May 11, 2008

Regarding Violette

a story about mothers and love

by nlr alicia

<< These stories are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>


On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.


Content Warnings: Pre-slash.


Holmes glanced up as I stumped through the door and shrugged out of my ulster.

“Surely it’s not as distressing as all that, Watson,” he said languidly as he lowered his eyes back to the thin black bound volume he had propped on his hip. “It is rather an ancient tradition from what I’m given to understand.”

I was still fuming as I thrust my coat and hat onto pegs by the door with unnecessary force.

“We will differ on that point,” I snapped. “It seems the most base hypocrisy to me and a sad commentary on our times that the church should stoop to such callow measures simply to draw in a few extra of their wayward flock once a year.”

As was often the case in these conversations of ours that began well before I had opened my mouth to voice my view, I paused in my tirade to stare at my companion.

Holmes was curled in a long s-shape on the cushions of our worn settee, his head resting on the curved back. One slim, tapering finger brushed the page of his book, flipping it to the next.

“I heard you come in with Mrs. Hudson,” he said, not glancing up. “You spent several minutes in the entry with her, no doubt offering your strong shoulder for her to expend her tears upon. The moisture is plainly visible.”

“When you entered,” he went on, “Your hand was clutched tight to a bit of pasteboard in your pocket. From the cheapness of the paper I gathered it was one of a number of commemorative bulletins that was printed off in the hundreds. From the way you were kneading it in your fist I gathered you did not intend to preserve it.”

He closed the book and looked up, his pale eyes regarding me thoughtfully. “Moreover it is Sunday. Mothering Sunday to be exact. Where would you have been today with Mrs. Hudson except to her church. I noticed you have not gone out of your way to reacquaint yourself with our local house of worship since moving back from Kensington. You, being the kind hearted soul that you are, offered to escort her, knowing that her daughter passed away some months ago, as you made me understand when you threatened to hurl me bodily downstairs if I did not offer my condolences immediately.” The corner of his mouth quirked in a wry smile which I could not help but return.

He went on as I crossed the room. “You were struck by what seems opportunism on the part of the church for filling its pews with women, with and without their children, on this one day a year. I don’t disagree with your premise although I will venture to point out the tradition is far older than the trappings such as that pasteboard bulletin would indicate and the emotion of those women can be attributed to more causes than this particular date on the calendar.”

“You’re right on all counts, of course,” I said as I lowered myself into my chair before the fireplace. “Although in the last point I imagine you include children who might be more attentive the other three hundred and sixty-four days in the year. I would point out, there are often mitigating circumstances.”

“And what were your circumstances, if I may ask so personal a question without offense.”

His eyes were wide and attentive. There was nothing but open curiosity visible in his expressive face. Not for the first time I was struck by the ability of this man who seemed so immune to the softer emotions so much of the time to find what lay at the heart of distress in others.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “My mother and I weren’t close in the later years of her life,” I answered. “At the time it seemed very important that she was too forgiving of my elder brother and his profligacy. She died suddenly while I was lying near death myself in the base hospital at Peshawar. I only learned of it when I awoke weeks later. Afterward the argument seemed very trivial indeed.”

Holmes nodded and his gaze drifted to the cold hearth. “From what I know of your unfortunate brother, she must have been either very forgiving or very foolish. Knowing what I know of her surviving son, I would doubt it was the latter.”

In spite of myself, I gave him a small smile. “She was forgiving. Of both of us. I thought myself a paragon of virtue in my younger days. I realize now it was only in comparison to my brother. By most counts I was quite as much a hellion as any lad with more energy than sense.” My smile widened. “I don’t imagine that was true in your case.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “No, ‘hellion’ was not a description I ever heard directed my way. Mycroft favored the term ‘prim’ when he referred to me at all.”

I recognized we were venturing close to territory as yet uncharted between us. Holmes had never been forthcoming about his family history. As he had never pressed me for information about my upbringing, I had always returned the favor. It was not for lack of curiosity.

There was very little about my uniquely talented friend that did not hold some degree of fascination for me. Since the first weeks of our taking rooms together I’d found myself making lists of his qualities, trying to sound what seemed his limitless depths. Over the years I’d mentally catalogued traits no matter how small from his preference for honey over sugar in his tea to his habit of buttoning his waistcoat from top to bottom.

I was loathe to press the limits of our intimacy. Once again, Holmes saved me the trouble of giving voice to my thoughts. His lips curled in a wry smile. “Yes, perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Fourier this morning, but you find me in a discursive mood. I suggest you press your advantage.”

I gave a low chuckle. “Very well, since you’ve made the invitation.” I thought for a moment, wanting to be sure I made the most of the opportunity I’d been given. “I take it Mycroft had great responsibility for your upbringing.”

Holmes pursed his lips. “Yes, it was a responsibility he took very seriously, I assure you. It would not be going too far to say it was good practice for his future in civil service.”

While the subject of Mycroft held a degree of interest, it was one I felt safe in leaving aside for the moment.

“Was your mother not a softening influence?” I ventured.

Holmes was silent for a long moment and his gaze drifted to the door of his bedroom. He pushed up to a sitting position on the settee and for a moment I feared I’d ventured too far and had driven him to make an escape, but his gaze turned back to mine. There was an indecisive set to his eyes I had seldom seen before.

“Would you care to see her portrait?” he said.

For the space of a breath, I was too stunned to respond. I collected myself as quickly as I could manage. “Well, yes. If you’d care to show me, I’d like that very much.”

Without another word he stood and walked briskly to the bedroom door. In a few seconds he reemerged, a small portrait case held tight in his hand. He held it out to me, his arm as rigid as a beam, before he lowered himself into the chair opposite mine.

I took it carefully. It was an antique gold case, lovely in its simplicity. The one embellishment was a delicate cloisonné violet. I touched it lightly, admiring the colors, before I opened the filigree clasp.

I felt Holmes’s eyes fixed on me although I didn’t dare to look up. I had an irrational fear at any moment he’d think better of offering this confidence and tear the case from my fingers before I could get a glimpse inside, but he didn’t move from his chair as I parted the covers.

There was only one portrait. The left hand frame contained a single violet pressed under the glass. The right hand frame held an exquisitely painted miniature. The tiny brushstrokes were marvelous for their combination of precision and yet expression of line. There was a warmth to the piece that transcended the usual formality of such minute work. As I took in the face captured there, the grace of the execution seemed only fitting.

Hers was a beautiful face. Her eyes were bright and clear and such an unusual shade of pale blue, were they the only feature visible they would have been enough evidence to call her striking. More remarkable still was the subtle smile that leant them a bewitching tenderness.

The fascination of her eyes was matched by the delicate shading of her skin, kissed with the color of a new rose. Her hair was luxuriant and as blue-black as a raven’s wing. A single shining curl trailed down to brush her cheek, softening the pronounced curves of her sculpted features and lending the whole portrait a charming informality.

Despite myself, I glanced up, unconsciously comparing the resemblance of mother to son, although I didn’t need the confirmation. I knew Holmes’s features better than I knew my own.

His eyes were same peculiar shade of blue that tinges to gray at the edges, even more pale than his mother’s, and his hair was more like ebony. His finely carved features were different and individual, yet echoed the portrait in my hand so nearly one might have been created in deliberate imitation of the other.

Holmes was regarding me steadily, his eyes fixed on mine. “She died when I was quite young. It’s difficult to be certain if I remember her face or only imagine that portrait come to life.”

“What was her name?” I asked softly.

He blinked. “Violette. Didn’t I say? Hm.” He looked down at the portrait held loosely in my hand. “She was French. That was painted by her cousin. A talented young man named Vernet. He’s well known in some circles. That was a very early piece, but it shows his style well.”

“It’s very fine,” I agreed, looking back to the portrait and trying valiantly to recall one of the many questions that had coursed through my mind in the seconds before I saw it. The allure of the subject had erased them all.

In the corner of my eye I saw Holmes’s lithe fingers twitch on his knees and I sensed I’d held the treasured piece long enough. I carefully closed the frame and pressed the filigree catch home. As I passed it back across the space between us I knew the beautiful face inside would appear in my memory often as I looked on my extraordinary friend.

“You don’t have a portrait,” Holmes said. ”It would be in a place of honor on your desk.”

I knew my turn at gaining confidences was at its end. Even with so little information gained I felt the boon far outweighed any I could grant in return.

I shook my head. “The only one was in my brother’s keeping. It wasn’t among his possessions when they were sent down to me. I have no way of knowing what became of it.”

Holmes continued to watch me carefully and I endeavored to divine his unspoken questions. “Her name was Bridget. Bridie. She was beautiful. I think I all sons find their mothers so, but she was considered among the fairest of the county. I favor my father,” I said, flashing a wry smile. “My brother had more of her in him, outside and in most thought.”

I thought back to give words to details that had become only images in my mind. “She had dark auburn hair. Almost brunette indoors, but red in the sun. Skin so rosy it always looked as if she was blushing. Her smile was wonderful, but so was her temper. You would have known her for Welsh by her temper alone.”

“Blue eyes?” he asked.

“Oh, very blue,” I agreed. “My father said ‘blue as a Highland spring’ when he was trying to flatter her, but it was the truth.”

“That’s a resemblance, then,” Holmes said then blinked as though the words had taken him by surprise as much as they had me.

“I suppose so,” I said equably and smiled. “Although no one’s ever made the attempt to flatter me that way.”

“Hum.” His eyes were distant. “Well.” He cleared his throat and sat back in his chair. His voice was its usual ringing tones when he said, “I believe that’s our Mothering Sunday sorted.” He glanced at the door of our sitting room. “I imagine I’m required to pay my respects to our estimable landlady.”

I grinned as I pushed up from my chair. “I’m sure it would be a welcome surprise.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, point taken, Doctor. No threats required.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I said as I turned toward the door, “Because I plan to go up and change into something suitable for a Sunday afternoon in the park. Perhaps you’d care to join me when you’ve done your duty by Mrs. Hudson?”

“Fourier was rapidly declining in charm,” he said equably. “The park sounds an admirable alternative.”

I suited the words to the action and returned to our sitting room several minutes later to find Holmes was still in his bedroom changing. I went to the fireplace to charge my pipe from the tobacco in the persian slipper he kept there and drew up short in surprise.

The portrait case stood open on the mantel. Violette Holmes gazed out, her blue eyes regarding the room with their subtle smile.

I heard the door to Holmes’s bedroom open and I busied myself with my pipe. I didn’t mention the portrait as Holmes walked past to gather his hat and stick from beside the door.

There came a time, not long after, when Holmes and I had exchanged many more intimacies. In later years, after we’d taken up housekeeping on the Sussex Downs, our possessions were so intermingled it was difficult to say where his began and mine ended. By then the portrait of Violette could be called ours.

Her beautiful face never changed, her blue eyes never faded, and her subtle smile always graced us as we grew into comfortable old age together. And, just as I’d expected, I saw her beauty echoed every time I gazed into the face of my extraordinary friend.