THE HOLMES-MORIARTY DUEL
A Deduction by Eustace Portugal
(The Bookman [London], May 1934, pp. 97-99)
It is only natural that Sherlock Holmes, that eminent writer of monographs, should have himself provided material for many excellent dissertations ; but the behaviour of biographers to two men who played a most important part in his life presents, as the master might have put it, “points of singular interest.”
It is easy to imagine the warm and genuine feeling with which Dr. Watson would have rebuked those iconoclastic gentlemen who have attempted to persuade the public that his loyalty, rather than Holmes’s intellect, was the striking feature for their association. Holmes led ; Watson followed. It is true that Watson was a remarkably loyal and courageous follower, but Lestrade or Hopkins would have done as much had they sat in his chair. If I seem to attack Watson it is because certain critics have placed him in a false position, wrenching away his bowler-hat to replace it with a halo.
That this sentimental distortion of the facts is deplorable, all students of Holmesiana must agree ; but it is relatively unimportant when we consider the curious manner with which critics have treated Professor James Moriarty, described by Holmes as “the cleverest rogue in Europe.” They have ignored him.
Admittedly “the man pervades London, and no one has heard of him,” yet there is sufficient data in “The Final Problem,” “The Empty House” and “The Valley of Fear” not only to assess his character but also to give rise to the very earthquake of a theory. Prolonged study of the Holmes-Moriarty duel has forced me to believe that it is Professor Moriarty who keeps bees on the Sussex downs, and that the body of Sherlock Holmes lies in the Reichenbach abyss. It gives me no pleasure to write these words ; the great detective has always been one of my heroes ; but the fact are there and, as an admirer second to none of Holmes’s methods, I must follow them.
Consider first the brainstorms in which both Holmes and Watson became involved whenever Professor Moriarty entered their lives.
If we are to believe Watson, it was early in 1895 that Holmes received the note from Porlock which introduced him to the case of “The Valley of Fear.” I agree that Watson is inexact. He asks us to journey back “some twenty years,” so that he may lay before us the strange story of Birdy Edwards ; but this story, we are told definitely, began in February, 1875, so that even allowing for Watson’s “some,” it seems safe to assume that Holmes’s participation in the affair could not have occurred earlier than 1893. If we accept this point, an amazing discrepancy appears. In 1893 Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes are very much alive, in spite of the fact that according to Watson’s record of “The Final Problem,” they both died at Reichenbach on May 4th, 1891.
I shall not try to reconcile these dates. I quote them merely to impress upon the reader that Watson, when writing these two accounts, was obviously under some malevolent influence. I suggest that indirect contact with Moriarty had been sufficient to dull his wits. Holmes suffers in the same way. When he walks into Watson’s consulting-room on April 24th, 1891, at the beginning of “The Final Problem,” his curious conduct leaves the most sinister impression. “Is Mrs. Watson in ?” he asks. Dare we believe our eyes ? Is it Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, who speaks ? Worst is to come ; again he poses a question that, on his lips, sounds as odd as would blasphemy from a saint. “You are alone ?” The veriest novice among Holmesolators must surely be dumbfounded. Where is that Holmes who was “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen”; that Holmes who precise deductions so startled Watson that the doctor exclaimed :  “You would certainly have been burned had you lived a few centuries ago” ? That Holmes would have known, after a quick glance from his shrewd grey eyes, that Watson was alone ; it is but a weak and ineffective shadow of that Holmes who was forced to ask questions, even as you or I.
There are two further proofs of the cloud that Moriarty cast over the detective’s brain.
In the case of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes showed himself a believer in the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Milverton was a blackmailer. Holmes, in the interests of a client, decided to burgle his house and rifle his safe. While doing so he saw Milverton murdered by one of his victims. He did not hand over the unfortunate lady to the police. He imposed on Watson a vow of secrecy, and when Lestrade the following morning asked him to investigate the crime, Holmes replied : “My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case.” Yet, in “The Valley of Fear,” when Birdy Edwards from an equally good motive killed his would-be assassin and allowed the police to assume that the corpse was his, Holmes dragged him out of his hiding-place and exposed him, unprotected, to the murderous care of Moriarty. Was this consistent ?
Finally, in his direct dealings with the professor, Holmes exhibited a lamentable blend of vanity and stupidity. This is easily realised if we make a rapid survey of the professor’s character.
We know remarkably little of Moriarty, but enough surely to make it clear that Holmes, who warned Watson not to under-estimate his powers, was himself guilty in that respect.
Certainly we know enough of the professor’s appearance to appreciate that it would have been quite possible for him to have impersonated Holmes. “He is extremely tall and thin…clean-shaven, pale and ascetic-looking.” So says Holmes. Inspector Macdonald confirms him thus : “He’d have made a grand meenister, with his thin face and grey hair and solemn-like way of talking.” A little attention to the grey hair, and it might have been Sherlock Holmes who was being discussed.
What of the professor’s intellectual attainments ? “Is he not the celebrated author of ‘The Dynamics of an Asteroid’—a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticising it ?” Do we not know also that “at the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue,” and that he is “the controlling brain of the underworld” ? Yet this the man to whom he allows himself to be cornered at the Reichenbach Falls ! This Sherlock Holmes was asking for death, and in my opinion his wish was granted.
This is my theory of what really happened in the last hectic thrust-and-parry of the Holmes-Moriarty Duel :
Moriarty knew that Holmes was weaving a net around him. He realised that his organisation was doomed. His subordinates would have to look after themselves. He was determined to give his full attention to the destruction of Holmes. At first he decided simply to kill the man, then retire into obscurity ; but his mighty brain rightly disapproved of such a crude compromise. . Was the dead Holmes to be as great a nuisance as when alive ? No : obviously Holmes’s death had to satisfy some stronger purpose than the primitive desire for vengeance. Then Moriarty had the great brain-wave of his great career : could he kill Holmes and take his place ?
Circumstances favoured the scheme. The similarity in the appearance of the two protagonists has already been remarked upon. Neither Mycroft Holmes nor Watson—Sherlock Holmes’s only intimate friends—had ever met Moriarty. Had such encounters occurred, Watson would certainly have told us of them. Some readers may refuse to believe that Watson could ever have been deceived by such an impersonation. I ask them to accept the point tentatively ; I shall discuss it again later.
It was obviously not enough that Moriarty should be able to resemble Holmes physically ; he had also to assume Holmes’s personality. Here again fortune smiled on the professor. Watson’s excellence as a press agent supplied him with Holmes’s characteristics and methods, while occasional visits to Baker Street flat, in the absence of its inhabitants, familiarised him with the environment in which he planned to live. I agree that Watson gives no authority for this last statement, but it is an intelligent, Holmes-like implication. Holmes admitted to Inspector Macdonald that he had visited Moriarty’s study three times, without waiting to see him. What was sauce for the detective was sauce for the equally able criminal. In “The Final Problem” Holmes says to Watson : “I was sitting in my room, thinking the matter over, when the door opened and Professor Moriarty stood before me.” There is no reference to Mrs. Hudson ; the professor knew his way about, without having to disturb that perfect landlady.
There was one more advantage attached to the master-crook’s master-crime. Holmes was a rich man. Watson records him as saying : “The recent cases in which I have been of assistance to the Royal Family of Scandinavia, and to the French Republic, have left me in such a position that I could continue to live in the quiet fashion which is most congenial to me.”
Now that we have established the circumstances that favoured Moriarty’s scheme, let us proceed to the method of its execution. Moriarty’s late arrival at Victoria, and his subsequent hiring of a special train, were acts intended to lull into a mood of self-congratulation. They succeeded. They convinced Holmes that Moriarty’s one desire was to kill him ; that the fine mechanism of the criminal’s brain had been burned to ruins by the fierce fire of hate. When Holmes and Watson reached the pathway above Reichenbach Falls, Moriarty realised that the time was come to strike. Watson was removed from the scene by the simple device of a false message. Moriarty appeared on the pathway, simulating complete desperation, cursing Holmes waving his arms about—in short, behaving like the madman Holmes now believed him to be. He gave Holmes permission to write a note to Watson ; then, with a last wild and apparently meaningless gesture, he produced a revolver and shot Holmes dead.
In considering the question : “What happened next ?” it is important to realise that, if my theory is correct, the Holmes who tells Watson the story of his escape, in “The Empty House,” is not Holmes but Moriarty ; and therefore his narrative, in addition to completely switching the main event, may be untruthful in other respects. We have also to examine closely the part played during the critical period 1891-1894 by the two Colonels—Colonel Sebastian Moran and Colonel James Moriarty, the professor’s brother.
Colonel Moran was Moriarty’s chief-of-staff, employed by him in crimes demanding the utmost finesse. Moran was therefore sufficiently intelligent to appreciate the professor’s greater intelligence, and to wish to share in his plans when Holmes’s manoeuvres wrecked their organisation. Moriarty understood that his scheme could not be revealed to anyone ; to have confided in Moran would have been to lay himself open to blackmail ; so Moran was told that he would have to fend for himself. This rebuff aroused in Moran resentment and suspicion. He was angered by Moriarty’s refusal to co-operate ; he was suspicious that Moriarty had devised some master-coup. I believe that these motives—the desire for vengeance and the desire for safety—prompted him to follow the professor on his Continental travels.
We can now return to the Reichenbach Falls. By the time Moran arrives at the summit of the cliff, Moriarty has tipped the body of Holmes into abyss, disturbed the soil of the pathway to delude the police that there has been a struggle, and climbed to the ledge correctly described in the account of the affair he later gave to Watson. The police arrive. Moran keeps out of sight. He has seen the figure on the ledge below, but cannot be sure whether it is Holmes or Moriarty. When the police leave it is dark—too dark for Moran to know whom he is stoning ; but this does not worry the Colonel, since he has reasons for wishing both Holmes and Moriarty dead. However, Moriarty escapes.
 Moriarty may well have occupied a part of the three years preceding his reappearance in London in the manner described to Watson. It is safe to assume that he also studied police methods and the science of detection, from the viewpoint of the law. He lived on funds supplied by the unwitting Mycroft Holmes.
In 1893, two years after the Reichenbach adventure, he begins to plan the details of Sherlock Holmes’s resurrection ; and now he is forced to make a confidant of his brother, Colonel Moriarty. There have been only two accounts of Reichenbach affair in the public press, both extremely condensed ; but it is essential that he should know exactly what the police and Watson have made of it. To obtain this vital information, he instructs his brother to publish libellous letters defending his own reputation and attacking Holmes. These letters, probably written by himself, have the desired effect. The honest Watson cannot allow such “an absolute perversion of the facts” to remain unchallenged, and he immediately places before the public his version of the Reichenbach tragedy. Moriarty rubs his hands and waits for an opportunity to dispose of Moran. He cannot safely return to England until this opportunity presents itself, for he is not sure that Moran did not recognise him on the cliff ledge.
When Ronald Adair is murdered, in 1894, Moriarty at once sees the hand of Moran on the unique air-gun of Von Herder. He travels to London and reveals himself to Watson as Sherlock Holmes.
I ask the scoffers who will assert that Watson would have penetrated the disguise instantly, calmly to ponder the special circumstances surrounding that historic meeting. Watson believed his friend to have been dead for three years. So greatly was he shocked by “Holmes’s” reappearance that, for the first time in his life, he fainted. When he recovered, emotion flooded his brain. He was, as nearly as possible, hysterical. He records sensations of “joy, amazement and incredulity.” Joy came first ; it is clear case of wish-fulfilment.
Moriarty proceeded to remove Moran. The course of events on that spring evening in 1894 is too well known to require repetition ; but it is significant that “Holmes,” for the only time in his career, sneered at a defeated enemy. When Moran was arrested—“‘I wonder that my very simple stratagem could deceive so old a shikari,’ said Holmes,” and continued to taunt his victim. Moran very fairly remarked to Lestrade : “You may or may not have just cause for arresting me… but at least there can be no reason why I should submit to the gibes of this person.” Can it be doubted that “this person” was Professor Moriarty—unable to resist the temptation to humiliate his erstwhile colleague, and thus repay him for his dastardly behaviour at Reichenbach ?
The last obstacle cleared, it was a straight run home for Moriarty. With Holmes’s money to supply his needs and Holmes’s practice to occupy his mind, there was no incentive for him to return to the shady side of crime. The science of detection must have held for him a vast appeal, both intrinsic and ironical, and it is not surprising that Watson should record : “I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95.”