Doyle could have called this “the chapter where the backstory no one except the characters care about is related” and been much more accurate, but that’s just my opinion.
I really didn’t care about Small, and his story just made me hate him. The other characters reacted the same way, including the now listless Holmes, and everything else, well, it’s all a line of greed leading to grief and so on. Small’s pitched the jewels into the river because he’s a hypocrite, and gods. Watson is happy about this, of course, but at least doesn’t mention it again.
A note: the story is at least about a man who starts out prejudiced against dark people (for admittedly good reason, due to the racism against white people where he spent a major part of his life) and then treats them as any other person. That at least is admirable, but killing a merchant in cold blood, and everything else is not.
Instead of Small’s backstory, the most interesting part of this chapter is… well… the sad scene at the end where Holmes apparently feels utterly rejected by Watson’s decision to marry Morstan and, worse yet, considers this to perhaps be “the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods.” Why, Watson? Holmes gives “a most dismal groan” and says, “I feared as much.” He’s losing his only friend, someone who he has grown to depend on as a partner in his cases, and indeed the only partner who actually respects him in the midst of sneering policemen taking all the credit.
And it all ends on some of the saddest notes in the canon—perhaps the saddest:
“The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in thsi business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
No matter what you feel about Holmes’ and/or Watson’s orientation, they have a friendship and a kind of codependency on Holmes’ end at the very least. To see them breaking up like this is almost tear-worthy. I was wrong about Holmes teasing Watson about The Sign of Four post-publication. There can be nothing but bitterness here.
Here’s an implication to really make you cry: while embarking on a case during Watson’s absence from his life, while which Watson admits he had barely contacted Holmes at all, Holmes must have turned to say, “Watson, please remain,” only to remember that Watson is no longer there.
How about another one: Holmes has gotten used to having somebody to talk to about all kinds of things, even seems to have picked up study of literature and other sciences and things that formerly he would have scoffed at as not being worth his attention as a crime detective, only to have that somebody leave and never send letters or telegrams or drop in or anything for a long time. How lonely the nights must have suddenly been, and even playing the violin would remind him that there’s nobody to play the occasional airs for.
Or how about a third one: Holmes no longer has anybody to temper his need for cocaine while off a case. And cocaine really does affect the mind and body. He’s probably taking quite a lot of it, all told. With the new emptiness of his life, which he had only just gotten used to no longer having, how much more would he want to take cocaine to get away from it all?
This chapter is thus a mix of “we read it so you don’t have to” and “must read”.
Next time: BBC Radio 4′s adaptation of The Sign of Four, followed by the Granada series’ mixed adaptation.