"although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction""Untidy" in this case extends to a general disregard for furnishings, even if there is something almost noble about "proceed[ing] to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks."
But the untidiness provides the framing for today's tale, because among the debris muddling up the Holmes-Watson household are piles and piles of notes from Sherlock Holmes' pre-Watson cases. When he realizes what they are, Watson is interested at once.
"'These are the records of your early work, then?' I asked. 'I have often wished that I had notes of those cases.'"For Holmes, the inquiry is both an opportunity to brag about what he did "done prematurely before my biographer had come to glorify me," and also an excuse to delay the tidying even more. But mostly to show off.
"A collection of my trifling achievements would certainly be incomplete which contained no account of this very singular business."The business is brought to young Holmes by one of his university classmates, "a man of an exceedingly aristocratic type." There's a brief overview of his aristocratic connections, and then a line that's only significant when you know what follows:
"Something of his birth place seemed to cling to the man, and I never looked at his pale, keen face or the poise of his head without associating him with gray archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep."Conan Doyle sets Reginald Musgrave up as one of the less objectionable varieties of English aristocrat -- sure, there's a touch of arrogance, but he's not ruining himself at the track or running with the Marlborough House set. He's been staying at home, keeping up the traditions of the Musgraves reaching back to antiquity: "I have of course had the Hurlstone estates to manage, and as I am member for my district as well, my life has been a busy one."
Except there's trouble. It's servant trouble, essentially, courtesy of a now-dismissed butler who had been flirting with the maids and snooping into the family papers, where he was reading up on "the singular old observance called the Musgrave Ritual." And then the butler disappeared. And a couple days later, so did one of the maids.
It takes Holmes about two seconds to figure out that the Musgrave Ritual is in fact a verbal map, and that the butler had figured it out and gone looking for whatever was hidden.
Holmes' conversation with Musgrave as they explore Hurlstone brings up an extremely fortunate coincidence: one of the trees given as an indicator in the Musgrave Ritual has been gone for years, but Musgrave just happens to remember its precise height, because back in the day his tutor made him practice trigonometry al fresco, by calculating heights all over the estate. Which is so creative I'm almost willing to give Conan Doyle a pass on his use of coincidence here.
And with a touch of trigonometry himself, Holmes manages to solve the Musgrave Ritual and locate the missing butler, rather too late to do the man any good, but he still pulls it off.
"'You know my methods in such cases, Watson. I put myself in the man's place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances."