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The Sign of the Four

Chapter III
In Quest of a Solution


   It was half-past five before Holmes returned. He was bright,
eager, and in excellent spirits, a mood which in his case alter-
nated with fits of the blackest depression.
  "There is no great mystery in this matter," he said, taking the
cup of tea which I had poured out for him; "the facts appear to
admit of only one explanation."
  "What! you have solved it already?"
  "Well, that would be too much to say. I have discovered a
suggestive fact, that is all. It is, however, very suggestive. The
details are still to be added. I have just found, on consulting the
back files of the Times, that Major Sholto, of Upper Norwood,
late of the Thirty-fourth Bombay Infantry, died upon the twenty-
eighth of April, 1882."
  "I may be very obtuse, Holmes, but I fail to see what this
suggests."
  "No? You surprise me. Look at it in this way, then. Captain
Morstan disappears. The only person in London whom he could
have visited is Major Sholto. Major Sholto denies having heard
that he was in London. Four years later Sholto dies. Within a
week of his death Captain Morstan's daughter receives a valuable
present, which is repeated from year to year and now culminates
in a letter which describes her as a wronged woman. What
wrong can it refer to except this deprivation of her father? And
why should the presents begin immediately after Sholto's death
unless it is that Sholto's heir knows something of the mystery
and desires to make compensation? Have you any alternative
theory which will meet the facts?"
  "But what a strange compensation! And how strangely made!
Why, too, should he write a letter now, rather than six years
ago? Again, the letter speaks of giving her justice. What justice
can she have? It is too much to suppose that her father is still
alive. There is no other injustice in her case that you know of."
  "There are difficulties; there are certainly difficulties," said
Sherlock Holmes pensively; "but our expedition of to-night will
solve them all. Ah, here is a four-wheeler, and Miss Morstan is
inside. Are you all ready? Then we had better go down, for it is
a little past the hour."
  I picked up my hat and my heaviest stick, but I observed that
Holmes took his revolver from his drawer and slipped it into his
pocket. It was clear that he thought that our night's work might
be a serious one.
  Miss Morstan was muffled in a dark cloak, and her sensitive
face was composed but pale. She must have been more than
woman if she did not feel some uneasiness at the strange enter-
prise upon which we were embarking, yet her self-control was
perfect, and she readily answered the few additional questions
which Sherlock Holmes put to her.
  "Major Sholto was a very particular friend of Papa's," she
said. "His letters were full of allusions to the major. He and
Papa were in command of the troops at the Andaman Islands, so
they were thrown a great deal together. By the way, a curious
paper was found in Papa's desk which no one could understand.
I don't suppose that it is of the slightest importance, but I
thought you might care to see it, so I brought it with me. It is
here."
  Holmes unfolded the paper carefully and smoothed it out upon
his knee. He then very methodically examined it all over with his
double lens.
  "It is paper of native Indian manufacture," he remarked. "It
has at some time been pinned to a board. The diagram upon it
appears to be a plan of part of a large building with numerous
halls, corridors, and passages. At one point is a small cross done
in red ink, and above it is '3.37 from left,' in faded pencil-
writing. In the left-hand corner is a curious hieroglyphic like four
crosses in a line with their arms touching. Beside it is written, in
very rough and coarse characters, 'The sign of the four -- Jonathan
Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan, Dost Akbar.' No, I
confess that I do not see how this bears upon the matter. Yet it is
evidently a document of importance. It has been kept carefully in
a pocketbook, for the one side is as clean as the other."
  "It was in his pocketbook that we found it."
  "Preserve it carefully, then, Miss Morstan, for it may prove to
be of use to us. I begin to suspect that this matter may turn out to
be much deeper and more subtle than I at first supposed. I must
reconsider my ideas."
  He leaned back in the cab, and I could see by his drawn brow
and his vacant eye that he was thinking intently. Miss Morstan
and I chatted in an undertone about our present expedition and its
possible outcome, but our companion maintained his impenetra-
ble reserve until the end of our journey.
  It was a September evening and not yet seven o'clock, but the
day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon
the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the
muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches
of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the
slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed
out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting
radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my
mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of
faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light -- sad faces
and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted
from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once
more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy
evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged,
combined to make me nervous and depressed. I could see from
Miss Morstan's manner that she was suffering from the same
feeling. Holmes alone could rise superior to petty influences. He
held his open notebook upon his knee, and from time to time he
jotted down figures and memoranda in the light of his pocket-
lantern.
  At the Lyceum Theatre the crowds were already thick at the
side-entrances. In front a continuous stream of hansoms and
four-wheelers were rattling up, discharging their cargoes of shirt-
fronted men and beshawled, bediamonded women. We had hardly
reached the third pillar, which was our rendezvous, before a
small, dark, brisk man in the dress of a coachman accosted us.
  "Are you the parties who come with Miss Morstan?" he
asked.
  "I am Miss Morstan, and these two gentlemen are my friends,"
said she.
  He bent a pair of wonderfully penetrating and questioning eyes
upon us.
  "You will excuse me, miss," he said with a certain dogged
manner, "but I was to ask you to give me your word that neither
of your companions is a police-officer."
  "I give you my word on that," she answered.
  He gave a shrill whistle, on which a street Arab led across a
four-wheeler and opened the door. The man who had addressed
us mounted to the box, while we took our places inside. We had
hardly done so before the driver whipped up his horse, and we
plunged away at a furious pace through the foggy streets.
  The situation was a curious one. We were driving to an
unknown place, on an unknown errand. Yet our invitation was
either a complete hoax -- which was an inconceivable hypothesis --
or else we had good reason to think that important issues might
hang upon our journey. Miss Morstan's demeanour was as reso-
lute and collected as ever. I endeavoured to cheer and amuse her
by reminiscences of my adventures in Afghanistan; but, to tell
the truth, I was myself so excited at our situation and so curious
as to our destination that my stories were slightly involved. To
this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to
how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how
I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it. At first I had some idea
as to the direction in which we were driving; but soon, what with
our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I
lost my bearings and knew nothing save that we seemed to be
going a very long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault,
however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through
squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.
  "Rochester Row," said he. "Now Vincent Square. Now we
come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the
Surrey side apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the
bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river."
  We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames,
with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab
dashed on and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon
the other side.
  "Wordsworth Road," said my companion. "Priory Road.
Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour
Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable
regions."
  We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neigh-
bourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by
the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the
corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a front-
ing of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of
new, staring brick buildings -- the monster tentacles which the
giant city was throwing out into the country. At last the cab drew
up at the third house in a new terrace. None of the other houses
were inhabited, and that at which we stopped was as dark as its
neighbours, save for a single glimmer in the kitchen-window. On
our knocking, however, the door was instantly thrown open by a
Hindoo servant, clad in a yellow turban, white loose-fitting
clothes, and a yellow sash. There was something strangely in-
congruous in this Oriental figure framed in the commonplace
doorway of a third-rate suburban dwelling-house.
  "The sahib awaits you," said he, and even as he spoke, there
came a high, piping voice from some inner room.
  "Show them in to-me, khitmutgar," it said. "Show them
straight in to me."
 
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