There are famous quotes throughout pop culture that everyone knows despite having never been said in the context of the story being quoted. “Beam me up, Scotty.” “Play it again, Sam.” For Sherlock Holmes, that quote is, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” This story is as close as it comes, when Holmes merely states, “Elementary.”
This story takes place shortly after Watson’s marriage, where in order to discuss a case, Holmes would either have to have Watson drop by the old Baker Street lodgings, or he himself would call upon his friend. The latter is decidedly more rare as Watson would claim due to Holmes’ less than social habits, but it does happen, and this is one of those times. And when Holmes drops by, it’s typically because he requires something of Watson. In this case, he needs a witness to the final stage of his investigation.
The case is a murder, presumably violent, but even this basic aspect is unknown. The victim is Colonel James Barclay, of the Royal Mallows based at Aldershot Camp. The prime suspect: his wife, Nancy. Fellow officers who knew the victim are confused as the marriage seemed to be one of happiness, though observations were made that over the years the Colonel was more attached to her than Nancy was to him. The Colonel also appeared to suffer from bouts of depression and mood swings, seemingly for no reason.
Nancy stepped out one evening with her neighbor, Miss Morrison, on a church-related errand (denoting the suspect’s pious nature), returning in short order. In an unusual turn for her, she retired to the seldom-used morning room and asked the maid to bring tea. The Colonel joined her. The coachman saw this, and the Colonel was not seen alive since. The blinds in the room were up, the glass door leading to the lawn was open. When the maid returned with tea, an argument had broken out, and she heard Nancy say the name “David.” The maid then brought the other maid and the coachman, all of them listening in. Nancy was angry and accused her husband of being a coward. The Colonel was softer voiced, presumably ashamed, but his words weren’t easily heard. Then he cried out, there was a crash, and Nancy screamed.
The coachman reacted, attempting to force open the locked door, then went outside to get into the room through the open glass door. Nancy was found fainted, the Colonel lying dead in his own blood from a head wound. The key to the locked door was not on the inside, and a search later failed to locate it. A club-like weapon was found in the room, but the staff did not recognize it as one of the Colonel’s own collection.
Holmes is convinced there’s a third person who arrived at the time of death and took the key, deduced from foot marks found in and around the room and lawn. This person appears to have brought an animal with him. Based on foot marks, it appears to be long of body and short-legged, like a weasel, but bigger. Claw marks on the curtain leading to the birdcage suggest it’s carnivorous.
Once Holmes has told the maid that Nancy could face murder charges, the maid feels she can break a promise and reveals everything she knows. On their brief excursion, Nancy and her friend met a deformed man with a wooden box. Nancy and the man recognized one another from 30 years back, and Nancy asked her companion to walk ahead so she and the man might discuss a private matter. Upon her return, Nancy was angry and made her friend swear to secrecy.
Assuming there cannot be many men of this description, Holmes soon identifies him as Henry Wood, and it is the meeting with him the next day for which Holmes requests Watson’s presence. Wood defiantly tells Holmes and Watson that neither he nor Nancy is the murderer, but he would have done so gladly had fate not intervened. The story he tells flashes back to the time of the Indian Mutiny (1857). He’d been a corporal in the same regiment as the Colonel, then a sergeant at the time. In those days he was handsome, and both men were in competition for Nancy’s hand. Due to turmoil, water had run out, and Barclay requested a volunteer to get help. Wood volunteered, and Barclay instructed him on the safest route… into an ambush planned by Barclay that left Wood tortured and deformed, spending years as a slave and wanderer. As age and deteriorated health set in, he returned to England. Based on the account here, it is presumed that Wood’s yellow eyes could indicate hepatitis B or jaundice, and a need for fire in the summer suggests a fever, possibly malaria. (I really love having annotated hardcopies of these stories.)
Wood’s meeting with Nancy was completely by happenstance, and unknown to her, he followed her home, witnessed the argument, climbed over the low all, and entered the room. The sight of Wood brought on an apoplectic fit in the Colonel, and Nancy fainted. He thought to summon help, but after reaching for the key, he realized the situation looked bad enough to charge him for murder, so he fled. The animal with him was a mongoose, used in his conjuring acts, which had escaped the wooden box. The odd weapon found was his stick that he dropped when he carried off the key by mistake.
An inquest had exonerated Nancy by this point, the cause of the Colonel’s death being correctly identified — the Colonel was dead before receiving his “lethal” head wound on the table.
“David” was a Biblical reference, wherein Nancy had accused her husband as King David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah transferred to a heavier fighting zone so as to be killed, leaving the king free and clear to marry the widow. Not really one of Conan Doyle’s most clever moments in my opinion, but it does fit Nancy’s church-going character to use one. I was always more impressed with the explanation of using a defanged cobra to fight the mongoose as part of Wood’s conjurer’s tricks.
It’s pretty obvious by this point that Conan Doyle has a deep respect for the “lost” veterans of Britain’s Imperial conquests and a concern for what it all means in the grand scheme. It’s social commentary: “What price, this empire?” It’s a question that needs to be asked, just as relevant today for global powers as it was then.