221B Baker Street
The year 1890 had begun quietly. In April, however, as the reader will no doubt recall, there occurred a series of gruesome murders, which set the people of London in alarm. There seemed to be no common features apart from the brutal way in which death had come to the victims. The affair achieved notoriety as the “Thames Murders,” since all the dead were found near the river in east London. I had the honour to help Holmes in his enquiries, and I saw how all his faculties and intellectual gifts were challenged. In this task, the first time I could again work with him after my marriage, we found our lives endangered by unscrupulous villains who could, thankfully, be brought to their deserved punishment. We did not escape unscathed, both of us being wounded. While Holmes returned from hospital to his Baker Street rooms, I was invited to take a few days’ convalescence, accompanied by my dear wife, Mary, in Robertsbridge, a sleepy village in east Sussex, where Mary’s good friend Mrs. Forrester had her country house. I made a good recovery, which was as well, since it became apparent that, even in this rural scene, there were around us criminal activities which took on ominous and frightening aspects. Holmes was not unaware, and came from London to find a dramatic adventure whose outcome was up to the last on a knife-edge. What we called the ‘Secret of the Three Monks’ was an evil plot, which he was able at last to foil, and so to bring events to a conclusion.
Holmes then returned to Baker Street while Mary and I enjoyed what remained of our Robertsbridge holiday. My return was, however, soon pressing, for I could not impose indefinitely on my neighbour, Dr. Smythe, who was kindly looking after my practice in Kensington. Indeed, when I returned home there was plenty of work for me to address. I was quickly caught up in my daily affairs, mornings being for consultations and afternoons for house visits. My free time, often rare, I naturally spent with Mary. I had however resolved to visit Holmes as soon as possible, and on August 1st, the opportunity presented itself. My appointments required that I only make one visit that day, and so it was early afternoon when I arrived at 221B Baker Street.
Mrs. Hudson greeted me in almost motherly style, and asked in detail about Mary and myself. I had of course to satisfy her feminine curiosity, before I could take the familiar stairway to our rooms above. I hesitated and then knocked, for Mrs. Hudson had assured me that Holmes was there. I waited, expecting him to invite me in, but nothing happened. Carefully I turned the doorknob and opened the door a crack. There, in that room which was so familiar to me, was Holmes, in his favourite armchair, by the fireplace, with his knees drawn up. His eyes were set upon a gold watch, which he held in one hand. He appeared quite immersed in his thoughts and unaware of his surroundings. “Holmes?” I asked quietly, taking a few steps into the room.
At once his eyes opened wide, as if he had been deeply sleeping. He turned to me, and there appeared for a moment a fleeting smile on his lips. Then he leapt out of the armchair, allowed the watch, which he had been examining, to slide gently onto the table and stepped briskly toward me, to shake my hand vigorously.
“My dear Watson, it is so good to see you here again. I hope you are now fully recovered from our adventure in Robertsbridge?”
“Thank you, Holmes, I think now fully. And how are you?”
“Very well”, and then he continued after a short pause, “But at present I have no case on which I can work.”
Concerned and somewhat alarmed, I looked at Holmes, but before I could go further into what was troubling me, Holmes answered the question forming within me.
“Please don’t be alarmed, Watson. I have not had to have recourse to my seven-per-cent solution. My days were very adequately filled with a number of chemical experiments, and with the completion of ’The classification of products of combustion,’ my new monograph.”
I was surprised that my friend had so readily answered a question that I had not yet posed, and I looked curiously at him, but he continued without a moment’s pause.
“It was not difficult to follow your thoughts, old friend. As I said that I have no case before me at this time, your regard became apparent at once, and somewhat suspiciously, your eyes swept over my desk, where as you knew, I always keep my needles and the seven-per-cent solution. You then looked back at me, but this was not the regard of a friend; rather was it of a critical and analytical doctor, looking for symptoms. What other matter could have concerned you so much as that which I had deduced?”
I was once more impressed by Holmes’ ability to observe and reason. Before I could dwell further on this, however, he had already changed the subject, and asked me if I were in a hurry, or could I spend a little time with him. I told him that the rest of the day was my own. I saw how a satisfied smile came over his features.
We were soon comfortably settled in our familiar places by the fireplace. We poured ourselves a sherry, and prepared to smoke, while Holmes asked me about Mary and about the practice in Kensington. Although he was obviously listening carefully to me, I noticed that he could not resist a glance at the gold pocket watch which he had left on the table as I came in. I resolved to ask him about it.
“That is an unusual looking watch there on the table, Holmes. How do you come to have it?”
I saw how a smile came again to his lips, and his eyes lit up. It was quite clear that he was pleased that our conversation could now move to a subject which might be important to him.
“It is indeed an unusual piece, Watson. May I invite you to look at it more closely?” With these words, he picked up the watch, to hand it to me. He then added “It belongs to an elderly gentleman who called this morning in the hope of seeing me. Mrs. Hudson saw that he was in a very nervous state, but unfortunately I was at the Diogenes Club.”
Upon hearing that, I broke off my examination of the watch, to look straight back at Holmes. The Diogenes Club, with its strict rules to protect the privacy of each of its members, is perhaps the most unusual of all the clubs in Her Majesty’s realm. The members have no contact with one another, and conversations take place only in the Strangers’ Room. And of all the members, surely the most remarkable is Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft. I well recall how I first met him there in the Strangers’ Room.
Mycroft’s intelligence is in no way inferior to that of his younger brother Sherlock, but in all other respects the two are very different. While Mycroft Holmes lives quietly, and almost exclusively, in Pall Mall or at the Diogenes Club, one must describe Sherlock Holmes’ life as erratic and adventurous. These thoughts occupied my mind as Holmes continued his remarks.
“Yes, Watson, you have surmised correctly. I was visiting my brother Mycroft. He had called upon me in order to hear my opinion on a particularly vexatious matter. As you are aware, Watson, Mycroft not only works for the government. In many ways it would be better to say that Mycroft is The Government, for many of the issues which Mycroft is called upon to resolve are difficult affairs, and at the highest level. But I am very conscious of your loyalty, honour and discretion, and feel I can safely involve you in the affair. Would the matter interest you?”
“Thank you for your confidence, Holmes; I would be honoured to learn more.”
“Then, Watson, listen carefully. For nearly two years, under the Treaty of Constantinople of 29 October. 1888, Great Britain has accepted the Protectorate of the Suez Canal. The canal, as you know, connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, and has for British interests a high strategic importance. Now on our main trading route with India, it avoids that ships are forced to round the Cape of Good Hope. The trade route to India is shortened by a quarter, and the passage is much safer by way of the Canal. In order to be aware of the full implications of its Protectorate role, Her Majesty’s government decreed that plans should be drawn up showing potentially vulnerable situations, and points where attacks might be attempted. This has been a lengthy task, carried out in full secrecy, and was only completed a month ago. You will readily imagine, Watson, what it might mean to potential enemies, especially Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, if they could possess such sensitive plans. After completion, the documents were lodged in a safe at the British Embassy in Cairo.
As we have however learned, this was not enough to assure their safety. They disappeared from the safe. The senior officer, Edward Parker, was in a position to take possession of the papers. When the loss was observed, suspicion fell at once on Parker, as he was the only person authorised to have sole access, for normal business purposes, to the safe. There was no doubt, the more so because he resisted arrest, and in doing so he was fatally injured. There was now no way in which he could tell us for whom he had stolen the papers. This regrettable story is bad enough, but there is worse to come. Neither on his person, nor in his private rooms, was there any trace of the papers or of those for whom he had removed them.” Holmes paused to draw thoughtfully on his pipe, and I waited in alarm upon the rest of his account. “The failure to maintain security at the Embassy was now followed by an intensive control at all the frontier points, but all was in vain; the papers remained lost.”
“My goodness, Holmes. But how might you be able to help? The secret papers could be anywhere, and might still be in Cairo or elsewhere in Egypt. Are you being asked to conduct enquiries in London, far from the scene, or is Mycroft hoping to send you to Cairo to investigate there?”
Holmes laughed and added, “You are quite right, Watson. Here in London I can contribute little, and in Cairo, the scent is no longer warm. Mycroft knows this well, but he had called me, because something unusual did come to light as Parker’s body was examined. In his mouth was a scrap of paper on which the following letters had been written.” And he took up a narrow strip of paper, dirty and yellow, on which the following letters could be read.
GPSDLA LSWIA RLTI CIVPT E NFH EEOMR1 IA R I 2E
It said nothing to me, and I looked at him thoughtfully. “It is presumably a fragment of an incriminating message,” he suggested. “As Parker realised that he was trapped, he must have torn it to shreds and tried to swallow in. He did not quite succeed, before the fatal shot killed him, and this was left.”
“It’s a pity that no more was left of this paper, Holmes”.
“That is what I said to Mycroft. It is not possible, with this fragment and with no other help, to reach any useful conclusions. No, I regret that this paper and these few characters are useless. They cannot serve to draw any conclusions.” With this he picked it up, crushed it and threw it into the cold fireplace, to lie with other scraps that he had thrown there earlier.
“This watch tells us much more. What do you make of it, Watson? Have you already formed an opinion on the owner?”
“I think I have, Holmes. The watch is of a large diameter, and the chain attached to it is at least twenty-four inches long, rather than the usual eighteen. That points me towards ostentation, which as we know often goes together with doubtful taste. That is also shown by the heavy clasp on the chain, and also the conspicuously plain dial. The engravings on both sides of the cover are certainly well executed, but very unusual. That on the front shows a great eye, a certain proof that the owner is a Freemason, and on the back is the Latin motto, Dominus Illuminator Mea, which means, God is my light. That may mean a certain curious form of belief, such as is not unusual in Freemasonry circles. Summing up, I am led to suggest that the owner, your visitor of this morning, comes from a humble background, is relatively uneducated, and may, perhaps through marriage, have come into a certain wealth. He has now the means to purchase things which please him, but not the discretion to choose wisely. He belongs to a Freemasonry lodge, and may have a somewhat fanatical religious background.”
I broke off and looked expectantly at Holmes. He smiled quietly as he looked back at me and answered. “My dear Watson, I must congratulate you for your gifts of observation. Apart from some small details, you have noted all the significant features which are needed to justify drawing conclusions.” Holmes’ words naturally pleased me, indeed made me modestly proud, as he was always economical in his praise. My feeling of satisfaction was, however, brief, for he then continued:
“Regrettably, all the conclusions you have reached are incorrect.” I looked up rather irritated, but he carried on, without taking any notice of me, to explain what he thought.
“I will take each individual feature in turn, so that you can understand why you were mistaken.
1. The size of the watch, the clear dial, and the long chain with the heavy clasp, speak unmistakeably for an owner who suffers from poor eyesight.
2. The inscription on the back is taken from the 27th Psalm, verse 1. This is the heraldic motto of the University of Oxford.
3. The engraving on the front is a representation of an Egyptian hieroglyph. This subject is better known as the eye of Horus. In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the god of the desert, fights with Horus for the throne of Osiris, the god of the Underworld, and tears out his eye. Thot, the wise god of the moon, restores the eye of Horus, with the result that the eye of Horus is also referred to as the Udiat-Eye, since udiat means intact, complete or healthy.”
I had not intended to interrupt Holmes in this explanation, but his long excursion into Egyptian mythology, which for me was a complete mystery, demanded a certain explanation. Before he continued, therefore, I asked him outright: “My goodness, Holmes, what brings you to have such a commanding knowledge of Egyptian mythology? I recall that you have always said that you only retain as much knowledge as you require for your use.”
“That is certainly so, Watson, I regard my brain as a storeroom, with only limited space. Only a fool would collect so much that is of no use, leave it lying there and then afterwards no longer find what he really needs. I only collect things I need, and arrange them in such a way that I can at once find what is important. That was the case with my knowledge of Egyptology, which was of the greatest value in the case of the stolen Horus falcon.”
As Holmes spoke about this, my interest was immediately awakened anew, for this must have been one of his earlier cases from the time before we met. I hoped that I might hear more about it, but he was already anxious to pick up our earlier subject.
“Before we continue to examine the watch, I should mention that the eye of Horus was often found as a protective charm. But let us continue.
4. If you will open the spring cover on the back, you will see that there where a key should be inserted to wind up the watch, there are a number of scratches. Such scratches are typical of people who are hasty or careless, but also by persons with weak eyesight. Since however there are no scratches on the watchcase itself, we see that the owner has taken care of it.
5. The watch is of interest as a special model produced by the German company Junghans. The arrangement of the gearwheels betrays that it is a model first sold only some two years ago. Only a few were made, and it was very costly. I fear that it was certainly beyond the reach of even a well-paid university lecturer.
6. As I returned to Baker Street, I found the watch lying open on the table. Despite the long chain, which permitted the owner to lift it to eye level, he had detached it from the chain, better to consult it. As he waited, he placed it on the table, where, when he had to depart, he left it. That also suggests poor eyesight. It also confirms Mrs Hudson’s observation, that he appeared very nervous. Indeed, if he left behind his watch, he may have been in desperation.
Let me therefore summarise what we have. I suspect that our visitor is a retired professor of archaeology. He was surely long engaged as a lecturer at the University of Oxford, from where he took his retirement some two years ago. On that occasion he received this fine watch, which tells us so much about its owner. This situation may have reflected his age, but certainly also his optical weakness. More than that I cannot say, apart from the obvious fact that our visitor was burdened by a most difficult problem.” Quite astonished, I looked at Holmes with curiosity. I could not deny that his conclusions were logical, and yet that seemed in no way a proof that they were in fact correct. I found that my own thoughts could not be dismissed so lightly, and resolved to try again.
“Holmes, that is all very plausible, but are your conclusions not based purely on assumptions?” Just as I said this, there was a knock on the door, and Mrs. Hudson appeared. Holmes looked at her expectantly, and she said: “Mr. Holmes, the gentleman who had hoped to see you this morning is here again. I thought this time to ask for his card.”
As she spoke, she handed to Homes a small visiting card. He took it in at a glance, and asked Mrs. Hudson to show in the visitor. As I listened to the steps on the stair, Holmes gave me the visiting card, with an unmistakeable smile on his lips. Again amazed, I read what was printed:
Professor Richard Hammond
Professor of the Faculty of Archaeology
University of Oxford