Characters/Pairings: Sherlock Holmes, Doctor John Watson, Stamford, Inspector Lestrade and some original characters.
Warnings: Post-hiatus angst
Summary: A doctor dies after a séances at a dinner hosted by the Stamfords and Watson finds himself at the doorstep of 221b once again, despite not being sure where he and Holmes stand with each other after Holmes’ return after the hiatus.
Word Count: 3670
Disclaimer: Holmes is in the public domain and instilled in all of our Holmesian hearts, but I must pay homage to the singular genius of Arthur Conan Doyle; We’d have none of this glorious deduction and angst without him.
A/N: The title and epigraph of part I come from Tennyson’s In Memoriam XI and the epigraph of part II comes from the “Epilogue”. Also my thanks and love go to the speedy work of my two lovely betas and cheerleading team siggen1 and theicescholar
And forward dart again, and play
About the prow, and back return
To where the body sits, and learn
That I have been an hour away.
"Your pallor speaks of a harrowing evening, Watson," Holmes said from within a thick cloud of noxious tobacco smoke. "What brings you to Baker Street at such an hour? And after another of Mrs. Stamford's soirees, I perceive." I could just make out his shape: feet drawn up into his chair by the fire, puffing away on his pipe. It was a scene I knew well, from my late bachelorhood. A scene that, during his years away, I had missed. Yet, instead of inspiring the nostalgia of happier times, I felt that the past colluded with the nights events to choke me with the two great losses I had suffered. I was angry at him. I recognize that now as I record the series of events that returned me to Baker Street. And it is with all my love to Mary, who, despite not being with me any longer, was still playing such a dear role in my life, bringing me to Holmes at this hour of the night.
"It is only a small matter Holmes, you obviously have a case," I said, though I'd begun to open the windows. I remembered having done this countless times before, but it felt odd now without asking his permission. "Mrs. Hudson is going to be furious walking into this smoke-house tomorrow."
Holmes waved the comment away and took to his writing desk in a fluid motion. "It is a commonplace theft. I will alert Lestrade to the culprit momentarily. No, Watson, your story has the look of the grave about it. Sit down and help yourself to a cigarette, from the usual spot upon the mantel."
I shuddered despite the warm air rushing in. In every aspect of his movements and speech I saw the man I'd known three years ago, long limbed and sanguine about the outcome of a case as if he'd never left. As if three years had not passed for him and yet, while I had little belief in the spiritual sciences I had taken part of that evening, I had in some strange way the proof of such sciences in this apparition before me.
I took my place next to the hearth, across from his momentarily empty chair, and I was thrust into the memory of how it was that this antagonism to such a good friend had been allowed to flourish without resolution. In the short weeks since Holmes' return, we had not seen each other as often as prior to his self-enforced exile. Even now as I write this, his years abroad are still very much a mystery to me. For myself they were years filled with joy, but more so of sorrow. My married life had continued quietly and happily without the distraction of Holmes' cases. The threat of being whisked away at a moments notice left Mary and I with a healthy attentive relationship, but one only possible by Mary’s perseverance.
She was the grounding force for all of the success I had during those years. I had returned from that terrible chasm in Switzerland a wraith. It was nothing like the physical illness I suffered from my injuries after my time in Afghanistan. Those had been physical with an end in sight and before any metaphysical ills took hold, Holmes appeared in my life.
Holmes' death took a toll on me, but it took me to realize that I still had Mary. My wonderful wife was patient with me and yet pushed me back into my practice and into more social endeavours. We took to weekly dinner parties with friends and while it took some time I could eventually sit without the thoughts of possible wrongdoings among our group. Stamford, my old acquaintance from St. Bart’s, and his wife Helen had become good friends. Mary and I would often be invited round for dinner. And then Mary was lost to me during the influenza epidemic.
I threw myself into work, in the same fashion that Mary had had me do, but selfishly it allowed me to be surrounded by her things and her absent presence throughout the day. But just as I was beginning to see that same dark hole I had after the Moriarty case Holmes suddenly reappeared on that fateful afternoon. Now, as I write this I curse his cold analysis. I’d been floundering for some clue that he was having just as difficult time readapting as I was, and it rankles that it took such a dreadful occurrence for me to see through his emotionless visage when it was so obviously seen by him on me.
Holmes returned to his chair, breaking me out of my reverie, and looked at me over his hands as he lit a cigarette. "You've let the indomitable Mrs. Stamford harangue you into another one of those deplorable séances again, haven't you? How indeed our great age is slipping if some of its greatest minds have been twisted into believing in such absurdities."
"It was, until this evening, quite good fun." I replied softly at his reproach. Holmes grey gaze was upon me intently. "You know how I work, Watson. Tell me everything, leave nothing out and from the beginning."
"You guessed correctly, I was with the Stamfords this evening, and as usual, it was a delightful meal and - "
"Come now, Watson. The beginning. Who greeted you when you arrived?"
"I was the last to arrive for the evening and I was ushered in by Stamford who greeted me with an excitement for the upcoming meal. You remember what he is like."
"I do, continue."
"I followed him into the parlour where I greeted Helen, his wife, and was then introduced me to a new acquaintance: a Doctor Mills. Stamford had met the doctor during his last foray into the highlands, though he has a practice near Waterloo. As I said, I was late, and we were shown directly into the dinning room before the rest of the introductions were made. There was a Vicar and his wife, a Ms. Nancy Prador, a new friend of Helen's, and Ms. Braddon the spirit medium. They dinner went by as usual."
"After the meal we proceeded back to the parlor where a round table had been set up in an out of the way alcove for Ms. Braddon's séance. The vicar and his wife excused themselves, feeling it would not be proper for them and instead retired to another table to play a game of cards. The five of us sat down and linked our hands as Ms. Braddon began a chant.”
“Nancy and Doctor Mills seemed restless and it took some moments for the room to reach the height of silence Ms. Braddon had always required. The vicar and his wife had given up on their game and were watching the proceedings, but there was nothing for some long moments. We began to hear a series of knocks or bumps that Ms. Braddon had previously explained to me as spirits rushing into the room, but I am sure are common sounds to the home. I did however, began to feel uneasy in the silence, and it felt, it felt like there was a charge in the air, much like the those machines we saw at the exhibit at the Crystal Palace some years ago. Do you remember?”
Holmes seemed taken back by the abrupt question and his attentive scrutiny faltered. “I remember it well, the contraption was immense, but remarkable.”
“Remember the sound? How deafening it seemed though there was barely any sound at all? It was terrifying. As if your body would never feel normal again.”
“I recall a similar experience. Please, continue.”
I continued as detached as I could, but it was a losing battle. The events are too near and the anguish still cutting. “Like that machine, the room withstood a silent boom. The gas flared and extinguish before the room went ice cold. Helen let out a short scream of surprise, and Ms. Prador’s hand jumped in mine. The knocking intensified, but Ms. Braddon, unphased, continued her chanting. All of this was quite common for these events Holmes, but it is at this moment that everything changed.”
“In the faint light I perceived Ms. Braddon go rigid and the hands she was holding drop to the table while her own when to the side of her head. She grew in stature in her chair. It almost appeared that she was levitating. Then suddenly, Ms. Braddon turned to me, though her eyes were wide they showed only whites. She croaked my name in some inhuman sound. Again and again until suddenly it was a voice I knew so dearly. It was Mary, Holmes!”
“Ms. Prador next to me tried to pull her hand out of mine. I could see my hands clamping onto hers and Stamford's on my other side, but I could feel nothing. I know at some point I whispered Mary's name, and Ms. Braddon continued. I'll try to be precise with her words. She said, in Mary's voice. 'John, murder. MURDER’ before letting out an abrupt scream."
I felt sickened as I relayed the message to Holmes. "It was Mary, Holmes." I told him with a soft intensity. "I could not ever forget that voice, but there was something else. Something I know I was missing. Something I knew in that moment you'd not have."
Holmes did not comment on my outburst about Mary and I felt that he was ignoring it altogether. He motioned for me to continue and closed his eyes.
"When the gas lights returned,” I continued taking a deep breath and grasping the arms of my chair in an attempt to keep my hands from shaking. “It did so in a blaze before returning to normal. Ms. Braddon slumped slightly over the table and Helen whispered for us to leave her, but we were all to shocked to move further than the settee. Dr. Mills looked alarmingly white, so I helped him to a measure of Brandy, taking some myself and distributing a few others amongst us.”
"I don’t think we said more than a few sentences between us before I decided to leave and Doctor Mills with me, but just as we took to the street the doctor began to clutch at his chest and collapsed. There was nothing I could do, he was gone before I could begin a primary examination."
Holmes's attention sharpened at me upon my final observation. "You said, you were seated quickly. What was the seating order at the dinner table?"
"Well, Stamford was at the head of the table, Helen at the foot. The vicar and his wife were on either side of Stamford, I was next to the Vicar's wife, Ms. Braddon next to me, and Ms. Prador between the Vicar and Doctor Mills. It was odd however, I’m usually sat next to Helen or Stamford, but Ms. Braddon pulled me into my seat before I could be ushered anywhere else.”
Holmes leaped from his chair and began pacing back and forth, between the hearth and settee. “And afterwards? During the spirit circle?”
It took me a few moments to try and answer Holmes, but the evening was beginning to fade quickly from my memory. I couldn’t quite remember the room, nor the people, save for Mary’s voice and the eerie white eyes of Ms. Braddon.
Holmes tisked, “The doctor, did he have any communications with a supposedly deceased voice as you did?”
“No, not at all. There were some knocks, and before the lights went, the room went exceptionally cold. Ms. Braddon suggested that it was a man; William, I believe she called him, but it lasted just a minute before Mary came through.”
Holmes suddenly stopped and leaned on the mantle staring intently into the cold, empty fireplace. “Watson, might you consider staying here for the night?”
I’d ceased watching his pacing, but at his request I could not help but study him now. This place, these rooms and Holmes were in a state of stasis from those golden days of my bachelorhood. Throughout the years that he had disappeared, I would walk by them and know that behind the buildings visage lay a place where my past was tangible. I was sitting in it now, except out of everything around me I felt like I had changed the most. I felt like I should know the man standing in front of me, but there was a great chasm, like the one I’d thought he’d fall into, that was between us. I may have come for his help, but I was unsure if I could simply walk back into the space I’d once occupied.
“You don’t imagine something untoward, do you Holmes?” He had obviously gleened more from my story than I had with the experience. Just one more frustration I had forgotten, that now, made me feel more like an useless appendage.
“I fear...” Holmes cleared his throat and took his seat once more. “I am not blind to the possibility that there may be some depths to this occurrence to which we are both unaware. I can foresee several lines of questioning that would make it unwise for you to remain alone this evening and perhaps until we can resolve this.”
I had at that moment of hesitation, of his changing his wording, a glimpse of something beyond just a suggestion that this was more than just a case for him. I nodded my acquiescence and together we lapsed into silence, before I remembered that I had interrupted him. “Holmes, did you send the name of your thief to Lestrade?”
Holmes speedily grasped the message he’d composed before I began my story and was out the door to knock up Billy the page boy to rush it over to Bow Street Constabulary. I watched all of this with a wonder of how easily it had slipped his mind.
Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before;
Holmes and I travelled late the next morning to the Stamford residence and sent word to Lestrade to meet us there. In the hansom cab, bustling through the busy London morning, I began to experience the excitement of a mystery beginning to unravel, but understanding that Holmes already figured out a lot more than I.
“Holmes, what exactly are you thinking happened? The séance, it wasn’t real, was it?”
“This has little to do with such silly parlor tricks Watson, I do suspect instead that this has everything to do with you.”
“Indeed. Well, you and Mary I should say. Do you not find it odd that you were ushered into a chair at dinner,?” Holmes paused. “Yes, Watson, I think it is you that someone, particularly I suspect Mrs. Helen Stamford, has something against.”
When we arrived we found Lestrade waiting for us.
“Mr. Holmes, Doctor Watson,” He greeted. “I see you didn’t waste any time returning to you amateur ways, I do hope this is not a waste of the police’s time, gentlemen.”
“It is nothing less grave than murder and attempted murder.” Holmes replied rapidly passing him by and knocking on the door.
The same woman answered the door as had the previous night, but a haggard looking Stamford was close behind.
“Holmes! John! What ever are you doing here?”
“To talk to your wife.”
“This is about the unfortunate incident last night, there is little mystery there. John must have told you so.”
“I’ve been told of a series of events that speak of something much more sinister.”
We were all ushered into the same parlor while Stamford went to collect Helen. As we waited, Holmes flitted around the room, taking in every bit of the room as he could. I could not suppress the slight tremble of returning to this place. Despite how horrific the evening had been here, having heard Mary uplifted me and some small part of me wished I could have said more to her in those intense moments. Lestrade watched Holmes’ proceedings as if hoping to to learn each of his movements to use them later. This lightened the mood for me; if Lestrade hadn’t gotten it yet, he never would. I also turned my attention to my friend. It was, once again, like watching him work in years past, or so I thought at first. I noticed now that his movements were slightly slower than they had been. He didn’t crouch as low as he began to examine the fireplace or zigzag the room in some alien pattern known only to himself. I felt assured in these new changes.
It was some time that past before Stamford returned with his wife. Lestrade wasted no time in ushering them into separate seats. Holmes gave him no time to begin his own inquest.
“So, Mrs. Stamford, we know how you mistakenly poison Doctor Mills but now, why, do you want to kill Doctor Watson.” He said with a low, dangerous, voice.
As Holmes had begun to unravel the events that had occurred last evening, and metamorphosis occurred in Helen. Her eyes glistened with rage as a grotesque sneer formed on her face. She was almost unrecognizable.
“You were after me?” I said unsteadily in complete disbelief. “Why?”
“You killed her!” Mrs. Stamford spat, lunging toward me. Holmes set himself between me and Helen just as Lestrade and his constables quickly grasped her and pushed her back onto the chair. Though knowing she was bested, Helen still tried to lunge at me.
I collapsed onto the settee and struggled to work out which was worse: the murderous actions of a woman I had considered a friend using the memory of my poor dear wife in such a way or the thought that I may have in someway attributed in the death of Mary.
“Holmes,” I commanded. “Stand aside.”
Holmes hesitated before he complied with my request. Though he moved only far enough to let me suvey this woman I had thought I knew. His attention was not on the murderess, but instead trained on me as I spoke to this vicious charge against me.
“Helen, she died of influenza.” I began in a voice steadier than I believed myself to be capable of. “I sat with her for ten days doing all I could. It wasn’t enough. I...” There was nothing more I could say and Holmes took over swiftly.
“You, Mrs. Stamford, have made a grievous error. There was nothing that Doctor Watson would not have done to save his wife.” Holmes lay a hand on my shoulder. Its weight, and that of his words that would follow, I can still feel now as I record this.
“What do you know?” She snapped. “You are supposed to be dead. She told me about you, your inhuman coldness, your....your nature.”
“My nature,” Holmes began with a intense steel in his voice. “Is to know. It is my business. I know a great deal more than yourself, about this and a many other things. I know Watson. I know the depths to which he takes his duty as friend, man and most of all, I know that husband was his greatest duty of all. I may not have been here, but this I know.”
I realized then that the years I lived through without him were just as many, and just as mysterious as his own were to me. I found a queer comfort in it, know that though he could easily read through the meaning of a séance and murder, he could not as clearly see what those three years had done to me. His mind was whirling away behind those indeminable grey depths trained on me.
I returned with Holmes to Baker Street after overseeing Helen Stamford’s arrest. He poured a medicinal helping of brandy for me and my thoughts turned to the darkened house and practice I had waiting for me. A place I now had little wish to return to.
“Yes, Holmes?” I said from my chair across from his. It had been growing late, but I was too exhausted from all that had occurred. I wondered if Holmes was correct. That though those three years had seemed long, and were not nearly the happiest of my life, I was still essentially the same man, just as he was.
“It has come to my attention that, if we were to continue our partnership, or should I say begin this new chapter of it, that it would be much easier if you took your rooms here at Baker Street once again.”
I smiled at him; If only he knew the degree to which he gave a more rational logic to my thoughts.
“Holmes, how were you during those years away?”
Holmes cast his eyes to the floor, as if remembering something too difficult to give words too and yet, he did so somberly. “They were far from the most comfortable years, Watson. Immensely isolating and...” Holmes trailed off and he returned his focus to me. “I fear we passed them in a very similar way.”
“I do have one thing to confess to you, Watson,” He started. “At the Stamford’s, I found devices that would account for all the phenomena you described to me, except one.”
“Mary,” I stated with a sad smile and he nodded. “She would be glad it worked out this way.”
And in my heart I still believe that she somehow saved me that night. As I record this bizarre occurrence as one of many adventures that followed Holmes’ return, it was Mary that brought us back together, and it is to her memory that I attribute the successful continuation of our partnership.