17 Jan 2014
For the past year, I’ve been researching Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches published during Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime. So every Monday and Friday, I’ll be publishing some of my finds with a bit of commentary.When World War I broke out in 1914, more than 4,000 British civilians living in Germany were interned at a horse racetrack outside Berlin. Housed in the stables and facing the prospect of a long stay, the internees made the best of their situation. They turned the stables into livable barracks, built wooden sidewalks to traverse the mud and named them for streets in England, set up businesses, including tailors, cafes and even a casino, and figured out ways to pass the time. One enterprising inmate launched a private postal system with mailboxes and stamps called the Ruhleben Express Delivery — the R.X.D. in the story. There was even a newspaper and a magazine, “In Ruhleben Camp,” from which this story was taken.
(I did take some editing liberties with this story. “Everywere” in the title was corrected, and commas and paragraphing were inserted where appropriate.)
Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop For Tea
“Come in,” cried a familiar voice in answer to my knock on the heavy sliding door of the box stall. I discovered Sholmes reclining in a deck chair wringing some lost chords out of the soul of a concertina.
“My dear Whyson, I am delighted to see you,” he said, motioning me to an cozy margarine box. “You will find the tobacco in that clog on the shelf.”
“But,” I began.
“Oh, that is quite all right,” said Sholmes, picking up an empty box and suspending it by a nail over the peep-hole in the door. “You will observe, my dear Whyson, that should anyone try to look through that hole he would simply see the inside of the empty box.”
“Marvellously simple,” said I, “and quite worthy of you, my dear Sholmes!”
“And now, Whyson,” said Sholmes, when we had settled ourselves comfortably with our pipes. “Where have you been hiding yourself, I have seen nothing of you lately?”
“I have been rather busy the last few days,” I replied. “This morning for instance, I went early to the Canteen for a hard-boiled egg. But after waiting some hours in the line, the man next but one in front of me got the last. I next went to the Parcels Office and after waiting a few more hours nearly succeeded in getting a parcel. That is to say all of the contents of the thing addressed to me were confiscated with the exception of two glass jars of jam and those were broken.”
“Most annoying,” said Sholmes.
“Yes, one is kept constantly busy here doing nothing,” I replied. “This afternoon I waited a further two hours trying to get a ticket for Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung’ and all I could manage was a seat on the top of one of the stoves.”
“That is very hard,” said Sholmes.
“And very cold,” I added.“But now my dear Whyson I have just been presented with a very pretty problem, something that will interest you. Of course, I have a lot of other things on hand, the affair of the missing lion’s head, the disappearance of the balance sheet from the boiler-house, the mystery of the bucket from barrack eight, the fraud of the gilt watch-chain and the like. But as you know, my dear Whyson, I do not regard the problems that come my way from the point of view of the pecuniary profit that may accrue therefrom but solely as a specialist in mystery.” I could see that Sholmes had been presented with a problem after his own heart for seldom have I seen him as near excitement as he was on this occasion.
“Well, tell me all about it, Sholmes,” I cried, “and it will really seem like old times.”
“Here you are,” he replied and handed me an R.X.D. card from the Captain’s Office.
It ran as follows: “Dear Mr. Sholmes, we find ourselves in a frightful difficulty and would be indescribably grateful if you would come to our aid. Every night a number of men from various barracks steal from their beds and disappear until morning, in many cases not returning for the count at six thirty. This is, as you will readily recognise, a very serious matter, and we trust that you will not deny us your assistance. P.S. Please do not mention this to anyone outside the Captain’s Office as it would never do for the Camp to think that there was any problem, however difficult that we are not capable of solving without any outside help whatever.”
Sholmes smiled somewhat sarcastically as he saw me reading the post-script. “Rather like the appeals we used to get in the old days from Scotland yard only not so well put, eh, Whyson?”
“Well, have you any ideas?” I enquired, knowing full well by the way he stroked his chin that my inimitable friend had already formed some theory which would lead to a speedy solution of the Captain’s woe.
“Yes, we have some ideas on the matter and we will put them to the test to-night when I shall be glad of your Company and may be of your assistance Whyson. Meet me by the flagstaff at ten-thirty, will you. By the way, don’t bring your service revolver as it might go off and so land us in trouble — that is, to say, in barrack eleven.”
At ten-thirty, I stole along to the appointed meeting place where I found my friend awaiting me. Thanks to my previous experiences of a like nature, I had taken the precaution to put my dark trousers over my pyjamas so that we should not be conspicuous, and Sholmes nodded approval when he noted this evidence of my having benefited from his lessons. “But, my dear Watson, why cover up your white trousers and leave your white jacket to give us away? Still it won’t matter for this little trip. Now, come along and do walk lightly so as not to wake them.”
This, I thought, was a little exaggerated, believing that he referred to the people sleeping in the barracks.
Noiselessly, we crept down Bond Street and we were just opposite the Lobster’s stores when Sholmes gripped my arm. “See them?” he whispered hoarsely. Sure enough, I saw several figures leaning against the boiler-house.
“What are they making?” I asked, for like many others in this camp, I am in the throes of Otto-Sauer and this has a prejudicial effect on one’s English at times.
“Sleeping,” replied Sholmes simply. Then, after a pause, “Well we’d better be going back to barracks.”
“But what about these people? Are these the missing men? What are you going to do about it?” And I put the querries in a heap.
“My dear Whyson,” drawled my friend, “Like the dramatic societies, I think my best course now is one of masterly inactivity. It is up to the captains now, as our friend Millington would say.”
“But my dear Sholmes, it is all so absurdly simple. How did it occur to you that these men were to be found there?”
“Observation, my dear Whyson, only observation. Tell me how do you spend most of your time here?”
“Why, in lining-up, of course.”
“Just so. And about what do you swear most?”
“Why, about lining-up, of course.”
“Just so. And do you sleep well when you have been to the Casino?”
“Why, no, of course not.”
“Just so. Well, there you are.”
“Well, come now, my dear Whyson, you have been privileged to study my methods all these years. Surely it is quite obvious to you. Let us look at the facts. Firstly, all the men who disappear are casino-schein holders. Secondly, they are quite normal during the day but do this mysterious vanishing act at nights. Trouble in the night, my dear Whyson, is usually attributable to stomache trouble. Then the fact that these men’s subconsciousnesses must by this time be saturated with the idea of lining-up. There you are, my dear Whyson.”
And my extraordinary friend hastened away towards his box and his beloved concertina.
Me again. One great thing about reading these long-forgotten works is teasing out the details that were familiar to readers of the time and are now long forgotten. Thanks to a couple of websites and the memoir “The Rhuleben Prison Camp,” I learned that the RXD stood for “Ruhleben Express Delivery,” the private mail service I mentioned earlier. “Bond Street” was the name the prisoners gave to the area where the prisoners had their shops. The “casino-schein holders” referred to the tickets needed to get into the casino. Inmates were limited to one or two 1-hour visits per day, with a sentry posted at the door to check the tickets.
Israel Cohen’s memoir of the 18 months he spent there gives a fascinating insight into life in the camp. Once life settled into a routine, the greatest difficulty was in keeping one’s spirits up. The day-to-day routine became so boring that, well, let Mr. Cohen describe a typical day. Check out the resemblance to life depicted in the story:
Rising at half-past six every morning, lining up at the tap to get water for a wash, lining up on parade at seven, crowding round the parcels list, lining up at the boiler-house for hot water for breakfast, lining up for a newspaper, lining up for a parcel, or a library book, or a theatre ticket; then a couple of hours of reading, or study, or sport, or lounging; lining up for dinner, crowding round the postman, lining up at the canteen for sugar, or cheese, or sardines, and at the stores for cigarettes, and lining up again at the newspaper shed, and again at the boiler-house for hot water for tea; and the evening spent at a lecture, or concert, or play, followed by a monotonous perambulation up and down the parade, until we were roused and dispersed by the fire-bell, and lined up again for the second parade, and wantered mechanically back to horse-box or hay-loft, and retired at nine … and such a programme, day after day, and month after month, and, alas, year after year, is apt to pall even upon the most buoyant or the most philosophical.”