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Authors: Donald Thomas

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I believe it was as well that Sherlock Holmes remained a private and secretive man. His tongue would have destroyed him in public life, though not before it had destroyed a good many other men. Among several instances of his savagery, his brother Mycroft told me, after the funeral, of young Sherlock Holmes's first brief acquaintance with formal education at a great Oxford college, whose master was something of a household name. It was the master's custom to take each of the new men out for a walk alone, from Oxford into the countryside and back again. The great scholar would keep an absolute silence as the pair walked to Headington or Godstow. The hapless undergraduate would feel the strain of this and would compel himself at last to make some nervous and banal remark, often about the weather or the meadow scenery. The master would either crush this by his retort or would continue the walk without reply, as if the observation were beneath notice. In either event, the poor young man would have been put securely in his place for the next three or four years. The stratagem had not been known to fail.

When Holmes was taken on this solitary freshman exercise, it was he who maintained a silence. Keeping step with the master of the college, he walked over Magdalen Bridge, through Headington and up Shotover Hill. Unused to this resolute behaviour but enjoying a natural position of superiority and eminence, the master himself broke the silence at last. It was a laconic and patronising inquiry.

‘They tell me, Holmes,' he said, ‘they tell me that you are very clever. Are you?'

‘Yes,' said Holmes ungraciously.

Silence returned, unbroken, as they walked grimly back into Oxford and at last reached the college gates. Holmes turned to face the offended master with a slight bow, expressionless otherwise.

‘Goodbye, sir,' he said courteously. ‘I have so much enjoyed our talk.'

Mycroft Holmes assured me that his younger brother thereupon shook the illustrious dust of that college off his feet and found a humbler institution, where he was left to live pretty much as he chose. Sherlock Holmes himself had told me that Victor Trevor, son of a Norfolk squire, was the only friend he made during the two years he remained at college. Holmes was never a very sociable man. By his own account, he was always rather fond of moping in his rooms and working out his own methods of thought. His line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that they had no points of contact at all.

In the long vacation he would go up to his London rooms, where he would spend the summer weeks working out a few experiments in organic chemistry. At first he had rooms in Montagu Street, just round the corner from the British Museum. Then, as he spent more time in the chemical laboratories of the great hospitals, he crossed the river and found lodgings in Lambeth Palace Road.

II

Those who have followed the published adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the past thirty years will know something of these matters. Let me now explain how this further collection of narratives has been compiled.

From time to time, during the years when I shared rooms with him, he would lug from his bedroom the famous tin box which was half filled with bundles of papers tied separately with ribbon, each bundle representing a case now closed. Some of these which occurred before our meeting, like the case of the Gloria Scott or the Musgrave Ritual, have already been published from the documents and my friend's own recollection of them. Others were not so readily given to the world.

They included services to the state, matters of personal confidence, and investigations upon which Sherlock Holmes had been engaged before our meeting in the chemical laboratory of Bart's in 1880. In almost every instance, a delay was necessary before the facts of the case could be published. I may safely say that by the time you read these pages, Sherlock Holmes and I, as well as every other person mentioned in them, will have been dust for a good many years.

I have written often in the past of my friend's success as a ‘consulting detective' to private individuals. Once or twice, in writing of the Naval Treaty or the Bruce-Partington Plans, I have hinted at something more. The reputation of Sherlock Holmes was such that his services were increasingly in demand by officers of the state. The Fenian dynamite outrages, the blowing up of post offices and the Metropolitan Railway in the 1880s, led to the setting up of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard. The safety of the Crown and its representatives was no longer a matter which could be left to an amateur police force and the good sense of all the people. Later still, as the threat of war with the German Empire approached in 1914, the Crown and government gave authority to the organisation of Military Intelligence. From Queen Anne's Gate, almost in the shadow of Parliament itself, such operations were undertaken by various divisions of this service. Two of its branches were of paramount importance. The fifth division of Military Intelligence was to supervise security at home against intrusion by our enemies, and a sixth division was to control our espionage against foreign powers.

It would have been astonishing if the skills of Sherlock Holmes, though he was well in his middle years, had not been employed by those at Scotland Yard and in the government who were already indebted to him for his assistance in other matters. The question is whether the history of these operations is to remain, for ever and literally, a closed book. That secrets of this kind should be revealed immediately after the events is unthinkable. There are men and women alive now whose reputations and safety would be compromised. The security of the realm itself might be undermined. In the present decade, it is by no means likely that even the great war with Germany will prove to be the last conflict of its kind. Enemies to our way of life may easily be identified in other quarters. A lifetime must pass before such narratives as mine can be made public.

I confess I find it a relief that the decision of publication or suppression is not mine alone. After the death of Sherlock Holmes, the question of his unpublished papers was immediately raised by Sir Ernie Backwell, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. Sir Ernie would, I believe, have been happy to make a bonfire of them. Such a measure was out of the question. Moreover, the papers were not all in the Permanent Secretary's hands, so that he was obliged to barter a little. After long discussion with Mycroft Holmes and the legal representatives of the estate, a compromise was reached.

The private papers of Sherlock Holmes were to be deposited with the MEPO files of Scotland Yard in the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane. Files in this category remain sealed for fifty or a hundred years or even for ever, at the discretion of the government. Their very existence may be denied. However, before they passed into limbo, I as his literary executor was to have access to them in a special annexe of the Home Office library, overlooking Whitehall. Drawing upon these papers, I was to compile a narrative of the events described in them, taking much the form of the earlier adventures. The narrative was to be read and approved by Sir Ernie Backwell with his legal advisers.

It was not, of course, to be approved for immediate publication. When the manuscript was complete, it was to be deposited in the public records of domestic state papers. I asked that it should be released after fifty years. Sir Ernie assured me that His Majesty's ministers would not settle for less than a hundred. So it would have been had not Mycroft Holmes and the Attorney-General both been members of the committee of the Diogenes Club. After further argument, a period of seventy years was agreed. This would amply cover the probable remaining lifetime of any person mentioned in the narratives. It would remove any risk of exposing secret matters to a possible enemy of the state. Of what possible use can the confidences of a previous century be to present adversaries?

By this means stories are preserved of the fateful visit of King Edward VII to Dublin in 1907 and the truth attending the disappearance of the Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle; of the mysterious death of Herr Diesel in 1913 as the secrets of his famous engine were about to pass into British hands.

Other confidential matters may now be revealed which, though they do not threaten the safety of the state, could not have been made public at the time of the events without a great breach of private trust. Even in the volumes already published a certain latitude has been taken with names. If you have read the adventure of Holmes and the blackmailer ‘Charles Augustus Milverton', for example, you will recall my caveat that the story could not have been told in any form without disguising the events and persons to an extent which gave the narrative more fiction than fact.

It can do no harm now to reveal the fictional character of Milverton as in reality that of the blackmailer and thief Charles Augustus Howell, born in Lisbon of Anglo-Portuguese parentage in 1839. He was secretary to Mr John Ruskin and agent to Mr Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the artist. You may read, in Mr Thomas Wise's
Swinburne Bibliography
, as you might have heard it from Mr Oscar Wilde, the manner of Howell's death in 1890, his throat cut outside a public house, a half-sovereign wedged in his teeth, the slanderer's reward.

Mr Howell's customary method of extortion was to obtain indiscreet or confidential letters from his dupes, paste them into a large album and pledge this volume to a pawnbroker on a plea of poverty. The dupes would be informed that the compromising letters had been pledged, that Mr Howell had not the money to redeem them, and that they must be publicly sold unless their authors would buy them back. Victims and their families hastened to retrieve these items only to be met with bills for many hundreds of pounds, divided afterwards between Mr Howell and the confederate pawnbroker.

It was so neatly done that, though the act was blackmail in fact, it was hard to establish the crime within the law, even had the victims been prepared to endure the threat of disgrace. The Rossetti family, Mr Swinburne the poet, and Mr Whistler the painter were among those ensnared by Howell's craft. To this catalogue might be added Mr Ruskin and the Reverend Charles Dodgson of Christ Church, known as ‘Lewis Carroll' the world over. Such investigations carried out by Sherlock Holmes were sensitive in the extreme. They could be related only in a most indirect manner at the time.

State secrets and private confidences were not quite all that awaited me when I listed my late friend's papers as his literary executor. If you have read my account of our first meeting, you will recall that Holmes had been what he called ‘a consulting detective' for some while. As he said, his services had already been of assistance to Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard when that officer had ‘got himself into a fog over a forgery case'. The reference was to the so-called Bank of England forgeries in 1873, when the Bidwell brothers came within a hair's breadth of having the Bank's funds at their mercy.

Among the papers left by Sherlock Holmes were several of his ‘reports' upon these investigations which preceded our first meeting. Yet a story-teller's narrative is far preferable to a mere report and I make no apology for attempting to interpret the nuances of the original. If I speak of Holmes as a student of analytical chemistry or human conduct, it is merely that he was a student of such things all his life. When I first met him, he was certainly far past the age at which a man normally walks the wards or reads for the bar.

At the time of the ‘Smethurst Case', with which I shall deal first, he had his rooms—‘consulting rooms', as he grandly called them—in Lambeth Palace Road, just south of Westminster Bridge. These lodgings were convenient for the chemical laboratory of St Thomas's Hospital, to which he had occasional access on the basis of grace-and-favour. I have written elsewhere that his origins lay among the English squirearchy. The indulgence shown him by the governors of the hospital stemmed from a bequest made by one of these kinsmen.

Those who know London at all well may recognise the handsome terraces and tree-lined vistas of Lambeth Palace Road as a favourite abode of our young medical men and students. Here it was that Holmes returned each evening from his methodical labours among test-tubes and Bunsen burners. All day he gathered information and much of the night he passed in restless calculation. How often did the night traveller or the policeman on his beat glance up and see the familiar silhouette against the drawn blind of the first-floor room? It was the shadow of a man pacing rapidly to and fro, his hands clasped behind his back, his sharp profile bowed by a weight of thought.

On other evenings he would venture out to eat his supper and then walk the streets of the great city until he seemed to know the landscape of London as accurately as the mirrored image of his own face. The young Sherlock Holmes was a lone observer as the hum of day ceased, the shops darkened, and the gin palaces thrust out their ragged and squalid crowds to pace the streets. The homeless and the destitute grew familiar with his passing as they huddled in the niches of the bridges and the litter of the markets. The wretched women shivering in their finery, waiting to catch the drunkard who went shouting homewards, watched him from a distance.

Sometimes this young student of humanity would stop to speak to a shoeless child crouching on a doorstep. Then his strange apprenticeship led him to join the conversations of a ragged crowd smoking or dozing through the night beside the glow of a coke fire, where the stones had been taken up and the gas streamed from a pipe in the centre of the street in a flag of flame. On summer nights, as he turned for home, the streets were already growing blue with the coming day. Church spires and chimney pots stood out against the sky with a sharpness seen only before a million fires cast their pall of smoke across the city. The early workers were gathered at the street corners, round the breakfast stall, blowing on their saucers of steaming coffee drawn from tall tin cans with the fire crimson beneath. As he crossed the river by London Bridge, the first ragged girl with her basket slung before her screamed watercresses through the sleeping streets.

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