“A Charming Youth”: A May Day Tribute to Lord Saltire

On this day in 1901, the ten-year-old Arthur, Lord Saltire, only (legitimate) child of the Duke of Holdernesse, arrived at the Priory School for the beginning of summer term. Less than a fortnight later, he disappeared, and Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc., came to consult the great Sherlock Holmes, as Dr. Watson recounted in Collier’s and The Strand almost three years later. The Literary Agent, writing in 1927, ranked it as his tenth favorite of Holmes’s recorded cases.

Cover illustration for “The Adventure of the Priory School” by Frederic Dorr Steele

Despite his fortunate birth, young Lord Saltire was not a happy child. His parents were separated, with his mother having moved to France. When the Duke grew tired of his son’s moping around Holdernesse Hall, he sent him off to the Priory.

Fortunately, despite his pomposity, the headmaster was a good friend to the boy; as The Hounds of the Internet pointed out in their introduction to the story, “Unlike all the other people surrounding poor little Lord Saltire, Dr. Huxtable kept the child’s well-being foremost in his mind throughout the crisis.” The Duke, though concerned for his son, put most of his effort into keeping the secret of his illegitimate son—James Wilder, who had arranged the kidnapping in an attempt to force his father to break the entail on his estate—and protecting him from prosecution for the murder committed by one of his accomplices.

We know little about Lord Saltire himself. There is no physical description of him in Watson’s account of the case, and he functions more as a MacGuffin than as a character. Though sad when he arrived at the school, Dr. Huxtable felt that in the two weeks he was there, Arthur had become “quite at home with us, and was apparently absolutely happy” (PRIO). He seems to have been a sweet, lonely boy who missed his mother and was desperate for affection from his father. He was easily fooled by the criminals, but no one should expect a ten-year-old not to be naïve, even if he is the heir to a dukedom.

The Duke referred to his heir as “my dear Arthur,” but Holmes was right to reprimand him strongly for placing him at risk by leaving him at the Fighting Cock Inn in order to protect Wilder: “To humour your guilty elder son you have exposed your innocent younger son to imminent and unnecessary danger. It was a most unjustifiable action.”

Holmes’s displeasure with the Duke’s attitude toward Lord Saltire also caused him to do something that was rather uncharacteristic for him, demanding the princely—or at least ducal—sum of £12,000, equivalent to nearly $2 million in 2020 currency. The Master’s parting shot of “I am a poor man,” while putting the check in his pocket, was clearly intended to insult; if it were true, it might be because of the many, many cases in which the great consulting detective refused any fee. Dr. Watson, unfortunately, did not tell us on what Holmes spent such an enormous amount of money.

Let us raise a glass of whatever beverage we have available in quarantine to Arthur, Lord Saltire, the future seventh Duke of Holdernesse. I hope that his parents did indeed reunite, that his home life became happier, and that he found some joy in the remainder of his life.

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