The Case of the Returned Cypher by Roger W. Harrington

Groom came to my chambers early on the day after I had delivered my paper to the Royal Society on posthumous lividity. The paper had been received well, but I was not, somehow, gratified with my performance. As a result, Groom found me in indifferent humour.


“You must turn your mind to other things,” Groom advised.


“Indeed,” I remarked.


I pulled aside the curtain to my window. It was a miserable day. Rain pelted heavily against the window, leaving grimy trails, and I wondered why Groom had even ventured out to see me. But then, he was a loyal friend, and our Saturday meetings were something I knew he enjoyed.


“Forgive me, Edwin, but I am hardly myself today.”


“It is the weather, nothing more,” my companion offered brightly. “Come, we can play a game of chess and you can regain your spirits by thrashing me soundly.”


I smiled at that. Groom had little knowledge of the intricate strategies of chess, but he would work, stubbornly, at his game; a game that never improved. I was of a mind to indulge him when we heard steps on the stairs and then a gentle knock on the door. At a glance from Groom I nodded and he moved to the door and opened it.


“Professor Renfrew?” A young woman enquired.


Groom shook his head, but ushered her into the room. “Professor Renfrew,” he announced, indicating my person.


The young lady seemed confused. She soon recovered, however, and turned to me with an eager look on her face. She was finely dressed, certainly a lady of breeding, and held herself well. “Professor Renfrew, you must help me,” she declared. “The Wilmington Mace has been stolen.” At that moment, she pulled a scrap of paper from her purse and thrust it towards me. “This is a message from the thieves.”


“Groom, if you would please seat the lady by the fire with a glass of our best sherry.   She has come a long way. In the meantime, I will peruse this note.”

So saying I walked over to the window with the note in my hand.


“But you don’t know my name,” the lady protested as Groom led her to the fireside chair.


“You are Emaline Barrington, of the Brantford Barringtons; daughter of Sir Arthur Barrington, keeper of the Wilmington Mace.”


As Groom handed her a sherry, the lady looked up at me in astonishment.

“The condition of your clothing in this inclement weather, the distance you have travelled and the urgency in your face tells me all,” I told her. “Please allow me a few moments to look over this communication.”


She settled back in her chair and took a tentative sip from her glass.


I began to scan the letter:

“It don’t matter wot you think. Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus. We have the mace. We asked around among the gentry, but nobody wanted it. No one came esteemed. It don’t nod. Somebody should have come. But we know you want it. So decipher the message. Bring five hundred pound and the mace will be yours again.


Them wot knows.”


“Fascinating,” I murmured. “Edwin, you should see this, and pour me a brandy if you will.” I handed the note to him.


After he had handed me my brandy and perused the note, he shook his head. “I can make nothing of it, Renfrew,” he professed.


“Trust me, Edwin, it is the work of a highly formidable foe; perhaps one of the most cunning thieves in all of England. Miss Barrington, might I ask you if you have spoken to anyone else concerning this letter?”


“My father, my brother James and a Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” she responded.


“Mr. Holmes?”


“An amateur detective who lives on Baker Street,” Edwin provided. “Apparently, he is somewhat of a recluse, but he has solved a number of important cases with his unusual methods and the help of his friend, a Doctor Watson.”


“Of course, I should have known. I have heard of the man, but the name escaped me for a moment. Can you tell me what Mr. Holmes imparted to you Miss Barrington?”


“I regret to say, Doctor Renfrew, that he was most abrupt. He mentioned something about an obvious palindrome in the letter, but he went on to say that the case provided little interest for him.”


“Tell me about your father, Miss Barrington. Is he in good health?”


“Never better, Doctor Renfrew. He recently made a great deal on the stock-market; enough, I understand, to improve anyone’s health.”


“And your brother, James?”


“If I might be indiscreet enough to say, with your solemn pledge of absolute secrecy, James has not been able, of late, to hold his excesses within the bounds of his allowance. I have spoken to him about this matter and he has promised to reform his ways. Given his penitence, I have advanced him certain sums, recently, to cover his debts.”


“I thank you for your candid responses, Miss Barrington. I must tell you, further, that there is not a moment to lose.   We must visit this Mr. Holmes on Baker Street, to confirm my findings and then devise with him our subsequent course of action in this matter. Groom, I think a cab would be in order.”


Without questioning me, Groom hurried to the door and down the stairs to hail a cab.


“We are in some haste,” I told the cab-driver. “An extra shilling if you get us to Baker Street quickly.”


We arrived in record time and I gave the cabbie what I had promised over his usual remuneration.


A Mrs. Hudson greeted us at the door and protested that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was practising his violin and could not be disturbed. I assured her that I would knock at his door myself as our mission was one of extreme urgency. She demurred and we hurried up the stairs.


We found Holmes, in mid-arpeggio, with his companion, Doctor Watson, listening.   There was a deep frown on his face when he lowered his violin and saw Miss Barrington.


“Madam, I have informed you,” he explained to her sharply, “that I have no interest in your case.”


“Perhaps, Mr. Holmes, you have been a little too precipitant,” I observed.


“And who might you be?”


“Bartholomew Renfrew at your service, Mr. Holmes. I have heard much about you.”


He stared at me for a moment and then a broad smile creased his face. “The Parkington diamonds!” He enthused, “and the Telford Bell.”


I nodded.


“My God, man! I’ve been dying to meet you.” He turned to his companion. “Watson, this is Renfrew, the man I was telling you about only last week.”


He laid his bow down and reached his hand towards me. I held his thin, elongated fingers in my palm. “Renfrew!” He repeated.


“About Miss Barrington’s letter,” I said, “I believe it deserves a second look.”


“Really?”   He enquired. “Then, sir, we will surely give it a second look.” He put his violin back in its case and took the paper from me. After a moment, he looked up. “I see nothing here that I did not see before,” he remarked.


“If I might suggest,” I told him, “the first palindrome might be a clue to a second reversed expression.”


He perused the paper once more and then slapped his knee soundly. “By gosh, Renfrew, I think you have it!” He passed the paper to his companion, Doctor Watson.   “See here, Watson. See what I have missed.”


Watson searched the paper, but could find nothing. He handed it back to Holmes.


“But it’s elementary, my dear Watson. Elementary!”


“I would appreciate, Holmes, if you would not use such a demeaning expression to define your superior knowledge. It gives me the feeling that I am of little use to you in your work.”


Holmes studied his companion carefully. Finally, he spoke. “You know, Watson; you are my dearest of friends. I could lose my right arm and still be confident in what I do with you by my side. I don’t know what to say about this matter. I do know it has been your view that my cases should be recorded for posterity. I want to tell you that, from now on, you have the right to record what you please of my work in the field of investigation. I want to assure you, as well, that I will never use that phrase again.   You are my friend, my confidante and my fellow traveller in life. There is no possible way that I would venture to break that bond by careless words or any other means.”


I fully believe that Doctor Watson was near to tears on hearing this admission from his companion.


“Shank!”   Holmes exclaimed to me.


“None other,” I concurred.


“A redoubtable foe.”




“We must prepare for this meeting,” Holmes said. “I am sure that my friend, Inspector Lestrade, will be most interested in assisting us in this matter. Let us consider. The meeting has been proposed at the Noble dock; am I right, professor Renfrew?”


“Absolutely,” I responded.


“No chance to get Shank on the dock. He’ll be concealed somewhere in the background. There’ll be a boat, no doubt, to carry the ransom. They have to bring the mace to get the money; probably a force of men to guarantee their control of both the mace and the ransom.   I think we should let Lestrade know that he should come both by land and by sea.”




The mace was recovered and the thieves gained no ransom. There was no hope of gathering Shank into the broad net that Lestrade had spread. The man had disappeared as if he had never existed and none of his men was bold enough to give him up. Holmes regretted the fact, but assured me that either he or I might yet beard the scoundrel.


Later, in my chambers, Groom confronted me. “Tell me, Renfrew, what was it you saw in the note?” He demanded.


“I am sure you saw the first palindrome, “Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus”.


“Yes, that was evident to me, but the other clue.”


“Not as difficult as you might imagine, Edwin. You must take the sentences ‘No one came esteemed. It don’t nod.’ and reverse them, as you would a palindrome. You will find they read: ‘Don’t nod. Tide meet see mace noon.”


“Most ingenious. And the Noble docks?”


“Clearly, the reference to ‘gentry’ was a clue to the location.”


“Remarkable, Renfrew! But why should the thieves send a coded message? It doesn’t make sense.”


“It does if you widen the view of those who are culpable in this matter. You may recall that I questioned Miss Barrington on the health of her father and that she provided me with full information on his situation and that of her brother.”




“You might bring to mind, also, that she informed us that she had shared the letter with her brother and her father; a situation that Shank would surely have anticipated. I am guessing further that he would have known she would have taken the paper to a detective.”


Slowly, it came to my companion. “A person in the family, in desperate need of funds, who might give the thieves the opportunity to steal the Wilmington Mace for a price,” he offered.


“Exactly, my friend! However, it was clearly Shank’s intent to cut James out of the profits for the venture.   Hence, the returned cipher.   Believe me, I have sent a letter to Sir Arthur informing him of the situation.”


Edwin shook his head in wonder.


“I think you might pour us a celebratory libation,” I suggested.


As he moved to the cabinet, Edwin spoke over his shoulder. “You know, Renfrew, there might be something in what Holmes said to Doctor Watson. I mean, it might be a creditable venture for me to record your own cases.” He poured us a drink each and returned with the glasses in his hand. I took the glass he offered.


“No, Edwin, I think not. I have a feeling that what I have done will be nothing in the face of the contribution that men will make for this country in the future. I want no part in the diminishing of such sacrifice.”

The End