The following document was found amongst the papers of Dr John Watson in an envelope labelled "Not for publication. Never to be shown to Doyle."
"COME AT ONCE NOT A MINUTE TO BE LOST HOLMES" Little did I realise when I read the above telegram from my friend Sherlock Holmes that I was embarking on the most difficult and degrading adventure in all my acquaintance with that remarkable man.
The telegram had been sent from Toulon so I went straight to Victoria Station and caught the boat train for the continent. I was delivered into the hands of the French railways and decanted at Toulon late the following day. The strangest creature met me. He spoke a barbarous blend of French and Spanish, with a distinct Irish brogue mixed in somewhere.
My cicerone took me to the edge of town. I had often been met in a similar fashion when engaged in an adventure with Holmes but this time something in his manner made me fear that I had fallen into an enemy's hands. Only when the pitiful creature rose to Holmes' full height and addressed my in his usual forthright English did I realise that once again I had failed to recognise his disguise.
"Well done Watson! At last you smoke my costume. Have you brought your service revolver? Good, then give it to me. Are you ready for a bit of a walk?" I nodded assent as he checked the cartridges in my revolver. "Good. Then all you need do is don your costume and we shall be away. This time the game is literally afoot!"
Any protest was useless. He insisted on my donning the costume he had prepared, then led me away towards the Pyrenees. "It is vital that we enter Spain without attracting official attention." Our passage of the frontier took many weary days and though I often heard Holmes talk to the inhabitants of the villages we passed no official notice was ever taken of us.
At last came the day when our progress became downward rather than upward. At the end of our day's march I collapsed in a stupefied heap, to be awoken by the voices of children. "¿Com en Esteve y en Juan?" said one, and another laughed. Holmes spoke to them, neither in French nor in Spanish, yet the children seemingly understood and as I staggered to my feet they took me by the paw and led me to the house below.
An elderly lady greeted us at the door. She welcomed us in the same language as the children, yet in her accent I detected the Irish brogue I had noted when Holmes had met me in Toulon. "Watson, allow me to introduce Doña Brigid de Maturin y Villiers. She particularly desires that I thank you for the honour you pay her father in your great achievement." I heard nothing more. The next thing I remember was waking in a hospital bed and finding, to my amazement, that I was in the naval base in Gibraltar. Holmes was standing by my bed, together with a young naval officer.
"Ah, Watson, you are with us at last. This is Lieutenant Stephen Aubrey, our client in this affair. As I have kept you in the dark over this matter I thought I should let the lieutenant explain the reason for our recent exertions to you in person."
"Thank you Mr Holmes" said the lieutenant. "My story starts early in this century, during the Peace of Amiens. My great grandfather, having achieved fame and fortune during the Revolutionary Wars against the French Republic, decided to spend the peace travelling in France with his friend Dr Stephen Maturin. I understand from Mr Holmes that you met his daughter? When Bonaparte ended the peace they were forced to leave France to escape imprisonment in the fortress of Verdun. They had to travel in disguise, as you have done. I related this story to my Commander in the mess one night and he declared it a falsehood. I resented this slur but he persisted in it and has been spreading it amongst the squadron. I feared he would use it against me when I came up for promotion and I even thought of resigning my commission, a step I would be most loath to take.
The lieutenant fell silent and Holmes took up the story. "Your may not be aware Watson, but there are two powerful factions within our Navy divided by what started as a petty personal disagreement. Lieutenant Aubrey is by temperament within one camp and his Commander the other. Having formed a dislike on these grounds his Commander is pursuing it through any means at his disposal. I can see a time to come when the very survival of the Empire will depend on all pulling together, and we certainly can not risk the loss of this promising officer through such bickering. When he came to me I determined that we should render him any assistance possible."
Holmes turned to the young Lieutenant. "Your great grandfather was one of the great frigate captains of the French wars. At sea he was a master of strategy. Ashore he would fall prey to any trickster with a plausible story. As he fell for the plausible story of his friend Dr Maturin. For centuries the smugglers have conveyed goods and people between France and Spain with little regard for what the government on either side was able to do to stop them. Bonaparte's vaunted secret police would have little chance of stopping two fit and able men from making their escape. It is clear that Dr Maturin had his own reasons for imposing this ridiculous charade on Captain Aubrey. I do not know if you have had much experience of the medical mind but there is a tendency to demand more exercise and a changed diet whether necessary to the patient or not. Captain Aubrey was a large framed man and Dr Maturin conceived that he should shed some stones in weight. What better way than an unnecessarily uncomfortable scramble, by a needlessly prolonged route, across French and Spanish Catalonia wearing this preposterous disguise?" Holmes picked up the bear suit I had been wearing and scornfully dashed it to the floor. "In recompense I have subjected another member of the medical profession to the same ordeal and, as you can, see Dr Watson is quite unaffected, save only for a slight heat-stroke. I am sure that the voyage home will be sufficient to allow him a full recovery. I have sworn an affidavit to this effect - here it is - which should be sufficient to confound your Commander's influence against you."
Lieutenant Aubrey jumped to his feet and took the proffered paper reverently. "Thank you Mr Holmes for all you have done to preserve the honour of my family name. My Commander is a great reader of the Strand Magazine and anything you say will have a great influence on him. Why, I might even be able to bring him into the fishpond!" He shook Holmes firmly by the hand, said, "I must return to my ship sir." and rushed from the room.
Holmes lit his pipe and smiled at me. "A good day's work, Watson. I have saved that young officer's career and helped you lose some of that unnecessary weight you have put on since leaving the Army. Now there will be a ship sailing for England on Tuesday, or if your practice can spare you a little longer I have been asked to investigate a most interesting case in the East Indies."
"Do tell me more." I asked weakly.
"I shall indeed. It appears that around 1813 two members of a French diplomatic mission disappeared on the island of Pulo Prabang. I have been asked to investigate the nature of their deaths. Well Watson, are you with me?"
I slumped back into my bed and, mercifully, fell soundly asleep, waking only to find myself in an invalid carriage pushed by a P & O steward who said "Here we are sir, which it's a nice cabin on the port side."
© Martin Watts 2000