Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
The Sign of the Three, by Larry Lefkowitz
It began with a brief reference within that case I once had occasion to describe, A Scandal in Bohemia. At one point, Holmes had me look up the biography of Irene Adler, which (you may remember) was “sandwiched in between that of a Hebrew rabbi and that of a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes.”
The reference to the rabbi had aroused my curiosity, but I had to wait for an explanation until a good many years after Holmes had solved that case, when I came upon the reference to the “Hebrew rabbi” a second time.
“’Hebrew rabbi’ is somewhat superfluous, Watson, as most rabbis are of that persuasion, but as I know that you often refer to my biographical lists, I ensure that the entries be as clear as possible.”
“I am grateful for it, Holmes, yet what of his connection to you?”
“To explain that, Watson, I must adopt your involved habit of telling a story backward. One afternoon a slow and heavy step upon the stairs and in the passage, paused immediately outside my door, followed by a loud and authoritative knock. I could tell by the authoritative knock that my visitor was a man. And it was my monograph, A Study of the Influence of a Trade Upon the Form of the Hand which served me well in this instance, for what struck me, Watson, upon his entry which I had bid him, was the thumb on his right hand. The skin above the first knuckle had been rubbed in a rightward direction. The opposite from the thumb of an English reader’s turning a page. Clearly, my visitor read from right to left, and the language he read was probably Hebrew. ‘You are a member of the Hebrew faith,’ I said to him. In contrast to my usual client, the man was not astonished by my deductive skill. ‘My head covering, my yarmulke, should reveal as much,’ he chuckled.”
I fixed the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen with a stare. “I would have thought so, too, Holmes.”
“Of course, but how many years have you known me, Watson. I invariably look at the shoes and hands of my visitors and form a conclusion identifying them before I take in their upper extremities. The yarmulke, as the skullcap worn by devout Jews is called, merely confirmed what I had already learned from my visitor’s thumb. And, besides, I deduced he was a rabbi.”
“How?” I asked, leaning forward, keenly interested, as always, in my friend’s incisive reasoning.
“It was when I inquired of my visitor how I could help him. He replied, straightforwardly enough, ‘I thought I could help you. Isn’t that why I received a delivered note this morning addressed to Rabbi Goodman, bearing your signature, and requesting my assistance?’ The rabbi was correct, Watson. I had forgotten that I had summoned him to assist me, since people knocking on my door usually come to me for assistance.”
“How did it come about that you needed the help of a rabbi?”
“A most singular case required it. I call it, The Sign of the Three.”
“How’s that?” I said, remembering the singular affair of The Sign of the Four. I immediately inquired of Holmes if there was a connection with that case, the memory of which still causes a shiver to course up my spine.
“None whatsoever,” Holmes calmed me, smiling that smile of his that indicated I was off the mark.
“The name, The Sign of the Three,” Holmes elucidated, curling himself up in his chair with his knees drawn up, “was inspired by the Hebrew letter shin, which possesses three vertical protrusions.”
I immediately complimented Holmes on his case’s title, for I was struck at once by its aptness. “What does it mean, Holmes? – the shin?”
Holmes reddened slightly. “I confess, Watson, I did not know myself then that it was a shin. Which is why I called on the assistance of Rabbi Goodman.”
“He of the rightward rubbed thumb?”
“Very good, Watson. In any event, my need of summoning the good rabbi came about because I was indeed perplexed. You remember The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, do you not?”
I affirmed as much.
“And you remember Miss Violet Hunter, the most exemplary protagonist thereof?”
I affirmed even more strongly.
“The Sign of the Three began with a visit by the same Miss Hunter, in some distress.”
“I am sorry to hear of it, for she had a most forthright and upstanding character.”
“So she had on the first occasion and, you will be pleased to know, so she had on the second. Upon removing her bonnet, I noted that her hair was still that luxuriant chestnut color, now long since restored to its pristine length. I inquired as to what problem brought her to Baker Street.”
“’Oh, not mine, sir. That of my mistress.’ She proceeded to explain in that clear manner of exposition of hers that she was employed by a good and kind woman, a Madam Rothschild, widowed, a distant relation of the eminent family, as governess to her niece, who lived with her. One day madam Rothschild had received a curious note slipped under her door. The note was undated and without the address of the sender.
Dear Madam [it said]
Your niece is the recipient
Of a substantial income.
I will be in further
Contact in due course.
” This was indeed a mystery,’ I remarked, breaking in, however reluctantly, into Holmes’ narrative. “What did you imagine, my dear Holmes, that it meant?”
“I did not imagine, Watson. I brought my mind to bear upon the facts as I received them and proceeded from there.”
“Quite so. And there was no further contact by the unknown benefactor?”
“The same question I put to Miss Hunter. ‘None whatsoever,’ she replied. Upon my inquiring if her employer knew anyone whose name began with the letter W, Miss hunter confessed to making a similar inquiry.”
“I always considered that Miss Hunter would make an excellent, ah, accomplice to a detective.”
Holmes chose to ignore my comment and continued with his narrative. “Madam Rothschild could think of no one whose name began with a W, save a Mr. Weinstein, a diamond cutter. She was too discreet to wish to inquire of Weinstein if he were somehow connected with the affair, and Miss Hunter, knowing to whom to turn in such cases, spoke of me, and her employer agreed. I paid a visit to Weinstein. My inquiries proved to be a cul-de-sac. He was not the benefactor.”
“So you lacked any basis for clearing up the mystery.”
“I immediately returned to my premises at Baker Street to mull over the matter. I came to the conclusion that the W might very well stand for Wellington, of the famous boot-making firm. The firm supplied boots to the Rothschild family. Perhaps Wellington also had contact with their less wealthy relative, Miss hunter’s employer, or her niece. The next day I disguised myself as a wealthy Swiss boot importer and proceeded to the Wellington emporium, but soon discovered that Wellington was not the benefactor. Clearly, I was on the wrong track. I decided the answer must lie in the note itself.”
Here, Holmes interrupted his narrative and showed me the note which he had kept all these years in his scrapbook. He took out his magnifying glass and magnified a portion of the note. “You see those fibers, Watson, they indicate a kind of fiber, not dissimilar to papyrus, only made in the near East. Having identified the fiber, I turned my attention to the W. It seemed a most singular W, not at all like a W written by an Englishman. Note the indentation on the right side, and the less indented left side – clearly it was written from right to left. Perhaps by a Hebrew writer. I sent for Rabbi Goodman, as I have already related, who confirmed, indeed, that it had been written from right to left, but that it was not an English W, but a Hebrew letter.”
“With his piece of information, I visited Madam Rothschild. After the customary introductions, I inquired whether the shin suggested anyone. She meditated for some moments before remembering one Sheinblum, a distant relative, who had frequented a number of ports in his duties as a sailor. ‘Had he any contact with the Near East?’ I asked her. ‘Why, yes, he resided for some years in the Holy Land.”
“The source of the notepaper.”
“Indeed, the source, Watson. Also, the source of the shin, the initial of Sheinblum’s name in Hebrew, a letter he used as a signature initial in the Holy Land, and never thereafter abandoned for those subliminal reasons in all of us, Watson, that manifest characteristics that to others seem odd or inexplicable, but to ourselves are most rational. Upon my visiting Sheinblum, who possessed that genial, if taciturn, nature sometimes observed in men of the sea, he confirmed his intention to bestow a generous sum upon the niece, but had been ill for some months, a result of a recurrence of malaria contacted years before as a seaman on the England-Malaya trade route. As a result of a fray with Malay pirates, in which he distinguished himself, he had lost a leg. I had been advised of the fact by Madam Rothschild, upon my careful inquiry as to the characteristics of this then putative benefactor. He had, fortuitously, recovered from his relapse, and immediately made good the promised sum. There was therefore no need to pay him a return visit, which was a bit of a disappointment, as –”
“You had planned to employ a sailor’s disguise, complete to a wooden leg.”
“Capital, Watson, “exclaimed Holmes, clapping me on the shoulder.