|The Valley of Fear|
THE TRAGEDY OF BIRLSTONE
I AM inclined to think said I.
What do you make of it, Holmes?
Holmes sat for some little time twisting this letter between his fingers, and frowning, as he stared into the fire.
After all, he said at last, there may be nothing in it. It may be only his guilty conscience. Knowing himself to be a traitor, he may have read the accusation in the others eyes.
The other being, I presume, Professor Moriarty.
No less! When any of that party talk about He you know whom they mean. There is one predominant He for all of them.
But what can he do?
Hum! Thats a large question. When you have one of the first brains of Europe up against you, and all the powers of darkness at his back, there are infinite possibilities. Anyhow, Friend Porlock is evidently scared out of his senseskindly compare the writing in the note to that upon its envelope; which was done, he tells us, before this ill-omened visit. The one is clear and firm. The other hardly legible.
Why did he write at all? Why did he not simply drop it?
Because he feared I would make some inquiry after him in that case, and possibly bring trouble on him.
No doubt, said I. Of course. I had picked up the original cipher message and was bending my brows over it. Its pretty maddening to think that an important secret may lie here on this slip of paper, and that it is beyond human power to penetrate it.
Sherlock Holmes had pushed away his untasted breakfast and lit the unsavoury pipe which was the companion of his deepest meditations. I wonder! said he, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. Perhaps there are points which have escaped your Machiavellian intellect. Let us consider the problem in the light of pure reason. This mans reference is to a book. That is our point of departure.
A somewhat vague one.
Let us see then if we can narrow it down. As I focus my mind upon it, it seems rather less impenetrable. What indications have we as to this book?
Well, well, it is surely not quite so bad as that. The cipher message begins with a large 534, does it not? We may take it as a working hypothesis that 534 is the particular page to which the cipher refers. So our book has already become a large book, which is surely something gained. What other indications have we as  to the nature of this large book? The next sign is C2. What do you make of that, Watson?
Chapter the second, no doubt.
Hardly that, Watson. You will, I am sure, agree with me that if the page be given, the number of the chapter is immaterial. Also that if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable.
Column! I cried.
Brilliant, Watson. You are scintillating this morning. If it is not column, then I am very much deceived. So now, you see, we begin to visualize a large book, printed in double columns, which are each of a considerable length, since one of the words is numbered in the document as the two hundred and ninety-third. Have we reached the limits of what reason can supply?
I fear that we have.
Surely you do yourself an injustice. One more coruscation, my dear Watson yet another brain-wave! Had the volume been an unusual one, he would have sent it to me. Instead of that, he had intended, before his plans were nipped, to send me the clue in this envelope. He says so in his note. This would seem to indicate that the book is one which he thought I would have no difficulty in finding for myself. He had itand he imagined that I would have it, too. In short, Watson, it is a very common book.
What you say certainly sounds plausible.
So we have contracted our field of search to a large book, printed in double columns and in common use.
The Bible! I cried triumphantly.
Good, Watson, good! But not, if I may say so, quite good enough! Even if I accepted the compliment for myself, I could hardly name any volume which would be less likely to lie at the elbow of one of Moriartys associates. Besides, the editions of Holy Writ are so numerous that he could hardly suppose that two copies would have the same pagination. This is clearly a book which is standardized. He knows for certain that his page 534 will exactly agree with my page 534.
But very few books would correspond with that.
Exactly. Therein lies our salvation. Our search is narrowed down to standardized books which anyone may be supposed to possess.
There are difficulties, Watson. The vocabulary of Bradshaw is nervous and terse, but limited. The selection of words would hardly lend itself to the sending of general messages. We will eliminate Bradshaw. The dictionary is, I fear, inadmissible for the same reason. What then is left?
Excellent, Watson! I am very much mistaken if you have not touched the spot. An almanac! Let us consider the claims of Whitakers Almanac. It is in common use. It has the requisite number of pages. It is in double column. Though reserved in its earlier vocabulary, it becomes, if I remember right, quite garrulous towards the end. He picked the volume from his desk. Here is page 534, column two, a substantial block of print dealing, I perceive, with the trade and resources of British India. Jot down the words, Watson! Number thirteen is Mahratta. Not, I fear, a very auspicious beginning. Number one hundred and twenty-seven is Government; which at least makes sense, though somewhat irrelevant to ourselves and Professor Moriarty. Now let us try again. What does the Mahratta government  do? Alas! the next word is pigs-bristles. We are undone, my good Watson! It is finished!
He had spoken in jesting vein, but the twitching of his bushy eyebrows bespoke his disappointment and irritation. I sat helpless and unhappy, staring into the fire. A long silence was broken by a sudden exclamation from Holmes, who dashed at a cupboard, from which he emerged with a second yellow-covered volume in his hand.
We pay the price, Watson, for being too
up-to-date! he cried. We are before our time, and suffer the usual penalties.
Being the seventh of January, we have very properly laid in the new almanac. It is more
than likely that Porlock took his message from the old one. No doubt he would have told us
so had his letter of explanation been written. Now let us see what page 534 has in store
for us. Number thirteen is There, which is much more promising. Number one
hundred and twenty-seven is isThere
isHolmess eyes were gleaming with excitement, and his thin,
nervous fingers twitched as he counted the wordsdanger. Ha! Ha!
Capital! Put that down, Watson. There is
dangermaycomeverysoonone. Then we have the name
There, Watson! What do you think of pure reason and its fruit? If the green-grocer had
such a thing as a laurel wreath, I should send Billy round for it.
|David Soucek, 1998|