Watson and the Half-pay Major

Watson and the Half-pay Major

by Bull Pup Calder of the JHWS

The major would never forget the Christmas of 1880.

His family and most of his friends liked to try to smother him in holiday cheer, ignoring his pain, thinking if they could ignore it, he could too.

John knew better, and Mary was better still on the subject.

“The important thing is that he isn’t alone,” she had said that year.

“I worry that I am the wrong person for him to be with,” John replied. “I was there, I fear I make the memories worse for him.”

“But you also are there to show him that his feelings are real, and that he’s not mad. He’s always better when he leaves than when he arrives. And each year I think it gets a little easier for him. You’re an important anchor in his life. And he makes you laugh.”

John smiled. The major did make him laugh. The major made him laugh at the time he needed it most. And he was still very good at holiday parties, the doctor had to admit. Having the major come down from Harrow at Christmas was not a duty without its rewards.

And John Watson owed Major Frampton for that first Christmas, when the officer had taken a wounded doctor under his wing after all those games of cards aboard the Orontes.

When the troopship had arrived in Portsmouth on November 30th of 1880, Watson had no home to return to, no direction to take . . . he might well have picked the pub nearest the docks and settled there until his pension ran out and debtor’s prison became an option for lodgings. His spirits were not in the best of shape, and a winter in Portsmouth was not going to brighten matters. Major Frampton was alert enough to take notes of that fact, and dragged Watson up to Harrow, determined to set the doctor on a steady course to begin the next year.

It was a debt he could never repay, but every year at Christmas, John was happy to attempt a bit of compensation, which his wife heartily endorsed, if just to remind her husband that he had more than one friend in the world.

This year they had invited them all over. Stamford, Thurston, Lestrade . . . even Isa Whitney, who was one of those “friends by marriage” whom Watson found more tolerable than some others. They even invited the one who would never come, and excuse himself with some chemical experiment of importance to Lady Justice. All of them had arrived, including Mary’s friends, the neighborhood folk, and John’s Australian cousin, two weeks off the boat . . . but the major was still absent. All the cookies, little cakes, and the punch came out, guests were well into having a grand time, and still, no Major Frampton.

Eventually, Watson actually went out the front door to look up and down the street, in hopes of seeing the major coming, a silly gesture, spurred by anxiety more than logic.

And there, on the front steps, with his back to the door, was Major Frampton.

He appeared to almost to have sunk inside himself with despair.

John sat down on the step beside the major and quietly said, “Good evening, Al.”

“I don’t think it is, John. I really don’t think it is.”

“Having a hard year of it?”

“It’s like she died all over again, John. Helen died.”

“Oh, god. What was it?”

“Armitage said it was a sudden fever. A few folk of Crane Water had been taken with it, but not as severely as Helen. No mysterious whistles, no evil step-father for you and your friend to deal with this time. I mean, I know she wasn’t Julia, but Julia lived in her. As the years would pass, I could look at Helen and see what life might have been.”

John nodded. “I understand.”

“It was hard making it the last few steps to your door, right? I mean, you are one of the scant few I still know who was there the night I met Julia. Can you imagine if Helen had taken an interest in you?”

“I was a bit too starved and pathetic looking then,” Watson sighed. “Your spare suit hung off me like a coat hook. When Helen came to see Holmes she didn’t even recognize that we had met before, I looked so different with Mrs. Hudson’s meals in me. My life would have been much different, had the war not taken so much from me. But I wouldn’t have Mary now, which would be a very sad thing. Oh . . . I am sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” the major replied. “Mary is a bright spot in all of our lives. You did well there, and should not be ashamed because we don’t all have a Mary. Maybe I’ll find my own one day soon. Your Mary doesn’t happen to have a twin, too, does she?”

Watson quietly laughed at Frampton’s joke.

“No, but there is Miss Morrison of our acquaintance that somewhat resembles her. You should come in and meet her.”

“I am a sorry mess, Watson. She’d probably look at me the way Helen looked at you that night, like some poor stray dog that needed a meal but shouldn’t be allowed in the house.”

The fact that the major was insulting the doctor showed there was some spirit left in the man. His darkly comic side was always a sign he was coming back from the true darkness of despair.

“We should straighten you up then,” Watson decided. “There’s a pub down the street that’s handy for putting me right when domestic bliss is a bit akimbo. What say we head there for a glass?”

Major Frampton threw an arm around Watson’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “Good man. Good man. Let’s get about that.”

They got up and headed off down the street, the merriment of the Watson holiday household going on without them. But that was just fine. And Miss Morrison was not the sort to leave a party early.