The weather had turned chill, even for autumn. The sky was a leaden grey, overcast and dismal, merely echoing back the cold, grey stone of the prison walls that surrounded the little courtyard. My spirits matched the environment and even Holmes looked grim; our presence there was not because of a mission of good cheer. Today, Alexander Brownley would hang.
True to Ives's prediction, he had refused to accept any more of the narcotics that had ensnared him for the past few years. The withdrawal process had been exceptionally painful and debilitating, and while lucid and conscious he had refused any treatment to ease his suffering. Nevertheless, Brownley survived to face trial.
Holmes's testimony had proved all others almost redundant, and the case-file he had created with both the replications as well as genuine notes sent by Brownley featured heavily as evidence. Nevertheless, Lestrade as well as Constable Cummings and the now-disgraced Constable Bradwick took the stand. I was called to testify, but then so was Ives, Dr. Philip Robinson, Generals Malkin and Preston, Dr. Thomas Knopp, and half a dozen other London doctors. The sheer number of us who had been targeted by Brownley was staggering, but also saddening. The man's hatred was prolific.
Brownley had shown little reaction to his sentence of death. Only a faint, contemptuous sneer followed by a brief, bitter chuckle betrayed his emotions. His family might have made an appeal on his behalf but their absence during the affair was in its own way noteworthy. They had mourned him for dead almost twenty years ago, and then again only three years ago. Apparently they felt a third death, and his actions leading up to it, were beyond their powers to cope. I do not think an appeal would have been successful anyway.
And so it was that Holmes and I stood on the prison grounds with but a few others, awaiting Brownley's sentence to be carried out. Eventually I saw Ives's white head weaving through the sparse crowd toward us. We exchanged brief cordialities but soon fell silent.
"So, Mr. Holmes," Ives said abruptly, "I do not suppose you would be interested in investigating another little matter for me?"
"That would depend on the nature of the case," the detective replied with some amusement.
"It is a trivial thing, to be sure, but I am rather interested by it. An anonymous benefactor has donated some money to my West End Clinic. The curious part of that is the amount of the donation was delivered in an unmarked envelope, paid in cash, and matches down to the penny what I paid you for investigating the Brownley case. Whatever do you make of that, Mr. Holmes?"
I fought to hide a smile as my friend shrugged carelessly. "It is a curious matter indeed but I fear I must declining taking this case as my sympathies are with the culprit, Doctor. If your mysterious benefactor wished to make his identity known to you he would have done so. It is not for me to unmask him."
"Yes, I thought you might say that."
We again fell silent although I swear I heard Ives whisper to Holmes, "It was really not necessary to double the donation the following week although I am grateful for it."
Whatever joy and amusement I might have derived from the exchange was quickly blotted out by the arrival of the prisoner. Again I was made keenly aware of the gallows before us, the rope barely swinging in the light wind.
Brownley held a severely straight posture with his hands tied behind his back; I wondered how much of it was from nerve and how much from physical necessity. He had not looked well during the trial and looked downright ill now. Nevertheless his steps were measured if heavy as he mounted the gallows and took his position over the trap door.
He declined any final words then. We found out later he had spoken his last in his cell: "I expected nothing more." He blinked once as the rope lowered over his head. Then the noose was tightened and I wondered how his old neck injury would react to the actual hanging. Done properly, the spine snaps and death is quick, if not instantaneous. If done improperly, the man must asphyxiate to death.
Official words were spoken but I paid them no mind. Brownley looked as one dead already, his eyes not wandering the crowds but fixed firmly on a point I could not make out. The door dropped out beneath his feet.
There was a tremendous cracking sound as the weight of his body competed against the strength of the rope. I watched only long enough to acknowledge the lack of struggling before I could look no more. The hangman had done his job well.
They let him hang there a few minutes more to be certain that he was indeed dead, though there could be little doubt of that. Then the body was taken down and deposited on a small cart, and draped with a sheet. The crowd, such as it was, began to disperse.
None of us were inclined to converse as we left the prison. Holmes, I knew, was pleased by the outcome although he was less exuberant than I should have expected. I like to think it was out of deference to my frame of mind, for he took once glance at my face, lightly clapped me on the shoulder, and strode ahead at a pace I could easily match were I so inclined.
Instead, I walked more slowly, keeping Ives company. "Did Holmes really donate your fee and twice that again to the clinic?"
"I can think of no other man who would," was the reply. "It is too preposterous a coincidence to entertain. Now look here, Doctor, have you come to a solution for your moral quandary from weeks ago?"
"I have some thoughts in mind. Why?"
"An acquaintance of mine approached me and said he was trying to get up a panel for the discussion of medical ethics and responsibilities at St. Bart's. Give our last conversation, I thought you might be interested in participating."
"Yes," I said slowly, mulling over the idea. "I believe I am interested."
"What of your other solutions?"
"I prefer this one," I answered honestly. "It addresses in the most direct manner that which troubled me the most about Brownley's past."
"In that case I shall send your name along to him. He should be contacting you soon. His name is Starr, by the way. You may wish to warn Holmes that his is an expected correspondence lest he take it into his head that Brownley has a doppelganger."
I snorted softly – Ives was a fine one to talk of such things! – but replied that I would be on the watch for Starr's post. With that, Ives and I parted ways and it took but a moment to catch up to Holmes.
Back at Baker Street my friend folded himself into his chair and took up his briarwood pipe immediately. I let him be, preferring instead to lose myself in a novel. Thus we past a good half hour engaged in our own pursuits.
"It never ceases to astound me that human nature is capable of the vilest sordidness and spite, and yet has not lost the ability to display the most undeserved show of goodness and mercy," Holmes said at last around the stem of his pipe.
I looked up from the pages of my book. "Whatever has brought that to your mind?" I have known my friend to wax philosophical at the end of a case and occasionally during it. Normally such delvings arise from conversation but here I found myself at a loss to follow his train of thought.
"You, my dear Watson," he answered to my utter surprise. "That you are able to pity a man who would have cheerfully killed not only you but your colleagues."
"You yourself have shown pity to criminals before, Holmes," I responded, recovering from my shock but close to blushing with embarrassment. "It is a characteristic of yours to temper justice with mercy if you believe circumstances warrant it."
"Just so, Watson," he acknowledged. " 'If circumstances warrant it.' Perhaps that is where our paths diverge, for I see little in Brownley that warrant pity." The last was nearly snarled out between his teeth, and I did not need to be a detective to understand why.
"Perhaps that is because it is easier to forgive the danger to one's self than it is to forgive the danger to a friend," I observed. "Particularly a 'dear' one."
For my pains, I was favored with a sharp, withering look. "You are implying, Watson, that I am allowing my emotions to overrule my judgment. Not only is that insulting to my powers of detachment, that is hardly complimentary to you. It suggests that you are a weakness for me, an Achilles' heel."
"Is it so erroneous a conclusion?"
"It is indeed!"
I sighed, for I realized what an uphill battle was before me. "Holmes, what is the real reason you put up the money for your cousin to buy my practice?"
"Because he could not afford to otherwise, Watson, as I said before," he snapped impatiently and without hesitation.
I shook my head. "You had me give my word of honor that I would not publish any more of your cases. Then you asked me to give up my practice and move back to Baker Street, even going so far as to find a buyer. Why, Holmes? To what purpose? From a logical point of view, it would seem that you endeavored to curtail any hope of livelihood I might have."
Such a thought clearly had never occurred to him, for he looked taken aback. "That was not my intention," he murmured.
"I know it was not," I reassured him. "What I wish to know is what you did intend."
Sherlock Holmes fumbling for words is a sight to behold, for although I trust no man could hide it better, his unease was clear to me. "Well, it would certainly be inconvenient for this agency to be operated out of two locations," at last he offered dryly.
"You seem quite confident that I had wished to continue to be a partner in this agency," countered I quietly, without remonstration.
Obviously this was another thought that had never occurred to Holmes. "I trust you did, else you would not have agreed to return to Baker Street."
I sighed again, this time out of frustration. "For heaven's sake, Holmes! Is it really so difficult for you to admit to any of the softer emotions? I know you have said they complicate matters and hamper pure reason but in this instance your refusal to face them is only tangling the situation!"
"My dear Watson, I fear the only thing tangling the situation is your groundless insistence that I am concealing from you some ulterior motive for my actions."
I refused to be so brusquely waylaid from my topic, particularly when I knew myself to be right. "Holmes, why was it so important for both of us to resume business within 'this agency'?"
He was quiet for a moment. "You know why."
"Yes. Do you?"
With a theatrical sigh, Holmes lay aside his pipe. "Oh, very well. I have found it particularly irksome to continue on with this business without a trusted partner. Irksome, and a trifle more dangerous."
"And why is that?" I persisted, quite enjoying myself shamelessly at Holmes's expense.
"The company of a good friend can make tolerable even the most intolerable situations," he answered quietly. For Sherlock Holmes, such an admission was as close to heart-felt as the man ever came and I accepted it as such. Having pried the truth from his reluctant lips, I returned to my novel.
"You knew this already, didn't you? In Verner's consulting room," he demanded a minute later.
"Of course I did," I retorted, not looking up. "I simply didn't know if you understood your own motives."
"If I am truly so transparent then I shall have to give up such activities in the future," replied he good-naturedly.
"While you're at it, you may want to abandon some other activities as well, such as untoward jealousies concerning my acquaintances and not trusting my own sense and judgment where danger is concerned," I advised, also good-naturedly but wholly in earnest.
He raised an eyebrow at me but paused as he took in my expression. "Oh my dear fellow," he said grandly, "you are quite right. Henceforth I commend all of the previously mentioned pursuits to the rubbish-bin."
I raised my own eyebrows. "Good. I am immensely glad to hear it." I forced myself to wait another minute or so before adding innocently, my gaze still on the printed words before me, "Will your shag tobacco be joining those activities in the rubbish-bin soon?"
I was rewarded with a snort, and the sounds of a Stradivarius being taken up, followed by the strains of one of Holmes's milder compositions – one that I recognized as indicating all was well with his world.