|"I've been haunted by the mystery."|
I finished another cup of coffee, and emptied and refilled my pipe, without making any substantial progress in my research. And I was beginning to think it might be easier to find a needle in a haystack, when I heard a crash from the stairs, followed by the sound of Holmes' voice.
I dropped what I was reading and rushed to the door. Stepping out into the corridor, I saw my friend at the bottom of the stairs along with another man, who appeared to be in some distress, and several pieces of luggage.
"Give us a hand with these bags, will you, Watson?" said Holmes, and I hurried down the stairs. "I have too much to carry here," he continued, "and Mycroft will probably need some assistance as well."
Only then did I recognize his brother. I had never seen Mycroft Holmes at less than his best, and I was shocked to see him in disarray -- pale, unkempt, and staggering under his own, not inconsiderable, weight. "Let's look after Mycroft first," I said quietly. "The bags can sit for a moment."
"Quite so," agreed my friend, and together we began to help his brother up the stairs.
"Ah, Dr. Watson, it's good to see you again," said Mycroft, seeming to regain a bit of strength as we began to move. "I'm afraid we may have to draw upon your medical skills. I am not feeling well at all."
"Don't worry. You're in good hands," said the detective, and we helped his brother into the flat, where he immediately collapsed upon the couch.
"Give him some cognac, Watson," said Holmes. "I'll bring the luggage up," he added, heading toward the door. "Mrs. Hudson!" he called as he descended the stairs.
"We're all in good hands, Mycroft," I said, giving him a drop of Vernet's finest. "Just relax and keep breathing. You're going to be all right." This last was either premature or a bald-faced lie, depending on your point of view. At the time I had no idea what was wrong with him, or whether he would be all right or not. But that's not the sort of thing a doctor wants to tell a patient.
Holmes spoke to Mrs. Hudson, then carried up all the bags while I tended to his brother. A few minutes later, our landlady appeared with a tray of fruit and a pot of tea. "Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," said Holmes, who then turned to me and said, "We need to get Mycroft eating again. Half of his problem is probably hunger."
"Why?" I asked. "What has happened?"
"He's in shock," replied my friend. "He hasn't eaten or slept since Wednesday. You won't mind having him here for a few days, will you?"
"Not at all," I replied.
"Good!" said he. "I knew you wouldn't. It will do him good to be among friends for a while rather than by himself. I wasn't about to leave him alone, so I packed up some of his things and brought him here." I nodded, beginning to see the picture and approving of my friend's course of action.
"But what's wrong, Holmes?" I asked. "What's happened? Why hasn't he been eating or sleeping?"
"I imagined he would have wanted to tell you himself," replied the detective. "I had no idea he was going to collapse along the way." I nodded again, seeing more of the picture but still puzzled as to the reason.
"I'll take another sip, if you don't mind," said Mycroft quietly. "And I'll tell you the whole story, too, if you'll give me a moment to marshal my strength."
"You can take all the time you need," I replied. "But if you haven't eaten in five days, you'd better have some grapes from the tray, rather than more from the bottle. Or would you prefer a banana, or some berries?"
Mycroft gazed at the fruit for twenty seconds or longer before he finally spoke. "I'll have a banana," he said, and I handed him one. He ate it slowly but with obvious pleasure, then turned to me and began to speak.
"Last Wednesday morning," he began, "I was called into the office for an unscheduled meeting. When I arrived, the room was full of senior officials, and I was told, in no uncertain terms: that my services would no longer be required; that I had twenty minutes to clean out my desk before being escorted from the premises by security personnel; and that I was not to say a word to anyone about anything that had happened on the previous day.
"The loss of the position was a shock in itself," he continued. "I am a man of deeply ingrained habits, Doctor, and to lose that situation -- I had been working fewer hours lately, but I never expected to be cut out altogether. The suddenness of the news increased the impact, of course."
"I understand," I said.
"But that was nothing," he continued, "compared to the animosity evident in that meeting. Can you imagine how it feels, after decades of being told your work is brilliant, or even indispensable, to be given twenty minutes to clean out your desk? And in front of the top people in the department? I've never been so humiliated in my entire life."
"I imagine you haven't," I said. "How horrible!"
"The shock and the humiliation may have been enough to take away my appetite," Mycroft continued, "but I don't think they alone would have kept me from sleeping."
"And what has done that to you?" I prodded.
"I haven't been able to settle down at night," he replied, "because I've been haunted by the mystery."
"And what is the mystery?" I asked.
"Why have they done this?" he replied. "I was in meetings all day last Tuesday. Did I hear something I wasn't supposed to hear? Did I say something I wasn't supposed to say? Or is this unrelated to anything that happened Tuesday? Has somebody been running a smear campaign against me which has finally come to fruition? And if so, why was I told in such threatening terms not to speak of anything that happened on Tuesday?
"I've been thinking and pacing," he continued, "puzzling and even pouting, but I have not been able to find the answer, nor have I been able to sleep."
"You haven't been reading the papers, have you?" asked my friend.
"How could I?" retorted his brother. "I've been so agitated I could barely pick up a newspaper, let alone read one."
"Understood," replied my friend, "but had you done so, you would have found your answer."
"Do you mean to say," asked his brother, "that you know why all this has happened?"
"Indeed I do," said the detective. "And it is about last Tuesday. But it's not about anything that happened in a meeting."
"I didn't do anything else last Tuesday," replied his brother.
"You were here Tuesday evening," said my friend.
"Only for a few minutes," said Mycroft.
"You brought the Minister here with you," said the detective.
"And what of that?" asked his brother.
"Had you been reading the papers," replied Sherlock Holmes, "you would know that the Minister was not here at all last Tuesday evening. Officially, he was several miles away. And the fact that he was here -- the fact that you brought him here -- is both the secret you must never divulge and the reason why you have lost your position at the Foreign Office.
"But why?" asked Mycroft. "I thought I was doing him a favour."
"That was what I wanted you to think," replied Sherlock. "But it wasn't exactly true. Pour him another cognac, will you, Watson?"