Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Naval Treaty


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Naval Treaty in July/August of 1889. As Watson tells us that the case takes place in the July immediately following his marriage, we can assume that Baring-Gould's date is correct. The story was first published in 1893.


Percy Phelps, an old schoolmate of Watson's, has recently experienced a most nerve-wracking series of events, the result of which could lead to scandal, and, indeed, personal disgrace. While working late one night, Percy Phelps had the misfortune to lose a top secret naval treaty, as it was stolen from his desk. He had been working on copying the treaty when, upon leaving the room for an instant, Phelps was horrified to return and find the treaty gone. A bout of brain fever immediately followed this tragedy, leaving Phelps out of commission for some two months. Having only just recovered, Phelps' first thought is to contact his old friend Watson to see if Watson might endeavour to bring Sherlock Holmes around to look into the case. Watson is only too eager to help, as is Sherlock Holmes (who does so love his art), and so, upon discovering that the whole of the case rests upon a rung bell cord, Sherlock Holmes sets to work. It is not long before he is able to deduce the whereabouts of the document, which he then retrieves and returns to Percy Phelps, though not without some dramatic license.

The Subtext:

The July which immediately succeeded my marriage was made memorable by three cases of interest, in which I had the privilege of being associated with Sherlock Holmes and of studying his methods.

The Adventure of the Naval Treaty begins on a rather interesting note. Here, Watson tells us that it is the July following his marriage, and that said month contained three cases of interest. Watson goes on to list the cases, and we note that none appear in Baring-Gould's chronology between Watson's marriage and the dating of The Naval Treaty. Baring-Gould sets only two cases between Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan and this case, and so, it is safe to assume that Watson has been involved in at least five cases since marrying Mary. If we consider that Watson has been married some three months (using Baring-Gould's date), then this averages out to some 1.67 cases per month. Odd, is it not, for a newlywed man to spend so much time away from his new bride. When one examines Mary's role in Canon, one cannot help but think that it was she, rather than Mrs. Hudson, who was entitled to the claim of most long-suffering of women.

Having set the stage, Watson then goes on to introduce his childhood friend, Percy Phelps.

During my school-days I had been intimately associated with a lad named Percy Phelps, who was of much the same age as myself, though he was two classes ahead of me. He was a very brilliant boy, and carried away every prize which the school had to offer, finished his exploits by winning a scholarship which sent him on to continue his triumphant career at Cambridge.

It is quite unusual that Watson should refer to his childhood school chum as someone he was intimately acquainted with, and yet, as Watson continues his introduction, we begin to see a connection. Note that Watson refers to Percy (one of a very select few who can claim Watson's intimate acquaintanceship) as a brilliant boy. This brings to mind another brilliant boy, and we begin to see that Watson has been drawn to intelligence even from an early age. That Watson should find himself attracted to Sherlock Holmes so instantly is no longer a mystery, for it is obvious here that Watson has a type.

Watson's introduction is not without reason, for a moment later he reveals that Percy has sent a letter requesting that Watson engage the services of Sherlock Holmes on Percy's behalf. Watson does exactly this, and tells us:

So moved was I that even had it been a difficult matter I should have tried it, but of course I knew well that Holmes loved his art, so that he was ever as ready to bring his aid as his client could be to receive it.

One wonders if Watson knew that Holmes would have taken the case regardless. As the case holds a personal connection, and this personal connection exists through Watson, Holmes would have been only too eager to accept Watson's request. The case is immaterial; Watson need but ask.

And ask Watson does, Watson rushing off to Baker Street to present Holmes with the case. Upon arriving, however, Watson finds Holmes engaged with an experiment, and settles in to wait. Holmes' statement, upon acknowledging Watson's presence, is quite interesting.

"I will be at your service in an instant, Watson.

Watson has told us (and indeed, Holmes' actions suggest) that Holmes is in the midst of a case, and yet, Holmes is willing to put all of that aside for Watson's time. Clearly, Watson was, and will always be, Holmes' priority.

In short order, Holmes devotes his attention to Watson, reading carefully the letter Watson has brought. The letter allows for several points of deduction, and while, for the most part, these are expected, there is one small element which is quite suggestive.

"Precisely. It is a woman's."

"A man's surely," I cried.

Holmes has just announced that the writing contained within the letter is not that of Percy Phelps, but rather, that of a woman's. Watson seems quite surprised by this, and one cannot help but wonder why. Could it be that Percy Phelps was Watson's first boyhood experiment? If this is the case, then Watson might very well assume Percy's preferences had remained unchanged and hence anticipated a male. And why should Holmes take such care to point this out? Did he perhaps sense Watson's former connection and wish to sever this tie before agreeing to take the case?

Holmes does eventually agree to take on the case, and soon the pair head out to Woking. There they meet with Percy Phelps and his household. The initial interview does not last long, and yet, one gets the sense that Holmes is only too aware of how weakened Percy's misfortune has left him. It is odd, for Holmes does not exhibit his usual reserved sense of sympathy here. Indeed, he seems quite pleased. In fact, at the end of the interview, Holmes finds himself fingering a rose and giving one of the most singular of monologues in all of Canon.

"What a lovely thing a rose is..."

"There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."

While Holmes' analysis of the rose is inaccurate (the smell and colour are not extras, and are, in fact, a condition of life, for it is the flower's smell and colour which attracts insects in order to facilitate pollination) we must look beyond his folly and attempt to interpret Holmes' meaning here. I am sure the reader will agree that Holmes' sudden shift in topic is quite unusual, and yet, there is a very logical explanation for why Holmes might break off mid-case in order to admire a rose and muse on the subject of Providence (aside from the obvious explanation that he was examining the window sill for evidence).

Particular attention, however, should be given to Holmes' allusion to hope. While we do know that Holmes intended to convey hope to Percy Phelps (in response to Percy's inquiry as to the likelihood of retrieving the lost document), it is also reasonable to suggest that Holmes was speaking of hope on a much more personal level. This case proved to be an extra, for Holmes might not have taken it were it not for Watson's involvement, and through this case Holmes has glimmered hope. It is quite probable that Holmes deduced the connection between Percy and Watson, and so it is entirely likely that Holmes intended to weigh Percy quite carefully. Upon discovering a shell of a man, entirely dependent on his finance, one can easily imagine Holmes relief, as Holmes would now know that Watson's affections were without male contest. Holmes still had a wife to contend with, but aside from Mary, Holmes now knew that he need not fear competition. Is it too much to suggest that Holmes' introspective musings came as a result of this new-found knowledge?

Shortly after this scene, Holmes and Watson leave Woking and return, via train, to London. Holmes, excited over the case, immediately begins to theorize, prompting Watson to turn his thoughts to his practice.

"My practice--" I began.

"Oh, if you find your own cases more interesting than mine--" said Holmes with some asperity.

"I was going to say that my practice could get along very well for a day or two, since it is the slackest time in the year."

"Excellent," said he, recovering his good-humour. "Then we'll look into this matter together."

First, allow us to note Watson's statement that his practice could get along very well for a day or two. Recall that this case takes place in July/August of 1889. In June of that same year (as seen in The Stockbroker's Clerk) Watson tells us that he has only recently bought a practice and that it was quite demanding of his time. Why, then, should Watson suddenly find himself without a workload? Surely a month makes little difference.

Note, too, Holmes' assumption that Watson intends to return to his practice. Aside from asperity, there is alarm here too, and we see in Holmes his almost panicked response. This is even more evident when one notes that Holmes recovers his good humour only upon Watson's clarification.

In fact, the moment Holmes is assured of Watson's involvement, his eagerness towards the case returns, and Holmes immediately returns to theorizing. Watson, for the most part, provokes thought by asking for clarification, until, Watson tells us:

He sank back into the state of intense and silent thought from which he had emerged; but it seemed to me, accustomed as I was to his every mood, that some new possibility had dawned suddenly upon him.

The intimacy in this statement is staggering, Watson freely confessing that he knew Holmes' every mood. Only two men intimately acquainted could claim such a thing, and while Watson has, on several occasions, told us exactly that, we see here proof of Watson's words

Their investigation stalls shortly after this point, Holmes and Watson interviewing the inspector (a foxy man, according to Watson) to no avail, before Holmes sends Watson home with the request that he accompany Holmes to Woking in the morning. Holmes and Watson eventually return, and shortly after hearing the news that someone has attempted to break into Percy's bedroom, Holmes sends Percy to Baker Street in Watson's protective custody. Note, here, Holmes' parting instructions as Percy and Watson return to London.

"Mr. Phelps can have the spare bedroom to-night, and I will be with you in time for breakfast, for there is a train which will take me into Waterloo at eight."

Recall that, as far as we know, there are two bedrooms in Baker Street; Watson's old room, and Holmes' room. As Watson has recently married and left Baker Street, it is reasonable to assume that Watson's old room has become the spare room, implying that Percy will be sleeping in Watson's old room. If this is the case, then Watson is left with only two options; the couch or Holmes' bed. While Watson does not specifically tell us, Watson's silence can be taken as an answer, for Watson would have undoubtedly told us if he had slept on the settee; whereas, if Watson were to have borrowed Holmes' bed, propriety would have dictated that he not share this scandalous information with his reader. We do know, however, that Watson did spend the night in Baker Street, for he awoke the next morning and set off at once for Phelps' room.

Not, of course, before Watson lay tossing half the night, and while Watson attempts to convince us that this was the fault of the case, it is quite obvious that Watson's distraction stemmed from Holmes' scent upon the pillows.

Despite this sleepless night, Watson wakes in time for Holmes' return and together, along with Percy Phelps, Holmes and Watson sit down to breakfast. Very quickly into the meal, Holmes is able, though with a bit of mischief, to put the naval treaty in Percy's hands. This concludes the case, and we cannot help but note how pleased Holmes seems. Indeed, he is even more pleased than usual. Is it too much to assume that Holmes, having helped a childhood friend of Watson's, anticipated that this act might earn Watson's further admiration and appreciation? We have seen countless occasions where Holmes has gone out of his way to impress Watson, and here he is presented the perfect opportunity. In helping Phelps, and, indirectly, the country, Holmes has proven to Watson that he is willing to do anything to aid Watson and those close to Watson. Clearly, Holmes knew that Watson would recognize this, and likely hoped that Watson would demonstrate his gratitude by giving Holmes the pleasure of his company.

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