One of the longest of the early canon’s short stories, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” was originally published in two parts. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for the second half as the original readers of The Strand Magazine did back in the day. Nor do we have to wait too long for “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” referenced at the beginning of this tale. “The Second Stain” will appear at the end of The Return of Sherlock Holmes collection for us when we get that far in a matter of months, but readers of the original magazine would have to wait a full eleven years before they knew anything more about the case Watson mentions. I think I prefer it when the stories wait on me rather than the other way around. For those who enjoy this sort of thing, Watson mentions that case by name in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” and declares it a failure; the final written account reveals it was quite the success, as likewise hinted at here. Details. They really do matter in a Sherlock Holmes story, don’t they? Admittedly, I’m geeking out a bit, completely unnecessary and otherwise unrelated to this particular case. I don’t always touch on it in these posts, but I do so love Watson’s case introductions. You can sometimes get so much from so little.
“The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” suggests that this story will have some unusual manner of importance that we’ve only heard about thus far from Holmes’ career, such as in the matter of “The Second Stain” that we’ll learn about later. It’s as though the introduction of Mycroft sets the stage for Holmes to do “bigger” cases dealing with matters of state and international affairs. One might instantly recall “A Scandal in Bohemia,” wherein Holmes admirably aided a king in his discreet situation. I suppose that’s not even in the same league, given how outclassed that king was. But that’s what this story is all about, raising the bar on the potential for disaster should Holmes not be able to come through. And yet… for Holmes, it’s just another adventure. He rises to the occasion put before him out of love of his art.
As we’ve seen on previous occasion, this case is brought to Holmes via Watson, who has received a letter from a childhood schoolmate, Mr. Percy Phelps. Phelps is now employed in the Foreign Office in Woking, and is in desperate straits due to the titular naval treaty having been stolen from his desk when he momentarily stepped out late one evening for coffee.
The office has two entrances, joined by a stairway to a single landing. The commissionaire watched at the main office, no one on duty at the side entrance (which smacks of stupid, all things considered — the guard detail should be on the ropes here, not Phelps). Phelps was alone in the office but also knew his fiancée’s brother was in town and might drop in. Phelps pulled the bell rope to request coffee, and the commissionaire’s wife arrived instead of the commissionaire. Phelps continued copying the treaty while he waited, but when the coffee was not forthcoming, he went for it himself. Understandably so! The commissionaire was found asleep, the kettle boiling. Phelps opted not to wake him, but the bell to his office rang at that moment, and Phelps rushed back. The treaty was gone, and the thief with it.
Side entrance was the obvious point of entry and departure. No hiding places, no footprints despite the rain outside. The primary suspect seems to be the commissionaire’s wife, who mysteriously left the building in a hurry. Following up on this, the treaty was not found in her possession. All other suspects were followed upon, each to no avail. Driven to despair over his reputation, Phelps put to bed in his fiancée’s brother’s room, where he remained sick with brain fever for more than two months.
Holmes’ observations are, of course, more complete. The lack of footprints could mean the thief arrived by cab. In the time Phelps was ill, the dire consequences thought to happen from a treaty being in the hands of the wrong foreign government… didn’t happen. And why was the bell rung at all? Was the thief gloating? Or did someone else alert on the thief?
At Phelps’ house, his fiancée Annie Harrison has been nursing him by day while a nurse was hired by night to watch over him. Annie’s brother Joseph has been near at hand. After talking with them, Holmes visits Phelps’ uncle, Lord Holdhurst, who gave Phelps the job. Once Holdhurst is no longer a suspect, he reveals the consequences should the treaty fall into the hands of the French or the Russians. As nothing has happened, it seems the treaty has not yet been sold, though time is running out for the thief as it will soon cease to be a secret. Meanwhile, someone tried to break into the Phelps house in the night, into Phelps’ sick room. Phelps surprised the intruder at the window and could not see a face through the hooded cloak, but he spotted a knife. It is noted this is the first night that Phelps felt he could do without a night nurse.
Watson knows that Holmes is completely in the know at this point, based on his demeanor. Annie is ordered to stay in the sick room all day, then to lock it from the outside when she leaves to go to bed. Holmes finds a hiding place to stage an ambush after sending Watson and Phelps to London, letting the house occupants believe he would be accompanying them.
The intruder appears from the house’s tradesman’s entrance around 2 AM, going to the window as before. A hidden hatch in the floor is opened, from whence the thief produces the treaty in question. He slips back out the window, and Holmes intercepts and fights him, sustaining only minor injuries in the process.
With his flair for the dramatic, Holmes serves up the treaty for breakfast the next morning at 221B. The thief is revealed to be Joseph, whose room it was before Phelps occupied it in his sickness, which in turn prevented Joseph from getting at the hidden treaty in order to sell it. He had the means, the motive, the knowledge of the locations, and the timing of his visit. Holmes explains that Joseph lost a considerable sum on the stock market, making him desperate. Phelps is overjoyed, Watson is dumbfounded, and Holmes is, per usual, quietly smug in his victory.
Again, I ask the obvious question: if this treaty were so important, why was there no guard detail? Lord Holdhurst might want to look into that personally.
One important takeaway from this story is the criticism of a young detective that the police do all the work and look stupid while Holmes takes the credit. Holmes fires back on this as only he can:
“On the contrary,” said Holmes, “out of the last fifty-three cases my name has only appeared in four, and the police have had all the credit in forty-nine I don’t blame you for not knowing this, for you are young and inexperienced, but if you wish to get on in your new duties you will work with me and not against me.”