I am confident I could distinguish between the prisons of London by smell alone. Newgate smells of every kind of decay, mildew and dry rot and layer upon ancient layer of human effluvia. Pentonville is cleaner, colder, hollower – black-lead and stone. At Wandsworth there is a permanent base scent of some stale, overboiled vegetable, in which the other principal elements of rancid breath, oakum, tar, urine and Jeyes cleaning fluid all eddy and stagnate. It is a bleak smell, and a bleak place. The prisoners are unable to communicate with each other even by so much as a smile; they are forbidden to speak, and their very faces are shrouded under grey cloth masks. They shuffle about in their communal solitude, voiceless as spectres, their eyes glinting through the two crude holes in each mask. I work zealously to swell their numbers with new recruits, and (especially in the last eight months, especially when I have been more liberal than I ought with morphine) I have occasional nightmares in which I am one of them.
I have never wished any prison more comfortless before, but that day I did, even before I saw Gilfoyle. I wanted Wandsworth’s every hardship endlessly multiplied, and every humane reform of the last hundred years undone.
The visiting room into which I contrived to be shown, (after tedious negotiations with the Governor’s clerk which included, on my side, a number of unabashed lies), is a small, yellow-painted, arch-roofed space divided by a screen of bars, a door on each side. Gilfoyle was conducted into his pen on one side of the room moments after I walked into mine.
He has yet to pollute a courtroom with his presence. Oh God, if by some chance he should escape the penalty of the law I shall – but I must not be distracted into fantasies. Still in his own clothes, therefore, he was discreetly fashionable and immaculate, his hair smoothly combed. Nevertheless he had already lost at least four pounds and looked shrunken and haggard. I was savagely glad to see it. But when he saw me he crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall of the cell with a faint, ironic, upward tilt to his eyebrows and the corners of his lips. And I knew, really. Oh, I had known when I saw that damned police report.
But I had come there for absolute certainty.
“I had supposed my acquaintance with you at an end, Mr. Gilfoyle,” I said. “But I find I must renew it. We have outstanding matters to discuss.”
I have excellent control over my features. On this occasion I had to stretch myself very hard to maintain it, but I could do it; I could stand there, quite still, looking down at him from my full height, and speak to him with nothing in my voice beyond the delicate suggestion of a sneer. At the same time I rather despised myself for succeeding. I did not want coolness and detachment and carefully measured venom. I wanted to be beating his face in shouting, What have you done, you filth, tell me what you have done.
“At our last meeting, you expressed a wish to graduate from a mere whoremonger and slave-trader to a murderer,” I continued, “And you proposed to make your assay at the title through me. You are hardly the first to try it, but I was, unfortunately, unable to observe you at the time, and I have been too occupied with certain trifles to pay your efforts in the field my full attention until now. ”
Gilfoyle pushed away from the wall to stand upright, and took a single step towards the bars. He surveyed me meditatively for a moment and I stared back, bare as bone, giving him nothing to feed on.
“Oh yes,” he said, “I did mean to kill you, Mr Holmes. And I could certainly have done it. There was nothing to stop me.”
“You had almost twenty minutes,” I said. He nodded slowly. “I should be interested to know, then, why you let such an opportunity slip.”
“You have not guessed?” That repellent smirk sharpened on his lips, and a little life kindled in his dreary eyes. “Tell your doctor,” he said, with a triumphant precision that made me dizzy with loathing even before he had said another word, “That if he ever falls on harder times than these, I think he could make a decent enough living in certain establishments. He’s a little old to make a start now, of course, and a little clumsy, and that sort of thing’s not really my specialty. But there are always those who are excited by military types. Perhaps you know all about that, Mr. Holmes. And good looks and natural talent make up for a good deal.”
I can hardly write those words down, though I know I have not forgotten one of them. I cannot look at them again. The effort of holding myself in check, still, was like a cauterisation.
“Thank you for clearing up a distressing gap in my understanding of events.” I said at last. “I hope it goes without saying I shall make you regret what you have done.”
“What can you do to me, Holmes?” he said, leaning carelessly back against the wall. “Kill me? You have already taken my life from me; if I cannot have it back as it was, I don’t much care about it. I’ve got some of my own back for that already. You try to kill me, if you like. You would be ruined. I should not mind that at all.”
“I will find something you will mind,” I promised him.
“Let us see. How is your friend? Do give him my regards.”
I started towards him then despite myself, and I found my lips had drawn back from clenched teeth before I could arrest the expression. I was thinking that I would bribe my way into his cell if it cost me my last shilling, and that I would tear him to pieces. I would take my time over it. I would beat that vile indifference out of him. I do not care a damn for the consequences –
Bloody visions of revenge were, for a second, vivid enough to blot out any others – ghastly images of what this creature had inflicted on my friend while I lay sottishly unconscious on that floor. But such images soon asserted themselves. Exactly where did it happen, I wonder? How close was I, while -- I cannot write more of this.
And afterwards Watson had evidently picked himself up, returned to my side, lent me his coat, kept me from tumbling over like a drunkard in the snow and even stitched up the injuries to my face and scalp when we got home. And all these weeks since, which must have passed for him in solitary agony, how had I helped him, what had I been doing with the life he’d saved? Skulking in my room with a needle in my arm, barely even bothering to look at him.
Somehow I turned away from the bars and the monster behind them.
Gilfoyle called after me, “Shouldn’t you be thanking me for your life, Mr Holmes? Aren’t you fortunate I am so easily appeased?”
I stepped out through the door and closed it quietly behind me. “That is all, thank you,” I said to the waiting guard.
Then I ran home. Literally ran, some of the way – sprinting across Wandsworth Common to the cab stand at the railway station, and then from Park Lane all the way to Baker Street when the hansom’s progress through the early evening traffic became unbearably slow. Somewhere in the course of the journey I must have struck something hard with my fist – judging from the state of my knuckles it was something a little more forgiving than brick, perhaps a wooden door. Probably, then, I was still inside the prison at the time, but I remember only the brief, purging blaze of the pain, not where or when it happened.