A Matter of Discretion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
This brief story is one of the first tales I ever finished. Written in 1975, it's my own small contribution to the canon of Sherlock Holmes stories. It's a character study more than anything else, fully contained within Holmes' flat at 22b Baker Street. For those interested, I suspect that it was also inspired by a marvellous BBC series on Jack the Ripper, that saw the Detectives Barlow and Watt from "Z Cars", and "Softly, Softly", analyse the ripper murders.
And you'll get to learn who the Ripper was. At least I saw it back then.

Submitted: August 21, 2016

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Submitted: August 21, 2016

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I was, as I remember, relaxing in the room that I have retained in flat 22b Baker Street, during those first inauspicious moments of what was to prove my introduction to one of the most curious cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes career.  We had just returned from finalising a rather tiring and depressing case in Hartfordshire, and I had decided to spend a few short hours, recuperating in the flat, before returning to the harassment of my private practice.

I was disturbed, in my reveries, by a knock at our flat door.  I was unaware of what Holmes might have been doing, at the time, and, for an instant, I pondered, whether or not, I should abandon my rest, and answer it, or wait and leave it to my companion.  I was saved the decision, however, though not my rest, by hearing Holmes himself, apparently without stirring, call out to our visitor to open the door and enter.  There followed a creaking sound, as the door crept slowly open, then, the plaintive, apologetic voice of our landlady, Mrs. Hopkins, assaulted my ear.

“I’m awfully sorry to disturb you, Mr. Holmes.  But, there is this gentleman, I’ve got with me, see.  He seems to have done himself an injury, and I was wondering, if Dr. Watson couldn’t perhaps help him.  Him being a doctor, and all.”

“Of course, Mrs. Hopkins, bring him in by the fire, while I fetch Dr: Watson.”

Even as Holmes spoke those words, I was on my feet and adjusting my state of dress.

“Coming Holmes,” I called.  “Make the gentleman as comfortable as possible, Mrs. Hopkins.”

Outside my room, I could hear muffled sounds that gave one an impression of someone trying to shift a heavy, resisting object, and above these I heard a distorted, human voice coming to me sometimes as a whimper, sometimes as a giggle, and, most often, as a disjointed, rambling tirade of the most horrible content.  I do not know how Mrs. Hopkins stood up to it.  Grabbing up my medical kit, I quickly entered the room.

The sight that greeted me, was hideous indeed.  Seated before me, slightly inclined towards the fire, was a man who, by his dress, was, obviously, a gentleman of high rank.  Yet, the idiotic expression on his face and the grotesque ramblings in which he was indulging, indicated that he was now, completely demented, and in a semi-comatose state.  But, it was not the vacant stare of this destroyed mind, that I found so distressing.  It was the hideous expression, combining, in mocking arrogance, simultaneous horror and glee, that now lay, frozen in the etched lines of his face.  For an instant, that face held me rigid, then, I regained my composure, and began to assess the rest of the man.

His clothes were torn, in several places.  He had a wound above his left temple that had previously been bleeding quite profusely, but the flow of blood had now almost stopped.  I decided I would be best served by gaining some background details as to how he date to be here and turned to face the others in the room.

Holmes was sitting in his favourite chair, examining a walking stick, which I assumed, belonged to my patient.  Over at the door, stood Mrs. Hopkins and a young man I recognised as her son, Jeremy.

“How did this gentleman come here, Mrs. Hopkins?”

“My son, Jeremy, found him, Doctor.  I sent him out, early this morning, to do some errands for me, and, on his way back, through Hyde Park, he found this gentleman.  He could see the gentleman was ill, and as you were the only doctor he knew within a few blocks of the park, he thought it best to bring him here.”

“I see.  What was he doing in the park, Jeremy?”

“He was just sitting there, Doctor, talking to himself.  I saw that he was bleeding and decided to

bring him to you.”

“Yes,” I said, pausing to think for a moment.  I turned to his mother.  “He will be all right now, anyway, I can look after him.  Your son was quite right in bringing him to me.”

With that, I dismissed them, and after a couple of polite courtesies, they left.  I was about to turn back to the patient, when Holmes spoke.

“Have you decided on a course of action, yet, doctor.”

“The only thing I can do, Holmes, is give him an opiate, to sedate him, and then dress his wound.  After that, we can find out who he is, and contact someone to take him away, for treatment.”

“Excellent,” he said, “but I think we shall have a little discussion first, before we arrange for someone to take him away.”

“As you wish,” I concurred, and returned to my patient, taking out a syringe, and filling it with the desired solution.

After I had finished ministering to the needs of my patient and laid him to rest upon our settee, I turned to my companion, in a state of high irritation.  I am always sensitive about people interfering between a doctor and his patient and even though I felt certain that my friend would not do so without ample justification, I still found it difficult to contain my annoyance.

"Now, Holmes,” I said, hoping that I was succeeding in suppressing my ire, “what do you want to discuss?”

“This is a most interesting subject we have before us, Watson.  You know my methods. I recommend you apply them to a study of this individual, to see what you can discover.”

“Really Holmes, this is preposterous.  You are beginning to regard everyone with suspicion, now.  This poor man is obviously more the victim of crime than the purveyor of it.”

“Indeed Watson, then perhaps you would be kind enough as to explain to me, why this innocent should feel the need to carry a sword stick, and why the blade of this instrument should be covered with dry blood.  Blood which, under analysis, I feel certain will prove to be human.

“You look surprised, Watson.  Well, here are a few more items you might like to consider.  You surely could not have failed to notice those scratch marks on the back of his right hand which could only have been made by human fingernails.  Evidence of some brief struggle.  And how, please tell me, did blood dripping down the left side of the front of his jacket, stain the back of the cuff of his right trouser leg, and his left leg as well.  Especially, when the stain on his jacket ends half way down to his waist, and there is no similar stain running down the back of the garment.”

He paused, letting the full import of his words bear down upon me.  I, for my part, said nothing.  I was awe struck by what he was saying and by the revelations of what I had overlooked in treating my patient.  At the same time, I struggled desperately to sort out, from what he was saying, some meaning, that would enable me to anticipate the revelation I knew was coming.

“Ah!” he said.  “I perceive that you are beginning to think.  If I further add, that the soil on his shoes is peculiar to the Whitechapel - Spitalfields slum district, you might perhaps begin to grasp the import of who your patient is.”

“My God, Holmes, you don't mean to tell me that this is....”

“Yes, Watson!  The most notorious criminal in this entire realm.  The Whitechapel murderer.  The self-styled, Jack the Ripper.”

“We must contact the police then, Holmes, and hand him over to their authority.”

“I am afraid, we cannot do that, Watson.”

“But, why ever not, Holmes?”

“Because, to do so, Watson, would implicate one of the highest in the land in a scandal too grotesque to see the light of day.”

“Wh…  Who is this, Holmes?”

“Oh, he is not so important, Watson.  It is who he will be associated with that I am concerned about.  This is James Kenneth Stephen, lawyer, poet and one time tutor to Prince Albert, son of Edward, Prince of Wales.  And, in the present political climate, with all the other scandals that have been thrown up to besmirch the throne of England, how do you think the public would react when it learnt that one of the heirs of that throne had been tutored by Jack the Ripper.  Besides which, Mr. Stephen suffered from certain unwholesome and unhealthy personal predilections and these he was able to cultivate for a time, at least, in his charge.  That information can never be permitted to come before the public eye in the chance revelations of a court of law.

“But, Holmes, how do you know all this.  Even you could not deduce all that from just a cursory examination.”

“Indeed Watson, you are right there.  But, surely, you did not think I had been ignoring these murders, did you.  I have been pursuing this killer for some time now.  But, an insane man can have the genius of the devil himself.  Always, he has eluded me.  That is, until that happy day when Sir William Gull, who has, by the way, acted as physician to Prince Albert and others of the Royal Family, came to see me.

“One of his patients, he claimed, was suffering symptoms of mental degeneration.  Amongst other things, he said, he had developed a fierce hatred of women, and this was reflected in the poetry the man was writing.  One of these, after savagely mocking the appearance of a women he had met, continued, ‘I do not like her, and I should not mind if she was done away with, killed or ploughed.’  There were other symptoms, as well, but I shall not go into them.  These, combined with certain other indications, had led the good doctor to conclude that his patient could indeed be Jack the Ripper.

“However, he was also well aware of the stature of his patient’s connections and of the need for discretion.  At the same time, he lacked proof, therefore, he turned to me for advice and assistance.”

"I agreed to help, at once, but, as I said, the insane mind can be fiendishly cunning.  I was able to quickly confirm the doctor’s suspicions, in my own mind, but I could never establish definite proof.  From time to time, I received hints and shadowy clues, but never anything positive.  There was the time the Ripper wrote that verse: ‘I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid.  Nor yet a foreign skipper.’  The last line of which would have been meaningless to the public, but someone with connections with the Royal family could have been aware that her majesty, the Queen, had written to the Home Secretary, prior to that suggesting that the police check all foreign skippers.  That someone could have been James Stephen.  But, that was not proof.”

“Now, I have proof, but, it is no longer necessary.  Mr. Stephen has finally suffered a complete mental collapse.  The warring factions of guilt and need have finally annihilated each other.  It makes me shudder to think what atrocity he has just now performed to finally snap the thin thread of sanity he had remaining to him.  He will not kill again.”

“What is to become of him, Holmes?” I asked.

“I will contact Sir William.  He can then arrange for his patient to be placed in a private asylum, probably, for the rest of his natural life.  This affair must not be chronicled, Watson.”

At the time, I agreed with him, but, subsequent thought has led me to the decision that it is fair to posterity to leave the identity of this infamous killer unknown.  Therefore, I am writing this account, with the intention of placing it, with certain other records of a discreet nature, in a locked box.  This I shall hand over to my solicitors, with strict instructions that it should not be opened till fifty years have passed following the event of my death.

John H. Watson, M.D.


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