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The Best of Sherlock Holmes
The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet by Vincent Starrett
(continued from page 1)
"You must know, then, that I am the greatest Shakespearean commentator in the world. My collection of ana is unrivaled and much of the world's collection (and consequently its knowledge of the true Shakespeare) has emanated from my pen. One book I did not possess; it was unique, in the correct sense of that abused word; it was the greatest Shakespeare rarity in the world. Few knew that it existed, for its existence was kept a profound secret between a chosen few. Had it become known that this book was in England—any place, indeed—its owner would have been hounded to his grave by American millionaire collectors.
"It was in the possession of my friend—I tell you this in the strictest confidence, as between adviser and client—of my friend, Sir Nathaniel Brooke-Bannerman, whose place at Walton-on-Walton is next to my own. A scant two hundred yards separate our dwellings, and so intimate has been our friendship that a few years ago the fence between our estates was removed, and each roamed or loitered at will about the other's preserves.
"For some years, now, I have been at work on my greatest book—my magnum opus. It was to be also my last book, embodying the results of a lifetime of study and research. Sir, I know Elizabethan London better than any man alive, better than any man who ever lived, I sometimes think—" He burst suddenly into tears.
"There, there," said Sherlock Holmes, gently. "Do not be distressed. It is my business to help people who are unhappy by reason of great losses. Be assured, I shall help you. Pray continue with your interesting narrative. What was this book—which, I take it, in some manner has disappeared? You borrowed it from your friend?"
"That is what I am coming to," said Mr. Harrington Edwards, drying his tears, "but as for help, Mr. Holmes, I fear that is beyond even you. Yet, as a court of last resort, I came to you, ignoring all intermediate agencies.
"Let me resume then: As you surmise, I needed this book. Knowing its value, which could not be fixed, for the book is priceless, and knowing Sir Nathaniel's idolatry of it, I hesitated long before asking the loan of it. But I had to have it, for without it my work could not be completed, and at length I made the request. I suggested that I go to his home, and go through the volume under his own eyes, he sitting at my side throughout my entire examination, and servants stationed at every door and window, with fowling pieces in their hands.
"You can imagine my astonishment when Sir Nathaniel laughed at my suggested precautions. 'My dear Edwards,' he said, 'that would be all very well were you Arthur Bambidge or Sir Homer Nantes (mentioning the two great men of the British Museum), or were you Mr. Henry Hutterson, the American railroad magnate; but you are my friend Edwards, and you shall take the book home with you for as long as you like. ' I protested vigorously, I assure you, but he would have it so, and as I was touched by this mark of his esteem, at length I permitted him to have it his own way. My God! If I had remained adamant! If I had only—"
He broke off and for a moment stared fixedly into space. His eyes were directed at the Persian slipper on the wall, in the toe of which Holmes kept his tobacco, but we could see that his thoughts were far away.
"Come, Mr. Edwards," said Holmes, firmly. "You are agitating yourself unduly. And you are unreasonably prolonging our curiosity. You have not yet told us what this book is."
Mr. Harrington Edwards gripped the arm of the chair in which he sat, with tense fingers. Then he spoke, and his voice was low and thrilling:
"The book was a 'Hamlet' quarto, dated 1602, presented by Shakespeare to his friend Drayton, with an inscription four lines in length, written and signed by the Master, himself!"
"My dear sir!" I exclaimed. Holmes blew a long, slow whistle of astonishment.
"It is true," cried the collector. "That is the book I borrowed, and that is the book I lost! The long-sought quarto of 1602, actually inscribed in Shakespeare's own hand! His greatest drama, in an edition dated a year earlier than any that is known; a perfect copy, and with four lines in his handwriting! Unique! Extraordinary! Amazing! Astounding! Colossal! Incredible! Un—"
He seemed wound up to continue indefinitely, but Holmes, who had sat quite still at first, shocked by the importance of the loss, interrupted the flow of adjectives.
"I appreciate your emotion, Mr. Edwards," he said, "and the book is indeed all that you say it is. Indeed, it is so important that we must at once attack the problem of rediscovering it. Compose yourself, my dear sir, and tell us of the loss. The book, I take it, is readily identifiable?"
"Mr. Holmes," said our client, earnestly, "it would be impossible to hide it. It is so important a volume that, upon coming into possession of it, Sir Nathaniel Brooke-Bannerman called a consultation of the great binders of the Empire, at which were present Mr. Riviere, Messrs. Sangorski & Sutcliffe, Mr. Zaehnsdorf and others. They and myself, and two others, alone know of the book's existence. When I tell you that it is bound in brown levant morocco, super extra, with leather joints, brown levant doublures and fly-leaves, the whole elaborately gold tooled, inlaid with 750 separate pieces of various colored leathers, and enriched by the insertion of eighty-two precious stones, I need not add that it is a design that never will be duplicated, and I tell you only a few of its glories. The binding was personally done by Messrs. Riviere, Sangorski, Sutcliffe, and Zaehnsdorf, working alternately, and is a work of such enchantment that any man might gladly die a thousand deaths for the privilege of owning it for five minutes."