Decoding the Subtext: The Creeping Man
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Creeping Man in September of 1903. In addition to being the exact date Watson gives us, Watson also tells us that this case was one of the last prior to Holmes' retirement. The story was first published in March of 1923.
Mr. Trevor Bennett seeks Holmes' aid in uncovering the reasons behind his employer's singular behaviour. Not only has Professor Presbury's moods been volatile, but, after disappearing for several weeks, the Professor returned a somewhat changed man. He has become furtive and sly, and has taken to engaging in unusual behaviour (such as crawling about on his hands and feet). Then, of course, there is the matter of Presbury's long-time canine companion, who has suddenly turned violent towards his master. Bennett knows the matter has something to do with the strangely marked packages the Professor has been receiving, but aside from that (and a lingering sensation of unease) he is at a loss to explain Professor Presbury's recent transformation. It does not take Holmes long to connect the curious behaviour of Presbury's dog to the truth of the matter, and, after a trip to Camford, Holmes is quickly able to deduce that the Professor is under the influence of some drug; though Holmes himself will be surprised by the final solution.
It was one Sunday evening early in September of the year 1903 that I received one of Holmes's laconic messages.
So begins Watson's narrative, and we see here that Watson is now residing completely in Sussex. While Holmes will soon join him, we see that he is not quite ready to make the transition; nor is he ready to work without Watson's aid. It is interesting to note that, despite Watson's hectic schedule, Watson does drop everything so that he might aid Holmes in this, Holmes' final endeavour.
The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them.
The above statement has occasioned a good deal of comment (including the theory that Watson had become resigned in their later years) and yet here we see nothing more than the evolution of a relationship. What husband has not thought of his wife as a habit; what wife her husband? The thrill and excitement of newfound love soon gives way to comfort and habit. We see here, then, evidence of a long-term relationship. Holmes and Watson, fast approaching their shared retirement, are now officially an old, married couple.
That is not to say that their relationship was without excitement. Indeed, Watson tells us:
I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me — many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead...
While we have no doubt that Watson did, indeed, stimulate Holmes, here we are more interested in the apparent openness of their relationship. Truly the cornerstone of a good relationship is communication, and we see here exactly that; Holmes, comfortable in Watson's presence, has finally cast aside his barriers and now shares the whole of his soul with his long-time friend and companion.
It should, however, be noted that scholars (rightly, of course) have commented on Watson's tone in the above passages. Watson seems quite resigned, Holmes seemingly taking Watson for granted. While there is likely some truth in this statement (and what couple is without their problems?) we see this more of an attempt on Watson's behalf to downplay their relationship. If this is the case, then the above comments are truly fascinating, for despite his attempts to deceive the public, Watson still manages to cast himself into the role of Holmes' spouse.
Then with a start he seemed to come from his reverie, and with his usual whimsical smile he greeted me back to what had once been my home.
And absent spouse, to be sure, as we now know that Watson now considers Sussex his home. As we continue with our analysis, we shall soon see that Watson, having successfully made the transition to Sussex, is now bent on Holmes returning with him. In fact, it is quite likely that Watson gave Holmes a firm deadline. When one considers that The Creeping Man is Holmes' last 'official' case, this theory becomes quite probable.
Indeed, within moments we see that Watson is quite ensconced in their new Sussex villa.
I sank back in my chair in some disappointment. Was it for so trivial a question as this that I had been summoned from my work?
One can almost hear Watson's protests at Holmes having taken on yet another case.
But, Holmes; you did promise. Plus, your bees arrived yesterday, and I haven't the faintest clue what to do with them.
Holmes does not, of course, pay Watson's protests any mind. In fact, he launches full into the case, their morning soon interrupted by the arrival of their client (and later, his fiancée).
"Mr. Holmes, this is the young lady I spoke of. This is my fiancée."
"We were gradually coming to that conclusion, were we not, Watson?" Holmes answered with a smile.
Amusing, is it not, that both Holmes and Watson recognize the lady's role long before her introduction. Clearly Holmes and Watson are more than capable of spotting love. Undoubtedly Holmes recognized the same light in Miss Presbury's eyes that he saw so often reflected in Watson's.
It is here that Miss Presbury and Mr. Bennett tell their strange tale regarding the singular behaviour of Miss Presbury's father. Holmes agrees to look into the case, and a few days later Holmes and Watson head out to Camford so that they might meet the man himself. Watson tells us:
Monday morning found us on our way to the famous university town — an easy effort on the part of Holmes, who had no roots to pull up, but one which involved frantic planning and hurrying on my part, as my practice was by this time not inconsiderable.
Here we address another of Baring-Gould's theories; that of Watson's third wife. Your author has suggested that Watson has merely taken on a practice in Sussex, and so the above statement would confirm. Note that Watson makes no mention of a wife. Truly, if Watson were married, he would have spared some consideration to his wife. As it is, Watson cares only for his practice, suggesting that, if there was a wife, she was hardly a matter of importance. As Watson is not known for his cruelty, we must therefore discount Baring-Gould's suggestion of a second (or third) wife.
We do not, of course, doubt Watson's statement that his practice is not inconsiderable. There is ample evidence to suggest that Watson's Sussex practice is thriving, and that Watson is, in fact, in Sussex. Note, for example, Holmes' comment:
"Excellent, Watson! Compound of the Busy Bee and Excelsior.
The above is said by Holmes, in response to Watson's statement that they can but try in their efforts to deceive Professor Presbury. Curious, is it not, that Holmes should make such a statement. Clearly, in addition to Watson's practice, Watson has also taken to keeping Holmes' bees.
We must note, too, that Holmes has obviously been forced to seek outside aid (Watson's practice often keeping him from assisting Holmes on his cases).
"Mercer is since your time," said Holmes. "He is my general utility man who looks up routine business."
While we have been introduced to Holmes' assistants in the past, one would imagine that, were Watson available, Holmes would have sent Watson in Mercer's place. It is quite obvious, then, that Watson has established a foundation in Sussex.
Returning to the case at hand, Holmes and Watson's trip to the famous university town does not yield the results Holmes was looking for. It is shortly after their brief (and near disastrous) interview with Professor Presbury that Watson tells us:
We were, I may say, seated in the old sitting-room of the ancient hotel, with a bottle of the famous vintage of which Holmes had spoken on the table between us.
It is quite heart-warming to note that, despite the passage of years, Holmes and Watson are still capable of sneaking in the odd romantic moment.
All too soon, however, Watson is leaving, returning to Sussex and his practice, until next Holmes beckons Watson to his side:
I saw nothing of my friend for the next few days, but on the following Monday evening I had a short note asking me to meet him next day at the train.
Above we mentioned the probability of Watson setting a deadline for Holmes' retirement. Undoubtedly he had grown frustrated waiting for Holmes to leave Baker Street of his own accord, and so dictated exactly when he expected Holmes to vacate Baker Street and join him in Sussex. Holmes, as this story progresses, seems to accept this, at one point stating:
"It's surely time that I disappeared into that little farm of my dreams."
We must also acknowledge how absolutely endearing it is that Holmes should spend his nights dreaming of Watson.
From here the story comes quickly to a close, Holmes finally discovering that Professor Presbury has been injecting himself with the serum of a Langur monkey in hopes of restoring his youth and vitality. This is quite the interesting theme, and will factor in quite strongly when we examine the story's canonicity.
Several scholars have questioned the authenticity of The Creeping Man, suggesting that it is entirely too fantastical for one of Holmes' tales. Here, we suggest that the events contained within this tale did, in fact, occur, but that the solution has been altered.
The underlying theme (that of an aging man attempting to cling to his vanished youth) was, in fact, meant as a comment on Holmes' reluctance to retire. This story, then, is in fact Holmes' story. Presbury's attack and mutilation at the hands of his dog was meant to signify Holmes' eventual realization that he had come to the end of his career. It is not mere coincidence that this tale (above all others) should conclude Holmes' career. Indeed, when next we meet Holmes, he will be happily living out his retirement in Sussex. Like the Professor, Holmes has apparently learned the folly of trying to defy his age.