The Sign of the Four
The Episode of the Barrel
| The police had brought a cab with them, and
in this I escorted
Miss Morstan back to her home. After the angelic fashion of
women, she had borne trouble with a calm face as long as there
was someone weaker than herself to support, and I had found her
bright and placid by the side of the frightened housekeeper. ln
the cab, however, she first turned faint and then burst into a
passion of weeping -- so sorely had she been tried by the adven-
tures of the night. She has told me since that she thought me cold
and distant upon that journey. She little guessed the struggle
within my breast, or the effort of self-restraint which held me
back. My sympathies and my love went out to her, even as my
hand had in the garden. I felt that years of the conventionalities
of life could not teach me to know her sweet, brave nature as had
this one day of strange experiences. Yet there were two thoughts
which sealed the words of affection upon my lips. She was weak
and helpless, shaken in mind and nerve. It was to take her at a
disadvantage to obtrude love upon her at such a time. Worse
still, she was rich. If Holmes's researches were successful, she
would be an heiress. Was it fair, was it honourable, that a
half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy
which chance had brought about? Might she not look upon me as
a mere vulgar fortune-seeker? I could not bear to risk that such a
thought should cross her mind. This Agra treasure intervened
like an impassable barrier between us.
It was nearly two o'clock when we reached Mrs. Cecil
Forrester's. The servants had retired hours ago, but Mrs. Forrester
had been so interested by the strange message which Miss Morstan
had received that she had sat up in the hope of her return. She
opened the door herself, a middle-aged, graceful woman, and it
gave me joy to see how tenderly her arm stole round the other's
waist and how motherly was the voice in which she greeted her.
She was clearly no mere paid dependant but an honoured friend.
I was introduced, and Mrs. Forrester earnestly begged me to step
in and tell her our adventures. I explained, however, the impor-
tance of my errand and promised faithfully to call and report any
progress which we might make with the case. As we drove away
I stole a glance back, and I still seem to see that little group on
the step -- the two graceful, clinging figures, the half-opened
door, the hall-light shining through stained glass, the barometer,
and the bright stair-rods. It was soothing to catch even that
passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the
wild, dark business which had absorbed us.
And the more I thought of what had happened, the wilder and
darker it grew. I reviewed the whole extraordinary sequence of
events as I rattled on through the silent, gas-lit streets. There was
the original problem: that at least was pretty clear now. The
death of Captain Morstan, the sending of the pearls, the adver-
tisement, the letter -- we had had light upon all those events.
They had only led us, however, to a deeper and far more tragic
mystery. The Indian treasure, the curious plan found among
Morstan's baggage, the strange scene at Major Sholto's death,
the rediscovery of the treasure immediately followed by the
murder of the discoverer, the very singular accompaniments to
the crime, the footsteps, the remarkable weapons, the words upon
the card, corresponding with those upon Captain Morstan's chart --
here was indeed a labyrinth in which a man less singularly
endowed than my fellow-lodger might well despair of ever find-
ing the clue.
Pinchin Lane was a row of shabby, two-storied brick houses in
the lower quarter of Lambeth. I had to knock for some time at
No. 3 before I could make any impression. At last, however,
there was the glint of a candle behind the blind, and a face
looked out at the upper window.
"Go on, you drunken vagabond," said the face. "If you kick
up any more row, I'll open the kennels and let out forty-three
dogs upon you."
"If you'll let one out, it's just what I have come for," said I.
"Go on!" yelled the voice. "So help me gracious, I have a
wiper in this bag, and I'll drop it on your 'ead if you don't hook
"But I want a dog," I cried.
"I won't be argued with!" shouted Mr. Sherman. "Now stand
clear, for when I say 'three,' down goes the wiper."
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes " I began; but the words had a most
magical effect, for the window instantly slammed down, and
within a minute the door was unbarred and open. Mr. Sherman
was a lanky, lean old man, with stooping shoulders, a stringy
neck, and blue-tinted glasses.
"A friend of Mr. Sherlock is always welcome," said he.
"Step in, sir. Keep clear of the badger, for he bites. Ah,
naughty, naughty; would you take a nip at the gentleman?" This
to a stoat which thrust its wicked head and red eyes between the
bars of its cage. "Don't mind that, sir; it's only a slowworm. It
hain't got no fangs, so I gives it the run o' the room, for it keeps
the beetles down. You must not mind my bein' just a little short
wi' you at first, for I'm guyed at by the children, and there's
many a one just comes down this lane to knock me up. What
was it that Mr. Sherlock Holmes wanted, sir?"
"He wanted a dog of yours."
"Ah! that would be Toby."
"Yes, Toby was the name."
"Toby lives at No. 7 on the left here."
He moved slowly forward with his candle among the queer
animal family which he had gathered round him. In the uncer-
tain, shadowy light I could see dimly that there were glancing,
glimmering eyes peeping down at us from every cranny and
corner. Even the rafters above our heads were lined by solemn
fowls, who lazily shifted their weight from one leg to the other
as our voices disturbed their slumbers.
Toby proved to be an ugly, long-haired, lop-eared creature,
half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a
very clumsy, waddling gait. It accepted, after some hesitation, a
lump of sugar which the old naturalist handed to me, and, having
thus sealed an alliance, it followed me to the cab and made no
difficulties about accompanying me. It had just struck three on
the Palace clock when I found myself back once more at
Pondicherry Lodge. The ex-prize-fighter McMurdo had, I found,
been arrested as an accessory, and both he and Mr. Sholto had
been marched off to the station. Two constables guarded the
narrow gate, but they allowed me to pass with the dog on my
mentioning the detective's name.
Holmes was standing on the doorstep with his hands in his
pockets, smoking his pipe.
"Ah, you have him there!" said he. "Good dog, then! Athelney
Jones has gone. We have had an immense display of energy
since you left. He has arrested not only friend Thaddeus but the
gatekeeper, the housekeeper, and the Indian servant. We have
the place to ourselves but for a sergeant upstairs. Leave the dog
here and come up."
We tied Toby to the hall table and reascended the stairs. The
room was as we had left it, save that a sheet had been draped
over the central figure. A weary-looking police-sergeant reclined
in the corner.
"Lend me your bull's eye, Sergeant," said my companion.
"Now tie this bit of card round my neck, so as to hang it in front
of me. Thank you. Now I must kick off my boots and stockings.
Just you carry them down with you, Watson. I am going to do a
little climbing. And dip my handkerchief into the creosote. That
will do. Now come up into the garret with me for a moment."
We clambered up through the hole. Holmes turned his light
once more upon the footsteps in the dust.
"I wish you particularly to notice these footmarks," he said.
"Do you observe anything noteworthy about them?"
"They belong," I said, "to a child or a small woman."
"Apart from their size, though. Is there nothing else?"
"They appear to be much as other footmarks."
"Not at all. Look here! This is the print of a right foot in the
dust. Now I make one with my naked foot beside it. What is the
"Your toes are all cramped together. The other print has each
toe distinctly divided."
"Quite so. That is the point. Bear that in mind. Now, would
you kindly step over to that flap-window and smell the edge of
the woodwork? I shall stay over here, as I have this handkerchief
in my hand."
I did as he directed and was instantly conscious of a strong
"That is where he put his foot in getting out. If you can trace
him, I should think that Toby will have no difficulty. Now run
downstairs, loose the dog, and look out for Blondin."
By the time that I got out into the grounds Sherlock Holmes
was on the roof, and I could see him like an enormous glow-
worm crawling very slowly along the ridge. I lost sight of him
behind a stack of chimneys, but he presently reappeared and then
vanished once more upon the opposite side. When I made my
way round there I found him seated at one of the corner eaves.
"That you, Watson?" he cried.
"This is the place. What is that black thing down there?"
"Top on it?"
"No sign of a ladder?"
"Confound the fellow! It's a most breakneck place. I ought to
be able to come down where he could climb up. The water-pipe
feels pretty firm. Here goes, anyhow."
There was a scuffling of feet, and the lantern began to come
steadily down the side of the wall. Then with a light spring he
came on to the barrel, and from there to the earth.
"It was easy to follow him," he said, drawing on his stock-
ings and boots. "Tiles were loosened the whole way along, and
in his hurry he had dropped this. It confirms my diagnosis, as
you doctors express it."
The object which he held up to me was a small pocket or
pouch woven out of coloured grasses and with a few tawdry
beads strung round it. In shape and size it was not unlike a
cigarette-case. Inside were half a dozen spines of dark wood,
sharp at one end and rounded at the other, like that which had
struck Bartholomew Sholto.
"They are hellish things," said he. "Look out that you don't
prick yourself. I'm delighted to have them, for the chances are
that they are all he has. There is the less fear of you or me
finding one in our skin before long. I would sooner face a
Martini bullet, myself. Are you game for a six-mile trudge,
"Certainly," I answered.
"Your leg will stand it?"
"Here you are, doggy! Good old Toby! Smell it, Toby, smell
it!" He pushed the creosote handkerchief under the dog's nose,
while the creature stood with its fluffy legs separated, and with a
most comical cock to its head, like a connoisseur sniffing the
bouquet of a famous vintage. Holmes then threw the handker-
chief to a distance, fastened a stout cord to the mongrel's collar,
and led him to the foot of the water-barrel. The creature instantly
broke into a succession of high, tremulous yelps and, with his
nose on the ground and his tail in the air, pattered off upon the
trail at a pace which strained his leash and kept us at the top of
The east had been gradually whitening, and we could now see
some distance in the cold gray light. The square, massive house,
with its black, empty windows and high, bare walls, towered up,
sad and forlorn, behind us. Our course led right across the
grounds, in and out among the trenches and pits with which they
were scarred and intersected. The whole place, with its scattered
dirt-heaps and ill-grown shrubs, had a blighted, ill-omened look
which harmonized with the black tragedy which hung over it.
On reaching the boundary wall Toby ran along, whining ea-
gerly, underneath its shadow, and stopped finally in a corner
screened by a young beech. Where the two walls joined, several
bricks had been loosened, and the crevices left were worn down
and rounded upon the lower side, as though they had frequently
been used as a ladder. Holmes clambered up, and taking the dog
from me he dropped it over upon the other side.
"There's the print of Wooden-leg's hand," he remarked as I
mounted up beside him. "You see the slight smudge of blood
upon the white plaster. What a lucky thing it is that we have had
no very heavy rain since yesterday! The scent wili lie upon the
road in spite of their eight-and-twenty hours' start."
I confess that I had my doubts myself when I reflected upon
the great traffic which had passed along the London road in the
interval. My fears were soon appeased, however. Toby never
hesitated or swerved but waddled on in his peculiar rolling
fashion. Clearly the pungent smell of the creosote rose high
above all other contending scents.
"Do not imagine," said Holmes, "that I depend for my
success in this case upon the mere chance of one of these fellows
having put his foot in the chemical. I have knowledge now
which would enable me to trace them in many different ways.
This, however, is the readiest, and, since fortune has put it into
our hands, I should be culpable if I neglected it. It has, however
prevented the case from becoming the pretty little intellectuai
problem which it at one time promised to be. There might have
been some credit to be gained out of it but for this too palpable
"There is credit, and to spare," said I. "I assure you, Holmes,
that I marvel at the means by which you obtain your results in
this case even more than I did in the Jefferson Hope murder. The
thing seems to me to be deeper and more inexplicable. How, for
example, could you describe with such confidence the wooden-
"Pshaw, my dear boy! it was simplicity itself. I don't wish to
be theatrical. It is all patent and above-board. Two officers who
are in command of a convict-guard learn an important secret as
to buried treasure. A map is drawn for them by an Englishman
named Jonathan Small. You remember that we saw the name
upon the chart in Captain Morstan's possession. He had signed it
in behalf of himself and his associates -- the sign of the four, as
he somewhat dramatically called it. Aided by this chart, the
officers -- or one of them -- gets the treasure and brings it to
England, leaving, we will suppose, some condition under which
he received it unfulfilled. Now, then, why did not Jonathan
Small get the treasure himself? The answer is obvious. The chart
is dated at a time when Morstan was brought into close associa-
tion with convicts. Jonathan Small did not get the treasure
because he and his associates were themselves convicts and
could not get away."
"But this is mere speculation," said I.
"It is more than that. It is the only hypothesis which covers
the facts. Let us see how it fits in with the sequel. Major Sholto
remains at peace for some years, happy in the possession of his
treasure. Then he receives a letter from India which gives him a
great fright. What was that?"
"A letter to say that the men whom he had wronged had been
"Or had escaped. That is much more likely, for he would
have known what their term of imprisonment was. It would not
have been a surprise to him. What does he do then? He guards
himself against a wooden-legged man -- a white man, mark you,
for he mistakes a white tradesman for him and actually fires a
pistol at him. Now, only one white man's name is on the chart.
The others are Hindoos or Mohammedans. There is no other
white man. Therefore we may say with confidence that the
wooden-legged man is identical with Jonathan Small. Does the
reasoning strike you as being faulty?"
"No: it is clear and concise."
"Well, now, let us put ourselves in the place of Jonathan
Small. Let us look at it from his point of view. He comes to
England with the double idea of regaining what he would con-
sider to be his rights and of having his revenge upon the man
who had wronged him. He found out where Sholto lived, and
very possibly he established communications with someone in-
side the house. There is this butler, Lal Rao, whom we have not
seen. Mrs. Bernstone gives him far from a good character. Small
could not find out, however, where the treasure was hid, for no
one ever knew save the major and one faithful servant who had
died. Suddenly Small learns that the major is on his deathbed. ln
a frenzy lest the secret of the treasure die with him, he runs the
gauntlet of the guards, makes his way to the dying man's win-
dow, and is only deterred from entering by the presence of his
two sons. Mad with hate, however, against the dead man, he
enters the room that night, searches his private papers in the
hope of discovering some memorandum relating to the treasure,
and finally leaves a memento of his visit in the short inscription
upon the card. He had doubtless planned beforehand that, should
he slay the major, he would leave some such record upon the
body as a sign that it was not a common murder but, from the
point of view of the four associates, something in the nature of
an act of justice. Whimsical and bizarre conceits of this kind are
common enough in the annals of crime and usually afford valu-
able indications as to the criminal. Do you follow all this?"
"Now what could Jonathan Small do? He could only continue
to keep a secret watch upon the efforts made to find the treasure.
Possibly he leaves England and only comes back at intervals.
Then comes the discovery of the garret, and he is instantly
informed of it. We again trace the presence of some confederate
in the household. Jonathan, with his wooden leg, is utterly
unable to reach the lofty room of Bartholomew Sholto. He takes
with him, however, a rather curious associate, who gets over this
difficulty but dips his naked foot into creosote, whence come
Toby, and a six-mile limp for a half-pay officer with a damaged
"But it was the associate and not Jonathan who committed the
"Quite so. And rather to Jonathan's disgust, to judge by the
way he stamped about when he got into the room. He bore no
grudge against Bartholomew Sholto and would have preferred if
he could have been simply bound and gagged. He did not wish
to put his head in a halter. There was no help for it, however: the
savage instincts of his companion had broken out, and the poison
had done its work: so Jonathan Small left his record, lowered the
treasure-box to the ground, and followed it himself. That was the
train of events as far as I can decipher them. Of course, as to his
personal appearance, he must be middle-aged and must be sun-
burned after serving his time in such an oven as the Andamans.
His height is readily calculated from the length of his stride, and
we know that he was bearded. His hairiness was the one point
which impressed itself upon Thaddeus Sholto when he saw him
at the window. I don't know that there is anything else."
"Ah, well, there is no great mystery in that. But you will
know all about it soon enough. How sweet the morning air is!
See how that one little cloud floats like a pink feather from some
gigantic flamingo. Now the red rim of the sun pushes itself over
the London cloud-bank. It shines on a good many folk, but on
none, I dare bet, who are on a stranger errand than you and I.
How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the
presence of the great elemental forces of Nature! Are you well
up in your Jean Paul?"
"Fairly so. I worked back to him through Carlyle."
"That was like following the brook to the parent lake. He
makes one curious but profound remark. It is that the chief proof
of man's real greatness lies in his perception of his own small-
ness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and of apprecia-
tion which is in itself a proof of nobility. There is much food for
thought in Richter. You have not a pistol, have you?"
"I have my stick."
"It is just possible that we may need something of the sort if
we get to their lair. Jonathan I shall leave to you, but if the other
turns nasty I shall shoot him dead."
He took out his revolver as he spoke, and, having loaded two
of the chambers, he put it back into the right-hand pocket of his
We had during this time been following the guidance of Toby
down the half-rural villa-lined roads which lead to the metropolis.
Now, however, we were beginning to come among continuous
streets, where labourers and dockmen were already astir, and
slatternly women were taking down shutters and brushing door-
steps. At the square-topped corner public-houses business was
just beginning, and rough-looking men were emerging, rubbing
their sleeves across their beards after their morning wet. Strange
dogs sauntered up and stared wonderingly at us as we passed,
but our inimitable Toby looked neither to the right nor to the left
but trotted onward with his nose to the ground and an occasional
eager whine which spoke of a hot scent.
We had traversed Streatham, Brixton, Camberwell, and now
found ourselves in Kennington Lane, having borne away through
the side streets to the east of the Oval. The men whom we
pursued seemed to have taken a curiously zigzag road, with the
idea probably of escaping observation. They had never kept to
the main road if a parallel side street would serve their turn. At
the foot of Kennington Lane they had edged away to the left
through Bond Street and Miles Street. Where the latter street
turns into Knight's Place, Toby ceased to advance but began to
run backward and forward with one ear cocked and the other
drooping, the very picture of canine indecision. Then he waddled
round in circles, looking up to us from time to time, as if to ask
for sympathy in his embarrassment.
"What the deuce is the matter with the dog?" growled Holmes.
"They surely would not take a cab or go off in a balloon."
"Perhaps they stood here for some time," I suggested.
"Ah! it's all right. He's off again," said my companion in a
tone of relief.
He was indeed off, for after sniffing round again he suddenly
made up his mind and darted away with an energy and determi-
nation such as he had not yet shown. The scent appeared to be
much hotter than before, for he had not even to put his nose on
the ground but tugged at his leash and tried to break into a run. I
could see by the gleam in Holmes's eyes that he thought we were
nearing the end of our journey.
Our course now ran down Nine Elms until we came to Broderick
and Nelson's large timber-yard just past the White Eagle tavern.
Here the dog, frantic with excitement, turned down through the
side gate into the enclosure, where the sawyers were already at
work. On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an
alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally,
with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still
stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With
lolling tongue and blinking eyes Toby stood upon the cask,
looking from one to the other of us for some sign of apprecia-
tion. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were
smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the
smell of creosote.
Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other and then
burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.