But when Watson returned to St. Bart’s that afternoon, Mrs. Winchester’s bed was empty. The doctor went in search of the attending nurse, and finally found her in the children’s ward.
“Miss Lindstrom, may I have a word?”
“Certainly, Dr. Watson.” She instructed her patient to keep the thermometer under his tongue until she returned, then met Watson into the hallway.
“Miss Lindstrom, I left here this morning with strict orders not to discharge Dorthea Winchester until I returned this afternoon. As the attending nurse, you were responsible for making sure my orders were followed.”
“Oh dear,” Miss Lindstrom warbled, her young face crimping in distress. “I’m afraid Mrs. Winchester has died, sir. She passed only an hour after you left this morning.”
Watson’s heart flung into his ribcage and sank like a stone into the bowels of his stomach.
“She couldn’t have,” he said, as though it were still medically possible to reason with the final outcome. “Mrs. Winchester was supposed to go home today. Her family is waiting for her.”
“I’m sorry, doctor,” she said. “There was nothing could be done. Dr. May suspects her infection spread to her heart and caused it to arrest, but her family has declined the post-mortem examination.”
The image of his late patient beaming up at him appeared with perfect clarity in his mind.
“I’m sorry,” Miss Lindstrom repeated, and hurried back to her post.
The activity around him receded into a distant buzz as Watson’s thoughts honed on the sprightly woman who had spoken with such exuberance mere hours ago. There was something he ought to have seen during their pleasant banter that would have raised an alarm. But he had been distracted by her flattery, and by thoughts of Holmes.
You really have done remarkably badly, Watson.
The reprimand now tolled like a morbid penance in between his mental visions of Mrs. Winchester, the baby granddaughter that was to be raised in her image, the innocent family that awaited its beloved matriarch to complete their holiday reunion.
He lowered himself to a bench and crossed his hands over his face. The woman had been elderly, but she was admitted three days ago with nothing more than a mild esophageal infection. How could he have let her die under his care?
As long as he lived, he would never be able to forgive himself.
“Dr. Watson? Sir?” a soft voice gently prodded him.
“Yes? What is it?” he looked up at the hospital page. He’s going to tell me it was a mistake. All will be well. It must be.
“A telegram for you, sir,” was all he said.
“Thank you, Baines,” Watson sighed. He already knew who sent it.
COVENT GARDEN. 6 O’CLOCK SHARP. SH
The abrupt tenor was as clear as Holmes’s own voice.
Watson checked his pocket watch. It was half past five. He had only thirty minutes to get to Covent Garden and pray that he wouldn’t find another self-made mess waiting for him.
* * *
The city of London was a tangled mess. The snow had clogged most of the streets, forcing every cab and private carriage to use what remained of the main roads, and the resulting jumble of traffic that sat waiting to pass stretched for miles. Watson sat in an unmoving cab for fifteen minutes until he decided he had better walk. He checked his watch again. Run was more like it.
He reached Covent Garden at ten past six, gasping and limping as his old wound swelled beyond mild ache to acute pain. He soon found an agitated Holmes standing near a lamppost at the north end of the merchants’ stalls.
“You’re late, Watson,” he greeted him curtly.
“I’m sorry, I was…held up at St. Bart’s. And then the traffic—“
But Holmes was impatient to relay more unpleasant details. “It’s bad, Watson, very bad. Horner’s case has been referred to the Assizes, and with his previous conviction he stands to lose his liberty. His wife is beside herself, desperate that her husband should at least be home with their two small children for Christmas. Meanwhile, the inspector can’t get a thing out of Horner, and the jewel is nowhere to be found.”
Watson closed his eyes against the fresh blows. The bitter chill shorted out the hot pulse that had temporarily loosened his fatiguing limbs. The cruel wind spanked his benumbed face. Many times he had faced the hardship of inclement conditions, many times had he known the frustration of a day spent running into walls. But never had he experienced the endless and unforgiving plummet into abject moral failure.
He opened his eyes again when he heard Holmes call out to Lestrade. Watson turned to see the inspector hurrying towards them, his last hope for salvation on this pitiless night.
“Pray, tell us what you have learned, Lestrade. I do hope we shall soon be delivered from this cold,” said Holmes flatly, barely covering the obvious fact that said he already knew the opposite would be true.
“The other man…Ryder…” Lestrade grasped at the words, for he had evidently been running for some time. “He…seems to…know something.”
“It is as I suspected,” Holmes said crisply. He was all taut stillness, a totem of masked impatience.
“He evaded my men,” Lestrade went on, “and he appears to be heading…towards Holborn.”
Holmes nodded, “He’ll no doubt remain on foot.” He turned north and waved for the others to follow him. Watson started to run, but his cold-stiffened wound seized his leg. He cried out and collapsed onto the curb.
Holmes was beside him in an instant, but he sounded more irritated than sympathetic.
“Can you walk at all?”
“I—no. I cannot.” Watson’s humiliation formed warm pools below his line of vision. The tears were filaments of ice the moment they dropped to his cheeks.
“Go on, please,” he pleaded, hoping the world’s most observant man would fail to notice his wretched state. “I’ll follow later.”
“Don’t be a fool, Watson,” Holmes snapped. “Go home. You’re in no condition to give chase much less be outside on a night like this.”
Holmes shoved his hand inside his coat pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. “Here,” he said, pushing it into Watson’s hands.
“Go home, you say?” Watson snarled, his frustration and self-loathing finally inflating beyond his control. “Go home like a useless cripple while a crew of men runs about the city cleaning up my mistakes?” His outrage and shame rose above the maelstrom.
“Leave me, Holmes. Leave me, I beg you. I order you. I shan’t abide insincere and undeserved pity in this,” he looked around at the chaos that surrounded him, “godforsaken den of hell!”
“Watson,” Holmes started, as though he were speaking to a petulant child, “you’re being a trifle—“
“Oy! I’ve spotted ‘im!” boomed the voice of one of Lestrade’s constables, his blue hat bobbing excitedly over the crowd behind them.
“Wait for us here, then,” Holmes instructed Watson, and turned to follow the uniformed men who were elbowing their way through the thickets of humanity.
He would most certainly not wait for them there. He dug the heel of his hand into the hot swelling knot inside his quadriceps until he forced it into submission. Then, he rose to his feet and staggered blindly in the opposite direction.
* * *
Despite the agonizing pain, Watson walked on. He limped past festive storefronts and bands of carolers and happy merchants and rosy-cheeked well-wishers. Their brittle laughter rattled in his ears, their seasonal cheer mocked his black mood. The fierce wind churned up snow so violently that it was impossible to tell which came from the sky and which from the ground. He pressed his chin to his chest to avoid the cold and only looked up to glare at anyone who dared to turn a friendly glance in his direction.
What had it all been for? What of crime, what of medicine, what of life? Watson’s frenzied mind channeled all his thoughts into their most negative extremes, one scenario battening on another as if to outdo it for misery. He wasn’t a doctor or a soldier or a colleague. He was a feeble, dim-witted creature whose intellectual and physical deficiencies had led to nothing but destruction and disgrace.
Worst of all was the look of glowering disappointment that had narrowed Holmes’s eyes to deadened black slits, as if he had plundered the deepest corners of Watson's soul and been disgusted by the lack of substance.
Surely love was now out of the question.
Just then, something clicked in Watson’s mind. He slowed to a halt.
The world would be a better place without me, he thought with the sudden misguided clarity of a despondent soul.
That was it, wasn’t it? Who knew how much better everyone would have gotten on had he never had the ill grace to be born? Mrs. Winchester would be with her family where she belonged. Horner would be a free man. Holmes would be able to solve twice as much crime without the encumbrance of his friend’s puerile meddling.
Watson found himself standing at the corner of Goodge Street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. He was jolted by the sound of a tavern door banging open, and three lanky figures spilled onto the street. Their attention was instantly aroused by the well-dressed gentleman standing dazedly under the gaslight.
“Well, well, what ‘ave we ‘ere, mates?” slurred the tallest one as he shuffled unevenly towards the doctor. “Bit off your turf, aren’t you, old chap?”
Watson saw right past the bloodshot eyes and alcoholic swagger to a cherubic, unlined face that could not have put the boy past seventeen.
“You wouldn’t ‘appen to ‘ave a sixpence for a pint, wouldya?” sneered the second one. An ugly purple lesion protruded from underneath his left eye.
Watson still did not speak. The men began circling him like greedy vultures, cracking their knuckles to demonstrate that it did not matter whether Watson answered them or not.
“Let’s ‘ave a look then, shall we?”
When they were close enough that Watson could smell the ale on their breath, his instincts returned. His hand darted to his inside pocket and pulled out his revolver.
“You can stop right there,” he said calmly, and three pairs of arms arrested in midair.
“One more step and I shall put a bullet in your brains faster than you can beg for divine mercy.” He cocked the hammer with a shaking thumb. “And not only would it give me great pleasure to dump your worthless carcasses into the Thames, I have no doubt there is not a soul in this city who would miss them.”
“Get out of here!” he screamed, and the youths scattered like roaches into the shadows of the alleyways.
It was an empty victory. The boys would perpetrate their crime on someone else, turn up dead or in gaol, squash the promise of their youth like fragile, vine-ripened fruit under careless heels. And it didn't even matter.
Watson's eyes fell closed over a long exhale. He weighed the gun in his hand as if he had never recognized its power before. It had certainly saved him from many a dangerous situation.
He opened his eyes, and looked down at the gun.
Maybe it could save him again now.
This twisted hope lowered a veil over his vision until all he saw was the outline of dull metal against a formless white backdrop. The revolver grew warmer in his grip. He clung to it and felt its hard reassurance. He slowly began to raise it towards it to his head.
And then the sound of a distant groan broke the spell.
A hunched, stout figure was lurching up the alley, a dead goose swinging stiffly in one hand, an empty jug dangling from the other. The man struggled to lean himself against the solid wall of a building, but he lost his footing and fell into the street. Just then a carriage drawn by a pair of horses came skidding round the corner.
Watson ran towards him. He grabbed his elbow and managed to haul him to the curb. The carriage narrowly missed him.
“Sir, you are in a very bad way and ought to be inside. May I help see you to someplace warm?” he kept one hand latched on the man’s arm while he quickly pocketed his gun with the other.
The man looked up at him gratefully. His ruddy face was chapped with windburn and his battered felt hat was soaked through. But he dropped again to his knees before he could answer.
Watson examined the tag on the left leg of the goose that lay beside him in the snow bank: For Mrs. Henry Baker. Below it was an address listed on Tottenham Court-road, just two blocks from there.
“Is this your home address, sir?”
The man tried to cinch his shabby coat more tightly around him, and nodded.
“Come on,” Watson said lightly, putting his arm around his waist, “lean on me. That’s it.”
He managed to get his arm over the man’s shoulder and, using all the strength of his good leg, Watson dragged him to his flat. He was able to produce a key from his coat pocket, and let them inside.
The room was cold and barren. Stalagmites of half-melted candles and a few pieces of tattered furniture were a landscape of survival, not comfort. The gas had not been laid on for some time, nor a fire lit in the hearth; the small bundle of wood next to the fireplace was either brand-new or neglected, as evidenced by the stagnant air and absence of ashes. A man could surely freeze to death in here.
Watson lowered the man to his musty sofa, and quickly divested them both of their wet outer layers. He laid the goose upon a small wooden table near the door. He hovered a moment, considering whether his host would object if he chopped it up for kindling.
“I believe,” wheezed a voice from the sofa, “that there are some papers ‘neath the sideboard.” A frostbitten finger wobbled in its direction.
Watson stuffed the hearth with wads of paper, and before long had a small fire. He laid their damp clothes in front of it.
“Thank you, sir,” said the man with a little more fortitude. “I believe you saved my life.”
“Oh now, you’re not so bad off, are you? Just a bit too much to drink on a cold night?”
“You’ll have to excuse my rooms. Shillings aren’t as plentiful now as they once were. When my wife comes home, she’ll make us a pot of soup.”
Watson could scarcely believe a woman lived here, but he did not think it wise to press the point.
“I’m sure that’s all right, Mr….Baker, is it? “
“That’s right. And whom do I have the honor of thanking for saving my life?”
His melodramatic sincerity irritated Watson. At worst, Baker might have suffered a broken limb or a cracked rib if the carriage had collided with him.
“Dr. John Watson."
“Yes, Dr. Watson. I’m sorry if my unfortunate state disrupted your night. It seemed you were on the cusp of an important decision.”
Was he casting a shrewd eye the doctor’s direction?
“Oh, it’s nothing, Mr. Baker. I was just chasing off a band of ruffians who were attempting to rob me.”
“Ah,” he said, sighing heavily. “It is a shame this neighborhood has fallen into disrepute. It used to be such a friendly place. Do stay and let your clothes dry before you head out again.”
Watson glanced appreciatively at the fire. “I’m sure that’s very kind of you, Mr. Baker.”
“It’s the least I can do. Would you like a cup of tea while you wait, Dr. Watson?”
“Please do not trouble yourself just now. You should rest.”
But he was already hobbling towards the stove before Watson finished answering him. He brought a heavy copper pot to the fire, then turned and steered Watson to the sofa.
“Come. You will be much more comfortable here.”
Once Watson was seated, Baker returned to the hearth and splayed his fingers over the flames. He seemed to be making a remarkable recovery.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Dr. Watson,” he said, his back to his guest, “you appear to be in rather a bad way yourself. You certainly don’t seem the sort who entertains delusions of self-harm.”
So he had seen. “I’ve had a rough go of late,” Watson replied flatly.
“’The strongest have their moments of fatigue,’” Baker quipped.
He tossed a smile over his shoulder. “Nietzche. You were saying, sir?”
“Sometimes I think the world would be better off without me.” Waston was surprised to hear himself confiding in a virtual stranger, but he had little left to lose.
The teapot began to squeal. Baker went to the cupboard and located a small canister of China black tea. He brought a hot mug to Watson and settled in the opposite corner of the sofa with his.
“Why do you say that?”
“That the world would be better off without you.”
“Because my existence has become nothing short of a bane to all who cross my path. I let a patient die today either through ignorance or negligence, I’m still not certain, botched the investigation of a serious crime which led to the false arrest of a man whose precarious freedom he could not afford to lose, and once again disappointed the man I call my best friend with my usual short-sighted attempts to earn his respect.”
“Goodness,” he blinked. “You certainly have been tried.”
“Yes,” Watson agreed through clenched teeth, his despair uncoiling again like a rousing beast. “And I think the whole lot of them would be grateful if I had never been born.”
“Do you really believe that, Dr. Watson?”
Baker rose from the sofa and paced the room, mumbling and scratching his stubbled chin while he held a private conversation with himself.
He’s mad, thought Watson. Just as I thought.
Baker stopped pacing. He turned to Watson and clasped his hands decisively behind his back.
“So, you mean to tell me that you think all the people in your life would benefit by not having you in theirs?”
“That’s what I said.” When would he stop harping on this? Watson glanced with some annoyance in the direction of his clothes and reconsidered his assent to stay.
“All right, sir,” Baker said with the grave authority of a priest. “You were never born.”
“You were never born,” he repeated. “As of now, there is no such person as Dr. John Watson.”
“Right then.” Watson finished his tea. No, Baker was clearly not all there.
He leaned his grizzled head over the teapot. “Dear me, all this water seems to have boiled away and I’m afraid I’ve no more refreshment to offer you just now. Shall we take ourselves to a local tavern?” he offered, looking for all the world like he had just won a bet.
Watson thought of Holmes and his looks of disgust. He imagined him proudly escorting Ryder to Scotland Yard, reaping Lestrade’s praises and being grateful that Watson was not there to ruin it.
“Why not?” Watson went for his clothes. He found them quite dry, though they hadn’t been long in front of the fire. He began to dress, and stopped.
“That’s odd,” he muttered. He reached down to press on the chronically sore knot in his leg and found there was no pain to be had.
“There, you see?” Baker smiled triumphantly.
“See what? I must have finally rested it just long enough.”
“But your leg was never injured. You never went to war.”
Decidedly odder, since Watson had never told him he had been to war. But he would play Baker’s little game, if only for the absurd enjoyment of abandoning what was left of his own sanity.
“Then we’re better off already, aren’t we?” he said briskly, picked up his hat and followed Baker out the door.