GERALD BURNS SOCIETY
|GERALD BURNS SOCIETY|
THE (DIS)APPEARANCE OF SILVER BLAZE AND MRS. TURNER: A SHERLOCKIAN SYLLABARY
My current investigation is so delicate, so much what Holmes might call a "plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis," that I hesitate to present it. The Sherlock Holmes stories were written at a gallop, and perhaps for that reason exhibit textural repetitions, Jameses and Johns, bevies of Wilsons, parts of names shuffled and reshuffled. Maberley becomes Amberley, the Countess of Morcar resurfaces as Professor Coram. Hosmer Angel, in a story which hinges on anger, is an anagram for "Anger Holmes." Dr. Ray Ernest, who may have played the fool with Amberley's wife (and whose name reassembles to "Render Satyr") seems taken from Dr. E. Ray Lankester, eminent progenitor of The Lost World and sometime unmasker of the medium Henry Slade, who produced spirit messages on slates. Poor Dr. Ernest manages, in indelible pencil, the pointless syllables "we we." Names in the Holmes stories seem very much things written, and connected with the act of writing.
Any story in English includes numbers of words containing the letters IS or SI, TR or RT. Even a rabid Baconian would make little of it. Yet when a story contains in its important words, the ones a précis would be likely to include, whole clusters of one set or the other, we may be justified in saying that something is up. The first story in the Memoirs is about the singular disappearance of Silver Blaze, of Isonomy stock, missing since Monday night. It is kept near Tavistock, and is scheduled to run a six-horse race with Pugilist, Iris, and another runner owned by Lord Singleford. Gypsies are suspected, and Fitzroy Simpson arrested, for the murder of its trainer Straker, but Holmes concludes that Silas Brown, of a neighboring stable, has hidden the horse. (Brown is truculent until Holmes whispers in his ear.) An additional argument for the Strand reading "Isonomy" over the Harper's Weekly "Somomy" is that Isonomy is contained, letter for letter, in Fitzroy Simpson's name. Are we being faddy? En route to Dartmoor Holmes gauges the train's speed ("The calculation is a simple one") by knowing the telegraph posts are sixty yards apart, Colonel Ross wears side-whiskers -- elements of a mare's nest, no more.
Yet it matters to the plot that Ned Hunter, a stable lad, is poisoned with a dish of curried mutton. Reconsidering this in the carriage Holmes is "distrait," and "remains sitting." What chemist, he asks Inspector Gregory, sold Simpson the opium? A curry, he concludes, would disguise its disagreeable flavor. And then there are the contents of the dead man's pockets. Besides a box of vestas, a stump of candle and an A.D.P. briar-root pipe, we find:
Its tip, Gregory tells him, "was guarded by a disc of cork." Its oddity, coupled with the significant silence of the dog, leads Holmes to conclude that Straker himself led the horse away for a dishonest purpose. In the meantime he finds a wax vesta, invisible in mud, and compares the impressions of boots with footprints. The knife is odd, the disc is odd, and the words in place, some of them, are just a little odd. The hint that you're on the right track is not just that words appear with paired letters, or that as in a poem they appear in places where sense, emphasis and sentence rhythm coincide, but that words a little unexpected seem chosen because they contain the tonic letters, consistent as a flavor. A French critic might say Silver Blaze has seeped in everywhere, disguised (as curry disguises opium, or IS conceals itself in poison and dish), not just as first letters in the names of Simpson, suspected of stealing it, and the man who did -- Silver Blaze, Silas Brown, rhythmic as well as acronymic.
"No gossiping! Go about your business!" says Brown to his groom. (Dawson is his Watson -- Sherlock Holmes, Silas Brown.) But it's all right; Holmes colludes with him in prolonging the horse's disguise, as a little joke on Colonel Ross, who has been sceptical.
The motive? The bills in Straker's pocket. Madame Darbyshire has "somewhat expensive tastes," twenty-two guineas "for a single costume" of "dove-coloured silk." With Straker's photograph Holmes "could easily dispose of the mythical Darbyshire." An expensive mistress has led Straker "into this miserable plot." Holmes has directed Gregory's attention to "this singular epidemic among the sheep," confirming his surmise that Straker practised on them with the cataract knife.
Thematically, IS thrusts itself on us in one last connection. The possessive pronoun "his" is everywhere in this story. Everybody owns things, even the horse. ("His bridle is missing.") The word occurs ten times on the first page of my text, like the horse itself persistent in its presence yet invisible.
If the first story in the Memoirs has an affinity for SI and IS, the first story in the Adventures, "A Scandal in Bohemia," is as fond of TR and RT. Here are two sentences from its first paragraph:
Sticking to strict occurrences of TR and RT, the first page of my text yields, in order: particularly, trained, intrusions, introduce, distracting, instrument, strong, home-centred, Street [Baker, of course], attracted, extraordinary, Trepoff, tragedy, Trincomalee. (Note that the list includes both named unrecorded cases of the sort with which these proems are so tantalizingly salted.) By including words incorporating TR as sonic unit, ter, tor and tur, we add to the list "softer [passions]," "factor," "disturbing," "nature," "master," "alternating," "nature," "mysteries," "returning" and "returned." I came to include them because "turn" in its various forms is so important in this story. I believe the author's habit -- in some of the stories, not in all -- of favoring paired letters is at work here. The sign of it is that these are important words, for which an author searches. In a sense they are words the writer comes up to. Leaving aside such words as trifle and trifling, Watson's country walk and the nitrate of silver, as likely to occur anywhere, we find the sound clustering at important places, for instance the anonymous letter on pink paper: "quarter to eight o'clock," "matter,""trusted with matters," "of an importance," "have from all quarters received," "visitor," to which Watson remarks, "This is indeed a mystery." The watermark involves contractions Holmes expands from his Gazetteer, and blows a triumphant cloud from his cigarette. The writer is German, he concludes, because "uncourteous to his verbs."
The man himself arrives, in a coat slashed with astrakhan, wearing boots trimmed with fur. A mask covers the upper part of his face; its exposed lower part shows him a man of strong character with a straight chin. Uncertain which to address, he hopes Watson is a man he can trust with a matter of extreme importance (which may influence European history). His problem concerns letters he wrote a retired Contralto, which if revealed would offend the strict principles of his fiancée's family, ending his betrothal. Yes, he was imprudent. "I was young. I am but thirty now." For his fee, Holmes is given carte blanche.
I apologize to the reader, I really do, for this lumpish précis. My motive is simply to show how often, and in what important quarters, TR and RT keep popping up. In "Silver Blaze" the S and I invade, it seems, everyone's names. Here they do not, with two exceptions I find remarkable. To show the reader what I mean I must return to the word "turn."
I count fourteen uses of "turn" and its cognates in "A Scandal in Bohemia," fifteen if you include "Mrs. Turner," a mysterious woman who, for this one story, replaces the familiar Mrs. Hudson -- to the frequently expressed puzzlement of Sherlockians. Where did she come from? Where did she go? I think that listing every instance of "turn" in "Scandal" (most of these are important to the plot) shows that Mrs. Turner was produced out of the story's habitual coupling of T and R, and having made her brief appearance, returns to the alphabet from whence she came:
On the next page occurs the comic incident, part of a hectic narrative sequence, in which Holmes disguised as a disreputable groom finds himself in the "preposterous position" of being hauled to the altar as a witness to the marriage of "Irene Adler, spinster." (The groom tips his cabbie half a guinea. Ms. Adler tips her coachman half a sovereign, and Holmes tips his cabbie the same, in the wild ride to St. Monica's. The bride gives Holmes a sovereign, which he says to Watson he'll wear on his watch-chain. Apparently she does not penetrate his disguise.) Holmes, restored to decent tweeds, stretches his legs and laughs heartily, and Watson remarks:
Half a page is spent on a quick snack for Holmes, who assures himself that Watson doesn't mind breaking the law, and risking arrest, in a good cause. Just here, midway in this list of turns (the reader may have observed that the plot seems to turn on turns -- this holds through to the last page, in which by an adroit turn Holmes ignores the King's proffered hand), we come to the Singular Appearance of Mrs. Turner:
The landlady, as should be clear, is never more than a line away from "turn" or "returned," and is named (in my edition) at the foot of the page in which Watson's "unexpected turn of affairs," given a paragraph to itself, preempts the middle. I haven't highlighted TR and RT in these excerpts, to focus attention on the "turns," but they are there. Martha Hudson, I think, simply collapsed under their weight. A moment's inadvertence and Mrs. Turner replaced her, by a kind of lettrist force majeure. What no one could understand is where the name came from. I think it obvious from my tabulation that the name itself (given a landlady who seems bracketed by turns at every turn) obliterated Mrs. Hudson by contagion. If this is true I hope it is not a disappointment. Mrs. Turner survives for me on the page as purveyor of Holmes's late lunch of beef and beer, even if she is really Mrs. Hudson, bearing with customarily good-natured sobriety her nom d'hasard, turned to Turner for the nonce.
Watson takes part in the little plot. In spite of a qualm because Ms. Adler is kind and beautiful, "it would be the blackest treachery to Holmes to draw back now from the part which he had entrusted to me. I hardened my heart, and took the smoke-rocket from under my ulster." The trick is worked, and Holmes and Watson decamp arm in arm:
As they pause at 221B they hear the never-to-be-forgotten "Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes," apparently from "a slim youth in an ulster." Watson has made a point that day, in spite of Holmes's "Madame," of referring to Ms. Adler by her maiden name. Her disguised salutation to Holmes is a lesson in breeding. Her delivery (rendered by Watson) spells out the "Mister." The next day her servant addresses him the same way.
And so does her letter, left for him in the little cubbyhole by the bell-pull. It seems a pity to reduce her note (left in place of the letters and photograph the King was after) to TRs and RTs. But much of the sense remains: "betrayed myself," "Even after I became suspicious," "trained as an actress," "came down just as you departed. . . . followed you to your door, and so made sure that I was really an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Then I, rather imprudently, wished you good-night, and started for the Temple to see my husband. . . . a better man than he."
She has changed her name, for which the byplay with modes of address has prepared us, by marrying an English lawyer, and signs herself "Very truly yours, IRENE NORTON, née ADLER." Mrs. Turner bears her TR for the nearly subliminal reasons we have observed. Godfrey Norton, who tips his driver half a guinea, is in the story to say to Holmes, "You'll do. Come! Come!" and marry Irene. But Ms. Adler flourishes her RT at the end of her letter, and we wish the couple many happy returns (which thanks to the industrious Carole Nelson Douglas and the incomparable Laurie R. King seem on the way to being granted).
The final turn is comic as the scene at St. Monica's, or the ulstered youth's impish aside:
By echoing the words of his letter when he first meets Holmes and Watson the King has sounded simple-minded and obsessed. His methods are crude, hiring burglars ("Pshaw! They did not know how to look.") His guttural Rs and Ts (we hear them) express his uncertain command of English. But worse is his unconscious snobbery, "Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?" He stares in "amazement" when Holmes prefers her photograph to an emerald ring he offers on impulse. Holmes's turn is an actor's gesture; he has more in common with the woman than with the King of Bohemia, and knows it. If there is a ghost of a sovereign on his watch-chain at the end of this story, we are allowed a notion which sovereign it is.
I had my own qualms, to match Watson's with his rocket, searching out these phonemic plums. I felt, in Wallace Stevens's phrase, the worst kind of "pedantic literalist." So in the spirit of science I checked the first eight pages of "Silver Blaze" for words with TR and RT. There were numbers of them, naturally. Compared to the thematically vivid and plot-forwarding ones I've been describing in either story, the ones my cross-lettrism turned up were gratifyingly inert.