Decoding the Subtext: The Solitary Cyclist
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist in April of 1895, some few days after The Adventure of the Three Students. Watson confirms this date, and so we have no reason to question the story's place in Baring-Gould's chronology. The Solitary Cyclist was first published in December of 1903.
Sherlock Holmes is engaged by a very abstruse and complicated problem when he is interrupted by the arrival of Miss Violet Smith. Miss Smith's father died years ago, leaving her and her mother penniless and alone. Her father's brother is known to be somewhere in Africa, but aside from that they have neither kith nor kin living. Imagine her surprise, then, when Miss Smith spots an advertisement in the paper inquiring into her whereabouts. Thinking she has come into an inheritance, Miss Smith responds to the advertisement, only to learn that two of her (supposedly deceased) uncle's friends are looking to offer her a job as governess at a fee well above the market price. Miss Smith accepts, but soon grows uneasy with her decision. In addition to her employer (Mr. Carruthers)'s seeming interest, she is forced to contend with Mr. Carruthers' brute of a friend, Mr. Woodley, and his advances. It is not, however, until a strange, bearded man begins following Miss Smith on her bicycle that she decides to seek the aid of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist marks the fourth story to appear in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and it is quite apparent in this story that Watson's writing has matured. Gone is the man uncertain and in constant need of Holmes' approval. Gone, too, are the overt romanticisms over which Holmes has so often scolded his Watson. Watson's writing has mellowed, and one gets the sense that Watson has truly come into his own. There is a confidence in his words; a distinct lack of the neediness which often bled into his early work. It is curious that this should correspond with Holmes' retirement.
At the time of this story's publication, Holmes and Watson had known one another some twenty-three years. Twenty-three years, and with the close of their professional partnership (though we will later demonstrate that Holmes' retirement did not sever their personal relationship) we see a Watson confident in himself, and secure in his relationship with Holmes. This is very indicative of an established relationship, and so it is not hard to imagine that, despite their rough and often confused start, Holmes and Watson spent their latter years devoted solely to one another.
Her [Miss Smith] visit was, I remember, extremely unwelcome to Holmes, for he was immersed at the moment in a very abstruse and complicated problem concerning the peculiar persecution to which John Vincent Harden, the well known tobacco millionaire, had been subjected.
Watson has told us that this case takes place some few days after The Adventure of the Three Students, and the reader will undoubtedly recall that Holmes and Watson were away from Baker Street in the story. And yet, above we note that Holmes appears to be submersed in an existing case. Curious, is it not, that Holmes should begin a case so soon after arriving back in Baker Street. While this may lead us to question Baring-Gould's chronology, or indeed, to suggest that John Harden's case somehow involved those charters Holmes was researching in a famous University town, we soon discover that Watson has given us our answer.
My friend, who loved above all things precision and concentration of thought, resented anything which distracted his attention from the matter in hand.
Note that Watson does not say at hand. Indeed, he is very particular to suggest that Holmes' problem is in hand. This is quite telling, for we can automatically discount Watson's excuse and suggest that Holmes' lack of interest in Miss Smith's case stemmed not from an existing case, but rather from the activities that Miss Smith's arrival interrupted. Indeed, it is quite surprising that Watson, who so often finds himself in Holmes' capable hands, should not have objected as well.
Despite Holmes' unwelcome, Miss Smith's manner is so assertive that he cannot help but grant her request. Before listening to her tale, however, he first notes that she is in good health and comments, much to her surprise, on her being an ardent bicyclist.
She glanced down in surprise at her own feet, and I observed the slight roughening of the side of the sole caused by the friction of the edge of the pedal.
Here we cannot help but note Watson's progression. It is quite evident that he is beginning to master Holmes' methods. One can imagine the pride Holmes must have felt, knowing that his instruction had brought Watson to this point. Watson, too, appears rather pleased with his deduction.
With Miss Smith's confirmation that she is, indeed, a cyclist, Holmes continues with his deductions. Here Watson tells us:
My friend took the lady's ungloved hand, and examined it with as close an attention and as little sentiment as a scientist would show to a specimen.
The reader will recall that Watson has twice mentioned the beauty of their new client, and yet Holmes remains as detached as ever. While Holmes is not known for his liking of the female sex, he is always chivalrous. Here he is less so, and so it becomes quite evident that Holmes only has eyes for Watson.
Their conversation continues, until Miss Smith has occasion to mention that she is from Farnham. Holmes' comment, one will agree, is quite amusing.
"A beautiful neighbourhood, and full of the most interesting associations. You remember, Watson, that it was near there that we took Archie Stamford, the forger.
Interesting, is it not, that Holmes should refer to a neighbourhood which he associates with Watson as beautiful. One wonders if perhaps Holmes and Watson had occasion to take a vacation in the region.
The above statement gives way to Miss Smith's narrative. She tells Holmes of her deceased father, and her estranged uncle, and then briefly mentions a man by the name of Cyril.
"Oh, Cyril is his name!" said Holmes, smiling.
We soon learn that Cyril is Miss Smith's fiancé, and it is quite interesting to note that Holmes was aware of this long before hearing the man's name (indeed, before he even knew the man existed). Clearly Holmes recognized a woman in love, and clearly this was not mere deduction (for Holmes would not have known what to look for were he unfamiliar with love). We must therefore suggest that Holmes saw here a reflection of himself. This is quite evident in the smile he gives Miss Smith; indeed, it is evident in his teasing tone, too. Holmes communicates to Miss Smith as one love-struck soul to another.
This, of course, brings us to an interesting theory. Several scholars have suggested that the Holmes who returned from the hiatus was not the Holmes who vanished with Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls. Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the Holmes who returned was, in fact, an impostor. Ignoring this possibility, the most common theories used to explain Holmes' changed behaviour (and, indeed, we do see a more open and surprisingly more mellow Holmes in the later Canon) take into consideration Holmes' travels in Tibet and his freedom from cocaine. While each of these theories sits within the realm of the probable, it is your author's suggestion that it was not Holmes' travels, or his abandonment of cocaine, or even the passage of time which changed Holmes, but rather, that it was Watson, and Holmes' relationship with Watson, which led to the changes witnessed in the later Canon Holmes.
Prior to The Final Problem Holmes had had to compete for Watson's attentions. We cannot doubt that this led to incredible insecurities on Holmes' behalf. After Holmes' return, Watson was his (and his alone) and so Holmes was able to establish himself in a secure and committed relationship. It was this commitment which allowed for Holmes' mellowing. The whole of Holmes' evolution can be seen as by-product of his relationship with Watson, and it is here, in his teasing comment to Miss Smith, that this becomes the most apparent.
"Some secretive lover, beyond all doubt. But there are curious and suggestive details about the case, Watson."
With Miss Smith's leaving, Holmes remarks that her follower is likely an admirer, and it is interesting here to note that Holmes has essentially deduced Miss Smith's bearded man as a stalker. We suggest here that Holmes knew only too well what it meant to stalk an object of affection, for Holmes spent several long years silently and stealthily observing Watson. One wonders if Holmes ever went so far as to assume a disguise and follow Watson. We suspect so, and it is entirely likely that it was his past experience which first caused Holmes to dismiss the danger faced by Miss Smith.
Holmes does, however, see some interest in the case, and this leads Watson to question whether Holmes will go down to Farnham. Holmes' answer, here, is quite remarkable.
"You will go down?"
"No, my dear fellow, you will go down."
While Holmes has, on occasion, entrusted Watson to handle Holmes' affairs, this is perhaps the largest indication of trust found in Canon. Holmes not only entrusts Watson to go down to Farnham, but to come back and report his observations. In essence, Watson will be acting in Holmes' stead. Holmes would not have done this if he did not trust Watson implicitly. Perhaps in part due to their changed relationship, Holmes has come to place a good deal of faith in Watson's abilities.
Sadly for Watson, Holmes is not at all impressed with Watson's eventual report. Watson tells us:
Mr. Sherlock Holmes listened with attention to the long report which I was able to present to him that evening, but it did not elicit that word of curt praise which I had hoped for and should have valued. On the contrary, his austere face was even more severe than usual as he commented upon the things that I had done and the things that I had not.
It is quite evident here that, despite Watson's growing confidence, and his security in his relationship with Holmes, Watson still desires Holmes' approval. Holmes then goes on to tell Watson exactly what he has done wrong, and, whereas Watson of old would not have defended himself, this Watson does, responding:
"What should I have done?" I cried, with some heat.
Watson may wish Holmes' approval, but he does not depend on it. It is clear, too, that Watson is quite confident with his position in Holmes' life, for he is not afraid to stand up for himself. One can easily imagine, then, that their fights were quite passionate. One can easily imagine, too, that this passion could be found in other aspects of their relationship as well. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the shift in Holmes' manner. Clearly Holmes realizes that he has done Watson an injustice, and so he attempts to set things right by dismissing Watson's failure as inconsequential:
"Well, well, my dear sir, don't look so depressed. We can do little more until next Saturday, and in the meantime I may make one or two inquiries myself."
Holmes does indeed head out to make his own inquiries, and upon his return, Watson tells us:
Holmes's quiet day in the country had a singular termination, for he arrived at Baker Street late in the evening, with a cut lip and a discoloured lump upon his forehead...
This paints quite the lovely picture, for one cannot doubt that it was Watson who tended to Holmes' wounds. Indeed, in doing this, Watson seems quite excited, almost demanding that Holmes fill in the details of how he obtained his injuries.
"You are aware that I have some proficiency in the good old British sport of boxing. Occasionally, it is of service, to-day, for example, I should have come to very ignominious grief without it."
I begged him to tell me what had occurred.
We cannot doubt that Watson took great pride in hearing of Holmes' physical escapades. Holmes' prowess as a boxer likely delighted (and undoubtedly aroused) Watson.
In the end, Holmes fairs no better than Watson, and it is interesting to note that Holmes is not above sharing this. Indeed, he tells Watson:
"So ended my country trip, and it must be confessed that, however enjoyable, my day on the Surrey border has not been much more profitable than your own."
Clearly this is an attempt to make further amends for Holmes' earlier dismissal of Watson's investigation skills.
All is not lost, however, for the following Saturday Holmes and Watson both make their way to Farnham. They have received a letter from Miss Smith stating that she has resigned her post and would be leaving her employer's household on that day. Holmes and Watson intend to see her off in order to ensure that her mysterious bicycling stalker does not make an appearance. Upon their arrival, Watson tells us:
A rainy night had been followed by a glorious morning, and the heath-covered countryside, with the glowing clumps of flowering gorse, seemed all the more beautiful to eyes which were weary of the duns and drabs and slate grays of London. Holmes and I walked along the broad, sandy road inhaling the fresh morning air and rejoicing in the music of the birds and the fresh breath of the spring.
The above statement is quite amusing, for we must question if indeed this is a case. From Watson's narrative, we would assume Holmes and Watson are off on a romantic holiday. A woman's life hangs in the balance, and yet they take the time to stroll leisurely through the countryside, inhaling the fresh spring air and listening to the birds sing. Is this truly the same Holmes who so single-mindedly focuses all of his attention on his case du jour? Clearly not, and it is quite apparent here that Holmes' senses have been rendered insensible. This is, of course, quite understandable, for love will do such things to a man.
Their leisurely stroll is interrupted, however, Holmes spotting Miss Smith's trap as it barrels down the road, driver-less. Holmes immediately springs into action. Here Watson tells us:
From the instant that we passed the rise, we could no longer see the vehicle, but we hastened onward at such a pace that my sedentary life began to tell upon me, and I was compelled to fall behind.
It is quite clear here that Watson has let himself get out of shape. This is quite interesting, for it calls to mind a similar scene in A Scandal in Bohemia. Recall that Holmes, upon seeing Watson for the first time since his marriage, remarked:
"Wedlock suits you," he remarked. "I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you."
Clearly, Watson, like most men, falls into a sedentary life when married. As we know Watson to be living in Baker Street, we must therefore assume that Watson's shared life with Holmes is the equivalent of a marriage.
Watson does manage to catch up, and he and Holmes are able to stop the charging horse and climb into the cart. They immediately turn the vehicle around and head off in search of Miss Violet Smith. They soon hear her screams (though not before stumbling across her bearded stalker, who turns out to be none other than her ex-employer, Mr. Carruthers) and discover that she has been forced to wed Mr. Carruthers brutish friend, Mr. Woodley.
Holmes is able to rescue Miss Smith, and prove that her marriage has no legal standing, thereby saving the day for all involved (save, of course, the criminals). As the case draws to a close, Holmes remarks:
"I have been very obtuse, Watson," said he. "When in your report you said that you had seen the cyclist as you thought arrange his necktie in the shrubbery, that alone should have told me all."
Curious, is it not, that Holmes should once again feel it necessary to apologize for criticizing Watson's early investigation. Holmes goes so far as to shoulder the blame, and one wonders if this was Holmes way of reassuring Watson of his faith and trust.
The above statement is also quite interesting given the context of the story. Mr. Carruthers has just admitted to being in love with Miss Violet Smith, stating:
"Even if she couldn't love me, it was a great deal to me just to see her dainty form about the house, and to hear the sound of her voice."
Watson calls him selfish, and yet, Holmes' first thought is to admit to being obtuse. One wonders, then, if Holmes was thinking of his relationship with Watson, for it clearly took Holmes some time to deduce Watson's feelings. Indeed, obtuse is the exact word one would use to describe Holmes' earlier romantic fumbling.