The Adventure of Silver Blaze, or “I’ll Take That Bet”

Full disclosure: I’m writing this while watching a “Firefly” marathon inspired by nothing more than it being too long since I’ve last had one and it showing up in my recommended list on Hulu (it’s already in my queue on Netflix, of course, and the DVDs are just across the room from me.  We’ll leave the digital copies in my iTunes out of this).  I apologize now if a “shiny” or two shows up along the way because of that.  I’ll try to restrain myself.

Victorians kind of lacked a bit in terms of exciting modes of entertainment.  They didn’t get recorded music, by way of wax discs, until the 1890s.  Mostly they got by on books, museums, the theater, sports, concerts, dinner parties, hunting, and the occasional oddity that came to town or opened up shop.  (Competitive walking, known as “pedestrianism” was also a thing, by the way.)  Of course, there were your less virtuous varieties of time-passing too, same ones that exist today.  Prostitution was a thriving business, after all; alcohol was a free-flowing thing, despite the Temperance movement; and narcotics were considered medical miracles (potentially with the exception of opium, as opium dens were looked down upon more than a bit).  Then, on top of all those, there’s the other favorite Victorian vice – gambling.

Some quick history

Horseracing was probably the most respectable of the gambling institutions of the time, enjoyed by and bet upon by members of all the various classes.  The “season” for racing ran the summer months and involved races with fancy-sounding names like “The Derby,” “The Ascot,” and “Goodwood,” all three of which still exist as part of Britain’s racing season today.  Men and women put on their Sunday best to come out and watch the collected horses and their jockeys speed around an oval track and try to cross the finish line ahead of the rest of the pack. Envision the race scene from “My Fair Lady” and you’ll have a good visual cue to go by.  It wasn’t just about the betting or the winning; it was a social event, vice mixed neatly and acceptably with the equivalent of a garden party.

Other forms of gambling existed too, of course.  Gaming houses, some of them within the gentleman’s clubs, some setup in private homes or other buildings, ran games that likely looked a lot like the casino table games that exist now.  Private parties also hosted a variety of opportunities for anteing up.  Families played penny hands of Whist or Cribbage or Loo, then the men of the house would go out and up the stakes at less friendly tables.  Poker hit Britain in the 1870s.  Queen Victoria showed interest in the game, which inspired the first publication specifically about poker to be written in order to provide her the rules of the game; it didn’t gain widespread popularity there until around World War I, influenced by American troops.  The predecessor of Craps, known as Hazard, was a highly popular dice game in gambling “hells” – less posh than gambling houses, more likely to be rife with criminals and the lower classes.  They were called hells for a reason, after all.

It wasn’t just the poor that lost their shirts.  Whether it be in upscale halls, private games, or seedy hells, gambling ran rampant among the upper classes and cost more than one respectable gentleman his estate or his reputation.  Even the Royal family had their gaming scandal, called the Tranby Croft Affair, that involved baccarat, Prince Albert, and an accusation of cheating.

Back to Holmes

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” is a story about the disappearance of a race horse and the mysterious death of its trainer just before the Wessex Cup.  Blaze is the favorite to win this year’s Cup, in fact, before he disappeared.  That there are just as many people who would profit from his not running as would if he did is obvious, which means there are more than a few suspects to choose from.  Holmes is only on the scene a few hours before he has most of the sordid tale figured out – cracked via a cataract knife, a handful of bills in someone else’s name, a few horseshoe prints in the mud and “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

If that last one sounds weird, it just eludes to the fact that the dog didn’t bark at the person who took the horse out of the stall, which is a highly important detail to Holmes’ deduction.  When wouldn’t a dog bark at a horse thief?  Why, if the dog knew the thief, of course.  How can a murder be committed without an actual murderer?  Eh, for that one, you probably need to read the story.  It’s an interesting twist, though.  Let’s just say, Silver Blaze gets to run in the Wessex, and Holmes gets to show off in front of the uninitiated again while also frustrating the hell out of them.  Because that’s what Holmes does.

There seems to be some speculation among fans and scholars that Watson had a bit of a gambling problem of his own, of the “lost the rent on more than occasion” level.  It seems to stem from good old Mr. Baring-Gould, who speculated that the doctor must be a gambler because Holmes keeps Watson’s checkbook in a locked drawer of his desk, per a reference in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.”  The same story would maybe infer his game of choice is billiards, by the way, since the two references – to billiards and Watson’s hidden checkbook – appear in relation to each other.

There’s no other mention of Watson and gambling in the canon to provide any sort of support to Baring-Gould’s conclusion, but it’s a flaw in Watson’s character that gets mentioned as fact often enough.  Jude Law’s Watson in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” and its sequel is a confirmed gambler.  Holmes makes sure to illuminate that particular flaw on numerous occasions in the course of the films, using it to demonstrate the doctor’s unfitness for matrimony, in fact.

None of us can know for sure, unless someone has their hands on notes to the contrary, whether Doyle intended Watson to be a gambler.  He doesn’t state it plainly anywhere, nor does he explain exactly why Holmes keeps Watson’s checkbook in a drawer to which only he has the key.  So we only have conjecture to base any discussion of Watson’s gambling on.  If it’s true, it does even out the vices between the two, though: Holmes has his cocaine (and morphine, though we only have one reference to that as well), and Watson, possibly, has his gambling.  What we do know, though, is that it’s Holmes, not Watson, that places a bet on the second race at Wessex during “Silver Blaze.”  Whether that means anything in the grand scheme of the debate or not I can’t say.    I kind of like a character with a few flaws.  Even heroes aren’t perfect.

Four Cures for Boredom

(Author’s Note: This was written over the course of several days and under the influence of cold meds.  That may account for any oddities in the text.  Any oddities beyond the usual, that is.  

Also, this video is directly related to part of the payoff in the last bit.  That, and the inclusion of the following bit of dialogue provided by Dr. Watson in next-to-last chapter of The Sign of the Four:

“Thank God,” I ejaculated from my very heart.

Yes, I admit it, I am occasionally as mature as a twelve-year-old.

Now, onto the story.)

One

It starts with a tin of lozenges bought at the chemists on a whim after a succession of long, dull days.  The city lingers in a seemingly endless, crime-free state that has left me incurably bored and those around me surly in response.  By the time the lozenges are purchased, I have exhausted all other standard forms of engagement: puzzles have been meticulously pieced together, books have been read, entire symphonies’ worth of violin music have been played in the sitting room.  Anne made the mistake of attempting another cooking lesson at my lowest point; it cost her a perfectly good roast and a set of curtains.  I’m still unsure how exactly the fire started.

Artificial means of stimulation are now required.

I add the tin to an order that otherwise consists of Anne’s headache powder and a load of gauze and tincture of iodine for Watson’s practice.  Mr. Peters, the chemist, gives me a sympathetic look when he picks up the tin to add it to the parcel.  “Who has the toothache, Miss Charlotte?” he asks.

“Small bit of one flaring up,” I say, touching the side of my jaw.  It seems odd to tell the man who has overseen the necessities of my various illnesses since childhood that I’m only interested in the purchase for experimental purposes.  Too much explanation involved.

“If it’s not improving after a few days of this, I suggest a trip to see Dr. Taylor to have it addressed.”  There’s a pause as he does the sums; it takes as long as it does because, I’m sure, he gives Anne a small discount out of fondness.  A fondness Anne’s never returned, to my knowledge.

“I will.”  I smile and pay the man.  “Thank you, Mr. Peters.”

“Give your aunt my regards.”

I wait until Watson is busy with patients and Anne is situated in the kitchen to begin my experimentation.  The lozenges themselves taste horrid, too much sugar thrown into the mix in an attempt to make something unpalatable the opposite.  Some things no amount of sugar can help.  They leave a spot on my tongue where they rest to dissolve that feels numb and dull even after they’re gone.

It takes time for the effect of the cocaine to settle in.  When it arrives, it is a warm spark in my brain, a strange, restless clarity, a fizzle of excitement much like what comes with a new case or an especially twisted puzzle.  My heart beats faster against my chest in a way it rarely does without the direct influence of a certain former Army surgeon.  The restlessness forces me to move, to busy myself, to do something with the energy sizzling through me.  I am halfway through organizing a stack of unfiled clippings when the effect begins to fade.

My tongue, however, is still numb.


Two

My next visit to Mr. Peters involves the purchase of Elixir Mariani, a French restorative tonic quite popular with the Queen, amongst others, and sold as a fixative for a variety of illnesses.  The list on the advertisement doesn’t leave out a single malady known to afflict the common Londoner.  It’s the ingredients – or one ingredient in particular – that drew my attention.  As I read the list of health benefits scrawled on the label, I find myself skeptical.

“But how does it taste?” I ask Mr. Peters as I place the bottle on the counter.

“Haven’t tried it myself.  Heard it’s a quality concoction, though.”  He places the bottle carefully inside the bag beside the smaller ones of medicines Watson requested this morning.  “How’s the toothache?”

“Better,” I say.  “Passing thing.  No need for a visit to Dr. Taylor.”

“Good, good.”  He looks up from his ledger.  “Your aunt’s still well?”

“Oh, yes.  She’s fine.”  I pick up the bag.  “Dr. Watson’s curious to see if this Mariani fellow’s on to something with his tonic.”

“If Dr. Watson finds the elixir to be useful for his patients, tell him I wouldn’t mind him directing them my way to purchase it.”

“Of course.”

The elixir goes down roughly.  The flavor is off-putting to me, though not as bad as the lozenges had been.  My tongue tingles but doesn’t go numb.  My whole mouth tingles, in fact, a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant, though odd.  As with the lozenges, the effect comes on with some delay, but a shorter one and stronger when it comes.  The energy arrives with a delightful rush.  I finish a monograph on the differing qualities in soil varieties before it fades, leaving me fatigued and irritable at the monotony of the world once more.

Further research may be required.


Three

Two months have passed without a single case of interest when I discover the efficiency of intravenous cocaine.  Mr. Peters isn’t at the counter the day I purchase the syringe and vials of cocaine suspension and saline solution.  Tommy, his apprentice, rings me up without conversation or question.  Tommy knows a doctor shares the rooms at Anne’s brownstone and finds nothing odd about my purchase.

I start with a ten percent solution, but discover it to be too strong a mixture for my purposes.  It leaves me nervous and unsettled, two things not easily hidden from the others, despite my best efforts.

“You’re more skittish than a cat with his tail afire,” Anne says as I pace the sitting room from end to end.  “Is everything all right?”

“I had more than my fair share of your coffee this morning, I think.  You brew it to melt paint off the walls.”  I smile at her, though I’m aware on some level that it is a less than reassuring expression, combined with my other state.

Watson eyes me in that curious and skeptical way I sometimes find him doing while staring at his patients’ notes, particularly the ones who like to lie about following his instructions.  He makes it to my position in three strides and has his palm to my forehead before I can stop him.  “You feel a bit warm.  Are you sure you’re not feeling ill?”

I swat his hand away and scoff.  “I’m fine.  Stop fussing.”

He returns to his notes reluctantly, eyeing me now and again for the rest of the morning with skeptical concern.

A seven percent mixture, however, provides just the desired effect, and quicker than the previous methods.  There is a lovely moment of release when the plunger is fully depressed and the full dose is administered.  Once it passes, the familiar burn follows.  I feel my mind slip into that bold clearness that only otherwise comes with a question to answer or a problem to solve.  The heavy dullness of complacent reality fades away.  My thoughts race as quickly and steadily as my heart beat, which quickens without pounding.  I smile as the sensation spreads through me.

I am so caught up in this feeling that I don’t notice the door open or a set of curious eyes spying on it all.


Four

The problem with the use of cocaine is the havoc it plays on my sleep after.  I lay in bed for over an hour, staring at the ceiling overhead and wishing for sleep that is more than a bit elusive.  When it threatens to reach hour two, I throw off the covers and grab my robe, knotting it with a frustrated tug as I stumble out into the sitting room.  I expect to find the room dark; Watson sits at the dining table instead, a single lamp burning in the center of it.  He appears hunched over the morning paper, the same posture as seen many a breakfast, though there is a tension in his shoulders that The Times rarely inspires.

“Something in the news troubling you now that didn’t earlier?”

Watson shakes his head without looking away from the paper.  “I’m occupying myself with the daily word puzzles.  Anagrams seem a fitting way to lull myself to sleep.”

“Which has you flummoxed then, doctor?”

“The phrase is ‘a dual eject.’  The clue is ‘excited reply.’”

I think for a moment, then grin.  He misses the expression. “I didn’t think insomnia was infectious,” I say as I take up a spot next to his chair.

“It’s not.  Though, I’m sure our mutual sleeplessness shares a cause.”  He lifts his head just enough to look at me down the slope of his nose.  More specifically, his gaze focuses on the bend of my left arm.

“You saw me.”

“I did.”

“And you disapprove.”

“I do.”  He drops his gaze back to the newspaper.  “Just because the rest of my profession sees no danger in it doesn’t mean I have to agree.”

“It puts a clearer spin on the monotony,” I say.  He huffs.  “The slow, uneventful drudgery of normal existence is nearly torture for me, Watson, something you well know.  This…this at least makes it somewhat palatable.  This…”

Perhaps it’s exhaustion that keeps me from reading his intention in the tensing of his muscles or the shift of his weight; Watson would blame it on the narcotic, of course.  Before I notice he’s moving, he twists in his chair and pulls me into his lap.  A hand cups my chin and drags me into a kiss that burns hotter than any drug ever could.  The thrill racing up my nerves and sizzling through my veins knows no match.  Every kiss is more thrilling than the last, as if they all build to some grand, tumultuous inevitability and this kiss feels closer to the precipice than the others.  My heart is racing.  The cocaine has nothing to do with it and I wonder, briefly, how I thought anything would be a fair substitution to this.

The kiss breaks.  Watson’s lips drag their way to my ear.  “If you’re in need of a distraction, I think I can offer a better one.  If the lady doesn’t object.”

I manage little more than a breathy “Yes, please.”  One of his arms tightens around my waist.  The other slips beneath my knees.  He stands with a determined steadiness, but pauses once he’s fully on his feet and I’m cradled effortlessly in his arms.

“Are you sure?”  He’s breathless, too, but there’s concern in his darkened eyes.

I smile and pet his jaw with a remarkably steady hand.  “So noble, my dear doctor.  Even when you don’t need to be.”  I steal a kiss of my own, intent on leaving him as addled as his left me.  “Yes.  Please.”

Watson wastes no time making it across the room; I waste no time opening the door between increasingly desperate kisses.  I grin when I remember what had me near chuckling a moment earlier, pulling back to look up at him.

“Ejaculated,” I say, causing his confused blinking.

“Sorry?”

“’A dual eject.  An excited reply.’  Ejaculated.”

Watson tosses his head back in a deep, chest-rumbling laugh, then nudges the door shut with a kick.

Sleep will have to wait.