The Gallows

“Many,” said Holmes, “Would consider this a privileged position. Not so long ago, this was entertainment for the masses.”

“I’m aware,” I said shortly. I did not wish to be curt with my friend, but the smell of unwashed men and imminent death pressed in on us, and I found I could not quite keep still as my ruined nerves readied themselves for action.

Ludicrous. A man would die today, yes, but it was far from my duty to prevent it.

I sighed, willing myself to explain more fully. There was a small kerfuffle at the entrance to the prison yard, from which I averted my eyes, and explained, “My father was a medical man as well, as you know. He never attended such events, and never brought me to them. He had seen too much of death to consider it a recreational activity.”

“I am inclined to agree,” murmured Holmes, but his eyes fixed on the man being led to the gallows: Alec Cunningham, murderer, brought to justice at Holmes’ hand on what was supposed to have been our restful country sojourn.

I felt bile rising in my throat as the jailers forced him to climb up to the platform, and had to force my body to stay put in our observation-place in the corner of the prison yard.

I did not wish to be there. I had not wished to attend in the first place, but neither had I wished for Holmes to go alone. And it had been quite clear from the first that Holmes planned on attending this execution with or without me.

“My father had no such reservations,” said my friend as the priest prayed over Cunningham. “I attended the last public event of this nature in London, as a boy. The condemned man was innocent.”

My mind was so taken with shock at the image of Sherlock Holmes as a wide-eyed lad, seeing more than any other man and knowing more than he likely wanted to, that I nearly missed the event happening before my eyes. One moment Cunningham was standing on the upper part of the gallows, a line of piss visibly dripping down his legs and down from the boards of the platform. The next, he was dangling beneath, spinning gently.

His legs being bound, I could not distinguish enough movement to determine whether he had died instantly on the impact, or if life still remained in him. I did not want to know.

The guards ushered us out of the yard and through the gates of the prison, where Holmes looked up at the sky, as if not quite sure what to do next. “The logical conclusion of another successful case, Watson,” though not with his usual tone of self-satisfaction. “In this matter of the puzzle at Reigate, I am certain that my conclusions were correct.”

I understood, then, why it was that Holmes always insisted on witnessing the executions of the men whose crimes he had apprehended. “May it always be so,” I prayed, as we hailed a cab to bring us home.