Ah, the Irregulars again! I love ‘em. And they fit into the theme of this chapter, which is how Holmes deals with getting information from sources likely considered “below ground” by Scotland Yard.
I’m amused by how Holmes gets information out of the son of Mordecai Smith (the steam launch owner with a pretty cool name):
“Dear little chap!” said Holmes strategically. ((Snort.)) “What a rosy-cheeked young rascal! Now, Jack, is there anything you would like?”
The youth pondered for a moment.
“I’d like a shillin’,” said he.
“Nothing you would like better?”
“I’d like two shillin’ better,” the prodigy answered after some thought.
And so Holmes parts with his two shillings and gets even more information from Mrs. Smith by pretending that he’s looking for a steam boat and, basically, playing down his intelligence, just about playing dumb. “How could you possibly tell that it was the wooden-legged man who came in the night I don’t quite understand how you can be so sure.” Indeed. Or this:
“Ah! She’s not that old green launch with a yellow line, very broad in the beam?”
“No, indeed. She’s as trim a little thing as any on the river. She’s been fresh painted, black with two red streaks.”
Holmes handles other people “of that sort” by making sure they don’t know that their information is important, or else they’ll clam up. For a classist society as that, it’s too true—angering the wrong people may land you in the street, and in Victorian England that’s pretty close to a death sentence for someone without connections.
I don’t hold out much hope for poor Mr. Smith. It doesn’t sound like he’ll survive an encounter with the murderers, even if one of them is apparently not as murderous as the other, possibly by a long shot.
While Holmes shoots down Watson’s suggestions of following the trail of the Aurora themselves, he also says this about Athelney Jones:
He is not a bad fellow, and I should not like to do anything which would injure him professionally.
Say what? Arresting everybody in the house and throwing them into gaol, sneering at any path that’s not his own, doesn’t seem like something a good person would do. Holmes is either very kind, entirely possible in his early incarnations, or else he’s being blackmailed by Jones. Perhaps one of Jones’ “flashes of brilliance” led him to discover this information, whatever it was. I’m well aware this is more or less an Epileptic Trees theory, but it still amuses me. At least Jones’ antics will lead everyone to think that all the detectives on the case are on the absolute wrong trail—and the article in the paper the next day (“Mr. Jones’s well-known technical knowledge and his powers of minute observation” O RLY?) confirms it. Holmes and Watson are lucky they weren’t caught up in Jones’ arresting spree.
A side note: how can a wire be sent to Wiggins of the Baker Street Irregulars, who are all street urchins? I suppose there must be special arrangements set up, or perhaps they’re not all street urchins; I’d be interested in hearing about that particular story. The origins of the Baker Street Irregulars when Holmes was still in University, I like the sound of that.
Another note: Watson’s love is no longer creepy to me. “True, if I found [the treasure], it would probably put her forever beyond my reach. Yet it would be a petty and selfish love which would be influenced by such a thought as that.” He is a noble man, after all. Now I want to see him and Morstan get together. And possibly solve crimes.
A third note (I love how meaty this chapter is, it’s a damn sight better than just about everything from A Study in Scarlet): Holmes says, “I have a curious constitution. I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.” It sounds like something someone could use to diagnose Holmes with… something. I don’t know what, though. Probably lots of things; psychology is not a hard science.
And now we arrive at the thing I was hoping would be delayed: the matter of Small’s companion, the Islander, who may well be the fourth in the sign of four. Watson wonders if it was a savage Indian. WHAT. JUST NO, WATSON, NO. “Hardly that,” says Holmes, which relieves me a bit, until he drags out the gazetteer volume that describes the people of the Andaman Islands. It says, among other things about cannibalism and ferociousness, “So intractable and fierce are they, that all the efforts of the British officials have failed to win them over in any degree.” Yes, people take so kindly to foreign powers attempting to colonize them. </sarcasm> It makes me wonder how much of that article is real, and how much imagined/prejudiced. That Holmes out and out believes what he reads make me really incredulous. JUST NO, HOLMES, NO.
It’s disappointing. “Justified” by the ignorance of 19th century England, yes, but incredibly disappointing to look at from the 21st century, especially since we are not yet beyond all that shit. However, because of the greatness of the rest of the material, and because we should look racism in the eye and say, “Yes, that was racist, and it did happen, let’s not let it happen again,” this chapter still rates a Must Read.
We end with some sweetness to wash out that bad taste as a concerned Holmes tells Watson to lie down and let him soothe him to sleep with the violin. Awwww.