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Decoding the Subtext: The Five Orange Pips

Dates:

Baring-Gould dates The Five Orange Pips in September of 1887. Watson also gives a date of September 1887, but mentions his wife, implying a later date. To complicate matters, throughout the case Watson appears to be living in Baker Street, suggesting that either the date is wrong, the wife non-existent, or that Watson was indeed married before meeting Miss Morstan. Your author tends toward the former, for Watson mentions The Sign of Four in past context, implying that the events in this case took place after The Sign of Four, which was dated in 1888. The story was first published in 1891.

Synopsis:

The Five Orange Pips tells the tale of John Openshaw, whose family appears to be cursed. His uncle, upon receiving an envelope containing five orange pips, died mysteriously. His estate was left to John Openshaw's father, who, several months later, received this same dire warning and shortly thereafter died of mysterious causes. Openshaw, having inherited his father's estate, has received this same envelope, containing this same strange warning. He arrives at Baker Street to engage Sherlock Holmes in solving the mystery. The case comes too late, however, for John Openshaw, and Holmes' pride is hurt, causing him to seek out Openshaw's killers in vengeance. Sadly, the case is never resolved, as the men responsible, all members of a secret organization with the call sign K.K.K, are feared to have drowned at sea, having never received Holmes' warning, hence having died without realizing the threat which hung over them.

The Subtext:

The case begins with Holmes and Watson, ensconced in Baker Street, gale force winds beating against the windows as the two men occupy their time in separate pursuits. Despite the weather, the two seem quite snug, content to sit near their fire and enjoy one another's company.

This blissful domesticity is interrupted, however, by the ringing of the bell, and given the weather, the two men are greatly confused by who could be calling.

"Why," said I, glancing up at my companion, "that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?"

"Except yourself I have none," he answered. "I do not encourage visitors."


There are several points of interest contained within this exchange. The first is that Watson, once again dwelling in Baker Street, refers to Holmes as my companion. There is possessiveness in this statement, but also a deep seeded connection that only two cohabitants could express; further proof that Watson could not have merely been visiting.

Watson then questions whether the individual at the door is some friend of Holmes. Holmes' reply of, except yourself I have none, is quite remarkable, for this is one of the only incidences where Holmes admits to having no friends save Watson. Holmes then goes on to confess that he does not encourage visitors, a comment which touches upon Holmes' misanthropic nature. It is curious to note then, that despite Holmes' discomfort with people Watson is excluded from this group; an exception, and the only exception, to the rule.

Their mystery caller turns out to be a client, and upon being admitting into the sitting room, he comments that he fear[s] that I have brought some traces of the storm and rain into your snug chamber; outside validation of the domestic life which Holmes and Watson led.

The client stays only long enough to relay his case, and upon his leaving, Holmes and Watson immediately begin theorizing on the problem at hand. It is interesting to note here that Holmes is beginning to rely more and more upon Watson before making his deductions. Truly Watson has become an invaluable partner in Holmes' professional life.

Eventually their theorizing gives way to an interesting discussion, where Holmes recounts an incidence from their past.

"If I remember rightly, you on one occasion, in the early days of our friendship, defined my limits in a very precise fashion."

"Yes," I answered, laughing. "It was a singular document. Philosophy, astronomy, and politics were marked at zero, I remember. Botany variable, geology profound as regards the mud-stains from any region within fifty miles of town, chemistry eccentric, anatomy unsystematic, sensational literature and crime records unique, violin-player, boxer, swordsman, lawyer, and self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco. Those, I think, were the main points of my analysis."

Holmes grinned at the last item.


If we assume the Baring-Gould date of 1887, then it has been six years since Watson first wrote that list. A Study in Scarlet was not published until December of 1887, several months after this exchange takes place. This could be construed as further proof that the date Watson gives is incorrect, yet it is curious to note that both Holmes and Watson recall this exchange with some clarity.

Indeed, Holmes' grin at Watson's recollection is a clear indication that Holmes is pleased that Watson would have taken the time to analyze him. This long memory is a mark of the close association and awareness the two men have of each other and their shared history.

After discussing the case for some time, Holmes decides that he has exhausted all possibility for the night. It is interesting to note how quickly Holmes shifts gears, telling Watson:

"There is nothing more to be said or to be done to-night, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellow-men."

It should be noted that this is not the first, nor will it be the last, occasion on which Holmes has played for Watson. Indeed, this seems to be a common occurrence, and one cannot help but picture Watson stretched out upon the settee, a roaring fire at his side, with Holmes standing over him, playing soft, soothing sounds as they while away the hours.

I'm going to shift gears here and touch on a personal theory. When one considers Baring-Gould's chronology, and the existence of a first wife, one cannot help but notice that Watson often, during this supposed marriage, spends the night in Baker Street. With each instance, Watson tended to mention that his wife was away, visiting an aunt or her mother. One cannot help but question, then, how often this wife was away? And indeed, how long Watson waited before rushing to Baker Street. Had he ever passed the night alone in his home? Or did he immediately seek out Holmes' company with the departure of his wife?

A curious question, one must agree.

It had cleared in the morning, and the sun was shining with a subdued brightness through the dim veil which hangs over the great city. Sherlock Holmes was already at breakfast when I came down.

It is curious, too, to consider that Holmes, despite Watson's absence, has left Watson's room intact.

The arrival of morning brings the morning paper, and Watson finds himself with the unpleasant task of informing Holmes of their client's death. Holmes, as we will see, takes the news quite badly.

We sat in silence for some minutes, Holmes more depressed and shaken than I had ever seen him.

"That hurts my pride, Watson," he said at last.


Of all the incidences where Holmes has demonstrated the absolute trust he places in Watson, this is perhaps the most profound. That Holmes would not be afraid to show this side to Watson, or even to admit to the damage caused by such an outcome, is extremely suggestive. Truly Holmes, a man who guards his emotions well, and always puts forth the best face, has no qualms with Watson witnessing his upset.

After recovering from his shock, Holmes' response immediately shifts to anger, his need for vengeance kicking in. Holmes takes the law into his own hands, discovers the identity of the men who killed his client, and sends them a dire warning. This recklessness comes across as quite personal, and yet Watson endures the entire ordeal with patience and perseverance, a sign that he knows Holmes well, and indeed, trusts Holmes to do what is right.

Sadly for Holmes, the possibility of revenge sinks, along with the ship carrying the wanted murders back to America. Holmes' resulting depression is not shown, and yet one can easily imagine the end result. It is highly likely that Watson spent a good number of days in Baker Street, consoling his friend, and sharing in his friend's grief and frustration.

 
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