“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” appeared in The Strand Magazine in April of 1893 and was included in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In it, Holmes recounts a tale of his university days to Watson. It is one of two tales Doyle gives us before Holmes meets Watson – and the earliest of the pair.
Take a few minutes and go read it. Then, come on back here to Black Gate. Below, I’ve got a very different account of that tale. A very plausible one. So,, come play The Game with me!
Things were not exactly as they seemed when you visited Donnithorpe so many years ago. You are aware that my son, Victor, became a wealthy man in India, overseeing the largest tea plantation north of the Ganges. But he died a few years ago of the fever, so he is beyond suffering and my own time grows short. The consumption is about to take me.
I am pleased to see that you turned those fine talents of yours to professional detectin’. I would like to think I played a small part in that, if you remember my words to you that first time you came to stay with us.
The papers I left for Victor to read after my supposed death told a made-up story, Mister Holmes. You might ask what event from my past could be so bad that I would prefer people, even my own son, to believe that I was a mutineer, rather than know the truth? Let me tell you and maybe you’ll understand.
I’ll wager there’s not a man alive who hasn’t done somethin’ he’s ashamed of. If there is, I’d like to look him in the eye. It was many a year ago that I was a young man in Liverpool, full of fire and life. I was a rough sort without too much schoolin’.
I wrote that I was a clerk in a bankin’ firm in that letter. Hardly! I worked at the docks, loadin’ and unloadin’ cargo ships at the harbor. I cussed and fought and drank with the best of them and I shared a room at a lodgin’ house with Harry Beddoes. Harry had a year of medical trainin’ but his like of drink hurt his studyin’. He gave it up, to his parents’ unhappiness, and ended up a dock hand like me.
We were havin’ a fine time, without a care in the world. Then I met Jenny and everythin’ changed. Mister Holmes, this old man will swear that a more precious angel never walked this earth than Jenny Abbot. Her father owned The Rusty Anchor, an inn at the edge of the docks. It wasn’t a tavern where a man could get his throat slit, though I knew plenty of those places.
It was a respectable place where ship’s officers and fancy merchants stayed. As you can guess, it wasn’t my sort of place, but Harry liked to go there once in a great while. I think it reminded him of days before he gave up studyin’ to be a doctor.
Well, sir, Jenny worked around the place, cleanin’ up and servin’ when needs be. She was no bar wench, that I’ll vow to my grave, though that isn’t far off. Well, she saw somethin’ in me that nobody else could. First with a smile, then later, a few kind words.
There seemed to be a bond growin’ between us. Finally, she agreed to meet me. Her father wouldn’t let her see any customers. Especially not the likes of a dock worker. So we kept it secret.
Never have I been so happy, Mister Holmes. Every time I saw her, somethin’ came alive inside me. She made me a better man. Harry knew about us and kept our secret. He knew what she meant to me. Though we could tell no one about our love, I had to do somethin’, so I had her initials tattooed on the inside of my arm. I kept it covered whenever I went near the Anchor.
Well, sir, you are a man of the world, and you can imagine the passion we had, more so because we couldn’t go about openly. But we got careless and she was with child. We were between a rock and a hard place, I tell you. If her father found out, things would be over between us. He would never let us be together again. She was certain of it.
We were young and scared and couldn’t see anyway out. Harry knew a man who used to be a medical student. He had quit school but would do certain things if the money was right. Oh, how I curse myself for my weakness! I wake up each and every mornin’ and wish I had been stronger.
This fellow, Hudson, agreed to take care of our problem. He performed his operations in a small room down at the waterfront. Jenny was brave, Mister Holmes. She said there was no other way and she wouldn’t give me up. I was sick with it, but I couldn’t see any way out. We went to Hudson’s place at the agreed-upon time.
The place was run-down and dirty. I asked Jenny to change her mind at the last, but she refused. Harry came with me and waited in the next room. I stayed with Jenny. I couldn’t leave her alone at a time like that. She was terrified, but tried to smile. I held her hand while Hudson began his despicable act.
Somethin’ went wrong and he called out to Harry. Harry rushed in and tried to help. There was so much blood, Mister Holmes, so much! Jenny was cryin’ out from the pain, then mercifully, she passed out. She never woke again. She lost too much blood and died.
I must have been in shock. I just stood there holdin’ her hand, calling out her name and cryin’. Harry stayed calm and took charge of things. I tell you that the rest of that night was a blur, Mister Holmes. Harry knew all was lost unless we made it look like she had been attacked. Hudson was ruined if she was found there, so he and Harry carried her body out of there while I just sat on the floor, numb.
They came back and Harry took me to our room. We drank until both of us passed out. The next day, he told me that they had left her behind some crates and barrels in an alley. Harry had made the body look like she had been attacked. God forgive me Mister Holmes, when the police found her, it looked like the attack of a sex-crazed maniac!
No one had known about her and me, so I was in the clear. No one but Hudson. He came by one day, droppin’ hints that Harry and I were lucky men, having an associate so good at keepin’ quiet. When I pointed out that he was surely in the same soup as us, he just laughed. Apparently this wasn’t the first problem he’d encountered and he had ways to protect himself.
Well, when he left, he had such a look on his face that I knew Harry and I were in danger as long as Hudson was around. In for a penny, in for a pound, Mister Holmes. Harry and I knew lots of ship captains on the foreign routes. They were always lookin’ for crew, volunteers or not.
We arranged a meetin’ with Hudson, letting him think that we were goin’ to pay him to keep quiet. Instead, we press ganged him and by the next mornin’ he was out to sea. I didn’t give him much chance to keep alive among the crew of cutthroats we put him with. Harry and I decided we would be safe far away from Liverpool and made our way to Australia.
Like I said in the letter, we struck our fortunes there. I tried to remove the tattoo since it tied me to Jenny’s death, but couldn’t completely erase it. We came back to England and set ourselves up in the country, bound together by our secret and years of adventure and friendship. I married. Though I never forgot Jenny, a man has to leave a legacy or his life served no purpose, right Mister Holmes? We had Victor and you met him at university years later.
You saw my shock when who should show up at my door but Hudson? I did not have a moment’s peace from then on. Hudson had served a life at sea, gettin’ by with his medical skills. But he never forgot what we had done to him. He was determined to make us pay with more than money. Well, as Victor told you, Hudson was a devil in our house.
He ran the place as if it was his own and I could do nothin’ but try to please him. Victor, of course, was insulted and more than once I had to beg him to be patient. Finally, he could stand no more and all but kicked Hudson out of our house. So, Hudson went to Harry’s place. Harry secretly came to see me one day and we agreed that we had to do away with Hudson. There was no other way to ensure our safety. I would not let this scoundrel ruin Victor’s future.
Harry convinced Hudson that we were scared of him and would give him all that he wanted if he would just leave us alone. Harry sent me the message which you read. It set our plan in motion. I pretended to be shocked and ill, causing Victor to send for the doctor. Closeted with the man, I cajoled him to help me. Being a JP, I was a man with influence. I appealed to him with money and reminded him of our friendship, as well as his fondness for his godson, Victor.
Reluctantly, he fell in with our plan. Though I was believed dead, it was Hudson who we buried, Harry and I having killed him. I left behind the papers for Trevor with the false account of a mutiny to prevent any questionin’ of my death or the disappearance of Hudson and Harry. Harry and I went our own separate ways and never spoke again. The risk was too great with two deaths on our hands. I know he died last year.
Harry and I had nothin’ to do with the Gloria Scott. I don’t know what happened to that ship, but I doubt what I said in the letter was true. Lookin’ back, I wonder that you didn’t see through me sayin’ that my tattoo stood for my supposedly real name, Joseph Armitage. I’ve seen a lot of men with tattoos in my life, but I’ve never known one who put his own initials on himself. But I guess that slipped your attention with all of the other fantastic parts of my letter.
I don’t regret what we did to Hudson. He was a miserable human bein’ and he killed my lovely Jenny. He deserved whatever misfortune life gave him. I curse myself for not standin’ up to Jenny’s parents, and for takin’ her to that horrid room. And I am sorry that I did not share my final years with Victor. I thought about lettin’ him know I was still alive, but it couldn’t be as simple as that and I put it off for awhile. I didn’t expect him to die before me.
Well, Mister Sherlock Holmes, we get Dr. Watson’s accounts even here and I am most impressed with your accomplishments. Truly, the detectives of fiction were just nothin’ compared to you. You had no reason to doubt the story I told to Victor, and I guess maybe you knew that further diggin’ into the matter would probably cause him even more pain and sorrow.
I thank you for not doin’ that. I am told I only have a few weeks left before my health finally gives out. I am ready to stand before the Creator and pay for my sins. I don’t know what you’ll make of this letter, but it’s the truth and I think you deserved to know it.
If you think poorly of me, at least remember that I raised a good man in Victor.
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.