The black armband coiled around his limb like a snake, killing by constriction. He left the little church slowly, stumbling once. A coal-black horse stamped the cobbles outside, harnessed to a hearse of the same color. Among perhaps thirty people not a face smiled. The man himself was haggard and limping, grown old in a day.
The morning was cold and beautiful, with the rising sun shining through the bare trees. Breath smoked in the frigid air, but no one shivered or stamped a foot to keep warm. All faces but one were turned toward a long black box, resting on hard snow-dusted ground near a deep earthen trench. The man's eyes were fixed on a tall elm, coated with ice so that it looked like a glass sculpture blown by a master artist. Words floated on the still air, a long chant of mourning and solemn supplication.
The prayer ended, the coffin was lowered, and still the man gazed as if frozen where he stood. No one stirred.
With a little sigh he looked down, then up to a mound of loose earth near the trench. He did not limp as he crossed to it, placing each step deliberately as if he savored the pain. He took hold of the shovel, and a spray of dirt landed on the coffin. He left the shovel standing, and stayed where he was, staring down as the grave slowly filled.
The mourners left soon after that, casting a final glance behind them to see the freshly turned earth and the figure standing by it like a black statue of grief. Soon he was alone. The sun was a little higher now. A ray fell steadily on an outstretched branch of the elm, and a drop of icy water dimpled the snow beneath.
Tears tracked down his honest face, undisguised and unheeded. He knelt before the simple gravestone and reached out a trembling finger to trace the carven letters. Mary Watson, 1861 - 1893. And underneath, Who shall find a valiant woman? Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.
"I'm sorry, Mary." The whisper was barely audible. "I'm so sorry. Please…" He sank back onto his heels and buried his face in his hands. There was no sound but quiet sobbing for a long time.
When the sun was beaming straight down and the melting water from the trees had become a steady drip, he rose, icy mud staining the knees of his trousers, and laid a hand on the stone in farewell. It was a long way back to Kensington.
Instead of taking the direct way to the road, however, he turned due east, and paused by another stone. Under the name and dates of birth and death, there was a single line: The World's Only Private Consulting Detective. A faint smile touched the edges of his mouth, and his hand brushed the smooth marble briefly. Then he straightened and turned away, passing through the gates of the churchyard with a firmer stride than before.
A/N: I'm not entirely sure I got all the details right, but that's the best I can do. Many thanks to Tristan-the-Dreamer for suggesting the story form! The quotation is taken from Proverbs 31:10 (where "valiant" means not just brave but competent, worthy, excellent…). This was written partly in memory of my brother, who passed away five years ago. Prayers for his intention would be much appreciated.