The Adventure of the Devil's Foot
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In recording from time to time some of the curious experiences and
interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate
friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have continually been faced by
difficulties caused by his own aversion to publicity. To his sombre
and cynical spirit all popular applause was always abhorrent, and
nothing amused him more at the end of a successful case than to hand
over the actual exposure to some orthodox official, and to listen with
a mocking smile to the general chorus of misplaced congratulation. It
was indeed this attitude upon the part of my friend and certainly not
any lack of interesting material which has caused me of late years to
lay very few of my records before the public. My participation in some
of his adventures was always a privilege which entailed discretion and
reticence upon me.
It was, then, with considerable surprise that I received a telegram
from Holmes last Tuesday--he has never been known to write where a
telegram would serve--in the following terms:
Why not tell them of the Cornish horror--strangest case I have handled.
I have no idea what backward sweep of memory had brought the matter
fresh to his mind, or what freak had caused him to desire that I should
recount it; but I hasten, before another cancelling telegram may
arrive, to hunt out the notes which give me the exact details of the
case and to lay the narrative before my readers.
It was, then, in the spring of the year 1897 that Holmes's iron
constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant
hard work of a most exacting kind, aggravated, perhaps, by occasional
indiscretions of his own. In March of that year Dr. Moore Agar, of
Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may some day
recount, gave positive injunctions that the famous private agent lay
aside all his cases and surrender himself to complete rest if he wished
to avert an absolute breakdown. The state of his health was not a
matter in which he himself took the faintest interest, for his mental
detachment was absolute, but he was induced at last, on the threat of
being permanently disqualified from work, to give himself a complete
change of scene and air. Thus it was that in the early spring of that
year we found ourselves together in a small cottage near Poldhu Bay, at
the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula.
It was a singular spot, and one peculiarly well suited to the grim
humour of my patient. From the windows of our little whitewashed
house, which stood high upon a grassy headland, we looked down upon the
whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay, that old death trap of sailing
vessels, with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which
innumerable seamen have met their end. With a northerly breeze it lies
placid and sheltered, inviting the storm-tossed craft to tack into it
for rest and protection.
Then come the sudden swirl round of the wind, the blistering gale from
the south-west, the dragging anchor, the lee shore, and the last battle
in the creaming breakers. The wise mariner stands far out from that
On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was
a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored, with an occasional
church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every
direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race
which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange
monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes
of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife.
The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of
forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he
spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the
moor. The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and
he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the
Chaldean, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician traders in
tin. He had received a consignment of books upon philology and was
settling down to develop this thesis when suddenly, to my sorrow and to
his unfeigned delight, we found ourselves, even in that land of dreams,
plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more
engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had
driven us from London. Our simple life and peaceful, healthy routine
were violently interrupted, and we were precipitated into the midst of
a series of events which caused the utmost excitement not only in
Cornwall but throughout the whole west of England. Many of my readers
may retain some recollection of what was called at the time "The
Cornish Horror," though a most imperfect account of the matter reached
the London press. Now, after thirteen years, I will give the true
details of this inconceivable affair to the public.
I have said that scattered towers marked the villages which dotted this
part of Cornwall. The nearest of these was the hamlet of Tredannick
Wollas, where the cottages of a couple of hundred inhabitants clustered
round an ancient, moss-grown church. The vicar of the parish, Mr.
Roundhay, was something of an archaeologist, and as such Holmes had
made his acquaintance. He was a middle-aged man, portly and affable,
with a considerable fund of local lore. At his invitation we had taken
tea at the vicarage and had come to know, also, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis,
an independent gentleman, who increased the clergyman's scanty
resources by taking rooms in his large, straggling house. The vicar,
being a bachelor, was glad to come to such an arrangement, though he
had little in common with his lodger, who was a thin, dark, spectacled
man, with a stoop which gave the impression of actual, physical
deformity. I remember that during our short visit we found the vicar
garrulous, but his lodger strangely reticent, a sad-faced,
introspective man, sitting with averted eyes, brooding apparently upon
his own affairs.
These were the two men who entered abruptly into our little
sitting-room on Tuesday, March the 16th, shortly after our breakfast
hour, as we were smoking together, preparatory to our daily excursion
upon the moors.
"Mr. Holmes," said the vicar in an agitated voice, "the most
extraordinary and tragic affair has occurred during the night. It is
the most unheard-of business. We can only regard it as a special
Providence that you should chance to be here at the time, for in all
England you are the one man we need."
I glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes; but Holmes
took his pipe from his lips and sat up in his chair like an old hound
who hears the view-halloa. He waved his hand to the sofa, and our
palpitating visitor with his agitated companion sat side by side upon
it. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis was more self-contained than the clergyman,
but the twitching of his thin hands and the brightness of his dark eyes
showed that they shared a common emotion.
"Shall I speak or you?" he asked of the vicar.
"Well, as you seem to have made the discovery, whatever it may be, and
the vicar to have had it second-hand, perhaps you had better do the
speaking," said Holmes.
I glanced at the hastily clad clergyman, with the formally dressed
lodger seated beside him, and was amused at the surprise which Holmes's
simple deduction had brought to their faces.
"Perhaps I had best say a few words first," said the vicar, "and then
you can judge if you will listen to the details from Mr. Tregennis, or
whether we should not hasten at once to the scene of this mysterious
affair. I may explain, then, that our friend here spent last evening
in the company of his two brothers, Owen and George, and of his sister
Brenda, at their house of Tredannick Wartha, which is near the old
stone cross upon the moor. He left them shortly after ten o'clock,
playing cards round the dining-room table, in excellent health and
spirits. This morning, being an early riser, he walked in that
direction before breakfast and was overtaken by the carriage of Dr.
Richards, who explained that he had just been sent for on a most urgent
call to Tredannick Wartha. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis naturally went with
him. When he arrived at Tredannick Wartha he found an extraordinary
state of things. His two brothers and his sister were seated round the
table exactly as he had left them, the cards still spread in front of
them and the candles burned down to their sockets. The sister lay back
stone-dead in her chair, while the two brothers sat on each side of her
laughing, shouting, and singing, the senses stricken clean out of them.
All three of them, the dead woman and the two demented men, retained
upon their faces an expression of the utmost horror--a convulsion of
terror which was dreadful to look upon. There was no sign of the
presence of anyone in the house, except Mrs. Porter, the old cook and
housekeeper, who declared that she had slept deeply and heard no sound
during the night. Nothing had been stolen or disarranged, and there is
absolutely no explanation of what the horror can be which has
frightened a woman to death and two strong men out of their senses.
There is the situation, Mr. Holmes, in a nutshell, and if you can help
us to clear it up you will have done a great work."
I had hoped that in some way I could coax my companion back into the
quiet which had been the object of our journey; but one glance at his
intense face and contracted eyebrows told me how vain was now the
expectation. He sat for some little time in silence, absorbed in the
strange drama which had broken in upon our peace.
"I will look into this matter," he said at last. "On the face of it,
it would appear to be a case of a very exceptional nature. Have you
been there yourself, Mr. Roundhay?"
"No, Mr. Holmes. Mr. Tregennis brought back the account to the
vicarage, and I at once hurried over with him to consult you."
"How far is it to the house where this singular tragedy occurred?"
"About a mile inland."
"Then we shall walk over together. But before we start I must ask you
a few questions, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis."
The other had been silent all this time, but I had observed that his
more controlled excitement was even greater than the obtrusive emotion
of the clergyman. He sat with a pale, drawn face, his anxious gaze
fixed upon Holmes, and his thin hands clasped convulsively together.
His pale lips quivered as he listened to the dreadful experience which
had befallen his family, and his dark eyes seemed to reflect something
of the horror of the scene.
"Ask what you like, Mr. Holmes," said he eagerly. "It is a bad thing
to speak of, but I will answer you the truth."
"Tell me about last night."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, I supped there, as the vicar has said, and my elder
brother George proposed a game of whist afterwards. We sat down about
nine o'clock. It was a quarter-past ten when I moved to go. I left
them all round the table, as merry as could be."
"Who let you out?"
"Mrs. Porter had gone to bed, so I let myself out. I shut the hall
door behind me. The window of the room in which they sat was closed,
but the blind was not drawn down. There was no change in door or
window this morning, or any reason to think that any stranger had been
to the house. Yet there they sat, driven clean mad with terror, and
Brenda lying dead of fright, with her head hanging over the arm of the
chair. I'll never get the sight of that room out of my mind so long as
"The facts, as you state them, are certainly most remarkable," said
Holmes. "I take it that you have no theory yourself which can in any
way account for them?"
"It's devilish, Mr. Holmes, devilish!" cried Mortimer Tregennis. "It is
not of this world. Something has come into that room which has dashed
the light of reason from their minds. What human contrivance could do
"I fear," said Holmes, "that if the matter is beyond humanity it is
certainly beyond me. Yet we must exhaust all natural explanations
before we fall back upon such a theory as this. As to yourself, Mr.
Tregennis, I take it you were divided in some way from your family,
since they lived together and you had rooms apart?"
"That is so, Mr. Holmes, though the matter is past and done with. We
were a family of tin-miners at Redruth, but we sold our venture to a
company, and so retired with enough to keep us. I won't deny that
there was some feeling about the division of the money and it stood
between us for a time, but it was all forgiven and forgotten, and we
were the best of friends together."
"Looking back at the evening which you spent together, does anything
stand out in your memory as throwing any possible light upon the
tragedy? Think carefully, Mr. Tregennis, for any clue which can help
"There is nothing at all, sir."
"Your people were in their usual spirits?"
"Were they nervous people? Did they ever show any apprehension of
"Nothing of the kind."
"You have nothing to add then, which could assist me?"
Mortimer Tregennis considered earnestly for a moment.
"There is one thing occurs to me," said he at last. "As we sat at the
table my back was to the window, and my brother George, he being my
partner at cards, was facing it. I saw him once look hard over my
shoulder, so I turned round and looked also. The blind was up and the
window shut, but I could just make out the bushes on the lawn, and it
seemed to me for a moment that I saw something moving among them. I
couldn't even say if it was man or animal, but I just thought there was
something there. When I asked him what he was looking at, he told me
that he had the same feeling. That is all that I can say."
"Did you not investigate?"
"No; the matter passed as unimportant."
"You left them, then, without any premonition of evil?"
"None at all."
"I am not clear how you came to hear the news so early this morning."
"I am an early riser and generally take a walk before breakfast. This
morning I had hardly started when the doctor in his carriage overtook
me. He told me that old Mrs. Porter had sent a boy down with an urgent
message. I sprang in beside him and we drove on. When we got there we
looked into that dreadful room. The candles and the fire must have
burned out hours before, and they had been sitting there in the dark
until dawn had broken. The doctor said Brenda must have been dead at
least six hours. There were no signs of violence. She just lay across
the arm of the chair with that look on her face. George and Owen were
singing snatches of songs and gibbering like two great apes. Oh, it
was awful to see! I couldn't stand it, and the doctor was as white as
a sheet. Indeed, he fell into a chair in a sort of faint, and we
nearly had him on our hands as well."
"Remarkable--most remarkable!" said Holmes, rising and taking his hat.
"I think, perhaps, we had better go down to Tredannick Wartha without
further delay. I confess that I have seldom known a case which at
first sight presented a more singular problem."
Our proceedings of that first morning did little to advance the
investigation. It was marked, however, at the outset by an incident
which left the most sinister impression upon my mind. The approach to
the spot at which the tragedy occurred is down a narrow, winding,
country lane. While we made our way along it we heard the rattle of a
carriage coming towards us and stood aside to let it pass. As it drove
by us I caught a glimpse through the closed window of a horribly
contorted, grinning face glaring out at us. Those staring eyes and
gnashing teeth flashed past us like a dreadful vision.
"My brothers!" cried Mortimer Tregennis, white to his lips. "They are
taking them to Helston."
We looked with horror after the black carriage, lumbering upon its way.
Then we turned our steps towards this ill-omened house in which they
had met their strange fate.
It was a large and bright dwelling, rather a villa than a cottage, with
a considerable garden which was already, in that Cornish air, well
filled with spring flowers. Towards this garden the window of the
sitting-room fronted, and from it, according to Mortimer Tregennis,
must have come that thing of evil which had by sheer horror in a single
instant blasted their minds. Holmes walked slowly and thoughtfully
among the flower-plots and along the path before we entered the porch.
So absorbed was he in his thoughts, I remember, that he stumbled over
the watering-pot, upset its contents, and deluged both our feet and the
garden path. Inside the house we were met by the elderly Cornish
housekeeper, Mrs. Porter, who, with the aid of a young girl, looked
after the wants of the family. She readily answered all Holmes's
questions. She had heard nothing in the night. Her employers had all
been in excellent spirits lately, and she had never known them more
cheerful and prosperous. She had fainted with horror upon entering the
room in the morning and seeing that dreadful company round the table.
She had, when she recovered, thrown open the window to let the morning
air in, and had run down to the lane, whence she sent a farm-lad for
the doctor. The lady was on her bed upstairs if we cared to see her.
It took four strong men to get the brothers into the asylum carriage.
She would not herself stay in the house another day and was starting
that very afternoon to rejoin her family at St. Ives.
We ascended the stairs and viewed the body. Miss Brenda Tregennis had
been a very beautiful girl, though now verging upon middle age. Her
dark, clear-cut face was handsome, even in death, but there still
lingered upon it something of that convulsion of horror which had been
her last human emotion. From her bedroom we descended to the
sitting-room, where this strange tragedy had actually occurred. The
charred ashes of the overnight fire lay in the grate. On the table
were the four guttered and burned-out candles, with the cards scattered
over its surface. The chairs had been moved back against the walls,
but all else was as it had been the night before. Holmes paced with
light, swift steps about the room; he sat in the various chairs,
drawing them up and reconstructing their positions. He tested how much
of the garden was visible; he examined the floor, the ceiling, and the
fireplace; but never once did I see that sudden brightening of his eyes
and tightening of his lips which would have told me that he saw some
gleam of light in this utter darkness.
"Why a fire?" he asked once. "Had they always a fire in this small
room on a spring evening?"
Mortimer Tregennis explained that the night was cold and damp. For that
reason, after his arrival, the fire was lit. "What are you going to do
now, Mr. Holmes?" he asked.
My friend smiled and laid his hand upon my arm. "I think, Watson, that
I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning which you have so often
and so justly condemned," said he. "With your permission, gentlemen,
we will now return to our cottage, for I am not aware that any new
factor is likely to come to our notice here. I will turn the facts
over in my mind, Mr. Tregennis, and should anything occur to me I will
certainly communicate with you and the vicar. In the meantime I wish
you both good-morning."
It was not until long after we were back in Poldhu Cottage that Holmes
broke his complete and absorbed silence. He sat coiled in his
armchair, his haggard and ascetic face hardly visible amid the blue
swirl of his tobacco smoke, his black brows drawn down, his forehead
contracted, his eyes vacant and far away. Finally he laid down his
pipe and sprang to his feet.
"It won't do, Watson!" said he with a laugh. "Let us walk along the
cliffs together and search for flint arrows. We are more likely to
find them than clues to this problem. To let the brain work without
sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to
pieces. The sea air, sunshine, and patience, Watson--all else will
"Now, let us calmly define our position, Watson," he continued as we
skirted the cliffs together. "Let us get a firm grip of the very
little which we DO know, so that when fresh facts arise we may be ready
to fit them into their places. I take it, in the first place, that
neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical intrusions into the
affairs of men. Let us begin by ruling that entirely out of our minds.
Very good. There remain three persons who have been grievously
stricken by some conscious or unconscious human agency. That is firm
ground. Now, when did this occur? Evidently, assuming his narrative
to be true, it was immediately after Mr. Mortimer Tregennis had left
the room. That is a very important point. The presumption is that it
was within a few minutes afterwards. The cards still lay upon the
table. It was already past their usual hour for bed. Yet they had not
changed their position or pushed back their chairs. I repeat, then,
that the occurrence was immediately after his departure, and not later
than eleven o'clock last night.
"Our next obvious step is to check, so far as we can, the movements of
Mortimer Tregennis after he left the room. In this there is no
difficulty, and they seem to be above suspicion. Knowing my methods as
you do, you were, of course, conscious of the somewhat clumsy water-pot
expedient by which I obtained a clearer impress of his foot than might
otherwise have been possible. The wet, sandy path took it admirably.
Last night was also wet, you will remember, and it was not
difficult--having obtained a sample print--to pick out his track among
others and to follow his movements. He appears to have walked away
swiftly in the direction of the vicarage.
"If, then, Mortimer Tregennis disappeared from the scene, and yet some
outside person affected the card-players, how can we reconstruct that
person, and how was such an impression of horror conveyed? Mrs. Porter
may be eliminated. She is evidently harmless. Is there any evidence
that someone crept up to the garden window and in some manner produced
so terrific an effect that he drove those who saw it out of their
senses? The only suggestion in this direction comes from Mortimer
Tregennis himself, who says that his brother spoke about some movement
in the garden. That is certainly remarkable, as the night was rainy,
cloudy, and dark. Anyone who had the design to alarm these people
would be compelled to place his very face against the glass before he
could be seen. There is a three-foot flower-border outside this
window, but no indication of a footmark. It is difficult to imagine,
then, how an outsider could have made so terrible an impression upon
the company, nor have we found any possible motive for so strange and
elaborate an attempt. You perceive our difficulties, Watson?"
"They are only too clear," I answered with conviction.
"And yet, with a little more material, we may prove that they are not
insurmountable," said Holmes. "I fancy that among your extensive
archives, Watson, you may find some which were nearly as obscure.
Meanwhile, we shall put the case aside until more accurate data are
available, and devote the rest of our morning to the pursuit of
I may have commented upon my friend's power of mental detachment, but
never have I wondered at it more than upon that spring morning in
Cornwall when for two hours he discoursed upon celts, arrowheads, and
shards, as lightly as if no sinister mystery were waiting for his
solution. It was not until we had returned in the afternoon to our
cottage that we found a visitor awaiting us, who soon brought our minds
back to the matter in hand. Neither of us needed to be told who that
visitor was. The huge body, the craggy and deeply seamed face with the
fierce eyes and hawk-like nose, the grizzled hair which nearly brushed
our cottage ceiling, the beard--golden at the fringes and white near
the lips, save for the nicotine stain from his perpetual cigar--all
these were as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be
associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale, the
great lion-hunter and explorer.
We had heard of his presence in the district and had once or twice
caught sight of his tall figure upon the moorland paths. He made no
advances to us, however, nor would we have dreamed of doing so to him,
as it was well known that it was his love of seclusion which caused him
to spend the greater part of the intervals between his journeys in a
small bungalow buried in the lonely wood of Beauchamp Arriance. Here,
amid his books and his maps, he lived an absolutely lonely life,
attending to his own simple wants and paying little apparent heed to
the affairs of his neighbours. It was a surprise to me, therefore, to
hear him asking Holmes in an eager voice whether he had made any
advance in his reconstruction of this mysterious episode. "The county
police are utterly at fault," said he, "but perhaps your wider
experience has suggested some conceivable explanation. My only claim
to being taken into your confidence is that during my many residences
here I have come to know this family of Tregennis very well--indeed,
upon my Cornish mother's side I could call them cousins--and their
strange fate has naturally been a great shock to me. I may tell you
that I had got as far as Plymouth upon my way to Africa, but the news
reached me this morning, and I came straight back again to help in the
Holmes raised his eyebrows.
"Did you lose your boat through it?"
"I will take the next."
"Dear me! that is friendship indeed."
"I tell you they were relatives."
"Quite so--cousins of your mother. Was your baggage aboard the ship?"
"Some of it, but the main part at the hotel."
"I see. But surely this event could not have found its way into the
Plymouth morning papers."
"No, sir; I had a telegram."
"Might I ask from whom?"
A shadow passed over the gaunt face of the explorer.
"You are very inquisitive, Mr. Holmes."
"It is my business."
With an effort Dr. Sterndale recovered his ruffled composure.
"I have no objection to telling you," he said. "It was Mr. Roundhay,
the vicar, who sent me the telegram which recalled me."
"Thank you," said Holmes. "I may say in answer to your original
question that I have not cleared my mind entirely on the subject of
this case, but that I have every hope of reaching some conclusion. It
would be premature to say more."
"Perhaps you would not mind telling me if your suspicions point in any
"No, I can hardly answer that."
"Then I have wasted my time and need not prolong my visit." The famous
doctor strode out of our cottage in considerable ill-humour, and within
five minutes Holmes had followed him. I saw him no more until the
evening, when he returned with a slow step and haggard face which
assured me that he had made no great progress with his investigation.
He glanced at a telegram which awaited him and threw it into the grate.
"From the Plymouth hotel, Watson," he said. "I learned the name of it
from the vicar, and I wired to make certain that Dr. Leon Sterndale's
account was true. It appears that he did indeed spend last night
there, and that he has actually allowed some of his baggage to go on to
Africa, while he returned to be present at this investigation. What do
you make of that, Watson?"
"He is deeply interested."
"Deeply interested--yes. There is a thread here which we had not yet
grasped and which might lead us through the tangle. Cheer up, Watson,
for I am very sure that our material has not yet all come to hand.
When it does we may soon leave our difficulties behind us."
Little did I think how soon the words of Holmes would be realized, or
how strange and sinister would be that new development which opened up
an entirely fresh line of investigation. I was shaving at my window in
the morning when I heard the rattle of hoofs and, looking up, saw a
dog-cart coming at a gallop down the road. It pulled up at our door,
and our friend, the vicar, sprang from it and rushed up our garden
path. Holmes was already dressed, and we hastened down to meet him.
Our visitor was so excited that he could hardly articulate, but at last
in gasps and bursts his tragic story came out of him.
"We are devil-ridden, Mr. Holmes! My poor parish is devil-ridden!" he
cried. "Satan himself is loose in it! We are given over into his
hands!" He danced about in his agitation, a ludicrous object if it
were not for his ashy face and startled eyes. Finally he shot out his
"Mr. Mortimer Tregennis died during the night, and with exactly the
same symptoms as the rest of his family."
Holmes sprang to his feet, all energy in an instant.
"Can you fit us both into your dog-cart?"
"Yes, I can."
"Then, Watson, we will postpone our breakfast. Mr. Roundhay, we are
entirely at your disposal. Hurry--hurry, before things get
The lodger occupied two rooms at the vicarage, which were in an angle
by themselves, the one above the other. Below was a large
sitting-room; above, his bedroom. They looked out upon a croquet lawn
which came up to the windows. We had arrived before the doctor or the
police, so that everything was absolutely undisturbed. Let me describe
exactly the scene as we saw it upon that misty March morning. It has
left an impression which can never be effaced from my mind.
The atmosphere of the room was of a horrible and depressing stuffiness.
The servant who had first entered had thrown up the window, or it would
have been even more intolerable. This might partly be due to the fact
that a lamp stood flaring and smoking on the centre table. Beside it
sat the dead man, leaning back in his chair, his thin beard projecting,
his spectacles pushed up on to his forehead, and his lean dark face
turned towards the window and twisted into the same distortion of
terror which had marked the features of his dead sister. His limbs
were convulsed and his fingers contorted as though he had died in a
very paroxysm of fear. He was fully clothed, though there were signs
that his dressing had been done in a hurry. We had already learned
that his bed had been slept in, and that the tragic end had come to him
in the early morning.
One realized the red-hot energy which underlay Holmes's phlegmatic
exterior when one saw the sudden change which came over him from the
moment that he entered the fatal apartment. In an instant he was tense
and alert, his eyes shining, his face set, his limbs quivering with
eager activity. He was out on the lawn, in through the window, round
the room, and up into the bedroom, for all the world like a dashing
foxhound drawing a cover. In the bedroom he made a rapid cast around
and ended by throwing open the window, which appeared to give him some
fresh cause for excitement, for he leaned out of it with loud
ejaculations of interest and delight. Then he rushed down the stair,
out through the open window, threw himself upon his face on the lawn,
sprang up and into the room once more, all with the energy of the
hunter who is at the very heels of his quarry. The lamp, which was an
ordinary standard, he examined with minute care, making certain
measurements upon its bowl. He carefully scrutinized with his lens the
talc shield which covered the top of the chimney and scraped off some
ashes which adhered to its upper surface, putting some of them into an
envelope, which he placed in his pocketbook. Finally, just as the
doctor and the official police put in an appearance, he beckoned to the
vicar and we all three went out upon the lawn.
"I am glad to say that my investigation has not been entirely barren,"
he remarked. "I cannot remain to discuss the matter with the police,
but I should be exceedingly obliged, Mr. Roundhay, if you would give
the inspector my compliments and direct his attention to the bedroom
window and to the sitting-room lamp. Each is suggestive, and together
they are almost conclusive. If the police would desire further
information I shall be happy to see any of them at the cottage. And
now, Watson, I think that, perhaps, we shall be better employed
It may be that the police resented the intrusion of an amateur, or that
they imagined themselves to be upon some hopeful line of investigation;
but it is certain that we heard nothing from them for the next two
days. During this time Holmes spent some of his time smoking and
dreaming in the cottage; but a greater portion in country walks which
he undertook alone, returning after many hours without remark as to
where he had been. One experiment served to show me the line of his
investigation. He had bought a lamp which was the duplicate of the one
which had burned in the room of Mortimer Tregennis on the morning of
the tragedy. This he filled with the same oil as that used at the
vicarage, and he carefully timed the period which it would take to be
exhausted. Another experiment which he made was of a more unpleasant
nature, and one which I am not likely ever to forget.
"You will remember, Watson," he remarked one afternoon, "that there is
a single common point of resemblance in the varying reports which have
reached us. This concerns the effect of the atmosphere of the room in
each case upon those who had first entered it. You will recollect that
Mortimer Tregennis, in describing the episode of his last visit to his
brother's house, remarked that the doctor on entering the room fell
into a chair? You had forgotten? Well I can answer for it that it was
so. Now, you will remember also that Mrs. Porter, the housekeeper, told
us that she herself fainted upon entering the room and had afterwards
opened the window. In the second case--that of Mortimer Tregennis
himself--you cannot have forgotten the horrible stuffiness of the room
when we arrived, though the servant had thrown open the window. That
servant, I found upon inquiry, was so ill that she had gone to her bed.
You will admit, Watson, that these facts are very suggestive. In each
case there is evidence of a poisonous atmosphere. In each case, also,
there is combustion going on in the room--in the one case a fire, in
the other a lamp. The fire was needed, but the lamp was lit--as a
comparison of the oil consumed will show--long after it was broad
daylight. Why? Surely because there is some connection between three
things--the burning, the stuffy atmosphere, and, finally, the madness
or death of those unfortunate people. That is clear, is it not?"
"It would appear so."
"At least we may accept it as a working hypothesis. We will suppose,
then, that something was burned in each case which produced an
atmosphere causing strange toxic effects. Very good. In the first
instance--that of the Tregennis family--this substance was placed in
the fire. Now the window was shut, but the fire would naturally carry
fumes to some extent up the chimney. Hence one would expect the
effects of the poison to be less than in the second case, where there
was less escape for the vapour. The result seems to indicate that it
was so, since in the first case only the woman, who had presumably the
more sensitive organism, was killed, the others exhibiting that
temporary or permanent lunacy which is evidently the first effect of
the drug. In the second case the result was complete. The facts,
therefore, seem to bear out the theory of a poison which worked by
"With this train of reasoning in my head I naturally looked about in
Mortimer Tregennis's room to find some remains of this substance. The
obvious place to look was the talc shelf or smoke-guard of the lamp.
There, sure enough, I perceived a number of flaky ashes, and round the
edges a fringe of brownish powder, which had not yet been consumed.
Half of this I took, as you saw, and I placed it in an envelope."
"Why half, Holmes?"
"It is not for me, my dear Watson, to stand in the way of the official
police force. I leave them all the evidence which I found. The poison
still remained upon the talc had they the wit to find it. Now, Watson,
we will light our lamp; we will, however, take the precaution to open
our window to avoid the premature decease of two deserving members of
society, and you will seat yourself near that open window in an
armchair unless, like a sensible man, you determine to have nothing to
do with the affair. Oh, you will see it out, will you? I thought I
knew my Watson. This chair I will place opposite yours, so that we may
be the same distance from the poison and face to face. The door we
will leave ajar. Each is now in a position to watch the other and to
bring the experiment to an end should the symptoms seem alarming. Is
that all clear? Well, then, I take our powder--or what remains of
it--from the envelope, and I lay it above the burning lamp. So! Now,
Watson, let us sit down and await developments."
They were not long in coming. I had hardly settled in my chair before
I was conscious of a thick, musky odour, subtle and nauseous. At the
very first whiff of it my brain and my imagination were beyond all
control. A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told
me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my
appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was
monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes
swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning
of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the
threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul. A freezing horror
took possession of me. I felt that my hair was rising, that my eyes
were protruding, that my mouth was opened, and my tongue like leather.
The turmoil within my brain was such that something must surely snap.
I tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was
my own voice, but distant and detached from myself. At the same moment,
in some effort of escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had
a glimpse of Holmes's face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror--the
very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that
vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I dashed
from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we lurched
through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down
upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the
glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud
of terror which had girt us in. Slowly it rose from our souls like the
mists from a landscape until peace and reason had returned, and we were
sitting upon the grass, wiping our clammy foreheads, and looking with
apprehension at each other to mark the last traces of that terrific
experience which we had undergone.
"Upon my word, Watson!" said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, "I
owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable
experiment even for one's self, and doubly so for a friend. I am
really very sorry."
"You know," I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much
of Holmes's heart before, "that it is my greatest joy and privilege to
He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was
his habitual attitude to those about him. "It would be superfluous to
drive us mad, my dear Watson," said he. "A candid observer would
certainly declare that we were so already before we embarked upon so
wild an experiment. I confess that I never imagined that the effect
could be so sudden and so severe." He dashed into the cottage, and,
reappearing with the burning lamp held at full arm's length, he threw
it among a bank of brambles. "We must give the room a little time to
clear. I take it, Watson, that you have no longer a shadow of a doubt
as to how these tragedies were produced?"
"But the cause remains as obscure as before. Come into the arbour here
and let us discuss it together. That villainous stuff seems still to
linger round my throat. I think we must admit that all the evidence
points to this man, Mortimer Tregennis, having been the criminal in the
first tragedy, though he was the victim in the second one. We must
remember, in the first place, that there is some story of a family
quarrel, followed by a reconciliation. How bitter that quarrel may
have been, or how hollow the reconciliation we cannot tell. When I
think of Mortimer Tregennis, with the foxy face and the small shrewd,
beady eyes behind the spectacles, he is not a man whom I should judge
to be of a particularly forgiving disposition. Well, in the next place,
you will remember that this idea of someone moving in the garden, which
took our attention for a moment from the real cause of the tragedy,
emanated from him. He had a motive in misleading us. Finally, if he
did not throw the substance into the fire at the moment of leaving the
room, who did do so? The affair happened immediately after his
departure. Had anyone else come in, the family would certainly have
risen from the table. Besides, in peaceful Cornwall, visitors did not
arrive after ten o'clock at night. We may take it, then, that all the
evidence points to Mortimer Tregennis as the culprit."
"Then his own death was suicide!"
"Well, Watson, it is on the face of it a not impossible supposition.
The man who had the guilt upon his soul of having brought such a fate
upon his own family might well be driven by remorse to inflict it upon
himself. There are, however, some cogent reasons against it.
Fortunately, there is one man in England who knows all about it, and I
have made arrangements by which we shall hear the facts this afternoon
from his own lips. Ah! he is a little before his time. Perhaps you
would kindly step this way, Dr. Leon Sterndale. We have been conducing
a chemical experiment indoors which has left our little room hardly fit
for the reception of so distinguished a visitor."
I had heard the click of the garden gate, and now the majestic figure
of the great African explorer appeared upon the path. He turned in
some surprise towards the rustic arbour in which we sat.
"You sent for me, Mr. Holmes. I had your note about an hour ago, and I
have come, though I really do not know why I should obey your summons."
"Perhaps we can clear the point up before we separate," said Holmes.
"Meanwhile, I am much obliged to you for your courteous acquiescence.
You will excuse this informal reception in the open air, but my friend
Watson and I have nearly furnished an additional chapter to what the
papers call the Cornish Horror, and we prefer a clear atmosphere for
the present. Perhaps, since the matters which we have to discuss will
affect you personally in a very intimate fashion, it is as well that we
should talk where there can be no eavesdropping."
The explorer took his cigar from his lips and gazed sternly at my
"I am at a loss to know, sir," he said, "what you can have to speak
about which affects me personally in a very intimate fashion."
"The killing of Mortimer Tregennis," said Holmes.
For a moment I wished that I were armed. Sterndale's fierce face
turned to a dusky red, his eyes glared, and the knotted, passionate
veins started out in his forehead, while he sprang forward with
clenched hands towards my companion. Then he stopped, and with a
violent effort he resumed a cold, rigid calmness, which was, perhaps,
more suggestive of danger than his hot-headed outburst.
"I have lived so long among savages and beyond the law," said he, "that
I have got into the way of being a law to myself. You would do well,
Mr. Holmes, not to forget it, for I have no desire to do you an injury."
"Nor have I any desire to do you an injury, Dr. Sterndale. Surely the
clearest proof of it is that, knowing what I know, I have sent for you
and not for the police."
Sterndale sat down with a gasp, overawed for, perhaps, the first time
in his adventurous life. There was a calm assurance of power in
Holmes's manner which could not be withstood. Our visitor stammered
for a moment, his great hands opening and shutting in his agitation.
"What do you mean?" he asked at last. "If this is bluff upon your
part, Mr. Holmes, you have chosen a bad man for your experiment. Let us
have no more beating about the bush. What DO you mean?"
"I will tell you," said Holmes, "and the reason why I tell you is that
I hope frankness may beget frankness. What my next step may be will
depend entirely upon the nature of your own defence."
"My defence against what?"
"Against the charge of killing Mortimer Tregennis."
Sterndale mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. "Upon my word,
you are getting on," said he. "Do all your successes depend upon this
prodigious power of bluff?"
"The bluff," said Holmes sternly, "is upon your side, Dr. Leon
Sterndale, and not upon mine. As a proof I will tell you some of the
facts upon which my conclusions are based. Of your return from
Plymouth, allowing much of your property to go on to Africa, I will say
nothing save that it first informed me that you were one of the factors
which had to be taken into account in reconstructing this drama--"
"I came back--"
"I have heard your reasons and regard them as unconvincing and
inadequate. We will pass that. You came down here to ask me whom I
suspected. I refused to answer you. You then went to the vicarage,
waited outside it for some time, and finally returned to your cottage."
"How do you know that?"
"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you. You spent a
restless night at your cottage, and you formed certain plans, which in
the early morning you proceeded to put into execution. Leaving your
door just as day was breaking, you filled your pocket with some reddish
gravel that was lying heaped beside your gate."
Sterndale gave a violent start and looked at Holmes in amazement.
"You then walked swiftly for the mile which separated you from the
vicarage. You were wearing, I may remark, the same pair of ribbed
tennis shoes which are at the present moment upon your feet. At the
vicarage you passed through the orchard and the side hedge, coming out
under the window of the lodger Tregennis. It was now daylight, but the
household was not yet stirring. You drew some of the gravel from your
pocket, and you threw it up at the window above you."
Sterndale sprang to his feet.
"I believe that you are the devil himself!" he cried.
Holmes smiled at the compliment. "It took two, or possibly three,
handfuls before the lodger came to the window. You beckoned him to
come down. He dressed hurriedly and descended to his sitting-room.
You entered by the window. There was an interview--a short one--during
which you walked up and down the room. Then you passed out and closed
the window, standing on the lawn outside smoking a cigar and watching
what occurred. Finally, after the death of Tregennis, you withdrew as
you had come. Now, Dr. Sterndale, how do you justify such conduct, and
what were the motives for your actions? If you prevaricate or trifle
with me, I give you my assurance that the matter will pass out of my
Our visitor's face had turned ashen gray as he listened to the words of
his accuser. Now he sat for some time in thought with his face sunk in
his hands. Then with a sudden impulsive gesture he plucked a
photograph from his breast-pocket and threw it on the rustic table
"That is why I have done it," said he.
It showed the bust and face of a very beautiful woman. Holmes stooped
"Brenda Tregennis," said he.
"Yes, Brenda Tregennis," repeated our visitor. "For years I have loved
her. For years she has loved me. There is the secret of that Cornish
seclusion which people have marvelled at. It has brought me close to
the one thing on earth that was dear to me. I could not marry her, for
I have a wife who has left me for years and yet whom, by the deplorable
laws of England, I could not divorce. For years Brenda waited. For
years I waited. And this is what we have waited for." A terrible sob
shook his great frame, and he clutched his throat under his brindled
beard. Then with an effort he mastered himself and spoke on:
"The vicar knew. He was in our confidence. He would tell you that she
was an angel upon earth. That was why he telegraphed to me and I
returned. What was my baggage or Africa to me when I learned that such
a fate had come upon my darling? There you have the missing clue to my
action, Mr. Holmes."
"Proceed," said my friend.
Dr. Sterndale drew from his pocket a paper packet and laid it upon the
table. On the outside was written "Radix pedis diaboli" with a red
poison label beneath it. He pushed it towards me. "I understand that
you are a doctor, sir. Have you ever heard of this preparation?"
"Devil's-foot root! No, I have never heard of it."
"It is no reflection upon your professional knowledge," said he, "for I
believe that, save for one sample in a laboratory at Buda, there is no
other specimen in Europe. It has not yet found its way either into the
pharmacopoeia or into the literature of toxicology. The root is shaped
like a foot, half human, half goatlike; hence the fanciful name given
by a botanical missionary. It is used as an ordeal poison by the
medicine-men in certain districts of West Africa and is kept as a
secret among them. This particular specimen I obtained under very
extraordinary circumstances in the Ubangi country." He opened the
paper as he spoke and disclosed a heap of reddish-brown, snuff-like
"Well, sir?" asked Holmes sternly.
"I am about to tell you, Mr. Holmes, all that actually occurred, for
you already know so much that it is clearly to my interest that you
should know all. I have already explained the relationship in which I
stood to the Tregennis family. For the sake of the sister I was
friendly with the brothers. There was a family quarrel about money
which estranged this man Mortimer, but it was supposed to be made up,
and I afterwards met him as I did the others. He was a sly, subtle,
scheming man, and several things arose which gave me a suspicion of
him, but I had no cause for any positive quarrel.
"One day, only a couple of weeks ago, he came down to my cottage and I
showed him some of my African curiosities. Among other things I
exhibited this powder, and I told him of its strange properties, how it
stimulates those brain centres which control the emotion of fear, and
how either madness or death is the fate of the unhappy native who is
subjected to the ordeal by the priest of his tribe. I told him also
how powerless European science would be to detect it. How he took it I
cannot say, for I never left the room, but there is no doubt that it
was then, while I was opening cabinets and stooping to boxes, that he
managed to abstract some of the devil's-foot root. I well remember how
he plied me with questions as to the amount and the time that was
needed for its effect, but I little dreamed that he could have a
personal reason for asking.
"I thought no more of the matter until the vicar's telegram reached me
at Plymouth. This villain had thought that I would be at sea before
the news could reach me, and that I should be lost for years in Africa.
But I returned at once. Of course, I could not listen to the details
without feeling assured that my poison had been used. I came round to
see you on the chance that some other explanation had suggested itself
to you. But there could be none. I was convinced that Mortimer
Tregennis was the murderer; that for the sake of money, and with the
idea, perhaps, that if the other members of his family were all insane
he would be the sole guardian of their joint property, he had used the
devil's-foot powder upon them, driven two of them out of their senses,
and killed his sister Brenda, the one human being whom I have ever
loved or who has ever loved me. There was his crime; what was to be
"Should I appeal to the law? Where were my proofs? I knew that the
facts were true, but could I help to make a jury of countrymen believe
so fantastic a story? I might or I might not. But I could not afford
to fail. My soul cried out for revenge. I have said to you once
before, Mr. Holmes, that I have spent much of my life outside the law,
and that I have come at last to be a law to myself. So it was even
now. I determined that the fate which he had given to others should be
shared by himself. Either that or I would do justice upon him with my
own hand. In all England there can be no man who sets less value upon
his own life than I do at the present moment.
"Now I have told you all. You have yourself supplied the rest. I did,
as you say, after a restless night, set off early from my cottage. I
foresaw the difficulty of arousing him, so I gathered some gravel from
the pile which you have mentioned, and I used it to throw up to his
window. He came down and admitted me through the window of the
sitting-room. I laid his offence before him. I told him that I had
come both as judge and executioner. The wretch sank into a chair,
paralyzed at the sight of my revolver. I lit the lamp, put the powder
above it, and stood outside the window, ready to carry out my threat to
shoot him should he try to leave the room. In five minutes he died.
My God! how he died! But my heart was flint, for he endured nothing
which my innocent darling had not felt before him. There is my story,
Mr. Holmes. Perhaps, if you loved a woman, you would have done as much
yourself. At any rate, I am in your hands. You can take what steps
you like. As I have already said, there is no man living who can fear
death less than I do."
Holmes sat for some little time in silence.
"What were your plans?" he asked at last.
"I had intended to bury myself in central Africa. My work there is but
"Go and do the other half," said Holmes. "I, at least, am not prepared
to prevent you."
Dr. Sterndale raised his giant figure, bowed gravely, and walked from
the arbour. Holmes lit his pipe and handed me his pouch.
"Some fumes which are not poisonous would be a welcome change," said
he. "I think you must agree, Watson, that it is not a case in which we
are called upon to interfere. Our investigation has been independent,
and our action shall be so also. You would not denounce the man?"
"Certainly not," I answered.
"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had
met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done.
Who knows? Well, Watson, I will not offend your intelligence by
explaining what is obvious. The gravel upon the window-sill was, of
course, the starting-point of my research. It was unlike anything in
the vicarage garden. Only when my attention had been drawn to Dr.
Sterndale and his cottage did I find its counterpart. The lamp shining
in broad daylight and the remains of powder upon the shield were
successive links in a fairly obvious chain. And now, my dear Watson, I
think we may dismiss the matter from our mind and go back with a clear
conscience to the study of those Chaldean roots which are surely to be
traced in the Cornish branch of the great Celtic speech."