A Man's Head Against The Darkening Sky
Reprinted from The Sherlock Holmes Journal
Nothing in the Canon has attracted the attention of Sherlockian scholars as much as the great triumvirate - The Final Problem, the great hiatus and The Empty House. The clash of good and evil in The Final Problem, the travel and adventure of the great hiatus and the resurrection and rebirth of The Empty House, have been the subject of more words, in more Sherlockian publications than any other topic. Indeed, several excellent articles have been written just about the last three words of the title of this article, that is to say the timing of the events at Reichenbach Falls.
However, very early on in the history of the writings about the writings a basic question was asked -- Why, since Colonel Sebastian Moran had seen Holmes escape both from the clutches of Professor Moriarty and from the boulders that Moran threw from the top of the cliff, did Holmes go on the The Great Hiatus? Colonel Sebastian Moran, his remaining and principal enemy, was at large and aware of his escape!
The key to unlocking the mystery of The Great Hiatus is the identity of the man, whose head Holmes saw "against the darkening sky." At first this seems like a trivial problem with only one solution, it was Col. Moran. Holmes tell us so, directly - or does he. Let us look more closely at the way Holmes refers to the identify of this man.
In his description to Watson of the events at Reichenbach Holmes reports that, just after a huge rock boomed past, he saw "a man's head against the darkening sky." Holmes continues, "Of course the meaning of this was obvious. Moriarty had not been alone. A confederate -- and even that one glance had told me how dangerous a man that confederate was." There are two ways this quote can be interpreted, either that Holmes knew the identify of the man and his reputation or that Holmes saw the dangerous position his was in at that moment relative to that man. If Holmes knew who threw the rocks, why didn't he say so. At the time he described that individual, he was relating the miraculous story of his escape to Watson, so why obfuscate a simple identification. Was Holmes unsure of his identification?
Make no mistake, this was a difficult identification. Holmes had just by the merest breath escaped death at the hands of the professor and was climbing about the "sheer" walls of the valley of the Reichenbach. He saw the man only in profile and only for "that one glance". A moment later he gets another brief chance to see who is there, "Again I saw that grim face look over the cliff..." Just a face this time silhouetted against "the darkening sky". Once again Holmes does not come out and say whose face this was. Neither of these two quotes contain the simple, declarative statements on matters of fact characteristic of Holmes. More than once he told Watson to "cut out the poetry" and stick to the simple facts. Yet Holmes let two chances to identify the man pass as he describes his adventures to Watson.
The next mention of the identify of the person on the cliff in at the denouncement of EMPT. At this point Holmes directly accuses Moran of being the person on the ledge above Reichenbach, "Ah, Colonel I don't think I have had the pleasure of seeing you since you favored me with those attentions as I lay on the ledge...." At this point Holmes undoubtedly expected a confession from Moran for his actions at the Falls.
He had just caught Moran very red handed with a simple trick in what Holmes believed to Moran's second attempt on his life. No confession to the events at Camden House was needed, but to get Moran to admit to his actions at Reichenbach would cross the last "t" and dot the last "i" of the adventure in a suitably dramatic denouncement. But Moran's reply is not a confession. He simply repeats "You cunning, cunning fiend." Moran's mind is on the matters that have just transpired and the Adair case. He shows no special association with the ledge at Reichenbach and takes no notice of Holmes accusation.
However, the key to understanding the identify of the man on the cliff comes next, in response to Lestrade's question as to what charge does Holmes intend Moran to be charged with. Everyone in the room assumes that the charge would be attempted murder against Sherlock Holmes as the evidence was overwhelming. Moran was caught with the weapon, watched by two eyewitness and with the bullet as having passed straight through the skull of the wax figure. But that is not the crime that Holmes mentions, because Holmes' mind is elsewhere, racing over the events at Reichenbach and the three years since. He realizes that he was wrong three years before and that it was not Moran on the ledge. Therefore, he answers that Moran be charged with the Murder of Adair. Holmes mind pays no attention to the events of the last few minutes, for he is thinking of the ledge at Reichenbach.
It is important to point out that the case against Moran for he murder of Adair is not airtight. The are no witnesses and, although Moran had the weapon in his possession, there is no direct proof that he fired the shot. Evidence of Moran's cheating at cards (the probable motive) is not brought out and probably would be difficult to find. No doubt Moran with his remaining connections from the days of Moriarty could produce two or three impeccable witnesses to state that the he was conveniently across London at the time of the murder. Moran might or might not be convicted of the murder of Adair.
What Holmes reply really says is not to deny that Moran should be charged with his attempted murder that night, but that he realizes that three years before it was NOT Moran on the cliff! Later, when Holmes and Watson are relaxing in their old rooms in Baker Street, the subject of the identify of the man on the cliff comes up again. Holmes states that it was "undoubtedly he who gave me that evil five minutes on the Reichenbach ledge." Undoubtedly but not absolutely. With the events of the last few minutes fresh in his mind why use any qualifier, unless Holmes was now unsure of the identity of the man above him on the cliff.
I therefore conclude that Holmes was wrong in his hasty conclusion as to the identify of the man on the cliff. If it was not Moran than, who was he? If I am to call Sherlock Holmes wrong, he does of course tell us in SILV that his blunders are "a more common occurrence then anyone would think who knew me only through your memoirs", I should have a better explanation!
My interpretation of the events at Reichenbach is as follows. The final meeting and struggle with Moriarty, and the subsequent escape of Holmes from the rocks thrown by the man on the cliff are described exactly as they happened. Alas, we do not know who anything about this man, other than that he bore some physical resemblance to Moran, at least from the shoulders up. The Canon is obstinately reticent on this subject. Idle speculation could conjure up any number of possible identifications. One or more of the Moriarty brothers (all James of course), a relation or confederate of Moran, Porlock, Mrs. Hudson, etc. The possibilities are endless. However, all are guesses, and we know well the master's warning on guessing! ["I never guess. It is a shocking habit -- destructive to the logical faculty." SIGN] Consequently, despite a natural urge to provide a tidy, closed theory I am unable to provide any reasonable and logically derived identity to the man on the cliff.
That it was not Moran is further confirmed by his choice of weapons -- rocks. Moran, the greatest shot in the empire, would not use rocks. If he had been accompanying Moriarty as a back up and waiting in a position to watch the events on the ledge at Reichenbach, he would have been waiting with his rifle and Holmes would never have escaped. Very few creatures in the world had lived through one contact with the Colonel. His record for tigers and dangerous heavy game was unequaled.
After the man on the cliff had failed to kill Holmes he realized the precariousness of his position. He had seen the Professor perish and Holmes escape. His life you be forfeit if the remains of Moriarty clan knew of his failure. Our mystery man fled in some direction across the Alps in as much fear of this life as Holmes. Holmes' well reported death and silence for three years were an unexpected bonus 1or the mystery man. He certainly had no reason to step forward and admit his failure. As soon as he leaves the edge of the cliff he vanishes from the Canon.
And what of Holmes. What was he thinking about as climbed back down the path? He knew that "Moran" had seen him escape, so flight for the short term was in order. Then he waited in Florence in a disguise for the inquiries for a tall, slender Englishman to begin. Then he would know that Moran was still after him. But no one came looking for him! As he points out Moran was not his only enemy, so even without Moran on his trail, he left on the Great Hiatus, wandered around Tibet and Mecca, studied chemistry in the South of France and waited for evidence that Moran was after him or that Moran had finally made an error and could be caught.
In the end everything came out satisfactorily. The evidence against Moran on the Adair murder was strong enough to convict him and dispose of him for 15 years and Sherlock Holmes returned to 221B Baker Street!