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19th century British Army pith helmet.

"The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It first appeared in print in the October 16, 1926 issue of Liberty magazine in the United States and in the November 1926 issue of The Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. It was republished as part of the anthology The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.

The story is unusual in that it is one of only four of the fifty-six canonical Sherlock Holmes short stories that is not presented as having been written by Dr. Watson and is one of only two that are presented as having been written by Sherlock Holmes himself.[1] "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" is also notable for including the famous quotation about Holmes' approach to detective work, "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."[2][3]

In the story, a Boer War veteran called James M. Dodd goes to the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes for help. James Dodd was worried because he had not heard from his good friend and fellow former soldier Godfrey Emsworth for some time. Godfrey Emsworth's father says that his son has gone on a voyage around the world but James Dodd is not convinced. On a visit to the large country home of Godfrey Emerson's parents, James Dodd briefly sees his old friend appear at his bedroom window. He recognizes him even though his appearance has changed and his face has become very white. James Dodd later glimpses Godfrey Emerson inside a small building in the grounds of the large house. He comes to believe that his friend's family is keeping him against his will.

A radio adaptation of the story, starring Colin Merrison as Holmes, first aired on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on September 28, 1994.

Plot

The action takes place in January 1903. Sherlock Holmes now lives alone, Dr. Watson having recently married and moved out.

Holmes is visited by a man called James M. Dodd. The detective immediately correctly deduces that Dodd has recently returned from South Africa where he fought in the Boer War. Dodd explains that he is concerned about what has happened to his good friend Godfrey Emsworth. Dodd and Emsworth served together in South Africa. Emsworth was wounded in action. He wrote two letters to Dodd, one from a hospital in South Africa and one from a hospital in England, but then did not write to him again for the next six months. James Dodd wrote two letters to Godfrey Emsworth's father Colonel Emsworth. He received a short reply to the second letter which said that Godfrey had gone off on a journey around the world and would not return for a year. James Dodd was not satisfied with that explanation.

Dodd decided that he needed to go to Tuxbury Old Park, the home of the Emsworths in Bedfordshire, to investigate. He wrote a letter to Godfrey's mother, saying that he was a good friend of Godfrey and would be visiting the area soon. As he had hoped, James Dodd was invited to spend a night at Tuxbury Old Park. On arrival at the house, James Dodd was warmly greeted by Godfrey Emerson's mother as well as by the elderly butler Ralph and his even more elderly wife. Colonel Emsworth, however, was not pleased to see him. Colonel Emsworth demanded to know the real reason for James Dodd's visit. Dodd said that he wanted to know why he had not heard from Godfrey in six months. The colonel replied that he had already explained that Godfrey had gone on a cruise around the world. Dodd said that he would still like to contact Godfrey and asked for the name of the ship on which Godfrey had left and when it departed. The colonel became angry at this question. He told Dodd to drop his investigation, saying that it was a private family affair.

James Dodd did not enjoy having dinner with Colonel Emsworth. He quickly made his excuses and retired to his ground floor bedroom. later that evening, the butler Ralph came in the bedroom with more coal. He took the opportunity to talk with Dodd about Godfrey. Dodd noticed that Ralph used the past tense when he said about Godfrey, "he was a fine man". Dodd demanded to know if Godfrey was dead, to which Ralph replied, "I wish to God he was". Shortly afterwards, James Dodd briefly saw Godfrey at his bedroom window. Godfrey's appearance had changed somewhat. He had a very white face. Dodd could have mistaken him for a ghost if his eyes had not obviously been those of a living man. With some difficulty, Dodd opened the bedroom window and tried to chase after Godfrey in the darkness. The garden path split into several different directions leading to several different huts. Dodd heard a door shut. He was certain that Godfrey had gone into one of the huts but did not know which one.

The following day, James Dodd asked if he could stay for another night. That day, he explored the grounds of Tuxbury Old Park. He noticed that, as well as the huts, there was a larger building that could serves as the home of a gardener or groundskeeper. Dodd saw a little bearded man come out of the building. He did not look like either a gardener or a groundskeeper because he was wearing a black coat and a bowler hat. The man seemed surprised to see Dodd. James Dodd explained that he was a friend of Godfrey and added that he was sorry not to have seen his friend because he had gone off on his travels. The man replied, "Quite so. Exactly", and tried to reassure Dodd that he would see his friend again. The man left but Dodd noticed that he was still watching him from behind a bush.

At night, Dodd returned to the small house. He saw the little bearded man and another man inside. Although he did not see his face, from his posture, Dodd was certain that the other man was his friend Godfrey Emsworth. James Dodd was tapped on the shoulder by Colonel Emsworth and taken back inside the main house. The colonel told James Dodd to leave the next morning and never return. Dodd became convinced that Godfrey's family was keeping him in seclusion against his will.

In response to Sherlock Holmes' questions, James Dodd says that the local stationmaster and innkeeper also said that Godfrey Emsworth had gone off on a voyage around the world. He also says that he saw the butler Ralph carrying out a basket to the small building which might have contained food.

Since he is tied up with other cases,[4] Holmes is unable to travel to Bedfordshire with James Dodd until a week later. Holmes and Dodd are accompanied on the journey by an elderly man. Holmes explains that the man's presence may or may not be necessary but refuses to say anymore. In response to another question, Dodd says that Godfrey's face was not the same shade of white all over and that his brow appeared to be the palest part.

Holmes and Dodd approach the house while the elderly man waits in a carriage outside. The door is opened by Ralph. Holmes notices that, in addition to a standard butler's uniform, Ralph is wearing brown leather gloves. Ralph immediately takes off his gloves and puts them on a table. Holmes notices a strange smell. He takes his hat off and places it on the same table where Ralph put his gloves. He then purposefully knocks his hat over so that he can bend down and pick it up. Having had the opportunity to get close to the gloves, Holmes is certain that the smell is coming from them.

Colonel Emsworth is extremely angry to see James Dodd again and is not happy to see Holmes either. He threatens to call the police and tell them that there are two burglars in his house. Holmes writes one word on a piece of paper. He shows it to Colonel Emsworth, explaining that is the reason why he came. Colonel Emsworth then allows Holmes and James Dodd to see Godfrey and tells Ralph to make the arrangements.

Sherlock Holmes and James Dodd are taken inside the small building. Holmes sees that there are white blotches on Godfrey's otherwise suntanned skin. Godfrey tells James Dodd not to touch him. He then explains how his current situation came about.

The National Archives UK - CO 1069-219-12

Sketch of a British soldier of the Second Boer War. Image from the UK National Archive.

Godfrey and two other soldiers got separated from the rest of their company. The three men were attacked. Godfrey was shot and wounded. The other two were killed. For a while, Godfrey was able to ride off on his horse until he fainted and fell off the saddle. When Godfrey regained consciousness, it was night and very cold. He saw a large house and made his way towards it. He found a large room which contained several beds and went to sleep in one of them. In the morning, Godfrey saw several people in the room, all of whom could only speak Dutch and all of whom appeared deformed in some way. Eventually, an old man arrived. He explained that he was a doctor, that Godfrey was in a hospital for people with leprosy and had gone to sleep in the bed of one of the patients. The hospital had been evacuated but it was then considered safe for the patients to return. The doctor treated Godfrey for a while in a private room, before he was transferred to a regular hospital and then sent to a hospital in England.

After he had returned to England and returned home, Godfrey began to show symptoms of leprosy. To avoid having to go into a special hospital, it was arranged that the small bearded man, a surgeon named Mr. Kent, would care for Godfrey in the small building in the grounds of Tuxbury Old Park. To avoid frightening the local people, the story was invented that Godfrey had gone off on a journey around the world. Godfrey explains that Ralph told him his friend James Dodd was visiting. Godfrey wanted to see Dodd again but did not want to be seen by Dodd. He fled as soon as he realized he had been spotted.

Godfrey asks why his father has suddenly changed his mind about allowing people to see him. Colonel Emsworth says that he was forced to allow it by Holmes. Sherlock Holmes reveals that the one word which he wrote on the piece of paper and showed to Colonel Emsworth was "leprosy". Holmes explains that he realized leprosy was behind the mystery because, although the disease is extremely rare in England, it is not uncommon in South Africa. This was further confirmed by the smell of disinfectant on the leather gloves which Ralph wore when taking food to Godfrey.

Holmes asks Mr. Kent if he has any specialist knowledge of leprosy. Kent says that he does not. Holmes says that the old man who is waiting in the carriage is the distinguished dermatologist Sir James Saunders. He asks if Kent would mind Sir James examining Godfrey. Kent is happy to allow it. After an examination, Sir James Saunders is happy to say that Godfrey Emsworth does not have leprosy. He is suffering from ichthyosis, a disease which is not contagious and which can be cured.

Footnotes

  1. The only other Sherlock Holmes story which is presented as having been written by Holmes himself is "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" (1926). Two other stories, "His Last Bow" (1917) and "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" (1921), are written in the third person.
  2. A similar quote, "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" appears in the sixth chapter of the 1890 Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four.
  3. A similar quote, "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", appears in the 1892 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet".
  4. Holmes says, "I was clearing up the case which my friend Watson has described as that of the Abbey School". This could be a reference to the 1904 story "The Adventure of the Priory School".

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