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Chapter 2 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall

He woke to the sounds of Mrs Hudson bumbling around the room, singing in a reedy, curiously soothing warble and occasionally breaking off to mutter something like “Sheets?” or “Eggs!”

He knew himself to be awake, but it seemed too much effort to lift his eyelids. His limbs were blocks of lead. Part of his mind reminded him this had happened before, after extremes of physical or mental exertion. During the crisis he existed in a heightened state of alertness, oblivious to fatigue, hunger or any of the other unimportant distractions of corporeal existence. Once the crisis passed, his body would call in all its debts at once.

Another bout of coughing racked his frame. Instantly Mrs Hudson was standing over him, blocking out the light that leaked, pinkly, through his closed eyelids.

“Now, Mr Verney, how long has your cough been so bad?  No, don’t tell me. Men!  Convinced they’re going to die from a splinter one minute, then ignoring the worst signs of illness for months on end. Drink this.”

A strong herbal smell assailed his nostrils. He opened his eyes to find a mug being held to his lips. Obediently, he sipped. It tasted vile but doubtless wouldn’t kill him. Mrs Hudson was a fair empirical herbalist, even if formal medical science was a closed book to her.

“If that doesn’t do the trick, we’ll have to get a physician to take a look at you.”

“Not that – butcher – Philips.” He forced the words out despite the burning agony in his lungs. “Last time, he tried to poultice my chest with a flayed mouse – ” The rest of the sentence was lost to another coughing fit.

“And it would have done you a great deal of good, if you’d not let squeamishness get in the way of good sense. Laid warm against the skin, there’s nothing like it. But you’ve been a stranger to us for over a year. A lot’s changed. Mr Philips, God rest him, took bad at the end of the summer. He sank in two days.”

Try his own remedies, did he? The Crown Prince would have said it; Mr Verney – more prudent, if no kinder – confined himself to a non-committal grunt. Nonetheless, Mrs Hudson’s eyes were shrewd.

“None of that.” There was a note between reproof and humour in her voice. “Though I could have done with you here, back then. My friend Mrs Turner – she’s in charge of the laundries up at the castle, now – she would have it there was something funny about how he died.”

No matter how exhausted he was, the hint of murder was irresistible. He cocked an eyebrow. “Go on.”

Mrs Hudson pulled out some knitting and settled down into the chair on the other side of the fire. Plainly this was at least a ten row story.

“Well. Mrs Turner told me the old gentleman thought Mr Philips might have been stepping out of his place with the young squire. Wasn’t happy at all, she said. And it’s true, that summer we’d seen more of Mr Ronald down in the village than we ever had before.”

“Mr Ronald” would be Ronald Adair, the owner of the castle. Five years ago, at the time of his father’s murder, he’d been a boy away at school. Sherlock had barely spared him a thought. How old would he be, now? Eighteen?

He made an interrogative noise, encouraging her to continue. 

“Well, who could blame him? We’ve precious few people in the place with any book-learning at all. Small wonder if Mr Ronald came down to play chess with Mr Philips of an evening and talk of natural philosophy and such. And I doubt Mr Ronald’s guardian did like it – the old gentleman’s always been one to stand on his dignity, for all he’s not really one of the Family, and he’d not know natural philosophy from a hole in the ground – but as you’ll know, Mr Verney, he should count himself lucky if that’s the worst trouble a young man of good family gets into, growing up.”

David. For a second his heart raced, before he realised it was doubtless a reference to Mr Verney’s barely satisfactory son, with whose imagined (remembered) exploits he’d fed Mrs Hudson’s curiosity on past visits.

“Indeed,” he croaked. No need to counterfeit feebleness. 

She nodded. “But I told her, ‘It’s a big step from disapproving of something to poisoning and, if Mr Verney were here, he’d tell you so.’ And I wish you had been.”

Sherlock was not sure it would have helped. Perhaps, when the castle’s master had been enduring his slow, agonising death by poison, Mrs Turner had wondered if the soiled linens and sweat-soaked sheets which passed through the castle laundries had a wholly natural origin. That could have shaped her suspicion now.

Not that there was any reason to suppose Francis Maynooth had been complicit in his sister’s crimes. He had been three hundred miles away at the time, holding down a modest official position in the Gaaldine embassy to Glasstown. 

The poisoner, confronted with evidence of her guilt, had cheated the hangman with one of her own brews, so there’d seemed no point in making the true facts public. It was allowed to pass as a natural tragedy: a distraught widow, an “accident” with a sleeping draught. Better for the boy – and the public – never to know the truth.

Maynooth had made an application in due form to assume guardianship of his nephew, and had settled in at the castle to manage the orphan’s estates as if to the manner born.

But now the boy was growing to manhood. Like many before him, he was doubtless chafing at the constraints his guardian placed on him. Small wonder if he started to look for companionship beyond the castle walls.

And now the principal friend he’d found lay in his grave. Coincidence, or something more sinister?

“You’re woolgathering.”  Mrs Hudson poked him with the blunt end of a knitting needle. “If I’m boring you, you’ve only to say.”

“Not boring. Not at all.”  

Buried last summer. People claimed the presence of poison in a corpse slowed the rate of decay, though the empirical evidence was sketchy and contradictory. In any event, Sherlock was a hunted man – strange how he kept forgetting. Really not the time to perform an unsanctioned exhumation. Leave the castle folk to their intrigues and let Mycroft deal with the consequences, should there be any.

Mrs Hudson eyed him.

“Hm. Well. Those sheets should be properly aired, now. How about you go and have a proper lie down, when I’ve made your bed up? The market’s the day after tomorrow; it brings all sorts into town. If you’re not better by then, I’ll see if there’s an apothecary there who can do anything for you.”

He could have said a great deal about the state he’d have to be in before he allowed some peripatetic quack to touch his body. But the thought of a proper bed seemed so seductive that the moment passed. It was only when he was lying down, relishing the feel of cool linen against his skin, that an idea struck him. But it seemed so fanciful that, when he awoke after the longest uninterrupted sleep he’d had for weeks, he reckoned it a dream, and dismissed it out of hand.