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The Execution of Sherlock Holmes
And Other New Aventures of the Great Detective
By Donald Thomas
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Donald Thomas
All rights reserved.
If Sherlock Holmes devoted all his energies to defending the honour of a humble chambermaid on Monday, he was as likely as not to be engaged in saving a peer of the realm from disgrace on Tuesday. He had a voracious appetite for humanity, its foibles and its failings. Indeed, he often put me in mind of that Latin tag that I had been made to learn at school. 'Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto': 'I am a man and nothing human is alien to me.' I once quoted this to him, in part to see his reaction, adding that it was one of the wisest comments of the great Roman orator, Cicero. Holmes stared at me, drew upon his pipe, and then said, 'I believe you will find, Watson, that Cicero said no such thing. The comment, if you wish to attribute it, comes from a very tedious Roman playwright. Should you care to verify it, you will find that he lived two centuries later than your great orator.'
Yet my judgment of Sherlock Holmes was not in error. After his death it was my duty as the executor of his will to list the rough copies of his correspondence still lying in his old tin trunk, which remained in the Baker Street attic. There were many letters or notes to the poor and the desperate for whom he had worked without fee, rather as great defenders in the criminal courts will take poor persons' defences without recompense of any kind. When he was once asked why he did this, he replied that he believed—as Francis Bacon had done—that every man is a debtor to his profession and must make some return.
Yet there was another extreme in his work. Among his posthumous papers were three rough drafts, much revised, of letters that began with a formal but imposing phrase, 'Mr. Holmes, with his humble duty to Your Majesty. ' What follows is an account of how one of these came to be written. The paper on which it is set out appears a little yellowed and brittle with the passage of time. Those who now read the circumstances of the case will understand at once that an earlier disclosure of the events might have put the very safety of the nation in peril.
To begin the story, I must go back to an October morning in 1908. It was not long after dawn, and the scene was an area of sloping downland above the cliffs of St. Alban's Head in Dorset. Several groups of figures, some of them in the topcoats and uniforms of senior naval officers and others in formal dress beneath their winter coats, stood looking out to sea. Though a morning mist still veiled the further distances of the English Channel, a thin sunlight already touched the pale green waves.
By his own choice, Sherlock Holmes and I stood at a little distance from the others, as if to show that we were there as guests and not as of right. In his close-fitting cloth cap and gray travelling cloak, he stood apart in more senses than one. Behind us, more than a mile inland, the little lanes and paths that ran from the village of Worth Matravers were closed and guarded by parties of Royal Marines. They had orders to let no one through under any pretext for the next hour. You would have looked in vain for a naval attaché from the great European embassies in Belgravia or Eaton Place. Not one had been invited.
As we stood silently, a throb of powerful engines sounded across the calm water, growing presently to a heavy beat of turbines in the stillness, like the drums of an ancient war god. A newly built leviathan was coming in from the Western Approaches to the start of a measured mile, returning to Portsmouth Dockyard after sea trials in the Atlantic. The main trials had been held in the remoter areas of the ocean. The performance on this October morning was as much as the illustrious spectators were allowed to see. Presently and quickly the ship materialised from the sparkle of October mist, the brightness of veiled sky shining on her flanks of pale grey steel. From the groups of senior officers and Whitehall dignitaries came the murmuring of a single word: 'Dreadnought!'
Sweeping past us through the gentle tide, the length of the most powerful and best-armoured battleship the world had known sliced the water with the grace of a cruiser. Even Sherlock Holmes stood in silence, admiring the clean lines of her hull. The decks were clear of the conventional clutter of a capital ship. Before and aft of the two modern funnels, the deck areas held a series of gun platforms able for the first time to sweep through arcs of fire not much less than 360 degrees. A tripod mast gave a commanding view to the control platform and its gunnery officers. The mighty gun barrels themselves were ten and twelve inch, enough to destroy any other ship afloat at a distance of six miles or more and to riddle the thickest armour plate at three miles.
I witnessed this speed trial thanks to the friendship between Holmes and Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord and architect of the new Royal Navy. Fisher was known for his maxim 'Hit first, hit hard, and keep on hitting.' A close friend of King Edward, he was rumoured to have urged the sovereign to 'Copenhagen' the Germans at Kiel, as Nelson had done the French, by striking at them first and without any declaration of hostilities while England still held the naval advantage. The king was horrified, the cabinet outraged, and Fisher lamented to his friends that the country no longer had the leadership of a William Pitt—or even a Bismarck.
Holmes and Fisher had been friends since the assistance that was given to the First Sea Lord in the case of 'The Naval Treaty.' Since then, Holmes would never hear a word spoken against Sir John, whom he described as having 'not an inch of pose about him' and to whom he gave the motto 'Sworn to no party—of no sect am I. I can't be silent and I will not lie.'
As we looked on, Dreadnought seemed to turn on her heel at the end of the measured mile—18,000 tons moving with the precision of a torpedo boat—gathering speed again towards Portsmouth Dockyard. I just made out the wake washing away behind her stern, until the mist hid her once more. The distinguished spectators stood in silence. Here and there a pair of field glasses was buttoned into its case once more. Yet there was no cheering and no jubilation at the sight of such power, merely a sense of awe. Beside me, Holmes quoted Rudyard Kipling in a soft but ominous tone.
A-down the stricken capes no flare—
Nor mark on spit or bar,—
Girdled and desperate we dare
The blindfold game of war.
'Mark my words, Watson, the blindfold game of espionage must be played first. Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and his Ministry of Marine in Berlin will see to it.'
We turned away to the carriages that had brought us from the railway.
'All the same,' I said, trying to cheer him, 'Jackie Fisher has got Tirpitz snookered. There are five of these monsters building in yards on the Clyde and the Tyne. Tirpitz has not one. If he had one, he could not use it without deepening and widening the Kiel Canal to get from the North Sea to the Baltic, and dredging the approach to every dockyard. If he deepened those sea lanes, our thirty-three battleships could sail in and bombard him at close range.'
Holmes stamped impatiently over the downland.
'It will not end there,' he said firmly, 'mark my words.'
In this, he was right. Kaiser Wilhelm and his Grand Admiral spent many millions of pounds deepening and widening the Kiel Canal for the new High Seas Fleet, as well as dredging the sea routes to naval bases on the North Sea. The keels of their first Dreadnoughts were laid: A submarine fleet was under construction. Fisher's battleship had bought him time but not victory in the race. A new advantage must be sought but, for the present, the matter rested there. I heard no more from Holmes than the venomous insults exchanged between the First Sea Lord and Admiral von Tirpitz.
Tirpitz began putting about a story that Sir John Fisher had deliberately engineered a German naval scare in England in order to get increased naval estimates passed by Parliament. Indeed, Tirpitz claimed that Fisher had admitted this to the German naval attaché in London. On hearing this, Fisher sought out the attaché at an evening party, at which both were guests, and told him, 'Tell Tirpitz—using the immortal words of Dr. Johnson—"You lie, sir, and you know it."' Not another word was spoken. Such was the unhappy state of relations between the two great naval powers.
I now move forward to the point where these powers became antagonists in a period of preparation for a great European war. How tragic it seemed to those of us who remembered England and Germany as close allies during the reign of our great Queen Empress, Victoria. At her deathbed, King Edward and Kaiser Wilhelm had knelt in prayer together, as they were soon to walk behind her coffin, the one her son and the other her grandson. All this was put aside as the war hounds of Europe growled ever more menacingly across the narrow seas.CHAPTER 2
It was an afternoon of early autumn, when the trees in the park had lost ver y little of their summer green. The air of Baker Street was as warm as June and the shops still had their striped awnings pulled out above greengrocers' baskets and booksellers' tables. By instinct, Holmes and I could now tell when a cab or a carriage slowed to a halt outside the door of our lodgings. On the present occasion, however, I rose from my chair with a feeling that this vehicle lacked the cheerful harness rattle of the cabs that usually brought our visitors.
Through the net curtains I saw a twopenny bus on its way to Marble Arch, the sides placarded with advertisements for Old Gold Virginia Tobacco, Van Houten's Cocoa, and a new production of The Rivals at the Haymarket Theatre. On the far side of the street, hidden from view until the bus had passed, was a closed carriage. Its black coachwork gleamed, its brass lamps were immaculately polished, and a horse fit for the Ascot Gold Cup stood patiently between its shafts. A liveried coachman held open its door. Two men stepped down and prepared to cross the street. My attention was caught by a small discreet gold crown emblazoned on the black gloss of the carriage door panel.
There was no mistaking the first man as he came across the street. He had taken the precaution of wearing mufti, but even without his uniform Sir John Fisher was known to thousands from his photograph in the picture papers and his caricature in Vanity Fair. It was an open, honest face with a dour humour in the lines of the mouth and a quiet merriment in the pale eyes. The dark hair was short and neat, the complexion sallow, for he had been born in Ceylon. His enemies murmured that his mother had been a Cingalese princess—hence his wicked cunning and duplicity.
When I saw the man behind him, I understood the gold crown on the door panel. These two men had been friends for more than twenty years, since Viscount Esher supported Fisher in demanding a modern Royal Navy for a modern world and in reforming the Committee for Imperial Defence. It was believed that no two public men in England held such power. Twelve years earlier, Lord Esher had been appointed by the prime minister, Mr. Balfour, as permanent secretary to the Board of Works. Behind this banal title lay the reality of such influence behind the scenes as only a gray eminence can exert. Lord Esher's task was to superintend and maintain the homes, comforts, and ritual of the royal family. He had the ear of the monarch to an extent that most prime ministers would envy. He had installed the lift at Windsor Castle for the ailing Queen Victoria and had pushed her bath chair when she expressed a wish to see once more her childhood home at Kensington Palace. In 1897 he had staged the dazzling imperial pageant of her Diamond Jubilee, and persuaded his 'Dear and Honoured Lady' to extend the route of her procession south of the River Thames, so that she might be seen and applauded by her poorer subjects. Small wonder that in the new reign, Esher remained the intimate of her son, Edward VII.
'Hello,' said Holmes, standing behind me. 'It seems they mean business. I suppose Jackie Fisher or Reggie Esher alone might suggest a pleasant social visit. Two of them together can only mean trouble of some kind.'
Presently there was a knock at the door and Mrs. Hudson, more flustered than was customary, ushered in our two distinguished visitors. There was a cordial babble of greetings, in the course of which I was introduced to Lord Esher, whom I had already recognised from his photograph in the Illustrated London News of the previous week. Then, from the depths of the armchair in which my friend had installed him, Fisher said: 'My dear Holmes, I must come to the point of our visit with somewhat indecent haste. In a moment you will understand why. So far, the full details of this matter are known only to Esher and myself—and to one other person whose identity you will readily guess.'
'Not Mr. Asquith, I think,' Holmes interrupted sardonically.
Esher shook his head.
'No, gentlemen. Not even the prime minister is privy to the entire story. We are here with the knowledge and approval of King Edward himself. It seems that he reposes a good deal of confidence in the name of Sherlock Holmes.'
I thought that Holmes sounded a little too suave in his reply.
'I was able to render His Majesty a small service some years ago in the so-called Baccarat Scandal. A most disagreeable affair of an officer and gentleman cheating at cards in his presence. It came, in the end, to a trial for libel. The Prince of Wales, as His Majesty then was, had been required to give evidence.'
Fisher turned a little and stared at him directly.
'Cast your mind back to certain other cases that came your way at the time. The affair of the Naval Treaty, the blackmail of a crowned head by Miss Irene Adler, and, perhaps especially, the disappearance of the secret plans for the Bruce Partington submarine.'
'Naturally I still have the papers relating to every case.'
Fisher's impatience was a driving force of his character. He turned to Holmes.
'Never mind the papers. Did you—then or at any other time—acquire information relating to the ciphers of the German High Seas Fleet?'
'Or any German system of codes, come to that,' added Lord Esher quietly.
Holmes looked at them for a moment as if he suspected a trick. He had filled his pipe but, perhaps out of deference to our guests, had not yet lit it.
'The Imperial German Navy has had nothing to do with any case of mine,' he said presently, waving a match to extinguish it.
'So far as I am aware.'
There was no mistaking the disappointment in the faces of our two visitors.
'However,' he continued, 'a practical working knowledge of coded messages is certainly necessary in my profession. I have deciphered the hieroglyphics of the Dancing Men and the riddle of the Musgrave Ritual. As you are no doubt aware, my solution in the Musgrave case led to the recovery of the ancient crown of the kings of England, lost by the Royal Stuarts after the execution of Charles I. You may also care to take away with you a small monograph of mine on the use of secret communications in the war of Greece against Persia during the fifth century BC. Despatches from Athens to Sparta were sent as meaningless strings of letters on a strip of cloth. When the strip was wound round a particular wooden baton, in a spiral and at precisely the angle known only to the sender and the recipient, the random letters formed themselves into words.'
'Very interesting, Mr. Holmes,' said Lord Esher, who looked as though he did not find this story interesting in the least. 'The question is whether, from your experience or your researches, you can break the German naval code—and do it within the next fortnight.'
'If it is to be done, by all means let it be done quickly,' Holmes replied with that languid air of self-assurance that so irritated both his adversaries and Scotland Yard. 'I daresay any fool could do it, given time. A fortnight sounds like a generous allowance for a man of moderate intelligence.'
'I have to tell you,' Fisher interposed, 'that our best cryptographers at the Admiralty have tried for two months without success.'
'That does not surprise me in the least. Pray tell me what, if anything, is known about these most interesting ciphers. What are they used for?'
The First Sea Lord and Viscount Esher looked at one another and, by the slightest change of expression, seemed to agree silently that they must reveal more than they had intended.
'Our instructions ' Fisher began.
'From His Majesty, I presume?'
Excerpted from The Execution of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Thomas. Copyright © 2012 Donald Thomas. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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