A Mad High-Tea Party;
The Worst Butter

by Stillman Drake

A place dear to the hearts of all Scowrers and Molly Maguires was officially described in the canonical words:
The village of Birlstone is a small and very ancient cluster of half-timbered cottages on the northern border of the county of Sussex. For centuries it remained unchanged, but within the last few years its picturesque appearance and situation have attracted a number of well-to-do residents whose villas peep from the woods around. ... A number of small shops have come into being to meet the wants of the increased population, so there seems some prospect that Birlstone may soon grow from an ancient village to a modern town. It is the center for a considerable area of country, since Tunbridge Wells, the nearest place of importance, is ten or twelve miles to the east. (Canon, p. 915)

Incipient prosperity of an old town awakening from long economic slumbers is a phenomenon very familiar to Californians since World War II. As we know, the appearance of the first new shops serving such an area is usually followed by more modern accommodations for visitors and tourists -- either through the modernization and expansion of a traditional inn, or by the construction of new quarters, often of a very luxurious kind when there are well-to-do residents in the region. Such things had not yet taken place at Birlstone on that January day in the late 1880's when Holmes and Watson first arrived to look into the reported death of John Douglas. Only a single inn existed, and it offered rather meager accommodations. That is apparent from Watson's mention of "our modest quarters at the village inn" (op. cit., p. 938) and from his remark that he and Holmes "slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us." (op. cit., p. 946) Almost certainly the name of the traditional village inn was the Birlstone Arms.

I have directed your attention to the foregoing facts before coming to the principal purpose of this paper, for they lend some support to the credibility of the document I am about to describe. The document admittedly needs all the support it can find, and no doubt most authorities will seriously question its authenticity. At first I myself, considering its obscure provenance and the great temptation that exists these days for the making of unscrupulous forgeries related to the Canon, was hesitant to accept it as bona fide. Yet I think it fairly certain that the ink in which it was penned antedated the BSI era and hence belongs to a period less fruitful than the present of impostures and pranks. Moreover, as will be seen, the content of the document lends sense to an otherwise very cryptic passage in the Canon.

To come to the point, some months ago there was brought to my attention in a rather surreptitious manner the existence of a copy of The Valley of Fear which contains, written on the endpapers, certain passages lacking from the canonical text. The place for insertion of these passages was duly marked in the printed text, in the same ink. On the half-title of the copy, also in the same hand and ink, is the following presentation inscription from which a name has been heavily cancelled in ink of a later period:

John H. Watson, M.D., to xxxxxxxxxxxx in memory of a momentous luncheon at the Holborn. In honour of that occasion I have herein restored a long passage which was one of several removed by the editor in order to maintain a swifter pace of the narrative. It is a passage that may pleasantly recall to you those keen observations and deductions with which our mutual friend perplexed me later that afternoon -- to your vast amusement as I clearly remember.
The name inked out is now entirely illegible, but its length and certain other indications are perfectly consistent with the obvious surmise that it was that of young Stamford. As every collector of books is aware, it is not uncommon for a person who has received a book from the author as a gift to erase, deface, or cut out his name from the inscription when the copy is later sold or given away, especially if the original donor is still living. It seems that Stamford was afflicted with this common form of exaggerated sensitivity when disposing of gifts; but of course a skillful forger might write in a name and then cancel it in different ink. Unfortunately the present owner of the volume declines to let it out of her hands even for expert inspection under infra-red and ultraviolet light with a view to recovering the original wording. Nor will she disclose the provenance of this unique copy.

Surely you all recall that on the afternoon of their first day at Birlstone, Watson returned to the inn from Birlstone Manor before Holmes, and that along the way he had surprised Cecil Barker and Mrs. Douglas in some conspiratorial conversation. Holmes was detained in a long talk with the official detectives and did not return until about five o'clock, at which time he displayed a ravenous appetite for the high tea which Watson had ordered for him. Troubled by the scene he had witnessed, Watson spoke of it to Holmes who, however, "was in his most cheerful and debonair humour. 'My dear Watson, when I have exterminated the fourth egg I shall be ready to put you in touch with the whole situation.' ... He sat with his mouth full of toast and his eyes sparkling with mischief, watching my intellectual entanglement. ... Finally he lit his pipe, and sitting in the inglenook of the old inn he talked slowly and at random about his case, rather as one who thinks aloud." (op. cit., p. 940)

The canonical text of Holmes's rambling discourse commences abruptly with his categorical statement that Barker and Mrs. Douglas were indeed, for some reason, conspiring to deceive the police. But if the document described above is authentic, then this abruptness in the original narrative was tempered by some introductory remarks preserved in the possibly apocryphal end- papers, which I now present in their entirety.

Holmes began as follows. 'Let me say first, Watson, that deceptions of one sort or another are round us all the time. They are perpetrated for the widest variety of reasons, good or evil, whence the existence of a conspiracy must not prejudice us per se against those engaged in it. For example, you are now sitting in the midst of an arranged, though quite harmless, deception that has some of the elements of a conspiracy, and indeed a concrete bit of evidence of this has just now been carried away from under your very nose.'

I must have frowned at this, for Holmes chuckled and continued: 'Did you by any chance notice the large pat of butter which I left on my tray?'

Somewhat nettled, I replied that I had indeed noticed what a great surplus of butter had been served to him, such that he had failed to consume it all even despite his four eggs and quantities of toast. Saying so, I added: 'I should deduce from this that our hosts here at the village inn are prospering as they never have before, which accounts for their having become improvident in their servings.'

'Really, Watson, you excel yourself,' replied Holmes. 'I should rather have said the exact opposite. For tell me, at what time did you order this high tea for me? -- which, by the way, I must say I have greatly relished.'

I replied that I had not ordered it until I first saw him coming down the road, perhaps five minutes before his arrival at the inn. Holmes resumed:

'Now, I spent no more than ten minutes washing up, and at most fifteen in consuming those four delicious eggs with toast and tea. Let us say that in all, at most half an hour elapsed between your giving of the order and the removal of the tray. Yet the parsley which had been atop the superfluous butter had worked its way a full three-eighths inch into the pat that was removed. Surely that could not happen in a mere half-hour at the end of a January afternoon, even if the day was unseasonably warm. Ergo, our hosts were merely making a display of prosperity when they included on my tray a pat of butter that had been standing in a warm kitchen all afternoon -- and that probably remained from the luncheon of a dieting lady. Now, my attention having been drawn to this, I fell at once to considering the meagerness of our quarters. If our hosts are prospering, Watson, why do they not expand their accommodations? And let me call your attention to a facial resemblance of all the servants to one another and to the proprietors. All appear to be of one family, or near relatives, joined (perhaps without pay) to make a go of the enterprise. A glance at the silverware shows the armorial device on it not to be that of Birlstone, as might be expected at the Birlstone Arms. It is in fact some family service that is in use, Watson, and evidently that of our good host, too pressed to replace the worn silverware of the old inn. The arms, if I mistake not, were a mule and the German motto aber nicht, and belong to the fine old family of Abernetty, noted for its stubborn pride and family loyalty. And thus you are sitting in the midst of a conspiracy, harmless and containing more of honour than of blame or guilt; a family conspiracy designed to make this inn seem prosperous when in reality its business is simply dreadful.'

And finally this document, if authentic, enables us at last to understand the hitherto tantalizing remark made by Holmes in the adventure called The Six Napoleons:
`You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter ... ' (op. cit., p. 682)

  San Francisco, 4 February 1961

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