The Mystery of Sasassa Valley by A. Conan Doyle
Do I know why Tom Donahue is called "Lucky Tom"? Yes, I do; and that is
more than one in ten of those who call him so can say. I have knocked
about a deal in my time, and seen some strange sights, but none stranger
than the way in which Tom gained that sobriquet, and his fortune with it.
For I was with him at the time. Tell it? Oh, certainly; but it is a
longish story and a very strange one; so fill up your glass again, and
light another cigar, while I try to reel it off. Yes, a very strange one;
beats some fairy stories I have heard; but it's true, sir, every word of
it. There are men alive at Cape Colony now who'll remember it and confirm
what I say. Many a time has the tale been told round the fire in Boers'
cabins from Orange state to Griqualand; yes, and out in the bush and at
the diamond-fields too.
I'm roughish now, sir; but I was entered at the Middle Temple once, and
studied for the bar. Tom—worse luck!—was one of my
fellow-students; and a wildish time we had of it, until at last our
finances ran short, and we were compelled to give up our so-called
studies, and look about for some part of the world where two young fellows
with strong arms and sound constitutions might make their mark. In those
days the tide of emigration had scarcely begun to set in toward Africa,
and so we thought our best chance would be down at Cape Colony. Well,—to
make a long story short,—we set sail, and were deposited in Cape
Town with less than five pounds in our pockets; and there we parted. We
each tried our hands at many things, and had ups and downs; but when, at
the end of three years, chance led each of us up-country and we met again,
we were, I regret to say, in almost as bad a plight as when we started.
Well, this was not much of a commencement; and very disheartened we were,
so disheartened that Tom spoke of going back to England and getting a
clerkship. For you see we didn't know that we had played out all our small
cards, and that the trumps were going to turn up. No; we thought our
"hands" were bad all through. It was a very lonely part of the country
that we were in, inhabited by a few scattered farms, whose houses were
stockaded and fenced in to defend them against the Kaffirs. Tom Donahue
and I had a little hut right out in the bush; but we were known to possess
nothing, and to be handy with our revolvers, so we had little to fear.
There we waited, doing odd jobs, and hoping that something would turn up.
Well, after we had been there about a month something did turn up upon a
certain night, something which was the making of both of us; and it's
about that night, sir, that I'm going to tell you. I remember it well. The
wind was howling past our cabin, and the rain threatened to burst in our
rude window. We had a great wood fire crackling and sputtering on the
hearth, by which I was sitting mending a whip, while Tom was lying in his
bunk groaning disconsolately at the chance which had led him to such a
"Cheer up, Tom—cheer up," said I. "No man ever knows what may be
"Ill luck, ill luck, Jack," he answered. "I always was an unlucky dog.
Here have I been three years in this abominable country; and I see lads
fresh from England jingling the money in their pockets, while I am as poor
as when I landed. Ah, Jack, if you want to keep your head above water, old
friend, you must try your fortune away from me."
"Nonsense, Tom; you're down in your luck to-night. But hark! Here's some
one coming outside. Dick Wharton, by the tread; he'll rouse you, if any
Even as I spoke the door was flung open, and honest Dick Wharton, with the
water pouring from him, stepped in, his hearty red face looming through
the haze like a harvest-moon. He shook himself, and after greeting us sat
down by the fire to warm himself.
"Where away, Dick, on such a night as this?" said I. "You'll find the
rheumatism a worse foe than the Kaffirs, unless you keep more regular
Dick was looking unusually serious, almost frightened, one would say, if
one did not know the man. "Had to go," he replied—"had to go. One of
Madison's cattle was seen straying down Sasassa Valley, and of course none
of our blacks would go down that valley at night; and if we had
waited till morning, the brute would have been in Kaffirland."
"Why wouldn't they go down Sasassa Valley at night?" asked Tom.
"Kaffirs, I suppose," said I.
"Ghosts," said Dick.
We both laughed.
"I suppose they didn't give such a matter-of-fact fellow as you a sight of
their charms?" said Tom, from the bunk.
"Yes," said Dick, seriously, "yes; I saw what the niggers talk about; and
I promise you, lads, I don't want ever to see it again."
Tom sat up in his bed. "Nonsense, Dick; you're joking, man! Come, tell us
all about it; the legend first, and your own experience afterward. Pass
him over the bottle, Jack."
"Well, as to the legend," began Dick. "It seems that the niggers have had
it handed down to them that Sasassa Valley is haunted by a frightful
fiend. Hunters and wanderers passing down the defile have seen its glowing
eyes under the shadows of the cliff; and the story goes that whoever has
chanced to encounter that baleful glare has had his after-life blighted by
the malignant power of this creature. Whether that be true or not,"
continued Dick, ruefully, "I may have an opportunity of judging for
"Go on, Dick—go on," cried Tom. "Let's hear about what you saw."
"Well, I was groping down the valley, looking for that cow of Madison's,
and I had, I suppose, got half-way down, where a black craggy cliff juts
into the ravine on the right, when I halted to have a pull at my flask. I
had my eye fixed at the time upon the projecting cliff I have mentioned,
and noticed nothing unusual about it. I then put up my flask and took a
step or two forward, when in a moment there burst, apparently from the
base of the rock, about eight feet from the ground and a hundred yards
from me, a strange, lurid glare, flickering and oscillating, gradually
dying away and then reappearing again. No, no; I've seen many a glow-worm
and firefly—nothing of that sort. There it was, burning away, and I
suppose I gazed at it, trembling in every limb, for fully ten minutes.
Then I took a step forward, when instantly it vanished, vanished like a
candle blown out. I stepped back again; but it was some time before I
could find the exact spot and position from which it was visible. At last,
there it was, the weird reddish light, flickering away as before. Then I
screwed up my courage, and made for the rock; but the ground was so uneven
that it was impossible to steer straight; and though I walked along the
whole base of the cliff, I could see nothing. Then I made tracks for home;
and I can tell you, boys, that, until you remarked it, I never knew it was
raining, the whole way along. But hollo! what's the matter with Tom?"
What indeed? Tom was now sitting with his legs over the side of the bunk,
and his whole face betraying excitement so intense as to be almost
painful. "The fiend would have two eyes. How many lights did you see,
Dick? Speak out!"
"Hurrah!" cried Tom, "that's better." Whereupon he kicked the blankets
into the middle of the room, and began pacing up and down with long
feverish strides. Suddenly he stopped opposite Dick, and laid his hand
upon his shoulder. "I say, Dick, could we get to Sasassa Valley before
"Scarcely," said Dick.
"Well, look here; we are old friends, Dick Wharton, you and I. Now don't
you tell any other man what you have told us, for a week. You'll promise
that, won't you?"
I could see by the look on Dick's face as he acquiesced that he considered
poor Tom to be mad; and indeed I was myself completely mystified by his
conduct. I had, however, seen so many proofs of my friend's good sense and
quickness of apprehension that I thought it quite possible that Wharton's
story had had a meaning in his eyes which I was too obtuse to take in.
All night Tom Donahue was greatly excited, and when Wharton left he begged
him to remember his promise, and also elicited from him a description of
the exact spot at which he had seen the apparition, as well as the hour at
which it appeared. After his departure, which must have been about four in
the morning, I turned into my bunk and watched Tom sitting by the fire
splicing two sticks together, until I fell asleep. I suppose I must have
slept about two hours; but when I awoke Tom was still sitting working away
in almost the same position. He had fixed the one stick across the top of
the other so as to form a rough T, and was now busy in fitting a smaller
stick into the angle between them, by manipulating which, the cross one
could be either cocked up or depressed to any extent. He had cut notches,
too, in the perpendicular stick, so that, by the aid of the small prop,
the cross one could be kept in any position for an indefinite time.
"Look here, Jack!" he cried, when he saw that I was awake. "Come and give
me your opinion. Suppose I put this cross-stick pointing straight at a
thing, and arranged this small one so as to keep it so, and left it, I
could find that thing again if I wanted it—don't you think I could,
Jack—don't you think so?" he continued, nervously, clutching me by
"Well," I answered, "it would depend on how far off the thing was, and how
accurately it was pointed. If it were any distance, I'd cut sights on your
cross-stick; then a string tied to the end of it, and held in a plumb-line
forward, would lend you pretty near what you wanted. But surely, Tom, you
don't intend to localise the ghost in that way?"
"You'll see to-night, old friend—you'll see to-night. I'll carry
this to the Sasassa Valley. You get the loan of Madison's crowbar, and
come with me; but mind you tell no man where you are going, or what you
want it for."
All day Tom was walking up and down the room, or working hard at the
apparatus. His eyes were glistening, his cheeks hectic, and he had all the
symptoms of high fever. "Heaven grant that Dick's diagnosis be not
correct!" I thought, as I returned with the crowbar; and yet, as evening
drew near, I found myself imperceptibly sharing the excitement.
About six o'clock Tom sprang to his feet and seized his sticks. "I can
stand it no longer, Jack," he cried; "up with your crowbar, and hey for
Sasassa Valley! To-night's work, my lad, will either make us or mar us!
Take your six-shooter, in case we meet the Kaffirs. I daren't take mine,
Jack," he continued, putting his hands upon my shoulders—"I daren't
take mine; for if my ill luck sticks to me to-night, I don't know what I
might not do with it."
Well, having filled our pockets with provisions, we set out, and, as we
took our wearisome way toward the Sasassa Valley, I frequently attempted
to elicit from my companion some clue as to his intentions. But his only
answer was: "Let us hurry on, Jack. Who knows how many have heard of
Wharton's adventure by this time! Let us hurry on, or we may not be first
in the field!"
Well, sir, we struggled on through the hills for a matter of ten miles;
till at last, after descending a crag, we saw opening out in front of us a
ravine so sombre and dark that it might have been the gate of Hades
itself; cliffs many hundred feet shut in on every side the gloomy
boulder-studded passage which led through the haunted defile into
Kaffirland. The moon, rising above the crags, threw into strong relief the
rough, irregular pinnacles of rock by which they were topped, while all
below was dark as Erebus.
"The Sasassa Valley?" said I.
"Yes," said Tom.
I looked at him. He was calm now; the flush and feverishness had passed
away; his actions were deliberate and slow. Yet there was a certain
rigidity in his face and glitter in his eye which showed that a crisis had
We entered the pass, stumbling along amid the great boulders. Suddenly I
heard a short, quick exclamation from Tom. "That's the crag!" he cried,
pointing to a great mass looming before us in the darkness. "Now, Jack,
for any favour use your eyes! We're about a hundred yards from that cliff,
I take it; so you move slowly toward one side and I'll do the same toward
the other. When you see anything, stop and call out. Don't take more than
twelve inches in a step, and keep your eye fixed on the cliff about eight
feet from the ground. Are you ready?"
"Yes." I was even more excited than Tom by this time. What his intention
or object was I could not conjecture, beyond that he wanted to examine by
daylight the part of the cliff from which the light came. Yet the
influence of the romantic situation and my companion's suppressed
excitement was so great that I could feel the blood coursing through my
veins and count the pulses throbbing at my temples.
"Start!" cried Tom; and we moved off, he to the right, I to the left, each
with our eyes fixed intently on the base of the crag. I had moved perhaps
twenty feet, when in a moment it burst upon me. Through the growing
darkness there shone a small, ruddy, glowing point, the light from which
waned and increased, flickered and oscillated, each change producing a
more weird effect than the last. The old Kaffir superstition came into my
mind, and I felt a cold shudder pass over me. In my excitement I stepped a
pace backward, when instantly the light went out, leaving utter darkness
in its place; but when I advanced again, there was the ruddy glare glowing
from the base of the cliff. "Tom, Tom!" I cried.
"Ay, ay!" I heard him exclaim, as he hurried over toward me.
"There it is—there, up against the cliff!"
Tom was at my elbow. "I see nothing," said he.
"Why, there, there, man, in front of you!" I stepped to the right as I
spoke, when the light instantly vanished from my eyes.
But from Tom's ejaculations of delight it was clear that from my former
position it was visible to him also. "Jack," he cried, as he turned and
wrung my hand—"Jack, you and I can never complain of our luck again.
Now heap up a few stones where we are standing. That's right. Now we must
fix my sign-post firmly in at the top. There! It would take a strong wind
to blow that down; and we only need it to hold out till morning. O Jack,
my boy, to think that only yesterday we were talking of becoming clerks,
and you saying that no man knew what was awaiting him, too! By Jove, Jack,
it would make a good story!"
By this time we had firmly fixed the perpendicular stick in between the
two large stones; and Tom bent down and peered along the horizontal one.
For fully a quarter of an hour he was alternately raising and depressing
it, until at last, with a sigh of satisfaction, he fixed the prop into the
angle, and stood up. "Look along, Jack," he said. "You have as straight an
eye to take a sight as any man I know of."
I looked along. There beyond the farther sight was the ruddy,
scintillating speck, apparently at the end of the stick itself, so
accurately had it been adjusted.
"And now, my boy," said Tom, "let's have some supper and a sleep. There's
nothing more to be done to-night; but we'll need all our wits and strength
to-morrow. Get some sticks and kindle a fire here, and then we'll be able
to keep an eye on our signal-post, and see that nothing happens to it
during the night."
Well, sir, we kindled a fire, and had supper with the Sasassa demon's eye
rolling and glowing in front of us the whole night through. Not always in
the same place, though; for after supper, when I glanced along the sights
to have another look at it, it was nowhere to be seen. The information did
not, however, seem to disturb Tom in any way. He merely remarked, "It's
the moon, not the thing, that has shifted;" and coiling himself up, went
By early dawn we were both up, and gazing along our pointer at the cliff;
but we could make out nothing save the one dead, monotonous, slaty
surface, rougher perhaps at the part we were examining than elsewhere, but
otherwise presenting nothing remarkable.
"Now for your idea, Jack!" said Tom Donahue, unwinding a long thin cord
from round his waist. "You fasten it, and guide me while I take the other
end." So saying, he walked off to the base of the cliff, holding one end
of the cord, while I drew the other taut, and wound it round the middle of
the horizontal stick, passing it through the sight at the end. By this
means I could direct Tom to the right or left, until we had our string
stretching from the point of attachment, through the sight, and on to the
rock, which it struck about eight feet from the ground. Tom drew a chalk
circle of about three feet diameter round the spot, and then called to me
to come and join him. "We've managed this business together, Jack," he
said, "and we'll find what we are to find, together." The circle he had
drawn embraced a part of the rock smoother than the rest, save that about
the centre there were a few rough protuberances or knobs. One of these Tom
pointed to with a cry of delight. It was a roughish, brownish mass about
the size of a man's closed fist, and looking like a bit of dirty glass let
into the wall of the cliff. "That's it!" he cried—"that's it!"
"Why, man, a diamond, and such a one as there isn't a monarch in
Europe but would envy Tom Donahue the possession of. Up with your crowbar,
and we'll soon exorcise the demon of Sasassa Valley!"
I was so astounded that for a moment I stood speechless with surprise,
gazing at the treasure which had so unexpectedly fallen into our hands.
"Here, hand me the crowbar," said Tom. "Now, by using this little round
knob which projects from the cliff here as a fulcrum, we may be able to
lever it off. Yes; there it goes. I never thought it could have come so
easily. Now, Jack, the sooner we get back to our hut and then down to Cape
Town, the better."
We wrapped up our treasure, and made our way across the hills toward home.
On the way, Tom told me how, while a law student in the Middle Temple, he
had come upon a dusty pamphlet in the library, by one Jans van Hounym,
which told of an experience very similar to ours, which had befallen that
worthy Dutchman in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and which
resulted in the discovery of a luminous diamond. This tale it was which
had come into Tom's head as he listened to honest Dick Wharton's
ghost-story, while the means which he had adopted to verify his
supposition sprang from his own fertile Irish brain.
"We'll take it down to Cape Town," continued Tom, "and if we can't dispose
of it with advantage there, it will be worth our while to ship for London
with it. Let us go along to Madison's first, though; he knows something of
these things, and can perhaps give us some idea of what we may consider a
fair price for our treasure."
We turned off from the track accordingly, before reaching our hut, and
kept along the narrow path leading to Madison's farm. He was at lunch when
we entered; and in a minute we were seated at each side of him, enjoying
South African hospitality.
"Well," he said, after the servants were gone, "what's in the wind now? I
see you have something to say to me. What is it?"
Tom produced his packet, and solemnly untied the handkerchiefs which
enveloped it. "There!" he said, putting his crystal on the table; "what
would you say was a fair price for that?"
Madison took it up and examined it critically. "Well," he said, laying it
down again, "in its crude state about twelve shillings per ton."
"Twelve shillings!" cried Tom, starting to his feet. "Don't you see what
"Rock-salt be d—d! a diamond."
"Taste it!" said Madison.
Tom put it to his lips, dashed it down with a dreadful exclamation, and
rushed out of the room.
I felt sad and disappointed enough myself; but presently, remembering what
Tom had said about the pistol, I, too left the house, and made for the
hut, leaving Madison open-mouthed with astonishment. When I got in, I
found Tom lying in his bunk with his face to the wall, too dispirited
apparently to answer my consolations. Anathematising Dick and Madison, the
Sasassa demon, and everything else, I strolled out of the hut, and
refreshed myself with a pipe after our wearisome adventure. I was about
fifty yards from the hut, when I heard issuing from it the sound which of
all others I least expected to hear. Had it been a groan or an oath, I
should have taken it as a matter of course; but the sound which caused me
to stop and take the pipe out of my mouth was a hearty roar of laughter!
Next moment Tom himself emerged from the door, his whole face radiant with
delight. "Game for another ten-mile walk, old fellow?"
"What! for another lump of rock-salt, at twelve shillings a ton?"
"'No more of that, Hal, an you love me,' " grinned Tom. "Now look here,
Jack. What blessed fools we are to be so floored by a trifle! Just sit on
this stump for five minutes, and I'll make it as clear as daylight. You've
seen many a lump of rock-salt stuck in a crag, and so have I, though we
did make such a mull of this one. Now, Jack, did any of the pieces you
have ever seen shine in the darkness brighter than any fire-fly?"
"Well, I can't say they ever did."
"I'd venture to prophesy that if we waited until night, which we won't do,
we would see that light still glimmering among the rocks. Therefore, Jack,
when we took away this worthless salt, we took the wrong crystal. It is no
very strange thing in these hills that a piece of rock-salt should be
lying within a foot of a diamond. It caught our eyes, and we were excited,
and so we made fools of ourselves, and left the real stone behind.
Depend upon it, Jack, the Sasassa gem is lying within that magic circle of
chalk upon the face of yonder cliff. Come, old fellow, light your pipe and
stow your revolver, and we'll be off before that fellow Madison has time
to put two and two together."
I don't know that I was very sanguine this time. I had begun, in fact, to
look upon the diamond as a most unmitigated nuisance. However, rather than
throw a damper on Tom's expectations, I announced myself eager to start.
What a walk it was! Tom was always a good mountaineer, but his excitement
seemed to lend him wings that day, while I scrambled along after him as
best I could.
When we got within half a mile he broke into the "double," and never
pulled up until he reached the round white circle upon the cliff. Poor old
Tom! when I came up, his mood had changed, and he was standing with his
hands in his pockets, gazing vacantly before him with a rueful
"Look!" he said, "look!" and he pointed at the cliff. Not a sign of
anything in the least resembling a diamond there. The circle included
nothing but a flat slate-coloured stone, with one large hole, where we had
extracted the rock-salt, and one or two smaller depressions. No sign of
"I've been over every inch of it," said poor Tom. "It's not there. Some
one has been here and noticed the chalk, and taken it. Come home, Jack; I
feel sick and tired. Oh, had any man ever luck like mine!"
I turned to go, but took one last look at the cliff first. Tom was already
ten paces off.
"Hollo!" I cried, "don't you see any change in that circle since
"What d' ye mean?" said Tom.
"Don't you miss a thing that was there before?"
"The rock-salt?" said Tom.
"No; but the little round knob that we used for a fulcrum. I suppose we
must have wrenched it off in using the lever. Let's have a look at what
it's made of."
Accordingly, at the foot of the cliff we searched about among the loose
"Here you are, Jack! We've done it at last! We're made men!"
I turned round, and there was Tom radiant with delight, and with the
little corner of black rock in his hand. At first sight it seemed to be
merely a chip from the cliff; but near the base there was projecting from
it an object which Tom was now exultingly pointing out. It looked at first
something like a glass eye; but there was a depth and brilliancy about it
such as glass never exhibited. There was no mistake this time; we had
certainly got possession of a jewel of great value; and with light hearts
we turned from the valley, bearing away with us the "fiend" which had so
long reigned there.
There, sir; I've spun my story out too long, and tired you perhaps. You
see, when I get talking of those rough old days, I kind of see the little
cabin again, and the brook beside it, and the bush around, and seem to
hear Tom's honest voice once more. There's little for me to say now. We
prospered on the gem. Tom Donahue, as you know, has set up here, and is
well known about town. I have done well, farming and ostrich-raising in
Africa. We set old Dick Wharton up in business, and he is one of our
nearest neighbours. If you should ever be coming up our way, sir, you'll
not forget to ask for Jack Turnbull—Jack Turnbull of Sasassa Farm.