Uncle Bob notes: In Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Dr. John Watson reunites with the renowned sleuth Sherlock Holmes after living at his practice in Kensington for ten years, and after Sherlock’s miraculous escape from death at Reichenbach Falls. It is said that Watson is now a widower. Nowhere in his stories does Doyle comment on the death of Watson’s wife Mary. Searching the historical record of the period and using a bit of imagination, I present the tale of what may have happened to Mary.
June 4, 1893
My very dearest friend John,
If you are reading this note then you know that I have passed from this life. Please thank my Solicitor Johnstone for its care and transfer to your person. In light of recent events and the dastardly evil that befell your beloved Mary, I wanted to assure you that my death, by contrast, was from purely natural causes. As you know, I was in frail condition before we undertook this last and blackest of all investigations, and I wanted to spare you the worry, time, and energy over my final dispensation. No case afoot here. Your nemeses are locked up for all time. I wish you all the best that’s possible. Sincerely, Your undying, though now obviously dead friend, Sherlock.
June 9, 1893
Dr. John Watson, recently back from a visit to the Wirral Peninsula, had heard the disheartening rumors. He thought it odd that the press hadn’t got wind of it. Now, in this balmy spring morning, he laid the letter down carefully, smoothing the crease, winked back a tear forming in the corner of the right eye, and snuffled up for a bit more air, thinking…
Blackest, indeed. My Mary … I found her collapsed face first on our kitchen floor near the cellar steps, amidst the sprawling detritus of what was a full coal scuttle. Her heart had stopped. I called the authorities and my colleague Dr. James Brougham for an independent assessment, and we concurred that it was an obvious and completely destructive heart seizure….
John’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock from Mrs. Talmadge bringing tea and scones. He thanked her profusely. The dear woman had served Holmes well in the two years since Mrs. Hudson’s retirement. Mrs. H. had sold the entire Baker Street household to Sherlock for one pound, two shillings. It was her gesture of fondness for the detective who had helped her and so many of her sex through difficult predicaments; however, she did feign gruffness when explaining that the two shillings were for the repairs to the dings he had made knocking his calabash pipe on the mantel. Since that transaction, Sherlock had been splitting his time between the apartment and a small farm to the southeast. Now Watson was here at 221B to see to the last matters. Mrs. Talmadge set the tray down, expressed the hope that the Doctor could muster some sort of appetite, and departed quickly. John returned to his reverie.
… Well, I might as well try one bite. Hmm. Has a tinge of an orange flavor. Goes well with the Earl Grey. Thank God Mrs. Talmadge will stay on here while the last businesses have been transacted. Johnstone passed me this letter after Sherlock’s last rites – held whilst I was away. Yes, away. I had to get away from London, especially from Kensington.
Now, however, I had better make myself available until at least Thursday when the consignors come to remove the furniture. Oh crikey. I better check to make sure Sherlock’s old stash is gone. I’m certain he’d been off the foul stuff for years, but it would need explaining if some old dope were found.
Watson went to the gentleman’s chest of drawers and ascertained the absence of cocaine, syringes, and the like. He shut each drawer with a smooth glide, thinking …
Ah, how well furniture was made from the Empire era on back. The new mission-style stuff that they tout now is so lacking in style, and it fails to cover the machine made, ill fitting dovetails, and the barking of the runners as a drawer is returned to its housing. By contrast, Sherlock’s dresser drawers made of warm, solid mahogany: hand-crafted dovetails, and hand-planed surfaces, glided with the ease of a curling stone on smooth, hard ice. With care they will give someone excellent service for another seventy years.
After Watson closed the last drawer, he felt a sensation in his left upper arm. It was of short duration, but it caused him to think of the two caring hands that surrounded that bicep at Mary’s viewing. Sherlock had come all the way from Sussex Downs in spite of his infirmities.
May 20, 1893
I was stunned by his wizened and hoary appearance. He used a cane for support .… Why, he walked right past me to pay his respects at the casket. Only then did he turn to be at my side. His grips were firm, but I doubt he could have taken any of my weight on – he was stooped so severely. “Hello, dear friend,” he muttered, only once, and then was silent for what seemed an eternity. Prayers were said. A hymn that I requested on Mary’s behalf was sung. The flowers were lovely and redolent, but their beauty was suppressed by the cloyingly funereal lighting of the room. I never could bear the fuzzy coral hue they produced here and at many of the London parlors.
As folks and friends began to depart, Sherlock squeezed my arm again and bade me take a seat. “Watson, I think I’ve picked up a new and most fetid scent of a crime. No time for details now, save for one. We may be laying to rest a victim of a heinous murder.”
I remembered the debilitating shock I received at hearing Sherlock’s suspicion. My hands gripped the sides of the chair seat with a force that might have crushed it. The hair rose on my back and neck. My face shuddered side to side. The remaining guests departed quickly without a word. Holmes remained silent. At length his mere presence helped me to overcome this horrible spell. I didn’t think a misdiagnosis on my part was possible, but why would my friend find it necessary to deliver such horror to me at the height of my sorrow. I knew the answer. He had to.
I thought back to my feelings of grief, of anger and self-blame. Mary, no doubt, had dismissed Charlotte, our maid, for the evening and then found it necessary to bring up more coal for the stove. The climb up the stairs even with that load, however, should have been no problem for her. All indications prior to her death told me her heart was a healthy one. Oh, If I had just come home a few minutes earlier, I ….
I saw Sherlock whisper something to the parlor proprietor, and then he turned to me. “Watson, you will come to Baker Street. You can sleep on the couch. You mustn’t be alone tonight.” I protested mildly, but I just had to know what was churning in that masterful brain of his, and I ached to know what he thought had really happened to my darling wife. We left at once. A steady drizzle had dissolved any of the early evening’s nascent fog.
Watson took a second sip of Mrs. Talmadge’s tea and wandered the room once more. He wanted to remember as many of the details housed in this most historic and eventful setting.
author: Gailf548 [scene from the Sherlock Holmes Museum]
His books. By Jove, I was relieved to get the news that before the writing of his will, Sherlock had arranged with Marbury at the Yard that his books and papers would be received and stored there, and now, I’ve had the capital news that one of the older redundant laboratories will become an exact replica of Sherlock’s, and that another room at Scotland Yard will from this day forward be the Sherlock Holmes Reading Room. It means that, in a significant manner, Sherlock will be as he wrote: my undying friend.
Mary’s case won’t be among the papers. He wouldn’t have had time to put notes together, and I haven’t had the time or inclination to write it. Too painful. Too painful from that night in the rooms when Sherlock espoused murder, and too painful and enraging all through the investigation, the chase, the inquest, trial and verdict….
“Watson, let me hang your cloak near the fire. You must be drenched through and through.” Yes, and the cloaks would share the warmth with the two stragglers.
“I do so apologize for the abrupt manner and inconsiderate timing of my news, but we have to act fast. I’ve arranged for Mary’s body to undergo a full autopsy. The game is afoot.”
[to be continued]
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221b Baker Street, London, England
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