had I heard Holmes utter words intended to be hurtful. He must have realized his cruelty, for he quickly lightened his tone. “Makes it sound as if a disembodied thumb had a merry time in the country, don’t you think?” he said through a wan smile.
“Yes, it does, actually,” I said, trying to keep the dialogue going. “But I fear the type is already set so I shall have to live with the rather silly title.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Holmes said, his mind apparently drifting. “I suppose so.”
I struggled to keep him involved. “If you recall, I’m beginning to set down our adventure at Grimpen Mire.” His eyes brightened a bit at the mention of the mire. “I’m thinking of calling it Hellhound of the Moors. Quite dramatic, don’t you think?” He was drifting back into melancholy. “Or The Bane of the Baskervilles. A bit of alliteration is always good, eh?” But he had fully retreated within himself and we settled into another strained silence.
I was just withdrawing my watch to check the time when we heard a knock at the door below.
“A woman,” said Holmes drolly, “most likely a servant or a wife of a military man.
“Simple, sir. The force and rhythm of the knock betrays her.” He waved his hand dismissively, yet I saw the gleam of anticipation in his eyes. “But I must make myself presentable,” he said, rising from the chair with renewed vigor. “Mrs. Hudson is in the basement kitchen this time of day, so we’ll have a few moments before she lets our guest in. Please part the shades and throw open a sash or two, will you, Watson?”
I complied, and a cool breeze quickly swept the worst of the foul smell from the room. From my vantage point I could not see the woman at the front door. There was another knock.
Holmes returned the vial and needle to their case, closed the lid, and placed the box in the pocket of his smoking jacket. He then began arranging the chairs as if he were staging a scene in a play. He swiveled his chair to face the windows, positioning it so it sat squarely in the stream of light that intermittently shone through.
We heard Mrs. Hudson scurrying along the downstairs hall to answer the door.
He moved my chair so it was nearer the windows, facing his, then motioned me to resume my seat.
As Mrs. Hudson greeted the guest, Holmes strode to the door to his room and eased it shut. He listened briefly to the soft tread of footsteps on the stairs before striding back to the windows to lower the sashes. He paused in front of a window to my left, striking an authoritative pose. I imagine he positioned himself thus, knowing the glare of backlight would hide his unkempt appearance.
Three soft raps sounded upon the door in quick succession, followed by a short pause and three knocks of some little vitality.
“Please enter,” Holmes called, his eyes aglow with keen anticipation of the possible challenge to be presented. The door edged open and a woman in her mid-thirties half entered. Seeing the figure of my colleague silhouetted against the now brightly lit window, she inquired, “Mr. Holmes?”
“Quite correct, Miss…?”
“Henley. Emma Henley.”
“And the gentleman in the chair is my colleague, Doctor Watson.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You know Watson, then?”
“I don’t know him, sir. I know of him, don’t I now, he being the one who writes the stories.”
‘‘Yes, he is becoming quite the literary figure. Now, won’t you please have a seat?” He motioned her to the empty wingback. “How long have you been back?” asked Holmes.
“About a month now. But … but how did you know I had been away?”
“It is my job to know these things, or at least to deduce such facts. I had already reasoned that you were a wife of a military man, or a servant, by your knock; but now I see that in fact, you are a servant to a military man.”
“But how?” gasped Miss Henley.
“Your nails are short and your hands show a familiarity with manual labor. That says working class—in your case, a maid. More precisely, a lady’s maid. You served the wife of a military officer—a woman who was kind and caring.”
Miss Henley looked at me in amazement, then at Holmes. “You are correct, sir. My mistress was a generous soul. But how could you know?”
“By your accent, or should I say your lack of accent. I dare say you were in service at an early age and are not formally educated.” The woman nodded. Homes continued with good humor in his voice, “Yet you are obviously well read, since you know Doctor Watson’s work. And your speech betrays next to nothing of your background. Only a kind and caring mistress would take time to help her maid refine herself in such a manner.”
“My mistress loved literature. We would often read to each other—mostly the great poems—but she devoured every adventure of yours she could lay her hands upon. But how did you know she was the wife of an… Oh!” Her hand rose to caress a small pin on her collar.
“Quite right, Miss Henley,” Holmes said in a congratulatory tone. “The pin indicates you served in the household of an officer with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers who, until recently, were stationed in India. Perhaps you do know my friend, who himself was with the Fifth during the Afghan wars.”
“That was more than a few years ago, Holmes,” I reminded Holmes.
“Quite right, Watson. Quite right. Now of what service can I be to you, madam?”
“It is an outrage, sir—an outrage concerning officers of our regiment: Colonel Quitnar and his cousin, Lieutenant Lanticole, whose household I used to serve.”
Sunlight filled the room, brightly illuminating Emma Henley as she spoke. “It is a strange affair that I blame on Lieutenant Lanticole’s vain nature. You see, Mem Lanticole loved her husband dearly. She was a proper lady, keeping at home and staying to herself when her husband was away on duty. The Lieutenant built this fact into some godly virtue. He so immodestly boasted of my lady’s love and fidelity to the other officers that an aura of idolatry built up around her. For beauty, my mistress was no Helen, but her vaunted virtue made her a legend among the men, kindling distorted, foul, lusting emotions. It was like the mystique of the unconquered mountain—the mystique lures men to the assault.
“About two months ago, during the regiment’s final patrol before their return, Colonel Quitnar appeared at our door. My mistress swooned at his sight for fear of dreadful news of her husband’s fate; but he assured her of the Lieutenant’s good health. It was near dusk, so Mem Lanticole offered food and lodging for the night to her husband’s cousin, who had oft been a guest in the house.
“I was dismissed around ten, but I could hear the Colonel talking to my mistress almost ‘til I heard him pass my door, going to the guest room, which was in that wing of the house.”
“What time was that?” Holmes asked.
“About one, I believe. Yes, I’m sure it was a few minutes past one. All was silent for a time, but I was awakened from a shallow sleep by the muffled sound of someone speaking in the next room—Colonel Quitnar’s room. It sounded like he was arguing with himself—aloud to himself, you understand. It was most peculiar and quite disturbing. I lay there trying to go back to sleep, but the incessant mumblings kept me on the edge of consciousness. Then he stopped talking. Just like that! I sat bolt upright at the sudden silence, straining to hear—to understand what was happening. I heard some movement in the Colonel’s room, then, a minute later, I noticed a light shining under my door. It was moving toward the central area of the house. After a short time, I lay back down and I drifted into an uneasy sleep. I never heard the Colonel return. I awoke early, as is my custom, got dressed, and left my room to set about my duties.
“I glanced down the hall and I noticed the guest room door stood open. ’Colonel? Colonel Quitnar? Do you need anything?’ I asked as I approached the door. Something was not right. ‘Colonel Quitnar?’ I asked once more as I knocked before looking into the room. When I stepped into the doorway, I was amazed to find Colonel Quitnar had already departed. And then…” She gasped as her hand rose to her mouth and her eyes glistened with tears.
“After seeing the Colonel was gone, I immediately went to my lady’s room. I found her standing there, staring at the bed, in a sort of trance. The movement of my entering the room caught her attention and she turned to me… and…” She paused as if horrified by what was to come.
“Please continue, madam,” Holmes said.
“Mr. Holmes, the look of revulsion and fear that was on her face! She spoke with great difficulty, ‘Tell me, when went Quitnar from this house?’”
“‘Madam,’ I replied, ‘I was up at dawn, and the Colonel had already gone. But, Mem, if I may be so bold, may I ask what is wrong?’”
“‘Oh, peace! You may not,’ she retorted, ‘If it be told, the telling would not make it better.’ She then bade me to fetch ink and paper so she could pen a message to the Lieutenant summoning him home as soon as possible. I enlisted a stable boy to relay the missive to the encampment with all due speed.
“It was the next morning before the Lieutenant returned, accompanied by several of his officers. When she received them in the drawing room, she clad in mourning dress. Before them she unraveled a foul tale of rape and disgrace. In spite of the angered pleas of her husband and loyal friends, she would not name the villain until they swore to avenge her. In outraged pity, all present swore vengeance. Then, with a sigh as if her heart would break, she spoke the villain’s name, ‘Quitnar! He, it is he that guides this hand!‘ Then… then…” Miss Henley sobbed openly, “she drew a dagger from her dress and plunged it into her breast, piercing her heart and spraying the room red with her blood.”
I noticed that a sullen and slightly withdrawn look had come over Holmes.
“Well,” he asked curtly, “why do you come to me?”
I was appalled by Holmes’ tone and Miss Henley was visibly shaken. She looked at me with pleading eyes.
“Go on, Miss Henley,” I said, “Please continue.”
“Why… Lieutenant Lanticole has traced the disgraced Quitnar to London.” She looked in my direction. I nodded in encouragement. “And I would like you to find him first, bring him to justice, and prevent the Lieutenant and his men from perpetrating even another heinous crime.”
Holmes spoke in a low, serious tone, “Please step outside, Miss Henley. Mrs. Hudson will admit you into her parlor.”
Hesitantly, she stood, then looked questioningly at me. All I could do was shake my head sadly. Without further encouragement from me to continue, she departed from the room.
Holmes sat in the chair across from me, gazing deeply into my face. The harsh sunlight heightened his unkempt appearance. His hair was long and greasy, his face was rough with stubble, and his eyes were sunk in darkened pools.
“Holmes! Why did you dismiss the poor lady in such an insensitive manner?”
“The victim is dead, the assailant is identified, and his whereabouts known. There is nothing to be done, is there?”
“I suppose not,” I said. “But we need to find the colonel before Lanticole and his men kill him in revenge.”
“That is a task so simple even Lestrade can do it. You can take the matter to him, Doctor, if that’s what you want to do. Go downstairs, collect Miss Henley from the parlor and take her to Scotland Yard.”
“But Holmes, don’t you want to apprehend the culprit whose dark deeds caused these tragic events?
“My good doctor, I have found the real culprit in this case!”
“Well, of course. Miss Henley told us it was Colonel Quitnar.”
“No, it’s you, Watson! You are the mastermind behind this crime.”
“Me, Holmes? Don’t be absurd!”
Holmes rose from his chair, towering over me. His stare penetrated right through me. “Guilty thou art of murder and of theft,” he said, as if reciting from memory. “Guilty of perjury and subornation, Guilty of treason, forgery, and shift, Guilty of incest, that abomination; An accessory by thine inclination To all sins past, and all that are to come, From the creation to the general doom.
“Shakespeare, I believe,” he said rather smugly, “The Rape of Lucrece, I believe.”
I slumped in my chair. “Then you have guessed my game.”
“Quite right. Your plot to stimulate my mind with this contrivance was a valiant effort—your witness was authentic.”
“Maid to our commanding officer’s wife, and a bit of an amateur actress.”
“An actress, you say? I admit that I did not catch that. That would explain her mastery of dialect. Very good. You’ll give the girl her due, won’t you, Watson? And the anagrammatic names had even caught me off guard. Quitnar–Tarquin. Lanticole–Collatine. I assume you arranged for former officers to fill the other roles and carry the charade to the end?”
Nodding in affirmation, I said, “I had deduced that the only way to lift you from your depression was by creating a case to which you could ply your mind.”
“Deduced, you say? Ah, yes, that’s it!” exclaimed Holmes as he started to rummage through his stacks of books and papers.
“What did you call it? A Study in Scarlet, wasn’t it? And that blasted list of my shortcomings!” He withdrew a book from beneath some papers and began thumbing through the pages. “Let’s see. Ah, here it is at the very top of your list—the broken cog in your machine. Did you rank these in any sort of order, Watson? Do you consider this my biggest weakness? ‘One. Knowledge of classic literature. Nil.’ Deductions made from faulty facts lead to faulty conclusions, Watson.” He slammed the book shut and tossed it aside dismissively. “I admit that most of Shakespeare’s works are worthless; at least they are of no value to me. But he has done some studies of criminal and insane minds that are quite fascinating. Look at Richard III, the Scottish play, Hamlet, King Lear, or The Rape of Lucrece.”
He lowered his eyelids as if in deep thought then, remarkably, began a recitation: “When they had sworn to this advised doom, | They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence: | To show her bleeding body thorough Rome, | And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence…”
His eyes opened and he leveled a somber gaze at me. “Need I say more?”
“I am sorry,” I mumbled.
“You’d best go see your friend off, Doctor.”
With that, I rose from the chair, picked up my coat and hat, and started for the door. The light through the window was sliced by the falling drape.
As I opened the door, Holmes addressed me in a not unkindly tone, “My friend, it was not an unpleasant interlude.”
I left without turning, and closed the door, leaving him in darkness. As I descended the stairs, the low, sad notes of his violin drifted through the air. The melancholy tune brought a smile to my lips, for it meant The Adventure of the Lieutenant’s Wife had not been a complete failure. It meant that Holmes had sequestered the vile solution, at least for the moment. Hopefully, long enough for a real case to come along and engage his superior intellect.
Indeed, later in November, two minor cases helped to further lift Holmes from his dark mood. One involved a card scandal; the other concerned a young lady, presumed dead, who had run away to America. By Christmas of that year, Holmes was a completely changed man, as evidenced by his generous handling of the case of the Christmas goose that swallowed a precious gem. Finally, in December of 1896, I was able to wean my friend from his seven-percent solution. Yet, till his death, I knew the fiend was not dead, only sleeping. I think his retirement to the Sussex Downs would have been his ruin if it had not been for the solace of bees.