One Shot Too Many
Those who have interested themselves with my accounts of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes will be acquainted with his addiction to a seven percent solution of Cocaine. Whenever boredom became too much of a strain for his genius, he would make use of the vile substance as a means of escape from his lethargy. As a physician and friend I found this habit not a little horrifying and I learned to dread those times of inaction that might formally have been welcome moments of reprieve.
To me, the danger to Holmes was not in the loaded gun or the smuggled poison, those I could protect him from. However, there was nothing I could do when it came to the drug, but show my disapproval and hope that this time would be different.
Looking back there is one particular incident that stands out clearly in my memory, a frightening situation in which my friend risked a great deal more than his precious mind.
After the strenuous case of the master blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton, who had met such a harrowing end at the hands of one of his victims, my friend fell prey to a bout of the blackest depression and like so many times before, he turned to the drug as a means of relief.
I disagreed with this habit as a matter of course, and tried desperately to reason with Holmes but my efforts were in vain. All I could do was to keep an eye on him in hopes of preventing an overdose.
Some days passed in this way before I noticed that my friend seemed to have fallen ill. He was paler than usual; his behavior being quite listless, even more so then was usually induced by the influences of the Cocaine. Upon further observation, I noticed also that Holmes was avoiding the use of his left arm.
"Holmes, what is the matter? You don't look well, old chap."
The detective hesitated for some time before answering.
"…It's nothing…pray leave me be."
"I certainly will not." I returned adamantly, noting the way in which his words bled into each other.
Without another sound my friend got to his feet and went into his bedroom locking the door behind him.
The next morning I was enjoying an excellent breakfast courtesy of our landlady while flipping through the pages of a recent edition of The Daily Telegraph, when I looked up from the article which had engaged my interest, to see that Holmes had emerged from his room.
I studied him cautiously, wanting to gauge in what mood he was in. If possible, the detective looked even worse than before. I could hear his labored breathing all the way from my seat at the table and he leaned heavily against the door frame.
My medical instincts were immediately aroused. Abandoning my meal, I went to my friend and put a hand under his arm in support.
I put my other hand on his forehead and found the skin to be hot and coated in a thin sheen of moisture. My friend gave no reaction. Suddenly the feverishly bright grey eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed in front of me. I flung my arms around his torso and gently lowered him down to the floor before fetching my medical bag. He had a fever of 102 °F; his pulse was fast, his breathing shallow.
I loosened his collar. His clothes were drenched with sweat. How he had been able to dress himself at all in this condition was a mystery to me.
My friend's left elbow looked to be swollen. I touched the fabric covering it and could feel a makeshift bandage tied loosely around the joint. How typical of Holmes to try and tend to his injuries himself instead of asking for my help. I cut open the sleeve to take the bandage off. As I had expected, my friend's arm was mottled with old and new scars where he had injected himself before succumbing to his current condition.
One puncture wound in the crook of his arm stood out from the others. It was swollen an angry red. I tentatively probed the area around it with my fingertips and found it to be not only hot, but tender as well. When I applied some pressure, a yellow liquid emerged from the tiny hole.
There could be no doubt, Holmes had contracted an abscess and was in danger of becoming septic. I would have to drain the fluid to prevent the infection from spreading.
"Mrs. Hudson!" I bellowed through the closed door as Holmes was wont to do during his more elated moods.
"Good Lord, Doctor!" she exclaimed upon entering the room. "What has Mr. Holmes done now?"
"I need to operate immediately. Help me carry him into his bedroom."
We settled him on the bed and Mrs. Hudson went to fetch hot water and fresh linens, a task she was already accustomed to.
In the meantime, I prepared my patient for the upcoming operation. Once I had laid out the instruments I would require, I used a scalpel to rip open the remaining fabric of his sleeve.
Suddenly my friend's breathing rate rose and his face drained of what little color the fever had provided him. I took his hand, now cold and clammy, and checked the pulse again, finding it too fast and barely discernible beneath my fingertips.
"Don't do this to me, old boy…" I pleaded under my breath.
Holmes was going into shock; the blood delivery to his brain was in danger. I had to act quickly to avoid irreparable damage. I grabbed the tin box, one of the many vessels, in which my friend stored his old case files and put it under his knees to keep his feet elevated. I then covered him with several blankets. Mere seconds later, our landlady returned with the items I had requested of her.
"I will need your help, Mrs. Hudson."
"Of course, Doctor. Just tell me what to do."
Despite the situation I could not help but smile inwardly at the readiness with which the landlady agreed to assist me.
After thoroughly disinfecting the wound, I took a scalpel and cut into the abscess. Dark yellow, viscous pus emerged from the incision and nearly took our breaths away with the foulness of its stench. Nevertheless our esteemed Mrs. Hudson handed me swab after swab, which she had readied under my direction, so I could remove the ominous fluid.
After I had finished, I cleaned the wound again and stuffed an iodine tamponade into the hole before bandaging the elbow.
In the meantime our landlady opened the windows to dispel the odor and took care of the chaos I had created as a result of the operation.
I decided to put a splint on the injured arm so as to keep it immobile. Knowing Holmes's restless nature, this precaution was necessary. After that I checked his condition again. To my immense relief some of the color had returned to the hollow cheeks, his vital signs were improving but were not normal yet, so I left the tin box under his knees for a while longer.
Now I could put away my stores and clean my hands, before fairly collapsing into a chair Mrs. Hudson had pulled up to the bed. This had been a very close call for my friend and I knew from experience that the danger was not past yet. The infection could have already spread to another part of his body and could easily break out again at a later time. I would have to keep a close eye on him for the next few days.
"I think you could use this, doctor."
Mrs. Hudson's re-appearance jolted me from my musings. She handed me a cup of tea. After a tentative sip, I found that she had added a healthy shot of brandy to the hot beverage.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson."
"I'll be downstairs. Call me if there is anything you need."
"I will. Thank you."
The door closed softly behind her and I was left to my solitary vigil once again.
An hour later my friend finally regained consciousness, the dark lashes fluttering for several moments, before he groaned slightly and opened his eyes to look at me.
"Holmes? Can you hear me?" I asked eagerly, wanting to be certain that all was well.
I leaned forward and took his hand. The detective needed some time before he was able to focus on my face.
"Watson?" he asked in an uncertain tone.
"Thank God, Holmes. How do you feel?"
"As though I have been run over by..."
He stopped and looked wide-eyed at me, a question clearly written on his face.
"Is that my tin box under my legs?" he asked in wonder.
"Yes, Holmes. I needed to keep your feet elevated. You were going into shock after suffering a serious infection. But I think the danger is over for now."
I removed the box from the bed and settled back down next to him.
I nodded towards his left arm and explained.
"One of your little punctures became infected. How long have you dealt with this by yourself?"
I couldn't help but infuse my voice with some reproach. He did not look at me.
"Three, perhaps four days…" he replied meekly.
"Four days?…I believe you have now seriously taken leave of your senses Holmes…Good Lord man! Do you have any idea how close you came to irrevocably damaging those formidable faculties of yours?"
In my agitation I had sprung to my feet and now paced the floor in long, fluent strides.
"A thousand apologies, my dearest Watson." came a feeble voice from the bed.
I rounded on my friend, my anger in full force now.
"Spare me your apologies, Holmes!" I fairly snapped at him.
"You know as well as I do that you'd rather indulge yourself with this filthy stuff, than listen to reason. You know perfectly well what harm it can do and what I think of it."
"I…" he began, but after meeting my no doubt furious gaze, Holmes wisely closed his mouth again.
I shut my eyes, in an attempt to calm my anger, before finally letting it go with a sharp exhalation. My friend was still a very sick man and I needed to focus on his healing process. When I looked again at Holmes, he was examining the splint on his left arm.
"I had to make an incision over the infected area. You won't be able to use that arm for some time."
I seated myself on the mattress and my friend finally looked me in the eyes.
"Are you in pain?" I inquired quietly.
I mixed a pain reliever in a glass of water and placed it in his good hand.
"This should help."
"Thank you, Doctor." Holmes whispered after draining the glass.
"You are a fool, Holmes." but I softened the reprimand with a small smile.
Holmes managed one of his quirky half-smiles before falling into a dreamless sleep.
I re-checked the wound and found some remaining residue which I then removed. My friend still had a slight fever, so I applied cold compresses to his forehead to keep him comfortable. Holmes slept through these ministrations, his exhausted body catching up on some much-needed rest.
Like so many times before, I wondered why my friend had to be either injured or sick, in order to allow himself a minimum of recuperation. But I am quite certain that not even the great detective himself can answer that question.