Decoding the Subtext: The Missing Three-Quarter
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter in December of 1896. Watson tells us that it is February, some seven to eight years prior to the date of the story's writing. As the story was first published in August of 1904, this would place the case sometime between August 1896 and August 1897. Baring-Gould's date does correspond with this, but if Watson's February is correct, then the case falls in 1897. It should be noted, however, that Baring-Gould's argument for December is due to the story's subject matter: a Rugby game between Cambridge and Oxford, which would have, traditionally, occurred in December.
Sherlock Holmes is visited by a distraught Civil Overton of Trinity College, in Cambridge. Overton is missing his Three-Quarter, and without Godfrey Staunton Cambridge has no hope of winning against Oxford on the morrow. While Holmes admits that the game of Rugby is outside of his usual area of expertise, he agrees to take on the case, and soon discovers that it is far more complicated than he'd anticipated. In fact, it is not until Holmes sets out on the trail of a Dr. Armstrong that Holmes is able to trace Staunton, though he does not find the man in time to prevent Cambridge's loss.
The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter is unique in that it is one of the few post-return stories that references Holmes' cocaine addiction. Here, Watson tells us:
Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion's brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes's ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes.
It should be noted that this is the first acknowledgement we have been given that it was Watson who weaned Holmes from his cocaine addiction. This is quite fascinating, for in SIGN, Holmes brushed off Watson's concern, refusing to acknowledge the destructive nature of his pastime.
This leads, of course, to several interesting questions, and their resulting theories. The first such question would be, simply; when did Watson wean Holmes from cocaine?
Watson makes no reference to Holmes' cocaine-use post Holmes' return, and so we must suggest that it was prior to, or during, the hiatus that Watson was able to curb Holmes' habit. Indeed, Nicolas Myer wrote a pastiche which discounted Holmes' account of the hiatus, suggesting instead that Watson used this period of three years to aid Holmes in his recovery from cocaine addiction. While not widely accepted by scholars, it is an interesting suggestion.
Others have suggested, however, that it was Holmes who abandoned his cocaine habit, shortly after his confrontation with Moriarty, and that it was done with Watson's warnings in mind.
Others still have suggested that Watson was able to wean Holmes from his addiction even before Holmes' confrontation with Moriarty.
Regardless of when, it is interesting to note that it was Watson who weaned Holmes from this seeming addiction, and so we must question why it was that Holmes refused to allow Watson's interference in SIGN and yet willingly allowed Watson's aid at a later date.
To the student of subtext, the answer must be obvious. Holmes gave up his cocaine habit at Watson's urging, because Holmes was very much in love with Watson, and willing to do whatever it took to make Watson happy, and to keep Watson in Baker Street.
Having settled the when and the why, we must now turn to examine Watson's statement that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping. We see in this statement such worry on Watson's behalf. Recall that Watson was well ahead of his time, for if we accept Baring-Gould's date, then this story took place in 1896, a year when cocaine was still quite legal (indeed, it was 1906 before cocaine was removed as an ingredient from the popular beverage, Coca-Cola). Watson, however, was only too aware of the dark reaction which overcame Holmes when he was using the substance, and so it is easy to imagine that Watson would do everything in his power to prevent Holmes from once again seeking solace in the drug.
Indeed, it is easy to imagine Watson's hovering during this period of time, for he undoubtedly knew that Holmes' return to cocaine would be detrimental to their relationship. This will become a key point later in the story, but for now we shall turn to Overton's note, and his imminent arrival.
It is not long after Overton's arrival (preceded by a note), and his unusual narrative, that Holmes agrees to take on his case. Together they return to Godfrey Staunton's hotel, where they search his rooms and interview the porter. They manage to discover half of a telegram message on Staunton's blotting paper and Watson, after hearing the message, suggests that they need only look into whom the telegram was sent to in order to move forward in their investigation. Holmes' response, one must agree, is quite amusing.
"Exactly, my dear Watson. Your reflection, though profound, had already crossed my mind."
Interesting, is it not, that Holmes and Watson's thoughts should be so linked. Obviously they are spending a good deal of time in one another's company. Indeed, the sharing of thoughts is a trait often associated with long-married couples.
We must pause momentarily to once again comment on Holmes' use of my dear. In most stories, Holmes uses this term of affection once, perhaps as many as three times, but here, in The Missing Three-Quarters, we see its use no fewer than seven times. This is quite fascinating, especially if one considers the placement of this story against The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.
Recall that Baring-Gould dated The Sussex Vampire in November of 1896, and that he dates The Missing Three-Quarter in December of 1896. Recall, too, our suggestion that SUSS succeeded an argument between Holmes and Watson. If indeed we are correct, and Holmes and Watson had argued shortly before the events in SUSS, then it is quite easy to imagine that, not quite a month later, this incident would still be quite fresh in Holmes' mind. It is quite natural, then, that Holmes would continue to go out of his way to demonstrate his affection, as, while it is quite obvious that they have made amends, Holmes would not likely be quite as confident in their relationship as he once was.
In fact, this ties in nicely to Watson's comment regarding Holmes' cocaine use. One wonders, then, if their argument in SUSS resulted from a slip on Holmes' behalf. It is entirely possible that Holmes once again turned to cocaine, the result of which would have been for Watson to threaten to leave. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Holmes would have immediately cast aside his syringe in order to ensure that Watson remained in Baker Street.
We do not doubt Watson would leave, either, for it is obvious that he has given up much for Holmes. Indeed, Watson tells us:
It argues the degree in which I had lost touch with my profession that the name of Leslie Armstrong was unknown to me.
That Watson would willingly give up his profession for Holmes is quite touching, and we have no doubt that Watson would have expected Holmes to give up something in return. Relationships are built on compromise, and it is certain that Watson would have known this, for he was the more experienced of the two. That Watson's request would have been for Holmes to give up cocaine is without question, for we know that Watson tolerated Holmes' cocaine use only with strong objection.
At this point, Holmes and Watson have begun their investigation in earnest. They have followed the trail of Staunton's telegram and it has taken them to the home of Dr. Leslie Armstrong. There, Armstrong refuses to help, all but having Holmes and Watson thrown out of his house.
"And now, my poor Watson, here we are, stranded and friendless in this inhospitable town, which we cannot leave without abandoning our case. This little inn just opposite Armstrong's house is singularly adapted to our needs. If you would engage a front room and purchase the necessaries for the night, I may have time to make a few inquiries."
The above statement presents several elements of interest to the student of subtext. We note first that Holmes has shifted tactics, and is now referring to Watson as his poor Watson, rather than his dear Watson. It is interesting to note that this is still quite indicative of Holmes' possessiveness where Watson is concerned.
Holmes then goes on to suggest that they check into a small inn adjacent to Armstrong's home. In particular, Holmes requests that Watson engage a front room, suggesting that they will be sharing. While this is not unusual, what is unusual is Watson's slip here; he does not even attempt to hide the fact that he and Holmes are sharing a room, and, most likely, a bed.
Indeed, after they have checked in, Holmes leaves to pursue some leads on his own. Upon his return, Watson tells us:
A cold supper was ready upon the table, and when his needs were satisfied and his pipe alight he was ready to take that half comic and wholly philosophic view which was natural to him when his affairs were going awry.
That Holmes should pause amidst an investigation so that he might satisfy his needs is quite remarkable. That Watson should share this fact with the public is practically scandalous.
It is only after they have engaged in their post-supper activities, and Holmes has had his post-activities pipe, that they begin to discuss the case. Here Watson is quite useful, asking many of the same questions Holmes would have asked, and offering up several theories which seem to astound Holmes. Indeed, Holmes cannot help but cry out:
"Excellent, Watson! You are scintillating this evening."
It becomes quite apparent, then, that their post-supper activities have served to brighten both of their moods.
Holmes' praise is not, however, limited to their post-coital discussion. Indeed, the next morning Watson offers to follow Dr. Armstrong on the bicycle, hoping to succeed where Holmes' failed. While Holmes does dismiss this idea, he tells Watson:
"No, no, my dear Watson! With all respect for your natural acumen I do not think that you are quite a match for the worthy doctor."
While this may seem less of a compliment and more of an insult, recall that Holmes himself has been bested by Dr. Armstrong. Even without this fact, one sees Holmes' carefully placed praise, for he clearly remarks on Watson's natural insight and sharpness.
Having dismissed Watson's suggestion, Holmes once again heads out on his own to investigate the countryside. Upon his return, he tells Watson:
"Early to bed to-night, Watson, for I foresee that to-morrow may be an eventful day."
One instantly doubts that they could appear more married if they tried. Truly remarkable.
We can now safely return to our above hypothesis, which suggested that Holmes would have known that his continued cocaine use would have inevitably become detrimental to his relationship with Watson. We have suggested that Holmes was well aware of this when he decided, with Watson's aid, to put aside the habit for good. We have also suggested that Holmes cast aside his cocaine in favour of a relationship with Watson. This soon becomes quite clear, for the next morning, Watson tells us:
I was horrified by my first glimpse of Holmes next morning, for he sat by the fire holding his tiny hypodermic syringe. I associated that instrument with the single weakness of his nature, and I feared the worst when I saw it glittering in his hand. He laughed at my expression of dismay, and laid it upon the table.
"No, no, my dear fellow, there is no cause for alarm. It is not upon this occasion the instrument of evil, but it will rather prove to be the key which will unlock our mystery."
Note first that Watson appears horrified by spotting Holmes with his syringe in hand. This lends weight to the theory that it was Holmes' relapse into cocaine use which led to a spat between Holmes and Watson in The Sussex Vampire. We see, too, Watson's dismay, for clearly he has been quite firm on this particular condition. That Holmes might have relapsed again must have broken Watson's heart, for it would have signified the end of their relationship.
Holmes, however, is quite aware of this, and rushes to reassure Watson. This alone is ample evidence to suggest that Holmes did indeed give up his habit for Watson. Quite telling, is it not, that Holmes should be so willing to alter his habits merely to appease Watson. Clearly, Watson is the single most important aspect of Holmes' life.
Indeed, this entire story marks a pivotal point in their relationship, for we see that, despite the longevity of their relationship, and the underlying trust and, indeed, love, it is still quite fragile. Recall that, while they have been living together, and likely sharing a bed, for some time, and it would appear as though they are exclusive to one another, they have not yet vocalized their feelings on the subject matter. This would come in time, and yet, until then both men would continue to experience bouts of insecurity. This is quite apparent in Watson's distress, and, indeed, in Holmes' reassurances.
Returning to the story, Holmes explains that he has used his syringe to coat the hind wheel of Dr. Armstrong's carriage in aniseed. This is followed by an introduction to Pompey, the draghound he intends to use in tracking Dr. Armstrong's carriage. He is very careful, however, to attach a lead to Pompey's collar, Holmes stating:
"Well, Pompey, you may not be fast, but I expect you will be too fast for a couple of middle-aged London gentlemen."
While not of particular interest, it is still quite endearing to note that Holmes refers to he and Watson as a couple of middle-aged gentlemen. We begin to see that Holmes fully intends to grow old with Watson.
From here, the case quickly draws to a close, and Holmes soon discovers the cause behind Godfrey Staunton's disappearance. Sadly, this corresponds with the death of Staunton's wife, a woman Staunton went to many lengths to hide from his disapproving uncle. In his final line, Holmes states:
"Come, Watson," said he, and we passed from that house of grief into the pale sunlight of the winter day.
While saddened by the conclusion of the case, we cannot help but rejoice at the sight of Holmes and Watson, walking arm in arm, into the sunset. Truly a more suggesting ending has yet to be written.