“Isn’t it odd?” I ask, fussing with a preposterous hat that is more spectacle than practical head-wear. I object on principle to the dimension, weight, color, and uselessness of the beast in equal measure. The brim extends at least four inches around me on all sides. It is pale peach in hue with a slightly darker band and bow, neither color being one I typically choose to wear. I’m sure it weighs as much as a decent Christmas ham; it feels like it at the very least. It matches the equally impractical dress Anne wrestled me into this morning for the occasion. I plot, by the second, how best to free myself from hat and dress both and burn them.
All the best of London’s beautiful people wander around us in their most ridiculous finery, the men’s necks draped additionally in the leather straps of field-glasses. The ladies all have ivory or tortoise shell handles of overwrought opera glasses dangling from their gloved hands in lazy, irresponsible grips. All are here to watch the last run of the race season, the Royal Cup. The air is warm and sweet, full of the smell of grass freshly trimmed. We’re lucky that the wind is blowing away from the stands; it means the odor of the stables is kept away.
“Isn’t what odd?” Watson stands at my left elbow in a natty suit and simple derby. I eye both in diabolical envy: if I could wrestle him out of them and steal them for myself without scandal I’d do so without a second’s hesitation. I’m only leery of scandalizing anyone for his sake.
I perpetrate scandal on my own daily simply by existing.
“All the low-brow games of chance, the dice and cards and whatnot, those are blights on society if you ask the right people.” I indicate the whole of the track and the stands and all the preening, overdressed masses with a wide sweep of my arm. “But if the bets are being placed on a priceless thoroughbred with a mile-long pedigree trained to run very fast in a circle, it’s an occasion for a garden party.”
“There is a hierarchy even to the vices, Holmes.”
“Only because society creates one.” I stop to adjust the hat, which feels awkward and unbalanced atop my head. Watson swats my hand away from the brim, then rests my palm on the crook of his arm. “It’s the most basic truth of our existence: anything is acceptable if the right people enjoy it. Especially if it costs them too much money.”
“Seems rather ridiculous to me. Of course, most things the upper classes find interesting do.” We approach the grandstand, following the curve of the white rail separating the track from the spectators. A wide swath of grass on the other side of the rail provides a buffer between the well-dressed and the dusty track. As we reach the stands, I turn and shade my eyes to better scan the rows of seats. “I think I spy Colonel Ross ahead, speaking to that sour-faced gent in the navy derby. Shall we commend ourselves?”
“That ‘sour-faced gent’, as you put it, works for the Prime Minister. I doubt we should interrupt them. Besides, you’re not exactly among the people he cares to speak to today. He didn’t appreciate you keeping the truth of Silver Blaze’s fate to yourself as you did.”
I snort, not caring how indelicate the sound is or that the woman passing us in the butter yellow frock and feather-festooned hat glares at me for the noise. “We returned his horse in the end, didn’t we? And managed not to knot up a relatively innocent bystander – “
“-relatively innocent being subjective in this case,” he interjects with a snort of his own.
“Well, he meant the beast no harm, anyway, which is a point in his favor. As I was saying, though, we returned the animal unharmed eventually, and in time for it to win the Wessex for its owner, too.” I lift my free hand to nudge the brim of the hat just enough it feels more secure in place. “He did provide our tickets as well.”
“All the same, considering his parting commentary, it may be best we keep our distance.”
I snort again, but don’t argue further.
The parting commentary in question involved Colonel Ross’ thoughts on how ill-raised I must be, how rude and arrogant and uncouth, as well as a barb or two about my sanity and intelligence. For once, my gender wasn’t touted as reason for my inadequacy, which I appreciated. Anne took some exception to the first half of the criticism; Watson objected on my behalf to the rest. I can’t begrudge the Colonel too much. I did withhold the horse’s location and disguise until the day of the race mostly for my own amusement. I do enjoy a grand reveal, after all.
As Watson guides us to our seats, quite a few rows up into the stands, I say, “Explain to me again why this is supposed to be entertaining? Beyond the opportunity to watch people with too much money make fools of themselves, of course.”
“Being seen somewhere by all the right people? The excitement of the race? Or making a bit of money off a winning or placing horse, I suspect.” Watson stands until I maneuvere myself and the hat into a seat, then joins me. “Choosing which horse to bet on can be a highly scientific affair, really. Reviewing each horse’s statistics, evaluating the data from their previous races. Factoring in the health and overall fitness of the animal and the skill of the jockey…”
“It all sounds just thrilling.” I fan myself with my copy of the race program. Despite providing an excess of shade, the hat is a stifling affair. “Did you take the opportunity to place a bet while I spoke with that inane Howard woman?”
Watson looks sheepish. “A small one, for the sake of appearances.” His gaze turns out over the field. “Horses aren’t generally an interest of mine.”
“No, you’re fonder of cards and cues, aren’t you?”That brings Watson’s attention back to me, head tilting in cautious curiosity. My shoulders shift in a half-hearted shrug. “You’ve come home with chalk on your cuff before, a simple enough clue that points at a friendly game or two of billiards. Anne has found betting receipts in your pockets as well. Wins and losses at quasi-reputable gaming establishments. And, well, I followed you once.”
This admission makes Watson blink, four rabid spasms of his eyelids as he stares at me. “You followed me?”
“Curiosity is a compelling motivator, particularly in my case.” I look about to see whether any are paying attention to our conversation. The stands are still somewhat empty, their owners milling about below, mingling with their peers. Of those that are seated, all seem taken up in the pre-race festivities, watching the horses as they’re paraded past the rail by their jockeys or the other spectators parading themselves past in similar fashion. “It was early on in your time at the brownstone. You would slip out at random times of the day, be gone for a few hours, then return, sometimes in a pleasant mood, others in a dark one. You never smelled of liquor, so I knew you weren’t likely a drunkard. Anne would have recognized those signs herself and dealt with the situation. She’s little patience for such things, since my uncle.” I glance over, not at all interested in the procession of horseflesh. I’m more concerned with the silent man beside me. “Are you upset with me?”
He shakes his head. “No. I’m not upset.” He smiles, a weak lifting of his lips. “A bit embarrassed, perhaps. Certainly shouldn’t be surprised. But not mad.”
My hand finds his arm, a discrete gesture obscured to those behind us by our proximity. “We all have our vices, John. Some of them possess more potential for ruin than others. I’ve no room at all to judge.”
In the shadow of the hat, he slips my hand off his arm and takes it with his own instead. I wish I’d left my gloves at home; I would rather feel his hand directly under mine, not buffered by white linen. “I appreciate your understanding.”
“In the vein of understanding, and in regards to the particular topic, may I ask a question?”
“You are fully within your rights, as usual, to not answer.”
I shift, not removing my hand from his, offering an apologetic smile to a woman bumped by the brim of the hat. “At the gambling hall, you lingered near the Hazard tables but never approached them to place a wager. You looked almost…sad…as you passed them. Reluctant. Why?”
Watson doesn’t answer. His eyes drift back over the field, past the pageantry of the horses and people alike. It’s a far-off look, not so much looking at the view as some invisible place only he can see. It must not provide a pleasant view; his jaw tightens and he swallows roughly, as though pushing down something that hardly fits the narrow span of his throat. I’ve seen the look before, when we’ve passed a line of soldiers on the street or news of disquiet in Afghanistan makes the front page. When something inspires his hand to find his knee as if the injury suddenly pains him. The look is grief; it’s also regret. An army surgeon who served during an active campaign is likely to have reason enough, I suspect, to feel both.
The silence stretches on long enough that I begin to think the question won’t, or maybe shouldn’t, have an answer. “Watson, never…”
“It’s fine.” His hand squeezes mine, a feeble attempt at reassurance. His gaze remains fixed outwards. “War isn’t always battle after endless battle, march upon march. Sometimes there are long stretches of quiet between skirmishes. Soldiers find ways to amuse themselves to pass the time. Cards and dice were popular. A deck of the one or a set of the other fit easily into a pack without adding too much weight. When pay arrived, we played for money. When that was thin, chores and duties were bet instead. Those games were almost more cutthroat.”
I don’t interrupt. I nod; I know he sees the motion in his periphery as much as he sees anything else beyond his memory. I wrap both my hands around his single one and don’t pay any mind to who might see so brazen an act as a man and woman holding hands in public.
“We had a young private. Edmonds. His family live in Suffolk. I keep thinking I should visit but…He had uncanny luck at Hazard. More than one of our comrades accused him of cheating, but none of us ever figured out how. We were in the middle of losing soundly to him when the call came that Ayub Khan’s forces were en route to the Maiwand Pass.” His free hand falls to his knee, the one responsible for his limp. The one I know took a bullet during the very battle he’s talking about. “The last thing I ever heard Edmonds say was that he’d have to wait to earn the rest of our months pay until after we’d routed Khan soundly. Was a cocky blighter, that one. The young usually are.” He stops and finally turns his head to look back my way. A sad smile tugs at his lips. “I haven’t set a hand on a pair of dice since.”
“I’m sorry.” It’s a hollow comment. It always is when offered out in response to someone else’s pain. The English language lacks suitable words to do more than affix a bandage to that sort of hemorrhaging wound.
The doctor shrugs. It is all one can do, I’ve discovered, at times like these. Then he laughs, a quiet and ironic sound. “Of all the things her Majesty’s Army taught me, gambling was the least productive, but in the end, the most useful. Cards kept me from going stir crazy in the hospital once I recovered enough from the wound and the sickness.”
“I think if you’re wounded and ill enough for the Army to send you home, you’ve excuse enough to lie about for a while. And indulge in mildly improper habits.” I lean my head – or at least the hat – against his shoulder and chuckle at the awkwardness of it. Then a thought crosses my mind, bringing with it a wicked grin. My voice drops to a low whisper, even if our neighbors are few and far between. “If you’re worried about your old habits returning to taking too firm a hold in your moments of leisure, I am willing to offer you the same means for distraction from your vices that you’ve offered me.”
The most shocking shade of pink rises in Watson’s cheeks as soon as the suggestion is made. He coughs to clear his throat before turning to see if anyone has wandered close enough to overhear. He is so adorably scandalized and I have to bite my tongue not to laugh. He reads the amusement in my expression and prods a finger into my side.
“A topic for later negotiation,” is all he says, though the threat in his eyes is clear. The poke is the promise of a relentless attack of wriggling fingers and my desperate squealing if I do not behave. Below, a horn blows, announcing the race will begin soon. “The race is starting. Watch the horses, you brazen thing.”