While we know Holmes was not a social creature,
disliking company for its own sake, I can easily imagine him establishing a
routine with three or four similar-minded gentlemen at one of the less tony
clubs to engage in some lucrative hands of whist or baccarat over the years.
And if the occasional out-of-towner, especially a well-heeled American,
should come along as a guest, why, all the better!
Holmes’ inclination to gamble at cards became so well known around
that Baron Adelbert Gruner, himself no mean risk-taker, should immediately
set the tone of their confrontation with a card metaphor: “It really is funny
to see you play a hand with no cards in it...Not a colour card there, Mr.
Holmes, nothing but the smallest of the small...Let me make the thing clear
to you, for my own hand is so strong that I can afford to show it.” (ILLU)
I leave the turf for
the last because there are some fascinating, as yet undisclosed,
undercurrents there. Holmes puts off explaining the miraculous reappearance
of Silver Blaze to Colonel Ross with a hurried “There goes the bell, and as I
stand to win a little on this race, I shall defer a more lengthy explanation
until a more fitting time”— this from a man who never failed to take the
opportunity for dramatic disclosures to an astonished audience.
The man to whom
Holmes was more indebted, despite Col. Ross’ generous fee, was Desborough’s
owner, the peculiarly named Lord Backwater. This is the real mystery to
me in this story: who was this guy and what was his connection
The great researcher of
Canonical name sources, Donald A. Redmond, notes that Lord Backwater is one
of the very few undocumented names — it’s not a fellow medical student or
cricket buddy of Doyle’s. It’s made out of whole cloth. One would think that
“backwater” as a name, no matter how nobly acquired, is one that probably
would not get its owner invited to the best parties during the London season.
“Backwater” is a disguise, but one that hints at a seriously impoverished
ancestral manor in an isolated corner of England, perhaps in remote
Yorkshire, Holmes’ own ancestral county.
Remember that this is the
second appearance of Lord Backwater, whoever he may be. It is he who
recommends Holmes to Lord Robert St. Simon, the soon to be disillusioned
noble bachelor. St. Simon writes: “Lord Backwater tells me that I may place
implicit reliance upon your judgment and discretion.” The item to be judged
is not horseflesh, which Lord Backwater knew pretty well, but a woman,
specifically a wealthy American bride. I believe Lord B. had considerable
experience of this situation himself, probably acquired right in Saratoga.
Edith Wharton’s novel The
Buccaneers describes in fine detail the marriage market of the 1870s and
1880s during Saratoga’s heyday as a spa and gambling resort. Wharton based
her novel on the real incident of the most successful American heiress to
snag an English peer, Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose daddy paid about $20 million
to make her Duchess of Marlborough. His Grace’s comment on the match was:
“There was no need for sentiment”.
A quick check of dates,
incorporating Baring-Gould’s chronology, shows some intriguing possibilities:
Saratoga Track is built immediately after the Civil War, and a decade later
becomes the happy husband hunting ground for wealthy but socially inadequate
Americans. NOBL takes place in 1886 and SILV in 1890. Here’s my hypothesis:
Lord Backwater brings his best pieces of horseflesh over to Saratoga in the
late 1870’s or early 1880s in a last ditch effort to revive the flagging
family fortune. While there, he manages to woo and wed an heiress (one
conjures up a Miss Gertrude Flugelhorst, the only daughter to the Sausage
King of Milwaukee) for whom an English “backwater” is a big improvement over
Wisconsin. Yet His Lordship is a little uneasy about the match, especially as
Daddy’s fortune is coming under Congressional investigation — profiteering
during the war, don’t you know — so he asks Holmes to do a little discreet
investigating to help him determine whether or not to marry Trudy.
can’t actually pay Holmes until the marriage occurs and the dowry is firmly
in hand, he can give Holmes insider tips not only on his horses, but those of
other owners and breeders whom he knows well. And so a lucrative sideline to
detection is established. Lord Backwater’s marriage succeeds well enough
financially to suggest to Lord Robert that he follow the same matrimonial
route to solvency and use Holmes’ services when things go awry.