-- John H. Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles
We have many an image of John Watson in our minds and media. Fireside at Baker Street, riding in a railway carriage, taking a cab or a stroll through London, all of those are familiar as can be. But there is a single line in The Hound of the Baskervilles that puts Watson in a position we rarely, if ever, think of him: on horseback.
Innocently surveying the Great Grimpen Mire, Watson is asked his thoughts on the sight by Stapleton, and Watson's reaction is that the land would be a great place to ride a horse at a gallop. That's his first thought, and something it sound like he'd enjoy as a special treat.
But when was Watson enjoying horseback riding, and not just riding a horse, but racing it across the countryside at a full gallop? Is this some mere fantasy of the good doctor? Or something from his youth, left behind with city life?
As my generation and that before us transitioned from farms to cities, a lot of us have horses in our past. The smell of a stable instantly triggers a certain joy in me, of those big animals my parents rode that we occasionally got a chance at. By the time I was old enough to do any riding on my own, the horses were gone, but they always remain a touchstone of younger days I hold dear.
John Watson gives hints of earlier days in Australia, with rumors of an American past as well, and either would have provided him with ample chances to give a horse a good run. There were horses in the British military at the same time as Watson, of course, but he wasn't with a cavalry regiment, and it seems an unlikely place to learn riding for pleasure, as his gallop comment would imply. No, John Watson was surely raised somewhere with room to ride and horsey folk to give him the chance. Added to his line about having "neither kith nor kin in England" and it seems to back up a colonial John Watson who liked to ride.
There is so much we don't know about the man that bumping into the occasional hint of something more, like that line in The Hound of the Baskervilles, is one of the joys of re-reading the Canon. You just never know what you might find.
Maybe even the idea of Watson on horseback.