During a period of inaction, an enigmatic telegram arrives that puzzles Holmes… for about fifteen minutes. Watson, of course, is relieved to have any case at all, having gradually weaned Holmes from the cocaine habit that he usually turns to in times of boredom.
The name of the game is Rugby. The telegram was sent by Cyril Overton of Trinity College, who arrives in short order to inquire regarding the disappearance of Godfrey Staunton, the key man on Overton’s team at the three-quarters position. Big game tomorrow, you see; can’t win without the star player. Holmes has no time for sport and has heard of neither men, but to his credit, his professionalism kicks in, especially when it’s revealed that Staunton is the heir of the elderly Lord Mount-James, one of the richest men in the country. By contrast, Staunton lives in relative poverty due to his uncle’s miserly habits. According to Overton, Staunton was out of sorts the day of his disappearance, and later that evening had left with a rough-looking bearded man who had arrived with a note, assumed to be horrible news. Neither was seen since.
According to the hotel porter, the bearded man was neither noble nor worker and seemed equally bothered by the exchanged. The porter had seen Staunton write a reply to the telegram and said he’d post it himself. The impression on the blotter that Holmes uncovers reads “Stand by us for God’s sake,” confirming both the involvement of another and some manner of danger. Lord Mount-James visits, with no information to reveal, though he is angry at the idea of being extorted.
Holmes tricks a woman at the telegraph office to show him the counterfoil of the message Staunton sent, directing them to Dr. Leslie Armstrong of Cambridge. Dr. Armstrong is a personal friend of Staunton. He has no reaction to his friend’s disappearance, nor does he know much. He claims Staunton is healthy, but Holmes produces medical papers, including a bill from Dr. Armstrong. Furious, Dr. Armstrong denies everything and has his butler show Holmes and Watson out. They take up lodgings at an inn across the street that they might watch the doctor.
Running some inquiries, Holmes learns that Dr. Armstrong does not practice medicine, but takes his brougham out to the country regularly, a round trip of about three hours. Holmes rents a bicycle in order to track him, but he is thwarted. Dr. Armstrong makes it known he is aware of Holmes’ interference. The next day, none of the locals have seen Dr. Armstrong.
The case is ultimately cracked by Pompey, a beagle-foxhound mix, who tracks the brougham to a cottage after Holmes coated the wheels in aniseed oil that the dog could track. Staunton is there, grieving for his young wife who had just died of consumption. The marriage was not approved of, so it was kept secret from Lord Mount-James. The bearded stranger was the woman’s father, whom Dr. Armstrong had informed.
When I was a kid, my first encounters with British culture came about through Paddington Bear, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond. When I first read this story, I’d never before heard of rugby. Like Holmes, I don’t care much for sports, though as I gradually learned a couple of things here and there. I actually learned better things from Holmes, such as what broughams and guineas were.
From a character perspective, the real win is the triumph of Holmes over his cocaine addiction. After so many years, it says much that Watson was able to break the hold of that stuff over his friend. It says more that Holmes listened and accepted the aid.
The timing of re-reading this story is peculiar, as such things turn out to be. Earlier this week I finished a biography on Charlotte Brontë, whose family was ravaged by consumption some decades earlier. With that devastation fresh on my mind, it brought a new level of appreciation to this tale’s conclusion.