The Angry Corrie 14: Aug-Sep 1993
The Curious Affair of the Grey Man of Ben Macdui...
...being a previously undiscovered story, in several parts, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, recently brought to light by
'These are trying times Watson!', remarked Sherlock Holmes. Three long months had passed since the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles was solved by the famous detective. I looked up from my research papers on jungle fever and noted that Holmes was pacing back and forth across the rug in front of the fire. He had his favourite ivory pipe stuffed full of Indian tobacco, and judging from his sudden gestures and glances, I recognised the symptoms of terminal boredom. Such was a very dangerous condition for my friend, since he was prone to resort to the needle to savour the effect of a seven percent solution of cocaine.
'My dear Holmes' said I. 'Calm yourself man! As your doctor and friend I insist that you refrain from your pacing back and forth, for I am trying to read this latest treatise on jungle fever!'
With a malignant stare, Holmes launched into one of his deductions for which he was famous.
'Watson, I see that you are reading, but I suggest your thoughts tend elsewhere; for example, you would welcome a trip to the Highlands of Scotland, would you not?' This was preposterous, for I had indeed been thinking such thoughts. 'How... how could you know what I was thinking Holmes? You are the very Devil himself, unless I am much mistaken!'
'It is simplicity itself,' said he, 'and although you are perhaps puzzled as to how I deduced your secret thoughts, I suggest that when I have explained step by step my reasoning, you will not think me so clever after all!' He turned towards the sofa and sat thereon, and leaning back with his fingertips together and with his eyes closed, as was his usual judicial posture, he proceeded with his deduction.
'You were surprised, Watson were you not, that I could break in on your thought processes when outwardly you assumed that you gave no indication to that effect. But you failed to notice that you still have crumbs on your sleeve from your previous snack. Correct?'
I looked down at my sleeve, and was surprised to note that there were indeed such crumbs, which I had failed to brush off effectively.
'Yes Holmes, you are quite correct. But I fail to see...'. Here, he cut me off with a sudden movement of his thin fingers.
'If I may be allowed to continue,' said he, not without some indignation at my ignorance.
'I perceive further that those crumbs are from your Jacob's cream cracker biscuit. Oh you needn't look so puzzled Watson, for I am an expert on biscuit crumbs; indeed I have written a monograph on the subject. I flatter myself that I can distinguish between fifty different biscuits from their residual crumbs.' I nodded in acceptance that these were indeed Jacob's cream crackers which I had so clumsily crammed into my crop.
'Once I established your choice of biscuit Watson, I recalled the time when you sustained an injury to your right leg which left you incapacitated for many months on the sofa. You will remember that during your convalescence you had access to my collection of mountaineering guidebooks, and also to Mrs Hudson's biscuit jar. Although I said nothing at the time Watson, I was secretly disgusted with your over-indulgence. But since you were evidently very happy in your state of recovery, I remained silent. You will also recall that you imparted to me your earnest desire to explore those places you had read about, particularly the Monadh Ruadh district south of the sleepy hamlet known as Avie-y-mhor. I then remarked that you had better ensure a healthy supply of Jacob's cream crackers for such a trip, but you failed to note the hint of sarcasm in my voice.'
Here, he pointed at my sleeve and continued with his narrative.
'Therefore, when I stood at the fireplace watching you apparently reading, I observed that from time to time you would glance at your sleeve, and that you were not even aware that you did so. Then a distant smile spread across your features Watson, and when I saw the biscuit crumbs there, I deduced that your mind must be wandering back to the images of the Monadh Ruadh Mountains, and that your wished to travel northwards from King's Cross station to Avie-y-mhor. Now sir, that is my line of reasoning which led me to my deduction. Congratulate me Watson for explaining it to you!'
Calmly, I placed my research papers on the oak desk, and stood up suddenly. 'My dear Holmes! This really is too much to take! You are a genius man!'
Holmes sneered indignantly, although I got the impression that he was secretly pleased with my reaction.
'It was elementary Watson' said he. And taking a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his dressing gown, he threw it across to me for examination.
'This came yesterday. What do you make of it?' I unfolded what appeared to be a letter of sorts, addressed to Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, a facsimile of which is here reproduced:
Sir Hugh Munro
14th June 1895
Dear Mister Holmes,
There is a matter of some great urgency which perplexes me, and as I am no nearer the solution than I was three weeks ago, it occurs to me that if you are willing, then perhaps you could give me some of your advice. Yes, we have heard of you up in the Highlands of Scotland too Mister Holmes, and I hope to speak with you in person on the 15th June, if it is convenient to yourself. I will arrive at King's Cross station at 7 a.m., and will immediately proceed to Baker Street by hansom. Please be available in your rooms at 8 a.m. therefore.
'Well Watson' said Holmes when I folded the letter and returned it to him. 'What do you make of it?'
'It would appear that the well-known mountaineer High Munro is due to pay us a visit', said I.
'You would not care to make any deduction further than that?' replied he. 'You know my methods Watson, apply them!' He tossed the letter back towards me, but I could make nothing more from it. No doubt the puzzled look which began to sprout across my countenance was indicative of my answer. Holmes resumed his judicial manner, and proceeded once more with that deductive reasoning of his which made him famous.
'It would not be presumptuous to suggest that friend-Munro is a sufferer of psychosis, that he wears a Harris Tweed jacket with sleeves which are longer than his arms, that he enjoys smoking Burmese tobacco, that he uses a pen knife to sharpen his pencils, and that he has recently suffered from a great shock to his nerves. Also, that he wears expensive Cologne after-shave and that he has recently stood on the summit of Ben Macdui, which is a high mountain in the Monadh Ruadh district. These are my deductions from this singular letter, as far as the realms of probability are concerned.'
'Humph!' said I, somewhat annoyed at his wild speculations. 'I do not see how you can be so sure of yourself Holmes. After all, how on earth can you say for sure that this fellow Munro suffers from psychosis? I suggest that you are being somewhat fanciful in your narrative!' I had stood up from my desk and paced the floor with a measure of some self-importance.
'It is a trivial matter,' said he, 'although one which is so often discounted by certain members of Scotland Yard.' This last remark was said not without a hint of contempt, and I had no doubt that he was referring to Lestrade, that bungling idiot of a detective who had the nerve to suggest on more than one occasion that Holmes was nothing more than an armchair spinner of airy theories. 'Upon receiving Munro's letter, I immediately noted that his handwriting is suggestive of a split personality complex. You cannot fail to notice Watson, that the sentences slope one way and then another, and change every so often throughout the letter. These are the classic symptoms of psychosis, and every good detective should be aware of them.'
I glanced at Munro's letter and noticed that what Holmes said was indeed the case, but I had failed to take account of it until now. Perhaps he was right, but I could not for the life of me see how, on the basis of a few scribblings, Munro could be said to be a wearer of ill-fitting Harris tweed garments. I put this question to Holmes, who glared at me with those dark eyes beneath that furrowed brow of his.
'Evidently Watson, you are entirely ignorant of my methods.' Here, he snatched the letter up and held it a few inches away from my face, so that I could not fail to see what he was driving at this time. 'Here! And here! You see?' He pointed to several strange striations which occurred regularly throughout the dark ink. 'These suggest to me that his cuffs were trailing across the paper as he wrote this letter; note carefully the nature of the striations Watson, for they could only be made by wool fibres! Since we are dealing with a Highland gentleman, is it so far-fetched to suggest that he was wearing a Harris Tweed jacket? And that the sleeves of the Harris Tweed jacket were too long for his arms? Really Watson, I expected better from you!'
This was the last straw. I had put up with Holmes' insolence for long enough. I replied in kind therefore, suggesting that he mind his tongue in future lest he would care to go with me a few rounds of fisticuffs. Seeing the hurt look on his face at this however, I apologised profusely and pleaded with him to continue his interesting deduction, for I was as much in the dark as ever as to what remained of it.
'What of the Burmese tobacco?' queried I. 'And the pen knife?'
'Ah,' said Holmes, who had resumed his judicial posture, 'I am an expert on distinguishing tobacco ash, and the faint trace of grey powder smudged across the lower portion of the letter is undoubtedly the residue of Burmese tobacco. Therefore Watson, Hugh Munro is very fond of his Burmese mild. The pen knife used to sharpen his pencils?' He took the letter in his hands and held it up to the light for close scrutiny. 'Ah, that was a more daring deduction. You must not ask me about it for the moment.'
I felt a pang of disappointment at his offhand remark, but quickly went on to ask him about the Cologne after-shave. At this, Holmes chuckled and said I was a bigger idiot than he had at first thought, for could I not smell the unmistakable vapours of it wafting up from the paper? I regret to say that his remark caused my brain to fill with the red rage, and I picked the poker up and swung it at Holmes' head, but he leapt nimbly out of the direction of the lethal projectile, and as a result of my fit of rage, I went flying headlong into the fireplace.
Were it not for the speedy reaction of Holmes' reflexes, I would have been a burnt man, for his sinewy hand caught me by the collar and dragged me to my feet, thus narrowly avoiding the flames.
'Temper temper, Watson!' exclaimed Holmes, who proceeded with his remaining theories. 'Finally, there is the fact that Munro has stood atop the summit of Ben Macdui. I say this with absolute certainty since the small amount of dust contained in the accompanying envelope can originate from no other place than that. Ah, you can shake your head Watson but I tell you it is so. Have you forgotten my singular ability to distinguish all the dusts of the world? And you who read my monograph on the subject! That our friend Munro has recently suffered a severe shock is more difficult for me to explain, and I must ask you not to question me on the matter. Halloa! Halloa! Halloa! What's this?' said Holmes, apparently to himself, for he directed his question to the door. 'A foot on the stair Watson, and I am much mistaken if that is not our visitor from Scotland. No Watson, please remain seated. I'll want your help should this prove to be a difficult case. Ah, Sir Hugh Munro. Do come in!'
A tall bearded fellow, evidently a gentleman, had stepped quietly into our rooms. He was clad in Harris Tweed jacket and plus-fours, and appeared to be under great emotional stress, for his hands were shaking and his voice began to crack under emotion.
'Aye sir, I'm Hugh Munro... You received my letter? Ah, excellent. I'll come straight to the point Mister Holmes...' But before he could finish his introduction, he fell onto the carpet in a swoon. Clearly, whatever strange events which brought this curious individual to our door had become too much for his constitution to withstand. I rushed towards him with the flask of brandy and put it to his lips, mindful not to spill any of the precious liquid on his tangled beard. With a cough and a splutter, his eyes opened and appeared to take in the occupants of the room which he had entered, and who were now looking at him with worried features.
'Forgive me,' stammered our visitor from the highlands,
'You are Mister Holmes, I take it?' He looked askance at me, so I jammed my thumb vaguely in Holmes' direction. Munro leapt to his feet and shot out his beard at the famous detective.
'Mister Holmes! You must help me! You must come to Scotland with me right away, for there is a menace at large on the slopes of Ben Macdui...' Here, he began to leap up and down on the fireside rug, and recognising the early symptoms of acute paranoia I struck him a sharp blow to the head with the poker, and he ceased his grotesque dance by crashing headlong onto the sofa.
In a few moments however, Hugh Munro regained his composure and showed signs of reasonable behaviour. Holmes had resumed his judicial posture on the armchair and speaking in a clear voice said, 'Pray, proceed with your narrative Sir Munro!'
And then our visitor began to relate to us the terrible details of the Grey Man of Ben Macdui.
To be continued...