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Thursday
Jul182013

The Naval Treaty

What has become of the news?  Once upon a distant time, things occurred, events took place that evoked interest, pity, outrage, fear – all the common mantras of the common mind – and yet remained shrouded in mystery.  Details were not forthcoming; differing reports came to differing conclusions; and the news reader, the receptacle of emotion that was not quite his, participated in the story's development.  A robbery or other crime of greed had a thousand and one motives and perpetrators; an affair to remember was not quickly forgotten by half the country, and never forgotten by the other half; and the worst of all acts, the extinction of a human life, kindled in every heart remorse, anger, and thoughts of cruel vengeance because there are few things more exhilarating than avenging a stranger (one definition, I suppose, of a hero).  And no better vigilante for the victims of nefarious plots and abominable miscarriages of justice can be found than the protagonist of this classic tale.

As usual, Watson, that "stormy petrel of crime" brings what he deems to be a noteworthy case to his famous friend's attention.  In this instance Percy Phelps, an old school chum sufficiently well-connected in the Diplomatic office to have landed a plum position with his uncle, a "future premier of England," writes Watson in utter terror and desperation.  His plight?  To have become the unwitting accomplice to a most disastrous felony: that of a naval treaty that will realign two sets of triple powers – and since we are about a year away from the centennial of those trials of trust, I will say no more.  Tasked with copying the French-language treaty in the isolated confines of his office, Phelps's own description of that fateful eve is terrible enough:

I was feeling drowsy and stupid, partly from my dinner and also from the effects of a long day's work.  A cup of coffee would clear my brain.  A commissionnaire remains all night in a little lodge at the foot of the stairs, and is in the habit of making coffee at his spirit-lamp for any of the officials who may be working over time.  I rang the bell, therefore, to summon him.  To my surprise, it was a woman who answered the summons, a large, coarse-faced, elderly woman, in an apron.  She explained that she was the commissionnaire's wife, who did the charing, and I gave her the order for the coffee …. It is of the utmost importance that you should notice this point.  I went down the stairs and into the hall, where I found the commissionnaire fast asleep in his box, with the kettle boiling furiously upon the spirit-lamp.  I took off the kettle and blew out the lamp, for the water was spurting over the floor.  Then I put out my hand and was about to shake the man, who was still sleeping soundly, when a bell over his head rang loudly, and he woke with a start .... 'I was boiling the kettle when I fell asleep, sir.'  He looked at me and then up at the still quivering bell with an ever-growing astonishment upon his face.  'If you were here, sir, then who rang the bell?' he asked.  'The bell!' I cried.  'What bell is it?'  'It's the bell of the room you were working in.'  

That "a cold hand seemed to close round" the heart of Percy Phelps cannot shock us, for his life and career shall never be the same.  He retreats to the loving arms of his betrothed Annie Harrison, "a striking-looking woman, a little short and thick for symmetry," yet possessed of "a beautiful olive complexion, large, dark, Italian eyes, and a wealth of deep black hair."  By the handwriting ("a woman's, and a woman of rare character") Holmes divines that it was Annie who loved her future spouse enough as to call upon the most famous detective in England; it is also Annie whose presence and devotion have maintained Percy Phelps among the quick.  The duo proceeds with its usual methods, with the mystery of the telltale bell providing the most puzzlement.

If you know even a little about our story's author, you would not be surprised at the soliloquy interposed in The Naval Treaty, although among these tales it remains the only one of its kind.  Conan Doyle was routinely mocked for his spiritualist espousings, some of which waft into the rather dubious realm of necromancy; by and large, however, he was a Christian, if a very imaginative one.  Yet due to the preeminence allegedly allotted to physical science by his most famous fictional creation, as well as his own medical background, Conan Doyle wisely omitted his own personal religious views from these texts (and since his era was as befouled by skeptical hogos as is ours, such a tactic avoided another critical missile).  Instead, the reader may gather and arrange his own assumptions as to what Holmes and Watson, two inexorably moral minds, might have thought about such topics as the otherworld.  Which makes the former's odd non-sequitur all the more curious:   

'What a lovely thing a rose is!'  He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green.  It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.  'There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,' said he, leaning with his back against the shutters.  'It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.  It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.'

A comment in my wondrous annotated volume deems Holmes ignorant of the usefulness of flowers and their pollen, but there is a certain caliber of mind which will never be able to comprehend beauty and practicality's eternal dissonance.  It is also upon this passage that ever-pragmatic Annie Harrison, "with a touch of asperity in her voice," enjoins Holmes to predict his success, to which he replies that he already has seven clues.  I count five or perhaps six, because I fear Holmes subsumes in his reckoning a clue that has actually yet to appear.  Or maybe he simply deduced the clue's existence in that fine manner already related.  You know, the one involving faith and reason and beauty.  And hope.    

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