Lend Me An Ear

(Author’s note: Still playing catch-up.  This is the story that should have gone with “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.”  The one for Hound of the Baskervilles is still forthcoming.  The post on ”The Blue Carbuncle” will probably go up before that, though, then the story to go with it will probably follow after I get last week’s up.  Plan is to be fully caught up by the end of the week, barring malfunctioning air conditioners and storms that knock out the power a day after fixing the AC. 

Yes, last week was fun.

Things I’ve neglected thus far that are essential bits of Holmesian lore: his prolific monograph penning.  It’s something that I think is mentioned in Book One, but I haven’t touched on in these shorts yet, and it needs to be.  Especially since it comes up again in “The Cardboard Box.”

Something else I’ve neglected, more specific to Charlotte’s lore: Anne and her knowledge of all the sneaking about going on right under her nose.

Both get addressed now.)

My desk is buried in sheets of foolscap, some wadded up into forgotten balls and tossed to the far corner; others, scribbled over with notes, sit near at hand for reference.  A stack of blank pieces lingers beneath my pen, awaiting its next stroke.  Each of the discarded wads is a failed attempt at a beginning; two, in fact, never made it past the formation of a title.  This is usually the simplest of my vocations, a mere rearrangement of thoughts into comprehendible chunks meant to educate those lacking my knowledge on topics transecting the scientific and the investigative.

Tonight, though, those chunks are nearly impossible to build.  My mind, usually so easy to focus, keeps drifting off to thoughts unrelated to the use of individualized ear characteristics in identification.  If they do drift in the general direction of ears at all, it’s a specific pair that come to mind, and identifying them isn’t the particular course of action I’m thinking of.  Watson, I’ve discovered is easily overcome by a well-timed and placed nibble to his left ear.

Distraction has rarely been a problem for me.  Narrowing my focus to a specific task, a single train of thought, is as simple and natural as drawing a breath.  Usually.  There are moments lately, though, where I am halfway through an observation or a deduction or just an idea and Watson will come to mind, entirely unbidden, and chase everything else away.  It’s strange.  Unusual.  Disconcerting if I think too long upon it.  The most recent case, involving a pair of ears delivered to an elderly woman in Croydon – inspiration for the current monograph – took twice as long to solve because my mind was only ever half on it.  Surely it’s a temporary condition.  Once I adapt to this new situation, I’ll find balance between thought and sentiment again.  Work and play, if you will.  Logic and fantasy.

God, the fantasies that man inspires…

I have a fleeting thought, as I stare at the blank page, that this must be what Watson goes through while penning his stylized accounts of our adventures.  I say stylized, of course, because he takes narrative liberties with some of the details in order to tell a more titillating tale.  Not every aspect of an investigation makes for good fiction, after all, and some of our cases are more than a bit dull, even to me.  I secretly hope he never revisits the search for the opal tiara.  I less secretly hope none of his stories ever see the light of day.  They’re lovely, the ones he’s shown me, but they’re hardly how I want to earn my reputation.

Anne enters the sitting room as I ponder all this, her footsteps hesitant as they cross the threshold.  They have been hesitant for the last five minutes; I’ve heard her pacing in the hallway intermittently as I stare at my blank paper.  My aunt has something on her mind.  The signs are simple enough to spot.

“Something wrong?”  I ask the question without looking up.  I’m reconsidering my title for the tenth time.  Watson always complains that my titles are dull.  I think his are unnecessarily sensationalist.

“Wrong?”  Anne’s voice breaks on the word.  Her pacing pauses just shy of my desk.  I watch her wring her hands in my peripheral vision.  “I just thought we could talk.  Should talk.  Perhaps a bit tardy, actually, this conversation.”

“What conversation is that?”  I scribble “Individualized Characteristics of the Human Ear – A Treatise on The Role of Ear Identification in Anthropometrics” across the top of the paper and ponder how it looks upon the page.

“Oh, put that down for now, would you?”  She takes my hand at the wrist, plucking the pen from my fingers and setting it aside.  With one tug, she has me out of the chair; I only half-resist as she drags me along to the couch.  “We need to talk.”

I flop onto the divan with a long sigh.  I feel a headache brewing in my temples already.  “All right,” I say as I watch her sit nervously beside me.  “As you are aware of the topic at hand and I’m in the dark, I will let you begin.”

For all her previous eagerness, Anne is silent at my urging.  This lasts for two minutes.  Precisely two, in fact, by my count of the ticks of the mantel clock as the quiet stretches on.  I watch her fidget, recognizing the signs of her discomfort too well.  She shifts in her chair and wrings her hands the same way she did the night my parents died; the night she sat Mycroft and I down on this exact sofa and told us Mother and Father were lost to the blaze and we would be staying with her from then on.

She watches me, too.  It’s an evaluative look – considering, assessing,  examining.  She’s looking for something, and I honestly can’t imagine what it may be.

“I wanted,” she starts, pausing to clear her throat just two words in, “to discuss the…the situation.   With Doctor Watson.”

“The ‘situation’ with Watson?”  I laugh.  It sounds less fraught than the talk I just remembered, inspiring the brief amusement.    “I have no idea what you’re – “

Anne’s palm slaps the empty stretch of cushion beside her.  “This is serious, Charlotte.  And I’m not an idiot!  Nor am I blind or deaf.  I know what’s been going on beneath my roof.”

I try to swallow and find my throat suddenly dry.  “What is it you think you’ve seen or heard exactly?”

“My niece creeping downstairs and back into her room before daybreak, unaware I’m watching from this very couch.  The little looks the two of you share when you don’t think I’m paying attention.”  She looks down at her hands.  Her cheeks go softly pink.  “Neither of you are as quiet as you think you are, either.  Sound carries very well in this house.  Better than I think you realize.”

It’s my turn to blush.  I don’t look down, but I do glance toward the window overlooking Baker Street.  I can’t meet her eyes suddenly.  “I see.  Well.  I won’t insult either of us by pretending to deny it further.”

“Good.  Then we can-“

“I’m not done.” I turn my gaze back to her, even if I still can’t quite meet her eyes, and rest my hands in my lap.  “I also won’t sit here and pretend I’ve anything to be ashamed of.  I’m an adult, Anne.  Full grown.  Perfectly capable of making my own decisions about my own life, even aspects of it you apparently find inappropriate for me to investigate.”  I smooth my skirt over my lap; fidgeting is not something I do often, or consciously, but I do it now despite myself.  “I understand you may disagree.”

Anne looks up, eyes narrow, her expression inscrutable.  Surprised?  Doubtful.  She knows I’m a stubborn and willful person.  Offended?  Possibly.  Disappointed?  Highly likely.  “Of course I disagree.  This isn’t the proper way of things.  You know it’s not.”

“My thoughts on most forms of propriety are well documented at this point, I think,” I say with a huff.  “And for all the talk wasted on such, improper things happen all over this world a thousand times a day.  Every day.  Yet, the world somehow manages to continues on despite that.”

“There is a reason some things have a proper order, Charlotte.”  Her voice holds an edge of panicked frustration.  “You know how babies are made.  A child’s parents should be married before they start doing the things intended to bring it into the world.”

I roll my eyes. “Plenty of people have been born and grown to adulthood successfully without the benefit of their parents being married at the time of their conception or birth.”  She opens her mouth to respond and I cut her off.  “I’m well aware of the consequences particular to these actions, and what steps can be taken to mitigate them.  As is Watson.  I think they cover that topic when one is training to be a doctor.”

She looks doubtful.  It’s not my knowledge she doubts, I don’t think; there isn’t a question I’ve ever had that I haven’t ran to a book to answer.  My aunt was a nurse before she was a landlady.  I grew up being able to run to her medical manuals when my questions required them.  If she has doubts, it’s more about whether I’m putting that practical knowledge to use as diligently as I should.  I can’t admit to her the thing she fears.  The thing she knows.

That sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget to be practical.

She bites her lip, possibly to hold back whatever is on the tip of her tongue.  I watch her worry the pinched skin between her teeth as she flips through the prepared questions in her head.  Neither of us say a word for another minute’s worth of quiet ticks of the clock.  I tug at the cuffs of my sleeves as I wait.

“Does he love you?” she asks when she finally decides on a question.

“He says he does.  And before you ask, as I’m sure you’re about to – yes, I believe him when he says it.”

She nods.  “And do you love him?”

“Yes.”

“Enough to marry him when the time comes?  He’s an honorable man, Charlotte.  He’s going to ask one day.”

I don’t know why it seems an odd question, but it does.  So odd, in fact, that I stare at her, blankly, instead of answering.  It seems the strangest thing she could possibly ask, and I don’t even know why that is.

Anne rises from the couch then and stalks to the mantle.  I watch her back, the tension that keeps her shoulders near her ears and her spine rod straight.  Nothing in particular has her attention by all appearances, though her eyes are turned towards a blank space above the fireplace where a family portrait used to hang when Mycroft and I were younger.  Maybe she’s thinking about that picture and looking to the ghost of it, or at least one of the people in it, for guidance.

“I could ask him to leave.  I’m within my rights to do so.”  She looks over her shoulder.  Her expression is oddly calm.  Resolved, perhaps?

“You won’t.  Not just because he has nowhere else to go and you’re hardly a cruel woman, but because you know I’d go with him.  And that doesn’t solve your issue at all.”

“I know,” she says with a sigh, her head falling forward so her chin hovers just above her chest.  I misinterpreted her expression before.  It’s not resolved.  It’s resigned.  She shakes her head and turns away from me before heading for the door.  With her hand on the knob she stops, head canted in my direction even if she isn’t really looking at me.  “Dinner will be ready shortly.  You might want to wash the ink from your hands before you come to my table.  The smudges are impossible to remove from the linens.”

“Yes, Anne.”  I watch her disappear into the hallway with a certain heaviness settling in my chest.   I make my way to my room to clean up for dinner, the knowledge that something I once thought unwavering has now shifted weighing down my every step.

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