A Letter to The Times

by Stillman Drake


I was born at London in 1914, the same year in which my father died in one of the first battles of the World War. My grandfather, who had refused to see him or me, or--as we had heard--even to allow our existence to be mentioned in his presence, nevertheless willed his entire fortune, which was considerable, to me, last of the line. His aversion from my father and everything relating to him was in no way personal, but was symbolic of the great grief he had suffered at the childbed death of my father's mother. As in many such cases, he swore that day that he wished never to see the luckless child; and, as happens only in very few instances, he adhered doggedly to that resolution all his life. He provided well for my father's nurture and education, but though he soon remarried, he never took his only son back into his household.

I never saw the old man, though of course I knew him well by reputation. I was twelve years old when he died, and (as I have said) his fortune passed to me. When I reached my majority in 1935 and assumed control of the estate, I was handed a sealed envelope with instructions not to open it until a full half- century had elapsed from its date, which was 1 January 1916. After that time I was free to do as I liked with its contents. As it turned out, they comprised an intimate confession, a family secret which the world would not blame me for withholding forever. But after weeks of wrestling with my conscience I have determined to make the matter public, for my grandfather was a public figure known throughout the world, and his affairs belong to history. The document reads as follows:

1 January 1916

Dear John:

The unfortunate death of your father, my only son, leaves you the sole heir to my estate. You shall enjoy it undisturbed for a time, but then you must consider whether you wish to reveal what I cannot. In the present year I shall reach my ninetieth birthday. My troubled conscience dictates that I conceal the true source of my fortune so long as one friend still lives, except only from my future heir, and perhaps through him to the world.

I cannot reasonably doubt that by now you will have read the chronicles which it was my great privilege to record concerning the doings of one of England's immortal sons. That I could ever have stooped to deceive him in even the smallest matter, and must now still do so, is the source of such deep shame to me that I cannot rest. And this is (puns aside) no small matter. I take some sheepish gratification from the fact that although I did leave some slender clues, his deception remains complete--no mean feat for any man to achieve. Or rather, any two men--for I could not have managed without an accomplice.

Doubtless you recall the great Agra treasure, which the world believes to have been irretrievably lost by its scattering into the mud at the bottom of the Thames. In fact, that treasure was the origin of the fortune you will now have enjoyed for more than thirty years before you read these lines. Half the treasure was duly repaid to Jonathan Small when he was released from prison years ago; the other half has been enough to keep me in affluence, inconspicuously, for a long lifetime, and will provide the like for you. Here is the story, concerning which I left but a few guarded hints in my published account of the affair.

I was madly in love with Miss Mary Morstan, and love is an emotional thing that biases the judgment. I feared that her possession of the treasure would remove her forever from my sphere, and that is what put my mind in a frame receptive to the wild scheme that came to me as we were pulling Jonathan Small out of the Thames. At that time my income was pitifully little, whence I was compelled to share lodgings to keep down my expenses. I longed for even a small competence that would enable me to support a bride. Here, at the other end of a rope, was a man in possession of a fortune that he could not use himself. When we pulled him aboard and Athelney Jones snapped the handcuffs on him, all was confusion. Jones asked us to take Small into the cabin, where he would join us presently. Holmes paused to make some suggestions to Jones, and I went on ahead with Small. The moment we were out of earshot I said to him:

"Arrangements have been made for me to take the box to Miss Morstan. Trust me with the key, declare that you have thrown it into the river, and I promise that neither Miss Morstan not Mr. Sholto shall have the jewels. I will take half, and you shall have the other half the moment you are free."

I had gauged my man aright. Seeing this to offer the only chance of his ever retrieving anything, he handed me the key without a word. I promptly returned to deck, where I met Holmes, and together we went to the Aurora and returned with the treasure box. Our conversation with Small is faithfully recorded in my chronicle, as is the fact that "there was more sorrow than anger in his rigid and contained countenance," followed by the unexplained remark, "once he looked at me with a gleam of something like humor in his eyes." [Canon, p. 140]

By sheer luck, when Jones joined us moments later, he mentioned the somewhat irregular arrangement that would put me in sole possession of the box for a time. Thus Small had every reason to trust in my brief statement to him, and when Jones asked for the key, Small said he had thrown it into the river.

The inspector who accompanied me remained in the cab when we arrived, and my problems were over. The brief time during which the servant was absent, to announce my presence to Miss Morstan, sufficed for my transfer of the treasure to my black doctor's bag, which I left in the hall after stuffing my instruments into the pockets of my topcoat. Thus I wrote "to the drawing-room I went, box in hand..." and not "treasure in hand." [op. cit., p. 141] I recorded the fact that though I spoke jovially and even boisterously, my heart was heavy within me. That was so because I was betraying a trust. Let the gullible reader blame himself if he jumped to the conclusion that my heart was heavy with fear of losing my prospective bride. (I am a bit tired of imputations of gullibility readers cast upon me.)

My account of my own emotions after the empty box was forced open included a veiled confession: "... a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, ... " [op. cit., pp. 142-3] That chapter concluded quite frankly with these words: "Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one." [op. cit., p. 143]

I find some consolation in my having given to all readers at least these few hints of my crime. That was safe enough to do, for I knew that Holmes was not likely to read them with attention, if at all.

Returning to the events of that evening, inspector Athelney Jones raised no question about the empty box. When we assembled at Baker Street and the loss was reported, Small told his story of scattering the jewels in the Thames. Jones questioned his emptying the box instead of sinking it, to which Small replied that he wanted no one ever to be able to recover the treasure it had contained. While all this was taking place, my doctor's bag attracted no one's attention where it reposed in its customary place--dropped there carelessly as I had entered the room. But Small twice took occasion to warn me to play fair with him. Once he said, as I duly wrote [op. cit., p. 144, 157] :

"I would rather swing a thousand times than live in a convict's cell and feel that another man is at his ease in a palace with the money that should be mine," and finally as he was being taken off by Jones he turned and said: "Good night, gentlemen both," with a slight stress on the last word. His compliment to Holmes was understood by all, but only I sensed the concealed threat in his reminder of the treatment he expected ultimately from me.

There is little more to say. Having stolen the Agra treasure, I did win Miss Morstan as my bride. For years I scarcely ever dipped into my ill-gotten half of the booty, lest any unusual sign of wealth on my part excite the attention of Holmes. Small, as I have said, received his half in due course. The rest is yours, as is this confession. Do with them as you please. But I must say with Jonathan Small that "It was an evil day for me when I first ... had to do with the Agra treasure, which never brought anything but a curse yet upon the man who owned it. ... To Major Sholto it brought fear and guilt, and to me it has meant slavery for life." [op. cit., p. 140] I feel that in some mysterious way it brought an untimely death to that sweetest of ladies who was once its true owner, and thereby has visited lifelong grief upon me as its unrighteous possessor. May you escape any like evils.

Your aged and lonesome grandfather,
John H. Watson, M.D.

Fortunately the ancient curse appears to have departed from possession of the Agra treasure, except as it must becloud our family name.

Yours very truly,
John H. Watson III

  Postscript by the Editor, The London Times:

Readers will be pleased to know that justice has at last been done. Her Majesty's Government has seized all the property of John H. Watson III as treasure-trove and has sentenced him to five years' hard labour. Since 1276 it has been the duty of the finder, or anyone who acquires knowledge, to report all treasures to the Coroner. Concealment is akin to treason and to larceny. Upon receipt of the above letter we had no choice under the Coroners Act of 1887 (cf. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., article "Treasure Trove.")

  San Francisco, 13 May 1966

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