While originally published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine as The Sign of the Four, within the same year the story was republished under the shorter title, The Sign of Four. Since then both version have appeared in print, seemingly at random. The story itself references The Sign of the Four, rather than the shorter, four-word title.
Baring-Gould dates The Sign of the Four in September of 1888. While other scholars have suggested a date of July 1888 (and, indeed, Watson uses both dates), most scholars agree that the story took place in 1888. The Sign of the Four was first published in February 1890.
The second of Doyle’s novels, The Sign of the Four is noteworthy for introducing two key pieces of Canon; Holmes’ cocaine addiction, and Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan. Miss Morstan, having received an anonymous letter, which references an apparent wrong she has suffered, seeks Holmes’ aid in discovering the persons responsible for the letter. She suspects it is related to six valuable pearls which have been sent to her at regular intervals. She also suspects that the affair has something to do with the 1878 disappearance of her father. She asks Holmes and Watson to accompany her to the meeting requested in her anonymous letter. Upon arriving, Holmes discovers that the case runs deeper than he originally suspected.
Solving the case proves no small feat, and Holmes and Watson are forced to endure a long and frustrating search through the whole of London; a task which begins with the use of a clever canine and ends with a dramatic chase upon the Thames River. An exotic tale of betrayal, greed, and revenge soon follows. The Sign of the Four is perhaps the most dramatic of all Doyle’s stories.
Before we begin, I wanted to take a moment to make a few notes on cocaine, as knowing its history will allow us to put Holmes’ use into perspective. The cocaine alkaloid, derived from the Coca plant (a plant first used by the indigenous population of South America for its stimulating properties) was first isolated in 1855, creating the white powder that we now know as cocaine. Cocaine was first coveted for its medical properties (and indeed attempts to isolate the alkaloid were largely made for this purpose), but it wasn’t until 1879 when the medical community began experimenting with its use on a larger scale. In fact, one of cocaine’s first uses was in the treatment of morphine addiction.
By 1885, cocaine was being sold in London in the form of cigarettes, powders, and a solution which could be injected through the vein. Cocaine could be purchased from local chemists and apothecaries, and was quite legal, its use socially acceptable.
It was not until the turn of the century that a wide-spread call for cocaine’s prohibition was made. By that point, the medical community was well aware of cocaine’s addictive attributes. Cocaine was still available for legal use in England up until 1920.
The side effects of cocaine use on the body are numerous, but for the purpose of this essay we are going to examine the effect of cocaine use on sex. Immediately following a dose of cocaine, sexual interest and pleasure is amplified. As the cocaine wears off, however, one of the typical side effects is impotence. These side effects increase and become more pronounced with long-term use.
Chronic use of cocaine (thrice daily for as many months) often resulted in users experiencing a decline in sex drive, as well as their having difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection. In all likelihood, Holmes’ cocaine use resulted in his impotence. In fact, his disinterest in sex is likely tied directly to his use of cocaine.
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
We know now that cocaine was not readily available to the general public until the mid 1880s. This implies that Holmes has likely been using cocaine for at most five years. Since Watson later references morphine, it is entirely possible that Holmes first starting using cocaine as a means of overcoming his morphine addiction. One must question, however, aside from boredom, what other reasons Holmes could have for using cocaine. One possibly explanation is that Holmes’ cocaine use stemmed from a need to control his libido. Indeed, it is entirely possible (especially given that Watson marries in this story) that any physical relationship which might have existed up until this point had ended and Holmes, not trusting himself in Watson’s presence, turned to cocaine as a means of controlling his otherwise uncontrollable lust.
A mere theory, and yet, when one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Three times a day for as many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.
Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.
Despite the prevalence of cocaine in mainstream society, Watson seems quite concerned by Holmes’ need for the drug. Indeed, one would assume, especially given Watson’s position as a doctor, that he would advocate its use. And yet, he does not, which suggests perhaps that Watson is only too aware of the change cocaine affected in Holmes. Watson, who knows Holmes better than any living soul, is in the perfect position to judge any change in Holmes’ behaviour (further proof that Holmes’ cocaine use is recent) and is obviously not impressed by what he sees.
Indeed, Watson speaks of his swelling conscious and the desire to bare his soul. Note too Watson’s description of Holmes, Watson referring to him as cool and nonchalant; additional evidence that some transgression has passed between them. Despite this transgression, it is obvious that Watson still cares a great deal for Holmes; that Holmes still holds a place of honour in Watson’s heart, and that Watson still concerns himself with Holmes’ well-being.
Eventually Watson must cave, for Holmes is too dear to him to allow the matter to stand. It is curious here that Watson requires the use of alcohol to boaster his courage. What transpired between the two men to bring them to this place we do not know, and yet it is obvious that some spat has occurred: is it too far to assume, then, that this quarrel is that of lovers?
Watson does indeed state his case, and Holmes’ reaction is entirely logical; cold and precise and Watson soon gives up what he knows now is a hopeless cause. Their talk soon turns to Holmes’ work, and Watson is more than eager to share in the recollection of the case he documented in A Study in Scarlet.
“But you have yourself had some experience of my methods of work in the Jefferson Hope case.”
“Yes, indeed,” said I cordially. “I was never so struck by anything in my life. I even embodied it in a small brochure, with the somewhat fantastic title of ‘A Study in Scarlet.'”
He shook his head sadly.
“I glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
“But the romance was there,” I remonstrated. “I could not tamper with the facts.”
We cannot agree with Watson more; the romance was there, and it is interesting to note that Watson was well aware of its inclusion, and, indeed, that Holmes was able to interpret the subtextual elements contained within the story. That he should disapprove of them is quite understandable; given the period in which A Study in Scarlet was written, the merest hint of a romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson would have caused quite the scandal.
Watson is, of course, quite disappointed by Holmes’ criticism, and tells us:
I was annoyed at this criticism of a work which had been specially designed to please him.
It is curious to note that, while A Study in Scarlet took place in 1881, Watson first published it in 1887. Here we are, one year later, and Watson has only just had the occasion to ask Holmes his opinion of the work. That Holmes would find it overly romantic is not entirely surprising, and yet Watson’s confession that he had written A Study in Scarlet to please Holmes is quite suggestive, as it lends further weight to the theory that Watson spent the better portion of his years in Baker Street attempting to woo Holmes.
We first noted the potential for a shift in Holmes and Watson’s relationship in The Valley of Fear, which, according to Baring-Gould, took place in January of 1888. This occurred just after the publication of A Study in Scarlet, which would suggest that Watson’s attempts to woo Holmes were successful. It is entirely likely that Holmes read A Study in Scarlet shortly after its release. As he is quite critical of it, we must again question whether some quarrel has arisen between them.
Indeed, in the following paragraphs, Holmes turns to boasting over his own works, something that Watson bears quite easily. Still, one gets the impression that Watson is still quite annoyed by Holmes’ dismissal of Watson’s writing. One cannot help but wonder if this was the catalyst for Watson’s marriage. Dismissing love at first sight, how else can we explain the rapid advancement of Watson’s relationship with Mary, except with the suggestion that Watson was seeking to replace Holmes’ affections?
Despite Watson’s annoyance, and indeed, the deep-seeded hurt which would later drive him into a client’s arms, Watson is entirely too consumed by Holmes to allow his upset to linger for long.
“But I weary you with my hobby.”
“Not at all,” I answered earnestly. “It is of the greatest interest to me, especially since I have had the opportunity of observing your practical application of it.
Clearly, regardless of what has passed between them, Watson is still very much enthralled by Holmes. We see here, too, Holmes need for Watson, as there is a touch of humility in the comment, ‘I weary you with my hobby’. That Holmes should refer to his work as a mere hobby suggests that Holmes is only too aware of Watson’s irritation. We see Holmes seeking reassurance here, which Watson is only too eager to give. This marks one of the many attempts at reconciliation found throughout The Sign of the Four.
Holmes, reassured by Watson’s confirmation of interest, proceeds to demonstrate the abilities that first drew Watson to his side. We get the impression that Holmes is reminding Watson of the singular talents which first attracted Watson’s interest.
Indeed, as the demonstration continues, Watson feels the sudden need to test Holmes’ abilities. We have seen this before (ironically, in A Study in Scarlet), except here Watson’s testing is a means of opening the lines of communication.
“The thing, however, is, as you say, of the simplest. Would you think me impertinent if I were to put your theories to a more severe test?”
“On the contrary,” he answered, “it would prevent me from taking a second dose of cocaine. I should be delighted to look into any problem which you might submit to me.”
Watson’s game has the added benefit of drawing Holmes’ attention away from the drug which has consumed him. It is important to make note of this, for Watson will use this tactic time and time again in his efforts to wean Holmes from what Watson sees as an addiction.
Watson’s motives, however, are not entirely pure. Indeed, Watson tells us:
I handed him over the watch with some slight feeling of amusement in my heart, for the test was, as I thought, an impossible one, and I intended it as a lesson against the somewhat dogmatic tone which he occasionally assumed.
There is an obvious sense of bitterness in Watson’s words here, and one cannot help but notice that Watson seems to be battling two warring emotions; on the one hand, he is still quite taken with Holmes, and yet, on the other hand, he is still quite hurt by Holmes’ dismissal.
“Though unsatisfactory, my research has not been entirely barren,” he observed, staring up at the ceiling with dreamy, lack-lustre eyes.
Despite Watson’s ploy, Holmes is able to deduce several points of interest from the watch Watson has handed him. Note here that, despite the purpose of the experiment, Watson is unable to distance himself from Holmes completely. He refers to Holmes’ dreamy, lack-lustre eyes, an observation that demonstrates Watson’s continuing attraction to Holmes. It should be remarked that this is not the first occasion which reveals Watson’s seemingobsession with Holmes’eyes.
Much to Watson’s surprise, and indeed, shock, Holmes is able to deduce far more than Watson intended. Watson’s reaction, and Holmes’ response, is quite telling:
I sprang from my chair and limped impatiently about the room with considerable bitterness in my heart.
“This is unworthy of you, Holmes,” I said. “I could not have believed that you would have descended to this. You have made inquiries into the history of my unhappy brother, and you now pretend to deduce this knowledge in some fanciful way. You cannot expect me to believe that you have read all this from his old watch! It is unkind and, to speak plainly, has a touch of charlatanism in it.”
“My dear doctor,” said he kindly, “pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you. I assure you, however, that I never even knew that you had a brother until you handed me the watch.”
While Watson’s upset does in part stem from the accuracy of Holmes’ analysis (which very likely evoked painful memories), we suspect that part of Watson’s outrage stems from his failed retaliation. What is interesting here, however, is Holmes’ response. Holmes refers to Watson as my dear doctor, a curious choice of appellation, for we see here both Holmes’ affection (my dear) and Holmes’ formality (doctor). Holmes is simultaneously demonstrating his fondness for Watson, while distancing himself from Watson with the use of Watson’s professional title. Clearly, Holmes is quite taken aback by Watson’s outrage; this point is made further evident by Holmes’ sincere apology.
This entire exchange only serves to increase Watson’s discomfort, further evidence to suggest that Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan was not the result of love, but rather, some subconscious desire on Watson’s part to distance himself from Holmes. Despite this, Watson is still quite attached to Holmes. This can be seen a paragraph later, when Watson, feeling quite chagrin for accusing Holmes of charlatanism, offers a most heartfelt apology:
“I regret the injustice which I did you. I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty.”
Unfortunately, their exchange is interrupted by the arrival of a client. Holmes, clearly still sensing Watson’s anger, requests Watson’s involvement in the case; an attempt to make further amends, we do not doubt.
“Don’t go, Doctor. I should prefer that you remain.”
We see here, too, that Holmes still needs Watson; still desires Watson’s companionship and aid. Sadly, one cannot help but theorize that, shortly after uttering those words, Holmes came to regret them.
Almost immediately upon meeting Mary, Watson expresses his attraction. Indeed, he seems quite drawn to her, despite telling us that her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion. This is actually a rather curious description, especially when one considers Holmes’ appearance. In fact, one can argue that Mary’s unconventional appearance likely reminded Watson of the same physical traits he had come to admire in Holmes.
Watson statement becomes even more remarkable when we consider the atmosphere in Baker Street before Mary’s arrival. First impressions are often made entirely on appearance, and, as Watson did not know Mary at this point, he would not have been in a position to comment on her personality. He clearly states that she is unattractive, and yet, seems inexplicably drawn to her.
In fact, Watson’s instant attraction to Mary lends further weight to the theory that Watson’s interest in Mary stemmed primarily from the displacement of Watson’s feelings for Holmes. Watson is angry with Holmes. Watson has recently been hurt by Holmes. Watson is beginning to perceive Holmes’ selfish nature. One can easily imagine, then, that Watson has likely come to the conclusion that Holmes is incapable of returning Watson’s feelings. That Watson would immediately transfer these feelings onto someone else is quite natural; no doubt Watson’s subconscious was well aware that by transferring his romantic interest for Holmes onto Mary, he would be better able to distance himself from Holmes, and perhaps save himself from future heartache.
Despite Watson’s attraction to Mary, his attraction for Holmes is still quite apparent.
Holmes rubbed his hands, and his eyes glistened. He leaned forward in his chair with an expression of extraordinary concentration upon his clear-cut, hawk-like features.
That Watson should refer to Holmes’ features as clear-cut and hawk-like is very indicative of Watson’s appreciation of Holmes’ beauty. This is particularly remarkable when one considers that Holmes was not, by any means, an attractive man. Clearly, then, this attraction is based entirely on Watson’s intimacy with Holmes: beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. The same cannot be said for Mary, as Watson has only just met her.
Holmes’ attention, however, is not on Watson, but rather, the client and the case at hand. Indeed, Watson seems uncomfortable with this, and tells us:
I felt that my position was an embarrassing one.
“You will, I am sure, excuse me,” I said, rising from my chair.
Again, we have additional evidence to suggest that Watson’s marriage stems, not from any connection with Miss Morstan, but rather, from a discomfort with Holmes. Watson is keenly aware that Holmes’ attention is easily given to his clients, something which likely vexed Watson, as he has had to fight, time and time again, to earn Holmes’ interest. This disconnect likely resonated within Watson’s heart, only serving to widen the growing chasm between the two men.
Miss Morstan, however, requests that Watson stay, a request Watson is incapable of denying. He remains, and Mary relays her strange tale. Upon her leaving, Watson remarks that Mary is an attractive woman. This is in direct contradiction to his earlier statement, and yet, when viewed within the context of his conversation with Holmes, one can immediately discern Watson’s true intentions.
Standing at the window, I watched her walking briskly down the street until the gray turban and white feather were but a speck in the sombre crowd.
“What a very attractive woman!” I exclaimed, turning to my companion.
He had lit his pipe again and was leaning back with drooping eyelids. “Is she?” he said languidly; “I did not observe.”
“You really are an automaton — a calculating machine,” I cried. “There is something positively inhuman in you at times.”
He smiled gently.
Throughout Mary’s visit, one gets the impression that Mary’s interest lies, not in Watson, but rather, in Holmes. Indeed, she seems quite taken with Holmes. Watson, it would appear, sensed this, and his suggestion of her attractiveness can be viewed as an indication of his jealousy. Indeed, that Watson should test Holmes’ reaction with his statement is quite suggestive that this jealousy existed for Holmes rather than Mary.
Holmes’ response, then, should alleviate Watson’s fears. It has the opposite effect, however, causing Watson to once again make note of Holmes’ calculating nature; a nature which undoubtedly increased Watson’s fears that Holmes should never return Watson’s affection. Again, we have evidence to suggest that Watson’s increasing interest in Mary stemmed from Watson’s fear of Holmes’ rejection.
Holmes seems quite aware of this, and we get the impression that he recognized Watson’s growing doubt. His smile, then, takes on new meaning. Note Watson’s use of the word gently, a curious description, which suggests that Holmes is only too aware of Watson’s thoughts; and, indeed, his subconscious interest in Mary. Although Holmes seems incapable of vocally reassuring Watson, he does attempt reassurance. It is a shame that Watson’s powers of observation do not equal Holmes’, for if they did, one cannot doubt that the matter would have resolved itself in an entirely more satisfactory manner.
Again, Holmes seems quite well aware of this, and Watson’s obliviousness only serves to increase Holmes’ distance, Holmes continuing to shy away from Watson and the emotional connection which once existed between them. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Holmes’ reaction is directly related to his fear of losing Watson. Indeed, as the loss of Watson must appear to be quite imminent, one cannot doubt that Holmes, knowing this, would have retracted further into his cold, calculating mind.
Despite Holmes desire to withdrawal away from Watson, he cannot help but express his disdain for womankind, perhaps hoping to frighten Watson away from the path Watson has so clearly chosen.
“It is of the first importance,” he cried, “not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.”
Sadly this tactic would fail, and Holmes must have sensed this, for a moment later he turns the topic back to the case at hand.
The distance between them continues to grow, until at last Holmes leaves Watson to his thoughts, heading out to begin his own investigation. Having previously arranged to escort Miss Morstan to her requested evening meeting, Holmes arrives back in Baker Street shortly before six, just in time to greet Miss Morstan. The trio set off, and Watson tells us:
I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.
We sense here that Watson is perhaps becoming aware of his growing attachment to Mary. Indeed, Watson now knows that he must abandon Holmes, and yet, the thought distresses him. Note that Watson’s comment comes as he sits next to Mary in the cab, Holmes silent and brooding across from them. Watson has found his surrogate, and yet, there is a distinct sense of loss, and indeed, wistfulness in Watson’s mood. That Mary might replace Holmes is without doubt, and yet, Watson is well aware that he will lose something in the exchange. One cannot help but question if perhaps Watson was beginning to doubt his intentions; question whether he could truly be happy without his Holmes.
Holmes must have sensed Watson’s growing depression, for, after meeting their guide and beginning a new journey through the winding streets of London, Holmes makes one last ditch effort to impress and win back Watson’s interest.
Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.
Holmes’ knowledge of London is one of his great attributes, and Holmes no doubt hoped that by demonstrating this skill, he might boast his better qualities and remind Watson of his usefulness.
Although Watson seems to both recognize and appreciate this strange gift, Holmes attempts fall flat, Watson continuing to brood in his dark thoughts until at last they reach their destination.
An interview with Mr. Sholto follows, during which, Watson seems acutely aware of Holmes and Holmes’ mood. Indeed, Watson tells us:
Sherlock Holmes leaned back in his chair with an abstracted expression and the lids drawn low over his glittering eyes. As I glanced at him I could not but think how on that very day he had complained bitterly of the commonplaceness of life. Here at least was a problem which would tax his sagacity to the utmost.
While again we are witness to Watson’s obsession with Holmes’ eyes, here we are more concerned with the underlying bitterness in Watson’s statement. Indeed, one can easily imagine that Watson now makes the assumption that Holmes considers Watson one of the commonplaces of every day life. Again and again Watson is witness to the interest Holmes placed in his cases, and again and again Watson compares this to the indifference Holmes seems to place in their relationship. It is no wonder, then, that Watson should feel the urge to seek affection elsewhere.
It is shortly after making this statement that the group precedes to Mr. Sholto’s brother’s place of residence, where they intend to retrieve Mary’s promised treasure. During this journey, and indeed, upon arriving, Watson seems to grow increasingly close to Mary. In fact, he tells us:
A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other.
Here Watson is speaking of love, and yet he is still careful to tell us that they had not known each other before that day. While some may argue for love at first sight, reality often disputes this claim, and when we remove it from the equation, the only possible explanation which remains is that of transference.
This theory becomes even more definitive as Holmes and Watson proceed into the residence of Brother Bartholomew, leaving Mary behind to tend to the distraught housekeeper.
Holmes is now in his element, and, with the worry of Watson’s growing affection for Mary temporarily left behind, Holmes is able to concentrate on the case at hand, making a particular effort to include Watson in his investigation. Watson, fully engaged now in one of Holmes’ cases, spares not a single thought for the woman he claims to have fallen in love with.
“It means murder,” said he, stooping over the dead man. “Ah! I expected it. Look here!”
He pointed to what looked like a long dark thorn stuck in the skin just above the ear.
“It looks like a thorn,” said I.
“It is a thorn. You may pick it out. But be careful, for it is poisoned.”
It is quite easy to sense Holmes’ deliberate intention to include Watson in the methods that first drew Watson to Holmes’ side. We see here, too, Holmes concern for Watson’s safety; evidence of Holmes’ attachment to Watson. While Holmes may not be able to put his feelings into words, his every action demonstrates their existence.
Their interaction is interrupted by Mr. Sholto’s astonished cry that the treasure has been stolen. Holmes, unwilling to allow an interruption, quickly sends Mr. Sholto to seek out the police. Upon his leaving, Holmes remarks:
“Now, Watson,” said Holmes, rubbing his hands, “we have half an hour to ourselves. Let us make good use of it.
There is obvious relief in Holmes’ tone; that he should have Watson alone for the first time that evening must have been of great comfort to him. Indeed, when one notes Watson’s response:
“Simple!” I ejaculated.
One cannot help but note that, apparently, the pair did indeed make good use of their time.
In actuality, half an hour did prove enough time to put Holmes on the right scent, despite Watson’s continual confusion. Sadly, their time is interrupted by the arrival of the official force. It soon becomes quite obvious that Holmes and Watson will be forced to pursue their investigation independently, a realization that spurs Holmes into action.
A word with you, Watson.”
He led me out to the head of the stair.
“This unexpected occurrence,” he said, “has caused us rather to lose sight of the original purpose of our journey.”
“I have just been thinking so,” I answered; “it is not right that Miss Morstan should remain in this stricken house.”
“No. You must escort her home. She lives with Mrs. Cecil Forrester in Lower Camberwell, so it is not very far. I will wait for you here if you will drive out again. Or perhaps you are too tired?”
“By no means. I don’t think I could rest until I know more of this fantastic business. I have seen something of the rough side of life, but I give you my word that this quick succession of strange surprises to-night has shaken my nerve completely. I should like, however, to see the matter through with you, now that I have got so far.”
“Your presence will be of great service to me,” he answered.
Holmes, knowing now that their investigation will likely take them through the night, realizes that Miss Morstan must return home. While Holmes was likely loath to send Watson on the errand of returning Mary, he is presented with little choice in the matter. He wants to be free of her, and while allowing Watson to spend more time in her presence will likely speed Watson’s attachment to her, Holmes can think of no other recourse.
And so Holmes requests that Watson accompany Mary home. Note that Holmes is very particular to tack on an additional request; one which demands Watson’s speed. Holmes could have very easily sent someone else for the dog, and yet, he requests that Watson retrieve him, knowing that Watson, having been given such an important mission, will not have the time to linger long with Mary.
Note too Holmes’ uncertainty. He distinctly asks Watson if he is willing to continue in the investigation. Watson’s response, while not surprising, very likely provided the reassurance Holmes was looking for. Indeed, Holmes is so grateful that he bestows a compliment upon Watson, telling him that his presence will be of great service to me.
Before Watson can leave, however, Holmes goes on to quote Goethe, stating that he is always pithy. What is interesting here is that Holmes frequently quotes Goethe (indeed, Holmes quotes a passage written by Johann Wolfgang Goethe on two separate occasions in The Sign of the Four alone). Goethe, as the reader may be aware, was well known for his exploration of sexuality within his art. Indeed, many of his works are rich with homoerotism, a trait which has led to speculation regarding the possibility of Goethe’s own homosexuality.
It is with this statement that Watson takes his leave, and while the two are separated, we are going to turn our attention to Watson’s evolving interest in Mary.
Bear in mind, Watson has known Mary for less than a day at this point. That afternoon she appeared in the sitting room at Baker Street in order to seek Holmes’ aid. She returned later in the evening, and together with Holmes and Watson made her way to the Lyceum Theatre, where they then proceeded to Thaddeus Sholto’s home. After a brief explanation from Mr. Sholto, the group proceeded to Sholto’s brother’s home, where Watson abandoned Mary in order to aid Holmes in his investigation.
Despite this brief introduction, Watson wishes the reader to believe that he has fallen hopelessly in love with Mary Morstan. It is not a stretch to suggest that this is neither logical, nor realistic. Our question, then, becomes one of probability. If Watson could not have known Mary long enough to develop feelings of love, then why does Watson wish us to believe that said love existed?
We have touched on one theory; that being Mary’s role as a surrogate. It is entirely possible that Mary acted as a stand-in for Holmes, that, in fact, Watson was transferring his emotional connection and affection for Holmes onto Mary simply because she presented herself at a moment when Watson was seeking escape from the inevitable hurt Watson’s subconscious foresaw.
Alternatively, we can examine this love story as though it were a ruse. Perhaps relations between Holmes and Watson were still quite admirable. If this is the case, then the tension between them can be seen as an diversion, in which case, Mary’s role in the story could have served the same purpose. Could it have been that Holmes and Watson were indeed ensconced in romantic bliss, and, perhaps at Holmes’ urging, Watson devised this false romance as a means of misleading the public? This theory has a good deal of potential, especially when one examines the often conflicting information provided by Watson in regards to his marriage. Indeed, further proof for this theory can be seen in Holmes’ dismissal of A Study in Scarlet, as his primary objection stemmed from the mention of the romantic nature of their relationship.
While these are only theories, they do warrant consideration, and provide for an interesting examination of Canon from a subtextual position. Clearly we can dismiss Watson’s insistence that Mary represented ‘love at first sight’, for even non-cynics agree that such a thing is rare, if it exists at all. Lust is entirely possible, and yet time and time again Watson has told us that it was Mary’s sweet manner which first drew him to her, and not her outward appearance. Since love at first sight borders on impossible, that only leaves the improbable. The above stated theories clearly fit within this category.
Watson does eventually return, and it is interesting to note that he did not linger long with Mary. Upon his return, Watson finds Holmes standing on the doorstep with his hands in his pockets, smoking his pipe. One can easily suggest that Holmes was waiting for Watson, for why else might he be standing on the doorstep?
Indeed, Holmes shows great excitement at Watson’s return, and immediately requests Watson’s aid inside. Once inside, Holmes remarks his intention to track the individuals involved. He exits through the roof, attempting to follow the path of retreat used by one of the men. Watson, obeying Holmes’ command, retrieves the dog he has brought and awaits Holmes’ arrival outside of the house. Holmes appears shortly, with a small case in hand; the pouch containing several darts similar to those used in Bartholomew Sholto’s murder.
“They are hellish things,” said he. “Look out that you don’t prick yourself. I’m delighted to have them, for the chances are that they are all he has. There is the less fear of you or me finding one in our skin before long. I would sooner face a Martini bullet, myself. Are you game for a six-mile trudge, Watson?”
“Certainly,” I answered.
“Your leg will stand it?”
This is of particular interest, because the discovery of the darts presents Holmes with an opportunity to once again demonstrate his concern for Watson’s well-being. Indeed, Holmes takes this concern one step further in inquiring after Watson’s leg. The reader will recall that Watson, early on in the story, remarked that he had had a Jezaii bullet through it some time before, and though it did not prevent me from walking it ached wearily at every change of the weather.
Recall that in A Study in Scarlet, Watson’s war wound occurred in his shoulder. While scholars have debated the cause of this second wound, it is your author’s opinion that this second wound occurred sometime after Watson’s return from Afghanistan. Indeed, it is entirely probable that the wound is quite recent, and that Watson obtained it in Holmes’ presence. Further evidence is given to substantiate this view a few paragraphs later when Holmes tells us that the case has resulted in a six-mile limp for a half-pay officer with a damaged tendo Achilles. Prior to The Sign of the Four, Watson was not known to possess a limp. That Holmes is able to identify the cause of this limp indicates that Holmes was present when the wound occurred.
If we assume, then, that Watson was hurt assisting and aiding Holmes in a case, then Holmes’ concern takes on new meaning. That Holmes would ask after Watson’s leg is quite indicative of the guilt Holmes must have felt at having caused Watson injury. It is also quite indicative of the fear and worry Holmes must have experienced at having witnessed the infliction of this injury, and one cannot help but wonder if this is the event which first caused Holmes to withdrawal away from Watson. Another theory, and yet one which fits well within Canon.
Watson’s reassurances are enough to alleviate Holmes’ fears, and the pair soon set off on the trail of the men responsible for Sholto’s death. As they wind in and out of London’s many streets and by-ways, Holmes remarks that, while using Toby (their dog) to track the men is handy, it is not by any means the only option available to him. Holmes obviously wishes Watson to know that he is capable of a great many resources. Watson, of course, does not doubt Holmes’ methods, and states:
“There is credit, and to spare,” said I. “I assure you, Holmes, that I marvel at the means by which you obtain your results in this case even more than I did in the Jefferson Hope murder. The thing seems to me to be deeper and more inexplicable. How, for example, could you describe with such confidence the wooden-legged man?”
Note that Watson, in the absence of Mary, now turns his complete attention and devotion back to Holmes. Indeed, so caught up in the case is Watson that once again Holmes has become the only living soul in the whole of London. Holmes’ response of pshaw, my dear boy, is quite indicative of Holmes’ excitement, and indeed, glee, at having Watson once again at his service. It is obvious here that Holmes is entirely too pleased by Watson’s compliment.
So pleased, in fact, that Holmes soon cries out:
How sweet the morning air is! See how that one little cloud floats like a pink feather from some gigantic flamingo. Now the red rim of the sun pushes itself over the London cloud-bank.
A curiously romantic description of the rise of dawn, one must agree. Holmes happiness is quite apparent in this statement, and one can only conclude that this happiness stems from the relaxation of the tension which has existed between Holmes and Watson up until this point. Truly Holmes must have felt, with great certainty, that his place in Watson’s life, and, indeed, heart, was now wholly secure.
Indeed, this good mood continues, and seems to have rubbed off on Watson, for as Toby leads them astray, Watson tells us:
Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
This scene is ripe with playfulness; indeed, the entire incident must have served to remind the men of the attachment between them, for from this point forward the tension which existed in the first few chapters of the story seems to disappear entirely.
Upon discovering that the men they were seeking had taken a boat, and hence could not be traced by Toby, Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street, where Watson tells us:
A bath at Baker Street and a complete change freshened me up wonderfully. When I came down to our room I found the breakfast laid and Holmes pouring out the coffee.
Within the span of a few short paragraphs the men have returned to the domestic bliss which epitomized their every day existence. Moments later, Holmes tells Watson that he has had enough of the case and that he ‘better have your ham and eggs first’. This domesticity on Holmes’ behalf is a clear indication of Holmes’ ease with the situation. Indeed, one can also suggest that Holmes, playing the role of housewife, was attempting to solidify this newfound comfort by reminding Watson of the pleasant aspects of their cohabitation.
The case, however, soon intrudes upon this picture of familial happiness, for shortly after sitting down to his breakfast, Watson’s meal is interrupted by the arrival of the Baker Street Irregulars; a group of street urchins Holmes frequently employed in the gathering of information.
Holmes quickly disperses the unruly lot, upon which Watson questions whether Holmes intends to retire. Holmes’ response, we will see, provides several points of interest.
Are you going to bed, Holmes?”
“No: I am not tired. I have a curious constitution. I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely. I am going to smoke and to think over this queer business to which my fair client has introduced us.
Note first Watson’s lack of formality here. He does not ask if Holmes intends to retire, but rather, if Holmes is going to bed. One cannot help but question Watson’s motives here, as it is entirely possible that Watson, had Holmes’ response been different, would have taken the occasion as an invitation to further repair the rift between them.
Holmes, however, has now turned his attention back to the case at hand. He must have sensed Watson’s disappointment, for a moment later he remarks that he intends to think over this queer business to which my fair client has introduced us. Note the use of my and Holmes’ description of Mary as fair. We know that Mary was of unconventional appearance, and would not have warranted such a description. We know, too, that Holmes has stated, on numerous occasions, his aversion to the fairer sex. We can presume, then, that Holmes hoped by referring to Mary in this manner that he might further dissuade Watson’s interest; indeed, Holmes statement suggests some claim on his behalf, and Holmes was well aware that Watson would shy away from any woman who captured Holmes’ interest.
It is entirely likely that Holmes regretted mentioning Mary, for a moment later he attempts to distract Watson by remarking on Watson’s exhaustion. Indeed, Holmes’ statement that Watson looks regularly done, and his request that Watson ‘lie down there on the sofa and see if I can put you to sleep’ is highly suggestive. We sense in Holmes’ comment a desperate attempt to woo Watson back, and to prevent Watson from leaving; Holmes using every conceivable method to achieve this goal.
Watson’s reaction, then, is quite remarkable, for Watson tells us:
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. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me.
Note Watson’s praise of Holmes’ musical abilities. Note, too, Watson’s description of Holmes, his reference to Holmes’ gaunt limbs and earnest face. That Watson would drift off peacefully at Holmes’ playing is very telling, but perhaps even more telling is the image of Mary that appears in Watson’s dream. Clearly Mary is tied implicitly with Holmes; so much so that it is not unreasonable to suggest that Mary has, in essence, become Holmes. That Watson would think of Mary while being serenaded by Holmes is quite suggestive of Mary’s surrogate nature.
Perhaps even more curious than Holmes’ serenading of Watson is Watson’s statement upon waking. Watson tells us:
It was late in the afternoon before I woke, strengthened and refreshed. Sherlock Holmes still sat exactly as I had left him save that he had laid aside his violin and was deep in a book. He looked across at me as I stirred, and I noticed that his face was dark and troubled.
“You have slept soundly,” he said.
Note that Watson first retired sometime that morning. As Holmes has apparently not moved in that time, it appears as though Holmes has passed the day in silent vigil over Watson’s sleeping form. That Holmes would pass his time watching Watson sleep is quite remarkable.
Holmes then reports the difficulties he has come across in regards to the case. Watson, feeling better for having slept, announces:
“Can I do anything? I am perfectly fresh now, and quite ready for another night’s outing.”
It is clear here that Watson does still love his Holmes. That he is willing to spend another evening in Holmes’ presence, traipsing through the streets of London, is highly suggestive of just how engaging Watson finds Holmes’ work, and his company.
Sadly, Holmes is still waiting on a lead, and tells Watson as much, remarking that there is nothing more they can do. This presents Watson with the perfect opportunity to announce his intentions to visit Miss Morstan. Clearly, Watson’s affection for Holmes and his growing interest in Mary war within him.
“Then I shall run over to Camberwell and call upon Mrs. Cecil Forrester. She asked me to, yesterday.”
“On Mrs. Cecil Forrester?” asked Holmes with the twinkle of a smile in his eyes.
“Well, of course on Miss Morstan, too. They were anxious to hear what happened.”
“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes. “Women are never to be entirely trusted — not the best of them.”
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.
Holmes masks his disappointment well, and yet, he cannot help but warn Watson against Mary. He is careful to include Mary in the best of them, so as to not offend Watson’s sensibility, and yet his intentions are quite clear; Holmes is distrustful of womankind, and wishes to instil this same sentiment in Watson, likely in hopes of preventing Watson’s growing interest from blooming into something which might one day serve to remove Watson from Holmes’ life.
This marks a turning point for Holmes, for despite the hope he had felt upon campaigning through the streets of London earlier than morning, Holmes must now realize that Watson’s leaving is inevitable. Indeed, upon Watson’s return, Watson tells us:
It was evening before I left Camberwell, and quite dark by the time I reached home. My companion’s book and pipe lay by his chair, but he had disappeared. I looked about in the hope of seeing a note, but there was none.
“I suppose that Mr. Sherlock Holmes has gone out,” I said to Mrs. Hudson as she came up to lower the blinds.
“No, sir. He has gone to his room, sir. Do you know, sir,” sinking her voice into an impressive whisper, “I am afraid for his health.”
“Why so, Mrs. Hudson?”
“Well, he’s that strange, sir. After you was gone he walked and he walked, up and down, and up and down, until I was weary of the sound of his footstep. Then I heard him talking to himself and muttering, and every time the bell rang out he came on the stairhead, with ‘What is that, Mrs. Hudson?’ And now he has slammed off to his room, but I can hear him walking away the same as ever. I hope he’s not going to be ill, sir. I ventured to say something to him about cooling medicine, but he turned on me, sir, with such a look that I don’t know how ever I got out of the room.”
Clearly Holmes has cause to be upset. His Watson has just abandoned him in favour of a woman, and while some may argue that it is the case that tries Holmes’ nerves, it is curious to note that this reaction came about only after Watson’s leaving.
Indeed, the next morning, Watson remarks that Holmes ‘looked worn and haggard, with a little fleck of feverish colour upon either cheek’, a clear indication that Holmes has passed a sleepless night. One cannot help but cry: Oh, Watson, what have you done to your Holmes?
Holmes’ mood continues to deteriorate, becoming even blacker after a second trip by Watson to Miss Morstan’s. Indeed, Watson tells us:
I walked over to Camberwell in the evening to report our ill-success to the ladies, and on my return I found Holmes dejected and somewhat morose.
Again this can be tied to the ill-success of the case, and yet, even making this assumption, one must question why this case, of all cases, affected Holmes in such a manner? Again, the answer lies with Watson, for Holmes knew that only through solving this case could he win Watson back. Holmes, knowing Watson, and his sense of propriety, knew quite well that Watson would cease to pursue Mary if her station were to change. By retrieving the treasure, Holmes would make Mary a rich woman and thereby negate Watson’s interest; Watson would never violate propriety by forcing his attentions on an heiress.
The case alone, however, should not have been enough to render Holmes’ mood so black. Clearly there are other forces at work here and the fact that Holmes’ mood deteriorates each time Watson visits Mary cannot be mere coincidence.
Knowing all of this, it is not surprising to find Holmes redoubling his efforts. Indeed, the very next day finds him standing by my bedside, clad in a rude sailor dress with a peajacket and a coarse red scarf round his neck. Holmes’ invasion of Watson’s privacy serves not only to announce his leaving, but to once again allow Holmes the pretext of intimacy, something which he undoubtedly feared he had lost forever.
Indeed, in leaving, Holmes asks Watson to remain in Baker Street and act as his intermediary. While Holmes likely feared a lead arriving in his absence, there is no reason he could not have assigned this task to Mrs. Hudson. One cannot help but wonder, then, if Holmes’ request was a means to keep Watson from once again visiting Mary.
Holmes returns later that evening, in a much improved mood. He has obviously found what he is searching for and, in doing so, has secured the treasure, which in turn will secure Watson’s place by Holmes’ side. Indeed, Holmes cannot help but gloat over the matter, telling Watson:
“When we secure the men we shall get the treasure. I think that it would be a pleasure to my friend here to take the box round to the young lady to whom half of it rightfully belongs. Let her be the first to open it. Eh, Watson?”
This simply sentence serves to remind Watson of the treasure, and Mary’s stake in it, Holmes’ words specifically directed at Watson as if to remind Watson that Watson is too proper to pursue a woman of wealth. Highly manipulative behaviour on Holmes’ behalf, but he can be forgiven, for he has grown quite desperate at this point.
Indeed, to drive the point home, and perhaps make amends for his harshness, Holmes mentions that he has arranged for dinner, turning to Watson to state:
“Watson, you have never yet recognized my merits as a housekeeper.”
Clearly Holmes is desperate to remind Watson of his merits as, not only a housekeeper, but as a lifelong companion. This trend continues throughout the meal, as Holmes relies on his wit and charm to further woo Watson away from Mary.
Our meal was a merry one. Holmes could talk exceedingly well when he chose, and that night he did choose. He appeared to be in a state of nervous exaltation. I have never known him so brilliant. He spoke on a quick succession of subjects — on miracle plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future — handling each as though he had made a special study of it. His bright humour marked the reaction from his black depression of the preceding days. Athelney Jones proved to be a sociable soul in his hours of relaxation and faced his dinner with the air of a bon vivant. For myself, I felt elated at the thought that we were nearing the end of our task, and I caught something of Holmes’s gaiety. None of us alluded during dinner to the cause which had brought us together.
We cannot help but note Holmes’ complete and utter happiness; he has solved the case, and in short order will have in hand the very means by which to keep Watson at his side. It is also interesting to note that his eloquence is enough to distract Watson from the loss of Mary, Watson quickly swept away by Holmes’ gaiety.
Shortly after dinner, Holmes and Watson set out in the company of Inspector Jones to pursue Holmes’ lead. Holmes, content that he is about to bring the situation to a satisfactory conclusion, is still apprehensive regarding the execution. Of all of Holmes’ cases, failure here presents the most dire of consequences; never before has Holmes had such a personal stake in the outcome of a case.
So anxious is Holmes over the outcome, that during the dramatic chase upon the Thames, he remarks:
“And there is the Aurora,” exclaimed Holmes, “and going like the devil! Full speed ahead, engineer. Make after that launch with the yellow light. By heaven, I shall never forgive myself if she proves to have the heels of us!”
We have no doubt that Holmes would not forgive himself for allowing her to slip away. Indeed, Holmes’ agitation becomes even more apparent as their pursuit continues.
“We must catch her!” cried Holmes between his teeth. “Heap it on, stokers! Make her do all she can! If we burn the boat we must have them!”
Holmes’ desire to catch the boat, and the men on it, is unusually desperate, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Holmes was thinking solely of the treasure, and Mary’s stake in it. Should Holmes fail, Mary will remain poor, and within Watson’s reach. Should she claim her rightful half, Watson will remain Holmes’ forever. Holmes’ motives, then, and, indeed, his eagerness to catch the Aurora, are entirely selfish.
They eventually do overtake the Aurora, but sadly for Holmes, although he has caught his man, the treasure is gone; vanquished to the depths of the Thames River, spread out over countless miles, with no hope of retrieval. It is Watson who first discovers this, having driven out to Miss Morstan’s home so that she might be the first to open the box. Upon opening it, however, they find the box empty, causing Watson to let out an exclamation of joy. He then tells Mary:
“Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman.”
While our hearts break for the Great Detective, we cannot help but analyze Watson’s statement. That Watson would distinguish that he loves Mary as truly as ever a man loved a woman suggests that Watson has loved before (as seen in his use of the word ‘ever’), and that he makes the distinction between a woman and a man. We know his words are truth, and yet, one cannot help but imagine that Watson still loved Holmes, for otherwise Watson might have said, as truly as a man has ever loved.
Watson does not remain long by Mary’s side, and yet it is curious to note that, upon returning to Baker Street, Watson announces that Mary has accepted him as a husband in prospective. When or how this happened, we do not know, and while the entire event seems improbable (Watson has, after all, only known Mary a few short days) Holmes’ reaction to the news is quite telling:
“Well, and there is the end of our little drama,” I remarked after we had sat some time smoking in silence. “I fear that it may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods. Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.”
He gave a most dismal groan.
“I feared as much,” said he. “I really cannot congratulate you.”
I was a little hurt.
“Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?” I asked.
“Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way: witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father. But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.”
“I trust,” said I, laughing, “that my judgment may survive the ordeal. But you look weary.”
“Yes, the reaction is already upon me. I shall be as limp as a rag for a week.”
Holmes’ dismal groan should not come as a surprise, for Holmes has spent the whole of the case attempting to prevent the exact outcome of Watson’s statement. The disappointment Holmes must have felt, and indeed, the hurt, is so acute that Holmes is rendered incapable of suppressing his reaction.
Indeed, Holmes goes so far as to voice his disapproval. That he would admit to fearing as much is quite profound; Holmes admitting his worry and fear is in direct contrast to Holmes’ usually reserved character.
Holmes does manage to recant the statement, however, as Watson’s question allows Holmes to depersonalize the situation, stating that his objection stems from his faculty for logic, something that Watson undoubtedly took at face value. The reader, however, will see Holmes’ excuse for what it is; a thinly veiled attempt to hide his true reaction from Watson and prevent further heartbreak.
Holmes’ statement that he should be limp as a rag for a week gives us further insight into the Great Detective’s mind, the reader instantly aware that this reaction has as much to do with Watson’s impending marriage as it does the conclusion of the case.
Watson remains oblivious to this, however, for his subconscious has managed to completely convince himself that he has fallen in love with Mary and will be better off away from Baker Street. Watson cannot help but remark on the unfairness of the situation, though, telling Holmes:
“The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
We hear an indication of regret here, and it is very likely that, in the weeks and months leading up to his marriage, Watson questioned nightly his decision to leave Holmes’ side. Indeed, upon hearing Holmes’ response, Watson must have reconsidered the matter numerous times.
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
Holmes has found his distraction, and while there shall forever remain a small hollow where once his heart resided, one cannot help but note the small spark that remained, dimly muted, waiting for a surge of oxygen to once again bring it to life; for why else would Holmes have needed to turn to his cocaine, save but to repair his broken (though not destroyed) heart?