"Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot."And then the strange, lank bird proceeds to explain to Watson how it's totally obvious he's not going to be investing in South African securities -- which, by the way, seem to be a favorite choice of Conan Doyle's investment-minded characters.
By the time his little game is over, the latest client has arrived, a Mr. Hilton Cubbitt, "a tall, ruddy, clean-shaven gentleman, whose clear eyes and florid cheeks told of a life led far from the fogs of Baker Street."
Holmes sets up the framing this time: "You gave me a few particulars in your letter, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, but I should be very much obliged if you would kindly go over it all again for the benefit of my friend, Dr. Watson." And so Cubbitt gets to tell his own story, although he begins by denigrating his own narrative abilities. Always fake confidence, Hilton. It's the secret of success.
But actually, he starts off by giving us a clue. It doesn't seem that way at first, just an example of the traditional emphasis on family connections, but in this case it turns out to matter.
"I'll begin at the time of my marriage last year, but I want to say first of all that, though I'm not a rich man, my people have been at Riding Thorpe for a matter of five centuries, and there is no better known family in the County of Norfolk... You'll think it very mad, Mr. Holmes, that a man of a good old family should marry a wife in this fashion, knowing nothing of her past or of her people, but if you saw her and knew her, it would help you to understand."Just in case you don't understand straight off that one of the themes of the story is the value of maintaining family pride -- and Englishness -- Conan Doyle keeps hammering the point.
"He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil—simple, straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face. His love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his features."Also of note: Mrs. Hudson makes an appearance here only in a most indirect fashion:
"She has spoken about my old family, and our reputation in the county, and our pride in our unsullied honour"
"Dear, dear, one of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk, and one of the most honoured."
"Ah! here is our expected cablegram. One moment, Mrs. Hudson, there may be an answer."We're back in the Austen zone of servants who spend most of the story invisible.
The actual mystery here is of less interest to me than the sociological aspect. Short version, Holmes cracks a murder case by solving a substitution cipher that involves the dancing men of the title -- not too difficult for someone who's written "a trifling monograph upon the subject."