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Classics For Kids
THE NAVAL TREATY
re-told for children by
© 2015 Mark Williams
It seemed no-one had any interesting problems for Sherlock Holmes to solve that particular July. The poor fellow was bored stiff, and tried to keep his mind busy with his colorful, if somewhat smelly, chemical experiments. And would spend long hours playing the violin – usually when I was trying to get to sleep. I could see my friend desperately needed a bizarre mystery to get his teeth into.
So imagine my delight when a letter arrived at 221b Baker Street one morning, addressed to me, with a mystery quite as bizarre as any we had come across, and potentially one of the most serious, for the fate of the country hung on its solution.
I was eating my breakfast toast and marmalade when Mrs. Hudson kindly brought up the morning mail, and I was most surprised to see from the return addresses on the envelopes that one letter was from a Mr. Percy Phelps of Woking, in Surry.
“I say, Holmes, I’ve a letter from Tadpole Phelps,” I said.
Holmes looked up wearily from his morning newspaper. “Tadpole?” he asked.
“Percy ‘Tadpole’ Phelps,” I explained. “We were at school together, although he was a year or two ahead of me, and went on to greater things. Cambridge, no less.”
Holmes waved a dismissive hand. “So very nice of him to get in touch,” he said, clearly not in the least interested in my old school chums.
“His uncle is Lord Holdhurst,” I said.
Lord Holdhurst was a well-known and quite powerful member of the government, but for Holmes, who had worked for the Prime Minister and even for royalty on various occasions, this meant little. My friend disappeared behind his newspaper again.
“The last I heard, Holmes, Phelps was working at the Foreign Office,” I went on. “I haven’t seen him in years. I wonder why on earth he is writing to me now.”
Holmes put down the newspaper with a sigh of mild annoyance. “There’s a very simple way of finding out,” he said.
“There is?” I looked at Holmes, wondering what new skill he was about to reveal that would let him know the content of a letter that had just this minute arrived.
“Would you like me to demonstrate?” Holmes held out his hand for the letter.
I passed the unopened envelope to Holmes, expecting him to get out his magnifying glass, examine the handwriting, stamp and postmark and then make some announcement as to what the letter would be about.
But he did no such thing.
“First, you take the envelope in one hand, like this,” said Holmes.
I watched with intense interest, still expecting some miracle of deduction to be revealed.
“Then,” continued Holmes, “you pick up the letter opener in the other hand like this.” He picked up the letter opener with his right hand and waved it to me theatrically, to make sure he had my full attention. “Are you with me so far, Watson?”
I nodded, not sure what would happen next.
I should have guessed.
“Now you insert the letter opener into the envelope like so, slit the envelope along its width like so, and then with two fingers carefully withdraw the letter from the envelope,” said Holmes. “And then,” he finished, flinging the still folded letter over to me, “you read it. Quietly, Watson, while I finish my newspaper.”
Homes disappeared behind the broadsheet again and for a brief moment I felt very foolish, turning the letter over and over in my hands. Then I glanced up and saw Holmes peeking around the newspaper with a big grin on his face.
I had to laugh. “You win, Holmes. I guess I asked for that. But at least it brought a smile to that dour face of yours. The first one I’ve seen in many a week.”
Holmes rustled the newspaper nosily to indicate he was not listening.
“This isn’t Tadpole’s handwriting,” I said. “It’s his notepaper, to be sure, but not his writing.”
Holmes let out a long sigh from behind the newspaper. “My dear Watson,” he said impatiently. “Unless this Tadpole fellow has written to you asking for my help to solve some complex problem, I really do not want to know.”
“Sorry, Holmes,” I said.
I buttered myself another slice of toast and began reading the letter to myself. But seconds later I was interrupting Holmes once more.
“You’ll never guess what, Holmes,” I said. “Phelps does want your help to solve a problem. A serious problem.”
My friend’s eyes lit up. He folded up the newspaper and thrust it to one side.
“So what are you waiting for, Watson?” he said. “Tell me more.”
“A terrible misfortune has befallen Tadpole Phelps,” I explained. “So serious that for ten weeks he has been too sick with worry to even sit up in bed, and even now he is too weak to write, which is why he has had someone write this letter for him,”
Holmes leaned forward. “Unfortunate for Tadpole Phelps, perhaps, but most fortunate for us,” he said. “This sounds like it might be just the thing to break up the boredom of this wretched summer.”
“I think it may well be,” I agreed, reading the letter again. “Phelps says he cannot put more on paper because the matter concerns the Foreign Office and matters of grave importance to the country, but he wants me to escort you to his home in Woking so he can explain everything to you in person.”
I reached for another slice of toast. Mrs. Hudson does make exceedingly good toast, and her home-made marmalade is simply superb. But when I turned back to offer the last slice to Holmes, the opposite chair was empty. Holmes had vanished.
“Holmes?” I cried. “Holmes? Where have you got to?”
“In my room, changing,” came the reply. “The next train for Woking leaves Waterloo Station in less than an hour, Watson, and if you can tear yourself away from that toast and marmalade we may just catch it.”
The train journey was uneventful. I tried to engage Holmes in speculation about what mishap might have befallen my old school chum Phelps, but Homes was having none of it.
“Facts, Watson, facts,” he said. “We do not have enough information to form any opinions as yet. “That letter from Phelps tells us very little, other than it was written by a left-handed lady with a perfumed wrist and that Phelps himself, who is right-handed, was indeed too frail to write himself.”
Holmes had put the letter in his inside pocket for safe-keeping and now produced it and read it through yet again before passing it back to me. “I see from your expression that you do not follow my reasoning,” he said.
I looked at the letter, then up at Holmes. “You are right about Phelps. I know from my schooldays that Phelps is right-handed, and the signature is signed so weakly it could only be by someone in very poor health. But the rest, Holmes? Whoever wrote the letter says clearly he or she is writing on behalf of Phelps, but there is nothing to suggest the letter was written by a lady, and least of all a left-handed lady with a scented wrist.”