—“The Adventure of the Second Stain”
The Return of Sherlock Holmes concludes by making good on an old promise. Eleven years earlier, in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” Watson mentions the incident of a “second stain,” describing it as “of such importance…that for many years it would be impossible to make it public.” Nevertheless, Holmes, even after retiring to raise bees on the Sussex Downs, allows Watson to publish his case notes, so as to do right by his readership. While story itself bears some family resemblance to its original mention—it also, like several of the later Holmes stories, contains elements of espionage and owes considerably to Poe, in particular “The Purloined Letter” (1844), with which it shares the titular plot device. Acknowledging these similarities, as is often the case with Conan Doyle, is no cause for dismissal of the story itself, for within “The Second Stain” is a level of nuance that is not evident in either its canonical or historical forbears. For example, as Christopher Metress noted in a close reading of the story published in the journal English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920:
The title alone, ‘The Second Stain,’ should alert us to the “duplicitous” nature of Doyle's narrative […] Besides the two stains, we have the two impulsive letters (one from the foreign potentate, the other from Lady Hilda), the two scandals these two letters could cause (the breakup of Europe and the breakup of a marriage), the two times the potentate's letter is concealed (once by Eduardo Lucas beneath the carpet and once again by Holmes when he places it back inside Secretary Hope's dispatch-box), the two lives, the two names, the two cities of the blackmailer (who is both Eduardo Lucas and M. Henri Foumaye, and who lives in both London and Paris), the two husbands who hide secrets from their wives, the two wives who follow their husbands to their places of business, the duplicate key Lady Hilda uses to open her husband's dispatch-box, and Lord Bellinger, who is “twice Premier of Britain.”
The consequences of this endless doubling, for Metress and other scholars, is no mere exercise in clever storytelling, but rather a deliberate cultural and political statement, that, as encoded in Watson’s promise, gains its eloquence in the context and climate of 1904, rather than the 1893 of “The Naval Treaty” or even the 1888, when the action of “The Second Stain” is said to take place. As Metress noted:
On the one hand, Doyle's readers could catch a glimpse of the passions jeopardizing their social order, but in the very act of witnessing the exposure of these passions they could witness an attendant concealment, a folding over which helped to control and to avert any complications that exposure alone would generate. On the other hand, Doyle's readers had to witness as well the act of concealment giving way to an opening up, the folding over failing to maintain itself against complicating and disruptive passions which forced back the veils of an aristocratic social order.