This story is in response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Six Random Titles. I wasn't particularly inspired by any of them, but once I figured out a direction for this particular title, it wound up being a surprisingly fun exercise. Plus, it inspired me to purchase and read an old short story, the title of which you'll probably guess in fairly short order.
Flinging open the door to the carriage, she spoke in a fierce whisper which struck the ears more forcefully than any shout, "Well, my love, it's been quite an exciting couple of days, hasn't it?"
Elizabeth Briony didn't look up even look from her book, an English translation of Manual de Anatomia Pathologica General, as the other women entered the carriage, although if you watched her closely enough, you'd have seen her cheekbones rise almost imperceptibly, indicating the slightest of all smiles. As the younger, petite woman settled in beside her, slightly out of breath from unaccustomed haste, Mrs. Briony continued:
"We shaved that one a bit close, don't you think?
"Oh, do you think so? How very perceptive. How. Terribly. Clever. Of. You."
It wasn't possible to be certain if the younger woman's pauses were for emphasis or just due to the exertion, but the point was made nonetheless. Bess carefully shut her book, set it between herself and her companion, and, without the slight smile, responded:
"I'm glad you think so too, Rena. If not for my, for our precautions, we would likely find ourselves in far more trouble than little Willy intended."
"You wouldn't call him that if you knew him as I did. Besides, he was never the source of peril, it was that slender fellow he employed and you know it. Speaking of fellows, what have you done with Godfrey? Leaving him behind would be asking for more trouble." Rena's hair, normally arranged flawlessly, was an umbra of willow-like tendrils, a condition which Bess found almost irresistible, but she kept her hands folded and forced her eyes forward.
"Godfrey's with us, in one of my trunks. I cannot help but think he'll prove useful again. Driver! We are settled, please carry on!" Bess' voice had none of the lilt of Rena's, but she could use it with surprising force when occasioned to do so. She was no beauty in the classic sense, being tall and, while lithe, broad of shoulder. "Handsome," perhaps, would be a better description.
They rode silently, the curtains of the carriage drawn tight. The women stole glances at each other, at first nervously, then conspiratorially, and finally, with some giddiness as it became clear from the sounds and smells that they were no longer within the confines of the city. They were beginning to believe that they may, just may, be getting away with it.
Far from the gaslights, the night was dark enough that they felt they could risk opening the side curtains and let the fresher air of then country nighttime into the carriage. No one was likely to glance their way, and if they did, well, the chance of being recognized was slim enough to be worth the risk. They travelled throughout most of the night, making odd small talk, superstitiously afraid to discuss the nature of their good fortune as though speaking of it would burst the thin soap-bubble of providence protecting them.
Rina was the first to speak of the incidents. In hushed tones, she asked, "So, tell me. How did you work it all out?"
Around anyone else, Bess would have put on the air of one who knew all but revealed little, but with Rina, she shrugged her shoulders and admitted, "There was more luck to it than I'd care to admit, if I am to be perfectly honest with you. You know how I enjoy the art of fisticuffs?"
Rina cringed, as she knew but did not approve. Bess continued:
"Well, I have seen more fights than I can recount, and I've learned that it is very difficult for a man to let an inferior fighter win. Perhaps it is an affront to his manliness, but I think it more likely that, when instinct takes over, allowing oneself to accept a blow is not so easy as it looks." Bess' eyes became slightly distant. "Back when I was working, right before I met you, we tried to hire a professional fighter to perform with our troupe. It was a disaster. He was meant to be the villain, but he kept defeating our lead actor during the finale, oftentimes rendering him unconscious."
Rina was not especially thrilled by tales of this ilk, but listened on patiently. Bess, on the other hand, obviously found it rousing, and her focus returned to Rina.
"Well, when the scuffle broke out in front of the house right the other day, I was still nearby and I could not help but observe. The clergyman who intervened, the gentleman you invited in to tend to? He struck me as a more skilled pugilist than he let on. He had several opportunities strike at the other fellows, but instead seemed more interested in receiving a blow."
"How odd indeed. And how odd that, almost immediately after brought him inside, a fire should break out. More coincidence than I am was prepared to accept. I decided that I would do well to follow him. After all, while he knew you and Godfrey, I was a complete stranger to him. And so, I was able to follow him back to his hired room and listen to him lay out his entire scheme to his confidante."
"That's almost cheating, Bess!
"Well, there was some peril for me as well. In order to hear them properly, I had to unfasten the windows, but those window fasteners were child's play. After you told me about the glance to your hidey-hole for your personal papers, it all made sense. Why you keep your daguerreotype of your clients among our more...personal...photos, I will never understand."
Rina allowed herself a little clap of excitement. "You know I followed him as well!"
Bess frowned. "Yes, and I think he may have very nearly recognized you. You must be careful!"
If Rina felt at all chastened, she hid it exceptionally well. "Oh, hush. You know I can't let you have all the fun."
"If you thinking that dressing as Godfrey Norton, with his foppish mustache and ridiculous wig, is fun, then you are welcome to it." Bess suddenly looked serious. "This Holmes fellow is quite clever. Why do you suppose he failed to see what was right in front of him?"
It was Irene's turn to play the role of teacher. "Did you not see him around me? Every time I would deign to flirt with the 'clergyman,' he looked very much as though he wished to be somewhere else entirely. I think traditional romantic entanglements make him uncomfortable. I suspect he cannot even begin to conceive of the nature of our love. He's so absurdly brilliant, his blind spots are very blind indeed."
As Bess began to relax, she allowed herself the faintest of grins. “He really knows nothing of women, does he? He prattled on about how ‘women always this’ and ‘women always that.’”
“I think he knows as much about women as he does Mr. Wells’ frightful Martians. And to think he refers to me as ‘The Woman.’”
The two of them shared the laughter of all who have narrowly avoided a frightening situation. They laughed deeply, releasing all of their pent up worry in fitful, mirthful bursts. Bess then took on a look of exaggerated seriousness and said, “If you are ‘The Woman,’ then I shall be ‘Wife of The Woman.”
“So you shall! I dub thee ‘Elizabeth Adler.’ Or, should I say, Mrs. Godfrey Norton.”
“Oh God, poor Godfrey. Shall he be a ‘Freemason’ again, wherever we land this time?”
“Nothing like a secret society to protect a secret identity. Or, at the very least, a cheap replica ring and some carefully spread misinformation.”
“Well, Godfrey can wait. Tonight, I am Mrs. Irene Adler, and you, young lady, have some ‘husbandly’ duties with which to attend.”
The pair never returned to London, but, ever the cautious one, Irene Adler took care to insure that a false rumor of her untimely demise made its way through channels likely to be picked up by any interested parties. Thus free from any likely pursuit, ‘The Woman’ and her wife arrived in Portsmouth and found themselves bound for Adler’s native country.
But that, as they say, is another story.