The Case of the Three Brothers
Chapter Twenty: Especial Adieu
I slept little that night. The next morning I was up ridiculously early, in time to see the milkman on his rounds and the coalman shouldering his load on his bent back. I busied myself trying to read, only to find after I had scanned the same paragraph three times that the task was a hopeless one, and gave up to spend my time transcribing the events of the last few days to my journal.
The hour was far more respectable by the time I had finished, and I wandered downstairs to find that the household was already in a state of stir. Mrs Hudson was twittering like an early morning sparrow and mentioned several times how much she enjoyed 'a good wedding'. She did not specify what she thought made a wedding 'good' or not, and I found myself growing irritable at what seemed to me to be undue pressure. I endeavoured to control my ungenerous feelings, made the appropriate noises when she asked what I thought of the hat she intended to wear, and asked if she had seen Mr Holmes, for he was conspicuous by his absence. He had gone out early, unusually so, she informed me, and had made a good deal of fuss in the process.
With little interest in the breakfast Mrs Hudson offered and feeling unequal to anything more demanding than coffee, I returned to my room, finished packing and dressed. Midway through this rigmarole, I heard Holmes's voice on the stair, inquiring whether I had given any thought to rousing myself.
Since the time for the wedding was set at eleven, and the clock now only showed five minutes past nine, I thought him overly anxious. However, on such occasions, punctuality is of paramount importance, and a new worry told hold of my insides that something might occur in the time we had left to have me commit the unforgivable sin of keeping my bride waiting.
Concerned, I hurried downstairs to find Holmes with his back to the fire, a cup of coffee in one hand and reading the morning paper. I did not need to ask where he had been: the combination of black morning suit, white waistcoat and white cravat he wore made my own clothes somewhat humbler by comparison.
We had played this scene a thousand times or more, but never with the intrusive air of awkwardness that pervaded the room that morning. After years of comfortable familiarity, I had the impression of being as stranger in my own home, thrust into the same position as all those clients who had wavered on our threshold, uncertain of their reception when faced with the sharp scrutiny of my friend.
It was certainly foolish and I was sure that whatever discomfort I was feeling was entirely of my own making, the result of nerves and lack of sleep. I poured myself another cup of coffee, told myself that I was imagining things and broke the silence with what seemed an appropriate question.
"You were out early," I said, more gentle inquiry than statement of fact.
"There were several small tasks that required my attention. A summons from the Prime Minister, the need to hire something for this morning's engagement having found myself sartorially embarrassed by a depletion of my wardrobe of late – minor matters like that. Do you know," said he suddenly, tossing aside the paper whilst I reflected that only Holmes could ever dismiss an interview with the Premier so lightly, "that the rates these fellows charge is nothing short of outrageous? It is a wonder to me that the London criminal does not give up his villainy and set up business hiring out clothes. Five shillings for the hire of a coat! And then the audacity to inquire whether I had need of an umbrella, at the princely sum of 2s. 6d. a day – on a fine morning like this! Not that I begrudge the expense, you understand, but I do baulk at having to pay over the odds for something which would have only fractionally more expensive if purchased new. Do I meet with your approval, by the way?"
I nodded. "What did the Prime Minister have to say?"
"Oh, he agreed, but said there was nothing his administration could do about it. A need is being met and if people were content to pay—"
"Not about your clothes, Holmes," I said testily. "Why did he wish to see you?"
"To offer his gratitude for our having saved his reputation and the country from ruin. There was talk of honours for us both, but I refused." His expression became slightly censorious when he saw that I was taken aback by this admission. "Come, Watson, it would have been most hypocritical of you to accept, considering you do not share the man's politics. Besides, what use are honours? Do they put bread on a poor man's table? Now, this," said he, extracting an envelope from his pocket and passing it to me, "is of far greater practical value to a newly-wedded couple."
Inside I found a cheque made out for a sum that made me catch my breath.
"Compared to what we have saved the government in terms of money, honour and lives, it is a trifle," said he. "Still, rather you have, as meagre as it is, than the Treasury, considering the return they expect on their South American investment."
"It is most generous. But what for you?"
"The thanks of a grateful nation." The briefest of smiles touched his eyes. "It is enough, I dare say, although I should have preferred a tidier conclusion to this business. Even now, the dead hand of the master still falls on the luckless. The papers report a death in the Bromley police cells yesterday. A prisoner died of an aneurysm."
"His name wouldn't have been Hancock, by any chance?"
"It would. All very convenient and not in the least believable. That a man who fought like the devil and took several constables to restrain him should suddenly succumb defies reason."
"You did not say that in the case of Jefferson Hope."
"He was not a hireling myrmidon, Watson. Money may buy loyalty only so far. When a man is faced with the gallows, his tongue has a tendency to become loose. Thus another tie is severed." He sighed. "Not that Hancock could have told us much. From him the trail would have led to Styles and from there no further. Our late Doctor of Philosophy has an obituary in The Times, by the way. It is the usual story, a distinguished career, talk of some slight scandal that saw him obliged to leave his post, and finally descent into villainy."
"They did not say that, surely?"
Holmes shook his head. "So much we know of Dr Styles. The report states only that he was retired, and yesterday died as the result of an accident at York Minster. Overall, a most unsatisfactory result. That alone renders this case unsuitable for your readers."
"You would have no objections to my writing it up then?"
"Not at all, although I think certain figures in the government might. There is nothing that terrifies them more than being held up to public ridicule. It has a tendency to encourage notions of discontent when the ordinary man learns that the people who govern him are as fallible as he is. By all means keep the notes on file. Who knows but that after we are gone, someone may wish to bring these facts to light? The case has not been entirely devoid of interest after all."
"No, indeed," I agreed. "I shall not easy forget the Case of the Three Brothers."
"What?" he said sharply.
"Three Brothers," I said. "Yours, mine and… Mr William Parks's brother, Mr Swithin Harper."
"Half-brother." His features relaxed into a smile. "I suppose it will do, although it is not the title I should have chosen. I should contest the role played by Henry Watson in the events of the last few days."
"Let us say that he complicated matters somewhat."
"Well, there you have the advantage over me. Your brother only haunts you from beyond the grave; mine conspires to do so whilst very much alive." His gaze was drawn to his desk. "I feel his presence even now, pervading these rooms. I entirely attribute it to that watch of his which is still languishing in my drawer."
"When will you return it to him?"
"When he admits that he has lost it. I'll wager that he had his pocket picked and was too embarrassed to tell me. Do you see know why I champion the cause of reason over sentiment? By that one refusal to admit to human frailty, a chain of events was set in motion that near resulted in our deaths and the collapse of the government."
I was secretly gratified by the order of importance in which he placed those occurrences. Then, in the next breath, I was reminded why at times Holmes could be the most infuriating man in London.
"Speaking of human frailty," said he, regarding my appearance with a critical eye, "is that what you intend to wear today?"
"Yes. Is anything wrong with it?"
"Not in the least. I had, however, assumed you would be wearing your uniform."
"No. It did not seem appropriate. That was another life, one I should be happy to put behind me."
"And yet, without it, would you be here today, on the threshold of wedlock?"
"I dare say not."
"Indeed not. You would have been an ordinary general practitioner, with a comfortable if prosaic existence, married to a woman eminently suited to the role of doctor's wife and with a clutch of bawling infants in tow." He finished the last of his coffee before adding his cup to the clutter that jostled for space on the mantle. "However, if you choose to discard the past so readily, it is not for me to question your decision. It is too late in any case to find a tailor to make the necessary alterations. You have, shall we say, 'outgrown' that old uniform of yours in recent years."
"Whatever do you mean?" I said indignantly.
"Really, my dear fellow, do not pretend that you are that same emaciated young fellow who used to lounge around our quarters with all the energy and enthusiasm of a dead dog."
"I most certainly deny it."
"It was not intended as a criticism, my friend. Time has passed and we are neither of us the men we once were. Whatever became of that convalescent army surgeon I once knew, with his bull pups and ships and objections to rows and badly-played violins?"
I laughed. "I fear he came to a bad end. Too much time spent chasing around after an aspiring consulting detective led him into all sorts of trouble."
A rueful smile plucked at the corners of his mouth. "A pity. I rather valued his company."
I found that it took an unconscionably long time on my part to find an answer to that. There had been a sense of vulnerability about his voice that seemed quite alien to his cold and aloof manner, and I did not know how to reply to this change in mood.
"Holmes," I began.
"But listen to us, frittering away the time we have left talking of the past when the present and your future is at hand!" said he briskly. "A little weight improves your appearance no end and today you present the very picture of health. What bride could want more in a prospective husband? How is your leg, by the way?"
"A mild discomfort, nothing more. How is your arm?"
"A slight inconvenience. Between us, with our injured arms and broken fingers and strained muscles, we make two incomplete individuals or one perfect whole. Well, if you do intend to wear that, it would be most remiss of me to send you out looking as though you had thrown on your clothes in a tempest. You would do well to remember that first impressions, especially in the choice of a family doctor, are of the utmost importance as an index of character. If a man cannot devote a moment of care to the appearance of his neck wear, what hope for his poor patient?"
"I see nothing wrong with it," I said, glancing at my reflection in the mirror.
"It is perfectly acceptable for a stable-hand perhaps," said Holmes, as he set about rearranging my tie, "but not for a man about to marry. Have you never heard the story of the morning visitor to the house of Beau Brummell, who enquired about the heap of crumpled cravats upon the floor and to which the valet replied—"
"'Those, Sir, are our failures.' Yes, I have heard that story."
"Then you have no excuse for slovenliness."
"If you do not approve," I said, "I could still get my uniform out of the trunk."
"Has it been aired? Then I think not. We do not want the guests choked with dust every time you move."
"It's not as bad as all that."
"You would be surprised what people remember at weddings. Ask them what the bride wore, and they might be able to give you a general impression of shape and colour. But ask them about some ancient relation and they will regale you with tales of how the odour of mustiness made them feel quite faint throughout the ceremony." He took a step back to inspect his handiwork. "Better," said he approvingly. "An occasion like this demands a certain touch, however."
He darted away into his room and returned carrying a small tortoiseshell box, inside which was a sapphire and silver tie pin.
"By happy coincidence, this meets the requirements of being something both borrowed and something blue," said he, inserting it carefully in the folds of material.
"I rather think that particular rhyme applies to the bride."
"No matter. A groom needs good luck as much as his lady. As I understand it, the borrowed item should be of real and great value, which this undoubtedly is."
"It's a handsome piece," I said. "Who gave it to you?"
"Holmes, if this is a family heirloom, do you think it is wise to entrust it to my safekeeping?"
"I would trust you with many things of far greater value than this bauble. If it gets lost, then so be it. The sacrifice would have been worth it, for it certainly improves the appearance of your collar. Moreover, should you one day need an excuse to visit an old friend, its return will furnish you with reason enough."
Before I could answer that, he had manoeuvred me into position in front of the mirror to better inspect my reflection. It was an improvement, I could not deny it. The sapphire had a sparkle to which the burnished silver added inner fire like the cold heart of an icicle.
"According to tradition," Holmes went on, "as your best man, I have to give you a mascot or charm to carry in your pocket. My guide to the Etiquette of Weddings does not specify the reason. In the spirit of the thing, however, this is for you."
He presented me with a slim case. I opened it to find inside a penknife with an enamelled handle, engraved with the legend 'something new from someone old'.
"Holmes," I said, "this is too much."
"Having broken yours, I felt that I should offer a replacement. There may come a time when you find yourself in similar straits and have need of a good penknife. That blade will not snap as easily as the last."
"Then I accept with thanks."
"I also understand that I am to prevent you from returning here once we have set out for the church. That presents me with rather more difficulty. Do you intend to put up a struggle?"
"Do not concern yourself," I said, laughing. "Wild horses would not drag me back. Upon my word, this book of yours has given you some very queer notions!"
"By no means. It offers sound practical guidance for the man about to marry." He plucked a slim volume from the shelf and passed it to me. "Keep it. You may find the section offering advice to married men of interest."
I flicked through the pages, variously smiling and chuckling at the author's over-earnest words. "'It behoves every married man to avail himself of a potting shed'," I read out. "What on earth do you think he means by that?"
"Interests outside the home?" Holmes suggested. "We never value that which is always with us."
"Well, I do not have a garden."
"Nor a roof, if your builders are to be believed."
"Be that as it may, I have decided to waste no more money on the place. There is a connection around the corner belonging to a doctor who suffers from St Vitus's dance that looks to be more promising. I shall make him an offer on my return." Downstairs, the bell jangled. "That would be the cab to take my things to the station."
"Are you packed?" Holmes asked.
"Everything I shall need for a week or so. The rest I shall collect in due course – that is, if my things are not in your way."
He shook his head. "They won't trouble me in the slightest. I won't be here."
I stared at him. "You're leaving?"
"Not indefinitely. My first stop shall be York. A man is dead because he was mistaken for Mycroft and the local constabulary have made little advance in identifying him. His family should be informed of his demise. He deserves that much."
I approved, although there was that about his tone that suggested there was more to this sudden desire to leave London than he was willing to admit. "Then where will you go?"
"Watson, you surely have other things to worry about this morning than my travel plans," said he. "Hurry, man, your cab is waiting. We have not survived the attentions of thieves and murderers these last few days to have you turn up late at the church."
I laughed. "Yes, it has been somewhat trying."
"But not without merit. Remember that only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss."
"How true. Your wisdom?"
"No. The Count of Monte Cristo's. Given the part he has played in this business, I thought it only fair that he be allowed the last word."
He opened the door and looked at me expectantly. I lingered on the threshold, at once both nervous with anticipation and yet reluctant to leave, as if the moment I passed from this room, all would vanish as if the past few years had been nothing more than some magnificent dream.
"Holmes, you will be coming back to Baker Street, won't you?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied evenly. "Will you?"
"Yes. Did you ever doubt it?"
"I never doubt you, Watson. A man who is not daunted by two near brushes with death in as many days is not to be deterred by so trifling an affair as marriage. Well, I have the ring, our cab is waiting and it is my duty to deliver you to the church against all odds. And if we do encounter some such obstacle, I dare say that our experiences of late should have left us well prepared to meet whatever London may throw at us and emerge triumphant!"
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are the creations are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Characters and incidents mentioned in this work are entirely fictitious. This work of fan fiction has not been created for profit nor authorised by any official body.