|The Adventure of the Mensa Society|
|Sir Arthur Conan Fish|
Issue #66 (May 1987)
Of the many cases in which I have participated with my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, some are by their nature impossible to discuss at this time. My notes for these affairs, in which are mentioned some of the most honorable names in the Kingdom, must lie forever at the bottom of my dispatch-box. Other cases, available to public scrutiny without such reservations, are too [quoteright]technical for these pages. Although perhaps of interest to the specialist in criminal detection, they do not reward the casual reader.
In one instance, however, my friend's energies were employed in unraveling a puzzle so bizarre, and yet so amenable to his peculiar talents, that it warrants narration in these pages. While the events are still fresh in my mind, I hasten to place them in print.
My notes reveal that it was just at dusk on a late October evening that the first intimation of this affair reached our lodgings at 221b Baker Street. The afternoon post had brought a note from our longtime colleague on the official police force, Inspector Lestrade:
"Hah, Watson!" cried Holmes, his keen eyes glittering, "Our friend is out of his depth. 'Perhaps inconsequential' — that means he cannot make head nor tail of it. Posted in a hurry, too, else he would have licked the whole stamp." Holmes held the envelope to his nose. "There's a woman involved, and one with a sophisticated taste in perfume. I believe we are in for a treat. But here is the man now to tell us for himself." Holmes had turned to face the bow window as a four-wheeler pulled up below. "Hum... He's been to Oxshott today, if I'm not mistaken — that peculiar bluish clay on his boots says as much. Do pull another chair around, Watson, and turn up the lamp."
A minute later the small, dapper figure of Lestrade appeared in our doorway. "Well, well," chaffed Homes amiably as he struggled out of his overcoat, "Tell us now what the lady in Oxshott said that sent you so precipitously to us."
"It seems to me that you know so much already, there's not much point in my saying anything," replied the policeman with some asperity. "Yes, it was a lady in Oxshott that brought this whole business to a head. As mixed-up a string of events as I've ever seen. But come now, I'm talking to the famous Mr Holmes; I suppose you've already figured it out?" Lestrade shot a crafty look at my companion.
"There now," Holmes countered serenely, "I may see deeper than most but I'm not omniscient. Suppose you tell us exactly what's going on."
Lestrade perched on the edge of our leather easy chair and knitted his brows in concentration. "Well," he began, "It all started with our receiving reports about the Mensa society. They're an odd group, you know, who believe they've found a way to test intelligence. Bunch of high-flying foolishness, if you ask me."
"I daresay from an official point of view anything having to do with intelligence must seem out of place," observed Holmes drily. He reached down a volume of his commonplace books from the shelf. "Let me see... Murderers, Moriarty, Milverton of odious memory... ah, here we are. 'Mensa: a secret society, open only to its members, who are selected by means of recondite tests. Reputed to indulge in wine parties and discussions that end in unrestrained brawls.' Hmm... Chapters in America... Internal Political Dissension... Hot Tub Cults in California... Indeed! So in what way have these unsavory Mensa persons attracted the notice of Scotland Yard?"
Lestrade cleared his throat. "It apparently started when the lady in Oxshott — an unmarried schoolteacher, she is, by the name of Bletherington — joined the society and went to one of their meetings. There were a number of single young men in attendance and she, being unattached, struck up a conversation with one of them. One thing led to another, with the result that he offered to escort her to the local Guildhall Ball a fortnight later. She insists that his conduct was perfectly proper, and that at no time did he give her cause to question his intentions."
"And that meeting took place...?"
"Just sixteen days ago." Holmes made a note on his cuff.
"When the appointed evening arrived, he called for her in a Hansom cab, and she thought herself fortunate to be in the company of a young man of some means. On the way to the Guildhall, however, he suddenly became extremely agitated. Muttering something incomprehensible, he flung open the door of the cab and leapt into the street. Before she could order the driver to stop, he had disappeared into the early evening crowd. She has not seen him since."
"And so Scotland Yard has been called upon to restore this broken romance? Surely this is not the reason you've come all of a hurry to see me," Holmes expostulated.
"Of course not," replied Lestrade. "In his haste, the young man left an envelope on the seat of the cab. And in that envelope was this." He drew from his inner jacket pocket a sheet of light yellow paper, folded in three, and handed it to Holmes. My companion drew forth his most powerful lens, subjected the back of the paper to minute scrutiny, and then opened it and spread it on his knee.
"The paper's been refolded several times — witness the broken fibers at the crease. It appears to be some sort of code. 'Egg is to chicken as acorn is to ??' '4 9 16 25 ??' The double question marks are, in my experience, unique. What do you make of it, Lestrade?"
"Deviltry, Holmes, deviltry. We've found the same sort of thing before when dealing with the Mensa society, but none of them will tell us what it means. Miss Bletherington was naturally alarmed when she saw that her young man was carrying some sort of secret writing and so she quite properly came to us."
My companion leaned back and placed the tips of his fingers together. "These may well be deep waters, Lestrade. But as the lady has emerged from her experience unharmed, I don't see that vigorous action is called for. Still, there are few things about this writing that I find remarkable..."
What Holmes found remarkable must forever remain unknown, for at that instant our door was flung open and a young lady burst in upon us. She was fashionably but modestly dressed, with a light fur-piece about her neck as protection against the fall weather. She addressed Lestrade in a state of considerable agitation.
"Oh, Inspector, I don't know what to do. You must help me!"
"Miss Bletherington, I believe," remarked Holmes imperturbably. "Pray take a chair and tell us what new drama has come into your life."
"Ah, you must be Mr Holmes," she replied. "Yes, I am Priscilla Bletherington of Oxshott. You must know that two days ago I was cruelly abandoned in the High Road by a young man who had invited me to the Guildhall Ball. Today I was accosted by that same man as I left the greengrocer's shop. He demanded of me 'the yellow paper' — that very document I now see in your hand. When I told him I didn't have it he became quite odious. 'You've no right to keep it,' he said. 'It's ours.' He threatened to have his friends call upon me if I didn't give it back. What am I to do?" She buried her head in her hands.
"There, there," said Holmes in that peculiarly soothing tone he found most effective with distraught clients. "I must give the matter some thought, but I see no reason why we cannot disperse the clouds that bother you. Meanwhile, do you return to your home and shut yourself in. I'll be in touch with you presently." Signaling Lestrade to support her arm, he escorted them both to the door.
That evening I tried to interest myself in a novel, but the image of our client's troubled face kept floating before my eyes. Holmes, meanwhile, curled himself up in his easy chair and smoked pipe after pipe of shag tobacco until the atmosphere in our sitting room was fairly blue with the fumes. He had remained motionless for four hours or more when I finally gave it up and went off to bed.
Dawn had hardly broken outside the windows when I was nudged awake by Holmes standing at my bedside. "Watson, you may call me the biggest fool in London. The answer was so obvious, yet it took me all night and a dozen pipes to fathom it."
"You have the solution, then?" I cried.
"Yes, by Jove. By this evening all will be revealed and Miss Bletherington will have nothing more to fear. I am going out now to set my plans in motion. I'll be back after breakfast."
All day, Holmes paced our little flat like a caged tiger. Every hour the page boy, Billy, brought in the latest editions of the newspapers. Holmes scanned them briefly, then threw them into a growing pile in the corner.
"I've placed ads in all the dailies. It should bring them around. Listen to this: 'If the person or persons who lost a yellow document in the Oxshott High Road will call at 221b Baker Street, his property will be restored.' What do you think?"
"Seems to me the young man might be suspicious," I ventured. "How is he to know you don't represent the police?"
"It's a risk he must take, Watson. As I analyze the situation, he is desperate to get this back."
Even as Holmes picked up the mysterious yellow code sheet, there was a knock on our door. Holmes went to open it, as I stood by with the fire poker in my hand. A young man, evidently the late companion of Miss Bletherington, sidled into the room.
"I've come for that," he said, indicating the document. "Just let me have it and I'll not bother you further."
"Not so fast," exclaimed Holmes firmly. "Is it not true that egg is to chicken as acorn is to oak? And that the next number in the sequence 4 9 16 25 is 49? I deduce, therefore, that you are a Mensa Proctor. Come now, the game is up!"
The young man turned pale, staggered, and nearly fell. "It's only a bit of fun, Governor," he protested. "We don't mean nothing by it."
"Your bit of fun has seriously upset a delicate young lady. Have you considered the feelings of Miss Bletherington? You left her alone in a carriage on a public street while you thoughtlessly bolted out to try to recruit a new member into your wretched Mensa society. Is that your idea of 'meaning nothing'?"
"You're right, Sir," the young man exclaimed, his face red with contrition, "although how you come to know these things I cannot imagine. Yes, I am indeed a Proctor for the East London Mensa group. But now that I've lost the Qualification Test, there's no telling what will become of us. We've never faced a crisis like this before."
Holmes thought deeply for several minutes. Finally he flung the door open and handed the yellow paper to the grateful young man. "It's damnable," he growled, "but not actionable. I'll let you go against your promise never to bother decent folk like Miss Bletherington again!"
"Oh, yes, Sir!" cried the youth, as he clutched the document to his breast and bolted down the stairs. We could hear his fleeing footsteps the length of Baker Street.
"A bad business, Watson," remarked Holmes after some reflection. "The Mensa society will descend from petty outrages such as this down to blatant rascality. I foresee no good coming of it. Meanwhile, however, we may have the satisfaction of sending a telegram to Oxshott to assure at least one decent lady that she is free of their attentions."
"And Lestrade will be able to close another case," I added.
"Yes, he'll get the glory for this one," Holmes observed with a shrug. "But I very much doubt that it's the last time the Police hear about Mensa."
Sir Arthur Conan Fish
Did you have difficulty guessing that SIR ARTHUR CONAN FISH is a pseudonym? The author wrote "The Adventure of the Mensa Society" as an exercise in style — more of a Shaggy Sherlock story than a thriller. Old friends of Baker Street may recognize some familiar scenes.