Of all Holmes' triumphs, I have left this one unchronicled for the longest. In his cerebral way, Holmes regards it as a mere bagatelle among cases: True, the solution is not unique and many more difficult puzzles have been cracked by that great intellect, but the impact of his finding a solution was greater than in any other case.
It was October of 1900. The Indian summer of September was turning to a damp Autumn. Holmes was at the peak of his powers, little knowing that his denouement with Professor Moriarty lay only a few months ahead of him.
With our acquaintance, both personal and professional, with the Foreign Secretary, Holmes and I had become well known and rather frequent visitors at the Ministry of War. So it was not unusual to find ourselves, summoned once more to the oak-panelled offices of Lord Fortescue. More unusual was the company we found there. The two most prominent military men in the realm -- Admiral Sir Charles Farquharson and General Sir James Roylance, whom I had not met before but whose faces I recognised -- were seated in one corner, and we were welcomed not by Lord Fortescue, but by the Prime Minister himself! The atmosphere was clearly tense.
Ushering us in, Lord Fortescue introduced us to the knights.
"I really cannot see what this amateur policeman has to offer us, sir," said Sir James. "Your ridiculous government has returned from the summit with an agreement which nobody could possibly implement. But go ahead and ask Mr. Holmes -- if he has anything like the intelligence you credit him with he will surely tell you the same thing."
"Aye, the lowest cabinboy could see it," said Sir Charles.
"Well, gentlemen," began the Prime Minister. "As you may know I have recently returned from a meeting with the heads of the six other Great Powers of the continent. We are all deeply concerned about the build-up of military forces in Europe at a time of growing diplomatic tensions. However, I am delighted to say that the negotiations were successful."
The General drew breath sharply, and Admiral snorted loudly.
"The Seven Great Powers are now committed to a policy of disarmament. According to our treaty, at the end of next year, each will reduce its forces to identical strengths, and by the following year all armies will be disbanded. In order to maintain our colonial responsibilities, we have agreed that each power will retain a single fleet."
I was delighted, and honoured to be party to such an auspicious moment in European history. Holmes, however, was frowning deeply. Addressing the prime minister, he enquired as to the plan for disarmament.
The Prime Minister answered, "I have left all such details in the capable hands of Lord Fortescue, while the Admiral and the General will implement his instructions. Fortescue will provide you with more information -- I must be attending to more important business."
Fortescue let the PM out, then turned to us. "So there you have it, gentlemen: with no thought for the practicalities, we are commited to pan-European disarmament. The problem is that we have no idea how such a thing could be achieved."
I usually allow Holmes the chance to respond first, but on this occasion he was preoccupied with a careful study of the ceiling. "I'm sure we'll do our best, sir," I bluffed, being quite uncertain of how to begin. "What say you, Holmes?"
My question snapped Holmes out of his reverie. "Yes indeed, Doctor, just how many options does the PM need?" With a smiling eye turned toward the military leaders, Holmes added, "I presume we cannot rely on our own forces to leave our shores."
The admiral and general both went pale with disbelief that Holmes even considered the disarmament possible. For his part, Fortescue simply smiled and replied, "Just one will suffice -- what do you have in mind?"
"It is an interesting conundrum, indeed. With your permission, milord, I will retire to my apartments and examine the possibilities."
What is going on? If you need an explanation of the problem, Watson continues the story.
Alternately, if you have found the solution,
mail your answers to The Pouch.
-- Dr. John H. Watson
via Graeme Ackland
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