Decoding the Subtext: The Stockbroker's Clerk
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk in June of 1889, setting the case several days after The Boscombe Valley Mystery. Watson does date the case in June, but his interaction with Holmes suggests that the two have not seen each other for some time. This implies that Baring-Gould's date for The Boscombe Valley Mystery is inaccurate. Watson also tells us that he bought a practice shortly after his marriage, and that he has owned this practice for some three months. This suggests that Baring-Gould's date for Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan is also questionable. Holmes, upon first arriving at Watson's home, asks after Mary, an indication that Holmes has not seen Watson since Watson's marriage. If we do indeed date The Stockbroker's Clerk in June of 1889, then we must also date Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan in March/April of the same year. As Watson dates The Boscombe Valley Mystery in June, but does not give a year, then we must assume that this mystery took place in 1890, as Holmes disappeared in the following year and Mary had passed prior to his return). The story was first published in 1893.
Sherlock Holmes, much to Watson's surprise and delight, shows up on Watson's doorstep one day in June. He brings with him a client by the name of Hall Pycroft, and a story so unique that Watson does not hesitate in setting aside his practice to accompany Holmes to Birmingham. On the train to Birmingham, Pycroft's story begins to unfold, and, while Holmes is able to deduce the correct solution, the self inflicted near death of their suspect will prove too singular for even Holmes to reason. All is made clear in the end, however, and Pycroft, much chagrined at having allowed a pair of thieves to so quickly steal his identity, finally has an answer to the curious circumstances regarding his job at the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited.
The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk is an unusual case in that it begins, not in Baker Street, but rather, with Holmes visiting Watson's residence. We see in their interaction that some time has passed since their last meeting and yet, despite this, there is a decided sense of warmth in their meeting.
"Ah, my dear Watson," said he, striding into the room, "I am very delighted to see you! I trust that Mrs. Watson has entirely recovered from all the little excitements connected with our adventure of the Sign of Four."
"Thank you, we are both very well," said I, shaking him warmly by the hand.
Note that Holmes is very particular to mention that he is delighted to see Watson. This is particularly unusual coming from Holmes (as is Holmes' visit) for Holmes has never been one for verbal displays of affection. Note, too, Holmes' excitement at seeing Watson. This is evident in Watson's use of an exclamation point, for it is unlikely that Watson would have changed Holmes' tone for the purpose of bettering a story (especially knowing that Holmes would undoubtedly read said story). It is obvious, then, that Watson wished to demonstrate that Holmes was quite pleased to see Watson, and, indeed, that Holmes had intentionally sought Watson out, not for a mere case, but because Holmes had missed his Watson.
If we examine this particular scene in terms of Baring-Gould's chronology, then it is quite unusual, as this case fell on the heels of The Boscombe Valley Mystery, and Holmes would have only just seen Watson. If this is the case, then it is obvious that Holmes cannot pass any amount of time (even a few days) without seeing his long-time friend and companion.
If we assume that it has been several months since their last meeting, then Holmes' eagerness becomes quite understandable. In fact, one can easily imagine that Holmes spent the better part of those three months fighting against the urge to see Watson. That Holmes should eventually cave is a testament to his feelings where Watson is concerned.
Holmes' feelings are not one sided, however, and we must also note Watson's pleasant surprise at Holmes' visit. That Watson might forget himself long enough to reach out and take Holmes warmly by the hand is an indication of just how much Watson missed his Holmes.
There is, however, some uncertainty in their interaction, and we see in particular Holmes' worry and concern. Indeed, shortly after arriving at Watson's residence, Holmes inquires as to whether or not Watson still finds himself interesting in Holmes' deductive problems. It is obvious here that Holmes is very much eager for Watson to reclaim his role as Holmes' partner, and yet, that Holmes should need to ask is very indicative of Holmes' uncertainty regarding his new role in Watson's married life.
Watson, however, does not disappointment, and within the span of a sentence is able to convince Holmes that nothing has changed, despite the change in Watson's married status.
"On the contrary," I answered, "it was only last night that I was looking over my old notes, and classifying some of our past results."
Aside from relieving Holmes of his worry, this sentence is also quite interesting in that Watson admits to spending his nights glancing over his old case notes. Interesting, is it not, that Watson should spend his evenings (particularly as a newlywed man) poring over the old adventures he had with Sherlock Holmes. While this is quite suggestive on its own, it becomes even more so when one considers this statement in conjuncture with Baring-Gould's chronology. According to Baring-Gould, at best it has been a week since Watson last saw Holmes, implying that Watson is incapable of spending time apart from Holmes without his thoughts turning to the Great Detective. If we assume a greater span of time between Holmes and Watson's last meeting, then it is quite easy to imagine that it was the strain of Holmes' absence which first sent Watson searching through his notes.
Holmes is, of course, quite pleased (and, indeed, relieved) by Watson's response; so much so that Holmes immediately questions whether Watson might be interested in obtaining additional notes for his collection. Watson's response, one must agree, is again quite suggestive.
"Not at all. I should wish nothing better than to have some more of such experiences."
Recall that Watson is newly married, and in the process of establishing a practice. That he should like nothing better than to accompany Holmes on one of his cases is quite telling. In fact, the directness of his statement leaves us with only one conclusion:
Oh la la, Watson.
Again, Holmes is quite pleased by this, and presses Watson in order to ensure that Watson is still willing to drop everything for Holmes. Watson's response and, indeed, Holmes' interrogation is quite telling, not to mention amusing.
"To-day, for example?"
Yes, to-day, if you like."
"And as far off as Birmingham?"
"Certainly, if you wish it."
"And the practice?"
"I do my neighbour's when he goes. He is always ready to work off the debt."
"Ha! nothing could be better," said Holmes, leaning back in his chair and looking keenly at me from under his half-closed lids.
We will begin with Holmes' interrogation. Note that Holmes does not come right out and ask Watson for his assistance. It is quite clear that this is exactly what Holmes is looking for, yet Holmes is not willing to ask until he is certain that Watson is still willing to give over the whole of his time and energy. If indeed this is the first case to follow Watson's marriage, then this tentativeness and probing on Holmes' behalf can be seen as Holmes' attempt to re-establish his footing. He is uncertain what to expect, and so attacks the problem as if it were a case; by asking questions until the pieces finally come together and Holmes is able to deduce the correct solution.
One doubts, however, that Watson was aware of what Holmes was doing, for Holmes is very deft in his manipulation of Watson. He takes particular care not to appear demanding or needy, and establishes Watson's willingness before outright asking.
Watson is, of course, only too eager to agree, and this is particularly interesting given that Watson has just told us that he has only recently acquired his practice, and that this practice was quite demanding of his time. That Watson, despite this, should be more than willing to rush off with Holmes at the first available opportunity is quite remarkable, especially when one considers that he is also leaving behind his new wife.
We see here, too, Holmes' delight at Watson's agreement. In fact, Holmes is so thrilled to once again have Watson by his side that he lets out a great laugh and confesses that nothing could be better. Truly, this must be the case, for it is quite obvious that Holmes has gone to some effort in order to ensure Watson's involvement. Clearly, as we have mentioned before, Holmes misses his Watson, and clearly, this sentiment is very much reciprocated.
Having secured Watson's involvement in the case, Holmes feels quite comfortable turning the conversation to a familiar game; Holmes deducing to Watson's amazement. This provides for a very interesting scene, for we are given a glimpse at Holmes' insecurity, and shown how this insecurity relates to Watson.
Like all Holmes's reasoning the thing seemed simplicity itself when it was once explained. He read the thought upon my features, and his smile had a tinge of bitterness.
"I am afraid that I rather give myself away when I explain." said he. "Results without causes are much more impressive.
Interesting, is it not, that Holmes should express such bitterness at Watson's understanding. Holmes enjoys amazing Watson. He likes that Watson regards him as a puzzle. We cannot doubt, then, that Holmes would worry over losing his air of mystery. To Holmes, allowing this sense of mystery to become commonplace would result in losing Watson's interest, and we can well imagine that this was something Holmes dreaded, for it would mean losing Watson entirely.
In fact, we can take this a step further and suggest that Holmes' behaviour throughout this case is suggestive of Holmes' suspicion that this might have already occurred. Indeed, in Holmes' mind, Watson's decision to marry might very well be seen as an indication of Watson's declining interest. We know that Holmes is uninterested by simplicity and the commonplace, and so one can easily imagine that Holmes would assume Watson should feel the same. If this is the case, then Watson's reaction to Holmes' explanation likely solidified Holmes' suspicion that Watson considered Holmes commonplace, and, as such, that Watson's interest had waned. If we assume this theory to be the correct one, then Holmes' bitterness is quite understandable.
As is Holmes' sudden demand that they leave for Birmingham at once, for Holmes is very quick to remind Watson that he has already agreed to aid Holmes on the case, and that time is of the essence. Watson agrees in an instant, and we can well imagine that this pleased Holmes considerably, for despite having abandoned Holmes for a wife, Watson is not yet a lost cause, and may yet by wooed back to Holmes' side.
The story shifts here, and Holmes and Watson fade into the background as the case comes to the forefront. While this may seem disappointing to the student of subtext, rest assured that the case provides what is possibly the most poignant piece of subtext in the whole of the story.
Despite Holmes' insistence that Watson aid him on this case, it is interesting to note that, aside from reading aloud from a newspaper, and reviving a dying man, Watson does nothing to contribute to the case. In fact, Holmes does very little himself; the bulk of the story explained by a third party. One must then ask: Why was it so important for Holmes to retain Watson's aid?
Ignoring what we have touched on so far, several additional theories come to mind.
It is entirely possible, and, indeed, quite probable, that Holmes simply missed Watson. Perhaps this was the first case to come Holmes' way since Watson's marriage, and, as such, Holmes used it as an excuse to see his old friend. Perhaps Holmes chose to allow Watson time to adjust to his new life as a married practitioner and that this case came at the conclusion of Holmes' self imposed distancing. Or perhaps Holmes had waited for Watson to make the first move, only to realize that Watson was preoccupied and Holmes, losing his patience, finally gave in and sought out Watson in his home. Regardless of the details, it is quite obvious that Holmes longed for Watson's company and companionship.
While less probable, and entirely more cynical, it is possible that Holmes wished to interfere with Watson's marriage. Perhaps in dragging Watson off on cases, even those which did not require Watson's presence, Holmes hoped that he might open a chasm between the young couple. We have demonstrated elsewhere (namely in our analysis of SIGN) Holmes' jealousy regarding Mary, and, indeed, the upset Watson's marriage caused. We have seen, too, Holmes' manipulative nature, especially where Watson is concerned. Is it not possible, then, that Holmes intentionally set about destroying Watson's marriage, all in an effort to have Watson return to his rightful place at Holmes' side?
Whatever the reason, it is quite clear that Holmes is incapable of functioning without his Watson. It is quite clear, too, that Watson is unable to replace Holmes, despite his many efforts to do exactly that.
Clearly, the intertwining of their lives was destined.