In early 2015 Sherlock Holmes and I were on a journey through Switzerland. While I can tell you a little bit about what happened to us in Zurich, unfortunately I cannot disclose the reason of the trip in its entirety. Some developments of a case, which Holmes had accepted a few weeks prior to our visit to the Alps, had forced us to come to the continent.
I wasn’t unhappy about the change of scenery. Particularly because we had been followed by some thugs all the way to the center of Europe. That should have been a cause for concern, but I felt quite safe in the presence of Holmes - the detective seemed to anticipate all of their movements. It meant that we had to take some extra stops, throw them off the trail, and I never say no to some leisure time. After I had spent almost all of last year to convince my friend to take a much-needed holiday, this was a chance we couldn’t miss.
On a particularly fine day in May, we were taking a walk through the city of Zurich. The weather was already quite warm and a lot of people were out and about. The large number of tourists wandering through the streets didn’t at all surprise me. After all, we were just like them at the moment. The sun was already starting to hang low in the sky, but the streets were still lively. Passing the Frauenmünster, we stepped onto a bridge over the river Limmat, which runs right through the heart of Zurich. I stopped to take a look at my wristwatch.
“Aren’t we running late yet? I have no idea where the opera is, do you, Holmes?” I asked my friend and looked around. “Maybe we should’ve taken a tram, but… what line runs past the opera house?”
“No need, the opera is close by,” Holmes chuckled. “We have plenty of time, dear Watson.”
“How do you… you’ve been to Zurich before?” I asked with surprise in my voice. He hadn’t mentioned that fact at all, which was not unusual. He only told me information when he thought it was needed - which was almost never.
“Indeed. It has been the stage for one of my earliest cases,” the detective answered and took a deep breath. I readied myself, for this was the sign of an oncoming monologue, and sure enough he delivered. “You see, a few years ago…”
“Really? Now?” I was having none of this. I didn’t want to be late. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t like to be interrupted, but sometimes I had to take advantage of my liberties as close friend of the consulting detective.
“Surely we can take a few moments…” he replied, trying to conceal the pouting tone in his voice, but not entirely successful at the attempt.
“If you say we have time,” I sighed and gave in all too quickly for my own taste. “I can’t say I’m not curious.”
Holmes straightened his posture and took a deep breath - again. He always liked to make a show of things. “You see, a few years ago,” he started over. “Just when I was starting out, I did not have as many cases as today.”
We moved to the side of the bridge, overlooking the river and leaned on the railings. He used big gestures to illuminate the words of his tale while he talked. I had always enjoyed his stories, and have long wanted to hear about some of his oldest cases to have a chance write them up. This seemed like a good opportunity, and I started to feel glad to have given in.
“Now…” he began. “You know I have a brother.”
“Well, of course. Mycroft. You elder and better,” I said, not without a hint of teasing in my voice. I hadn’t met the man in question very often in the past, but the rivalry between him and Holmes had not escaped my notice.
“Yes. Quite,” Holmes said, with an emphasis on the last consonant, making the word sound overly punctuated, in that way betraying his emotions on the subject. “On occasion his affairs extend to the continent, and luckily for me, he is entirely reluctant to leave London.”
“London?” I laughed loudly, remembering the few time I had met Holmes’ older brother. “He won’t even leave the Diogenes Club.”
“Indeed,” the detective grinned and seemed cheerful again. “In this particular instance he arranged for my passage to Switzerland. I was to visit Zurich on a rather drab confidential matter. But my stay was not as tedious as I had feared.”
“Now, how could such a voyage be boring anyway?” I asked, fully aware that Holmes was the kind of character, who could find joy in watching mold on a piece of bread, but be utterly unimpressed by a mountain range in the sunset. But he just continued on talking, fully ignoring my question.
“Having successfully concluded my assignment, I was high in spirits and still had some time on my hands. So I sought out a former friend from my university days,” Holmes started his narration, falling into an easy speaking rhythm like a storyteller. “And it was quite fortunate that I did, for it brought me to a most peculiar case.”
Now my interest was definitely piqued. An old friend and a peculiar case - these suggested an interesting tale. One I would be glad to record, which is what I will be doing in the rest of this story.
“Let me set the stage for you,” Holmes said with a showman’s voice, gesturing out over the river into the direction of Lake Zurich. “Imagine these objects: A hastily crumpled piece of paper, an old-fashioned brass key, and an ornate wooden box. What do you make of them, Watson?”
“You described them so well they seemed to be right in front of me,” I said with a hint of sarcasm in my voice - a fact that seemed to have escaped Holmes completely. “It’s a… curious collection.”
“Very curious, and the story that surrounds them even more so,” he said, not giving all the information away immediately.
I played along. “These objects have a history, then?”
“Watson, these objects ARE history,” Holmes answered with, consciously emphasizing the words in his usual dramatic manner. “They are all connected by the Wagner Ritual.”
“You have mentioned the case before, but never the details,” I remarked, well remembering the many times I had glanced over some of Holmes’ old case notes and had asked him questions, which never had a satisfactory answer before. Maybe I had more luck now. “Tell me what happened?”
“My friend’s name is Regina Musgrave. She relocated to Zurich to pursue a career in research after her graduation. We met in her university office on a spring day. Not unlike today.”
“You were on good terms with… a woman?” I almost shouted, slightly shocked. I rarely heard tales of any of Holmes’ acquaintances, but even then, there had never been a woman among them.
But Holmes didn’t seem shaken. He even frowned a little as he answered. “Gender has nothing to do with ability, my dear Watson.”
“I didn’t want to imply that,” I quickly defended myself, worried I had said something to offend him. “I was just… surprised.”
“She had qualities I admired,” my friend explained. “Regina had always been very interested in my techniques and methods of observation. She possessed a keen mind of her own. I had not seen her in a number of years. But she had hardly changed…
"You see she had accepted a position at the Zurich University of Arts as a researcher in game design. She had always been a little peculiar, so I think this line of research fits her well. In fact, she is still at the school, should you like to meet her while we are still here.”
“I should like to do so,” I answered - even though I had not heard the whole story yet. A person of interest to Holmes should be a fine person to get to know, no matter how the tale turned out.
“Very well, we can arrange for that. Coming back to the case... I met Regina in her office at the school. It was a curious room with a few desks and computers for her and some coworkers. The shelves around them were stuffed full of copies of digital games, board games and literature about game design theory, old consoles and generations of technical gadgets,” Holmes continued. “I even found a Virtual Boy in their collection.”
“I’m surprised you your way around these things at all,” I interrupted his monologue.
“Please. I may be a bit old fashioned, I admit, but I wasn’t born yesterday,” Holmes shook his head. “I was quite impressed by the sheer size of the collection. In any case, Regina was the only one in the office at the time. We quickly fell into an easy chat, catching up on the recent years, when she brought something up that intrigued me.
‘I heard you have made a profession out of your amazing skills?’ she said and looked at me quizzically, as if she wanted to confirm that fact first. I replied that I was indeed making a living from them, which seemed to relieve some of her tension. ‘I’m happy to hear it,’ she continued. ‘You know, I’m glad you’re here just now. Maybe you could help me with a little something...’
Her way of dancing around the issue made me curious about it and I asked her what had happened. ‘Something really strange…’ she shook her head a little, narrowed her eyes. I could see her confusion. ‘It’s probably nothing, but I can’t get my head around it.’ Now my interest was piqued and I urged her to explain.”
I shifted a little on my feet and leaned with my back against the railing of the stone bridge. The sun started to get low in the sky, and we were blocking the way for a stream of tourists walking by with cameras high up the air, trying to catch the beauty of Zurich in the evening light. But I couldn’t care less, as Holmes’ story started to get interesting.
“Regina then told me her story. I will try to recount it as she explained,” Holmes nodded slightly and closed his eyes, as if he needed some space for concentration. “She said: ‘I have two colleagues. Richard and Rachel. They both work in my lab. I’ve known them for about two year and we always got along well. Three days ago, I had to return to my office quite late - I’d forgotten my laptop. To my surprise, the lights in my office were still switched on.’
She went on to describe her cautious stepping through the slightly open office door, only to find that someone was sitting at her desk, face eerily illuminated by the glow of the computer screen. ‘I found Richard in my office, rifling through my things,’ she continued. ‘He was photographing something on my desk with his mobile phone. I tried to confront him, of course. I was… quite angry. But he wouldn’t even talk to me! He just… ran off, before I could stop him!’
It was obvious that Regina was very disturbed by the appearance of Richard in her office late at night. She didn’t attempt to pursue him, but instead took a look at what he had been photographing. It was the diary, which she had inherited after the death of her aunt. Nothing connected it to her or Richard’s research, which made it even more odd. Her colleague had left the book lying open at a page with a poem.
I was slightly intrigued by her story, but what got my full attention was the fact that not only the perpetrator, but also their co-worker Rachel had disappeared after that night. They didn’t show up for work since then and were nowhere to be found outside of it. Regina described them as a pair of lovers, who had recently broken up and was puzzled as to their simultaneous vanishing.”
Holmes motioned for us to continue our way through Zurich and we settled into a slow pace, being overtaken by almost all other people out and about. Our path took us along the river Limmat into the direction of Lake Zurich. Numerous people were sitting at the water, enjoying the warm evening and a drink after a long workday. The atmosphere was calm, but I was only focused on listening to my friend’s story, which continued to develop one mystery after the other and not giving one hint to the solution of them all, so far.
“Of course you examined the diary?” I asked while stepping around a parked bicycle.
“Obviously,” the detective replied. “The diary was still in the office, so Regina let me peruse the important entry. It went like this - I remember the words to this day:
Whose was it?
Hers who is gone.
Who shall have it?
What was the day?
The tenth of the fourth.
Where shall we stand?
Between the two guides.
Where was the sun?
Over the fir.
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm.
How was it stepped?
West six by ten, North four by ten, West by five, North by ten, and so under.
What shall we see?
A crowned head above.
Why should we keep it?
For the sake of love.”
While my friend recited the words, I tried to make sense of them, but it there wasn’t much to the poem that gave me a clue as to their real meaning. I asked Holmes about it, but he just smiled at me in a way that meant I was to find it out by myself. Shrugging, I continued to listen to his retelling of the events.
“Regina was as puzzled as you are, my dear Watson. Perhaps even more. She pointed out the date of the entry next to the poem, which was from spring 1872. I was sure that this second mystery was not only more interesting than the first, but that those two had to be connected. My friend didn’t agree with me completely, but was willing to go along with the investigation - something she had already enjoyed during our university days.
After a brief check into the background of the diary’s author, it was clear that she had been the maid of a German family called Wesendonck in 19th century Zurich. They had lived in Switzerland for a number of years before returning to their home country. It was in their estate that we would begin our search for the truth behind the poem and Regina’s colleague’s disappearances.
The Wesendoncks had been a rich family thanks to the skills of silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, head of the family. Their villa had been constructed in a park, atop a hill, with a fine vista of Lake Zurich. A prestigious place to put a family home, even in the 19th century. I had high hopes for our investigation until I learned that the building now houses a museum. You see, I expected to use the poem as a guide and was afraid that the grounds had changed too much for it to still be useful,” Holmes explained.
We had stopped again, right at the edge of Lake Zurich. Holmes pointed to the other side of the lake, at a patch of green. Apparently one could see the Villa Wesendonck - or Museum Rietberg, as it is called now - from the spot where we were standing. I tried hard to make out a building, but could only see treetops. But if there was a house up there, I thought, it must be one of the finest spots in Zurich to live. I was impressed by the location and even more curious about the continuation of the story.
“When we arrived at the villa, Regina and I immediately tried to find our way around. She had been to the museum before, but her last visit was a long time ago. ‘This building has been a museum for quite a while,’ she said with concern in her voice. ‘If you’re searching for anything of the Wesendonck’s, it might no longer be here.’ I shrugged at her and replied: ‘I’m not yet sure what we are looking for. If we can just figure out the secret purpose of the poem, we should find a clue, at least. And then we shall know more about the disappearances of your colleagues.’ At this point, Regina was also convinced that these two incidents were indeed connected and we started to scout out our surroundings. After a while I heard her calling me from the park behind the villa and I found her waiting next to a big tree.
‘The poem refers to a location on the grounds of the villa, otherwise you wouldn’t have brought us here,’ she started to explain when I joined her. ‘It mentions two guides for us. A fir and an elm. Well, here is the fir, but there’s no sign of an elm’
I looked around. Regina was right. We were standing under a very large fir tree on a big lawn behind the villa. The building was small for a villa, but felt like a special place. You could almost feel the weight of history emanating from it - not as strong as from ancient ruins, but still palpable. The grounds were well cared for and some other people were enjoying the spring day in the park. But apart from all that, I too couldn’t make out an elm in the vicinity.
‘We could simply ask someone,’ I shrugged. ‘I mean, there’s the museum. They must have some records.’
After locating the museum shop, we found a helpful museum guide, who pointed us to a book about the history of Museum Rietberg and the Villa Wesendonck. Searching through old photos and maps of the grounds, we quickly spotted an elm in one of the older pictures. It seemed like it had been cut down to make way for a large fountain.
‘This is the first spot, then. Right between the fir and the elm,’ Regina pointed out and quoted a line from the poem. ‘Between the two guides.’
I agreed readily and thanked the guide for his help, so we could make our way back to the park. The sun was already low in the sky and I estimated that it would be in the right position, which reflected the lines in the poem, in less than an hour. One condition of the riddle would’ve then be fulfilled.”
“You make me want to visit the park myself and follow the riddle, Holmes. Will you not tell me what it is you were searching for?” I asked, riveted by the story. Every sentence made me more curious for the end.
But my friend only smiled. “Patience, doctor. All will be revealed in due time. Do you want to spoil the rest of my tale?”
As I shook my head, he added: “You know my methods, Watson. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can figure it out on your own.”
Hearing this, I doubled my efforts to listen to every detail of the story. Holmes usually left out a lot of information and conclusions from his explanations - things that were obvious to him and needed no further illumination. I wondered if I could still follow along successfully.
“Now we were faced with the fact that we had to follow the elm’s shadow, even though the tree had been removed from the grounds years ago. But if Richard could do the calculations - as I was sure he had done - so could I, surely. It was a simple extrapolation of several variables, such as the height of the fir and elm when the poem was written, the day of the year and the angle of the sun. The target lay almost at the edge of the terrace next to the villa. You can imagine my joy as I found a mark on the ground, within an inch of my calculated spot. I was certain that Richard had left it there, and that we were still on his trail.
Regina was starting to get excited, as well. She perused the copy of the poem, which she had brought with her to check the rest of the riddle. ‘Our next step is… not one, but “Six times ten steps, to the west.” Sherlock,’ she informed me and glanced at the compass in her phone to ensure we were about to walk into the right direction. The instruction took us on a path in parallel with the villa and we walked the required steps. I made sure to count Regina’s steps, and not mine, as they were based off a woman’s stepping length.”
Pausing his narration briefly to allow us to pass the street at a green light, Holmes showed me the difference in length between even our own steps, and how important it had been to replicate the steps as closely as possible. I admired his attention to detail.
“We followed the stepping instructions and arrived at the door of the museum administration entrance. The last step took Regina right up to the building. I admit that my heart fell a little, looking around. The floor had been renovated - the stones were all new. Gone was the old ground and any chance of us finding whatever had been hiding underneath it. I examined my surroundings to determine if we had indeed arrived at the right place.
‘Look up,’ I said. ‘There’s our crowned head. It’s mentioned in the line right after the steps...’ But Regina was inspecting the poem again and didn’t seem to listen. Then she chuckled, much to my indignation. ‘You should really trust the instructions, Sherlock,’ she mused. ‘“West by five, North by ten, and so under.” I believe you’re several feet to high, my dear.’ Despite her tone, I had to agree with her. I had assumed that we were meant to dig, but after her words it was clear that there must’ve been a cellar under our feet.
It had been simple enough to locate the cellar. The museum staff was surprisingly cooperative. Although what they thought of this curious pair of modern day archaeologists, they were polite enough to keep to themselves. We descended a winding stone stair. It then took me a moment to determine which of the basement rooms was directly under the building’s entrance. After my deliberation, the museum guide opened the doorway with an old-fashioned brass key, which had still been in the lock - a circumstance that was curious to all. In an instant it was obvious that we had at last come upon the true place, and that we had not been the only people to visit this spot.”
Holmes paused his narration to look around. We had reached the Bellevue - a hub of tram and bus stops in the middle of Zurich, currently full of people. The detective eyes darted around, taking in the details of everyone passing us, trams arriving and departing. I couldn’t concentrate on following his observations. It wasn’t that our surroundings were uninteresting, but I could feel that he made a point in dragging out the most important part of the story. Clearing my throat noisily, I caught his attention.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Where was I?”
“You had just arrived at the cellar, Holmes,” I answered; fully aware that he knew exactly where he had left off and enjoyed the attention. “Quit stalling.”
He smirked. “Alright. When we arrived the room, Regina and I each quickly found a thing of interest. While I heard her shout something about Richard, I picked up a peculiar, ornate wooden box, which had been left on the floor of the otherwise empty room. It was open and unfortunately as empty as our surroundings. The inside was lined with a soft, purple cloth, which had a square indention at the center - the only clue to its previous contents. I turned the box around and saw a chipped corner painted red with dried blood. It was quite easy to put everything together. I didn’t even have to look at the body lying at my feet.
‘Given the blood on this wooden box here, I’ll wager Richard was killed by a blow to the temple and simply left here to die,’ I explained calmly. Regina, on the other hand, was far from calm. She had to support herself on the wall as not to collapse from shock. A quite unreasonable reaction. My thoughts were already occupied piecing together the evidence. As is it my usual method, I tried putting myself in Richard’s place and imagine the chain of events, which led to his untimely demise.
From the nature of his death, I deduced that Richard had not come to the cellar alone. In all probability, his previous lover Rachel had accompanied him. How he had convinced her to accompany him, I do not know. But they had disappeared at the same time, so that was the only logical conclusion. They had found the hidden meaning of the poem, made the same calculations as I, and broke into the museum during the night.
Regina was still refusing to accept the evidence, but it was all too clear. We all must accept that seemingly ordinary people sometimes do the most astonishing things, given the right circumstances. They had found what they were looking for, and Rachel decided she wanted this treasure for herself. Richard’s underestimation of his accomplice cost him his life. She simply took the item and fled.
Rachel Howells was quickly traced after we had determined her involvement. She was arrested at Schiphol airport, about to board a plane for Moscow. In her possession: a leather-bound notebook. Her just rewards: a life sentence for Richard’s murder.”
Lowering his voice and speaking slowly to create a dramatic ending to the story, Holmes made another break in his narration. We had arrived at a big open space next to Lake Zurich - the Sechseläutenplatz. People were all around us, still enjoying the evening. I was still processing the story, when the most important thing hit me.
“Congratulations. You told the whole story without mentioning the most important thing. If I’m going to write this case up, I’ll need to know what had been hidden in the cellar, Holmes,” I said, in a mock-offended tone of voice.
“I suppose that’s true,” he answered and smirked again.
One requires a great deal of patience to deal with a man such as Sherlock Holmes. Mine was running out and as a result my reply was kept to a short “So?”
“Have you given any thought, as to why I called the case ‘The Wagner Ritual’?” Holmes asked and looked at me in that way he always did, thinking I could really figure it out by myself. I’d have to lie, if I said that I didn’t sometimes try to apply the same methods as my friend, though not always with the same results. This seemed to be one of these times where my conclusions were lacking.
“Now that you mention it,” I wondered. “The name doesn’t seem to have any connection at all.”
“Ah, but this is where you’re wrong Watson,” the answer came immediately, as if he had waited for this exact reply - which was probably true. “Take a look at the opera tickets for tonight’s performance.”
He handed me the little pieces of paper and I inspected them, as prompted. “Let me see… ‘Das Sonnenritual’ - The sun ritual? By… oh! Now I remember!” I shouted as it all fell into place.
“That should give you enough clues to figure it out,” my friend chuckled, looking as glad as I was for coming to the right deduction.
“So you are the one who discovered the lost opera by Richard Wagner?” I asked, now seeing everything more clearly. “It was all over the news a few years ago.”
“Well, I’m flattered, but technically, Richard and Rachel were the ones to discover it. I merely made sure it was given to the public,” the detective made a short pause and looked around, before addressing me again. “You know it is my custom to keep my name out of these affairs.”
Recapitulating the whole story, every part now seemed to make sense. What a remarkable tale. But, there was one thing still nagging me. “Why was the script hidden in the first place?” I asked.
My friend’s face lit up. “Ah, you stumbled on the right question. It is not the ‘what’ but the ‘why’.”
I was a little ruffled by his wording, but didn’t want to interrupt him, as he once more drew in breath, as to prepare for another long explanation. “As I cross-referenced the dates, places and persons - all became rather obvious.”
“Do enlighten me,” I immediately replied, knowing that the detective was spurned on to talk in more detail and - most importantly of all - faster with an attentive and appreciative audience.
“The author of the opera was none other than Richard Wagner himself. He had been the guest of the Wesendonck’s for a full year, but was to leave their villa in disgrace, having had an affair with the lay of the house, Mathilde Wesendonck.
Now, from the content of the opera, it is apparent that he wrote his new muse into the leading role. When his wife learned of his indiscretion, Wagner was forced to leave the grounds, but not before having completed his score. And so he left his notebook with Mathilde, who had been his inspiration. But in a bid to avoid scandal, she was never to show it to a living soul.”
“And she gave it to her maid for safekeeping?” I inquired.
“Watson, you’re unusually bright today. That is exactly what she did,” Holmes shouted. Again, I cringed a little bit at his wording, but was not about to let that stand in the way of the explanation. “And the maid hid it in the house, when the family left for Germany. It had struck me as odd that she would insist on making her simple diary an heirloom. Yet, Regina’s family had kept it safe from generation to generation - the act of passing it on becoming a ritual in itself. Over time, it became family tradition.”
“So… the maid ensured the hiding place was concealed, for all but the ones inheriting her diary,” I mused. “Can we assume she had meant to reveal the opera’s location after enough time had passed?”
Holmes’ gave me an appreciative nod. “We can,” he confirmed my suspicion. “Like the poem said: ‘Who shall have it?’ The answer is: ‘Everyone.’ It was never meant to stay hidden forever, perhaps just until Mathilde Wesendonck’s passing. But as with so many rituals, the origin of it was lost over the span of years.”
We slowly walked on in silence while I contemplated the whole story again. I regretted not taking any notes, as it was my usual manner, but I believed I could get Holmes to recount certain parts of the story if needed, as indeed he did when I finally found the time to write this - one of Sherlock Holmes’ earliest cases - down.
“Talking of time, we should hurry,” I said, glancing at my wristwatch again.
“Don’t fret, Watson, we’re almost at the opera house. In fact, there it is, right in front of you,” Holmes pointed ahead, and sure enough, there was a big building, which could only be the Zurich opera. He had led me all the way without my notice. As we stepped across the entrance of the building and joined the bulk of people already waiting to take their seats, I turned around and frowned at my friend.
“So these opera tickets of yours - you just happened to have two tickets for the very piece you helped save?”
He gave me one of his knowing smiles - the one that betrayed his joy of a plan well executed.
“Pure coincidence, my dear Watson,” he laughed. “Pure coincidence.”