What one man can invent another can discover.
Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"
We should not be surprised at the recent uptick of books about codes (some, if not most, of dubious aesthetic value), nor should we be foolish enough to attribute this trend to a development in the world's interest in arcane knowledge. The opposite, as it were, is true. The majority of us work very hard trying to weave all the aspects of our life into a tapestry as beautiful as the one we hope one dark day will garnish our sinking coffin. And when we do choose to escape to a realm of pure delight, we want that realm to succor the same ideals that we nurture in our collective bosom. Now I am not belittling the everyday – there is no reason to fight it. But where we came from, where on earth or beyond we may be going, and what this life could possibly mean should not yield as facile and pellucid a solution as the repair of an office appliance or, after burrowing through a mountain of paperwork, the retrieval of a missing document. Yet this is precisely the direction the lives of so many who cannot be bothered to worry about existence are taking. More often than not, it is the banality of survival that devours them, that proves time and again that philosophy is a luxury of the rich, and the stitches and knots we gaze upon in the starry sky should be easily resolved in a short novel that explains everything by means of a conspiracy or plot in which all of human history is strapped together in a lie. Everything we believe in is a lie, but a planet billions of miles away is the truth, all we have to do is stare at the firmament until it all becomes justifiable in our ignorant skulls. There is little that can be done for you if you find this line of thinking appealing; if, however, you sense an almost indecipherable pattern that undergirds the layers of our reality, you might enjoy this clever tale.
Our sleuthing duo is visited by a certain Hilton Cubitt, a member of the landed gentry whose family was extremely famous in the county of Norfolk. Cubitt recently married an American by the name of Elsie Patrick who was visiting the old country for reasons that will become appreciably clearer as the story unfolds. Some men would shy away from women like Elsie Patrick – unrefined, tomboyish, and beholden to a checkered past – but Cubitt does not count himself among them. No, some men would deem a warning such as the following a decisive criterion in breaking off any engagement:
I have had some very disagreeable associations in my life ... I wish to forget all about them. I would rather never allude to the past, for it is very painful to me. If you take me, Hilton, you will take a woman who has nothing that she need be personally ashamed of; but you will have to be content with my word for it, and to allow me to be silent as to all that passed up to the time when I became yours. If these conditions are too hard, then go back to Norfolk, and leave me to the lonely life in which you found me.
The passage above might well have been pasted from any nineteenth-century harlequin romance; and it is indeed this sentimental attachment that plagues Cubitt, "a fine creature, this man of the Old English soil – simple, straight and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face ... [whose] love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his features," and induces Holmes to come to his aid. It took only a year of marriage before Elsie began to receive mail from the United States, and then a series of childlike symbols resembling slightly varied dancing stick figures. Holmes detects a code and, from Elsie's reaction ("she turned deadly white, read the letter, and threw it in the fire"), a threat. Soon the same mysterious characters are found written in chalk on the actual windows of the Cubitt estate, then in the tool shed nearby, and Holmes, "the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject [of] secret writings" in which he catalogs and analyzes "one hundred and sixty separate ciphers," gathers as many samples of this curious language as he can before mounting his riposte.
The story remains notorious among Holmesians for two reasons: the tragic fate of the good Cubitt, a man far too ethical, forgiving and noble-minded to walk among the ruffians of his time, and the double-pronged nature of the crimes that are committed. Holmes is not only called upon to break the code – if it is a code after all and not just "the mere random sketches of children" – he is also entrusted with one of the first locked-room mysteries on record, a conundrum that would become one of detective fiction's greatest phenomena in the first half of the twentieth century as exemplified by the works of this Anglo-American (although the very first occurrence may well be this novel). We may impute Holmes's statement about what man can invent and discover as an unfortunate dreg of his arrogance, and yet such boasting has been constant throughout man's invention and reinvention of the same ideas, shapes and systems. What is even more amazing than Holmes's arrogance is that of modern-day scientists who consider their work impenetrable and the brilliance of the Ancients a potpourri of legend, myth and superstition. So many manmade laws – and that term should be used as loosely as possible – are unbreakable because they cannot be refuted by any logic since they themselves redefine logic to suit their needs, a violation that you will never find in nature. Perhaps that is because what is not invented by men shall remain a mystery until death.