A Summons to Whitehall
Sixty works about my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes. I have them arrayed before me now as I sit at my desk in this, my ninety-fourth year in November 1947. The British Government asked me to withhold all publication of any further works after 1930. “We do not wish this country’s potential foes to know that Sherlock Holmes is still alive, in the same way as we do not confirm the existence of our security services,” an official voice said suavely down the telephone to me on the morning of Monday the 7th of July of that year.
By then, the works I had chosen to have published, from the many of which I have records, consisted of no fewer than fifty-six short accounts of cases and four longer ones.
Some have wondered at the imbalance in those numbers.
As does Holmes, who is of the view that there are too many long works.
“Your longer accounts of my cases,” opines he, “are prolix. In the short works, and especially in the two where I act as the narrator, I occupy centre-stage almost all the time. In the long ones, either half the work is an explanation of the background to the case, or we are transported to Dartmoor to watch your stumbling efforts at detective work.”
“I am obliged,” remonstrate I, “to provide a work of the length my publisher has stipulated and to do so, I sometimes need to make my canvas broad.”
“But the proportion of that canvas that I occupy is thereby much reduced, and the thrust of my deductive insights correspondingly blunted.”
“That, I fear, is the effect of my broadening the canvas.”
“My public, may I suggest, good Watson, is far more interested in seeing me work as a detective than in seeing your risible attempts to do so, or in seeing your equally risible attempts to spread a miniature’s worth of material across a broad canvas to satisfy the whims of your publisher.”
As ever, I was slightly repelled by my friend’s egotism, although this reproof meant that I only brought out the broad canvas for the first two accounts of Holmes’s cases, which were ’prentice works, for The Hound of the Baskervilles, when his public thought Holmes lay drowned at the foot of the Reichenbach Falls, and for The Valley of Fear, when my publisher felt an extended read was what was needed to boost morale at the outbreak of the Great War.
So why a long work now?
It is my view that the matters I now relate are of such historic significance that only a work in a longer form will do them justice, and that the public is being sold short if it is permanently deprived of being able to learn of them at whatever point in time the embargo on this work’s publication is lifted.
The work’s length has the drawback that Holmes, as in my other longer works, is off stage at the moment critique of several of its key events, as we – as my reader will discover, I, even more than Holmes – were witnesses at the closest quarters to a game of diplomatic chess that will decide the shape of the world for years, if not decades, to come. And, buried within this game of chess, is the investigation of a multiple murder case which received, for reasons that will become obvious, very little coverage in this country.
In both matters, Holmes displayed complete disregard for his own safety and, if the truth be told, for mine as well. Reckless disregard for the fate of others is a common thread in the narrative that follows, and it is for the reader to decide in each instance whether it was justified. For my own part, I feel that the political ends, which were by and large achieved, were worth this recklessness, but I have no doubt that others will take a different view. My reader may also like to reflect how much choice the chief players in this game of chess actually had – or, indeed whether they were the really the chess players at all, or whether they should, more accurately, be regarded as chess pieces in the hands of forces beyond anyone’s control.
I am also proud to note that most of the figures who appear in this work, whether in London, Berlin, Moscow, or in the other locales to which this case took us, show a full knowledge of my friend’s published cases. Maybe, after all, there were not so many defects in my choice of which matters to present, or in how I chose to present them.
The events I describe all occurred in the first two years of what is becoming known as the Second World War, yet the case I have described under the title The Priory School, which took place in 1903, may perhaps be seen as this narrative’s starting point. At the conclusion of that adventure, Lord Holdernesse paid my friend a reward of no less than £12,000 as Holmes recovered his lordship’s son, identified the killer of the eponymous school’s German master, and remained silent about the criminal involvement of Lord Holdernesse’s natural son in the case.
Rendered financially secure by the receipt of this reward, Holmes took the decision largely to withdraw from criminal detective work after this point – certainly, this was the last purely criminal case in which I made any reference to a date, although His Last Bow, which was really a matter of state, chronicles events that occurred at the outbreak of the Great War and is dated precisely to August 1914. The motivation behind Holmes’s decision to retire from criminal work was to have the most dramatic repercussions, not just on his career as a consulting detective in the first decade of this twentieth century, but far more so in this fifth decade of its calamitous span.
It was in 1937, after the death of my second wife, Jean, that I moved to the Sussex Downs to share, once more, quarters with Holmes. It was there that I had intended to end my days, but in the late summer of 1940, Holmes and I moved to Fenny Stratford in the Buckinghamshire countryside to the west of London. It was to be five years later that I first learned why this village had become our home, when my friend revealed to me his involvement as a consultant with the nearby code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park.
The quiet life of the village quite suited both Holmes and me.
In my old age, I wanted only repose after death had ended each of my two happy marriages. By contrast, I think Holmes’s aloofness from the everyday would have rendered him equally capable of being at home or of being apart from normal concerns, anywhere in the world – something which will become more apparent in the variety of scenes in which this work is set.
The rigours of the time brought out the resourcefulness in both of us.
Getting anything to eat beyond bread and potatoes in 1940 – and even those were often in short supply – was such a challenge, that I spent the autumn of that year making a vegetable patch in our garden to plant broad beans and onions, in the hope that would provide us with something to eat in the mid-summer of 1941, when food looked likely to be particularly short. I even experimented with growing tobacco plants, as getting something to fill our pipes with was often as trying as getting something to eat. The same garden also enabled Holmes to carry on his retirement pastime of bee-keeping and most days would find us engrossed in our own affairs.
The evenings saw us at either side of the fireplace, whether we had the coal to keep it lit or not. Inasmuch as we led a life together at all, it was spent trying to remain abreast of the terrible events of the war through newspapers or the wireless, as well as in the never-ending struggle to find ways of keeping tobacco in our pipes and food of any sort on the table. For reasons I only came to understand later when my friend’s work at Bletchley Park became known to me, foreign-language newspapers, even those from countries with which we were at war – amongst many others La Repubblica from Italy, the Völkischer Beobachter from Germany and newspaper of the National Socialist party, and Le Figaro from Vichy France would arrive daily from Lisbon, flown in specially, I was told – and Holmes would dedicate himself every evening to a perusal of these.
The one illumination in the all-pervading gloom would come when Holmes placed his Stradivarius under his chin. His caseload in the 1890s meant that he had neglected his violin for most of the last half-century, but now it provided a welcome escape from these dark times – certainly for me and maybe even for him. Rather than extemporising unmelodiously with the instrument slung across his lap as had been his wont in our Baker Street days, he would play one favourite piece of mine after another, displaying a dash and skill that could not be surpassed. There was no rationing or short supply when Holmes’s violin came out of its case.
He himself was dissatisfied with his performance and dedicated himself to practice as well as to display. Even when he broke a string, something very hard to replace in wartime Britain, he carried on his playing undaunted. “If I can make a fist of playing my music on three strings,” he remarked, “how much better will I be able to play it when I eventually get a full complement back? Making a hard task even harder, means its accomplishment is facilitated once that additional difficulty has been overcome.”
Holmes proved the truth of this remark in a way that was entirely unexpected to me.
After much fruitless writing to music-shops and suppliers of equipment, a night-time road accident in the village, an event all too common in blacked-out Britain despite the lack of cars on the road, brought down a telegraph pole, and my friend approached the engineer who had come to fix the line.
“It’s more than my job’s worth to help anyone these days,” was the engineer’s initial response between bites of a sandwich he was eating for his lunch when Holmes first spoke to him on the lane.
But then my friend identified himself and offered as a quid pro quo a pot of honey from the hives.
The engineer quipped, “To say that I helped restore the violin of the great Mr Sherlock Holmes will be a wonderful story to tell if they have any beer next time I am down at the pub.”
“I had thought,” said my friend when he told me about this afterwards, “that if the engineer had failed to be tempted by my honey, I might point out that the fresh egg I could see in the sandwich he was eating must have come from some other irregular trade of his – these days a fresh egg is a special event not to be sacrificed in a casually consumed lunchtime sandwich.”
“I am sure everyone in a position to supply goods of any sort that are otherwise unobtainable is up to that sort of trick,” I grunted, slightly sourly, as I had not set eyes on a fresh egg for several weeks.
“Maybe in my advanced years, good Watson,” said Holmes, paying little heed to my comment, and less to my demeanour, “I am acquiring that skill of diplomacy which you have so often stated I lack. My use of what I might call a honey-trap, was just as efficient in getting what I wanted as the unwelcome insight into a man’s personal habits I might otherwise have deployed. It is always better to have a threat available as well as a reward when trying to persuade someone to do something he might otherwise be reluctant to do.”
It was the work of a moment for Holmes to fit the fine steel wire he had obtained in this barter from the telegraph engineer to his fiddle. His instrument now once more equipped with its full number of strings, the music rose from under his fingers with a still more beguiling poetry and fire, and so helped pass many a cold, dark, damp, and worrying evening.
Occasionally Holmes and I would ramble together through the flat countryside that surrounded us just as we had rambled through the streets of London half a century and more previously, and it was at two o’clock on the afternoon of Friday the 22nd of November 1940 that we turned into the lane in which our cottage stood from one such walk and were overtaken by a black car which stopped at our gate.
“I can only assume that it is a government vehicle,” murmured Holmes thoughtfully, “so I can only assume that there is someone from the government who wants to see me.”
In the England of 1940, petrol for private motoring was unobtainable, and so official cars of one sort or another were the only ones on the road. If a car stood outside our door, it really could only be because someone from the government wanted to see Holmes.
Again, I confess I considered Holmes’s deduction something of a statement of the obvious, and I think Holmes read this thought on my face as he gave a slightly wan smile before adding, “Shortages of basic supplies render even the art of deduction both unchallenging and unrevealing at present, I fear.”
As we got to the gate that marked the entry to our property, a uniformed chauffeur got out of the car.
“Mr Holmes and Dr Watson?” he asked, and we both nodded. “I have an urgent summons for the attendance of you two gentlemen at an office in Whitehall.”
It was a two-hour drive from Fenny Stratford. Apart from the almost complete absence of cars on the road to which I have already alluded, in country areas the journey was much as it would have been in peace time. But, once we arrived at the north-western environs of London, we saw the transformation that the bombing war had wrought. Beige barrage balloons bobbed unsteadily above us and, as we passed the RAF airbase of Northolt, we saw the damage that raids targeted on it had inflicted – though the damage was to the houses that surrounded it rather than to the aerodrome itself.
And the scars of the air-war only became more apparent as we got into central London. Our car passed whole districts that had been reduced to yellow-grey swathes of brick rubble. There were red buses but many of them towed a trailer with producer gas behind them. And of course, just as we did ourselves, everyone carried a gas-mask.
The car drew up at the Foreign Office in King Charles Street, and we were shown upstairs to the office of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Richard Austen Butler, or Rab Butler as he was always known from the sound spelt by the initials of his name, was the deputy of this country’s Foreign Secretary. He had a higher political profile than might be expected from someone with the title Under-Secretary, for he was the representative of the Foreign Office in the House of Commons, as the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, as the title preceding his name suggests, sat in the House of Lords.
Butler, although only thirty-eight, looked weary with care. He proffered each of us a rather weak handshake and we sat down.
“In the last decade,” he began, “I supported the attempts by the government of Neville Chamberlain to achieve a rapprochement with Germany. I was in favour of the Munich settlement for Czechoslovakia, and I was against giving the Poles any sort of a guarantee that we would intervene if they were invaded, particularly once the Poles had appropriated Czechoslovak territory after the Germans took over the rest of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of last year. And, even after the fall of France, our defeat in Norway, and the Germans’ pact with the Soviets, I remain of the opinion that a solution to the present conflict in Europe can be achieved based on common-sense rather than bravado.”
I think he was expecting a reaction from either Holmes or me, but I had nothing to say, and Holmes stayed silent. Butler rose and started pacing the room.
“With the defeat of our French allies, we have no means to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion. Although the superiority of our Navy renders the chances of a successful land invasion here negligible, we lack the manpower and the war materiel to land and maintain troops on the European mainland in sufficient numbers to drive the Germans out of France and the Low Countries, let alone to liberate Poland, which was the original casus belli, and out of the rest of eastern Europe. Attempts to continue the war in Europe will only sap this nation’s ability to maintain dominion over its global Empire which is where its vital interests lie.”
“I note, Under-Secretary, that you do not mention the possibility of other alliances.”
“Our alliances to date have brought us nothing. We may even have been better off without an alliance with the Soviets as last autumn saw them preferring a pact with the Germans before they first struggled to subdue the Poles, who had already been invaded by the Germans from the west, and then the Finns, whom they outnumbered by ten to one.”
Butler sighed heavily.
“What would we not give for an American intervention in this conflict? But their ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, has just published an article saying that we are finished as a democracy so no help can be sought from that quarter at present, as his opinion cannot be far from that of President Roosevelt. Indeed, when the President was re-elected at the beginning of the month, our telegraph of congratulation had to be sent twice before it was acknowledged. And the Americans have their own disagreements with the Japanese in the Pacific, and these affect them much more directly than a war in Europe. They are thus far more likely to engage themselves on their western sea-board and beyond than to concern themselves with events two-thousand miles to their east in Europe.”
He paused before continuing.
“With our Empire and our Navy, it is this country’s destiny to dominate the world, and leave Germany, with its military might, industrial strength, and central location, to dominate mainland Europe. Our only interest in Europe is to ensure that any conflicts there take place as far away from us as possible, so as to minimise their effect on us. Over the last eighty years, the main fault-line has been between France and Germany, as we have seen with the Franco-Prussian War and then the Great War, as they squabble over deposits of coal and iron-ore in Alsace-Lorraine. Now the British front line consists of the airfields of the south-east of England, which the Germans spent the last summer bombarding, and our harbours, in which the Germans continue to lay mines. And what am I, as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, tasked with?” he concluded plaintively.
Again, neither Holmes nor I had any comment to make.
“I am the Foreign Secretary’s deputy, a man fluent in both German and French, and I have spent significant amounts of time in both countries. But my responsibilities are confined to ensuring the welfare of our prisoners-of-war and arranging for the safe passage of diplomats. And I am only allowed even that meagre range of activities because I enjoy the protection of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who concurs with me on what measures are necessary for the benefit of the nation but who may be relieved of his present role at any time, and whose endorsement of the present Prime Minister’s bellicose posturing is for public consumption only. A different Foreign Secretary may take steps to circumscribe what I am allowed to do even more.”
“Minister,” said Holmes at length, “while I note your views, and while I appreciate the candour with which you express them, this does not explain why you have summoned Dr Watson and me to London.”
“I mentioned that one of my responsibilities is the welfare of our prisoners-of-war. Healthy prisoners are normally held until the conflict has come to an end, while wounded or otherwise infirm prisoners are held until they are swapped. Thus, each side bears the direct cost of caring for its wounded and we can bring our wounded heroes back to where they can get the care of their loved ones. But our calamitous defeats in Norway and then in France mean that we have very few wounded Germans whom we can swap for our own prisoners, while at Dunkirk alone forty thousand of our men were taken prisoner – a fact that is often overlooked in the excitement of the successful evacuation of three-hundred thousand men. We have, it is true, shot down some of their airmen but shooting down fighters and bombers does not deliver many prisoners to swap. It is victory in land-battles that do that, and we have no victories to show for nearly a year and half of war.”
“So, what is our brief?”
“I want you, Dr Watson, to present to the Germans the bleakest assessment of our prisoners’ condition, and you, Mr Holmes, to use the acumen for which you are renowned to maximise the ratio of prisoners they will then release in exchange for the German prisoners that we hold.”
“But will our fellow countrymen not regard the return of large numbers of prisoners-of-war as showing a crack in this country’s resolve to prosecute this war?”
“In a few months’ time we will be in the third year of the war. As things look at present, we will have nothing to show for it other than military defeat, isolation that is far from splendid, shredded living standards, and poor prospects. The third year of any major undertaking – particularly a hazardous one such as this one – is generally when the willingness to continue starts to wane. So, I believe that, at some point next year, national resolve will waver, and that the return of prisoners in numbers will be welcomed as a harbinger of the return of more normal times. As such a return will have been accomplished when we have very few prisoners to swap with them, it will also demonstrate that the Germans are biddable, and consequently that acceptable arrangements can be reached for the government of Europe.”
“Why have you chosen us for this task?”
“I am aware from Dr Watson’s writings Mr Holmes, that, like me, you both know French and German – indeed your first coup de maître as a detective, Mr Holmes, was to identify that the letters RACHE on a wall of a crime-scene spelt the German word for vengeance where Inspector Lestrade thought that they were the first five letters of the name Rachel. Giving this mission to two notables such as yourselves, whom the Germans will consider trustworthy, will also assure them of the extreme seriousness with which we take the welfare of our prisoners, and our wish to ensure that our wounded get treatment in their own country. And, clearly, at the age you have both reached, employing you for this task will mean that we are not sacrificing men of fighting age to achieve these objectives.”
“And how will we carry out this role from England?”
“You will not be in England. On the contrary, you will be given diplomatic status for you are needed abroad. An aircraft is leaving Bristol Whitchurch tomorrow night for Lisbon, and I want you to be on it. At Lisbon you will be met by Hans Frӧlicher, the Swiss Ambassador to Germany. You may place some trust in him although I would urge you to avoid doing so if you can. From Lisbon you will travel by train across the Iberian Peninsula, and thence through Vichy France to Geneva. In Geneva you will be attached to the Red Cross which has its headquarters there, but your stay there will be brief as Frӧlicher will accompany you to Berlin and facilitate meetings there with the German high-command.”
It was news to me that it was possible for members of the general public to leave the country for Continental Europe at all, let alone go to Berlin, and I think Butler saw my look of puzzlement.
“The United Kingdom,” he said, “still has vital interests to defend on Continental Europe which are mostly prosecuted on our behalf by the Swiss. We cannot go to Switzerland by a direct route so a flight to Lisbon and a long haul from there by train is the way the journey is normally made. The journey is, I confess, not without its perils, but there have as yet been no attempts by the Germans to bring down the KLM ’planes that fly across the western English Channel and the Bay of Biscay to Lisbon and, once in Portugal, our emissaries to Switzerland are treated by the Portuguese, Spanish, and Vichy French authorities as if they were a diplomatic bag so no attempt is made to interfere with their progress. That is how our own prisoners-of-war who escape capture and make it to Switzerland are eventually brought home.”
I remained unconvinced by Butler’s statement, but he continued.
“There is a similar ’plane from Dublin to Lisbon which doubtless carries the German ambassador there when he needs to consult face to face with Berlin. I cannot imagine there are many Irish businessmen needing a commercial flight to Lisbon just at the moment. Nor, I suppose, are there many Irish people heading to the Algarve on holiday. So, I assume it is largely used by the Germans for espionage matters. We have not tried to down that ’plane either. And that ’plane is a daily one whereas the flight from Whitchurch to Lisbon only goes three times a week. Although we are at war with Germany, you will appreciate that there are still matters where there is a mutual understanding of what is acceptable, and of what is not. Or, perhaps, to put it more precisely, where we both think we can prosecute the war more effectively by not aggressing against each other. And that rather parallels what we are seeking to achieve here.”
The meeting concluded and we headed down the grandiose Foreign Office staircase for the street-door. We went to the reception desk to say we were ready to return to Fenny Stratford, when an official appeared as if from nowhere, and murmured, “I fear, gentlemen, the car that brought you here from Fenny Stratford has been requisitioned for another purpose. You will need to make your own way home although we will of course pay for your travel costs. I would suggest you walk along the Thames to Embankment Station and take the Northern Line to Euston from there.”
Holmes was philosophical about the turn of events. “I fancy,” said he turning to me, “that your chronicles of my activities only had us leave London from Euston Station at the time of The Stockbroker’s Clerk when we went to Birmingham, so it is high time another of our adventures started from there.”
It was by now after five o’clock on a late November evening, and we passed through the black-out curtains and out of the Foreign Office front-door. Depending on when this work is read, the scene that confronted us as we stood on the steps of the Foreign Office will either cause my reader to wonder why I draw attention to it as it will be entirely what is expected, or it will seem totally alien.
As we left the foreign office building, we extinguished the cigarettes we were both smoking in line with regulations on smoking in the black-out that had been in place since the outbreak of the war. Once outside, the buildings of London, so familiar in daylight, were in complete and utter darkness. This was no different from Fenny Stratford, but there I was unaccustomed to going out in the night hours whereas, having lived in London for most of the half century preceding the mid-1930s, I was back in surroundings where I was used to lighting at night. But now, while I could hear both the footfalls and the voices of pedestrians as they hurried past, as well as the groan of trams, the hum of bus engines, and the hissing of trolley buses, standing on those steps, I could see nothing.
My reader may wonder whether we had pocket torches. Normally we would have done, but these had a long extension protruding from above the bulb preventing their beam being seen from the air and this meant they cast only the feeblest beam – enough to follow the pavement on which alternate kerb stones had been painted black and white to facilitate finding the way in the dimmest light – but not much more. And because this extension makes them awkward to carry, and because we had in any case thought we would have transport back to Fenny Stratford, it had not occurred to us to take these with us.
So it was, that Holmes and I followed the route that had been suggested to us along the north bank of the Thames.
For my part, I was reassured to hear the sound of the water lapping against the stone of the Embankment and the motors of watercraft on the river, but I still found my surroundings utterly alien. For his part, Holmes, with his intimate knowledge of all London’s thoroughfares and his preternatural ability, assiduously cultivated by him to see in the dark what others could not – as he had demonstrated back in the case of The Speckled Band – was far more at ease than I was.
“How long would I survive now against my own pursuit?” his assured voice broke cheerily through the blackness, quoting directly his words from The Bruce-Partington Plans. “In fog, I commented in 1895, all it would take to get me was a bogus appointment for a pursuer to come to do what he had to do, and then disappear into thin air. I commented that it was fortunate that South America, continent of assassinations, has no fog. But now, in this country with its total blackness, an assassin would need know no more than my whereabouts to have me at his mercy.”
Some pedestrians, I noted, as we walked the half mile along the riverside to Embankment Station, wore phosphorescent pins which glimmered eerily in the blackness to draw one’s attention to their presence, but which provided no other illumination. The outdoor smoking ban meant that one could not even smell tobacco to alert one of the presence of other people, while the occasional public transport vehicle that passed us had blacked out windows, although flashes from the overhead cables of the trams and trolley-buses did very occasionally provide an intense but brief illumination. The only visible betrayal of a vehicle’s presence was a sliver of light that was emitted through a slit in the hood cowling its lamp.
It was a relief to get to Embankment Underground Station where, sensibly, we were permitted to light up our cigarettes once we had finally got down to platform level although, as one would expect, as at all stations, smoking was banned in the entry hall.
I drew heavily on my cigarette as we waited for our train, eagerly sucking in its soothing smoke, and I noted Holmes doing the same. After six stops, we got to Euston, and onto our train to Bletchley. I knew better than to discuss our commission with Holmes in a public place. Thus, once on our heavily blinded train, my cigarettes having run out, I confined my activities to making the meagre amount of tobacco I had left in my pouch last the length of our journey in my pipe. Holmes too confined himself to making his remaining supply of tobacco last as long as possible, and we exchanged not a word until we reached Bletchley.
The next morning Holmes and I sat over a breakfast of greyish bread covered with a few streaks of margarine accompanied by some equally greyish tea. My friend was in an excellent mood. “It is good to be engaged in something that will tax my mind particularly at this time of year which is the quietest one for the apiarist.”
“How do you view our brief?” I asked.
“It is not my business to comment on the Under-Secretary’s views on policy, but I feel that we are equipped as well as anyone else in the country would be to secure a favourable bargain with the Germans on this matter. I have a reputation that will ensure we are taken seriously, and you have a way with words which will place the best construction on anything we seek to negotiate.”