For all the time I have spent working with Sherlock Holmes, I have brought to his attention only a minimal number of cases. The reverse is also true. In fact, I had never had a medical case brought to me by Holmes until an exceptionally chilly day in early 1898. That in and of itself was enough to imprint the encounter on my memory but as I would discover, an even more pressing reason would emerge. But I am committing the literary sin Holmes takes such glee in scolding me for: that of beginning a tale in the middle.
Holmes had been out most of the day -- doing what, exactly, I did not know other than it entailed him dressing in the guise of a most bohemian impoverished painter -- and dusk was beginning to spread gloomy shadows in the furthest corners of the room. Then came the clatter of two sets of footsteps on the stairs and a man with pearly grey hair and a face scored deeply by lines burst into the sitting room. He was followed closely by Holmes.
I could see at a glance that theirs was not an amiable relationship. Holmes had the stranger's shoulder in a grip tight enough to wrinkle the thick cloth of his coat and he rather shoved him further into the room. The stranger in turn gave my friend looks that were part resentment, part fear, and part desperate hopefulness.
"Stay quiet!" Holmes snapped with what appeared to be real anger. Then he turned to me. "Watson. Think carefully before you answer my next query, please. Would you be willing to offer medical aid to a man known to be a criminal when by rights you ought to be reporting him to the police?"
I involuntarily glanced at the white-haired man who now had his hands thrust into his trouser pockets. At my look, he shook his head. "Not I. A friend of mine." He appeared to be on the verge of saying more but a sharp glare from Holmes made him check himself.
"I suppose it would depend on what sort of criminal he is and how bad his condition is," I answered slowly.
"He is a thief," Holmes replied. "Scotland Yard has some interest in finding him although the real prize is not your potential patient but rather the company he keeps. Inspector MacKenzie is much interested in the latter man although I daresay Hopkins or Youghal would be equally delighted to collar the pair of them."
I looked again to the white-haired man. This time he flashed me a knowing smile and shrugged slightly. "It is for his sake I am here."
"His sake as well as your own," Holmes snapped. "But it is only fair to warn you, Watson, that your patient was wounded during certain criminal activities and the wound is such that he should be immediately linked to the crime."
"It became infected," put in the stranger. "We've treated it best we could but I'm getting beyond my limits now. I've treated him shabbily in the past but I shall not leave him in the lurch now. It is completely my fault, after all. No man ever had a better partner; I daresay he'd follow me to hell and back. Loyal simply isn't the word. Please say you'll come. He's in a bad way and if ever a chap least deserved such a fate it is he."
For all his nonchalant posturing and public school intonations there was a thread of sincerity running beneath his words. Thieves they might be and wanted men, but whatever else they were, I believed they were close friends outside the brotherhood of criminality. It was that element as well as the direness of the man's condition that prompted me to say, "Yes. I shall come."
I felt Holmes's piercing gaze upon me as I rose and collected my bag. When I turned to look at him, however, he merely nodded solemnly in acknowledgement of my decision. I wondered if he had already seen my patient and further wondered what circumstances would have precipitated such a meeting. I knew better than to ask then, however. Holmes would volunteer the information if and when he chose to do so.