A Diplomatic Affair
We live in extraordinary times, Watson,” said Holmes, placing his folded newspaper down on the table and stepping over to the window. “An American President assassinated, and his killer sentenced to death. Charles Guiteau’s insanity plea was never likely to succeed in saving him from execution, yet the man is clearly of unsound mind. A senseless act – and all because he believed he had played some small part in James Garfield’s election victory and expected to be rewarded with an ambassadorial post. That a president can be slain at close quarters by a handgun in a railway station should give us all pause for thought. Is anyone really safe from the murderous intentions of a disturbed and determined assassin?”
I too had been shocked to hear the news of President Garfield’s untimely demise the previous year and the recent trial of his murderer, but there was something about Holmes’s very pointed remarks which sat uneasily with me. “Am I to take it that you are fearful for your own safety?”
“No, just alive to the possibilities. By its nature, my work brings me into contact with all manner of criminals, including hired killers. We must therefore be ever vigilant. So when I see an advertisement placed in the Pall Mall Gazette inviting assassins to act, you will appreciate why I say we live in extraordinary times. “See what you make of it.”
He turned back to the table, picked up the newspaper and passed it to me, pointing at the piece in question with the long stem of his churchwarden. The advertisement ran as follows:
We gladly postponed tonight’s dietary binge, so hold onto fried nightingales.
I read the piece three times before looking back towards Holmes with an expression of some confusion. “I can see no obvious threat. I’ll grant you that the wording is cryptic, but why do you believe it to have a more sinister meaning?”
He reached for his favourite ink pen and took the paper back, laying it on the table once more and folding the broadsheet into a more manageable size. “I make it my job to scrutinise any odd notices that appear in the London press. It is often the means by which the criminal fraternity broadcasts its intentions.” He began to underline odd letters in the notice, before placing the newspaper back in my lap. “Is that any clearer?”
I looked again at the print, casting my eyes over the underlined words, but was still unable to discern any particular meaning.
We gladly postponed tonight’s dietary binge, so hold onto fried nightingales.
Holmes eyed me with mock disgruntlement. “Come on, Watson! Do I have to spell it out? Consider just the underlined words. Is it not clear that the hidden message reads: ‘WE Gladstone to die in Soho on Fri night’?”
I studied the paper afresh, seeing for the first time that my colleague was absolutely correct. The message did appear to be forecasting the death of the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. “How did you identify this? I asked.
“I have trained myself to examine seemingly nonsensical advertisements in order to see what is buried within. With my experience, identifying this message was elementary.”
“But why are the four central letters of ‘SEFTEN’ underlined as well?”
“That may very well point us in the direction of the author. If I remember rightly, the rallying cry of the Egyptian rebels in the mutiny of 1879 was ‘Egypt for the Egyptians!’ The initial letters spell out ‘EFTE’.
“That is astonishing,” I cried, remembering that it had been reported in the papers only a day earlier that on Sunday, 8th January, Britain and France had delivered a joint declaration to the Egyptian government guaranteeing the autocracy of Mohammad Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. “So this may be a plot linked to the hostility around Britain’s continued support for the Khedival regime in Cairo, in opposition to those who are calling for constitutional government?”
“That is entirely possible. Although my knowledge of international affairs in that part of the world is not as good as it could be. Luckily, I have an exceptional contact within Whitehall who can provide us with a comprehensive analysis of any threats posed by Colonel Urabi and his military faction.”
With no further explanation Holmes announced that there was little time to waste. If the apparent threat to our Prime Minister was to be believed, we had but two days until his predicted death. Donning coats, scarves, and hats, we set off hastily from 221B in the direction of Whitehall.
It was exceptionally cold out on the street, the result of the rising air pressure which had gripped the country since the start of the year. While bright, the sky had assumed a pinkish hue, hinting at the possibility of further snow. I was thankful for the thick woollen muffler which sat beneath my chin – a Christmas gift from the ever-thoughtful Mrs. Hudson.
We hailed a passing hansom on Orchard Street as the icy wind continued to bite, the cabbie taking us on a circuitous route through Grosvenor Square and Mayfair, before heading off along a myriad of small thoroughfares I did not recognise. Holmes seemed strangely quiet in the cab and markedly reluctant to say any more about his well-placed contact, beyond stressing that “in any matters of information or intelligence across government, this man has no equal.”
It was close to eleven o’clock that morning when the hansom finally came to a halt outside the grand white façade of a government building in Whitehall. Having paid the cabbie, Holmes waved him off before heading briskly towards the entrance. It was only when we were stood within the spacious foyer of the interior, before an imposing marble staircase, that he spoke again. “Watson, it is not my intention to offend you, but you really must believe me when I say it is in everyone’s best interests that I meet with my contact alone. I trust you will not mind waiting here for the short time it will take?”
While the pronouncement took me by surprise, I was not in the least bit affronted, trusting, as I always did, in the absolute integrity of my colleague’s reasoning. As it transpired, I had but little time to sit, for it took Holmes less than twenty minutes to conclude his business. Shortly afterwards we were once again within the interior of a cab, this time heading towards Knightsbridge. The only additional information he would furnish was that we would be meeting with “an important French diplomat.”
Holmes now seemed more favourably disposed to discuss the nature of his enquiries back in Whitehall. “This affair appears to be far more complex than I first imagined.” He paused to pull up the collar on his long overcoat and shivered momentarily. “My contact was pleased to discuss the coded notice, which he had himself already spotted. As a result, he has commissioned us to take further action. You’ll be pleased to learn that we are now acting as unofficial diplomats for the British Government!”
“Really?” I said, bemused.
“Yes. It seems we were right to suppose that there may be some Egyptian link to this apparent threat to the Prime Minister. As you know, the nationalists within that country have been rallying behind their leader, Colonel Ahmed Urabi, since the uprising of 1879. In a bid to quell the revolutionary tendencies of the nationalists, Khedive Tewfik invited Urabi to join his cabinet. Since that time, Urabi has been reforming Egypt’s military, financial and civic institutions in a bid to weaken the Anglo-French domination of the Khedival administration. You might remember that since 1876 – when the Khedivate was effectively declared bankrupt – both countries have assumed a shared control over Egypt’s economic affairs.”
“So Whitehall might have good reason to suspect that any attempt to assassinate Gladstone might be part of this resistance to Britain’s foreign policy?”
“Indeed. Although in this case, I believe that the coded notice is merely purporting to be a death threat from the Egyptian nationalists. My contact also believes that to be the case and is keen for us to pursue that line of enquiry.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well, consider the nature and placement of the communication. The notice appeared in the liberal Pall Mall Gazette. Only those within government, or in close diplomatic circles, are likely to know that the publication is our Prime Minister’s favourite. The ‘EFTE’ sign off within the name ‘Seften’ is a little too obvious and twee – particularly as it is written in English. Most assassins tend to leave their calling card after they have acted, not before. Their biggest fear is being discovered before they are able to complete their task.”
I could see the logic of Holmes’s reasoning but raised one small objection. “Yes, but the would-be assassin also pointed to the likely location of the killing. Perhaps he is brazen enough to announce his intentions before acting and confident in his assertion that Soho will be the place where he can achieve his objective.”
“A fair point, Watson – and one which I did consider. But my contact has assured me that Gladstone has no planned engagements in Soho, or indeed anywhere in London, on Friday evening.”
“So that part of the communication was a red herring then?”
“Not as such. He believes that its inclusion was deliberate. In fact, he went further in postulating that it was something of a private joke at the Prime Minister’s expense. In earlier years, as part of his evangelical sensibilities, Gladstone was often to be found walking the streets of Soho undertaking ‘rescue’ work with ladies of ill-repute. There has always been more than a whiff of suspicion about this supposed moral crusade.”
I found myself more confused than ever. “But if the missive was not written by an Egyptian nationalist and poses no real threat, are you suggesting that it is, in fact, part of some elaborate hoax?”
“Far from it – the placement of the notice is a calculated act of brinkmanship and international diplomacy. I had my suspicions, but the trip to Whitehall convinced me that I was on the right track. Let us consider the position that Gladstone finds himself in. On the one hand, it is a matter of prestige that he wishes to retain Britain’s influence over Egypt and preserve the Suez Canal route to India. On the other, he has, thus far, pursued a liberal non-interventionist approach, believing that if armed intercession is necessary, this should be the responsibility of the Turkish Sultan as Suzerain for the region. By attempting to posit the notion that Gladstone should fear assassination by the Egyptian nationalists, the author is really sending the message that our government should act more directly in suppressing the threat to the status quo in Egypt.”
I began to comprehend his meaning. “That being the case, there is only one country likely to want to push us into such an undertaking. I understand now why we are planning to meet with a French diplomat.”
“Exactly. France is keen for Britain to honour its entente commitments and intervene more directly to suppress the nationalist threat. Its government is also resolutely hostile to the idea of Turkish intervention in Egypt, or, indeed, the interference of any other powers.”
Our cab had, by this time, reached an impressive building at 58 Knightsbridge, close to Albert Gate and one of the entrances to Hyde Park. A light flurry of snow had begun to fall and looked as if it might settle. As we approached the building, I had a final question: “Who is it we are about to see?”
He looked at me and smiled broadly. My contact has informed me that the former Prime Minister of France, Charles de Freycinet, is currently residing in the building and would be receptive to a visit. Our impending arrival should already have been communicated by telegraph. While we have no official capacity to act, I have been asked to investigate whether there is any evidence to support the notion that the coded message was placed deliberately by an agent working for the French government.”
“That will not be easy to ascertain,” I replied.
“We will see, my friend.”
Some five minutes later we were being shown into one of the large suites housed within the top floor of the five-storey building. It was luxurious in both size and decoration and looked more like the interior of a French château than a London residence. A man stepped out from behind a large and ornate desk set before one of the windows overlooking Hyde Park. He was slim and elegant, dressed in an immaculately tailored black jacket, beneath which he wore a red velvet waistcoat and matching bow tie. His full beard and moustache, along with the hair to the sides of his thinning scalp, were as white as any I had ever seen, and lent him a striking, statesman-like, appearance. He approached us with a warm smile and shook each of us by the hand with an iron-like grip.
“Gentlemen, you are indeed welcome. Please take a seat.” His English was impeccable and the timbre of his voice low and melodious. I noticed that he seemed to be studying Holmes very intently as we took to our seats. “So, you are Sherlock Holmes?” he said, more by way of observation than enquiry.
Holmes nodded, “Yes, and this is my close colleague, Dr. John Watson.”
“Well, it is a pleasure to meet you. Now, may I offer you some refreshment?” He pointed towards a baroque side-table, on which sat a large selection of wines and spirits. “Perhaps a glass of port, some Madeira wine, or maybe a small measure of Vin Mariani?”
I winced at the mention of the latter, knowing full-well that the lively mixture of Bordeaux wine and cocaine within the popular tonic had hastened the demise of many a poet, politician, and pope. While I opted for a small glass of sherry, Holmes surprised me by readily accepting a glass of the intoxicating cocktail.
We spent some minutes talking about de Freycinet’s background before he entered politics. He had grown up in the southwest of France and had later studied engineering at the École Polytechnique in Paris. When he mentioned that he had undertaken several scientific missions, including one to the United Kingdom, Holmes announced equably that he knew of the work: “A most competent study, sir. I recollect the notable paper you published in 1867, the ‘Mémoire sur le travail des femmes et des enfants dans les manufactures de l'Angleterre.’” Our host looked incredulous. I could but marvel at his pronunciation. To that point, I had been unaware that Holmes could speak any French.
Our conversation moved on to a general discussion about European affairs and the growing influence of both Germany and Russia. We agreed that the entente between our two great nations was essential in protecting Anglo-French interests across the globe. It was at this point that Holmes directed the dialogue more specifically towards the subject of Egypt. This prompted something of a snigger from de Freycinet.
“Tut, tut, Mr. Holmes. You have let your guard down. I was curious to know the real reason for your visit, and now you have revealed it. I am taking it that Whitehall is keen to know how I might view the possibility of military intervention in that country. Would that be a fair summary?”
Holmes did not deny that Egypt was indeed the matter we wished to discuss.
“Why would my views be of interest to your handler back in Whitehall?” he then asked.
I saw a flash of annoyance cross my colleague’s face. He prided himself on being the most unique of private enquiry agents, and I knew that the reference to a handler had rankled him. Regaining his composure, he replied: “I know that you resigned your position as Prime Minister in September 1880, but since that time you have continued to operate in the highest of diplomatic circles. In particular, you have been something of a trusted confidante for certain officials within the British government. Our soon to be announced ‘Foreign Intelligence Committee’ is well aware that you are likely to be reinstated as Prime Minister by the end of this month, and your portfolio of responsibilities will include that of Foreign Minister. So your views on the Egyptian dilemma are of particular interest to Whitehall.”
The Frenchman leaned forward and reached for a wooden box that sat on the front of his desk and offered up the contents to us. Holmes and I both took one of the long Panamanian cigars and watched as de Freycinet did the same. It was only when all three cigars had been lit, that our host responded.
“Gentlemen, since you have seen fit to disclose such a sensitive piece of information, I will be candid with you also. Barring some unforeseen calamity on the sea-crossing back to France, I do expect to be asked by the president to take up my former position within a matter of weeks. As for my views on the Egyptian debacle, I believe strongly that some form of direct military intervention is now needed to put a stop to the ambitions of the nationalists and remove the threat posed by Colonel Urabi and his supporters. I would also prefer not to let Turkey gain any foothold within the country. It is a concern to me that Prime Minister Gladstone does not appear to share my enthusiasm for such an undertaking.”
Holmes reached inside his jacket and retrieved the folded pages of the Pall Mall Gazette from an inside pocket. He laid the notice with its underscored message on de Freycinet’s desk and looked directly at him. “Is that why you placed this coded despatch in today’s newspaper?”
“Mon Dieu! Why would you believe that I wrote this communiqué?”
“Observation and supposition. I imagine that the construction of such a cipher would appeal to you personally and play to your talents. You are a gifted engineer by profession, with a mastery of mathematics and strong skills in both organisation and problem solving – credentials which helped to secure your election to the prestigious Academy of Sciences. Your English language skills are first-rate, and through your diplomatic work you have become well-versed in the art of communication and subterfuge. In your position, you are likely to know that the Pall Mall Gazette is Gladstone’s preferred daily newspaper and be aware of the intimations concerning his night-time activities in Soho.”
Charles de Freycinet laughed with some gusto. “That is some supposition, sir! But do you have any evidence for your assertion?” He said this playfully, as if the whole exchange were nothing more than a parlour game.
“I have two small, but telling, observations which lend weight to my hypothesis. Firstly, there is a discarded copy of the Pall Mall Gazette in the wastebasket to your side. That it is opened to the exact same page as this advertisement cannot be a coincidence. More tellingly, the ink blotter on your desk testifies to your recent word games. While it is covered in a multitude of random jottings in both French and English, there are three words in the top right corner which tell their own story. You have written down both ‘dietary’ and ‘dietery’, suggesting that you were initially unsure how to spell the word dietary. And beside them, is the single word ‘rossignol’ – a translation of the English nightingale.”
“I see I have significantly underestimated your talents, Mr. Holmes. And I must concede that you have outflanked me on this occasion. I did indeed compose the notice. It is not the first time I have used the London press to send a covert message imploring your government to change its foreign policy. Of course, I would never admit publicly to doing so.”
Ever the diplomat, he said this as if seeking confirmation that the matter would not be talked of afterwards. Holmes responded accordingly. “You may rest assured that I will never disclose your role in this affair.” *
“That is kind of you. Of course, my bigger concern is whether I can genuinely persuade your government to change its stance on Egypt and back the idea of joint intervention.”
I was surprised by Holmes’s response. “Given that we are speaking openly of matters which are not to be made public, I can share with you the views of my contact in Whitehall. He is of the opinion that the machinery of government will operate so as to force Gladstone’s hand. It is only a matter of time before the Prime Minister will be pushed to lay aside his pacifist inclinations and authorise some form of British military intervention in Egypt. He suggests only that you hold your nerve until that time has come.”
It was a most astonishing disclosure and I could but wonder at the ramifications of communicating this to the French at that time.
Our meeting ended not long after this, with de Freycinet thanking Holmes for his intercession and indicating that it would do much to preserve the diplomatic bonds between our two countries. We left Knightsbridge as heavy snow began to fall on the capital. I hoped it was not a portent of things to come.
It was only later in the year that I was to realise just how significant our meeting that day had been in shaping world events. On Monday, 30th January, Charles de Freycinet was reinstated as Prime Minister, with additional responsibilities as the Foreign Secretary of France. He continued to press Britain to take a more direct approach in unseating the nationalists within Egypt. And despite the pacifist proclamations of the Gladstone administration, the country was to become embroiled in the Anglo-Egyptian War after the bombardment of the city of Alexandria in the July of 1882.
Holmes seemed content to downplay his involvement in the affair. His view was that the political and military events which unfolded at that time were largely predictable given the power and influence of certain officials within Whitehall. And it is only now, with the benefit of hindsight that I can begin to understand exactly what he meant. While assisting Holmes on the 1888 case I recorded as The Greek Interpreter, I realised of course that his mysterious governmental contact was none other than his older brother, Mycroft Holmes.
*Note: This was something of a smokescreen, for Holmes’s words did not prevent me from writing up the narrative which I now set before you. It was out of respect for Charles de Freycinet that I have waited a great many years before finally committing the story to paper. The French statesman and four times Prime Minister of the Third Republic died last week, on Monday, 14th May 1923 – JHW.