Decoding the Subtext: His Last Bow
Baring-Gould dates His Last Bow in August of 1914, and as the narrator twice mentions this date, telling us that it is the most terrible August in the history of the world (a reference to the start of the First World War) we have no reason to question Baring-Gould's date. The story was first published in September of 1917.
Sherlock Holmes, in his final act, sets himself against the brilliant German operative, Von Bork, in a battle that will ultimately determine the fate of England at the start of the First World War. Having disguised himself as an Irish-American informant named Altamont, Holmes has spent two years infiltrating Von Bork's organization, his investigation coming to a close in this dramatic conclusion. Through cunning wit and industrious cleverness, Holmes has systematically destroyed Von Bork's life's work and is now ready to conclude the case with Von Bork's arrest. A patriotic piece, His Last Bow is surely an example of Holmes' finest hour.
Much like LION, His Last Bow has occasioned a good deal of speculation regarding the authorship of this story. As the tale is told in the third person, and Holmes and Watson do not appear until the latter half of the story, it is highly unlikely that either of them penned the original tale. This has, of course, led to numerous theories regarding who did.
There is, of course, the distinct possibility that this story is a forgery. It should be noted, however, that this theory is quite unpopular (largely due to LAST's date of publication, which occurred well before The Casebook was written --most scholars limit speculation regarding canonicity to the stories contained within The Casebook).
Several scholars have suggested that it was Holmes' brother, Mycroft, who wrote the first half of the story (indeed, some have speculated that Baron Von Herling was, in fact, Mycroft in disguise). If this is the case, then we can easily see collaboration between Holmes, Watson and Mycroft, with Mycroft and Holmes dictating to Watson and Watson using the third person for purely logistical purposes (and, indeed, your author is quite fond of this theory).
Others have suggested Martha (who many believe to be Mrs. Hudson), as she was present throughout both Von Bork and Von Herling's interview, and Holmes and Watson's arrival.
Assuming, then, that this story is authentic, and that multiple parties were involved in the writing of this story, we are now in a better position to examine the subtext contained within.
A passenger sprang out of it and advanced swiftly towards him, while the chauffeur, a heavily built, elderly man with a gray moustache, settled down like one who resigns himself to a long vigil.
The above sentence is our first introduction to Holmes and Watson (although we do not yet know this fact), and here we cannot help but note that in 1914, some thirty-three years after their first meeting, Holmes and Watson are still very much together. We will examine this as the story continues, for we will soon learn that their peaceful retirement did proceed uninterrupted.
Holmes quickly concludes his business with Von Bork, and it is after, Von Bork unconscious on the sofa, that Holmes and Watson are finally free to put aside the case and enjoy one another's company.
"Another glass, Watson!" said Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he extended the bottle of Imperial Tokay.
The thickset chauffeur, who had seated himself by the table, pushed forward his glass with some eagerness.
"It is a good wine, Holmes."
"A remarkable wine, Watson."
We soon learn that for the past two years Holmes has been out of contact; operating under cover in the service of King and Country. And yet, despite this their interaction is still quite informal. It is obvious here that, even with the passage of time, Holmes and Watson remain very much a couple.
Holmes soon reveals that it has, indeed, been two years since last he saw Watson. We learn that this was quite necessary; that Holmes could not have carved out an alias had he not gone underground. We have no doubt that, while perhaps a little chagrin at the news, Watson was more than willing to allow Holmes to get involved. Watson is an old campaigner, and very loyal to King and Country. He knew well the value and importance of Holmes' mission; knew, too, that Holmes was likely the only man in England capable of saving England, and while we are certain that he mourned losing Holmes for an undetermined length of time (and Watson could not have known the affair would last two years) we are equally certain that, whenever he thought of Holmes, immersed in the affairs of politics, he was overcome with the fiercest sense of pride.
Their reunion in this story, then, is quite touching. Indeed, Holmes is so overcome with joy at seeing Watson that he forgets where he is and allows himself the luxury of touching:
But you, Watson"--he stopped his work and took his old friend by the shoulders--"I've hardly seen you in the light yet. How have the years used you? You look the same blithe boy as ever."
We cannot, of course, neglect to point out Holmes' comment that Watson, despite being well into his sixties, appears the same blithe boy as ever. One would think both men had long since past their prime. Perhaps Holmes was feeling nostalgic.
Watson's response, of course, is also quite telling, for he freely admits:
"I feel twenty years younger, Holmes. I have seldom felt so happy as when I got your wire asking me to meet you at Harwich with the car."
After two years with only the occasional reassurance that Holmes was alive and well (and we know Holmes would have cut off all contact during this time; Holmes does, after all, take his work quite seriously), to finally hear from Holmes; Watson must have been ecstatic. Note, too, Watson's reference to the car, implying that the car belongs equally to Holmes (for surely if the car belonged solely to Watson, he would have stated my car). Again we are given evidence that Holmes and Watson are, in fact, living together in Sussex.
Above we theorized upon both Holmes and Watson's loyalty to their Country --a loyalty so strong that Holmes did not hesitate in taking on this assignment, nor did Watson hesitate in allowing Holmes to go. We see confirmation for this theory in Holmes' next comment, for he tells Watson:
"These are the sacrifices one makes for one's country, Watson."
And truly a two year separation is a great sacrifice to make.
Despite the passage of these years, Watson is still quite clever to conceal the details of Holmes' investigation. In fact, he questions:
"But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs."
This is an obvious attempt to distance himself from Sussex, likely made in hopes of convincing his public that Holmes had retired alone. Their conversation here is far too awkward to have actually occurred, and so we must dismiss the above, and Holmes' response:
"Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!" He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. "Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London."
In short, their entire conversation here can be seen as plot exposition. Watson, of course, knew that Holmes had retired, and that he had come out of retirement. He knew, too, that Holmes had completed his bee work, and that he had published his magnum opus (indeed, Watson likely proofed the work) and yet, he could not allow this information to surface. Indeed, the inclusion of this conversation can also be seen as proof of Watson's involvement in the writing of this story, for Watson often included pieces of dialogue that were either out of place, or invented entirely, all in an effort to make clear what, to the public, would otherwise be unclear. This is the mark of a man with writing experience.
We must turn now, for a moment, away from this story and examine the stories contained within The Casebook. The reader will undoubtedly recall several of Watson's opening paragraphs, with references to Holmes' activities in his declining years. Indeed, twelve stories were published after the publication of His Last Bow, and many of those include references to the present condition of Holmes and Watson's relationship. We know, then, that both Holmes and Watson will survive the First World War.
That being said, His Last Bow ends on a rather uncertain note. The story ends, literally, on the eve of the First World War, and so we see in both Holmes and Watson an impending sense of doom. This is important to note, for although we know the final outcome, Holmes and Watson did not, and so Holmes' request:
"As to you, Watson, you are joining us with your old service, as I understand, so London won't be out of your way. Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have."
Takes on new meaning. Here we foresee a bleak and desolate end; the reader expecting Holmes and Watson to go their separate ways, Holmes returning to his counter-espionage services, Watson volunteering for duty, all in the name of protecting England from the coming storm.
Naturally, then, their first instinct is to ignore their prisoner (who still remains in the back of Watson's car) and engage in idle chit-chat. In fact, we are told:
The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling once again the days of the past...
We can well imagine the sense of nostalgia that this conversation brought up, and that, combined with the desperateness of the situation, likely led to other, more tangible conversations. Indeed, it would not be entirely unsurprising to discover that Holmes and Watson stood on that terrace for several long minutes, locked, once again, in one another's embrace.
When finally they part, Holmes' thoughts turn to philosophy, Holmes stating:
"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
One wonders, then, how long it was before Holmes and Watson were finally able to return, once again, to their Sussex home; Holmes to his bees, Watson to his practice, and them to each other.