It always resonates in the handful of times where Holmes proves he’s only human, not quite living up to his reputation in the eyes of his beholders. But it’s something else entirely if one of his clients dies. Only twice in the original canon does someone meet a tragic end under Holmes’ watch. The first time has already been covered, “The Five Orange Pips.” This story is the other one.
Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorpe Manor in Norfolk calls upon Sherlock Holmes and presents him with a piece of paper bearing a line of stick figures in various, but deliberate, poses and positions. It’s mysterious, and it would seem benign were it not for the reaction of his wife. Cubitt has recently married an American, Elsie Patrick. Before the wedding, she bid him to never ask about her past. While she was personally ashamed of nothing, she said she had some “very disagreeable associations” that clearly she was keen to leave behind. The marriage, up to this point, had been happy, but then the messages arrived. The first was mailed from the United States. After that, they appeared in the garden. Whatever they meant, Elsie’s reaction was one of fear, but she would not explain, imploring her husband to honor his promise.
This is one of those rare times where print is actually better than audio for me, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives us the actual codes in use, thus making it also one of those exquisite times where we, the reader, can actually have a chance to crack it alongside Holmes if we so desire. We know his methods, having learned them as Watson has. We have seen, but have we observed?
As the messages come in, Holmes deduces that this is a “substitution cipher,” cracking the code based on frequency of letters in the alphabet as they appear in common usage. The last of the messages makes it clear that the Cubitts are in danger, prompting his swift travel to their manor. There he finds Cubitt with a bullet to the heart, dead, with Elsie seriously wounded from a shot to the head. Inspector Martin of the Norfolk Constabulary considers it to be a possible murder-suicide attempt, making Elsie the prime suspect.
Holmes, however, proves there is a third person involved. He composes a message using the dancing men glyphs — “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” — and has it delivered to a lodger at a nearby farm. While they wait, Holmes explains to Watson and Inspector Martin how the code works, revealing the final message that brought them here in the first place: “ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD.”
The lodger in question is another American, one Abe Slaney. Unaware that Elsie is wounded but yet living, he arrives at Thorpe Manor believing the message he received is from her, and he is captured upon entry. It is revealed that Slaney had been engaged to Elsie, and that Elsie is the daughter of the Chicago crime boss for whom Slaney works. She fled to escape that life, and Slaney had come to England to claim her. The two had been speaking through a window when Cubitt appeared. Shots were exchanged. Slaney fled when Cubitt was killed. Apparently Elsie did indeed shoot herself. Slaney is arrested and sentenced to die by hanging, but the punishment is reduced to penal servitude because Cubitt fired the first shot. Elsie recovers and spends her life administering her late husband’s estate and helping the poor.
The titular cipher has become popularized over the years by this story’s many adaptations, even to the point where the code is used in stories that have absolutely nothing else to do with the plot. Taken as a whole in its original form, the story itself is, for me, one of the very best in the canon, and one of the most memorable. I’d be very curious to know how many professional codebreakers get their starts at an early age because of this tale.