Chapters 7-12 of The Sign of Four, Or, I still love you, Holmes, even if Watson has forsaken you!

When last we left our intrepid duo, Holmes was still poking around Pondicherry Lodge and Watson was off to escort the Homewrecker, well, home and then to collect Toby on his way back. Conveniently enough, Toby leads us to our first discrepancy between the two annotateds! According to Baring-Gould, Toby is a spaniel and a lurcher (a cross between a collie and a greyhound), noting that lurchers are ‘usually classified with the sporting group of dogs, whose forte is to lie in wait for and seize game, and not with the hounds, whose forte is tracking’ (BG, 644). Leslie, on the other hand, uses Donald Girard Jewell’s definition of a lurcher as a cross between a German shepherd and a greyhound. Jewell also notes that a lurcher would offer ‘the added advantage of being able to hung by both sight and scent’ (NA, 286). How exciting! Our first disagreement! Except that it’s not a topic on which I can weigh in at all! But I do sort of see how easy it is to let the madness take you – I will no longer mock Baring-Gould’s fascination with the correlation between dates and the weather (except I totally will) nor will I wonder at the people who go to extraordinary lengths to discover the location of Pondicherry Lodge or Lauristen Garden[s]. Except I totally will. But with great affection!

The scholars, and I agree with them, seem to like to search out hints of Moriarty as frequently as they can. Here, Leslie points to the gazeteer from which Holmes gets his information about Tonga as being “so wholly inaccurate that one must question how Holmes obtained it” (NA, 307). Julia Carlson Rosenblatt “suggests that ‘the little affair of Jonathan Small was part of a more elaborate conspiracy, one sufficiently thorough as to have assured the infiltration into Holmes’ library of a deliberately misleading work…” and her suspicions “come to rest, not surprisingly, on the involvement of Moriarty” (NA, 307). Later, they will point to Moriarty again as an accomplice (though I don’t think Moriarty would have stooped so low – he would have considered Small a pawn instead) to Joseph Small. Robert R. Pattrick writes that “Queer strangers do not hire fast steam launches and have them stand in readiness for a day or two, on the basis of a promise. Something more tangible is required, and Small as yet had nothing to prove his story of ‘a big sum'” and concludes that Moriarty must have “assisted Small with planning, advances of funds for expenses, and a hideout…all for a fee” (NA, 372).

Now I would like nothing more than to agree with them – I think you all know that I have a soft spot for Moriarty which definitely extends to wishing to see more of him around the Canon – but I have some reservations or at least the need for more information here. Mostly, my main question is what would Moriarty be gaining my helping these petty criminals (he is suspected of also having helped Jefferson Hope in A Study in Scarlet – also odd since he’s actually sort of the good guy, relatively speaking)? What does he have to gain? Is he just in it for the money to fund a more nefarious crime? Or is it just for the satisfaction of thwarting Holmes (which he hasn’t gotten so far since both of his pawns have been caught)? There must be a grander scheme in motion, but why does Holmes, who at least seems to suspect his presence in A Study in Scarlet if not his ultimate game, never mention it to Watson? I’m just not sure why Moriarty would waste his time this way. Perhaps all will become clear upon moving into our reread of the short stories, but for now, I’m not buying it (although I’d like to).

Richard Gutschmidt is creeping ever closer to overtaking Paget as my favorite of Holmes’ illustrators – though there seems to be a distinct lack of Paget to compare him with and I don’t know if this is due to permissions issues or if Paget simply didn’t do illustrations for these particular stories. I like this one of Holmes and Watson with Toby:

And I really, really like this one of Holmes in his dodgy sailor getup, but I have one question for you, Richard:

Why has he got on a tam o’shanter? I think you were thinking of golfers for a moment there instead of sailors.

And speaking of his sailor getup, when he returns as the old man and fools Watson and Jones, D. Martin Dakin points out that “it is astonishing that Watson, as on other occasions, failed to recognise at close range a man whom he knew so well, especially as he had actually seen him start out in the same seafaring garb a short while before” (NA, 320). He goes on to suggest that “Watson did in fact see through Holmes’ isguises, but pretended to be taken in, in order to spare his feelings” (NA, 320) which is a very sweet thing to do. I have to admit that I’m imagining Watson’s reaction here to be like Lucille Bluth’s to Gene Parmesan’s disguises in Arrested Development.

When discussing the meal that Holmes prepares (or at least picks up, seeing as he spent the whole day out disguised as a sailor) for Watson and Jones, Fletcher Pratt “points out that one brace of grouse would be insufficient for three men, one of whom was Watson, ‘who did nothing to preserve his figure'” (NA, 323). This is unbearably cruel! And completely unfounded as far as I can tell, seeing as Watson was recently quite fit enough to go an a six-mile trek with a bad leg! How could you say such a thing, Fletcher?! On a lighter note (no pun intended at all, my dear Watson), Baring-Gould presents us with three recipes for the meal (which he also attempts to use to prove the date, oysters only being available September-April and not in July [idiots]: Oyster Special, Grouse a la Holmes, and an apricot pie (Holmes bakes? I am swooning.). According to Poul Ib Liebe, it is “out of modesty–or possibly because of sheer forgetfulness–Holmes omits to inform us of the dessert, which might well have been apricot pie, a favorite Victorian sweet” (BG, 661).

There is an intriguing theory put forth about Watson later, when Small is telling his story. According to Leslie, “several commentators note that, with the exception of ‘Singh,’ none of [the names of Small’s conspirators] are Sikh names. Dr. Andrew Boyd, who observes that ‘no educated man with years of service in the Indian Army could possibly have recorded them, even if he was recording another man’s garbled narrative, without comment,’ concludes that Watson’s Indian Army record is fradulent and that he had a dark and sinister past, as well as a criminal career” (NA, 357). Others are a little more lenient with his mistakes, but I really like this idea. I mean, Watson is our narrator, so we have no one’s word but his own as to his past – and, though all his inaccuracies would point to him being a fairly poor liar, the effort is there to perhaps support criminal!Watson (which, strangely enough, I find at least as appealing as criminal!Holmes…if not more).

And, of course, I hate to bring her back up, but it is at the end of this story that Holmes loses Watson to the Homewrecker’s charms. I only mention her again because apparently Mary is one of the main stumbling blocks to accurate dating of the Canon. Leslie says that “Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan has created nightmares for those attempting to reconcile the date of the events recorded in this case (likely summer 1888) with the date of the events recorded in “The Five Orange Pips.” In the latter case, explicitly dated by Watson in September 1887, Watson states that ‘my wife was on a visit to her mother’s'” (NA, 377). Obviously if he married Mary Morstan in 1888, who is the mysterious wife in 1887? It cannot be just a confusion of dates because Mary tells us herself that her mother died in 1878 – so even if it were Mary Morstan to whom he refers, who was she really visiting? Ian McQueen blames ACD’s poor editing skills, suggesting that he “was misled by Watson’s notes into assuming that Watson was already married in September 1887 and invented the visit to Mary’s mother as the more plausible [but entirely unnecessary] explanation for his absence from home” (NA, 377). Leslie believes, and Baring-Gould seems to agree with him based on his timeline outlined for the stories, that there was in fact a wife who preceded Mary Morstan and died before 1888 (NA, 377). But then shouldn’t there be many more references explaining why he has come to be at Baker Street once again during the stories that take place between A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four? Surely this mysterious first wife would have been concerned as to her husband’s whereabouts…

Which brings us to poor Holmes who, when hearing Watson’s plans to marry Mary, gives “a dismal groan. ‘I feared as much,’ said he. ‘I really cannot congratulate you'” (NA, 376). There are SO MANY thoughts on what he really means here. The obvious is suggested by Ebbe Curtis Hoff who says that “Holmes could not congratulate Watson because (1) he lost a potential colleague in Mary [Say what, now?!]; (2) he lost his Boswell [Sniff!]; and (3) he saw ahead a tragic bereavement for his friend” (NA, 377). This last speculation is based on “Holmes’ early observations of Mary Morstan’s fatal illness. (Hoff suggests that this was likely clubbing of the fingertips, not mentioned in Watson’s narrative, obscured by his romantic visions of Mary.)” (NA, 377). There is another, more outlandish (in my opinion) theory which is J.N. Williamson’s idea that Holmes’ remark stems from his “knowledge of Watson’s ‘on-again-off-again relationship with Irene Adler, which resulted, after the death of Godfrey Norton, in the divorce of John and Mary and the marriage of John and Irene'” (NA, 377) to which I say I know we haven’t gotten to “A Scandal in Bohemia” (next week!), but I’m pretty sure Watson and Irene never met (though I may be remembering incorrectly and will find myself quite embarrassed at this time next week for saying it).

My miscellaneous thoughts, let me show you them [These are my thoughts.]:

  • When Watson goes to collect Toby, Deborah Laubach comments: ‘”Watson, a total stranger, walks admist the scrutiny of every animal in Pinchin Lane without an uprorar: what was that the Master once said about a dog in the nighttime?”‘ (NA, 286) [It’s that he did nothing, isn’t it? The dog in the nighttime? I feel like I’m on the verge of drawing a conclusion here, but I can’t quite tell where I’m being led…]
  • When Holmes is presenting Toby with the creosote handkerchief, he says “Here you are, doggy! Good old Toby! Smell it, toby, smell it!” (NA, 288) [Holmes addressing Toby as ‘doggy’ is mind-bogglingly adorable. I can only imagine the rest of the sentence spoken in pet/baby talk.]
  • As Holmes and Watson are beginning their six-mile trek after the wooden-legged man, Holmes points out ‘one little cloud [that] floats like a pink feather from some gigantic flamingo’ (NA, 293). Leslie says: ‘This from the man who has the nerve to admonish Watson, in describing a “high sun-baked wall mottled with lichens and topped with moss” (“The Retired Colourman”) to “cut out the poetry”?’ (NA, 293). [I laughed at this. Hard. For a long time. Honestly, it still makes me laugh. Leslie, you have taken the lead in the snarky!editor contest.]
  • Upon their return to Baker Street after a long, fruitless, and doubtlessly tiring trek, Holmes tells Watson that he “look[s] regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa, and see if I can put you to sleep.” He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air–his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face, and the rise and fall of his bow.” [How uncharacteristically sweet of Holmes.]
  • Upon Toby leading them to a barrel of creosote, ‘Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter’ (NA, 295). [One of my favorite moments in the Canon.]
  • While they are lying in wait for the Aurora, Holmes mentions that, in an effort to clear and refocus his mind, he spent some time “dissolving the hydrocarbon.” In response to this lofty undertaking, Remsen Ten Eyck Schenck (whose name is quite the handful!), says that “it is inconceivable that dissolving a hydrocarbon should be a problem, even momentarily to a chemist. Holmes might as well have said ‘when I had succeeded in tying my boot-lace,’ with the air of having triumphed over great obstacles after days of heroic effort” (NA, 326). [It sounded very complex to me and my feeble brain, but Schenck’s snarky comment made me laugh.]
  • S.E. Dahlinger “has no doubts that Holmes, Watson, and Athelney Jones conspired to keep the treasure for themselves” (NA, 346). [What?! Why?! What is the evidence?! ELABORATE!]
  • There is some actual Goethe quoted for us by Holmes at the end here which may be translated as “Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material enough for a good man and a rogue.” C. Alan Bradley and William A.S. Sarjeant “offer a fresh interpretation: Holmes is not speaking of himself but instead ‘lamenting the fact there there were not two Watsons, one to marry Miss Morstan and the other to stay with him in Baker Street'” (NA, 379). [Word, yo.]
  • “The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in thsi business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit; pray what remains for you?” (NA, 379) [How can you say such a cruel and heartless thing, Watson?!]
  • To the above question, “For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-botte.” And he stretched his long, white hand up for it (NA, 379). [This may be the saddest, loneliest moment in the Canon.] Bradley and Sarjeant think that “the latter’s reaching for the drug was less the response of a man in shock than ‘a gesture of defiance–defiance of the doctor who had been striving to wean his friend from cocaine, but who had now signified that his personal priorities had switched elsewhere'” (NA, 379). [While I don’t doubt it for a moment, I still desperately want to give Holmes a hug.]

It has been suggested that reading only one short story per week may be rather too slow of a schedule, but seeing as I am reading them twice and then typing up these posts and would like to have time to be reading other things, I’m going to maintain that schedule for now. If we find ourselves desperate for more Holmes (which I’m not saying is unforeseeable by any means), I may adjust things accordingly. So stop by next Tuesday for the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

*Most of my notes, I think, come from the New Annotated simply because I find its format easier to work through and it is, therefore, the version that I’m reading first (I’m only reading the notes in the Baring-Gould). Much of the information is doubled up, but there is some that is unique to either volume, so if you see NA, that’s the Baring-Gould edition and BG is the New Annotated. No, I’m totally kidding – it’s the other way (the logical way) round.


6 thoughts on “Chapters 7-12 of The Sign of Four, Or, I still love you, Holmes, even if Watson has forsaken you!

  1. I’m really enjoying the Gutschmidt engravings. I note with satisfaction that Watson is not portrayed as stout. I think he got Toby wrong, however, but that’s excusable. The Watson and Irene Adler suggestion really comes out of the blue! Overactive imagination. It’s a pity that ACD was not more careful in his editing of Watson’s notes — so much time spent by so many people attempting to reconcile ACD’s errors. Thanks for summarizing the annotations.

    • Yeah, that’s what I like about them, too – although he’s not stout in Paget’s drawings (at least the ones I’ve seen so far) nor was he in Townsend’s – where do we get the usual idea that he is? (Which might explain where Fletcher came up with his very rude comment…)

  2. By the way – some sailors (French, I think) did wear a hat like a tam o’shanter. Perhaps they still do – I’ll check google. Maybe Germans did too, in Gutschmidt’s day.

  3. The more I think about it, the more I think the sailor’s cap is OK. Military dress is one thing, but any other sailor would wear any warm thing they could, so the tam would be appropriate. I think I’ve seen pictures of whalers wearing that cap. The French navy definitely uses the white cap with red pompon, but I think that’s irrelevant. Following Baring Gould’s single-minded lead, I will now begin viewing every Holmes issue in the context of what it means vis-a-vis sailor’s caps.

    • I’ll take your word for it, but it still strikes me as funny. I’m sure Baring-Gould will approve of your idea only if you intend to use Holmes’ hats to prove the date!

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